My "career" is to keep life’s balance ~ educate myself at being as self-subsisting as possible, provide for myself and my family through honest manual and mental labour, avoid wastefulness, remain gracious to others and humble before a higher power.
Inspired by all that, I write poetry and songs ~ then sometimes travel to share them with welcoming audiences around the planet.
Trying to better the world, one song at a time
…and always singin’ for my supper,
“Well, I’ve got a hammer and I’ve got a bell,
and I’ve got a song to sing all over this land.
It’s the hammer of justice. It’s the bell of freedom.
It’s a song about love between my brothers and my sisters, all over this land.”
~ Pete Seeger & Lee Hays
Click above image to hear Pete Seeger sing “Forever Young”.
Read my memories of meeting Mr. Seeger just three months ago at his home in Beacon, New York in an article entitled “Pumpkin Pie and Two Hours With Pete”.
Parents, teachers or youngsters looking for a simple art project to pass the time or inspire creativity this New Year’s Eve, here is one my eldest daughter and I have been enjoying for the past few weeks.
We call it Scribble Art and find it challenging, fun and sometimes even funny.
We each take a piece of scrap, doodle paper and a writing utensil. The craft works best if each person has a different colour pencil or crayon, or if one person uses a pen and the other uses a pencil.
Each artist tosses a very basic “scribble” on their page, then papers are exchanged. The artists creatively add lines or shade portions to create some sort of picture out of the scribble before them. The creativity gets even more intense when each artist is given a time limit on the doodle they make out of the scribble they are given.
Here are some examples of my doodles (in pencil) built upon my daughter’s scribbles (in red ink).
Here are examples of my daughter’s doodle art (in red ink) built upon my scribbles (in pencil). Can you spot the bird, snails, rabbit, person, inch-worm, hat and dinosaur?
In September 2013 I became the proud parent of a first grade drop out. Why was I “proud” of my six-year old’s desire to leave school in pursuit of a more home-spun learning environment? Her reasons were well thought out and ones which I simply could not argue with ~ even after two decades or more of working with schools world-wide.
“We sing and draw all day ~ and I can do that at home.” (…and indeed we do!)
“I miss being with my sister.” (…well, they are best friends after all.)
“They make me put up my hand and ask permission to use the bathroom.” (… Ok yeah, that is just…well…unnatural.)
“I’m not allowed to have a rest and get in trouble when I put my head down for a few seconds on my desk.” (…I’m over 40 and if I can’t set my head down to collect my thoughts once in a while, I become a mental, spiritual and emotional wreck too ~ again a good point.)
“We have to sing the alphabet song and I’ve known that for years!” (…understandable.)
The list went on and on.
Her school was lovely, her teacher was delightful, the environment was safe and vibrant. But, driving home from classes after the third day of trying to positively embrace her time there, our little family decided that home-schooling would be a better experience for us all at this time in life.
“Maryam,” I asked, “Do you know what discipline is?”
“Going to school?” she responded, after thinking for a few seconds.
“Sort of.” I encouraged, then went on to explain, “School helps us with discipline but it is not a discipline. Discipline means doing something important ~ even if you don’t feel like doing it all the time. Like eating, going to the toilet, washing, praying, cleaning… they are all things that must be done, even when we don’t always feel like doing them. Learning is a discipline. School can help us with learning, but we must keep learning all the time, everywhere…in school and especially out of school.”
Continuing I cautioned her, “If you don’t go back to school each day, that doesn’t mean that you can stop learning or have no routine. It means you must show even more discipline to learn and discover new things all the time.” And with that, home-schooling began.
The next day, during a hike in the Elora Gorge, my daughter insisted on doing a 200 foot zip-line by herself. As I stood back and watched my feather weight little girl step off the cliff in her rose-coloured helmet and sail across a rope, suspended eighty feet over a river valley full of jagged rocks and trees, I said to myself, “The School of Life has begun” and wondered if I were the worst teacher alive.
Ask one hundred people why they choose to home-school and you will get not only one hundred reasons, but also as many opinions on “how” it should be done.
