It’s just work

I’m in the early stages of tackling a big edit now, mapping out the book as it is, trying to figure out what it’s going to be and how to get it there. This is the part where apprehension slips in, sometimes a kind of dread, because the path forward is uncertain. Sometimes I go in with a plan of attack, but sometimes there isn’t an aerial view, and the path only becomes clear in the doing: you just have to slash through the jungle in the direction you wish to go.

With artistic endeavours, even the destination is vague. We’re aiming for better, of course, but in writing there is never a ta-da moment something is complete, like in chemistry class when the test tube contents turn a new colour. And as we’re constantly reminded by reviews and awards and bestseller lists, this whole game is subjective.

In any case, I’ve been thinking about aversion, and offering myself a sort of mantra: Don’t be afraid of the work. I’ve written before about my triathlons, and the nerves that come with them, even though it’s something I’ve done many times before. Even though I’ve trained, even though I know the course, even though there’s only so much that can go wrong. I don’t want to suffer. But that assumes that suffering is always a net negative, and it isn’t. Sometimes suffering is a gateway to meaning.

And sometimes, as meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein reminds me in my app, suffering is just a mind state. My friend H was posting about tackling the garden in her new house the other day, saying she hoped one day she could actually enjoy gardening. It’s true, gardening is a lot of physical work. It can be frustrating, too, sometimes tedious. And it’s a lot like writing or book editing: there is no ultimate garden, no true finish line, no objective standard or unassailable truth. When it’s time to get out there and tackle my own patch of green, I am frequently uncertain but never afraid. You simply do what’s in front of you, and then you do the next thing. Sometimes things don’t go as you hoped. Sometimes they turn out better. That’s life, after all. You show up and do the best you can. You try, as Rilke says, to “live your way into the answer.”

Ideally, I’d tackle all the work in my life with my gardening frame of mind, but that seems rather advanced for this grasshopper. For now, I’ll tell myself, It’s just work, then I’ll grab my shovel and try to work my way into some answers.

Advertisements

Everyday Emergency

Yesterday morning I was reading Naomi Klein’s No Is Not Enough, feeling prepared to confront all of the sinister dealings of the Trump presidency, but not, it turned out, prepared to read the completely devastating chapter on climate change.

I don’t think there was much new info there, but reading that terrible succession of facts felt like being pummelled by a professional boxer: that Exxon knew about climate change in 1979 and then spent $30 million dollars spreading misinformation. That in order to stop catastrophic global warming, all of the current oil needs to stay in the ground—yesterday. Trump gutting environmental protections and research, stocking his administration with big oil execs, and taking the U.S. out of the Paris climate agreement. The intrinsic connection between neoliberalism and climate change. And since the book was published in June 2017, we’ve seen more terrible news: the devastating IPCC report that says we have only until 2030 to keep warming to 1.5C and maintain our world as we know it. Or recently the recent report that shows Canada is warming twice is fast as the rest of the world. (How’s your pipeline going, Mr. Trudeau?)

You may have a sense of my despair. Climate grief, as it’s now diagnosed. I started to feel like that baby flamingo in One Planet, its legs encrusted in salt blocks, trying to keep up and falling, falling, falling.

I thought about all the people who deny that this is even a problem, or all of those who know it is but do nothing. I thought about all the effort I put into lowering my footprint, and the impact felt so trifling I wanted to cry. I am generally a person who believes in the power of little things, but that morning I didn’t. My emotional elevator had plummeted.

I laid on my bed as if crushed by the sheer force of gravity. I pet my cat, buried my face in his fur. And then I decided to go out to the garden, because I thought of a mural I saw online recently that said, “Planter un jardin c’est croire en demain.” (Planting a garden is belief in tomorrow.) I planted some seeds because I needed the symbolism, though the cress in a few weeks will be good too. And then I heard the garbage truck rumbling down the street, and when I took out the house trash, I noticed all the yard waste bags lined up at my neighbours’ curbs. So I took it upon myself to relocate some into my yard to be turned into compost and mulch. Probably close to 10 bags I carried back and forth into my yard as a guy in a plumbing truck watched, probably thinking I’d lost my mind. For a moment, the heaviness lifted a little, and I remembered how action, any kind of action, feels good. And how it feeds more actions, gives you a kind of momentum.

Which brings me to Sarah Lazarovic’s Minimum Viable Planet newsletter, the best thing to land in my inbox in forever, and the nuanced (and not totally depressing) discussion we need about climate change. Just a couple weeks ago, she captured this big vs. small dynamic in a way that really resonated for me:

It’s become conventional wisdom to darkly note that asking the barista to fill your Keep Cup does nothing to slow the oceans’ rise. No, the only thing that can save us now is government and business working in concert to deploy megasolutions.

To which we say “Yes, and?” Because when you follow this big argument far enough, it gets small. What’s going to make politicians pay attention? How does society change? When the sound of many small voices becomes too loud to ignore. Done right, many little things will become one big thing.

That’s where we need to go, and the good news is that these little things can make us feel happy, human, connected, creative, and smart. What’s more, the little things, when strategically calibrated, can have major oomph. One conversation can set a politician on a new course. One email can get a GM to rethink the burrito waste in an entire stadium. It’s only small if you diminish it. You’re David, and you can slay. But the Beyoncé way.

I love this, and it gives me some comfort. It might just keep me a functional human being when despair comes calling. Do your best, it says. Keep doing it.

But at the same time, I don’t to be fully comforted. And I don’t want anyone else to be either. Because climate change is nothing short of an emergency, an emergency that we live each day. Despair isn’t useful, but a sense of real urgency is. As Klein reminds us, the climate clock is striking midnight. I think of Swedish high school student and powerhouse activist Greta Thunberg and her speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, where she laid it all out:

Adults keep saying: “We owe it to the young people to give them hope.” But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.

I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.

