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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
“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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.