Category Archives: Thrive

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.

 

This is Jade

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This is my jade plant. I call her Jade. That’s not a terrifically original name but it suits her nonetheless. Jade was a gift from my friend Lindsay when she moved from Japan to Buenos Aires in June. The truth is that I don’t have any other plants nor do I have a particularly strong track record as a plant mama; Lindsay explained that Jade is a perfect plant for a novice gardener because she only needs to be watered once a month. “Really?,” I asked. “Really. Plus you can give her some coffee grounds if you like.”

So in late June I watered Jade and then I went home to Canada for a month. I didn’t worry about her a bit. When I got back to my office in Yokohama, I watered her but it turned out that someone else had been worried about Jade and they had watered her too. You can understand how this would happen in a school filled with very nice people. So the edges of some of her leaves turned black and some of her gorgeous heavy leaves dropped to the ground. It was alarming to me that a plant so fierce and gorgeous could also be so fragile.

I moved Jade to a sunnier spot in my office and waited. After a few days, her leaves stopped falling off. After a week, the black bits began to disappear. She was on the mend. Ah! So not so fragile after all.

So I waited a month (closer to five weeks, actually, to be on the safe side) and then watered her again. “Thank you for the gift of your beauty and your oxygen,” I said. “You are doing a great job.” I swear she looked proud.

On Tuesday morning of this week, I was talking to a parent on the phone when I discovered one of her branches on the floor of my office. Oh no. Poor Jade. The place where the branch had broken off was not dry but green and moist as if someone had broken it off on purpose or by accident. I thought about this for a moment. Who would do that? Could it have been a student? One of our cleaners? The more I thought about it, the more upset I became. Was someone mad at me and had decided to take it out on Jade? Was this broken branch meant as a message? I even thought about what I would say to Damien the next time I saw him, how I would tell him about Jade’s accident and my theories about the broken branch.

Then I stopped myself. I looked at the plant. There she was ~ healthy and radiant. A little thinner on one side, perhaps, but symmetry is overrated.

No amount of worrying would repair that branch she no longer seemed to need. Any detective work on my part would be fuelled by suspicion and would undoubtedly lead to drama and more worry-worry-worry. Not good options.

So I wondered how it would feel if I decided that whatever happened to Jade was just simply something that happened.

I chose to let it go.

Or perhaps it let go of me.

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This post was first published as The Sunday Reader. If you’d like to receive these essays directly in your mailbox every two weeks, you can subscribe here.
 

Brown Cords + Big Decisions

Paris Lights

On Sunday, I spent the whole day in my jammies. That’s not so remarkable in and of itself but it was a particularly active day for not having left the apartment.

We were discussing some big decisions about how long we’ll stay in Japan, what we’ll do after that. Oh… and also, what kind of house we’ll buy and where it will be. Stretched out on our matching black leather couches (a Canadian word if there ever was one), we spent the day looking at real estate listings, passing our computers back and forth to each other, and talking about what kind of life we want to create.

We’re talking about what kind of life we want so it doesn’t happen accidentally. So we don’t wake up when we’re 80 and say, “Oh shit. This isn’t at all what we had in mind.”

When it came to making important decisions, I grew up believing in the power of the pro/con list. My version was to list everything and then go with the obvious choice which was, to say, the longest list. The secret to making big decisions was to be reasonable, logical and prudent. I had been an adult for some time when I realised that my application of the pro/con list was deeply flawed; it turned out that one item on my con list might cancel out five items on my pro list. The items on my list weren’t equal in significance.

I also used to ask for the advice of others but I’m starting to believe less and less in advice. A person can tell me what they did in a certain situation and I so much appreciate their insights and stories… but without the shoulds or should nots. They can’t know what it’s like to be me so their best gift to me is a reflective conversation.

On Sunday afternoon DP asked, “So how will we know what is the right thing to do?”

