Reflecting back to the “Why”

Reflecting back to the “Why”

I believe that there is an intimate relationship between thoughts, words, and action. But my words haven’t always flowed freely as I seek to express what presses against the walls of my mind. They halt against dams and stutter into deltas, resulting in incoherence and confusion — not only for my listeners, but for my own mind as well. I question the validity of my own contributions, and often relegate my words to the safety of silence.

This blog has been a haphazard (at best) attempt to reflect on the power of expression, and how it is developed over time. Sometimes expression is in words, sometimes in images. Sometimes it is clear and to the point, sometimes it is abstract but nonetheless rich in those truths that cannot always be best explored in precise language. Sometimes expression is meant to communicate a point, sometimes it is meant to share a human moment or inner reflection.

Purge thou thy heart that We may cause fountains of wisdom and utterance to gush out therefrom, thus enabling thee to raise thy voice among all mankind.
– Baha’u’llah

I hope to connect with others who are learning, reflecting, speaking and writing, that we may share such insights with one another. I hope that if I were to pursue this blog, to develop my writing in quality, ability, style, and quantity. This is not a task to be done only on one’s own. Thus, I come here to express, to reflect, and ultimately to learn.

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Take back the commute

As the bus pulls up I can see the dismay on the line of people waiting at our stop as they see that it is standing room only. The novels that passengers have in their purses and the notes they have to cram in before school will go untouched as they stand pressed, shoulder to shoulder with a stranger and just try to keep moving to the back of the bus and keep out of everyone else’s way as much as possible

And suddenly, faces brighten as they see the near empty bus just half a block behind. Some won’t dare risk the potential few minutes delay by not taking the bus that is already further ahead. Others eagerly seize the chance, knowing that it is just as likely that their bus will have fewer unloading stops with so few passengers, and may whizz ahead of the other, to later get held up behind as they are first to reach the long line of passengers at the next stop. Despite all the hypotheses and calculations, there is really no way to know, and its a choice akin to trying to guess which checkout line in the supermarket will move the fastest. There are too many variables.

In any case, many choose the empty bus simply for the opportunity to sit and use their commute for a purpose other than just getting from a to b. The books and the e-readers and the chemistry notes and the cell phones all come out. From one perspective this may appear anti-social. But for others, this may be the best opportunity they will have all day to think outside their regular routine, to reflect, to imagine or learn something new.

But we can just as easily waste that time, use those moments to inwardly complain about each moment spent on the bus instead of catching a bit more sleep or getting a bit more done at the office. We can spend the whole time mindlessly flipping through Facebook or twitter, not for the purpose of catching up with our contacts or organizations, but as a way to kill time. Once we are killing time on our commute, we are not able to live in it and draw strength from the extra time at our disposal.

So in my years of public transit commuting, I have been trying to be purposeful with the hour-long buffer I have between home and the office, and can share a few of my favourite options to fill my time purposefully, rather than killing it.

1. Read books.
I recommend pursuing different kinds of books, as long as they are books you enjoy. For example, I like to intersperse fictional page turners with the meatier non-fiction or something of specialized interest, to make the time fly and keep the momentum going. If you are driving, take the chance to delve into to the wonderful world of audio books!

2. Write.
I know I’m not alone in feeling that a moving vehicle is one of the places where I feel most productive in writing, from fiction to blog posts. In particular, when I have a certain word count goal in mind, I can get a good few hundred words edge on my goal even if all I have is a tablet or smart phone to work with.

3. Catch up with people.
There are sometimes times in my life when all of my evenings are booked solid or I have too much work to do after hours, making it hard to find the time for a good catch up session with my parents. So I just started calling in the morning, as my mom was getting ready for work and as I was sitting on the bus. Of course there are downsides, like eavesdropping on uncomfortable conversations and your neighbour having to pretend that they didn’t just hear intimate details about your life, but at least you may have made their day more interesting!

4. Catch up with current events.
Whether it’s through picking up a paper from the news stand closest to your bus stop, tuning to the local news radio station on your headphones, or browsing your favourite news sites through your phone, this is a great time to catch up with the headlines and editorials of the day.

