We Dismantle Stereotypes through Stories

The beauty of (local) cultural production. (The Met, NYC, Oct 2014)

The beauty of (local) cultural production. (The Met, NYC, Oct 2014)

I love discovering cities and places through stories, and I’d like to learn more about places outside North America through my film and reading choices this year. A dear friend gifted me Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s short story collection The Thing Around Your Neck last week, yesterday I watched Riaad Moosa’s film Material (the subject of today’s audio story) set in Joburg, South Africa, and in the months to come, I’m hoping to tackle some of the books on this list by The Guardian of the Ten Best City Books of 2014.

What are your favourite books and films that have helped you discover new (or old) places? I’d love to hear your suggestions.

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

Toronto 2.0 (On Stories, Faith and Cities)

Warm your heart.

Warm your heart.

About four years ago, I ran a storytelling program called Terry Tales. Before it began, I imagined a “Moth-style” event where from the very first event, people would enthusiastically tell stories about their lives to a group of strangers.

What I discovered instead is that it takes time and confidence to realize that you have a story and experience to share. Instead of providing a space for performances, our events were about a circle of chairs, an open room, and tea and cookies to break the ice. The conversation was intimate, unexpected and dynamic, and participants ranged from first year students, to PhD candidates to recent alumni/young professionals in the wider community. Every event was different because the participants grew each time, we blogged about the conversation afterwards, and many participants shared with us how important these bi-monthly gatherings became to them.

I stopped holding these events when I moved to Toronto for grad school, but Terry Tales taught me about the importance of spaces of community and the power of stories.  Whenever I’ve moved in the past, whether it was to Toronto four years, or to Vancouver two years ago, or most recently, back to Toronto this March, it’s been important to me to find non-alcoholic centric spaces for discussion, and to find others who were striving to grow spiritually, develop strong family relations, make deep community contributions, create/appreciate heart-nourishing art, live healthily, and protect the planet. So much of the time, the conversations I have about faith are from the standpoint of explaining oneself, and so its always been important to also find people with whom to have proactive, positive conversations that widen and deepen my understanding of what it means to live faithfully in the world. The further I get from my undergraduate experience, the more questions I have, and the richer these conversations become.

Now that I’m back in Toronto, I’d like to create a space for conversation on a regular basis. In many ways coming back to Toronto has been like moving to a new city altogether, and over the past couple of weeks I’ve been spending a lot of time listening and learning through one on one chats and large group settings. In large groups it’s been beautiful (for example) to witness the passionate debate at Canada Reads about how we understand difference, belonging, colonialism and marginalization in Canada today, to learn about the NFB documentary Highrise about the experience of living vertically in Toronto today, to participate in a Muslim Chaplaincy discussion about how people with disabilities experience inaccessible mosques, and to hear beautiful expressions from students of how faith and art connect, among other experiences.  In small settings, it’s been wonderful to exchange stories and perspectives over long chats and multiple cups of coffee.

Both encounters have been a reminder that that this is a city of countless stories, and telling and hearing our stories matter. Sharing one’s experience with others can be an act of discovery and identity formation, and for listeners, stories can act as both an entryway to unfamiliar perspectives and experiences and a bridge to discovering others with experiences similar to your own. In this spirit, Seriously Planning will, God-willing, offer programs on a regular basis on storytelling, books, dialogue and reflection.

For March, here are our upcoming events:

March 21st: Seriously Planning BookClub On “Amusing Ourselves to Death.”

March 24th: Seriously Planning Stories

For either these events, please email seriously (dot) planning (at) gmail.com (or RSVP on the FB event page) to confirm your attendance. Hope to meet you soon!

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)

This is the Century for City-Lovers (An Evening Watching Urbanized with Gary Hustwit)

Going to a Gary Hustwit film without having seen Helvetica or Objectified makes you a minority, but when I heard Gary was in town doing a special (free!) screening of his new film Urbanized at the Design our Tomorrow conference, I just couldn’t miss the chance to watch the film with the directors commentary.  And the film did not disappoint. The film began with the voice of Ricky Burdett, the amazing director of the LSE Cities program, and continued with a discussion of Jane Jacobs, Robert Moses, the Garden City and others familiar characters to the urban conversation. Because Ricky Burdett was in Toronto a couple of weeks ago for the Big City Big Ideas series, and Jane Jacobs is constantly discussed in planning classes, the initial content of the film was familiar, but the film as a whole gave me a lot of information I want to dig into deeper.  It’s rare for us to learn about cities outside of Toronto in planning school, but Urbanized’s tour of New York, Brasilia, Copenhagen, Bogota, (the globe really!) left me with a hunger to travel more and discover other places, and to learn more about fascinating practitioners like Edgar Pieterse and Jan Gehl. For those who couldn’t make the event, here are some selections from my notes.

On getting into films

I just wanted to see a film about fonts. I hadn’t made films before that. It’s a good cue, if something you want to see doesn’t exist, that’s a good cue to go out and do it yourself. I hadn’t made films before that. Then I made Objectified and now Urbanized. Our first question was how to see cities around the world in 85 minutes. And the answer is that we looked at issues that every city faced, and talked about projects that addressed those issues. The film has a loose structure, and less structure means that as a viewer, you have to think and figure things out. Don’t be afraid to do that, to let users (if you want to think about things from a design perspective) to think things over and figure things out.

On engagement

Need to involved people who systematically live realities of a place to figure out the most strategic way to respond. Putting stickers on window (referencing a project discussed in the film) and inviting people to participate is such a simple idea, but it can be easier sometimes to reach out to the whole world than our own neighbourhood. The stickers on the windows ask people who aren’t normally asked and might not show up to a community meeting,want they want in their neighbourhood.

What projects that didn’t make it into the film?

Parking Day  is one example. It started in San Francisco, and now happens in cities across the world, and it was a project where people put money in parking meters and then had that parking space for a period of time, and set up things in what was then their space.  I love DIY citizenship. Instead of  focusing on spectacle and trying to attract people, if cities just spent that time on liveability, they would get somewhere.

What was your process making the film?

I spent six months talking to people, reading a ton of books, attending conferences, and doing things like that before I started filming anything. It’s a step by step process. You meet one person who says you simply must meet “so and so” and it moves from there.

Advice to Students

I was talking to someone who mentioned that out of a class of 200 people, only two got jobs. And for me, that’s a wonderful opportunity. That’s 298 people who have an opportunity to start their own projects and create their own thing. That sounds like a really great opportunity especially with the ability the web has of showing your work to other people. Don’t wait for a big company to hire you, get together and do projects.

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 Viewit.ca 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.

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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.

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