An Urban Romance (Lessons from Toronto)

The Heart of the City (Oct 2014)

The Heart of the City (Oct 2014)

Cities are people to me, and whether it was my first trip to Toronto many years ago, trips thereafter, moving to Toronto for graduate school in 2010, or moving back to Toronto in March 2014, it’s always felt like Toronto and I are courting. Will this be my long -term city? The question has surfaced again and again in my heart and mind over the past few years, and been the subject of many audio stories and blog posts and late night cups of tea. Toronto has always been a love who is different and unexpected and challenging, and who is constantly asking me step up and become more.  Toronto can drive me crazy, push me, break my heart sometimes but ultimately, it is a place where I feel intensely happy and fulfilled. In particular, this past year in Toronto has been one of the most incredibly challenging and beautiful years of my life to date, and has taught me so much. In response to that long asked question however, a couple of weeks ago I packed my things and came home to visit before I begin God-willing, a new chapter in a different city soon. Preparation for what lies ahead is often aided by learning from your experiences, and before that move, I’d like to take a moment to reflect on the lessons of the past 12 months.  A list of brief reflections/lessons is underneath the audio story below.

1)  You cannot go backwards in time and recreate an experience.

One of the keys to contentment and adjustment I’ve discovered is that I need to create enough space in my heart for an experience and a place to unfold. When I moved to Toronto as a graduate student, I realised that the way to feel happy in the city was to not compare it to Vancouver, and to deflect questions about which city I liked better.  I love both cities for entirely different reasons and avoiding comparison allowed me to fall deeply in love with Toronto and appreciate the unique characteristics that make it an incredible place to live. Similarly, when I moved this year, it quickly became clear that my experience with the city would be entirely different to my previous experiences. I was no longer a student, I had been away for two years, and in many ways it felt like I was moving to a new city that felt slightly familiar, but otherwise was very very new. Allowing the city and I to get to know each other anew was important, and towards this end, it was important to create new rituals that allowed for new definitions and understandings of Toronto to unfold.

2) It is possible to become more comfortable with uncertainty. And you really don’t need very many things to be happy.

By nature, I am someone who is not good with change and uncertainty. I like it when things stay the same. I can’t handle plot-heavy novels because I stress out about the main characters. I feel sad when the gelato flavours at my favourite cafes change.  I mourn furniture changes when I come home to visit. All in all, it takes me a while to process new things. And while all these things are still true, this year has helped me to become much more comfortable with the unknown, and to learn that instead of becoming overwhelmed by change and uncertainty, all I can do is do the best I can with the day that is before me. In the past 12 months I’ve moved 4 times (3 times within Toronto and then back to Vancouver), and lived with 2 suitcases (I didn’t bring any books) for the entire time. Aside from groceries, every time I’ve wanted to purchase something, I thought about it several times beforehand, and by the time I asked myself the questions of “How will I move it? Where will I store it? Do I really need it?” several times, I usually realized it was something I could do without. In August I had a trip home scheduled, and it was time to move from the apartment I was in, so though I hadn’t found a new apartment yet, I packed my things, left them with a friend and went home for three days. When I returned I started a new job the next day and only retrieved my things a few days later, but I still had everything I needed with me in the little backpack I had taken to Vancouver. I found a new apartment the next week, but the lesson that you actually need very little, and that uncertainty can only be lived through one moment at a time has stayed with me. This year has taught me to become better at something I find very difficult: trusting and letting go.

3) Safe spaces to talk about faith and identity are vital

Toronto is home to diverse Muslims, and there so many different groups and spaces in the city, each with their own dynamic and much good to share. While I didn’t spend time in religious spaces very often, I thoroughly enjoyed being able to explore and learn from everything from mipsterz events in the city, to lessons with the Muslim Chaplaincy at U of T, to Civic Muslim events, discussions with the Tessellate Institute, celebrations of love at the Risalah Foundation, poetry events with Outburst, events at the SeekersHub, the ISNA Canada conference, and the RIS Knowledge Retreat among much more. Though a bit hard to find, what I benefited from the most and sought out the most were spaces and circles where I could meet others in a similar age and life stage, and discuss the challenges, complications, negotiations, celebrations and beauty of striving to live in your twenties as a Muslim in Toronto. Some of the best conversations and learning I had this year was informal and in coffee shops and living rooms, and I’m interested in learning how to craft such spaces and opportunities for conversation more intentionally in the future.