For our family, the choice to withdraw our daughter from school to teach her at home was rooted more in a desire to maintain family connection than anything related to academics or social environments. Quite simply ~ we all love each others company and do not like to be apart when we do not have to be. Naturally, there are other reasons as well: the opportunity for our daughter to learn in her own unique way and at her own pace, develop her six senses (yes, I said six senses and will write more on that at a later time) in comfortably familiar surroundings, have the dedicated time of either her mother or myself in her lessons and the flexibility to learn wherever our family happen to be ~ at homes in Canada, the USA or Pakistan.
Due to the ideological and even economical choices we make for our family, we have been able to carve out a unique life-style for ourselves ~ enabling us to travel frequently and live seasonally in three countries. We believe that the whole world is our home and the entire earth is a teacher of wisdom, if we open our senses to life’s wonders and lessons.
Our family focuses heavily on three “F’s”: Freedom, Faith and Family.
To us, “choice” is the essence of “freedom”. We believe that human beings have valuable choices in life. Indeed, many people around the world have had their choices restricted through oppression and thus the choices they are left to make may be very hard, but choice is in the hand of each living person, regardless of how chained they may be ~ right down to the choices between giving up, giving in or getting out.
A dear friend of mine was a prisoner in Afghanistan during the early 1980′s ~ tortured and beaten for seven years with no hope of release from his unjust incarceration. (My 1998 song “The Beautiful Story of Yusuf” was written about his experience.) He is now living in Canada, a devoted father of a beautiful family, the founder of a medical social service organization and a man of great wisdom, mercy and patience. He is where he is now in life because of the choices he made…even as a tortured prisoner in a cage during his formative years. He choose hope over victimization, trust in something greater than himself over helplessness and forgiveness over revenge.
In North America we see a bombardment of choices ~ aisles and aisles of products to tempt, tantalize and torment one’s ability to decide. Where friends in some nations struggle with too few tough choices, we in privileged parts of the world are often beaten senseless with too many trivial options and the struggle of knowing how to make a “good choice”.
So, for my daughters ~ safe, un-oppressed and with countless opportunities around them ~ Lesson Number One: be grateful for, respect and embrace “Freedom” through learning how to make “good choices”. As parents we ourselves try to demonstrate this by celebrating our own continued learning from everything around us…questioning, exploring, experimenting, practicing, trying, failing and trying again. We aim to help our daughters understand the empowerment that comes with committing to the pursuit of integrity, not being sucked into the prison of “competition” (competing for attention, points or validation by the standards of others). As a family we aim to be willingly devoted to discipline, reverent toward ritual, respectful of routine and purposeful toward punctuality…while being cautious of becoming suckers to mindless regiment, self-righteously settled in blind faith, sheep-like with useless habits, or slaves to social expectations of conformity that hold no regard for human conscience, dignity or self-respect.
Lesson Number Two: understand “faith”… belief in something we cannot see…reverence for powers such as love, mercy and kindness…avoidance of powers such as hate, greed and envy… thankfulness to the unseen controller of this universe we only see signs of in creation and humility through understanding equality of worth between all other humans. Anything, anyone or any environment which compromises that “faith” is a thing, person or place to warrant alarms in one’s heart and mind ~ awakening us toward a struggle for balance and justice.
Lesson Number Three: Family. A dear friend of mine in London, Ontario once told me, “Foster an environment at home where your kids have the most fun they could ever imagine when they are with you, and you will have succeeded in creating a healthy family unit.” With Mum able to adjust her studies and frequently work at home, with Dad working from home as an independent artist, with a little sister at home eager to play and learn, with Poppa down the street always stopping in for tea ~ how could we?…why would we?…send our eldest daughter to spend eight hours away from us each day? Wake her at 7 am, hustle her out the door with a boxed lunch and bid her farewell until late afternoon…especially when she wants to be with us all and we want to be with her? Rather (dare I suggest?), since we need to be with each other to maximize our collective learning potential and healthy social contribution as a family?
