NaPoWriMo Day 15 – Why I Write

Sometimes silence is
the song a caged bird sings,
the fading echo the flailing
of a broken wing leaves,
as it creaks beneath the weight
of life’s hammer blows.

Sometimes silence is
the shrill scream rushing air makes
as it leaves a pierced balloon
as it runs amok in its death throes
before nestling limp like a wet sock
and disappearing.

Sometimes pain will break you
and the linger of unrequited memory
will haunt you, seared as it were in the very
fabric of your mind’s skin.

Years later in a season of re-memory
you will remember – how
uneasy laughter masked worry
and how in the midst
of the milling, madding crowd
it was you, yourself
and a thousand broken things.

This, is why I write
For peace, for clarity
And for my seasons of re-memory.

For the Day 15 Prompt at NaPoWriMo

On Loving, and (Not) Marrying…

I-DO-Marriage-Series

[Source]

When I was seventeen, I was sure that I would be married by the time I turned twenty-seven. I knew the date, Saturday the 7th of July 2007, who she would be and the song we would say our vows to. That year was my first away from home at University in a different city, one in which I cut my teeth creating a budget, spending money as I chose and defending my results to my father at the end of each month – all very responsible and grown up – or at least so I thought. There was no real science – or thought for that matter – to the timing, merely a wild stab in the dark. Ten years seemed far enough into the future to feel like forever, and my big Uncle F who seemed to embody adulthood perfectly turned twenty seven that year, or maybe thirty. Reality, I would later find out, was far more intention and hard slog than hit, hope and wishful thinking.

***

Thursday nights at Union Square, with the milling masses of people camped out at the various eating places and shops, are perhaps the clearest confirmation of what I learned as a seventeen year old, that we as a species are wired for love and loving. If you believe the 2013 predictions, Britons splurged nearly £1bn for Valentine’s Day, with the average spend just under £120. Across the world, Japanese, Thais, Indonesians and Taiwanese splurged a tad more, the equivalent of £173 on average. A 2015 survey in America by the National Retail Federation, projected a total spend in excess of $18.9bn (£12.2bn). Valentine’s Day therefore does continue to capture the imagination as The Day to be romantic, one on which we indulge ourselves and our love interests.

That we are now busier, and more stressed out, than at any other time in the history of our species seems to have done little to dampen our enthusiasm for love. We have in the main co-opted technology to our cause. By almost every measure (size, revenue, number of service providers at least), online dating is big business – £2bn and growing; the most astonishing statistic perhaps being that one in five relationships now starts online. Social media perhaps also has had a part to play; conflating time and space into a continuum in which separation is defined by a few mouse clicks or bursts of data from any one of a plethora of messaging apps bobbing around the ether via our ubiquitous wingmen, our cell phones and tablets, rather than by physical distance .

In spite of all the love and loving we seem to gravitate towards, marriage as an institution appears to be in decline. We as a species are waiting longer to marry, and when we do, there are fewer marriages, and more divorces, across Europe. Across the pond in America, the situation is as dire, the headline number being a thirty per cent reduction in the marriage rate per 1000 between 1990 and 2011.  Clearly, between hooking up and marrying there lies some sort of bottleneck, a rate limiter that constrains conversion from romantic connections into marriage.

***

One possible explanation for this apparent disconnect is, at least in the West, that marriage, or more specifically living together, can carry an economic penalty. The rise of the welfare state, and its ever increasing generosity, means that at least in some scenarios, it makes more economic sense to preserve separateness in the eyes of the law, as opposed to tying up and losing benefits in the process. This factor perhaps impacts more strongly on persons more likely to need welfare due to lower earnings but it is an effect reproduced in the US also, as identified by research conducted by Heritage..

Beyond the economic disincentive, there are also a number of perception issues within the wider culture. One of such is that marriage is inherently limiting, succinctly captured by The Big Bang Theory’s Howard Wolowitz in the The Vartabedian Conundrum Episode:

 “There’s a whole buffet of women out there, and you’re just standing in the corner, eating the same deviled egg over and over again”. 

Another perception problem might be that marrying is increasingly being seen as an addendum to life, something to be progressed only after several other more critical things have been checked off. True, marrying for the heck of it, without proper preparation or thought as to how to deal with the responsibilities that come in its wake, is somewhere between foolhardy and irresponsible, but the delay trap can sometimes be self perpetuating for no real benefit. Delaying marriage to focus on getting an education, work and other critical life skills for successful adult life does correlate with lower divorce rates as research in the US by the National Marriage Project concludes. There are costs associated with this though, particularly to do with enjoying the freedoms of the single life a little too much at times. The same report concludes:

Twenty somethings who are unmarried, especially singles, are significantly more likely to drink to excess, to be depressed, and to report lower levels of satisfaction with their lives, compared to married twenty somethings” 

A third societal influence is perhaps the rise of the personality cult when it manifests itself in an overly explicit focus on looking out for oneself only. Only the best will suffice, the narrative suggests,  as such the guy or girl next door can only ever be a barely passable 5.5 whilst we are rip roaring 10s on the desirability scale. Whatever glamorous attractions they had disappear forever once you’ve heard them fart five times in a row after far too much cheese or seen them wake up looking like ‘crap’. 

