Making it home

My neighborhood, on lockdown

My Coolidge Cor­ner neigh­bor­hood, on lockdown

On Mon­day, the bombs exploded. On Fri­day, the city was put on lock­down, and on Sun­day I boarded a plane to fly across the coun­try to a place I’d never been.

It was a trip I’d planned for a long time to a place – Port­land, Ore­gon – that I’d long wanted to visit. At the same time, as I fin­ished up my pack­ing and man­aged a last few errands, I found myself wish­ing that I wasn’t going any­where at all. What I wanted was nor­mal­ity – a return to the usual rou­tines of writ­ing, work, and friends.  It was then that I real­ized, with some sur­prise, that this place I’ve been liv­ing since Sep­tem­ber has come to feel like home.

For my friend Jan, the Boston/Cambridge area has felt, from the very begin­ning, like where she was meant to be. “Cam­bridge is the first and only place I’ve felt like I belong and where I’m entirely com­fort­able in my own skin,” she wrote last week, in the dizzy­ing days after law enforce­ment staked out the Cam­bridge res­i­dence of the alleged marathon bombers.

My own rela­tion­ship with the area has been both slightly longer and far more fraught. It began back in 1978, when I arrived on the Har­vard cam­pus at the age of 18, a seri­ous, shy Mid­west­erner abruptly cat­a­pulted into a for­eign land. In the 20th–cen­tury intel­lec­tual his­tory class I took fresh­man year, our pro­fes­sor lec­tured on the 1897 novel Les Dérac­inés, about seven young provin­cials who lose their way after arriv­ing in Paris, the price of hav­ing been torn away from their native tra­di­tions. That word stayed with me— dérac­iné, unrooted. I cer­tainly wasn’t liv­ing in France at the turn of the cen­tury.  Still, I knew what it felt like to be alone and unmoored.

I did not cope espe­cially well. I went to a lot of par­ties, and I began a drink­ing career that would last through my mid-30s. I recall a cou­ple of half-hearted vis­its to Har­vard Uni­ver­sity health ser­vices with no notable results. Some two decades later, Melanie Thernstrom’s Halfway Heaven would chron­i­cle a murder-suicide in one of Harvard’s under­grad­u­ate houses. An Ethiopian stu­dent, lonely and unsta­ble, stabbed her Vietnamese-born room­mate to death then hung her­self. Read­ing Thernstrom’s account of the sys­temic fail­ings of Harvard’s psy­cho­log­i­cal ser­vices, I would nod my head think­ing, yes, this is what it was like.

Being young, con­fused, and far from home, bereft of sup­port structures—it’s never been a recipe for hap­pi­ness. Yet why do some tri­umph against all odds, while oth­ers self-destruct, while still oth­ers lash out vio­lently with trag­i­cally hor­rific results?

By all accounts, the eth­nic Chechen Tsar­naev broth­ers were con­sid­ered friendly and well-liked. What series of events led to them to mutate from seem­ingly assim­i­lated immi­grants to mur­der­ous bombers? While the answers may never be fully known, a his­tory of uncer­tainty and dis­lo­ca­tion is unlikely to have helped.

Wher­ever you go there you are. The more I reflect on that neat apho­rism, the less true it seems. For many of us, and for many dif­fer­ent rea­sons, home is not a place to which we return, it is some­thing we cre­ate, and that act of cre­ation takes energy, resources, and sup­port, along with that unde­fin­able and elu­sive thing called luck. When I moved back to Boston this last time, I had all of these. I know what it’s like not to: It’s really, really hard.

Per­haps the most iconic photo to emerge from the marathon bomb­ings is the image of a man in a cow­boy hat leap­ing to the aid of a crit­i­cally injured vic­tim, hav­ing beaten down flames and tied a tourni­quet to one of his par­tially sev­ered legs. We now know that the res­cuer is Car­los Arredondo, a 52-year-old peace activist who’d already faced more than his share of per­sonal tragedy. Nine years ago, on learn­ing that his 20-year-old son had been killed by Iraqi snipers, he doused him­self with gaso­line and set him­self on fire. Two years, ago a sec­ond son com­mit­ted sui­cide, hav­ing never recov­ered from his brother’s death and father’s result­ing meltdown.

How do we account for this sort of gor­geous alchemy? If Arredondo had become a ter­ror­ist, we would have no short­age of ready expla­na­tions. But instead his anguish fueled a pas­sion to save and res­cue. “Cities are not resilient, peo­ple are. And, some­times, they are not,” wrote Boston jour­nal­ist Elaine McNa­mara. The jour­ney from despair and loss is both pro­foundly per­sonal and unpre­dictable. Wrong turns hap­pen. Not every­one makes it back.

