An Adventure in Mastering Yourself Part Two: Wherever You Go, There You Are

Greetings friends! Continuing my reflections on what year one of my masters has taught me ( post one is here), a key lesson of this year has been that if you want to create change, you need a realistic map of how to get there.

It’s taken a while to learn this. Before I moved, I wondered about where and with whom I was going to live, what classes I was going to take, the number of books I could possibly fit into my suitcase, Toronto’s weather, whether I would make any friends, what life would be like without daily sightings of mountains.. you name it, it was on the radar of things that I thought and prayed about every day. In the midst of  my uncertainty and questions, I saw a Bollywood film that I felt was the universe speaking to me through celluloid, and it seemed like song sequences in the film that showed the heroine initially nervous to explore her city but fifteen minutes later happily cooking, exploring new neighbourhoods and fulfilling her writerly dreams, could possibly describe my life in Toronto. Though nervous, I too would become Super Shagufta, a person who easily mastered all the things I previously found difficult.

And while in many ways that’s been true, because this year has been the loveliest and most interesting year I’ve ever had, as a principle it doesn’t work.Recently I was at a two day course about Islamic law as it pertains to daily living, and the instructor pointed out near the end of the class that simply knowing something is a good thing to do or an area you need improvement is not sufficient to actually bring that change about. At the time he was speaking about keeping in touch with your extended family and friends, and he noted that if you weren’t very good at keeping in touch before, you wouldn’t walk away from the class with new habits unless you made a plan about how to incorporate those goals into your day. In any area of your life, once you’ve identified areas that need work, what is necessary is to make a plan about how you’re going to implement those changes. (So in the example above, he suggested making a plan of all the people you want to keep in contact with that you haven’t spoken to in a while, and then scheduling weekly calls into your calendar to end that distance).

Super simple lesson, but his words really resonated. At the beginning of each term I made ambitious lists of all the things that I find difficult, (whether making time for the gym, being less introverted or mustering up more enthusiasm for the kitchen) and then in my spare time I naturally gravitated to things that I love, whether public lectures, or theatre, or reading or long chats over tea, and didn’t really think about how things I didn’t naturally like would become part of the fabric of my life. Because the list was so long it was overwhelming, but making an action plan and picking one or two priorities at a time would have made more sense.

Is Resilience Just a First World Concept?

While you were doing the World Cafe, people were marching in Tahrir Square. And they aren’t protesting because Mubarak is a bad leader, that is beside the point, they are protesting because people in that country didn’t think about  the issues you are thinking about.  Back when the protestors were two years old, people in that country didn’t think about what they would grow up and do, and this is what happens when young men have nothing to do. So that’s why you see protests across the Middle East right now.”~ Craig Applegath, CAPS-ACEAU.

The final keynote speaker said these words a few minutes before the conclusion of the Canadian Association of Planning Students annual conference, and I’m still surprised it happened. Given the fact that many countries ( the US etc) have supported the Egyptian dictatorship for so many years and have been so timid in supporting the Egyptian people during the recent events, this is a simply inaccurate and inappropriate way to describe what has been going on.

More than it just being a crazy thing to say though, I mention the example of Egypt because it perfectly describes a wider problem with the CAPS conference this year. The discussion of resilience was incredibly simplistic.

I say this because in March 2010 I attended the 2nd Annual UBC School of Community and Regional Planning Symposium about Planning for Resilience, and over the course of an amazing two days, the conference showcased sessions about diverse topics ranging from planning for housing in Mumbai, to the relationship between social media and planning and resilience, to disaster management in North Vancouver, to just so so much more. Before the conference we were sent required readings that related to the keynote speakers, and Mark Holland sent us his Resilient Cities and Regenerative Regions Manifesto.  It was and still is, one of the most powerful things I’ve ever read. I blogged about a few key points here on Terry last year, but really the whole Manifesto is well worth a careful reading.

