Author Archives: Olga

Book Review: One Day We’ll Be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi Koul

One Day We'll Be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi Khoul

One Day We’ll Be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi Koul

Despite the title’s grimness, Scaachi Koul’s memoir is not as morose as one would assume. And that’s probably why the title is actually a clever visual trick. It cheekily tells you that Koul might seem like a typical apathetic Millennial writer, but she has real feelings and they’re deeply rooted in legacy and the places where we come from.

In her stories,  we learn about her Indian roots, from the lessons of her parents to the grueling process of a typical Indian wedding. I have to confess, I’m one of those lily-white idiots who’s casually articulated more than once that she’d love to go to an Indian wedding, having no idea how long the ceremony is (days) or how difficult it is for the bride (very).

I would categorize Koul’s writing as “hashtag life goals”. She’s just so good at turning a phrase. She’s funny and cavalier, but never annoying, which is a place many writers end up when they’re trying to be funny and cavalier. See Jian Ghomeshi’s “1982”. Or don’t. I couldn’t get past the first chapter.

Although Koul’s life experience is not the same as mine – she grew up in Calgary in an Indian family, while I grew up in Toronto and Hamilton in a Polish family, there are echoes of my own that makes it relatable. We both went to post-secondary in Toronto; her memories of the Dance Cave are mirror images of my own. And we are both the products of immigration, although every immigrant story is different.

One of the most poignant features of her book are the email exchanges with her father that bookend each chapter. It reminded me to look up my correspondence with my own father. Koul is lucky to still have her parents – and she worries about the day when she will no longer have them. As someone who has already experienced that tragedy (and I can honestly tell you that there is no experience that can hurt you as much as the death of a parent), it made me like Koul even more for including these imperfect exchanges with someone who’s influenced your life so much.

My father and I mostly emailed about our life updates and most, sadly, were written after he was diagnosed and in the process of fighting cancer. Before then we would often exchange a few sentences over the phone. I didn’t know how much I would come to wish more written exchanges with him until his memorial service when my sister read from her own emails with Tata.

This came from one of our few conversations. It was written before he was sick, when my parents were settling into their new life in Perth, Ontario. Tata was training to get his truck driver’s license (at the age of sixty!) It perfectly encapsulates my dad’s way of embellishing and building a phrase that so many people loved.

Here, in the woods, everything looks serene, I am in the middle of heavy truck combat training, will end and hopefully graduate on Sep. 8th. Yesterday I had an interview for lone ranger position in Scouts Canada camp on south side of Lake Christie. It went soooooo well, that today, I’ve got a phone call, with invitation for second interview. It may end with job offer, who knows?

For the record, he got the job. The Scout Camp was so good to my father, even after he was diagnosed shortly after taking the job. They supported him through his medical leave and my mother after his passing.

Both Koul and I admit that we owe a lot to our fathers. One day this will matter is the truth. Simple things like an email back and forth between you may not mean a lot now, but one day it may mean the world.

Advertisements

Book Review: Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

born a crime trevor noahTrevor Noah’s unlikely path from apartheid South Africa to the desk of The Daily Show began with a criminal act: his birth. Trevor was born to a white Swiss father and a black Xhosa mother at a time when such a union was punishable by five years in prison. Living proof of his parents’ indiscretion, Trevor was kept mostly indoors for the earliest years of his life, bound by the extreme and often absurd measures his mother took to hide him from a government that could, at any moment, steal him away. Finally liberated by the end of South Africa’s tyrannical white rule, Trevor and his mother set forth on a grand adventure, living openly and freely and embracing the opportunities won by a centuries-long struggle. –-penguinrandomhouse.com

I have to keep reminding myself that this memoir is written by someone the same age as me. Born in 1984, Trevor Noah’s only a year older than me. I’ve never read a memoir written by contemporary before. I guess I’d better get used to it because now is the time when these things start happening. We’re all old enough now to have a few stories under our belt.

Hell, I’ve filled the Punnery with enough stories now that I’m beginning to revisit them, picking through them to see what I can elaborate on, turn into bigger and better things. Much like this memoir. Many of the stories in Born a Crime started off as jokes in Trevor’s stand-up act, like recounting the tail of feeling like “a bag of weed” whenever his parents walked past police because his father would cross the street and his mother would drop his hand.

Trevor and I were listening to Montel Jordan at the same time together. I, too, wanted to wear a ankle-length leather duster like Neo from The Matrix. We were both set free by the Internet. He sold bootleg CDs. I learned how to build websites so I could write whatever, where ever, I wanted.

While he was running through the streets of Johannesburg, I was living in Toronto with my family, completely unaware of what life might be like in post-apartheid South Africa. I knew it existed, but had no idea what it was.

In 1998, when I was about twelve years old, Nelson Mandela visited Toronto. My class went to the Skydome to hear him speak. I don’t remember a single thing about that trip, other than I know I was there.

