What If We All Got Along?(Take-Aways from What If at U of T)

Every month Hart House hosts a different What If conversation, an event that can be best described as an opportunity to hear eloquent, interesting speakers discussing a question that warrants further reflection. This month the question was “What If we all got along?” and the discussion panel featured Nouman Ashraf, a Research Fellow at the Desautels Centre for Integrative Thinking (and former Director of U of T’s Anti-Racism and Cultural Diversity Office) and Corey Scott, the VP External for UTSU, two highly articulate, thoughtful, interesting individuals that left me inspired to work harder at becoming someone who can think and communicate with precision and elegance.  After the event, the most common piece of feedback I heard was that audience members were impressed at their ability to think quickly and say so much without the ‘um’s and aahs” and general hesitation that normally accompanies speech. For those who couldn’t make it, here is a brief re-cap of the snippets that made it into my notebook. =)

Firstly, they spoke about the conditions of creating dialogue, with Nouman noting that

 First of all, we have to think, what is the value proposition of getting along? If this (Hart House) is a living, learning lab, we need to share space for dialogue and open, civil discourse. Not possible to always agree, but important to create that space and enable certain conditions for open discourse. This is not about getting along, it’s about shared intentionality, the ability of others to create shared intentions and joint endeavours. And so we have to think, what are the conditions for shared intentionality? Because it’s important to ask provocative questions and give assistance for that shared intentionality to occur. Agreement is setting the bar too low. It means we are just tolerating each other, but we need to be more robust, more authentic. We need to advocate for own views and inquire about others.

They  spoke about allegories of power, the possibilities and limitations of theory in trying to understand our world (As Corey said, “Butler is amazing, but theory has nothing in comparison to talking to someone from a different background”) and the power of sharing experiences. Nouman shared a story of people from different faith and philosophical backgrounds coming together to talk about food, and said that “assumptions of power can be challenged when share common experience. Common experiences may not lead to common conclusions, but it will be transformative”.

They also spoke about what extreme dissent is, with Nouman noting that “any discourse that breaches legal limits is off limits, though it’s difficult to talk about extremes without talking about the norm” and Corey noting that it is difficult to talk about legality because sometimes what is considered illegal in the present is viewed positively in hindsight (the Civil Rights movement was discussed as an example). Nouman spoke about  how “we need to reverse engineer what dissent looks like because innovation doesn’t just happen overnight”, and Corey noted that “we don’t often have owls (in reference to an earlier story) asking us why we’re upset about mobilizing. Most people are content to just watch news to give us its take on things.”

And finally, they left us with questions of our own. Nouman spoke about how we force-feed people our ideas, but we have to resist that itch for the health of the body, and asked:

“How do we actualize the potential on campus? What tools can we offer communities (note the plural) on campus? How do we cultivate genuine curiosity of others, instead of Othering others? You need to experience representation of self in positions of privilege in order to believe you can acquire them yourself.

Lessons from Julia Butterfly’s Talk at Hart House

It’s hard to describe how lovely Julia Butterfly’s talk was at Hart House this evening. I was a bit late coming in, but I found myself drawn into her story and her beautiful lessons despite craning my neck to see her speak. She was powerful and compelling, and I think everyone’s throat got a bit lumpy at times as she detailed her journey of 738 days living in a tree called Luna to protect it from being cut down.

For me, I came to the talk after an intense week school-wise. I’ve been struggling to find new ways and concepts to express the ideas I’m trying to explore with my thesis, and while I’ve been trying to keep positive about the opportunity for learning, I’ve also been feeling very overwhelmed by the current gaps in my knowledge. Over the past couple of days I’m been telling friends at lunch that I feel like a caterpillar. Intellectually it makes sense that if I stay committed to learning and keep striving, eventually I’ll turn into a butterfly, but a caterpillar is so far removed from a butterfly that transformation seems a far-fetched possibility at the moment.

And then during the talk  Julia spoke about the liquefying process caterpillars go through, and it made me feel so much more optimistic about the learning challenges (or opportunities!) ahead. Normally I always come to lectures with a notebook, but today I didn’t, so I took notes over the top of my evaluation card. As a result, this is not a complete set of notes (far from it!) of the lecture, but it does give a sense of what happened.