In Mark Holland’s work, his principles about the relationship between us and other places include:

  • “Everything is connected and that the dispassionate karma of the earth offers a reaction for every one of our actions;
  • That we must transform our cities from a parasitic to a symbiotic relationship with our all other species in the world;
  • That the scale of change we need can only be realized when we work together to coauthor a future that fits us all;
  • .. because there is no “social out there” any more than there is an ecological “out there”,  we must confront our fears and work to heal those who have been hurt or have hurt us ‐ for pain is a virus that is passed on until it is confronted and healed – and while in action, it hurts all species.

and later on in the Manifesto it says:

I will open to the pain that I cause in the world through my ignorance and fear and the distance I seem to have from my internal dignity and nobility, and I will feel the pain, shock and injustice of participating in the death of so many, if only by accident – and then I will move past that grief to the restless serenity of my responsibility – to my planet, to my community, to my family, and to myself;”

The key point: We are a source of harm and have a responsibility to rectify our actions because we are all connected. This idea is clearly evident throughout the whole document which emphasizes that while yes we must focus on building healthy communities, this can only happen when we are engaged and committed to building resilience everywhere.

At CAPS however, Thomas Homer Dixon noted in his presentation that it is very likely that Israel will invade Iran in the next five years, and that would cause disturbances in our energy supply, so we need to be ready for that. In other parts of his presentation he spoke about the need to de-couple and reduce energy dependency, and it seemed as thoug attacks in other places ok is long as long as we aren’t affected. Surely we don’t care about populations merely when our own survival is threatened.

So while withstanding shocks was spoken about, thinking deeply about reducing the occurrence of human produced shocks in the first place was not.  This is a shame because if we are concerned about fluctuations in access to oil from the Middle East due to conflict, our discussion is incomplete if we don’t talk about reducing conflict in the first place. It is a bit like trying to give a patient a pill for a fever, without thinking holistically about what is making the body sick in the first place.

It reminded me of the work of Scott McMurray, (one of the keynote speakers who actually was phenomenal), who said:

“Interdisciplinary work helps us avoid what Kenneth Burke called “trained incapacity,” which is a kind of blindness associated with being deep but not very wide. Despite the risks, we should step outside of the metaphors and narratives that form our intellectual safe zones as often as we can”.

And as much as I enjoyed meeting cool people, the experience of presenting my research, the humour and warmth of the Professional Panel, and the dynamic mobile tours, sadly, the conference discussion of resilience by a few of the keynote speakers did feel lacking. We all know energy is a problem, we all know climate changing is happening and that we need to think about food, but you’re only saying something  innovative and meaningful when we think about the system, the planet as a whole.

To illustrate, what wasn’t discussed was that as first world industrialized countries  we actively produce shocks in other places, and a real difference exists between places in terms of their capacity to plan for resilience.  A resilient city we were told, has “sustainable energy flows, maximizes flexibility, is about local self sufficiency, reduces redundancy of systems while still ensuring diversity of systems, and has a decentralized system (in addition to one more attribute related to the environment). On an international scale though, there are real impediments to places implementing these characteristics; foreign policy gets in the way. One of the panel presenters responded to a question about planning in Africa and noted that in Durban they got tired of what the World Bank was saying their cities had to look like, and so they created their own plan in response. Think of the capacity of places like Palestine, Pakistan, Iraq etc etc to do the same.  The whole Gaza flotilla crisis was about enabling basic supplies to enter Palestine in order to reduce the fragility of the Palestinian people and ensure basic human rights. The policies of our governments often create barriers for other nations to achieve resiliency.

Finally, we never spoke about the impact our work to become more resilient will have on the rest of the world. As we try to revitalize local manufacturing and increase local food production, what does that mean for other places? Wouldn’t that create ripple effects and create external shocks?  That doesn’t mean resilience planning isn’t important, but we do need to understand the wider picture.

In sum, without a description of power, the model is not helpful at best, and at most is scarily preservationist. The result is a world with resilient pockets and non resilient pockets, which is perhaps a recipe for an overall non resilient world, a world that is constantly generating shocks that we will be forced to respond to.

Great to meet today.

It is day 2 at CAPS-ACEAU in Waterloo, and I’m thoroughly enjoying my time at the conference. I gave a talk this morning titled “Faith in the City” about land use conflicts around the building of mosques, and what these conflicts mean for urban planning as a whole. If you were there, I hope you liked it! Once I’m back in Toronto, I’ll post resources that I mentioned during the talk as well as a copy of the talk hopefully, so do check back in a couple of days..probably on Sunday.

