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.

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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.

 

 

Dig in

It snowed 31 cm over the last 18 hours or so, and this morning brought sparkling drifts high enough to swallow a Husky. I don’t mind being snowed in, generally, and luckily I can work from home and thus keep the snow as something pretty to look at and not melting in my boots. But this morning I started thinking about the sidewalks.

As renters, shovelling the sidewalks is not our responsibility. It is, in fact, one of the few things required of those who line their pockets with thousands of our dollars, year after year. It should be one of the few consolations in a housing market that has locked me out of owning my own piece of sidewalk that I do not have to shovel this one.

But guess what? My landlord rarely shovels. I can think of maybe once in 10 years. And I think that is true of a lot of landlords who do not live in the building they own. Now, I could call my lazy property manager, hassle him to come remove the snow. But that would take a while, and, to be honest, I’m always a bit nervous asking for something: I want to be the perfect tenant. I know that if I lose this apartment, we’re likely to pay at least 50% more, maybe even double. I work in a low-paying industry, and while I’m lucky a move wouldn’t mean poverty, it would have a significant impact on my quality of life, on my ability to save for the future. And while it may not be easy for the landlord to evict me, being a renter in Toronto always feels a little bit precarious.

But this morning both Metro Morning and @lindsayzv reminded me that basic sidewalk accessibility is bigger than my petty grievance. Consider the people with wheelchairs, the mothers with small children, the elderly. Do I want to make these people’s lives harder? I live on the same street as Jane Jacobs’ historic house, and I like to think of her eyes still on our street. But looking down my road, it was hard to even know where the sidewalk should be. There were a few shovelled-out paths to nowhere, a seam of mostly dropped stitches.

Sometimes I get too fixated on what I think is fair, which is to say, what feels fair to me. And when I’m so zoomed in on my square of sidewalk, I’m missing the bigger picture: I want a city people can move through. I want a city where we look out for each other, where we do things because it is right, not because we have to. I want to be a positive force. I may not want to shovel, but I want to be a shoveller. And so I did.

 

 

 

The Long Game

On the weekend I had dinner with an old friend and his wife, and was surprised to learn he’d become a vegetarian. (Or, as he preferred to phrase it, “I don’t eat meat.”) He’s an immigrant from eastern Europe, and for his parents meat was the foundation of every meal. When his mom made a vegetarian soup for his wife a decade ago, his mother agonized, “There’s nothing in it!”

But now, after eight years of marriage and his wife doing most of the cooking, he realized he didn’t eat meat much at all, and giving it up made him feel healthier. He didn’t want to go on about it, mount any moral high horse, and he didn’t feel any particular angst. Just no more meat. Even more amazingly, I learned his parents were starting to see the possibility in plant-based meals: his mom now makes meals from the Oh She Glows vegan cookbook. Last year they all shared a vegetarian Christmas dinner.

It seems most people are agreed that our society is more divided than ever. In a couple conversations lately, people have lamented that there’s no point in talking to some people: they’ll never change, and we’re irreconcilably divided by an ideological no-man’s land.

Sometimes we venture out amidst the barbed wire, only to come back angry and bleeding, and conclude that had not been worth the cost. But real, lasting change takes time. And in a world that fetishizes crash diets and life hacks, we forget that. Most often, change isn’t swift, it’s the proverbial drop in the bucket: the result of  conversations and experiences and news stories and books and TV shows. We are impatient for change, but ask any therapist or coach: small, sustainable changes are most likely to stick. That’s for all kind of psychological reasons, but one of the most important, I think, is that the motivation becomes organic and intrinsic—as we acclimatize gradually, we’re convincing ourselves.

And of course for anyone to want to change, they need a reason. Which means we have to show up for what we care about. And then we have to show up again. And again. And again. I try to remind myself of this when I’m feeling impatient having a conversation about feminism or racism, things that I’ve worked to educate myself in for years. But people may not have had the benefit of that gradual education, and in fact, may be wading through all kinds of “alternative facts.” I need to be as patient with them as others have been with me.

