Hello Holidays!!!

That’s right…the holidays are coming! Exams or not,  it’s inevitable, that come December 21st we will all be free! For a little while at least…but let’s not think about 2012 just yet. We’ve still got some celebrating before January 9th hits. I’ve compiled a list of relaxing, energizing and fun activities to help you enjoy the holidays and a few pointers on how to avoid some common traps! Or perhaps it’s just my to-do list to help me keep active in the season of over-consumption and over-indulgence! I’d be surprised if I’m the only one who over-consumes and later repents. If this sounds familiar, maybe this post will speak to you.

To Do:

  1. Skating – Lace up at the outdoor at City Hall if you’re staying in the city, or some backyard in a smaller town if you’re heading home!
  2. Snowball fight!!! Kidding…there’s no snow…but if there is, then do it!
  3. Buy the heaviest boots you can and wear them all the time. (I did that and now I regret it, except on days that are below -20. Then I’m pleased.)
  4. Sign up for a registered program now, so you can stick with it and start fresh in 2012! Trampolining to triathlon they’ve got something for everyone…I just sent my form in today to register for triathlon!
  5. Lug your textbooks to the used textbook store and get redeemed for some cash moola to help buy those remaining gifts! (Or the first gift, that’s right, I’ve got nothing so far! Yikes!)
  6. Don’t run outside in the rainy weather, move indoors to the track in the AC.
  7. Walk ‘n shop! Avoid the mall, the stores are too close together and the people too pushy! Take your list to the streets and enjoy the fresh air!
  8. Cut down your own tree and then drag it home!! Try not to lose any needles, but don’t strain your back either.
  9. Set-up a sweet holiday playlist and then dance around your house celebrating the end of exams! If I could write and dance I’d be doing that right now!!!
  10. Hit up the Athletic Centre before heading home! They’ve got excellent drop-in classes to rev you up before that holiday party, so you have a hardy appetite for all that amazing food you’re about to enjoy!
  11. Make all your homemade baked goods by hand! Say no to electric mixers and tone up your biceps and deltoids. Make sure to switch stirring hands so you don’t have one big and one small arm!
  12. Best of all, enjoy yourself! You’re only a student for the first half of your life, or longer, if this is your second undergrad. Like me. Whoop!!!

Happy Holidays Everyone!!! Ta ta for now and toodles till 2012!!!


A letter to my First-Year self

Dear First-Year Me,

So you’ve just finished your first semester at U of T. Congrats! One down, seven more to go! Now while you may think you’ve got it all under control, and I’ll admit that you’re not doing such a bad job, there are some things that we should talk about.

First, don’t be surprised when you get back your grades from your first semester and you didn’t get all A’s. For one, you’re not in high school anymore and let’s face it — you really didn’t do your best. But that’s okay! Your first semester is not going to define your entire undergraduate career. And plus, you’re on your own for the first time in your life, at one of the toughest schools in North America, it’ll take a bit for you to adapt.

So, instead of hanging your head in defeat, reflect on the semester by doing more than just saying that you’ll do better next time. Take a moment to figure out and to understand what you were lacking this semester. Identifying a cause for your poor performance and reacting to it is just as important as committing to do better in the future. It may not even be that you’re not working hard enough. It may just be that you’re setting unrealistic expectations for yourself, or even that the program you’re in isn’t the right one for you (hint, hint).

What I’m trying to say is that you should be proactive. Once you get back your grades, go pay your registrar a visit and see what they think. Vocalize your concerns and get advice. Have a chat with someone at the Academic Success Centre during their drop in hours, or check out one of their workshops to see if there’s anything you can add to your toolset. Trust me, there are lots!

Secondly, I know that you’re leaving for Trinidad in a few days, and you’re excited to see your high school friends and to party the next three weeks away. And that’s all great, you should be having fun during the holidays, but don’t forget, you’re an adult now. You should be using your time — even your time away from school — to try to experience things that will help you to evolve and grow, not just get sloshed on the beach. Now I obviously don’t expect you to study day and night for the entire vacation, but start looking at your down time as an opportunity to get a leg up, and I don’t mean up on the sofa.

See if you can get a part time job or volunteer position and gain some experience in a field that you think you might be interested in. Read a book that may or may not be on your syllabus, but one that’s at least somewhat related to a course for next semester. Take advantage of the time and do things that you wouldn’t be able to during the school year. Future you will thank you; trust me, I would know!

