‘Big’ Man coming, and finally getting my Abu Name

The bare, Spartan space just outside my window – which I can just see if I crane my neck a little just beyond its normal range – is just that, barely noticeable. At least it was until a few days ago when swivelling in my chair, the profusion of reds and yellows it has become caught my eye. So certain was I that the flowers were new that at an opportune moment, when I could pretend it was a casual question, I asked one of the guys to confirm. It turns out that I was right, the flowers had not always been there. The coming of a certain big man in a couple of days had prompted the ground staff into sprucing up our surroundings. I am thankful for the splash of colours which will remain with us for a bit at least, but what I came away with was the sense that big men everywhere carried weight. It is a truism, as an old teacher liked to say.

The end of January marked another milestone, six months out here at the edge of the world. Sidebar: there is actually some place called the edge of the world out here I hear, with sunrises which are something to behold. Unfortunately there is an internal lock down again but I have made a mental note to plan for extended weekend outside the province I am in. O’s up for it which should marginally increase the likelihood of it happening. So six months out here then which brings with it a slight sense of having weathered a storm of sorts. Finally getting an Abu name helps with that sense of settling in I suppose.

With shut borders and all, it doesn’t look like I’m going anywhere anytime soon which means one must make my seat at the edge of the world home, or as close to it as it can be. Several times over the past few months I’ve gone back to Nicky Gumbel’s talk from October where he talked about flourishing where you’re planted. It is what it is.

Recent Finds

Sparks, Dark sides and Musings on Sight

***

The sparks have quite literally been flying, not for reasons of passion but for the more mundane fact that winter and the very low humidity have resulted in fairly significant amounts of static electricity build up on everything. More times than I care to remember over the past few weeks, I have had the sometimes unexpected displeasure of a substantial shock. I am much more careful now, taking the time to touch walls and other non-metallic objects to dissipate some of the build up. S insists that my refusal to moisturise often, and liberally, is a contributor to this – a google search seems to suggest she is right in some way. The jury is still out on that one I think, but I am leaning towards getting a humidifier, if and when I can sort out travel to the city next door.

I came face to face with my inner dark side this week, no thanks to what looks like a Bitcoin scam. Some website purporting to be associated with Chamath Palihapitiyia, claimed to be 10x-ing deposited Bitcoin. It seemed too good to be true, as quick google search proves (it was just another iteration of a long running scam) but in the moment all I saw was the potential to quickly turn around a small deposit into something substantial. In my head, it was the perfect opportunity to kick-off dollar cost averaging into Bitcoin. Thankfully, the exchange/wallet I ended up signing up for had a 24 hour cooling off period before one could transfer coins out, by which time the website was down and I had managed to do the google search I should have done at the onset. The silver lining is that I am left with about 1,000 GBP worth of Bitcoin which I suppose is as good as any starting point. The downside is that it puts my inner greed into perspective. There is much to shudder at there, I must admit.

On a slightly less troubling note, I found myself stepping into the shower several times this week with my glasses on. Whilst I am not sure what it means for my long term sight, I am willing to speculate. I am taking it as a sign to enjoy the things I still can see now. That, and learning to keep my greed in check, are perhaps the life lessons for this week.

Recent Finds

What It means when I step into the shower with my glasses on…

Photo by Hermes Rivera on Unsplash. For The Poetic Asides prompt #554

**

Sometimes I think
that my sight is leaving me,
the common, quotidian comfort
of seeing the world that touches me
slowly slipping away, taking flight
but not yet gone; only a little less close
the next time morning rolls my way.

Maybe it is my mind forgetting
where the thin discs
of shimmering glass
that bring the light end,
and where my rods and cones
ravaged by time begin.

Maybe it is the world reminding me
to cherish the moments of sight
whilst as yet they still linger.

COVID Days

The other country both enthrals and frustrates me in equal measure, which I’m sure is no news to most others who like me have a foot in both worlds. The events of the past few weeks have left that tension in sharp relief for me in the form of two members of my extended family coming to terms with COVID. That they were in two very different parts of the country only served to underscore how dire the situation could be, the influence and contacts with people of authority in the medical establishments – nay death traps – they spent most of their with time in counting for very little in the overall scheme of things. They are out of the woods now, for which we are all thankful, though the bitter after taste – and light pockets – lingers. One wonders how much hope the common man still has in the event of a medical emergency back there.

Smarter people than I say, the tide is turning back in Blighty, in spite of the efforts of partiers and revellers it must be said. The surge in numbers put paid to my plan to pop back in for a few weeks to clear my head, so I am glad at this direction. One hopes it continues. Out here I have been offered the chance to take the vaccine, which I have accepted with both hands. As someone who has had to show vaccinations for work travel in the past, it is a small price to pay for the possibility of near trouble free travel I hope.