I can be most impatient around environmental issues, especially around garbage: I have moments of indignant rage at people disregarding the low-hanging fruit, like take-out coffee cups, plastic  bags. But I have to remember that other people don’t see posts about this on their Instagram every day*, that they might have other concerns or priorities. And of course, that as someone who still eats meat in 50% of her meals (a slow reduction still in progress), I’m far from the ideal environmentalist. Certain changes will be harder for certain people. And let’s not forget, our system and our culture actively undermine sustainable choices day in and day out**, just as some communities make it harder to embrace certain ideas: think of the strength and conviction required to swim upstream.

Change takes time, and while it might feel like we don’t have any on issues of life and death (of people, of a planet), the thing we can least afford to do is give up. We need to keep leading by example, having tough conversations, patiently and compassionately, not so we can change people, per se, but so that they have the motivation to change themselves. I think about my friend’s wife, the patient and compassionate sort, making a decade of vegetarian meals before her partner shared her values.

I always come back to Solnit’s Hope in the Dark on this, on how change that was once unthinkable becomes something that now seems inevitable. In a chapter about the Cold War era, she writes, “We inhabit, in ordinary daylight, a future that was unimaginably dark a few decades ago, when people found the end of the world easier to envision than the impending changes in everyday roles, thoughts, practices that not even the wildest science  fiction anticipated. Perhaps we should not have adjusted so easily. It would be better if we were astonished every day.”

In these conversations about change I’ve been having, I mention my grandparents, first-generation German, Catholic immigrants who arrived here after World War II. In their last years in their home, they got some new neighbours, a gay couple. At first, this was a reason for occasional disparaging comments or jokes around the house, especially from my grandfather. But over time, things got neighbourly, and they got to know the men as people. My grandparents even attended the couple’s wedding, and one of the men came to my grandmother’s funeral and asked me to email him my eulogy so he could share it with his husband. But what I remember most of all is a conversation with my grandparents over lunch one day. The subject of the neighbours came up, and my grandmother, washing her bottomless sink of dishes, said with a kind of sigh, “Oh yes, they’re very nice men, but…”

My grandfather interrupted gruffly. “No buts,” he said. “They’re very nice men. End of story.”

 


* Instagram is such a kind of reverse-fun-house of perfection, and that applies to zero-waste spaces too (bright light, white walls, green plants, natural wood toilet brushes). But over time, I’ve found some accounts which are both realistic and support those gradual, everyday changes that can make radical difference over time: @zerowastechef, @yourecofriend, @popcorn.ceiling.life, @zerowastedork.

** CBC’s Marketplace just did an episode on plastic waste in grocery stores, and you can see there how we’re set up to fail on the plastic front. It’s pretty disheartening, but there’s a grocery store in England featured that reminds us that change is possible.

Alice through the Looking-Glass (Ceiling)

The other day, two (big) drinks deep, I discovered the potential salary of a friend of a friend and burst into a sob. The salary was about three times my own, and I was shocked, suddenly and acutely humiliated. I couldn’t believe someone could make so much in a profession that didn’t require years of study (and accompanying debt). A decade into my career, with senior in my title, I had painstakingly worked my way up to a salary this person might have breezed by as an intern. I felt like a joke, and an awkward one at that. I felt the smallest I have felt in a long time.

I’m not a person who aspires to be rich, who thinks that money is the right way to ascribe value, and I’ve spent my whole adult life working with less, training myself in enough. Even in my job, I don’t have the budget to buy a big book, or even a remotely big one: I have to try to sell myself and my company as the value add. (Often this is not enough.) Despite my personal convictions, in a capitalist society, money determines value, and what did my salary say about me?