5. Make lists.
The “transition zone” between home and work can be a reflective time to take stock of where things stand in your tasks and your goals, and organize your thoughts more systematically. Or just make lists of your favourite books you need to catch up on.

6. Catch up with tunes.
Is there anything like the perfect sound track to put you in a good mood, whether it is energetic, or contemplative? If you don’t like taking up space on your mobile device with mp3s there are also a host of good streaming apps out there. My current favourite is Songza, with a variety of playlists even geared towards the time of day you are tuning in.

7. Learn something new.
Do you always wish you had more time to pick up a new hobby or skill? This can be a great time to read up or even try things out in your new domain, from computer programming to knitting to poetry. It may not be the best place to take up the cello, however.

8. Dream.
Some days I prefer to put aside all of the more productive pursuits and just stare out the window in the company of my own thoughts, taking the time to quiet my mind and prepare for the day ahead. Sometimes that’s the best start to a good day that I could ask for.

Whatever you do, make sure it is a space for refreshment and reflection, preparing you for a good day and giving you an extra gift of time for whatever matters to you. The whole point of to take back your commuting time; it’s yours.

What do you do to make your commute time worthwhile?

High Definition

I often think of the woods as quiet and still, but in fact they are full of movement. The quiet settles upon me, forcing me deeper under layers of nylon and polyester stuffing.

When I look around me in the woods I can’t help but see in high definition, as every point in my line of vision holds a tree or rock or piece of life, and I am in constant process of readjusting the depth of my vision to choose my focus and blur out the rest.

Or else I can relax my eyes to take in the whole, able to tell of no detail and describe no object but with an impression of the whole — impossible to glean insight into, without sacrificing scrutinizing of the one.

Inevitable September

I always have polar-opposite feelings about this time of year in Canada – the end of summer and beginning of fall. Let’s just say that I am not a fan of cold weather. At all. I start wearing sweaters as soon as the thermometer is below 24 degrees Celsius.

So to feel the ten-degree drop around the first week of September and knowing it is only getting colder from here, plunging us into a long dark winter that will make us forget summer even happened, is like a prison sentence.

Summer glory - who wants to see this covered in snow?!

Summer glory in my parents’ raspberry patch – who wants to see this covered in snow?!

But at the same time, I am a geek, and I love getting back on track with life after a refreshing and invigorating summer packed full of adventures and activities. And what a summer it was! I spent four weeks teaching in Rwanda, three travelling in Jordan, left my old job and launched a new freelance career. I come to September eager and refreshed to get my hands dirty.

So now for my news – I got a great project last spring writing content for the website of an amazing young design and media company that friends of mine started a couple of years ago. They gave me the license to experiment and try whatever I wanted on them, so I took full advantage to get to the heart of their vision for their company and how they wanted to present themselves to their audience.

With a beautiful website now polished and in the hands of our programmers (which I will link for you all once it is launched!), I felt more confident than ever about putting myself out there and taking on new assignments – until this same company again called me up and offered me a job! Two jobs actually – one potentially full time, doing both their new creative content side along with client management, or one part time focusing only on content.

I had a decision to make – take a full time job for this amazing little company and enjoy the security of not having to hunt for clients. Or, take the less-lucrative part time option focusing only on what I love and dedicating the rest of my time to developing my skills and pursuing other writing opportunities in parallel. The tricky thing for me was that I knew how closely they in fact were linked – I knew working closely with the clients and the teams would drive content and bring me deeper into the world of the company that I am writing about.

But I also didn’t want to get distracted from my goals to learn about freelance writing, and also not sure if I want to strictly limit my writing career to content marketing at this early stage. So, after weighing all the options and long consultations with my husband, I eagerly accepted the part-time content development job and haven’t looked back. They also hired an amazing manager who will be a joy to work with.

This is my first week, and there is a lot to learn. First up is to prepare for the launch of the new website, which we are hoping will come online in the next two weeks. There are social media accounts to set up, content to develop, and I prospective clients to reach out to.

