Creativity is the Property of Everyone (On “Big Magic” by Elizabeth Gilbert)

Joburg Skyline and Flowers (happiness things)

Joburg Skyline and Flowers (Home, Sept 2015)

It isn’t always comfortable or easy – carrying your fear around with you on your great and ambitious road trip, I mean – but it’s always worth it, because if you can’t learn to travel comfortably alongside your fear, then you’ll never be able to go anywhere interesting or do anything interesting.
And that would be a pity, because your life is short and rare and amazing and miraculous, and you want to do really interesting things and make really interesting things while you’re still here. I know that’s what you want for yourself because that’s what I want for myself, too.
It’s what we all want.
And you have treasures hidden within you – extraordinary treasures – and so I, and so does everyone around us. And bringing those treasures to light takes work and faith and focus and courage and hours of devotion, and the clock is ticking, and the world is spinning, and we simply do not have time anymore to think so small. (p.37, Big Magic)

“It’s a simple and generous rule of life that whatever you practice, you will improve at. For instance: if I had spent my twenties playing basketball every single day, or making pastry dough every single day, or studying auto mechanics every single day, I’d probably be pretty good at foul shots and croissants and transmissions by now.
Instead I learned how to write.” (p.145, Big Magic)

“Meeting Winnifred though, made me realize that your education isn’t over when they say it’s over; your education is over when you say it’s over. And Winifred-back when she was a mere girl of eighty – had firmly decided: It ain’t over yet.
So when can you start pursuing your most creative and passionate life?
You can start whenever you decide to start. ” (p.148, Big Magic)

A few months ago I spent a weekend mentoring teenagers at a camp in Brits, South Africa, and in the early hours of the morning before my cabin was awake and in moments between mealtimes and sessions, I shared stories of my first few months in South Africa with my fellow mentors and new friends. And in December, my husband and I travelled to Durban for the wedding of a dear friend, and in our post dawn walks on the beach or long chats over cups of tea, we continued telling stories of my transition to Joburg and the early days of our marriage. Throughout those conversations, the possibility and importance of chronicling some of these reflections and transition stories into a longer piece of writing was a topic of conversation – I was convinced that my story wasn’t interesting enough to be told (and that I didn’t have the ability to tell it in any case) but my husband and the friends we were speaking to felt otherwise.

For me, the word writer conjures up someone armed with an MFA, proper published writing credits to their name, a dedicated writing practice, no troubles with procrastination, natural talent, ideas that bubble forth constantly and an understanding of semi-colons.That description does not fit me, and so although the act of writing fills my heart with joy it has always seemed inaccurate to think of myself as a writer, and I’ve never felt like writing a longer piece of work is something I could do.

Despite this, lately I’ve been thinking a lot about why and how we tell stories and why we write, and how to know when you should and indeed can, tell a particular story. As part of this thinking, I recently read Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book “Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear”. (I confess, part of why I read the book was that I was hoping to hear that creativity is an inherent characteristic so that I could win the internal argument I’ve been having with the words of my husband, family and friends about writing, but alas, no such luck.)

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On Family, Marriage and African Reads

Durban, June 2015

Durban North Beach, June 2015

“I never understood it before, when people said love leaves one feeling vulnerable.” (Wanner, London – Cape Town – Joburg)

One of my goals after moving to South Africa has been to read more literature set on the continent, and in particular, to understand Joburg better through reading stories about and located in the city. In October I read Onion Tears by Shubnum Khan and Riding the Samoosa Express edited by Zaheera Jina and Hasina Asvat and I spoke about my experiences reading both books on the Seriously Planning audio stories series.

“They’d loiter in the hall, outside the half-open door, giggling softly, whispering loudly to attract his attention, then peer in to see if he’d look up from reading his peer-reviewed journal, which he wouldn’t to teach them. It was a logically flawed experiment. He’d have told them if they’d asked. His devotion to his profession kept a roof over their heads. It wasn’t comparative, a contest, either/or, job v. family. That was specious American logic, dramatic, “married to a job.” How? The hours he worked were an expression of his affection, in direct proportion to his commitment to keeping them well: well educated, well traveled, well regarded by other adults. Well fed. What he wanted, and what he wasn’t as a child.” (Selasi, Ghana Must Go, p.47)

The Seriously Planning bookclub pick in November was “Ghana Must Go” by Taiye Selasi.  This novel revolves around the story of the Sais, a family in which the father Kweku dies in Ghana, several years after he abruptly leaves his family. The repercussions of his actions can be felt for years, and his departure impacts each member of the family differently. The book is about how his death brings his family together once more and our bookclub conversation revolved around the book’s ideas of family and love and masculinity and marriage and commitment and failure and cowardice. Why doesn’t Kweku as a father and husband speak openly about his fears and failures? How and why do the unspoken agreements and sacrifices of a marriage chip away at its foundation? What are the stages of love in a marriage, and if love is not enough to sustain a relationship, what ensures the success and survival of a family? Kweku’s wife Folasade gave up her dreams and goals of law school so that Kweku could pursue medicine, and the exchange of her sacrifice for his success is too much weight for their marriage to handle. When his success crumbles, he takes steps that result in their marriage crumbling as well. It was a rich and vibrant conversation, and I’m so glad we were able to discuss the book in a community space. Reading transforms when it turns from a private to a public activity, and I love the bookclub because it allows me to strengthen my own understanding of what I read through hearing the insights of others.