Lastly, start thinking about what you’re going to do next summer, now! I know it seems like eons away, but once second semester starts — and let me warn you, it’s a whole different beast compared to your first — you won’t have the time to think about it again, and before you know it, May is upon you and you have nothing planned.

Think about taking summer courses, they’ll ease up your workload next year. Have a look to see what internships are available, or check out the Externship Program run by the Career Centre for a chance to shadow a professional for a week during the summer. A lot of the deadlines for applying are in January and early February so there’s not a moment to spare.

And if you’re really feeling adventurous, apply for the Summer Abroad Program. If it’s one thing I can’t ask you to do more of, it’s to travel. It’s possibly the most overlooked and underrated aspect of your education, and you will learn as much from traveling as you will from going to class.

The last thing I’ll say is not to be afraid of new things. I know you’re not always the most outgoing or confident person in the world, but so far I haven’t regretted anything that I’ve done, only opportunities that I’ve passed up. Yeah, you’ll have a few mornings where you’ll wake up feeling you could have done things a bit differently, but eventually they’ll become stories you laugh about with your friends. You’re only really going to miss, the things that you missed. Other than that, you’re going to be just fine.

See you in four years!

Your friend, Chad

P.S. Please buy some new clothes, you’re not thirteen anymore. 😉

A Letter to Fellow Travellers

Imagine for me, lifeatuoft, the following 3 things:

(1) a friend who will love anyone exactly as they are, 
(2) a professor who knows that the hard problems of science have deep existential relevance, and
(3) a joyous and unrelenting community of protesters

Now, hold onto these thoughts. We’ll come back to them.

I’ve spent a huge part of my life with my eyes cast a bit too deeply into the horizon, or maybe the sky, but certainly nothing myopic in the least. I have always felt like I was just a few years behind where I belonged. Why am I still living in Canada, speaking English? I would wonder. I eagerly anticipated grad school. Or I thought it would be cool to, say, move to Nepal or make documentary films or learn to fly in lightweight contraptions above the earth. I became convinced that there was some place and time that wasn’t this one but that did exist in which suddenly I would be in perfect harmony with the universe. In that classic “marshmallow experiment” psychology task, I definitely was the kid who would wait days for an extra marshmallow. My parents raised me with a rigorous sense of duty, discipline, and delayed gratification. In many ways, this has enabled me to ambitiously chase the things I’ve wanted. It also, however, leaves a residual sense of longing.

So, I went searching. Searching for that future place-and-time-puzzle for which I was the missing piece. Distant lands, a course about Sacred Space, infinite books – all rewarding but none completely satisfying.

And now I know what it is that I was missing: “impermanence; acceptance of”

This was because I was thinking only in terms of the physical (space and time) rather than that which moves through it (humanity). Maps are pretty static on the time-scale of a university education, and I can always point to the future with the word “tomorrow” and some kind of certainty. Human relationships, in contrast, are much more fluid. I see my best friend about once every 2 years. I have not visited my grandmother in a while, even though she is incredible (and her pies are second to none). The family I had in Sweden is just a set of memories and Christmas cards now. Things change, and change is weird. This makes it hard sometimes to decide what kind of friendships and conversations you really want, and probably need.

This semester has been qualitatively different from all before it, then. By virtue of teaching me something special about human character.

It started in October. Raw curiousity compelled me to check out the Occupy camp, where the rows of tents and handwritten manifestos and groups of avid conversationalists is best summarized in a Kurt Vonnegut quote displayed on one of their signs:

At around the same time, I made an unlikely friend that taught me in a very real way that human relationships need not be defined – no, they can undulate, collapse, and expand, and none of these things is cause for mourning. He showed me what it meant to stand up tall, be stubborn and proud, smile, and give people my heart without expecting anyone’s in return. He didn’t tell me – but I later discovered – that loving the people around you (friends, classmates, strangers) is a boomerang, and soon enough all of those parts of yourself that you gave away will end up right back in your two good hands. What do I give power to? Not fear, not jealousy, not prejudice. The potential of others to completely change my world, perhaps – and there’s lots of it.

