Calling All Poets

Peony2

About a week ago, I wondered aloud if it was time to run the Poet Laureate course again and DP, wise partner that he is, asked me if I wanted to. The energy of my response surprised me. YES! The course is great fun… and I always write such interesting pieces from the prompts… and I’d love to help alter Facebook’s DNA by creating our Poet Laureate group for brave-soul-sharing.

So I am, with great happiness, offering the Poet Laureate of Your Own Life online course for a second time beginning in mid-September. Here’s how it will work:

Over 20 weekdays, participants will receive a daily email with:
* a poetic reflection of one aspect of the Poet Laureate job description
* an illustration drawn by a super-creative Grade 1 student
* a poem that has captured by imagination. On Friday of each week, the poem will be accompanied by an interview I conducted with that day’s poet
* a poetry-writing prompt for you

There will be a private + {top} secret Facebook group for people who want to share their writing with other Poet Laureates. Participation in the Facebook group is optional and feedback will be positive and celebratory in nature.

The course will run from Monday 12th September until Friday 7th October.

The cost is 40 USD.

If this sounds like fun… if you have a poetry-shaped hole in your life… if you’d like to play and experiment with words in a low risk way… if you’d like to spend some time thinking about your own story… if you’d like to make some joyful noise, I hope you’ll join me.

Come on over to learn more about the course. Registration is now open.

If you know someone who might enjoy this course, I’d really appreciate it if you’d let them know about it.

As always, please let me know if you have any comments or questions about this poetry-adventure.

Cheers,
Monna
xo

Reconstructing Summer

chicken

i.
At the Newark airport
a small girl waits in line
with her parents.
She’s dressed in a frenzy of pink
that trumpets her arrival
and suggests that her parents
are happy to let her dress herself.
She notices the rope that keeps us in line.
Steps under it.
Smiles.
She grabs the metal post beside her
and spins around it,
the top of her head grazing the rope,
her long blonde hair flying out
in large hypnotic circles,
again
and
again.

ii.
We discover how to use a GPS,
name her Beatrice.
One day, as she urges us over
an ancient wooden bridge,
we spot a small set of locks
under an awning of leaves.
We disobey her,
change our route
and sit on the bank
of the Rideau Canal.
We admire pink peonies,
breathe deeply
and think of a girl
we once knew.

iii.
I start a cloud collection.
I gather them from vast skies
above green fields of the Ottawa Valley
and pluck them from the various blues
that our planes pass through.
I stuff them in the pockets of my eyes,
and wonder if I’ve taken these clouds
for granted.
In the whole wide world
(at least the parts we’ve seen)
no other clouds compare.

iv.
We spend an afternoon at a farm
where my sister is housesitting.
A black lab named Ralph wins my heart
when he lies down with his large head on my feet.
Our parents have met us there
and we feast on pizza with green olives
and large glasses of iced tea
that leave rings of sweat on the table.
In the heat of the day,
soothed by the sound
of McDiarmids talking,
I fall asleep on the couch.
Later, we visit the chickens
who are both uglier
and more beautiful
than expected
and Megan introduces the one splendid rooster
who looks like he’s wearing harem pants.
I find that strangely fitting.
Over grey gravel roads,
my mother and I race
the storm clouds home

v.
At our favourite ramen place
back in Yokohama
they’ve added lettuce to the big red bowl.
We wonder
if they saw us
and knew.
“These people haven’t had vegetables in days.”
Lettuce and ramen go together
much better than you might think.

vi.
Between three and six
in the morning
jet lag
pins me hard
against the glass wall
between asleep and awake.
But poems fill these hours:
images and words flow
like water over smooth stones,
they move like starlings,
plunging and soaring as one bird,
forming new patterns in my mind.
I write until I fall asleep.

vii.
When people ask about our summer
we’ll say it was fine. It wasn’t.
It was painful
in spots
but also filled
with so much beauty
that I couldn’t count it.

 

P.S. This was first published as The Sunday Reader. If you’d like to receive The Sunday Reader directly in your inbox every two weeks, you can subscribe here.