  1. Take a breath. It’s a miracle we are able to do that. What will you do with your life that honours this unique miracle? That honours this gift?
  2. I am a mirror. If something resonates with you, only because of something that is already within you. It means I’ve been a good mirror. If you don’t like something I say, don’t trash it, compost it and let it create new energy. We throw away things too easily.
  3. If people can identify with you, can relate to you, then it is harder for them to hate you.
  4. The way that we work towards a goal is as important as the goal itself. We have to model what we want in the world. (There was a beautiful story later on in the talk about loggers who helped rebuild the tree Luna when someone attacked it with a chainsaw, and when asked why they helped out, they said it was because “Butterfly, you always dealt with us in an honourable way)
  5. Whoever we are is exactly who we are meant to be. Society teaches us to feel like we’re not enough, that we need to change, and so we buy more stuff and more silly magazines and feel like we aren’t enough as ourselves. But we just need to learn to direct the all of who we are to the right channel. For me, it was not about changing who I was, it was about sculpting the core of who I already am. Our mind is usually our biggest obstacle. Can’t control what life sends us, but we can control how mind relates to what life sends us. We need to engage our hearts.
  6. We all love butterflies but we don’t want to liquefy. But a caterpillar literally has to liquefy itself to become a butterfly. It’s like when we go to the gym and we look at the machines. We want the results but we don’t want to do the exercise. And so during those 738 days with Luna, I would ask the universe for strength, and things would literally get harder. And I would say, hey, can you give me a break? And the universe would say, you didn’t ask for a break, you asked for strength, and so here you go, here is an opportunity to get stronger. Everything about me had to liquefy in order to turn into a being who could find strength where there was no external strength. When things were so intense that I had frostbite on my toes and had to prop my sleeping bag up off my feet because the pain was too much. We are so attached to outcomes, but if attachment to outcomes was all I had, it would have killed me.
  7. People would ask me when I was up in the tree what I missed about being on the ground, and when I was back on the ground people would ask me about what I missed about being in the tree. It made me realise that we are tricked constantly to be anywhere but here where we are. The question is always what do you miss and not what do you appreciate about right now? Instead of missing what is absent, why not be grateful and present to what is here and now?
  8. Love is a taskmaster that demands me to be a better person than the person that I know myself to be. It’s easy to talk, difficult to communicate. Communication is about asking someone’s opinion and caring about the answer.
  9. Julia told a beautiful story of an evening with loggers shooting at her, and having to take a deep breath to reach within and engage with them with humour, and then those same loggers bringing her organic fruits and vegetables a few weeks later. And then Julia said “this doesn’t always happen, but it can never happen if we don’t stay committed and model the world we want to live in.
  10.  It’s important to ask: who am I authentically in this moment and how can I learn, how can I grow in this?
  11. In each moment, we stand on the shoulders of those who came before. But we too are ancestors of the future.
  12. Pessimism, hope, these are just stories, not facts. I’m pessimistic, but I don’t let my pessimism get in my way. All I’ve got is right here, right now, and the question is, how doI honour this time? I can’t control anyone else, but I can control myself.
  13. It’s about a lifetime of offering ourselves. Nature isn’t sustainable, nature is regenerative.
  14. What is your passion, what is your gift? What do you want to do to co-create the future?

Question Period Take-Aways:

Love is a verb.

Every Day is a Day of Giving Thanks

While reading Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay Nature today, I came across this beautiful paragraph:

The misery of man appears like childish petulance, when we explore the steady and prodigal provision that has been made for his support and delight on the green ball which floats him through the heavens. What angels invented these splendid ornaments, these rich conveniences, this ocean of air above, this ocean of water beneath, this firmament of earth between? This zodiac of lights, this tent of dropping clouds, this striped coat of climates, this fourfold year? Beasts, fire, water, stones and corn serve him. The field is at once his floor, his work-yard, his playground, his garden and his bed.

“More servants wait on man/Than he’ll take notice of.”

And this one:

To go into solitude, a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society. I am not solitary whilst I read and write though nobody is with me. But if a man would be alone, let him look at the stars. The rays that come from those heavenly worlds will separate between him and what he touches. One might think the atmosphere was made transparent with this design, to give man, in the heavenly bodies, the perpetual presence of the sublime. Seen in the streets of the cities, how great they are! If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown! But every night come out these envoys of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smile.

