#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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#28goodthings: week 3

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

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

So here are seven new prompts for the week ahead:

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

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

Until next week!

 

 

 

 

 

#28goodthings: week 2

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

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

Here are the seven new experiments for this week:

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

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

#28goodthings: week 1

You may have noticed: Winter is not yet over. In fact, it is not over with a vengeance, and today will bring ten to fifteen centimetres more of snow to sit on top of the  small mountains of seemingly unmeltable ice that’s less like former snow and more like icy lava that erupted and hardened over our city streets. And even though the light stretches a bit longer each day, this is probably the worst time of year and lots of people are having a hard time.

There is maybe no better time, then, to invest some effort in happiness, in making good for ourselves and others. I’ve read a lot on this topic over the years, and lately I’ve been spending some time with the slow living movement (and specifically the Slow Home podcast), which calls for slower, intentional living. My sister and her partner, who are twelve years younger than me, listen to their podcasts, lectures, even watch some things on YouTube, at 1.5x speed. Which strikes me as unenjoyable, but also a metaphor.

And so in these dog days of winter, I’ve decided to set a little challenge for myself for 28 days, trying to find some time each day to do one positive thing with intention. By the time I’m done, spring will have (hopefully) come like a rising tide, bringing back some essential buoyancy to all our lives. I’m going to share the seven things I’ll be focusing on each week (in no particular order), and maybe you’ll want to try some too.

Some of these will be things to do for myself, some for others, some for the world. And while I think it can be important to care for oneself, I don’t want this project to be a means of separation from the world, but rather a way to reengage with it in a focused, sustainable way. I want to distinguish this from the sunset yoga and green smoothies of #selfcare, which has been appropriated from its use in the ’70s and ’80s as a necessary and political act for queer and BIPOC communities. (“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare,” wrote Audre Lorde.) Of course everyone should take some time to care for themselves, but for some it might be much more vital than for others.

None of the prompts in this project need to cost any money, because despite what Instagram might suggest, you can’t buy your way to happiness. I live in an expensive city, full of seductive ways to empty my wallet one $16 cocktail or hand-poured soy candle at a time. I want this to be a reminder that good things don’t have to come with a price tag.

These aren’t hacks, per se, or shortcuts to anything. What they are is a way to pay attention, to try new things, to focus on doing good things more often. I want to find something rewarding that’s outside of the cycle of busyness and numbed-out stimulus chasing. I want to challenge the insatiable more-ishness of modern society and take stock of what I have. I want at least one thing each day to be done with intention and to be worthy of my attention.

The things on my list probably won’t be revolutionary—they might even be obvious—but too often they’re things we don’t prioritize. Many are backed by science. They emphasize personal connection, health, sustainability, engagement, and novelty. They are meant to be experiments, not edicts. If you decide to play along, do some, do them all, do them in whichever order you choose.

For maximum benefit, pay attention to how you feel before, during, and after an activity. If you’re especially keen, write down what you notice. This whole experiment pairs well with noting three new things you’re grateful for each day, something I’m convinced has rewired my brain in a great way.

Here’s the to-do list for this week, starting today:

