The Diary: Malta

 

***
4 am on a weekend is far too early to wake up, particularly when it is the next day after a late-night flight, but given my flight the next day is a 7.30am one I have to suck it up. The next day, having rushed through a shower, completed final bag checks and double-checked I have my passport, we find ourselves in a taxi speeding away on the A3 a little after 5am, barely lucid but glad I don’t have to do the driving. At Gatwick, we find lengthy lines bent double on themselves with baggage handlers thin on the ground. That EasyJet, that famously lean airline, deigns to apologise over the state of affairs is perhaps all one needs to know about just how dire the situation is. Thankfully, we make it through baggage drop and security just before 7am; just enough time to grab a Shake Shack breakfast bun and start frantically eyeing the departure boards for signs of our flight. It ends up delayed, no surprise there.

It is almost mid-day UK time when we catch our first glimpse of the islands as we begin our final descent. The first thing that strikes me is just how small it looks, bringing to mind memories of our last jaunt a few months ago, Madeira. Passport control is a breeze (not for much longer given Brexit I suspect), finding our coach to the hotel takes a little longer but all told we’re at reception checking in to our hotel in Qawra just over an hour after our flight lands. The rest of the day is spent catching up on sleep and getting our bearings in the positively baking 17 deg C heat, a shock to the system given the London temperatures we’ve just escaped.

With time – three years and counting – a method has evolved around these holidays: a catch up with the official tour representative to get the lay of the land, followed by a hop-on/ hop-off tour of the city and then a few official tours with free days in which we do our own thing as we feel like. At our travel agency briefing we find out about shared connections – M is part Maltese and grew up in North London before upping sticks and relocating to this corner of the world. As for tours, we sign up for a day trip to Gozo, a guided tour that takes in the old capital Mdina, Mosta, a craft village and Valletta and the Christmas day special. We also sign up for the hop-on/hop-off tour of the south of the island to take advantage of the 3 euro discount.

There is a certain symmetry to the beauty of quaint European cities: narrow cobbled streets, old buildings and magnificent cathedrals around which each village/city is centred which, after you’ve been to a few, can begin to blend into each other. Undergirding what we see though is how the intersecting interests and intrigue over millennia have shaped the present. Thanks to its location, and perhaps climate, Malta has seen more than its fair share of conquest with imprints of pre-historic peoples, Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, The Aragonese, Sicilians, Knights of Saint John and the British all there to see. These were all sights we took in in bits and pieces over the 8 days we spent out there. Most surprising for me though is how the Arabic influence has persisted, most notably in the spoken language. That tension between the past and the present remains visible in the form of cranes and spruced up facades sitting often next to the tired and worn limestone ones of other buildings.

We had the pleasure of experiencing two power cuts during the period of our stay, the causes of which we never managed to understand. That, and the chaos we seemed to just manage to avoid (read late departures for tours/ frantic phone calls by our travel agency rep to confirm tours were still on), brought shades of Lagos to mind. Back to the power situation: at the fishing village of Marsaxlokk we spotted a tanker delivering LNG to the power station visible across the bay and not very many wind turbines. Given the high winds we experienced – which threatened to toss someone’s weave into the sea as we waited to board the ferry at Sliema – the absence of wind turbines was interesting.

The ornately decorated insides of St John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta and St Phillips in Zebbug caused me to cast my mind to sacred spaces and how their design can inspire a sense of wonder in the worshipping faithful. This is something our Pentecostal spaces would do well to learn from I think, given their typically more spartan outlook.

Being able to wander the streets, thanks to long paved promenades at St Julian’s, between Qawra and St Paul’s bay amongst others was a positive, particularly given the temperatures which were just warm enough, staying mainly in the 15 to 17 deg C range for most of the time out there. On one of those walks, we came across a game of bocce and stayed a few minutes to watch. Given it was our first time we had no clue what the objective was besides, as a German tourist who also stopped to watch put it, old people passing time 😊

One of the reasons for sticking with Europe this time was to try to get into the Christmas spirit. Nativity scenes and colourful night-time displays dotted the landscape. Running into several other black faces was a welcome change from our previous travels – even as it included running into friends of friends.

