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.

Still Water…

For The Sunday Muse prompt #180:

**

We come to water
to be washed and be reborn,
this hand cupping the curvature
of the face, the other dipped,
drenched in the very fluid
from which we come, the space
between the fingers of that hand
filled with the water, straining
against the strictures
of the hand.

We come to water
to lose ourselves in the beauty
of the simple things, to see
the dirt of our days and the detritus
of the night loosen, dissolving
until we see ourselves pristine
whole again, the way we
have imagined in our dreams
a lip, an eye, lingering still
in the mirror of still water.

Faces…

It struck me the other day that even after a year out here, there are still work colleagues whose faces I have not seen without masks on. Arriving in the middle of the pandemic, masks were required in all public spaces – and rigorously enforced – with more than a few people cited for either having theirs pulled down or not wearing one as they approached the security gates and barriers that dot the landscape. Only when I then see a face without a mask does it register that I have made up the hidden contours, seeing the mask as an integral part of these faces. This brings with it a mild sense of discomfort, stemming from – I think – the fact that even though I have built relationships and friendships with these people, their uncovered faces scream unknown  rather than familiar.

Faces apart, I have found myself returning again and again to Carlos Andres Gomez’ poem, Father. I first heard it read by Pádraig Ó Tuama on the excellent Poetry Unbound podcast, its second stanza perfectly encapsulating how I felt on many a visit to the ICU in the aftermath of L’s arrival.  Those moments, in which I grasped at everything that I hoped could provide certainty, come back to me in lines such as:

I confessed every wrong
of my life to an empty, over-lit room of steel
and sterile instruments

and

I never wanted
so badly to have been wrong
about anything in my life

This, for me, is part of the allure of poetry. Sometimes, amidst the many lines we read, we can feel seen and known in the words of others.

Being Prodigal: An Origin Story

I trace the beginnings of my faith journey to Easter of 1992, the enduring image of the day being standing alongside forty or so other people at the front of the bare, minimally decorated assembly hall of the College of Education Ekiadolor. I was there because I had been dragged there by my family; there being an Easter conference put on by the student Christian movement my parents spent a lot of their spare time supporting. Besides my irritation at being taken along — and thus losing the few days of freedom free from parental supervision — responding to the altar call along with the others whilst sobbing profusely is the only thing I remember from the events of the weekend. That would not be the last time I would respond to an altar call — or pray a similar prayer for that matter — but the sense of relief, joy and confidence about the future which followed that day is why I come back to that place as the definitive start of my spiritual journey, never mind the fact that it lasted for all of three weeks before the reality of life brought me down to earth. That personal connection was the final piece of the jigsaw that created a church bubble for me.

Growing up, church life was pervasive, bleeding into every other space I did life in. For all the distinctiveness of the other spaces — home and school — the burden of my recognisable surname meant that in the small town where I lived, certain assumptions were made about my character and behaviour. Life in the bubble had its own versions of things outside the bubble — its own popular music, TV shows, super star speakers and youth group events. Then there was the sense of certainty about what was right or wrong and what the expectations of behaviour were. That pervasiveness only increased after my father took the plunge and plopped for his collar. The ordination in 1993 strengthened the sense of insulation, focusing the involvement in a number of para church organisations into a single one, a properly pentecostal church. Where prior to that church was the University Chapel, stylistically aligned with the Anglican Communion complete with the use of the book of common prayer, church was now loud hand clapping, dancing, speaking in tongues, laying on of hands and all the other trappings of Pentecostalism.

In my experience, self reinforcing certitude is a notoriously difficult thing to preserve, especially once the barriers that protect it from outside scrutiny are removed. Going away to University did that for me, being the first time I would leave the cover of home for distant lands 80 miles away. Of the various things which chipped away at this bubble, the freedom of distance from home made the most difference, allowing me re-invent my associations with connections outside the bubble. That coupled with the multiplied numbers of people that I met on a daily basis created an overload of influences, ones which were decidedly more worldly wise and cosmopolitan than I had been exposed to previously. Wider questions about biblical hermeneutics — particularly Genesis in the light of the geological record — soon piled on the misery, blowing wide the door to drift and doubt. The only exposure to a non young-earth based theology I had up till then was in the margin notes of my father’s Dake Bible, notes which considered an alternative interpretation of the ‘days’ of Genesis as epochs or ages and hence less discordant with archaeology. Elsewhere a young earth, a historical Adam and Eve and the Fall were put forward as essential building blocks of the worldview I espoused. The seemingly significant disconnect between that and scientific reality left me questioning everything, further loosening what inhibitions remained. Since then five years in the South East of Nigeria — working in a town where a combination of oil money, single men, expats and a pool of attractive, educated single men fuelled a libertarian culture — and nine years in my corner of Scotland, as far removed from my bubble days as could be have done little to ease the sense of drift that I now carry. All of this notwithstanding, I have never fully managed to become untethered, church and faith somehow managing to remain embedded in my routines.

Most days I feel a deep kinship with the younger son in the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15, his hightailing it to a far country somewhat akin to how my faith journey evolved in the University years, once I was out of my church bubble. Whilst the emotional response that followed Easter of 1992 suggests a real change happened, my continuing struggle with the simple stuff — a regular practice of prayer and bible study, engaging a discipline of fasting and evangelism amongst others — often leaves me in a state of cognitive dissonance. Smarter theologians such as John Piper make a distinction between justification and sanctification; justification being a more or less instantaneous accounting of righteousness with sanctification being a more gradual growth. Implicit in that — in my layman’s view — is that a propensity for cognitive dissonance exists in all faith journeys, driven by the distance between what one knows to be right and what one does, between being justified and growing into a ‘sufficient’ degree of righteousness, as Paul’s example in Romans 7:13–24 suggests. The consensus, as I understand it, is that a measure of discipline, work and effort are required to bridge this gap, God both working in one and through one. That I largely accept, what is less certain is how much of the push to grow and improve is due to a real change as opposed to the remnants of the church bubble I grew up in, much in the same way a Muslim or Jew, by dint of culture abstains from non-Halal or non-kosher meat.

