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I do love a good Word of the Year. Some of mine in the past have been Strategy, Chillax, Stardust, Reunion, and Fly. Last year’s was just a sound, a wordless moan. Words of the Year are not always transformative, but they’re always evocative and comforting, like a smooth stone carried in a pocket.

This year I was feeling more energized, and I started paying attention in December for a Word of the Year to cross my path.

The word I met was mise-en-place, a French phrase from the world of professional cooking that literally means “to put in place.” But mise-en-place is so much more, as I am discovering.

In my systems work with Cairene MacDonald, we have talked about mise-en-place in its strictest sense, which involves assembling all of one’s tools and ingredients before beginning to work. We’ve also talked about it in a larger sense, of doing whatever planning and preparation is required to make the work go smoothly. These were useful ideas that I aspired to but could never consistently apply.

The revelation of working clean

Then, in the last days of December, a book title flitted across my computer screen, I don’t even remember how. Work Clean: The life-changing power of mise-en-place to organize your life, work, and mind by Dan Charnas (affiliate link). Hmm. Sounds interesting. Is it one of those fluffy productivity books that recycles random tired ideas at a shallow level? Well, it’s only $1.50 on Kindle, let’s check it out.

To my surprise and pleasure, I found it to be a solidly researched, well-structured, and useful book. Through interviews with top chefs in New York and beyond, Charnas absorbs and transforms old productivity saws into a comprehensive paradigm that struck me as fresh and original.

There are stories to hold my interest and demonstrate principles, helpful exercises, and examples that translate kitchen practices to home and office life. I read quickly through the opening chapters and have slowed down now as Charnas is going through the ten “ingredients” of working clean.

My thought is to make each “ingredient” a focus for one month and do the exercises. But the concepts have already flooded me with new ways of seeing some of my problematic work habits.

I’m just naturally messy. Is that true?

For example: In recent years, I have not been good at tidying up as I go or cleaning as I cook. I make a mess, throw things all over the place. I leave all the pieces of a project out, intending to pick it up again, using the physical stuff as a reminder of what I have left undone. “I’ll come back to that later,” I think to myself. “If I stop to put things away, I won’t be able to keep myself going.” I live with the mess until I can’t stand it any longer, and then I do a marathon cleaning session.

This aversion to cleaning up as I go drives my husband nuts. It strikes him as disrespectful when I leave a mess, especially in a space that he has just cleaned. “Who are you expecting to deal with this?” he asks when I ignore a spill or leave a can to rust in the sink. “We live in a small space, we need to keep it tidy.” I try to explain myself, “It’s just how my brain works. I get distracted. I’m thinking about something else. I’m just trying to get the important stuff done. The rest can wait.”

I revisit advice to writers that says, “The dishes can wait,” and “No one on her deathbed ever wished she’d done more housework,” and “Cleaning is just a form of procrastination,” and I feel justified in my messy ways.

Then along comes Work Clean. It’s right there in the title. Dan Charnas and his chef-experts are very compelling at explaining WHY cleaning as you go is so important, and how it impacts your work from beginning to end.

“Even the most refined systems become useless unless maintained. It is not enough to find a ‘right place’ for everything. Cooks can’t use a static system; the system must move. So the real work of mise-en-place isn’t being clean, but working clean: keeping that system of organization no matter how fast and furious the work is.”

This rings true with me, because I know from Cairene that time management is change management, that no ritual or solution stays put for long, but they must all be tweaked and adapted and pruned continuously.

“What many chefs seem to be aiming for, then, is not cleaning for the sake of cleanliness, but rather cleaning as a spiritual practice. Chefs see a direct correlation not only between the condition of one’s station and one’s mind, but also between the tolerance of dirt and the tolerance of distractions, and between the disposition of oneself to cleaning and to responsibility in general. Thus the idea of ‘working clean’ is not only personal but collective. Our roommate’s mess becomes our mess. Our mess becomes our co-worker’s mess. … This holistic view of cleaning — that it should be integrated into every moment of a chef’s work, and that cooks clean not just for one but for all — creates the foundation for excellence in the professional kitchen.”

