World Book Day

Willy Wonka and Violet Beauregard

This week George was asked to share his favourite book with his class on Zoom for World Book Day. We had a hard time narrowing it down, so I thought I’d share a top 5 here, with brief recommendations. I’m intentionally leaving out the big names that were in the top 10–-Julia Donaldson, Roald Dahl, Michael Bond’s Paddington series—because nobody needs a recommendation for those. My friends with kids will recognise some of these titles, because I love giving kids books!

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We found this book at a charity shop in Skipton and we absolutely love it. It’s so darkly funny and cute, and it has a good lesson about the importance of eating your food!

This was from a brilliant independent bookshop in Chapel Allerton that specialises in children’s books, The Little Bookshop. (They’re still doing online orders in lockdown—I got some books for Paul’s birthday and they arrived super fast!) I just love putting on my pirate accent for Pirate Pete and his parrot. There are 3 Pirate Pete books and we love them all!

Richard found this one at an independent bookshop in Ambleside, and I read it to George on the Lake Windermere ferry and instantly loved it. It’s so funny and clever, with great illustrations and a lovely message about kindness.

Jonny Duddle’s pirate books are bestsellers but I couldn’t leave them out—I just love them! Great illustrations, darkly funny rhymes and awesome lessons about NIMBY-ism and prejudice.

George actually picked this one as his favourite book to share, and I love it, too! It’s another charity shop find—it was a Scottish BookTrust gift and the 2011 winner of the Roald Dahl Funny Book prize. It’s very clever and funny, a great choice for fans of pirates and/or cats (we love both!).

Vaccine Diplomacy and Global Inequality

I’ve seen a few opinion pieces recently about “vaccine diplomacy”, how countries are using the COVID-19 vaccines as part of their foreign relations. The term “vaccine diplomacy” is uncomfortable and unethical–it seems incredibly wrong to use a much-needed medical resource as a bargaining chip. The world has been pinning its hopes for a return to normalcy on the development and distribution of vaccines, but global inequalities mean that a few countries have millions of surplus doses while “some 130 countries in the world haven’t done any vaccinations at all.” (BBC). Ahead of the G7 summit, Boris Johnson pledged that the UK would share its surplus vaccines with the developing world through Covax. Emmanuel Macron announced that 5% of France’s vaccines would go to poorer countries, and directly tied this move to diplomatic interests. “It’s an unprecedented acceleration of global inequality and it’s politically unsustainable too because it’s paving the way for a war of influence over vaccines…You can see the Chinese strategy, and the Russian strategy too.” China and Russia were quick to share PPE with poorer countries last year, when supplies were scarce, and they’ve already begun sharing vaccines, too. The US has contributed funding (it was one of Biden’s first moves as President), but is waiting for its own population to be vaccinated before donating surplus vaccines. This cautious approach is understandable, but might be shortsighted. As a recent New York Times op-ed put it, “Poor countries will remember who came to their assistance, and when.” It’s important for the US to look like part of the solution and live up to new President Biden’s rhetoric.

Sharing the vaccine is a way for wealthy countries to generate some goodwill, but beneath this veneer of altruism there is also basic self-interest at play. The pandemic will not be resolved anywhere until it is resolved everywhere. Vaccinating on a global scale is the only way out of the pandemic, and it requires unprecedented levels of international cooperation and, crucially, investment.

Covax is the largest effort in this area, aiming to guarantee fair and equitable access to the vaccine for every country in the world.

Unfortunately it is underfunded, despite contributions from wealthy countries that have made headlines. In the recent G7 leaders’ statement, they “reaffirm [their] support for ACT-A and COVAX…” yet “collective G7 support totals $7.5 billion.” That’s not nearly enough. It’s tiny compared to the amount of money that the billionaire class has made over the past year. According to a recent Oxfam report, the world’s 10 richest men became $540 billion richer during the pandemic. Some of them are contributing to COVID-19 recovery–the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which was already active in vaccine programmes before the pandemic, contributed $1.75 billion. But others are not contributing on that scale, further highlighting the inequalities that increased their wealth while billions around the world became poorer–and the G7 countries could certainly do more.

