Friday, June 30, 2017

Sharing some Canadiana

Canada’s 150th birthday evokes some fond memories of the land I have called home for exactly 30 years.

Some of my fondest memories of life in Canada are from the early days. This was when I divided my time between Toronto and Blind River, a little town of 3000 on the North Shore of Lake Huron. My husband moved there first to pursue a job at the Uranium Refinery, Cameco, while I completed my Masters in Toronto. Our daughter was with her grandparents in India.

I would take the Greyhound to visit him. While on the bus, I would sit by the window and stare out into the cold vastness of our new home and wonder about our decision to move here, abandoning the bustle of India and the East. I was still grappling with a new vocabulary that included snow squalls, black ice and freezing rain. Often, I would make conversation with fellow travelers and learn a little more about this land and it's polite and gentle folk. I met old women who lived by themselves and survived on frozen dinners and young folks who had not graduated school and were in dead-end construction jobs that did not get them a ticket outside of the Province let alone the country. On occasion, I would meet young folks who were grateful they had left their small towns but who travelled back for a dose of nostalgia. They would speak fondly about childhood experiences riding on a truck over the frozen lake and family trips into the bush when they snowshoed, hunted, trapped and ate wild game. I was always impressed by the sheer physicality of their life experiences in the great outdoors through long winters, and building barns, decks or even homes, laying tiles and hanging up drywall through the short summers. It appeared there was very little even those with no formal education could not do. I always enjoyed these conversations as it gave me insight into that part of Canadiana that I knew nothing about.
It was during these bus rides that I discovered cloyingly sweet butter tarts, licorice candy and corn puffs which I picked up at the pit stops and washed down with cold Sprite or luke warm bitter coffee, depending on the time of year. To this day these foods evoke fond memories of those early days getting to know a new country and it's people. Oddly, I allowed myself these indulgences only on those bus rides.

I was always excited to see my husband at the end of that 6 hour journey, which ended in Blind River around midnight. However the destination itself, being a sleepy small town with very little happening, was terribly anti-climactic. I would perk myself up with my plans to play house, cooking, cleaning and shopping at the local IGA while I was there. I would also forget about school and life outside this cocoon for the duration of my stay and just revel in the experience of being there with no purposeful action, just enjoyment of the isolation and the freedom to spend our time any way we chose. Given there was nowhere to go to in Blind River, we would drive for two hours to eat at a restaurant in a nearby town or to catch the train to go on the Algoma Trail. We would try our hand at cross country skiing in the backroad trails, swim in the waters of Lake Huron on warm summer days or try our hand at bowling. The key to our enjoyment was the absence of any agenda! Occasionally, Canadian friends would invite us over and go to great lengths to prepare us a vegetarian meal. Our friends Hal and Lise introduced us to scalloped potatoes, delicious homemade cheese pizzas with pineapple and interesting berry salads. On cold Saturday evenings we would pick up wedge fries at Wongs and watch videos, curled up under large comforters. We would watch Saturday night live and late night comedy and sleep in on Sundays. After washing down egg burji and toast with coffee on Sunday mornings, and if the cold did not freeze our tear drops, we would dress in layers and walk around town, making a trip to our cozy local library with its old books. We never found any book we were looking for but enjoyed the time browsing and hanging out as young kids of all ages cheerily researched and completed homework assignments. On these walks we would discover new side roads, admire the waterfront properties, discover tiny brooks or creeks and even parks with teeter totters and swings. We always marvelled at how house proud Canadians were, constantly working on projects to improve their homes and gardens, even in this remote corner of the country. In the winter, we would walk down to our local ice hockey arena and watch the kids skate as we drank hot chocolate, our warm breath forming shapes in the cold air. We had one movie theatre in town and would catch a late movie after.
My husband lived in a little apartment that first year and most of our neighbours were simple folks with working class roots - young single mothers barely in their teens, French Canadian construction workers who chain smoked outside showing off fit bodies in jeans and t-shirts no matter the outside temperature, and lonely old folks who appeared to have no visitors and who took a cab to go anywhere in that small town. I did not feel great envy for any of their lives and therefore no guilt over my own indulgences during these sojourns. It was only the fact that I had no timetable out of Blind River that caused me mild anxiety then.

Briefly after my Masters I lived in a basement apartment in Bloor West in Toronto. Oh how I enjoyed walking all over downtown, discovering its ethnic diversity. Then on to law school and the York University campus, where I met and mingled with some brilliant minds and learned a whole new way to approach life and learning. I became interested in grassroots work and for the past twenty years have worked building a social enterprise. I have sat at many tables alongside decision makers challenging the status quo and arguing for change. During this time I have met an incredible array of accomplished and courageous people from all over the world, each one with a unique story.
We have raised our daughter to love this country. She has learnt to play ice hockey, skate, ski, swim in the lakes and oceans, sail, kayak, hike, bike, camp and generally embrace our beautiful outdoors. She is also passionate about social justice.