We moved to Pakistan many years ago so our daughters could be close to their great grandparents there… then we moved back to Canada quickly to care for my mother, staying on after her passing to provide assistance to my aging father. We regularly spend weeks and months of the year hopping around the globe to visits aunts, uncles and cousins. All their lives, our girls have seen devotion to family as a foundation of what keeps us all strong. Since we’ve been blessed with the choice of “daily school” or “home-school with family” the decision was an obvious one for us.
How the adventures in home-schooling progress will, most certainly, be written about during the year ahead.
We have always tried to foster and environment at home that is conducive to learning, but since September we have stepped up the game considerably. One thing I have learned from working with children for over twenty years (and something which has been confirmed to me after spending each day with my own three-year old and a six-year-old daughters) is: most children have the capability of learning much more than we give them credit for, and the ability to learn very quickly. Thus, they require incredible amounts of ongoing challenge. Not just “sensory stimulation”, but mental challenge.
In our home, there is no “classroom” setting or “desk” to counterpart what the majority of schools would have.
The kitchen table is our workspace for spelling and math, as well as our central spot for family conversation. A large bulletin board above the dining table is a constant reminder and proud display of the week’s lessons and artistic expressions. Pens, paper, scissors and glue are accessible at all times. The Kitchen itself is a laboratory of measuring, pouring, sifting, cutting and stirring. The sparsely decorated, but bright family room, facing out to the back garden (with its trees, birds, wild rabbits and squirrels) is the place for reading, story-telling, singing, dancing and house-plant care. The front “living room” is without furniture ~ only book shelves and rugs. It is a library and place of reflection we call “the masjid“, an Arabic word meaning “place of prostration”. An environment dedicated to thankfulness, humility and quiet study.
In the basement, there is a sewing room (both children learned a little about how to use a needle and thread this year), laundry room and a playroom, for arts, crafts and music. Outside in the garage is our workshop and studio ~ recording facilities, work-bench, tools, scrap lumber and out-door toys. This year, both girls also learned how to use a hammer and nails in the construction of small, self-motivated projects.
Alongside brief, daily “lessons” in spelling, reading and math (addition and subtraction), we try to make everything we do a learning experience. The girls accompany me to the post office and bank for withdrawals and deposits (where they have become quite the cute celebrities among the staff). They join me at the grocery store ~ helping to load and unload the shopping cart. We visit local libraries, forests, markets, hardware stores and as we drive I explain where we’re going, what we’re doing and why it is important to our lives. We chat with neighbours of all ages, engage in household chores together ~ sweep, separate laundry, clean out the rabbit hutch, sort recycling. We draw, sing and chat about all the things we find fascinating throughout our days together.
Each night the girls go to a local place of worship for instruction on how to read and recite the Qur’an. Once a week they do swimming lessons and frequently they join me for tea parties with friends who may stop over to chat.
Learning and socialization is central to all aspects of our lives and I am amazed at how much we have all learned in just a few months.
Trying help my daughters understand and appreciate freedom, faith and family has resulted in a deeper value for each in my own life. Since September, I have read, written, sung, drawn, built and even danced more than I ever have in my life!
Our favourite “lesson” ~ Custard 101. We read the recipe (literature), measure the ingredients (math), mix and cook (science)…and then practice the best lessons of life: Serve to others and savour the sweetness of what we all shared in making.
Life is not always rosy in the yard of a sub-urban environmentalist ~ my veggie plot and fledgling apiary are sad examples of that.