Grace, wherever it finds you

mccafe-1331430_960_720

{This post was first published as The Sunday Reader.}

It was half past eight on a summer weekday morning and we were running early for an appointment in Merrickville, a small Ottawa Valley town, so we stopped for breakfast at McDonald’s in the nearby community of Kemptville. I got in line to order our food and Damien said he’d find us a table. He walked towards the only empty booth in the main seating area and looked back at me with one eyebrow raised. Every one of the tables around him was occupied with senior citizens having what felt way more like a party than breakfast.

We ate quietly and watched the action untold at the four tables around us. There was a table of eight men engaged in a lively discussion of politics and sports, a table of 12 boisterous and gorgeous white-haired women, a table of four men speaking a curious mix of English and Italian and one mixed-gender table with four brave men and two spunky women. The vibe was like high school: loud, boisterous and charged with energy. They all knew each other and called out to each other across the restaurant. A man named Harry was having a birthday and the entire place, including the staff, sang Happy Birthday in Harry’s honour.

I couldn’t help but feel curious about how often they gathered in this way. Once a week? Every day? Had someone organised this breakfast or had these gatherings happened spontaneously, taking on a heart-warming life of their own?

Whatever its origin, it was clear was that this breakfast at McDonald’s was one of the most brilliant social programs ever devised to help people in their eighties feel young and vital. And for the very low price of a coffee and a McGriddle.

This reminded me of the Rat Park research conducted by Professor Bruce Alexander at Simon Fraser University in the late 1970s. He was trying to understand the nature of addiction and found that rats who lived in the company of other rats, unlike rats tested on their own, were far less likely to become dependent on the morphine-laced water placed in their cage. The rats who lived communally in Rat Park consistently chose the water that did not contain morphine; they did not become addicted to drugs nor did they overdose. Alexander concluded that the opposite of addiction is not sobriety but connection.

At this moment in our human history, we are witnessing terrible events that reflect back to us the profound significance of connection and the dire consequences of losing that connection.

Is there someone you’d like to reach out to? A friend you haven’t seen in a long time? Someone you know who is having a rough go of things?

Is there anyone you’d like to ask for help?

I’m wishing you grace, today, wherever you find it… and create it.

Cheers,
Monna
xo

P.S. If you’d like to receive The Sunday Reader directly in your inbox every two weeks, you can subscribe here.

Advanced Stick Removal for Perfectionists of All Ages

AdvancedStickRemoval

Until recently, I wasn’t aware that I was uptight. Genuinely, I had no idea.

Of course I knew that I was a perfectionist but, you know, what woman isn’t? Many of us wear our perfectionism like a shining badge of honour. In fact, I was so proud of my perfectionism that it was the characteristic I would cite in a job interview when my potential employer asked about my most conspicuous shortcoming. My thinking, of course, was that the interviewer would see me as the hardworking and committed person I am, that they would understand that I was willing to work as diligently and as long and as late and on as many weekends as were required to get the job done perfectly.

Not surprisingly, I almost always got the job.

We all know what a high price we pay for perfectionism. Every single one of us. We’re aware of the crazy glorification of busyness and the constant pull to live in the past (Ack! I wasn’t good enough) or in the future (Oh no! I’ll never be good enough)… any moment that is not right here and now. We’ve experienced the kind of deep-bone burnout that may lead to sadness and bitterness. We understand that we’ve been socialized to strive for perfection but the problem is that we’ve been living this way for so long that it’s almost impossible to believe that we can change… or that we’ll be allowed to.

Here’s the good news. Like everything else, the idea that we must be perfect in our various life roles is just a thought. A construct. Since it’s a thought that is not at all good for us, we can choose to:
1. NOT believe that thought
and
2. Develop a new thought in its place

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie offered some advice to graduates of Wellesley during her commencement speech in 2015:
“Hire more women where there are few. But remember that a woman you hire doesn’t have to be exceptionally good. Like a majority of the men who get hired, she just needs to be good enough.”