For all the things we planned and did, two things defined this holiday for me, both unexpected. A wander into St Paul’s Bay on which we chanced upon a tiny church which supposedly marks the location of Paul’s shipwreck and the introduction of Christianity, and a boy who took to the piano in the airport and proceeded to delight us all, to sporadic applause now again – the perfect, unscripted ending to a season of chilling if ever there was one.

P.S: More pictures here (on Google Photos), if those are your bag.

2020: Delve Deeper

One of the biggest disappointments of 2019 for me was interviewing at a company across town and failing to land a job there. It was a company I had admired for some time, the role itself was to be the team leader for a small group of technical specialists overseeing a North sea portfolio and the pay was better; an added incentive. The interview itself started off well I thought but somewhere around three-quarters of the way through, it delved into territory I wasn’t overly familiar with. Part of it was a failure of preparation; I hadn’t taken the time to get intimately familiar with the company’s portfolio and thus prepare for any potential curveballs. The more I mulled over the disappointment, and let time do its thing, the clearer it became to me that this had ultimately been a failure of depth. I knew enough about my subject, had built a reputation in my locality and knew enough about the company to give the perception of competence and suitability on the surface. It was when the screws were turned and the veneer was stripped back, that a lack of depth – somewhat dodgy foundations if you like – proved my undoing.

In the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Builders, Jesus tells a story of two folks who build houses, one on the sands and the other on rock. When the winds, rains and storms come, the house on the sand – without depth – falls flat whilst the one on the rock survives. The parable’s primary purpose is to exhort listeners to hear and do the words of Christ. There is however a wider principle at play here I believe, everything worth its salt will be tested, the only ones which survive are those which have depth and are inherently resilient. It is an idea not too dissimilar to ones raised by Nassim Taleb in Skin In The Game when it comes to assessing the credibility of others.

All of the above is why my focus for 2020 is Delve Deeper. To delve is to reach inside hidden spaces and search for and extricate something. Implicit in this is the expending of energy, which has opportunity costs. For this to not be an exercise in futility therefore, these hidden spaces have to contain something of value which is the focus of the search. For 2020 the search will be for deep knowledge in the various domains across which my life intersects. The wider objective is not knowledge for knowledge sake, it is using that knowledge to build systems and routines that can stand the tests and ravages of time and life and can deliver lasting value in my various interactions. It is not a focus I expect to be fully developed and understood in 2020 alone but one that might just guide me through the 2020s (coincidentally my forties).

For all its warts, 2019 wasn’t the worst of years, not least because the biggest disappointment of 2019 is mitigated by a work opportunity at the end of Q1 this year to look forward to. That said, being intentional and tracking a host of data points over the course of the year helped identify a number of life domains which are good areas to kick off this process of delving deeper with. 2019 was the year I finally managed to put words to the feeling of spiritual malaise I have wrestled with over the past few years, spiritual homelessness. My finances are another area where I need to build a level of robustness in. Several big projects over the last decade, and a few failed (Nigerian) investments, meant I haven’t derived as much value as I could from my earnings over the past year. That is something that needs to change, particularly given I am now ten years closer to retiring. The third domain I believe needs focus in the near term is my relationships. Most of the past decade was spent insulating myself from people, focusing on myself sometimes to the detriment of real-world relationships and friendships. In continuance of one of my themes from last year, engaging the friends and people in my life better is something that needs focus this year.

How does this translate into real-world action? Three main behaviours to change/implement:

  • Question my answers: My existing outcomes in the domains I have identified for focus are the result of years of learning (both positive and negative) and ingrained habits. Real change can only begin by identifying what those underlying answers are, questioning them and then looking to arrive at better answers, iteratively. I started a Codex Vitae, a book of life, inspired by Buster Benson. This is something I hope to return to again and keep updated over the course of the year.
  • Build Systems: Two of the books which influenced me the most in 2019 (James Clear’s Atomic Habits and Drew Dyck’s Your Future Self Will Thank You) highlighted the criticality of systems (things broken down into repeatable, routine activities) for effecting change. As knowledge from digging deeper comes to the fore, the focus would be to break down any required actions into daily routines to ensure they get properly embedded into my life going forward.
  • Implement a Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle: One of the changes implemented in 2019 was to build a dashboard which tracked my performance against a few key metrics in each life domain. Its usefulness became abundantly clearer as I pulled my year-end review together. I plan to implement this fully in 2020, incorporating a weekly review process into the system to ensure learnings and opportunities to tweak things are picked up as early as I can.

