Today’s chat is with Sue. She is a librarian at a school in Tokyo, Japan. Sue shares some of the leaps that she’s taken in her life and the challenge she is now facing. Originally from Australia, Sue first went overseas to Japan on a working holiday visa. After that first trip, she eventually moves back to Japan and spends 20 years living there with her husband.
When her husband gets the opportunity to work in Chicago, the whole family moves there. After six years living in Chicago with a family of four, Sue’s family underwent a dramatic change. She and her husband are back in Tokyo while their daughters are in Chicago and Sydney. How do you redefine yourself and put yourself first after years of living life by someone else’s rules? Sue shares her journey to help us consider the seasons of life, and how we might embark on a new chapter.
Timeline of the Chat
1:31 – Sue introduces herself
2:02 – Her first leap – moving to Japan and how she made it happen
3:35 – What keeps Sue busy and her journey there
5:21 – What made it difficult to live in Arlington Heights
5:57 – Rediscovering her dream
9:30 – Jumping into new experiences and opportunities
10:04 – The first leap
10:48 – Work, volunteerism and feeling worthwhile
12:07 – Changing family dynamics and moving back to Japan
13:08 – Life changes and learning to focus on the right thing for you
15:39 – Sue’s process for rediscovering her authentic self
17:02 – Examining the pressure to be someone else
18:05 – Exploring the pressure and the need for change.
20:22 – Sue reads the book that she wrote, a metaphor for her life
22:47 – Having ideas and following along with them
24:00 – The books that she loves and her book blog
29:55 – Advice to make a change in your life.
31:21 – A playful approach to screaming into the void
- World of Words website by Kathy Short
- Purple Book Cart book blog by Sue
- The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend by Dan Santat
- After the Fall: How Humpty Dumpty Got Back up Again by Dan Santat
- The Center for Teaching through Children’s Books
Quotes from the chat
You cannot control anything so you have to be ready for everything.
You just have to try different things and keep flexible and keep open to change.
You cannot be an unreal version of yourself. You have to be the most authentic person that you can be.
It’s not sustainable to be someone else’s version of yourself
The most important person to be kind to is yourself, when you’re going through hard times.
Damianne: [00:00:00] Let’s get started. Please tell us where you were born and where do you live now?
Sue: [00:01:33] Well, I was born in Australia in a city called Toowoomba. It’s Australia’s biggest inland city, I believe, but it’s pretty small. I live in Tokyo now. I’ve lived in Japan for 20 years, and then I lived for six years in a smallish town outside of Chicago called Arlington Heights.
Damianne: [00:01:55] And what initially brought you to Japan? You’ve lived there for 20 years, you said, wow.
Sue: [00:02:02] Yes, that’s right. I was impossibly young at the time and I just went on a whim. I woke up one day and thought, I don’t know that I’m liking my last right at the moment, and I had studied Japanese for a long time without having ever had an application for it. So I just suddenly had the notion to up and move to Japan so that’s what I did.
Damianne: [00:02:26] I’m imagining to wake up one day and think, Oh, I’m just going to move to Japan. That seems like a big decision.
Sue: [00:02:34] It was three weeks to the day when I made that decision and then I moved to Japan for the first time.
Damianne: [00:02:40] How did you prepare for this move?
Sue: [00:02:43] Well, I went on a working holiday visa for which you have to have a return plane ticket and a certain amount of money in the bank account, so I got a loan for that exact amount of money. And then I bought the return flight with the money. And I somehow finagled that and I went for an interview at the consulate. I guess they thought I was okay. I had to promise to move around every couple of months or so and not to work full time and definitely not to work in a shady business.
Damianne: [00:03:17] How long did you spend on this first visa moving around Japan.
Sue: [00:03:24] Well, the visa was for six months and you can renew it twice. So I was there for around about 18 months.
Damianne: [00:03:29] And you went back to Australia after that?
Sue: [00:03:32] Yes, I did. I went back to Australia, finished my degree, and then moved right back to Japan again. That’s when the 20 years really began.
Damianne: [00:03:40] What keeps you busy now.