In addition to those tremendous blessings Emerson describes there is so much to be thankful for closer to home. I’m thankful for beautiful parents, siblings that double as best friends, a lovely nephew, dear friends that inspire me with their example to do better, teachers, professors and fellow students who demonstrate what it means to have a polished intellect and contribute to your community, and a university and city full of people searching after knowledge and striving to be the best they can be. I love this city of art, interesting people, public lectures, books, and Islamic classes and its energy never fails to fill me with joy. I love studying at a university with beautiful prayer spaces and neverending activities, and having the opportunity to live with inspirational junior students (I’m a residence don), and soak up their courage and enthusiasm for life. And I’m grateful for “fresh new days with no mistakes in them” as Anne would say, days that are opportunities to become better at things I find so challenging.

Because friends, the days of this lovely graduate school adventure suddenly feel very limited. The days are short, and what seemed to be a long two year experiment not that long ago, now feels alarmingly short. Far too often, I get stressed about what lies ahead and all the unknowns in the future (what job, what city, will everything get done?) and like Emerson’s description of people ignoring the stars, I forget to notice how extraordinary everything around me actually is.

Everything that is a part of my life I prayed and wished for beforehand, and when all these different things now challenge me and ask me to be a better, kinder more intelligent person, my knee-jerk reaction is to feel stressed and overwhelmed, and worry about how I’ll manage it all. I want to improve though and embrace the “joy of the strife”  instead of retreating into what is safe and comfortable or feeling worried about outcomes that are not within my control.

I was on a panel with Professor David Naylor the President of U of T a couple of weeks ago, and during the conversation he told us not to think about what we wanted our legacies to be, because the best thing  was “to find something you love and to follow it as far as you can.” A legacy is something that “20-30 years later someone will figure out”, but it is important “not to take ourselves so seriously” because “we’re all grains of sand”. After all, even as a university president, “in 200 years, your portrait is in the basement”.

And so in the spirit of learning more about what I love and following it as far as I can, I’m going to try to write more frequently about thesis writing, my new neighbourhood, working at Hart House, the interesting people, the lovely readings, the intellectual problems, and all the rest of the adventures and things I’m thinking through this year. It’s a different set of challenges, a different set of people, and if you’re interested in reading, I’m looking forward to sharing bits and pieces with you and giving thanks on a more regular basis.

An Adventure in Mastering Yourself:The Subtle Difference Between Hope and Expectation

It’s my ten month anniversary of living in Toronto on July 1st and I’m celebrating with a visit to Ottawa, a city I last visited ten years ago. And as part of my celebration, I want to reflect on some of the lessons and learning of this year to help create a second year that is even richer and more meaningful than the first. (Deo volente, I’ll be sharing some of these lessons in entries to come, so stay tuned).

First and foremost, I’ve realised this year that instead of expecting perfection, one must simply hope for beneficial experiences and positive people because challenges are inevitable and real life is always different to what we imagine. (And as a side note what is best may not be something that you thought about previously). Being steadfastly hopeful and fiercely optimistic without specific expectations towards present people/places/experiences or without imagining how future events will unfold prevents you from feeling disappointed, because hope is an understanding that there is no guaranteed outcomes. The hope that things will go well (and an understanding that there will likely be tough bits that will require new ways of thinking and being to get through) also means that you’re less likely to be frustrated while you adjust to new situations and your mental muscles tear and become stronger. In general, the more specific and greater your expectations are, the harder it is to recognise the beauty of what you actually experience.

I discovered this lesson the hard way, because although my graduate experience and time in Toronto has been full of new people, self-discovery, happiness, and moments of standing very far outside my comfort zone, instead of taking each day as it came and being gentle with myself through the adjustment process, my first few months I analysed my experience a lot, because I had expected that there would be no dull classes, no readings I didn’t find fascinating, no moments of indecision, no instance when my enthusiasm would flag, no days where I would feel homesick, and really, no moments where I didn’t enjoy the struggle and the strife. I expected each paper to be a learning adventure because graduate school is a very deliberate choice, and anything other than bliss felt like cause for concern.

