Category Archives: Life Design

Reconstructing Summer


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.
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,

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

This I Experienced as Love


My friend Jenny emailed me this week to thank me for a blog post I published on Valentine’s Day 2012. On Love and The Price of Admission was about recognising what a good thing we’ve already got with our partner ~ and learning to let go of the small annoyances that accompany deep familiarity.

That post was inspired by an idea from Dan Savage ~ an idea that has, over the past four years, saved me from saying/shouting many crazy-stupid things I would have regretted exactly one nano-second later. Ultimately, my partner Damien and I consider ourselves really lucky and we let lots of small stuff go in order to bask in the yummy-melty-yellowey company of the much beloved other.

For me, there’s another idea that always hold hands with the Price of Admission. In the short movie that plays inside my brain these twin-ideas are represented by seven-year-old best friends playing on a swing set. Higher and higher they swing. One girl wears a t-shirt that says “The Price of Admission” while her kindred spirit wears the slogan, “This I Experienced As Love.”

We all want to be loved. Yup. I’ve been thinking about this one for decades and I could not be more certain about it.

But here’s the tricky bit… we all want to be loved but the way in which we want to be loved varies SO greatly from person to person. Me, I grew up looking for a big, juicy love-fest featuring deep and meaningful connection 24/7. I could talk to Damien all day long every day, analysing Buffy the Vampire Slayer, planning our dinner menu, and updating him on the constantly shifting cloudscape within my brain. That kind of intensity would blow his circuits. What he needs is connection punctuated with stretches of time on his own, and the ability to move back and forth between the two without too much fuss. That feels like love for him.

We are not alone in this conundrum, this particular love-dissonance. I often think how miraculous it is that any of us are able to form long committed relationships.

Today, May 1st, marks 22 years of Damien and me. {We celebrate the anniversary of the day we met as there is still a bit of disagreement regarding when we actually became a couple.}

22 years of miracles.

In that time, I’ve come to need a less intense connection. Over those two decades, he’s chosen to spend more time hanging out in my little cocoon. Our Yin and Yang have cuddled up somewhere in the middle.

But there’s another thing we’ve done that isn’t so much about change as it is about noticing.

I’ve gotten better at noticing HOW he loves me.

Inside the front door of our place in Japan we have a storage closet that contains approximately half the contents of our apartment. It is seriously scary… piled high with pillows, duffel bags, suitcases, the vacuum cleaner, decorative items we don’t have space for… ETCETERA. I avoid that closet as if it were filled with bubonic plague laced with plutonium. Recently, I was preparing for a trip and Damien, who had been in the dining room editing his film, came into our bedroom and said, “Which suitcase would you like to take?”

Oh. Sweet. Man.

He doesn’t make a big deal of things. He doesn’t call attention to the ways in which he is generous. Just, “Which suitcase would you like to take?”

Love does not always show up with chocolates and fresh flowers. Love does not necessarily have the time or inspiration to write you a sonnet. But when Love volunteers to brave the perils of the front closet to pull out your big black suitcase, it’s swoon o’clock.

This I experienced as love.

Your Homework Assignment (should you choose to accept it):
Pay attention to how the people in your life show their love ~ especially if it’s different from the way you show love.


*This post was first published as The Sunday Reader on Sunday 1st May 2016.

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.

On Starting and Stopping. {The End of Poetry}


On Tuesday 4th of August I stopped writing poetry.

It wants to be dramatic like that, doesn’t it?

In the middle of February 2015, I started a daily poetry project quite by accident. I had been writing poems almost every day, they came without effort or planning, and I began to wonder what it would be like to write a poem every day. Not just every day, but every day for year. “Why not?,” I thought. I had lots of ideas and lots to say. By writing every day, my writing would improve. And I love the form that poetry takes… the rhythmic pops and weaves, the hard kernels at the bottom of the paper bag of meaning, the small sparkling somethings from a regular day in a regular life in Yokohama, Japan or New York City or Ottawa, Canada. And so I began, poem by poem, to map out my world and the people and emotions I encountered there.

And it was good.

I shared these poems on my blog and on my Facebook page and people let me know, with their words, which poems they loved and, with their silence, which ones hadn’t worked so well for them. But I was not put off by the silence. Every poem found its readership even if that was just one. One Damien or Spike or Jessie or Aynne or Ashley or even myself. The world of a poem is not greedy. It does not demand more space than you can afford. It can be as small as one idea jotted on a Starbucks napkin and folded into small squares in your pocket. A marble of a poem. A one yen coin.

