I belong to Air Canada.
In this moment. January 2020.
Buckled into Seat 14C.
Far above where birds take flight. The place where dreams alone can live.
In this moment, I belong to this unbounded world above the clouds. A creature of the air.
This air-borne liberation is a mirage.
I know my feet belong on the ground. A creature of the earth.
I am on a flight to Montreal to visit friends. Their relocation to this city will bring me back again and again because our friendship is long standing and we will nurture it. My friends have also made me belong to Montreal again.
Again, because this is the city where my parents met. Where I was born, but never lived in for long. What part of me, then, belongs here? Belongs to this city where I speak the language only to a moderate level of fluency? Because all of me would not be if it weren’t for this city.
But countries and cities pull at me from all different directions.
Jamaica – my mother’s birthplace. Lebanon – my father’s. Kuwait – where my sister was born. Calgary – where my youngest sister was born. And Vancouver where we settled in 1974 and where my family has stayed since. All of us have ventured afar over the years, whether alone or together, to travel or to live for fragments of time. Toronto – where I lived for six years.
My whole being is a mosaic of spaces, places, and time. Of different cultures and societies. I identify with all of them and I identify with none of them. I am rooted in my experiences with each and am unrooted because I do not feel like I wholly belong in any of them.
They have all shaped me as have other cities I’ve visited, especially those that feel as if they are the locations where I ought to be, where I yearn to be.
In Montreal, my friends and I go to a movie they want to share with me. Their second viewing, my first.
Antigone (in French, Canada, 2019). Sophie Deraspe’s screenplay and her direction. Based on the Ancient Greek play by Sophocles. A play I know. A play that belongs to me because I have studied it, absorbed it, discussed it, taught it, remember it.
This film, this Antigone, which now belongs to me, too, tells the story of an immigrant family to Canada. Two girls, two boys, and a Grandmother, haunted by the memories of the children’s parents murdered in Algeria, in the country that they once belonged to.
In this country, this foreign Canada, do they belong?
Ismène, the older girl, has built a successful career as a hair stylist. The grandmother cooks, cleans, loves each child ferociously. Antigone is fearlessly devoted to the family, to their story, to their truth. In an address to her class, “une exposition,” she elevates her classmates from a state of boredom, heads on the desk, eyes rolling, to whip-straight postures, eyes that pierce through teenage school inertia. Her story of survival, loss, and grief lures them to listen.
Antigone’s two brothers? Étéocle and Polynice? The fierce family love envelops the two brothers and yet they search for belonging elsewhere.
Why isn’t their family enough?
And why do men so often find belonging in violence, especially vulnerable men?
The story of this dislocated, relocated family unravels in flashbacks and in real time. Antigone’s knowledge of her brothers, the appearance of their being and belonging, is contradicted by the reality she grasps in hindsight.
She remembers a night. Polynice creeps home late, after dark. He opens the fridge door, she startles him in the kitchen. He stands in the shadows, the pale light casting an eerie halo around him. Bruised, bloodied, black-eyed, he exults to his sister “I’m in,” “I’m in.”
In what? In toxic brotherhood? In a position to provide for his family now? In hopelessness? In power? In control, as illusory as that power and control may be?
Polynice is not a lone wolf. What he decides matters. It affects him, his brother, his sisters, his grandmother, his community. But he makes choices as if he were alone. Is his choice a resistance to belonging to this family or is it his way to belong more meaningfully?
His choice is made as if he were an island. But no person is an island.
As much as we may long for separation, for isolation. Long to escape duties, obligations, chores, stress, news, disasters, worries, fears. But a hermetic existence is possible for only a few, it is life’s answer or life’s purpose for even fewer.
Most of us, the vast majority, need – crave – connection. We are social creatures. Socialized creatures. We achieve our potential by being a part of a world wide web and I do not mean losing ourselves in the emptiness of cyberspace or discarding hours of our life on the internet.
We want to belong. We are part of a world of belonging.