It was back in about 1992 or 1993 when I first tried my hand at gardening. The beans, beets and snow peas fared well ~ but since my carrots were not thinned properly they grew all intertwined. The spinach was stunted and my dwarfed corn plants grew fascinating ears of corn in the shape of spheres! “Corn Balls” ~ literally! In fact, I recall my sister and I drying one of the oddly shaped vegetables and keeping it for years afterward. Ever since that time, each of my attempts at tilling and tending have been great tests…often with dismal amounts harvest to actually taste. (See my August 2011 post “Green Garden Blues”)
The only strong season of semi success I experienced with tomatoes and beans was during the summer of 2003 when, as newlyweds, my partner and I planted a patch in a community allotment near the university housing where we lived. Ah, scenic Boulder Colorado ~ near Rocky Mountain Foothills! We’d hike in the mornings, play Frisbee in the late afternoon, then romantically water and weed our furrows until twilight. By autumn that year, I recall we had too much broccoli to know how to cook! To this day, I think it was the fertilizer of our fresh love that energized that particular garden. Not to say that our love has gone stale during the last decade in any way ~ it is just that, these days with children sprouting around us, we are not usually able to both be out tending to veggie sprouts at the same time.
This year, I prepared the soil with care and planted with great hope. Sadly, it was my naive trust of other neighbourhood critters that foiled my plot. After sewing and watering religiously each morning and each dusk, I began to see plant tips poke through the dirt in their neat little rows. Foolishly, however, I did not erect any wire mesh around the saplings, leaving local rabbits to devour the tender shoots in short order. By the time I did fortify the patch and replant, the season had progressed too far to practically yield very much food. By autumn, we had only secured a few bowls of string beans, some small tomatoes, occasional handfuls of snow peas and a row of baby carrots. In keeping with my tradition of fostering organically peculiar produce, there were a few oddly shaped veggies to arouse giggles from the family. Top prize going to the “Bum Carrot” (as seen above). Brownie the pet rabbit enjoyed eating that, as none of us snickering fools could imagine taking a nibble of it without blushing.
As for my little bee hive: Again, since I acquired the nucleus colony very late in the season, it remained weak throughout the summer and into autumn. By the time I had treated the hive with an annual dosage of mite medicine and wrapped it with tar paper against the harsh Ontario snow, there was still very little honey in the frames for the bees themselves, let alone my family and I. God willing, they will make it through the next many months with what they have stored. The greatest fear is that, a March thaw will bring them out of their hibernation to a cold world with no blooms and thus, no food. If they can stay cozy and collected together within their apartment until mid-April, I will be the happiest of novice hive keepers. With hope and prayers, my family too will keep cozy in our little house as we await the coming of spring.
While on the subject of “de-cluttering” ~ During 2013, alongside my “Ten Year Plan”, I also made the intention to minimize some of my belongings through what I call a “Simplicity Sale”.
Most North Americas are familiar with “Garage Sales” and “Yard Sales” ~ sub-urban, Saturday morning scenes, springing up in cities across the continent. (Our friends in the UK call them “Car Boot Sales”.) Before morning dew has faded, city folks drag their unused trinkets out onto the drive-ways, front-yards and boulevards of the nation’s neighbourhoods to set up impromptu bazaars. They shiver in the cool morning air, often un-showered in pj’s and slippers, with coffee and breakfast toast in hand, awaiting nosy customers eager for bargains on unique, unused household items.
My mother used to always say, “One person’s trash is another person’s treasure”. For people wanting to de-clutter, and others searching for cheap deals on collectables or much needed household items, these little bargain-markets are cultural celebrations of independent entrepreneurship. When entire streets of families get involved ~ establishing “Street Sales” ~ the resulting festivals and community buzz can be quite enjoyable. The objective of the seller is primarily to unload lightly used belongings that are too good to trash. Thus, price tag amounts tend to be token and flexible…especially as the sale day comes to a close. For the customers ~ roving from road to road on weekend mornings in the act of “Garage Sailing”, the thrill of bartering to secure a “good deal” can be quite empowering ~ especially in a part of the world where retail product mark-up averages between 12 – 15% and no formal mall, store, shop or franchise allows a customer the freedom to haggle.
Being on the road so much with my music (away almost every weekend) has made it hard for me to hold a garage sale or even utilize websites like Kijiji or Craig’s list in an effort to sell some of my things. During the last 12 months, I only had one free Saturday available to host my own home-spun bazaar. It went well, but did not even put a dent in the number of items I had hoped to clear out of my house. So this past autumn I devised a new plan for simplifying my life ~ a traveling “Simplicity Sale”.
