A model of consistency

When people ask me what’s new, I sometimes struggle. Because as I’ve probably written before, in the big, small-talkable ways, my life is remarkably consistent: I’m over eight years into my relationship, ten at the same address, eleven at the same company. I’ve had no children, and even my cat is well into his middle age. I don’t buy many new clothes, and pretty much never redecorate. If you visited me after a decade, we might sit on the same couch, and I might even be wearing the same dress.

In this same past decade, the lives of my friends have changed a lot. I’ve attended a couple dozen marriages and welcomed quite a few little ones (who seem to keep their parents’ lives in a constant state of change). My friends have switched jobs, bought homes, a few have even moved to new cities. Meanwhile, I’m unmarried, child-free, and still a renter in the house where once it wasn’t all that surprising for someone to wake up after a late-night bender and find a pizza slice abandoned by the toilet.

While there are many things I’m grateful for in all this, sometimes this sameness bothers me. There is certainly no shortage of external pressure to get these stamps on your passport to adulthood, and comparing myself to my friends sometimes makes me feel like a child in a sea of legs at an adult party. There can also be a certain internal restlessness that bubbles up now and again. Many of these milestones come with a full slate of responsibilities and things to learn, whether it’s sleep strategies for infants, mortgage rules, car models, wedding florists, or types of kitchen cabinetry. Some of these things are important, and others relatively trivial, but all keep you occupied, distract you at the very least. Since I’ve given up most consumer delights, I can’t even buy myself the illusion of change with something shiny and new.

I felt a little bout of this restlessness lately—maybe because September can make a person crave a fresh start. But then today I realized that all of these constants are in fact a very useful kind of constraint. That not being occupied with planning major events or moving house or raising a human has left me with a tremendous amount of time and mental freedom, and perhaps I’ve even used some of it well. Because while my life may not have changed, I can tell you that I have. I’ve spent the last few years learning a lot about environmental issues and racial justice, practising giving more and using less, honing my skills and expanding my interests. I’ve had time to read, and write again, and expand my self-sufficiency with time-consuming pioneer nonsense like making my own soap and growing and canning my own beets. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to live a good, meaningful life while colouring outside the lines, how find true north on my moral compass. And this is not the stuff of a Facebook update, or that prompts a party, but I know that it is not stasis, despite how it may look to a casual observer. I feel more like a river, its course the same but its composition always changing. And while “I’m like a river,” is more a stoner wisdom than cocktail party chit-chat, it’s been comforting to realize that my consistency hasn’t hampered my growth, but likely allowed it, that a same-same life can be a secret path to change.

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.

 

 

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.

Stepping Back, Moving Forward

Lately I’ve been prone to reassessing certain long-term habits, auditing sections of my life taken for granted. Because—and forgive the sort of humblebrag—when you’re good at making habits, you can stay stuck in a groove for a long time. The greatest good of all can feel like keeping it up, ticking the boxes. I’m lucky in that there’s nothing in my life that’s bad—good relationship, good friends, good job, good apartment, good health—but I’ve been asking myself if certain things are, I guess, optimal. In yoga, you’d say, “Is this serving me?” which, I realize sounds pompous, but it’s a good model. Do I need to adjust this pose? Should I shift my focus? Do I abandon it altogether? This kind of subtle self-awareness is not as easy as it seems, and often in facing something as unimportant as a yoga pose we face all kind of emotional baggage.

What’s funny is that, despite the metaphor, I’ve recently decided to cancel my yoga membership after eight years—a relationship even longer than the one with my partner. Yoga has had a pretty major impact on my life: it was my gateway back to fitness activities, a stress release, and often times a philosophical tool I used off the mat. Because as with meditation, the point of yoga isn’t to get better at yoga, it’s to get better at life. You use the mat to learn about yourself under different conditions—it’s a laboratory where you can safely experiment, all the variables under control. In any case, yoga has given me a lot of physical strength, but the thing I had to learn wasn’t powering through challenge, it was backing off. I had to learn the ultimate goal wasn’t just strength, but a balance of strength and ease.

And so I’m taking a step back, but not abandoning ship altogether. My practice still has immense value for me, but I’m not sure the value increases in proportion to the number of visits: I might be able to get as much out of two practices as out of three to four. I hope this change will make me savour the classes I do attend more, and it’ll remove the pressure to get my money’s worth. (I am all-too aware of cost-per-visit.) So I’m experimenting with a little more flexibility, a little more freedom.

Which sounds great, except it feels, somehow, like a step back, like I’m quitting, even though I know that’s not a useful, or even true, narrative. But a retreat is never as sexy as an advance, even if the two are not the polar opposites they seem. The truth is that I’m a person who will add and add and add, but eventually you have to take away. Especially when lately I’ve been experimenting with having fewer goals, with leaving some space unstructured. I’m diversifying the things that make my life better, trying to embrace being a dilettante. Paring back in one area can feel liberating, but a little sad too. I get a real charge out of the quantification of life, but, more than that, it feels like there’s a little part of myself that I’m leaving behind.

This whole change might seem like nothing, but my life has been a study in consistency. In the last five years at least, nothing much in my life has changed, which is unusual for your early to mid-thirties. Friends get married (or divorced), buy homes, have babies, get pets, get new jobs, move somewhere else, but me, I’m just here, my life changing in ways that are micro, but not macro. Many of these items are big adult life boxes I haven’t checked, and though it’s generally my choice, sometimes that makes me feel rather small. “What’s new?” ask people who I haven’t seen in a while, and the answer is “Not much.” There are some things, of course—they’re just not family gathering or cocktail party fodder. They’re not visible to the untrained eye.

So maybe I’m forcing a bit of change with these reassessments. I’m at least trying to gain some perspective without the seismic shakeups of my peers. Other topics that I’ve tabled this year include “Should I do an Olympic-distance triathlon? Or maybe no triathlon at all?” (No. Probably not.), “Can I give up buying clothes for a year?” (Yes.), “Should I make soap for sale this spring?” (Yes.) “Can I, after 34 years to the contrary, be neater?” (Thrillingly, maybe!), “Should I spend more time with friends?” (Yes.) And the the question, “Should I have a child?” (Probably not, but who knows and tick tock, tick tock.) This blog is in itself, a sort of assessment, as I spend time with my thoughts, my writing. Some of those decisions do make for a departure, in others, I’m continuing with my charted course, for now at least.

It’s funny: as much as I’m nervous about change, I’m also nervous about not changing enough. (Welcome to the brain of an anxious person, always a lawyer who will argue for both sides.) The word “stagnation” fills me with horror. And because I’m not willing to torpedo my life for the sake of change (I’ve not yet drunk from the stream of that mid-life horror), I suppose what I’m left with are these reassessments, and doing things like travelling, which always prompts introspection.

Unfortunately we never get a Sliding Doors perspective, never know those millions of alternate paths. I suppose we can do is to pay attention and to be brave when it’s called for. It doesn’t feel brave to live quietly, to stay the course. But sometimes it is. Maybe my life is just lagging behind my yoga practice. Maybe I’m still focusing on the poses and missing the yoga. Maybe finding the balance of strength and ease is all in the adjustments.