The feeling of smallness stuck with me, cutting in like too-tight pants. Even though I know that money is not an indicator of happiness or of worth, that I’m still in the richest 2% of the world, that others face worse pay discrimination within their field, that the people who care about me don’t care about my paycheque or the hole around the lightswitch in my shabby rental apartment. I’ve spent years convincing myself that having a lot of money and nice things isn’t important. But in a moment of vulnerability, all that was swept away and the default programming clicked back in.

Part of the problem is the comparing mind, as the buddhists call it. There’s always something better, something that will always make you feel lesser. The trick, they say, is to let go of the comparisons. As my partner reminded me, life isn’t fair. Why compare as though it is? (Or, in other words, delivered in with the steady gaze and paternal tone of that handsome modern sage, Coach Eric Taylor: “Play your own game.”)

Easier said than done, of course. Some days this is easy, some days you cry into a cocktail. And I’m not writing this to say capitalism is bullshit (it is), or small is beautiful (it can be), or money has no worth (it does), or poor me (I’m fine). I suppose I’m writing this to say it is hard to opt out of the dominant narrative (or to have it opt out of you). That even when you’re living as you believe you should, or the only way you can, doubts creep in, frustration comes calling.

I felt fragile for a couple of days, like Alice tumbling around Wonderland, odd and out of place and having drank the wrong potion. But eventually, with some time, reassurance, and reminders, I returned to a more familiar world. It’s looking, reassuringly, human-size.

 

 

 

Things to Forget

There’s something I love about the new year. Its all the reflection, all the optimism, all the intention. A new year anticipates all the energy of spring, the snowdrops pushing up through thawing earth, the first morning when you wake up and find dawn has actually come, that it’s not another morning of fumbling in the darkness.

This time of year used to be all about goal setting for me, and I liked that, but eventually I realized goal setting couldn’t address so many intangibles—an afternoon reading in bed, an impromptu trip to the greenhouse, early morning puttering in the garden—and risked crowding them out with the quantifiable. Not to mention changing something from a choice to a to-do relegated it to my endless inner task ticker, that default mental programming that quietly contaminates so much of my life.

But I do love setting an intention, which is less like picking a destination on a map (and a specific route to get there), and more like picking a lodestar that can take you in the right direction. And so last year I chose a word of the year: kindness. I’m not sure when I forgot it, but I remembered I had one in October.

So it seems my lodestar was behind some clouds. But in October, I realized that the theme of my year had been generosity, as in ways big and small I’d challenged the threshold of what I could give. When in doubt, I chose to give, and in return, I put a little more distance between me and being the kid that doesn’t want to share their snack at recess.

That said, I had lots of failures of generosity (and kindness) this year, too. I was impatient and exasperated, especially at work. I sometimes didn’t give my best self to the people closest to me. (It can be easier to be kind to strangers sometimes.) I’ve just finished reading Us Against You, the sequel to Beartown, and these Backman books are such compelling exercises in compassion. You see the good and the bad in everyone, and you’re reminded how often both great and terrible things can spring from the same place, can be the same quality even, just in different situations. The wise old tavern owner, Ramona, notes, “There isn’t an ass on the planet who doesn’t have someone who loves them.” If I want to level up on the kindness and generosity front, compassion would be a wise word for next year.

But I want to work on that impatience and exasperation too. In a challenging workout, I don’t catastrophize, I can find humour, I can manage the discomfort. But the same can’t be said for when I’m driving, or when someone screws up at work, or when I think my partner has been playing video games too long. And after 410 days and 4835 minutes of meditation (according to my app), I should be better at that by now. So I’m thinking of taking my triathlon mantra, No Drama, and trying to bring it to the parts of my life that don’t see me clad in performance wear. For a while, I was better at seeing how my reaction shapes a situation, how getting upset took the greatest toll on me, but lately I think I’ve been hooked by the drama, by the self-righteous rush of adrenaline. Not a good look. So I think I have to take a page from that angsty Danish prince: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

I’m leaning toward a Mary J. Mantra, but who knows, I may forget that before the year is over. But even still, I think intention matters, and maybe it’s subtly guiding the ship. After all, the dictionary tells me that generosity is part of the definition of kindness. Without realizing it, somehow I lived my way there after all.