  1. Tell someone they did good: Take a couple of minutes to reach out to someone and tell them how they’ve done something great or influenced you in a positive way. We all want to think we’re having an impact, that we’re making this world better, but so often we don’t tell people. A mistake, because this can really boost your happiness, and theirs, says positive psychology expert Shawn Achor.  He even recommends sending a two minute email of thanks each day: “People who do this not only get great e-mails and texts back and are perceived as positive leaders because of the praise and recognition, but their social connection score is at the top end of the scale. Social connection is not only the greatest predictor of long-term happiness – the study I did at Harvard is 0.7 correlation, which doesn’t sound very sexy, but is stronger than the connection between smoking and cancer.”
  2. Cook a new meal: I know, this doesn’t always go well. But so often we get into recipe ruts, tired of everything we can make. Maybe make something you can freeze extra portions of if it goes well, so that you have a cache of something easy and delicious. Ideally try a recipe that’s vegetarian or vegan, since the scientists behind the planetary health diet suggest it’s healthier for us and for the planet. I think most of us have cookbooks gathering dust or many bookmarked recipes, here are four of my plant-based faves: Smitten Kitchen Everyday Yellow Dal, Oh She Glows African Peanut Stew (I like to puree mine, and usually leave out the greens),  Well-Fed Flat Broke’s Peanutty Soba Noodles with Kale, and Cookie & Kate Thai Spiced Bowls (I make it with the crispy tofu).
  3. Call or write a letter to your representative, or a corporation, asking them to do better: I know this doesn’t sound like fun, but pick something you care about and send a letter to someone in power. I often worry that I don’t know enough, that I’m not eloquent enough on a particular issue. Yes, do some research, but it doesn’t have to be perfect. There are models you can follow online, and if this really sends you into a stress spiral, organizations such as the David Suzuki Foundation or Amnesty International allow you to send a pre-written letter with the click of a button. I think the shortcut will be less satisfying, but it’s better than nothing. Just make sure you read all of the letter you send so you’re still learning something.
  4. Unfollow/unsubscribe: Konmari your inbox and your feeds—no folding required! Say goodbye to people and organizations that aren’t in line with your goals or values, that generally aren’t worthy of the attention they suck up. If you haven’t opened or engaged with something in a few months, you probably never will. I (nervously) unsubscribed from shopping sales emails a year ago, and I have never looked back.
  5. Make some art: I know “art” is a lofty, intimidating term, but what I mean here is spend some time being creative without any goal. If you’re not good at it, all the better. No one is asking you to set up an Etsy store. Paint, colour, draw, crochet, collage, write a song, make a poem, whatever. Put on a Bob Ross episode or follow a YouTube tutorial if you must. You don’t need to buy new supplies, just work with whatever you have at hand or borrow some. (A lot of us have unused art supplies we’re happy to share.) Like many of these prompts, you could do this with a friend or partner or your kids.
  6. Swap something: We have so much stuff (300,000 items in the average American home!), and yet we’re bombarded with roughly five ads each minute we’re awake to encourage us to get more. Many of us struggle with debt, or savings that fall short of what we’d like. Luckily, bartering is back. Toronto and many other cities have a thriving trading community in the form of Bunz. But you don’t need to be a member of a dedicated trading group to get your barter on. You could do something as small as suggesting a book swap with a friend, where you both pick out a book you think the other would like. Swap a waffle iron for a tortilla press for a while and make some great new food. You could swap board games, or encourage your kids to trade a toy. None of these trade needs to be permanent. You could even go big and organize an event where people can swap clothes or soup or whatever you’d like. In the midst of Marie Kondo fever, this could be a hot ticket! I hosted a clothing swap last year, and it gave me most of the new clothes I needed and was a lovely time, and I once attended a soup swap that gave me a half a dozen meals instead of a whole mess of one thing. Whatever you choose, you’ll get something new, get rid of something old, consume no new resources, spend no money, and have a connection, however fleeting, with another human.
  7. Look for birds: My therapist once told a story about feeling low and walking down the street, when she suddenly she heard a riot of chirping. She couldn’t figure out where it was coming from at first, and then looked closer at a nearby hedge. Dozens of tiny sparrows were tucked in amongst the branches. So she stood there a couple minutes and just watched that strange bush full of birds. And she felt a bit better. Occasionally I like to challenge myself just to look for birds. I mean it literally, and luckily, even in a big city, there are often birds nearby. I doesn’t have to be birds, though. When spring (finally) arrives, I’ll look for all the early flowers. Pick something to look for, and it’ll force you to be present and look at your environment in a new way.

So there it is. Next Wednesday I’ll have seven more. I haven’t decided how I’ll share how this goes, but if you decide to join me in these experiments, send me a note or a message or leave a comment here, because these are things I always want to talk about. I wish we talked about them more. If you’re posting on the socials, I’m using the hashtag #28goodthings.

Spring is coming. But as we wait, let’s plan for a little goodness, a little engagement, maybe even a little joy.

 

Alice through the Looking-Glass (Ceiling)

The other day, two (big) drinks deep, I discovered the potential salary of a friend of a friend and burst into a sob. The salary was about three times my own, and I was shocked, suddenly and acutely humiliated. I couldn’t believe someone could make so much in a profession that didn’t require years of study (and accompanying debt). A decade into my career, with senior in my title, I had painstakingly worked my way up to a salary this person might have breezed by as an intern. I felt like a joke, and an awkward one at that. I felt the smallest I have felt in a long time.

I’m not a person who aspires to be rich, who thinks that money is the right way to ascribe value, and I’ve spent my whole adult life working with less, training myself in enough. Even in my job, I don’t have the budget to buy a big book, or even a remotely big one: I have to try to sell myself and my company as the value add. (Often this is not enough.) Despite my personal convictions, in a capitalist society, money determines value, and what did my salary say about me?

The feeling of smallness stuck with me, cutting in like too-tight pants. Even though I know that money is not an indicator of happiness or of worth, that I’m still in the richest 2% of the world, that others face worse pay discrimination within their field, that the people who care about me don’t care about my paycheque or the hole around the lightswitch in my shabby rental apartment. I’ve spent years convincing myself that having a lot of money and nice things isn’t important. But in a moment of vulnerability, all that was swept away and the default programming clicked back in.

