Profound apologies to those of you have subscribed to this blog in recent weeks/months, only to have me go AWOL for so long without a post.
When I began this initiative last June, it was with the personally prescribed stipulations that: if I didn’t feel I had anything of value to say, or if writing began to infringed upon my family, focus, faith or freedom ~ I would refrain from posting.
These past few months have been a very incredible time in my life and have indeed required great focus on my family and faith. Had my unconventional life-style not been so “free” from the pressures of meeting demands often seen as “necessary” in our world today, I literally do not know how I would have made it through the past year to this new entry.
With an admitted weakness (that I may share with some of you joining me here) the struggles I often face in life sometimes mire me in self pity, pessimism, regret or even hopelessness. Looking to the lifestyles of others ~ their careers, incomes, possessions and perceived achievements ~ I often wonder why it is I dance like a jester on a soap-box of social justice, sing like a crow on street-corners for freedom of speech, pine for a garden plot while constantly pulling up my tent pegs and pray for peace on earth while I am 30,000 feet above it. Why not jump off the box, close my beak, secure a permanent dwelling and come down to earth?
These past many weeks, the answers to those questions have become vibrantly clear to me, and with them, an intense gratefulness for the life I live, a sign of relief for the choices I have made over the years, a deep sense of shyness for daring to desire the lifestyles of others from time to time, and most importantly ~ an overwhelming contentedness to replace the considerations of ever giving up on my ideals, giving in to pressures for a different lifestyle or just plumb getting out while the getting is good.
Here are the events that have brought me to where I am ~ on this first week of 2012: pleased and gratefully stepping into this new year…ready to embrace whatever challenges and blessings may come my way.
Leaving Pakistan and arriving back in Canada last October, I was saddened to see how the health of my mother had declined since I had been with her in the spring. She had lost so much weight and was so weak that even stirring a few mouthfuls of porridge was difficult for her. A couple of days with my parents, which included one or two trips to the hospital for tests and consultations, were all I needed to confirm that a long term shift back to Canada was imperative.
The overwhelming infrastructural and cultural differences between semi-rural Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Pakistan and sub-urban South-Western Ontario Canada are quite obvious, as I am sure you can all imagine. However, as it has always been my effort to surround myself with nature and seek to be as self-sufficient as possible (especially in recent years), being back in my old home-town did not shock my system as greatly as I worried it might. Trees, wild-life, woodland creatures and the effect they have on our senses are similar the world-over, so just as I frequented the Abbottabad bazaar only when I needed specific food or household items, I found myself spending a great amount of time outdoors this past autumn in Canada, only venturing to the malls and stores when absolutely necessary. Keeping aloof from the consumer culture of North America has helped me remain focused on the logistics of resettling in Canada with hope that doing so will not interfere too greatly with my efforts at keeping true to living simply. “Simple Living” is (to me), after all, a philosophical approach to “how” I try and live my life, not necessarily “where” I try to live it.
While considering options for a new Canadian “home”: Living with my parents was not practical ~ given my mother’s need for rest and the sheer size of my parent’s modest house. Purchasing a house or country property was not an option ~ given my desire to avoid taking any sort of loan or bank assistance. Renting a house would mean seasonal outdoor upkeep ~ inevitably conflicting with my family’s freedom to travel for extended periods of time. Renting an apartment would mean a great compromise to the well-being of my family’s spirit which thrives so heavily on natural sun-light, quiet, open space and closeness to nature. Through conversations with my wife back in Pakistan, we decided that perhaps renting a modest condominium would best suite our needs.
Looking for a dwelling in my old stomping grounds was a daunting task though. I had been out of the “system” here in North America for so long that I really had to re-aquatint myself with the local methods of apartment hunting and all that goes alongside “moving”. Gone were the days of circling posts in the classified ads of a local news paper ~ as I had done in my twenties. It was strange for me to be scouting through Kijiji and Craig’s List for rental condos without my wife’s wisdom or help…especially considering that only weeks earlier we had been ready to buy a home in Pakistan with a whole different plan for our immediate future.
Suddenly I was driving streets I had grown up on, imagining what it would be like for my wife, daughters and I to be residence of this little city together. So much had changed in my absence. Altered streets were going in new directions, old land-marks were gone, new suburbs and malls had sprouted up like poppies ~ inviting and pretty but destined to drug and consume unsuspecting shoppers into addiction. I won’t lie and say that I was confident in the situation. In fact, my anxiety had me cancel a few bookings for various viewings ~ especially when the perspective landlords had shown reservation toward entertaining my interest in their abodes upon finding out I was a musician. “Oh, you play music? Really? That’s your full time job? Are you sure you will be able to afford my place? Do you make a lot of noise? You don’t play Heavy Metal or Punk do you?” The judgments and jokes were so frustrating that I didn’t even want further discussion, much less have to “defend” my livelihood.
After just a few days of calling around, worry grew in me that I would be unable to successfully find an affordable, clean and comfortable dwelling for my family that would also be close to my parent’s home. How would I seek out a place that would also provide us with the freedom to travel and maintain a positive degree of connectedness to the earth? My family’s ballooning excitement over trying to get “off the grid” in Pakistan was suddenly burst with the thoughts and thorns of having to quickly pay deposits to water, gas and hydro offices… set up a new local phone number and ensure my bank accounts would be ready for the increase in living expenses going way beyond the simple few thousand dollars annually I had been living on over the past few years in Pakistan.
Here I was returning to my our homeland after almost 10 years… back to the very streets I used to play, work and live on…feeling like a complete stranger or foreigner. No bank credit, no street credit, an outdated awareness of the social system and a unique view of life and culture caused by a decade of living in places like Cairo, Damascus and northern Pakistan!