What she says is harsh, but in her call to action there is a space for hope. Why act otherwise? And so I found myself back in the pages of Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark, where she reminds us that despair is the only sure defeat, and that hope is both essential and, crucially, active.

I believe in hope as an act of defiance, or rather as the foundation for an ongoing series of acts of defiance, those acts necessary to bring about some of what we hope for while we live by principle in the meantime. There is no alternative, except surrender. And surrender not only abandons the future, it abandons the soul.

Maybe this planet is already doomed, but it seems the only way we can live in the meantime is to carve out a space for action every day in our own lives, however we can. To hold both the situation’s severity and its possibility, its obstacles and its opportunities, our hope and our fear, and then go outside and plant some seeds.

 

Balance and Belonging

Another family holiday is almost upon us, which means, like many other people with divorced parents, I’m faced with a predictable but also stressful triage: who will I visit, and when? Once upon a time, all of my families lived within an hour of each other along the Lakeshore West GO line. So it wasn’t too hard to carve a holiday into little pieces like a Thanksgiving turkey. For most of my childhood, I celebrated two Christmases—one in the morning, and one in the afternoon—and I thought this was pretty great.

But now as an adult, my families have split into three very different directions, no one reached in less than two hours’ drive—and I don’t own a car. To visit all three would mean roughly sixteen hours of driving. And so, most holidays can be ceded to only one person. Which means I have to choose.

If your stomach didn’t twist a bit there, you’re not the child of divorce.

Because choosing is a heavy thing. It comes with history, politics, and guilt. It reminds you that the home of most children with divorced parents isn’t here or there, it’s between. The only space that seems neutral, even if it rarely is.

Being part of different families is strange: you belong in multiple places, but you’re not a permanent fixture in any of them. You never belong completely. I imagine this is the way immigrants feel, like citizens of multiple nations with divided allegiances.

Each family, of course, has different customs, different spaces, different taboos, different ways of interacting. Each family speaks a different dialect. But the harder part is there’s always an awareness of something else, other people, other times, other ways. Shadow families trailing behind you, and with them guilt, tiny betrayals, judgments, baggage that proves we never pack light. Our passports bear stamps from enemy territory.

I’m also always struck by the transformations involved as we respond to our environments, slip into old roles. In one family, I am the most serious. In another, chatty. In another, withdrawn. In two households I’m a good sister, in another, an indifferent one. It’s no surprise that people are mutable—I think we all dress for the occasion, so to speak—but in families it feels the most striking to me. After all, aren’t families supposed to be the place where we can be ourselves?

You can guarantee that before any holiday I will spend weeks agonizing over how to divide my time. I remind myself that this isn’t a situation of my creation: the divorces were not my choice, nor the relocations. Perhaps it is not my problem to solve, and maybe the parents don’t care as much as I think. They are, outwardly at least, pretty accepting. I’d like to stop caring so much. And yet the child of divorce is inescapably the one to try to smooth things over, to try to maintain some sense equilibrium.

This isn’t to say poor me, because no one wants someone they love stuck in a dysfunctional marriage, and there are benefits to all this too: having these divided families has given me new experiences and a broader support network. I’m just writing this because it’s weighing on me and to say this is hard, there is no tidy resolution. And to all the others negotiating the complexities of belonging, I see you.

I haven’t decided on Easter yet, though probably I should just flip a coin and save myself the angst. There’s no right answer. There’s just a decision, and then a couple months’ break before it’s time to start worrying about Thanksgiving.

Social Studies

Do you remember when it wasn’t weird to call someone on the phone? When you could call someone up, spontaneously, and the other person didn’t think that someone had died? I’ve been thinking about social capital lately, and also social courage. Social capital, the trust and connection between various people, was in the news in November, when a report by the Toronto Foundation revealed our city is quite low on it. Maybe it sounds airy-fairy, but it turns out social capital is vital: it can increase civic engagement, improve health (loneliness, one of our modern epidemics, has negative health outcomes), and improve our happiness overall. There’s even a subset of social capital called “bridging capital” that helps people connect in a positive way with people who are different than themselves. It’s pretty much the opposite of Twitter.

And then there’s social courage, which is a term I only heard recently on an episode of the Slow Home podcast that had an interview with Jocelyn Glei. Glei pointed out that now, when we don’t know something, we seek answers in our phones rather than other people. Think of the last time you were going to a restaurant: you probably looked it up online, maybe found some reviews, made a reservation on OpenTable, and then when it was time to go plugged the address into your phone. The magic of the internet! And yet it also took some interactions out of the mix: asking people where to eat, calling to make a reservation, asking someone for directions when you got close. And maybe those connections don’t matter—they’re not exactly social capital—but avoiding them does get us out of practice and makes us less brave for future interactions.

It shouldn’t be scary to ask someone for directions, but sometimes it can feel that way if we’re low on social courage. I would suspect that marginalized groups might be a little lower on it too—if there’s a higher likelihood of a negative income you’d be less likely to engage. But in general, as our lives get more tech-saturated, it seems likely our social courage will continue to wane: we used to go to stores, talk to a cashier, and now we can order from Amazon, or use the self-checkout lane at the grocery store. We talk about frictionless payments (tapping your credit/debit, one-click buying), but we’re making human interaction so frictionless it’s non-existent. Our social touchpoints are becoming touchscreens.

In a recent comic column in Yes Magazine, Sarah Lazarovic brings the necessity for social capital and our lack of social courage together beautifully. I love the scene with the man rehearsing his borrowing script in front of the mirror. It’s become scary to knock on a stranger’s door. (Lazarovic designed a printable badge you can put on your door to say you’re open to borrowing.) The comic also notably mentions the redemption of oft-denigrated “small talk,” which, recent studies suggest, actually makes us happier. Who would have thought people actually did want to talk on the subway?

Modern life has made it possible to move through the city, even move through the internet, like a ghost. Which is comfortable and easy, but it isn’t making us happy. And in the long run, the outcome is quite grim: it means we’re moving through life like ghosts. While yes, we still have friends and family, fewer and fewer people might notice we’re gone.