What gorgeous, audacious words: “She just needs to be good enough.”

  • My apartment needs only to be tidy enough. It does not need to look perfect in order to invite friends over.
  • My facebook posts are fine the way they are. Editing is not required. I don’t need to be a professional photographer or a Pulitzer Prize winning writer to share happy bits of my life with my friends.
  • My wardrobe is fine the way it is. I don’t need the clothing options of a socialite, a news anchor or a supermodel.
  • The gifts that I give do not need to be perfectly wrapped. My kind heart is more than enough.

You get the idea. Of course, just-good-enoughness doesn’t stop us from striving for success in the parts of our lives that are really important to us… but they can’t all be REALLY IMPORTANT. What if we stopped living our lives as though every single thing we do is an Olympic event in which we are competing for a gold medal?

Just-good-enoughness is one of those concepts that a person may have to encounter many, many times before the idea is finally cleared for landing on our particular emotional airstrip. We must be patient with ourselves as this idea circles the skies above the tiny airport in our brains… but we must also instruct our ground crew to be ready and alert, prepared to talk the just-good-enoughness down out of the skies.

We must be ready to set ourselves free.

You’ve been wondering about the stick, haven’t you? I don’t need to get too graphic for you to know where that stick has been wedged.

Over the past few months, I’ve been thinking about my own perfectionism and its shadow side. All things cast a shadow and I’ve begun to understand, with some help from a few wise people, that it’s not possible to be a perfectionist only with oneself. No perfectionist is an island and I have had some VERY HIGH standards for other people. Let’s pretend, for a moment, that I am absolutely convinced that white should never be worn after Labour Day. (Look, this is not my particular brand of crazy but I have many beloved friends who hold this belief.) So if this is a “rule” for me, not only will my own fashion-whimsy be restricted by this belief, but my friends are in danger of being held to the same (constructed and, I would argue, ridiculous) standard.

And if I push myself without stopping to consider my physical or emotional health, if I resist setting healthy boundaries with the difficult folks in my life, if I don’t routinely provide myself with time to play and reflect and dream, I may not be as compassionate with others as I truly want to be. I might just be too damned busy judging them. Keeping score.

My perfectionism (and yours) makes us way too focussed on outcomes rather than the process and the tricky bit here is that our days are spent, primarily, in the process part ~ the doing (of laundry) and the making (of lunches). We live smack-dab in the middle of the divine messiness of life.

When you are talking with a friend about a mutual friend’s need for a touch-up to her roots, you are not “sharing a concern”. You are not worried about her hair. Her hair is not sick, it’s just grey. And that’s not a character flaw on your friend’s part. Her grey roots are not a crime against humanity. In fact, a bit of grey does not even register as being inconsiderate towards others. So the thing you’ve got yourself into is a steaming pile of judgment and gossip. And although you may be tempted to say, “What’s the big deal? We’re just passing time… having a chat about our friend,” we all know that gossip is harmful. Somewhere, deep in our royal blood and bones, we’ve known this since childhood. Gossip is the cosmic equivalent of junk mail or spam. It’s the comments section of almost every online publication. It comes from a place of wanting more power and that impulse never fosters connection.

Another big reason you are gossiping/passing judgment on your friend’s roots is that you were raised to believe a woman should NEVER let her roots show. You’re being held prisoner by that thought, by that limiting belief, and you’ve locked your friend inside that tiny cell with you.

Maybe, like me, you are discovering that this is not a good way to live. Maybe, as you’ve grown older and witnessed the genuine suffering of your friends and family members, you are struck by how very much we all have in common and how the thing we need most is love.

Okay. Here we go…

Directions for Advanced Stick Removal for Perfectionists of All Ages

  1. Acknowledge that you are a perfectionist.
  2. Immediately cut yourself some slack. You’re in good company… and shame never made anything better.
  3. Start gently examining what you believe. Are you holding old beliefs about how to live, and who and how to love, and what success means ~ ideas taught to you by well-intentioned parents, grandparents and teachers? Are you holding onto values that no longer resonate with you… that are not guided by compassion and empathy?
  4. Now begin letting those things go ~ for yourself and for others. It will take some time and some practice. Keep breathing.
  5. Bonus: Ask yourself the question, “How do I want to feel?” Good. Now move in that direction.
  6. That stick is going to drop right out. I promise.

