Category Archives: Create

Wednesday morning kindness

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Dear Stranger,
Dear lovely foreign woman whom I met in Starbucks,

I noticed you and your two blonde angels
as I passed through the intersection at
the top of Motomachi Shopping Street.

I was in a hurry to get to school.

This is my fifth year in Japan and I
no longer seek out other foreigners.
I think I’m Japanese which is a strange
identity disorder for a round,
pink Canadian to have developed.

When you first spoke to me in line, I was
silently chanting “Chai tea. Chai tea” and
hoping not to blurt out “tai chi” like the
last time I ordered a drink at Starbucks.

You said you liked my trousers and were they
from Japan? “No. Ottawa. I’m from there.”

And it took me a moment to process
that you had given me a compliment.

I’m one of those crazy people who tells
girls: “It is not your job to be pretty.”
Some people suffer from a limited
ability to understand these words.
They think I’m saying women should not be
pretty or that it’s bad to take pride in
ones appearance. I’m not. It’s so very
hard to illuminate a problem that
we stare at every day but never see.

It means I don’t get many compliments.

But you gave me one. Thank you very much.

And then you mentioned the cool design of
Japanese workers’ trousers. How you’d like
to do a photo essay about them.
And I agree. They look just like rock stars.

I was next to order. Breathe. “Chai tea, please.”
Then out the door and up the hill to work.

I should have asked your name. I should have told
you mine, given you my card. I’m Monna.
Thank you for your Wednesday morning kindness.
 

Be the Poet Laureate of your own life

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In the last days of summer when I had nothing but time, and only the sun for a clock, an idea arrived. How cool would it be for our high school to launch a search for a Poet Laureate, for one student passionate about poetry who would compose and perform poems for special school events. {And although this hasn’t happened yet, I have a very good feeling about it.}

And then I began to wonder how it would feel if we all thought of ourselves as Poet Laureates.

Poet Laureates of our own lives.

We’re already the noticers of the small details, the “tag-you’re-it” play between dust and light, the very particular way a loved one throws her head back as she laughs, how the temperature dropped and the wind blew ice-cold the morning your best friend moved away.

So we’re already partway there.

As Poet Laureate, we’ll also get to make decisions about the form our poetry will take and what we’ll share and how we’ll share it. How often and how much. We will need to be brave and sturdy in our bones because not everyone gets poetry and not everyone loves it (the way we do) so we’ll need to decide to be okay with that.

Consider this process: to design one’s own life, to break-dance in its brightness, to observe and appreciate moments of exquisite beauty, to meet crushing disappointment and shards of heartbreak with stubborn gladness, and to share all of that with others. That seems like a divine calling. A spiritual practice. And well worth the risk.

Here’s the thing with poetry: it does not need to be published in a literary journal or posted in a blog. You can whisper your poems to your partner over scrambled eggs or rap them in the car with your kid on the way to Girl Guides. {Actually, I’m thinking of an Ode to Girl Guide Cookies right now.} You can write a poem on the back of a postcard, or make a movie out of it, or a quilt. Poems definitely do not need to rhyme… or even use words.

And no, your life is not boring. Those moments that you consider mundane… somebody, somewhere finds them fascinating. Somebody somewhere loves those kinds of poems. Lives for them. Wants to publish them in their own heart.

So sing your poem-songs of absurd joy, embarrassment and longing. Sing, you Poet Laureate of Yourself.
 

Travelling The Road to Atlantis with Leo Brent Robillard

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In August I was invited to participate in a blog tour for Leo Brent Robillard’s fourth novel, The Road to Atlantis which was published on September 15th. Here is the conversation that unfolded over the next month.

Dear Brent,
I read your novel as a former teacher of English lit, as a voracious reader, as someone who is currently writing a novel, and as your friend. All of those selves unite to say congratulations on this gorgeous, tragic and sweet novel. Thank you for writing this story and for sharing it with me in this way. I feel really proud of you ~ and happy for you.
Cheers,
Monna

MM: In the opening scenes of The Road to Atlantis the family is quite similar to your own. I felt as though this story could be another branch of your own story, a life unlived through the grace of the universe or chance or whatever you believe in. Could you talk about this. How did you look after yourself emotionally while you wrote this novel?

LBR: The opening scene of the novel is based on an experience I had during a family road trip back in 2006. Just prior to leaving the beach in Cape May, we – my wife and I – lost track of our daughter on the busy beach. The entire experience did not last more than five minutes, and yet it escalated very quickly toward hysteria. Unlike David, I did not hear the lifeguard’s whistle. For that, I am eternally grateful. However, I did have that moment, thirty seconds before my daughter was located, when I thought, “So this is how my life is meant to be.” This novel almost wrote itself, but it took me close to a decade to finally sit down and put pen to paper. In the end, it was almost a relief to write it. The characters lived a dozen different lives in my mind, and none of them were comforting. Writing the book was how I looked after myself emotionally.

