Into the Unknown

I handed in a resume to two school boards today, with a little breathless hesitancy, covered over by my best attempt at a calm and friendly smile. I think one of the most helpful and underrated teaching techniques I’ve come by is pretending to be confident and relaxed even when you aren’t. That way at least somebody feels like you know what you’re doing.

It’s strange to be reaching the end of a chapter of my life that I’ve been in for what feels like forever, and yet also seems to have gone by so fast. After being in college and university for the past five years, the thought of finding a full time job, getting married, wading through Canada-US immigration, moving into a new place and beginning life as a couple is all a little frightening. I have nightmares of being a stay-at-home job seeker, trying desperately to get some work as a substitute teacher while Michelle and I both struggle and learn through all the things that come with life on our own. I don’t actually have nightmares — they’re more like flashes of panic in the middle of an English class or on a bus ride — the kind that I imagine might flash through the mind of someone about to jump out of the open door on their first attempt at skydiving. It’s this feeling of, “ohmygoodnessidontactuallyknowificanmakeit!”

But I can make it. The panic subsides. I reason with myself and look at all the years I’ve spent preparing to be a teacher and tell myself that I’m equipped and able to live through my first year of teaching students. I can do it. Or I think back on my first field experience of student teaching and think of how I felt after the initial newness of it all had faded — how comfortable and familiar I began to feel with the kids. I can calm myself by looking at school board websites and budgeting tools, estimating how Michelle and I will be able to make it through our first year financially. It all helps.

But ultimately I find myself looking back over the past few years. I think of all the unknowns that have now become landmarks behind me, and all the questions I once had that have since fallen into place. I think of all the desperate prayers I’ve voiced, and how they’ve been answered, in some way or another, just as the Lord desired. I think of Michelle, and the fact that, though I feel pretty unprepared to care for her and provide for us as a couple, I’ve seen the way God has cared and provided for us along the way, with each of our faltering steps. I remind myself that “thus far the Lord has helped us,” (1 Sam. 7:12) and we can know that He will continue to do so.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed about all the things that have to come together —all the details that need to be sorted out, and and all the changes that need to be adjusted to. But I know that we haven’t been alone. And I know that He who has brought us this far will lead us where we need to go, and provide for us in the moments of uncertainty and craziness. It’s exciting, exhilarating, stretching and fun, and I’m so glad I’m not alone in this journey into the unknown.

On Being a Student/Teacher

I don’t think I’ve ever had a semester of university where I’ve felt so conscious of how close I am to the actual responsibilities of a teacher, and yet been so acutely aware of my student-ness at the same time. It’s been the first semester where I don’t have a single class under 110 minutes (the person who thought that was a good idea obviously forgot what being in those classes was like). It’s also the first semester that I have made a conscious effort to start doodling in some of my classes, just to help me get through the class. At the same time, this is the first semester that I’ve gotten to step into a real Canadian school (since eighth grade).

My journey back into junior high has been an interesting one. So far I’ve only spent a few Fridays observing in classes, but it’s been enough to remind me of what high school is like. I’ve found that while lunch break in a junior high can look a lot like a zoo with all its enclosures open, there’s something uniquely calming about walking through that zoo a head taller than everyone else. Because as I walk through the sea of noise and bits of food or wrappers left after a messy feeding, there’s a degree of safety that comes with wearing the zoo-keeper clothes.

Of course, it’s not all crazy. One of the joys of being with junior high kids is the constant variety — the smiles as well as the snarls. It only took one boy and his brief spell of acting like a cat to bring back memories of my own junior days — when hissing at a new teacher might be thought of as a good idea — for a moment. The thing is, I remember. I remember the tangle of peer-pressure and social anxiety that junior high brought. I remember spending most of a math class colouring every other square of my page in my notebook, invoking an angry outburst of passion from my normally placid teacher in the process. I remember the joy of writing something that got that cherished praise in red pen. And I remember trying impossibly to keep up with numbers that became increasingly invaded by the fringes of the alphabet. I can remember spending whole classes drawing pictures on a graphing calculator by arranging 1’s and 0’s. I can remember filling pages of notebooks with the beginnings of stories and ideas for would-be books. I can remember what it was like to spend reading time with popular science magazines instead of “real” books, and I can remember the long hours that I spent making stop-motion powerpoint presentations that had nothing to do with school.