A few weeks ago, I was stopped by a professor after class. I was surprised at it, really, because during this course’s particular lectures I tend to hang back, write furiously, get lost in my thoughts, and almost never raise my hand. It makes me less than the ideal student. Besides, I find this particular instructor more intimidating than most – there is just something about absurdly brilliant people that makes me want to just go mute and soak in their thoughts. Nevertheless, he invited me to his office the following week, and what followed was one of the most fascinating, honest, consciousness-expanding conversations of my life. I did not feel that I deserved such a conversation. I had neither earned nor prepared for it.  He understood why I “wasn’t ready to talk” – language is too imprecise! Complete communication is impossible! – but he pointed out to me that language is an instrument that can be played with unrelenting passion, subtlety, and courage. Over the course of 90 minutes we talked about God, multiple infinities, poetry, neuroscience, and what it means for a life to be well-lived. He reassured me that on a path of a deliberate and deeply-lived life, fellow travellers are rare but make the journey inexplicably worthwhile. It made me stop worrying so much about my destination.

You see, in the course of this conversation, the lessons of my friend, and the messages of the Occupy protesters, I’ve come across an essential idea: namely, that wherever and whenever you want, you’re exactly to who you want to be. A large part of this is how you decide to relate to others – choosing to ask how someone is doing; to engage intellectually about the intensely personal issues of meaning; to find community in novel places. As I finish up my exams and prepare to head home for the holidays, I hope to carry these lessons with me. I can’t wait to tell my family – in a more honest way than I’m used to – exactly how much I love and appreciate exactly who they are.

– Jennifer

“First of all, are you okay?”

Back in September, I started  off the school year on the wrong foot. Actually, to push the tired foot analogy a little further, I was dragging my feet, tripping over shoelaces and falling down. Probably in a puddle. Of mud. For simplicity’s sake, I had a difficult August, and when September hit, I suffered from severe insomnia and completely lacked an appetite. Some days, I seriously felt like Amelie in this particular scene (I know, boo hoo, c’est la vie!).

The worst moment at school this year came when I entered a class sharply at 2 pm and realized, the class began at 1 pm. The night before was a sob story not in need of retelling and I had dragged myself to an afternoon class without any sleep. Unbeknownst to me, when I burst through the closed door announcing my late arrival, I had interrupted my professor who was calmly ending what sounded like a very important, non-sob story. My heart sank. As I made my way to an empty seat, I could see from the corner of my eyes, other people looking at me from the corners of their eyes.  Two minutes later, our class was dismissed for a break.

The co-professor teaching the course walked up to me.

“First of all,” she said, searching my face, “Are you okay?”

Although it may sound unremarkable, that is probably the kindest thing a professor has ever said to me. Me as in Erin the human, not me as in Erin the student. How often have you seen a professor ask latecomers if they are actually okay? In fact, I’ve had the unfortunate experience of seeing professors stop mid-sentence and, with a look of repulsion, refuse to speak until a latecomer squeezes his or her way to the one empty seat in the most remote location of classroom to sheepishly sit down. I think such reactions are more appropriate for someone who decides to dance on top of a coffin at a televised eulogy for a statesman but I find it presumptuous to make someone feel uncomfortable or bad for wanting to attend a lecture, even if they weren’t able to make it on time. And who knows what prevented them from being there? We all have imaginations. But for some reason, we want to imagine the worst.

This is not an argument or excuse for tardiness. Nothing is worse than the same students rolling in class after class, late. Punctuality is important. Yet I can’t help but feel disenchanted when I see in the Arts and Humanities, a lack of humanity in the classroom or at least, the absence of compassion and empathy, not only between students and professors but also between students and other students.

I am grateful for the one professor who asked me if I was simply okay. Because even though I pretended I was, I wasn’t. I think the fact that she chose to recognize me as person with feelings, instead of just count me as an extra head in attendance, made a big difference. U of T students often complain about feeling like a number and I can completely understand this complaint of being just another face in the crowd. I literally felt like a zero (nothing) in one class this year when the professor asked students to write their names beside numbers. We were told that in order to help her remember who we were, to introduce ourselves by saying, “Erin, number 31” before we made a comment.

As students, let’s reject these impersonal models of knowing one another. I dare you to ask, “how are you?” to the person you sit beside next semester. You never know what he or she might actually say.

Now that 2011 is coming to an end, I’m looking forward to starting the new year off on the right foot and hitting the ground running. Most likely in a pair of red shoes.

My growing collection of red shoes: boots, platforms, heels, clogs, ballet flats, handmade moccasins from all around the world! Yes, I love red shoes! New Years resolution: no more red shoes!

