Beach bodies

There are two ways to handle a city summer: escape it—heading to malls, museums, movie theatres, or any other place with polar A/C—or embrace it, grabbing your suit and sunscreen a making for a city pool or beach. Despite being a person who loves summer, I’ve tried both of these strategies in recent heat waves, but this past weekend I spent my afternoons at the beach and my local pool.

And while there were a few takeaways from my time stretched on a towel, what struck me both days was how nice it was to be immersed in a sea of bodies on display. Young bodies, old ones, fat ones, thin ones, and everything in between. Tattoos, stretch marks, tan lines, body hair, scars, and secret constellations of freckles are no longer hidden. Makeup washes away, and hair waves and frizzes. While I’m sure people have considered, to varying degrees, how they look that day, and of course stigma really doesn’t disappear, there is something about the sheer volume of people that still feels democratizing to me. Here are our bodies, and they are, finally, deliciously cool.

I was a lifeguard through all my teen years and a bit beyond, and I don’t remember thinking much about this catalogue of bodies. Maybe I was too young, or maybe I was used to it, or maybe it’s gotten harder to catch a real glimpse of another person’s cellulite. We’ve long had to contend with the airbrushed, photoshopped professional bodies of models, and the well-lit, trainer-honed physiques of actors, but social media is a relatively new player in the scene. Our feeds give us glimpses of what would appear to be more authentic, except, of course, they’re not: one carefully edited photo elides all the trashcan-bound takes. No wonder one study found higher social media use correlates with increased risk of eating and body image disorders.

Sitting, taking it all in, I was reminded of the plus-size pool party scene in Shrill, all those bodies lounging, swimming, floating—savouring all the warm weather pleasures. I watched the show with a curvy friend, who noted that what was especially revolutionary was how the camera lingered on these bodies in motion as the actors swam. This isn’t something to hide, those shots declared, let’s pause to take it in. In Shrill the book, West writes about how she had to teach herself to love bigger bodies, because society certainly didn’t teach us to love them—in fact, it does the opposite. (Hard to dismantle the patriarchy if you’re hungry and beaten down.) So she recalibrated her feeds, sought out photos of big bodies and studied them to broaden what she thought of as beautiful.

And that’s one thing (besides a break from the oppressive heat) the public pool or beach has to offer: a sort of joyful reminder of what bodies actually look like. I sat there feeling like one of the Fab 5, wanting to reach out and tell women especially that they were beautiful. Because I am sure all of them have frowned at the mirror, pinched or prodded their flesh, possibly under fluorescent lights of a changeroom when buying the very bathing suit they’re wearing. They’ve probably moaned to friends about how their boobs are sagging, or they need to lose five, ten, twenty pounds. We’re so unforgiving, so self-conscious, but these are our containers for being, the only way we can access the world. And as much as I wanted to compliment these women, the point is actually setting all that assessing aside, leaving it in the lockers with our street clothes. Because at the pool we get to indulge in the glory of physicality: it’s the grandpa doing a flip on the diving board, the goggled kids frogging underwater and gasping as they surface, the legs swaying in pool handstands, the babies splashing with delight. We are weighed down with so much judgment and expectation, but the public pool is a glimpse of a world where, with practice, every body can be buoyant, every body can be free.


A gentle fading

Sunset, sitting on the dock at my ex-stepgrandfather’s cottage, I dangled my feet into the still lake, watching the tiny waves ripple out. I’d gone down to the dock feeling a bit melancholy, trying to say goodbye. I scooped up a handful of water and tossed it into air. The water shifted into tiny spheres as they fell back to the water, splattering its surface with dozens of little bullseyes. But then something interesting happened: all the little bullseyes joined into a giant one, a target that radiated outward, then disappeared. There’s physics to explain this, said my smart sister, but I was astonished nonetheless: it felt like my own little discovery.

And that’s one thing cottages are for, surprising connections with the natural world that widen your eyes and narrow your focus to just one little thing.

Of course cottages were for other things too: sun and swims and sugary treats, dinner in damp bathing suits and after-supper boat rides, fields turned into baseball diamonds, fireworks and fireflies, a sky improbably full of stars. They’re for happy hour turned happy hours, card games and cleansing pints, the clinking of glasses and dominoes and dimes in Crown Royal bags, the gentle swing of a hammock and the wheeling arms of Heels Over. They’re for diving for golf balls, finding fish in pockets of shade, holding your breath as long as possible. For laughter and loon calls echoing across the lake, the tinny patter of rain on the roof. Hamburgers for breakfast, the Dairy for lunch, corn roasts and vegetable dinners, tea and cookies on the dock in the evening. For wild hair, calloused feet, and always a bit too much sun.

