By Degrees: Lessons from My Decade of Being Thirty Something

The year I turned thirty, I was a student battling to put finishing touches to my master’s degree dissertation and pondering what the future had in store for me. That the success or failure of that year, and the year before that, came down to that singular task was the result of an unanticipated turn of events which turned what was a leave of absence to return to full-time study into having to leave my Nigerian job. Grad school, my response to the year before that, had made sense in my head largely because it seemed a low risk, given there was a reasonably high likelihood of returning. I, as it would turn out was ultimately mistaken.

For the first few months after, I was certain I would be up and running in no time – there was still the path to a post-study visa and I was certain my previous experience of pretending to know about rust at an oil major would be more than enough to get my foot in the door at any number of similar companies. A conversation with my Uncle C during this period comes to mind in which, talking post-study plans, I quoted a salary expectation which in hindsight was wildly optimistic. Months later, with comparatively few responses to the various applications I had sent out, and my expectations a lot more realistic as a result, bitterly cold mornings at train stations waiting for connections between Newcastle and the ‘Deen were the sum of my life, broken only by the pleasures of BBM chats with O and F that helped the time pass. Thankfully, things would eventually improve, culminating in a successful interview in the middle of winter and a relocation to the ‘Deen in time to return to full-time work by the first week of January of the next year.

Ten years down the road, it feels – at first glance – that I am in the same space again; wrestling with a desire for more seething beneath the surface and wondering what the big gains of the last ten years have been.The longer I look though, the clearer it becomes to me that the sense of being stuck and stale is the glass half empty version of events. The glass half full version is that there have been lessons learned and victories won over the past ten years. For one, now and again I stumble into conversations with the workmates I left behind back in ’09. These conversations typically segue into catching up on who has left the company (or been pushed out) or which high-flier has earned a move to Houston. Whilst on the level of financial gain and success I have most definitely been left behind by them, the one silver lining tends to be that I have had grown into more positions of authority and influence than they have. I won’t presume to imagine I have done as well as I could have but was is undeniable is that I have grown from the ultra reserved, tentative person that I was then into a more confident person thanks to the various work situations I have been thrown in. That is one of the lessons I have learned from the past ten years – only by letting go and stretching can one grow. It helps if the letting go is by choice of course.

My default setting, no thanks I suspect to growing up a Nigerian PK, is an intensely private one, the general sense whilst growing up that what happened in the house should be kept in the house; keeping up appearances and what not. Allied to that has been a strong sense of independence – if striving to do things by myself for myself counts as independence. Several times over the past ten years, people have come through for me and surprised me. A., who several times has insisted I spend my Lagos nights at his rather than in a hotel even on one occasion he was out of town, O who dropped everything to offer support when H passed and others too many to enumerate have been high points, underscoring for me a lesson that has been difficult to learn, it is OK to lean on people. I can only hope that I can be as a good a friend to others as these and more have been to me.

In the aftermath of H’s passing, and several times over the intervening years, it has felt like grief has acquired a life of its own festering deep within. There have also been several seasons of heartbreak occasioned by unrequited love amongst other things. My memories of the immediate aftermath of these events – thankfully now dim and distant – are of being brought low and unable to properly function. Time though has worked its magic and in the main whilst the memories still linger, the pain and hurt from them have faded into acceptance. That is something I try to remind myself of in the aftermath of disappointment, time usually brings healing in its wings.

My Myers-Briggs type is INTJ – if unlike Adam Grant you don’t think it’s hogwash – which perhaps explains my occasional bouts with analysis paralysis. Seemingly big decisions have often left me crippled with indecision from weighing all the pros and cons to minute levels of detail. A few come to mind from the past ten years – the Azerbaijan question, my Bachelor’s Conundrum to list a few – but with benefit of hindsight, in most of the instances, the individual decision would have made little difference in the end; sometimes the process of deciding is more important than the decision itself.

For all the high points from work there have been low spots too; not least the sense I have had more recently of being left behind. I suppose spending 8 years in the same building will do that to you, particularly when it feels like remuneration hasn’t been the greatest. A reticence to toot my own horn at times has contributed to this I suspect, as has my work visa-related restrictions which were only fully lifted in January of 2017. What key inflection points in my career over the past ten years there are have occurred because I have taken the bull by the horns turning offers from elsewhere into significant upgrades or being very clear about what direction I want my career to go next. Learning to sell myself better is something I suspect I will continue to struggle with but struggle I will until I gain ascendancy.