Increasingly relaxed societal norms around cohabiting also contribute, I suspect. With relational needs – often sex, but also the emotional support and commitment an intimate relationship provides – no longer limited to the context of marriage, there is also less of an incentive to ‘buy the cow’ in a sense, seeing as the milk is often available for free. 

***

I would be hard pressed to describe what my seventeen year old self felt as love. There was a certain element of excitement, and perhaps delirious joy, associated with what I felt, or thought I felt, but the cold hard evidence suggests that that in itself is never sufficient. Paul’s seminal chapter on love paints a picture that majors on the focus, work and intentionality that sharing life in the real world requires rather than the warm fuzzy feelings we as a species associate with love and loving.  What cannot be in serious dispute on the other hand though is that a sense of duty alone, without the buzz and excitement, seems like a consignment to purgatory at best, or a living hell at worst. Where the balance is is a question I am still unable to answer. Eight years and counting after my Big Virtual Wedding which was not, it is clear that I am still none the wiser, having cycled through a few of these phases myself. Perhaps the chaps at Wait But Why put it most succinctly:

Marriage isn’t the honeymoon in Thailand—it’s day four of vacation #56 that you take together. Marriage is not celebrating the closing of the deal on the first house—it’s having dinner in that house for the 4,386th time. And it’s certainly not Valentine’s Day. Marriage is Forgettable Wednesday. Together.

On praying, and changing…

Man-In-Prayer-Christian-Stock-Photo

[Source]

One day you wake up with a sense of hunger, as though someone  – or something  – dredged the innards of your soul and all you want to do is talk to Him. The tug is so strong – and insistent – that you think nothing of kneeling on the cold, hard floor and pouring out your heart. It seems to work because by the time you’re done, you feel light headed and ready, ready to take on the world, bad guys, ghouls and all.

Some other days your prayer feels like an intense coffee date; playful, happy, somewhat giggly and intimate. You come away at the end of it all feeling like you’ve sat in your favourite corner of your favourite coffee shop;  ginger bread latte and waffles to hand, swung your feet beneath the table with the odd knee touch, your voice only a smidgen above a murmur and caught up on life, love and everything.

Sometimes the beauty of a sunset or an unexpected rainbow will knock you out and like a flood of words to the lips, prayer will rise, the sense of presence and of being near somehow convincing you that there is a wider meaning to everything, and that the show – colours splashed as though on your canvas – has been crafted especially for you. Maybe you might cry, or sing a little too loudly with gusto, but all told you’ll come away with the unshakeable sense that He was there.

Some days you’ll find yourself floating, lost in the crowd, the collective drone of shared ablutions dragging you along like the receding tide drags an unwilling swimmer out to sea. Unlike the swimmer you don’t resist, allowing yourself to be carried along, soaking in all the energy in.

Some days it will feel like a war of attrition. You, and what you want on one side, Him and his sovereign will on the other. You plead your case, the same words you’ve used every day for the past nine lives. You might rant a bit, about being the good guy, and about how the bad things which seem to insist on happening to you and yours speak the lie to his being good. You moan about the existential crisis his failings are bringing on. You might cry yourself hoarse, and come close to shaking your fist in his face in anger. Somehow you won’t. You’ll stop just short of the line between despondence and plain rebellion. You’ll convince yourself that there must be a bigger point to everything.

Tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow, you will return in quiet contemplation. Whether He will or He won’t, you realise that life goes on at a steady clip. You find acceptance, difficult as it may be.

I didn’t get the one thing I prayed most about last year. At times there was an overwhelming sense of faith that it would happen, at others it felt like I was chatting up a brick wall. What I can not deny however is that with time I am finding acceptance, and the niggling thought at the back of my mind that maybe that was the whole point of everything, changing me.

Of Rust, and Metaphors

yonatan-yoni-netanyahu-630x305

[Source]

Amidst the hurly burly that was the last quarter of 2014 at work – not helped by the unease set off by sliding oil prices, and questions around the future viability of North Sea oil and gas given lifting costs and taxes – the crazy gang team at work made time out to head across town for a day to reflect on how we’d performed through the year and agree objectives for the 2015. For what it’s worth it was good craic, much better than I expected given the strong personalities within the team, and the sense of simmering conflict, even though it was a tad too reliant on woozy, zen-ish things like sitting in a circle and taking time out to reflect in silence.