Failure: a love story

015 - A moment of weakness

When I told my stu­dents that our final class would focus on the topic of fail­ure, there were winces all around. But in the end, most of them told me that this unit was their favorite. “Next time, why don’t you start the class with this?” one stu­dent even asked.

The idea of spend­ing a ses­sion on fail­ure came to me after lis­ten­ing to an NPR piece about its promi­nent place in the lives of Sil­i­con Val­ley entre­pre­neurs. “This is, like, fail­ure cen­tral. We are, like, con­nois­seurs of fail­ure, experts in both avoid­ing it and liv­ing with it ongo­ing,” said Paul Gra­ham, founder of the start-up fun­der Y Com­bi­na­tor.

The nine stu­dents in my “Liv­ing Strate­gi­cally” sem­i­nar are mem­bers of UMass Amherst’s Com­mon­wealth Hon­ors Col­lege. They are tal­ented, artic­u­late, and thought­ful, with high aspi­ra­tions and tran­scripts filled with As. All of them are prepar­ing to apply for post-graduate fel­low­ships. They have lots of expe­ri­ence with suc­cess, not so much with failure.

They reminded me of myself at their age, and I wanted to offer them some­thing that would have been use­ful to me then: The idea that fail­ure can be a fer­tile start­ing place. That it’s a nat­ural part of life — tem­po­rary, not defin­ing. It took me a long time to learn this. I’d like to think that my stu­dents are well on their way to learn­ing it now.

Our jump­ing off point was jour­nal­ist Rick Newman’s Rebound­ers: How Win­ners Pivot from Set­back to Suc­cess, which I pre­vi­ously wrote about here. The book had res­onated with me when I read it last year – New­man shares my curios­ity about the under­pin­nings of resilience – and hap­pily my stu­dents loved it, one describ­ing it as the “punch­line” of the semes­ter. In par­tic­u­lar, they responded to Newman’s per­sonal story of climb­ing back from set­backs. The rebounder as role model:  It’s some­thing we could use more of.

Per­haps more than any­thing, I wanted to drive home the notion that fail­ure doesn’t have to be such a big deal. Like the Wiz­ard of Oz – “Pay no atten­tion to the man behind the cur­tain!” — fail­ure isn’t really what it claims to be. Behind the cur­tain is this lit­tle guy, madly gin­ning up the spe­cial effects to cre­ate a lot of noise. And because there’s noth­ing like humor to put things into per­spec­tive, I had stu­dents watch Laura Zigman’s “Fail­ure is the New Suc­cess” video, as funny as it is true. Point made.

Finally, we read a piece that I’d serendip­i­tously stum­bled across at work the week before – New Yorker writer and sur­geon (and Har­vard School of Pub­lic Health pro­fes­sor) Atul Gawande’s  beau­ti­ful med­i­ta­tion on “Fail­ure and Res­cue,” deliv­ered as a com­mence­ment address at Williams Col­lege. Gawande observes that good hos­pi­tals have lots of things go wrong – as many as their less suc­cess­ful peers. Research has shown that great hos­pi­tals “didn’t fail less. They res­cued more.”  (This piece also won stu­dent acco­lades, with one say­ing that she’d sent it on to a num­ber of friends.)

A major focus of the “Liv­ing Strate­gi­cally” sem­i­nar is writ­ing a per­sonal story, and through­out the semes­ter, we spent a lot of time talk­ing about craft­ing a com­pelling nar­ra­tive.  What makes some­thing inter­est­ing? What makes it bor­ing? In a fas­ci­nat­ing Har­vard Busi­ness Review piece, Her­minia Ibarra and Kent Line­back reflect on why so many career chang­ers are ter­ri­ble sto­ry­tellers. The answer: They rely too much on chronol­ogy, fail­ing to craft sto­ries that tap into sources of con­ti­nu­ity and coher­ence. They fail to choose story forms that suit their tales of reinvention.

Sto­ries are pow­er­ful. We shape our sto­ries, but our sto­ries then shape us. That has never been clearer to me than it’s been since I started Plan B Nation. Here is what I wish for my stu­dents, for all of us: That our suc­cess sto­ries are vibrant and expan­sive enough to incorporate—and honor—our failures.

How to be resilient (in 9 not-so-easy steps)

So your blog is about resilience?”

Well, not exactly. I mean, it’s about what lies behind resilience – about the nuts and bolts of resilience.”

I had this con­ver­sa­tion a num­ber of times before launch­ing Plan B Nation, my per­sonal chronicle-cum-user’s guide to life after the Great Reces­sion. Yes, I was inter­ested in the notion of bounc­ing back, but I wanted to unpack the idea. How do we stay opti­mistic  in the face of repeated set­backs? How do we keep going when our best efforts fall short?