What I love most about Canada is the fact that it has allowed me to maintain my cultural identity as an Indian. Fortuitously, in Toronto, where I live, there is such a proliferation of South Asian culture now that it is home away from home.
Every once in a while I think back to those early days when every experience was so unique and wonderful, when the four seasons held me spellbound and I feel immense gratitude over my accidental choice to make Canada my home!

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Today's musings - June 28, 2017

Thought for today

We often wait for the perfect moment for everything, even though we know perfection is a mental projection. I remember when I was newly married I was so unaccomplished in the home making department that I was reluctant to invite people over. I could not get the house as immaculate as my neighbours and certainly had no culinary skills to speak of. I struggled trying to keep up with those who practised housekeeping and cooking as a fine art. So when a cousin of mine said they were in Singapore and planning to visit me in my little village in Malaysia I had some trepidation. But I was lonely, and so looked forward to seeing her and her husband. I rustled up a quick meal of pongal (rice cooked with lentils and spices) and a tamarind based stew (vettakozhambu) to go with it. I had yoghurt and pickles as well. We had a wonderful time together. They were famished and so ate well, chatted for a while and left. When I met them again on my previous visit to India, some 33 years later, she reminded me of that incident and told me it was a memorable meal and time for her.

We are often inhibited by our need to make a good impression and postpone writing that piece, making that speech, inviting people over or doing anything spontaneous. And yet that's our most beloved and authentic self. Those are the moments that people, whose lives we touch, cherish the most.

On the flip side, we want everything to happen when we believe the timing is right - for the perfect job, mate, deal, what have you. We order our lives with a checklist of "to dos" and when things don't go the way we want them to and we have no control over how we should make them happen, we falter and bemoan our unlucky lot. But when we think about it, we have pitted ourselves against - get this - our own selves in the form of our expectations or our image of a perfect life. Our life has become all about creating that perfect picture or image to the exclusion of all else. We know we are participating in an elaborate deception and our lives are not that image, but we helplessly persist. Maybe we should break free of these shackles and venture on that unknown path and make great discoveries. Few of us do.

And finally, no matter how well we manage our existence, life throws a kicker at us. I was reminded of this on my morning walk today. We have this adorable cocker spaniel that is brought for a walk by our neighbour. We stop to pet it always but do no more than exchange pleasantries with the owner. A man in his early seventies, ramrod straight and lean he has a gravelly voice and a Greek accent. He is the only person I have seen smoking on his walk up our hill! Anyway, we asked after his dog and found out that Dacker, the dog, is the only person his wife recognizes. I have seen her walking with him on previous occasions and remember her as being quite friendly and cheerful when we greeted her. Little did I know, she has Alzheimer's and does not even recognize her kids and their families - only that dog. The two of them had built a perfect life together, raised great kids who were successful, and then, out of nowhere, this kicker! Just when they thought they could retire, relax and travel. He is her caregiver and they don’t do much since she is not interested in and has no passion for, anything.

It was a reminder to me that life is lived through our perceptions and experiences and if there is no memory, there is nothing. On the other hand we can make those experiences rich and fulfilling by not wandering into regrets about the past or expectations about our future but being here, now, letting life unfold and by responding to each moment with joy and good cheer.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

International Yoga Day 2017

The idea of international Day of Yoga was first proposed by the current Prime Minister of India, Mr. Narendra Modi during his speech at the United Nations General Assembly. When proposing 21 June, Mr. Modi said that the date was the longest day of the year in the northern hemisphere (shortest in the southern hemisphere) and had special significance in many parts of the world. The summer solstice marks the transition to Dakshinayana which is also considered a time when there is natural support for those pursuing spiritual practices. The resolution was sponsored by over 177 countries and we are in our third year of marking this day.


Why do yoga? Why engage in spiritual pursuits?

We spend most of lives pursuing material wealth and sensual pleasures and soon find that the happiness they bring us is temporary. As soon as we get something we want, we seek out something else. However, our discontent continues. Soon we realize that we must take our mind away from objects and sense pleasures which we perceive as being outside us, and redirect our focus to our reactions to these perceived stimuli. Become a witness to our thoughts. Observe our habit patterns. Yoga in the form of asanas, pranayama and dhyana or meditation helps us focus inward and quietens our mind to bring it into a meditative state. We crave external stimuli less and less. We enjoy an elevation of our consciousness which we experience as contentment, peace, joy, well-being and a sense of unity. This unity comes from not being in a state of conflict with ourselves, between who we are and who we want to be, but from acceptance of everything exactly as it is.

But here, I am talking about yoga as it should be done – the traditional way as handed to us by our Gurus. Without effort or purpose. Not the yoga on steroids that we see practised by many commercial establishments. Yoga is not a fad. It is not about plush studios and lulu lemon tights. Although those are nice, they may bind us with thought associations of peaceful states and attachments to the material world. Success in the true yogic sense is to become egoless, to identify less with thoughts about the material aspects of the world, or with our individual identities and to experience our boundless nature. Yoga is about letting go and not holding on.

Yoga must be accessible to all and is possessed by none. Everyone can and should do yoga. It is universal, like prayer or chanting. In the truest sense yoga is not an end in itself. It may be the means to an end in a journey that is very personal.