Upon each of my travels to share my songs, I bring along one or two items I no longer need and either auction them off to my audience or set them out on my CD table for sale. Among the goods I have parted with over the past year was a virtually brand-new guitar case, sold to a budding musician who attend one of my shows. On my last trip to the UK, I even auctioned off one of my two primary performance guitars of the last decade, to a dear supporter who now intends to learn a few chords herself! It feels so good to know that belongings which have meant so much to me over the years have found homes in the hands of new friends, who I hope will keep in touch.
In 2014 I plan on stepping up the “product line”of my Simplicity Sale to include some of my forlorn collections which, as I get older, I have felt less inclined to maintain. That will include some of my 16mm films, antique cameras/film projectors, books, records, random rhythm instruments and even some nick-nacks collected on my various travels around the world.
Proceeds from all of my Simplicity Sale items go toward the Al-Imtiaz Academy, a school in Pakistan my wife’s grandmother started over 25 years ago (and the primary benefactor of royalties from several of my recorded works.)
Anybody wanna buy a classy looking and unused hooka pipe from Damascus? …Or the retro 1970′s super 8mm movie camera I used to film my “Out Seeing The Fields” video? How about a collection of Star Wars figures from my childhood….well, all except Yoda…guide me in The Force and smile in my studio a little longer, will he.
In my May 12, 2013 post “Slipping at Integritea” I made reference to a “ten year plan” for de-cluttering my life. At long last, I am pleased to share a more detailed overview of the admittedly eccentric experiment, which I hope will help me minimize my possessions and overcome a life-time of susceptibility to wanting, buying, collecting and hoarding “things”.
The initiative was instituted on my fortieth birthday and set at a term of ten years ~ with hopes that by the age of fifty I would have adequately “used up” and “utilized” all the things around me I have accumulated over the past four decades. At the significant age of a half century, I hope to start a new phase of life ~ having pared down my belongings and disciplined myself to be a better judge of my own “needs” and “wants”. Regretfully I confess that, on one occasion, I did compromise the plan (gave into pressure by family to buy a new belt when my old one broke and I resorted to using suspenders/braces that embarrassed my wife and kids) ~ but overall, the past year and a half has gone surprisingly well.
For years I had already been devoted to mending my own clothes/shoes and trying to minimize new purchases. At least three pairs of shoes I still actively wear are approximately twenty-five years old…of the three suits I own, two were purchased over eleven years ago (both still appropriate for wedding events I attended last weekend), with the third more casual wool suit dating back to the 1960′s. It (along with several other articles of my clothing) belonged to my grandfather who passed away in 1981 (yes, you read that properly, 1981!).
Just three weeks ago, I was forced to fully retire my twenty-three year old steel toed work boots which had reached a completely dysfunctional stage. They hiked me across England and Scotland when I was a younger man and also helped me harvest many garden plots throughout my life. Their last public appearance was at a show in Oxfordshire last November, where I had the pleasure of singing at Willowbrook Organic farm. They are now in the process of being dismantled ~ their leather to be re-purposed into a little wallet for me to carry for another 25 years ~ God willing.
The Ten Year Plan’s stipulations are as follows:
~ Due to the excessive attire I have in my possession, acquired through purchasing or as gifts, I have decided not to buy any new clothing (with the exception of items such as: under-garments, socks and possibly shoes, all of which tend to wear out more rapidly from excessive wearing and washing than other accessories).
~ An effort will be made to maintain self-respect and dignity in dress through repairing damaged or torn items personally. Completely degenerated articles of clothing that are thread bare, visibly stained, torn or frayed will be recycled into rags and pillow stuffing or cut into pieces for bed quilts.
~ Any articles of clothing that are retired, will be replaced with ones made of cotton, wool, tweed, flannel, leather, canvas etc. and void of synthetic (plastic) materials.
~ If need be, second hand clothing stores supporting charitable efforts will be patronized over standard department stores for garments that must be replaced (with the exception of socks and undergarments).