I also wonder if you feel like you were able to get to know me a little more. My hope for 2012 is that I get to know you, anonymous reader in the blogosphere, a little more, too. So please, introduce yourself, comment or just say hi. Because I really do wonder how you are feeling today.









Endings and Beginnings


Writing this week’s post felt a bit strange.  Since it’s both the end of the term and the end of the year, I feel like I’m caught up in this weird cataclysm of endings and beginnings (especially since I write for all of you and it’s my last post of 2011).  So I thought I should share my take on how to make the best of this time of year as a point of mindful reflection.

I repeat: It’s the end of the semester and the end of the year.  Somehow, by the forces of time and that of our great institution (it’s up to you to add the appropriate punctuation to great, if you know what I mean), we are forced to look back on what was, and what will be.  We question how we fared in school, the good and the bad, but perhaps more important, how we fared on a more personal level.

Looking back on my academic year thus far, I experienced proud moments, but also, what felt like catastrophic incidents that threatened to undermine my academic rigor.  It may sound alarming, and I admit, I *may* be exaggerating, but when one gets a “bad” mark, especially after so much effort, it feels like a sharp blow to the core. I think it is important to be mindful of one’s feelings.  At the end of it, contrary to the paradigm of optimism, I don’t feel inclined to say: “Wow. What a great learning experience that was!”  And you don’t have to, either.  Quite honestly, we all have the points in our academic career where we get upset, but sometimes I think we are all culturally disposed to take every experience, good and bad, as a great learning experience.  I’m here to tell you its ok to look back and not be happy, and not see it as profound.  And why is that?  Because we are human.  Scream, shout, be mad, cry; it’s ok.  Having experiences means its reasonable, in fact normal, to be subjective.  If you feel like school sucked in 2011, then so be it.  Allow yourself to feel emotion, but don’t let it control you.  Learn to find a balance between expression and internal awareness.  You may want to just freak out for an hour, but give yourself the permission to relax afterwards.

But, as I mentioned, it is also the time of new beginnings.  2011 may have sucked, but that doesn’t mean 2012 has to.  Look at the new beginning as an opportunity to experience mindfulness. You don’t need to approach the New Year through the lens of optimism, just as you don’t need to look back on your experiences in 2011 as all fantastic.  Every year people make resolutions and don’t keep them, even on the first day.  Being overly optimistic doesn’t mean only good will come.  So, what I am trying to say is be reasonable.  I try to always be reasonable, don’t overestimate yourself, and anything better than that is just fine.  Think of how you might do things differently, in school or life, in 2012, or conversely, how you want to keep them the same.  Perhaps the only resolution you need, is not to have one at all.

This is just one way of reflecting.  I guess I came up with it because I was tired of all you hard-core optimists out there. I don’t really have any theory behind it, except years of experience of learning to let myself be mindful and at peace with rather unnerving aspects of life. This may sound passive, but on the contrary, I am pretty obsessive when it comes to negative aspects of the past, so I suggest giving yourself the permission to not obsess, but instead to be at peace.


Quitting: The quest to go smoke-free

Last week I was keen on writing a post on how to successfully quit smoking, but, after much thought, I felt that I would be a hypocrite if I did so.

Yes, I had plans on quitting, as I tend to get every few weeks or so, and after two or three days I would light up again.

So, why is it so hard to quit smoking?


For me it is a combination of many avenues; I have been smoking since I was 17 (that was 14 years ago!) and I did so because I had a very stressful job at a summer camp. I worked with underprivileged youth who, for many of them, was their first time away from home for any extended period of time. I had to deal with name calling, fights, bed-wetters, temper tantrums, and my personal favourite, those that would run off into the woods proclaiming that they were going home. I took up smoking as a release to the stress, and I got hooked.

Next, I was rather heavily involved in the whole rave/club scene at the time and it just seemed that all my friends smoked. If I had wanted to quit it would have been extremely difficult in such situations.

Further, I developed a kind of social relationship with cigarettes. When working, I would get together with fellow smokers on break, and we would all go smoke and chat. Smoking was the social bond that brought us together.

Paramount among these reasons (or excuses, I am sure some of you will call them) is that I am addicted. I have successfully quit for 2 months before, and have done that a few times. But I go back to smoking when I hit a stressful day and have no other outlet to relax.

What it comes down to is that I like smoking, but I don’t like the price tag attached to it. It is very expensive. I want to quit because of the money it would save me, but I go a few days and break down and buy a pack.

So what am I to do?

Well, there is a lot I can do.

