Lean Out: A Conversation with Tara Henley

A  few weeks ago, I couldn't read, so overwhelmed by the anxiety of the current moment, obsessively scrolling news feeds, desperately seeking answers to find a way out of so much fear. Books—once my refuge, my safest harbour—were impossible to focus on, reading almost didn't seem relevant any more...but then I picked up Tara Henley's Lean Out: A Meditation on the Madness of Modern Life, and it brought me back to books and reading in the most amazing way—what a gift.

This is truly a book for the moment, and for the future. And it was a pleasure to get to ask Henley some questions about her work.

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49th Shelf: In your book, you include a quote about there being two kinds of girls: "Those who read Madeleine L'Engle when they were small, and those who didn't." But there IS another kind—because I'm the kind of girl who spent last year reading all the Vicky Austin books (The Young Unicorns, OMG!). Your book also includes an epigraph from L'Engle. Can you talk about her work, and how it has informed your approach to your own book? 

Tara Henley: I consider anyone who reads Madeleine L’Engle, at any time, to be a kindred spirit! I read her books during formative years, and her writing shaped how I thought about the world and my place in it. L’Engle radically expanded my vision for my life. Her YA novels were peopled by writers and scientists, doctors and priests and concert pianists. Reading L’Engle’s work, I felt the vastness of human experience, its wonder and its limitless possibility—but also its darkness.

L’Engle was, of course, not afraid to confront pain. There was a comfort in that. And there was a transcendent quality to her prose that somehow helped me transcend my own pain. Looking back, it was probably L’Engle that made me want to be a writer. The epigraph for Lean Out is about all of this: about the power of stories to uplift, to inspire, to shape lives and, in fact, whole eras of human history. It’s also about the idea that we are all called on to contribute to the greater good—that each and every one of us has a role to play in the fight for the future of humanity. That spirit was something I really needed to reconnect to, and writing Lean Out was my attempt to do that.

"Reading L’Engle’s work, I felt the vastness of human experience, its wonder and its limitless possibility—but also its darkness."

49th Shelf: Lean Out, like the experiences you recount in it, is a brilliantly meandering journey. When did you start thinking about this project? How is the end-result different from you envisioned at the beginning?

Tara Henley: Thank you. I started thinking about the project when I was at home in 2016, convalescing on my couch, trying to cope with relentless chest pains. After a series of cardiac tests, it was clear that I was suffering from anxiety. Growing up on the Left Coast, I had unconsciously subscribed to a sort of individualistic, self-help view on things. But that period of my life really smashed any confidence I had in “self-care.” I didn’t need a bubble bath, I needed help! Lying on the couch, day after day, I started to think about my problems differently. And the book became less about me, and more about us.

I got really curious about why we were, as a culture, experiencing these skyrocketing rates of mental illness. I wanted to know what this was about, and what might be done about it. And so, although I had expected to conclude the Lean Out journey in a tiny house in the woods of rural BC, the ending of the book is pretty much the furthest thing from it. That was totally unexpected.

"That period of my life really smashed any confidence I had in “self-care.” I didn’t need a bubble bath, I needed help!"

The other unexpected aspect of this project was my relationship with my editor Bhavna Chauhan. One day we will share all the margin conversations we had working on this book, which was a collaboration in the very truest sense of the word. I hope every author gets to experience how special that writer-editor bond can be.

Photo of a Woman in the Woods Holding a copy of the book Lean Out

49thShelf: I love Lean Out's fascinating blend of memoir and journalism—the whole book is a really interesting hybrid. Was it difficult to strike a balance between the two?

Tara Henley: Thank you again! We’re calling this “a reported memoir.” To be honest, I wasn’t sure it would work. But I needed to try, since reporting is how I process the world. My thoughts, my experiences, my actions, are all inexorably linked to the data I dig up, the books I read, the information I gather and the people I interview. It was important to me to walk the reader through that. To show how new information changed my mind, and then my life.

