The Life Between the Line

pencil-1692531_1920I remember my parents making fun of my brother, Stephen, for how terrible he was at communicating when he was in boarding. They always said, “It’s difficult to read between the line,” because there was only ever one, in his emails. He’s never been a man of many words when it comes to writing.

As I look back on the past several months, I wonder if my parents are saying the same thing about me. I think about the amount of short ‘one-liners’ I’ve sent off to my parents or friends lately. I know I mean well. I’m always wanting to set aside a good chunk of time at some point to write a proper email and give a more full picture of things, but it usually doesn’t happen. My all-or-nothing approach with emails usually means people either get emails that resemble text messages, or nothing at all. I’m still waiting for that time when I decide to sit down and write out a proper email.

Unfortunately, so much of life happens between the lines. So many of the thoughts we have throughout the day, or the experiences we go through, never quite make it out to the people who want to hear all about it. I realize this even with Michelle each day, as things get missed or forgotten. And it’s always the craziest or best stories that are the hardest to relate. Some of the biggest lessons, impressions, and insights seem to fall into the blank silences between the lines, as words so often fail to express the beauty and complexity of these moments.

As everyone knows, it’s often when more things are happening in life that communication gets harder and harder. And as the schedule fills up, the conversations are pushed to the sidelines. It doesn’t mean that the conversations become secondary, it just means that as the quantity of story to tell increases, the motivation to tell it decreases. Before you know it, life becomes “a long story” that you hardly ever have time to tell, with all the backstory, prefaces and appendixes to everything that makes up our experiences.

That is, I suppose, the nature of life. So much of it is unexplainable and passes by in a beauty and chaos that can’t quite be captured in words. And yet, it also begs to be described and communicated. As the writer, Thomas Mann noted, “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” And I’m sure, in the same way, it’s the most beautiful moments, of life that art and artists struggle to put to canvas, or to capture with a camera. It’s impossible.

Life is an unpaintable model. However, you may read between the lines in this post, and realize that I do need to work on my communication. I’m a procrastinator at my core, I think— especially when it comes to written communication — always waiting for that perfect moment to start something, when nothing else is getting in the way. But everything always gets in the way. And so, this is part of my effort at doing a better job — choosing to start, and put words on paper; choosing  to try to capture the fleeting moments of life.


Disconnect, re-connect. Touch down, take off. Sleep. Sleep some more. Recently, life has just been a whirlwind of moving. It’s been almost a month since I slept in my own room. Instead, I’ve been all over the place on beds, floors and couches, a few sleeps at a time. Now I’m back. Still not in my bed, but in my house at least. And while in some ways it’s good to get back into routine, In other ways, routine is hard. I’m faced with the job of reconnecting — of going back to classes, meeting people, doing homework, doing laundry, and trying to return to “normal”. Only, normal isn’t always where my heart would like to be.

A week ago today, I said goodbye to my girlfriend, Michelle, and boarded a plane back to Alberta and my life in Edmonton. These few days have been filled with remembering. Re-membering. I’ve never really thought about the word before. I suppose it’s the opposite of dismemberingcutting off a persons limbs, dividing them or tearing them apart, as Oxford Dictionary of English puts it. Time and distance, they both seem to dismember. Whether it’s people, places, or things, separation hurts as distance pulls apart, muddies memories and fades recollections. But I re-member — piecing together the fragments of memory, attempting to undo the separation — to somehow preserve.

I have a pair of mittens Michelle wore a few times when I was with her, when her hands were freezing and her gloves weren’t warm enough to help. Now they smell like her, and if I hold them to my nose and close my eyes, I’m almost there. Almost with her. I remember. I walk back through memories, attempting to freeze a moment or hold on to a thought, a smile or a word. I stop reading mid-sentence in a book Michelle lent me, to trace the folded crease in the corner of the page — knowing that her fingers were there a few weeks ago, folding that spot to mark the page. I use a note from her as a bookmark — a note from our short time in Montana, left on the door for me when I arrived late at night. “We’re glad you’re here,” it ended. A little smiley face peeks out at me from where it sticks out of my book. I cherish the pieces — all the little dismembered fragments.

I fear the way memories seem to slip away in time, and fade. It’s getting harder to smell the scent on the mittens now. Before long they’ll be back to being “normal”, and I’ll start wearing them again, and stop trying to preserve that little hint of a memory. Thankfully Skype, letters, emails and pictures make up for that fading smell. They fill that space between the next plane ticket and the next goodbye. They help the remembering.

I remember. I try with so many things. I try desperately to preserve Pakistan in my mind, to gather together memories in a room somewhere in my heart, where I can go back and walk through them all, hoping they haven’t changed. I hoard the memories together, as many as I can, so they’ll be there, somewhere. But they always change. Change is inevitable. Memory is fluid, and fragile, just like the hearts it lives in. I find comfort in a verse Michelle shared with me this week – in knowing that there’s One who never forgets, whose memories don’t fade, and who isn’t dismembered by time or distance. And even when my foolish heart forgets, I am remembered.