Of all the faith-based monikers kicking about, I suspect charismatic – with all its trappings – would probably have best described me ten years ago. These days, I self classify as a recovering prodigal, my attempt to describe the evolution in my beliefs on the big issues such as faith, origins and the fate of humanity. Given what we know about the age of the earth, the likelihood of there being a single Adam and all, I have increasingly found it difficult to hold on to a young earth, literal interpretation of Genesis and by extension the doctrine of original sin. Dark matter and dark energy however suggest to me that there remains a huge gap in our understanding of the workings of the Universe, a gap which means that I can completely discount the spiritual dimension with any degree of intellectual honesty. It is perhaps a poorly articulated God of The Gaps argument, but in conjunction with the subjective evidence of the answers to prayers I still get (or the coincidences that occur when I pray), I have to say I still believe, however tenuous that might yet be.

As I write this now with the emotions of the big day now long past – and all the cake and doughnuts well and truly digested – it very much feels like a time in which to draw a line in the sand and begin again, something I suspect I have been too eager to do many times in the past. Much as it was back in ’09, the question of how the next ten years will shape up is front and centre in my mind. What is incontrovertible though is that time marches on, and whether by action or inaction, every passing second is a step in a sequence of movements that will result either in a masterpiece or a very well polished turd. That is the way of the world.

Gift

 

sea shell for post

Gift, for The Sunday Muse prompt #68. Photography by Edouard Boubat.

***
Against the pressure of the sea
and the darkness of the depths,
the gift has been formed, layer by layer
each crystal a prayer offered up
for protection from the predation
of the boring sponge, the oyster worm
and the scurrying crab.

Each day that water has washed over it –
wearing tiny paths across its stubborn skin –
a battle has been won; of survival,
and quiet reassurance. And when someday,
bequeathed by the sea, it lies
in the hands of a grateful child,
its hardy brilliance will yet still speak,
more loudly in its silence than all the things
it has survived.

Stripping, (TV) Binges and Thinking About Thinking

***
By some unexpected twist of fate, I found myself heading into Central London on the hottest day of the year, a fairly tropical 37 degrees Celsius, and that for the first time since last December. The destination was the Nigeria High Commission on Northumberland Avenue, the plan to get my expired Nigerian passport renewed. To get here I had had to jump through several tortuous loops, not helped by the fact that my trips down to England are scheduled months in advance with impromptu trips being aggressively minimised due to the costs. My takeaway from my dealings with the appointment’s system was that the (re)scheduling system could be significantly improved  – first, you sign up via a third party web service, pay the booking fees and then get randomly assigned a date, one you can only change to a more suitable one by emailing back and forth, no less than six in my case – which meant in addition to the heat I very much had my mind prepared for a terrible experience which could potentially take the whole day. It might have been my low expectations, but the experience was far less stressful than I expected, sans the slow pace at which things trundled along from picking a ticket to getting called for an initial review and then submitting my biometric details. If there was a silver lining, it was that the slow pace of things – and the very many other Nigerians there for similar purposes – increased the likelihood of running into people I had not seen in a long time; 20 plus years and two kids in one case. That the most unsettling thing from all of that was wondering what the scrawny lad I ended up sitting across from on the tube from Charing Cross to Waterloo was up – to whilst reading from 2nd Corinthians 1 in a huge bible – is a miracle of sorts (events at the High Commission didn’t leave me mentally drained as they have in the past) or perhaps only the symptom of my low expectations.

A lot of my free time over the past month has been spent catching up on TV which, admittedly, is hardly the stuff of living intentionally  Be that as it may, all that TV watching did manage to throw up something to relish. The movie was The Upside, a comedic look at the relationship between a wealthy quadriplegic (played by Bryan Cranston) and his ex-convict Life Assistant (played by Kevin Hart) with the sub-text of his relationship with his devoted assistant who it would appear hs feelings for him (played by Nicole Kidman). In one of the surprise birthday scenes, the opera assembled for a private performance began to sing a tune which I thought was very familiar. My first thought – borne out by events in the end – was that I had heard it on an episode of Rhiannon Giddens’ Aria Code. one of my favourite podcasts from earlier in the year. It was indeed, a portion of the Queen of The Night Aria from Mozart’s Magic Flute. The downside was that it led me down a YouTube rabbit hole which swallowed up the rest of that Saturday.

