Category Archives: Thrive

Imagine you are a gardener


 
Over the past few weeks I’ve talked with a number of women who are having a tough time finding/making time for themselves. They feel exhausted and stressed. Used up. A damned long way from happy.

One friend told me that her own teenaged son recommended that she take some time to tend to her own happiness.

Over the years, I’ve listened to teenagers lodge a host of complaints about their parents… most of these concerns will be resolved with a bit of time and perspective. Not once in twenty years as an educator have I heard a young person complain that their parents were too happy. Quite the opposite. We are rooting for our parents’ happiness for a couple of reasons. First, we genuinely want to see them happy. When the parents in a household are happy, everyone is better off. Second, when our parents are happy, they worry less about us.

Worrying is a prayer for the worst case scenario.

Although I don’t have children of my own, I’m an Honourary Mother from way back; I’ve helped raise thousands of kids over the last two decades. {I’ve just realised that what I’m writing here is as true for teachers as it is for parents. Yay, teachers!} I’ve learned that in order to care for the kids with whom I work as a counselor, I must first care for myself.

Some of you are feeling uncomfortable with all this talk of happiness. It’s not selfish to want to be happy. The idea that we should always put other people first is just a story and not a very helpful one. One can be happy at the same time as she pursues meaningful work and helps others. This is not an either/or situation. This is completely AND territory.

Turtle Steps Towards Happiness

So what are some small steps that you could take in the sacred direction of yourself?

{I love that scared and sacred have exactly the same letters in them. It helps me understand that we’re often just one small shift away from something amazing.}

What’s something you could do in the next 48 hours? If you are a person who thrives on a homework assignment, consider it assigned. If you are a person who need permission, consider it granted.

Here are some examples of happy-life-turtle-steps from my own weekend:

Haircut step
I went to Tokyo (an hour each way on the train) to get my bangs cut. They were a little shaggy and I deserve fierce looking bangs.

Japanese curry step
I located the Coco Curry House in the Tokyo neighbourhood of Ebisu… on my own. I love the curry from this place so I looked up the location on my phone but I wasn’t sure where I was on the google map. I have this little story about myself which is that I’m terrible with directions so I considered giving up my search but decided instead to ask for help. I went inside a sporting good store and asked the young Japanese women at the cash register for directions. She didn’t speak much English but she was able to explain that when I got to McDonalds I should turn left, then go to the next intersection and it would be close by. So I followed her instructions and then I asked my intuition where it would build a curry house (if it was in the habit of building curry houses). I had a strong sense that I should turn left… and there it was. By not freaking out, by asking for directions and then listening to my intuition, I found my favourite Japanese curry.

Starbuck seat step
After lunch, I went to Starbucks where I had a Chai Tea Latte and began writing this Sunday Reader. At the Starbucks locations in Tokyo, there is a member of staff whose job it is to help customers find a seat during busy times of the day when seating is at a premium. As I walked up the steps to the seating area, I saw an available table and quickly nabbed it. What I didn’t realise was that it was right beside the area with where people waited while the employee found them seats. So I had grabbed the Starbucks equivalent of the table right beside the bar. Within a few minutes, three women were perched on the little wooden Starbucks stools and they chatted back and forth in a loud and animated way. Thy had every right to do so but I felt a bit frustrated as I’d come to the cafe to work and I could hear their voices above the music in my headphones. Then I did a crazy thing. Instead of packing up and leaving, I found the employee who was seating people and let her know that I would appreciate a quieter seat and that I didn’t mind where it was. Within two minutes she came to my table and escorted me to a seat at the front window where she retrieved a a small reserved sign she had placed there t save my spot. It was the best seat in the house and I wrote and people watched happily for more than an hour.

Dance steps
I like John Mayer. I’m a big fan from back in the day. DP and I first saw John Mayer play in Houston when he was a 17-year old kid in an long-sleeved orange t-shirt and khaki cargo pants. He has just released Phase 2 of his new project and there’s a song called “Still feel like your man” that I’ve been grooving to for the past couple of days. On the trip back to Yokohama, I was listening to the EP and this song, in particular, made me want to dance. So I did. I danced on the platforms of Ebisu Station and Naka-Meguro Station. A woman smiled at me at Naka-Meguro. One of the train employees moved closer to make sure I hadn’t dropped my basket. It was an unusual move but I felt compelled to let my happiness out. And so I danced and no one came to take me away.

Time steps
I’m a person who worries about time. It’s another one of my not-very-helful stories and I come by it quite honestly. My mother tells a story about her father wanting to be SO early for church that if they arrived after the pianist had begun (30 minutes before the service), they would turn around and go home. Yesterday, as I was travelling home from Tokyo on the train, I realised that I had enough time to stop at JINS, an optical store at Landmark Plaza, before my appointment at 6:00 p.m. Despite a couple of false starts including getting off at the wrong station and then being directed up to street level at Minato-Mirai, I had 45 minutes of shopping for eyeglasses before heading home. When I began to feel anxious about the time, I breathed deeply and reminded myself that I had lots of time. I’m learning how to draw an image of greater spaciousness inside my mind. I’m learning how to create my own white space.

It feels, to me, as if happiness
is a magical thing we create,
little by little.
We can always create it.
We’ll never lose our ability to conjure it up.
There’s no way to get this wrong.

*This piece was originally shared in my newsletter, The Sunday Reader. To receive The Sunday Reader directly in your inbox twice a month, you can subscribe here.
 

Reaching for ourselves

She asked, “How can you tell
if a person really likes herself?”

She’s kind to other people
and she sings sometimes
for no reason
and she’s calm
like a warm day on the lake.
Calm like a lake-sized mirror
reflecting the sky. Two skies.

“And what happens when she isn’t
happy with herself?”

The woman stands at the window
and watches the storm clouds gather
and move across her landscape.
Tornadoes of self-doubt.
Earthquakes of drama.
Aftershocks of gossip.
She worries the storms will
destroy everything she’s built.

But she built the storms too.

She’s always reaching
for the wrong things.

When we reach for things
that aren’t good for us:
food, drugs, alcohol,
too much of anything,
loving the wrong person
or loving the right person
in the wrong way,
the thing
we’re really
reaching for
is ourselves.

We’d like to come home to ourselves.

When we say,
“Hi honey, I’m home”
we’re longing to hear
our own voice respond,
“I’m happy you’re home, love.
How was your day?”

 
*This poem was originally shared in my newsletter, The Sunday Reader. To receive The Sunday Reader directly in your inbox twice a month, you can subscribe here.
 

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.