49th Shelf: And then your book comes out in the midst of a global pandemic, when the whole world has to take a step back from the pace of ordinary life and "lean out" for the sake of our vulnerable family and neighbours, healthcare workers, everybody. Your book is one of the few titles on my shelf (maybe the only one) that is even more relevant now than it was three weeks ago. Amidst the devastation and loss of this moment in history, what are some of the opportunities it might be permitting us and the questions it's forcing us to be asking? 

Tara Henley: It’s been surreal watching the book go out into the world at this very strange time. There does seem to be some resonance between what I went through and what we are all now going through together. The chest pains forced me to lean out, and to stare down loneliness and isolation and financial instability. My life was very much on pause for many months, and this made me question everything, from individualism to consumerism and overwork and the outsized role of the Internet. The answers I came up with—food, family, community, nature, empathy and egalitarianism—are answers that so many of us are arriving at all at once now.

Life is uncertain and anxiety-producing. But there are glimpses of a different world that may come out of this COVID crisis. Birds are singing, kids are replacing cars on the streets, the air is clearing, we are not rushing around so much, there’s a new feeling of collectivism and neighbours are pitching in to support one another. There is reason for hope.

"Life is uncertain and anxiety-producing. But there are glimpses of a different world that may come out of this crisis."

49th Shelf: Lean Out has been published under a lifestyle imprint, and it's a rich and inspiring read, so compelling. But it's decidedly political. At the root of it all, you write, is inequality (sorry for the spoilers...) and you suggest universal basic income as one solution to our society's problems. Why do ideas like this matter right now?

Tara Henley: I think right now we’re seeing in stark terms the price we all pay for inequality. Our health and well-being is intimately tied to that of our neighbours, and we can no longer deny that fact. Wealth has become concentrated at the top in this country, and globally. In researching Lean Out, I learned that in unequal societies, everyone gets more physically and mentally ill—even the wealthy. During this pandemic, we have seen how things like precarious work have put our poorest residents in vulnerable positions and hastened the spread of the virus.

"Our health and well-being is intimately tied to that of our neighbours, and we can no longer deny that fact."

I think, too, there is a question of fairness that we must face. The heroes of COVID are, by and large, working people. I’m thinking here about grocery store clerks and takeout drivers, transit operators and cleaners, nurses and seniors’ home aides. These people are on the frontlines of this crisis, fighting to make sure that all of us are fed, transported and cared for. They are willing to risk their lives. The question now is: what are the rest of us willing to sacrifice? Specifically, are our wealthiest citizens prepared to contribute more taxes? This question of the distribution of resources was a pressing question in Lean Out, and it applies now more than ever.

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About Lean Out:

A deeply personal and informed reflection on the modern world—and why so many feel disillusioned by it.

In 2016, journalist Tara Henley was at the top of her game working in Canadian media. She had traveled the world, from Soweto to Bangkok and Borneo to Brooklyn, interviewing authors and community leaders, politicians and Hollywood celebrities. But when she started getting chest pains at her desk in the newsroom, none of that seemed to matter.

The health crisis—not cardiac, it turned out, but anxiety—forced her to step off the media treadmill and examine her life and the stressful twenty-first century world around her. Henley was not alone; North America was facing an epidemic of lifestyle-related health problems. And yet, the culture was continually celebrating the elite few who thrived in the always-on work world, those who perpetually leaned in. Henley realized that if we wanted innovative solutions to the wave of burnout and stress-related illness, it was time to talk to those who had leaned out.

Part memoir, part travelogue, and part investigation, Lean Out tracks Henley's journey from the heart of the connected city to the fringe communities that surround it. From early retirement enthusiasts in urban British Columbia to moneyless men in rural Ireland, Henley uncovers a parallel track in which everyday citizens are quietly dropping out of the mainstream and reclaiming their lives from overwork. Underlying these disparate movements is a rejection of consumerism, a growing appetite for social contribution, and a quest for meaningful connection in this era of extreme isolation and loneliness.

As she connects the dots between anxiety and overwork, Henley confronts the biggest issues of our time.

April 9, 2020
Books mentioned in this post
Lean Out

Lean Out

A Meditation on the Madness of Modern Life
edition:Paperback
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