Be a Doer Not a Dreamer (On Reading the “Year of Yes” by Shonda Rhimes)

Boulders Beach, Cape Town (May 2015)

Boulders Beach, Cape Town (May 2015)

“Dreams are lovely. But they are just dreams. Fleeting, ephemeral. Pretty. But dreams do not come true just because you dream them. It’s hard work that makes things happen. It’s hard work that creates change.
Maybe you know exactly what you dream of being. Or maybe you’re paralysed because you have no idea what your passion is. The truth is, it doesn’t matter. You don’t have to know. You just have to keep moving forward. You just have to keep doing something, seizing the next opportunity, staying open to trying something new. It doesn’t have to fit your vision of the perfect job or the perfect life. Perfect is boring, and dreams are not real. Just..DO. You think, “I wish I could travel” – you sell your crappy car and buy a ticket and go to Bangkok right now. I’m serious. You say, “I want to be a writer” – guess what? A writer is someone who writes every day. Start writing. Or: You don’t have a job? Get one. ANY JOB. Don’t sit at home waiting for the magical dream opportunity. Who are you? Prince William? No. get a job. Work. Do until you can do something else.” (Shonda Rhimes, The Year of Yes)

It is scary to admit that you are struggling with something and to confront parts of yourself that you’ve always ignored. Today I attended a personal and professional development workshop about becoming more self aware and better understanding oneself as part of the Auwal Socio-Economic Institute Future Leaders Fellowship Programme and as part of the workshop, we spoke about the Johari Window, a chart with four quadrants where one axis is labelled “knowledge of ourselves” and the other axis is labelled “knowledge others have about us”. In each quadrant lies a different “self”, and where others have knowledge about us but we do not have that knowledge ourselves is our blind self, or the self that is not known to us. Where we do not have knowledge of ourselves and others do not have that knowledge either, our unknown self can be found, and in that quadrant there is unknown personal potential and potentially exciting learning and growth. In the workshop someone asked how one goes about discovering their unknown self given that that self is composed of parts of yourself that are not known by you or by others, and in response, another participant shared that to learn about themselves they found it was helpful to have as many different experiences as possible.

This idea is echoed by Shonda Rhimes book “The Year of Yes” a funny and moving book that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading over the past few days. The book feels like a long conversation over a cup of tea, in which Shonda Rhimes imparts lesson after lesson on transforming one’s life for the better. Shonda Rhimes is the creator of Grey’s Anatomy and other shows (as she notes throughout the book, she owns Thursday night) and she opens the book by admitting that sharing about herself and being exposed and vulnerable feels terrifying, and that writing this book was a very very difficult process. Because sharing is difficult and something that makes her feel uncomfortable, she pushed through the fear and discomfort and wrote the book anyway.

The book gets its title from a conversation she had with her older sister Delores in 2013 when her sister was focused on making the Thanksgiving meal and Shonda Rhimes was telling her about a series of wonderful and amazing invitations she had just received. In response, her sister asks her if she is going to accept any of her invitations and Shonda is confused she hadn’t seriously contemplated accepting any of the invitations.  But as she leaves the kitchen to tend to her baby, her sister mumbles “You never say yes to anything”, and these six words become life-changing words that are the catalyst for rich experiences, new understandings and remarkable personal growth. The words made her feel deeply uncomfortable, and after realizing that her sister is right and that she is miserable, she decides to spend an entire year not saying no to anything even if it scares her. The book is a chronicling of her experiment and it is a fantastic book. It’s conversational, honest, personal, funny and most of all inspirational because Shonda is candid about her fears and challenges and does not attempt to present herself as perfect. Hearing about how she was able to discover new things about herself while still feeling scared about new things made me feel like I too can confront things that scare me and live a richer life for it.