These ques­tions lie at the heart of Rebound­ers: How Win­ners Pivot from Set­back to Suc­cess, a new book by jour­nal­ist Rick New­man – which is why I raced to get my hands on a copy as soon as I heard about it.

Like my own, Newman’s explo­ration began with per­sonal chal­lenges – in his case, a divorce and cus­tody bat­tle, finan­cial stress, and dis­lo­ca­tion (both geo­graphic and pro­fes­sional). “As I crested the age of forty, I was falling behind instead of get­ting ahead, with a set of options that seemed to be nar­row­ing and a deep­en­ing dis­il­lu­sion­ment that wasn’t sup­posed to afflict peo­ple like me,” he writes in the book’s introduction.

Ulti­mately, New­man opted to widen his gaze, to bring his report­ing skills to bear on the issue of fail­ure. How is it that some peo­ple – New­man calls them rebound­ers – are able to emerge from set­backs even stronger than before? What are the skills they draw on? And how can the rest of cul­ti­vate these adap­tive behaviors?

Delv­ing into these ques­tions, New­man pro­files a num­ber of thriv­ing sur­vivors rang­ing from Thomas Edi­son to mil­i­tary pilot Tammy Duck­worth, who lost her legs in Iraq – their highs as well as their lows – and con­cludes with a series of nine attrib­utes he sees as com­mon to rebounders.

1. They accept failure.

It’s not that rebound­ers like fail­ure, but they man­age to “fail pro­duc­tively,” fram­ing fail­ure as a learn­ing opportunity.

2.   They com­part­men­tal­ize emotions.

While their emo­tions may run strong, rebound­ers nonethe­less adopt a prag­matic stance and learn to main­tain emo­tional equa­nim­ity in the face of disappointments.

3. They have a bias toward action.   

Tak­ing pur­pose­ful action – even if you aren’t sure where it’s tak­ing you – can be a first step to mov­ing for­ward. (New­man opposes action to rumi­na­tion, which can eas­ily lead to immo­bi­liz­ing worry.)

4. They change their minds sometimes.

They make the best deci­sions they can at the time based on the infor­ma­tion they have. When that infor­ma­tion changes, they’re able to adjust their goals and thinking.

5. They pre­pare for things to go wrong.

For all the talk of opti­mism being linked to suc­cess, the rebound­ers New­man talked to tended to have a more mea­sured per­spec­tive. “I’m cau­tiously opti­mistic,” said one.

6. They’re com­fort­able with discomfort.

For rebound­ers, suc­cess equals ful­fill­ment, not com­fort, and they will­ingly accept sig­nif­i­cant hard­ships and incon­ve­niences en route to their goals.

7. They’re will­ing to wait.

Rebound­ers are will­ing to work harder and wait longer than they expected. “Long­cuts to suc­cess are more com­mon than short­cuts,” New­man writes.

8. They have heroes.

Men­tors and role mod­els are often impor­tant sources of inspi­ra­tion for rebounders.

9. They have more than passion.

Rebound­ers have sus­tained drive as well as passion.

Hav­ing per­son­ally field-tested many of these strate­gies, I can vouch for them. At the same time, let’s be clear: All adver­sity is not cre­ated equal. For all the talk about hard­ship mak­ing us stronger, research sug­gests that peo­ple who expe­ri­ence an undue num­ber of stress­ful life events (def­i­nitely the case for many of us slog­ging through Plan B Nation) have a rel­a­tively high level of men­tal health prob­lems, as New­man reports. In other words, some hard­ship is good, too much hard­ship is not. How much is the right amount? Researchers put the opti­mal num­ber of adverse events at three.

In the same vein, all peo­ple are not cre­ated equal. For this rea­son, I would love to read more about resilience in the con­text of the so-called “Big Five” per­son­al­ity types iden­ti­fied by researchers as largely hard­wired and endur­ing. It would make sense if those of us wired to be unusu­ally sen­si­tive to neg­a­tive expe­ri­ences have a harder time cul­ti­vat­ing resilience than those of us who nat­u­rally trend to a pos­i­tive out­look. Does research in fact bear this out? And if so, are there steps we can take to coun­ter­act or bol­ster our hard­wired biases?  (For those inter­ested in such things, per­son­al­ity types are explored in depth in Daniel Nettle’s highly read­able Per­son­al­ity: What Makes You the Way You Are, which also includes a short ver­sion of the New­cas­tle Per­son­al­ity Assessor.)

Still, while resilience doubt­less comes more eas­ily to some of us than oth­ers, there are always steps we can take to max­i­mize our own poten­tial. For this, New­man offers a start­ing place – as well as excel­lent reminders.

