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.

 

#28goodthings: week 4

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

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

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

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

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

#28goodthings: week 3

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

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

So here are seven new prompts for the week ahead:

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

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

Until next week!

 

 

 

 

 

#28goodthings: week 2

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

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

Here are the seven new experiments for this week:

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

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