Noreen: ‘B’ is for Blackheads

I was feverishly replying to ads for apartments or shared rentals in the city. A couple weeks had stretched into two months of living out of a suitcase and sleeping on a futon in my sister’s living room. The rest of my belonging were obligingly stacked in my parents’ garage. My nomadic life had seemingly hit its peak flavour as an “irresponsible adult.” As supportive and compassionate as she was, we were both feeling a bit on edge with the situation.

I replied to several ads within my laughable budget and went to a few viewings – notably, what looked like an abandoned office turned into studio apartment with pilling blue carpeting throughout and a burner plugged into a fried socket. My sister, a perpetual optimist, feigned enthusiasm. “It’s right behind a Wal-Mart….,” she excitedly half-whispered as we walked through an area of the city’s far, far, far west end that resembled Newark. Right.

The search stumbled on until I came across a post for a two-story townhouse a ten minute walk from my sister’s apartment.

That is how I came to meet Noreen. We ended up living together with one other roommate for a year and a half. A lot of things transpired during that year – a baby was born in our apartment, the lonely neighbour downstairs traded her excitable Yorkie for an excitable jock, we held several dinner parties and Women’s Television viewing nights.

We shared a love of makeup, industrial design and aesthetics as well as political views, anthropological perspectives and a semi-shared heritage, both being of South Asian descent but raised entirely in North America.

We are still quite close today, a rarity I think, for people who, as we often joke, technically “met on Craigslist.”

What would be your “last meal” and “last drink” you’d request? 

I’d have a bowl of daal followed by black tea. Whenever I’ve thought about choosing a hypothetical last meal (I’ve thought about it a lot) my mind has always wandered towards the most decadent of meal options. But in my everyday life I eat often and mostly horribly so I’d probably opt for a nourishing meal that would facilitate a favourable and virtuous reflection on my life. Daal would also be a subtle shout out to my South Asian upbringing and to my general brown-ness. It would be a solid, no-fuss meal and I probably wouldn’t feel bloated afterwards either.

What’s something you’ve taught someone else?

I recently taught my mother how to properly fix her cuticles before painting her nails. All of us ladies in the Ahmed clan used to spend a lot of time together doing self-care stuff like epilation, facemasks, and other skincare stuff. I learned a lot of beauty/self-care things from my ma while growing up but the most important thing I learned from her was sticking to a routine (she’s an ultra-rooted Taurus). As of late, my goal has been to flex an exfoliated face, fresh apartment and fly outfit everyday.

Apartment fixing: Ikea lighting hack using electrical tape, airplane cable and a plumen bulb. Photo provided by Noreen.

What did you buy with your very first paycheck?

My first paycheck was earned at age 16 and was deposited straight into my savings account where it sat until I finished high school. I saved all my earnings up until I started university where I paid for my first year’s tuition, books and expenses with cash. I wish I were still that frugal and responsible but to be fair the issues of looking fly and having a badass apartment were not on my radar at age 16 so having savings at that age probably held the most utility for me. I don’t even know what I was concerned about then, maybe grades and general social anxiety.

Item of jewelry you always wear and why:

I always wear earrings of some sort and a ring I made at age 20 while dallying in metalsmithing. It has a harsh, unusual shape and makes me feel edgy, subversive and cool (my utmost hope and dream at 20) whenever I wear it.

‘B’ is for ______________________

Blackheads. I’ve had a persistent obsession with blackheads since my first time using a Biore nose strip back in elementary school. I vividly remember using one on my dad and, upon rip-off, being completely baffled by the weird, pore-shaped things. I don’t find them gross at all; in fact, visualizing a fat blackhead being squeezed out of the skin has soothed my nerves in times of great stress.

“Fixing the Face.” Photo provided by Noreen.

Nik-Keisha: ‘B’ is for Belief

Karyn and I were supposed to meet for breakfast that Saturday but I couldn’t reach her until late-afternoon. She apologized although I didn’t mind. I spent the day in bed with a hand in at least one of three bags of chips sloppily opened and still in the corner store’s grey plastic bag, all on the floor within arm’s reach of my perch.

We rescheduled the next day and successful met early in the morning, surprised by our punctuality and, like true friends, with only comedic mention of our previous failed attempt. After settling in, we requested mimosas. The server peered at us with palpable annoyance, “It’s not 11:00 a.m. yet, ladies.”

“Well, bring them at 11 a.m., then.”

I moved closer to her and recited a line from Robert Frost’s “Fire and Ice”:

From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favour fire.