Part of the problem is the comparing mind, as the buddhists call it. There’s always something better, something that will always make you feel lesser. The trick, they say, is to let go of the comparisons. As my partner reminded me, life isn’t fair. Why compare as though it is? (Or, in other words, delivered in with the steady gaze and paternal tone of that handsome modern sage, Coach Eric Taylor: “Play your own game.”)

Easier said than done, of course. Some days this is easy, some days you cry into a cocktail. And I’m not writing this to say capitalism is bullshit (it is), or small is beautiful (it can be), or money has no worth (it does), or poor me (I’m fine). I suppose I’m writing this to say it is hard to opt out of the dominant narrative (or to have it opt out of you). That even when you’re living as you believe you should, or the only way you can, doubts creep in, frustration comes calling. It’s also a sign of my tremendous privilege that these moments of dissonance with dominant narratives don’t happen more often.

I felt fragile for a couple of days, like Alice tumbling around Wonderland, odd and out of place and having drank the wrong potion. But eventually, with some time, reassurance, and reminders, I returned to a more familiar world. It’s looking, reassuringly, human-size.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

Shallow End, No Diving

Every weekend I have to do a long bike ride for triathlon training. And every weekend, I suffer from a sort of partial amnesia, where I forget this is something I really like to do. There are often scheduling conflicts, the weather can be challenging, the window is short before the bike paths are more stressful than useful. Yes, but objections pop up like groundhogs. And so sometimes I don’t go. But more often than not, I do, and more often than not, the fog of amnesia dissipates. I think, Oh rightThis. 

I remember my love for the fresh breeze off the lake, the boats bobbing in the harbour, the gardens I pass on the way down. For the air flowing over my skin, the white rush of wind in my ears. For seeing other people, groggily walking the dog, or cycling, or running, people up and doing it. These are my people, my secular Sunday congregation.

I pushed and pulled my pedals along the lakeshore, seeking momentum but thinking about the power of inertia. Our new, internet saturated lives reward a kind of listlessness, a lazy casting about for stimulation. Our bodies slouch, and our brains do too, until the next hit of novelty, the next refresh, the next app or site or update. It’s a condition that troubles me, even as I give into it almost hourly, especially if I’m stuck at a desk. Interacting in the real world, with our bodies, or even with deeper, concentrated thinking, is somehow intimidating. It seems like too much. But then once you start, once you get your stride, you think, Oh right. This. 

I’ve written about the importance of beginning when it comes to bigger projects, but I’ve been thinking about the little ones too, the dozens of beginnings a day that we can shy away from: begin the laundry, begin the deep work, the book, the run, the gardening, the dinner. There’s no anxious listlessness, no vague dissatisfaction, no searching for the next thing. There is just the doing. Which is not to say we should never rest (I spent a couple hours yesterday afternoon tired and just reading), but engaging with whatever you’re doing on a deeper level, even if it’s resting.

When I’m working I find those periods of deeper engagement the most satisfying—they are by far the best part of my work. But even still, I lazily resist them, puttering about with little tasks, shuffling through various social media accounts. Looking for the easier hit of dopamine. And this microresistance seems to me a sort of technologically sponsored social malaise, a thing that keeps us from doing our best work, being our best selves, even from being fully satiated. Those lethargic lapses are me at my most unhappy. They are not how I want to punctuate, or even define, my days.

How to combat this? Keeping my devices on a longer leash. Maybe even an Instagram detox. (At just the thought of it, I hear a chorus of yes, buts.) But maybe most important thing is to stop debating, stop delaying, stop stalling and distracting, and just begin. Trust that the engagement will come. Dive headfirst into the cold water, knowing that a minute later, you’ll be baffled at all the time you spend standing on shore.

Light & Shadow

One Sunday last year I volunteered  with a group called the Period Project. It’s a great group run by a caring couple, and twenty or so volunteers show up monthly to turn mountains of donated pads & tampons & personal care items into care packages that they distribute to people experiencing homelessness. Making those packages was hugely uplifting—I loved being part of the assembly line that made these bright bundles, and I was genuinely moved to see 200 or so of them lined up for distribution, each containing colourful inspirational notes that said things like “Stay Strong.”

When it was time to distribute the packs, my team and I were in a pretty tough neighbourhood—one I bike through regularly. We ended up pounding the pavement for a couple of hours, squinting into the shadows, both literal and figurative. We had to look closely: was that person resting in the park with some stuff, or were they camped out? Was that woman with a companion, or was that her pimp? Was that person safe to approach? Was that woman too old to still menstruate? You’d be surprised how many questions come up, how carefully you have to look. We didn’t want to embarrass or offend or, worse, end up in an unsafe confrontation. Over the two or three hours, despite seeking out the most likely places, we actually ended up with far more care packets than we could distribute, and left extras with a safe injection site that had been set up in the park.

