Under the Surrey Sun

Time as a trickster of sorts is a theme I find myself coming back to again and again, the key motif being how in the moment life and time can seem like drudgery, but when viewed from the vantage point of hindsight it can seem compressed, like a video watched at 2x speed. My thoughts as I packed up my bags and began to prepare for the short hop back were very much in that vein, not helped I suspect by the long hard year I had had. Between L, her boundless energy and various work related niggles, I was running on empty for the final few weeks before I left. Awaiting me on the other side – in addition to reintegrating myself back – were a big house move, and the mother of all Nigerian parties on the other side of town. If there was any anticipation, it was hope that I would finally get to sink my teeth into a juicy burger, indulge in all the bacon and sausages I could manage, and hop along to the odd Parkrun. As it turns out, all of my fears – and none of the things I was looking forward to – materialized.As is its wont, Reality and expectation never quite matched up.

Besides the physical reasons (being in places quite some distance from where I needed to be), the disruption to my routine was a key reason for the sense of disconnect between the expectation and reality. A slightly different time, not being able to escape to work, and having to drive quite a few less miles to the shops all differed from my lived reality of the past fourteen months. That was disconcerting in some way I am yet to fully understand.

One of the understated joys of living in this corner of the world where I return to from time to time is the lush greenery, always never more than a few hundred metres away. On previous returns, I have had the time, the space and the energy to take it all in – morning runs, afternoon saunters to the shops and the odd city-centre meet up with a friend. On this occasion however, I found myself perpetually short of time. This is also a theme, I am finding. Life and my time as I know it seems gone away for forever, now permanently centred around S and L and all the things they need to get up to.

The year of being forty-two is slowly winding down. Forty-three needs to come with a big reboot switch.

Flies, Storms and The Sense of An Ending

Photo by Matthieu Joannon on Unsplash

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The heat hangs heavy on the head, the way a wet blanket only partially wrung dry after being pounded by feet in a washbasin hangs listlessly in a barely-there breeze. The short afternoon walks to the canteen, to grab some combination of a salad, chicken and rice is beginning to feel like a chore, not helped by the sand which has become a permanent fixture it seems. Some days G and I wonder if the haze is from fog or dust but the loud whirl of my air purifier settles it for me; dust it is – that most irritating kind that finds its way through every tiny crinkle in our armour, covering everything with a fine layer of brown. Not far away in their ubiquity are the flies which flit around everything, their persistent buzz the soundtrack to life in these baking summer months. With Ramadan behind us, it is the season of long vacations and every other day it seems someone else in the wider team disappears for a few weeks. My turn to disappear is in about a month, and for the first time in a long time, I am looking forward to kicking back, waking up at my leisure then sticking L in her stroller and grabbing brunch with real bacon. Adding a few more Parkruns to my total – with maybe one push for a new PB – would be a welcome bonus.

Listening to the news on the odd occasion I catch it, it strikes me just how much of it is prattling on about the unserious stuff – Depp and Heard and Rooney and Vardy are a case in point – but out here amongst fellow prodigals abroad the impacts of the Ukraine-Russia conflict loom large. From the Ukrainian family who persists in spamming a WhatsApp group with images from the war to the Russian chap who can’t send money home to his descendants, the abstractions that are the news of sanctions and bombs falling here or there hit home. An unintended consequence is that Europe has finally gotten their finger out and their heads from being bent down navel-gazing to start thinking about energy security again. Companies which let tons of folk go are back on the market trying to recruit; it is very much boom again, and just how long it will last remains to be seen. I remain bullish on nuclear and carbon capture.

It seems that along with death and taxes, twists and turns worthy of a Stephen King page-turner in Nigerian politics, gun deaths in America and yet another sexual abuse case in bible-belt America are (unwelcome) facts of life. The less said about these the better I suspect, though my inner complex systems enthusiast can’t help but ponder the social and religious interactions which have resulted in the state of affairs these three (not entirely disparate) events represent. Regardless of what one thinks about the benefits of “thoughts and prayers”, there comes a time when they are functionally the equivalent of burying one’s head in the sand (a less charitable reading would be that they are an excuse for permitting the status quo from which we benefit persist).

In reading, a return to catching the bus at a slightly less obscene hour has enabled me to catch up on my plan. In the past month, Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto and John Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis One have been very good reads. Finally digging into Fola Fagbule and Feyi Fawehinmi’s Formation: has also been an interesting experience; I am finding myself pausing to go google some arcane fact and/or look up a map. I have also reread bits of Julian Barnes’ Booker Prize-winning The Sense of An Ending, from which a very prescient quote jumped out at me:

Time … give us enough time and our best-supported decisions will seem wobbly, our certainties whimsical

Coming up to the two-year mark out here, I can’t shake the feeling that it very much is the beginning of an ending of sorts. Fingers crossed.

