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casualties of spring cleaning

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We’ve all done it. One day after remembering someone and noticing they haven’t posted on Facebook for a while, we check to see if we’re still friends. Sometimes we are and we breathe a sigh of relief that someone still likes us. When we’re not, we do the necessary mental gymnastics required to make sense of it.  Did I upset this person? Did I post something offensive? Am I just annoying? Most of the time the reasons for being unfriended are innocuous; a casualty of the routine spring cleaning.  But nobody likes to discover that they aren’t wanted, even if it is by someone they barely knew.

But what happens if you actually had a meaningful relationship with someone? Pressing the unfriend button has come to represent the last salvo in the undoing of a friendship. Click that button and it’s officially over between you two. Unfortunately, this isn’t the world of Harry Potter, where we can save people from the pain of relationships by erasing their memories. Try as we may, we cannot become Jacob Kowalski. Friendships may come to an end but the memories we have of them persist.

Sometimes friendships end quickly and very painfully. Sometimes we lose touch with people over time. But that does not mean we do not think of them; the conversations, the MSN messenger chats, the times you used to sit in class together or grab coffee between a lecture – these memories stay with us for a long time. Even if we lose touch with people, Facebook allows us to watch them from afar. We may not talk anymore, but we can still love them based on what we once had. We watch as they grow into the people they are destined to be and perhaps, they watch us.  Contact may be sparse – a birthday message, a condolence on the death of a loved one, a congratulations on the birth of a child – but every comment is a reminder of the place this person once occupied in your life.

So when you find you’re unfriended, you wonder why this person decided to cut ties for good. Perhaps they didn’t have as strong memories as you did, perhaps you have changed in more ways than you think – so much so that you no longer resemble who you once were. There could be a million reasons why you didn’t make the cut in this year’s friend list draft. Painful as they may be however, there is one redeeming thing about memories – they are ours to keep. We take our interactions with people, bits and pieces of conversations, parts of their personality and we fuse it with our own; and as we go on with life and meet other people, the people we once knew continue to travel with us.  The people we once knew make us who we are today.

We may not be friends on Facebook anymore, but thank you for the memories. Truly.

 

 

what i believe

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I’ve been listening to a lot of Coloring Book lately. Songs like Blessings have been on repeat for the past month or so.  Lyrics about praises and blessings play in the background as I contemplate my ever changing relationship with God.  Some days I have really good days where my prayers are good, other days not so much — much of my life has followed this cyclical pattern.  Periods of religiousness, followed by a lull.

But lately while my physical devotion has waxed and waned over the last few months,  I have not stop thinking about God.  Despite being a practicing Muslim all my life, only lately have I really begun to think deeply about my relationship with Allah and how that guides my life and what I believe in.

I was raised to believe in the God that is described the Qu’ran; the most gracious, the most merciful.  God was not looking out to get you for every transgression you made, to throw you into the gates of hellfire.  I was taught to do things for the sake of being a good person, not to “avoid God’s punishment”. I was taught that justice must be pursued and is your right, but if you are personally wronged, forgiveness is a higher form of morality.  As I grew up, I heard more in sermons and lectures about how the Prophet (PBUH) and the Caliphs governed. I heard about the believer’s obligation to speak out against oppression and fight against it.

Nowadays, our religious obligations to the poor and the oppressed seem to be relegated to acts of charity.  Volunteer here and there, click the donate button once in a while.  This is not what I believe is what God intended when he was talking about fighting oppression.  It’s more than individual acts of charity (as valuable as those are), but about pushing for a transformative reimagining of what society can be for everyone.  I have no doubt that if the Prophet (PBUH) was here, he would be protesting for Black Lives, he would open up his  mosque for undocumented immigrants, he would be at Standing Rock, he would be joining fast food workers at their picket lines.

This is why it hurts to see people who are “religious” turn a blind eye to refugees, advocate for a harsh and unfair criminal justice system and support laws that target the most marginalized in our society.  On top of that, there are people who use religion around the world as a crutch to commit oppressive acts – both rogue extremist groups and state actors.  Islam is no exception to this. Does this give me a bout of cognitive dissidence?  No  because I know what God stands for.  I have it right, they don’t.  As much as religion can be twisted to serve harmful purposes, it can also be used to push for and imagine a better future.