The book was an important personal read because I identified with Shonda Rhimes description of herself as being an introverted shy person who has never wanted to be in the public eye. As a three year old, her happiest childhood memories are playing in the kitchen pantry with canned goods imagining worlds peopled with rich characters. I too remember playing lots of “pretend games” as a child and reading and telling stories enthusiastically to my nanny when I was three. As an adult, Shonda Rhimes admits that she doesn’t do interviews and the media events she has to do as part of her network obligations make her feel ill. She realizes that in interviews she only speaks in “Athlete Talk”, where”anything human, anything honest” she keeps to herself.  And so the first yes she tackles is an interview with Jimmy Kimmel about her political drama Scandal. From there the “yeses” only increase, and though each one is difficult in its own way, with each “yes” she becomes more comfortable and willing to embrace challenging and difficult moments. Among the things she does in that year and the months that follow it is lose over a hundred and fifteen pounds, give the commencement speech at Dartmouth in front of over 10,000 people, remove toxic people from her life, be a more forgiving mother to herself, make time to play (for her this manifests as spending time with her daughters) confront passive aggressive behaviour in other people, stop being a doormat, and speak the truths necessary for her to be her most authentic self (for Rhimes this involves a difficult conversation about never wanting to get married and ending a relationship). It’s an incredible year, and though it is not at all a compehensive list here are some of my take-aways/favourite quotes from the read. (Disclaimer: I read this an an ebook on my Android tablet, and could only see the percentage of the book I had completed instead of page numbers. So none of the quotes have page numbers)

  1. It is possible to develop your weaknesses and become stronger and better at things you find difficult. With determination and courage, fear doesn’t have to stop you from living your best life. It is possible to become a more well-rounded person.
  2. In her Dartmouth speech, Shonda talks about finding a cause, and something weekly to give back to other people. I like this idea and am looking at literacy organizations this week that might be a good fit for me.
  3. It’s important to be honest and real about one’s struggles and admit that you find things difficult. Rhimes talks about how she is always asked by reporters how she manages motherhood and working life and while one response is to smile and talk about doing laundry late at night, the truth is that she has an amazing support structure and an amazing nanny named Jenny McCarthy. Shonda argues passionately that women are shamed for having help and for not mothering in ways that other people believe to be best (being judged for not making homemade treats is the example she gives) and tries to end “Mommy Wars” for herself and be open about what she finds difficult and how she works through it. Honesty is helpful for everyone, and Shonda talks about going through high school desperately trying to create Whitney Houston’s hair only to find out as an adult that Whitney Houston wore a wig. Knowing that even Whitney Houston doesn’t look like Whitney Houston would have saved her from a lot of heartache, and she makes a strong case for avoiding small talk, having real conversations and not misrepresenting your own life to others.
  4. You can be more productive and happier when you live an honest life. Shonda Rhimes talks in the book about how she hid from life and let issues fester before the “Year of Yes”, and that the complaining and regret took up a lot of mental space. As she committed to addressing her issues and confronting what she found difficult, she found that she had more free time because she got rid of the time wasted in “complaining and feeling sorry” for herself.
  5. You need to address your fears in a way that is authentic for you and allows you to be yourself. In the case of the Jimmy Kimmel interview for example, even though it’s a live show Shonda Rhimes realized that it would feel like a horrible experience for her if it was live. And so they did a taped show, something that was still scary and forced her out of her comfort zone, but didn’t cause her to stop functioning because of her emotional distress.
  6. It’s important to play as part of your self care. For Shonda Rhimes playing means being with her kids, and saying yes to playing for her meant saying yes to her “happy place” and giving herself the “permission to shift the focus of what is a priority from what is good for you to what makes you feel good.” When she made to play she was more joyful and better at writing and mothering and doing everything else that she does.
  7. Complaining is a waste of energy. In her chapter titled “Saying yes to my body” she describes the moment she realized that the seatbelt in her first-class airplane seat doesn’t fit her and how that moment triggered reflections about how and why she has become the size that she is. Her weight is upsetting not because she is striving for a specific body type but because she has kids and her joints ache and she is tired all the time. She recognizes how food is a way of hiding herself and also realizes that losing weight will mean having to give up foods that she loves and exercising, two things that she does not relish making a part of her life. What she realizes though is that she has at a yes crossroads, she either has to say yes to new health patterns or “say yes to “fatness” and buy bigger clothes, she can’t do nothing and still complain about her size. The deciding and doing is important because no health program will work unless “you decide that you are really and truly ready to do it. Meaning nothing works if you don’t actually decide that you are really truly ready to do it.”
  8. You need a team. Shonda talks in the book about her “Ride or Die” people, the people that are honest with her and wants what is best and who are sources of light in her life. As she describes it:

“It’s not merely about surrounding myself with people who treat me well. It’s also about surrounding myself with people whose self-worth, self-respect and values inspire me to elevate my own behaviour. People who requite that I stay truthful and kind and not totally crazy.”

Life is a team sport, and hearing how different people supported her along the way was a reminder to celebrate the fabulous people in my life and to strive to develop friendship that help me become the best version of myself.

9. Writing takes time and energy and dedication. This book was an testament to how much is needed of oneself in order to develop excellence. Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of “Big Magic”, the last book I read spoke about never wanting to be a mother, and Shonda Rhimes in this book speaks about recognising that between her work and her children there is no room for another person. As she describes it, there is a door, and behind the door there are wonderful things to be found, but the door is 5 miles away and you have to run towards it in order to be able to open the door. The run is procrastination and doodling and youtube videos and staring at a blank page, and the more you run, the fitter you become and the easier and faster it is to complete that five mile run. Writing takes daily practice and hearing about Shonda Rhimes dedication makes me want to be a better and more consistent writer.

10. Your writing can heal you. Shonda Rhimes speaks about how her character Cristina Yang held parts of her that she was unable to express, and said things that she was unable to say. Creating Cristina helped her understand herself and understand the world better.

Holding Multiple Colonial Histories in my Heart (Day 3 at the ASRI Future Leaders Programme)

The Struggle Continues (Constitutional Court, Johannesburg, April 2015)

The Struggle Continues (Constitutional Court, Johannesburg, April 2015)

Today was a heavy day. In the morning we visited the Constitutional Court and the Old Fort where prisoners were housed during apartheid and after lunch we visited Apartheid Museum in Gold Reef City. Over the past couple of days we’ve been learning about how law can be an instrument that enables justice and how the Constitution protects different rights, and today was a stark reminder of a time in which the law was used to exclude, punish and oppress non-whites and when there were no protected rights for the majority of South Africa’s people.

Today was my second visit to the Constitutional Court (the first time was an incredible tour that a dear friend set up for us during our wedding week that is still one of my favourite things that I’ve done in Johannesburg thus far) and my first visit to the different jails in the Old Fort Complex. It was difficult to see the different sections of the Old Fort and  to see where and how black men were jailed in solitary and group confinement, to see where white prisoners were housed (admittedly, much nicer areas) and to see the Women’s Jail. Though there are some offices in the Women’s Jail for organizations that work for gender justice, by and large the structures of the Old Fort have remained intact.

What made the tour so powerful was that we had a passionate and knowledgeable tour guide who helped us understand a bit of what the Old Fort was like for its prisoners. Whether it was listening to him and to the audio testimonials in the exhibits, or seeing the buildings or reading the displays, all of it was hard, but it was important to learn how white prisoners were treated very differently from black prisoners and the ways in which this differential treatment manifested in the prison system. Some of these ways included floggings for black prisoners and the use of carefully designed tools used to physically punish prisoners, beyond appalling sanitary conditions (for example thirty minutes was allotted for 2000 black prisoners to shower once a week, which effectively meant people could only shower every three or four months despite doing hard labour all day), daily stripping and violation of prisoners, no toilets for those in solitary confinement, latrines located close to where food was served, poor food and no treats (though at Christmas time white prisoners received a pound of pudding each). The cells of the prisoners who were kept in solitary confinement are still there, and we walked inside the cells, closed the doors and thought about how prisoners were left in their cells for twenty-three hours a day, and how solitary confinement could last from fifteen days to up to a year, with prisoners considered dangerous forced to wear chains. On the back of the doors you can see graffiti done by prisoners at the time, and seeing the cells made the injustice of the place even more tangible.

