Childhood

pink
 
We didn’t know each other
as children. I was six
when you were born
in a city not far from
the 400 acres
on which I was raised.
You were the youngest child
of a doctor and your skin
was brown like cafe latte
and I was pink like roses
and we were separated
by the sharp edges of
colour and class
in the time before people
could travel those things.

But still
there was the summer
I sang a solo
at the Anglican church
and every note shimmered
and the August light passed
iridescent through stained
glass onto the wooden floor
and I was
everything.

I knew you then,
my love, even though
we would not meet
for eighteen years.
 

Thoughts on Belonging

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Over the past two decades I’ve lived in five countries outside Canada. During that time I’ve become utterly fascinated by the similarities and differences between cultures. If you imagine culture as an iceburg, it may be easiest to start with those habits and norms on the small chunk of the iceburg that juts up above the water. An example would be how we greet others. There are kisses (one cheek only) upon arriving and departing anywhere in Colombia and Mexico. In Spain, a greeting involves kisses on both cheeks. In Thailand, one says hello with a wai which is a bow combined with hands clasped together as if in prayer. In Japan, we simply bow our heads. In both Thailand and Japan, the depth of the bow depends on a combination of factors including your socio-economic status and age as well as those of the person whom you are greeting. Even these greetings, these cultural bits that show above the water, are not superficial. They reflect the deeply held values and beliefs of that culture.

The way we do one thing is the way we do everything.

I grew up on a farm near Ottawa Canada. People greet each other in many different ways. We say “hi” or “hello” or, in the case of the Ottawa Valley, “G’dayandhow’reyanow?” drawled out as one long word. Sometimes we shake hands, firmly and with confidence and, when we’re very close to someone, we hug. Let’s be clear that for some Asians the hug is perceived as a gesture so intimate as to be equivalent to foreplay. Where I grew up, a man will sometimes clasp his hand around the shoulder of another man; sometimes this shoulder pat is combined with a handshake and sometimes not.

It must be so challenging for immigrants to Canada to know what the hell to do when they meet someone for the first time. They must worry about offending these Canadians, these funny and welcoming but also sometimes bristly and reserved people with whom they now share a nation.

The truth is that some people who have long lived on a certain patch of geography get indignant about this stuff. Because a particular way of being in the world seems normal to them, they experience something on the spectrum of surprise to offense when a visitor or foreigner gets it “wrong”. Many of us have developed a deep sense of ownership of our own culture and we’ve been taught that it is natural to feel this way. I’m not sure this kind of place-ownership is helpful.

Each time we’ve moved over the last 20 years, I’ve evaluated how well I fit into my new city and country. In fact, I’ve been pretty obsessive about my search for signs that I belonged, that I had been (or could be) accepted by others in this place. To deliver the perfect wai, to lower my voice enough, to act in a way that allowed me to blend. Lately, I’ve been noticing the sheer lunacy of this endeavor. It is never going to happen. I’m a round white woman with pink cheeks and the place on Earth where I blend most is not Canada but Scotland. My partner is a tall black man with facial hair. People are not going to look at us and say, “Sure. These two are from here.” Not even if we speak the language perfectly, not even if our manners are impeccable, not even if we recycle our garbage in precisely the right manner.

We’ll never blend to the extent that people will think we’re from there. But this doesn’t have to mean we can’t belong. It doesn’t have to restrict where we call home.

We just spent a week on the south shore of Nova Scotia in a spectacular Air B&B overlooking the LaHave River. The host told us that before she bought her home there, she approached the three closest neighbours all of whom invited her into their homes for tea. I’ve been thinking about this for the last few days. Does she believe that she belongs to this community because the people invited her into their homes or does she belong because she was the kind of person who would go to their homes to introduce herself? I really like this conundrum.

Perhaps the secret of home is twofold:
To live as respectfully as one can while also being your authentic self.

An enthusiastic and passionate person who is constantly shushing and censoring herself will probably struggle to feel at home in a Very Quiet Place because her true self is exuberant; it needs to be let out of its box. In making a place home, it’s important not to be overcome with worry about what other people think. Their judgments about you, shaped by the smallness or bigness of their own mind, heart and experience, are truly not your business.

In truth, even Japan can make space for some loud and enthusiastic souls. We need to have more faith that our cities and nations states are places capable of evolving.

Here’s the thing that has been on my mind for a while: places don’t belong to us. The place belongs to the place itself. At my school, we say the classrooms belong to the school ~ not to the teacher who most often teaches there.

