When we say someone has a ‘big heart’ we mean they have a tremendous capacity for compassion. And when we say someone is “all heart” it is simply another way of saying that their will is indomitable, persistent under every form of adversity. In both cases, Ady Barkan’s heart is the kind we are referring to.

On Friday, September 30th of 2016, he and Rachel (his wife) are celebrating their marriage anniversary by enjoying a weekend away in West Hollywood, just months after welcoming their first-born child Carl into the world. “This was the life,” Ady proclaims:

“Not only could we each enjoy our intellectually stimulating, meaningful work from the comfort of our Santa Barbara home – Rachel as a newly minted assistant professor of English (…) me as an activist/lawyer at the Center for Popular Democracy – not only could we raise a wonderfully chubby and friendly baby boy, but with help from Grandma we could even have the occasional evening to ourselves, featuring adult conversations, adult food and drinks, and adult … you know … full nights of sleep. What more could we ask for? We were the happiest and luckiest people we knew.” 

But this bliss is only meant to foreshadow the swiftly approaching tragedy that sets Ady’s story into motion in his touching and tremendous memoir Eyes to the Wind.  For hardly a week after he and Rachel take occasion to enjoy their picturesque life, reality decides to intervene as it so often does for millions across this country and our broader world.  As the harbinger of harsh sentences. 

That very Sunday he meets his friend Katy for brunch, a first-year medical resident in neurology who also commands an impressive doctorate degree.  She immediately notices something is wrong when Ady otherwise nonchalantly mentions feeling a slight weakness in his left hand. “You should see a neurologist” says Katy.

After days of anxiety, assessments, and arguments with medical administrators win him an appointment with the neurologist, it is a pyrrhic victory.  At the age of thirty-two, Ady is diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease, or ‘ALS’ (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis). The disease is a death sentence. The diagnosed can expect to experience the progressive degeneration of the motor neurons that reach from the brain to the spinal cord, which in turn reach out to the muscles throughout the body. And as motor neurons go so to do all voluntary muscle actions; moving, speaking, eating, even breathing become belabored at first. And impossible at the end. 

Ady’s first reflection on the crushing news is masterfully expressed, a powerful distillation of raw emotion from a trained legal mind. 

“The doctor moved toward the door and asked if she should give us some space. I said no. I wanted her there, sharing our sorrow. I didn’t want to be just one more patient she saw in her busy day.  I wanted her recognition that my case was tragic and shocking and unreasonable.” 

But try as he may to indict the outrageous unfairness of his plight, Ady intuitively understands that there is of course no reasoning with death, no argument to be had with the end.  Instead, he admits in admirable fashion that what he wants from the doctor in his moment of pain is something infinitely deeper and more humane. “I wanted her to cry, too,” he admits.  His dreams of seeing Carl grow up, and of enjoying a peaceful and loving retirement with Rachael, evaporate before him. In a meaningful if minor moment of satisfying acknowledgement, the neurologist at last begins to weep for him.  With him. 

But this is a book review, not an obituary.  And although the diagnosis Ady received in 2016 gave him less than five years to live at best, he isn’t ready to give in without a fight.  And for good reason. 

Afterall, just months after Ady received his own deadly diagnosis, the democracy he so loves reminded of its own mortality in crushing fashion with the election of Donald Trump.  The progressive movement today faces a fundamental challenge to democracy that requires each and every one of us to exhibit the very best organizing insights and skills imaginable.  To do this organizers will need to learn how to unleash untapped reservoirs of courage, both within themselves and our broader communities. 

That type of courage lies just beneath the surface of our collective imagination as a movement, and is hidden deep within a wellspring of long forgotten hopes and dreams.  And while the prospects for hope in the present can certainly seem slim at times, that largely depends on both the philosophical and physical vantage point of the observer.  Ady knows this well, and that is precisely why he offers his readers frequent respites from the grueling details of his disease and the disease afflicting our democracy, by treating them to a series of reflections on the moments that made him the man and organizer he is today. 

It’s a deft example of editorial wisdom at work and allows Ady’s spiritual quest to find meaning amidst tragedy to compliment and embolden the strategic insights he has to offer after a lifetime of organizing successes and failures. The book’s chapters alternate between past and present, tracing Ady’s early experiences in the movement; from his first forays as an undergraduate student organizer at Columbia University, to a brief stint as a congressional campaign staffer in Ohio, and his early years at Yale Law where he refines his passion through a series of clinics that bring him face to face with the tedious and exacting elements of public interest work that often fail to garner public attention or esteem. 

During law school he discovers his emergent desire to achieve “systemic” impacts, as smaller-scale interventions often fail to leave him with the sense of achievement and recognition that he craves. 

“I began to get a sense for the type of lawyer I would like to become: one who partnered with community organizations to identify creative solutions to serious problems and then turn those ideas into laws.”

The desire for “systemic impact” in the broader world is of course inseparable from one’s personal and often outright egocentric aspirations for grandeur and notoriety, and Ady is well-aware of the paradox. For after he spends his first year out of law school doing fulfilling work with the powerful and creative team of organizers at Make the Road New York, he goes on to pursue a prestigious clerkship with Judge Shira A. Scheindlin, the now former United States District Judge of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York. 