In the Women’s Jail we saw awful conditions as well and were shocked by how tiny the cells were for black women prisoners. We read stories of sexual violence and of women who asked for solitary confinement as respite from assault, heard and read stories of women who miscarried, learnt about how women did not have access to sanitary products and heard stories/saw signs about children that were born in the prison. We learnt that thousands of children were breastfed in prison. By the time we left the prison, I felt as though I couldn’t hear another story, hear of another oppressive act.

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Our Current Economic Policies Lead to High Unemployment (Day 2 at the ASRI Future Leaders Programme)

I woke up today thinking of Shonda Rhimes.  I am reading her book “The Year of Yes” as a library ebook, and at some point today – 20 something hours from now to be exact, whether I am done or not, the book will delete itself from my tablet. I am determined to finish. I peek at my book during breakfast, and  as we all eat lunch in a circle in the ASRI garden during our lunch break I sit with my tablet and read out passages to my husband. After work I rush indoors and sit in bed with pen, paper and my tablet unable to eat or chat except to read passages aloud until I am done reading. Afterwards I am exhilarated and emotionally spent from the read (Shonda is amazing, the book is fantastic and there are lots of life lessons that I need to ponder over further) and fall asleep very early in order to let my soul process what has just happened. Because of that I didn’t manage to blog properly about Day 2, but Shonda’s whole book was about saying yes to things that are scary and things that make your soul sing, and writing falls into both those categories. So before Day 3 starts, here are some quick reflections on our second day of the ASRI Future Leaders Programme.  On the whole, Day 2 was a wonderful, educational day with four different guest lectures who all further developed our knowledge of the Constitution and the impact of the law, and below are some of my (not comprehensive) take-aways from the day.

1) Our first speaker of the day was Mluleki Maronga from Section 27, “a public interest law centre that seeks to influence, develop and use the law to protect, promote and advance human rights.” Their name comes from Section 27 of the “South African Constitution which enshrines everyone’s right to health care, food, water and social security.” (Source: Section 27 Website) He was an engaging and interesting speaker, and one of the things he talked about was whether there is a difference between equality and substantive equality. There is, and we discussed how substantive equality is about bringing equality in tangible ways recognising that different groups have different levels of privilege and disadvantage. He quoted Mandela who said “We do not want bread without freedom, nor freedom without bread.” He also spoke about how it is important to know where we come from because only by understanding the location of pain can we focus our efforts on healing. Toward that end, he reminded us that South Africa comes from a history of “brutality and oppression” and that this oppression was manifest in at least three ways:

a) The Education System

  • South African had an act in 1953 called the Bantu Education Act that segregated schooling for black children, deemed the teaching of certain subjects unnecessary (for instance the teaching of math as a core subject) because the education system was designed for black students to simply take up what was seen as “their place in society”, and not designed to prepare them positions in the economy beyond what they were intended to take up.

b) Anti-black Urbanization

  • At the time of South Africa’s urbanization between 1904-1960, 80% of white people lived in cities versus only 32% of black people. It was a system of apartheid geography, and Mluleki read us a quote from the apartheid government saying “Cities are the white man’s creation. Black men may enter as long as he ministers to the white man’s needs, so long as he departs once he ceases to minster to those needs.” Aside from how that quote view black men, women are not mentioned at all and so you can see an erasure of women in the apartheid regime.

c) Land Dispossession

  • 87% of the population was on 13% of land during apartheid.

Other ways that this oppression manifested that came up in our discussion is through the economy (black people were unable to own means of production) and the health care system.