First, I am meeting with my doctor this week. We are going to try medication to help alleviate the cravings and need for smoking. We are going with two medications that are about 40 per cent effective for people trying to quit. I’m hoping the combination will help me break through the addiction barrier.

Next, there is support available for those wishing to quit smoking. There are independent resources such as the Smoker’s Helpline, and government funded resources such as the City of Toronto Public Health as well as Health Canada and many many others, including websites for the medications themselves. Here on campus, there’s the Leave the Pack Behind program.

What it comes down to though, is that it is going to be a rough road to quitting, as it is with any addiction. I am amazed with people out there who can quit cold turkey, but I am hoping my approach is successful this time.

No Smoking

I will keep you posted!

In the meantime, let me know if you have any tips or tricks to quitting that you can share with me and the other readers.



3 weeks, 2 kids, one essay, 27 gifts, 1 new years eve babysitter to find…priceless

‘Tis the season, if you’re a parent like me, to deal with what can only be called holiday spazziness! My kids are already wound up about the upcoming school break, and the holidays.

My classes are done, and my exams will soon be finished. So what will I be doing with nearly a month off school, you might ask? Well first off I will be cramming what should be for a normal mother, a few months’ worth of casual shopping into one week of mall madness. I will be entertaining my aforementioned wired children, and I will be writing an essay.

Did I mention that I’m having a spa day?

My children are finished school a few days before Christmas and then we will be off to visit family and the like, rounding out December with what will hopefully be a fun and exciting New Year’s Eve…if I can find a babysitter for the big night. (To all of you out there without kids: if you ever do have children, you will realize that it would be easier to find Atlantis than a sitter on New Year’s Eve!)

The whole of December will be insanely busy, but what about the days between January 1 and the start of school? This is the coming down period. The kids are mildly depressed that the holidays are over and school will soon be starting. I, who will be stuffed like a turkey, will be attempting to find new storage spots to cram in toys that my kids were given.

For me, I would be happy just staying in my PJs for this time period. However, I think my kids will have some different ideas. So on that note, here are some thoughts on what you can do with your kids in the post-holiday daze, that won’t hurt you too much and will still bring a modicum of thrill to your little ones.

1. Woodbine Fantasy Fair: Although a mall is the last place I would ever want to be after the madness of Christmas shopping, the fantasy fair provides a warm, dry indoor day of fun. There’s rides and cotton candy and most importantly benches for you to sit and watch your kids get thrown spun around in giant teacups. A fun and easy day out, if you have a means of transportation to get yourself up to Rexdale.

2. Tobogganing: See one of my previous posts about tobogganing in the city for the info on some good hills to take your little ones sliding down. Obviously this activity will be a little more strenuous than, the previous sitting on a bench option, but it you want to burn off some turkey, climbing up a hill one hundred times in sixty minute might just be the ticket!

3.ROM: I know the Royal Ontario Museum is expensive, but they’ve recently cut their prices, and if you have a family membership, it can be a really great indoor activity for the winter, plus Fridays are free from 4:30pm to 9:30pm! My kids have gone to the dinosaur exhibit more times than I can count and they still love it!

4. Rainforest Cafe: I personally find this place creepy and disorienting, but my kids can’t get enough of it. You can get to the cafe at Yorkdale Mall by TTC and you don’t even have to walk outside. If you’re planning on taking your kids out for lunch and you don’t mind spending a few dollars more, this is a great way to kill a few mid-day hours.

These are some of the things; I will probably be doing with my kids over the winter break. To all the student parents out there, I’d love to hear what fun things you have planned. I’m always on the lookout for cheap and exciting kids’ activities!

Happy Holidays!

See you in January,


Man vs. Yoga


(Image courtesy of http://www.essential-yoga-for-men.com)

Now this might be just me, but don’t you think “Man vs. Yoga” could be the new reality TV series to kick off 2012? Okay, maybe it’s not something worth tuning into every week, especially with exams on the horizon but it is still an interesting idea!

So, I have a friend who is a man and he is very athletic and plays a bunch of sports. A few weeks ago, I was out with said man, we’ll call him G (because he’s gangsta haha not really but okay!) and some other man friends for lunch. We got on the topic of my yoga classes and I suggested he join! One of the dudes is already a yogi, or perhaps formerly dabbled in yoga, and was very supportive of the trial yoga class for G. G-dude was a bit hesitant to say the least! So I left the offer on the table and sure enough just last week he told me he was ready…to hit up hot yoga!

