Year End: Community, intentionality, and scalability

Year-end: I was talking to Kevin in bed last night, about some of our friends who have gone through really tough times this last year, and said, “That’s one thing I can say for our 2019, at least — no major personal losses or traumas.”

Not a small blessing, and my thoughts and heart go out to everyone who is struggling this year. It’s part of the human condition, to suffer loss — if you love, you will eventually lose, one way or another. And yet we choose to love, over and over. We bring people and animals into our lives, knowing what the end must be.

My family was lucky this year. But old losses reverberate down the years, and trauma leaves its mark on mind and heart. I’m clearly still dealing with the trauma of cancer diagnosis and (successful) treatment, almost five years later, still reacting in a sort of panicked, instinctive way that leads me to emotional choices, rather than reasoned ones.

Often I feel like I have to write *all* the books, right now. I’m frequently floundering in a morass of impulses and notes and changes of direction. Don’t even ask me how many books I have in progress right now. (More than two dozen. I know, I know.)

Some of the emotional choices work out — I’m not sorry I wrote the cookbook, though A Feast of Serendib has consumed far more of my time and energy and mental space than I ever expected. Other books have been pushed aside for that, and I didn’t make that choice consciously.

I can’t even tell you exactly why I ended up working so intensively on that book over the last few years. I’ve traced out some of the reasons, I think — connecting myself and my children to Sri Lankan heritage. Researching and learning more about Sri Lankan foodways, before and after the war. Reconnecting to the woman my mother was while I was growing up, the work she valued and with which she had tremendous skill.

Feeding my community has been intensely satisfying — in a time of national turmoil, it’s been a great comfort having plenty of food on hand from all the cooking experiments to send out to new parents, sick friends, total strangers who are struggling in a hard economy. I can’t fix their larger traumas, but I can ease their days a little. It’s not nothing.

Much of 2019 has been a growing realization that I can’t actually fix everything. I can’t do everything. That’s meant putting some projects down, handing them off to other people with hopefully more capacity than I have right now. It’s also meant trying to take more time to refill my well. Blocking out time in the calendar on a regular basis for old friends and new. Investing time and undivided attention in relationships, in my family. Not scheduling meetings two days / week, mostly so I have mental space to just think.

I’m still not where I want to be. I managed to get the cookbook out, just barely, by the end of the year, and I managed to build in some of the quiet time and relationship time I wanted this fall. But that happened at the expense of exercise, and generative creative writing, and I’m really feeling the loss of both. I got sick a lot more this fall than I have in years, and I think it’s directly connected to stopping exercise when the semester started. Counterproductive!

So next year will start with an effort to build both exercise and creative writing back in. (I got back on the treadmill last night, for the first time in months. Weight-lifting comes back today.) If that means production overall slows down even more — so be it. I stopped using fitness tracking programs at some point, and as a result, mostly stopped actively improving fitness, so I’m going back to those. Going to start posting in my little FB fitness group again too. (‘Olympians’ — come join us…)

I’m also going back to using the little programs that turn off the internet on my devices; I’m not even sure why I stopped. It just happened, when I wasn’t looking. Sneaky.

Mostly, I’m thinking a lot about two things these days: intentionality and scalability.

Intentionality means spending my hours / days / weeks / years the way I actually want to. I’ve been making a lot of emotional choices about my life and writing, and emotion is good and useful, but I’d like it to be a little more guided. Whether it’s running for office again, or writing a science fiction epic, or doubling down on food and travel writing, I’d like the next year to start with conscious, thought-out choices.

Intentionality also says I’d also like to spend a little less time on mindless video games and TV and the internet, for myself and the kids. It’s so easy to get sucked in and be entertained, and during stressful times, I find myself doing a lot more of that. Mindless phone games suck away the hours.

Sometimes that can be a great relief, or simply fun. But too often, I think it’s counterproductive for me — if I spend 30 minutes first, dealing with the e-mail I’ve become avoidant about, I’ll feel so much better than if I numb myself with a game. Often, I’ll just keep going with the e-mail processing, too, once started — I’ll want to, and it’ll feel good. A virtuous cycle. The same thing with creative writing.

I need to re-implement hacks and habits to just get me past the initial inertial hump. I’ve done it before; I even know what works. Just need to start doing it again. Light a candle and make some tea. Leave the phone in the charging drawer. Put on a sports bra and sneakers when I get dressed in the morning, so I can just jump on a treadmill when I feel like it. When I’m feeling panicky and overwhelmed, make a to-do list. Take a bath. Etc.

Scalability is a concept I’m just starting to think about. But it’s why I’ve shifted my attention with the SLF from Maram Makerspace (which is primarily a local effort) to the Portolan Project (an international, very scalable, project). It’s why I’ve hired some part time staff, so I can job out some of the work that other people can do, keeping my attention and time on parts only I can do. (And if you can spare $2 / month to join us, I’d really appreciate the extra help. Details at

Scalability is why I want to spend more time developing a precise recipe for milk toffee, than I do making batches of milk toffee to sell. While I love the artisanal crafting process, and some of that is necessary and intrinsic to doing the work well, in the end, I can only share my handmade goods with a few people. I can share a recipe or a food essay with the world.

Starting the OPRF Garden Club FB group has done far more for the gardening community here than I could have accomplished just offering my own advice. I’m hoping Oak Park Area Neighbors FB group, that I just started a few months ago, will do similarly in terms of extending community care. I’m loving creating structures that let communities share expertise, time, energy, and care.

That’s where I am at the end of this year, this decade. Counting my blessings, coping with the traumas, supporting my community, both intimate and international, telling the stories that only I can tell.

Always thinking about how to do all of that better, in more intentional, scalable ways. I can’t do everything, but maybe the things I can do, can be chosen more carefully, and can reach a little further.

Love to you all at the turning of the year, and best wishes for a brilliant decade to come. Rest now. Work soon.

We can do so much better, together.

– M


P.S. Thanks to Kevin WhyteJed HartmanRoshani AnandappaBenjamin RosenbaumKel BachusMargaret Treanor FreyLisette BrossLori Rader-DayValerie TobinNara NayarAmanda DalyAlex Gurevich , Elaine Martyn, and Angeline Martyn, to name just a few of the people who’ve helped me talk through and think through these issues in the last year.

And to my sisters Mir Mo Ga and Sharms and many many cousins, all of whom are a source of delight, insight, and inspiration on the rare occasions when we get to spend time; I hope to do more of that in the coming year. Such an awesome family.

Love you all. You are my therapy.

(Also, I’m going to get a proper therapist in January, I swear. 

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