To a Year of Delving Deeper then! Happy New Year friends and readers.

The Year of Living Intentionally – Revisited

***
2019 was my Year of Living Intentionally; the central idea being to stop living life on the huff but instead to define a plan and live by it. Five key themes came out from that period of reflection; Learn, Prepare, Engage, Diversify and Measure, with fifteen discrete actions identified across those themes. The screenshot above is of the dashboard that tracked the key metrics from the year. All told, a few great ones, several meh ones and a few epic fails. Data apart, I think the big benefit from this for the year is the visibility of my performance. I now need to build a practice of regular assessments and reviews to enable the Act-Check portion of the Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle.

Those fifteen things? Here’s a more detailed assessment of where I ended up.

  1. Complete my Dataquest Data Scientist path whilst studying for 5 hours a week. [Miss, started but not completed, need to decide how Data Science and ML intersect with my current and future life paths and update my Materials & Corrosion Roadmap to suit]
  2. Spend 5 hours per week studying Materials, Corrosion, Inspection and Welding related topics [Hit, Progressed in Q3, culminating in getting a Welding related certification]
  3. Identify and complete a creative non-fiction writing course [Miss – not progressed, have however registered for one commencing in February 2020]
  4. Developing a daily practice of prayer and bible study [Hit. A few ups and downs but generally managed in the end. 263 completions for the year!]
  5. Save at least 10% of net monthly earnings [Hit, although several unplanned for projects meant this was used up by the end of the year]
  6. Reduce weight to 80 kg [Epic fail, ended the year at 96kg]
  7. Run 3x a week (>20km overall) [Meh, great in the summer, terrible in the winter months]
  8. Improve average sleep to >6.5 hours per day [Hit, improved overall sleep particularly in Q3 & Q4, thanks to restricting coffee to a maximum of 1 cup per day]
  9. Relocate to the Greater London Area. [Miss, not for lack of effort though. I did learn this year that desires sometimes require real-world opportunity which can be outside our control]
  10. Read 25 books, covering Creative Non-Fiction, Fiction, Popular science, The Church Fathers/ Church History, Personal Development [Neither Hit nor Miss, ended up having read 15 books which was an increase from last year but below target. I learned in Q3 that scheduling an hour each day was the key to getting to read more.]
  11. Speak to my father weekly [Hit, managed to speak to my father every week this year which is a first for me as far as I can remember. Next focus is to attempt to turn that into deeper, more meaningful conversations]
  12. Speak to my siblings monthly (one each week), in-laws once a quarter [More hit than miss, a WhatsApp group helped as did scheduling monthly follows up as required]
  13. Write to my sponsored (Compassion) children at least once a quarter also[Meh, managed two letters, although I did add a second compassion kid in Q1.]
  14. Meet up with one close friend each month [Hit. U Square’s Handmade Burger Co store became my go-to place this year with meet-ups with A, O and I being highlights from a conscious decision to engage the people in my life better this year]
  15. Earn >£1,000 from a side gig by year-end [Miss, didn’t progress this actively over the course of the year although I did get a tax refund for just under £500 for my charitable giving over the course of the year]

The Year in Reading 2019

It’s that time of the year again where I reflect on my reading over the course of the year. It wasn’t the most productive year of reading proper books (the web has cannibalised that for good for me I’m afraid) but a late spurt in November and December brought some redemption. For a more wide-ranging review of the year in books, check out the coverage at The Millions here. My previous attempts are linked here.