*Post title from this song, which is a fave for fall/winter vacation time, and might be for you if you don’t find the new year so energizing.

 

 

Small Victories

In this time of looking ahead, of tracing our fault lines, of striving for more, a pause to savour some wins:

  • A blog (more or less) kept-up, dots connected, new constellations of thoughts becoming visible. Believing in the worthiness of my own thoughts and preoccupations.
  • Discovering the wee small hours, reinventing a journal practice.
  • Giving away a lot of money, some publicly. Really meaningful conversations about what we deserve, what we owe.
  • My own words, under my own name, in a national newspaper; a story that gives thanks.
  • An agendaless off-the-grid retreat, time released from its corset.
  • Travelling to two new countries, feeling small under other vast blue skies.
  • Guiding several new books into the world, watching them find their readers.
  • My partner making progress on a new path.
  • Goats in the tree above me.
  • The hopefulness of bees in the garden.
  • Good gifts given, kind notes written.
  • Feeling a friendship deepen.
  • Reconnecting with a childhood friend. 
  • A rain-soaked triathlon, a body that keeps showing up for me.
  • Every time the cat sat on my lap.
  • Falling in love with flowers.
  • Learning to lean into interests without plan or expectation.
  • An author event beneath the trees, with market stalls all around and fresh strawberries in hand.
  • I love yous to start and finish the day.
  • Exercise that is almost ecstatic dance, expanding horizons, finding a flow.
  • Swimming with an adopted matriarch, reading by her fire, walking the beach with her, being welcomed into her family.
  • A singalong to “Country Roads, Take Me Home,” on a 600-km road trip.
  • Checkmarks on the swim bucket list, blissful floats in familiar places.
  • The frenetic energy and comedy of a friend’s new kitten.
  • Streetcorner meetups to share what we have, get what we need.
  • A moment of recognition in a last, painful visit. Hearing new stories that allow those we’ve lost, and those who remain, to live on.
  • Supporting good people doing good work, watching someone take a leap and getting a lesson in faith.
  • So. Many. Beans.
  • Countless kilometres on two wheels in heat and rain and snow.
  • Fields of lavender. Cocktails & free range-chickens. Wineries. A friend who is the best Ontario tour guide.
  • Auctioned tractors, jars, snowshoes, hog feed, a glimpse of farm life through objects left behind.
  • An unexpected compliment from a stranger in the next lane.
  • A faraway friend on home turf, a backyard campfire, seeing past and present merge.
  • Fields full of flowers, walked with friends.
  • Dance parties with my chosen family, reunions with faraway friends.
  • Laughs and grimaces with friends at exercise class.
  • 10 years of support, or room to grow, and an ice cream social to celebrate.
  • Making new things. Making more from what I have.
  • Exploring nature in the city. A bird in the hand and many in the bush.
  • Seeing three very different (and excellent) plays.
  • Room service afterparties, an ecstatic author.
  • Visits to more than a dozen bookstores in three countries.
  • Planting four trees.
  • Author correspondence that made me laugh again and again.
  • Being a book fairy to many children, some I know, some I don’t.
  • Keeping resolutions.
  • That every day has at least three new things to be grateful for, filling a book with all the small victories.

 

A Year (Mostly) without Shopping

I can remember everything I bought this year. Well, every consumer product, anyway.*

Originally I pledged not to buy any new clothes or shoes, but mission creep set in, and I found myself just buying less stuff in general. I unsubscribed from all email promotions, I avoided to malls, which are hellish when you can’t buy things (and sometimes when you can), and I turned to the Bunz app when I needed something specific. I thought I was already good at distinguishing between wants and needs, but I got better. Occasionally I railed at the unfairness of this self-imposed mandate, a pair of Winners sandals somehow on my feet, my inner voice a high-pitched whine that’s not particularly attractive. (This whining tone is now a red flag.) Without the mandate, I would have capitulated. I didn’t, and guess what? I got over it. (Meditation lesson #1: everything passes.)