There are also concerns about the effectiveness of COVAX, given that it is not aiming for universal vaccination. Even if it were to be fully funded, it may not go far enough.

“...even if the Covax plan works, it’s only designed to cover 20% of each nation’s population – far short of the herd immunity expected in wealthy countries.”

Covid vaccines: Boris Johnson pledges surplus to poorer countries at G7, BBC, 19 February 2021

COVAX is certainly the right idea, but it needs even more international cooperation and financial commitment. Resolving the pandemic demands major restructuring and reform, on a global scale. This piece in the BMJ recommended a number of international institutional reforms aimed at more equitable governance. “The shared disaster of the covid-19 pandemic has drawn attention to the many regressive realities of our world, each one calling for immediate reform in the governance of global health. Without such measures, the unfair, extractive, and regressive patterns of the past will continue to plague the present.” Learning these lessons could help us face future pandemics and confront other shared problems, like climate change. While the wealthy countries have a duty to take the lead in terms of funding, they should also ensure equal participation and include voices from every country in the process of solving this global public health crisis. As former Under-Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Tara Sonenshine wrote in The Hill last week, “COVID-19 presents a rare opportunity to return to “soft diplomacy” and seeing the world as a global community with shared problems and shared solutions.”

The Toxic Positivity of Instagram Motherhood

Ever since Instagram changed its format to include more “suggested” posts and hiding previously viewed posts, I’ve been seeing more “motherhood” (for want of a better term) posts. Lots of postpartum “inspiration” (prompting either weight loss or the “body positivity” I mentioned in my last post), lots of “it’s tough but so worth it”, and lots of “the kids drive mommy to drink” jokes (incredibly problematic for anyone who’s actually had alcoholism in their family!).

The most common thing the algorithm throws at me, though, is toxic positivity. In the Instagram “motherhood” world, it’s all about cherishing every moment because they are fleeting. It’s about celebrating being a “Mama” even—or especially—when it’s hard.

No, when you feel like that, seek help! Reach out to a friend, family member, partner, or find a therapist. Find some support, whether it’s arranging childcare so you have some respite or just venting to a nonjudgmental listener. Don’t put that weight of your emotional well-being on your baby—when they become independent or ask for Dada, your world will collapse!

Instagram motherhood is pretty all-consuming. Even when they challenge that idea and recognise that mothers might want something more, it’s presented as being “allowed” to want more, as in the post below:

On the one hand, yes, that’s true—mothers should have their own dreams outside of motherhood. Nice message for moms who might feel lost or unsupported in their dreams. On the other hand, try swapping out “motherhood” for “fatherhood” in this post. It’s darkly hilarious to think that a man would feel guilty for wanting more than fatherhood, that he would need to hear that he’s “allowed” to have dreams that are just for him. And that dissonance is what bothers me about the pseudo-inspirational content on Instagram. It seems lovely until you stop scrolling and pause to think critically about it.

Here are some parenting-oriented Instagrammers that post great stuff:

Hilariously honest parenting stories with some politics and relationship humour mixed in
I discovered Pregnant Chicken before having kids—brilliant resource for real, trustworthy information and it’s seriously funny
Mom blogger Oakley is genuine and lovely, sweet without being saccharine.

What I’m Reading: The Body is not an Apology by Sonya Renee Taylor

Oh my. This book is short but dense and very rich. It’s like cheesecake.

It’s like a self-help book grew up and became a political manifesto.

Activist and author Sonya Renee Taylor was a guest on Brené Brown’s podcast back in September and it was brilliant. Their conversation was so full of “Aha!” moments. One that’s really stuck with me was the observation that we celebrate biodiversity as a concept in nature yet we shame differences in human bodies.