 As we huddled around the sandwich tables chewing away on sandwiches and bacon rolls and sipping coffees, we were offered a question for reflection, one we would expatiate on later over the course of the morning. The question was to come up with a movie or a song that best described how we felt about our day job. The responses were as interesting as they were varied, ranging from It’s a Hard Knock Life from the musical Annie to Ocean Rain by Echo and the Bunny Men, indicative of the general sense of being overwhelmed by fighting fires and being under appreciated across the group. I might have over thought it a bit – my repertoire of movies isn’t exactly exhaustive – before I eventually settled for Raid on Entebbe.

Based on the 1976 rescue of the passengers and crew of Air France flight AF-139 from Tel Aviv following its hijack by members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, it chronicled the difficult deliberations involved in reaching a decision to sanction a commando operation in Entebbe, Uganda, 2500 miles and several hostile countries away. In the end, although largely a success, Yonatan Netanyahu, and 3 hostages ended up dead; a fourth hostage was murdered, ostensibly on Idi Amin’s orders, having been sent to the hospital due to illness. Certainly not Africa’s brightest hour by all accounts.

Looking back, I suspect I went for Raid on Entebbe largely because my role over the last few years has increasingly felt more like that of a commando than a rust geek, putting out fires rather than pontificating over their remote and immediate causes. Ultimately, it has been about managing risk  – identifying, quantifying, evaluating and mitigating the risk to the environment, people and the business from the interactions of materials and the internal and external service environments we put them in. In an ideal world, I’d replace every bit of leaking pipe with 25Cr or Titanium, significantly reducing the probability (in most cases) of a repeat failure. The reality though is that the cost of doing that on a large scale would be entirely prohibitive; which is where I earn my bacon, pretending to find finding non-obvious solutions to corrosion and materials problems which represent value for money – the best bang for the buck within reason.

Sadly, or thankfully, Rust never sleeps, likewise I have to keep trying…

Reflecting on the Scottish Referendum: A Call to Social Justice

A few months ago, people across the length and breadth of the nation of Scotland went to the polls to answer the question, “Should Scotland be an independent country?” At stake was the very future of the United Kingdom, and Scotland’s place in it. On one hand, the governing Scottish National Party staked its reputation on a ‘Yes’ vote, alongside the Scottish Greens and the Scottish Socialists under the aegis of Yes Scotland, whilst Scottish Labour, the Scottish Conservative Party, and the Scottish Liberal  Democrats took a pro-Union Stance under the Better Together banner.

As the vote count came to an end on the morning of September 19th in victory for the Better Together campaign, what became clear was that the keenly contested campaign had revealed deep fissures in the very fabric of the Nation. The romance of nationalism and the historical antecedents notwithstanding (Scotland as a distinct entity has existed in some shape or form since about 840 AD and 2014 was the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn which saw the English army defeated by the forces of King of Scots Robert the Bruce), economic considerations, fair and equitable distribution of wealth and protecting access to the NHS in the face of the (real or imagined) threat of its privatisation featured strongly as a subject of contention.

_77695442_scot_unemployement_624map

The HAVES vs HAVE NOTS narrative seemed supported by analysis of the voting patterns which showed strong correlations between greater unemployment and support for independence, and age above retirement with support for staying with the Union (perhaps due to concerns over pensions).

The immediate aftermath involved clashes between Unionists and independence supporters. As recently as October, a pro – independence rally in Glasgow still managed to attract over 6,000 people, perhaps indicative that even the passage of time has done little to soothe the sense of grievance a significant proportion of the nation still feels.

The challenge going forward therefore is one of reconciliation; recreating a sense of togetherness and genuine belief in all and sundry that the nation belongs equally to everyone – rich, poor, old, young and old alike. That sense can only be fostered by delivering on the sound bites trundled out by both sides of the campaign, mainly a fairer, more productive, empowered Scotland.

There is an economic argument for a fairer, more egalitarian Scotland. Equal opportunities and lower unemployment will deliver greater productivity, and enable more people contribute to the state in the form of taxes, rather than constitute a drain the system.

There will also be benefits, purely from the perspective of enlightened self-interest. It stands to reason that crime, social delinquency and violence are likely to drop as more people are gainfully employed. Those who are not, if they have access to the opportunities to improve and are catered for the interim will also see less of an incentive to crime.

