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.
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.
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.
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.
When I set about thinking about the year of being forty, it seemed a no-brainer that it would be centred around delving deeper. The premise was that as the worst kind of failure is one of depth, actively looking to ensure I had depth in all critical aspects of my life was key as I came into my decade of being forty something. As to why I think failures of depth are the most critical, I think that both the one who fails and the one who is failed are left with the lingering after taste of what might have been. For one, the chance of a lifetime disappears before it even begins. For the other the time and energy expended/ invested ends up being for nothing. Both face the opportunity costs, lost irretrievably. For the year of being forty-one, rebuild better was the key, given COVID and how it had intervened specifically in my life with regards to a new job.
From the vantage point of the present looking back, it seems clear that delving deeper, and rebuilding better took on lives of their own, evolving into a full blown rethink, with no facet of life – from faith, through family and friendships through to work – being exempt from this interrogation. There is a sense in which rethinking follows naturally from delving deeper. For when done right, delving deeper can expose the scaffolding on which our beliefs and behaviours are hung, laying bare the inconsistencies and incongruities there. If intellectual honesty and/or integrity are worth anything to us, we cannot ignore those, hence we rethink. Truly rebuilding on the other hand requires firm and sure foundations, which is how all three themes are linked.
Of all the things that have been touched so far by my rethinking, I get the sense that faith and work are the most likely to be significantly impacted in the near term. I have always considered myself a prodigal not least because my notions of identity – both spiritual and familial – are conflicted. What has changed in that regard is I think I am finally at a place where I am comfortable calling myself a lapsed Pentecostal. I am by no means ready – or willing – to chuck it all out; the things that tether me to that space still maintain their grip, however tenuous they may be. I have however found that paring faith down to the essentials has led me to a framework of a three legged stool of sorts: right beliefs, right practice and right passions, an articulation I am grateful to Preston Sprinkle for.
With work, the tensions are many. On the one hand there is the being an empiricist vs being a theorist, or to slightly rephrase it, being a generalist or a specialist. Moons ago I would have sworn being a specialist was the be all and end all, a nod perhaps to the niche specialty which has fed me all these years. I am however finding that there is a limit to how far an arcane subject, or esoteric knowledge, can take you in the real world. And what use is knowledge if it doesn’t translate into the real world? There is also the small matter of where my future direction lies. There is a ceiling to being a specialist, I feel with more scope for growth in being a generalist. To future-proof my career therefore, it seems to me that broadening rather than deepening is the way to go. Being out here was great for the first year, with all the trappings of the expat life. Now that that is behind me now, the reality of the question of direction now hits home. Is my future inextricably linked to oil? Or are any of the nascent interests grabbing my attention the future for me? I think I would like to have the freedom to work without borders. That and the cachet of the world of data are an attraction that grows increasingly stronger, if I can find a way to make my past years of experience useful in that domain.
L and S are a consideration that weighs heavy on my mind in this regard. The days when I was free as a bird to pack up sticks and take the risk of beginning again are gone I think. Family has its responsibilities and rewards which one cannot take lightly. Just how much that affects the calculus of the future still seems unclear, or perhaps still evolving, the final shape or form unknown at the moment.
Plenty to mull over then, with potentially wide-ranging consequences to decisions and directions. Bring on the year of rethinking. It feels like this will be some interesting ride around the sun!
As I write this I am looking out of my window onto the lush greenery of the park across the road in the tiny corner of South Yorkshire in which I am currently ensconced, as different from the edge of the world in which I have spent the last eleven months as it could be. For 45 degree Celsius and 90% plus humidity, I give you a bone-chilling 14 degrees Celsius with more than the odd spattering of rain; a mild Yorkshire summer by all accounts I am told.
Somewhere within the transition from the edge of the world to Dee Dah land, we welcomed L into this one, a tiny bundle of joy – and terror – rolled into one. In the interest of full disclosure, my first choice of name was Aoife. Thankfully the other part of the unit is eminently more sensible than yours truly. Her big cousin M thinks she, L, is living the life, being cuddled, fed and cleaned on demand without seemingly a care in the world. Being one of those wrapped tightly around her little finger, I couldn’t agree more!
Not to say all of this has been smooth sailing. What little sleep I normally get is even more fractured now, being held hostage to the whims of wails for food and cleaning at the most ungodly of hours. That this leaves me less than lucid for the first few hours of the morning until strong cups of coffee begin to work their magic is the predictable outcome. All too soon it is nightfall and we begin the cycle again.
A couple of ICU trips for S in the middle of all of this set the cat among the pigeons for a bit, further complicating things somewhat. From the vantage point of a clear head from just over five hours sleep, it feels like some breathing space is coming up. The arrival, quite frankly out of the blue, of the calvary, read Grand Ma, only serves to reinforce that belief.
One of the few things I recall from the haze of the hardest bits a week or so ago is thinking about how questions about the sovereignty of God have a different heft when what is at stake is the life of your near and dear ones, not merely an academic proposition. This is a thought I think I will return to in the near future when some proper room to breathe (and contemplate) returns. On the evidence of the past few days that may not be any time soon but what is clear is that it truly takes a village, or two.
**Sometimes I think
that my sight is leaving me,
the common, quotidian comfort
of seeing the world that touches me
slowly slipping away, taking flight
but not yet gone; only a little less close
the next time morning rolls my way.
Maybe it is my mind forgetting
where the thin discs
of shimmering glass
that bring the light end,
and where my rods and cones
ravaged by time begin.
Maybe it is the world reminding me
to cherish the moments of sight
whilst as yet they still linger.