Even though it was the end of October, the air was warm and the sun was starting to filter through wiry and leafless branches. We put on sunglasses, linked arms and headed east from Roncesvalles, strolling into boutiques, vintage stores and handmade fare lining that stretch. We eventually ended up at the place we originally met two years ago and where she still occasionally worked.

She disappeared briefly to collect her tips. I scanned the room from the bar, identifying the people I knew as well as the unfamiliar faces, the ever-changing decor and artwork.

I noticed a woman rolling cutlery into thick white napkins while directing staff, letting them know which menu items had been 86’d and gently asking them if there was any way she could step in and help.

I was struck by her calm demeanour, the genuine smile on her face and her bright eyes – a rarity during busy brunch service as demonstrated by the server we’d encountered earlier.

Eventually, my partner-in-second-breakfast came back and I motioned behind the bar, “Who is that?” “Oh, that’s Nik-Keisha. She’s one of the daytime managers. She’s awesome.”

Nik-Keisha came to the aid of the bartender whose chits had started to stutter through with speed. Once the rush subsided she and I were introduced. Nik-Keisha shook my hand across the bar and joined the conversation.Within a few minutes, I asked if she’d be interested in participating in a blog I was launching for a course. I quickly summarized the objective, still rough-hewed, and she enthusiastically agreed.

She tore a strip of paper from a receipt roll and wrote down her email address so I could get in touch. Within two days I received an email from her with thoughtful and fulsome answers to a stranger’s prying and personal questions – a brave and open move.

From what I understood, this chapter of Nik-Keisha’s career is in its nascent stage but even so, she projects the characteristics and personality of someone who intuitively knows her way around and can navigate the often tricky relationships of an industry known for its high turnover and inherently – sometimes, blessedly – fickle nature.

I don’t suspect that she will stay where she is for a very long time, just long enough to cut her teeth, to indelibly mark territory explored with her charisma and charm and then journey on to a place where her enthusiasm for knowledge pulses with a new desire.

Photo provided by Nik-Keisha.
What’s something you’ve taught someone else? 

I often find myself having genuine conversations with people. I don’t necessarily teach anything, rather, I encourage others to stay strong and go after what they want. Well, I guess you can say I teach people to never be too hard on themselves, to always get up and dust yourself off and that you can be and do whatever you want.

People should feel that we all have the willpower to be strong. For some, it may take more than self-motivation and some coaching to get through a day or period in his or her life.

Item of jewellery you always wear and why:

An item of jewellery I always wear is a watch. My days revolve around time and knowing what time it is at any given moment keeps me grounded.

I believe a watch is a symbol of valuing your time and others. I respect myself enough to give myself time to be the best I can be and to do the best I can do. I also respect the time of others, as it is precious and not guaranteed.

Aside from wearing a watch for my personal preference, it is also very important for the industry I am in. The hospitality industry is on a daily life cycle and ever second, minute and hour counts.

What’s one of the earliest lessons you remember learning? And what’s the last lesson you learned?

One of the earliest lessons I remember learning is survival. Coming from a low-income family and not having much, my mother would struggle to put food on the table. We would be grateful for the little that we had but in the end it was all about survival and being able to make it day-by-day.

The last lesson I learned is perseverance. Having the strength to go on is one thing but having the drive to continue to move forward comes with determination and motivation. Regardless of what I go through in my life, my will to keep moving has not burned out once within the last four years. I have a long road ahead but I am confident that perseverance will carry me through.

What is the bravest thing you’ve done yet and why was committing to that goal important to you?

The bravest thing I have done was realizing that being a Personal Support Worker was not what I envisioned for the rest of my life and then deciding to go back to postsecondary.

The bravest part was going back to school as a single mother with four boys. I was taking a risk and sacrificing a few years to build on a dream that I always had. This meant that I would be giving my children less of me and that I would be taking myself away from them. It has been the hardest thing to do but the bravest thing a mother can do for her children.

What did you buy with your very first paycheque?

I do not remember! But I will make sure to jot down what I have done with my first entrepreneurial paycheque!!

‘B’ is for                         

 B is for belief. You have to believe it; that you can, so you will!

I’m happy to share your personal site or a website that you want to bring attention to, so send me the link!

Anna: ‘B’ is for Breaking Free from Limiting Beliefs

When you’ve been away from home for some time you come to appreciate things like post-it notes on the fridge reminding you of your next dental appointment (you miss having a dentist, period), organized tupperware, the scent of hardwood floors washed in Pine-Sol, the low whistle of steam coming out of overworked radiators in the den, and stepping over peeled and mismatched socks and house slippers in the mudroom even though your mother has reminded you dozens of times that they have no business being there.

