New Newsy

Recently I decided to channel my environmental despair into a weekly newsletter that tries to inspire engagement and moderate action in our everyday lives. It’s called Five Minutes for the Planet, and it presents info and action prompts for one topic each week, from water pollution to smartphones. Of course I’m not deluded: the climate crisis will not be averted in five minutes a week. But I did want to find a way to connect with people who are concerned about the future but don’t know where to start. We need more people starting, continuing, picking up where they left off. We need political change and culture change.

I’ll still be writing here, but probably less. If you haven’t already, I hope you’ll subscribe and join my band of everyday revolutionaries.


When the Amazon fires were burning at their fiercest in August, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. (The fires are still burning, but less rampantly, which is what passes for good news these days.) My life still contained some of that precious end of summer happiness, that emotional golden hour, but those fires burned on my mental horizon, sending urgent smoke signals across blue skies.

The realities of the climate crisis make us feel small and powerless, and maybe we are, but I needed to do something. So I organized a small fundraiser, inviting people to my yard to pick their own bouquets and donate to the Rainforest Action Network. Making bouquets has been the great, unexpected joy of this year, and I figured I could turn that light on my despair.

In the two weeks before the event, attendance was rather low, and I feared a flop, but when they day arrived, the weather held and a handful of people turned out. I picked as many flowers as I could and put out a rainbow of blooms. “I don’t know how to arrange flowers,” said one friend. “Me neither,” I said. “Just start.” And her flowers looked wonderful. Everyone’s did. I think it’s safe to say everyone was in a great mood, me especially, happy to share both my flowers and the joy of arranging them for a good cause.

Later, on request, I started making bouquets to order for people who couldn’t make the event. There was enough momentum that in the end I raised $610 by doing something that gave me major joy. It won’t put out the fires, it won’t save the world. But it’ll do a little bit of good.

When we think about resources, especially in an environmental context, we usually focus on what we take. (Too much.) But we also have resources, and many can be shared with a glad heart. These days it’s a question I want to ask everyone. What resources, talents, skills, do you have? And instead of using them for your own gain, as we’re taught, can you use them for the world’s?

For me, this means more flowers next year, and another fundraiser for sure. I’m also currently saving seeds so I can give away some Victory Garden starter packs in spring to people who might want to start growing their own food but don’t have the resources. (I’ll even be including copies of my favourite urban gardening book, which is what really started me down this garden path.) For others it might be using their yoga teacher skills, or their knack for carpentry, or sharing an abundant harvest.

People and communities can be resources too. My dad and his wife travel in well-heeled circles, and they love food and drink and hosting. What if I paired them with an activist chef I know, and we made a fundraiser? How much money and awareness could we raise? I’m taking steps to find out.

In green communities online, there’s often talk of hoarding resources, which sounds dramatic but can happen in innocuous, everyday ways: those clothes you don’t wear, those tiny bottles of hotel shampoo slowly losing their potency, the food you throw out or ignore in the back of your cabinet, the housewares gathering dust, the books you aren’t reading and probably never will. These days, as I go about my business, I’m looking for excess. I’m giving away the rain barrel I can’t use (a good eco-tool that’s been terribly wasted on me), and a lot of my bumper crop of parsley, sage and thyme so that people can use it for Thanksgiving dinner this weekend. Someone on the really lovely Zero Waste Toronto FB group needed a scoby, so I’m giving her a piece of mine. A friend was getting rid of some nice clothes, so I brought them to work, where they all went to new homes. This doesn’t require a full Kondo, and it fact it might be much more sustainable just to take things as they come, since responsible disposal can overwhelm.*

At a conference I attended recently, we watched a video that reminded me that not everyone needs to be a capital-A activist, quitting their jobs and decamping to an NGO. Often you can make the most effective change amongst the spaces and people you know well. We need adaptation and tough conversations everywhere. “What can you touch?” they asked. For me, at least, it makes the whole thing less daunting, and is a good reminder that opportunities for positive global change can be surprisingly local.

So much of what’s happening in the world is heavy, unbearably so. But instead of puddling under the weight of it all, let’s start by looking to our strengths, our community, our abundant resources. It’s an exercise in gratitude and generosity, and we all could probably use more of both. My fundraiser reminded me that there are some things we can give easily and happily with a little creative thinking. Hopefully once we’ve caught our stride, we’ll have the momentum to take on so much more that isn’t, figuratively or literally, sunshine and flowers.


* A note here about responsible rehoming: dumping everything at your local thrift store is not helpful, nor is chucking a bunch of stuff on the curb (especially right before a rain—a pet peeve I see all the time). But there are so many other good avenues: local buy nothing groups, Freecycle, Bunz/Palz, local swap meets, friends and colleagues, etc. BlogTO also has a great list of places to donate stuff in Toronto. If you actually want something to stay out of landfill, a little more effort is required, but on the plus side, you often get to meet the people who are happy to have your stuff.





