Author Archives: Monna McDiarmid

My blogs: http://monnamcdiarmid.com/

Imagine you are a gardener


 
Over the past few weeks I’ve talked with a number of women who are having a tough time finding/making time for themselves. They feel exhausted and stressed. Used up. A damned long way from happy.

One friend told me that her own teenaged son recommended that she take some time to tend to her own happiness.

Over the years, I’ve listened to teenagers lodge a host of complaints about their parents… most of these concerns will be resolved with a bit of time and perspective. Not once in twenty years as an educator have I heard a young person complain that their parents were too happy. Quite the opposite. We are rooting for our parents’ happiness for a couple of reasons. First, we genuinely want to see them happy. When the parents in a household are happy, everyone is better off. Second, when our parents are happy, they worry less about us.

Worrying is a prayer for the worst case scenario.

Although I don’t have children of my own, I’m an Honourary Mother from way back; I’ve helped raise thousands of kids over the last two decades. {I’ve just realised that what I’m writing here is as true for teachers as it is for parents. Yay, teachers!} I’ve learned that in order to care for the kids with whom I work as a counselor, I must first care for myself.

Some of you are feeling uncomfortable with all this talk of happiness. It’s not selfish to want to be happy. The idea that we should always put other people first is just a story and not a very helpful one. One can be happy at the same time as she pursues meaningful work and helps others. This is not an either/or situation. This is completely AND territory.

Turtle Steps Towards Happiness

So what are some small steps that you could take in the sacred direction of yourself?

{I love that scared and sacred have exactly the same letters in them. It helps me understand that we’re often just one small shift away from something amazing.}

What’s something you could do in the next 48 hours? If you are a person who thrives on a homework assignment, consider it assigned. If you are a person who need permission, consider it granted.

Here are some examples of happy-life-turtle-steps from my own weekend:

Haircut step
I went to Tokyo (an hour each way on the train) to get my bangs cut. They were a little shaggy and I deserve fierce looking bangs.

Japanese curry step
I located the Coco Curry House in the Tokyo neighbourhood of Ebisu… on my own. I love the curry from this place so I looked up the location on my phone but I wasn’t sure where I was on the google map. I have this little story about myself which is that I’m terrible with directions so I considered giving up my search but decided instead to ask for help. I went inside a sporting good store and asked the young Japanese women at the cash register for directions. She didn’t speak much English but she was able to explain that when I got to McDonalds I should turn left, then go to the next intersection and it would be close by. So I followed her instructions and then I asked my intuition where it would build a curry house (if it was in the habit of building curry houses). I had a strong sense that I should turn left… and there it was. By not freaking out, by asking for directions and then listening to my intuition, I found my favourite Japanese curry.

Starbuck seat step
After lunch, I went to Starbucks where I had a Chai Tea Latte and began writing this Sunday Reader. At the Starbucks locations in Tokyo, there is a member of staff whose job it is to help customers find a seat during busy times of the day when seating is at a premium. As I walked up the steps to the seating area, I saw an available table and quickly nabbed it. What I didn’t realise was that it was right beside the area with where people waited while the employee found them seats. So I had grabbed the Starbucks equivalent of the table right beside the bar. Within a few minutes, three women were perched on the little wooden Starbucks stools and they chatted back and forth in a loud and animated way. Thy had every right to do so but I felt a bit frustrated as I’d come to the cafe to work and I could hear their voices above the music in my headphones. Then I did a crazy thing. Instead of packing up and leaving, I found the employee who was seating people and let her know that I would appreciate a quieter seat and that I didn’t mind where it was. Within two minutes she came to my table and escorted me to a seat at the front window where she retrieved a a small reserved sign she had placed there t save my spot. It was the best seat in the house and I wrote and people watched happily for more than an hour.

Dance steps
I like John Mayer. I’m a big fan from back in the day. DP and I first saw John Mayer play in Houston when he was a 17-year old kid in an long-sleeved orange t-shirt and khaki cargo pants. He has just released Phase 2 of his new project and there’s a song called “Still feel like your man” that I’ve been grooving to for the past couple of days. On the trip back to Yokohama, I was listening to the EP and this song, in particular, made me want to dance. So I did. I danced on the platforms of Ebisu Station and Naka-Meguro Station. A woman smiled at me at Naka-Meguro. One of the train employees moved closer to make sure I hadn’t dropped my basket. It was an unusual move but I felt compelled to let my happiness out. And so I danced and no one came to take me away.

