Author Archives: Monna McDiarmid

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The 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


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.


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


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.


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?


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.

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?


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

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
sleep deprived,

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

Everywhere life unfolds

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,
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.

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.