Reading is a Community Building Exercise

Almost a year ago, I visited Toronto to see if the city and I were still in love, and whether it was time to live here again. Seriously Planning had its first in person events at that time. A few months later, I moved from the West Coast, and the months since then have been unexpected, challenging, full, educational and beautiful.

Above all, the most important “settlement agency” that has helped me with the (still ongoing!) transition has been the *very small* (but very exciting!) Seriously Planning bookclub that has met regularly over the past several months to discuss different books. Though the books have been very different from one another, at each session we’ve shared our feelings about what we’ve read, the lessons we’ve learnt from our reading, the questions each book has raised for us, and the way reading each book has altered/impacted the way we are in the world. We’ve tried to pick books that help us reflect and grow, and the experience of actively reflecting both individually and collectively on each book has been transformational. Even more importantly than the amazing books though, the people that have come to each session have become very important people in my life – this is the circle I come to when things seem confusing to me, when I feel homesick, when I’m upset that I’m not doing the transition with as much grace and tranquility as I would hope.  Whatever the challenge, the bookclub circle has been generous, wise and patient and I’m very, very grateful for its presence in my life! Would you like to join? We’re holding two events this December (details below), but if there are any additional events, the details will be posted on the Facebook page first.

For readers who aren’t in Toronto/aren’t able to meet in person, please do share! What are the books you’ve read this year that left an imprint on your heart? It’s cold and snowy in Toronto, and I’d love to make a winter reading list.

Dec 15th:Seriously Planning Book Club (December Edition)

Dec 29th: Idea Steep (Celebrating our Favourite Reads of 2014

Look Big Picture (Life Advice from Chris Hadfield)

Reaching for the horizon, Porteau Cove, BC.

Reaching for the horizon, Porteau Cove, BC.

I recently saw a fantastic interview between Cmdr Chris Hadfield and Jian Ghomeshi that I highly recommend watching in its entirety.  In case this advice is helpful to others too, below are a few gems from their conversation.

Q: What is the most important lesson you think you’ve taken away from the space program?

C.H: If you look big picture, I think the important thing is to give yourself something in life that you really want to do. What is exciting? What is the thing in the distance that if things worked out, you just see yourself doing ten years from now. Or 20 years from now… And then figure out how you can just start nudging yourself along one decision at a time. And you can change directions. I’ve just changed direction. I’ve just retired after a long career. I’m picking those things now and trying to decide what skills I will need in order to head that direction with my life.

Important to remember two things:

1) Don’t have to go straight there.
2) Don’t make that thing be the measure of your self worth. Try and celebrate every little victory, every day. Come out of every day saying today was a good day. I got to do this and this and this. I liked all the stages in my career along the way. Don’t want to get my self worth wrapped up in things in the future that may never happen.

  • I feel a compulsion to make the most of myself. It’s kind of like a way of dealing with life. I sort of look at these are the various skills I’ve been given, these are the things I can do, and if I am not trying to make the most of all the various talents and capabilities I have and opportunities I have, then I am wasting my own time and wasting other people’s time to some degree. It drives me to try and not let things slip away. I really feel an urge to do something useful, to make the most of what I have.  So that drives me, that compels me, it makes me continue to work. It gives me reasons and I like it.
  • I think the real key to social media is to be honest. To tell people what it is that you saw, and what it meant to you, and why. It’s social media, it’s not marketing media. It’s not “I’m trying to sell you dishsoap”. It’s I saw this incredible thing, or this incredible thing meant this to me and here is why. And this is what it looked like.
  • I didn’t do this to become a rockstar. I did this because I found it fundamentally interesting and worthwhile and I thought everybody should be interested in it. So I pursued it doggedly for a long time. And most of the the work I’ve done has been completely uncelebrated like anyone’s work…Anyone who shines for a moment, it’s the result of all those unheralded things that it happens. It wasn’t like it was a springboard so that finally I could be famous. That wasn’t the intent. It was more the opposite.  I’m not trying to sell people something, I’m trying to share the wonder of the experience with them and I’m delighted so many people share back.
  • [story about replacing his cupboards when his house got flooded and really enjoying the experience] I feel exactly the same way about my career. It’s not like I go around now that I don’t live in that house anymore missing that set of cupboards. I did that. And it took a lot of work. And I’m really happy about how it made me feel and with the result that it left, but I don’t spend my life wishing that I was still building those cupboards. That’s not how I view life. There’s a lot more cupboards to build.  You can take great delight in learning any new thing. I have 30 or 40 years I hope of cupboards to build,things to think about and new stuff to learn and stuff to try and accomplish.”