Throughout my early-twenties visiting someone’s family home was a rare and cherished experience. I remember going to my Israeli Literature professor’s house for dinner and over-sharing while slurping down a bowl of creamed lentils, brimming with glee that after several months of eating alone in my studio apartment in bed with my laptop I was now sitting at a large mahogany table draped in sensible tablecloth and set for eight. Oy.

After university I stayed in Montreal for the summer, part-stultified by not knowing where I belonged now and part-frenetic, assuaging existential fragmentation and loneliness by staying out until the dewy sunrise lit my way home most days/nights before changing for work and repeating the cycle.

I met Anna that critical summer while working for a clothing store in Westmount. It’s hard to pinpoint how or why but we just got each other. She was the person I could rely on to see me dragging one leg behind me at 8:00 a.m. and to quietly accompany me down to the basement where we could talk it out. She was and is naturally illuminating and engaging, with an open and warm soul, a bright sense of humour and a pure approach to complex matters of the heart.

By the end of August I had decided to move to Toronto, wrote Anna a long letter goodbye and vowed to start anew. Maybe that night or a few nights later she invited me over to her family’s house after work. We stood in the kitchen leaning against the countertop and gabbed for awhile with her dad who had us doubled-over in laughter recounting anecdotes about venturing onto social media and receiving friend requests from former classmates he just could not remember.

We took our microwaved leftovers up to her room and sat on her bed and shared story after story until we were tired and I left to catch the last metro. I remember walking back to my apartment feeling for the first time in a long time that someone had burrowed deep into my interior and signalled to my waning sense of self that I was ok and that I was going to be ok as long as I allowed the light of good love to filter though.

Conversations with Anna are all those feelings of home described above. Writing about it now brings me back to the night that cemented our friendship and I feel sanguine, again for the first time in a long time, with the knowledge that home is the lasting memory of a kinship that will always welcome you in.

Photo provided by Anna 

How would you describe your relationship with formal education? 

This is what I’ll say about my formal education thus far: I wish I had realized whom I was doing it for sooner. I have been fortunate, having gone to great schools and succeeded with flying colours with the support of my family. This being said, until graduating from university I didn’t realize that many of the decisions I made in this context and probably others, too, were influenced by my perception of external standards.

Instead of taking the most interesting elective, I would choose the one that guaranteed me a stellar score. This is the story of so many of my fellow graduates. Why do we sell ourselves short? Entering the ‘real world’ has taught me that a great score doesn’t carry you the way you might have expected it would. I now find myself in a process of ‘un-learning’: Challenging my past approaches toward education and my ideas of success.

What would be your “last meal” and “last drink” you’d request (alcoholic/non-alcoholic)? Recipes welcome.

The first thought that comes to mind is something with lots of garlic that’s also vegetarian, for good Karma’s sake as per that last meal detail. It would have to be an Italian favourite of mine called “Aglio e Olio”, aka pasta with garlic and oil. Perfectly carby and salty, this is a meal that goes with any (of my) mood(s). There are so many variations on this dish online but my favourite includes chilli flakes, basil and cherry tomatoes.

For my last drink I would have something along the lines of a Bailey’s chocolate milkshake…the kind that’s so thick it requires a spoon.

I figure that with this food and beverage combination, I’ll want to keel over anyway.

What’s one of the earliest lessons you remember learning? And what’s the last lesson you learned?

This might not be considered a lesson but I can still vividly remember the first day I was able to read a book on my own. My aunt had given my little sister and I a book called Max’s Dragon Shirt as a gift. Eager to hear the story we rushed up the stairs to my bedroom. With encouragement, I decided to give reading it a shot. That was the first time I can distinctly remember feeling proud. Not only because I was able to read but more importantly because I was able to read to my little sister. I could now be the one to read us books before bed and this was a big deal.


I’m someone who craves harmony in my relationships and will go to great lengths in order to maintain it. Recently it’s become clear to me that this can come at an expense. Through a conflict, I realized that lacking the courage to confront someone isn’t synonymous with keeping the peace. Instead, it contributes to a slow decline of the relationship. I learned this one the hard way but sometimes that’s the only way it sticks with you.

Item of jewelry you always wear and why:

When I was young, my nonno gave me a guardian angel pin at Christmastime. I hadn’t thought much of it initially. It was sort of the equivalent to getting a box of raisins at Halloween – you feel a bit ripped off. Yet as the years went on the angel became important to me. I found myself bringing it around wherever I went, especially to hair appointments where I felt I needed as much good luck as possible (not kidding).

Eventually my nonno passed away and a couple years following I lost the angel.