I’d been going to that cottage for 29 years. For a long time it was my favourite three weeks of every summer. It’s where I became part of a new family, embraced with open arms, though I was, I’m sure at least at first, the baggage that comes with marrying a divorcé, the awkward +1. I made new friends too, had crushes, got my first bikini, learned to back dive and play Chinese checkers and identify the fish I stalked in the shadows beneath the raft. I swam almost as much as the resident loons and was marginally lake-famous as the teenager who swam the length of the lake and back on a bet with her dad.

It was a place of so many beginnings, though on this recent visit I was there to help weed through old stuff, to prepare it for sale. Many years every bed was full, even the couch—the cottage was a cup spilling over. But now, so many were gone—died, divorced, moved away—and there was no one who could give it enough time to hold on.

We like to imagine things will go on forever, and perhaps that’s why goodbyes are so hard: we’re forced to face that they don’t. But it was a place that had already seen a series of goodbyes, and the evidence was all around us: we flipped through old photo albums, my grandfather dropping a finger on each face and announcing them dead, unearthed my late-nana’s wedding dress, now yellowed with age, packed up old lamps and crib liners that once seemed worth saving and now were destined for the dump. We drank gin and tonics every afternoon at 4:30 in honour of another departed grandmother. My dad, still alive but no longer a part of the family, lingered in photos, in the wood sign that once hung over the garage. Every time I’m there I feel his absence keenly: he is a great connector of people, and without him we sometimes seem like those water droplets, our ripples overlapping but not quite joining up.

The other thing about goodbyes is they’re hopelessly inadequate, of course: we expect them to be a period, a tidy cap on a long book of feelings and memories, people and landscapes and the tiniest details, like an ugly magnet or faded paperback. Really a goodbye is more like the periods in an ellipsis, the beginning of a gentle fading away . . .

I was reading an old New Yorker on a plane recently and stumbled into Kathryn Schultz’s wonderful meditation on loss, “When Things Go Missing.”  She starts by ruminating on misplaced objects (wallet, keys, etc.) but before long she’s talking about the loss of her father. “We will lose everything we love in the end. But why should that matter so much?” she writes. “By definition we do not live in the ends, we live all along the way.”

I struggled with the right way to say goodbye to the cottage, but as Schultz reminds us, that part is beside the point. Perhaps the best goodbye is being alive to the moment, savouring that moment of dockside astonishment, and not forgetting to take in the scenery as the car turns off the dirt road one last time.

Opportunity Abounds

Reading books and articles about the environment is not for the faint of heart. Most times it’s a terrible cocktail of panic, anger, shame, despair, and depression, the kind of toxic mixture that could topple a moose. I think it’s important, yes, but it comes at a psychological cost. So imagine how happy (and surprised) I was to discover that Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming, edited by Paul Hawken, left me feeling a bit optimistic.

Drawdown is the work of an international panel of scientists, policy makers, researchers, and other professionals to assess, practically and scientifically, solutions for drawing down carbon reversing climate change. Yes, not just delaying, but reversing. Each of the 100 solutions presented (and ranked) in the book is assessed by conservative implementation rates by 2050, and then assessed for amount of carbon drawdown (removing carbon from the atmosphere), cost to implement, and ongoing costs or savings. And guess what? For most of these strategies, we end up with savings. Millions or billions of dollars of savings.

As conservative provincial governments in Canada fight the national carbon tax, and go on and on about protecting oil jobs for the benefit of the economy, it’s incredibly important to realize that we don’t have to choose between the environment and the economy. We’re not looking at an even playing field anyway: according to an International Monetary Fund estimate, in 2015 alone the fossil fuel industry received more that $5.3 trillion in direct and indirect subsidies. That’s a staggering $10 million dollars per minute. No wonder alternative energy seems expensive by comparison. But even setting that aside, right now in the U.S., more people are employed by the solar industry than by oil, gas, and coal combined. (And, spoiler: solar isn’t even Drawdown‘s top energy intervention. According to them, the future is wind, baby!) In fact, the book points out that we’re now at the point where “the expense of the problems in the world now outweighs the cost of the solutions.” Doing the right thing doesn’t have to cost more. In fact, it’s a bargain.