I also want to keep up my dabbling in photography and coding, these little skills on the side that I feel like help enhance my work as a content developer by giving me perspective for what others bring to the table in the projects we do for our clients.

I’m curious what others think though – do you think I made the right choices for the coming months? And are you someone who dreads the end of summer or looks forward to getting back into things in the fall?

Into the Desert

Into the Desert

At night in the desert, the shadows lengthen and broaden until every mountain is cloaked in the quiet velvet of night. That’s when the stars appear – at first flickering on one by one, but then spanning the heavens as a singular, three-dimensional canvas of dark traversed by causeways of galaxies and constellations.

The only sound to be heard is us – we are loud in this sacred silence with the hooves and grunts of our camels, the shouted conversations among us, and the songs of our guide. But the desert refuses to give these sounds back to us; with nothing to bounce against they are simply absorbed into the sand, heard among us us, but failing to disturb neighbouring camps with our lack of self-restraint.

Ahmad, our guide, knows everything about the camels. Indeed he himself has grown up with them, as they have with him. The first, Soghan, is the natural leader , and Ahmad tells us that he can lead a pack of campels across the desert to the village on his own, returning to their masters with none getting lost or being left behind.

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The second is Samhan, whose name means “forgiving”. Every ancestor of his shares the same name. With his placid nature, he is the most responsive to children and tourists, and will even listen to a woman’s voice. But in his heart he prefers to travel alone rather than with a pack, and will choose any moment to stray towards a different point on the horizon than those pursued by his companions.

The third was given the unfortunate name Michael Jackson by a tourist, and the name was preserved. He is the youngest and the slowest of the herd, Ahmad tells us, but he is strong.

We arrive at our campsite and stiffly dismount. We carry our things to the tents. Our dinner has been waiting for us under the sand, where coals buried deep in the ground make a makeshift oven that makes the vegetables and meat moist and fragrant. Our delicious meal is enjoyed with tiny cups of sage tea, scalding and sweet.

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We unroll our mattresses outside and sleep under the nearly-full moon, so bright as to eliminate the need for flashlights. It is quiet and sleep comes quickly, exhausted as we are into our trip into the desert. I wake a few times to find the moon moved to a different position in the arc it travels above us.

I wake and breathe the dry, cool air, which will regain the heat of the day in an hour or two. It fills my lungs, clearing them of sleep and night. Morning light has painted everything golden, and I rise to catch the view quickly, before it disappears a few minutes later. My companions are still asleep, and I hold on to the private joy of the moment that is far from my daily reality, knowing that soon it will be stirred with company. Knowing that in but a few moments the sun will rise higher, chase us out of the desert and back to the village for water and shade. The night has ended and the desert day has begun.

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Stepping Back

Three and a half weeks ago, I stepped back from the day-to-day pattern of life, and hopped on a plane to Rwanda.

Three and a half weeks ago, I said a drowsy, tearful goodbye to my husband at being apart for the longest since we first met nearly two years ago.

Three and a half weeks ago, I turned off my phone and instant messages and constant access to email. I set aside the deadlines and half-finished projects and word count goals. The only personal indulgence I allowed myself was a history book, which I would read for a few minutes before dropping off to sleep by the flicker of a bare fluorescent light bulb.

Three and a half weeks ago, I gave up any private moments to share a dormitory with 12 other women of all ages from DRC and Rwanda, with a bucket for a shower and a hole in the ground for a latrine.

And tonight is the first time I find myself alone. With a strong internet connection. And hot water. And clusters of softly glowing light bulbs.

And I’m not quite sure what to do with myself.

This hiatus from the page has been both frightening and freeing. The incessant mantra I hear from writers is “write every day”, “a writer writes”, “it isn’t LIFE that gets in the way of writing, it’s priorities.”

