This week—something different. I’m sharing a non-fiction short story I submitted to The New York Times last spring about living in isolation; it feels especially pertinent to recent events south of the border. The ushering in of a new President won’t immediately patch over the gaping wound that remains from the devastation of 2020 alone, not to mention the last four years. Amidst social violence, political division, and a death toll exceeding that of WWII, Americans remain weighted with grief (although I can’t think of a president more well-versed in this particular emotion).
What feels unique, however, about this moment is this heightened consciousness that the American dream, American exceptionalism, American celebrity culture, was broken long before Trump took Office. This newfound self-awareness has us all wondering—will the United States ever change? I’m not just referring to “those crazies who [insert extremist act of racial/political violence].” I mean all Americans. Because it will take both sides of this giant fissure to shift shape in order to heal. (The U.S. spells “us”; it is the United States of America, after all).
What I’m really asking is: are human beings capable of change? Even while living in (physical, social, and political) isolation?
I see a country deep in the throws of grief, but oh so angry. And I know, from experience, that anger LOVES isolation. It makes perfect sense to me, then, that all the anger that’s been boiling under the surface—all the people who’ve felt disenfranchised by a country that has failed them for years, centuries even—would boil over after a year in isolation. But one of the benefits to living in you own little bubble is that you notice more about yourself and your surroundings. Perhaps we can take the micro-examples we observe—a plant blooming in an impossibly dry apartment, a star amidst a dark sky—and apply them to ourselves, to the world.
A few months ago my cat Penny was so desperate for love that she rubbed the whiskers off her face. Her fondness for the sharp corners of our apartment was a consequence of my pushing her away whenever she would seek affection from me. Before quarantine, I wouldn’t even add “but I have a cat” when I’d tell people I’m a single woman living alone. To be honest, I never really liked her. She had been a guilt purchase from the animal shelter when I was a teen—my mom insisted no one else would want the disheveled one-eyed cat with the messy cage. I didn’t mind—we already had Emma, an outgoing little minx who followed me around like a dog. But then my mom passed away in 2015, and Penny became timid and reclusive. Once Emma died three years later, we became like two strangers living under the same roof—she spent so much time burrowed in the hole she created in my mom’s mattress, I’d often forget I had a cat.
Until now. What is most bizarre about my current isolation is that it’s not new—I’ve been self-isolating ever since I moved back into my late mom’s and my apartment two years ago. What has changed is my mental presence in the space. After living anonymously in New York City—where nothing reminded me of my mom—attempting to re-build a life in my hometown felt too daunting. So I cemented my “I don’t need a family or partner to be happy” mentality by diving into my work as a freelance lifestyle journalist. I even thought of giving Penny away. The painful memories of my immediate surrounding could always be replaced with excitement over an upcoming press trip. Now, my runaway strategy is failing me as I have no idea when (or if) the travel industry will open up again.
My daily routine and avoidance of making social plans hasn’t changed, yet I feel more alone than ever, because I’m trapped with my grief. I now have the time to let my mind linger when the way the morning light hits my mom’s bed tricks me into thinking she’s sleeping in it. I’m noticing everything I’ve trained my brain to ignore—including Penny. No longer relegated to the shadows of my closet or under the bed, she regally sprawls out in the middle of the living room floor. Her single eye, once wide and urgent is now calm and assured. An indoor cat lives most of their life in isolation, ignorant to the world that spins outside the safety of its home. Is it possible, that under such circumstances, an orphaned cat could heal, learn to love herself even?
I’m taking inspiration from my feline roommate not only by forcing myself to rest and silence the noise of my busy feeds, but by not hiding from my fear. Surrounded by death and mourning, I no longer try to hold my breath when I feel the tears come, out of fear my neighbours will hear me cry. Now, I surrender to the weight of my core caving in when I sob over the spot on the floor where I found my mom lying unconscious. By awakening to the gravity of my grief, I’m also realizing the depth of the love I’ve always carried for my mom. Penny used to be so afraid of the outside world, she would hide when I’d open the window. Now she timidly approaches out of curiosity and watches the quiet activity outside. I lose track of time nuzzling with Penny, I find comfort and hope in the newfound tenderness I see in her eye. The distance between us is closing, I feel us both softening.
Perhaps we can only open ourselves up to the possibility of love if we surrender to the pain of what’s been lost. Maybe this is how we grow, by not being afraid of facing the cracks; “it’s where the light gets through,” as my mom used to say.
I leave you with the brilliant poetry of Amanda Gorman:
Where can we find light
In this never-ending shade?
The loss we carry, a sea we must wade.
Somehow, we’ve weathered and witnessed
A nation that isn’t broken, but simply unfinished.
Forget dry January, people want drinks that provide more than the health benefits of not drinking alcohol. From immune-boosting bubbly to sleep-inducing nightcaps; skin-nourishing collagen water to relaxing CBD-infused spritzers—now every health concern has a solution in liquid form. It’s no surprise this market of low-cal, low-sugar, adaptogen-infused drinks is expected to exceed a value of $33 billion by 2026. I rounded up 11 of the buzziest bevvys around for Forbes.
Eight years ago, Toronto Argos player James Yurichuk noticed the lack of cruelty-free, Canadian-made parka companies, so he started his own—Wuxly Movement. When COVID-19 hit, they helped unite Toronto’s fashion industry by manufacturing PPE, a production that the Canadian government traditionally outsources. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to their good deeds. They’ll even take your down-filled coat and donate it to the homeless, in exchange for a $100 credit towards one of their vegan coats made with recyclable fabric (they’re super comfy, stylish, and most importantly, warm). I interviewed them for Forbes.