Summertime..

Photo by Il Vagabiondo on Unsplash

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One day it was wet, slightly windy and the temperature was below 30 degrees C, the next it wasn’t, which is how seemingly out of the blue the semblance of winter bowed out, being replaced by summer in all its fierceness. To be brutally honest, calling ‘it’ winter would be a stretch by all accounts, but for the context of the prospect of 40+ weather over the next few months. Of more personal importance though is that it is the end of Ramadan, and the lengthened hours with little food that was my lot in the period (a quirk of the shift patterns revised for the period was that my work day started an extra hour early, and the food spots at work were all closed). As with last year, I decided it would be a fantastic time to attempt to shift some of the weight, tacking on three morning runs and reduced carbs to the month. The three kilograms which have somehow slid off into the ether suggests there was some value to all that exertion. Whether it was worth it all remains to be seen though.

Casting my mind back to this time last year yields little by way of extant memories, although given what came afterwards, I would guess I spent the month up to my ears in work, trying to clear my desk whilst putting finishing touches to my travel plans, 72-hour PCR tests, quarantine and all. It is not much different this time – being a couple of team members light at work means it promises to be a hectic May and June before I and my contingent ship out to the proper summer of South Yorkshire. A trip up to the ‘Deen definitely beckons also, given it will have been two years, four months and a bit since I last passed through. It will have been two years of being a prodigal abroad then, surviving COVID, having to build networks from the scratch again and welcoming L who never ceases to be a fascinating experiment in reinforcement learning (both for us adults and her), amongst all other things.

Plenty to mull over this summer then; milestones, friends to reconnect with, moments to pause and ponder the directions of the next few years and the odd Parkrun or two, In sha’Allah.

Coming Up For Air

Photo by Max van den Oetelaar on Unsplash

**

It feels somewhat trite, given what is afoot in the world, to be riled up about life in my gilded prison corner of the world. The Ukraine and Russia conflict looms large of course, but for all the outpouring of support – and some might say posturing – it feels more like a cause célèbre, than anything else. As others have pointed out thousands more have lost their lives in Yemen,. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars were hardly less gruesome for ordinary civilians. Closer home, it seems like Nigeria teeters more on the edge of imploding, with power, security and the general hardship levels all running away in the wrong direction. Of course, concurrent occurrences of bad things does not make any of them less ‘bad’. One can only hope that the energies expended in mobilizing and blanketing the air waves with the plight of Ukrainians is also extended to other (blacker and browner) bodies.

Energy, and energy security, are back in the news again, the chickens of short sighted decisions very much coming home to roost as Russia holds Europe over a barrel with gas. It is good to see common sense coming to the fore again with nuclear energy being an option on the table. Sadly, these things are not magic taps that get turned on and off at the snap of fingers, so long hard periods of weaning ourselves off Russian gas are inevitable. North sea oil and gas is another beneficiary of all these, with the likes of Shell looking to invest 25 billion in the sector.

It has been a hectic past five months, on a personal note, my days spent hard at work and at home. High stakes, high profile deliverables at work have meant work weeks stretching into the weekends with extended hours. As I joking remarked to A the other day, it very much feels like I took a huge breath in November and am yet to breathe out, whilst keeping several plates spinning. Burning the candle at both ends is perhaps the best metaphor to describe the current state. The month of Ramadan and the slower pace of life can’t come soon enough for me.

If there is a silver lining in being maddeningly busy, it is that the year has sped right by. Somehow it is the end of March, and L is all of 10 months! 2022 was meant to be the year of re-thinking, which I have hardly done any of. To me at least, proper re-thinking requires the luxury of time, and moments of extended quietness, things which I have not had the luxury of over the past year. First order of business though must be to re-think the world of my work, and what I am truly aiming to get out of it. For the complex dynamics involved in it – current states, employer considerations and my future desires – what is obvious is that there I would like to not be doing the same sorts of things in five years time. The Clay Christiansen book, How Will You Measure Your Life, is one that I intend to re-read in April, as a first, tentative step towards re-thinking what work should look like for me in the five+ year time frame. Before all that re-thinking, I think the zeroth step is being intentional again about self care.

The phrase/word of the week (or month, or quarter – you decide) is Kaif halak, which means how are you? I hope like me you are in an improving place and are being intentional about self-care.

The Year in Reading – 2021

It’s that time of the year again where I reflect on my reading over the course of the year. My previous attempts are linked here.