But as much as I don’t experience cognitive dissidence, I don’t try to distance myself from my community either.  I don’t attached labels like “progressive” or “modern” or “liberal” to my relationship with God in an attempt to separate myself from my “backwards” community.  I will not cater to a gaze that only sees flaws in other societies, as a way to justify violence – all the while ignoring the instances of oppression that occur at home.  I will hold my community (which includes myself) accountable, but only out of my obligation to speak out against oppression and only out of love – not in attempt to correct a backwards people.

In a world filled with daily atrocities and instances of oppression, it can be hard to find hope.  And in that same world, where people striving to make changes can get caught up in battles of ego and one upping each other, getting involved can seem pointless.  But I have not lost hope.  I wake up every morning knowing that the world may be messed up and may to continue to be messed up even after I leave, but all that matters is that I tried to change things.  That it doesn’t matter what people think of what I have to say, all that matters is that my intentions are right and my ego is in check.

This is what I believe and this is how I keep hope in the face of an uncertain future. I get comfort from the fact that God is watching over us and as we push for a better collective future, that inshallah we will win with God’s support.

the sun came up

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This morning, the sun came up as it always does and if you’re like me, you were lying on your bed for a good hour thinking “is this really happening”?  It has been a difficult 24 hours for a lot of people and people have had various ways of coping – some are still processing the information, others are protesting, while others haven’t stopped crying.  All are valid reactions to what is traumatic news.  Sometimes questions arise if this is an act of self pity or fragility, a distraction from the work that needs to be done.  And that got me thinking about why I believe the things I believe.

My vision for society, like those of many, is one underlined by a basis of love, empathy and solidarity.  We work towards a better future for all, because we want a better future for all. Right wing populism fills the vacuum when a strong alternative is absent. It offers the working person, the illusion of solidarity while manipulating them into turning against their neighbours and ultimately undermining their own interests.  At its heart is selfishness and a lack of compassion.   The right in general has isolated me for as long as I can remember for this fundamental flaw (among other things) — the inability to show empathy.  Such displays are mocked as feelings, a display of weakness, or something that is inherently illogical.

So, yeah, it’s okay to cry.  It’s okay to cry with friends, its okay to vent, its okay to shout and its definitely okay to be there for your friends; because love, empathy and solidarity form the fundamental basis of ideology.  This doesn’t mean we don’t aggressively target oppression or go on the offence, but it also means that displays of emotion and engaging in self care are not selfish acts of weakness in the face of a challenge.  Rather, they are part of how we survive in spite of the challenge.  We mourn, we take care of ourselves and then we rise again.

There are people out there who are right to be jaded and have dark visions for the future, and this is true – we have a tough fight ahead of us.  But for me personally, I have to believe and hope, no matter how jaded I get – because if I don’t have that, then I don’t have any beliefs at all.

ego as consciousness

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I have been doing a lot of thinking since leaving university – about my activism in particular.

Over the past few months, society has had to come to terms with the phenomena of Donald Trump’s candidacy for President of the United States. More startling than the candidate though are his supporters; violent, openly racist and xenophobic, and seemingly willing to do all it takes to elect “their leader”. It is comforting and easy to dismiss these folks as “deplorables”, outliers who will be shunned in our communities when everything is said and done. Yet the uncomfortable truth remains – that close to 40% of Americans will end up backing Trump on Election Day.

Closer to home, a candidate for the leadership of the Conservative Party openly touts her tough on immigration policy that will screen potential migrants for “anti Canadian values”, and there’s no reason to believe that a significant percentage of Canadians don’t support this. This is not necessarily new, racism has always been embedded into the fabric of our settler colonial states.  Yet, despite that – there is still something deeply unsettling about this latest trend of populist backed racism that is sweeping much of North America and Western Europe. And that is that rather that inching towards even marginal progress, we seem to be moving backwards.

Nov. 8th will come and go, but how will we deal with the fact that many of our neighbours and co-workers will have voted for Trump, whether they express that sentiment or not. How they managed to vote for a candidate who has stripped us of our humanity, while seemingly getting along with us at the water cooler.  That is what is scarier – Trump may get on his private jet and vamoose, but Trumpism will remain alive and well long after the last ballot is cast.