The good news is that this week I witnessed two examples of social capital in abundance. On Monday, I attended a lecture at the Parkdale & Toronto Horticultural Society. The event had at least 100 attendees, and in the announcements at the beginning of the meeting, you could see how many people were actively involved in running this event and the society’s many other ones. As they prepare for their annual plant sale, you could sign up on the day before, you could help people dig up and separate plants to donate, you could bake for the volunteers, transport plants, organize people, and so on. It was heartening to see social engagement become civic engagement too, as the group discussed gardening grants, maintaining community parks, and building pollinator corridors. All the members wore name tags, and the event included and hour of tea and cookies before the lecture started. Cynical me thought, “An hour? What for?” but of course the lecture is only part of the point. The experience was buoying, all in all, though it must be said that 90% of the people there would not be questioned when they used a senior’s discount. Is this a generation that hasn’t lost their social courage? Or have they maintained it by virtue of being in this group, and ones like it? Given how much we hear about loneliness among the elderly, I think the latter.

Then last night I went to my local co-op grocery for a workshop on making water kefir. Co-ops are run on social capital, with everyone who is a member pitching in in running the store. Though it was close to my house, I’d (embarrassingly) never been before, because I was intimidated and hadn’t taken the time to learn how it worked. The workshop was lovely, with a facilitator whose enthusiasm was contagious, and a handful of super friendly participants. I left mind buzzing with new knowledge and positive interactions with strangers. Sure, I could have ordered my materials online, read some tutorials. But there was no replacing meeting someone who was passionate about it, getting to ask questions and spend time with real live people who I’d never have met otherwise.

Listen I’m an introvert, and I’m shy around strangers. This isn’t easy. But also it isn’t that hard. Spring is here, and people are coming out of hibernation. There’s no better time to check out something new, or simply to slow down and say hello.

 

#28goodthings: week 4

It’s the last week of the project and also the first day of spring. And yes, yesterday we woke up to snow-covered ground, but that’s early spring after all. My friend J’s ultimate summer pet peeve is the mix of sun and clouds, which she calls “the dreaded mix,” because at any moment you don’t know what kind of weather you’re in for. Is it time to swim? Do you need a sweater? And that’s spring, a dreaded mix season. And yet once the mix contains more lamb than lion, it’s probably my favourite. Because there’s nothing so fragile, so precious, so hard won as a beautiful spring day. That day when it’s unseasonably warm, and the sidewalks and parks and patios are filled with underdressed people smiling? That’s my favourite day of the year.

We can’t count on the weather, but here are a few things that can add some sunshine to the dreaded mix of our days:

  1. Take a hike. I don’t mean an actual hike (though you could!), just get out and walk for at least fifteen minutes. Dress for the weather. (The Norwegians say, “There’s no bad weather, just bad clothing.” I disagree but there’s a good point in there.)  The best place to go for a walk is in a nature, which studies have shown can improve mood. It can even effect you on a cellular level, raising levels of natural killer cells, which combat infection and disease—an effect that can last up to a month. But if you can’t walk in nature, don’t worry: the city is a great place to walk too, and I think there’s no better way to experience it than on foot. Try a new route or neighbourhood, and you’ll likely find even more benefits. And while you’re out there, maybe pick up three pieces of trash, since the receding ice has left our streets strewn with landfill flotsam. This won’t just make things look nice, but will keep that trash from going down storm drains and ending up in our lakes, which have more plastic pollution than the ocean.
  2. Make something beautiful. Take a little time to cultivate beauty in whatever way you find satisfying: your outfit, your makeup, a bookshelf, a vase of flowers from the greengrocer. Beauty is one of the great balms of this troubled world: let’s always make space for it.
  3. Send something in the mail. In a world where an email sometimes doesn’t seem instant enough, snail mail is a beautiful thing. Is there anything as finding an unexpected note in amongst the bills and trash flyers? This week, send something: an encouraging note, an old photo you found, your child’s art, or a little gift. It’ll feel great for your recipient, but I think you’ll find sending it feels pretty damn good too. Another option? Follow the lead of the Love Lettering Project and write a letter to the place you live and leave it for someone else to discover.
  4. Take some time for art. We’ve already experimenting with making art, but what about appreciating it? This week, you might head to the art gallery (the AGO is free on Wednesday nights), pop in a local gallery, or stop to appreciate some street art. It doesn’t have to be visual art either: take the time to listen, just listen, to an album, or even just a whole song. Give it your full attention.
  5. Get bored. We started carrying tiny computers in our pockets and we became afraid of boredom. But boredom is good for you. It can make you happier, more creative, and even more productive. If you’re skeptical, check out the five-episode Bored and Brilliant project on Note to Self podcast. Manoush Zomorodi is maybe my favourite podcast host, and this series really encouraged me to leave a little stimulus-free space in my life. (Manoush also turned the series into a book, which I haven’t read, but I imagine is great.) So next time you’re taking the subway or waiting at the doctor’s, don’t reach for a distraction. See where your thoughts take you.
  6. Donate to an organization doing good work. I know, I said nothing in this project had to cost anything. And that’s true, but if there was ever a worthy exception, it’s this. I overhauled my giving habits last year, and it’s brought me a lot of satisfaction. You could also donate rewards points or air miles or your time. But most people reading this will have a few dollars to spare. Think of the last thing you splurged on, like a cab or takeout or even a fancy coffee. Try to donate at least that much.
  7. Grow something. It’s been one of the great surprises of my adult life that there is so much satisfaction in growing things. And if you ask me, at the end of this long, cold, snowy winter, nothing is more exciting than new life pushing through. You may think you have a brown thumb, but you don’t. With the right plant and the right conditions (and maybe a reminder to water on your phone: I use one!), anyone can grow things. This prompt might mean buying a low-maintenance houseplant, or trying to separate or root something you already own. (Many plants propagate really well in water!) You could try growing some sprouts or microgreens indoors. By the end of this week, the soil might still be frozen outside, but it will thaw sooner than you think. Before the month is over, I’ll be planting peas and spinach and the tops of my garlic will be pushing through.