I didn’t know what the hell apartheid really was as twelve year old sitting in the nosebleed section of the Skydome, watching a golf cart inch through the crowds on the astroturf below. Much like the end of Communism it was messy and confusing and it left a vaccuum in its wake that created chaos. That’s what Trevor Noah lived in, while I lived in Canada. While I was in Canada, watching Nelson Mandela speak on a Jumbotron, my family in Poland was dealing with the economic fall-out of post-Communist life in Poland.

I’ve already mentioned this part of the book:

“People love to say, “Give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he’ll eat for a lifetime.” What they don’t say is, “And it would be nice if you gave him a fishing rod.” That’s the part of the analogy that’s missing.”

I often wonder what would have happened if my family stayed in Poland. My father’s love of language likely would have still been passed on to me and my sister and my curiousity for the world would have likely led me to move to England, like thousands of other Poles my generation. Brexit would have a bigger impact in my life. Instead I am here in Canada. Would I have received the same fishing poles in that life? Impossible to tell because that life doesn’t exist. And as someone quite recently told me, our souls learn things in the time that they are given to us. We can’t speculate on what could have been done differently, because it’s all been done as it should have been done. And I value the fishing poles I’ve already been given in my life.

I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in learning about life in South Africa post-apartheid, in the nineties and early oughts.

Time

Time heals. Time takes forever. Time requires patience, a virtue I’ve only just begun to build a relationship with, so maybe that requires time, too.

Not too long ago I remembered that the Wayback Machine has archives of all sorts. It’s recorded Internet time since, well… a long time ago. You know, relatively speaking. The Internet isn’t that old, after all.

So I went back in time to see what kind of a person I was five, ten years ago. Turns out I was an impatient person. But not the kind of impatient person who would do something. No, I just mostly complained. And then glossed over some of the biggest moments in my life. Like meeting my first boyfriend… Or breaking up with him. Or moving into my first apartment solo (shortly after the breaking up part.) Or adopting an orange tabby cat and subsequently naming him Trotsky because I studied a lot of twentieth century European history and wanted to give him a name with Historical Importance. Is it a coincidence he lives in exile now?

How about learning to sing? That’s been documented here a few times. I think I’d categorize those moments as the beginning of my relationship with patience. Although when Patience and I first met, it was a rocky relationship. I couldn’t wait to do things; Patience liked to check me a lot.

Most of the things I wrote back then are now of such little importance now. Most are meaningless in my life. Why didn’t I mention any of the Big Things? Why were they only hinted at?

Am I doing the same with this blog post? Perhaps.

I’ve only written a few things this year. Most of them are pretty meaningless.

I’ve never mentioned that I took a course in early Spring called the Neighbourhood Leadership Institute. The NLI is a leadership and skillbuilding program with three different streams, resident, professional, and youth. Because you needed a partner to participate, I contacted the NLI and was connected with a wonderful partner. Through the NLI you incubate a community project. My partner Sheila’s idea is a self-directed learning group called Partners in Learning Hamilton.

PIL is a weekly meetup group, mainly meant for senior citizens who’d like to socialize through meaningful conversation. We held our first pilot session in July, and we’re working on putting together the first five week session around the theme of Wellness, starting in late-September.

The idea of Partners in Learning Hamilton came from the original Partners in Learning group, of which Sheila was a member, in Grand Bend, ON.

The NLI was a unique experience. I met a lot of people from different parts of the city. I got to explore areas of Hamilton I’d never been to before, including the McQuesten Urban Farm, and Honouring the Circle, the Native Women’s Centre tucked away on the Mountain Brow.

Honouring the Circle Native Women's Centre

Honouring the Circle Native Women’s Centre

Prior to the NLI, I participated in the Women’s March here in Hamilton. The night before the march, a few of us gathered together at a friend’s place and we made signs and masks. The next day we gathered in front of City Hall to stand together and chant, sing, and be together. According to French sociologist Émile Durkheim when humans gather in a crowd, it creates a “collective effervescence,” a “glowy, giddy feeling where your sense of self slackens, yielding to a connection with your fellow, synchronized humans.”

womens-march-cat-masks

Women’s March protestors or the world’s best girl group?

cynthia-wearing-kitty-mask-on-womens-march-2017

Cynthia looking pensive in the crowd. Photo: John Rennison/The Hamilton Spectator

You can see the effervescence on my face here:

olga-and-naomi-at-womens-march-2017

You can see the effervescence on both mine and N’s face here!

Or how about the fact that I got a new car this year? Haven’t mentioned that at all, have I?

blue-the-wonder-focus

Her name is Joni. Because Joni Mitchell wrote “Blue,” one of my favourite songs.

I’m reading Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime right now. It’s the first time I’m reading a memoir written by a contemporary. I have to keep reminding myself that his stories of life in South Africa happened the same time I was growing up here in Canada. Our realities are a stark difference. In one story he recounts how his life changed after his friend Andrew gifts him a CD writer. At this point, he’s already running a flourishing bootleg CD business, but when Andrew gives him a CD writer, his whole life changes because he has the means to go further and he recognizes that without it, his life could have been stuck much like a lot of his friends who remain in South Africa.