The arguments for social justice go beyond secular and economic ones; there is also a biblical imperative. Passages like Deuteronomy 15:11 –  For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land’, being a case in point.

Time and time again, the call to ‘do good and seek justice (Isaiah 1:17), not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor (Zech 7:9,10), defend the rights of the poor and needy (Prov 31:8,9), to do justice and love kindness (Micah 6:8) and protect the resident alien, the fatherless and the widow (Jeremiah 22:3) are repeated throughout the Old Testament. When Israel failed to heed this call, they were punished severely by God (Amos 5:11-15, Ezekiel 16:49,50).

Elsewhere a social justice component is explicitly commanded as part of true and acceptable worship – knowing the rights of the poor (Proverbs 29:7), letting the oppressed go free, sharing bread with the hungry and homeless (Isaiah 58:12) as well as visiting the orphan and the widow (James 1:27).

Jesus himself, after being tempted and returning to Galilee in the power of the Holy Spirit chose to reveal himself in the Synagogue in his home town of Nazareth by reading from the passage in Isaiah which spoke of his mission to proclaim the good news and set at liberty those who were oppressed (Luke 4; 18, 19). Beyond that, he also highlighted acts of kindness as one of the things we will be judged by at his return (Matthew 25:31-46). The Apostles also weighed in in their writings – John enjoined us to love not in word but in deed (1 John 3:17,18), Paul in distributing to the needs of the saints, given to hospitality (Romans 12:13) and James to treat all without partiality (James 2:1-4)

The danger of all this is to end up flying the flag of social justice, for its own sake alone, as an end in itself or as an opportunity to ship sounds bites, hog the limelight and portray ourselves as good citizens. However as Christians, everything we do on earth occurs within a context – that of being Jesus’ hands and feet on earth, utilising the resources, skills and time that he has given us to further His kingdom. In these days in which the popular narrative is one of the death of the church and its increasing irrelevance, being champions of social change, in our communities – our next door mission fields – may well be one way that the tide can be turned, providing a door of opportunity to ‘do all for the Glory of God’.

***

Originally written for my Church Newsletter, reproduced here for archival purposes. 

Always Returning

border_agency_2413087b

[Source]

Whilst rustling through my documents at the weekend – I forget what prompted the decision to take on the Sisyphean task of rummaging through drawers filled with several years’ worth of papers of varying vintage – it struck me that it was now nearly five years to the day since I dragged myself, bags in tow, off the East Coast train from Newcastle to Aberdeen to begin a new life of sorts. Ditching my Nigerian job for grad school 18 months before meant that nostalgia – and twenty-something years’ worth of memories – counted for little; pragmatism was very much the defining consideration. In a sense, Newcastle, and then Aberdeen afterwards was about tearing everything up and starting afresh from scratch, pretty much the recovery from a self-imposed apocalypse. The driver for that decision was a sense of injustice at the Nigerian work environment; five years of being unaligned (being from the minority in a minority state didn’t help), a sense of having hit a glass ceiling and the desire to prove myself on a global sense all contributing.

I had a soft landing. Unlike some of my peers who had dependants and money issues to focus on, I had the good fortune of cashing in on my Nigerian stock market investments just before the big crash and did not require supplemental income from overnight stints at the Greggs warehouse across town, or tours of duty as a night club bouncer or a as a security guard to make ends meet. That coupled with my not inconsiderable experience acquired whilst working my way up the ranks at a global major in my discipline deluded me into thinking making the transition would be a cinch

The first few months of job hunting with little tangible success, bar the odd interview here and there, put a big dent in that super sized ego. What confidence that was left ebbed quickly with each dead end; being replaced by a hardened pragmatism as the reality that my Nigerian experience – global major player or not – was discounted out here began to sink in. With slightly lower expectations, fitting in and becoming one of the guys became the imperative, even when it meant ditching my very passable Nigerian accent for a (perceived) posher sounding imitation RP version, cobbled together from years of watching British sitcoms. My otherness was a perceived liability, one to be sacrificed on the altar of pragmatism.

Between distance and time working together to conflate memory with imagination, and less pressure as some of the aspirations of those early years become either solid achievements or at least seem far more attainable than they once were, I am finding that that hard, pragmatic stance is slowly yielding, being replaced by a more nostalgic notion of home. This notion of home is one that I find seeks out sameness, emphasises commonality and seeks to build community; the difference between cringing inwardly at the overdressed Nigerian bloke on the 727 to the airport speaking loudly into his cell phone in Yoruba and smiling wistfully at the memory it teases out of the mental ether of my friend M and his (well-earned) reputation for classic Awe-bred razzness.