The one book I managed to finish in July, Alan Jacobs’ How To Think, is increasingly beginning to seem like an inspired choice not least for how often my Twitter timeline has tottered on the edge of a complete meltdown over the past few weeks. Existing online as I do at the intersection of being Nigerian (with all its spiritual, cultural and political baggage) and being an active seeker of intellectual complexity at times my Twitter feed has seemed like a frothing mess of controversial tweets and retweets, 140 character takes and counter takes and the occasional link to a think piece published so soon after the event it seeks to analyse that any claim to thoroughness could only be wishful at best. Many a time, I have started typing a furious response to a tweet only to catch myself mid tweet, sigh and walk away. I would like to think that the overriding driver behind my choice to not add to the noise has been noble but the longer I think about it, the more I see that most times it has been due to a fear of sorts – that the views I am about to share might get ripped to shreds by the collective wisdom of the frothing masses – or at other times fatigue from all the digesting and engagement I am having to do. A recurring thread in the book is how our perspectives, views and memberships colour our understanding of facts and (naturally?) drive us towards thinking in herds.  Social Media and its engagement algorithms drive us further into the depths of our herds, our Inner Rings (to borrow from CS Lewis) and our echo chambers. The final chapter ends with an offering of 12 ideas – a thinking person’s checklist – which are well worth a read. A few key ones for me not in as many words: Take 5 minutes, value learning over debating, eschew virtue signalling, gravitate towards communities that can handle disagreements with equanimity, assess your repugnances and be brave, one I can certainly use more of I suspect.

Harmattan Rain

 

art-artistic-background-459301

For The Wednesday Muse Prompt, Summer Rain.

***

It hangs in the air like a shroud,
this heavy, brooding cloud of dust
through which the sun tries
to force its way; the same way
a frail old man, bent double at the waist,
tries to hack his way through dense undergrowth,
by dint of will power and persistence.

Suddenly, like a giant oak falling,
squashing dense foliage with its weight,
the heavens are torn by rain, and relief.
Peals of thunder, flashes of lightning birth
many miracles of tiny rivers suddenly sprung,
washing away the dust of earth baked dry,
after which comes the smell of new, clean things,
of rebirth and things made whole again.

Revivifying

 

revivify

For The Sunday Muse Prompt, #61. Photo Artistry by Erik Johansson Master Photo-manipulation Artist.

***
Slat by slat,
dab by dab this
dream in grey is
being remade into
a sea of blue, its
quiescent skin stretched
tight like a canvas
between the present and
the past where the sky
meets the earth’s lie.
Each slat was once alive,
each cell once bursting
with the pressure of rich
water, drawn by breathing;
air and sunlight entwined
in a dance whose beat
is borne in the body,
from seed to fruit
to seed by rebirthing.
Now this dream of grey,
frozen still, is reawakening
each dab of colour returning
life to where it once was.

Alternate Reality

cat

For The Sunday Muse, Prompt #60. In which I wonder what the reality of what a cat feels is.

***
What if what we are
Are mere playthings, pawns
roughly hewn from stunted dogwood,
clinging to life in a season
of dearth. What if the feeling
of contentment is a mirage,
a vision of delusion far removed
from the way things really are.
What if what we think
is the beauty of a garland
really is a chain binding us
to a different reality, what if.

Dingin Doon

Photo by Thanun Buranapong on Unsplash

***
Bar a few days here and there it has been, as we say out here, dingin doon; read wet, cold and windy, emphasis on the wet part. That is is mid-June adds to the slight sense of gloominess that comes with it, a mood which I see replicated in the faces of the people I run into about town, in my view at least. All of that has left me with quite a lot more time on my hands than usual, which for better or for worse has ended up exploring various reddit rabbit holes,  chief of which have been the Thinkpad, ChromeOS and SurfaceLinux ones. They have provided the welcome of distraction of providing the inspiration for me trying to replace Windows on my old Thinkpad Tablet 10 with either Linux or ChromeOS. Both have been qualified fails – a debloated version of windows currently serves me passably on the device -but the ultimate goal would be to replace it with something zipper and functional, à la this attempt. I suspect the search will continue, albeit at a hopefully less time intensive pace.  In between all of this, I managed to fit in some time out with the guys from work, a decent enough evening the only black mark against it being the aforementioned bucket loads of rain.

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