Cheers,
xo

P.S. If you’d like to receive The Sunday Reader directly in your inbox every two weeks, you can subscribe here.
 

Turtle Steps

Joy

Recently I’ve been making some changes. Let’s call them microchanges. It sounds less scary.

Over the past twenty years, we’ve worked at international schools in Colombia, Mexico, Spain, Thailand and Japan so it wouldn’t be SO crazy for you to think that I’d be really good at change. Comfortable at the very least. Masterful even. The truth is that I sort of suck. When it comes to structure and routine, I live at the very outer limits of what is possible for a person who has created a life overseas. That is to say that if I needed more structure, even the tiniest bit more, I could not have left home and thrived.

Right. So not so great at change.

Lately, however, Life has been tapping its foot with growing impatience. Life, as it turns out, does not like to be kept waiting and is not even remotely interested in my reluctance to change things up. Writing, in particular, has been behaving badly and kicking up a terrible fuss in the back seat of my life.

I have two Young Adult novel projects simmering in my creative-cauldron. The 38 Impossible Loves of Naoko Nishizawa is on its 3rd draft and I’m currently writing the first draft of After Everything which began as my NaNo WriMo (National Novel Writing Month) novel last November. The story opens with a teenager named Claire who wakes up in a lush green field. She’s dressed in a long white nightgown that she senses she would never have chosen for herself and she doesn’t know where she is and she can’t remember how she got there… or anything else about her life. It turns out that she is dead.

So although I’m super excited about both stories, I’ve been feeling frustrated about not making much progress since January. “Not much progress” is a lie. It was no progress at all. In the place of actual writing, I had been just thinking about my novels which is not at all the same thing and does not get the job done.

I decided to make a change.

Are you at your best in the morning or late at night? For me, eleven o’clock at night sounds like a great time to START writing but that doesn’t allow me to get enough sleep to function during the work day. I am such a night owl, in fact, that I’ve always told myself a story in which I could not possibly get up any earlier. Because I need eight full hours of sleep, I had convinced myself that going to bed earlier would make me feel (not vaguely but PRECISELY) like a very old + very sad person.

But what if that story wasn’t true?

So I set my alarm clock for six o’clock instead of seven o’clock. If you are an early riser, try to be compassionate about this because, for me, six o’clock is still the middle of the night. When I woke up to my alarm the first day, I got right out of bed and went to grab my computer from my knapsack only to realize that I hadn’t brought it home from school so, instead, I wrote in a journal with pink flamingoes on the cover. And the words just poured out of me, ten pages of words, and I thought, “Shit. This is magical.” And I am not gonna lie, I was tired at two o’clock in the afternoon and getting into bed at nine o’clock that night was not magical but it was okay. So I wrote in my journal for three mornings in a row and I tried not to think about the question of when I would type up these pages and how long that task would take. Then, on the fourth morning, I tried writing on my laptop and I had a hard time getting started so I stared at the ceiling for a while and then that got boring so I started writing. And what I write between six and seven is not always eloquent prose but sometimes it is and the plot keeps marching forward with courage and assurance and the characters keep doing interesting things and Claire is even more rebellious than I imagined and I have enormous patience for her neuroses and fear and I love her like a parent might love a child. And one morning, when I awoke at six o’clock, I realised that I didn’t feel well so I re-set my alarm clock for seven o’clock and I slept soundly for that extra hour and had a good day at work and I didn’t let myself freak out or worry that I had messed it all up. I just chose not to believe that. The next day, when the alarm went off, I got up and wrote.