I was forced to appreciate what I had, and when I thought I might perish from sheer exhaustion with all that I owned, a trip to Value Village supplied a floral shirt for spring, or denim shorts for summer. A red bandana I bought there for $0.99 turned out to be best buy of the year: it covered bad hair, made any outfit I was wearing seem a bit punchier, and I love me a Rosie the Riveter vibe. These trips took longer than a trip to a regular store, required more stamina, but (especially on a 40 or 50%-off day) you couldn’t argue with the price, and I knew my new white t-shirt ($3) didn’t take 256 gallons of water to make. I didn’t have to worry about the labour or environmental standards of manufacturers, which despite apps like Good on You, are exhausting to parse. The low-prices can make it tempting to take home a bunch of mediocre stuff, but my rule of thumb was that if its wasn’t a hell yes, it was a no.

I didn’t always go to the store, either. I held a clothing swap that gave me some amazing new items, including a pair of pants that are my current go-to bottoms. When I needed full-coverage clothes for a trip to Morocco, I borrowed some. A dress for a friend’s wedding? Likewise. It required some effort to coordinate, but maybe less than travelling to the mall, pinging around stores, agonizing over choices, and body shaming myself in changerooms.

Yesterday I went to the mall to return some Christmas gifts and buy some new underwear. (I know, before the deadline, but I don’t want to pay more on January 2nd, and I don’t think used underwear are a super desirable, or available, option.) And standing in line at Victoria’s Secret, I watched two teenage girls go through the beauty products—dozens of products, arrayed around the cash, all unnecessary and most of which probably only get 1/4 used. That would have been me as a teenager too, looking for a pick-me-up, a thing to make my life more like a magazine, a thing to make boys like me and other girls respect me. I felt angry watching it all, how I was manipulated, how I still am in lots of ways. How long does it take to undo three decades of programming?

We’re made to believe that stuff is a way to demonstrate our personality, our taste, our worth: that we need to curate our lives in a way that makes others see our value. But when I think of the people I love and respect, I don’t think of their on-trend outfits or their Joanna Gaines-inspired living room. It’s definitely not what people talk about at a funeral. That’s hard to remember, though, when we’re all still, at least in part, teenagers trying to prove ourselves, trying to carve out who we are in the world.

I still love stuff. I love stuff that’s well-made, that’s pretty, that’s useful above all. I think it’s nice when things coordinate, I recognize the power that can come from an outfit that makes us feel sexy or powerful, a room that makes us feel relaxed. If tomorrow everything in a store was free, it would be mighty hard not to go on a shopping spree to rule them all. But stuff is pleasure, it isn’t happiness. And pleasure fades. In Goodbye, Things, hardcore minimalist Fumio Sasaki reminds us that the things that we see as clutter now were once coveted, treasured things. Most things just don’t stay that way.

This year I’ve a fair amount of writing, I ran a major giving project, I volunteered a bit more, I made space for myself in the mornings. Maybe I would have done all that if I was shopping normally, but I do like to think it minimized some distractions, prompted me to think about what mattered in the bigger picture. On some level, I think I was afraid of missing out, on a perfect wardrobe item, a great deal. But even writing that sentence exposes how foolish that is. Those are not actually the things that make my life better in a lasting way.

So now as we shift into 2019, my experiment formally comes to a close. And maybe I won’t keep up the strictest principles of 2018, but I may find that that’s actually harder. (As Gretchen Rubin reminds us, sometimes rules give us freedom.) In any case, here’s what I’ll follow, at minimum:

  1. Focus on needs. Does this item actually fulfill a lack? How could I make do without it?
  2. Shop used first: try Bunz, thrift stores, etc.
  3. Don’t shop or browse for the sake of it. (Exception, browsing bookstores, which are magnificent and also useful for work.)
  4. Ask if this supports your values (e.g., ethically made goods, environmental responsibility, supporting local makers and businesses).
  5. Ask how this will enhance your life. (If the answer is just, “It’s pretty,” it may be a miss.)