It’s one of the most prestigious clerkship in the country, and puts Ady at the forefront of one of the most important racial justice cases in recent history; Floyd v. City of New York, which challenged the constitutionality of New York City’s now discredited policy of ‘stop-and-frisk’ policing.  Here and elsewhere, Ady’s signature mix of righteousness and self-reflection bring out a theme that recur throughout his life. 

For though he admits that he was only able to secure the prestigious clerkship “with the help of family connections,” he greets such self-awareness as an opportunity, not as a punishment, and vows to commit himself to the betterment of those less fortunate than he.  Organizers in particular can learn a valuable lesson here about treating their own occasional bouts with guilt and egotism as opportunities to grow in the service of others. As a character in the late author Tony Morrison’s classic, Song of Solomon, put it; “If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.”

And ride it he does, and Ady’s humility offers him countless opportunities in return. As he grapples with the despair and petty indignities of his disease, he treats his readers to a glorious array of memories from his various roles in the modern progressive movement.  After leaving his clerkship he decides to take the ambitious and risky step of joining the then newly formed but now quite-well known Center for Popular Democracy, where he commits to putting his unique mix of humility, humor, and hubris into the service of the movement for social justice in our time. 

In doing so, Ady helps build Local Progress, a national network of progressive champions working at the municipal level to fight for the dignity and welfare of everyday Americans, and shift the national conversation on issues like paid sick-leave and the minimum wage.  He also helps take on the technocrats at the Federal Reserve, and advocates that they take their public mandate to pursue full employment policies seriously. 

“For far too many political observers and participants,” Ady tells us “’the economy’ is a mysterious creature shaped by forces outside any decision-maker’s control.” But his efforts and those of his comrades have helped shift the debate in policy circles and the public at large towards one that takes the inherently political nature of economic policy seriously, and opened up countless future organizing opportunities in the process. 

Yet as Ady’s reflections on the past inch closer and closer to the crushing problems of the present, he offers us a touching and truly momentous opportunity to find our courage by learning from his example.  For while his own rapidly progressing paralysis makes despair seem like the only reasonable response, especially in light of the Republican-led assaults on democracy that continue to unfold at the national level, Ady struggles to find meaning amidst an endless spiritual “loop of outrage, anger, and disbelief.”  He tries desperately to internalize the wisdom of friends and teachers, to focus on the present and avoid indulging in unhelpful bouts of grief over the dreams of the future that are decaying before his very eyes.  

But rather than offer us a trite and simple sermon about the importance of “acceptance,” Ady demonstrates his incredibly persistent sense of intellectual and spiritual honesty even as he struggles to come to terms with his own death, and the possible death of American democracy.  “The contradiction I had to reconcile,” he observes, is that:

“My career, my daily work at the Center for Popular Democracy, and my entire self-identity were built around (…) the ‘mode of doing,’ of molding the world to our wishes.  Activism and politics were precisely about not accepting the tragedies of the world, about insisting that we could reduce pain and prolong life…Being part of a progressive political movement was precisely about fighting back and building toward a better future.  Accepting was not part of our vocabulary.”

He decides to take a pragmatic lesson from his own struggles and those that persist in our society, by vowing to live in two separate mental worlds.  In the world of his heart and soul, he learns to accept the importance of despair and mourning in coming to terms with the life he is about to lose, and the loved ones he will be forced to part with. But in the world of his mind and body, eroding motor neurons and all, he vows to live out the mantra that he and his father share, and that has motivated his life’s work in the pursuit of the shared struggle for social justice: “We do what we can, while we can.” 

The lesson is simple yet powerful, and for at least this reader its impact has been deeply felt. As Ady puts it:

“(…) shortly after my diagnosis, Rachel and I had talked about what I would leave behind for Carl, how he would get to know his father.  I also wanted to leave something behind for the progressive movement: some lessons, some reflections, some strategies – something.” 

So it is by no means an exaggeration to say that Ady has written this book for all of us.  For you and for me. But we must be willing to listen to what he has to say, and we must be willing to see ourselves as he sees us.

After all, he writes persuasively about the importance of understanding that life’s most meaningful and moving occasions are often the ones that are tinged with a mysterious mix of sadness and beauty, of pain and perseverance.  These moments, “the ones that shape our character and our worldview - the ones that we remember as our lives come to a close” these are the epitome of what he has come to value so dearly as “moments of poignancy.”

Who can deny that this moment in our shared history is not tinged with all the contradictory impulses and ideals that make for such moments?  For by now, Ady has lost his ability to walk and speak and even breathe unassisted, and yet his heart calls out to each and every one of us in spite of this, encouraging us to look deep beneath the surface of his and our collective loss, to see what he has come to see: 

“ALS Was giving me newfound power at the very moment that it was depriving me of so much strength. My voice was growing softer, but I was being heard by more people than ever before. My legs were disintegrating, but more and more people were following in my footsteps. Precisely because my days were numbered, people drew inspiration from my decision to spend them in resistance. Precisely because I faced such obstacles, my comrades were moved by my message that struggle is never futile.”

Even though he is now wheelchair-bound in a body that refuses to obey his commands, he still strives to put his “suffering in context,” to see the remarkable life that he has led, and to use what voice he has left to amplify the voices of others. And if readers should choose to learn from Ady’s example, they may come to see that his hopes for the future are ours to share, and shepherd into a new dawn together.  To begin, they need only learn to look up once more, and set their ‘eyes to the wind.’

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