Shout for joy, O heavens! And rejoice, O earth!
Break forth into joyful shouting, O mountains!
For the Lord has comforted His people
And will have compassion on His afflicted.
But Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me,
And the Lord has forgotten me.”
“Can a woman forget her nursing child
And have no compassion on the son of her womb?
Even these may forget, but I will not forget you.
“Behold, I have inscribed you on the palms of My hands;
Your walls are continually before Me.

Isaiah 49:13-16

Culture Shock

Prior to returning to Canada, I often viewed the term ‘culture shock’ with some degree of skepticism. When here on furlough, people in Canada would always ask me if I experienced ‘culture shock’ when I went to Pakistan, to which I would always answer truthfully, “no.” Having grown up in Pakistan, I simply imagined culture shock as a show of cultural weakness. Culture shock was when people would become overwhelmed with ideas and practices so different from their own, and would find themselves sitting in the shelter of some home, under a fan, unable to take a step out of their door because of the unaccustomed heat. It wasn’t until I actually read some of the symptoms of culture shock that I realized I had experienced the exact same thing, and continue to go through it at different times in my life.

Reading through symptoms such as boredom, withdrawal, homesickness, irritability, anger and disgust, suddenly so many of my feelings during my first year in Canada began to make sense. Very rarely was I overwhelmed by a culture that I didn’t expect. Canadian culture was relatively known to me. I had been back at different times in my childhood to visit relatives, and even went to school in Ontario for a couple short periods of time. I certainly knew what I was going back to, but simply knowing didn’t make the ‘going back’ any easier. I found I had little patience for aspects of life or culture in Canada that went so much against what I was used to. I hated the stress that was put on individualism, where people pass each other in cars, ignore each other on the streets, and try as hard as they can not to impede on anyone else’s personal space. Whatever happened to squeezing through a crowd in order to go where you wanted? What happened to the sounds, smells and colours that were supposed to fill the outside air? Life in Canada seems so much more antiseptic, cold, and and unfriendly.

I would find myself constantly comparing my life as it had been in Pakistan with what it had become here, in Canada. Canada was always worse, of course. I would feel lost at times, but somehow it was Canada’s fault. I felt alone, or that I couldn’t relate to other people now and then, but I always told myself it was their fault – they were so different, so Canadian, so bland, just like potatoes. I hardly ever make potatoes for myself here, for exactly the same reasons: they are so common, ordinary and banal. I have them everywhere I go – why make them myself? I always make rice. Perhaps I do this partly out of protest and a sense of nostalgia – as another way to remind myself that my eating habits aren’t ‘Canadian’. But at the same time, I do it because I love it. I love that it’s not Canadian and that people don’t eat it all the time here – so I do.

I always felt like a stranger in Canada, though no one around me could tell from the way I looked. Being born a Canadian, with Canadian parents, there’s little I can do about the fact that I look caucasian. Canadians still treat me like a Canadian, which I am not. Worse still are the internationals, who treat me like Canadians as well, not realizing that my own life and experiences are probably very close to their own, and that I might be going through the very same struggles that they are. Often I’ve wished I looked more like a stranger outwardly, so that at least people would treat me the way that I felt about myself. It’s hard when your skin says you should fit in, but your heart and all that’s in it won’t let you.

I hated that everything was clean here. At times I would have to hold back the urge to throw garbage on the ground out of spite for Canada and its perfectness. Cars here weren’t covered in scratches and held together with tape or odd parts. Everything was different. I resisted being Canadian. I didn’t want to be one, and I didn’t want to become like one. I fought the natural tendency to adapt and assimilate, because I wanted to stay the way I was – I didn’t want to fit in. As I made friends and found myself out with them, stopping in at a Tim Hortons, or going sledding in the winter, I would catch myself enjoying normal things and getting used to life in Canada. However, I didn’t actually want to become accustomed to it all. I wanted to be different. I wanted to be Pakistani.

In some ways things haven’t changed. I still hate aspects of Canadian culture that revolve around things like materialism, individualism or selfishness. I still feel that I’ll never be Canadian, but I realize that I’ll never really be Pakistani either. I’ve come to enjoy many things about Canada, and I appreciate my friends and the fun we have. People are people, no matter where they are. I certainly don’t want my life here in Canada to last forever, but I appreciate it for what it is, and I am glad for it during the time that I am here. I suppose a big part of this was realizing that the Canadian and the Pakistani in me don’t have to be at war. I can find aggravating aspects in both cultures and choose to leave them behind, and I can find the parts of each culture that are precious and valuable and choose hold on to them in my life. I don’t have to be one or the other – because I’m not. I’ll always be a little mixed up over who I am, where I belong, or what my culture is, but I suppose that is really my culture after all: that of a third culture kid. I’m always too much at home to be a stranger and too much a stranger to be at home.

