Author Archives: Monna McDiarmid

My blogs: http://monnamcdiarmid.com/

Cicadas, Typhoons and Gord Downie

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This week’s Sunday Reader was going to be about summer ~ about ways to live the entire year as though it’s still summer. It was a sunny little piece and the closer I got to publishing time, the more I realized that I wasn’t going to send it.

Seasons have been on my mind.

In Japan the cicadas are screech-singing at full volume. {This is the sound they make ~ like a million baby buzzsaws in training}. Recently a friend who’s lived in Japan for almost a decade said he finds the sound of the cicadas comforting. Me too. The arrival of the cicada-song in June signals the beginning of summer, a throwing off of order and routine. A loosening of strict rules. An expansion of spirit.

Mid-August in Yokohama is oppressively hot. Saturday was 28 degrees Celsius but the Weather Network reported that it felt like 43 degrees. The gap between what it was and how it felt is hard to wrap ones head around. I spend most of August in light cotton and slow motion.

Our school year is about to begin. The teachers have been back at work for a week but it always feels strange to be at school without kids. It’s not really a school without them. They are the essential ingredient… with their tans and their back-to-school hair cuts and their great yops of laughter and their insecurities and their epic curiosity. I’ll be so happy to see them tomorrow; to arrange my working life around the wild trajectory of their growing up and becoming.

On Sunday morning DP and I, still in our jammies, livestreamed The Tragically Hip’s final concert from Kingston, the city where we we went to university and where we met 22 years ago. The Tragically Hip are for Canadians like I imagine Bruce Springsteen is for Americans. Gord Downie, The Hip’s lead singer, is our unofficial Poet Laureate; I read that 40 per cent of Canadians say that they learned more Canadian history from Tragically Hip songs than they did in school.

Gord Downie is dying. He’s battling glioblastoma, an incurable and aggressive form of brain cancer. On Saturday night (Sunday morning in Japan), all across the world, Canadians gathered in living rooms and bars and on beaches and in town squares to say good-bye. To wish him God-speed on his journey. To say thank you for all his shimmering words. We also gathered to remember our own youth… to celebrate the nights The Hip played on the cd player while we danced and fell more deeply in love with our boyfriend, with our entire group of friends, with life itself.

In their song Ahead by a Century, Gord sings:
First thing we’d climb a tree and maybe then we’d talk
Or sit silently and listen to our thoughts
With illusions of someday casting a golden light
No dress rehearsal, this is our life.

No dress rehearsal. This is our life.

Tropical Storm Mindulle spent the night barreling across the Pacific towards us in Yokohama and Tokyo. It’s not personal ~ this is what typhoons do. It’s not helpful to expect a typhoon to act differently than typhoons act. Yesterday afternoon, as it became clear that we were in the typhoon’s path, we bought several days’ worth of groceries: eggs, bread, veggies, fruit. Sensible storm-groceries. It was after 11 o’clock last night when I realised that I’d forgotten to buy milk; there wasn’t another person on the sidewalk or another customer in the convenience store. Typhoons are a beautiful and devastating reminder that humans are not in charge.

As I write this, the typhoon is assembling itself from sideways rain and sea water and hot wind and it’s blowing itself onto the land like a greedy monster, all reaching and pulling. Soon, it will announce itself through the rattling of the glass doors to our balcony and the sound the screened doors will make as they slide and bang back and forth in their tracks. From our 22nd floor apartment, we’ll watch the typhoon like a production. Extreme Weather Opera.

Last night, Mount Fuji was astonishing; perhaps she was getting ready for her date with the storm. We haven’t seen her clearly in a couple of months but last night she emerged majestic in blue-grey and the sun set orange and purple, all in awe around her.

The Japanese staff at our school tell us that Autumn will arrive on the 23rd of September… that the heat will break that day. They are always right. A cool wind will blow in off the Pacific and we will dig out our sweaters and jeans. Summer will slip away, storing itself inside some bright pocket at the back of our mind.

Everything has its own season. School. Summer. Typhoons. They come and then they go. We get ourselves into trouble when we hold too tight to things whose season is over… when we try to keep that which needs to go.

Part of living fully is learning to let go.

Is there something you need to let go?

Do you know what’s stopping you?

Cheers,
Monna
xoxo

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.

You are living in a poem

View of BKK

You are living in a poem.

Naomi Shihab Nye
wrote this sentence
on the blackboard
of every classroom
she visited at our school.
She said these words aloud
to each group of students
assembled to meet her.

She asked if we ever felt
as though we were living
inside a poem.
She asked if we had access
to the poetry channel
in our mind.

I wondered how she knew
about
my
secret
poetry
channel.

I wondered how she saw
the invisible place
that connects me to
the pipeline of life
that flows golden
and quiet
as long as I’m not
multi-tasking,
sleep deprived,
stressed,
other-judging,
future-worried,
past-regretting.

Whenever I am found
(not lost)
poems pour out
of the silver metal bucket
onto the barn floor.

Poetry goes out of its way
to get my attention,
whistles, beats its wings
like a hummingbird,
shrills loud like cicadas,
reminds me to dance
dance
dance,
girl.

Everywhere life unfolds
shimmering:

A cafe latte at a restaurant in Tokyo
The softness of our Moroccan rug against my feet
A Youtube video of African women dancing
Jacquie’s Instagrams from Switzerland

Cold lemon tea and a clean kitchen
The Punch Brothers plucking at the Blue Note
People divorcing with love and dignity
Lin Manuel Miranda’s morning message
on Facebook.

Look around
at how lucky we are
to be alive right now.*

A young blonde friend in Bangkok
tries to lend me a book
and when I say
I can’t borrow it
because I live in Japan,
she walks to my side of the table
leans close
and says,
“Maybe,
after dinner,
you could just read
a few pages.”

Poetry enters
through my skin.
Sometimes I follow,
dash after the poems
as they pulsate,
trace their cartilage
in my notebook.
Sometimes I feel
the poems
on my face
like sunshine
and let it
slip away

golden and quiet

I am living in a poem.
 

*Song lyric: The Schuyler Sisters from Hamilton by Lin Manuel Miranda

If you’d like to know more about the poet Naomi Shihab Nye, check out this recent episode of On Being where she talks about poetry, her life’s work and her visit to our school.
 

POET LAUREATE OF YOUR OWN LIFE
PoetLaureateofYourOwnLifeI’m happy to be leading my online course Poet Laureate of Your Own Life beginning on September 12th.

This course is for you if you are a noticer of the extraordinary beauty of ordinary moments, if you have thoughts inside you longing to be expressed, and if you’d like to share them in a low-risk way in a supportive environment.

You’ll have the opportunity to write a poem each weekday for a month. I’ll provide the prompts and the support for your writing, along with a poem each day to inspire you, to help you leap into a sea of words and learn how to swim.

Pop over to my site to learn more about this course and what past poets laureate have to say about the experience.
 

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

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{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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