***

I have Justin Brierley to thank for turning me on to N.T. (Tom) Wright, his (Justin’s) two excellent podcasts – Unbelievable and Ask NT Wright growing into staples in my weekly media consumption, as well as becoming important voices in my ongoing journey of evolving faith. Thanks to this I had N.T. Wright’s Paul: A Biography in my hands as 2018 became 2019, its weight something that I found both comforting and grounding. A lot of the ideas in the book are ones that have been reiterated on the Ask N.T. Wright podcast – Paul’s Christianity as an expansion on and culmination of his Judaism rather than a tearing up and beginning again, the focus of his ministry as being the establishment of a new way of doing community to bring heaven to earth rather than a desire to insulate oneself from the real world and hope to be taken away to name a few – as such it is a book I intend to revisit again, this time with pen, paper and time.

A desire to evolve a productivity system that works for me drew me to a number of books on the subject of habits and behaviour change. Drew Dyck’s Your Future Self Will Thank You, a more ‘spiritual’ take on the subject and James Clear’s Atomic Habits both boiled down to the same ideas, ie that change happens in the (small, daily) details and no amount of posturing and signalling of intent will lead to change. Only by building systems and routines will our larger goals be actualised. These were themes also reinforced to some extent by the other book in a similar genre I read this year, Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving A Fuck.

Rediscovering my local library had the unintended consequence of enabling me to reacquaint myself with Zadie Smith via three books this year. I found Grand Union a difficult read, one that I was unable to get fully into (which given how much of a fanboy I tell myself I am was surprising). Thankfully, The Embassy of Cambodia and Feel Free brought redemption which suggests to me that it was the problem was the short story format of Grand Union not Zadie’s preternatural brilliance.

Besides Zadie Smith’s Grand Union, the only other piece of fiction I read was Elif Shafak’s 10 Minutes 38Seconds in This Strange World, which I found fascinating both for its subject – the hidden lives of people on the outskirts of society – and its narrative perspective, the final memories that course through a brain in the final throes of death.

One of my goals for the year was to become proficient with Python, for which I couldn’t think of a better project than to apply machine learning techniques to predict the outcome of football matches. The Numbers Game and Football Hackers were two books I read along the way to aid my understanding of the current state of play of football stats. Though great reads, they were unable to help me towards my expected outcome. Real life didn’t help either, which leaves me still far away from developing that killer algorithm.

Alongside machine learning, Chaos Theory was an interest which bubbled to the fore for me this year. James Gleick’s Chaos: The Making of A Science was my attempt to wrap my head around the basics of the subject. A good if sometimes dense read, it left me fascinated enough by the subject to listen to several hours worth of Steven Strogatz lectures on YouTube. Alan Jacob’s How To Think and Nassim Taleb’s Skin In The Game, read at different times during the year, also challenged me mentally, particularly given my love-hate relationship with Twitter.

Questions for Ada, I’m Lying But I’m Telling The Truth and the 2018 iteration of the Best American Essays made up the rest of my 2019 reading and precipitated one uncomfortable conversation on a flight to Heathrow. If there is any value to reading, it should be in its real world impacts, on the basis of the uncomfortable conversations and soul searching my year of reading spawned, it has been a good year of sorts.

Life In A Song (Or Two)

***
The data is in, Planetshakers were both my artiste of the year and of the decade if Spotify’s number-crunching can be believed. Compared to 2018, I listened to 36% less music, although I suspect that had more to do with listening to a lot more podcasts than I did last year (thanks to switching to an Android phone and Pocket Casts), streaming more radio and the occasional YouTube binge.  What would be fantastic would be a service that aggregated my listening across all these platforms and thus enabled me to delve deeper into the underlying trends to my listening.

One positive from spreading my music listening across all these platforms is the cross-fertilisation that occurs between them. Several times over the course of the year, I’d hear a song on Air1 then pop into Spotify and descend into a rabbit hole for several hours, discovering a new favourite in the process. YouTube was also a useful source of inspiration for Spotify streaming; chief of which has to be finding Osby Berry (and Cross Worship) as well as People and Songs.  Even podcasts chipped in,  Malcolm Gladwell’s Broken Records turning me on to Pentatonix (and in turn Naturally Seven) and Rhiannon Gidden’s Aria Code bringing the Queen of The Night aria to my attention. That cross-fertilisation is something I could use more of, particularly as it leads to discovering more music I might like. That discovery market just might be the next frontier for a streaming service to crack and get me to hand over my money.