Recent Finds (x5)

  • The BBC’s Desert Island Discs is a series I have returned to from time to time, though I now mainly consume the abridged version via the podcast. Most recently enjoyed was David Olusoga’s debut, not least for the selection of an apt and timely Fela song, and an endearing anecdote about Paul Gascoigne.
  • David Epstein’s Range is all the rage it seems, popping up several times on my twitter feed and some of the podcasts I listen to. For a fascinating conversation on its subject (success, specialists and generalists), this Intelligence Squared podcast is a good one to listen to. Of course it earns bonus points for name checking John Urschel who ditched American football for a Maths PhD.

On A Return to the Reassurance of Routine

Photo by ian dooley on Unsplash

**

In the early hours of the holiday season, it looked like I would spend the bulk of it virtually, the hours a blur of Zoom and WhatsApp video calls. Sometime on the 26th though, my luck changed. I woke up to the persistent sound of my door buzzer. I was half minded to not answer it, given multiple experiences with the gardening folk looking for more work. The door ringer wouldn’t leave and I needed to return to sleep so I dragged myself downstairs to the door. A pleasant surprise greeted me there; the neighbour from a street over stood there with a tub of fried rice and a bottle of wine – of the non-alcoholic kind of course. As it turns out, he remembered there was a lone Nigerian dude across the road with no family nearby and thought to extend some Christmas cheer my way. The rice and meat were wolfed down over the course of the day, saving me the hassle of wondering what to have on the day. Two more invites came my way over the next few days, resulting in my wolfing down some pounded yam and afang soup (the first time since my Eket days) and some pepper soup and snails on the other day. For all my quibbles with being a prodigal Nigerian, and being around Nigerians, moments like these remind me that redemption lurks in there somewhere. My experiences of fellow prodigals have been overwhelmingly positive. I wonder though, if they are a self-selecting group.

The three or so days of downtime ensured my year in reading has gotten off to a steady start. Last year was the first time since 2011 that I cracked the 20 book barrier, most definitely an upside to being out of work for three months, and the lock down. Adam Gopnik’s A Thousand Small Sanities, a stirring defence of big L Liberalism is done whilst I have David Olusoga’s Black &British, A Forgotten History and Bill Bryson’s Notes From A Big Country on the go.

**

Nothing jolts one back to reality like a 4.30am alarm on the day you return to work though. As I scrambled through my morning routine – a quick 5k, setting up my day in Notion, morning ablutions and then jumping on to the bus, it seemed like I was another person watching me go through the motion. Only when I had reset my password, downed two cups of tea and properly positioned my bag of wipes did it feel like I was properly at home at my own desk again. Who knew that the familiarity or routine could soothe the mind?

Recent Finds

  • Talking to yourself is not half bad. I knew I was on to something!
  • I’ve been catching up on my Desert Island Disc backlog. I found Cliff Richard’s one particularly interesting
  • The dearth of British Asian footballers in English football is a recurring motif which I suppose prompted the BBC to research the story of Jimmy Carter. This resonated particularly, I suspect, because I have reading David Olusoga’s book which includes stories of the Black British Victorians such as Francis Barber whose descendants may or may not know of their Black heritage. The accompanying BBC Series is on iPlayer for another 5 months it seems.

The Sunday Muse: Times and Season

For The Sunday Muse prompt #141:

**

Each whirl of the earth
around the Sun’s well
of power and of light
brings us back here.

Like a boat
dragged inexorably
by the rising tide to shore,
the swell of the sea
brings us peace,
to a season of reflecting,
of contemplating and of pause.

Time’s rhythm
like the faint echo
of a distant drumbeat
is welcome whisper
in our ear. Yesterday
left the things
we held dear cracked.
Today is a reminder
to rebuild better.

The Year in Reading 2020

It’s that time of the year again where I reflect on my reading over the course of the year. 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.

**

Coming out here dominated my thoughts at the turn of the year, which was how it found me digging into Richard Templar’s The Rules of Work. True the overwhelming sense at the time was of anticipation but there was enough uncertainty around how well I would navigate bridging a credibility deficit that looking for help came to mind most readily. In my notes from that first reading, I detect a sense of holding back against what seemed like rules promoting blatant self promotion. With the benefit of hindsight, and a big dollop of reality to boot, my view of the book is a lot more considered. There are certainly gems in there, which is why I intend to return to the book in the new year.