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I have a litany of reasons to give for the paltry return of fourteen books completed this year, as big a drop as could be from the twenty-three I put way with consummate ease last year, chief of which was the welcome disruption L brought to our lives this year and all that came with it. The chief effect of that was a a significant number of unread books, all the free time I had in the latter part of the year being eighty minutes each day on the bus to and from work on work days. The vast majority were thus audiobooks, the experience of which I tried to improve by taking copious notes in Notion. Of the lot, a few stood out for various reasons. I plan on re-reading a few in hard copy in the near future, real life permitting. So here goes:

  • A Thousand Small Sanities – Adam Gopnik: An exercise in exploring so-called Big Liberalism, this was one that I started reading o the cusp of the new year. At times it tried to paint an overly idealistic picture but then I suppose a book defending an idea would look at how it should be not how it actually works in practice. Certainly one I need to re-read in hard copy with time and engage the ideas.
  • The Status Game – Will Storr: Sometimes you read a book whose ideas are so foundational that you come away wondering how you never saw that before. This was one of such for me, the central thesis being that all human systems trade/play in status – whether our currency is virtue, dominance or something else.
  • The Bomber Mafia – Malcolm Gladwell: Another one which prompted much thinking for me , almost akin to an existential crisis of sorts, being the solidly mid-career professional I am who sometimes wonders what direction by future should take.

On the 49 from Northcote

For The Sunday Muse Prompt #188 and the 49 from Northcote to White City:

**

On the 49 from Northcote,
a young woman sits. She
folds her hands, hangs her feet,
and lets the world without slip by
– grey granite yielding to gleaming glass,
verdant green disappearing behind the whorls
of potted plants. Somewhere outside,
the river wends its way across the plain.
Above, in a fleeting moment a giant
clanging bird roars. Somewhere
on the corner of Shepherd’s Bush and King’s
an old man, wraps his hands around himself
as his breath draws wisps in the winter wind.
As it was in the beginning and now is
the river remains. We all like small lights
flicker, and then are gone.

On That Rise and Fall of Mars Hill Pod

Image Source: Christianity Today

**

Over the past four or so months, I have listened with rapt attention, waiting for the next episode drop of the Christianity Today podcast, The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill. For the uninitiated, it chronicles the story of Seattle megachurch, Mars Hill and its founder Mark Driscoll. It first came to my attention, if memory serves me right, when its host, Christianity Today‘s Mike Cosper, popped in to the Holy Post podcast for a conversation with Skye Jethani. That interview, and the end of the first episode, go some way to lay out the team’s reasons for exploring this story and what lessons they hope to tease out as they go along. As expected, Mark Driscoll looms large over the series – which has one final episode to go. Alongside him, making appearances and/or being named checked are a slew of other heavyweights in the evangelical space, thanks to his involvement in two organisations like The Gospel Coalition and the Acts 29 network.

Listening to the podcast has been a trip down memory lane for me of sorts, back to the mid 2000s, a time when I was deeply wedded to the Pentecostal cause back in the old country. I was two years into a move to a different city for work, had home internet – even slower than dialup – for the first time and had gotten myself a laptop to boot. At the same time my friend A had just gotten a copy of Joshua Harris’ I Kissed Dating Goodbye as well as mp3s of the three-part series Harris preached at the Covenant Life Church’s singles ministry meetings. The outcome of all of this – and the advent of Apple podcasts – was to open my eyes to the wealth of resources on the internet – SermonAudio & Boundless to name a few. This was my path to coming within the Driscoll orbit, from a distance as it were. With the benefit of hindsight, the folk I listened to a lot then were an interesting bunch – John Piper, CJ Mahaney, Joshua Harris, Al Mohler, Mark Dever, Bruce Ware and the others who turned up regularly to the defunct New Attitude Conference to name a few.

By all accounts the failings at Mars Hill were due to a the failure of governance with a hyper powerful central figure whose brand became the focus of everything, or the results of the scheming and conniving of few disgruntled elements seeking power, if the alternative narrative is to be believed. The strong powerful central figure trope though is one that persists, particularly in its exported form in churches in my other country. I have vivid memories of spiritual fathers insisting on ‘seeds’ and ‘offerings’ and laying down the law as to what should happen in people’s home as part of adjudicating matters. Not too long ago, a certain Nigerian MOG spouted some 5G and COVID conspiracy stuff and got his followers – some of whom are very bright and otherwise intelligent people – deferring to his opinion on the subject. That he did seem to offer a retraction seems to carry less weight with the one or two of those I know, who I have since deleted and blocked off Whatsapp, that cesspool of misinformation.