So we’ve come to the end, and I hope these prompts have brought a little spark to these seemingly endless late winter days. I hope they helped you look at your life and habits with fresh eyes now and again, and that you’ll be able to make time for these things more often. But also I hope they set in motion a domino effect that brought a little goodness to others. We read a lot about the spread of terrible things: hatred and radicalization are front of mind after last week’s Christchurch shootings. And I’m not insinuating that a little gardening or more walks can stop mass murder: let’s look at gun control, at hate speech, at social policy. But change happens from on high and also at a grassroots level. Small actions do matter. How we treat each other, how we treat ourselves matters. Engagement and positivity, respect and generosity, they spread too, and I hope these are seeds that germinate in others.

If you’re in Canada and you’ve read along, thank you! I’d love to make my metaphor literal and send you some peas to grow. So if that appeals, send me an email with your favourite prompt from the project and your mailing address, and I’ll send you some seeds from my own garden. You could grow them in a sunny patch of soil, even in a pot on a balcony or patio, so long as they have about six hours of sunlight a day and something to climb. Let those little peas be a reminder that even in the cold, dark days of early spring, with some care and attention, good things will always grow.

#28goodthings: week 3

So, are we all happy yet? jk jk. In fact, despite hearing the magic sound of meltwater rushing down city drains, I had a challenging week. The personal lowlight was professional heartbreak that made me feel like my own sad puddle rushing for the drain. But that drove home how this stuff can be vital even when you don’t want to do it—especially then. So when I was feeling sorry for myself and 1.25 gin and tonics deep, and my pal asked if I wanted to go on a spontaneous run on the icy sidewalks in -18, I still said yes, though there was every good reason to say no. The endorphins and the company made a big difference. (And when I came home, I finished my drink.)

My tipsy, icy run also illustrates another important principle: these don’t have to look a certain way. My run wasn’t the best training (icy sidewalks = dodgy running), we weren’t kitted out in special gear, and I don’t think you’re supposed to exercise while drinking, but it was still a good thing. If tackling these seems intimidating, don’t let perfect be the enemy of good, as Gretchen Rubin would say.

So here are seven new prompts for the week ahead:

  1. Make something. I have a note in my phone that says “It feels good to make things,” because this very basic premise is one of my most important principles, but because I’m an idiot I forget it all the time. Try making anything this week: I’ll still be working on fermenting some apple scrap vinegar, and as soon as that’s done I’m going to get into some natural ginger soda too, but of course your project needn’t be food-based. And remember, no need to buy something new: my vinegar is literally made from garbage.
  2. Take the long way. One of my goals for this project is questioning the need for efficiency in all things, so try something less convenient this week. Walk an errand instead of driving, make your cookies instead of buying them, take the slower route to work. Pay attention and see how it feels.
  3. Share something you have in abundance. There are so many things I love about gardening, but the mathematics of seeds might be my favourite: one seed can not only make dozens of fruits, but perhaps hundreds of seeds. Hundreds of plants out of one! It’s nothing short of miraculous, I think, and thus I’ve been giving a bunch away on Bunz, and will bring more to a seed exchange on Saturday. I want this city to be bursting with plants, and it’s an easy way to share something I love. But I have other things that proliferate easily: I root certain houseplants from cuttings, my kombucha scoby has offspring in many homes, when I make soap I end up with a ton of unsellable ends. Do you have something you can share? It could even be knowledge: I did an AMA on my company’s Twitter, because I realize I have expertise people want, and it’s not hard to share just a little of it.
  4. Write three reviews. Writing a review is such a quick and easy thing, and it can be really helpful to an author, podcast, local business, etc. It doesn’t take very long and doesn’t have to be profound, but it makes a difference, and it feels good to praise something you love.
  5. Play. We play a ton as kids, but as adults, play seems to be something that gets crowded out by responsibility. But it’s still really good for us. So this week, take some time to really get into playing: maybe it’s with your kid or your pet, or you dust off the backgammon set instead of watching TV with a friend or partner.
  6. Organize an event or a hangout. As an introvert and former only child, social situations aren’t something I usually crave, but I still do love to spend time with people I care about, and the Harvard Study of Adult Development — one of the longest running and most significant health and happiness studies — reminds us that the personal connections are paramount to well-being. The best way to plan a get-together you’ll like is to organize it yourself. It doesn’t have to be expensive or stressful: plan a walk with one person, have a couple of people over to play a board game, or organize a themed potluck at work. (Inspired by my friend’s workplace, I’ve organized an annual cheese potluck at work for a while now, and it is a source of great joy and great cheese.) I’ll be organizing another clothing swap, hoping to replicate last year’s success, and when you can tie your hangout into your values that way, you’ll get a happiness double-whammy.
  7. Meditate. I’m sorry, I know, it’s everywhere, but that’s because the science seems promising: numerous meta-studies show mindfulness practice can help reduce anxiety and depression and manage chronic pain. It may also increase compassion and support emotional regulation and stress reduction. It might help you sleep better. All good things! I’ve been meditating a couple of years now with the help of the 10% Happier app, and I’ve found it useful enough that I even pay to subscribe to it (which, my friend recently pointed out, may be the ultimate endorsement). But people like Headspace and Calm, too, and just about any app includes some kind of free trial. If you just can’t stomach it, maybe try out the technique of social psychologist Ellen Langer, and spend a few minutes just actively noticing things. (I love her interview on On Being.) You can always go back to looking for birds.

Next week is the last one in this project, and I have some prompts ready, but if there are any I’ve missed so far that you’d like to see me and others try, I’ve left a couple open spots, too, so lay your make-good suggestions on me. And if you’ve done some prompts and would like to share your highlights and discoveries, I’d love to hear them.

