Tag Archives: At Home

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.

 

from

frompoem

I’m from long days spent laying in fields of tall grass.

I’m from hay and straw
and rubber boots
and more cows than people.
I’m from a long tree-lined laneway
canopy green in summer
where once my middle sister
challenged our dad
to a race and he ran so fast
it felt like magic.

I’m from a small black dog named Poncho
(the result of an inter-species tryst
between a French Poodle and a Mexican Chihuahua)
who loved to cuddle
but suffered terribly
at the sound of bursting balloons.
We discovered this fear
at my parents’ New Year’s Eve party
and I learned that people
could be divided into two categories:
People who wanted to pop more balloons
and those who wanted to help the dog.

I’m from Anne of Green Gables,
Harriet the Spy,
Little Women,
and Nancy Drew.
I come from the Vernon Public Library
where I’d sit on highly glossed hardwood
and read
until it was time to go home.
I could take out as many books as I wanted.
Librarians have always been my friends.

I’m from yellow and white checked curtains
on the windows of my 5th grade classroom.
I was always staring out the window.

I’m from my grandparents’ camper
and a trip to the Provincial Park at Fitzroy Harbour
with all seven grandchildren.
We assembled meals in the tiny kitchen
like playing house.
In the wavy heat of long afternoons
we walked barefoot in the river
and collected the roundest smoothest stones.

I’m from the hockey rink in Metcalfe
where my friends and I
witnessed the Jets and Hawks battle
and discussed important matters
like
which players were the cutest.

I’m from the epic bonfire at Diana’s house
the night we graduated from high school
and from toast and jam in the morning.
The last time we were all together.

I’m from novels as a food group
and early morning lectures
with professors who were once Jesuit priests.
I’m from figuring it out
later than most
that not everyone likes school.

I’m from the kind heart of a man
who carries an orange knapsack.

I’m from passports and visas and packing and moving and searching for things I already had.

I’m from salsa dancing and being mugged in Cali
and Christmas posadas in the hallways of school
and Mexican folk art and chilaquiles in San Miguel de Allende.
I’m from buying avocados at a market in Barcelona
where the woman always asked
what are you making
and
when will you make it?
I’m from cava and green olives.
I’m from tuk-tuks, phad thai and mango
and a South East Asian city of angels
where I’m a happier tourist
than a resident.

I’m from a land of extraordinary suns
rising over Mount Fuji.
I’m from Family Marts and the art of bowing
and eathquakes and tsunamis,
from courage and
the preservation of order
in times of immeasurable loss.
I’m from courtesy
and harmony
and Hello Kitty.

I’m from introversion
Instagrams
and taking risks.
I’m from the Internet
and writing novels.
I’m from long decadent talks about the meaning of life.

I’m from making and collecting art.

I’m from travels.
Pablo Neruda’s houses in Chile,
falling down houses in Valparaiso,
broke-down palaces of Budapest.
The golden light in Rome
and sexy green Cyprus trees in Tuscany.

I’m from Paris.
{Surely, in some other life, I must have lived there.}

I’m from luck, hard work and gratitude.
From hope.

Hope, long days, fields of tall grass.

 

Photographing Japan

maps

“Everybody’s face tells you about the society they live in, and what they’re feeling inside. Faces are maps.” ~ Sue Ford.

People ask why
I photographs strangers:
train people,
school kids
and people on the street.

I don’t think of them as strangers.
These faces are Japan.

The Japanese live by a code of conduct
held in place by a spiders web of obligations.

i.
Whether saying hello or good-bye,
most greetings are a version of I’m sorry.

ii.
When moving into a new home
you buys gifts for your new neighbours.
The gift itself is unimportant.
Only the message matters:
“Hello. We’ll do our best to be quiet,
to respect you. To live harmoniously beside you.”

iii.
When asking someone to a gathering you realize
that even though they’ve said yes, they actually mean no,
you must begin the gentle cutting
of the invitation thread.

iv.
Regardless of how crazy or drunk another person is,
you do not comment or call attention to this behaviour.
You act as though this violation of the rules
is not happening. You look the other way.

We foreigners learn to observe these rules
but it’s not natural, not written in our DNA.
We lack centuries of this story shaping us.

When living here is hard work, my face shows it.

With the Japanese,
mostly their faces
are calm
like water
but sometimes the sorrow
or joy
gets through.
Ripples appear.

When I photograph them,
I photograph Japan.

The Geography of Now {An Online Course}

bus stop

i
A calmly golden morning
at my bus stop.
A Tuesday.
A man reads his book
as if sitting in his own
living room.

This is the Japan I love best,
the Japan that few outside the country
talk or write about.

There are certain places in Japan
that get love
out of proportion.
Shibuya Crossing
where thousands traverse
each minute.
Kyoto’s Golden Pavilion
the house Zeus would have chosen
had he been Japanese.

Those are the rock stars.

Myself,
I’ve always been a fan of the poets.

I love the secret corners
of Japan
where proud home
and business owners
grow red geraniums.
I love to watch conveyor belts
at sushi bars,
ballet for raw fish,
as small pastel coloured plates
shuttle by
on repeat
and try and try to earn my love.
hello, hello, hello.
I love that even the line
in the grocery store
is a study in restraint
and courtesy.

The Japan of the gloriously mundane,
this is my Geography of Now.

As a woman living outside her country,
my acts of observing and recording
help me
occupy
this particular time and place.

Although I am an outsider in Japan,
gaijin,
I still belong here
in my own way,
in a manner that is entirely my own.

This is my Japan.

ii
I’m in a state of wondering.