It’s cool how close you can feel to people and things that aren’t here anymore.

Tell me about your first hard failure or rejection. What did you do about it and how did you move forward?

My earliest memories concerning rejection can be summed up into one blur that was primary school. It wasn’t all bad. Nothing extreme, except I never felt like I belonged there. In a sense, I felt as though there was a mutual rejection between the student body and myself.

To be brief, I went to a wealthy Jewish elementary school where I wasn’t particularly wealthy or Jewish. Being different felt like a tall order back then. The beauty of it was that I quickly learned how to laugh at myself. No doubt this was first developed as a mechanism to “deal,” but over the years it has served me well. Today it’s not about laughing at myself before others do. “Who gives a crap about them?” is what I’m working on.

It’s about being my own best friend and giving myself permission to crack up when I do something ridiculous, which is often.

‘B’ is for                         

‘B’ is for breaking free from limiting beliefs.



Marnie: ‘B’ is for Being True to Yourself

Marnie and I were in a science class in high school I think we both dropped. I had just moved to Toronto from the U.S. We bonded over the fact that we are both American. Marnie has a fantastic smile. She is affable and warm and she and I sat in the hallway after/before class, idly twisting our shoelaces and sharing what we missed about our respective hometowns.

In 10th grade, we sat the very back of English class. I would sometimes huff Jungle Juice under the double table and she would pull out a spread of makeup and gossip weeklies. We both loved literature but we were off-put by the competition of the gifted class we were a part of but only existed in peripherally. She transferred to another high school by the end of the year but we remained friends.

When I lived in Montreal she would come visit me in her red Mustang, collecting speeding tickets every time, and we would often share my twin-sized bed. She is 5’11” and I am 5’3″ (and a half). We would go to diners, Green Spot in St. Henri and what I fondly referred to as “Celine’s” (Nickel’s) on St. Catherine, where she would down multiple Diet Cokes and talk about parents, people we knew, the strain of her insomnia, the depth of my depression, the TV shows and movies we liked and the guys we were dating. She can easily navigate the high and the low, devoid of judgment and full of humour.

When I would come to Toronto to visit my sister she would take me on long drives. We would go to the Bridle Path and slowly creep up the winded and narrow streets, gawking at the ostentations of Toronto’s wealthiest and eventually find our way back to Weston. Once, we did three-point-turns in my ex-boyfriend’s driveway, blasting Def Leppard’s “Bringin’ on the Heartbreak.”

She often visits baring gifts even though all I really care about is hanging with her. She would send me funny and motivational memes all through university which I have stashed and stocked in multiple inboxes. We would encourage each other, share tricks about getting the word count up, edit each other’s essays and rally for each other with Borat’s “Great success!,” regardless of outcome.

I could wax poetic about her for much, much longer than the the emails I have sent her lately. I often feel bad that I am not as much in contact as I feel I should be, or that we don’t talk as long as we used to but I think of her at least once, every day. Everyone should meet and come to know a Marnie – a person who witnesses you at your worst but will always believe in your best, who knows how to make you laugh and isn’t afraid of how offensive or dirty the joke is and someone who you can sit across from and divulge your innermost fears and secrets trusting that this person will catalogue it as a part of your life experience but nothing to do with your strength of character.

What is the bravest thing you’ve done yet and why was committing to that goal important to you?

Moving to Los Angeles on a whim with a two-month deadline I set for myself. I moved with no parental support, no connections, no friends, no job prospects, no apartment and in essence, no safety. Moving away from all I knew showed me how strong I truly am and how I could thrive without the comfort and financial security I had at home. I started a new life for myself here on my own terms and although Los Angeles has not captured my heart in the way other cities have, I have made it my home.

Items of jewelry you always wear and why: 

Chain-link ring on my middle finger. I got it after high school graduation and at the same time, I was going through my first heartbreak. It’s a reminder that I’m stronger than I realize.

What’s something you’ve taught someone? 

My friend recently asked me for blow job advice, so that’s how my life is going. Aside from app and internet-related teachings (Snapchat game on point), recently I’ve taught people how to take a bus in Los Angeles (and how to survive), how to navigate satellite radio and how to properly spray perfume (don’t tap your wrists together!)

What would be your “last meal” and “last drink” you’d request (alcoholic/non-alcoholic)? 

Vegetarian Buffalo wings (with extra ranch) and fountain cream soda I discovered in a restaurant in the bustling metropolis of Buffalo, NY.

Tell me about your first hard failure or rejection. What did you do about it and how did you move forward?