I’m going to employ this thinking in my life in places I live and visit outside that tiny pocket of perplexing greetings called the Ottawa Valley. Live respectfully and authentically. Extend myself to others with warmth and sincerity. Believe in the capacity of others to adapt, to accept, to change their mind. Remember that what other people think about me is not my business.

The next time I encounter someone who doesn’t know how to navigate Japan, I’m going to invite them for tea or some lovely equivalent. I too am an immigrant. I am going to give them a permission slip for belonging just in case they are not yet ready to write their own.

 

This post was first published as The Sunday Reader. If you’d like to receive these essays and poems directly in your mailbox every two weeks, you can subscribe here.

 

The Gift

gift

My gift to you is your pain.
I won’t try to take it away from you.
I won’t wave my magic wand,
or speak enchanted words
to disappear the hard stuff.

I won’t sigh my old woman sigh
and say, “Poor you.”
I won’t even think it.

I won’t try to distract you
or cheer you up.

I’ll reach with both hands
into the soft paisley fabric of the universe
and make a space for you.
I’ll hold it for as long as you need.

Every lovely person I know
has made their way through.

The journey made them shine.
 

This post was first published as The Sunday Reader. If you’d like to receive these essays and poems directly in your mailbox every two weeks, you can subscribe here.
 

This is Jade

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This is my jade plant. I call her Jade. That’s not a terrifically original name but it suits her nonetheless. Jade was a gift from my friend Lindsay when she moved from Japan to Buenos Aires in June. The truth is that I don’t have any other plants nor do I have a particularly strong track record as a plant mama; Lindsay explained that Jade is a perfect plant for a novice gardener because she only needs to be watered once a month. “Really?,” I asked. “Really. Plus you can give her some coffee grounds if you like.”

So in late June I watered Jade and then I went home to Canada for a month. I didn’t worry about her a bit. When I got back to my office in Yokohama, I watered her but it turned out that someone else had been worried about Jade and they had watered her too. You can understand how this would happen in a school filled with very nice people. So the edges of some of her leaves turned black and some of her gorgeous heavy leaves dropped to the ground. It was alarming to me that a plant so fierce and gorgeous could also be so fragile.

I moved Jade to a sunnier spot in my office and waited. After a few days, her leaves stopped falling off. After a week, the black bits began to disappear. She was on the mend. Ah! So not so fragile after all.

So I waited a month (closer to five weeks, actually, to be on the safe side) and then watered her again. “Thank you for the gift of your beauty and your oxygen,” I said. “You are doing a great job.” I swear she looked proud.

On Tuesday morning of this week, I was talking to a parent on the phone when I discovered one of her branches on the floor of my office. Oh no. Poor Jade. The place where the branch had broken off was not dry but green and moist as if someone had broken it off on purpose or by accident. I thought about this for a moment. Who would do that? Could it have been a student? One of our cleaners? The more I thought about it, the more upset I became. Was someone mad at me and had decided to take it out on Jade? Was this broken branch meant as a message? I even thought about what I would say to Damien the next time I saw him, how I would tell him about Jade’s accident and my theories about the broken branch.

Then I stopped myself. I looked at the plant. There she was ~ healthy and radiant. A little thinner on one side, perhaps, but symmetry is overrated.

No amount of worrying would repair that branch she no longer seemed to need. Any detective work on my part would be fuelled by suspicion and would undoubtedly lead to drama and more worry-worry-worry. Not good options.

So I wondered how it would feel if I decided that whatever happened to Jade was just simply something that happened.

I chose to let it go.

Or perhaps it let go of me.

unnamed

This post was first published as The Sunday Reader. If you’d like to receive these essays directly in your mailbox every two weeks, you can subscribe here.
 

One blade of grass

blades_of_grass

A week ago the members of the Poet Laureate of Your Own Life course began a month-long adventure of writing and reading poetry together. I thought it might take us a little while to get started, for people to muster up the courage to share their poems… and to comment on each others’ words.

Nope.

Even before the course began, participants were popping into our Facebook group to introduce themselves. Our little patch of the Internet was illuminated by strings of twinkle lights powered by their amazing energy. Beginning on the first evening, my FB feed was flooded with poems about childhood and comments about favourite lines and explanations of why an image worked so well and small odes to the combinations of words that moved them. Within a couple of days, the poets laureate were commenting on each other’s comments and posting photos of whoopie pies and sunsets and small white houses by the sea.