Stuck in a moment

Shortly after dis­cov­er­ing the won­der­ful Work Stew site, I read an essay by Tasha Hueb­ner that com­pletely wowed me. It was funny and smart and brave, as well as beau­ti­fully writ­ten, and at the time I remem­ber think­ing: “I’d like to know that girl.”

Flash for­ward another six months or so. Last week I saw that Tasha was among the win­ners of Work Stew’s essay con­test. No sur­prise there. Read­ing her new piece, I had the same reac­tion I did to the first, but this time, I acted on it. I sent her a Face­book mes­sage say­ing how much I admired her work and intro­duc­ing myself. What fol­lowed was a rapid-fire exchange, rang­ing from movies (Melan­cho­lia, The Pianist) to thoughts about resilience (Is it or not the same as adapt­abil­ity? My kind of question.) 

The con­nec­tion was yet another reminder of why I love blog­ging – because of the peo­ple it brings into my life and how it expands my hori­zons. In this spirit, I also love to share my favorite dis­cov­er­ies. I asked Tasha if she’d con­sider let­ting me post her orig­i­nal Work Stew piece here. Hap­pily for all of us, her answer was “absolutely.”  

Tasha Hueb­ner

by Tasha Hueb­ner

Damn, I was arrogant.

Hmph,” I smirked, even with a bit of an eye roll thrown in for good mea­sure. “I’ll never be one of those peo­ple try­ing to sell more corn­flakes, or—god forbid—figuring out what color hats the Kee­bler Elves should wear. I’m going to do some­thing a lit­tle more impor­tant than that.”

So, with Whar­ton MBA in hand, I set out to con­quer the world, self-styled Mas­ter of the Uni­verse that I was. And what kind of impor­tant things am I doing now? Let’s see. Today I was out at my gar­den plot fuss­ing over the tomato plants, because I’m hop­ing that later in the sum­mer I’ll have enough to sell and make at least a few hun­dred dol­lars. Had lunch with my mom, which she paid for. Sent an email to a per­son I write blog arti­cles for on var­i­ous top­ics, for a miserly amount of money, telling her that sure, I’d be happy to write arti­cles for a strip­per recruit­ing blog—why the hell not?

Strip­per articles.

When you grad­u­ate from busi­ness school, you are led to believe that strik­ing out on your own—because you’re so damn bril­liant and all—is a great idea, just won­der­ful. You may not expect to hit it big, as in hawking-schlock-sold-expensively-on-QVC-big, but you do feel con­fi­dent that you’ll at least get by.

But then some­thing like, say, The Can­cer comes knock­ing at your door. No, for­get knocking—the rude bas­tard comes bar­rel­ing in guns a’blazing, tak­ing no pris­on­ers, leav­ing you shell-shocked and stunned, because seri­ously, WTF is this? You have no fam­ily his­tory of can­cer, you’ve always been healthy to a fault, you’re train­ing for your sec­ond IRONMAN, for chris­sake, so really, WTH? Then if you have the really shitty luck, like some of us (ahem), a month later you’ll still be train­ing for said Iron­man, and will get into a bad bike crash going down­hill at 40 mph that will leave you with a severely bro­ken col­lar­bone, bleed­ing on the brain, no mem­ory of the crash or the three days in the hos­pi­tal, and oh yeah, that pesky can­cer that still needs to be taken care of.

And mean­while, back at the ranch, because you’re sin­gle and self-employed, you have no income any­more because you’re in a cancer-treatment and brain-injury fog, and while you do have health insur­ance (whew!), you dis­cover that insur­ance com­pa­nies are evil bas­tards who MSU (=Make Shit Up) in order to get out of pay­ing your bills. So you come home one day, exhausted in your 6th week of daily radi­a­tion treat­ment, and burst into tears when you get yet another bill from Blue­Cross­BlueShield say­ing that they’re not going to pay $5K of your surgery because there was “an extra nurse in the room.”

Even I don’t have the cre­ative cojones to make this stuff up.

And at the same time that your life is being totally derailed by The Can­cer, you have peo­ple help­fully telling you about all the lessons you should be learn­ing from this “jour­ney.” Life is short! Seize the day! Live every day as if it were your last!

First of all, if I lived every day as if it were my last, well, let’s just say that there’s a level of rapa­cious bonbon-eating there that even I don’t care to con­tem­plate. Sec­ond, and more impor­tantly, I would love to “seize the day” and do all the things I’ve ever dreamed of. Visit Mon­go­lia! White water raft­ing again in Costa Rica! Vis­it­ing my Can­cer­Chick friends, the group of women who live across the U.S. that I’ve come to know and love as we together deal with the shit­can that is can­cer at a young age!

