#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.

 

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An Hour of My Own

It’s the time of year when the days get shorter, darker, colder, when waking with the sun is a weekend indulgence. Perhaps an odd time to discover the power of getting up early, but here I am, writing this with the lights of my home reflected in the windows like dark mirrors.

My partner had a change at work that means getting up at 4:30 a.m. He’s a fitful sleeper (at best) and I like going to bed together, so I decided to attempt to better synchronize our clocks. I settled on a 5:20 wakeup (though some mornings has been even earlier, others a bit later). This has given me 1-1.5 new hours in my day, which, I’ve learned, are far more productive than similar hours at night would have been. At the end of the day, I’m tired, my partner is about, my synapses more like fireflies than electricity.

I get up and, really, truly light some candles. Partially because I’m a couple years behind and feeling obsessed with hygge for this winter, and partially because I recognize the power of ritual. I want it to feel special, to keep the romance alive. I don’t turn on the news yet, and the only sounds are from the traffic outside. I write in my gratitude journal (yes, it is embarrassing to write, but also: it has really and truly changed my brain for the better, to a degree unmatched by even 1.5 years of meditating). I write in my regular journal too, which has long been neglected because I either lacked the emotional bandwith to engage with big issues or the stamina to document small ones.  But I’ve changed this a bit, to what I call a daybook, and no longer do I hold myself accountable for taking it all on or writing it all down, I simply write, point form, the things that have my attention. I’ve decided, this year, to lean into my interests, no matter how fleeting, and these are more engaging to note. Sometimes I add passages from good books I’ve reading. So far, it’s reinvigorated my journal practice and doesn’t feel taxing. Plus, it’s a reminder: your life is worthy of your attention.

And then there’s still time left over! Because time to yourself, used with intention, turns out to be more expansive than it seems. (Bigger on the inside, as Whovians would say.) Time to write here, or knock off some freelance work, or go to an early exercise class, or even just to read, a thing I find so luxurious but often have trouble prioritizing during the workweek.

I’d long read of people, often parents, who got up very early to find this very time, which I can imagine as a parent is even more enticing. A time to re-trace the borders of the self. But it feels like that even for me, like in these dark, bleary hours, I’m coming into sharper focus. And so is each day, a negative held up to the light in the darkroom of my mornings.

Getting up early still isn’t easy, but that’s because getting up isn’t easy. Or at least it isn’t for me, not yet. But now I start the day with attention, with intention, pausing before the day collapses like a row of dominoes. This is work without a distinct goal, without an endpoint or any identifiable results except that it feels good. And in winter, I’ll take as much of that as I can get.

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.