MM: You are both a writer and a teacher of literature but these roles are, I think, not entirely compatible. Was there anything in your lit analysis training that you needed to unlearn, or place on pause, in order to create the world of a novel?

LBR: I think that my training as an English major in university is much more evident in my three earlier novels – certainly in the first two. I don’t think of this as a bad thing at all. However, I must admit that I was much less self-conscious in the writing of The Road to Atlantis. I was not thinking about craft or language. This may have something to do with experience, or it may have more to do with the fact that the subject was so much more personal. I became a teacher of literature, and later of languages and creative writing, because I loved books from an early age. I want to deal with them always. But it is true that analysis and creativity are two different paths. I could never wholly abandon either.

MM: Trains, and specifically model trains, play an important role in the second part of the novel. Tell us the story of you and trains.

LBR: I had a model train set when I was a child. It was built on a simple plywood board. I do not think that it was an expensive set, but at the end of each pay period my father would take me to the local hobby shop to buy a new piece for it – a train station, a hotel, etc. They were models that required assembly. We worked on them together. It was a small part of my own history with my father, in whose memory this book is dedicated.

MM: A character who has not seen the protagonist, David, in a long time thinks that he is a mess. I disagreed. I respected the way that he was living and thought he was really onto something good. Simpler. Why do you think people will have different interpretations of his living situation?

LBR: This is a particularly astute question. And I’m so glad you asked it. David is on to something. We all need to live simpler. It is perhaps the manner in which David arrives at simplicity that is hard. He takes the slash and burn approach, which hurts those around him – particularly Matty. But one reviewer remarked that “the great truth” about this novel is that “when you find yourself again you can be a better parent.” We can, none of us, be the people that we are without having lived the lives we have lived. Or, as Kahlil Gibran said, “One may not reach the dawn save by the path of the night.” David could not seek redemption, nor could he achieve reconnection with his son at the end of the novel, without having travelled “by the path of the night.”

MM: The novel, which explores the life of a family, after the death of one of its members is, in part, a story of brokenness yet you managed to keep the story fresh, free of cliches and moving quickly. How did you do this?

LBR: The last thing that I wanted to write was a novel about the “Five Stages of Loss and Grief.” So I didn’t. I couldn’t even tell you what they are. I only know that they exist because of a disparaging reviewer’s remark concerning another writer’s work. This is a novel of the imagination. It isn’t written to prove or support a theory. I did not want to be reductive or to belittle anyone to whom this has occurred. I tried to envision what would become of me in such a circumstance and I went from there.

MM: If you were to write another novel about one of the characters from The Road to Atlantis, which character would you choose. Why?

LBR: My knee-jerk response is to say Matty, because his story is far from over. The story of Larry’s “lost” years would also be interesting. But the real novel belongs to Kim. She is the sort of character who deserves a novel. I’m imagining her future already.

MM: Tell us about your writing process. Do you write every day or do you write in bursts scheduled/squeezed between other things?

LBR: Bursts. I call them appointments. If my son has three hours of dance practice then I will drop him off, hit the nearest coffee shop, and write like crazy for three hours. I keep big, fat, spiral bound notebooks into which a stick everything in the interim period. I also plot meticulously so that I do not waste a single minute of those three hours. I edit nothing until I begin entering the story into a word processor. God forbid I ever lose my notebooks.

MM: An eclectic playlist of music is weaved into the very fabric of The Road to Atlantis. What singers and songwriters inspire you? What did you listen to while writing this novel?

LBR: First, I am an aural leaner, so I cannot listen to music while I write – especially the music that I like. I want white noise, idle chatter, the sound of a coffee grinder in the background. I will actually wear headphones when I’m writing in a public space, but I never play music through them. The headphones mute the ambient noise slightly, and they also discourage people from speaking to me. Does that sound bad? I’m not anti-social or anything, but writing takes focus, and more importantly, flow. I am, however, constantly inspired by music. I listen to Preservation Hall Jazz, nineties grunge, dirty blues, and classic rock. I like folk and alt-country. I even play and build guitars. If there is music in Atlantis, it’s because life is suffused with music.

MM: In The Road to Atlantis, all of the characters leave each other. Some come back. In our own lives, we leave each other in all kinds of small ways, every day, don’t we?

LBR: People come and go from our lives, physically and emotionally. We never know if they are truly gone until they never come back. I know a woman who married her high school sweetheart more than a decade after they broke up and went on to live very different lives. I’m sure neither of them saw that coming. Departures are often sad, because they remind us of our own mortality, the possibility of never again. But we have to be open to leaving and to being left. That what stories are made of.