There’s one prob­lem with this, and for­give me for stat­ing the obvi­ous here, but: this costs money. I know, shock­ing! But true. And to a per­son, my Can­cer­Chicks and I, we’re po.’ The mar­ried ones have a bit more lee­way, but if you’re sin­gle? For­get it. Sin­gle and self-employed? Dou­bly for­get it. Do we want to work? Hell yes. I’d like to be able to pay my bills with­out con­tem­plat­ing how much I could get if I gave blood on a reg­u­lar basis. Yet for some rea­son, in spite of my Whar­ton MBA, my fan-fucking-tastic resume (every­one tells me this) (though okay, I admit I’ve para­phrased slightly), the fact that I’m really good at what I do (shame­less plug: mar­ket­ing, communications/writing), I have yet to find work, even project work.

So while I’d like to report that as some­one with The Can­cer who real­izes full well the impor­tance of embrac­ing all that life has to offer, that I’m doing so every sin­gle day—the truth is that I can’t quite fig­ure out how to spend every day in some whirl­wind of fan­dango fun and excite­ment, because real­ity kind of gets in the way. Those pesky bills. The minu­tiae that make it hard for me to move boldly for­ward into my post-Cancer life. This is true for every­one I know who has this dis­ease that’s deter­mined to kill us.

The other bit of advice that peo­ple like to share with you, whether you have The Can­cer or not, is this: do what you love to do—the money will follow.

This, my friends, is a bold bit of com­plete and utter horseshit.

Me, what I love to do is write. I have a blog that’s sweep­ing the nation (You’ll laugh! Cry! Rally to laugh again!), that I make absolutely no money from. (Note to IRS: no money what­so­ever.) I’ve been work­ing on a book, but in the mean­time I need to be able to pay my bills, so the book often has to go by the way­side. Such is life. Work­ing as a strat­egy con­sul­tant post-Wharton, that brought in a decent amount of money. The writ­ing, the acer­bic wit, the pan­der­ing to the eigh­teens of blog read­ers who hang onto my every word? Not so much.

So what are our key take­aways here? I think they’d be along these lines:

  1. Don’t get The Can­cer. If it offers to latch onto your life, just say hey, no thanks, I’m kinda busy now
  2. But if you do, make sure you’re part of a two-income house­hold, or inde­pen­dently wealthy, because…
  3. (to para­phrase George Bailey)…money comes in pretty handy down here, bub.
  4. If you’re the quin­tes­sen­tial Schleprock like I am, don’t fol­low your dreams. Stick with the well-paying cor­po­rate gig; do what you love to do in your spare time. Trust me on this.
  5. Real­ize that if you have the afore­men­tioned crap luck, it makes for some fan­tas­tic writ­ing on the blog. Hey, lemons, lemon­ade, mar­gar­i­tas, go with it.
  6. And if you look at the shell cas­ings sur­round­ing the destruc­tion of your for­merly orderly and log­i­cal life and are com­pletely baf­fled as to how you wound up here, it’s impor­tant to real­ize that it’s not all bad, that there are always patches of sun­shine hid­den among the shadows.

And if I at times sound a bit bit­ter, well, that’s only par­tially true. I’m not bit­ter about The Can­cer, because quite frankly, shit hap­pens. Not bit­ter about the bike crash/brain injury, because that ele­vated things to an almost sub­lime level of absur­dity that holds up well in the retelling.

What I AM bit­ter about—or per­haps dumb­founded is a bet­ter word—is the fact that I have a Whar­ton MBA, for god’s sake, yet am will­ing to write strip­per sto­ries for a tiny bit of cash, as I lay awake at night won­der­ing how I’ll pay my bills. Whar­ton! MBA! Amaz­ing resume and expe­ri­ence! Bril­liance all in one neat lit­tle pack­age! The mind reels.

I’m bit­ter that tomor­row when I go for my 6-month checkup with my oncol­o­gist, the one whose mantra is “no scans with­out symp­toms,” I’m not going to try to con­vince her that I should be scanned at least once. Because if they do find a recur­rence or advance­ment, I can’t afford to treat it. “Thanks, doc, but I’ll pass on more of The Can­cer today—it’s just not in my bud­get right now.”

I’m bit­ter about the fact that I’m being audited by the IRS, because the brain trust over there flagged my returns when I had a sud­den drop in income and, oh, huge med­ical bills! Lawsy me, what ever could be the connection?

I’m slightly bit­ter about the fact that The Can­cer will be back at some point, because the stats for young women with stage II breast can­cer basi­cally suck. I wish I could be earn­ing money so that I could in fact be doing the carpe diem-ing I’d like to do in what­ever time I have left. But I can’t.

I’m very bit­ter about the fact that my fel­low Can­cer­Chicks, who I love dearly and would do any­thing for, are all deal­ing with this same shit. And the bit­ter­ness becomes black indeed when I think about the lie per­pet­u­ated on us all: that breast can­cer is so cur­able, which is total hog­wash, espe­cially for young women. Hell, it’s barely treat­able, based on the fact that seven or eight of my friends in just the last week have either found out that they’re now stage 4, or have taken a turn for the worse because their treat­ments are no longer working.