Sue: [00:03:43] Well, I just finished my hundredth masters. That’s not true. I’ve just finished my second master’s degree. I’m a librarian now. And my journey to becoming a librarian started probably eight, nine, even 10 years ago when I was starting my first masters in teaching English to speakers of other languages. I studied for that master’s degree in the library of Nagoya International School. And so I studied for that masters in the library. And the librarian at the time had me subbing for her, and I really, really enjoyed subbing in the library. And thought, I’d love to be a librarian, but it’s such a pipe dream. So I became the ESL teacher at NIS, and then suddenly my husband was transferred to America, so I had to go to America and I wasn’t allowed to work for visa purposes. And so I decided to become a librarian and do all the things that I wouldn’t be able to do if I was working. So I decided to try and fill the hole in my resume with everything that I wanted to do it. It was kind of nice. It was a luxury to be able to study as I wanted to do and attend all of these fabulous conventions. It was kind of a roller coaster ride in some ways because it was hard fitting into a third culture, which a lot of people think that as an Australian living in America would be super easy. I didn’t find it to be.
Damianne: [00:05:24] What made it hard?
Sue: [00:05:26] I guess looking at me, I look like everybody else who lives in Arlington Heights, but as soon as I open my mouth, it’s like, Oh, your accent is so cute. A lot of fairly conservative people living around, and I found it hard to connect sometimes, and I think mainly I’m a person who likes to keep busy and I like to work, so not being permitted to do so was pretty big.
Damianne: [00:05:49] You mentioned before that you had the dream and you thought it was a pipe dream of being a librarian. How did you come back to this dream.
Sue: [00:06:00] That’s an interesting story because when I was still at NIS, I met a lady called Kathy Short. I was kind of a PD nerd.
Damianne: [00:06:08] It’s a great thing. The curiosity and the quest for learning, right.
Sue: [00:06:12] Right. And she’s a pretty great lady in the field of inquiry. She has a website called World of Words, which you know, I was really into. And so when I went to America, I contacted her again after I had finished another degree that I was working on, which was a certificate of IB education. After I had finished that degree and everything was winding up, I was like, well, what next? I didn’t know. So I guess I’ll email Kathy Short. She emailed right back and she said, you should meet Junko Yokota. And I at first I thought, Oh, really? Like, you know, you have to choose a Japanese person that I now have to meet just because I lived in Japan. What I didn’t realize was that she was giving me the greatest gift of my live, meeting the greatest professional mentor that I could have had. Junko was a librarian, is a librarian. Well, she’s Dr. Junko Yokota and she’s just a very special person in the world of children’s books, in particular picture books.
She was the Director of the Center for Teaching through Children’s Books, which I started volunteering for, and honestly, I just fell in love with everybody there. Everybody from the center is my hero. Really. There’s some really brilliant children’s librarians there. And from the minute that I got involved in the center, I wanted to be a children’s librarian and nothing else. Things started to really get interesting when Junko said to me one day, Hey, would you like to help out, you know, be kind of a gopher or something for the Caldecott Committee. And I thought, yeah sure I’ll be a gopher and surely you don’t mean the Caldecott Committee from, you know, the Caldecott prize. You don’t really mean that. Yes that’s what she meant. And so I became the magic food fairy of the Caldecott Committee 2015. I would run back and forth and get the Caldecott Committee their dinner or their lunches when they were deciding which were the best books of that year. It was such an amazing experience. Obviously I couldn’t go into the meetings and I couldn’t know. It’s all very secretive and hush hush. But just attending that conference, the ALA conference, and being around all of that magic just hooked me in and I haven’t missed another ALA conference since that time. Everything kind of steamrolled from there and I really owe a lot to Junko, and therefore to Kathy Short and therefore to NIS.
It’s funny how the pieces of life kind of connect together, but you have to be open to that connection also. Because you didn’t have to contact to Kathy Short to make those connections. ALA, for those who don’t know, is the American Library Association. The other thing that I’m thinking while I listen to you is about your passion. It’s something that you’re learning and as well as your curiosity, because some people find something they’re interested in, but they still keep some distance, but you jumped right into all of it.
Yeah, Damianne, I’m a jumper, I jumped. That’s kind of what I do, and I think back to when I first moved to Japan. I was definitely a jumper back then. And I feel like I have lost the ability to jump a little just recently, but I do find that jumping is what works for me and what I like to do best.