“Sadness, tension, absence, angst, – but fine, as she birthed them, alive if not well, in the world, fish in the water, in the condition she  delivered them (breathing and struggling) and this is enough. Perhaps not for others, Fola thinks, other mothers who pray for great fortune and fame for their young, epic romance and joy (better mothers quite likely; small, bright-smiling,hard-driving, minivan mothers), but for her who would kill, maim and die for each child but who knows that the willingness to die has its limits.
That death is indifferent.
Not she (though she seems), but her age-old opponent, her enemy, theirs, the common enemy of all mothers — death, harm to the child – which will defeat her, she knows.
But not today. (Ghana Must Go, p.100)

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Seriously Planning Joburg BookClub (Oct 2015)

(Hotel view, Makkah, 2008)

(Hotel view, Makkah, 2008)

“If there is struggle then the results are inevitable, as with Hajar and Zam-zam by Allah’s Will. Allah will always smile on those who strive. But we should never assume that those efforts have the capacity to provide or produce anything. Zam-zam was not the direct result of Hajar’s striving. What success there is has nothing to do with us but everything to do with Allah’s Compassion and Mercy, which he dispenses according to our willingness to struggle and become the tools with which He acts.

What is noteworthy is that her struggle yields no result. She finds neither help nor any source of sustenance for her child. So why do we repeat her actions? Because it is the struggle that is important, not the result. Who are we to assume we have the capacity to ‘achieve’ anything? Our aim should be simply to strive. Thus the joy on Shamima’s face at the end of that gruelling ritual did not imply that she had found the source of life. Rather, her expression said, ‘I have struggled, I have exhausted myself because that is what I was created for, just as that is what my “Imamah” Hajar was created for. I can tell my Creator that I have striven.” ( Journey of Discovery, Na’eem Jeenah and Shamima Shaikh, p. 129)

Before moving to Jo’burg, there are two things I knew about South Africa. The first was the Houghton Masjid, and the second was a book called “Journey of Discovery: A South African Hajj” that I had read several years ago. The book follows the Hajj journey of Na’eem Jeenah and Shamima Shaikh, an extraordinary couple deeply committed to social and racial equity. When they decide to go for Hajj Shamima has already been diagnosed with cancer, and the book follows their journey of discovery together.

The book is a collection of stories and and reflections from their Hajj and addresses issues (and raises questions) about social justice and activism, love, marriage, religious rituals and symbols, spirituality and faith, gender equity, surrender, feminism, religious dogmatism and more. It is a powerful and exceptional read that challenges its reader to think about how they relate to their faith as an individual, as a family and as a community. It is an infinitely richer experience to read with others, and for this reason, the Seriously Planning bookclub met for the first time in Joburg on Sept 12th 2015 at Masjid-ul-Islam in Brixton to discuss the book and to celebrate International Literacy Day. It was a wonderful conversation and discussion circle, and re-reading the book on my own and then coming together to discuss the book with others left me with an richer and deeper understanding of the book.

Continuing the theme of South African books and authors, the next bookclub will be a discussion of “Riding the Samoosa Express by Zaheera Jina and Hasina Asvat on October 18th 2015 from 2-4pm at Industry Bakery in Greenside. To participate and confirm your attendance, please email seriously.planning@gmail.com to join the gathering. To find the book, it is available as an Amazon Kindle Book, and available at Exclusive Books and other booksellers.  Looking forward to seeing you there!

On Reading “Instant City” By Steve Inskeep

Missisauga Art Gallery, 2014.

Mississauga Art Gallery, 2014.

The viceroy was splitting the subcontinent among men who had all supported some version of a united India in the past. But at key moments, every effort fell apart. Jinnah insisted that his people could not even discuss a united India until after Muslims were granted parity, with power equal to the far more numerous Hindus. Faced with this demand, the Indian National Congress, led by Jawaharlal Nehru and aided by Mountbatten, finally preferred to shove Jinnah to the margins, giving Muslims a separate state and keeping it as small as possible. Jinnah didn’t even know how small it would be on that evening in Karachi; the viceroy had delayed revealing the final boundary lines. Later that night, at an event with over a thousand guests, the Great Leader looked ‘frail, tired and pre-occupied,” according to Shahid Hamid but had to remain at the event as long as the viceroy did. Hamid carried a message across the room from Jinnah to Mountbatten, asking the last representative of British rule in India to hurry up and leave.” (Steve Inskeep, Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi, p.58)

It’s taken me more than three years to read Steve Inskeep’s book Instant City. Every time I’ve started to read it, I’ve stopped before finishing in an attempt to savour the reading experience for as long as possible. That changed a few days ago though, and like other books I love dearly, it is an unforgettable read.