Chris Hadfield, Q with Jian Ghomeshi

Meeting Piscine Molitor Patel

When I meet new people, it matters what their tastes in books are – not because I judge people based on what they read, but because when you share a love for a book with someone that leads to deep conversations, and when they introduce you to new material, that gift widens your awareness of the world.

Ten years ago a friend recommended the book Life of Pi but I gave up halfway through because the descriptions were making me feel squeamish and seasick.  In the intervening decade, I’ve lost count of the number of people who have described it as one of their favourite books and who have expressed surprise at my lack of interest in reading it. Last week, curious about what all the fuss was about, I picked it up again, and this time around I thoroughly enjoyed the read.

Without giving up too many plot details, to read this novel is to realise that writing is a craft. It doesn’t make sense to moan and complain about not being a good writer if you wish to write, you have to be relentless in your practice. The author’s sentences are sturdy, his metaphors and similes are unusual, his pacing is wonderful, and he is all in all, a master writer and storyteller. (Days later while skyping with the Nephew, I tried to explain the story and the animals, and even my four year old friend was engrossed).

In addition to his skill with words, the book is powerful in its themes. In the main protagonist’s meditations on life he touches on belief, religion, saying goodbye and the compulsion to move (among other topics) and his insight in everything he addresses is keen. And meeting Piscine Molitor Patel, like meeting Dorothea Brooke or David Copperfield or Jane Eyre, changes you. He has gentleness with people who lack understanding, he is fiercely determined to survive, he longs for books, he cares for life,  he is unassuming. I feel I have much to learn from him, and this book was a reminder that great fiction impacts your personality,  your outlook on life,  your perspective on different issues and subjects, the traits you value in others, and the goals and dreams that you have.  This book was a reminder that novels matter because they touch us a way that non-fiction, important as it is, cannot.

Below, some of my favourite quotes from the book:

On Faith..

To choose doubt as a philosophy in life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation (28)

“What is your religion about?” I asked. His eyes lit up. “It is about the Beloved”,” he replied. I challenge anyone to understand Islam, its spirit, and not to love it. It is a beautiful religion of brotherhood and devotion.” ( p.60)

The presence of God is the finest of rewards.(p.63)

On Leaving..

“All living things contain a measure of madness that moves them in strange, sometimes inexplicable ways. This madness can be saving; it is part and parcel of the ability to adapt. Without it, no species would survive. Whatever the reason for wanting to escape, sane or insane, zoo detractors, should understand that animals don’t escape to somewhere but from something. Something within their territory has frightened them – the intrusion of an enemy, the assault of a dominant animal, a startling noise – and set off a flight reaction.

“Why do people move? What makes them uproot and leave everything they’ve known for a great unknown beyond the horizon? Why climb this Mount Everest of formalities that makes you feel like a beggar? Why enter this jungle of foreignness where everything is new, strange and difficult? The answer is the same over: people move in the hope of a better life.” (p.77)

On Saying Goodbye..

What a terrible thing it is to botch a farewell. I am a person who believes in form, in the harmony of order. Where we can, we must give things a meaningful shape…It’s important in life to conclude things properly. Only then can you let it go. Otherwise you are left with words you should have said but never did, and your heart is heavy with remorse. (p.285)

A Canadian Muslim in Bandung (Day 16)

I am a bad tourist. My favourite way to spend my time when travelling is sitting in cafes, visiting cool art spaces, finding quirky bookstores, reading, soaking in the atmosphere, starting random conversations with strangers, journaling, and reflecting on what I’m seeing and observing. I’ve never had a huge urge to visit sites or monuments unless they are places I have heard a lot about before and/or are personally significant to see. (Which I suppose, is why I didn’t go to Yogya). And so yesterday (Day 16) was one of those perfect travel days that I love so much. I took a taxi mid morning up into the Dago mountains and visited the Selasar Sunaryo Art Space and Cafe, (one of Bandung’s most famous galleries) and spent the entire day eating wonderful food and drinking amazing tea at the cafe and doing all the things I described above: journalling, visiting the bookstore and the library, meeting people, and just soaking in the wonderful vibe of the space.

When I was leaving, the hotel staff was a bit nervous about my trip as it was quite far from our hotel and in a bit of a remote location, but thankfully all went well. I’m really enjoying this week as I’ve noticed there are differences to the way I’m read when I’m part of a group and when I’m on my own. When we go out as a group, we are often introduced as the group from Canada/Toronto/the University of Toronto, and then instantly someone will turn to me and ask so are you Moroccan/Malaysian/Iranian/Arab?/etc etc. This week though, it’s been nice being asked where I’m from once people hear my accent, and have Canada be an acceptable answer.