We recognize that we are as others are. Lost, found, lonely, together, alive, dying, needy, giving, angry, happy, sad, joyful, cruel, kind, hateful, loving, powerful, powerless, smart, stupid, healthy, sick, caring, selfish, playful, serious, studious, ignorant, ambitious, lackadaisical, safe, unsafe, privileged, oppressed, worried, carefree, careful, careless, faithful, faithless, believing, unbelieving. Free, not free.
Isolation, being alone, is a desire, a fantasy, as is belonging. The former is a choice, the latter inescapable. We are compelled into connection. We are born into a web of connections.
We have to negotiate with ourselves as much as with others. We negotiate with life, with experiences. And despite this we are often unprepared for what life throws at us.
Perhaps there is a toxic underpinning to the idea of belonging. After all, embedded in the word “belong” is the idea of ownership. My husband, my wife, my spouse, my daughter, my son, my child, my father, my mother, my parents, my sister, my brother, my siblings, my niece, my nephew, my uncle, my aunt, my grandparents, my cousins, my relatives, my friend, my colleague, my acquaintance, my pet, my community, my neighbourhood, my job, my school, my work, my career, my money, my dreams, my aspirations, my humour, my loss, my grief, my beliefs, my body, my pain.
Would we be better served by leaving belonging to refer to objects? When we talk about humans, living creatures, plants, trees, the earth and the webs of existence in which we’re enmeshed, would it be better use other verbs: “connect,” “embrace,” “cherish,” “know,” “love”? I connect with this city; this city connects with me. This family embraces me; I embrace this family. These friends cherish me; I cherish these friends. I know that person; that person knows me. You love me; I love you.
Words alone will not remake belonging. We need to excavate the purpose, the meaning, the appeal, the allure, the temptation of belonging.
Why do we care about belonging? Why do we need to belong?
Where do we belong? To whom do we belong?
Where do I belong? To whom do I belong? Who belongs with me, to me?
I think we can only remake belonging if we learn to transcend the boundaries of belonging and not belonging. To embrace the ambiguity and uncertainty of embodying different states and ways of being. To be unbounded. To imagine our lives as bigger than what we can see, hear, touch, taste, and smell. Bigger than our dreams, bigger than our imaginations.
Bigger than our communities of “same as me.”
As big as our hearts.
Because we belong nowhere and everywhere.
I belong nowhere and everywhere.
I may live in Vancouver, but fragments of me are dispersed. Unless I identify with everywhere, I can’t care about the world, the environment, the fragile state of humanity’s existence.
We belong to nothing and everything.
I belong to nothing and everything.
Because I am not beholden or enthralled by a particular thing or person and yet I am curious about all the world has to offer.
We belong to no one and everyone.
I belong to no one and everyone.
Because I am not an object to be owned and yet I am human as you are human, as he is human, as she is human, as they are human, as the many are human.
This heart belongs to those I love, but not as a thing for them to own.
It is a gift that says they are valued and valuable.
This soul is untethered in a state of un-belonging.
The essence of me is free.
Three days ago, I posted a photo of what I’d made for dinner on social media. It received likes, hearts, compliments, and requests for the recipe.
I’m pleased to share that recipe with you now albeit with hesitation.
Because I learned to cook from my mother and my grandmother and they didn’t use recipes!
And while I always use recipes for baking and sometimes for savoury dishes, my version of cooking is a little bit of this and a little bit of that and I wonder what this would taste like if I added that.
So take this more as a guideline for preparing Fateh al Laban (laban is the Arabic word for yogurt). Make the dish your own by experimenting with the proportions and the seasoning. There’s a vegetarian option, too, that Mom developed. I’ll describe that alternative after I’ve given you the details for preparing the traditional dish.
There are six components to Fateh: croutons, chickpeas, pine nuts, ground beef, yogurt, and herb garnish. I find it easiest to serve the components separately. Each diner can then assemble a plate according to their likes and dislikes. That also means the leftovers keep better than if they’ve been mixed together.
Take two loaves of pita bread. Separate the halves of each loaf and tear them up into bite-sized pieces. Spread on a baking sheet covered with parchment paper and cook in a 350˚ oven until golden brown. Remove and set aside. Regular croutons will work but then you’ll miss out on the Lebanese look!