Hearing about these issues and our robust discussion of apartheid was a re-reminder that the impacts of apartheid can still be felt today and that in our own way, with the skills that we entered ASRI with and the skills we develop over the course of ASRI, it is so important that we contribute and do good work in society.

2) Our second speaker was Stuart Wilson, the Executive Director of SERI, or the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa. SERI is an non profit organization providing professional and dedicated socioeconomic rights and  assistance to individuals, communities and social movements in South Africa. If it is possible to have a crush on an organization I have one on SERI, and before the lecture when I looked up the organization I was amazed to see the range of work that they do. They do work on themes like housing and eviction, access to basic service, and political space and have a range of wonderful guides on their site on topics that range from resisting eviction to community organizing, to informal trading, rental housing and more. Stuart Wilson spoke about the contemporary moment in South Africa being characterized by fracture, and spoke about five or six of these fractures that exist in our societies today. The fracture I found the most interesting was the economic fracture, and he spoke about how since apartheid, poverty in the country has reduced only very slightly. Grants have expanded, but actual poverty has reduced very very little. We were vying for Brazil for the most unequal society in the nineties, but since then Brazil has invested a great deal in social programs and inequality in Brazil has been steadily reducing.

To learn more about fracture he gave us a book reference to look up: South Africa’s Insurgent Citizens: On Dissent and the Possibility of Politics by Julian Brown.

What was most interesting to talk about was that our economic framework is not designed to create jobs. South Africa has adopted the economic orthodoxy of Reagan and Thatcher, and despite public officials talking about high unemployment (in South Africa total unemployment is about 40%) the actual economic policies are meant to keep inflation down so that money retains its value. This is important for the very rich who have a great deal of money invested, but it does not create jobs. In fact, Margaret Thatcher was known to say that structural unmployment is a price worth paying to keep currency values up. Economists say that if inflation is below 20% (in South Africa it is well, well below that) the impact of inflation on the poor is very little, but it has a significant impact on the very rich because the value of their money decreases. When inflation is low interest is high, which makes it harder to borrow money. It makes it harder to spend money, it makes it harder to entrepreneurs to take risks, and the overall result is that high interest makes it difficult to generate economic growth. It hurts entrepeneurship and it has an effect on employment. (We also talked about low tariffs make it difficult to develop new industries, and South Africa has very very low tariffs, but that’s a conversation for another day)

This is all perhaps familiar if you took macroeconomics in school. What struck me afresh yesterday (perhaps it was the way he was explaining it because he really was a fantastic lecturer) though is that I’ve spent lots of time this year looking at immigration policies and South African visas, and the basis of  work restrictions of non South Africans (and especially spouses of South Africans) is based on the premise that there is high unemployment in the country, and so before any employer can hire a non South African, there is elaborate paperwork and steps required to prove that no other South African can do that job. And once that happens visas need to be applied for from one’s home country. To realize that the entire economic policies of the country are stifling employment is surprising, and makes these work restrictions and visa rules make even less sense than they did before. It also made me really want to strengthen my policy making skills as the public policy courses I took in my Masters and undergrad were a while ago, and knowing how to make evidence based policies seems like a good skill.

Our last two speakers were Michael Power from the African Legal Centre who spoke about working with communities and starting an NGO, and Jacob van Garderer from Lawyers from Human Rights who spoke about the work of LHR and the work of lawyers during the apartheid regime and how the law was used creatively as a tool of resistance.

 

 

 

 

Think About Character, not about Identity (Part 2, Gems of the Jan SP Bookclub)

Blue Magnolia, Graaf -Reinet, SA (November 2015)

Blue Magnolia, Graaf-Reinet, SA (November 2015)

So much to say about this month’s bookclub read. God willing, will post proper thoughts about my own reading our bookclub discussion soon, but in the meantime, gems from the book.