I wasn’t cast as one of the leads for a high school play that was going to the Sears festival. Instead, I was cast as the teacher (the joy of hitting puberty at 10 years old) who only spoke two lines. I cried on the subway down to the gym and wallowed in my own misery for weeks. Now I know my strengths and weaknesses better and take things less personally, and know that no matter how talented, smart or beautiful you may be, sometimes things just don’t turn out as you planned and what matters is not that you failed, but how you picked yourself back up

‘B’ is for                          

Being true to yourself.

Photo provided by Marnie
Photo provided by Marnie.



Neemarie: ‘B’ is for Badassery

When I was 16, my parents moved to a rural town and my sister, Neemarie, and I moved in together into a one-bedroom apartment at Keele and Eglinton, in one of the yellowing low-rise buildings on Trethewey Drive in Toronto’s north end.

Neemarie is six years older than me. The age gap seemed like a chasm then; it was a wild unbridgeable abyss between us. We lived in constant conflict for awhile until we barely spent time around each other. Our already sore relationship was so tested by this decision that it felt irrevocably damaged by the time I moved out.

A few years after that, I was visiting my parents in the aforementioned rural town and, with little to do, I pulled out one of their many albums and started poring through photos.

Among them, I found a photo my father had taken in Iran in 1984. It was of my sister, clad in a tankini, intrepid and calf-deep in the Caspian Sea. I pulled it out from under the protective plastic covering. On the back there was a caption written in my father’s delicate calligraphy. It read: “I wanted you to be brave.”

What’s one of the earliest lessons you remember learning? And what’s the last lesson you learned?

The earliest lesson I remember learning was to hide things from my parents. I realized fairly early on that they did not see the world as I did and they had no interest in understanding the world from my perspective.

The latest lesson I have learned is that parenthood is difficult. You spend your whole day waiting for cues and clues about what your baby actually needs. You are often wrong, and always hard on yourself. It has made me revisit how I understand my parents.

My sister’s earliest memory is the counterpart of mine: my sister is disobedient. She was her own person, she was unmanageable, her independence was characterized as too “American” and individualistic and I felt, then, that she did not respect a harmonious family unit or the concept of filial piety, which I only learned about years later around the time I began to feel my own cultural dissonance.

She was always my private ally, even when we railed against each other under our parents’ roof. Our interior monologues were sutured and fomented by joint experience, but the outward expression was informed by, in our case, dueling motivations: for me, to be accepted by my parents; for her, to accept herself.

Her response to the question above reminded me of that photo taken more than twenty years ago. On a subconscious register, my father’s desire – a prophecy hidden by the opaque backing of the album page – had become their shared reality.

Throughout her life, she stood against the crush and the crest of each wave until she became the undertow.


Neemarie, age 3, Tehran
Neemarie, age 3, Tehran. Photo taken by my father, Noor.

What did you buy with your very first paycheck?

I honestly don’t remember. What I do remember is going to the bank at 19 and opening up a savings account for my siblings. I wanted the two of them to have more than I did.

Item of jewelry you always wear and why:

I’m not big on jewelry. I wish I was, and have moments where I am grateful that I have a son and not a daughter. I’m not sure I could teach her how to be a “woman” as expected in our society. What I do always wear is my wedding ring.

Getting married to the love of my life was one of the bravest things I’ve ever done. The ring reminds me that I have created a family and home of my own.

What’s something you’ve taught someone else? Can be anything – how to whistle; how to swipe a metropass; how to understand you better.

I just taught my husband how to put together (and use) our food processor. He has never used it before. To be fair, it was mine before marriage and I am weirdly possessive of my premarital belongings.

How would you describe your relationship with formal education? Is there a particular grade/teacher that sticks out in your mind and why? (Good or bad.)

My relationship with formal education is complicated at best. I love to learn, but maintaining the realities of adulthood and trying to sit through classes and keep up with assignments has been a constant challenge. I have started and stopped school several times.

I do wish to go back. I have a son, and my biggest dream for him is to know that anything is possible. I want him to know me as the mom that worked hard for her dreams and made it happen. But I need the way we understand education to change; I need a program that will be flexible and mostly online, where I can get credit for the years of work I have already done.

Neemarie and Ezekiel. Photo credit: Shaun Singh

Of all the teachers I have had over the years, the one that sticks out the most is my high school English teacher, Mr. Gern. I think about him often. He radically changed the way I saw and understood English literature. His class was always exciting, because he was able to take The Odyssey and highlight sections within it that were deep and meaningful. If I could, I would thank him for introducing me to the art of reflection, and for looking for meaning underneath the surface.

‘B’ is for                         

Badassery. It just is.