Open a small can of chickpeas. Drain and rinse the chickpeas. Let them sit in a colander to dry until you’re ready to serve.
Fry a handful of pine nuts in butter until golden. Remove and set aside. Alternatively, mix them with a touch of olive oil and bake in a 350˚ oven until golden brown. Pine nuts burn easily, so check on them frequently if you have them in the oven. If you’re frying the pine nuts, turn off the heat just as the pine nuts begin to brown.
I typically use .5 kilogram (1 pound) of lean or extra lean ground beef for two and that leaves a lot for leftovers. Fry the ground beef in a pan until cooked through. Season with salt, pepper, and allspice (no more than 15 ml, 1 teaspoon, of the latter). You can also add chopped jalapeño and a few drops of Worcestershire Sauce. Drain and keep at room temperature. As I’m writing this out, I realize that it would also work to mix the pine nuts in with the beef. I might try that next time.
Use approximately 250 ml (1 cup) of plain yogurt. It doesn’t matter which brand you choose or whether the yogurt is skim, 2%, or whole. I’d recommend the 2% or whole — just make sure it’s plain and not French Vanilla! In a mortar, crush 1/2-1 clove of garlic with salt, pepper, and a few, washed, shredded fresh mint leaves. Add the spiced garlic paste to the yogurt and mix thoroughly. You can also mix in diced cucumber to the yogurt mixture for an extra bite.
Finely chop a green herb to use as garnish. I use cilantro because L. likes the flavour; parsley is the traditional option. You could also use mint or a combination of any or all three.
And that’s it. Seriously. Those are the components and once they’re ready to go, layer them in a bowl and dig in! I prefer to put the croutons on top rather than using them as a base so that they stay crunchy. If you place them under the yogurt, they get soggy pretty quickly.
- Substitute boiled pasta — rotini or penne works best — for the croutons.
- Substitute broiled eggplant slices for the ground beef.
- Leave out the chickpeas.
- Mix all ingredients together to serve and garnish with chopped herbs.
Sahtain — bon appétit in Arabic — and let me know how your version of this dish works out.
For me, this dish is one of my comfort foods and L. loves it, too.
As with so many things, to share this dish with you is to share memories of Mom and to honour her legacy. Thanks for requesting the recipe.
I feel the absence of my mother most keenly when I catch a glimpse of her writing.
When I look at the carefully crafted words and sentences she moulded; the ones she wrote down. An alchemy of thought, energy, effort, pen, and paper.
Mom used writing to express her thanks. To scold political leaders. To extend congratulations. To advocate for causes. To nurture connections.
She cherished the handwritten note even after her grandsons helped her learn to use email.
My mother believed there was a personal quality to a handwritten note that was impossible to replicate in type form. I agree. Each stroke of the pen captures a person’s personality, their character, history, and experience. The way in which hand-written words create a web of meaning is the most affirmative statement of “I am here”. When I catch sight of my mother’s writing script I wonder how it is that she is not here.
How can the person whose heart propelled the pen across the page not be here to cross that t and dot that i?
I feel the absence of my mother most keenly when I see her writing, with an intake of breath and a vise clamped around my heart.
My mother’s script is from an earlier era when education had not been commodified and contorted. When it was a gift to learn. A time when writing was valued not only for its content but for its form. When penmanship spoke of culture and education and, yes, privilege.
That script, her unique cursive style, is undeniably and uniquely my mother, Yulanda.
I feel the absence of my mother most profoundly when I stare at her writing.
René Descartes said, “I am thinking, therefore I am.” My mother’s cursive script says, “I wrote, therefore I have been.” And as the ability to recall her physical presence becomes the dream of time lapsed, her writing will remain forever real and tangible.
As her daughters, her children, and perhaps someday her grandchildren and descendants, we will carry her DNA forward in time. However, her letters, the drafts of her speeches, the thank-you cards, her recipes, the quotations she noted down, her signature — like the one in the volume of William Shakespeare’s collected works that she used for her studies at McGill — these all serve as a testament to her personal spirit.
No other hand shaped those words, no other mind developed those ideas, no one else forged those connections: letter to letter, person to person, heart to heart.