Damianne: [00:09:59] Were you always this way. Can you remember the first time you did this?
Sue: [00:10:04] Jumped?
Damianne: [00:10:05] Yeah
Sue: [00:10:06] That was probably when I came to Japan. I mean, I wasn’t a particularly brave child. I grew up in a fairly conservative town, supportive family. I guess my sister went overseas. She was the first to go overseas in our family. But I think that my early experience jumping into Japan, and I think that the jump that I took to Japan that first time was a really good move. And the jump that I took to America was ultimately a good move. The jump that I took into the library world was ultimately a good move. But towards the end of my time in the USA, I think I started to be really anxious and a really nervous person. I guess always being busy is good in one way, but you tend to try and make a version of yourself that other people expect and other people will like. I’ve always wanted to work, but part of that is always wanting to feel like I’m worthwhile. So when I was not working in America, it was hard for me to feel worthwhile. Even when I was volunteering for so many things. I was the band photographer for my kids band. I was working for the Center for Teaching Through Children’s Books. I was on the notable children’s recordings committee for a while, the ALS committee, for audio books and children’s music. I was doing all of these things, but I think that maybe I was overcompensating for, you know what I couldn’t do. I guess I was doing all of those things because I wanted to retain some kind of control of my life.
Damianne: [00:11:54] Sounds like you were doing a lot, but somehow you were still constrained.
Sue: [00:11:58] I was still constrained. And when I came back to Tokyo, when I knew that I was coming back to Tokyo, I was looking really hard for a library job. So when one was not forthcoming, I think I became a little bit desperate, you know. At the same time, what happened to my family was one minute we were four people living in the house together in a loving, tight knit family. And then the next, it seems like, you know, one of my children now is in Chicago and one is in Australia and now we are in Tokyo. People talk about empty nesting syndrome. I feel like our nest has blown up and then burned to the ground and then flown off into the wind and scattered to the four winds. Which is okay. You know you cannot keep your children forever. That’s so true. But that happened at the same time that I was coming back to Tokyo and trying to find a job as a librarian. I think that everything was just a bit too much.
Damianne: [00:12:54] It sounds very stressful, like there was a lot.
Sue: [00:12:57] And we’re now four different people in three different time zones,
Damianne: [00:13:01] Which adds additional complexity. How has that changed your life? And maybe that’s even too broad, but …
Sue: [00:13:10] Yeah, I ended up taking a library assistant job. I’m still looking for work as a librarian, but my life changed, just because I’m only really doing things for me now, I’m not really doing anything for anybody else. You know, sometimes I’ll make dinner for my husband. Sometimes. I’ve had to concentrate a lot on my own mental health along the way. And I guess the one thing that I’ve learned is that you cannot control anything so you have to be ready for everything. Because you don’t know what kind of scenario is going to come up and you don’t know what’s going to help you at any given time. So you just have to try different things and keep flexible and keep open to change. Because change is the only thing that’s constant.
Damianne: [00:13:59] What would you say is the biggest experience that taught you this lesson? Was it one thing or was it a series of smaller things?
Sue: [00:14:08] It’s really been a process. It’s hard to explain. I think that in America when I was trying to be what everybody wanted me to be and trying to be the best mother, trying to be the best friend, or trying to be the best wife, trying to be the best librarian, trying to be the best this and the best that, I was truly doing my best, but I probably wasn’t doing my best for me. I was really pulled in too many different directions. So I think that when I came back to Japan, that was what I was used to. And so I find myself kind of shadowing people and how people are, so I have to stop myself from trying to get pulled into everybody else’s drama.
Damianne: [00:14:57] It sounds like you felt untethered after some point?
Sue: [00:15:00] I did. I did. I felt very much untethered and, you know, I’ve had to do a lot of work on myself and I see a therapist now. So that’s helpful. But I guess that what I’ve learnt in these last couple of weeks even is just that you cannot be an unreal version of yourself. You have to be the most authentic person that you can be. It’s not sustainable to be somebody else’s version of yourself. You can’t keep that up.
Damianne: [00:15:29] I think it’s difficult when you used to fitting in a certain way to then find out what your authentic self is. What’s your process like?
