Thirteen Reflections On Marriage

The foundation of love is prayer (April 2015)

The foundation of love is prayer (April 2015)

Married in Johannesburg. Three years ago if you told me that that sentence would relate to me, I wouldn’t have believed you.  I met my husband two years ago, and though it’s hard to believe sometimes, by the Grace of God, we’ve been married for almost a year and a half now.

Most tellings of love stories stop with the words “and then they lived happily ever after” but in real life (vs reel life) it takes time to figure out what being married looks like and to learn how to share a life. This knowledge requires time, patience and the help of others. Today I found a draft post I wrote about marriage around the time of our one year anniversary, and thought as a means of self-reminding it would be helpful to post some of the things I’ve learned and continue to re-learn every day about marriage. 

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On the Dangers of Being an Expat

When you move to South Africa, it is easy to constantly compare South Africa with your old home, and to moan about being separated from North American (insert: where you used to live) comforts. Your conversations with yourself and others can easily revolve around the challenges of slow internet, your fears about crime, the stark inequality in the country, the lack of walkable neighbourhoods, the car dependency, the painful bureaucracy. If your attitude is one of continual comparing and contrasting, there is no lack of negative topics that can and will occupy your thoughts.

The danger in such a lens however, is that instead of observing and learning from the place in which you now live, you allow your comforts and discomforts to become the focus of your reflections. Instead of thinking about ways to contribute, you seek to replicate or better your life in your old home and to find spaces that make you comfortable. As a result, the beauty, character, soul, heartbreaks, and stories of your new home remain invisible to you. Your inward focus makes you a poor traveler because the history of the place and the context of the gaps and differences you notice are not as important to you than the differences you mourn.

The danger in having such singular vision is that if your time in a new place is a temporary experience, you may leave your expat experience unchanged by your travels. If your move is a more permanent one, you may never full settle into the curves of your new life.

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On Learning Through Stories and Reading “Us” by David Nicholls

V & A Waterfront, Cape Town, South Africa

Thinking about the distance to Canada, V & A Waterfront, Cape Town, South Africa

Seriously Planning has always been a reflection of my life and experiences. Over the past few years the blog has helped me think through questions of identity, faith, urbanism and personal growth as I’ve lived in both Toronto and Vancouver for graduate school, work opportunities, and to be closer to my family. Recently I’ve been thinking about/have been curious about how the blog will change over the next year, because in late April 2015 I got married (and moved) to Joburg, the city of my best friend. We’re both Canadian, but my husband is South African as well, and our beautiful, multi-day wedding with family, friends, prayer, laughter, food and gratitude are days and moments of memories that I will hold in my heart for a long time to come.

As we’ve joined our lives together in the weeks and days since the wedding, I’ve been reading a book that I picked up in London on my way to Joburg called “Us” by David Nicholls. It’s a wonderful, touching, tender, moving book, with complex characters, humour, suspense and just so much heart, and it’s been the perfect backdrop to the beginning of our shared path. We’ve both been thinking a lot about what it means to partner, to move across the world to another country, city, culture and community, to transition and to blend our individual histories, backgrounds and experiences together to God willing, make a culture of our own, and reading this book has been a wonderful way for me to process my own thoughts. Continue reading

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

The Last Gift By Abdul Razak Gurnah

London, 2010.

One of the joys of reading is finding a piece of yourself in the pages of a book and feeling like the world is a bit smaller because someone has understood and put into words the way you feel.  Recently I read Abdul Razak Gurnah’s book “The Last Gift” and it was a read that was packed with such moments.

The book is about a couple named Abbas and Maryam who have been married for  thirty years and their two children Jamal and Anna. Jamal is doing his PhD in migration, Maryam is frustrated and uncertain about her long term relationship and the four of them are a family who know little about each other’s lives. When Abbas suffers from a diabetic crisis and a stroke at the beginning of the book however, the stories and secrets of their family begin to emerge.

More than simply an interesting novel, it is a fascinating and thoughtful read that addresses themes of identity, immigration, belonging, family, relationships, duty and love. Though we may not have deep secrets we’ve all had that feeling of realising that there is much we don’t know about those we love, and in its juxtaposition of a family oblivious to the thoughts and history of one another, and observations about what it means to belong and to feel foreign in a place more generally, this book makes you think deeply about how you define the word home, and the cruelty and harshness we often show to those we care about the most.

In addition to asking its reader to think about what it means to be a family, it asks the reader to think about the privilege in our own lives. It points out the conversations we may enter not considering the assumptions we are making about the lives of others or the privilege involved when we expect others to answer our very personal questions.

Below, some of my favourite, most memorable passages from the book.

On Learning

There was a library, with hundreds of books that he could take home to read if he wished. It was like all his schooling, until then had taken place in a small room, a small empty shut away room. Then someone had opened the door and he found out that the room was a tiny little cell in a huge building. (p.128)

On Knowledge and Adulthood..

He felt that he was at an important moment in his life although he was not sure of the source of this feeling. Perhaps it was a sense of impeding decisions, that for the first time in his life he would be able to choose what he would do with himself. He considered this and decided that he did not think it was that. Perhaps it was to do with approaching the end of his PhD, a sense of completing a job and it was this which made him feel grown up, an adult, an agent in the world. He did feel that sense but that was a plodder’s delight, satisfaction at (nearly) getting a job done, not any expectation of having arived at transforming knowledge. (p.85)

On epistemologies..