I don’t really miss shopping, though sometimes I miss the illusion that it’ll make my life better, that I deserve the things I want, that there are no consequences beyond a bill to be paid. But it’s that illusion, in part, that stops us from actually making our lives better, from making the world better. And that’s something I’m not willing to give up.

 


* The full list of (non-gift) purchases, if you happen to be interested. New items: three books (I’m Afraid of Men by Vivek Shraya, Salt Fat Acid Heat by Samin Nosrat and Meaty by Samantha Irby), a Christmas ornament (meant for my partner to give to me, but he wanted to buy his own), two reusable snack bags and a package of Abeego I haven’t opened yet since I got some new-ish Abeego in a trade, a helmet and bell to replace broken ones, a parka (clothes! I know! but I made an exception for a winter essential that was stolen). I also commissioned a painting of my cat from a local artist. Used items: a wire basket, scarf, funky vintage tissue paper, and some White Christmas cards from a pay-by-the-pound-Goodwill, two spring tops, a pair of denim shorts, a white t-shirt, a pair of bike shorts (paid $3, new these are at least $80), a Banana Republic dress (maybe a misbuy, but oh well—even on this program mistakes are still made), two bandanas, a cute pillowcase to turn into reusable produce bags.

Santa, baby

‘Tis the season for mass consumption. While the things I’m buying are for others, I still feel occasionally like I’m trapped in a snow globe that’s given a good old shake once and a while. Even for a person who has practised not buying things all year, this holiday season has been confusing, like wandering around Winners for too long, a basket somehow filled with a dozen things you didn’t know existed an hour before.

But mostly I’ve been able to resist the siren songs, to remember that just because I can identify things someone would probably like I don’t need to buy them. To remember that all of these things come at a price beyond money: if only we could see how much carbon that marble cutting board or fancy wrapping paper cost us. (Can you imagine? More sobering than the nutritional information on Doritos.)

My gift giving philosophy this year has been partly informed by my own buying ban, and partially by the insights in Happy Go Money that reminded me what actually makes people happy: relationships, experiences, time. And that’s led to some pretty great gifts this year, if you ask me, such as a surprise wine tour road trip for my stepmom’s 60th, a dinner out with my partner at a place he’s been bugging me to go to for ages. Beyond experiences, I’ve tried to turn to consumables (both homemade and purchased) and books (which support artists and the industry of my livelihood). These three things taken together made for 90% of my gifts this year, and that feels pretty good.

The other end of this is of course the receiving, which was a bit more challenging. (I’m keenly aware this is a ridiculous first world problem, don’t worry, and that I am terribly spoiled.) My partner once groused that there’s a whole category of things I wouldn’t want to receive because I’d say I could have found it on the curb, and that’s true. I’ve upped my participation in the second-hand economy this year, and that’s made it more clear than ever to me how much stuff is already out there. (And indeed, the curb economy, as I call it, has delivered me so many wins over the years, most recently a cat Furminator—essentially an expensive brush—that I’d been trying to find on Bunz to no avail.) For my birthday I asked my partner to donate to one of my chosen non-profits, and to go kayaking on the Humber River: it turned out to be a pretty fantastic little outing, despite the late October chill—we had a whole urban river we only had to share with the birds. But not all of my family wants to donate to charity for occasions.  For at least one person, gifts are a love language, and I worry about being the vegan frowning over the turkey.

I do recognize the beauty of giving, of holding someone in your mind, and finding just the right gift. How we define the right gift is where things fall apart.

I try to lead with the kind of gifts I give, where they come from and how they’re packaged and wrapped, but I don’t think that’s enough, and I do worry I’m backing away from harder conversations I should be having. Maybe I can just chant “experiences, not things,” and “just donate to charity” in their ears while they sleep? I’m not sure anyone ever changed after being lectured by their children, and most people get defensive when someone makes a lifestyle change that diverges from their own.