Before a Trip, a Bit Of Alain de Botton is Most Necessary

It is always a treat to open a Alain de Botton book at random and see what it has to say. Today was no different.

At the end of hours of train-dreaming, we may feel we have been returned to ourselves – that is brought back into contact with emotions and ideas of importance to us. It is not necessarily at home that we encounter our true selves. The furniture insists that we cannot change because it does not; the domestic setting keeps us tethered to the person we are in ordinary life, but who may not be who we essentially are.

~Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel.

The Distance is Far, But our Hearts are Near

It is strange to be presentation prepping and paper writing when there is a major revolution going on across the world.  I feel like we should stop what we’re doing and have a conversation about what this means for planning, for democracy, for the world, for ourselves, for our friends and neighbours.  Two days ago a dear friend sent me the video clip below and while I was watching it my throat had a lump and tears were close by, but even now, my heart is full with the thought of how the love of your first home is a deep bond that stays with you always.   (Alas, much to say, but also much to do, so today this must be a short note).

Till next time.

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.

The Magic of a Library Card

A couple of weeks ago, I disconnected my Facebook account to carve out space in my day to read more. Not that reading online isn’t lovely (I hope you like this blog for instance) but time is finite, and I agree with Farhan Thawar‘s advice at the recent Nspire Discovery Series “The Modern Tools of Creation”  that it is important to prioritise your reading, so “if something is temporal, unless it’s the Harvard Business Review, just stop reading it and do something else”. He explained what he meant by saying “my own reading hierarchy is books>mags>blogs>twitter, and I always have a book with me. If you check my bag at any point, even tonight, you would find one there.”

And while I still love Twitter,  I’ve been taken aback by the difference more books and less social media has made to my happiness level. When I first moved to Toronto, I couldn’t get a library card right away because I didn’t have any paper bills yet, and then when I finally started receiving mail, I was so swamped with actual school reading and work that I just never made it out to the University of Toronto libraries or a Toronto Public Library branch to discover new book friends. But this all changed with the new semester, and in the past couple of weeks I’ve read two lovely books. I’m amazed at how this simple addition has made such a huge difference to daily joy, and my ability to be critical of myself and aware of my own shortcomings while still being kind and hopeful about progress on things I find difficult.

Continue reading

Difference is a Good Thing (A Peek into my Non-Family Household)

We had a discussion at home the other day about whether or not we choose our friends. I was convinced we do, but afterwards realised that the Roommate was right. We don’t really choose them, it’s more that life itself chooses our friends for us. At least that’s how it’s always worked for me. In nearly all the people who I consider close and dear, our meeting is an unusual story, and extraordinary timing and coincidence (being in a particular place on a particular day for instance) played a role in how we became important parts of each other’s lives.

The Roommate and I are no different. In the weeks leading to my departure for Toronto, I spent huge amounts of time on Craigslist and and Kijji and Padmapper and all sorts of other apartment hunting sites trying to find a place that I liked enough to commit to. For the most part, listings would read: “Most AMAZING apartment ever! Beautiful, sun filled, spacious, and an incredible deal! Close to everything, food, transit, the city, the university etc”. And then I would actually look at pictures, and it would invariably be a small dark apartment with an unpleasant colour of walls, and some dude’s lumpy mattress in the middle of the room. After a while, I could no longer distinguish one listing from another, time was ticking by and I was really no closer to finding a place.

Continue reading

A City is a Lot of People

When I see people in the hallway, at the grocery store, on the subway, walking downtown late at night or in any other space in which we see strangers, I wonder about them. I wonder where they live, where they work and what their hopes and ambitions are. I wonder whether they live with people they love, whether they’ve always lived in Toronto, and I imagine their challenges and their joys and disappointments. Yesterday after my night class I had one such moment when I turned to pick up my bags at the grocery store, and the coherence of the purchases of the man behind me caught my eye. A tiny package of Vector cereal. Four bright yellow bananas wrapped in plastic. Two firm red tomatoes. An apple. Sometimes it is something as simple as someone’s shopping purchases that gives clues to who they are, and the combination of firmly deciding to Eat Healthy but not stocking up on groceries left me curious to know more.

More than individual stories though, I wonder how I could ever take part in planning for a city without knowing about its heart and soul.

Continue reading