Dealing with this uncomfortable truth made me think about my own “activism”. I joined the student movement in 2012 and was introduced to concepts of social justice and equity from there. I owe my knowledge to many mentors and older students who guided me through best practices and lead by example. Things began to change in 2014 when I was elected President of the students’ union.  As I began to face more micro aggressions than I did previously, I did a few things to cope.  I turned to friends to vent and started a collective of representatives of colour on campus, with a bunch of my friends who found themselves in a similar predicament; how to express your anger when being a representative of colour did not allow room for that.  You had to be all smiles.  My friends and the collective were really helpful at helping to deal with that.

My experiences (you can read about those here), coupled with a collective awakening of consciousness that seemed to occur amongst young people of colour, allowed me to express myself in ways that I never did before. However, it soon devolved into an exercise of self absorbed futile behaviour.  Ranting became a daily occurrence of posting long jargon filled statuses on Facebook and waiting for the likes.  If they don’t get ten – delete.  Solidarity became a practice of watching and engaging in long unproductive comment threads, also on Facebook. Organizing was finding a new group to join once the previous solidarity group blew up.  People’s slip ups, at times, started to become amusing.

At the time, this to me felt like the indignation that comes with critical consciousness. But it wasn’t indignation at society, it was indignation at the audacity of other people for not knowing exactly what I knew.  What I thought was a practice of building consciousness, was in reality, a stroking of the ego.  Engaging in social justice rhetoric as a method of virtue signalling.  The bigger your ego gets, the more you think you are right – and the harder it is to unlearn things.  As much as chided people privately for not being accountable or making things all about themselves, I realized that the way I was engaging in things did make it about myself.

People make mistakes – but if I assume the worst in people and don’t leave room for growth, what hope do I have for society?

Leaving student politics (which itself is a space where ego thrives), and engaging in other types of work allowed me to reflect on how I engaged in the past.  I was exposed to union organizing this past summer and that was a powerful thing to observe.  Young and old workers, immigrants, black and brown people, white folks — all united in the pursuit of better wages and living conditions.  All supporting each other and not feeling the need to say “well actually” when black lives were mentioned, or justice for immigrants was mentioned.  That is what solidarity looks like – it is built upon a foundation of love and wanting what’s best for each other, which discussions on Facebook can never really replicate (unless they are with your closest friends).  Are you really invested in wanting other people to do better?  Most of the time on Facebook, for me, the answer to this question was no.

In Islam, we call this type of self reflective exercise “intention checking”. If your intentions aren’t pure, then it isn’t worth pursuing that action.

I don’t believe in tone policing, you can react however you want to react.  Nor am I disregarding the value and labour that comes with me choosing to educate, choosing to organize when I make that decision.  The onus is not on me, but I’ll choose to do it when I feel its productive. At the end of the day, it’s a choice that I make.

But I really don’t believe in educating strangers on the internet with a “lol” or a comment that shames them for their ignorance in “liking the wrong television show that has a problematic secondary character”, because this isn’t accountability nor is it building solidarity. To me, this accomplishes nothing – but makes my ego feel great and is met with tons of non genuine apologies and vague remarks of “i’ll do better” – another form of virtue signalling.  It’s a discourse that is starting to mean nothing at all.

All of this builds up an idea that systemic oppression is about individuals and them being bad people, rather than systems that we need to work on dismantling.

Watching my relatives talk, there is a lot of work to do in building consciousness and unpacking behaviours. Looking at how many average people support Trump and right wing demagogues, there is a lot of work to do.  I’m no longer going to waste my time arguing with blatant racists on their internet or making snide comments at others who make mistakes.  But my ego is something I will continue to struggle with.

Organizers organize communities of regular folks who may not be down with discourse and sometimes it means having patient, tough conversations with people who you love, you live and work with, about the world.  It isn’t about individuals, it’s about systems – and so long as we have these conversations under a basis of building solidarity – then we can go far.   That is difficult work and it’s certainly not something I have to do as a marginalized person.  But I’ll take that any day over online virtue signalling.

on acceptance.

