On A Return to the Reassurance of Routine

Photo by ian dooley on Unsplash

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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:

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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

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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.

Coming Up For Air

Based on a photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

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That doing and not doing are both habits is something that I have come to grudgingly accept over the past month, seeing as the longer I was away from here the harder dragging myself back here seemed. In my defence real life has been manic, the stultifying pressures of time-sensitive deliverables not lending themselves to the pursuit of non-essential, creative pursuits. I have myself to blame for some of that pressure, seeing as I somehow thought fitting a poem a day challenge into everything I had going on would be doable. I made it through fourteen days of that – a minor miracle at least. With some breathing space coming up towards the end of the month, my hope is to go back over the prompts, edit, write some more, and begin the process of pulling some of the pieces together into a chap book for the evaluators in January 2020.

Winter is very much here, not enough to turn on the heating (I love it cold at night for sleep) but enough to feel the bite in the wind at noon when I make a beeline for the canteen to grab my regular lunch time fare. My evening walks now include a hoodie for some warmth and protection against the chilly weather which, believe it or not, hovered just above 10 deg C the other night. We have had rain a couple of times too, in addition to the occasional heavy fog rolling in like a wet blanket. Rain and fog most assuredly did not cross my mind as weather effects to expect out here. A learning experience if ever there was one I think. The next milestone – six months in the current gig – is just round the corner. I’m hoping that it goes well, bucking the recent trends of lay-offs, hiring freezes and all the other things the headwinds facing my industry seem to have driven every one from small, nimble operator to lumbering erstwhile giants to. Back in Blighty, Boris and his oven-ready deal have proven to be anything but that, with recent briefings suggesting that no-deal – by whatever name it is called – seems to be the most likely option. Surely his days in the hot seat must be numbered with any number of challengers from his ranks waiting in the wings it seems.

Oil, and the head winds facing the industry, are never far away from the conversation. The recent up-tick in oil prices and what seems to be some sense prevailing amongst the sabre rattling big producers and cartels perhaps delays the inevitable but oil has certainly has its day. In conversation with G the other day at work, we concluded that our generation is probably the last one that will benefit from the ‘largesse’ of the oil industry. The latest cuts at one of my previous employers – whilst borrowing to keep up paying dividends – certainly removes any sense of rose tinted glasses. It is a numbers game now, and any notions of pride in esoteric knowledge very much need t be tempered by the realities of life. I am betting on data and porting my skills into adjacent industries.

Proper reading has taken a back seat to everything else with the only real time I’ve had been on the bus to and from work. Audio books and podcasts have come to the rescue in that regard. Here, for your pleasure are a few bits and bobs from what I have managed to consume.

  • Season 2 of perhaps my favourite podcast is still going strong, now standing 22 episodes deep and featuring a wide variety of work from folk such as Lucille Clifton, Chris Abani, Gregory Pardlo and Ada Limon. Next to Roger Robinson’s A Portable Paradise, I am finding Dilruba Ahmed’s Phase One an especially evocative one. Something about learning to forgive oneself is particularly resonant given the year we have all had in which carefully laid plains have been disrupted by things outside our control
  • A thoroughly fascinating and wide ranging conversation between Nanjala Nyabola and Yousra Elbagir over at Intelligence Squared had me nodding and smiling to myself from time to time at how very articulated several of the thought which have been kicking about in my head were made. The power of passports is something that I know only too well.
  • My views on government are shifting, decidedly I think, in the direction of smaller, less bloated forms. Fareed Zakaria certainly makes the argument in Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World that the quality of governance is what matters more than the quantity. Nigeria certainly has a lot of quantity (and bloat) and very little quality, good old Blighty seems to have neither to me.
  • And from Church of the Way, Land of The Living, which has become one of my favourite songs over the past month. It might be the song itself, or its lyrics which soothe a craving for certainty but all told, I think it is well worth a listen.

30. Forgiveness

For Day 30 of the November Poem-A-Day Challenge. Photo by Marco Ceschi on Unsplash. After Dilruba Ahmed

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And I am learning
to forgive myself,
to not let the weight
of the worries of the world
hang heavy on my head,
to accept that sometimes
the broken things
around my feet
are the world being itself,
that sometimes beauty slips out
like light through a cracked down
from the riven parts of a fragile bowl,
that sometimes it is not you
or me or the distant things between
but life, and living
and being breaking,
and beginning the cycle
anew.

5. Ruin

Dunnottar Castle. For Day 5 of the November Poem-A-Day Challenge, a poem about beautiful ruins.

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You come from afar
bearing the gift
of your open self
to this place
from whence they say
the honours of the land
once slipped, hid
in the hem of a buxom
lady’s dress.

What you see
are its tired walls straining
against the pressure
of the wind, clinging
with their last lives
to the cliffs that saved them
from past wars.

On the days
that the sun’s light
catches the slight slant
of her weathered walls,
you will realize
there is beauty
in the rugged persistence
of broken things