Cur­able, my ass.

And yet, in spite of the fact that my life is a total sham­bles, I have amaz­ing women in my life because of The Can­cer, and I wouldn’t give up those friend­ships for any­thing in the world. Not for all the tea in China, not all the pots of gold in existence.

So to sum up: Money = good. Jobs = good. Can­cer = bad. If you mea­sure suc­cess by the amount of money one has accrued, then clearly I’m the least suc­cess­ful per­son from my grad­u­at­ing class at Whar­ton. A wash-up. A failure.

If you mea­sure it in friendship—I’m the rich­est woman in the world.

Note: This piece first appeared on Work Stew, and I’m grate­ful to Kate Gace Wal­ton for her will­ing­ness to share it. 

Life Experiment #7: Nesting

Nesting Storks

Last week, I was served with a 30-day Notice to Quit, the first stage in evic­tion pro­ceed­ings. I’m not happy about this, but such is life. This is my real­ity. So what am I going to do?

Not sur­pris­ingly, I’m really anx­ious. I have a house­ful of stuff – books, art, fur­ni­ture, dishes, appli­ances, writ­ing projects, not to men­tion a cat. The idea of mov­ing in less than a month is hugely stress­ful. Friends have reas­sured me that, prac­ti­cally speak­ing, I likely have far more time than the legal paper sug­gests, given our state’s landlord-tenant laws and the nature of judi­cial pro­ceed­ings. But things are already unpleas­ant enough. At this point, I just want out.

Still, get­ting out takes time and effort. Much as I might wish it oth­er­wise, I can’t mag­i­cally snap my fin­gers and be some­where else. The ques­tion: How to make the best of this par­tic­u­lar bad sit­u­a­tion? How to go about reduc­ing its impact on the rest of my life?

A com­ment from my friend Alle­gra was help­ful here, point­ing out how the specter of evic­tion likely evokes past threats and rejec­tions. “I’ve never known a notice to quit not to hurt,” she observed, speak­ing metaphor­i­cally. Sep­a­rat­ing the past from the present strikes me as emi­nently use­ful. How much of my reac­tion is about now? How much is about then – about newly retrig­gered pain surg­ing from the past. (“Now is not then,” Havi says, over and over and over.)

That said, I’m def­i­nitely con­fronting a very real present-day chal­lenge, one that goes to the core of how I live and work. Even if I don’t want to fight evic­tion, I already feel embat­tled. It’s affect­ing the qual­ity of my days and my abil­ity to get things done. I have a hard time sleep­ing. I awake awash in cor­ti­sol, already on overdrive.

Years ago, I took a class in Early Freud at a psy­cho­an­a­lytic insti­tute in Man­hat­tan. (“Early Freud, that’s great. Stuff even Freud doesn’t believe any­more,” a friend dryly remarked.)  Most of what I learned there is long for­got­ten but one prin­ci­ple stayed with me. “Never deal with a neu­ro­sis by attempt­ing to uproot it. Always work to build up other aspects of the per­son­al­ity,” our teacher said (or some­thing pretty close to that; it’s been a long time).

I see an anal­ogy here. On the one hand, I could focus on the bad thing hap­pen­ing. Or I could train my sights on the life and home I’m hop­ing to cre­ate. What are the qual­i­ties I want them to have?  Where – and how — am I most likely to find them?

And here’s where the idea of nests comes in (another thing inspired by Havi). What are the qual­i­ties of a nest? (It holds EGGs. It’s a place where small crea­tures grow from help­less­ness to self-sufficiency. It’s a prod­uct of instinc­tual needs. That’s a start.) What am I look­ing for in my nest? (Safety. Sup­port. Ease. Con­tent­ment.) How can I cre­ate it? (That’s what I’m sit­ting with now.) The nest metaphor feels espe­cially apt given the sus­te­nance I’ve gained in recent months from both bread­crumbs and bas­ket weav­ing.

So that’s it: Life Exper­i­ment # 7 will be all about nest­ing, watch­ing how the metaphor works and (I’m hop­ing) starts to shift things.

Update on Life Exper­i­ment #6: Present Me is delighted that Past Me got rid of some of these pesky nag­ging tasks, espe­cially given the pres­sures Present Me now faces. I sewed on the but­ton! And did some 20 other things besides – got my bike tuned up, hemmed a pair of linen pants, got a long-overdue hair­cut.  I didn’t make it through all 30 things, but I def­i­nitely made progress. And as I’ve learned through these Life Exper­i­ments, that itself is cause for cel­e­bra­tion.