Two events last week reinforced the sense of a far more nostalgic perception of home for me. First off, at around mid-day on Wednesday, I got an external phone call at work. That happens fairly regularly on any given day except that on this occasion it was from a vendor I had only started using at work in the last few months. By the time the conversation safely navigated the terse, opening introductions – not helped by the fact that we both sounded a lot different from how we used to in the throes of 500 LT, and she had a Scottish surname these days – it turned out that my caller had spotted my name in an email she had been forwarded. After privately wrestling with the pros and cons of reaching out, she had decided to give me a call to confirm if I was the self-same person she’d known in the past. I was, it turned out she’d been a class mate of mine in under grad. We spent a fair few minutes catching up; who was where now, and who we had stayed in touch with or hadn’t. We agreed to catch up in person if we were ever in the same city over the next few months. Thinking over the conversation later, the sobering thought I couldn’t shake off was that with confirmation that she lived and worked a few hundred miles away from me, there were now only four or so people from the top ten finishing positions in my final year class still living and working in Nigeria. Clearly, tearing everything up and starting over isn’t something a lot of my peers are averse to.

Later, on Friday, whilst waiting for some hot water for a cup of tea, I ran into one of the cleaning lads. The sum of our conversations prior to the day was nodded greetings when our paths crossed. A little digging revealed that he was Nigerian, and was working part time with the service company that manages the facilities in the building I work at. Having just wrapped up a Masters degree, he was working part time to make a little cash whilst waiting on applications and interviews. Not a real surprise given that Nigerian students tend to drift to this city, oil capital of Europe. What was more than a little surprising was that he had also graduated from my Nigerian alma mater, and was from the area in which I had spent my own formative years. Our conversation naturally segued into our memories of studying at my previous department. The academic landscape has changed considerably over the intervening years – two deaths, a couple of lecturers who have been lured by the call of big bucks into oil, and a number of retirements – with a few of the young Graduate Assistants from my time blossoming into lynchpins of the departments. As to future plans, he was eyeing up a few PhD options across the globe, the current socio-political climate not being particularly geared towards easing the progress from studying to work in my corner of the world. When the subject of my previous experience came up, he seemed befuddled that I had decided to chuck it all in and start over. There it came out that for the right job, Nigeria would be his preferred destination. For him, nostalgia clearly won over pragmatism.

Implicit in both conversations was the sense that we are always returning, our current locations as homes in name only, dictated by the pragmatics of life rather than any overarching sense of love or attachment. Interestingly, even B – Scottish Husband notwithstanding – mooted the idea of returning to Nigeria in the (distant) future in an expatriate capacity to work for big oil.  Maybe for my children, without the hang ups of a past life, a past home and nuclear family in the motherland, the choice will be a lot more clear cut, but for me and my generation I suspect this battle between head and heart, between pragmatism and nostalgia is one we will have to get used to. In a sense, we are always returning.

The Way The World Ends: On Loss, and Lostness

LHR

It is sometime after 5pm – between chomping down on a very meaty beef burger and swigging from a can of apple juice – that the call comes in. Up until then, I have been having the exact weekend I had in mind when I dragged myself away from work to catch the 727 to Aberdeen Dyce airport a few days earlier: go-karting and then a BBQ, with the prospect of Lakeside shopping with B. to come. The scene is one of self-indulgent relaxation; two grills fully stocked with burgers, chicken drumsticks and barbecue meat on the go, little children running about, wives and girlfriends munching on burgers and sharing intimate gossip moments, and men standing around the grill sipping from cans and surveying the scene – wife, 2.5 kids, picket fence and a few hundred quid to burn on a splurge in tow. It takes a while – probably the better part of ten minutes – before the gravity of the news begins to sink in. When I return to the three-way conversation I was having before the call, B senses there is something wrong. In response to her quizzical look, I motion for her to break out of the conversation and explain what has happened. All told, twenty minutes after hearing the news – give or take – my mood has morphed from indulged, self-congratulation to inner turmoil as I attempt to digest the news in the relative quiet of B’s.

It is nearly 10pm before my brain wakes up. I fire an email off to the team leader at work to let him know I’ll be out for a couple of weeks, ask the TwitterVerse for pointers to quick tickets for Lagos and call M. for an update on the situation and how A.’s holding up. Twitter delivers – I end up grabbing tickets for a return flight on Arik, as well as get an email from the work asking to be kept in the loop as things evolve. By the time B. hauls me off to my hotel, it is nearly 12.30am – seven hours and some after the news broke. Things are still very fluid at this stage, what is becoming clear is that the next few weeks will be a long hard slog.