I couldn’t clean while I worked just because I knew I ought to, or because my husband wanted me to. But I’m finding that I can do it when I’m doing it for the order of my mind and for the excellence of my work. Just a few days of applying mise-en-place to my daily habits and chores has felt SO different, so meaningful and yes, empowering.

A year of mise-en-place

Mise-en-place. Charnas calls it a philosophy and a system, a setup but also the practice of preparing that setup and the mind state of someone who knows exactly how to think, plan, and move. I am looking forward to a year of learning how to embody all of these aspects of mise-en-place, in service to my life and health and writing.

How about you? What’s been your experience of mise-en-place? And do you have a Word of the Year? I’d love to know.

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My last post on gresik.ca was almost a year ago, so I have a lot to catch you up on. And yes, in keeping with the global trend, 2016 was a pretty tough year in my life and household — in fact, my Word of the Year was not a word at all, but just an inarticulate groan of misery. But good things happened too … so here’s a quick skip through the last twelve months.

January and February

My depression, which returned in 2015, took a big downward spike over Christmas, thanks to homesickness and burnout. With the expert and compassionate support of my psychiatrist, I upped my meds, but it took about two months for me to level out again.

Thankfully I’ve been mentally stable since then, and I’ve continued sessions with my therapist, Annie. I’m amazed at the power of long-term weekly therapy, which I’ve never done before. After a year of work with her, I feel like we are still just getting to the good stuff.

March to June

My mental health recovered just in time for our family to enter crisis mode. My kids are at an age where I don’t want to write too specifically about what they’re going through, but I can say that for most of the spring, it was just one traumatic thing after another. I was spending significant time every day doing emotional interventions with the kids, arranging and attending professional appointments, communicating with the school and other parents … it was exhausting and scary.

Crisis mode meant that I had to drop everything anytime the kids needed me. I often missed my weekly writing Meetup, or church, or optional work events, or social outings. I couldn’t go away on my own for a day or two. Life got really small and intense.

July and August

The school year couldn’t end too soon. In fact, we cut it short with a three-week trip to Ontario to decompress and visit family. We all needed the break, and it was wonderful to have downtime. We spent a week with my in-laws, a week at my family’s cottage, and a week in Ottawa. We celebrated at our nephew’s wedding. Shawn and I left the kids with my parents for a few days and we had a twentieth-anniversary getaway in Bobcaygeon. The kids and I rode crazy rollercoasters at Canada’s Wonderland. It was just what the doctor ordered.

Things stayed low-key when we returned to Vancouver. Swimming lessons, day camp, Pacific National Exhibition, bike rides in Stanley Park. My grandfather passed away while we were camping on the Sunshine Coast, and I was able to fly home for a week to attend his funeral and grieve with my family, which is a testament to the fact that the kids were out of crisis and I could leave them for a bit.


Back-to-school had even more meaning this year, because the kids were returning to a brand new school building after two years of being bussed to portables at another location. The new space helped shake up some of the troublesome dynamics, as did their new classroom placements. They’re still having challenges, which we’re working away at, but everything is at a lower, more manageable level.

October and November

With more breathing space in my work schedule, and with new insights from my therapy work, I made a commitment in October to return to fiction writing. I decided to revisit a short story collection that I started years ago, and I began working on it regularly. This book will be my major creative project of 2017 so I hope to share more about it as I go along.

I also started recording a Pilgrimage of Desire audiobook, using the free recording space at the Vancouver Public Library, and I am very close to releasing a paperback version of Pilgrimage as well. The ebook has been out for almost two years and is still selling steadily, so I’m excited to make more versions available.


December is all about Christmas. After last year’s disaster, I decided that priority number one was to make sure me and my family came through the holiday happy and healthy. Everything else was optional. So I did better planning and got things done early. We also skipped stuff that was just too much. And I’m happy to say that priority number one was accomplished.

December is also when Cairene MacDonald’s new virtual coworking space opened! Homeroom is a great place to get regular support and encouragement, especially for us work-from-home creative types. I’ve been posting there almost every day and I’m looking forward to continuing my apprenticeship in systems crafting and energy management with the Homeroom community.


