the necessity of discomfort

This is a public post for my newsletter, ENOUGH. After years of writing gluten-free girl, I wrote a book of essays called ENOUGH. My new essays now live in this newsletter, which is funded by direct subscriptions from readers. So if you enjoy what I write here, consider subscribing.

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I have been thinking about Greta Thunberg a great deal lately. Perhaps you have been too. She has inspired so many of us to stand up for what we believe is right.

This first photo is of Greta Thunberg in front of the Swedish Parliament, on one of her Friday school strikes for climate. She is 15. She is alone.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t know many 15-year-old girls who would have the courage to be alone like this. The very idea of drawing that much attention to oneself at 15 is anathema. We are, as a species, hardwired to try to fit in, to make sure we are pleasing, to find a group of people who will protect us from the wilds beyond the fire. This is a dangerous act, in so many ways.

Thunberg self identifies as being on the autism spectrum. As she said in her TED talk, “For those of us on the spectrum, everything is black and white. We aren't very good at lying and we don’t like to participate in these social games that so many of the rest of you seem so fond of. In many ways, I think that we autistic are the normal ones and the rest of you are pretty strange, especially when it comes to the sustainability crisis, where everyone keeps saying that climate change is an existential threat and the most important issue of all, and yet they just carry on like before.”

I have seen so many people—grown men, mostly—online attacking Thunberg, wishing her ill will, casually hoping for a late-summer storm when she took a boat to New York. These men make fun of her stimming. They make antagonistic comments about her appearance. And they derogate her actions by dismissing her as a teenager.

Do you know why these grown men take time out of their day to try to tear apart a 16-year-old girl?

They are afraid of her power.

One person can change the world. One girl can change the world.

This is a photograph of Greta Thunberg on Friday, at one of the hundreds and hundreds of protests around the world, a universal School Strike for Climate. Greta sat alone in August 2018. In September of 2019, 4 million people participated in these strikes.

What began Thunberg’s singular mission? She says that when she was 8, she learned about climate crisis. She looked around and noticed that everyone seemed to be pretending it was not happening. That no one was doing anything about it. That the adults in government and power seemed to want to block any conversation about this. And so she fell into depression. After years of dealing with her own condition, with the help of her family, Thunberg felt better able to cope with life. And then, she realized, she had to do something.

“This was enough,” she said. “My school strike for the climate. Some people said I should study to become a climate scientist….But the climate crisis has already been solved. We already have all the facts and solutions. All we have to do is to wake up and change.”

All we have to do is wake up and change.

In my book, ENOUGH: Notes from a Woman Who Has Finally Found It, I trace the trajectory of my life through three major shifts in attention. The first is Not Good Enough. It’s about doubt, about derogation, about worrying that I had nothing important to say and turning my endless analysis on myself. And getting stuck.

What is the end to that kind of circular spinning and wasted time, alone? It’s about reaching the moment of Enough. It’s about saying to ourselves, Enough Pretending. ENOUGH PRETENDING.

And it’s about righteous rage.

“We need to get angry and understand what is at stake. And then we need to transform that anger into action and to stand together united and just never give up,” Greta Thunberg told host Amy Goodman. “We are striking to disrupt the system, to create attention. And I just hope that it will turn out well.”

She is right. It is time to stop pretending. It is time to start acting on climate crisis.

However, we cannot stop pretending as a culture unless we stop pretending within ourselves. I have found, in my own life and the lives of so many others, that it is when we reach the stage of Enough Pretending — also known as “I can't stand by spending all my time idly wondering what is wrong with me. I need to speak out and critics be damned.” — that we change the world.

“If a few children can get headlines all over the world just by not going to school," she said, "then imagine what we could all do together if we really wanted to.”

It is time to allow ourselves to be uncomfortable.

Life begins in discomfort. Every single being in this world is here because a mother gritted her teeth and pushed through almost unendurable pain to give birth to us. And every one of us left the comfort of a warm, safe place to be tugged into the light. We would not be alive without discomfort.

And then, it seems, most of us spend our lives doing everything we can to avoid discomfort.

We are a comfortable people, Americans. We have relished the inventions that make less work and more down time: dishwashers; lights that are programmed to come on at a certain time; fast food; cars with Bluetooth that play exactly the music we want instead of having to listen to the radio; apps that remind us when to brush our teeth; jagged re-districting lines that form voting communities that ensure our vision of the world will be perpetually voted in; stylish watches that are a steal at less than $10,000 each; ultra-luxury lines of tequila; waterproof rain jackets with inside pockets for smartphones that tell us what we want to know at any moment of the day, attached to headphones that let us drown out the noise of the world. We are —seemingly above all else — a culture dedicated to staying safe within our own cocoons.

We are ensuring that we never see anyone else’s lives if we stay cloaked behind the safe, gauzy curtain.

It is time to be uncomfortable.

We are working on that in our house.

This last month has been a little bit chaotic in the Ahern family. Between August 12th and September 12th here, I started a new job, working in the city and commuting 5 days a week. We found out our landlords needed to sell the house we had lived in for 7 years. We found a new house. We moved. Danny left his job at the restaurant, to stay home and take the kids to school and cook everything he wanted to feed the family. Desmond started kindergarten. Lucy started 5th grade (and the first hyper-emotional fits and floods of tears of changing hormones). And my next book will be published in 2 weeks and 2 days.

Just a tiny bit of chaos.

But within that, we have found the chance to emphasize the joy of it to our kids. New house? New rules. Clean up after yourselves fully. No eating in the living room anymore, only at the tables. You are expected to do chores every day. And find a way to be comfortable with the uncomfortable.

