Category Archives: Create

Inspiration Instead


{Unboxing a painting by Ruth Shively}

It’s the first week of February and, in Yokohama, it’s finally winter. The days are short and the news from America seems more reality tv than reality. It’s easy to become cynical but the truth is that the pay off isn’t good.

I’m choosing, instead, to be inspired by and grateful for:
*When We Were Young from Adele’s album 25
*Gate A-4 by Naomi Shihab Nye
*The kindness of Scottish taxi drivers {also Scottish shortbread}
*Ruth Shively’s paintings which you can see on Facebook and on her website
*High School students who ask for help for their friends
*This photograph taken by Jessie Voigts
*Snow days
*The way that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau listens to Canadians when they speak
*Cashmere sweaters and scarves
*Lisa Hsia’s writing about her pregnancy
*The gorgeous love that a young friend has fallen into
*Scrivener ~ an amazing tool for writers
*Downton Abbey. {I’m know I’m late to this party… but wow!}
*The noticing poetry of Samantha Reynolds
*Cynthia Erivo’s performance in The Colour Purple on Broadway

What’s been saving you lately?

Noticing Poetry with Naomi Shihab Nye


Poet and joyful person Naomi Shihab Nye visited our school this week and asked students two questions that I can’t stop thinking about:
*Do you ever feel like you are living inside a poem?
*Do you have access to the poetry channel in your mind?

Yes. Yes I do.


Make Your Own Rules

{First published in The Sunday Reader on Sunday 3 January 2016.}
I’ve always been a people pleaser. As I emerged from the womb, pink-faced and gasping for my first breath, I’m pretty sure I was already scanning the room, trying to figure out how to make those people happy. And that worked out, more or less well, until it didn’t which is, perhaps, the experience of every woman allowed to think for herself.

Here’s the thing: we cannot MAKE other people happy. They are either happy or they are not. This is not actually your responsibility and the really bad news is that in your efforts to please them, you run the danger of re-arranging your beautiful atoms into something resembling a doormat.

This is not a sustainable model for a joyful, thriving life. We’re going to have to learn how to work as hard at pleasing ourselves as we do at pleasing others. Isn’t that both scary and delicious? This is my New Year’s wish for you… that you begin (or continue) to make your own rules. Here are some ideas…

*Know yourself. There’s no one else quite like you. If you’re an Introvert, you’ll probably need to stay home more than your extroverted friends. Stop apologising for that. Get into your flannel jammies and figure out your own idea of a good time.
* Get married or don’t. Take your partner’s name or hyphenate or perhaps she or he could take your last name. Have four kids. Choose not to have children at all. Love other people’s kids instead.
* Ask for the job title of the job you are actually doing. Ask for more money for the work that you do.
* Dye your hair purple or let your hair grow out white and beautiful.
* Lead sometimes… and also follow.
* Buy a tiny house. Rent until you die.
* When service is bad, speak up. Politely.
* When the talk at the lunch table is always focused on exercise and “good” and “bad” foods and that’s not your idea of a nurturing conversation, ask if anyone has read any good books lately. Or change lunch tables. Or bring your own lunch and eat in the park.
* If you are a woman, you already know that being a woman is not fair. How can you help? Where do you need to put your foot down? At our school we teach kids that girls are not things and that it’s not their job to be pretty. Some students don’t believe us but some do… and that might help them get to the good life-stuff faster. That is true for both girls and boys.
* Make your own church. Choose your own choir. It might be the soundtrack to the Broadway musical Hamilton or Adele’s 25. Celebrate whomever or whatever you’d like ~ in ways that bring you peace and joy.
* Start talking to strangers. {People are fascinating.}
* Stop allowing people to treat you in a way that is condescending, hostile or unkind. You deserve better. Say so. Teach the people in your life how to treat you. Treat others with the same respect.
* Keep every book you have ever read. Give all your books away.
* You don’t have to be just one thing. You can be a beekeeper and a poet or a carpenter and a philosopher. This is your life.
* You know that wonderful thing that happens when little kids are allowed to choose their own clothes and they wear a pink tutu with a grey and red woollen hat to school? Guess what? You too can choose the tutu. Striped socks. Red shoes. Audacious Christmas sweaters.
* Stop giving and receiving Christmas gifts. Give the money to a food bank or take a vacation or use it for a downpayment on a home. Or buy gifts for everyone you know and/or random strangers.
* Say no. People will not like it at all (they really won’t) and it will be SO good for you. Your no will open up so much gorgeous space for all the YESES about which you feel passionately.
* Say yes.
* Let people be mad at you. Stop going over everything that was said in every single conversation. You don’t always have to be the one to smooth things over. Many things pass all on their own; let this thing pass without your intervention. {I know… this one is terribly hard.}
* Travel the world for two decades. Fall in love with your hometown and never leave.
* Discover the ways in which you can best contribute to your community and serve others.
* Publish 25 Instagram shots in one day. Some days are just so glorious that you want to share… so fill yer boots! So what if some people unfollow you?
* Thank people for their kind advice and then do exactly what you intended to do all along. Or not.
* Advocate on behalf of others. This is how we make the world better. On I recently read a review of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Americanah; the review was entitled, “An unhappy hypercritical bitch writes a moderately engaging but unforgivably long novel”. Calling the author a “bitch” in the title of the review was not an appropriate, kind or useful way to convey information about this novel to other readers. I asked to have this deeply hateful term removed from the title of the review. It took four attempts over ten days for Amazon to respond; in the end, Amazon made the decision to remove the review entirely.
* Do you need all the stuff you have? Give it away. Sell it. Or keep it all.
* Write true stories. You get to define true.
* The next time you find yourself arguing about something, ask yourself if you really care about this issue. It’s okay not to have an opinion about which route you take to the airport.
* You are also entitled to disagree passionately. Burn the metaphorical house down.
* Find the sacred in the ordinary and the ordinary in the sacred.