Every day, in response to the prompts, some of the poets turn towards their pain and their pain lights a candle and shows them the way home. I imagine the poets, in their homes and at work, a little lighter, a little kinder to themselves.

Every day, the beauty of these poems smashes me wide open. I am in awe of these words and so grateful to each poet laureate.

This course is one of the best parties I have ever attended.

One blade of grass
For my sister Megan

In the beginning
a whisper of a seedling,
a light green ghost-thing,
pushes her way
through layers of dirt
and broke-downness,
passed old pots, bits
of broken glass,
time capsules stored
in coffee cans,
skeletons of pet cats
buried in shoe boxes.
Through the darkness
the light green ghost-thing
pushes her bud-ness
like devotion.

Cicadas sing
as she emerges
into a field of sisters
in long green dresses
dancing in the sun,
dancing like one
blade of grass.

Pushing your way through
So the thing I’m wondering about today is what have YOU been pushing your way through?
Have you been pushing your way through blindly, hoping to pop up somewhere good… or do you know where you’re headed?
What are you passing on the journey and what does it have to teach you?
What will happen when you get to the surface?
What’s your joyful noise?
Who will you call on for help?

Cheers,
Monna
xo

P.S.
This post was published first in The Sunday Reader. You can subscribe here.

Brown Cords + Big Decisions

Paris Lights

On Sunday, I spent the whole day in my jammies. That’s not so remarkable in and of itself but it was a particularly active day for not having left the apartment.

We were discussing some big decisions about how long we’ll stay in Japan, what we’ll do after that. Oh… and also, what kind of house we’ll buy and where it will be. Stretched out on our matching black leather couches (a Canadian word if there ever was one), we spent the day looking at real estate listings, passing our computers back and forth to each other, and talking about what kind of life we want to create.

We’re talking about what kind of life we want so it doesn’t happen accidentally. So we don’t wake up when we’re 80 and say, “Oh shit. This isn’t at all what we had in mind.”

When it came to making important decisions, I grew up believing in the power of the pro/con list. My version was to list everything and then go with the obvious choice which was, to say, the longest list. The secret to making big decisions was to be reasonable, logical and prudent. I had been an adult for some time when I realised that my application of the pro/con list was deeply flawed; it turned out that one item on my con list might cancel out five items on my pro list. The items on my list weren’t equal in significance.

I also used to ask for the advice of others but I’m starting to believe less and less in advice. A person can tell me what they did in a certain situation and I so much appreciate their insights and stories… but without the shoulds or should nots. They can’t know what it’s like to be me so their best gift to me is a reflective conversation.

On Sunday afternoon DP asked, “So how will we know what is the right thing to do?”

When I was in kindergarten, there was a red-headed boy who would frequently wander away from whatever the group was doing or learning at the time and sit cross-legged under the six-foot high television stand in the corner of the room. He was already reading novels so he would sit under that shiny stand and read his book until the teacher finally noticed that he had slipped away again. When I was five, I thought he was naughty (although remarkably well read) but now I suspect that the little non-conformist in brown cords and a striped tee-shirt was probably the wisest person in the room.

So I’ve been trying to act more like that kid. He did not act out of fear. He was new and fresh and obsessed with reading and looking out the window and not too bothered with society’s rules about money or what one should do for a living. He was his own culture. Like him, I’ve been following my curiosity and reminding myself not to feel too worried about what other people think. The thing is that other people will judge my decisions but they will do so regardless of what I decide since that’s how the human animal operates. Those judgments have more to do with the person making the judgments than they do with me.

But, me? I am the world’s leading expert on me. It’s a good job.

And I’ve been asking the little kid in the brown cords, “What do you want? How do you feel? What are you concerned about? Why?” I try on various ideas and then ask him, “Okay, buddy. Does that option feel like shackles on or shackles off?”

My wise inner-nerd knows what feels good and what doesn’t. The little red-headed boy is my essential self and he reminds me to gently do what is right for me.

So as DP and I make this next set of decisions, we’re going to lean way into the great unknown of it, aware that there is probably not a right or wrong answer. There is just a next step. And then a step after that.

And if it doesn’t work out? Cities and jobs can be left. Houses can be sold. We can begin again. Actually, I think it’s beautiful to begin again. It even sounds lovely. “Begin again.”

There is no right answer. There is only a beginning and two people creating their next glorious adventure together.

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.