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Last week, I had the privilege to hear Junot Diaz in conversation with Sunil Yapa at the Toronto Reference Library with a few friends.  The library was packed, with hundreds of people lined up either to hear Junot Diaz upstairs or listen to poet, Rupi Kaur downstairs.  There were a lot of things I heard that night that made me think, he talked about family, about producing art and refused to screw with the Beyhive when asked about Lemonade. But there was one thing he said in particular that stayed with me.

On acceptance.  I can’t remember the exact words he used, but he said as a writer, you will produce your best work if you stop worrying about what others think.  Not everybody will like your writing and that’s okay.  He described meeting these people who hated his work and said he relished the opportunity to meet the audience you aren’t trying to write for.  You don’t write for everybody, some people will relate to your work, others won’t.  We get so caught up in trying to make it, in being accepted that we may end up producing something that may not be an accurate reflection of our true selves.

I have been thinking about this a lot over the past week or so. I write for myself and I write as a practice of self expression.  Still, it is hard not to get over this feeling of a need to be validated, to have your work accepted. As if value comes from the appraisal of others, rather than the work itself.  It is hard to get over that.  In the past and no doubt in the future, I have written long statuses on Facebook — only to rethink and perhaps delete them minutes later, panicked by the likes not acquired.

I wondered for a long time whether or not people were actually reading the pieces that I posted on my blog and got some self assurance from another writer I respect.  I am slowly learning to write without fear, to produce my thoughts unadulterated. Writing is a practice of being honest with yourself and inshallah, this year – slowly but surely, I’ll learn to be more honest with myself.

i am enough

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My grandfather used to get up every morning, tie his sarong and prepare to head out to the small tea estate our family owned. I imagine he would have made his morning prayers, drank a cup of tea – perhaps the read the newspaper or listened to the morning news, before making the a mile or so trek to the estate. I say imagine, because I didn’t get the chance to ask my grandfather these questions. He passed away in early 2013, before I got a chance to see him again. The awkwardness of Skype calls don’t allow for such deep conversation.

I come from a family of farmers in central Sri Lanka.   Both my parents hail from small villages outside Kandy. Both sides of my family were highly political – my family collectively has gone through assassinations, property damage, threats and intimidation – yet, they did not let that damper their enthusiasm.

Decades later, here I am – like my family, I am involved in politics and activism. Like my grandfather, I frequently don the sarong and have incorporated it into my public image as president of the students’ union. This is a story about how I got here – it is a story about grappling with questions of identity, dealing with questions of the past and the present.   Whether or not we are all involved in politics, I have heard the variation of the same story from other second-generation immigrants and people of colour.   This is my story.

Growing up, I didn’t really think about my identity. I knew I was Sri Lankan, I knew my parents spoke Tamil and Sinhala and I knew we were Muslims. That’s about as deep as it got. As I grew up, my parents settled into a working class immigrant neighborhood in Scarborough – it was here where my experiences with brownness radically changed. Going to school in Scarborough was difficult for me – I felt I stood out like a sore thumb, especially as I entered middle school. All the other kids knew the latest songs, wore the latest and coolest brands and were good at sports. I was an uncoordinated nerd who liked Digimon.

People could be cruel, but what sticks with me to this day were the comments about my clothes. Classmates would make fun of my seemingly Wal-Mart brand of clothing. The summer after I finished seventh grade, a classmate had the audacity to finish a MSN Messenger conversation by telling me “to get better clothes over the summer,” I was stunned. All of these kids who directed these pointed barbs at me, were like me – brown and the kids of immigrants. So, I internalized this, I decided that I wanted to keep my distance from brown people, from brownness. Being thirteen, you aren’t equipped with the analytical skills to understand behavior – you just know that people are being mean.

I left Scarborough in Grade 8 and came to a much whiter town called Pickering (it did however, have its fair share of POC) and in high school, things got a lot better for me. In terms of my brownness though, I still kept my distance. Save for a group of friends who I called my “brown crew”, I still hung out mostly with the white kids. “You’re basically white,” was something I heard weekly and something I said weekly about myself. I only talked about brownness when asserting my distance from it. But I knew I was different.   My difference is what caused me to get in prolonged debates with classmates over immigration – asserting forcefully that immigrants were not “welfare hogs”. It’s what made me feel disgust when a white student refused to clap during the Black History Month assembly. Still, those just seemed like indignities that any decent person would oppose – I still did not really deeply identify as brown.