Since I began my early morning writing, I read about what Martha Beck calls “turtle steps” or small steps in the direction of your dreams. That was exactly what I was doing. I didn’t quit my job or begin writing for six hours a day, forsaking all fun things in my life; I simply adjusted my schedule slightly to include one hour of writing every morning. On the round table at my office there is a wooden turtle I bought in Bali several years ago and I’ve started to look at him differently in these past few weeks. Wise old turtle. And I’ve been wondering what else I could take some turtle steps towards.

Then, a few days after encountering the idea of “turtle steps”, I was listening to a podcast where the interviewee shared a quote by Donald Miller: “Turn your toes towards the thing that you are afraid to pursue.” That resonated too. Sometimes we’re afraid to pursue the things we most want so we keep getting in our own way, making up excuses and unhelpful stories. We need to turn our toes ever so slightly.

As of today, I have written 25,000 words of After Everything. Of that total, I have written 15,000 of those words over the last two weeks, in the hours between six and seven o’clock in the morning.

Although I’m a pretty confident person, I did not know that I could do that. I had told myself a story that was holding me back. And that story, as it turns out, is just not true.

We should not believe everything we think.

Taking the turtle steps in writing this novel has made me giddy and hopeful. I’m also taking turtle steps to give up caffeine. It’s not sexy but it’s good.

So I wondered, lovely one, what stories are getting in your way… and what turtle steps might you take to get you closer, little by little, to something that would fill you with joy?

Cheers,
Monna

P.S.
This post was first published as The Sunday Reader. To receive The Sunday Reader directly in your inbox every two weeks, you can subscribe here.

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Girl Unboxed

girls

It was mid-April and our tour guide was a friendly young woman in a light yellow cardigan. She was Japanese, a fourth year student at the Japanese university we were touring. Although the international school counselors in my group were very impressed with her English skills, our compliments didn’t stop her from apologising, continually, for her lack of fluency and poor vocabulary as she led us around the campus, pointing out various classrooms and buildings we did not actually enter. My fellow counselors were a curious bunch and began asking her what she enjoyed about attending this university… what had been her greatest challenges… what were her plans for the future?

“I’d like to study abroad. I’d like to do my Masters in Australia. Australia is my first choice. But it will not happen.”

“Why not?”

“My parents. They think it unnecessary for girls to study abroad. They say it is now my job to find a rich husband and get married. (In Japan, unmarried women over the age of 25 are often referred to as ‘leftover Christmas cake’.) They say that perhaps I won’t even have to work but I definitely want a job – but first I want to do my Master’s in Australia. Last year, I studied one semester in America and my parents checked my Facebook every day. Then they would call me. Who is the girl you had lunch with? Who is the boy in this photograph? They would call me at least once a day and often twice to interrogate me. I was happy there although America is very different from Tokyo. My parents say they do not want me ruined.”

The counselors changed the trajectory of the conversation by asking her more specific questions about her program of study and why she chose this university; these were safer questions, the kind of questions our own high school students would ask. While our guide was taking with a couple of the counselors, the only Japanese woman in our group leaned close to me and whispered, “She is what we call a ‘boxed girl’.”

On my phone, I googled the term hakoirimusume (translated literally as “daughter in a box”) and found this definition: “A young single woman who leads a sheltered life with her protective family.”

An image from my childhood popped into my head; I remembered a doll with soft blonde curls, a doll dressed in a blue dress with white polka dots. It may have been a Shirley Temple Doll. The doll was still in her original box, stored high on a shelf and I asked if we could play with it. The owner, an older woman, explained that it had never been taken out of its box, that the perfect condition of the doll made it worth more. I’m not sure where I saw the boxed doll but I’ve never forgotten the strong, pulsating sense that it was unnatural to trap the doll behind a layer of plastic and cardboard, to deny a child the joy of playing with it.

When our young guide dropped us off at the Admissions Office, she thanked us, several times, for allowing her the pleasure of serving as our tour guide. I gave her my name card. We bowed and then bowed again and said good-bye.

Boxed girl.