Fragile Places

Some places seem to be much more fragile than others. This summer, I had the opportunity to go and help out at a Bible camp just for a couple of weeks, to help as a cabin leader. At the start of the week, kids would pile into the camp with their parents, some nervous, some excited to get to know each other and enjoy the games and many excitements of camp. And for the whole week, I would find myself extremely busy and happy spending time with the nine twelve-year-olds in my cabin, counsellors, and all the other kids running around the camp as well. Doing devotions, praying together, eating together and playing games together, we soon got to know each other very well, and before long we felt like a little family – the nine boys, myself and my junior counsellor.

However, before long, the week came to a close. The kids packed up and got ready to home. Dirty clothes and numerous little injuries told the story of all the fun they had. The night before the boys had to leave, some talked about how they wanted to come back next year and do the same thing – that we should all come back next year and be together again. I was happy to hear that they enjoyed it, and to hear them long for a ‘repeat’ in a way, but I knew the truth – that this week could never be repeated again. Camp is a fragile place. It lasts for a week, and in that week there’s an amazing mix of kids and counsellors, which makes the whole time so worthwhile. But this mix of kids and counsellors and experiences can’t last forever, and it can never happen again. It just won’t. Never again will all the same kids be together, with all the same counsellors and be able to enjoy being together all over again. That’s life.

MCS, my old boarding school, is a fragile place. I can remember in my final year of high school, lying in bed, thinking about the changes that would take place when graduation day came. Never again could I walk through these halls I knew to find the same friends in the same rooms. Never again would I take my toothbrush at bedtime and seek out the company of the guys in my class while I brushed – to sit on their beds and try to talk through the toothpaste to them. We would all be replaced. Soon these rooms would be someone else’s, or they would be left empty – as they have been. Some of us might come back and visit and, by chance, may even be together at the same time, and be able to re-live some shadow of our experiences in high school, but it would never be the same.

Some places are solid. Like a tree or house – even the school building we spent so many years in, these places stay more or less the same. Of course, there are always changes. Trees grow bigger, houses change – but they are still there, they continue on. You can climb a tree you climbed in your youth and sit on the same branch, and look out to the same view and, for the most part, it can be the same.

Camp and boarding school are like grenades. All the fragments and particles share space and memories together for moment in time, but when their time is up, the pin is pulled and all the pieces explode across the world – blown into a million tiny shards. Exciting. Painful. Never again can they be put back together. Never again can they be the same.

However, this doesn’t make the fragile places less precious. I really hope my feelings are never mistaken for bitterness or anger, because it’s not like that at all. These places are still so valuable, and the experiences and memories don’t lose their meaning because of the violent separation involved. But I know that some places and experiences will never be the same. One might gather a few fragments to piece together something that looks similar, and bears some semblance of the original object, but still, everything has changed.
These are the fragile places.

Old Friends and Frozen Feet

Sometimes you forget that you have been missing things until you’re enjoying them again. This weekend I had the wonderful pleasure of having Daniel visit me in Red Deer for the weekend. After a crazy lack of proper directions and almost no arrangements of when, where and how to meet each other, he made it into the front doors of the college late Friday evening to meet me while I lounged, waiting in flip flops on the window sill of the main hallway, catching the strange looks of those passing by.

For so long I had been looking forward for this wonderful chance to spend time together and hang out again, yet when it actually came, I hardly noticed it was unusual to have Daniel around. The good memories of the past seem to lapse into familiarity in moments, no matter how long you have gone without them. We spent our time catching up over cups of tea, wonderful food, chopstick walrus teeth and far-too-late bed times with make-shift sleeping arrangements. I was only glad for my health’s sake that we don’t get to hang out all the time, or these dark lines under my eyes would soon become permanent residents of my face.

Thankfully we managed to do everything that we had planned for the short weekend, including a children’s story book about Mr. Poo, a character Daniel created back in high school, and a picture of us painted with mud, baring our arms and teeth as we stood shirtless and shoeless in the snow. For some reason the idea of being barefoot in the snow didn’t actually seem that terrible to me. I had this strange idea that it would be almost too cold to feel properly, or that it would take a minute or two for my feet to actually realize what was going on. Unfortunately, feet have a very apt sense of temperature, and after a couple quick pictures we slipped our snow covered toes back into our shoes and ran shivering back to the residence buildings.

Time went so quickly, it seems like a dream now that I think of it. Daniel is back to Saskatchewan, and my college life resumes with a blasé normality. And yet, we had a wonderful time – reminding ourselves of past antics in boarding and the all the crazy things we did during our time in Pakistan. I forgot just how much we packed into those few years. It wasn’t until we were explaining it to a friend, who generously hosted us for Saturday evening and all of Sunday, that I realized just how insane our ‘exploits’ sounded to a outside listener. Flaming arrows, fish cremations, riots in dorm halls, evading bedtimes and burning snow-witches. They were good memories. They still are, and with old friends around, these old memories are exchanged, cherished and brought back to life again.