Feasting in Plan B Nation: How to feed body (and soul) on $40 a week


Peach “sec­onds” from Apex Orchards of Shel­burne, Mass. (now in my freezer)

You think you’re hav­ing a bad week? Con­sider this: Within a sin­gle week in 2009, food jour­nal­ist Robin Mather was laid off from her job at the Chicago Tri­bune and found her­self on the brink of divorce.

Faced with this dou­ble whammy, she retreated to a 650-square-foot cot­tage on a small lake in south­west Michi­gan, where she was—to put things into perspective—eight miles from the near­est street light. There, she embarked on the life now chron­i­cled in her memoir-with-recipes The Feast Nearby: How I lost my job, buried a mar­riage, and found my way by keep­ing chick­ens, for­ag­ing, pre­serv­ing, bar­ter­ing, and eat­ing locally (all on forty dol­lars a week)—a book that envi­ron­men­tal­ist Bill McK­ibben calls “charm­ingly subversive—a lovely reminder of, and guide to, the things that really count.”

Mather now serves as Senior Asso­ciate Edi­tor at Mother Earth News—and her per­sonal turn­around  earned her hon­or­able men­tion for Best Sec­ond Act Come­back from the pop­u­lar Sec­ond Act site.

In the guest post that fol­lows, Mather shares what she learned dur­ing the year she com­mit­ted to eat­ing three local homes-cooked meals a day on $40 a week—and describes how eat­ing well in Plan B Nation can be a first step towards bounc­ing back.

photo: Bob Fila

By Robin Mather

I get lots of lovely mail from read­ers of The Feast Nearby. “You’re so brave!” they say. “I wish I had your strength!” they write.

But I am not brave—in the book’s first chap­ter, I write about how fright­ened and fear­ful I was—and I am not espe­cially strong. What I am blessed with, though, is resilience.

When life slugged me, as poet John Cia­rdi describes it in “In Place of a Curse”—one of my favorite poems— you can bet I fin­gered my jaw in painful admi­ra­tion. And then I got up. Because really, what other choice is there?

Resilience isn’t strength. It cre­ates strength. Resilience isn’t courage. It cre­ates courage. Resilience doesn’t change your luck. It makes your luck. Resilience is why some peo­ple sur­vive pain with­out bit­ter­ness, and its lack is why oth­ers become bent and twisted by what’s hap­pened to them. Resilience helps you see that a hard punch isn’t per­sonal, and that the punch doesn’t define you; it’s just some­thing that hap­pened to you.

Resilience is what you need to weather life’s hard­ships, and to come out bet­ter on the other side. So how do you cul­ti­vate it?

Well, I think resilience has to be fed—literally, as well as metaphor­i­cally. I think that cook­ing for your­self, really cook­ing good food, the kind that nour­ishes your spirit as well as your body, builds resilience.

This spirit-building kind of food will never come out of a box, or be passed to you out of a drive-through win­dow in a paper bag. It requires ingre­di­ents as near their nat­ural state as pos­si­ble. These ingre­di­ents remind you of your con­nec­tion to the wide, wide world every time you lay hands on them to cook. And if those ingre­di­ents con­nect you to the per­son who grew them, then they will really nour­ish you, because you have begun to build a community.

A plain bowl of stew-y beans can be a spir­i­tu­ally nour­ish­ing dish, as well as being good eat­ing that costs pen­nies. A roast chicken is the dish I pre­pare for myself when I’m most fright­ened, because a roast chicken pro­vides tan­gi­ble evi­dence that I went to some trou­ble to care for myself. The dishes you pre­pare don’t have to be expen­sive or com­pli­cated. There are nearly 100 recipes in my book for hon­est, sim­ple food.

That I could set about rebuild­ing my resilience—gaining the abil­ity to get up after those hard punches—while spend­ing just $40 a week on food should demon­strate to you that you can do so, too. It’s not about the dol­lars, you see. It’s about the kinds of foods you choose to pre­pare for your­self (and for what­ever lucky fam­ily and friends hap­pen to come your way).

So whether you have $40 a week to spend on food, or $80 or $200, spend­ing it wisely will help you feel stronger and more con­fi­dent. In my expe­ri­ence, cook­ing what you buy—transforming it into truly nour­ish­ing food—gives you a dou­ble return on your food dollars.

As I see it, when we allow other peo­ple to pre­pare our food, we sur­ren­der our resilience—starve it, if you will. Even if you pride your­self on not eat­ing processed food, you have still sur­ren­dered a lot of your con­fi­dence in your abil­ity to feed your­self to strangers’ hands. Just think of all the processed or man­u­fac­tured foods in your kitchen right now, includ­ing things like the peanut but­ter and canned broth in your pantry, the plas­tic tub of yogurt in the fridge, and even the ice cream in your freezer.