We adore our kids. And one of the ways — as we tell them — that we love them is to push them a bit to be uncomfortable. You don’t want to go to the farmers’ market because there are too many people there? Get up. Let’s go. Hold my hand if you want but you are going to face that fear. You want to stay home instead of seeing friends for dinner because you are tired after school? Sure, I get it. But take 15 minutes to yourself in your room to rejuvenate and then get dressed. They made us food. They are expecting us. Think of them and not just yourself.

When Lucy was 1 or 2, I had multiple acquaintances tell me that saying no to my child would damage her. Children need to make their own choices. They need to feel affirmed. They need to know the world is full of possibilities and you are inspiring them to feel self-confident.

Oh lord, I have to tell you. No is a good word. No is about boundaries. No is about clarity. No is about listening to other people and not just ourselves.

So when my kids ask for a lazy Saturday morning, begging for another hour on the couch to watch silly tv, I tell them no. I tell them I understand why they want that. Hell, I would love a day where I just flit from room to room in my pajamas, doing nothing. Maybe we will schedule one soon. But we just moved. And there are boxes all over the living room floor. One more hour of tv means those do not get unpacked and we are living in the chaos of comfortable choices. Nope. Time for chores.

So we worked together for an hour, me directing Desmond to each action to take, since he is still learning. And the living room is fully unpacked now. Everyone let out a sigh of happiness when we looked around.

Every no is a yes to something else. Every yes is a no to something else.

Time to be a little more uncomfortable. I want my kids to be responsible and aware, like Greta, like Malala, like Mari Copeny in Flint. The survivors of Marjory Stoneman are changing the world. (I like this piece about 20 kids who are making a difference in our lives.) I want my kids to live joyful lives, but I want them to find their joy within the context of community.

As I told them yesterday, it’s easier if we tie it to breath, since our bodies breathe without us noticing. With each action, breathe in and think of our ourselves. Then breathe out and think of others. Which one needs our attention in that moment? That’s the one we choose. Is it an an uncomfortable choice? Good, then that’s a chance to learn.

Greta is right. We don’t have that much time. If we keep pretending within ourselves that we can go on with things as they are? That cocoon will suffocate us. Climate crisis is real. And we can do something about it. (Listen to Bill Nye’s podcast, Science Rules!, to start.) Of course we can. We can turn this around.

But we have to stop pretending that climate crisis doesn’t exist. We have to say, ENOUGH PRETENDING to ourselves, along with the rest of the world.

Yellow Squash and Potato Curry

We certainly don’t have all the answers in our home. But we are trying to do our part. About 6 months ago, I started reading resources, trying to find practical suggestions for what we could do as an individual family. I know that going forward I want to be able to tell my kids we did enough. I know that thrown-away food, the stuff that ends up in the dump, is one of the biggest contributors to the climate crisis. It’s estimated that at least 1/3 of all food produced in the world gets thrown away. And with so many hungry people in the world! As much as I love food, I don’t want anymore to make a different fabulous meal every day. We have committed to leftovers, to repurposing, to using all the scraps of food we can. And we haven’t thrown any trash away in the bin in a long time, since our old next-door neighbors had a pig. We gave away all of our scraps to Petunia, who later become part of our meals. Now that we are living in a different home, we are going to start seriously composting instead. I’ve committed to remembering the mesh bags we use at the produce section of the store, instead of using another single-use plastic bag for our celery and carrots. We don’t buy plastic water bottles anymore. I bought a package of metal straws to take with us when we do eat out.

And lately, one of the biggest choices — one that makes us a little uncomfortable — has been to cut back on the amount of meat we eat. We decided as a family to eat meat only two days a week from now on. It will save us money. It will require us to eat even more vegetables. And I believe it will make us even more creative with our food.

Danny and I have been playing with the idea of the recipes we present here. We’re working on sourdough bread and plenty of baking projects. But it’s the everyday, the mundane, the meals we make in the spur of the moment that move me most. And it all clicked this week. We want to make meals that are enough. Mostly plants, lots of flavor, not that much meat, and using up what is already in the fridge. That’s what will be here from now on.

This meal came from a trip to the farmers’ market yesterday. One of our favorite farmers was selling glossy yellow squashes. The other had little potatoes and onions just dug from the earth. I knew we had leftover stock and some coconut milk hanging out in a can that had been opened that morning. What to make? A little yellow squash and potato curry.

Danny was simmering some stock to reduce it, so I cut up rhe little potatoes from Pacific Crest farm and threw them in the stock. Desmond helped me chop a fat yellow onion, 3 cloves of garlic, and 4 large yellow squashes. Also, we had half a cauliflower in the fridge, so I tore that into bite-size pieces too. I poured olive oil into a Dutch oven, plus a little cultured butter from our dairy farmer down the road. And I sautéed the onions and garlic while I drained the potatoes, which were tender to the fork. Into the onions went the cauliflower, then two big spoonfuls of green curry paste. Stir. Fold. Make sure it doesn’t burn. And then the squash, which I cooked for a few minutes. Then the potatoes. Another big spoonful of green curry paste. About two cups of coconut milk. And about 4 cups of the reduced stock. I let it simmer for 30 minutes while we finished a movie. (Princess Diaries 2, which Lucy has been begging to see.) I salted it, tasted it again, then turned off the burner. A scoop of brown rice, some of the curry, and a swirl of good yogurt that Desmond didn’t finish at breakfast. I had poured in pineapple juice and chunks of pineapple, so the fruit had been macerating all day.

And we sat in our new living room, talking about the day, the four of us, looking out at the sky and sliver of a water view. This tasted good. We were home.

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