“…what’s interesting is we believe that in so many other areas of the natural world, and we don’t believe it in the human world, and that’s the thing I find fascinating. We believe it about trees, we believe it about dogs, and cows, and grasses, the variety and nuance of all of those things. We expect there to be millions of different kinds of trees.” (Sonya Renee Taylor)

“In order to have a thriving world, a thriving ecosystem that works in harmony, we need variance. We recognize that. We know that innately. And yet, because we are so far away from our own sense of inherent knowing of our enoughness, we’ve constructed a world where that’s not true for our bodies.” (Sonya Renee Taylor)

Brown, B. (Host). (2020, September 16). Brené with Sonya Renee Taylor on “The Body is Not an Apology” [Audio podcast episode]. In Unlocking Us with Brené Brown. Cadence13. https://brenebrown.com/podcast/brene-with-sonya-renee-taylor-on-the-body-is-not-an-apology/ 

As a former science team nerd who loved biology, this blew my mind. There’s excitement about the differences we see in nature–when scientists discover a new species, they catalogue how and why it’s unique, and there’s no “shaming” or “othering” involved. Why can’t we be like that about humans?

I was very excited to finally read the book when the 2nd edition was released last week and I’ve nearly finished it already. It’s hard to summarise, but I would say the central takeaway is that it’s about loving (not just accepting) our bodies and other people’s bodies, and recognising that there is no hierarchy of bodies. There is no right way to have a body. We all have one–it is the one thing that unites us all. The political implications of understanding this are massive–if we love ourselves and others, it stands to reason that we must love (not just “accept”) those whose bodies are different from our own. We must work to eradicate racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, etc. Loving our bodies also means taking power away from what Taylor calls the Body-Shame Profit Complex–the massive transnational industry that profits from our desire to change our bodies. Consumers are constantly being told their bodies are wrong, either directly through advertising or through the erasure of different kinds of bodies in our media. The default is a young, thin, white, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied person, and the further away from that default you are, the less likely you are to see yourself in the media. This is something we’ve discussed a bit in my Critical Issues in Media Theory module, but this book has inspired me to read up on it further. The book also takes it further–it’s not just an interesting point in a media theory textbook, it’s a call to action. Taylor’s work is revolutionary in its call for a different world, one where the hierarchy of bodies and the Body-Shame Profit Complex are dismantled and people can live in their bodies unapologetically.

The book also incorporated the concept of compassion–it surprisingly linked to & built on Kristin Neff’s Self-Compassion that I’ve written about previously. I loved this passage about what body shame does to us:

(Taylor, 2021, p. 80)

One of the more painful but necessary exercises in the book is to think about the origins of our body shame–the times we were “berated and abused by others,” as she mentions here. Taylor gives examples of children being teased or overhearing parents’ concerns about their child’s weight, etc. Thinking back over my own experiences, I can vividly recall an incident when I was in 1st grade, age 6, when my classmate Kendra referred to me as fat and I remember being stunned and not understanding why she would say that (it didn’t have anything to do with what we were talking about), but also feeling ashamed and embarrassed about getting called fat–even at age 6, I knew it was an insult. There was also a time in 3rd grade when a little boy on the playground made fun of my “chubby cheeks” and I slapped him across the face. I’ve always been self-conscious about my “chubby cheeks”–reading up on hairstyles for round faces and what I can do with make-up and contouring and the right shape of sunglasses to wear–all to fix this flaw that some random little boy drew my attention to when I was 8. It was also when I started journalling, and it breaks my heart to read over my first journal entries about dieting and exercise plans, written in the messy scrawl of an 8-year-old. I came up with food rules like “No hot dogs”, which is actually pretty nutritionally sound advice. But I wish I had spent that time playing, reading, drawing, writing stories, etc. instead of designing diets that didn’t work and tracking my weight and measuring my waist and thighs and upper arms. I can look back now with compassion and love, and tell myself that Kendra and that boy were just projecting internalised body-shaming messages they picked up from parents/media/society, etc. If it hadn’t been my weight, bullies would have found something else to make fun of. There was never actually anything wrong with me.