Sue: [00:15:42] I think it’s a lot of writing. I write letters. I contact friends. You really have to know who to trust with what kinds of information. That I’ve found out the hard way that it can be tricky to know who could for whatever kinds of information. But as far as knowing what my authentic self is, I think I just do it by making mistakes and then realizing that I shouldn’t have crossed that line.
Damianne: [00:16:09] That does take some reflection, right?
Sue: [00:16:12] Yeah, it certainly does. I’m a fairly visual person. I’m coming from my band photography background. I’ll be looking through photos on my phone and I’ll come to one that gives me pause. So sometimes it’s writing, sometimes it’s looking at photos that I’ve taken. Sometimes it’s talking things through with my husband or my therapist. You know there’s not one way, but I do know that being somebody else’s version of me is not sustainable.
Damianne: [00:16:40] How long since you’ve been back to Japan,
Sue: [00:16:43] it’s a bit more than a year. I think we came back in June.
Damianne: [00:16:46] I sense from you and what I know of you is your inclination to serve and your interest in helping people as well. Where does the pressure come in order to be something else other than maybe who you are.
Sue: [00:17:00] That’s an interesting question. How long is your podcast? I didn’t know if this even answers the question, but I was born into a step-family and I’m the only child of my two parents. And my dad had kids and my mom had kids. And so I found as a child that I would have favorite siblings. And usually my favorite siblings pretty much corresponded with whichever sibling was in trouble at that time. And by in trouble, I mean in trouble with my parents or you know, they were doing the wrong thing or whatever. And so I would kind of attach to them because I felt like it was my job to keep them in the family. And I felt like it was my job to keep them happy or keep my parents happy. Or even keep my parents together. I don’t know if any of this makes sense.
Damianne: [00:17:52] It sounds like there is a long history of you protecting people, serving people, caring for people, and that isn’t a very easy habit to break out of. Like it’s a lifelong habit.
Sue: [00:18:05] And I really need to let go now because now I have these children. Not only did I not need my help, but my help would be hurting them, you know? So I feel like I have to change my ways and I have to find out who my true, authentic self is. And not try and make everyone happy because the only people that can make them happy is themselves. And person who can make me happy is myself.
Damianne: [00:18:37] Yeah. That’s a big realization. I usually ask what’s the biggest change somebody’s gone through in their life? But it sounds to me like you’re going through that right now.
Sue: [00:18:49] Yes. Honestly, honestly, it’s true. I told my sister that I was doing this podcast a couple of hours ago, and I told her the question you’re going to ask me about, you know, what’s the biggest change and what does it taught you? And she’s saying. Holy crap. What are you going to say? You know, take your pick of any changes in my life at the moment there’s nothing that’s the same.
Damianne: [00:19:15] You’ve done some incredible things. You’ve reached some goals, things you thought were pipe dreams that you were able to accomplish, and congratulations for that. Even when you might want to change something or there’s something that’s not quite working or you come to a realization that I need to change something. You’re not just sitting back and thinking, Oh, I should do this. You’re actually taking steps. You’re working with a therapist, searching something else you might want to do. You’re questioning yourself and those are all very valuable things.
Sue: [00:19:46] Daminne, did I ever show you my book?
Damianne: [00:19:50] No.
Sue: [00:19:51] So I wrote this book. It’s a picture book. It, it goes from the front in English and the back goes in Japanese. Then in the middle it ends in a picture. I feel like this book is probably a metaphor for my life. So would you like me to read it?
Damianne: [00:20:09] Yes, please.
Sue: [00:20:11] So you won’t be able to see it on a podcast, but it’s got…
Damianne: [00:20:15] We can use a couple of images.
Sue: [00:20:18] Yeah, yeah. You could probably use it for the cover or something. So I went for a walk and I found a seed. It was a tiny and beautiful seed. I put it in my hand and I carried it home. While I walked. I thought about that seed. I imagined what it might become. If I planted it in just the right place, it could be a lovely pink lady, proud and tall. My flower would reach up taller and taller. The rain would fall and the sun would shine, and it could be a great father tree, roots digging deep. My tree would become stronger and stronger. If I took extra special care of my gift, it might become a loving mother orchard. Ripe fruit would hang sweet and low, more and more seeds ready to grow. It might just become a vast sea of wild flowers, dancing like fairies in the breeze, helping to spread seeds further and further. If I loved my seed with all of my heart, it might become a mighty rainforest. My seed would grow and grow and grow. Other seeds would come from the wind and they would grow and grow and grow. My whole world would become my rainforest. I sowed my one seed in just the right place. My plant began to grow. And that’s the end of the book, but then there’s like a picture in the middle of the book, that represents level of the different things. So I guess when I wrote this book, I was thinking about potential and thinking about different things that you could do in your own life and different ways that you could cultivate yourself. I’ve never published this book. It’s kind of in a weird place between. It’s not really a children’s book. But then again, it’s not really an adult.