***

The hours between getting the news and reaching a semblance of acceptance pass like a blur, largely in silent contemplation whilst I run over the last weeks’ worth of communication with H. The last time we spoke, our conversation had been one of those ones where skirting seriousness was more important than the conversation itself, with barely a nod to the multiplied elephants in the room. It was only the second time we were talking after a big row – certain things we had come to regret had been said – hence the extreme carefulness. With the reality of loss beginning to sink in, the overwhelming feeling is one of lingering regret. With the benefit of hindsight, the time we had – limited unbeknownst to us – would have been better spent focusing on all the things we shared rather than our issues of significant dissent.

I finally get home  – after navigating massive delays on the M25, a 90 minute delay on my flight out of Heathrow and having to buy my own toilet paper at MMA to  – to pick up on meets and greets. They come in their numbers – an endless stream of people – some come crying, some with choice sound bites in tow, others sit in respectful, contemplative silence.

The numbers passing through are something I struggle with.  I have always believed that loss is intensely personal and private, something which has guided my interactions with people in the past. As such whilst the meet and greets are great, my initial reaction to them is one of irritation, considering them a distraction of sorts. When we as the immediate family have a first quick chat to define the expectations for a program of activities, I am in favour of a quick, simple sequence, focused on us and a few good friends. Unfortunately I am in the minority, the consensus that we arrive at is for a program spread over three days with multiple requirements to provide food and refreshments for people who will attend. That seems counterintuitive to me – wasteful even – given the expense involved.

Over the course of the next few weeks my position would soften somewhat. The sort of life that H lived – with interactions across multiple spectra – meant that there were loads of people genuinely feeling a sense of loss. That helps me come to terms with the expanded program being proposed. Others’ grief is every bit as real, if less intense as mine.

***

Looking back, 2014 has been an interesting year in deaths so far. Of the trio of friends A. had in his St John Bosco’s College days, he alone remains alive. Of H.’s trio from undergrad, Aunt L alone remains. For those who had not succumbed to the ineluctable call of death, the passage of time is etched in their very bodies – faced deeply lined, sagging body parts and lumbered with aches and pains of varying descriptions. Even the little kids, barely out of their diapers I took care of many years ago, have all morphed into near teens and adults.  Placed in the context of my upcoming birthday a few days after I have planned to return, the underlying narrative is one of transience and the inescapable fragility of life.

Being part of planning and executing H.’s final journey allowed me to take a long look back. What was incontrovertible was that H. left a significant legacy. The outpouring of grief, the support in cash and kind that rolled in, and the emotional tributes that were given were proof incontrovertible of that. Her story is one of succeeding against the odds by dint of perseverance and trail blazing – multiple scholarships and prizes academically, noted contributions to world class work over a 34 year career, and a life that was lived in consonance with her Christian worldview. Somewhere in between she met A., who credits the heights that he reached in his own career to the stability she brought to the home front as she kept things running smoothly in the background.

***

With loss, I find that I swing between three responses. An initial stage of denial where I struggle with accepting the reality of loss and absence, and then when that is no longer a plausible position, I attempt to find a new normal. In tandem with that there is a desire to make sense of our loss, given our, and H’s worldview. That life as we know it has changed forever is not in doubt. A. seemed a lot more gaunt than I recall when I first saw him. His eyes were rheumy, and bloodshot – not a lot of sleep and loads of private tears to blame for that. Life as he has known it for more than 40 years has involved H. in some capacity, I worry as to what the new normal for him might be.

With death, ‘normal’ changes irretrievably. The equilibrium, if one is ever reached, is a new, radically different, dynamic one one with new behaviours, modified expectations and present realities. Someone was, and then is not, the facts are what they are and no equilibrium can change that. For me, finding a new equilibrium revolved around four things – immersing myself in planning for the funeral, spending quality time with the sisters and their children, catching up with B, and reading. I managed to wrap up three books – Paul Carter’s Don’t Tell Mum I Work on the Rigs, Zadie Smith’s On Beauty and Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss.

One morning as we took a breather from the hectic, gruelling pace of planning, my Aunt S stepped into the room which had evolved into a sanctum of sorts for me, my one oasis of quiet amidst the turmoil. There she proceeded to initiate a lengthy conversation around marriage, or more specifically my delay in closing it out. That was a scene that would recur throughout the weekend. Mrs E. put it a little more subtly – hinting that our new normal needed to include a celebration to get us all excited again. In their own way, these were attempts at coping – by attempting to focus their energy and attention on a potential future event, rather than the particularly difficult one at hand.