The concept of radical self-love is what sets this book apart. It’s not the typical “body positivity” content you see on social media–the “brave” make-up free selfies, the bikini pics that show off stretch marks and “flaws”, etc. To be honest, I’m so tired of that content. It’s very common in postpartum Instagram posts–so “brave”, so “real”, showing the world that your pregnancy belly doesn’t disappear overnight, and women celebrating their “tiger stripes”. I don’t like this kind of thing for several reasons:

  1. Suggesting that showing your body off on a public Instagram page is “brave” implies that those who don’t engage in that kind of content are not brave. I’m not “scared” or “ashamed”–I just don’t want to post pics of myself in my underwear, and I wouldn’t have done it before having a baby, either! There’s nothing “brave” about wearing a bikini–I’ve literally never worn one in my life at any age, weight, pre-/post-baby, and I don’t think that makes me a coward.
  2. The Duchess of Cambridge also showed the world that your bump doesn’t instantly disappear after childbirth–but she did it fully dressed. Not necessary to bare it all. Also, the trend of showing this “real” side off on social media just proves how invisible the postpartum experience is in the media–people know what a pregnant woman looks like, but not what she looks like after the baby arrives. If television and movies accurately portrayed it, mothers wouldn’t feel compelled to engage in these posts.
  3. I had stretch marks long before having kids. They happen during puberty, another time in your life when your skin has to stretch quickly. Men have stretch marks. They are not tied to motherhood, and linking them with motherhood just body shames women who have stretchmarks but haven’t had kids (i.e. what’s their excuse for having this flaw?).

Taylor talks about how her editor became a radical self-love convert after working with her on the manuscript. He even suggested using the cover photo, which Taylor initially was hesitant about using. Admittedly, it’s not the kind of book I would have picked up—it sounds like the kind of body positivity stuff I don’t like, and that cover photo made me think it was referring to a different kind of “self-love”… But the book isn’t about that, or about a self-serving “body positivity” trend. It’s so much more political and transformative than that!

Work in progress

On January 4th, I had an afternoon to myself and took these pictures of my manual discourse analysis work-in-progress. I was excited to get back to my research after the long Christmas break—and then that night, the lockdown was announced and schools were closed. I haven’t touched my research since, and it’s been getting me down. I’m sharing this now, and the end of the month with no end to the lockdown in sight, because it’s a way to put some thoughts down on paper and share the research process, in all its slow, frustrating reality.

These little slips of paper are tweets from members of Congress about the Parkland shooting. The ones in this set are tweets that used “praying”, but not the exact phrase “thoughts and prayers.” They’re almost all initial reactions—the first tweet posted about Parkland, and posted on the day of the shooting. They’re also almost exclusively Republican members of Congress. I grouped them by common words and phrases, and found many similarities. Several seemed to fit into a template for crisis tweeting.

Please join me in praying for (insert victims here) and brave first responders at the tragic (insert event) today in (insert state here).
Devastating tragedy.
Horrible, saddening tragedy.
Horrific.
Terrible and terrifying.

When you assemble these reactions, it all seems so formulaic. I’m picking on the GOP in this example, but the Democrats were formulaic in their responses, too—most had some version of “Enough is enough,” “Congress needs to take real action,” “Thoughts and prayers are meaningless without action.” The difference is, after the formulaic initial reaction tweets on February 14th and 15th, the Democrats kept talking about gun violence and the Republicans stopped. For many Republican members of Congress, that initial tweet was the only one they posted all month, until the passage of the STOP Act on 14 March, a school security funding bill that did little to address school shootings. Republicans tweeted about the STOP act as evidence that they were “doing something,” that they were listening to constituents’ calls for action on gun control. I’m going to get more into this when I do the content analysis part of the study, but it’s very interesting to see partisan trends and differences.

For the discourse analysis here, I want to look at how they talk about the school shooting:

  • What do they call it? Shooting, attack, tragedy, event, etc. all have different connotations.
  • Do they call for action? If so, what kind? There’s a spectrum from passive “thoughts and prayers” to legislative actions.
  • Who are they referring to? The victims, survivors, first responders, etc. each reflect a different experience of the shooting.

Looking forward to getting back to work on it again soon!

What I’m Listening to: How I Built This with Guy Raz

I discovered this NPR podcast after hearing an interview with Guy Raz on Brené Brown’s podcast—very meta—and I just love it. Now that we’re in lockdown again I don’t get to listen to podcasts as much—it was my post-school-run routine, walking while the baby napped, listening to podcasts. This morning I ran errands alone and listened to the Chicken Salad Chick episode of How I Built This, and it was so good!