When I was in kindergarten, there was a red-headed boy who would frequently wander away from whatever the group was doing or learning at the time and sit cross-legged under the six-foot high television stand in the corner of the room. He was already reading novels so he would sit under that shiny stand and read his book until the teacher finally noticed that he had slipped away again. When I was five, I thought he was naughty (although remarkably well read) but now I suspect that the little non-conformist in brown cords and a striped tee-shirt was probably the wisest person in the room.

So I’ve been trying to act more like that kid. He did not act out of fear. He was new and fresh and obsessed with reading and looking out the window and not too bothered with society’s rules about money or what one should do for a living. He was his own culture. Like him, I’ve been following my curiosity and reminding myself not to feel too worried about what other people think. The thing is that other people will judge my decisions but they will do so regardless of what I decide since that’s how the human animal operates. Those judgments have more to do with the person making the judgments than they do with me.

But, me? I am the world’s leading expert on me. It’s a good job.

And I’ve been asking the little kid in the brown cords, “What do you want? How do you feel? What are you concerned about? Why?” I try on various ideas and then ask him, “Okay, buddy. Does that option feel like shackles on or shackles off?”

My wise inner-nerd knows what feels good and what doesn’t. The little red-headed boy is my essential self and he reminds me to gently do what is right for me.

So as DP and I make this next set of decisions, we’re going to lean way into the great unknown of it, aware that there is probably not a right or wrong answer. There is just a next step. And then a step after that.

And if it doesn’t work out? Cities and jobs can be left. Houses can be sold. We can begin again. Actually, I think it’s beautiful to begin again. It even sounds lovely. “Begin again.”

There is no right answer. There is only a beginning and two people creating their next glorious adventure together.

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.
 

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.

Reconstructing Summer

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i.
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.
Smiles.
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,
again
and
again.

ii.
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.

iii.
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.

iv.
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

v.
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.

vi.
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.

vii.
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.

Grace, wherever it finds you

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{This post was first published as The Sunday Reader.}

It was half past eight on a summer weekday morning and we were running early for an appointment in Merrickville, a small Ottawa Valley town, so we stopped for breakfast at McDonald’s in the nearby community of Kemptville. I got in line to order our food and Damien said he’d find us a table. He walked towards the only empty booth in the main seating area and looked back at me with one eyebrow raised. Every one of the tables around him was occupied with senior citizens having what felt way more like a party than breakfast.

We ate quietly and watched the action untold at the four tables around us. There was a table of eight men engaged in a lively discussion of politics and sports, a table of 12 boisterous and gorgeous white-haired women, a table of four men speaking a curious mix of English and Italian and one mixed-gender table with four brave men and two spunky women. The vibe was like high school: loud, boisterous and charged with energy. They all knew each other and called out to each other across the restaurant. A man named Harry was having a birthday and the entire place, including the staff, sang Happy Birthday in Harry’s honour.

I couldn’t help but feel curious about how often they gathered in this way. Once a week? Every day? Had someone organised this breakfast or had these gatherings happened spontaneously, taking on a heart-warming life of their own?

Whatever its origin, it was clear was that this breakfast at McDonald’s was one of the most brilliant social programs ever devised to help people in their eighties feel young and vital. And for the very low price of a coffee and a McGriddle.

This reminded me of the Rat Park research conducted by Professor Bruce Alexander at Simon Fraser University in the late 1970s. He was trying to understand the nature of addiction and found that rats who lived in the company of other rats, unlike rats tested on their own, were far less likely to become dependent on the morphine-laced water placed in their cage. The rats who lived communally in Rat Park consistently chose the water that did not contain morphine; they did not become addicted to drugs nor did they overdose. Alexander concluded that the opposite of addiction is not sobriety but connection.

At this moment in our human history, we are witnessing terrible events that reflect back to us the profound significance of connection and the dire consequences of losing that connection.

Is there someone you’d like to reach out to? A friend you haven’t seen in a long time? Someone you know who is having a rough go of things?

Is there anyone you’d like to ask for help?

I’m wishing you grace, today, wherever you find it… and create it.

Cheers,
Monna
xo

P.S. If you’d like to receive The Sunday Reader directly in your inbox every two weeks, you can subscribe here.