Time steps
I’m a person who worries about time. It’s another one of my not-very-helful stories and I come by it quite honestly. My mother tells a story about her father wanting to be SO early for church that if they arrived after the pianist had begun (30 minutes before the service), they would turn around and go home. Yesterday, as I was travelling home from Tokyo on the train, I realised that I had enough time to stop at JINS, an optical store at Landmark Plaza, before my appointment at 6:00 p.m. Despite a couple of false starts including getting off at the wrong station and then being directed up to street level at Minato-Mirai, I had 45 minutes of shopping for eyeglasses before heading home. When I began to feel anxious about the time, I breathed deeply and reminded myself that I had lots of time. I’m learning how to draw an image of greater spaciousness inside my mind. I’m learning how to create my own white space.

It feels, to me, as if happiness
is a magical thing we create,
little by little.
We can always create it.
We’ll never lose our ability to conjure it up.
There’s no way to get this wrong.

*This piece was originally shared in my newsletter, The Sunday Reader. To receive The Sunday Reader directly in your inbox twice a month, you can subscribe here.
 

Reaching for ourselves

She asked, “How can you tell
if a person really likes herself?”

She’s kind to other people
and she sings sometimes
for no reason
and she’s calm
like a warm day on the lake.
Calm like a lake-sized mirror
reflecting the sky. Two skies.

“And what happens when she isn’t
happy with herself?”

The woman stands at the window
and watches the storm clouds gather
and move across her landscape.
Tornadoes of self-doubt.
Earthquakes of drama.
Aftershocks of gossip.
She worries the storms will
destroy everything she’s built.

But she built the storms too.

She’s always reaching
for the wrong things.

When we reach for things
that aren’t good for us:
food, drugs, alcohol,
too much of anything,
loving the wrong person
or loving the right person
in the wrong way,
the thing
we’re really
reaching for
is ourselves.

We’d like to come home to ourselves.

When we say,
“Hi honey, I’m home”
we’re longing to hear
our own voice respond,
“I’m happy you’re home, love.
How was your day?”

 
*This poem was originally shared in my newsletter, The Sunday Reader. To receive The Sunday Reader directly in your inbox twice a month, you can subscribe here.
 

Don’t believe everything you think: Helping your child do hard things

* I wrote this piece for parents in our school community but here’s the thing… all of these strategies for doing hard things are equally effective for adults! Many thanks to Martha Beck for her ideas about thought dissolution and turtle steps and to Byron Katie for “The Work”.

Often, when a student is struggling with some aspect of life, the adults who care about her/him jump directly into “fixing” mode. We make charts, purchase an expensive organizer or start compiling a collection of relevant articles. Of course, we are trying to be of service but it’s possible that we’ve missed an important step in helping the student thrive.

“Is it true?”

Students, and humans of all ages, believe untrue things.

“I’m never going to be good at Math.”
“The person I like is never going to like me back because my body isn’t perfect.”
“I’ll never do well in school like my sister. She’s the smart one and I’m the pretty one. Everyone always says so.”
“Nobody likes me.”
“I’m not going to be accepted at a good university.”
“I’m always going to a disappointment to my parents.”

These limiting beliefs become the canvas on which we paint our life story. Notice that they often contain the word “always” or “never”. Sometimes the belief becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy or an excuse for not taking risks or believing in ourselves.

Before we jump into action to help a child fix their problem, it’s worth taking some time to explore her/his limiting belief. Our thoughts about the world are often far more catastrophic than the actual world in which we live.

Listen
We start to do this by listening quietly while they talk about what is going on. If it’s difficult to get your child talking, you might engage them in conversation while you are washing dishes side by side or when you are both in the front seat of the car. Eye contact can be challenging when we’re talking about hard things. When we see a child suffering, it’s tempting to immediately jump into action: to share our theory about what’s happening or tell a story about something similar that happened when we were young. It may be more helpful to give them the gift of listening, to encourage them to say more, and to ask them a series of non-judgmental questions about “what makes you say that/feel that way?” It’s also worth noting that the silence that occurs during deep listening may feel a bit scary or awkward but leaving those gaps is important because sometimes it takes people time to figure out what they want to say and how to say it.