What’s so great about yoga for men (and women)?!

  • You get a whole body workout and stretch – which most of us neglect to do post-gym!
  • You feel more energetic after the blood flow and circulation is moved through your entire body!
  • You experience less soreness after a great stretch in a warm room.
  • You experience clarity of thought and peace of mind after a peaceful hour of no books, technology or even talking.

So why did G-man have the sudden change of heart? Well, he’s been feeling pretty sore after his hockey games and he’s looking to loosen up a bit. If I were to separate people into three categories, based on flexibility, I’d divide them as follows: Bendy Wendy/Bendy Buddy; Regular Cinnabar/ Regular Alamar and Rigid Bridgid/ Rigid Euclid. G would be in the latter category and I’d be in the middle. I can touch my toes, but can’t place the soles of my feet on my shoulders.  G-dawg, on the other hand, is still reaching for the floor.

Anyways we went, just to a yoga place downtown. Sadly G-man doesn’t have the benefits of being a UofT student like I do or the subsequent opportunities to enjoy reasonably-priced Ashtanga, Hatha, Yin or a combo of Pilates and Yoga classes! But we managed to find a decent deal.

How was it?! Well for those of you non-believers out there, I think he had a great time! There aren’t many groups of people more welcoming  than yogis! Everyone’s super supportive. Plus, you’re in a warm room with soothing music; it’s hard not to relax. So, if you’re a dude and you think yoga sounds intimidating, find a friend who can help you out and try a class! You never know, you might start off as a Rigid Euclid and move all the way to a Bendy Buddy in no time at all!

Best of luck in crunch time! If you’re feeling like a heavy weight, might be time to lighten up with some yoga, just sayin!


Dances of hope and healing

I’m surrounded by strangers and TV cameras and bright lights as far as the eye can see. Somewhat unlike a typical lecture, there’s a certain energy about the people in the rows and rows of wooden chairs. The excited buzz of conversation around the room is gradually replaced by a rhythmic clapping; each of three parts of the room carrying a different syncopated beat. African drums are struck at the front of the room, and in call-and-response, we all begin to sing.

This isn’t the way I thought we’d communicate about a disease that currently affects millions of people every day. I expected an evening of solemn statistics and heavy hearts. What I found was a celebration of common humanity, when on Wednesday night I attended a World Aids Day event at Hart House, presented by the Stephen Lewis Foundation.

As many of you probably know, Stephen Lewis was, from 2001 to 2006, the United Nations Special Envoy to HIV/AIDS in Africa. I first learned of his incredible work in 2005 or 2006 when a high school teacher encouraged me to read Lewis’ Massey Lecture, Race Against Time. I was able to see Lewis speak during the following year at a public library, and was captivated by his passion to not lead from an office, but from the ground. In perfect contrast so many volun-tourists and 2-week-prophets that like to speak about Africa, Stephen Lewis exhibits an authentic commitment to reaching out and genuinely caring for other human beings without a hint of self-righteousness.

The event was opened by a stunning spoken word poetry performance by d’bi.young titled “Dear Mama,” telling the story of a Canadian daughter sharing news of her HIV diagnosis with her mother at home in Africa. Tears trickled down my face as she pleaded, “mama I want to come home / only you alone can love me / but ya have to promise / that ya won’t tell nobody / about my shame.” Through all of this – as one of the fortunate few to have a life and social circle untouched by HIV/AIDS – I was given a glimpse into the pain and hope of others. The speakers at the event emphasized that scientifically, we’re rapidly approaching new ways of preventing and reducing risks associated with the transmission and progression of HIV. They reminded us that medical treatments, however, are not enough. It takes the care of a cohesive community to create the psychosocial structure in which health-consciousness is established and the physical and emotional needs of infected individuals are met. A woman who had been a social worker in an HIV clinic for 23 years was sitting next to me and in our conversation, asked me why I was at the event. My simple response – “to listen” – felt trite and inadequate. I felt like it was wrong of me to be in this special, almost sacred place and to have nothing to give.