More and more, I’m finding that what is most valuable to me is spending time wrestling with and thinking through a bit of information/one teaching, and trying to make it my own knowledge, instead of trying to sit through and cram lots of information into my brain. This December I went to the RIS Knowledge Retreat, a multi-day retreat that features classes from morning to night with hundreds of other students in downtown Toronto. In the past it’s been difficult to keep my focus throughout, but this year I spent time each evening reviewing and debriefing different take-away points, and these conversations helped me benefit from the experience in a much deeper and more substantial way.

4) Libraries are amazing settlement agencies

After a few months in Toronto, I got a library card at both the University of Toronto library and the Toronto Public Library. It can be hard to find non-commercial public space that is indoors (something that is needed in a city like Toronto) and libraries are that type of needed space. I lived close to the Toronto Reference Library, and every time I needed a new perspective, wanted to work with other people  or it felt like the apartment was quiet and it was cold and I didn’t want to resort to Netflix, reading was a refuge and a light and a budget-friendly way to rejuvenate and revive myself. Vibrant cities have good libraries. And life expands when you make a regular habit of reading and discovering shelves of books about topics you know nothing about.

5) You can do more than you think you can.

I learnt this over and over again this year. Things that terrified me at the outset became easier once I managed to ignore my fear for a moment and started doing small steps to make them happen. The fear became easier when I was doing something to make things better, I also discovered that ability is not static – one’s capabilities can develop and expand. I’ve always wanted to go to New York for instance, and have always been too nervous to make the trip, but with some needed encouragement, this year I went over the Thanksgiving break and had an incredible, transformational beautiful journey. I met amazing people, admired places like Central Park, the HighLine, and the Met Museum among others that I had dreamt about seeing for years, and I became a braver and more confident person for the journey. It was a transformational trip, and I hope I can continue to push my understanding of my capabilities in big and small ways from now on.

6) Walking is the best way to think (and walkable blocks matter)

I’ve walked a lot in Toronto this year. In cold, in rain, in sunshine and snow and fog, I’ve walked to help understand my own thoughts. Though solutions and clarity aren’t always immediate, I’ve never come back from a walk without an improved mood, a new perspective, and hope that I can work things out. And when blocks are interesting and varied, it is so much easier to walk for hours without tiring or realizing how far you’ve gone. It’s something we learn in planning school, but I’ve only really internalized this year, walkable neighbourhoods and cities make for healthier cities. And on a personal level, I am healthier when I have a short commute.

7) Specificity in dreams is important.

Before I moved to Toronto, I visited few months earlier in December 2013. And during that week I spent some time at a coffee shop near St Lawrence market, and would walk past and gaze at the United Way Toronto office and daydream about how wonderful it would be to work there and continue the learning and contributions to United Way I had made in Vancouver. While working in Vancouver and during grad school itself, I had become more familiar with United Way Toronto’s work, the relationships they were building, the community dollars they raised every year, and the cutting edge research and work they were doing to build and strengthen community in Toronto. Months later when I was interviewing and deciding between positions at different organizations, being clear about what I was looking for, and having a dream of wanting to learn from UWT helped me decide where I wanted to go and what I wanted to learn. I’m so glad I was able to spend time working at United Way Toronto! It was everything I had hoped it to be. Specificity in dreams and prayers, and openness to unexpected good is something I want to carry forward.

8)Small things done consistently create big changes

I’ve spoken about the bookclub in the past, but during my time in Toronto I held a bookclub at different local coffeeshops almost every three weeks. It was small and simple, but the people who came regularly became intensely important to me, and I learnt and grew so much through those discussions. I had never been part of a bookclub before, but this gathering became the circle I would turn to when things seemed confusing to me, when I felt homesick, or when I was upset that I’m not doing the transition with grace and tranquility. Small things I discovered, can have a tremendous impact on your life.