The book is an exploration of instant cities, (defined as “a metropolitan area that’s grown since 1945 at a substantially higher rate than the population of the country to which it belongs”) by taking an in-depth look at Karachi and examining a bombing of a religious procession of Shia Muslims that occurred on Dec 28th 2009.  Today Karachi is more than thirty times its size in 1945, and Inskeep goes back to the beginning to understand what happened in 2009 and the forces that shape instant cities (and cities in general) today.

I loved the read despite – or perhaps because, Karachi is a place I do not understand well. I last visited the city 18 years ago, and though lazy stereotypes about Karachi and Pakistan make my skin prickle and my temper rise,  when family and friends travel, I am tense and keenly scanning headlines until they return. As with courses about Pakistani politics I took in undergrad, I’ve shared my learnings from Instant City with friends and family, and we’ve discussed urban geography, significant places, events and people of Karachi throughout the read. The book and these conversations have expanded my understanding of Karachi and I’m grateful to Inskeep for opening up the city in such a thoughtful and nuanced way. In particular, here are two things I loved about the book.

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On Finding the Way Back (Day 1, Ramadan 2015)

Shipping Container converted into cafe -Freedom Cafe, Durban (June 2015)

Shipping Container converted into cafe -Freedom Cafe, Durban (June 2015)

Ramadan is a time of immense transformation where we reassess, re-prioritize and recognize the most important things in our lives. One of the most important aspect is to understand what we are doing here. Allah asks us in the Qur’an, “Where, then, are you going?” This is a question we have to ask ourselves in Ramadan – as individuals, as a family and as a society. This is a time to get close to Allah. (Shaykh Hamza Yusuf)

Today is the first day of Ramadan and I am in South Africa. I’ve been married for almost 2 months, but still, this city, this country, and the other parts and people of my new life feel very very new. There are moments and days where everything familiar feels just so far away, and in the midst of all the changes and adjusting, Ramadan is a welcome guest, a dear friend, someone who knows me, a familiar face, an anchor point. I am ever so glad the month is here.

This morning after we started our fast I checked whether Vancouver and Toronto have started Ramadan as well, and seeing the announcement in both cities brought that special Ramadan feeling of yes, the month has begun. I called home to send my parents greetings and prayers for the month, and my heart felt full. Though I am physically far from family and friends, knowing that we are all fasting and reading Qur’an and making supplications for each other and for loved ones who have passed away makes me feel connected and close.  Because along with prayer, Ramadan feels special because of the memories we create during its days.  For me, the month brings forth memories of board game mornings after suhoor (morning meal) with my sister when we were younger, meals conducted over whispers when my brother was very little so we wouldn’t wake him, childhood stories from my dad at suhoor time that I’ve heard a million times but never tire of hearing, my grandfather starting each fast with roti and a mango that would last him throughout the day, the sound of Qur’an in the house, the sound of my dad and brother’s footsteps returning home from tarawih and cups of tea before we slept and the morning meal came in again.

I spent last Ramadan in Toronto.  My roommate was Muslim, wore the niqab and was from Saudi studying English,  and we didn’t know each other before I moved in. It was my first time spending Ramadan with someone who wasn’t my immediate family.  We didn’t have a table so we spread out a long cloth on the floor for our daily suhoor and iftar (breaking of the fast), I made very simple vegetarian curries (a month of chickpeas and spinach!) with kitchri and yogourt, and I broke my fast with fruit salad/fruit chaat and lots of yummy dates. Despite the long Toronto days and having only few hours to eat, I’ve never eaten so simply or been so satisfied with my food. My roommate and I were from very different cultures and contexts, and we shared our Ramadan rituals with one another, though we generally ate and did things that were familiar and personally meaningful to us. The experience taught us that everyone has different goals, different challenges, and different things that they are working on and praying for, and even living in the same apartment, your Ramadan will differ from one another.  It was a month of cultural learning, though not radical cultural change, and one of the nicest Ramadans I’ve ever had.

I’m hoping that this year will be a special Ramadan as well, and a month of new memories, shared experiences, and new traditions. It’s winter, so the days and nights are very cold, and the daylight hours are limited, but God willing, this Ramadan is a month full of learning and growth. This year, there are a few things I’ve been thinking about as we usher the month in.

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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.

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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