If there is a lesson in 2020 it is that the best laid plans are more likely to be ripped to shreds than come to fruition. I learned that in a deeply person way as a two week holiday between jobs turned into a three month hiatus. Steven Strogatz’ Infinite Powers was a fun and fascinating way to kick off that period, the ease with which it chronicled the history of calculus serving to draw me in. Much later, as there seemed no end to lockdown and the dystopian scenes of toilet paper hoarding and lengthy queues became the norm, I turned to a slew of spiritual books – and Alpha – for comfort. Brendan Manning‘s The Ragamuffin Gospel, Max Lucado‘s Come Thirsty (a re-read), Gemma SimmondsThe Way of Ignatius, John Starke‘s The Possibility of Prayer and a modern re-print of the Brother Lawrence classic The Practice of the Presence of God being the main ones in that regard. Esau McCaulley‘s Reading While Black took a slightly different tack, that of looking to engage scripture from the perspective of being black in America (and speaking truth to power/ protest amongst other themes)

This year I finally caved and went seeking to find out what the Jordan B Peterson fuss was all about. 12 Rules For Life was intriguing, not least for how overly reliant on the bible (in my view it was). True there were sections in which he seemed keener to rile the so-called radical left and right, and a few over-simplifications (lobster brains dissolving) but overall I didn’t see much there that a middle of the road Nigerian pastor might not preach on a Sunday if all the supernatural stuff and literal interpretations were toned down. The Enneagram was another thing I explored this year, the Ian Morgan Cron and Suzanne Stabile book, The Road Back To You being the vehicle through which I did that this year. The Heart is the Bottleneck, The School of Life, Removing Your Shame Label and The Circadian Code are other reads which perhaps fall into this ‘self improvement’ category.

Dan JonesCrusaders, Richard Holloway‘s A Little History of Religion and Nigel Warburton‘s A Little History of Philosophy scratched the history itch this year as did Aida Edelmariam‘s The Wife’s Tale. Adam Kucharski’s The Rules of Contagion, was as well timed a book as could be given its subject and the year 2020 was, both from the perspective of the pandemic but also the contagious conspiracy theories which bloomed this year around the world. Fareed Zakaria‘s Ten Lessons For A Post Pandemic World was more reflective, in that now distant time when the world breathed a little easier between the first and third waves. It is from this that one of the more compelling lines I’ve read this year comes. To paraphrase, What matters more is the quality of government not its quantity.

Liverpool won the Premiership for the first time in 30 years which I suspect inspired one of my summer reads, Jonathan Wilson and Scott Murray‘s The Anatomy of Liverpool which highlighted ten definitive matches that defined the club. A few – the UEFA Cup win over Alaves in 2000/2001, The Champions League win in 2005 – are etched in my memories but with no live football I did seek out Liverpool v Nottingham Forest on YouTube.

I found poetry a calming influence this year, writing, reading and listening to a lot of it, almost like therapy or prayer. To quote from the Poetry Unbound podcast, poetry helps us to: cast your eye on small moments that can give you some fortitude [and] that can help you through. In William Sieghart‘s anthology, The Poetry Pharmacy, with its stated purpose of pairing a poem to a spiritual or emotional ailment and Padraig O’ Tuama‘s In The Shelter I found that this year.

The Year In A Song (or Two)

In keeping with last year, I thought I’d go through the list of songs Spotify thought I listened to the most from my 2020 playlist to try to tease out some themes and recollections behind them. Here goes:

**

Fighting For Us – Anthony Evans: I popped into a church end of year event in Croydon at the behest of my friend O, where Anthony Evans did this song amongst others. It turned out that he’d just lost his Mother to cancer which put his turning up at all into perspective. I came back to this song quite a few times over the course of the year.

You won’t hold back when it comes to Your children
You fiercely defend us ’til we stand delivered
You’re fighting for us, always fighting for us
You won’t back down facing armies of thousands
You speak one word and they scatter around us
You’re fighting for us, always fighting for us

Breakthrough – Red Rocks Worship: Although I stumbled on this during my London lock down, the enduring memories of this song for me are having it on repeat during my evening walks in the heat of the Arabian summer in first few weeks out here. My favorite bits are the bridge:

Shake the mountains, break the walls apart
Open the Heavens, Almighty God, You are
Over comer, Defender of my heart, oh-oh, yeah
And by Your power, the oceans open wide
Your fire falls down, Heaven and Earth collide
King Jesus, forever by my side, yeah

Land of The Living – Church of The City: Stumbled on this song during a period of uncertainty which is perhaps why it stuck with me. Something about the reassurance of the lyrics, taken from Psalm 27:13, provided an anchor, and I ended up coming back to it again and again over the course of the year.

You’ve never made a promise you couldn’t keep
You don’t lie to me, You don’t lie to me
You’ve never made a promise you couldn’t keep
You don’t lie to me, You don’t lie to me

The Blessing – Kari Jobe, Cody Carnes and Elevation Worship: Spawning loads of covers from across the globe (my favorite ones were from the UK and Nigeria for obvious reasons) it is fair to say this song was a global phenomenon. I suppose a prayer that reaches back like a thread to the past and speaks over the future generations is especially powerful.