He’s better able to explain it but essentially it amounts to this: that old adage that you can give a man a fish and he’ll eat for one day, but if you teach a man to fish he’ll eat for the rest of his life is all well and good. But how about giving the man a fishing rod, too? That’s the essential difference for some people, especially South African blacks. So many of them already know how to fish, but they haven’t got a fishing rod. It took a friend to give Trevor his first “fishing rod”.

All this to say, I would not have this car without the assistance of a friend. And maybe it’s too soon to tell what this car can do for me, other than haul my butt from my office to the home (for now.) Actually I think it’s definitely too soon to tell what this car can do for me, but I know that it will help me in my life. Maybe it’s my fishing rod?

It’s hard, you know. Hard to tell what you’re looking at when it comes to time. Because so often we’ve got our noses pressed so hard to the glass that everything just looks blurry. All you’re seeing are shades of colours rather than anything fully formed. And maybe that’s why I’ve written so little about what now look like bigger things in my life now that they’ve come and gone. Even so, as the years continue to stretch out and I get a clearer idea of the picture my life is turning into, they could just be minor blips in the bigger picture.

But at least I’m noting them down. And maybe the Wayback Machine will one day spit out this blog post to remind me that these things happened and I’ll be grateful for the reminder.

Meaningful Work

DSC_7438

Music and guitar stand built by my father. Picture of my father and mother in the bookcase.

Every thing I’ve strived to do professionally has tried to solve a question that I ask myself internally – will this help someone? I approach my projects and tasks with that question in mind. Sometimes it’s clear, sometimes not right away.

In 2016 my dear friend Alex connected me with Century Estate Services, whose business is to find meaningful homes for people’s belongings. It answered that question wtih a resounding yes. And, in turn, the work helped me. I didn’t clue in at the time that this may be the work that I need to do to come to terms with so much of what’s happened in my life since 2013.

Belongings. Possessions. Earthly remains. Funny how a word that just means stuff can have so many connotations to it.

They all somehow convey that you are gone but they stay here. Just like the people you leave behind.

At least there are people who provide stewardship for your possessions when you do go. Family. Friends. Executors. Estate trustees. Auction houses. The latter may be more formal, but they are still made of people who, in some shape or form, want to help.

I’ve been writing for Urbanicity magazine since August 2016. I’ve written about small businesses, social media etiquette, and stories about Hamilton’s revival. This month’s article is more dear to my heart than all of them.

I hope you enjoy Shedding Possessions.

Happy International Women’s Day 2017

Year after year International Women’s Day transforms just a little more, honing itself into a careful diamond that shines brighter as more women wake up.

We’ve had some incredible moments as women in the year.

Canada’s prime minister Justin Trudeau stood up and declared himself a feminist.

Air India organized its first all-women’s flight crew. Their inaugural flight circumnavigated the globe.

Female artists showed us that we can be in the same space together and hold hands, not throw elbows.

Credit: Billboard.com Photo by Lester Cohen/WireImage

The world stopped for one day and declared itself female.

Credit: Wikicommons Photo by Mark Dixon

It’s a heady time. I’m constantly full of emotions I can’t always explain. But these are good things. We all need these moments. I am so proud of all of us.

Keep going, ladies. We’re all in this together now.

Previous Posts:

A message to Phill

I spent four years in an emotionally abusive relationship.

To this day I don’t know if he knows how abusive he was. Maybe if he reads these words he’ll change his ways. He’ll become softer, gentler, more responsive.

I loved him. So hard. Our voices melded like honey. We could have brought tears to anyone’s eyes. But he was jealous. Or more likely scared. And I was about to go through the scariest adventure of my life.

And so our relationship ended.

My family hates him. I do not. He is not a bad person. A misguided male at best. With potential to learn from his past and grow bigger and better.

Do it.

Become better.

It will not be with me, but, let’s be Frank, you never needed me anyway. You took a lot from me. But you never needed me.

Phill (with two L’s), the future is female. Be kind. Be gentle. Listen to her. Pleasure her. Worship her.

Do it for her and you will be happy.

When it all unravelled we both marvelled that we will be better off without each other. Prove me right.

Reminders in life

This sign hangs above my desk in my office. It pretty much covers all of life, be it business, love, relationships with other human beings, your spirituality, and even your health.

This sign hangs above my desk and when I am stressed or feeling down I look up and there it is.

A photo posted by Olga Kwak (@piratecakes) on Aug 12, 2016 at 7:50am PDT

 

It reads:

Go placidly amid the noise and haste and, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and ignorant; they too have their story. Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself. Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time. Exercise caution in your business affairs; for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals; and everywhere life is full of heroism. Be yourself. Especially, do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is perennial as the grass. Take kindly the counsel of years, gravefully surrendering the things of youth. Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness. Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be, and whatever your labours and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be careful. Strive to be happy.

— Found in old Saint Paul’s Church, Baltimore; Dated 1692

There are many moments in my life when I could use this advice. Even today, as I sit here pining over this, that, and the other, I am reminded that whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. So I must be gentle with myself.

Do you ever find yourself in that mood where you feel stuck because of one thing or another isn’t going right or isn’t moving fast enough? Maybe this poster will help you as well. Feel free to share it.