And now I’m here — drawing pictures in the margins of university handouts and stretching the coffee breaks as long as I can, walking back to class slowly with friends, dreading the next hour of lecture. In some ways not much has changed. I’m still that same boy. I still get tired of sitting in a chair for more than an hour at a time, and I still like talking to my classmates as much as teachers will allow. I still work harder on poems and blogs that have nothing to do with school than I do on assignments or exams — even in university.

For two more weeks I am a university student. But my place is changing. More and more often I find myself standing at the front of the classroom. Soon I’ll be the one handing out work and trying to get kids to have some interest in the lessons I’ve planned. I’ll be the one trying to convince them that school is worthwhile and that bringing a pencil to class should be a fairly routine task. A part of me is terrified — terrified that I might face students like myself, or like my classmates, when we were in junior high. But at the same time, I’m excited too, because I know. I know what it’s like to be in boring classes, and I know how fun the good ones are too. I know that most people (myself included) have things that they love and care about, which usually aren’t worksheets or homework assignments. I know these things now, and I just hope I continue to remember them. It may not make teaching any less like working in a zoo, but it just might make that zoo feel a little less strange — a little more normal.

So as I walk this strange no-man’s land between teacher and student, I hope I can see what it’s like on both sides — to remember what it was like being an animal in a zoo, running through the halls, so that when I’m the zookeeper, and I’m the one despairing over spaghetti smeared onto the floor, I can smile at the sloths slouching against the walls and remember what it was like to be them.

Life in Pieces: the Attempt of Life Writing

This paper was something I wrote for an English class in university. Thanks to a flexible teacher, and an open invitation for an assignment, I was able to have a lot of fun and tackle a topic that was really meaningful to me. We were asked to write for an audience other than our professor, and to write in a style that would be appropriate for our chosen venue. So, with her permission, I wrote for my blog. I’ve changed some of citation formatting used in the original paper, but other than that, here it is:


Life in Pieces: the Attempt of Life Writing

“Where are you from?” The question seemed to suck the air out of the room. Pictures and memories filled my mind. The home that I grew up in. The dusty streets I played in. School in the mountains. Fog and rain hovering over the trees as the monsoons poured from the skies. Too many memories. Then, in Canada, there was my grandparents’ house. Summers spent picking raspberries and running to the community pool.

“Three Hills, Alberta.” It was simpler. No need to explain the torrent of memories with its confusing variety of places. Three Hills was a piece of the truth. A small piece. The real truth was too messy. Where am I from? The answer, if there was one, was in stories — memories and pieces. But people don’t want pieces, they want history. A history that can be fit on a page.

History is not just the story you read. It is the one you write. It is the one you remember or denounce or relate to others. It is not predetermined. Every action, every decision, however small, is relevant to its course… (plaque in Canadian War Museum, Ottawa)

27 December 2007.

Benazir Bhutto is assassinated in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. A man levelled a gun at her as she was leaving a rally, standing in the skylight of a car. She was shot twice — once in the neck. A few seconds later, a second man detonated a bomb he was wearing. Almost two dozen people around the car were killed in the blast.

I remember standing in the darkness on our roof, staring out over Hyderabad at the glow from burning tires, dancing on the walls of apartment buildings nearby. There were people shouting. I could see a figure walking in the dark street below, carrying a large tv he had looted from a store. We had a small stack of loose bricks on the roof. I can’t even remember what we ever used them for. But that night I asked my dad if I could throw one down from the roof. I was fourteen. I suppose it made sense to me at the time. Looters were in the streets below. Justice could be mine to deal out in the form of a brick. They wouldn’t even know where it came from. It would just drop on them out of the darkness. I’m glad my dad said no.

We had people over at our house for a late Christmas get together. They ended up staying the night since it was too dangerous to go home in the rioting. They slept in different rooms around our house. It was like a multi-family sleepover. My dad drove a few families back to their homes in the quiet of the early morning, when the chaos had died down. Soon after, the rioting started again, and no one could go anywhere.

History remembers the death of the first female Prime Minister of the Muslim world. I remember the fires burning across the city. I remember a brick.