Eventually, I realised I was experiencing what Alain de Botton describes in  “The Art of Travel” when he speaks about why travel frequently turns out differently than what we imagine. He reflects on the  sentence “they journeyed through the afternoon” and notes that such a short sentence does not encapsulate everything involved in that trip: the waiting in the train, the boredom, the heat, the delays, the hunger when food is not available and so forth.We simply look at pretty brochures, and we forget the periods that aren’t photographed. And yet life is the photographed and the non photographed moments, it is the destinations we know we want to visit, and it is the unexpected neighbourhood cafes we stumble upon on the walk home. It is sunshine and rain. Sticking to precise routes and expecting endless joy is unreasonable, but with an open perspective personal growth and self mastery are hopes with the potential to be realised.

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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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.

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When You Put It That Way, It Sounds So Simple

After nearly 10 weeks (!) immersed in planning classes and agonizing over where I belong in the world outside the classroom, this week’s readings in my theory class provided some much needed reminding that the world is in desperate need of all kinds of planners, and regardless of what I decide to do in the future, I want to really develop and polish my writing thinking and speaking skills during my time at U of T. (There certainly are enough assignments to help with that goal, now to focus and deliver my best effort).


Planners who hope to pursue an equity agenda must speak and write and as well as think and calculate. They must develop an articulate voice, organizing attention to issues and maintaining credibility even when data are inadequate and tempers are short. They must face the challenge of being persuasive without being manipulative. They must face uncertainty without being paralysed by it. Faced with the real complexity of housing or transit or service delivery problems, they must select which issues to focus upon and which to put aside. They must be articulate organizers as well as clear-thinking analysts. Gauging what to say and what not to say, when and how to speak to be understood, whether to be challenging or not, encouraging or not – all these are practical problems of rhetoric, of speech and writing..”~ Krumholz and Forester, Making Equity Planning Work

If planners consistently place before their political superiors analyses, policies and recommendations which lead to greater equity, and if they are willing to publicly join in the fight of the adoption of these recommendations, some of them will be adopted when the time is ripe. It is this process conducted with verve, imagination, and above all with persistence, that offers the planner challenging and rewarding work and a better life for others.~ Norman Krumholz, A Retrospective View of Equity Planning Cleveland 1969-1979


Small p planning

Similarly, Otto von Bismarck said, “Faust complained about having two souls in his breast, but I harbor a whole crowd of them and they quarrel. It is like being in a republic.” In that sense, the first step to dealing with procrastination isn’t admitting that you have a problem. It’s admitting that your “you”s have a problem.

I was exploring Hart House the other day and found a lovely room filled with magazines called “The Hub”, and so sat down to eat my lunch over a recent edition of the New Yorker. And while I was reading, I came across a lovely article about procrastination (ironically, putting off readings in the process) by James Surowiecki. You can read the full article here.

What are your thoughts? What do you think the reasons are for procrastination? Is it a planning fallacy or simply a case of divided selves? Or something else entirely perhaps?

Expanding the Boundaries of My Heart (Reflections From Seven Weeks In)

Every day, my love for this city deepens.  I always thought the boundaries of my heart started and ended in Vancouver, but the past seven weeks have taught me that this is not the case. It is possible to hold multiple loves within you, and this openness to new and different things enriches your life and strengthens your love of each individual thing as a result. It’s been an astonishing, life changing revelation. I feel like I could live anywhere now, (or at the very least, can imagine myself in more than the west coast in the future) and am not as hesitant to try new things.

And now that I’m feeling more settled, I feel like I have so much to share about my adventures thus far!  A complete summary is impossible, but it’s been a rich and learning filled few weeks. I’ve fasted the last few days of Ramadhan on my own, celebrated my birthday away from family for the first time, set up my new room (yay IKEA!), met lots of interesting people (and possibly a few kindred spirits), missed my brother’s birthday, befriended the TTC and the GO train, went to the U of T’s Graduate Student Orientation, celebrated my first solo Eid  (and went to Eid prayer for the first time), explored campus, caught a cold, went to a Shakespeare play, went to Nuit Talks, attended an incredible dialogue session with the Governor General, attended the ballet, participated in Word on the Street, went to Friday prayer for the first time (minus conferences), visited Montreal, attended many campus lectures, consumed heaps of tea, wandered a great deal, and in sum, while doing the million and one things involved in settling and becoming used to a new place, have been learning new things and confirming old things about myself every day.

It’s been a challenging, fascinating, frustrating, and beautiful experience, and since it  was my seven week annniversary in the city a few days ago, in no particular order, here is a bit of what I’ve been thinking about since I’ve arrived.  (Amazing how time goes so quickly).

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