My New Year’s wish for you is twofold:
1. May you dive deep into your biggest, wildest dreams for your own life.
2. May you find freedom from caring so much about what others think. People will criticize you anyway so why not live the life you really want and let them criticize that. It will be so much more satisfying.

Happy New Year.

With love, milk and cookies,

P.S. I’d love to hear about how you are making your own rules. Please leave me a comment below.

Liz Gilbert, Big Magic + Poet Laureates

Liz Gilbert, Big Magic + Poet Laureates

Liz Gilbert was recently interviewed by CBC radio host Shadrach Kabango about her book Big Magic: Creative Living Through Fear.

Here’s the part of the interview that whacked me over the head {in the best possible way}:

Interviewer: You have a faith, Elizabeth, that everyone can be creative.

LG: Yeah. I do.

Interviewer: There’s a lot of bad art out there…

LG: Don’t care.

Interviewer: There’s a lot of unoriginal art out there…

LG: Don’t care.

Interviewer: Why do you believe that?

LG: First of all, it’s such a subjective thing you just said because you and I could sit down right now and we could make a list of what we think are the ten most important and magnificent works of art in the world and odds are there’s going to be stuff on your list that doesn’t excite me or that I actually, flat out, think is bad and you would say the same of mine so you can show me the most perfect piece of art in the world and I can find you ten people who hate it. There are people who think that Sistine Chapel is cartoonish. (Laughs.) You know what I mean? Like, there are people that think Beethoven is a hack. It doesn’t matter. So I don’t care and I’m not interested in criticism. I find that to be the most absolutely boring part of the artistic process.

Interviewer: You include that with complaining and fear?

LG: Yeah. I don’t care. I don’t care. And somebody said to me the other day, “Aren’t you afraid your book is going to encourage a lot of people to make bad art?” First of all, the fact that you would even say that makes you sound like a jerk. One. And two, my concern is not that the world is full of bad art, which I’m not even sure it is, my concern is that there are all kinds of people in the world who believe somehow that this ~ our greatest shared human inheritance, the right to participate in creation, the right to become a person who is unfolding, the right to look for the jewels that are hidden within you, the right to leave a footprint on the world ~ that that only belongs to the elite, the trained, the professional and the tormented and I stand firmly as a populist. (Laughs.) I want to see people making things. Period.

You can listen to the full interview here. The section above begins at 13 minutes.


“The right to participate in creation, the right to become a person who is unfolding, the right to look for the jewels that are hidden within you, the right to leave a footprint on the world” ~ that’s the spirit of this new course. We won’t concern ourselves with questions of good versus bad art and we definitely won’t spend any of our valuable time comparing ourselves to others.

We are, however, going to make things!

Poet Laureate of Your Own Life begins on Monday! This is a twenty day course for twenty dollars. 🙂

Each day, the Poets will receive in their inbox:
* a poetic reflection about one aspect of being a Poet Laureate
* a writing prompt with an optional (fun) writing constraint to make things juicer
* one poem that I love
Each Friday we’ll meet our Poet Laureate of the Week, a woman who defines herself as a poet ~ among other things. These features will include an interview with the poet about her craft as well as one of her poems.

Poet Laureates are invited to share their poetry at our secret and private Facebook group. All feedback will be celebratory.

If you’ve been on the fence, jump on down and join us.


Wednesday morning kindness


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


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


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.

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.