I feel the absence of my mother most keenly when I catch a glimpse of her writing. The words and sentences that flowed from the pen she held, the pen she guided into forever.
In the year and months since my mother died (and a month before what would have been her 79th birthday), my family has cried, laughed, and celebrated birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, and weddings. We’ve attended funerals. We’ve had time at home, we’ve been away together and separately. Time has carried us forward. It is life’s imperative.
And she, my mother, has been there with us. In each moment, in each thought, in each word.
She always will be.
“If we danced more and sang more, we’d be happier people.”
Yulanda M. Faris
July 2, 1937 – April 23, 2015
Author’s Note: I’m sad to report that FUB passed away on May 27, 2014. The world is a dimmer, duller place without him.
There is a man I know.
His name is Robert.
Or as we like to call him FUB – Funny Uncle Bob.
Funny because he is witty and bright. Even in a serious discussion with Bob, there will come a point when you find yourself laughing. Maybe a chuckle, but more often than not a belly laugh, a laugh from the heart.
Bright because he is a spark. He creates, he paints, he draws, he writes. He is an artist, an inspiration, a giver, a friend, a husband, a father, a grandfather.
He’s not actually my uncle, but the dearest and closest of family friends. If I were to ask my parents, I’m sure they would recall the moment when they first met Bob and his wife Carol. For me, and I think for my sisters, it’s as if Bob has always been there. There is no first moment, there just is.
In 2010 my parents received the Ramon John Hnatyshyn Award for Voluntarism in the Performing Arts. Each recipient of a Governor General’s Performing Arts Awards is allotted a number of tickets to the events held for honourees. The number in our group exceeded the limit because my father lobbied to ensure he could include Bob and Carol.
Our four days in Ottawa were magical. From evenings in the bar, to Question Period in the House, to receptions and galas, Bob’s wry gaze, Bob’s singular perspective, Bob’s irreverence enhanced and enlivened every moment.
Bob’s generosity of spirit has spilled over into his interactions with my son who is an emerging artist. During a visit to Hornby Island in 2008, we went on walks together and we would sketch en plein air to capture the golden aura of Helliwell Park and the shimmering blue of the ocean. I was even required to join in and put pencil to paper!
Bob also sat down with my son indoors and they drew together in the creative stillness of common purpose. It was mentorship of a seven year-old to show what it means to observe as an artist, to be diligently aware of your surroundings, and how to express what you’ve seen for others to experience.
This past summer, my mother, my son, and I went out to visit Bob and Carol at their home. It was an opportunity for my son to see Bob’s studio, to have a look at Bob’s world, the world of a successful artist. My son was whisked away upon arrival and when the two rejoined us for lunch, my son was clutching canvases, drawing paper, and pens. Gifts from one artist to another with the most priceless one being the encouragement to do.
That’s Bob and he has decided to discontinue chemotherapy. He is at home with his family and he is embraced within a circle of love which extends beyond the boundaries of time and place.
His name is Robert.
There is a man I know.
And thus it shall be forever.
In a recent blog post, Chris Kennedy, Superintendent of Schools for West Vancouver, issued a challenge which involves providing 11 random facts about one’s self, answering 11 questions, and posing 11 questions for others to answer.
I don’t have an athlete’s competitive gene in the way Chris does, but I’m not one to pass up a challenge — particularly one which offers an easy way into kickstarting my blog for the year.
So here goes:
11 Facts About Me
- I’m the eldest child in my family and I use birth order psychology to rationalize my tendency to be bossy.
- Athletic competition is not my forte, but I was a competitive swimmer when I was younger.
- And while I may not be an athlete, my competitive instincts do tend to arise if faced with a New York Times crossword puzzle, a game of Trivial Pursuit, or any sort of game involving my five nephews.
- I was one of the original hosting staff hired for Expo 86 in Vancouver. I worked in the pre-fair period, first at the display pavilion conducting tours of the site model, and later at the Expo Centre which eventually became Science World.