So there it is, a quick recap of 2016 to get you caught up on where I’m at and explain why I haven’t been around so much. I’m hoping to change that in 2017. And as Mary Poppins says, “Well begun is half done.”

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If I weren’t feeling like crap at the moment (thank you, head cold, thank you, pre-adolescent children), I would write a post for Bell Let’s Talk Day. I would write about therapy, because in a recent comment on my website, someone said, “And if I do need a therapist or whatever, how is that going to make me happy just talking about it? No one will know exactly how I feel and what is making me this way.”

So here’s my experience. I’ve had various therapists over the years since I was first diagnosed with depression, and the main thing that they’ve done for me is to help me see myself better. They’ve helped me make connections between things that I never thought were related. They’ve pointed out where I’ve been lying to myself through my thoughts. They’ve coaxed out my feelings and validated them. They’ve seen through my verbal dodges and held up the mirror so I can see my blind spots.

And seeing myself better makes me happier. The schism between who I think I am and who I really am gets smaller, which is another way of saying that I am being healed / made whole. Seeing myself better provokes compassion for myself, sometimes even a wonder and delight at the intricate logic of my psyche.

And when I see myself better, I make better choices, because I’m making them based on the reality of who I am, rather than a distorted outdated approximation.

My depression returned last year, and part of my response was to find a new therapist here in Vancouver. I hadn’t been seeing anyone since we left Ottawa four years ago. Why not? Because it’s hard to find a new therapist. It’s hard to justify the time and expense, especially when I’m not actively mentally ill. It’s hard to prioritize my own needs when there are other family demands. And also, I had a writing project. For almost four years, I had Pilgrimage of Desire. Writing a memoir was a kind of self-directed therapy.

Thankfully, I had been discovered the website of Alison Crosthwait, a Toronto therapist who was writing deftly and honestly about the process of therapy. We had corresponded a little, and in July I reached out to ask whether she could recommend somene in Vancouver. Alison quickly and graciously sent me a list of names and some suggestions about who to reach out to first.

So I’ve been seeing Annie since October. I’ve been going almost every week, which is new for me. I like that schedule because the ideas stay fresh and we can pick the conversation right up where we left off. So far we have not been problem-solving. She doesn’t give me homework. There are no tools or strategies. We are just getting everything out on the table. We are going over all of my stories, and she’s pointing out how my body reacts unconsciously to the things I’m saying. We’re finding metaphors to describe what I’m afraid of and what I believe. These are not necessarily brand-new revelations. The same themes have come up many times before, but we are noticing how deep and pervasive and real they are, and we are charting their course through new stages of life: turning forty, raising school-age kids, living far away from my parents and siblings. We are uncovering and remembering the truth and beauty of me, Alison Jean.

And what’s made me happiest is that therapy is urging me back to my writing. Since I finished Pilgrimage, I haven’t known what to work on next. I’ve done a little journalling, started an essay, re-read an unfinished children’s novel, but nothing has seized me. Now I’m feeling the tug toward my short fiction. I have a few finished stories, a few more drafted, a list of possible topics. Short fiction suits my time and attention span these days. So my last few nights at writing group have been devoted to digging up my notes and manuscripts and letting things marinate.

I like that this reawakening didn’t come from my therapist saying, “Are you writing? Maybe you should write more. Doesn’t that feel meaningful to you?” It came as a natural consequence of sifting through this material, doing a detailed character sketch of myself. It came from wanting to carry on the conversation outside of therapy. It came from my mind being alive and following what feels good.

Alison Crosthwait has published a book called What It Feels Like to Change that collects her online writings, which I recommend to anyone who is engaged with or interested in the therapeutic process.

(And that is how one tricks oneself into writing a blog post, with a head cold, at 10 pm at night, on the fourth day of your husband’s trip out of town.)

P.S. Pilgrimage of Desire the ebook is celebrating its one-year anniversary! I am so thankful that it has found its way into the hands of hundreds of people. To mark the occasion, I’ll be donating all of the proceeds from January 2016 book sales to the Mood Disorders Association of BC.

I also have Pilgrimage bookmarks! Leave a comment on this post and I will send you two: one for a friend, and one to keep.

Wishing you well, friends. We’re all in this together.