#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.

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What we deserve

You deserve it. Get what you deserve. I’ve been thinking about these messages a lot lately, and about what, in particular, I deserve.

I’ve won the lottery, financially speaking, by being born middle class in the west, by being born white. I never worry about shelter, or food; threats to my safety are the exception, not the norm. I can confident that I have value, that if I lose my job I can find a new one, that if I got in real trouble my family could bail me out. These are things I’d wish for all people but that aren’t the reality of the world.

Despite being bombarded with messages to the contrary, I’m aware I don’t deserve a cheap new shirt that is made by a woman in exploitative position; I don’t deserve a salad that has to be harvested during back-breaking 12-hour days by Mexican workers. This seems obvious, yet cognitive dissonance means we make these decisions every day.

So I’ve been trying to shift my thinking to be about responsibility. Not “what is owed to me?” but “what do I owe?” I’ve been given great power, and you know what Uncle Ben says about that.

I pay thousands of dollars in taxes every year (roughly 17% of my income) for the good of society. In part for services—infrastructure, healthcare, etc.—but the balance sheet might not quite work. I don’t have children going to school (though I attended it), yet I fund public education. I’m hugely health conscious, and will not, hopefully, need the same health care demands as others. But that’s okay, that’s the deal. I think this is how society should work.

Which makes me think about what other taxes—self-imposed—could easily become the new normal. I donate to various organizations and lobby groups every month, and while I might just be the most frugal person you know, that money is never missed. Surely there is a higher threshold I could tolerate. Right now I give about 1% of my income directly, and another 2% in fundraising. Which isn’t bad. But if someone offered me 1% of their cookie, I’d think they were an asshole.

Lately I’ve been feeling a lot of guilt and shame about how I use my money and how I use my power, but I’m not sure that’s the most useful approach. Education and awareness are hugely important, and these are often painful experiences, but taking action should, some of the time at least, feel good. Or at least feel purposeful. So I’m cooking up a month-long experiment in giving, to see what I can do and how it feels.

It may be a bit of a sacrifice, yes, but as my friends who are parents might tell you, sacrifice is done out of love. I do sometimes think about this problem in terms of being childfree: if I had a child it would consume so much time, so much energy, so much money. What if a fraction of that I committed, instead, to people I’ll never meet? In her essay “The Mother of All Questions,” Rebecca Solnit distills this perfectly: “But there are so many things to love besides one’s own offspring, so many things that need love, so much other work love has to do in the world.”

So I’m going to do the work. I’m going to do the love. It’s what I deserve.