Question
“Is what you believe true? Can you be certain that it’s true? How would you feel if you didn’t believe this?”
“Is there something else that explains what you believe?”
“Let’s try the opposite of what you believe. Could that be true? Share three reasons why.”

When the student begins exploring alternate explanations about how they are feeling, something important may shift within them. They may feel freer and more hopeful.

For some students, the recognition that their thought is not true will be all the help they need. Other students will require more support and strategies.

Discuss past behaviours that led to success
“Tell me about some specific things you have done in the past that helped with this problem.” This question propels the student into a mental scavenger hunt for past strategies they’ve used to be successful in this particular area. Our goal is not to “cheer up” the student up but to provide an opportunity for them to feel more competent and confident. Take notes and give these to the student so she/he has a record of these strategies for future reference.

Turtle steps towards change
Challenging situations didn’t get that way in one day. Like problems, solutions take time. Students are most successful when they start with small turtle steps in the direction of their goal. Through these small actions, the student starts taking control rather than being controlled by the situation. This helps them feel less helpless. We encourage students to generate their own ideas:
“Today, at break, I have an appointment with my teacher to ask my question.”
“My friend agreed to let me practice my presentation with her today at lunch.”
“Tonight I’m going to go to bed 30 minutes earlier so I feel better at school.”

For many of our students, slow and steady is the right speed for addressing challenges, changing behaviours and making better choices. You and your child can work together to find the right way for you to support them as they make these changes.
 

What are you a warrior for?

 

The message above is from Danielle LaPorte; I have her #Truthbomb App on my phone which means that I get a new message every day from Danielle/The Universe. A few days ago the #Truthbomb was, “What are you a warrior for?”

Such a good question! I started making a list:
* Truth
* Growth/Change
* Feminism
* Stories/Art
* Teenagers and young adults
* Love

What’s on your warrior list?

Looking over the map of 2016, I can trace my routes towards all the ideas on this list. Some are well worn footpaths such as the work that I do with kids every day or running the Poet Laureate course. Other journeys have left fresher tracks. These are the big bold leaps.

When you look at your own voyage through 2016, are you surprised at the paths you took? Would you like to change directions for 2017? What would you like to move towards?

HOME

In the twilight of this past year, Damien and I bought a house in a small fishing village outside Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. We took possession on December 20th and have spent our Christmas vacation here with a minimum of furniture and a maximum of joy. Our house is small and yellow. It is 104 years old and has beautiful wooden floors and only one closet. It’s a five minute walk from the sea. For a few years, we’ll be here during our long school breaks and then it’s our plan to live here full-time.

GAP YEAR FOR GROWN UPS

During the 2017-2018 school year, I’ll be taking a Gap Year for Grown Ups. Damien will continue his work at our school in Japan so Yokohama will be our home base and I will… well, that’s the funny thing… I’m not sure what I’ll do. For more than 25 years, I’ve worked full-time in the service of others and next year I’m going to put myself first and see how that feels. Although planning is normally my thing, I’m going to let the year unfold and see where it takes me. Perhaps I’ll write. Perhaps I’ll get a chance to do some contract work with kids and teachers and counselors at some international schools. I’m going to have more joy.

I welcome your ideas for my gap year. Just leave me a note in the comments for this post or on Facebook. Thanks!

Finally, Happy New Year to you, dear one!

Yesterday, on Facebook, I wrote: “Thank you, 2016, for all the lessons you tried to teach us. May our hearts and minds be open and more receptive in 2017.”

I’m not mad at 2016. We lost some good people but we got amazing new people as well… and we made and witnessed beautiful things and the golden light here makes me think of Italy and there are these miraculous connections between us that shimmer and dance like small white Christmas lights wound around a porch.

Welcome, 2017! May we join forces in the creation of a luminous new year.

Big hugs.

Cheers,
Monna

P.S. This message was originally published as The Sunday Reader. If you’d like to receive these letters directly in your mailbox, you can sign up here.

 

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

screen-shot-2016-10-27-at-10-44-56-pm

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 classroom belongs 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.