Though I admit, I am really tempted to visit Malaysia after Bandung because over the past year and particularly on this trip, I get asked whether I’m Malaysian on a consistent basis. (Sometimes I get Singaporean as well, but very rarely). Yesterday when I entered the cab for instance, the driver spoke English reasonably well, and so we chatted as we drove up the windy mountainous roads. He asked me where I was from, I said Canada, and he replied “I’m sorry miss, I really thought you were from Malaysia!” That broke the ice, and we chatted about my *very* Malaysian features, he told me about his family and some of his favourites spots in the city, and we talked about Islam in Canada, and the number of Muslims in Toronto. In between our conversation, I had my face pressed to the window of the car, because the drive to the gallery was breathtaking. We passed through parts of the city where it seems many people actually live, passed enormous mosques and small ones as well (sometimes mosques across the street from one another) gorgeous schools, including pesantrens (religious boarding schools for girls) and were treated to stunning views of the mountains dotted with little houses with red roofs. One moment in particular made my breath stick in my chest as we turned a corner and dozens (maybe 150?) young girls in huge white scarfs poured down the white steps of a gorgeous school. I didn’t take photos, but I kept repeating the words, “remember this moment heart!” and it worked, as the images have stayed with me.

Finally we arrived at the art gallery, and I sat down to a stunning meal at the cafe. While I was eating, my parents called, and so we Skyped with the cafe in the background. (I had headphones so we didn’t disturb other people too much). While we were speaking a large group of people entered speaking English, and so after the call as I enjoyed a bowlful of melted toberlone and vanilla ice-cream, from my table (while feeling nervous inside) I asked, “I hear English, are you all visiting from another place?”

And with that question, we all became instantly friends.  The gallery has an exhibit right now called “Still Building: Contemporary Art from Singapore”, and the group I met included the curator of the exhibit who has galleries in Malaysia and Singapore, the artists from Singapore who created the works of the exhibit, and then a Dutch fellow who has lived in Bandung since 2003. As we talked, we realized we had common friends in Bandung and that he knew my professor, and so we ended up having lunch together, and chatting at different points during the day. In Singapore I walked into a bookshop and ended up meeting people who knew friends and teachers in Toronto, and so it was strange to have something similar happen again. The world sometimes seems like a very small place.

We also laughed over my ethnic background/country of origin , because the group agreed that  their first guess would have been Malaysian, though one of the men from Singapore ( I think the gallery owner) said that he heard my accent when I was on Skype, and knew I wasn’t English, but couldn’t quite place the accent until I said Canadian.  I am invited tonight to the opening of the exhibition and to lunch/dinner on Friday, two events that I’m very excited about.

Eventually I made my way to the actual gallery, which is made up four different gallery spaces, a beautiful library, a cute bookshop, a stone garden, an amphitheatre, a workshop, and an artists residency. As you visit the different spaces, you’re treated to incredible views of the valley below and the mountains nearby. At the library I found a great book about Islamic Art, and poked around the different collections, and in the gift shop I found beautiful handmade notebooks, and some local Indonesian films among some very interesting looking books. I bought a couple of films and watched the first one yesterday. It was excellent, and it was delightful to see a film that had women in hijab as simply characters in the story, and not women who need saving. It is possible to create different media representations!

I ended the day at the gallery with what was possibly the best tea I’ve ever had..a homemade Longan Spiced Tea, that had actual longan fruit bobbing in the tea. It was so so spicy and wonderful, and was exactly what my throat needed. As I was drinking my tea, one of the things i was thinking about was Canadian Islam. For the past ten days I’ve been trying to better understand the relationship between Bandung and religion. On the one hand many people talk about it being “a cosmopolitan city that is not bogged down by religion” and bars and alcohol are easy to find, but on the other hand you hear the call to prayer everywhere, prayer spaces and Islamic banks are everywhere, the hijab is very very visible, there are signs with religious messages throughout the city, and though religion is less visible in the part of the city where I am staying, it was very visible in my drive to the gallery. And just in the last few days, Bandung was the site of a major summit on Islamic banking and investment.

Though all of this interesting to reflect over and process, and as much as I have grown to love this city, it isn’t my city. Canada, and Toronto/Vancouver are the sites of my interventions. People in Bandung are the experts on their city. In reality, any work I do here or observations I make here simply help me understand home better; I’m not going to make brilliant insights on life here.