When the Sheikh’s students voiced fears about Islamophobic media coverage, or Western laws that they felt discriminated against Muslims, the Sheikh would warn them to be careful not to confuse group politics with piety. “Islam is not a property,” Akram once observed during a seminar. “It’s not your identity. Don’t think that if someone laughs at you, you have to explain yourself. We are more interested in defending our belonging, our identity, than in the Prophet. Don’t think about identity! Think about good character!”

A British-Indian novelist published a story slurring the Prophet Muhammad? Ignore it. Don’t issue fatwas against him or burn books in town centers or stage protest rallies. Turn away from this world and towards God. Pray. Do dawa–call people to Islam. “If people write books against your Prophet, there are many ways to solve the problem!  The best way is to pray for these people. Write some books yourself.”  Some cartoonist in Denmark sketched some ugly little pictures insulting the Prophet? Let it go; go towards God instead. “Someone makes a cartoon, and we protest. We make protest, and we think we’re doing what we’re supposed to do!” They’re not. Where is it in the book of Allah that we ‘protest’? Is this business of ‘protest’ anywhere in the Qur’an or the Prophet’s sunna?”

Akram urged his students to look at the Prophet and his Companions. Faced with a silly sketch, or a nasty novel, would they have demonstrated? “Lets think, really.” he urged. “No matter how much the Prophet had been abused by people who opposed him, did he protest? Did he burn their houses? Did he harm them? No! He went to do dawa. When he wanted to persuade the people in Mecca to become Muslim, he would go to someone’s house seventy times! He would have patience!”

Still in class after class, students asked how Muslims can defend Islam from slurs against it,

“Musk smells sweet on its own,” Akram advised, quoting a Persian proverb. “You don’t need a perfume seller to tell you of its sweetness.” ” ~ Carla Power, If the Oceans Were Ink

A Cup of Tea Depends on the Entire Universe (Gems from the SP Jan BookClub)

 

Every cup of tea depends on the entire universe (Toronto 2014)

In Sumaiya and her sisters, I saw none of the vague dissatisfaction I’d seen flourish around me – indeed, in me, growing up. As a member of the American middle class, I was raised in a nation of strivers, a nation founded on the right to pursue happiness. Our discontent was productive. It got things done. The drive to do better propelled through graduate school and up career ladders. Through spin classes and salary negotiations. A world of infinite favours didn’t yield reliable results. My secularist’s  do-it-yourself existence did not get me into the habit of being grateful for date palms, fragrant herbs and seas.

The Sheikh’s sense of gratitude was altogether more muscular, perhaps because it had somewhere to go. His whole consciousness of God as a creator took gratitude to a  whole new level, cosmic in scope and near-constant in presence. Akram was a man who could find God in the act of making a cup of tea. “Everyone says, ‘Any child could make a cup of tea,'” he said. ” But every cup of tea depends on the whole universe being there. For the tea to exist it needs the sun and the moon. It needs the earth to be there. He made water, He made the container to hold it, He made the leaves to grow. When we were born, everything was there, just waiting for us. Every cup of tea depends on the whole universe.” I couldn’t decide whether this logic was oppressive or inspiring. I rather thought it was both, like the satisfying ache of stretching after a session hunched over a laptop.

Studying with a man who saw everything from tea leaves to algebra as gifts from God, I was struck by a new seam of gratitude running through me. I’d emerge from a lesson not with faith, but with what I suppose a fashionable guru would call mindfulness. On the bus ride home, particularly when the sun lit up the green hills beside the highway, I found myself, for a second, seeing them as the Sheikh might: not as something pretty,or as expensive real estate, or as the space between me and London, but as a connection to something larger. There were moments, while I was reading a sura, or carting the kids to school, or chopping an onion, that I sensed what this radical gratitude must feel like: a constant reminder that you’re alive, but just for now. ~ If the Oceans Were Ink

 

Marriage is Walking Together (On Reading the Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry)

Marriage is Walking Together (Kirstenbosch Gardens, Cape Town, May 2015)

Marriage is Walking Together (Kirstenbosch Gardens, Cape Town, May 2015)