A warning of sorts, this list is decidedly Christian as is a lot of my music listening. Here goes then, 10 of the songs which defined my year.

  1. Do It Again (Elevation Collective feat Travis Greene & Kierra Sheard): This was one of those songs I loved so much three versions of it made its way onto my Songs for the Dark Places playlist. This version was my favourite one, honourable mention for the Cross Worship/Osby Berry version too.
  2. Made A Way (Travis Greene): Although an older song, this was one that came to my attention first in 2018. It will forever be inextricably linked to A’s rendition of this in my Aberdeen church from what was a deeply fraught place for her.
  3. So Will I (Osby Berry): One of those songs I stumbled upon on YouTube, it ended up becoming a portal to discovering other music including Victoria Tunde. Another one of those songs I ended up liking more than the original.
  4. Control (Tenth Avenue North):  Church hopping earlier this year brought us to Welcome Church in Woking during their Why I Follow Jesus series and a message by Pete Hewlett which took in open-heart surgery amongst other things. This was one of the songs he had on repeat in those dark days, which brought it back to mind for me and on repeat several times during my year.
  5. YHWH (The Sound of My Breathing)[Donald Lawrence and The Tri-City Singers feat Jekalyn Carr]: Another one which made its way on to my dark places playlist.

Abandonment

For The Sunday Muse Prompt #84. Image Source.
***
Behind the grime,
and the ravages
of time the remains
of living now lie,
each layer of dirt
a sigh, a dirge
for the mystery
of abandonment,
for how easy
it is for things
once woven into
the fabric of the
present to slip
beneath the shroud
of the memories
we lose. Maybe this
is what leaving is,
things returning
to the way they
always were.

Lights, Lines, December

***

It’s that time of the year again in which light, or more correctly it’s absence, defines everything out here; the wet, cold, barely light mornings morphing into grey overcast afternoons which in turn become dark evenings just in time for the trek back home. I, like everyone else out here, am finding that I have little energy to be out and about, the lure of spending time indoors, bar dragging myself out to church and back, proving too strong. The lethargy extends to my running, as it has for each of the last three years according to Strava, the 30km I clocked in November being a far cry from the 100km+ highs of the summer months. From the comfort of my duvet, I wonder how folk out here survived back in the day. I suppose that is why there is a rich tradition of the literature of immigrants, those who bear the shadow of elsewhere  – to borrow a turn of phrase from Elif Shafak’s  10 minutes 38 seconds in This Strange World.

The opportunity to catch up on reading is one of the silver linings from this season of being a couch potato. Over the past month, I have managed to get through Zadie Smith’s Grand Union (which at the risk of sacrilege I didn’t like) and the afore-mentioned Elif Shafak book. I am also halfway through Nassim Taleb’s Skin in The Game. Interestingly, all three books are ones I borrowed from my local library, thanks to it being a relatively short brisk lunchtime walk away.  The other silver lining to the dark evenings is that they are a good backdrop to the other lights, the reds, whites and green lights stretched across the streets celebrating the upcoming Christmas season. Given how grey everything is out here, colour is a sight for one’s sore eyes.

After The Rain

For The Sunday Muse Prompt #83. Image “After The Rain” by Cyril Rolando

***
I tremble
at the echo of
the booming thunder,
the resounding
of its clap like
the roar of a lion
stirred, a brilliance
incandescent in its majesty
as it splits the night sky
like a warm knife
shears butter.

I have shivered
in the embrace
of a light rain
its fluid fingers,
by persistence finding
their way through
my garments till
they meet my
bare skin.

Where streams
once wrestled
against the heat,
against the dust,
the wind and the
thirsty earth,
a raging river
now reigns.
After the rain
comes surrender,
new life and
breathing again.