As I read this very readable, reasonable book, I was struck by an abundance of opportunity. Not just in the 100 solutions, but in the way the solutions often had incredible ancillary benefits. For example, if cattle farmers were to graze their cows on forested land (rather than razing trees for pasture), rotating grazing areas regularly, we’d maintain biodiversity, keep more carbon in the soil, have healthier cows, reduce deforestation of vital old forests, and the farmers make more money. Benefits of one intervention become exponential.

There are exponential opportunities in my own life too: deciding to cycle commute means I produce no carbon, I’m more fit, I save money, I’m more in touch with my city, I’m more punctual, and I’m happier. Or take my garden. I learned from Drawdown that “home gardens hold higher carbon sequestration potential compared to monocrop production systems, with sequestration rates comparable to those of mature forest stands” (emphasis mine). But I also reduce carbon produced with my partner and I eating hyper-local, package-free organic food. I get light exercise and healthy food. I support pollinators. I make my own compost, which prevents methane release, requires no fossil fuels, and maintains the soil. I give seeds and plants to other people, making more gardens. I save money most years. It has connected me to nature and my environment, and given me endless opportunities to learn and grow. Oh and there’s the small matter that it’s become what my partner accurately called my “life force.” It’s a daily source of joy and renewal.

I love thinking about changes that create little beneficial ecosystems. Drawdown reminded me that our planet’s story doesn’t have to be one of perpetual degradation. There are so many people around the globe coming up with smart, feasible solutions that make our world better.

Drawdown also brought me back to personal choice and the opportunities it presents. While big, systemic and technological change is absolutely necessary, #3 and #4 on their top 100 were wasting less food and eating less meat. Those are things all of us can do. And while my #zerowaste Instagram feed can sometimes be daunting, reminding me of my failures, the voice of reason eventually prevails. What if everyone cut their meat eating by 50%? What if everyone grew a garden or cycled to work or bought more things secondhand? What if everyone simply reused a jar once before recycling it? Again, exponential results. As the Zero-Waste Chef Anne Marie Bonneau reminds us, “We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly.” (I’ll keep quoting this forever, and I’m not sorry.) She reminds us that if just 10,000 people reduced their waste by 10% for a year, 1.6 million pounds of trash would be avoided.

The upside of our environment being in a shambles and our regular habits being so damaging is that there is so much room to improve. Low-hanging fruit abounds. So while I still need to write a letter to our provincial forestry minister about cancelling a tree-planting program, this week I also arranged a couple trades, picked up bulk coffee for a girls trip so people won’t be tempted by disposables, and I’m focusing on regularly eating my radish greens rather than composting them. Opportunity abounds, and with each good thing I do, benefits ripple out. There are benefits for my own tiny ecosystem (my life), and faraway ones I’ll never see or know. And at the end of the day, I’m also conserving another precious resource we need to survive: optimism.

Just Add Women

At the public pool where I swim, there are two lanes for fast swimmers. I choose which one to use by number of swimmers, but this is often pretty equal. So the tiebreaker? Choose the one with fewer men in it. Surprisingly, it was only recently I figured out that men were the ones more likely to be inconsiderate lanemates (read: pushing off right in front of you when they’re slower, tailgating, not leaving room at the wall, and, much more often than women, being in a lane that’s too fast for them). A recent column in the Guardian exposed just this problem in U.K. swimming pools. It applies to the other lane I use on the regular too: the bike lane. Guess who is running lights, blowing by you without signalling, etc.? Nine out of ten times, not a woman.*

Both these situations are annoyances and inconveniences, but of course it brings to mind other spaces that could use some more women—say, governments (especially those currently voting on women’s bodily autonomy), or the boardrooms of corporations (only 5% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women). This lack of representation is bothering me even more than usual lately, because of  some reading I’ve been doing about—surprise!—the environment.