It was what he studied, migration trends and policies in the European Union. He could describe the patterns and provide the historical context, locate this wave from the Maghreb and its destination and that one from Zimbabwe and how it dispersed. He could construct tables and draw graphs, yet he knew that each one of those dots on his chart had a story that the graphs could not illustrate. He knew that from his Ba, and he knew that from the faces that he saw in the streets, and from the silent spaces in the reports he read. He knew that it was a clutter of ambition and fear and desperation and incomprehension that brought people so far and enabled them to put up with so much. (p.86)

On Stereotypes and Privilege

“They were all looking at her, waiting for her to speak, to tell them what her real nation was. She wished she could get up and leave, and walk quickly to the train station and travel to wherever her real nation was. She wished she had more panache, and knew how to charm people she did not like.” (p.116)

On War and Citizenship..

“They took no notice of those who marched, or of others who didn’t march but raised their objections in other ways, and went right ahead with their war. It made Jamal wonder what it meant to be a citizen: how millions of them listened to what they were told, and thought about it and were not persuaded, how so many people, all over the world, spoke their reluctance and outrage and disagreement, and yet how all of this made no difference. ” (p.126)

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)

How do You Pick a City?

What characteristics do you value in the city in which you live? My trip to Vancouver is coming to a close, and my heart actually hurts at the thought of leaving. I’ve never taken it so hard before, and I think part of the reason for my sadness is that in the gap since I’ve last been in the city, I’ve forgotten, or at least the memory has become fainter – of what its like to live with others and live in this city of beauty. Toronto has its own charm, and in this episode of the podcast (click here to listen), I’m reflecting on the differences between Vancouver and Toronto, and whether after the loveliness of living with others, living on one’s own is something to be avoided for the health of one’s heart. It’s a question I need to explore over the next semester hopefully.

For yourself though, what qualities do you value in a city?

Wherever You Are, Be There. (Moving Advice Part 1)

“What the caterpillar calls the end, the rest of the world calls a butterfly.”~- Lao Tzu

I’m moving this week, and the sheer amount that remains to be done before I leave is making me feel physically ill, and terribly homesick. The best antidote would be a strong cup of tea and Marie biscuits with my Dad, but in lieu of that, I need to write and pray to calm down.

My move last year happened during Ramadan as well, a time when I stressed about which books I should take with me and thought a lot about Robert Frost’s line that “knowing how way leads on to way/I doubted if I should ever come back”, because I didn’t like the scenario he presented.

It’s not that I wanted to stay home; I was excited about Toronto and all the learning and growth the city would bring, but it upset me to think how places and people change over time, and that coming back to Vancouver in the future would likely be very different. For a long time, my concern that the city, the people and I all would change (and indeed I discovered in my first few visits all those things happened) meant I spent a lot of time in first year “looking down one (path) as far as a I could/To where it bent in the undergrowth” trying to understand if urban planning was right for me.

Right now I’m leaving my downtown neighbourhood, and I feel very sentimental about the nearby coffeeshops, our beautiful morning walks, leaving the cosiness of the apartment, and saying goodbye to all the other things that have become so beloved in the past twelve months.

Part of the reason I find change challenging is that I’ve always made very big decisions very quickly without a proper understanding of what they mean. It’s not the decision making method that needs work, but when you make choices without a full knowledge of what it is you’re committing to, you eventually reach a point where you go through a process of analysis and ask yourself: now that I understand this more fully, is this still a good choice? The danger though is to feel unsatisfied with your answers because constant uncertainty prevents you from participating fully in your own life.

The year before I graduated from undergrad I attended the Political Science convocation as a member the faculty procession (ah the joys of student government!). In the ceremony, Professor Toope, the president of UBC said:

“Realizing that life is a gift comes with the corollary feeling that the gift should not be hoarded. It comes with the feeling of wanting to give oneself away to worthy work, in marriage, in love, to God. And it comes with the question: is this person, this work, this nation worthy of the gifts I have to give?”

Which is not to say I have tremendous gifts to share, but the questions are crucial, and since that year I’ve often thought about Professor Toope’s words. Grad school though has taught me that the answers to these questions do not come through sitting and thinking, they can only emerge when you’re fully engaged in meaningful work and experiences. So to myself, on the beginning of exciting and challenging new chapters, my advice is to be gentle and stay rooted while the answers to these questions unfold. Stay committed and present in your choices. Commit to whatever you’re doing. If you live in a city, live there fully for as long as you are meant to be there. Don’t suffer from paralysis by analysis. If you’re working a job, be there fully during the workday. There may be multiple things going on in your life, but think about them when you are done with your work. Focus on striving for excellence. If you are studying, study with all your heart. If you’re trying to be a person of religious practice, practice and don’t waver.  Don’t shuffle off to your prayers.  Muster up energy and you’ll be able to bring more energy to what you do. Be present and there in everything you do.

I finally understand what friends were telling me last year, that it’s critical to decide who and what you want to be, what you want your life to be about, and then make decisions to get you there.  And some things are mutually exclusive options, you can’t have everything, so decisions are unavoidable. To not decide is a decision that doesn’t move you forward or allow you to be where you are.

No Matter What the Weather Is, It’ll Always Change

I haven’t been well for the past few weeks, and instead of being a focused paper-writing machine, I’ve barely been able to stay awake. The few hours each day I haven’t been asleep have been filled with sneezing and coughing and trying to keep my fever down. It’s been awful to have such little control over my consciousness and health, and instead of bright eyes and a smile, to see a pale, exhausted person whenever I catch sight of my reflection.

The result has been much resolution- making to be a kinder, gentler and more grateful person. It’s been a negotiation of sorts. If I can only stay awake I say in my waking moments, I will refrain from complaining, I will be less impatient, I will cherish small moments, and I will focus on growing and learning as much as I can.

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