I love biographies and learning the stories behind companies we all know—one of my favourite Oprah Super Soul episodes was with Starbucks’ Howard Schultz. I was fascinated by the way his upbringing and life experiences shaped his views and, ultimately, shaped the company. How I Built This is like that episode but for dozens of different companies. The lovely thing about podcasts is that you can pick and choose which ones you want to listen to and skip the rest.

The show has taught me a lot about how our lives can quickly change direction, how businesses succeed and fail, how hard the system is for people who really do start with nothing. The Chicken Salad Chick is a great example—a recently divorced mom making chicken salad out of her kitchen and selling it door-to-door. She overcame the logistical challenges of earning money while taking care of her 3 kids, and her business was doing great—then the health department shut it down because she wasn’t using a commercial kitchen. Well who has the money to rent a commercial kitchen when they’re starting out? People with money or loans (which require collateral)—the system makes you “speculate to accumulate,” which means entrepreneurship is for the privileged.

This was posted on Lamebook as a joke, but I have actually been thinking about this for awhile—the concept of garage start-ups and the privilege of having access to an empty garage.

If you have a garage, you have a home and/or supportive home owners who let you use the space. You don’t hear about people starting a business in a studio apartment.

If it’s not full already, and there’s room for a startup (for inventory and communications equipment, for record keeping, etc.), then it’s a big enough home to store all of the usual garage stuff somewhere else (basement, attic, sheds, etc.).

That’s privileged. We need to stop holding up examples like Amazon and Apple as something attainable, if only we had the hustle that Jeff Bezos or Steve Jobs had. It’s about more than a garage and entrepreneurial spirit.

The biggest takeaway from this podcast for me has been that the struggle is normal and it’s an essential part of the process. Every entrepreneur on the show has faced setbacks. I loved the Famous Dave’s Barbecue interview—Dave Anderson faced rejection from the company he created, and I can’t imagine how painful that would be. But it all worked out in the end (no spoilers!), and he’s happy. His attitude was inspiring and refreshing, not at all hokey.

The next episode on my list is Chipotle—I’m vicariously getting my fix of all the American foods I miss!

Thoughts on the MAGA insurrection

On Wednesday night, I watched the news of the attack on the US Capitol in disgust. Like everyone else, I’ve been trying to process it all and follow the news, and deal with living in a pandemic, and as of last week, do distance learning in lockdown again. So I’m writing this reaction fairly late, but that’s given the story time to develop–people have been arrested, impeachment charges have been presented, etc.

One of the (many) things that upset me was the way Trump supporters refused to believe their eyes and claimed that it was really antifa who were behind the attack. They had infiltrated the demonstration, supposedly, just to undermine the MAGA cause. Fox News perpetuated the claim, and I saw it in the comments on friends’ Facebook posts about the attack. How can you possibly reason with people who deny reality like that? It was very clearly a mob of Trump supporters, fully decked out in MAGA hats and t-shirts, waving Trump flags (and Confederate flags, and Back the Blue flags…). If they were antifa, they spent a lot of money on Trump merch. Another hint at their identity: they came from a Trump rally at the Ellipse, where Trump told them to march to the Capitol and fight. The people identified and arrested so far have all been Trump supporters, Q-Anon adherents, white supremacists, etc. I haven’t heard any follow-up from people who pushed those antifa claims, so I don’t know if those people have changed their mind, or just stopped talking about it now.

The more that comes out about the attack, the more obvious it is–this was planned, politically motivated violence, also known as terrorism. Rep. Espaillat just shared this piece from the New York Post that’s worth a quick read, highlighting black Capitol Police officers’ accounts.

Another officer, who is a newer recruit, described being forced to engage in hand-to-hand combat with the rioters, some of whom hurled Blue Lives Matter flags at them.

“We were telling them to back up and get away and stop, and they’re telling us, they are on our side, and they’re doing this for us, and they’re saying this as I’m getting punched in my face by one of them,” he told the outlet.

Jackie Salo, Black Capitol Police officers say DC rioters repeatedly used N-word, New York Post. 10 January 2021.

This is just incredible–but completely believable and unsurprising. “They’re doing this for us”–these rioters genuinely believe they are supporting police by fighting for Trump’s re-election, because they (wrongly) see the “Black Lives Matter” movement as anti-police. Even the “Defund the Police” sentiment is not anti-police–it’s simply saying that police are relied upon to do things they aren’t equipped to do, and that funding should be redirected to social workers, mental health professionals, etc.

