Tag Archives: The Sunday Reader

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.
 

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.
 

One blade of grass

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A week ago the members of the Poet Laureate of Your Own Life course began a month-long adventure of writing and reading poetry together. I thought it might take us a little while to get started, for people to muster up the courage to share their poems… and to comment on each others’ words.

Nope.

Even before the course began, participants were popping into our Facebook group to introduce themselves. Our little patch of the Internet was illuminated by strings of twinkle lights powered by their amazing energy. Beginning on the first evening, my FB feed was flooded with poems about childhood and comments about favourite lines and explanations of why an image worked so well and small odes to the combinations of words that moved them. Within a couple of days, the poets laureate were commenting on each other’s comments and posting photos of whoopie pies and sunsets and small white houses by the sea.

Every day, in response to the prompts, some of the poets turn towards their pain and their pain lights a candle and shows them the way home. I imagine the poets, in their homes and at work, a little lighter, a little kinder to themselves.

Every day, the beauty of these poems smashes me wide open. I am in awe of these words and so grateful to each poet laureate.

This course is one of the best parties I have ever attended.

One blade of grass
For my sister Megan

In the beginning
a whisper of a seedling,
a light green ghost-thing,
pushes her way
through layers of dirt
and broke-downness,
passed old pots, bits
of broken glass,
time capsules stored
in coffee cans,
skeletons of pet cats
buried in shoe boxes.
Through the darkness
the light green ghost-thing
pushes her bud-ness
like devotion.

Cicadas sing
as she emerges
into a field of sisters
in long green dresses
dancing in the sun,
dancing like one
blade of grass.

Pushing your way through
So the thing I’m wondering about today is what have YOU been pushing your way through?
Have you been pushing your way through blindly, hoping to pop up somewhere good… or do you know where you’re headed?
What are you passing on the journey and what does it have to teach you?
What will happen when you get to the surface?
What’s your joyful noise?
Who will you call on for help?

Cheers,
Monna
xo

P.S.
This post was published first in The Sunday Reader. 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.

Advanced Stick Removal for Perfectionists of All Ages

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Until recently, I wasn’t aware that I was uptight. Genuinely, I had no idea.

Of course I knew that I was a perfectionist but, you know, what woman isn’t? Many of us wear our perfectionism like a shining badge of honour. In fact, I was so proud of my perfectionism that it was the characteristic I would cite in a job interview when my potential employer asked about my most conspicuous shortcoming. My thinking, of course, was that the interviewer would see me as the hardworking and committed person I am, that they would understand that I was willing to work as diligently and as long and as late and on as many weekends as were required to get the job done perfectly.

Not surprisingly, I almost always got the job.

We all know what a high price we pay for perfectionism. Every single one of us. We’re aware of the crazy glorification of busyness and the constant pull to live in the past (Ack! I wasn’t good enough) or in the future (Oh no! I’ll never be good enough)… any moment that is not right here and now. We’ve experienced the kind of deep-bone burnout that may lead to sadness and bitterness. We understand that we’ve been socialized to strive for perfection but the problem is that we’ve been living this way for so long that it’s almost impossible to believe that we can change… or that we’ll be allowed to.

Here’s the good news. Like everything else, the idea that we must be perfect in our various life roles is just a thought. A construct. Since it’s a thought that is not at all good for us, we can choose to:
1. NOT believe that thought
and
2. Develop a new thought in its place

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie offered some advice to graduates of Wellesley during her commencement speech in 2015:
“Hire more women where there are few. But remember that a woman you hire doesn’t have to be exceptionally good. Like a majority of the men who get hired, she just needs to be good enough.”

What gorgeous, audacious words: “She just needs to be good enough.”

  • My apartment needs only to be tidy enough. It does not need to look perfect in order to invite friends over.
  • My facebook posts are fine the way they are. Editing is not required. I don’t need to be a professional photographer or a Pulitzer Prize winning writer to share happy bits of my life with my friends.
  • My wardrobe is fine the way it is. I don’t need the clothing options of a socialite, a news anchor or a supermodel.
  • The gifts that I give do not need to be perfectly wrapped. My kind heart is more than enough.