History, like narrative, becomes, therefore, a process, not a product. It is a lived experience for both reader and writer (Hutcheon 306).

Prairie Heart

I long to see that surging ocean
of grasses in the breeze,
I long to hear the gentle winds
wash o’er the emerald seas.

I long to gaze across the world
and see where sky meets earth,
I long to breathe the moving air,
that gives my life rebirth.

I long to be on that pleasant sea,
the true pacific calm,
I long to ride the waves of grass,
where a prairie heart is home.

I wrote these lines four years ago. I hadn’t even left Pakistan yet. I never would have written them today. There’s something naive about them — not just in the style, but in the longing. I never actually had a prairie heart. I had pictures from Grandma and Grandpa. Memories from the long drives across Canada the few times we were visiting “home.”

Reading these lines now, I realize what I wanted most. Not to be home in Canada — it felt the least like home — but just to have a home. To belong somewhere. I suppose I thought I could write home into existence. I thought I could write a past I didn’t have. I wanted to be the prairie boy missing home — but I was a boy whose only prairies were the yellow fields I saw in calendars from Canada, hanging on the wall by the light switches in my parents’ bedroom.


“You grew up in Pakistan?” At some point the question gets old. I always know what comes next. I’ve it so many times before — that question that was never thought through enough before it came bumbling out of someone’s mouth in an effort to understand. “Pakistan, eh? What was that like?” What was it like? What was eighteen years of my life like? What was eighteen years of travelling, learning, living, loving like?

“Good.” The answer usually seemed as empty as the question. Though, at least they tried. I’m never sure what kind of answer was expected. A quick history of my life? A few colourful descriptors for a country they didn’t know or understand? I never know.

“To write of anyone’s history is to order, to give form to disparate facts; in short, to fictionalize. […] narrativization is a form of human comprehension, a way to impose meaning and form on the chaos of a historical event.” (Hutcheon 302)

We went to a lot of museums, growing up. I would usually run ahead, looking at all the displays while my parents read the descriptions on the exhibits. I wasn’t as patient. History was what I could see — old tools, pottery, weapons, and clothes. Objects from years passed. Objects from foreign places. History. I would stare at them through the glass where they sat protected, contained, preserved; their labels and descriptions filling in the gaps between seeing and understanding.


I had a small bug collection given to me when I was a boy. Someone was passing on the small selection: a scorpion, a few butterflies, a large centipede, and a few others. Each of them were impaled with tiny pins to keep them on their display. I always wanted to add to it. I would catch butterflies with all their vibrant colours, wanting to keep them forever and preserve them on my board.

But I was never able to add one to my collection. I couldn’t bear to kill them — to stick that pin through in that piercing act of documentation. And so my board never got more bugs. I can’t even remember what happened to it. It used to sit up on a shelf with its small rows of exoskeletons, collecting dust.

I would try to draw the butterflies instead; sketching the intricate veins that traced through the wings, trying to bring them to life with crayola colouring pencils, as best as my sixth grade scribbling could do. But even these were a flat replica at best. The butterflies were always most beautiful when I saw them free, resting on a flower — their vibrant mosaics opening and closing to reveal their kaleidoscope wings.

My grandparents have a glass display of butterflies at their house, hanging on the wall by the back door. Sometimes I take it off the wall to look at the wings from the other side — the hidden side, with their subdued browns and earthy tones.


A few days
its deep purple petals
splash their vibrance — a radiant violet

But too soon
the stem begins to feel its scar.
Like dried blood, its colour

In time
each pale and crinkled tissue drops
until only a skeleton stem remains.
It too, soon,
will fade

It took me a while to begin peeling back the layers of memories from Pakistan. I had realized it was easier to be Canadian for conversations. It wasn’t worth having to explain my life story to everyone. Besides, it usually didn’t explain anything.

But alone, on paper I would sink into the recesses of memory — to look at scars of memories I had covered up because they were too complicated to talk about. Good scars. I began to write the stories — to order the places, people, and words. In his book Running in the Family Michael Ondaatje wrote, “History is organized” (p. 26). But people aren’t. Most times my stories don’t seem to have any order at all. They’re just pieces. Good times. Hard times.