I finally finished Hunger: A Memoir Of (My) Body by Roxane Gay (thanks Erin!). She writes about the pain of navigating the world in an overweight body, revealing just how fat-phobic our culture remains (think, the stress of airplane seats and restaurant booths). Her shame around her (society-imposed) limitations made me realize that ableism extends beyond just the typical image of disability to include any body that doesn’t conform.
Gay talks about the backlash she received from the body positivity community when she got weight reduction surgery—what does this say about modern feminism? I have a lot of issues with the body positivity movement, the way it’s been co-opted by brands to the point where women feel bad if they vocalize feeling bad about their bodies. Now it’s like we’re bad feminists if we don’t love our bodies. Gay illuminates how if we ever hope to embrace fatness, and all body types for that matter, we have to tackle our internalized fat-phobia first.
On U.S. Politics:
🐈 A message from Joe Biden’s White House cat. “In short, Barf City.”
🇺🇸 Joe Biden’s road to presidency in pics, from vintage childhood photos to this week’s inauguration ceremony in high-resolution.
👏 Amanda Gorman is the youngest inaugural poet ever in the United States, she somehow found the words that perfectly speak to “a moment when Americans are reeling from a deadly pandemic, political violence and partisan division,”
🙅♀️Yes you can make 2021 the year you buy nothing.
😈 Or, take Slate’s advice from last year and resolve to be bad in 2021. “I lie in bed on the edge of sleep, aware of the things I have to do but unconvinced it’s worth crossing over into consciousness to do them.”
👌But please, for the sake of the pessimists in your life, take the FONO (Fear Of Negative Outlook) test, to see how toxic your positivity is. This article needed to be in last week’s newsletter on our obsession with perfectionism.
❄️ Our ancestors have lessons for us on how to get through the winter during a pandemic. “Winter reminds us that darkness, not only light, is part of the recurring rhythm of what it means to be human, “ writes Elizabeth Dias. “The great irony of winter is that the moment darkness is greatest is also the moment light is about to return.”
On Marketing and Consumption:
🛍 Does buying “sustainable” or Fair Trade really make a difference? When did we start believing the way to change the world is through our consumer choices? “We must not mistake Ethical Consumption, a private act, for organized, collective social change that benefits everyone,” writes Elizabeth Cline. “We must confront that it’s unacceptable and arguably deeply unethical itself to ever tie human “goodness” to what we buy.”
🤝 “Building community has become the central focus of modern marketing; but participating in social media very seldom resembles belonging to an actual community,” writes Haley Nahman. “An expectation of reciprocity has arisen as a kind of signal for democratic engagement.”
On Social Institutions:
👵🏻“Direct caregiving may have been the most dangerous job in America,” writes one of my go-to writers E. Tammy Kim about the nursing home COVID-19 crisis. “We must transform the way we think about long-term care—treating it not as human warehousing or the duty of underpaid women, but as an integral part of our medical system.”
🍽 One of the greatest consequences of COVID-19 in the United States? Food insecurity. 1 in 4 of those who don’t have enough to eat report that they had incomes above $50,000 a year before the pandemic.
🍺 I may have written about wellness drinks this week, but there’s another booming trend at the other end of the beverage spectrum—beers inspired by desserts. “Every fermented beverage is fair game for pastry-ification,” writes Joshua M. Bernstein for the NYT. (I’ll admit I’ve got Peanut Butter Stout and Banana Bread beer in the fridge 🙊).
🍹 A more critical look at wellness drinks for relaxation makes a fitting aperitif to my Forbes story. “The relaxation drinks aren’t that different from the energy drinks that inspired them,” writes Elizabeth Lopatto. “They take the edge off so that you can keep grinding or let you sleep well so you hustle harder.”
Honestly, I don’t love Bridgerton. Being a Shondaland production, of course there are a confusing number of characters and plot lines. But we’re a year into a pandemic…bedazzling costumes, a diverse cast set in a traditionally white world, and Julie Andrews narration? OK fine I’ll watch. Plus, I love Eloise Bridgerton, the 28-year-old “spinster” who refuses to accept wifehood as the only future available to her.
At the beginning, the colour-blind casting feels like the elephant in the room. But what the show is actually doing, according to Audie Cordish on Pop Culture Happy Hour, is giving us a what-if scenario of a post-racial regency period. Unfortunately, “the Bridgerton series can't bear the weight of these ideas they're trying to put on it, and so it feels off,” says Cordish.
Watch: if you want something light and fizzy. Just don’t go in hoping it will be a boundary-breaking show. Here’s a critical deep-dive if you want more.
And if you’re already watching, don’t worry, Netflix has renewed it for a second season.
I know I advocate for less self-optimizing, but this Hidden Brain episode is especially useful if you have habits you want to change.
Turns out setting conscious intentions (like New Year’s resolutions) doesn’t lead to behaviour change. Rewards are more useful. It’s no wonder “bad” habits (like smoking) are easy to slip into—they create a quick hit of dopamine to the brain. But it’s much harder to build a habit that proves to be rewarding in the long run.
The key to habit-change? Friction (difficult action=high friction, effortless=low friction). Decrease friction to build good habits, and increase friction to rid bad habits.
“Make healthy behaviours automatic and mindless, and unhealthy behaviours conscious,” recommends psychologist Wendy Wood (I don’t like moralizing habits as good or bad, but still, these are useful tips).