I’ve been wondering
if others feel affected
and enchanted
by their Geography of Now?

And I’ve been wondering
if others
{YOU, actually}
might wish to explore
this form I use,
this pairing of photos
with words
{skinny prose, I call it}
to create a record
of your neighbourhood + home
for yourself,
family + friends
and those you don’t yet know.
A chronicle of who you are
and who you are becoming.

I’ve been wondering
if you would like to join me
in an online course
on the Geography of Now,
a small adventure
with low risk photography
accompanied by
skinny
prose.

It’s true… I have not yet
worked out all the details,
the widgets and squidgets and such,
but what I know for sure
is that the course will be fun
and affordable
and make us feel more connected
both to where and who we are.

So I’m releasing this idea
into the universe.
A red balloon.

Please leave me a comment,
a little love note,
if you might like to join me.

Thank you very much.
{Doumo arigatou gozaimasu.}

When a place becomes home

japan family
A friend of ours noted
that this path
through America-yama Park
and up the hill
by the Foreigners Cemetery,
is the bit of Yokohama
I’ve photographed
most frequently.

She said she wished
she’d done the same
in Bangkok
where they’ve lived
for years.

This path,
my favourite part of Yokohama,
is my walk to school
and home.

I know the afternoon light
on this path
at 4:37
and 5:03
and 6:12.
I’m acquainted with
all its disparate goldens,
have memorized the lengths
of shadows cast
by trees
and tombstones.

I wear this path
on the inside.

In Autumn
we decided to stay
in Japan
another year
and then for more…
for as many as we can.

A declaration
of place-love
as fierce
as we’ve felt.

Unexpectedly
my relationship
with this path
began to shift.

For thirty months
this path
has been inhabited
by changing seasons
of fairy-people
and magic.
On my way home
I would think
“We’re so lucky.
We’re so lucky.”

Now I think,
“Home.”

Although my heart doesn’t leap
every day,
I am happy,
happy that we found
each other
at last.

the difficulty with drapes

there were a great many things i did not know as a girl.

i didn’t know, for example,
that working for a living is a damned hard gig
even when you love your job.
(i think that’s why they call it work.)

i didn’t know that almost every single word
my mother said during my teenage years
would turn out to be true…
cavities, posture, thinking before i speak.

and although this may seem like a small thing
i had no idea that choosing drapes
would be my undoing.

our apartment in japan came absolutely unfurnished.
no fridge, stove, washing machine
or light fixtures.
this was the most naked apartment
i have ever seen.
(i actually felt embarrassed for it
& wanted to lend it a sweater.

{this reminds me of something that happened
while i was teaching grade 7 english in barcelona.
i ripped the bottom out my trousers while jumping down
from a desk at the front of the class.
ack!
i just stood there like a deer in headlights
(a naked deer in headlights)
and an extraordinary student named bea said,
“ms. mcdiarmid, do you have a sweater here?”
i nodded and pointed towards my chair.
she got the sweater and brought it to me.
“wrap it around your waist and tie it.”
she whispered. “no one will ever know.”
i love bea.}

so the apartment was naked like that
and we needed to go shopping.
ikea shopping.
and among the items on our very long list
were drapes for the living room.
how hard could that be?

{attempt number 1}

they were creamy with large polka dots
and i loved them in the store
but in our house, not so much.
i couldn’t hide my disappointment
at having got this wrong.

“don’t worry” said dp.
“we can swap them with the red ones in my office.”
i wanted to be hopeful
there’s a lot of red in the living room…
maybe that will work.

{attempt number 2}

and then there was way too much red in the living room.
but the weather turned cold in yokohama
and a good thing about the red drapes
was that they were heavy
and we could pull them closed
against the 22nd floor drafts.
(nobody insulates like the canadians.)

after a few months (of seeing red)
i ordered another set of drapes from ikea.
they were caramel coloured and looked very posh.
i was filled with drape optimism…
buoyed by curtain-hope…

{attempt number 3}

when i took them out of the package,
they looked a great deal like shower curtains.
not so posh after all.
i sighed.
faithfully, dp hung the drapes
but even as he dropped the hooks
into those greedy little rings
i knew the story of us and our drapes
was not yet over.

during christmas, we traveled to istanbul
where i felt inspired
by the colours and patterns
and sumptuous interiors
of hotels, churches and mosques.
{i’m guessing that the turks aren’t minimalists.}
i thought about my lame-ass curtains
and decided to take quick and decisive action
against the tapioca drapes
in our not-so-great room.

on etsy, i found a shop
that would custom make the drapes
in aqua damask.
i felt like anne of green gables,
a drape-orphan
with my eyes full of stars
and my mouth forming the word
damask
as if it were magic.

this afternoon, a box arrived…
dp called it a whatsit.
“your whatsit has arrived.” he said
and that reminded me of the books of madeleine l’engle
and then i realized that dp
himself
reminds me of madeleine l’engle
and i find this very comforting.

carefully, i opened the box,
unwrapping heavy folds of aqua blue.
“wow. these are gorgeous…
these drapes are really beautiful.”
i wanted to say perfect
but i’m trying to let perfect go.

dp hung the fourth set of drapes with care
like really expensive damask stockings for santa.

{attempt number 4}

we stood back and said, “yes.”


we examined them up close
and from the other end of the room
and we declared them lovely.
like having a little bit of versailles
in your decidedly un-versailles apartment,
i love the juxtaposition.

dp said that the best thing
to come out out of the great drape quest of 2011 and 12
was that he has acquired several more backdrops for portrait taking.

isn’t he wonderful?