I used to push back against anything Canadian in me. There was a feeling that accepting the fact that I was here now would mean rejecting the fact that I was ever anywhere else. It was either one or the other. So what was I? Pakistani? Canadian? Both; and yet somehow neither.

Somewhere along the way I accepted that I would never be Canadian. I’d never be Pakistani either. I’d just be stuck somewhere in the middle. Or maybe I wouldn’t. Maybe being stuck in one or the other was what I feared most — the fear that kept me drifting.


To write self-reflexively of history as a process in progress, instead of as a completed product, is to breakdown the finality of the formal narrative closure. (Hutcheon 312)

Today, some of the confusion has left. I’m still faced with the impossibility of trying to mediate a past full of memories and experiences that seem to escape me. I try to write glimpses and fragments of a world I can never really capture.

Somehow there is solace in the past. There’s something both frightening and exhilarating about reaching back into memories — rearranging, reordering, reliving. I wonder sometimes if it’s really the past I’m trying to understand or if it’s actually the present. Maybe I’m just ordering the pieces of myself, trying to make sense of it all. But in the end, there’s often little sense to be made. There’s no real story to tell, no lesson — just pieces. Pieces that, in some ways, die the instant they’re put on a page — contained and preserved, their angular skeleton strokes lying in neat rows of letters. They become lifeless, ordered history.

The stories we live are rarely like the stories we read — like those in we find in history. We may try to lay out and describe a person, down to the last bone of their body, but the result is never a person. The Japanese have a style of painting called hatsuboku, or “splashed ink”, where artists splatter ink onto a page and then paint with what is is on the paper — the little drops of black ink, waiting come to life. You have little control over how the paint gets on the page — only what you paint with it once it’s there. Life writing tends to be similar. We don’t choose the events that happen to us, but we make the best of what we are given and paint a picture as well as we can.

Despite the failures of writing in capturing life, there’s something valuable about it as well. It’s a chance to learn and make sense of the jumble of memories and experiences that make up a person. The finished product will be far from the actual life, but it will be an attempt — at best, a sketch of a butterfly with crayola colouring pencils. Like Michael Ondaatje said of his Running in the Family: “The book again is incomplete”(p. 201). Life writing will always be incomplete. It’s only ever an endeavour, in scraps and pieces, glimpses and glances, to capture the life of a person and the memories that make them who they are.


Quotes taken from:

Hutcheon, Linda. “Running in the Family: The Postmodernist Challenge.” Spider Blues: Essays on Michael Ondaatje. Ed. Sam Solecki. Montréal, Canada: Véhicule, 1985. Print.

Ondaatje, Michael. Running in the Family. New York: Vintage International, 1993. Print.

A Failure’s Guide to Writing in University


If you have any aspirations to be a writer, or you enjoy writing, reading, or generally tossing around ideas and theories, don’t go to university.

Before I go any further, let me preface this blog by saying: lots of people enjoy university. These people, whether by amazing chance or undying optimism, continue to find motivation and purpose despite the dozens of papers they have to write during their university existence. I, on the other hand, have had a different experience. I do have to say though, I have had some classes, papers and assignments that I have enjoyed and thrived in. Unfortunately, these tend to be more like snow days — you have to go through weeks and weeks of trudging along through mounds of snow, that are just not quite enough for schools to close, before you finally reach that limit — that ever alluring snow day. The same goes for papers. It takes a lot of boring papers before you get to the occasional nice ones.

Writing papers is a slow suicide of your ability to write. By the time I left high school, I thought I knew how to write a paper. I mean, in many ways it’s pretty simple — come up with a driving statement that can be broken into three different points, and then write. It seems simple enough, but somehow, in college, I started to give up on this. The usual formula of the essay just didn’t cut it. It bored me, and likewise bored my reader — or should have. I have been a little surprised sometimes at how the most cookie-cutter essays I have written have still gotten me by in university.

Regardless, formula bored me, so I scrapped it. I had a couple good classes that were loose enough to allow me to step out of the normal “analyze rhetorical strategies in a book you don’t care about” and was able to try something different. So I went for blogging. I’ve gotten used to writing these blogs and have developed a bit of a system that feels comfortable. And knowing I have a much easier time writing blogs than I do writing papers, I decided to try it. So, rather than come prepared for rigidity and analytical arguments, I relaxed. I had fun. I let myself write in a way that felt natural. This worked really well on a couple select papers (well, I can only think of one that I used it for. I have yet to get back my grade for my second attempt at this). But I hit a wall with this too.