The rebels we need

I haven’t been writing much lately, but I’ve been thinking a lot. It’s the kind of thinking, though, that resists tidy little posts, my thoughts not a piece of yarn that unwinds neatly with a tug, but more like an elastic-band ball, ideas encircling and overlapping. A recurring theme is the systems and conventions that we can challenge or rebuild for the benefit of all. I’ve been thinking a lot about individualism too, about the great fallacy of it, and the ways in which it diminishes our lives and leads us to fail one another and our planet.

You may have heard about the Fortune 500 bigwigs of corporate advocacy group Business Roundtable releasing a statement that acknowledged that profits to shareholders can no longer be a corporation’s exclusive focus. Suddenly the well-being of employees, communities, and the environment are worthy of discussion at the boardroom table. They’ve realized, I guess, that there are no shareholder profits if the 99% comes for their heads, if the world is a fiery hellscape. They’ve realized that they’ve stripped the nutrients from the soil for too long, which is metaphorical in most cases, but also literal in some.

It’s easy to raise my eyebrows at these out-of-touch elites, but I’ve been trying to question individualism in my own life too. In the Western capitalist model, we’re taught to put ourselves first, or, at the very least, put our family units first. And while we’re biologically engineered to favour our kin, and to a certain point it’s useful, at what point are we hoarding resources as surely as a Fortune 500 fat cat? I was really roused by Adam Roberts’s piece in Vox (wonderfully rendered as a graphic column by Alex Citrin), which asks, how much money is too much? When does wealth become immoral? What does morality look like in a capitalist system? What obligation do we have to make society more secure for everyone?

So I’ve been trying to find ways to upend certain capitalist and individualist actions and assumptions in my own life. For instance, I discovered a friend has $2000 of charitable contribution matching at her work. Since I’ve committed to donating 10% of my income, I have a chunk of money to give, and could easily give some of it to her. I could double some of my impact! And of course this money, invested in the right programs, can have a positive ripple effect beyond the food or contraception or mosquito nets it buys. The drawback is that I lose that charitable tax credit — about $500 if I gave her $1500 — which I’ll admit, made me nervous, setting off scripts about “my” money and what I might “deserve.” But I’m learning to shut those down. Because life ain’t fair, and while I am frugal and financially responsible, it’s ludicrously deluded not to factor privilege and plain dumb luck into my own financial situation. Let’s face it, those factors count for much more than 10%.

If I give the money to my friend, I can give twice as much money to organizations I believe in, and also I can give some money to her as a tax credit. Her family had a run of terrible luck a while ago, and I love her dearly. If I’m for expanding models of family and kinship, why wouldn’t it be a good thing for her to benefit? Also, I don’t desperately need that money. If invested, it might give me more security down the road, but if I’m honest, in the decades to come, I should inherit some money too. In the meantime, I could save someone’s life. There are people looking out for me, who am I looking out for?

On a smaller scale, a friend of a friend recently gifted me her old patio furniture. It’s a huge upgrade from the rundown street findings currently in my yard, and means new stuff without consuming new resources — a great treat. I offered to pay her for them, but she declined, and my friend suggested I make a donation to Amazon protection instead. Another win and a net positive for the system. I needed to get the furniture to my house, though. I could have rented some sort of truck, but a friend’s husband has a pickup truck, and I was able to enlist his help in relocating my new patio set. My first thought was to buy him a nice bottle of something, but then I realized I had something more valuable to offer: my babysitting services. My friend happily agreed, and it reminded me that this is something I should offer more often. No money needed to change hands, nothing new needed to be purchased, and we generated some social capital and rainforest protection.

For now, we’re largely stuck with capitalism, but individualism can be undermined more easily. These small acts of resistance give us power, and we can be the rebels we need. We don’t have to wait for the Business Roundtable to start looking above the bottom line to make this world better. Yes, we need to vote, write letters, protest, and publicly advocate for systemic change, but the system lives in us too, in our homes and hearts, and there a brave new world is entirely possible.

Opportunity Abounds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.



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.


#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.

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,, @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.

You’ll have a tree

Last weekend was Earth Day, and I spent most of the weekend hosting and volunteering at clothing swaps, but on the day itself I carved out a little time to plant a tree.

I’d applied for the tree through the City of Toronto’s amazing Tree for Me program, and just a few weeks later, I had a free serviceberry shrub. (Naturally I gravitated toward a tree that would produce fruit, which means my yard can now produce mulberries, raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, and, down the road, serviceberries. This kind of amazes me.)