~ Gifts of clothing will be accepted, however, they will be subjected to a “one year condition”. If I am not inclined to wear the garment during a one year span, out of a personal distaste for it, the article will be donated to charity.
Due to the incredible number of personal possessions I have acquired over the past four decades, it is my intention to carry out the following steps with regards to specific items:
~ Musical Instruments: For the rest of my life I will refrain from purchasing any duplicate musical instruments to the ones already in my possession. Any duplicate musical instruments I currently own will be minimized to one. If I purchase any new type of musical instrument to learn, I will sell off one of the existing instruments in my possession. I will never publicly perform with a guitar/mandolin/banjo etc. that retails new for more than $1000 USD, as a way of minimizing the commonly seen images of “pop stars with expensive guitars” and reflecting my view that: music should be accessible to the masses of people with modest incomes and savings.
~ Books and CDs: For the next ten years, I will not buy another book for my library until I have read all the books I currently own ~ unless I donate/gift one book from my existing collection to counter balance any new book I may aquire. Nor will I personally purchase any new CDs or DVDs. If I am gifted with a book, CD or DVD I will accept the gift but will allot myself one year to enjoy the material, after which time, if I decide to keep it, I will donate an older CD, DVD or book from my existing library. Electronic media (iTunes downloads for example, will be minimized to no more than the equivalent of one album purchased per month, maximum.)
~ Tools: Basic workshop tools and accessories (screws/nails/nuts/bolts, sandpaper, saw blades etc.) will be purchased only if absolutely necessary and as long as it is anticipated that they will be utilized frequently in on-going projects ~ otherwise, tools will be borrowed or rented on an “as-needs-basis”. Again, tools made primarily out of metals and wood will be purchased over anything made of plastic. (As a general rule, I do not use any power tools in my workshop, with the exception of an electric drill from time to time, but even then, my hand cranked drill is preferred.)
~ General Items: A similar course of action to the above noted “Musical Instruments/Books & CDs” will also apply to general, personal household items received as gifts. No new personal items (nicknacks, artworks, furniture, studio equipment etc.) will be purchased unless absolutely necessary and no new hobbies or collections will be initiated unless older ones are liquidated. Existing hobbies (and their respective collections/paraphernalia) which are not referenced, utilized or engaged in after two years will be assessed and either liquidated or re-engaged for a probationary period.
One year and a half down…eight and a half to go…and who knows, maybe I will renew the plan for another decade between the ages of fifty and sixty!
Two old poems for this deep December evening: both written back in 1993 during my early twenties and both dedicated to artist Laura Nyro (1947-1997). Here albums “New York Tendaberry” (1969) and “Christmas and The Beads of Sweat” (1970) are two of my favourite late night choices for music to enjoy in December. Here is a link to “Christmas and The Beads of Sweat” for you to sample, along with these poems inspired by it. (Incidentally, “Cocoa and Laura” also serves as a poetic recipe for my usual winter evening drink, which I suggest you prepare before you taste the linked music.)
Darkened, dreaming jaunts
through crowded December Streets.
A black world behind office tower lights.
Disoriented, running, aching,
cold in the snow;
drinking and dining,
called home by the sound of her piano.
Haunting me near
this time of year,
running scales through my mind.
The whispered thoughts I hear.
Cold and sweet.
Train from the Radiant City,
watching the night rise.
In the bus window, my reflection with
her words across my eyes.
In the darkness, downward into sleep.
Above the icing sugar street,
breathing quietly in my ear,
her whispers make me weep.
Cocoa and Laura
Two teaspoons of sweetness,
two of powdered chocolate ~ chestnut brown,
a pinch of nutmeg ~ to bring the pictures around,
Snow in cinnamon ~ to give the edge.
Bring the milk to a boil.
And when dark December is quiet,
and when white sugar sprinkles past the street lamps,
enjoy cocoa and Laura together ~
filling your mouth, your mind, your meaning ~
Bring the music to a boil.