I have no rousing finish here, because I’m still working this through. Maybe I need to have more (gentle) discussions of the whys and wherefores of the changes I’ve made, which I’ve had lots of times with friends, and with my partner, but less so with my family (which for some reason I find more daunting). But I suppose you never know what will stick with a person, and maybe down the road there will be a little less stuff for Santa to stuff down the chimney.

 

My Favourite Things 2018

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the things I’d wholeheartedly recommend, and so why not play Oprah, or, maybe more realistically, a guest on How To Be Amazing (where they recommend five things at the end of every show). Because good things should be recommended (which is also why I started writing more Google reviews). I’ll make up my own categories, because one of the perks of writing a blog almost no one reads is you can do what you want.

Books: I wish I could be a little less mainstream this year, but the two books that absolutely mesmerized me (I even read them in the mornings before work!) are pretty big hits, and for good reason. First, Fredrik Backman’s Beartown, which is basically Friday Night Lights meets The Art of Fielding set in Scandinavia, and the first book I’ve read in a long time where I fretted about the characters when I wasn’t reading. I also kept taking screenshots of passages and sending them to my friend who’d recommended it, because it was just so good. It’s a book about hockey (which I don’t care about) and rape culture (which I do), and I was really impressed that a man handled the latter topic with such sensitivity and nuance. The second is Naomi Alderman’s The Power, which is a smart, thrilling investigation of what would happen to our world if all women could generate deadly electricity with their bodies. It’s a breezier, faster-paced Margaret Atwood book, and I couldn’t stop telling people about it. Apparently, the audiobook is also top-notch. Some days, what I wouldn’t do to feel a spark between my fingertips.

TV: Here’s an unsurprising pattern in the shows I love: they tend to feature powerful, complex women. And the shows I adored in 2018 are no exception. Killing Eve is a British drama starring Sandra Oh, whose character becomes obsessed with a female serial killer taking people out all over Europe, and with flair. (Think disguises, multiple languages, people killed with the contents of perfume bottles, that kind of thing.) What emerges is an amazing cat-and-mouse game between the driven investigator and the charismatic killer. It’s tense, it’s funny, it’s got great sexual tension. I saved watching the finale for my birthday because I loved this show so much. And just recently, we started watching The Marvellous Mrs. Maisel, about an upper-class housewife turned risqué stand-up comedian in late ’50s New York. Rachel Brosnahan has such charisma, such bravura, she is a complete delight to watch. (She won the Emmy and the Golden Globe for the role.) And who doesn’t love a well-produced period drama? Oh, and I almost forgot, the exception to the female-led show rule: I can’t forget the Queer Eye reboot, which was like a beautiful balm for the horrors of the world and a reminder of the importance of personal connection.

Podcast: I’ve recently really being enjoying the Future Perfect podcast by Vox, which applies an effective altruist’s lens to things like border control, organ donation, and eating fish. It’s short (under 25 minutes) well-edited, and offers smart takes on big issues. The episode on prison reform is a personal favourite. (And a quick note on the single episode category: RadioLab aired two episodes that were part of other projects, both of which were excellent and thought-provoking: “UnErased: Dr. Davidson and the Gay Cure” and “In the No, Part 1”, based on Kaitlin Prest’s miniseries about consent called No.)

Product: I was talking to my friend C about this the other day, but truly, I have had a magical year with this product, and I use it almost every day: the Sharpie water-based paint marker. Are you dazzled? You should be. This bad boy writes on glass or plastic (think: labelling all the things you have in the freezer, your preserves, your pantry staples) and washes off easily. If I were a better zero-waster, I’d go with a grease pencil, but somehow they always give you third-grade-boy handwriting. This marker writes gorgeously and adds real pizazz. Plus, I’ve had mine for just over a year, and it’s still going. (When I’m done, I’ll take it to the pen recycling at Staples.) It retails for less than $5.