- Although I did have that experience with Expo, I resigned my position before the Fair actually opened – not one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
- I lived in Toronto from 1986 to 1992 and worked for a variety of companies including Addison Wesley Publishers, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, and Rogers Cablesystems. I also obtained my MBA from the University of Toronto while there.
- During my time in Toronto, I took creative writing lessons through the Continuing Education department at the U of T. My instructor, for two terms, was Anne Michaels who subsequently found much acclaim with the publication of her novel Fugitive Pieces among other works.
- I still have the letter Ms. Michaels wrote to me at the end of one term (she wrote a letter for to each student) encouraging me to give myself the gift of time to write. I have to admit, I’ve never quite learned how to do so, but I still may.
- While working for CMHC, I was seconded to the G8 1988 Economic Summit and worked in the media centre. I think I may have caught a glimpse of Margaret Thatcher once from a very great distance!
- My return to Vancouver in 1992 was prompted by a number of factors, primarily the impending birth of my first nephew. That’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made because it brought me back home and allowed me to play a bigger part in his life, and the lives of his brothers, than I may have been able to from far away.
- September 2014 will mark 40 years since my family moved to British Columbia and settled in West Vancouver.
Questions from Chris Kennedy:
- If you could only watch one television station what would it be? CBC Newsworld
- Looking back at your schooling, what was the silliest rule your school had? I don’t remember which is probably a clear indication that school rules aren’t as effective as we’d like them to be. Or it may only be evidence of my memory issues!
- Who is the greatest ever Canuck? I’m sure I’d answer this differently every day and we’re lucky to have so many choices. Today I’m going to pick Lester B. Pearson because I believe he was a man who had a vision of how Canada could operate on the world stage in a manner which promoted peace and reconciliation. Our political leadership now seems to have abdicated that position. [Editor’s Note: I realize now Chris meant the hockey team and not Canadians in general in which case I’ll say Trevor Linden although I was also a Harold Snepsts fan. Oh, and Kirk McLean.]
- What is the greatest rock group of the 1980s? Please see the note above re memory issues. I was a Fleetwood Mac enthusiast and also a fan of the Little River Band, but I think that may have been more reflective of the 1970s.
- What is something education related you have changed your opinion on over your career? Assessment although not necessarily academic honours and awards.
- What is the warmest place you have ever been — and how warm was it? China in July 2009. My eyeglasses would fog up as soon as a I stepped out of the hotel lobby and I remember being drenched in perspiration from morning to evening.
- Poorest fashion trend you have seen in schools in the last 10 years? Ugh to Uggs.
- What was more frustrating to deal with in your school — Pokemon cards or silly bands? Luckily my role precluded the need to deal with this issue.
- Describe your favourite high school teacher in four words. Miss Lysell: dramatist extraordinaire inspiring imaginations.
- What is the best reason to go on Facebook at least once a day? For a smile while refreshing connections with friends and family, near and far.
- If blogging was outlawed tomorrow — what would be your reaction? Phew!
11 Random Questions for You:
- When you think back to your time as an elementary and/or high school student, what’s the one thing you wish had been done differently?
- What’s your favourite movie and why?
- If you were asked for one piece of advice to offer a first year student at a post-secondary institution, what would it be?
- What was your favourite song of 2013 and why?
- Who would you say serves as the best role model for young people today?
- Think about the work you’re doing now. Is it part of a career you had planned on or are you doing something you had never thought of doing when you were younger?
- If you could pitch an idea for a television show, what would it be? (Credit for this question goes to my son!)
- On a sunny day, do you make every effort to get outside or do you sometimes prefer to stay at home?
- If you had to choose one animal to best describe who you are, what would it be? (I was once asked this question in a job interview!)
- What do you think is one thing we could do to encourage more young people to vote in municipal, provincial, and federal elections?
- What is one change you hope to make in 2014?
I Challenge the Following People to do their “Homework”:
As Chris did, I extend the challenge of this activity to the educational community in the West Vancouver School District including parents and students who write and maintain blogs. I’d also like to extend the challenge to Trustees throughout British Columbia. It’s an interesting way to allow our communities to get to know us just that little bit better beyond our role as advocates for the public education system.