***

In tandem with loss in this case was a sense of lostness. My earliest memories of growing up are inextricably linked to H; her bowls of soup and Sunday afternoon cooking marathons the most lucid reminders of how she kept two homes ticking along steadily in two different cities. Given the events of the past few years, and my ever increasing isolation from Nigeria, H. was an essential link to Nigeria.  With her gone, there is a sense of even more Lostness. That sense was never more obvious than in my interactions with the extended family, my less than stellar language abilities making difficult conversations even more awkward. There was a sense of nakedness – being thrust out of a protective cocoon into bright, harsh light. What tenuous links that remain were even more weakened by the dysfunction on display. The frustrating, harsh reality of working in the medical profession in Nigeria (by some weird coincidence some two thirds of the family gets their bread and butter from the field) was a subject of numerous conversations. Unlike me, most of the others seemed quite keen to tough it out. The final nail in the coffin of patriotism was delivered on the morning of the funeral. For a chance to take control of the 2,000 naira ‘bathing fee’, the head of the team of morticians at the morgue somehow contrived to lock up the items we had delivered for preparing the body for burial, preventing the nightshift team from completing the task. That two thirds of the family worked in the self same teaching hospital, and we had made multiple trips to ensure there were no hitches on the day counted for little. One wonders how those without family members working there fare.

***

The question of loss and what sense there could be made of it was one we wrestled with all through. The biblical narrative suggests that life on earth is infinitesimal compared to life beyond it. Within that context, death is merely a passage to another life, a portal into another space-time continuum. That much was repeated in varying forms over the course of my three weeks by various people. The reality of loss though is a lot more personal, time does blunt the keenness of pain – and helps promote a return to a new normal – but I suppose until time does her work, no amount of philosophising will suffice.

***

I found the three weeks of conversations, mourning, planning and burying a huge strain. By the time it had all been wrapped up, all I wanted to do was to get away from everything, and begin to breathe again, hence the plan to leave straight after event number three – a thanksgiving service in church. When time to leave finally came, I found it difficult to up sticks and just leave. Three weeks were the most I had spent bonding with my family in more than ten years – since before my UX5 days. Nearly an hour behind plan, I was eventually in a cab speeding towards Benin and the airport. Beyond that was Lagos, sleep overnight and then a return to Aberdeen via London.

This is only three weeks in – by no means have we reached our new normal yet. A large part of what that will become is still up in the air – A still has work in the city, I plan to make Aberdeen the hub around which I ‘do life in a great church and a great city’, there is a lot of paper work to sort out before some semblance of real normalcy can be restored. What is not debatable is that life is incredibly fragile – birth and death its epigraph and hypograph. If visions of cold lifeless forms strewn over tables in a morgue – which remain seared in my memory  – are anything to go by, TS Elliot put it most succinctly:

This is the way the world ends,
not with a bang, but with a whimper.

Deconstructing the Dalglish Conjecture

The following was instigated by a discussion on Twitter with @Sir Fariku on the case for football as a compelling metaphor for a bloke’s dating life and the Brothers With No Game series on Which Footballer Are You?

In the 1997 movie ‘My Best Friend’s Wedding‘ directed by P.J. Hogan, Julianne Potter (played by Julia Roberts) finds herself facing a conundrum of sorts. Her long term friend, Michael O’Neil (played by Dermot Mulroney) informs her a few days short of her own 28th birthday of his impending marriage to Kimberly (played by Cameron Diaz). This should be great news, except for the small matter of a pact between Julianne and Michael where they had agreed that if they remained single till they turned 28, they would get married to each other. She also believes (rightly or wrongly) that Kimberly is the wrong person for him to get married to.

This conundrum is eerily similar to the situation which faced a certain Mr Kenneth Dalglish in the summer of 2010. Rafa Benitez, had just led Liverpool football club to an utterly deflating 7th place finish in the Premiership against a sordid back story of boardroom unrest, player dissatisfaction and an overall feeling of malaise. Messers Hicks and Gillet, our very own American shysters, seemed intent on running the club aground, not helped by the millstone of money owed to a certain nationalised bank. When Rafa Benitez was moved on, what was a bad situation became life threatening when a shortlist of replacements was revealed – a certain Mr Roy Hodgson was being promoted by the English paper as a safe pair of hands to guide the club through what were truly dark times. Legend has it, that Kenny was so dissapointed by the shortlist that he immediately offered his services as manager as he felt he could do a much better job than those being considered.

Any football fan of some pedigree would recognise the parallels here. Just like Julianne and Michael, ‘King’ Kenny and Liverpool had a long and distinguished connection, one that made him feel compelled to throw his hat into the ring to ‘save’ the club. Both the King and Julianne Potter, fell prey to what I describe as the Dalglish Conjecture – the (right or wrong) belief that there is a duty owed to a close friend to intervene in their affairs to prevent the occurence of a fatal mistake. At its core is a commendable, if not entirely altruistic, sense of loyalty that somehow concludes that the greater good is served by the sacrifice of ones independence on the altar of loyalty to a friend.