It’s been a hard week. I hold some hope for the impeachment–whether it actually happens or not, it’s a part of accountability, like all of the arrests we’ve been seeing. It’s a clear statement that the mob didn’t get away with it, and neither will Trump.

One of the things I always think about in these moments is how it makes America look to the rest of the world. The U.S. exports democracy around the world, with its public diplomacy and traditional diplomacy, and these events undermine those efforts (to say the least…they reveal/highlight U.S. hypocrisy). On Wednesday night, I took screenshots of Spain’s El Mundo, France’s Le Monde, and Germany’s Der Spiegel.

El Mundo identified the mob as “followers of Trump”, and leads with the woman in critical condition after being shot, who became the first fatality of the attack.

These images are just disgusting–the beautiful U.S. Capitol building, a sacred space that most Americans will never get to see in person, a symbol of democracy, being overrun by a mob (wearing shorts that actually violate rules about displaying the U.S. flag). Many commentators picked up on the fact that these terrorists brought the Confederate flag into the U.S. Capitol, something that had never happened before–not even during the Civil War.

Le Monde also identified the mob as Trump supporters–“partisans”, adherents, supporters, partisans. They mention the rally in “the centre of the capital, to hear a speech from the Republican President at the moment when Congress began to certify the results of the election.” I think it was some hours before the media started talking about the rally, and it definitely wasn’t until the next day that we heard Trump’s rally speech, with its incitement to “never give up”, “go to the Capitol”, “fight”, “be strong”, etc.

The German term for a Trump supporter is by far my favourite–Anhänger is the word for follower or supporter, but it’s also pendant or tag–literally just like it sounds, “hanging on”. They’re “Trump-hangers-on”.

Let’s hope they will be quickly brought to justice, Trump and his hangers-on.

UK Erasmus Exchanges are the Latest Victim of Brexit

Brexit is in the news again, after months of being pushed aside by COVID-19. As of tomorrow, the UK is officially, for real this time, out of the European Union. The government has finally reached an agreement with the EU, and while we don’t fully know the implications of leaving, there was one bit of news that has special relevance for exchange diplomacy–the UK is leaving Erasmus+, the EU’s educational exchange programme. Founded in 1987, the programme has had over 10 million participants, across 4,000 institutions in 37 countries.

Despite the fact that we’ve all known Brexit was coming since 24 June 2016, this news was still a bit of a shock. As recently as this year, Boris Johnson was saying that international educational exchanges would be maintained and that Brexit wouldn’t interfere with Erasmus. But like many other aspects of leaving the European Union, this hasn’t quite turned out the way anyone expected.

Young people are obviously the hardest hit by the move, and that’s particularly unfair because today’s undergraduates were too young to vote in 2016. The much-cited “youth vote” (who are now 22-28, 4 years on) went overwhelmingly for remain in the EU referendum. It also has bigger impacts though, beyond just taking funding away from students who wanted to go abroad. Erasmus+ had opportunities for lecturers and researchers, for working abroad, for teacher training, for short-term exchanges–it was a comprehensive programme with a lot to offer the UK generally.

It’s not only going to impact people who wanted to go abroad themselves, either. As The New York Times points out, this move damages our universities and UK soft power, too.

The withdrawal is also a blow for Britain’s vaunted universities, a powerful symbol of its soft power in Europe and around the world, and an important source of income for the country. Britain remains second only to the United States as a destination for international students, but leaving Erasmus could deter many E.U. students who might have used the program as a pathway to a British education.

While this may not affect renowned institutions like Oxford or Cambridge, scores of lesser-known universities could suffer a blow.

Elian Peltier, Britain Mourns a Cherished Education Program Ended by Brexit, New York Times, 29 December 2020

The announcement of the UK’s “Brexiting” Erasmus+ came with the promise of a new funding scheme for exchanges, named after Alan Turing. The scheme is for UK students only (not lecturers/researchers or foreign participants like Erasmus+), and includes destination countries outside of Europe. It’s proposed to start in September 2021, and on a much smaller scale than Erasmus+ with just 35,000 participants.