You’d think walking should be the simplest thing,’ she said at last. ‘ Just a question of putting one foot in front of the other. But it never ceases to amaze me how difficult the things that are supposed to be instinctive really are.’
She wet her lower lip with her tongue, waiting for more words.
‘Eating,’ she said at last. That’s another one. Some people have real difficulties with that one. Talking too. Even loving. They can all be difficult.’ (The Unlikely Journey of Harold Fry, p.52)

When I am upset, walking makes me feel better. During the three years I lived in Toronto I always lived downtown, and with the well-lit streets, the heavy pedestrian traffic, and the wide pavements, I always felt comfortable enough to walk. Toronto is a city meant for walking, and walking and public transit were how I moved about the city. Even in the evening when the temperatures were cold, when my thoughts felt knotted or I had had an argument, walking would help me feel sorted again. Joburg is not a very walkable city though, and while it is possible to go somewhere to walk (a field near the gym, or a specific spot to walk for instance) it is not the same as putting your shoes on and walking to where you need to go. I knew I missed it, but hadn’t realized how much until this week. I’m in the Western Cape and it has been glorious to walk for hours on the beach each morning and to be surrounded by ocean, mountains, greenery and white sand without a single soul about. Surrounded by such majesty, I have felt like a tiny speck in the universe, and the things that worry me and preoccupy my thoughts in Joburg have melted away.

Today when I got tired of walking, I sat on the beach, listened to the sound of churning, foaming waves and read a delightful book called “The  Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry”, about walking and marriage and heartbreak and being human. It was the perfect accompaniment to my morning of movement. The book is about a sixty-five year old man named Harold who has been married to his wife Maureen for the last forty-seven years, and begins with Harold and Maureen having breakfast and Maureen reprimanding Harold about jam. While eating his breakfast, Harold receives a letter from a woman named Queenie Hennessy who worked with Harold twenty years previously, and whom he hasn’t heard from since. She is dying from cancer and has written to say goodbye. Harold writes her a note in response, goes to the mailbox to post it, and passing the postbox, keeps on going. He doesn’t stop, and when he’s hungry he stops at a garage for a burger where he meets a girl who inspires him to walk to Queenie in Berwick – Upon – Tweed to help Queenie live. Despite the fact that that is not how cancer works, and that the distance is more than 500 miles, Harold keeps going. He isn’t fit, he doesn’t have the right shoes (he is wearing yachting shoes), or a change of clothes, or a mobile phone, or even a bag for that matter (he only has a plastic bag), but still, Harold presses on. His chances of success are unlikely and he should go home, but he doesn’t. His wife Maureen is startled, and then irritated, and then misses him dreadfully, and this book is about his journey and how it changes him, those closest to him and in turn changes the world. It is a marvellous, marvellous read, and after I was done I sat in silence, the book and characters still with me, and tried to absorb the lessons of the book into my being. Here are some of the things that I took away from the read.

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On Starting Again and Reading “After You” by Jojo Moyes

“Only one person can give you a purpose” ~ (After You, Jojo Moyes, p.300)

 

Witpoortjie waterfall , Walter Sisulu National Botanical Gardens (Joburg, Sept 2015)

Witpoortjie Waterfall, Walter Sisulu National Botanical Gardens (Joburg, Sept 2015)

On a long distance flight a few years ago, I started and finished “Me Before You” by Jojo Moyes, a story about Louisa Clark, age 26, who takes a job as a carer for Will Traynor, age 35, who is a quadriplegic. Louisa has lived in the same town her whole life, has few friends, and she has done and experienced very little. Before his accident, Will lived a full life with work and friends and adventure and passion, and when Louisa meets him, he is an angry and difficult patient. They come from different worlds, but they help each other discover life. In particular, Will helps expand Louisa’s horizons. He introduces her to new experiences, widens her ambitions, and helps her to heal after traumatic events in her past. He teaches her to expect more of herself and of her life.

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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 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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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