This winter I read Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl, which is both scientist’s memoir and tender, precise investigation of the biological systems of trees. The trade paper edition markets the book as a love story, and indeed the charmingly oddball author does find a mate, but I find this a little irritating, because the real romance was with science and the natural world. You need only read the chapters that explain, in careful, often poetic detail how a tree processes water, or survives the winter, to feel the author’s passion.  “Love is the quality of attention we pay to things,” wrote the poet J.D. McClatchy, and here Jahren is not only composing love letters, but teaching us the language to write our own.

Of course in our resource-hungry times, the book must end with Jahren raising an alarm. She points out that “every year since 1990 we have made eight billion new stumps,” and notes that at if we continue at this rate, in six hundred years there will be no trees left. “Every single year,” she writes, “at least one tree is cut down in your name. Here’s my personal request to you: If you own any private land at all, plant one tree on it this year. If you are renting a place with a yard, plant a tree in it and see if your landlord notices. If he does, insist to him that it was always there. Throw in a bit about how exceptional he is for caring enough about the environment to have it put there.” Tellingly, this cri de coeur ends not with environmental responsibility, but with a personal, reciprocal benefit: “You’ll have a tree and it will have you.”

My tree doesn’t look like much now, like a bundle of bare twigs a couple feet high, but there is, of course, a long time horizon involved. I may not see this shrub become a small tree, I may never gather enough berries for a jar of jam. Such is the uncertainty of renting, of life. But, for at least a little while, we will have each other.

Use It Up

I have a mug I painted at a pottery studio in my university town in 2006. My painting skills were adequate but art it is not, and now it’s got a few chips in it, but it’s still usable. My partner occasionally grumbles about the number of mugs in the cupboard, and I’ve recently thinned their ranks. I’d get rid of this one, but I don’t think anyone really wants it. So, what to do? I can’t bring myself to throw it out, because it still functions as a mug, and that hardened, glazed clay isn’t breaking down for a long time. (Consider: pottery shards are how we learn about civilizations thousands of years ago.) I’m a bit haunted by this lately: envisioning the things I throw out in a landfill for millennia.

I’ve been thinking more about the responsibility of taking on stuff, what should be a lifetime commitment, a sort marriage to a mug. I’m grateful to avenues like Freecycle, Bunz, the Really Really Really Free Market, and the good old Curbside Economy, which all have helped me rehome quite a few things that I can’t use anymore. But it’s another reason to pause before getting something new.

Lately I’ve been getting some satisfaction from using things up: the old pens with some ink left,* the lotion that’s tough to get out of the bottle, the half-bottle of hotel shampoo. I’ve been drinking a backlog of random teas. Sometimes things last days, weeks even, longer. I’m going on about three months of daily tea drinking, just using up odds and ends. It’s oddly satisfying in a war-effort kind of way. And it was a part of the Patchett piece that really resonated for me. Don’t a lot people have five lip balms if we looked for a minute? Or a bunch of lotion that is maybe not our first choice but perfectly fine? Aren’t most things we have, in fact, totally and completely fine?

I had some time off over the holiday, and found myself turning to the Bunz app more as I cleaned out closets or tried to unload unwanted gifts. Uncharacteristically for me, I ended up posting a lot of smaller items, making trades with a value of only a few dollars. Normally, I’d think deals that small weren’t worth the time, since people can be flaky, arranging meetups annoying. But interestingly I’ve found that people have been less flaky about the smaller trades. Could be coincidence, or it could be that these are the people who believe in the philosophy the most. Or, perhaps, for whom trading is economically necessary. Most of the trades have been “true trades,” which is to say stuff someone had already instead of bought just to trade with me, so I’ve ended up with an odd medley of things: a couple of enamel pins, a stick of deodorant, some assorted teas. I’m finding it kind of charming. I’m helping other people use things up.

I haven’t moved from my one-bedroom apartment in over eight years, and I am occasionally astonished at the stockpiles of stuff I have in rarely used cupboards and corners. The economic insecurity of my twenties + eco principles that make me loathe to discard anything usable make for a lot of stuff I forget I ever had. At Christmas, I found the perfect gift from my dad in the depths of the closet I call Narnia. Recently I was on the hunt for an old journal and unearthed a shocking volume of unused stuff: greeting cards, blank journals, pens, notepads, picture frames, and on an on. Some of those things date back about twenty years, because I’m a saver through and through and I didn’t want to use up anything nice. But now I have a notepad I was given by my uncle and his wife when they went to Australia around 2000, which is absurd. And while I want the things I own to last, enough hoarding of single-use items (and clearly I don’t need to buy paper products, for, oh, years). Time to use things up or give them to someone who will.

But my mug is starting to grow on me again. It’s a reminder of a different time in my life, of how I still find painting soothing even though I hardly ever do it and I’m not good at it. It’s a reminder that stuff should be a commitment, and that, maybe, what we need most is just to look on the things we have a little more love.


*Once empty, these are going to Staples to get recycled. I’m going to try not to buy any more pens for the foreseeable future because I am pen rich, but the new ones will be ones with replaceable cartridges.