I’m grateful to my colleague for teaching me this phrase that perfectly describes the way that many girls and women live (and not just in Japan), this phrase that made my brain buzz with recognition and purpose. Without planning to do so, I’ve chosen to help boxed girls for my entire life. It’s why I worked in Residence Life at university, why I became a teacher and, later, a Counselor. It’s why I began creating online courses. I want to help girls and women out of their boxes, out into the glorious fullness of their lives. (I don’t think we can save other people but I do believe we can help.)

Another way to help others with the burden of their particular boxes is to become aware of the ways that I, myself, am still boxed ~ the ways in which I am boxed in by society and, much (much) worse, the ways that I have kept myself boxed up, behind a “protective” layer of cellophane.

My goal is to become a girl unboxed.

What are you doing, lovely one, to let yourself out of your box?

Cheers,
Monna
xo

Note: This post was first published as The Sunday Reader on 15 May 2016. If you’d like to receive these essays directly in your inbox, subscribe here.
 

This I Experienced as Love

Love

My friend Jenny emailed me this week to thank me for a blog post I published on Valentine’s Day 2012. On Love and The Price of Admission was about recognising what a good thing we’ve already got with our partner ~ and learning to let go of the small annoyances that accompany deep familiarity.

That post was inspired by an idea from Dan Savage ~ an idea that has, over the past four years, saved me from saying/shouting many crazy-stupid things I would have regretted exactly one nano-second later. Ultimately, my partner Damien and I consider ourselves really lucky and we let lots of small stuff go in order to bask in the yummy-melty-yellowey company of the much beloved other.

For me, there’s another idea that always hold hands with the Price of Admission. In the short movie that plays inside my brain these twin-ideas are represented by seven-year-old best friends playing on a swing set. Higher and higher they swing. One girl wears a t-shirt that says “The Price of Admission” while her kindred spirit wears the slogan, “This I Experienced As Love.”

We all want to be loved. Yup. I’ve been thinking about this one for decades and I could not be more certain about it.

But here’s the tricky bit… we all want to be loved but the way in which we want to be loved varies SO greatly from person to person. Me, I grew up looking for a big, juicy love-fest featuring deep and meaningful connection 24/7. I could talk to Damien all day long every day, analysing Buffy the Vampire Slayer, planning our dinner menu, and updating him on the constantly shifting cloudscape within my brain. That kind of intensity would blow his circuits. What he needs is connection punctuated with stretches of time on his own, and the ability to move back and forth between the two without too much fuss. That feels like love for him.

We are not alone in this conundrum, this particular love-dissonance. I often think how miraculous it is that any of us are able to form long committed relationships.

Today, May 1st, marks 22 years of Damien and me. {We celebrate the anniversary of the day we met as there is still a bit of disagreement regarding when we actually became a couple.}

22 years of miracles.

In that time, I’ve come to need a less intense connection. Over those two decades, he’s chosen to spend more time hanging out in my little cocoon. Our Yin and Yang have cuddled up somewhere in the middle.

But there’s another thing we’ve done that isn’t so much about change as it is about noticing.

I’ve gotten better at noticing HOW he loves me.

Inside the front door of our place in Japan we have a storage closet that contains approximately half the contents of our apartment. It is seriously scary… piled high with pillows, duffel bags, suitcases, the vacuum cleaner, decorative items we don’t have space for… ETCETERA. I avoid that closet as if it were filled with bubonic plague laced with plutonium. Recently, I was preparing for a trip and Damien, who had been in the dining room editing his film, came into our bedroom and said, “Which suitcase would you like to take?”

Oh. Sweet. Man.

He doesn’t make a big deal of things. He doesn’t call attention to the ways in which he is generous. Just, “Which suitcase would you like to take?”

Love does not always show up with chocolates and fresh flowers. Love does not necessarily have the time or inspiration to write you a sonnet. But when Love volunteers to brave the perils of the front closet to pull out your big black suitcase, it’s swoon o’clock.

This I experienced as love.

Your Homework Assignment (should you choose to accept it):
Pay attention to how the people in your life show their love ~ especially if it’s different from the way you show love.

Cheers,
Monna
xo

*This post was first published as The Sunday Reader on Sunday 1st May 2016.