When it came to choosing a university, I selected the University of Toronto as a first choice and the University of Toronto Scarborough as a backup. I was pretty explicit about the reasoning for not going to the latter campus – I didn’t want to be surrounded by more brown people.

Then I got to university and things began to change. I met more people, got into more political discussions and entered the realm of student politics. And it is here where I came to understand my identity as a brown person more deeply through the interactions and discussions I came to have inside and outside the world of student politics. (I won’t divulge into details about the intersections of student politics and race – that deserves as a piece of its own, you can read more about my experiences here). Things really hit home when I became president.

It was a weekend in early June of 2014. My executive team and I had travelled up to the Blue Mountains for a weekend retreat and it was going pretty great. But something happened that weekend that transformed me and the rest of my university experience. For the first time in my life, I found myself triggered – not by hearing a traumatic story or watching a movie, but from looking at photo of myself. That’s right – a photograph of myself.

We were taking pictures for fun as a group – fun, candid silly shots that would be posted and tagged on Facebook later for laughs. Someone called me over and I looked into the camera to see the photo I had just taken. The room didn’t have good lighting and so in contrast to everyone else on the executive, who had lighter skin, I came out looking really dark. And this viscerally upset me and I didn’t know why. Perhaps seeing my skin in a dark shade, in contrast with everybody else finally forced me to confront my brownness at a subconscious level. I really do not know what triggered the reaction. I quietly excused myself and went to the basement where I closed the door and sat on my bed. By this time in my university career, I had already known about colonialism and shadeism – I was not the naïve kid I was in high school, I was starting to take ownership of my identity as a brown person. But this still hurt – badly.

A friend (who was white) came downstairs and sat with me while I cried. I told them that I knew why I was reacting and how it was stupid, but that I couldn’t stop myself. This is the effect centuries of colonialism and told that your skin tone isn’t “right” has on a person subconsciously. In our own communities, darkness is constantly put down – when I visited Sri Lanka, everybody had a bottle of Fair and Lovely (a supposed skin lightening cream) in their bathrooms. So I cried.

And then my friend had an idea – why don’t you lead the meetings in your sarong (I had packed it because it is insanely comfortable)? And that’s what I did. I lead meetings with my sarong and I ended up modeling for the very same camera that triggered me. This time though, the picture was a reflection of someone who loves his skin. It was an affirmation of self-love, rather than an object of scorn. Nothing had changed of course; save for differences in the background, my skin was still the same. What had changed was my ability to love myself and what God has given me.

Over the next two years, my presidency served as a platform and outlet for me to explore and love my brownness – not just in private, but in public. I wore the sarong in public when I could, I made a t-shirt of my sarong – I wanted everybody to know that this was my sarong and that I loved it.   Wearing my sarong, I realized later was more than just an expression of self-love. It was an act of resilience. Brown people, Black people, Asian people – we typically don’t hold leadership positions, and when we do we are expected to dress a certain way, act a certain way all the time. For me, wearing a sarong drew attention to my brownness – it pointed out that I was different and highlighted the fact that our student political spaces lack diversity. It is affirmation that we, as brown people are here to stay and these are our spaces as much as they are anybody else’s.

And it wasn’t just me. Throughout the past two years, I have seen people of colour pay homage to their heritage in public spaces at the university. We show up to formals in our traditional dresses and we decolonize the dance floor when we jam out to our music. I have loved seeing this and I have loved seeing first and second years engage in this. It leaves me wishing that I had the confidence to do that when I was in first year. The atmosphere and climate has changed radically since I started university.

Movements like Black Lives Matter and United We Dream do not just reaffirm that black lives matter and point out oppression. They are affirmation to young people who are growing up with all these questions of identity; they are an affirmation of love. When Beyonce drops Lemonade and pays homage to her roots and her identity, when Jose Antonio Vargas talks about his struggle as an undocumented person, when Aziz Ansari writes about how he can’t get a role that doesn’t have an accent – these conversations tell young people of colour, that what they are going through is not unique.

A lot of anti PC writers have called this “PC out of control”; they believe that on today’s college campuses we talk about race and difference too much. That those celebrities who choose to highlight such differences in identity are being divisive. Who knows – I may even end up in a thinkpiece for being triggered by a picture. But if today’s PC culture is fostering a culture where young people of colour can feel proud of who they are, of their skin and their heritage – then I’m here for that. I could’ve used that.