Exercise: This isn’t just this year, but I want everyone to do pilates. And not the Pilates for Dummies tape that I did in the dorm basement in university, but going to an actual class with a live instructor. Pilates is so smart and physiologically informed: it can make your body feel brand new after an hour. And as someone whose job inflicts frequent neck pain, this reset is vital. I’ve never done the same sequence twice, and do new moves and combinations in every class. It’s also the kind of workout that you can do even if you’re tired: you work hard but in short bursts, and you never end up gasping for air or working to the point of muscle failure. It’s beautifully precise and controlled. It’s also something that people can do at any fitness level: my 80-year-old pal is a longtime devotee, and my dad’s a recent enthusiastic convert. I’ve been lucky to do semi-privates with the brilliant Andrea Palen for several years now, and she has a few videos you can do online for free. (I do the neck and shoulders one.) Classes in a studio are unfortunately expensive and not accessible to all, or, really, realistic for most (they can be up to $27/class here): the only workaround I have is to do pilates through ClassPass, which brings the cost for me down to $10-$12.50/class. I also had a great time at Misfit Studio this year, doing their classes that fuse pilates, dance, yoga, and a bit of strength training. I didn’t think it would be my vibe (it’s very tattooed, bodysuit, moon-ritual-and-sage-burning-type of place) but it made me less afraid of dance classes and able to lose myself in movement. Also, it smells really good there.

Habit: I love habits almost as much as Gretchen Rubin. (No one loves habits more than Gretchen.) And I’m pretty good at them. Keeping a gratitude journal every day has rewired my brain for the better. It sounds hokey, but I’ve found it really effective. Getting up early has also, so far, been really great for me. It’s meant making space to write posts like this one. Another game changer? Planning our meals a week at a time. This has meant for less daily brain drain, less food waste, money and time saved on groceries, meeting eating goals (for example, at least three vegetarian meals a week, avoiding too many carb-heavy meals), and equitable dividing of the cooking between me and my partner. And lastly, eating at the table was a surprising keystone habit. We’d eaten in front of the TV  for years, and this bothered me on a low level—it seemed like failing some sort of couples’ test. Also while eating took 10 minutes, you’d watch the end of the show, get sleepy, and no one wanted to do the dishes anymore. Now we eat at the table most nights, then tackle the clean-up together, then watch TV. The dishes are always done and lunches are prepped, and no more squabbling over who should do the clean-up. We also watch a little less TV, which I consider to be a win, because while I love good TV (see above), watching mediocre TV makes me feel like I’m wasting my life.

Non-profit organization: I know, not usually a part of this list, but everyone should have one. I have at least 34, but internationally, I’m giving the most dollars to the Against Malaria Foundation, because I can be confident I’m getting good bang for my buck, thanks to their excellent GiveWell rating. (This is the non-profit of choice for most effective altruists.) Domestically, one of my great discoveries this year is The Boundless School, which helps kids at risk of dropping out get class credits in a supportive, hands-on environment out in nature.

Activity: One of the great, surprising joys of this year has been making scruffy, unconventional bouquets from my own garden. Though I’ve been a gardener for years, I’d been a more practical one, focusing on the edible over the ornamental. (Of course many plants are happily both.) Now flowers have my attention, but I’ve had great fun trying to figure out what else looks good in a bouquet: asparagus ferns? Mint leaves? Garlic bulbils? I tried looking up a bit about floral design and ended up quickly bored, and I’m mostly not working with conventional blooms anyway. Picking and making them has been a great exercise in creative thinking, in considering what’s at hand, in finding unexpected beauty. Which is a whole other thing I need to cultivate.

So there you have it. And while I can’t give these things to everyone who reads this, happily, you could basically try them all for the low-price of $5 and a streaming membership or two. Goop, I’m not. Because this isn’t about an aspirational lifestyle, and no one thing is revolutionary. But sharing and appreciating the smaller things, the things that are within reach, might be.