I have a serious crush on SCARP

It’s a snowy day, and I’m huddled in bed writing a term paper about planning education. As part of my research, I went to the website of the School of Community and Regional Planning at UBC, and I think I’ve just developed a crush on the school. It seems like a place that takes social planning and policy seriously, and the courses look amazing. They have a specialization in social planning, another specialization in comparative planning (ie-planning in other cities and the Global South,  studio courses for social planners, multimedia courses, and their theory course is taught by Leonie Sandercock!

The question is, why isn’t social planning emphasized as strongly at planning schools/discussions in Ontario?  The Ontario Professional Planning Institute defines planning as the “scientific, aesthetic and orderly disposition of land resources, facilities and services within a view of securing the physical, economic and social efficiency and well being of urban and rural communities”, but planning, (at least in the way it’s approached at UBC and according to other practitioners I’ve met this year) seems to be a lot more than that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

A Life Well Lived

I went to the ballet today. At the time it felt crazy to go in the middle of papers, assignments and presentations, but I turned the computer off anyway and headed to the Betty Oliphant Theatre to watch Ballet Jorgen Canada’s beautiful adaptation of Cinderella. And despite a few hiccups getting there, once I arrived I was delighted to discover I had the perfect seat: right in the middle of the front row. I couldn’t have asked for a better place to soak up each expression, the details of the costumes and the perfection of each movement.

And as I watched the acts unfold, I couldn’t help thinking that the production was an incredible example of dedication made visible. It was a reminder that excellence cannot be created instantly; it is not a product of procrastination and shortcuts. It’s only through hours and hours of daily practice and emotional, physical and mental commitment to a craft that such performances, such beauty is possible.

Aside from the beauty of the performance though, it was a special afternoon because it was a celebration of Clea Iveson, who after 19 years and 2,000 performance is retiring from active dancing with Ballet Jorgen Canada. (Which is a shame. Even for a infrequent ballet attendee like myself, her performance was powerful and hilarious and hard to ignore.) And when the dancers came out on stage after the show, bouquets of flowers appeared from the audience, little girls slipped handwritten cards on stage, everyone was on their feet and you could feel the emotion of everyone in the room: from audience members, to the dancers, to the Artistic Director to Clea (first names sound so very informal!) herself. Even the people beside me were crying. What I found most moving though, was that when the audience finally quietened, the Artistic Director shared some beautiful words about her strength, her intelligence, her commitment and dedication and her contributions that have made the company what it is today.

And hearing those words and witnessing the emotion of everyone in the room made me think about work and what it means to have a calling. Deep contributions are possible not by flitting from one activity to another, or giving up quickly, but only when you pour all of yourself in a particular sphere of activity and continually strive to refine your abilities and expertise.

The same lesson came to mind when I was returning to Vancouver from London a few months ago and the pilot announced about half an hour before landing that after forty years of service that flight was his last journey in the cockpit. He thanked his wife who was onboard for her constant support, told us that flying was a challenging life path, and shared moments with us that he’ll always cherish: from seeing the sunrise in the cockpit when many of the passengers were asleep, to hearing the quietness of the world, to seeing how different people live across the world. There were many moments, and he was glad for the journey he had taken through life.

By the end of it, I had a lump in my throat from the gifts of his reflections, and the whole plane applauded when he landed the plane smoothly in the Vancouver International Airport.

And so whether I think of the ballet today, or that pilot earlier this summer, or any other remarkable example, the reflection is the same: it is extraordinary and beautiful to see your work as a calling and as a source of wonder and passion. And yet how challenging a thing to keep yourself steadfast to your chosen path as you develop!  (But necessary, if deep meaningful contribution to the world is the aim.) All things to tuck away as I return back to paper writing, and try to put into perspective some of the more stress inducing parts of studying and doing the masters. It’s just meant to be one step of a much larger journey.

I Have a Feeling I Won’t Be Invited Up This Time Around

Yesterday I found the loveliest gem in the inbox of my old email account: a description of my very first trip to Toronto nine years ago. I’ve pretty much recycled all my papers from high school so finding it was a rare treat, and aside from reminding me of my love of random capitalisation, awkward semicolons, big words and exclamation marks, it was a great reminder that I’ve thankfully grown heaps since then, and though I have butterflies in my stomach about leaving in a few (!) days, it is only by undergoing new experiences that we increase our capacity to act and do more.  (Clearly I haven’t gotten rid of my love of run on sentences quite yet though). Enjoy this window into August 4th 2001, it definitely gave me a much needed laugh. =)

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Goodness. I Had No Idea Bookshelf Goodbyes Would Be So Darn Difficult.

From debating whether to go at all, there are now nine days remaining till I leave my beloved Vancouver and move to Toronto. And friends, the move is making my heart hurt.

Not because  leaving places and people I love dearly will be hard (that’s true but I’ve accepted it finally) but because I’m puzzled by how one decides what to take and what to leave behind.  During a trip to London in May 2010 Antoine Saint Exupery’s words “he who would travel happily must travel light” came to mind when I arrived and realised that tube stations don’t have lifts, and struggled waited for wonderful strangers to help me with my suitcase every time I took a train to a different part of the country, or transferred hotels within London itself. In those moments, I would look at other passengers with tiny bags going for weekend trips and admire how their luggage didn’t hinder their movement at all.  So it’s a sensible principle: journeying forward with relatively little physical (and mental I suppose) baggage just makes for happier, easier times.

Intellectually I get this. But my courage fails me with the thought of implementing it when relocating someplace new.  The logic still makes sense: if you pack lightly future moves are easier to do, storing things in a tiny apartment is less complicated and you save on the cost of shipping whatever doesn’t fit in your two suitcase allowance. But when your return date is uncertain, oh it becomes ever so much harder to do!

And I’m surprised by just how hard it’s been.  After all, I’ve never been fond of malls, I have such tiny feet it’s a pain to go shoe shopping,  and trying on clothes with a hijab can be quite an elaborate affair, so I’ve always thought I was the kind of person who had limited belongings. I was wrong, and as I examine the contents of my room, I’m amazed by the sheer number of things I possess. Books. Letter paper.  Moleskines filled with late night reflections, emphatic underlining and a complete disregard for paragraphs. Swimming gear.  Bundt pans.  Prayer rugs. Binders filled with extracurricular classes and beautiful essays (not my own) that I’ve saved over the years. I’m astonished to discover it all.

It is the books that seem the hardest to leave. Packing this afternoon, I looked at my well worn copy of Walden, my Urdu books and my copy of Anne’s first set of adventures (among many many others) and leaving them felt like leaving good, kind friends and teachers behind. Yet opening a box and collecting a mass of  ‘necessary’ titles wasn’t a great solution either; I realised that even leaving a full bookshelf behind, to take my required books means shipping a couple of boxes worth, and it felt troubling to be so attached to material things. In Pakistan people’s lives have been turned upside down by floods of the past few weeks, in other parts of the world people leave their homes at a moment’s notice, and the cost of postage could be better used to help people in genuine need. (and so for the first time, I’m questioning the act of buying books in the first place; they are heavy and hard to move around!) On the other hand, being on my own and not being able to decipher a bit of Tariq Ramadan’s words before bed might make it that much harder to adjust and create a sense of home. On the other hand (I’m an octopus apparently), how much time do grad students have to read anyway?

And so I return to my dilemma. Dear friends, what do you take when you move? Are you a proponent of the packing light approach or do you take everything you love when you go? Advice most appreciated.