In the last week, both the Zero-Waste Chef and Minimum Viable Planet wrote about gender and the environment, pointing out an important fact about low-waste/zero-waste spaces online: 90% of the discussion comes from women. Women are the ones darning socks and taking their jars to the bulk store, hunting for biodegradable package-free dental floss and making their own toilet cleaner. Bonus domestic labour, which, I’m sure you know, women still do more of anyway. Why is the green movement so pink? This Vox article has a couple theories, among them that women control what they can (family purchasing, the domestic sphere). We may lose control of our reproductive organs and thus entire futures, but boy is our recycling clean and sorted! But here’s the bigger thing: women are more sensitive to the needs of our planet and other people. A U.K. study found 71% try to live more ethically, compared to 59% of men. (Apparently eco behaviour isn’t manly enough. Plus, in the Apocalypse, all that Crossfit will really pay off.)

But wait, there’s more. Yesterday, I was reading the excellent Drawdown, which ranks educating girls as the #6 most effective climate intervention, and access to family planning as #7. That’s more effective than solar power, more than electric vehicles, composting, and mass transit (in fact, more than all those interventions combined). One of the interventions was equal rights for women as small-holder farmers (#62), and it presented some staggering statistics: “If women small-holders get equal rights to land and resources, they will grow more food, feed their families better throughout the year, and gain more household income. When women earn more, they reinvest 90% of the money they make into education, health, and nutrition for their families and communities, compared to 30 to 40% for men.” Also, if those women the same access to resources as men, their yields will rise 20 to 30% (to surpass men’s by 7 to 23%). 150 million hungry people will get fed, and with more productive land, there will be less deforestation, which is also accelerating the climate crisis. And of course, let’s not forget that climate change is also more devastating to women and to racialized people.

Tl;dr: a great way to make a space, governing body, or organization more considerate of other people and the planet? Put women in it, and get out of their way.**

Feminism is an environmental position. Equality isn’t just something that will make the world more pleasant, more fair, our swim lanes more civilized. Equality just might save us all. 


* Now before anyone gets all #notallmen, duh. But the ones most likely to cause problems? Men. And of course this is reductive and doesn’t acknowledge the nuances of gender identification, but we’re talking about sweeping patterns.

** We’ll also need to give them what they need to succeed (e.g., fair pay, maternity leave, flexible hours, freedom from workplace harassment) and address gendered double standards so that they don’t have to act like men just to keep those positions. And let’s not forget men picking up the slack at home, like partners in more than just name.


Non-Mother’s Day

In my friend’s hometown there is a man who stands on the street on Mother’s Day and asks women if they’re mothers. If they are, he gives them a flower. Maybe that sounds thoughtful to you. But if you’re not a mother, that flower is yanked back. There are lots of people for whom this encounter could be painful: someone struggling to conceive or unable to find a partner; someone who had lost a child; someone who had lost a mother or has a strained maternal relationship; queer, non-binary, or trans parents who have to constantly battle gender stereotypes; and so on. And even for women who have chosen not to have children, not-mothering can still be a heavy presence in our lives.

We’re constantly reminded that we’ve violated some sort of social contract; we’re often depicted as self-absorbed or shallow; we live, as the writer Glynnis MacNicol notes in her excellent book No One Tells You This, outside many of the ceremonies that celebrate milestones in women’s lives. Everyone, everything whispers warnings of regret.

A person I follow on Instagram noted yesterday that she couldn’t even remember her life before her toddler, and asked, had it even been enjoyable? This, I’ll admit, had me really stewing, because it so casually denigrated my regular existence. Can you imagine a married person saying, “Oh, relationships can be hard, but I just can’t even remember what it was like to be single. Did I even enjoy it?” Offensive, not to mention ridiculous.

Now don’t get me wrong, I think mothers have an incredibly difficult job. I recently stayed with a friend with a toddler for a few days, and was really struck by how relentless it seems to have a small child not only physically need you, but want to be seen by you and engage with you all the time. Aside from what they physically do, moms are always planning ahead, trying to make things go as smoothly as possible for everyone, and this mental work alone seems exhausting. Mothers deserve to be celebrated, and should be on the regular. But we don’t need to celebrate them in ways that devalue or cause pain to non-mothers.

And, for the record, I had a very enjoyable weekend. I woke up well-rested each day. I read books in the mornings and drank my coffee. I giggled over Broad City and breakfast with my partner. We rode our bikes to two plant sales, and sat on a sunny bench in Roncesvalles eating ice cream and talking. I spent an afternoon in the garden, planting food that will feed me and those I love, that will feed the pollinators, that will clean the air. I gave away a dozen plants to strangers on the internet, and they were thrilled. I called my mothers. I went to an exercise class with a friend, and dropped in on another friend to meet her nephew, snack on party leftovers, and drink an afternoon glass of wine. None of this is heroic of self-sacrificing, but it is not empty or unworthy. It should not be the sad before in a before-and-after. It is just a life, and, I think, a pretty good one.