Back in May of 2020, Nassim Nicholas Taleb tweeted about the pandemic – and the disruptive forces it brought to bear on the world we knew – being a trigger for one to do a total reset and adapt. For better or for worse, we all have had to reset through 2020. When I started thinking about 2021, the sense of evolving past the reset into something new was hard to shake. As such for me, 2021 feels like a year in which I need to focus on Rebuilding, but doing it Better.
The Rebuilding part is self explanatory I think. 2020 was a wrecking ball let free to swing at many of our lives. My 2020 retrospective was a sea of RED with a few AMBERS and GREENs, most assuredly not my best year by any measure. Recovering from that requires finding the useful bits hiding amongst all the broken, scattered bits and using them to fashion a new structure, a new normal. It is a point made by E when I responded to her Instagram prompt about what our word for the year would be. It is something to be thankful for, that one is not beginning from level zero. The lessons, experiences and opportunities in 2020 are there to be leveraged into rebuilding in 2021 and beyond.
The Better bit is a little less clear-cut. What is clear though is that inherent in the word is a sense of comparison between two or more states against an ideal standard. The standard in this case is the overarching life plan which has existed in some shape or form since 2011 and has evolved to meet my requirements as my world has changed. Its three interaction spaces and seven life dimensions remain a useful lens through which to look at the world and ask the what and where questions.
Two things come to mind about what Better means for me in 2021. First is resilience, or to use the Taleb word anti-fragility. Work & Career and Financially are two life domains where resilience seems particularly required at the moment with the head winds the oil industry is facing and thus the uncertainty it bleeds into my career prospects. Getting data literate is one such objective I intend to pursue fully this year to address this, as well as leveraging my connections in Nigeria to see if some consultancy work could come my way to boost my revenue streams.
The second sense of better for me is alignment. An integrated life is one that I’ve seen as an ideal for a long time. The idea this year is to ensure that my daily activities feed into that overarching plan, helping me work towards the lifetime goals I have previously identified. For this I have a Notion set up to capture data on a daily basis that should help me, by means of weekly, monthly and quarterly reviews, stay on target and focused.
Bring on the year, The Year of Rebuilding Better.
It’s that time of the year again where I reflect on my reading over the course of the year. For a more wide-ranging review of the year in books, check out the coverage at The Millions here. My previous attempts are linked here.
Coming out here dominated my thoughts at the turn of the year, which was how it found me digging into Richard Templar’s The Rules of Work. True the overwhelming sense at the time was of anticipation but there was enough uncertainty around how well I would navigate bridging a credibility deficit that looking for help came to mind most readily. In my notes from that first reading, I detect a sense of holding back against what seemed like rules promoting blatant self promotion. With the benefit of hindsight, and a big dollop of reality to boot, my view of the book is a lot more considered. There are certainly gems in there, which is why I intend to return to the book in the new year.
If there is a lesson in 2020 it is that the best laid plans are more likely to be ripped to shreds than come to fruition. I learned that in a deeply person way as a two week holiday between jobs turned into a three month hiatus. Steven Strogatz’ Infinite Powers was a fun and fascinating way to kick off that period, the ease with which it chronicled the history of calculus serving to draw me in. Much later, as there seemed no end to lockdown and the dystopian scenes of toilet paper hoarding and lengthy queues became the norm, I turned to a slew of spiritual books – and Alpha – for comfort. Brendan Manning‘s The Ragamuffin Gospel, Max Lucado‘s Come Thirsty (a re-read), Gemma Simmonds‘ The 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 Jones‘ Crusaders, 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.
In keeping with last year, I thought I’d go through the list of songs Spotify thought I listened to the most from my 2020 playlist to try to tease out some themes and recollections behind them. Here goes:
Fighting For Us – Anthony Evans: I popped into a church end of year event in Croydon at the behest of my friend O, where Anthony Evans did this song amongst others. It turned out that he’d just lost his Mother to cancer which put his turning up at all into perspective. I came back to this song quite a few times over the course of the year.
You won’t hold back when it comes to Your children
You fiercely defend us ’til we stand delivered
You’re fighting for us, always fighting for us
You won’t back down facing armies of thousands
You speak one word and they scatter around us
You’re fighting for us, always fighting for us
Breakthrough – Red Rocks Worship: Although I stumbled on this during my London lock down, the enduring memories of this song for me are having it on repeat during my evening walks in the heat of the Arabian summer in first few weeks out here. My favorite bits are the bridge:
Shake the mountains, break the walls apart
Open the Heavens, Almighty God, You are
Over comer, Defender of my heart, oh-oh, yeah
And by Your power, the oceans open wide
Your fire falls down, Heaven and Earth collide
King Jesus, forever by my side, yeah
Land of The Living – Church of The City: Stumbled on this song during a period of uncertainty which is perhaps why it stuck with me. Something about the reassurance of the lyrics, taken from Psalm 27:13, provided an anchor, and I ended up coming back to it again and again over the course of the year.
You’ve never made a promise you couldn’t keep
You don’t lie to me, You don’t lie to me
You’ve never made a promise you couldn’t keep
You don’t lie to me, You don’t lie to me
The Blessing – Kari Jobe, Cody Carnes and Elevation Worship: Spawning loads of covers from across the globe (my favorite ones were from the UK and Nigeria for obvious reasons) it is fair to say this song was a global phenomenon. I suppose a prayer that reaches back like a thread to the past and speaks over the future generations is especially powerful.
May His favor be upon you
And a thousand generations
And your family and your children
And their children, and their children
May His presence go before you
And behind you, and beside you
All around you, and within you
He is with you, He is with you
So Will I + Do It Again- Osby Berry:This was another one that I returned to again and again during lock down. The clarity of the voice held me, and I ended up devouring everything he’d done I could find on the internet.
And as You speak
A hundred billion failures disappear
Where You lost Your life so I could find it here
If You left the grave behind You so will I