At its peak, Mars Hill attracted close to 15,000 people over five campuses, which perhaps begs the question of what attracted them. If my experience is anything to go by I sense that most people want a strong central authority in their lives, want clarity, and if they are of a religious bent, want access to people who are close to the Divine and who can say with (misplaced?) confidence that God told them some hidden and arcane reason behind something out in the world.

It seems to me that Cosper and co went to great lengths to present both sides of the Mars Hill story – the real hurt to people but also the real lives helped. Balancing these two narratives was always going to be a big difficulty with a project such as this though in my view, they did do very well in that regards. I am looking out for the final episode, hopefully it ties all the various strands of the narrative together nicely as well as addresses some of the criticisms others have levelled at.

Before You Call Me By This Name

For The Sunday Muse Prompt #186:

**

Before you call me by this name
and shrink the sum of all my days
down to this facade, this still-life
of sepia pixels flickering like daylight
disappearing before the force of dusk;

Before you place the burdens of
history around my neck, till
it begins to break beneath the weight
of expectation, you must know
that this name is one of a myriad,
each bequeathed by the ones
who came before, a prayer
that we might see, the small lights
in our being.

500 Leagues under the Sun

Photo by Kenza Benaouda on Unsplash

**

Of the things that still irk me, more than a year into my Arabian Odyssey, the sheer inefficiencies which seem baked into the system stand out for particular ire. Case in point: this past week to spend ten minutes picking up a letter from my employer and then delivering it at a government office fifteen kilometres away, I had to drive 250+kilometres. To my mind, it is something that can and should dare I say, be managed via an online portal but I found to my pain that this was not the case. It is no wonder then that in the short space of over a month I have driven just shy of three thousand kilometres, mainly between my outpost in the middle of nowhere, work (twice), the big city next door (multiple times) and the occasional trip to the provincial capital for some government thing or the other twice too.

One of those trips put into context why choosing not to buy a 4×4 wasn’t the brightest of ideas. Having taken a wrong turn off a certain road, I found to my chagrin that it soon dissolved into desert sands and nothing more. It was in trying to turn off it into the other side of the road to retrace my steps that trouble struck. My puny rear wheel drive, 1.6L engine, subcompact got mired in the sands which had accumulated on that section of unused roads. Several attempts only managed to get me firmly stuck with no seeming route to recovery. It didn’t help that I had left L and S at home with a view to dashing into the next town to grab some supplies and then return. My salvation came in the shape of two men who spotted me whilst driving their pick up truck across the sand on the other side of the road. After some frantic hand waving on my part to attract their attention, they came to a stop across the divider of the road as we tried to communicate my predicament. My Arabic is nonexistent as was their English but the one word we could both understand was ‘Help?’, to wish I nodded frantically. They promptly disappeared for a bit in a cloud of sand only to reappear at the bend where the road turned to sand. The younger of the two was dressed in full regalia, thobe and head gear included whilst his older companion had threadbare jeans and a denim shirt rolled up at the sleeves. Ten or so minutes afterwards, I finally came unstuck thanks to the younger getting into my car and proceeding to attempt to reverse out of the rut i had sunk into whilst his companion and I pushed. Not in a very long time, and I suspect/hope not in a long time in the future, have I felt such relief at seeing a stranger’s face.

Driving out here was one of the things I dreaded the most, given the stories of texting drivers and general disregard for other road users which were drummed into us during our orientation. Bar a couple of near misses where tailgaters have almost forced me off the road at 120km/hr, nothing much of note has happened. That, and the sense of habituation which has made the 60km trek to the next town feel normal are things to be thankful for.

At the Centre of Things

Image Source: The Guardian

**

Every waking minute of the past few weeks it seems has been filled with some nursery rhyme or the other, so much so that deep in my less wakeful moments, I have caught myself humming along to some tune or another. Chief of them has to be the ten in a bed one where a particularly bossy kid shoos off the others who end up in a pile beside the bed nursing various bumps and scrapes. Sometimes it has felt like there are an infinite number of ways this can happen, although the mathematics suggest that there is only one way to do that, if that particular order is maintained. All of this is long way to say that L is very much at the centre of things with sleep, if I can go out for a run in the morning and other such mundane things very much dependent on what state she wakes up in.

I would like to think that being the well adjusted, finely tuned primate that I am makes me the very epitome of a caring parent but the truth is that there are days when all I want with every fibre of my being is to ignore whatever plea for help is emanating from her crib and get some extra precious minutes of sleep, particularly on work days. Most days I don’t yield to my internal lazy boy but what I will admit is that I have begun to look forward to my forty-minute commute to work on the bus. That has begun to feel like an island of sanity, keeping the chaos of home away from the madness of work. Small mercies.