In the more general case, I find that this conjecture occurs fairly regularly between guys and girls who are long term friends and have developed an understanding that seems to be lacking in the various potential mates they fall in with. One party often concludes that given the inefficiences in the various hook ups they get into, it would make a lot more sense to step into the breach and offer their ‘services’ as a potential dating partner.

Given the foregoing, I therefore present to you the Dalglish conjecture:

Given any interaction universe U, populated with elements ei, each having a unique time-dependent intrinsic spin function Si(t); for any two elements with identical but opposite spin frequencies in a state of mutually non-intrusive interaction, if the near field intrusive interaction coefficient ku is less than 1, the optimum interaction state of both elements is a mutually intrusive one.

Unfortunately, this is only a conjecture and is unproven. Any implementation of this in a real life dating situation is entirely at the users’ risk.

How He Met My Mother

dad&mum

One Sunday in December of ’76 as the dry, dusty harmattan winds dumped a fine layer of dust on a sleepy village, two best friends who had not seen each other for the better part of three years were meeting up under the shade of a kola nut tree, squarely placed in the centre of the court yard of the unpainted cement building that housed one of the ruling families in a little village nestled underneath the overhanging rocks of the Somorika mountains.

The men in question had been partners in crime, as they painted the small village red a few years before. Forming a fearsome central defensive partnership, they had been the foundation of the all-conquering village football team. Women (and free kai-kai at the local drinking spots) were a few of the trappings this revered status brought them, and like all full blooded thirty-something males, they had milked their lofty status to the maximum. They also had the fortune in those days to have parents with some education, and thus had been pushed and prodded until they had completed their A-levels and gone on to University – Ai to UNILAG, and Og to UI.

Something though had happened in between – Ai had somehow acquired a worldview shattering transformation two years into his UNILAG experience, and had become rabidly spiritual, complete with speaking in tongues and the other trappings of militant charismatism. Og on the other hand had fallen in with the folks at the Student Union and had become a radical of his own, only with a more political slant.

Underneath the tree, the animated conversation slowly segued into an attempt to unpack the changes that had happened in their individual lives in the period they had not seen each other. Og was incredulous, and perhaps a little dismissive of the fact that a full blooded young man could suddenly become able to resist the lure of free women, beer, and a reputation for playing the town. Ai tried his best to explain the spiritual changes that had happened in his life, to little effect.

That innocuous conversation underneath a tree was the first step in a chain of events that would bring Ai in contact with a delectable lass from the village next door. Whilst visiting cousins in the village next door, Og was told about someone who had shattered academic records all her life, and was attending the University of Ife on a Federal scholarship. She also had a reputation for being a hard nosed SU member. The next time Og was in town, he asked to meet her, and when his missive was repelled with a stirring master class in evangelism, he mentioned he knew just the right bloke with enough spiritual fervour to match the young woman’s potency.

Two years later, Ai and said lass would get married in the local Anglican Church amid much pomp and pageantry- she swears the marriage register was signed at 11:36am; all he remembers is saying the I-do’s and whisking her off to a whole new life.

33 years, four children (less the one who the genes took), multiple quarrels (including at least one week where one party packed out of the house), and six academic degrees between them later, they are still together, reasonably happy and still share a laugh at Og’s antics. Somewhere in between they would become my parents.

Strictly (not) dancing…

I think I have never danced in my entire life – not in church, not on my solitary foray into a night club, not at all the birthday parties I attended as a kid, not ever. I don’t remember if it was a concious decision, or if it was/still is a result of a deep seated phobia even I am unaware of, or if I have always lacked that seemingly natural ability to coordinate the limbs in resonance with external tunes, or if I just plain can’t be bothered.

I have always consoled myself by declaring that I am musing over the words of the songs – dissecting the rhymes, pondering the nuances, or sometimes inserting my own words to see if they rhyme better, or if they mean more for me that way. Don’t get me wrong, there have been times when I came close; days when I actually shuffled from side to side as though I were part of an invisible choir from antiquity or nodded my head and plucked strings on an imaginary acoustic guitar in tune with the song being belted out.

Today was one of them days, perhaps the huge cup of coffee I drank this morning as I stepped out into 3 degree centigrade temperatures was culpable, or it was a genuine case of shopping therapy after I ogled my latest acquisition for the umpteenth time, or perhaps it was Charlie leading worship at church, and squeezing in one of my favourite Hillsong songs… Bottom line is I almost danced, but I didn’t.. And I’m left still wondering what dancing must feel like…