Feeling a shell grow around myself I made one last attempt to search Kijiji for any new rental postings and found a listing ~ only 17 minutes old ~ for a brand new 3 bedroom condo, all new amenities and only 5 minutes drive from the home of my parents. I called the number and a very pleasant fellow answered who seemed eager to meet me for a viewing. As I sat in a spare car my father had granted me the freedom to use while back in Canada, I made a little prayer… one of those “George Bailey” types of supplications (for those of you who don’t know what I mean, here’s a link) asking for just some sort of sign that things would work out ok.
The condo had been built last summer. Brand new. In fact, the sod surrounding it was still in the process of being laid when I drove up for my viewing. Arriving about 10 minutes earlier than the landlord, I was greeted at the front door by the current occupants, Morris and Esther, who had been called and forewarned about my arrival. They welcomed me in warmly, offering to show me around themselves and told me their whole story as we ventured room to room.
The young couple and their daughter (who was the same age as my eldest girl) had moved to Canada from Israel last August with great hopes and expectations of starting a new life here. They took possession of the condo on a one year lease and began making it into a home ~ filling it with their love, time, family and plans for a permanent stay. Sadly, the struggles of residency applications, job security and distance from family gnawed away at their savings and sanity until they felt the best way to safeguard their family was to move home to Israel. The landlord was very understanding and open to dissolving their lease, but requested that they not leave their acquired furniture and belongings behind.
In turn, I explained to the lovely couple about my circumstance ~ how my wife and daughters would be joining me in a few weeks for a sudden move to Canada after we’d all lived for several years in Pakistan…how my mother had taken ill and how important it was to me to be near my parents at this sensitive time.
The viewing went well and though I truly felt for Morris and Esther’s unfortunate situation, I was very pleased with the condo itself. It was clean, bright, new and even backed onto a woodland view with passing railway tracks, a hiking trail, two playgrounds and a tobogganing hill all within walking distance of the large back deck. Being a condo, my wife and I would have no summer or winter maintenance (and could easily lock up to fly elsewhere for as long as desired), yet we would be close enough to my parent’s house to easily pop over and make them cups of tea, shovel their snow on winter days or tend their garden upon the arrival of summer weather.
The landlord arrived and was an easygoing and good natured gentleman. I immediately felt a good vibe about his character and graciousness. He interviewed me briefly and, in contrast to other homeowners I had spoken to, was interested in both my music and my time spent in Pakistan. Without even formally requesting me to fill out a rental application he called his wife to chat about our meeting and, by nightfall, they had decided to accept my family and I as tenants, effective December 1st, or as soon as Morris and Esther left for Israel.
Morris and Esther, eager to leave Canada as soon as possible, were pleased as punch that I was interested in purchasing whatever they had acquired for their home, as my wife and I had no plans of shifting all of our household items over from Pakistan. It was a win, win, win situation for all of us: Morris’ family, my family and our landlord.
A week passed and I received a call from Morris regarding my purchase of the household items. He and Esther had easily spent a good $6,000 to $8,000 on new bedroom suits, a sofa, tables and kitchen items ~ their receipts all still in hand as proof of the expenditures. Though they naturally didn’t want that full amount, I was still unable to pay the amount they suggested for the complete contents of their home. I apologetically offered whatever I could and simply asked them to grant us whatever they thought was fair, then sell the rest. The next morning Morris called me back again and said that they had booked their flight home… that they had passed along one of the two bedroom suits they had to a friend and that my family and I could have everything else for the amount I offered. I was completely floored.
“I want you to come over though to see the place one more time,” Morris told me. “We’ve cleaned and I want you to see what we are leaving you so you know we are being up front and honest with you.”
The morning of their flight out to Israel I arrived at the condo and spent time with the lovely couple who, once again, showed me through the place room by room and closet by closet.
Every nook and cranny had been thoroughly cleaned and polished. They had left a vacuum, iron, ironing board, shoe racks, hangers, furniture, towels, comforters, pillows, cleaning supplies, dishes, pots, pans….everything top of the line, brand new and, in many cases, with the original boxes all intact. “You are my brother,” Morris told me, “and I will pray for your mother. I want your family to be comfortable.”
Esther and Morris took me to the kitchen: New jars of spices, cupboards of unopened pasta, cans of tuna, sugar, flower, jams. They had even left a bowl of chocolates on the counter top telling me it was their cultural custom to leave sweets in a new house for the occupants so the home would always been “sweet”.
“We don’t eat pork,” Esther told me as she opened the freezer to show me how it was even stocked in kosher compliance with only chicken, fish and beef. “and we’ve never cooked pork in our pans.” She reassured me. Religious affiliation or dietary discussions had never come into any of our previous conversations, but somehow we all instinctively knew that we shared more in common than just the unique circumstance of being like two ships of families passing in the proverbial night.
My tears of gratefulness finally started to well up when Morris took me upstairs to what had been his 4 year old daughter’s room (and what would soon be the bedroom of my own daughters) and opened the closet to reveal shelves of toys, stuffed animals, colouring books and paints saying, “These are for your daughters…we can’t take them with us, there’s too much! So I hope these will make them happy. You are like my brother, just pray for us.”
So, here we are now, a month later. Morris and Esther have been back in Israel as long as my wife and daughters have been here with me in our new Canadian home. They have indeed been in our thoughts and prayers as we’ve spent time with my parents through the most emotional holiday season my family has ever had.
In my favourite film “It’s A Wonderful Life”, protagonist George Bailey, always desperate to get out of his hometown of Bedford Falls to “see the world”, received the chance to see what life would have been like if he’d never been born.
I received the chance to miraculously swap places with another family mirroring my own, so I may exchange the stresses of traveling the world with returning to the small-town of my upbringing ~ close to my parents at a crucial time in all our lives.
Even with all its hardships and pitfalls, it really is A Wonderful Life.