Psy­chol­o­gists say that we humans’ most pri­mal needs are food and shel­ter, in that order. Only after those two are met do we begin to think about that other pri­mal need: sex. Food is so impor­tant to our sense of well-being that, until and unless we feel well-fed, we won’t meet our most fun­da­men­tal need.

There’s a fair amount of hub­bub that eat­ing locally is just for the foodie elite. I am liv­ing proof that this isn’t true, and the meth­ods I used to keep good, local food on my table all year ‘round will work for you too. Buy­ing local food in sea­son at a farmer’s mar­ket or farm stand remains the least expen­sive way to pro­vi­sion your­self. Expect to pay more (some­times much more) for locally and sus­tain­ably raised meat; use the sav­ings from your pro­duce pur­chases to buy it. And while you’re at it, if you eat meat or fish, cut back to two or three days a week. Even a very tight bud­get can afford a weekly pound or two.

Here are a few more con­crete tips to help you in your journey:

  • Stop shop­ping on auto-pilot at the gro­cery store. Take a minute to con­sider where each item you’re pur­chas­ing comes from, and whether its sources match up with your values.
  •  If you don’t know how to do can­ning, learn. Know­ing myr­iad ways to pre­serve food, as well as the pros and cons of each method, sus­tains your spirit twice: once in the work of doing, and again in the eat­ing later.
  • Think up 10 dishes you know you love and can pre­pare almost with­out think­ing. Many of us eat the same 10 or 20 dishes in an uncon­scious rota­tion, so it shouldn’t be hard. Then fig­ure out how you can make them with hon­est, whole food—ideally fresh from someone’s nearby gar­den or farm.
  • Know that, like all humans, you’re going to get hun­gry at least 21 times a week, and plan for that. Once you’ve thought that through, you will have break­fast, lunch and din­ner under con­trol, and you won’t be tempted by less nour­ish­ing choices—including those “healthy” organic potato chips you picked up at Whole Foods for a spe­cial treat.
  • Expand your knowl­edge of herbs and spices. Cer­tain herb­snd sea­son­ings “make” a dish French, or Mex­i­can, or Moroc­can, and once you know the fla­vor pro­files of dif­fer­ent cuisines, you can pull an inter­est­ing meal together quickly and eas­ily. There’s tar­ragon, thyme and rose­mary for French; cumin, cilantro and cit­rus juices for Mex­i­can; cin­na­mon, cumin and saf­fron for Moroc­can, and so on.
  • Enjoy the process. Cook­ing is sen­sual, and sen­sual plea­sures also feed your self-reliance and resilience. They remind you that you are indeed human, and that, like all other humans, you are cre­ated to survive.

Because you will. You will sur­vive, no mat­ter how hard you’ve been punched. But you’ll heal faster and more thor­oughly if you have some well-fed resilience on your side.

Note: Robin is kindly pro­vid­ing one copy of The Feast Nearby for us to give away. To enter the draw­ing, leave a com­ment below. The win­ner will be selected next weekend.

In the mean­time, here’s a recipe—one that’s high on my per­sonal list of the many I can’t wait to try.   

Pep­pery Cherry Spoon Bread
from The Feast Nearby, by Robin Mather (Ten Speed Press, 2011)

Serves 6 to 8 as a side dish

2 cups whole milk
2/3 cup corn­meal
2 table­spoons salted but­ter
2 table­spoons dry sherry
3/4 tea­spoon coarse salt, such as kosher salt
1/4 tea­spoon ground red pep­per (cayenne)
2 tea­spoons dried oregano, crum­bled
1/2 cup shred­ded pep­per jack cheese
1/3 cup finely chopped dried cher­ries
4 large eggs, separated

Pre­heat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease an 8-inch square bak­ing dish.

Com­bine the milk, corn­meal, but­ter, sherry, salt, red pep­per, and oregano in a saucepan and mix well. Bring just to a boil over medium heat. Decrease the heat to medium-low and sim­mer for 2 min­utes, or until slightly thick­ened, stir­ring fre­quently. Remove from the heat. Stir in the cheese and cher­ries. Let stand for 10 to 15 min­utes, until slightly cooled.

Beat the egg yolks in a small bowl. Stir them into the corn­meal mix­ture. Beat the egg whites is a bowl with an elec­tric mixer on high speed until soft peaks form. Stir one-third of the egg whites into the corn­meal mix­ture until well mixed. Gen­tly fold in the remain­ing egg whites with a few quick strokes; some white streaks will remain. Pour into the pre­pared bak­ing dish.

Bake for 25 to 30 min­utes, until the top is browned and the cen­ter is slightly loose (a knife inserted into the cen­ter should come out clean). Let stand for 5 min­utes before serving.