Maybe, though, there is instead something I can take, and keep, and nurture until it grows. As I listened to poems and stories and dramas and songs about this world so far from my own, I started to see connections. I worried about how the stigma attached to HIV treatments in Zambia inflicts a similar scale of suffering and violence that the stigma attached to mental illness does in Canada. I saw the way that dance and music helped children rise up and find reprieve from some of their suffering that resulted from personal or family experiences with HIV/AIDS. It made me think about how arts – music, dance, poetry – can become a valued, collective expression of the passions of a community, rather than something rehearsed, performed, and judged. I wondered what radical honesty might look like in the face of our suffering – to dance to the songs that move us, to write poetry about the weight that we each carry behind us, and to write and speak fearlessly and honestly about our feelings not merely toward our circumstances, but to the people who comprise our worlds.

I’m grateful for the health and community I’ve been granted, but to know how lucky I am makes me just feel like we all need to keep asking for more. More stories, more healing, more compassion, more dances, more love. As I sang out under the bright television lights, I felt, for a moment, less alone than I had in a very long time. This need to feel a part of a community is by no means exclusive to those suffering from life-threatening illnesses – it is a fundamental human essence. And so why do we deny this to one another? Where does our compassion hide when we’re not singing? And why do we ever stop?

I like to think of all of the ways we could care about each other with a love like that. Even if we aren’t doctors or researchers, I feel like these moments of open ears and minds and hearts are underappreciated ways in which to make life just a little softer for others, and almost certainly, for ourselves.

– Jennifer

Coming Full Circle in the Classroom

Over the last semester, ENG 434 Cook the Books has garnered media attention from the likes of the Toronto Star and CBC Radio for its innovative approach to learning as students engage in food literature, a genre that has received very little academic attention, and then cook dishes inspired by their readings in the Hart House kitchen.

This course has made me bond with classmates on unprecedented levels for an English class . This week, my presentation group made a  three course vegan meal based on Jonathan Safron Foer’s Eating Animals and in preparation, we all went shopping together one Friday evening, tried out different recipes and sat down and taste tested everything over wine and conversation about life. This is far from the “normal” English course where students typically try to engage the professor more than their peers, sit in rows with backs turned to faces and rarely learn the majority of their classmates’ names. In Cook the Books, it’s not unusual to want to impress our peers with delicious meals, we share our personal stories about food and when we sit down to eat student cooked meals in Hart House, we relax a little. I have to say, the level of bonding  and personal dialogue I’ve experienced in Cook the Books is rare for an English course.

Serving ENG 434 vegan stir fry with tempeh and romanesco tofu salad.

But this approach to learning is actually the norm in a lot of my Aboriginal Studies courses. I remember sitting with our desks formed in a circle in ASB 250 Indigenous Environmental Education and Professor Erica Neegan saying it was alright if we ate during the lecture and emphasized that we shouldn’t separate our bodies from our minds (a Western view). At the end of many terms, it’s not unusual for Aboriginal Studies courses to have a feast on the last day of class to celebrate a semester well done. In fact, the similarities between Cook the Books and ABS300 Oral Traditions taught by Daniel Justice and Alice Te Punga Somerville is astonishing. But what I find even more astounding is that when Aboriginal Studies courses push the boundaries  of pedagogy with Indigenous ways of learning through food and storytelling, they rarely get the credit they deserve. In fact, the opposite happens and Aboriginal Studies courses often get a bad rap for being “bird” courses. This is far from the truth. In fact, the expectations that Justice and Te Punga Somerville (both actually come from academic backgrounds in literature) have are exactly the same expectations every one of my other professors have had for their classes. It’s the University of Toronto. Expectations are high.

In Oral Traditions, each week a student will share “kai” and bring in food and tell a personal story about the item they are presenting to the class. Through these stories, I’ve learned about goat slaughter in Pakistan for Ramadan, macrobiotic diets and German pastry and baking. Last week, my lovely classmate Rebecca brought in elderberry jam made from berries picked at U of T and wine made by her father, weaving in a story about her family who is Zoroastrian and a brief history of Persian winemaking.

Coincidentally, a poached pear recipe I had to make for Cook the Books called for both red wine and jam and I immediately thought of Rebecca as an amazing source. Not only is Rebecca’s wine and jam locally made and sourced from Ontario and campus (we actually get marked on where we buy our food), I can actually say that I know the story behind the product.

The poached pears turned out to be a success thanks to Rebecca. If it hadn’t been for Oral Traditions, I don’t think the pear desert topped with elderberry jam and shaved chocolate would have been nearly as special and unique. Now that I’m in my final year, I can look back and really see connections between different classes more clearly. It’s always amazing when stories, people and courses as different as Aboriginal Studies and English come full circle.