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.