Taking pride in our identity comes at the end of, often what is a long journey of introspection, it may involve phone calls and flights – it may involve debates in university. But for the white people that may be reading this, understand that our celebration of our different identities is a practice of self-love. We are just becoming more confident and finding our true selves – talking about race and who we are need not evoke guilty feelings and discomfort.

Going through this process in university not only made me rediscover my heritage and identity. It made me appreciate my family and my country more but it also made me think about my place in the world. How my community continues to practice forms of oppression in misogyny and anti black racism. How we need to do better for our sisters of colour. I came to appreciate the solidarity that came with being a person of colour, while appreciating that we all have our respective differences in identity that afford us different levels of privilege.

Of course – there is no true measure of brownness. Brownness isn’t measured on how many Bollywood movies you watch or the clothes you wear. This was merely my journey with identity, not everybody’s will look the same – some are just starting theirs, others are further along their respective path. But wherever you are on that journey and whatever that looks like – I’m excited for you.

If there is one thing I can take away from my experience that applies to us all – it is that we are enough. That I am enough – that me in my brown skin, in my sarong, sitting outside on the porch – is enough.

We are enough. I am enough.

 

write for your life

As we approach the final days of the year, I find myself reflecting on the past. This past year has been a whirlwind and it has left me out of breath.  There have been a lot of good and bad experiences, some of which will make for good stories in the future.  But as I sat thinking about my year, one thing struck me – I had not written in a long time.  Or rather, I had not written well.

I’ve always had a romantic idea of being a writer.  The idea of writing in an isolated farmhouse in the middle of Nebraska, during the winter looking out at the snow covered corn fields.  Secluding yourself to produce something that will have the publishers and magazines calling.  Something that people can read and enjoy, read and remember.   I admit, my romantic imagination of writing is banal and boring.  Bottom line is, I’ve always loved to write.

When I came to the University of Toronto in 2011, my brother who was studying Engineering at the time warned me about the campus atmosphere.  That it can be terribly isolating, so it’s best to find something outside of class that you can occupy your time with.   So I reached out to the campus newspaper and began writing comment pieces.  I continue writing for much of my years at U of T.

Then in May of 2014, I became President of a campus students’ union.  Taking on this role has changed my life and I do not regret it for one second.  That said, it also introduced me to stresses that I had never really experienced before and this had an impact on my writing.  For one thing, I had a lot less time available to write, so I was writing less.  But my writing was also consistently mediocre, it would be like listening to a broken record play.

I’ve always seen writing as a method of storytelling. No matter whether your piece is a work of fiction or not, fundamentally a writer is trying to convey a message to their reader.  My best writing has always been tied to the emotional labour I put into it.   I write the best when I’m relating either my personal experiences or the experiences of others that I can relate to.   And that became a problem.  If your writing is tied to your emotional labour, what happens when you become emotionally exhausted?   I found that when I did get the chance to write, I would tap into an energy of frustration that I channeled into my writing.  I used the stresses of student politics as my inspiration and that produced pieces that sounded similar and had the same narrative running through them. I simply did not have the energy to write about anything else at the time.

That is not to say that writing about what frustrates you is a bad thing.  Writing can often be cathartic and allows you to release pent up emotions. It became a problem for me when those frustrations were occupying too much space.  I could not write about anything else and when I did – it frankly sucked.  My academic work was also not garnering me any rave reviews.  I found myself asking whether or not I would produce anything good anymore.

Fast forward to the present.  I’ve begun a new journey this break, a journey to rediscover my voice in my writing. This will be a long journey that will undoubtedly produce many drafts, many cups of coffee and many nights looking at blank screens.  It is about learning how to put myself in everything I write, every story I write without allowing my inspiration to be based purely on my emotional labour.  I hope to be able to tell many stories and write many different things, while keeping a sense of myself embedded in the words I write.   Part of this journey of course, involves taking better care of myself as well.

This is a journey that begins now, not in a farmhouse in Nebraska, but in a suburb in Toronto and one that I hope will carry on into the new year inshallah.

And I hope you’ll come along for the ride.