Until next week!

 

 

 

 

 

#28goodthings: week 2

“Spring is almost here / I don’t think you understand / how much winter takes out of a person.” Every year around this time I think of those lines from a Craig Cardiff song ( aptly called “Winter”). Gayla Trail, the North Star of my gardening life, noted that last year by this time there’d been a warm day in the garden, the snowdrops were starting to poke through. My kingdom for a snowdrop, I tell you. So, yes, things actually are dragging on, it doesn’t just feel that way.

How did week 1 go? For me, not bad. Were there low points, did I slam a cupboard and yell “fuuuuuuck!” yesterday when enough stressful things piled up that the half batch of fresh yogurt left on the counter all day was the final straw? Why, yes. But also, at other less toddler-ish times, I managed to do almost all these good things, although not necessarily one per day, which is okay. We do what we can. (Weirdly, I couldn’t get a trade together, but I trade more weeks than not, so fine.) The art time was a surprise highlight. I’d actually dusted off the watercolour brushes the week before, but the effects were so terrible it wasn’t even relaxing. I had a nicer time this week, when I was inspired to try copying Julia Rothman’s line drawing & watercolours from Farm Anatomy. It was more relaxing to have a little structure, and also gave me summery things to focus on. If you did any of last week’s prompts, let me know which ones worked for you.

Here are the seven new experiments for this week:

  1. Read something on paper. A book, a magazine, a newspaper, whatever you want, and bonus points if you read something you wouldn’t usually—your brain loves novelty. Don’t get me wrong, reading on your phone or computer is fine, but we read differently there, and if you’re like me, distraction buzzes like a mosquito. Plus, if you’re reading before bed, print won’t interfere with falling asleep. If you don’t have something printed on hand, books, magazines, and even daily newspapers are available at the library. Try to read, just read, for 30 minutes straight. Leave your phone in another room.
  2. Phone a friend. When I was younger, I used to talk to my friends on the phone for hours after school, stretching the cord as far as it could go or winding it through my fingers. Despite the fact that we check our phones roughly 100x per day, our phones are so rarely used to phone. And while texting can be great, a phone call is so much better for human connection. Phone calls are a bit weird now—they often require an appointment—but it’s completely worth setting aside time for it like you would a regular date. Do it even if you feel like you have nothing major to talk about.
  3. Have a screen-free day. Did that make you recoil a bit? I did writing it. This might be the hardest prompt of the whole month. Which is, of course, kind of ridiculous Here’s the goal: no TV, no computer, no apps. I’m going to replying to texts as necessary, but I’m mainly aiming for analog fun. If you need motivation, read Kevin Roose’s piece on phone addiction in the New York Times or the Kashmir Hill’s horrifying “Goodbye, Big Five” series on trying to quit Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Apple. If a screenless day seems straight-up impossible, delete your favourite app for a day.
  4. Work up a sweat. You don’t need me to tell you exercise is good for you, but sometimes we need a reason to make it a priority. Often, if I’m feeling a bit down, I check in to see if I’ve exercised that day. It almost always improves the situation. If you’re already a good exerciser, this week maybe try something new, even if it seems intimidating (novelty!). (I did a Beyoncé dance class a couple weeks ago, and I’ve been more relaxed entering midterm exams—but guess what? It was fine. Even fun.) Since I promised everything would be free, here are a few ideas, all tested by me: Admission to many of Toronto’s pools is free. Look for free or karma classes at yoga studios near you, which are usually by donation and go to a good cause. If you’re into something a little more incense and tattoos, right now one of my favourites, Misfit Studio, has a few free weekday classes where new instructors are practising. (They’re still great.) You can also get a free two-week subscription to their portal for online class streaming. Classpass gives you 30 days for free, which means you can take part in yoga, pilates, dance, spin, barre, kettlebells, etc., all over the city. And if you like your workouts at max intensity and efficiency, f45 will put you through the ringer, and you can get a free week at locations all over Toronto.
  5. Pay it forward. One of my worst qualities is that I’m a scorekeeper. But I’m working on it, because a) not a good look, b) nothing is ever equal anyway, and c) I doesn’t really feel good to be Ebenezer Scrooge hunched over the ledgers, looking out for what’s yours. (Posturally alone, v. damaging.) Giving more than you take should really be the ideal. Now, when I’m taking out the communal trash bins (again), I try to reframe it as doing something nice. So this week, with a glad heart, go out of your way for another person: do a chore that your partner or roommate would normally do, tidy the communal area at work, shovel your neighbour’s walk. Focus on how it feels to give something without expecting anything in return.
  6. Rehome or recycle something properly. We usually bring things into our home with care, but we don’t bring that same care to how we get rid of them. I love the curbside economy—boxes of stuff left out for free—but it drives me bananas when stuff is put out carelessly, such as before a rain or snowstorm. There are also certain things that never seem appealing there, say a throw cushion or a bag of clothes. It takes a bit of effort to do better, but not that much. In Toronto, you could post things on Bunz. (If you just want to be rid of it, post it as #free, and it’ll go. I’ve gotten rid of unlikely things, such as a bag of gently worn socks or an old electric toothbrush, that way.) Post it on Freecycle. Look for community agencies that might be in need of what you’re giving away, like all those hotel toiletries. Bring it to a Really Really Really Free Market or a swap meet. If you must, load it in a bag and bring it to a thrift store, but keep in mind, all that stuff isn’t magically going to new homes: a lot of it will end up in a toxic trash fire in Africa. As for recycling, there are lots of ways to recycle things you maybe thought you couldn’t: Staples will take your used pens and markers (maybe start a box at work and collect them for a while), batteries, ink cartridges, and electronics. My goal for this week is to give an old phone to the Canadian Institute for the Blind, who will turn it into an assistive device (you even get a tax receipt). You can bring beauty product packaging to L’Occitane en Provence, or hopeless textiles to H&M. Terracycle has some great free programs for recycling unusual things, such as Brita filters. I know this all might sound like a pain, but pick one thing and see how it makes you feel.
  7. Use the nice thing. I’m a saver: give me anything—money, a chocolate bar, vacation days, whatever—and I’ll find a way to make it last. Being a saver is generally a good tendency, but sometimes it gets absurd: I’ve got tiny bottles of shower gel that are old enough to be in middle school. I want to save things for “a special occasion” or for “when I really need them,” but then sometimes that special notepaper or face cream doesn’t ever get used. I’ve avoided using POST-ITs I thought were too nice. (I know, I’m working on it.) This week, use the nice dishes, the fancy Korean mask you’ve been saving, the good olive oil. Give it your full attention as you use it, focusing on all your senses.