Foundations and Frills

Recently I was visiting a friend who has moved away, and she told me that I was a person who really worked to live a life in line with my values. Nice to say, but I thought, Doesn’t everybody? If you’re raising kids, you probably value family, for example. That said, maybe for some people the answer is not so flattering: I value money. I value prestige. I value luxury.

I have no manifesto, no statement of principles, and yet maybe I should. I’ve been thinking about what that would look like: I value personal relationships, health, the environment, travel, and books. I value money though, too, to a certain extent, because I recognized the freedom and security it brings. I’m working on this, trying to accept that doing the right thing costs more and that’s okay. One of my authors works on institutional food reform, and for her, having carefully articulated institutional values can be central to a project’s success: it’s keeps doing the right thing a foundational principle instead of a “nice to have.”

We don’t like to think that we do the right thing only when it’s convenient, although that is often true. And that’s not all on us: in a capitalist society, we measure worth only in money, and thus so many important values (workers rights, health, avoiding the wholesale destruction of our species and planet) become frills. A company giving 1% for the planet or paying its workers fairly is seen as just short of heroic. Doing the right thing has become exceptional.

I think, often, about how we’re being set up to fail at doing the right thing. I was flying this past weekend, and expected the airport lounge to have its usual free coffee in reusable cups. In fact, it’s something I look forward to. But when I arrived, that bit of hospitality had been replaced by a restaurant/cafe that sold terrible mud-water coffee in takeaway cups. Suddenly, tired travellers counting on a caffeine fix didn’t even have the option of not making garbage. Suddenly you needed those all-important dollars in your wallet. It’s a small example, but I think about this kind of thing all the time, on all kinds of levels: we rail against congestion and emissions but won’t invest in a coherent transit plan or bike lanes, the supermarket stocks apples from Washington instead of Ontario, we rail against diet-related illness but won’t pay people a living wage or provide access to fresh food, eliminate food education, and subsidize factory farming and monocrops of corn and soy. Plus, those without certain privileges just caught in just surviving day to day don’t have the luxury of thinking about the bigger picture.

And listen, despite what my friend says, I fail at living my values all the time. Daily. In this world setting us up for failure at every turn, it’s hard to be an absolutist. I bought a coffee at that airport (without lid or sleeve, at least) because I didn’t think I could do all the late travel I had in store without caffeine. Plus, I really shouldn’t have been flying at all, considering the carbon emissions of air travel. (Two core values in conflict: personal relationships and the environment.) And I still choose money over other values all the time, because I haven’t the courage to opt out of capitalism, à la Rob Greenfield, who has not only given up most possessions, but actively reduced his net worth to under $5000. You want someone who lives by their values, he’s your guy.

But I also am a believer in the power of small, sustainable changes, and in fact, that’s how Rob Greenfield got to where he is: he has a timeline that outlines his transition from “drunk dude” to “dude making a difference.” I may still eat meat, but we buy meat that’s ethical, and my partner and I eat it only about half the time. I may still fly two or three times a year, but I also bike most places nine months of the year and don’t own a car. I may still buy things in packaging and often shop at a store with no frills, but I buy way more in bulk now and this month I’m starting a trial membership at my local co-op. I went from donating 1% of my income to 5% and now 10%. As the amazing (and values-driven) Zero-Waste Chef, Anne Marie Bonneau, reminds us, “We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly, we need millions of people doing it imperfectly.” That said, with something like a climate change, the state of emergency we’re collectively ignoring, it seems we’ve lost the luxury of slow—dramatic action is required yesterday. I agonize over this dissonance, but the big, necessary changes we need to make aren’t on individuals.

When I think about living by values, I tend to think of my failures. I am not Greta Thunberg travelling by train to protests and speaking engagements, nibbling on homemade brown rice and chickpeas. But even Greta has a timeline, and it probably (maybe) had its own challenges and setbacks. I have to remind myself that living by your values isn’t necessarily about uniform success. It’s about keeping your eye fixed on the horizon even when you fall. It’s about knowing where you’re headed, even if it’s a long road there.



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.

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.