The problem I’m now facing is that I really don’t want to write anymore. I’m tired of reading, tired of writing, tired of blogs, tired of papers — tired of it all. Instead of feeling like I’m actually getting anywhere with my writing, I just feel that all the guidelines I used to use have just fallen apart. I’ve watched as I made terrible sentences in emails and then just left them because, frankly, I didn’t care. When you spend hours upon hours of your life fixing your writing so that you can get good grades, bad sentence construction in an email doesn’t even warrant the effort.

So, here I am. I have papers to write that I really don’t care about writing at all. The world doesn’t need one more paper on a work of eighteenth Century literature. And, to add to my lack of care, I’m not even sure I know how to write well anymore. I’m somewhere in between recklessness and hopelessness, and don’t know what to do. But, as the saying goes: “desperation breeds ingenuity.” And I am desperate. Perhaps the fact that I am boring the world with a blog about my paper-writing speaks to how dull this all really is. I mean, who writes about writing papers? But, I have to remember I’m writing a “guide”, so I’ll explain what I intend to do now, if it’s at all interesting.

Since I’m so bored of words, of which I seem to have far too many in this blog, I’ve decided to step away from the way I usually write and take a stab at trying to build a visual map of my paper instead. Having said this, I realize it really doesn’t seem that revolutionary. I mean, authors have been mapping out novels and other books for years, so why wouldn’t I? But, I suppose that’s half the point. I’ve decided being an academic is not for me. However, I’m in university and I still have two more years worth of papers to write. So, I’m going to throw the academic out the window and try my hand at being a writer — an author. I don’t mean that in a pompous or noble sense. I mean, I’d love to be an author someday, but I’m certainly not there yet and probably won’t be any time soon. But I do think there’s something valuable to stepping away from the formula of writing, and asking myself: How can I make this interesting for me? And, in answer to that question, one of the first things that comes into my head is: make it something else. Make it different.

As a result, I’ve decided to try something new. Try visual. Try pictures. Try pieces of paper spread all over a desk. Start with fragments and allow them to fail to relate to each other. Embrace the mess of writing and let the scraps fill an empty space. And then, once you have a perfect mess in front of you, try to put it together. Figure out what threads and ideas are pulling the pieces together and begin to stitch the fragments into a paper. The result will be… well, I don’t know yet. It could be failure. If so, that’s alright too. I’ve only ever failed one paper in my life, and it didn’t kill me. I just wrote a new one. People are little like teacups. It’s our failures that shape us — that push us into a form, bend out the handle, and scoop out a hole in the centre of us. All our successes do is to add the shiny glaze on the outside of the cup. Successes may look pretty, but it’s our failures that make us who we are.

So, bored reader, if you are you are still reading, and for some odd reason found my stories about writing papers remotely engaging, here are some encouragements I have for surviving papers in university:

1) A bored writer makes a bored reader. If you’re finding yourself bored writing a paper, your reader will probably find themselves bored too. And though good writing may still warrant an average grade, it’s not ideal. So, find a way to make the paper interesting for yourself. Pick a topic that you’ll enjoy. And if you hate them all, suggest one to your teacher, if they allow that. And if they don’t, take the topic you hate least and play with it until you find something interesting about it. And, if all else fails and you absolutely hate them all, at least make the process of writing an adventure.

2) Take risks. Don’t attempt stream-of-consciousness writing in a university paper — that’s not the kind of risk I’m talking about. But try something different. Don’t be afraid to experiment and break out of the box, even if it’s just your own box. University might seem like a scary place to experiment with your writing, but don’t let it scare you. What better place to practice than when you have doctors (that can’t save people’s lives) reading your work, and giving you feedback because they’re paid to? In some ways I think university is really the best place to take risks with writing. So try different things. Push your writing in ways you haven’t done before and mix up your method. Chances are you’ll come out of university with a much better handle on what works best for you.

