Wafting

For The Sunday Muse Prompt #95.

***
It thunders,
and then it wafts,
its wispy tendrils
slowly rising like
the white smoke
of incense from a censer,
held aloft by a priest
intoning a muttered
prayer. Behind,
a bridge to the past
hides, disappearing,
as it were, into
the haze of memory;
ahead, the future –
not yet glimpsed
but in the moment
frozen – and enjoyed.

People Watching…

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

Last week was about thinking about the underlying reasons for writing, this week was starting off on the journey towards sharpening our powers of observation, the idea being to hone our ability to find stories in the quotidian.  A city-centre eatery late one night was my muse.

***
It is a little after 8.30pm when the smell of French fries wafting in through the door draws me in. The first thing that strikes me as I stride through the door is how empty it looks, the bulk of the two-storied structure being cordoned off, with only the small section to the right of the counter open for use. I find the emptiness surprising given it is next to a major bus station and right in the centre of town. As I wait for the chance to order, I find myself behind three people, all decked out in the garb of people dressed to brace the cold, with the brightly coloured logo of a food delivery service gracing the insulated bags they hold.

A few feet away from the space I find for myself and my tray are three men with youthful faces, chattering away in a language which is not English, possible South East Asian if I were to hazard a guess. Their half-eaten burgers suggest they’ve been here a while, given how much of their time is spent in conversation interspersed with raucous laughter. When they are finally done, one of the three gathers up their trays and proceeds to empty them into the bin and then they leave, taking their mirth with them. Clearly close friends, or people connected by a shared lived experience I suspect.

Apart from them, the only other people in the room are a group of much older people – 2 men and 2 women occupying the central tables and someone sitting alone, sipping from a cup looking out onto the streets. Of the four, the woman who looks the oldest is slouched in her seat, hands folded together in her lap, two shopping bags beside her, listening it seems. Across from her a younger man with hair the same ginger colour as hers sits, leaning in, several discarded sachets of milk at his elbows, gesturing wildly. Between the accent and my hunger, I can barely make out what the subject of their conversation is but the name of the suburb to the south of the river comes up several times. Maybe a family squabble then, or given the reputation the small town has for being a difficult place, maybe an appeal to the matriarch of the clan for an intervention. All I can see of the fourth person are feet clad in streaked sneakers, the upper body obscured by a heater.

When I steal a glance at the group on my way out, I find the fourth person is fast asleep. Maybe, I have misread the situation after all.

Lift Off

Photo by Green Chameleon on Unsplash

One of my objectives for 2020 is to complete a Creative Non-Fiction course, which is how I signed up for the National Centre for Writing’s Start Writing Creative Non-Fiction course. Once a week, or so, I’ll drop a few thoughts on exercises completed, thoughts and progress on here. Here goes the first one.

***
The focus of this first week has been pondering the question ‘why?’, exploring the motivations for taking on the course, and perhaps the underlying book project which it is assumed one is working on. For me, the course is an attempt to go beneath the surface and understand the techniques behind good writing, in keeping with the theme for this year of Delving Deeper. Progress on that elusive memoir, The Small Light in Things. will be a very welcome bonus.

In my head, The Small Light in Things will focus on the last ten years of my life, ones in which I upped sticks on the cusp of turning thirty and began life anew on a new continent along with all the change that instigated. It will be a story of surviving – of navigating a culture shock, the first tentative steps on a journey of evolving faith and changing, by degrees as it were. It might be cathartic, or not, but my hope is that I get to properly process all of this with hopefully the benefit of some distance and detachment.

Three books come to mind as exemplars of what I am trying to achieve here: Teju Cole’s Every Day Is For The Thief, Richard Rodriguez’s Hunger of Memory and Etgar Keret’s The Seven Good Years, all of which reflect on times of change and evolution with the benefit of some distance. What resonates with me in these books, particularly Every Day is For The Thief and Hunger of Memory, is the lived immigrant experience -both in the other country and in the country of birth. Time, life and the experience change us in ways which are not immediately obvious, that is what I’m hoping to tease out from the past ten years of my life.

Gift

For The Sunday Muse Prompt 93:

***
Here, prone
beneath the weight
of things unseen,
the vision has begun
to fade, the dream
once resplendent
in its colour,
now faint and grey,
Between the leaving
and the grieving
a messenger appears,
a key in its wings,
a gift of redemption
and rebirth.

Oasis

For The Sunday Muse Prompt #92 and Matthew 11:28-30.

***
Beyond the drying
and the dying
salvation calls;
the distant shimmer
of light cast
by the morning sun
a whisper to the weary;
Come, draw nigh
all ye who are heavy laden,
who bear the burden
of a common life
around their neck.
Hope and Haven
is the promise,
if we dare
go through the door
into the way.

Arctic Eyes

For The Sunday Muse Prompt #90.

***
The brilliance of
her luminescent eyes
lights the darkness
all around, twin pricks
of desire shining bright,
like stars, stark against
the tapestry of a night sky.
Fire and ice, both
together and apart
lie here, the wild
and the quiet as one.

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.