Damianne: [00:22:11] Maybe it’s an everybody book. There’s like messages for everybody to get depending on where they are in their own journey and their own life.
Sue: [00:22:19] Right. I had an idea with this book the other day and I thought if I could make this book without the illustrations and have different children illustrate it, it might show how different children interpret the words that I wrote.
Damianne: [00:22:34] What a great idea!
Sue: [00:22:36] This kind of thing is sort of typical of ideas that I have. You know, I think, Oh yeah, I just have to do that. And so I jump and see where it goes.
Damianne: [00:22:45] Are you comfortable being this way? Is there something about that that discomforts you.
Sue: [00:22:50] No, that part of me, like I really enjoy. I really enjoy having ideas and I really like acting on those ideas and sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t. When I first wrote this book, I was sure that I wanted it to be published. What I didn’t know was that I was not ready to publish anything. I didn’t know anything about children’s books. Little did I know that Junko Yokota was going to be right there in my life history one day, changing my life.
Damianne: [00:23:15] But it seems you’ve had this love of books for a long time and sitting in the library and discovering that a librarian could be something that you’re interested in was part of that journey. But you were not new to books then.
Sue: [00:23:28] No, I wasn’t. No. I wasn’t new to books, but I, I guess I was naive about the process of storytelling. I get very enthusiastic about things. So I, I really just enjoy being in the library and talking enthusiastically with like minded people. And I think that people who come to libraries are those kind of people that I like to, I like to hang out with.
Damianne: [00:23:53] What’s your favorite book?
Sue: [00:23:55] No, I have too many.
Damianne: [00:23:57] That’s not really a fair question. Is there a book that you read again and again and again?
Sue: [00:24:02] Well, I have a book blog. My book blog is purplebookcart.com and that’s got some of my favorite books on it. But the book that tells my story best at the moment is Beekle, The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend. It was the book that won the Caldecott prize the year that I was the magic food fairy. I felt very strongly that Dan Santat, the author-illustrator, had written that book for me. It’s perhaps true that he didn’t, but I felt very strongly at the time that was my story. And it’s the story of an imaginary friend who lives in the place where all imaginary friends live until they get imagined by someone, until somebody gives them a name. And I felt a little like I was living in America in a number of imaginary world, until somebody saw the worth in me or something like that. So anyway, the story goes that Beekle does the unimaginable, and he just goes out into the real world even though nobody’s invited him. That also feels like me, you know, making a jump and going to Japan all those years ago. But anyway, he goes into the real world and he notices a bunch of really hard truths about the real world. Like grownups eat cake. And everybody seems tired all the time. And they’re all sleeping on the train and they have to have naps. And the color comes back into the book when he starts seeing other imaginary friends like him, but he still can’t find his one person. I’m not going to give the ending away because it’s just too beautiful and I want you to read the book. Beekle was the beginning of my library journey. And the end of my library was funnily enough, another Dan Santat book, Thanks to Dan Santat, by the way who’s coming to Japan next year at my invitation. Dan Santat’s book After The Fall is a beautiful story of how Humpty Dumpty got back up on the wall after he fell off.
Damianne: [00:26:25] I never knew what happened to Humpty Dumpty next.
Sue: [00:26:29] It has a beautiful ending as well, which I will not spoil by telling you. But it is just the kindest book that I think tells a story about trauma and PTSD and anxiety and fear and, and resilience in the kindest way, in a way that’s completely palatable to children. So when I graduated from my library degree, I had Beekle on my hat, which I think you’ve seen, on my graduation cap. And then I had these orange earrings, which are an image from After The Fall. They’re orange features. So those two books are very special. But there’s so many others that I can go on about.