Best beloveds, even if there isn’t a snowdrop in sight, spring is coming. Until then, let’s keep making our own good things.

#28goodthings: week 1

You may have noticed: Winter is not yet over. In fact, it is not over with a vengeance, and today will bring ten to fifteen centimetres more of snow to sit on top of the  small mountains of seemingly unmeltable ice that’s less like former snow and more like icy lava that erupted and hardened over our city streets. And even though the light stretches a bit longer each day, this is probably the worst time of year and lots of people are having a hard time.

There is maybe no better time, then, to invest some effort in happiness, in making good for ourselves and others. I’ve read a lot on this topic over the years, and lately I’ve been spending some time with the slow living movement (and specifically the Slow Home podcast), which calls for slower, intentional living. My sister and her partner, who are twelve years younger than me, listen to their podcasts, lectures, even watch some things on YouTube, at 1.5x speed. Which strikes me as unenjoyable, but also a metaphor.

And so in these dog days of winter, I’ve decided to set a little challenge for myself for 28 days, trying to find some time each day to do one positive thing with intention. By the time I’m done, spring will have (hopefully) come like a rising tide, bringing back some essential buoyancy to all our lives. I’m going to share the seven things I’ll be focusing on each week (in no particular order), and maybe you’ll want to try some too.

Some of these will be things to do for myself, some for others, some for the world. And while I think it can be important to care for oneself, I don’t want this project to be a means of separation from the world, but rather a way to reengage with it in a focused, sustainable way. I want to distinguish this from the sunset yoga and green smoothies of #selfcare, which has been appropriated from its use in the ’70s and ’80s as a necessary and political act for queer and BIPOC communities. (“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare,” wrote Audre Lorde.) Of course everyone should take some time to care for themselves, but for some it might be much more vital than for others.

None of the prompts in this project need to cost any money, because despite what Instagram might suggest, you can’t buy your way to happiness. I live in an expensive city, full of seductive ways to empty my wallet one $16 cocktail or hand-poured soy candle at a time. I want this to be a reminder that good things don’t have to come with a price tag.

These aren’t hacks, per se, or shortcuts to anything. What they are is a way to pay attention, to try new things, to focus on doing good things more often. I want to find something rewarding that’s outside of the cycle of busyness and numbed-out stimulus chasing. I want to challenge the insatiable more-ishness of modern society and take stock of what I have. I want at least one thing each day to be done with intention and to be worthy of my attention.

The things on my list probably won’t be revolutionary—they might even be obvious—but too often they’re things we don’t prioritize. Many are backed by science. They emphasize personal connection, health, sustainability, engagement, and novelty. They are meant to be experiments, not edicts. If you decide to play along, do some, do them all, do them in whichever order you choose.

For maximum benefit, pay attention to how you feel before, during, and after an activity. If you’re especially keen, write down what you notice. This whole experiment pairs well with noting three new things you’re grateful for each day, something I’m convinced has rewired my brain in a great way.

Here’s the to-do list for this week, starting today:

  1. Tell someone they did good: Take a couple of minutes to reach out to someone and tell them how they’ve done something great or influenced you in a positive way. We all want to think we’re having an impact, that we’re making this world better, but so often we don’t tell people. A mistake, because this can really boost your happiness, and theirs, says positive psychology expert Shawn Achor.  He even recommends sending a two minute email of thanks each day: “People who do this not only get great e-mails and texts back and are perceived as positive leaders because of the praise and recognition, but their social connection score is at the top end of the scale. Social connection is not only the greatest predictor of long-term happiness – the study I did at Harvard is 0.7 correlation, which doesn’t sound very sexy, but is stronger than the connection between smoking and cancer.”
  2. Cook a new meal: I know, this doesn’t always go well. But so often we get into recipe ruts, tired of everything we can make. Maybe make something you can freeze extra portions of if it goes well, so that you have a cache of something easy and delicious. Ideally try a recipe that’s vegetarian or vegan, since the scientists behind the planetary health diet suggest it’s healthier for us and for the planet. I think most of us have cookbooks gathering dust or many bookmarked recipes, here are four of my plant-based faves: Smitten Kitchen Everyday Yellow Dal, Oh She Glows African Peanut Stew (I like to puree mine, and usually leave out the greens),  Well-Fed Flat Broke’s Peanutty Soba Noodles with Kale, and Cookie & Kate Thai Spiced Bowls (I make it with the crispy tofu).
  3. Call or write a letter to your representative, or a corporation, asking them to do better: I know this doesn’t sound like fun, but pick something you care about and send a letter to someone in power. I often worry that I don’t know enough, that I’m not eloquent enough on a particular issue. Yes, do some research, but it doesn’t have to be perfect. There are models you can follow online, and if this really sends you into a stress spiral, organizations such as the David Suzuki Foundation or Amnesty International allow you to send a pre-written letter with the click of a button. I think the shortcut will be less satisfying, but it’s better than nothing. Just make sure you read all of the letter you send so you’re still learning something.
  4. Unfollow/unsubscribe: Konmari your inbox and your feeds—no folding required! Say goodbye to people and organizations that aren’t in line with your goals or values, that generally aren’t worthy of the attention they suck up. If you haven’t opened or engaged with something in a few months, you probably never will. I (nervously) unsubscribed from shopping sales emails a year ago, and I have never looked back.
  5. Make some art: I know “art” is a lofty, intimidating term, but what I mean here is spend some time being creative without any goal. If you’re not good at it, all the better. No one is asking you to set up an Etsy store. Paint, colour, draw, crochet, collage, write a song, make a poem, whatever. Put on a Bob Ross episode or follow a YouTube tutorial if you must. You don’t need to buy new supplies, just work with whatever you have at hand or borrow some. (A lot of us have unused art supplies we’re happy to share.) Like many of these prompts, you could do this with a friend or partner or your kids.
  6. Swap something: We have so much stuff (300,000 items in the average American home!), and yet we’re bombarded with roughly five ads each minute we’re awake to encourage us to get more. Many of us struggle with debt, or savings that fall short of what we’d like. Luckily, bartering is back. Toronto and many other cities have a thriving trading community in the form of Bunz. But you don’t need to be a member of a dedicated trading group to get your barter on. You could do something as small as suggesting a book swap with a friend, where you both pick out a book you think the other would like. Swap a waffle iron for a tortilla press for a while and make some great new food. You could swap board games, or encourage your kids to trade a toy. None of these trade needs to be permanent. You could even go big and organize an event where people can swap clothes or soup or whatever you’d like. In the midst of Marie Kondo fever, this could be a hot ticket! I hosted a clothing swap last year, and it gave me most of the new clothes I needed and was a lovely time, and I once attended a soup swap that gave me a half a dozen meals instead of a whole mess of one thing. Whatever you choose, you’ll get something new, get rid of something old, consume no new resources, spend no money, and have a connection, however fleeting, with another human.
  7. Look for birds: My therapist once told a story about feeling low and walking down the street, when she suddenly she heard a riot of chirping. She couldn’t figure out where it was coming from at first, and then looked closer at a nearby hedge. Dozens of tiny sparrows were tucked in amongst the branches. So she stood there a couple minutes and just watched that strange bush full of birds. And she felt a bit better. Occasionally I like to challenge myself just to look for birds. I mean it literally, and luckily, even in a big city, there are often birds nearby. I doesn’t have to be birds, though. When spring (finally) arrives, I’ll look for all the early flowers. Pick something to look for, and it’ll force you to be present and look at your environment in a new way.

So there it is. Next Wednesday I’ll have seven more. I haven’t decided how I’ll share how this goes, but if you decide to join me in these experiments, send me a note or a message or leave a comment here, because these are things I always want to talk about. I wish we talked about them more. If you’re posting on the socials, I’m using the hashtag #28goodthings.

Spring is coming. But as we wait, let’s plan for a little goodness, a little engagement, maybe even a little joy.

 

In Praise of Inefficiency

After meeting friends the other weekend, I had two choices to get home: take the TTC for about 25 minutes or walk for 35. The weather had temporarily mellowed after the polar vortex of despair, and I realized my path could take me through Kensington Market, one of my favourite Toronto neighbourhoods. So I walked, taking in changes in the city as you can when you’re not squinting into the wind. I stopped at Kid Icarus to thumb through their prints, took myself out for a piece of Ontario Sour Cherry pie at Wanda’s. Not only was the pie tart and buttery and completely perfect, it brought back the wonder of my earliest Toronto days, when I sat in that cafe with friends, or stopped by on my way to a book event, marvelling all the while that I got to live in a city like this. And here I was, marvelling all over again.

I’m a person with a long to-do list, and high standards, and so often my mind whirls with calculations, applying various criteria like it’s running script: is this the lowest price? the least environmental impact? the healthiest? the most time efficient? I’ve learned from meditation that my default mental mode is “planning,” and I’m sure “evaluating” is not far behind.  We live in a society that stokes this efficiency fetish, a world of #lifehacks and Pinterest boards and InstantPots and lifestyle gurus who promise to bring us as close to cyborgs as possible without any implanted tech. (For a brilliant critique of guru-mania, take the time to read Heather Havrilesky’s “There Are Too Many Gurus in America.”) And as much as I aspire to be better-faster-stronger, I don’t want efficiency to be my highest good. I wish this wasn’t so hard to remember.

I’ve written before about how by getting up early I take about an hour and a half for myself each morning. This has the guise of efficiency (get up earlier! use your most productive hours!), but in practice it isn’t really. When I tell people about this (usually when I’m explaining why my bedtime is now 9 p.m.), I get some incredulous responses: “But what do you DO?” they ask. And I’m a bit sheepish with my reply. “I read, journal, do some writing.” And then, I’ll add, “Oh and I meditate, and sometimes exercise . . . or tidy up.” Those additions are true, though they’re not new. But the first list, those amorphous items without distinct objectives or payoffs, make people uncomfortable.

But I must admit I am one of those uncomfortable people too sometimes. This morning, in fact, I was thinking about how my default mode is to put my words here, rather than court the validation (or more likely the rejection) of an external outlet or grappling with a bigger project. Surely that would be more productive, more useful, while still being creative?* I remembered that line from You’ve Got Mail: “I lead a small life—well, valuable, but small—and sometimes I wonder, do I do it because I like it, or because I haven’t been brave?”

I don’t know what my answer to that question is yet. But despite my plan-o-matic brain, my ego, my ambition, right now I want to protect these dark, quiet mornings from the tyranny of to-dos: I find a kind of grace in their murkiness. Maybe I need the comfort, the cover of darkness, to write anything at all. And I do think I’m working towards something, I just don’t quite know what. That’s the nature of creative work, of course: it always means sailing out into the unknown. Sure, there are certainly people who write a novel in a month, journalists who stride along a treadmill of deadlines, and effort is important, noble even. But I suppose the work I’m doing right now is less like training for a marathon, and more like birdwatching: showing up, getting quiet, and paying attention without knowing what will come of it. It’s inefficient, yes, but I am hoping it’s also a little bit brave.