Robillard,Brent_Caroline Bergeron3_2 Leo Brent Robillard is an award-winning author and educator. His novels include Leaving Wyoming, which was listed in Bartley’s Top Five in the Globe and Mail for Best First Fiction; Houdini’s Shadow, which was translated into Spanish; and, most recently, Drift. In 2011, he received the Premier’s Award for Teacher of the Year. He lives in Eastern Ontario with his wife and two children.

Mellifluous: Soundtrack of a Life

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This article is part of a new series that I am calling (at least in my head) Creative Thriving Wednesdays. Hmmm… you are invited to share your ideas for a name for this series.

Last week, Thursday morning’s Grade 10 Wellness class popped up faster than I expected. That happens sometimes in school… and in life. The students and I have been working on decision making and an observation I’ve been making is that although educators (and parents) talk a great deal about the importance of reflection, we don’t necessarily teach it as a skill. We need to get better at that.

So I created a lesson plan that would genuinely be fun for the students but would also provide an opportunity for us to develop our reflection skills.

The assignment for the 90 minute period was to create a soundtrack of your life and to provide liner notes.

Part A: Soundtrack of your life
1. Create a soundtrack of your soundtrack in iTunes, Spotify, sound cloud or YouTube (or anywhere that you want) using your computer or phone
2. Choose 15 songs that:
* you love
* feature lyrics that are significant or meaningful to you
* describe your struggles and also what is really good in your life (such as friendships or relationships)
3. You must give your soundtrack a title
4. Please plan out the order in which you will place the songs

Part B: Liner Notes
Open a new document where you:
* list the name of each song along with the name of the band/performer
* explain (minimum of two sentences each) why you have chosen this song to be part of the soundtrack of your life. Why is this song important in the becoming of you. In order to explain this, you will need to go back and listen to the lyrics and think about their meaning. How do these words describe a situation you have been in, a love you have had or an obstacle that you have overcome. If, upon reflection, you discover that this is simply a cool song that does not describe your life, save it to another playlist. The songs on your soundtrack must tell part of your life story.

My Reflections
The students shared their soundtracks with me and I have learned so much about each of them from the songs and artists they chose. The boys in particular love a lot of the same music that I love, music that I listened to as a teenager… except for the rap. That’s where we part ways, musically speaking. Their liner notes are funny and tender and sad and all the things their lives have been thus far. And their lives thus far, as described in their liner notes, sound and feel exactly the same as my own unfolding life ~ even though I have been on the planet three times as long.

Our songs may not be the same but the stories behind the songs are so similar.

I’ve started my own soundtrack. According to my own set of instructions, I’ve given it a title: Mellifluous. Part of speech: adjective. Definition: (Of a sound) pleasingly smooth and musical to hear.

What song would definitely be on your soundtrack?
 

What is the Geography of Now?

What is GON

Registration opened today for the Geography of Now.

This six-week eCourse begins on Monday 11th of May. There are 25 spaces available in the class.

In the end-of-course survey, I ask participants to define what this course is. The responses to this question have made me giddy with joy and, more importantly, I believe these insights may help you if you are thinking about taking the course.

The Geography of Now is…

“An amazing 6-week online course where you get an email Monday to Friday with a short discussion and an assignment to photograph things, write about them, think about them and become more aware of your surroundings.” ~ Mary Wallace

“The yoga of creativity.” ~ Cheri Rauser

“A safe and thorough exploration in gradual, thoughtful, do-able exercises to stretch and explore different themes in writing about self, other, present moment, photographs, beauty, aspiration and play. A very well organised, fun journey of self exploration and online community support. Hats off to Monna for her beautiful design, and effervescent vigilance with our March 2015 group. I thoroughly enjoyed this experience.” ~ Jenna McAsey

“The Geography of Now is a course in daily reflection and mindfulness. It helped me to look at my local area with new eyes – kinder and more adventurous.” ~ Anita Wadsworth

You can learn more about the course and register here.

I love this course; it’s the online class I’ve always wanted to take!

 

Geography of Now starts March 9th

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To be at home
where you are,
to notice,
to photograph,
to write,
to feel grateful.
To fall back in love
with your life.

That’s the Geography of Now.

The course starts on Monday March 9th.

Learn more here.
 

Languages I do not speak

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Mandarin.
Thai.
Japanese.

The secret language of hairstylists.

The linguistic and spatial aptitude
required to find
a round silver battery,
that tiny UFO,
in a Japanese department store.

The inexplicable banking
of planes.

Calorie counting
and the dialect of fashion magazines.
I’ve never conversed in the sillification of women.

Algebra.
Trigonometry.
Mysteries both.

I’m not fluent in sports.
(Well, maybe a little hockey.)

I did not speak
for decades
the language
of standing up
for myself

but now I am learning.