Damianne: [00:27:22] I think that’s one of the powerful things about books is that we can see ourselves in them. We can connect deeply with them, whether or not there was something specific, even though the author may not have known us.
Sue: [00:27:36] Right. Thinking that books books are for children because they are not. I mean they are as well, but they are definitely a thing that can be very powerful motivator in the lives of adults.
Damianne: [00:27:48] I remember when, when I realized this, because at my last school, International School of Prague, whenever we had assembly in elementary school, one student would read a picture book and the images would show on the screen. And I mean Dr Seuss or however you should say that name books are fun. I’m sure there are some lessons in there more than just fun, but there were so many books that I encountered because the children were reading them and sharing the story with us. And yes, there are powerful messages in children’s books. And sometimes the children get some things out of it and adults get some things out of it and sometimes they align and sometimes they are different because we create meaning out of our experience.
Sue: [00:28:37] What was your favorite book growing up, or what’s your favorite children’s book now?
Damianne: [00:28:41] I don’t know that I have a favorite children’s book from when I was growing up. I remember that the books that really made me love reading were books called The Adventures of Mr Pink Whistle and other books by Enid Blyton. Growing up in St. Lucia, in a small place, we didn’t have a library nearby, where I could go and check out books. And I remember my grandfather would buy me a book every two weeks when he went to a town, to the capital. And I always looked forward to those because magic happened in those stories, and that’s what I remember.
Sue: [00:29:23] Right, right. You can go into another world
Damianne: [00:29:26] of excitement and possibility.
I know that you haven’t been home long from work, so I think it would be good for us to wrap up. I would like to ask if you have any advice for somebody who might be going through your same journey, or somebody who doesn’t really feel courageous enough to make a big jump in three weeks? What might you say to help them make a change in their lives?
Sue: [00:29:58] Well, first of all, you don’t have to do the jump in three weeks. I was really young when I did that. But I think that it’s good to move forward with trust and optimism. And what I mean by trust is that trust that everything’s going to be okay in the end. However it is that you can be less fearful, I think he should do it. And I mean like the Humpty Dumpty character, Lucky, he had a plan and little by little he was able to make himself less fearful. The thing that I was thinking about on the train coming home was that you cannot ultimately control anything but you should be ready for everything. And that the biggest part of that, I think is kindness to yourself and being kind to yourself at all times. By all means, be kind to all people at all times if you can. The most important person to be kind to is yourself when you’re going through, you know, hard times.
Damianne: [00:30:59] Where does your support system come from? What’s the role of a support system in this journey for you?
Sue: [00:31:05] You don’t have to lay out every, every detail of your life for every person, but you didn’t need to trust the people who you’re close to and just have a few select people that you can bounce some things off and know who those people are so that you can bounce things off them. I do have a very interesting secret shouting hole. I have a friend who has an old disused email address that she doesn’t use anymore. And sometimes when I need to write a hot potato, kind of letter, when I need to write something that is definitely not for human consumption, she lets me, him write to her old email address. And there was a time in America when I was living in America and I was having frustrations with a certain thing, i was like emailing this person. And eventually the person started emailing back and that was really fun. Of course, it was my friend who was taking the voice, saying Hi, I am sorry that I am a jerk.
Damianne: [00:32:16] I really like this story because I think it also shows that even when things are hard, you can be playful.
Sue: [00:32:25] Yes. I loved that she did that for me. I just think it’s so important to know who you can trust with things like that.
Damianne: [00:32:33] You said you were thinking about this interview beforehand, and I did give you an idea of what the arc of our conversation could be about. Is there anything that you had on your mind that I haven’t asked you about that you’d like to share?
Sue: [00:32:47] No. Actually, I mean, I didn’t imagine that this interview would start from when I was a younger person. But now that it did, it actually has given me a lot of insight to my current situation. And you pointing out that I have been a bit of a jumper, an enthusiastic sort of leaper into strange situations has really made me feel a little bit less fearful. I can be that person that I was and I’ll still be safe, you know?
Damianne: [00:33:19] Excellent. I did not expect that either. Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me today. It has been wonderful having this conversation.
Damianne: [00:33:50] As always, remember that change starts with one small step.
Might kindness to yourself be the first step that you can take today.