When we went to the underground art space I mentioned briefly in my last post, we met a Japanese architect who has produced two extraordinary books of water-colour paintings and pencil explanations of Jakarta and Bandung, and is working on a third book (he showed us the original paintings) about Kyoto. His talk to us was super inspiring. He grew up in Bandung, he studied in Bandung, his family is based in Bandung, everything important about him is connected to this city, and this is the city he is seeking to improve. We met a journalist last week who is focused on water issues in the city and has written extensively about them at great cost to his own personal safety because the wellbeing of Bandung residents matters that much to him. Many of the people we’ve met are like that, and though many of the members of our travel group are committed to living lives as travellers and  I myself do love seeing and learning from different places, being in Bandung has made me appreciate the benefit of roots.

All of this relates to Bandung and my reflections on religion here, because with each passing day I realize how important it is to build and support indigenous institutions of Islamic learning and community development in Canada and the US. Projects like the Taleef Collective in the US, the MyCanada/Common Ground Project in Canada, the SeekersHub in Toronto, the Muslim Chaplaincy Project at U of T, all of these projects are attempting to create spaces for healthy self and community development that reflect local culture. In Bandung Islam definitely reflects local Javanese culture and it makes sense that similarly in Canada Islam is expressed within a cultural context that reflects the diversity of people that call Canada home. I’ve met more than a few people (not everyone) who have expressed surprise that I’m Muslim in Canada, and for me, it’s highlighted the importance of being a planner who is committed to building healthy social spaces, and being a more active participant in community development work, rather than simply a beneficiary of others struggles.

It’s strange how easily communities and connections form between people. When I came back to the hotel in the evening it was raining, and one of the hotel staff members came out with a giant umbrella and stood there as I got out of the taxi so I wouldn’t get wet in the 2 second walk to the hotel’s interior. They looked visibly relieved I had come back safe and sound, and we shared stories from our day. (Even this morning, I was up at 4:30, and then fell back asleep at 8 am. I got a call at 9 am from the hotel worried that I was going to miss breakfast and wondering where I had been). All in all, day 16 of the trip was wonderful, and ended with an Indonesian film, dinner with my professor at a beautiful Japanese restaurant, and excitement for what the next day will bring.

Awesome Event Alert: Martha Rosler at the Harbourfront Centre

Interested in creative cities, women, war and public cuts to art? This sounds like an interesting event. (Not to mention that talks in the Harbourfront Centre are always enhanced by the beautiful location) Now if only there were student tickets available..

Details below.


December 15, 2011

Martha Rosler is an artist working in photography, video, writing, performance, sculpture, and installation. Her work often addresses matters of the public sphere and landscapes of everyday life — actual and virtual — especially as they affect women. Rosler has produced works on war and the “national security climate,” connecting everyday experiences at home with the conduct of war abroad. The Martha Rosler Library, comprising seven thousand books, toured widely from 2005–2009. Rosler will discuss Toronto-based theorist Richard Florida’s idea of the Creative Class as it relates to artists’ interests and with an eye to how this discourse is playing out in a local, national and international context of massive cuts to the public sector and to arts and culture in particular.

Recent solo exhibitions have taken place at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London (2005) and Portikus, Frankfurt (2008), while GAM, Turin, hosted a retrospective exhibition of her work in 2010. Rosler was included in the 2011 Istanbul and Singapore biennales, and is the recipient of a 2011 DAAD Artists-in-Berlin Residency.

Call the Harbourfront Centre Box Office at 416.973.4000 to purchase tickets.

2011–2012 International Lecture Series Donor

J.P. Bickell Foundation


FREE: Members
$12: Non-Members
Thursday, December 15, 2011
Studio Theatre
York Quay Centre, 235 Queens Quay West

First and Foremost, We Write for Ourselves

Today was a busy day preparing to present at the Canadian National Planning Association Conference from Feb 3-5th in Waterloo.

During a study break though, I saw a lovely interview with Kiran Rao, the writer and director of Dhobi Ghat, and there were a few parts of the interview that I wanted to share (If you’re interested in watching the interview in full, you can find it here).

The first was about the film making process itself:

My aim in making a film has always been to figure what I can do..what’s my forte, what’s my voice as an artist, as a creative person, what is my distinctive voice, and do I have something to say? These are things that make me want to make a film. I’m not making a film because I want to make a first film, I’m making a film because I feel I have something to contribute, and I wouldn’t make it if I didn’t think it was something good. So when I wrote it I didn’t have box office in mind, I didn’t have an audience, I had nobody in mind but myself looking over my own shoulder saying hmm is it good, do I have a story to tell? So that’s what I set out to do.