In some ways, Brexit feels like old news–it was all that was talked about until the pandemic happened, all we heard about during Theresa May’s tenure, and all Boris Johnson campaigned on in the last election. But now that it’s happening, (again), and we’re seeing lorry drivers miss Christmas with their families in queues in Kent, and seeing young people lose funding to study abroad during a time when, to be honest, school and university experiences have been the worst ever, it all feels pretty miserable. I don’t know many people who voted to leave in 2016, but I’m pretty sure they didn’t vote for this.

What I’m Reading: Self-Compassion by Dr. Kristin Neff

I’m not even finished reading this book, but I’ve found it really helpful and wanted to share it now because I know it’s such a difficult time of year for so many people.

I found Kristin Neff’s work through another favourite author, Brené Brown. In The Gifts of Imperfection, which could be the topic of at least 10 blog posts (maybe a project for next year?), Brown directs her readers to Kristin Neff’s website for a Self-Compassion Test. I took it when I was reading Brown’s book, and my results were so low and sad, I immediately ordered Neff’s book.

Self-compassion is basically treating yourself with the same kind of compassion that you would treat other people. One of the early practical exercises in the book is to write a letter to yourself as if you were talking to a friend. Objectively, I can recognise that I would never be as critical or judgmental towards a friend as I am towards myself, but the letter exercise really did shift something in my perspective. I beat myself up so much about my career failures–my self-talk goes something like this: “I’m 35 and I’ve never had a full-time job. I apply to jobs and don’t even get shortlisted. My CV is apparently not marketable and nobody wants to hire me. Nobody thinks I have anything to contribute. I’ve wasted my entire adult life in grad school accumulating massive debts that I can never repay because I don’t have any marketable skills or experience.”

Now, if a friend came to me with news about getting yet another job rejection e-mail, I would not even think any of these things–much less say them out loud! I would say comforting things, tell them I’m sorry to hear it, remind them how lousy the job market is right now, buy them a coffee, remind them of all of the good things they have going on in their life, etc. I would be compassionate.

Before reading The Gifts of Imperfection, I wouldn’t have considered myself a perfectionist, but I actually am–it’s less about being “Type A” and more about fearing judgment and linking self-worth to accomplishments, which I 100% do. This past year of being unemployed has forced me to work through my perfectionism, because being unemployed is the most imperfect thing in my view. I would be more compassionate towards people with drug addiction, failed relationships, etc. than I would to myself and my situation. Getting a PhD and failing to get a job feels shameful. And I’m sharing this because as Brené Brown tells us, shame cannot survive being spoken.

Still working through things and trying to be more self-compassionate, but it feels good to have Neff’s tools as we go into the new year.

Thanksgiving in Lockdown: Advice from Abroad

For most Americans, Thanksgiving is going to be different this year –and PSA: if it’s not going to be different, maybe you should cancel your plans and make it different! Canada’s early Thanksgiving resulted in a big spike of COVID-19 cases–Americans should look at this example and opt to stay home (and Brits should learn from it re: Christmas gatherings, too, but Boris is trying to figure out a way to “save Christmas”–we shall see).

Source: Time

Airline travel figures are about half of what they were the weekend before Thanksgiving last year, so even though headlines (rightly) decry “Millions of Americans Traveling for Thanksgiving, Ignoring CDC advice“, it’s good to see that millions are also staying home and following CDC advice. The Macy’s Parade is going to be downsized to one block and only televised performances, with no spectators. Thanksgiving day football is still going ahead somehow–3 NFL games, yet we can’t actually meet up in person…

I’ve spent 12 out of the last 14 Thanksgivings in the UK–sometimes alone, sometimes with friends, sometimes just with my husband, and now with our kids (it’s Paul’s first Thanksgiving!). I know what it’s like to have a weird Thanksgiving, to miss home and friends and family, to miss certain foods you can’t get hold of, to miss the Macy’s Parade (the time difference means I’ve often watched previous years’ parades on YouTube while cooking!). These experiences have given me some brilliant coping skills that I want to share as some of you go through a weird Thanksgiving for the first time:

Modify your menu!