And yet, I decided not to write for three and a half weeks because I wanted, for a while, just to be present in this time, without allowing the anthropologist to creep into the equation. This has been a time of learning, of experience, of growth. Yes, I was invited here to teach; we discovered language together and played with numbers and did science experiments. But as in any act of service, we learn more than we give. It’s not by design and it’s not what drives us, but it seems to work out that way in the equation, even in the most difficult of experiences, if one has a mind and heart open to learning. This is what I wanted to work on – which meant cutting myself off, for a while, from writing.

Reflection is a necessary stage in any learning process, and for me writing is my primary tool to translate vague sentiment into tangible thought. But writing can also let my ego play some mischievous tricks on me, as it filters new experience through old lenses.

The first time I came to Rwanda a few years ago it was, indeed, on an anthropological research assignment. Every word and nuance documented and analyzed, the record more prized than the experience. Months later, midway through my 200-page long thesis, countless hours with no one but myself and my computer to negotiate with, I began to fear my worth lay in the mere interpretation, rather than the participation, in that experience I feel is most crucial to the needs of the age in which I have the chance and bounty to be alive. I spent the next three years trying to undo this self-assigned position of documenter, while at the same time being tasked again and again with the task of writing. It was what was needed and what I could do, and in fact what I loved to do and what brought me joy. It was in me, not to be abandoned, but rather a balance to be discovered and wielded.

But I loved that my work was also paired with action, with teaching – the chance to be with incredible people, to learn with and from them, see the world around us with the new eyes that come from learning from others. We learned and lived together, as we nurtured concepts into action. And as long as I remembered that we were one and left the anthropologist at home, the gate of the heart remained open.

Tomorrow I get on a westward-bound airplane that will take me home. I am awaited there by the arms of my husband, by the deadlines and to-do lists, the ping of incoming emails and instant messages.

And tomorrow I will pick up my pen again, and write.

Lessons from my First Website Content Job

It was an exhilarating feeling to deliver my first full web content project to a client last week!

It was the perfect project to start off with – really a labour of love for a cause and a customer that I believe in: a friend of mine has been helping young adults in a neighbouring city to figure out their career and life goals. The challenge was to reach the target market – young people aged 18 to 35 who are looking for a job, particularly newcomers to Canada – yet at the same time convey that this was more than a job search program, as it is really designed to help people think about they wanted in their lives and take steps to get there.

Although the website design was fairly simple, it was content-heavy. It was a lot of work, but working with a great web design team and being surrounded with encouragement and fun made this project special.

Writing for websites is different than any other medium I had experienced so far. I learned a lot in this project, which I am already incorporating into my work with my new clients.

One lesson was how helpful it is to be able to do your own content entry in the site. The first time I saw my content uploaded on the website, I panicked. “It’s all wrong!” I thought – the byline too wordy, the slider text off-center, the columns all different lengths. I grabbed my phone to call the developer and ask him to make little edits, to which he was quite obliging. Twenty minutes later I called him again – I found a typo I needed fixed right away. On the third call he politely told me he would be heading to bed soon, so I should make a list of my corrections for him to work on in the morning. I knew it wasn’t as simple as making a list though – the words would need tweaking until they were just right. He finally gave me access to the backend of the site, which was WordPress-based, and with my limited html knowledge managed to tweak to my heart’s content. (Note: I strongly recommend learning even just a bit of html if you are writing for websites. A great crash course can be found at codeacademy.com).

Another thing I learned as soon as we met with the client to present the first draft of the website, was not to underestimate the impact that the visuals will have on how your content is read. If the design side is not completely up to snuff, it may not be the best idea for the client’s first impression of the content to appear next to the design. At the same time, if you give a client the content simply in a word document, they may not understand how it is going to look on the screen. It is preferable to work closely with the designer and present things together that you are both happy with – of course, that’s a bit of an ideal scenario, and we should always be flexible!

All in all, my client was very happy with what we created together, and made only minor adjustments to the content. And that was the most important part to me – that she is happy with how her website represents her organization and what it can help them do for others.

And on to the next project!

In the meantime, any advice from writers out there about writing web content – especially about how you share drafts of what you’ve developed with the client?