Category Archives: Noticing

Thoughts on Belonging

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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

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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.
 

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?

Cheers,
Monna
xoxo

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
about
my
secret
poetry
channel.

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
multi-tasking,
sleep deprived,
stressed,
other-judging,
future-worried,
past-regretting.

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
dance
dance,
girl.

Everywhere life unfolds
shimmering:

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,
“Maybe,
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.
 

POET LAUREATE OF YOUR OWN LIFE
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.
 

Inspiration Instead

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{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
*Ramen
*Cynthia Erivo’s performance in The Colour Purple on Broadway

What’s been saving you lately?