The best part about a scaled-down Thanksgiving is that you can make only what you want–no more, no less. Growing up, our Thanksgiving table was loaded with so much amazing food–enough to feed our whole extended family and still provide leftovers for weeks. When I started cooking Thanksgiving abroad, it occurred to me that I didn’t have to recreate that same menu. If something felt like more work than it was worth (yeast rolls from scratch), I could use store bought–or simply cut them out altogether! I don’t have them any more, and I really haven’t missed them.

This weird Thanksgiving is also an opportunity to try a new recipe–something you probably wouldn’t risk if you were feeding a big crowd. If you’re bored with mashed potatoes, there are a million other ways to prepare them. You can even leave them out entirely–I stopped making mashed potatoes for Thanksgiving because they’re not really special when you live in ‘pie & mash’ country. Growing up, I was not a fan of the marshmallow-topped sweet potato/yam/”hot dish”, so I don’t make that. I make sweet potatoes with a Paula Deen recipe that doesn’t have marshmallows but does include butter, brown sugar, and Jack Daniels. This author is making an all-side-dishes feast that sounds fabulous. Embrace the freedom to modify your menu!

You can make a meal for whatever dietary needs you have–gluten free, dairy free, vegan, nut free, etc. For some people, this might be the first Thanksgiving where they can finally relax and not have to worry about explaining their dietary requirements and fielding jokes about being an awkward dinner guest. For a vegan/vegetarian main dish option, I love a good chestnut-mushroom pie. This version is vegan, while this one has Gruyere cheese so it’s just vegetarian, not vegan. Don’t waste your time doing anything sad with roasted cauliflower or tofu in the shape of a turkey–Thanksgiving deserves better than that, and you deserve better than that.

For the traditional turkey eaters, I highly recommend getting a turkey crown instead of a whole turkey. It’s the breast meat, so you still get a beautiful centerpiece and the “look” of a roast turkey, without the excess of leftovers. I use Nigella’s method of brining my turkey crown and it’s always amazingly juicy and full of flavor, never dry and boring like most turkey breast. Another crucial tip is to leave it out and let the turkey come to room temperature before it goes in your preheated oven. This makes your cooking time more accurate, which reduces the risk of overcooking and drying it out. I don’t remember if I learned that one from Jamie Oliver or Paula Deen, but it’s key!

Enjoy Socially-distanced Togetherness with Video Chat and/or Texts

If Thanksgiving won’t feel like Thanksgiving without a certain loved one, there’s always video calling. I recreate cooking together by talking to my mom about making her cornbread dressing or her pie crust recipe, but you can do whatever helps you. Maybe your family always plays a board game together after Thanksgiving dinner–do it via zoom. Watch a film at the same time and text each other your inside jokes that you’d normally be saying out loud. Send each other memes! Every time a friend or family member sends me a meme, I know they were thinking of me, and it shortens the distance to laugh at the same things together.

Focus on the positives

Obviously, some people have been through hell this year, losing jobs and losing loved ones–I’m not pushing “toxic positivity” on them. But for the majority of Americans whose biggest frustration is having to wear a mask in a supermarket, I think it’s important to focus on gratitude–the actual meaning of the holiday!

There was a great Oprah quote about gratitude–if you’re breathing, be grateful that you’re breathing. And if you need a machine to breathe, be thankful that you’ve got the machine! Start with the basics and work your way up. We used to have to go around the table every year and name something we were grateful for–recreate that, and write your answers down in a diary or journal. Look back on them at times when you don’t feel like being grateful.

Feel the weirdness and do it anyway!

I know a lot of people won’t feel like celebrating this year. I’ve been there, too–in 2008 I had pizza for Thanksgiving dinner. But marking the day in some small way can help make this crazy year seem a little bit better. Maybe read Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation and think about the circumstances of its creation as an official holiday. America was even more divided then (during an actual civil war) than it is now! For a more lighthearted approach, watch a classic TV special like Charlie Brown’s Thanksgiving or Garfield’s Thanksgiving, or start in on the Christmas movies–Miracle on 34th Street opens with the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, making it a great choice for kicking off the holiday season on Thursday.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Little Pilgrim George at Thanksgiving 2016, one of my 2 spent in America over the past 14 years