And even though I traveled, this summer, to Bangkok and then to New York and then to Ottawa and then to a cottage I had rented with my family, and even though I experienced a passport mishap (entirely my fault) and the subsequent high velocity issuing of a temporary passport, the poems still came, more or less every day, without stress or worry.

This was also a summer in which I’d decided to take a break from social media. Primarily Facebook and Twitter although, in truth, I have never understood how Twitter works. I feel like Twitter is social media’s great black hole and everything I put there just disappears. So taking a break from Twitter was no great loss but being away from Facebook took a lot of discipline on my part. And then not so much.

And I got to the part of my summer when I was surrounded by other writers, many of them truly lovely people (like kindred-spirit-lovely), and they were sharing their words and images freely, madly and something in me just shut off. Two somethings, actually. The creative something in me that writes the poems and takes the photos, and the courageous something in me that doesn’t overthink the sharing. That one that just jumps. She’s a sparkly bit, that one.

When you write a poem every single weekday, you get to a point where you are just going to tell the truth. Whatever the truth happens to be. This is both uncomfortable and inconvenient. Not nice. It felt not nice to have these true and distinctly unlovely things to be working through and to be faced with the task of producing a poem from those thoughts every day.

There are people who write about the darkness. Stephen King, God bless him. Stieg Larsson. People who have purchased their Writing Palace in a dark realm. That’s not the neighbourhood for me. I’m a real estate agent for the light ~ committed to helping people find the light and then live there.

So I stopped writing poems every day. I did feel a bit guilty at first. I considered writing eight more so that I could claim I had written six months’ worth of daily poems. (We’re such fragile, vain creatures, aren’t we?) But I did not write eight more. I began writing notes on scraps of paper and in my fuchsia pink moleskin and on my phone… notes about what I saw and felt and how all of those things fit together or do not.

With each poem-less day, I thought more about my novel The 37 Impossible Loves of Naoko Nishizawa. Six months ago I completed a shitty first draft. Two months ago, a friend gave me brilliant notes for some next steps. Now, in the absence of daily poems, I am working my way back to that world, to writing a second draft and then a third and as many as it takes to put that story into your hands.

And that makes me really, really happy.

This morning, in Tokyo, I started typing a poem into my phone. It’s about an old woman and a much younger man sitting on a bench in the rain and the art of sitting still and how beauty is God in the world. This is the poem I want to write.

Maybe I’ll share it.

What would you like to start if you could?

What would you like to stop?

What we’re really talking about when we talk about missed plane connections


This post is part of a weekly series about designing your life.

When we talk about
missed plane connections,
we’re not talking about planes.

The details of that particular voyage
are of no consequence
even though we’re convinced
that’s the story we’re telling.

We’re compelled to share
the number of minutes spent on the tarmac
and how close we came to missing the flight
because they provide a shape,
a socially presentable container,
for all our messy emotions.

Anxiety. Panic. Frustration.

We’re annoyed
when we feel
our time has
been wasted.

And we’re scared
of being stranded,
of the unknown,
of things beyond our control.

We don’t like to admit this.

On Saturday morning
the line up for my flight
from Malaga to Paris
was epic.
The computer system
was down (Who knew this
could happen in an airport)
and each passenger
was checked in
by a staff member
on the phone
with an employee
in another city.
So let’s say



There was no way
our 6:50 am flight
would leave on time
and that looked bad for
my connection in Paris.

At a little cafe
near the gate
I ate a bocadillo with
Iberico ham
and a cafe latte
and tried to create
a new story
for this journey.

Needed: a new paradigm.

I asked myself
“What would Damien do?”

He would survey the situation.

What’s real here?
I’m safe.
I’m having a lovely meal.
The plane is at the gate
so this flight will
eventually depart.
If I miss my flight to Tokyo
I’ll spend the day in Paris.

Even before the plane
took off
I was asleep.

When I awoke
people were moving
to the front of the plane
with their knapsacks and luggage.
Those with tight connections.
I would have 40 minutes
to get a boarding pass,
clear passport control
and catch a bus
to the M gates.

Not probable
but possible.

Relax. You’re okay.

When I scanned my passport
at a machine, a message said:
“You do not have enough time to board.”

I asked for help.

An Air France employee
whom I stopped in the hall
directed me to a desk
that would issue my boarding pass.
A Canadian woman living in Spain
asked if I’d like to go ahead of her.
She had plenty of time
she said.
I cried at her kindness
but just a little.

Ran through the airport
forsaking a day in Paris.

Si es possible.
If it is possible.
If the universe desires.

I boarded Air France 272
during the final boarding call
red-faced from running.

The rest unfolded
as it always does.
12 hours in the sky:
Movies, brie cheese, sleep.