May His favor be upon you
And a thousand generations
And your family and your children
And their children, and their children

May His presence go before you
And behind you, and beside you
All around you, and within you
He is with you, He is with you

So Will I + Do It Again- Osby Berry:This was another one that I returned to again and again during lock down. The clarity of the voice held me, and I ended up devouring everything he’d done I could find on the internet.

And as You speak
A hundred billion failures disappear
Where You lost Your life so I could find it here
If You left the grave behind You so will I

Season’s Greetings

It feels very much like my first Christmas up in the ‘Deen, what with being house bound, friends and family some distance away and there being a decided chill in the air. Now, as with then, I woke up to We Three Kings in my ears with all the rabbit holes of memories it brings with it.

The key difference this time is that the lockdown has given everyone practice of staying in touch across the distance. Fortunately or unfortunately, that means I have several family zoom calls to jump on. It is a small inconvenience I guess, given the year we have all had – the best of years and the worst of years to use that oft quoted line from Dickens.

There is a lot to be thankful for on all counts, so all I’ll say is give those friends and family members a call over this period and catch up.

Season’s Greetings from the Edge of The World!

On Lights, Language and that (c)old December Weather

Photo by Lawless Capture on Unsplash

**

In about as low key a manner as could be, lights – I won’t go so far as to call them Christmas lights – are slowly making their way on to trees around me. That they first turned up in front of the communal lounge and then a few houses here and there complete with inflatable Santas made me think they were put up by individuals. I am no longer so sure of that, given that some lights turned up on the tree in the middle of no man’s land in front of my house. Lights apart, you would have no inkling it was a week to Christmas – work continues apace and the only official holiday is the 3rd of January. For all the sameness that living in the bubble I live in seems to cultivate, it is these little differences that drive home the realities now and again. The positive is that I get to take the days off when I want which, all things being equal, should be soon-ish.

Two conversations this week, and one of my favourite podcasts, brought the subject of language to my mind. First was a conversation around learning French which for me remains lost in the dregs of the someday/maybe folder. Three months of lockdown had me diving into Duolingo on a regular basis but in the face of real life since then, the inscrutability of gendered nouns, tricky pronunciations and head scratching verb conjugations have put paid to that desire. Maybe English is far too reductionist – or more likely as a reasonably fluent English speaker I have become lazy with languages – but one wonders what the world-view behind gendered nouns is.

The past few episodes of the On Being podcast have focused on the subject of love and loving. In the notes to Ellen Bass’s Bone of My Bone and Flesh of My Flesh, the subject of language and how we refer to the ones we love comes up but perhaps most close to my heart was a conversation with O. O is a distant cousin who insists on speaking to me in our shared mother tongue. In the aftermath of our last conversation I couldn’t shake the thought of how we greet in the morning from my mind. In my mother tongue (and why is it mother tongue?), we say “mole muude”, which loosely translates as welcome from yesterday. Maybe some distant ancestor realized that life was a hard slog, and making it through a night exposed to the elements and wild beasts deserved a welcome of sorts, or not. Given the multiple theories on the origin of language, I suspect we will never know for certain.

When the morning temperatures first dipped below 10 degrees a few weeks ago, I spurned the use of a jacket as I the one I had was not fire retardant. Fast forward a few weeks now, and every morning when I get off the bus without my jacket, I am invariably asked if I am not cold. My usual response is to say that I’ve seen worse, and that 10 degree weather, sans the bracing Scottish wind – is hardly cold. This is an explanation I have overhead others repeating. I fear this is one of those things that will take on a life of its own, with interest continuing until the day I finally cave in and turn up with a jacket. For now, I am still holding out.

Recent Finds

  • Michael Curry (he of the rousing homily at Harry & Meghan’s wedding) & Russell Moore (one of the more considered and nuanced voices amidst America’s Southern Baptists) come from widely differing Christian traditions but manage to have a friendly, wide ranging conversation on the On Being podcast. Well worth a listen if conversations around public theology are your thing.
  • On the subject of language and poetry, David Whyte on the Art of Manliness talks poetry, life and the intersections therein. A theme which seems to be popping up a bit amongst friends and acquaintances turns up here too, the need for men to develop friendships that encourage difficult conversations.
  • Somewhat related, the folk from Love Thy Neighbourhood talk about gender on Where The Gospel Meets Manhood.
  • From Math Twitter, Steven Strogatz (The Joy of X, Infinite Powers) posted a link to The Mountains of Pi which delves into the story of the Chudnovsky brothers and their quest to build a super computer to compute the digits of pi, back in the early 90s. They’re still going, incredibly.