 


* Kerry weighed these questions of writing and ambition wonderfully. And she came out with the Back to the Blog Movement, which I am grateful for, because surely we all know that what is said loudest isn’t the most true or the most meaningful or most important, and one of the greatest satisfactions of the internet can be the digital meet cutes that bring us wonderful and unexpected connections.

Monty and Me

One of winter’s great tricks is that it can make spring seem impossibly far away, if not impossible all together. When the wind blows -35, feels like the stab of icicles on any skin you’ve dared swath in only one layer, all those fragile spring petals seem like the stuff of science fiction.

Luckily, just as my patience with winter was as thin as black ice, the right hero strode into my life: Monty Don, long-time British gardening guru. Looking for some soothing nighttime viewing, I first slipped into Monty Don’s French Gardens, which sees the lanky, sixty-ish British presenter don a straw hat, fold himself into a tiny Citroen, and drive all over France, showcasing gardens on various themes, such as those that inspired art (think Monet’s garden) or the potager (the stylized French kitchen garden). Monty’s unabashed enthusiasm won me over almost immediately. In one episode, he recounts how he first went to France as a seventeen-year-old, and he still has the gusto of someone that age. If you liked watching the irrepressible Samin Nosrat in Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat (and who didn’t?), there’s the same by-proxy giddiness in watching Monty bite into a giant field tomato or savour a cherry just plucked from a tree. And of course the gardens are gorgeous: lush and sunny, impeccably maintained. Surely I’ve absorbed some vitamin D through the screen.

So imagine my delight when I discovered Netflix had more Monty for me, including a show I came to love much more than Monty en France: Big Dreams, Small Spaces. This is a sort of garden makeover show, with host/expert Monty acting as a guide, but with the two families in each show tasked with creating and executing a vision, all on their own budget. Monty arrives three or four times over the year the families work on their project, ready to grab a shovel or beat back overgrown brush (he’s shockingly strong despite his wiry frame), but he’s not a designer descending with a SWAT team of handypeople (as in every American makeover program I’ve watched), he’s more of a garden therapist, asking gentle questions and pointing out potential trouble spots. He’s charmingly diplomatic in this role, trying to help people see their own missteps, “I couldn’t help but notice . . .” he might say before pointing out that someone has put their greenhouse in a shady corner.

One thing I’ve long loved about British television is that the people on it don’t seem like Hollywood prefab beauties, and that’s even truer of reality TV. These are instead regular people, wearing regular clothing, and often no makeup at all. They come in all ages and sizes (though in season one, only with white skin), their teeth have never seen a whitestrip. I find it quite arresting, sadly, which really drives home how many artificially beautiful people we look at every day and how that distorts our reality.

And part of the reason I love the show so much is that the gardens feel real too. These are not the showpiece gardens of France: they reflect a wide range of budgets (some as low as about 100 pounds) and personalities, aesthetics and time commitments. If you’ve ever fallen into a sort of HGTV coma for hours, the homes start to blur into a sort of bland parade of sameness: it’s like walking the IKEA showrooms, where the rooms may look different, but they feel almost eerily the same. On Big Dreams, that doesn’t happen: this isn’t one designer just tweaking his or her style for another location and client. These are real people, working under real conditions, with real constraints. Some of the gardens I don’t care for at all, and that’s a sign that they’ve bucked the bland inoffensiveness of so many TV makeovers that suggests a staged house, depersonalized and ready for anyone to move in.

Episodes of Big Dreams also end with a reversal of the usual script: instead of someone having their shiny new life presented to them in a dramatic reveal, the hardworking homeowners must present their handiwork to the host. Since they work most of the year unsupervised, people are invariably nervous for Monty’s final visit. They so much want to please the host, and I get it, I’d be nervous too when I saw those frizzy curls bobbing down the street, his too-big linen suit flapping behind him. But what all those people miss is that Monty really just wants them to be pleased with the results. He wants them to fall in love with gardening. And because what they do is creative and challenging and deeply personal, they often do. Take my favourite, Gary, a long-haul trucker who had an ambitious plan, including a large pond he had to dig himself. He wanted a paradise to come home to spending his workweek on the road. And in the end, this pale, buzz-cutted fellow with a Guns N Roses roadie vibe is moved to tears, because he made his dream come true, and because he’s going to keep making it.

As much as I can get sucked into a makeover show, I’m wary of their capitalist fairytale narratives that suggest our flawed, human lives can be made perfect, at least with a shiny new LG fridge, some mid-century modern chairs, and a distressed leather couch. In any reveal, I always find myself fixating on the improbable bowl of lemons, likely never to be filled again, and thinking about how long the expensive houseplants will be kept alive. Because before and after is of course an artificial concept: there’s only one endpoint, and until then life is just a series of afters.

A garden by its very nature resists the ideal of arrival: growing and changing is what they do. The gardens on this show are often very young, the slips of pear trees years from an actual pear, the hedgerows offering no privacy, the courgettes months from harvesting (and from taking over the garden). As the show concludes we get a sense not of an end, but of a beginning.

In February, every gardener has their own big dreams: this is the time of fantasy-football gardening, building a roster of plants that we imagine will all thrive, that will look just like the photos in the seed catalogues that are gardeners’ SAD lamps. The reality will be different, of course, but what Big Dreams so charmingly illustrates is that it doesn’t really matter—it’ll all come out well enough in the end. Gardens are just like our lives, a constant work-in-progress, and missteps and course corrections will happen. But with care and attention, gardens can be shockingly forgiving. It doesn’t hurt that with a show like this, we all get to have Monty on our side, to ask the right questions and provide tips, yes, but most importantly to remind us to look for joy and satisfaction right in our own backyard.