My bag arrived a day later,
delivered to my door.

None of this was the end of the world.

The feeling
I chose to have
on my journey
was not one of
or anxiety
even though
I’m especially gifted
at both.

I chose adventure.
{Let’s see what happens. Run!}

I chose creativity
and wrote four poems.

I chose gratitude
for finding
a balance
letting go
helping myself
and to the women and men
of Air France who got me
and my luggage

I changed my story.

An inconvenience
is not
a catastrophe
unless we think it is.

The self who missed
the flight
is sitting on a green metal chair
in the Tuileries Garden
on a sunny day in late May
deciding where to eat
roast chicken for dinner.

Life Design: Making a Photograph


This post is part of a weekly series about designing your life.
Peter Turnley, an American photographer I admire, talks about “making” a photograph instead of taking one. I puzzled over this at first.

Then I read this quotation from the poet Mary Oliver: “Attention without feeling is only a report.”

Ah! We make photographs in the same way that we make poetry which is to say that we feel our way to the truth.

Technical skills will not help you coax a flower into showing you its personality. The flower doesn’t care how expensive your camera is or how many months you’ve spent mastering exposure.

You love the flower, it loves you back. Just like words… and people.

On Saturday I spent the day in three neighbourhoods in central Tokyo: Tokyo Tower, Hiro-o and Ebisu. I walked through the city taking photographs with my heart {and Instagram}. I’ve shared them here as smaller photographs, the way they appear on my iPhone, like little gifts.


tokyo tower





divine feminine





Life Design: Truth Telling


This post is part of a weekly series about designing your life.

I’ve been thinking a great deal about telling the truth.

Over the past week, a couple of conversations with students have highlighted how tough this issue can be for kids. Imagine a student who falls behind with her school work and misses an assignment. She feels terrible about this but is unable to find time to make up the work given everything else she is doing at, and outside of, school. Time passes and she begins to believe that it’s simply not possible to complete this task. Her guilt increases until it shows up as full-blown shame and she can’t fathom having a conversation with this teacher about the missing work… or anything else. She begins to participate less frequently in class. She avoids her teacher in the hall.

As a teacher and Counselor, I can say that I am often not even aware when a student is missing an assignment. I am keeping a minimum of one thousand balls up in the air at any one moment so I’m never particularly worried about one student’s missing assignment.

But she doesn’t know that. She believes that she has let me down. The feeling of being out of control starts to leak into other classes and activities. She sees herself as a failure.

Perhaps, in the past, when a teacher asked her about a missing assignment, the student’s shame was so great that she believed her only option was to tell a lie:
“It’s at home. I’ll bring it tomorrow.”
“Oh. I thought I already handed it in.”

Yuck. We’ve all done it but it doesn’t feel good for anyone involved.

Teachers are pretty bright people as a rule. We tend to know when someone is lying to us. And because we are human beings, being lied to makes us less generous and forgiving. When we sense or know that a student is not telling the truth, we are less likely to suggest, or grant a request for, an extension.

You know what teachers like? We really dig the truth.
“I’m so sorry. I don’t really have an excuse.”
“I’ve been overwhelmed and I didn’t get this done and I’ve been avoiding it like crazy.”
“If you would be willing to give me an extension, I will hand it in on Monday.”
“School is kind of freaking me out right now.”
“I didn’t mean to let you down.”
“Could I start meeting with you at break to get some extra help in your course?”
“Actually, I think I need some help with getting myself organized.”

There is nothing, not one single thing that I have encountered, that works with teachers and other human creatures one hundred per cent of the time but telling the truth is the best strategy I’ve found for living a good life.

The truth makes most of us gentler and more understanding. We see the truth-teller as a person trying to do the right thing and we are motivated to help them reach their goal. When someone is honest with me, I experience that as respect for me and for our relationship. The truth always makes me pay attention.

Truth splits hard things wide open like a coconut.

Truth makes it impossible to stay hidden in your dark corner because the space you’ve been hiding is going to be lit up like a Christmas tree.

So I’ve been thinking about the importance of telling the truth and about kids and not only kids because adults definitely have some challenges where truth is concerned and DP and I were walking home from school on Monday and I said, “I think we need to start teaching high school students how to tell the truth.” And because he is also a Counselor, he did not tell me I was crazy and we chatted about what that might look like.

Then, in the fascinating way that these things unfold, I checked Facebook and found that Elizabeth Gilbert had written a gorgeous and piece about truth. You can read it here.

The whole world is conspiring to help us tell the hard, true things that need to be said.

If you have any insights about truth telling, I would love for you to share them in the comments below.