And second was her husband Aamir Khan’s description of working with her during the film:

First of all I didn’t know she was such a good writer..and I had no idea that she was such a good director. These are two things I learnt about her. Because I know she is a lovely human being, she is someone who I love very much and respect very much and have high regard for intellectually and emotionally and in every way, but I didn’t know that as a cinema person she is so capable and so in control of what she is making. I didn’t know all that because I had never seen that side of her as a writer and director. So I’m very proud of that.

In an interview with the delightful Jian Ghomeshi of Qtv, Aamir Khan says something similar (the whole interview is really just a lovely watch) and whether he is sharing his eagerness to be part of the cast, or his admiration for her warmth and strength as the leader of the film, the affection and joy and shared purpose and understanding between them is clear. It is a heartwarming reminder that the basis for all friendship and love is respect and equality.

In addition to their admiration for each other though, in the Qtv interview Kiran also speaks about the subject of Dhobi Ghat: Mumbai. She always knew she wanted to make a film about her home, and the plot really stems from the reality of the city itself. It is a place where you can’t hide in gated communities and you are forced to interact with people wildly different from you on a daily basis.

I think there is something to this idea of seeking to understand and describe the nature of a city itself. Certainly Vancouver and Toronto (and other places I’ve visited) have distinct personalities; as a result, they impact and shape their inhabitants in very different ways. So to take those differences and explore the layers and complexities of a city by telling the stories of its people is a fascinating project to think about.

A Life Well Lived

I went to the ballet today. At the time it felt crazy to go in the middle of papers, assignments and presentations, but I turned the computer off anyway and headed to the Betty Oliphant Theatre to watch Ballet Jorgen Canada’s beautiful adaptation of Cinderella. And despite a few hiccups getting there, once I arrived I was delighted to discover I had the perfect seat: right in the middle of the front row. I couldn’t have asked for a better place to soak up each expression, the details of the costumes and the perfection of each movement.

And as I watched the acts unfold, I couldn’t help thinking that the production was an incredible example of dedication made visible. It was a reminder that excellence cannot be created instantly; it is not a product of procrastination and shortcuts. It’s only through hours and hours of daily practice and emotional, physical and mental commitment to a craft that such performances, such beauty is possible.

Aside from the beauty of the performance though, it was a special afternoon because it was a celebration of Clea Iveson, who after 19 years and 2,000 performance is retiring from active dancing with Ballet Jorgen Canada. (Which is a shame. Even for a infrequent ballet attendee like myself, her performance was powerful and hilarious and hard to ignore.) And when the dancers came out on stage after the show, bouquets of flowers appeared from the audience, little girls slipped handwritten cards on stage, everyone was on their feet and you could feel the emotion of everyone in the room: from audience members, to the dancers, to the Artistic Director to Clea (first names sound so very informal!) herself. Even the people beside me were crying. What I found most moving though, was that when the audience finally quietened, the Artistic Director shared some beautiful words about her strength, her intelligence, her commitment and dedication and her contributions that have made the company what it is today.

And hearing those words and witnessing the emotion of everyone in the room made me think about work and what it means to have a calling. Deep contributions are possible not by flitting from one activity to another, or giving up quickly, but only when you pour all of yourself in a particular sphere of activity and continually strive to refine your abilities and expertise.

The same lesson came to mind when I was returning to Vancouver from London a few months ago and the pilot announced about half an hour before landing that after forty years of service that flight was his last journey in the cockpit. He thanked his wife who was onboard for her constant support, told us that flying was a challenging life path, and shared moments with us that he’ll always cherish: from seeing the sunrise in the cockpit when many of the passengers were asleep, to hearing the quietness of the world, to seeing how different people live across the world. There were many moments, and he was glad for the journey he had taken through life.

By the end of it, I had a lump in my throat from the gifts of his reflections, and the whole plane applauded when he landed the plane smoothly in the Vancouver International Airport.

And so whether I think of the ballet today, or that pilot earlier this summer, or any other remarkable example, the reflection is the same: it is extraordinary and beautiful to see your work as a calling and as a source of wonder and passion. And yet how challenging a thing to keep yourself steadfast to your chosen path as you develop!  (But necessary, if deep meaningful contribution to the world is the aim.) All things to tuck away as I return back to paper writing, and try to put into perspective some of the more stress inducing parts of studying and doing the masters. It’s just meant to be one step of a much larger journey.