You get the idea. Of course, just-good-enoughness doesn’t stop us from striving for success in the parts of our lives that are really important to us… but they can’t all be REALLY IMPORTANT. What if we stopped living our lives as though every single thing we do is an Olympic event in which we are competing for a gold medal?

Just-good-enoughness is one of those concepts that a person may have to encounter many, many times before the idea is finally cleared for landing on our particular emotional airstrip. We must be patient with ourselves as this idea circles the skies above the tiny airport in our brains… but we must also instruct our ground crew to be ready and alert, prepared to talk the just-good-enoughness down out of the skies.

We must be ready to set ourselves free.

You’ve been wondering about the stick, haven’t you? I don’t need to get too graphic for you to know where that stick has been wedged.

Over the past few months, I’ve been thinking about my own perfectionism and its shadow side. All things cast a shadow and I’ve begun to understand, with some help from a few wise people, that it’s not possible to be a perfectionist only with oneself. No perfectionist is an island and I have had some VERY HIGH standards for other people. Let’s pretend, for a moment, that I am absolutely convinced that white should never be worn after Labour Day. (Look, this is not my particular brand of crazy but I have many beloved friends who hold this belief.) So if this is a “rule” for me, not only will my own fashion-whimsy be restricted by this belief, but my friends are in danger of being held to the same (constructed and, I would argue, ridiculous) standard.

And if I push myself without stopping to consider my physical or emotional health, if I resist setting healthy boundaries with the difficult folks in my life, if I don’t routinely provide myself with time to play and reflect and dream, I may not be as compassionate with others as I truly want to be. I might just be too damned busy judging them. Keeping score.

My perfectionism (and yours) makes us way too focussed on outcomes rather than the process and the tricky bit here is that our days are spent, primarily, in the process part ~ the doing (of laundry) and the making (of lunches). We live smack-dab in the middle of the divine messiness of life.

When you are talking with a friend about a mutual friend’s need for a touch-up to her roots, you are not “sharing a concern”. You are not worried about her hair. Her hair is not sick, it’s just grey. And that’s not a character flaw on your friend’s part. Her grey roots are not a crime against humanity. In fact, a bit of grey does not even register as being inconsiderate towards others. So the thing you’ve got yourself into is a steaming pile of judgment and gossip. And although you may be tempted to say, “What’s the big deal? We’re just passing time… having a chat about our friend,” we all know that gossip is harmful. Somewhere, deep in our royal blood and bones, we’ve known this since childhood. Gossip is the cosmic equivalent of junk mail or spam. It’s the comments section of almost every online publication. It comes from a place of wanting more power and that impulse never fosters connection.

Another big reason you are gossiping/passing judgment on your friend’s roots is that you were raised to believe a woman should NEVER let her roots show. You’re being held prisoner by that thought, by that limiting belief, and you’ve locked your friend inside that tiny cell with you.

Maybe, like me, you are discovering that this is not a good way to live. Maybe, as you’ve grown older and witnessed the genuine suffering of your friends and family members, you are struck by how very much we all have in common and how the thing we need most is love.

Okay. Here we go…

Directions for Advanced Stick Removal for Perfectionists of All Ages

  1. Acknowledge that you are a perfectionist.
  2. Immediately cut yourself some slack. You’re in good company… and shame never made anything better.
  3. Start gently examining what you believe. Are you holding old beliefs about how to live, and who and how to love, and what success means ~ ideas taught to you by well-intentioned parents, grandparents and teachers? Are you holding onto values that no longer resonate with you… that are not guided by compassion and empathy?
  4. Now begin letting those things go ~ for yourself and for others. It will take some time and some practice. Keep breathing.
  5. Bonus: Ask yourself the question, “How do I want to feel?” Good. Now move in that direction.
  6. That stick is going to drop right out. I promise.

Cheers,
xo

P.S. 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

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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.

Cheers,
Monna
xo

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