I ended up missing a bus up Sherbourne, which added another half an hour’s walking alone, right up through the heart of all the areas we’d just passed. I was exhausted, sore-footed—in short, a bit worn down—and I found myself still looking compulsively into the shadows. I couldn’t unsee it. All of my elation, my tidy sense of accomplishment from earlier had seeped out of me like a deflating balloon. I’d spent only an afternoon looking carefully at human suffering we so regularly gloss over, and I felt so guilty, so small, so inadequate. These people deserved someone to help, someone to bear witness, and yet doing this for just one afternoon took the wind out of me.

This week I was feeling similar. I was, admittedly, hormonal, and then I spent too much time reading bad news stories on Monday morning before work. There are so many bad news stories. Right now even the good news stories are so often laced with the bad—for all the triumph of a politician resigning over harassment charges, there is the suffering of those who came forward, and probably that of many others who didn’t. Since Trump was elected I’ve spent a lot more time listening to the news, reading it, feeling like I need to know what was happening even if it’s not happening in my country. I’ve tried to take a spoonful-of-sugar approach to a lot of this news consumption, relying on Samantha Bee or Seth Meyers or Call Your Girlfriend to make it easier to swallow. But even so, a kind of tidal despair was rising in me.

It’s trendy to talk about self-care these days, and for activists and frontline workers, those people who look in the shadows daily, who work there, it seems necessary and justified. But me? I’m hardly doing anything. I’m just trying to pay attention.

I recognize the ridiculous privilege of being able to opt out when the overwhelm rushes in, and it makes me ashamed that I might need step back. But I can’t deny that I am in need of a little reassurance re: the world. Rationally, I know it’s not all a dumpster fire, but the bad news input is so intense, so unrelenting, and we’re not exclusively rational creatures. I’ve reassured myself recently that our fallible human brains are perhaps not equipped to deal with so much bad news at once. The negativity bias served us when we were hunting and gathering, but its legacy is now we need five positive interactions to compensate for one bad one. Once we might have only dealt with problems in our family, in our community, yet in the age of the internet, we can have a non-stop negative news stream. You could absorb a lifetime’s worth of bad news in a week, maybe even a day.

And so what to do? Keep up the activities that support my mental health: exercising, yoga, meditating, sleeping eight hours, spending time with people, spending time without people. I think I’ll dial back some news (especially of the U.S. variety), for a start, but also I’m seeking some big-picture reassurance. My partner reminded my of Steven Pinker’s much-loved The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, so I might pick that up, or at least start with a podcast of an Oxford talk he gave on the book. I’ve been reading Tim Ferris’s Tribe of Mentors*, and the most recommended book is Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. If this man could find purpose and meaning in a concentration camp, that might be the perspective I need. There’s also Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, or I could go back to my beloved Rebecca Solnit: reread Hope in the Dark, or pick up A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster. Maybe I just need to watch this Mr. Rogers clip and sob.

In any case, I think I need to adjust the ratio of my inputs, and to try to pay closer attention to the things right in front of me. This week when the overwhelm threatened to crash down like a wave, I’d focus on my feet on the floor (my favourite meditation strategy). Because if your feet are on the ground, well, that’s a start, and it can pull you temporarily out of the mental catastrophe spiral. (And of course the metaphoric resonance appeals.) My therapist once advised noticing three new things to be grateful for each day and writing them down, which might be something to pick up again, at least until spring means that hope and beauty will push to the surface. Here are three things I’m grateful for right now:

  • a relatively free and open schedule for the day
  • last night’s dinner party that was a chance to connect with old friends, who always offer laughter and intellectual discussion
  • that most times, even in this giant city, you can hear or see a bird

Don’t get me wrong, it is vital to look to the shadows, and it’s something we all should do more. There’s so much work to be done, after all. But recently I’ve neglected the other attention that should be so easy to give: to beauty, to kindness, to comfort. Sarah Harmer is one of my favourite songwriters, and I listened to her a lot on Monday to self-soothe. There’s a song called “Uniform Grey” about descending in a plane through the fog and rain, about things not going as you hoped. And it has one of my favourite Harmer lines: “He said, ‘Buck up, baby, it’s okay. The sunlight on the floor will always fall.'” Because that’s just it. Even when the world is a uniform grey, even when I’m feeling blue, there’s always a sliver of light you can count on.

 


* I’m not a Ferris superfan, and I generally find his podcast too long, but I do really admire his desire to learn, assess, reassess, get better, faster stronger. And Tribe of Mentors is interesting because it’s almost exclusively the advice of people who have done extraordinary things. If you like this kind of advice anthology, it’s worth diving in to this 500-page brick of a book, which makes for surprisingly easy reading.