3) Let your voice be heard. Too often I’ve put my voice on the back burner and have opted instead to let the academic in me speak. I use big words, repeat myself for emphasis, talk about things I don’t care about, and work myself into arguments that are as empty as the daunting page I’m trying to fill. Don’t do that. Be intelligent. Be analytical. But most of all, be you. People want to hear you, and you have things to say, so say them. Again, sometimes I can almost be afraid to let my voice come through, as if it doesn’t have a place in the fancy halls of university academia. But why shouldn’t my voice be heard while I’m in university? Shouldn’t I be able to let me show through? I almost fear that if I go too long without letting my voice be heard, it’ll soon learn to be silent out of habit. I don’t want to do that, especially since my voice is the only one I have.

4) Have fun. Writing a paper, fun? I know it may seem like a stretch, but it’s worth a try. I mean, look at writers like Coleridge or De Quincy — they knew the secret of being happy while you write, and decided opium was the way to do that. Please, don’t try opium to enhance your university writing. I don’t think that works well. But, do find a way to have fun and enjoy writing. Make tea, go for a walk, talk to a friend, draw. Do something that will either help you break out of the mundane task of writing (as long as you come back to it eventually, feeling happier and more motivated) or do something that will let you think about your paper and work it out in a way that makes it feel fun. “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” — and we all know dull boys don’t write good papers.

And, that’s my “failure’s guide to writing in university”. I think I could basically sum this all up as attempts to try to keep myself from getting bored and from getting stuck in the dusty cobwebs of university writing. University really isn’t all that bad. In fact, I almost enjoy it. It’s that necessary adversary that encourages me to fight back and strengthens me in the process. I just need to find ways to make the journey interesting and different. So, as a final encouragement:

5) Don’t let university be something that’s done to you. Be the doer. Shape your own experience in a way that helps you learn the best and keeps you most engaged.

Fall Leaves


Fall is here. It seemed to come almost out of nowhere. One day all the leaves were green, and the next they were red and yellow, and half of them were on the ground. Now my feet kick up all those loose pieces strewn along the sidewalks.

I forget how much I love fall. I love the cool days, as the trees look emptier and emptier by the hour and sway gently in the breeze. The wind blows through the streets, scattering the leaves across the road and into little dips or corners where they lie, trapped, restless. The hedges begin to drop their leaves as well, and soon they start to look naked. The houses that were normally hidden behind them suddenly find themselves exposed for all to see. The bare skeletons of the hedges seem to fit right in with the thin bars of the gate that leads into the fading lawn around the apartment, usually open and creaking gently on it’s hinges.

Fall brings back memories of our furloughs in Canada, the few times we happened to be staying in Ontario or travelling through BC. I think the trees were prettier there — or there were more of them. Fall reminds me of what Canada was for an eight year old, walking down sidewalks of a country that wasn’t really his own, but was somehow supposed to be. It reminds me of rushing out the door with coats on to run with my brother across the road and climb on the big tanks outside the armoury. To feel the cool metal of their hard shells and trace my finger over the glass of the tiny peephole with it’s spiderweb cracks running down through all the layers of the bulletproof glass. It reminds me of those wars we fought in, hanging off those armoured sides, firing pinecones out the gun, that happened to become grenades later if they needed to be — those wars that stopped for supper, or for two little boys’ bladders when necessity and desperation called us back to the house.

Now these memories come with each leaf that skitters along the sidewalk, as the cool air gnaws at my face and I find myself in the body of this twenty-one year old. I watch and listen to the kids that climb all over the school playground by our house, squealing with delight. Their fall coats hanging off them, like half-ignored mother’s attempts to keep her children warm. Their cheeks are probably pink like mine, their hands cool from the multicoloured bars they climb on and cling to. My own cold hands grip the blue metal of my bike handle bars as I pass them by, off to university where this twenty-one year old body belongs.

Fall is full of change. There’s something almost melancholy about watching the world, filled with its rusty reds and turmeric yellows begin to unravel before your eyes. I’ve kept a few red leaves in some vain effort to freeze time. Preserve, preserve. Change is beautiful. Can’t it stay like this forever? It never does. I suppose it wouldn’t be change if it did. Instead, once the leaves are all off and the colours rust into a earthy brown, there’s nothing left holding back the next change.  And then before you know it, the leaves are covered in a blanket of white, there to stay until spring.