9) Transit matters

I either walked or took transit everywhere this year, and sometimes there were places that I couldn’t get to, or grocery stores I couldn’t access, or items I couldn’t get because they were too unwieldy to carry on the train or the streetcar. Transit routes, walkability and weather circumscribe your world. In school we read journal articles discussing for instance, mobility and food choices and informal resources, but I learnt this lesson in an completely new way this year through my day to day experiences. I’ve always been interested in transit systems,  but I care about transit much more now.

10) Mentorship and knowledge sharing matters. 

Toronto is a busy city, and it can be difficult to meet up with strangers doing interesting things to learn more from their perspectives and experiences. Often the busiest, most productive people were the most generous with their time, and I’m so grateful to people who took the time to chat and connect me with others. Those conversations were eye-opening and educational and led to unexpected learnings and discoveries. It’s a beautiful, treasured experience to be mentored, and I hope I can mentor others and share knowledge in the future as well.

11) The transition methods that work for you are often strangely specific. Trust yourself.

Everyone transitions and adjusts and learns in different ways and at different speeds, and I learnt this year to challenge myself, but also trust my own temperament, and things that work well for me. Success and building a life looks different for everyone and comparison is unproductive.

12) Good character and patience build bonds. Rituals build bonds. There is a methodology to building a home.

My roommates this year were strangers to me before I moved in; I found my apartments online through apartment hunting sites. My first roommate was from a different culture, a different country and we didn’t have a lot in common from the get-go, but we worked at our relationship and developed rituals to build friendship and care for one another. Living with another person does this naturally to a certain extent, but rituals help make the process easier when you are living with someone entirely unknown to you. We had mint tea and/or qahwa in the evenings, we spread out a long cloth every evening in Ramadan and made and shared iftar together. We woke each other up when it was time to get up in the middle of night for extra prayers. We shared details of our day with one another. We talked about our goals and shared advice and consoled one another at moments of homesickness and challenge. The rituals created bonds of caring, and taught me how important generosity is when living with another person, and how much tolerance and patience is needed even when you are simply sharing space.

13) Death can come at any time. Make the most of each day.

In May a close friend in Toronto passed away suddenly and unexpectedly, and his death was a reminder of the danger of long hopes. Though this is something I am still working on, his funeral and the occasions in which  people gathered to pray and remember him were testimony of how much one can do with their life when they are selfless and committed to the good. His death was a reminder that it is dangerous to tell yourself that you will improve certain qualities about yourself in the future and that you will accomplish goals that you have one day, one must strive to make the most of today, of the moments you have before you.

14) You must be protective of yourself 

One of the hardest and most educational things about moving to Toronto is that I found myself constantly answering questions about what I was doing here, why I left BC, and justifying intensely personal things about my life repeatedly with complete strangers. It was exhausting, unrelenting, and sometimes heartbreaking, and it often made me feel like I should simply go home. These experiences taught me to develop a thicker skin and to avoid particular gatherings/social environments and above all, taught me that gentleness is the value I want to uphold most in my life. Almost everyday over the past year, I have been reminded of this Yeats poem on dreams.

19) This is a city of scorching intellect and talent that burns bright.

This has been a year of meeting, working with, befriending, and learning and absorbing from incredibly talented people. There is so much that you can do when you are committed to excellence, and when you are persistent and unrelenting, and I have been so inspired by the rockstars who call Toronto home. Being in the company of those committed to growth and learning and personal excellence makes you want to grow and become more. One good friend is a treasure, and Toronto has been home to many kind, inspiring wonderful people who have been  generous with their time and advice and company. Transition and building is a team sport, and I’m so grateful and humbled for both the relationships that have deepened and for the people I have met over the past 12 months. I’ve learnt so so much, and I hope I can take these lessons into the next chapter and bend in the road.

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