That to me is the fundamental question.

* This updates this original post.

Spring, Shamals and the Aftermaths of Vaccination

***

The memories of the days are beginning to disappear into a haze, each one a maelstrom of activity that begins with waking with a dull, lingering sense of dread and ending the same way it began, only with a sense of battle weary tiredness layered on. One day it is Sunday, and then suddenly it seems like it is Tuesday and then Thursday – brings respite – only for it all to begin again; wash-rinse-repeat. The good thing is that somehow it is the beginning of March, and each day that passes quickly brings the arrival of that symbol of the worker’s Faustian pact, a salary, another day closer. In my more sanguine moments, I remind myself that for all my bellyaching, there are far worse things to moan about in the world than work.

With March comes a change of season to spring, if one can call day time temperatures in excess of 30 degrees C spring. December, and my will-I-or-won’t-I-wear-a-jacket phase, seem far away now. It is the season for sand storms, as I found out to my pain the other day when I got caught in a sand storm of sorts. As my bare legs stung with the impact of the grit, whipped into a potent weapon of attrition by the wind, I was grateful for the protection my glasses afforded my eyes. That does not happen often.

The other thing that March brought was getting a shot of one of the COVID-19 vaccines. Every time an opportunity to register came up, I put my name down, conscious of the seeming inevitability of vaccine passports and what not for travel. I opted to get my shot on a Wednesday evening, my thinking being that the timing would allow me sleep off any side effects. I felt especially tired the next day which might be related to not being able to sleep well the night before. My fitness tracker spotted a 0.4 degree C spike in body temperature for the next two days before returning to normal, but otherwise I had no discernible side-effects. One hopes that vaccine uptakes improves around the world, and a sort of normalcy returns thereafter. It has been a long hard year for most people!

For the word of the week, Khamis, for Thursday and respite.

Recent Finds

  • Teju Cole chats Fernweh amongst other things on the Behind the Covers podcast. Baldwin, race, photography and Switzerland all feature in this wide ranging chat.
  • Apparently, eating fresh mango with gold cutlery is the business, at least so say the experts on The Infinite Monkey Cage. Fun-fact, silver (in spite of its reputation as being the material of choice for posh, rich folks actually tastes the worst.
  • Confirmation that the ‘Deen Market demolition is to go ahead is somewhat bitter-sweet news on a personal level. It was hardly the most salubrious of places to eat in, or do anything else to be honest as O points out, but being starved of Nigerian food in my first few years there, popping in there provided some respite now and again.
  • Jane Goodall & Adam Grant chat Leadership (and chimps), not surprisingly there is stuff to learn in the areas they overlap.
  • And something poetry related of course. Naomi Shihab Nye chats poetry, growing up and a whole lot of other stuff with Krista Tippet at the On Being Podcast.

‘Big’ Man coming, and finally getting my Abu Name

The bare, Spartan space just outside my window – which I can just see if I crane my neck a little just beyond its normal range – is just that, barely noticeable. At least it was until a few days ago when swivelling in my chair, the profusion of reds and yellows it has become caught my eye. So certain was I that the flowers were new that at an opportune moment, when I could pretend it was a casual question, I asked one of the guys to confirm. It turns out that I was right, the flowers had not always been there. The coming of a certain big man in a couple of days had prompted the ground staff into sprucing up our surroundings. I am thankful for the splash of colours which will remain with us for a bit at least, but what I came away with was the sense that big men everywhere carried weight. It is a truism, as an old teacher liked to say.

The end of January marked another milestone, six months out here at the edge of the world. Sidebar: there is actually some place called the edge of the world out here I hear, with sunrises which are something to behold. Unfortunately there is an internal lock down again but I have made a mental note to plan for extended weekend outside the province I am in. O’s up for it which should marginally increase the likelihood of it happening. So six months out here then which brings with it a slight sense of having weathered a storm of sorts. Finally getting an Abu name helps with that sense of settling in I suppose.

With shut borders and all, it doesn’t look like I’m going anywhere anytime soon which means one must make my seat at the edge of the world home, or as close to it as it can be. Several times over the past few months I’ve gone back to Nicky Gumbel’s talk from October where he talked about flourishing where you’re planted. It is what it is.

Recent Finds

Sparks, Dark sides and Musings on Sight

***

The sparks have quite literally been flying, not for reasons of passion but for the more mundane fact that winter and the very low humidity have resulted in fairly significant amounts of static electricity build up on everything. More times than I care to remember over the past few weeks, I have had the sometimes unexpected displeasure of a substantial shock. I am much more careful now, taking the time to touch walls and other non-metallic objects to dissipate some of the build up. S insists that my refusal to moisturise often, and liberally, is a contributor to this – a google search seems to suggest she is right in some way. The jury is still out on that one I think, but I am leaning towards getting a humidifier, if and when I can sort out travel to the city next door.

I came face to face with my inner dark side this week, no thanks to what looks like a Bitcoin scam. Some website purporting to be associated with Chamath Palihapitiyia, claimed to be 10x-ing deposited Bitcoin. It seemed too good to be true, as quick google search proves (it was just another iteration of a long running scam) but in the moment all I saw was the potential to quickly turn around a small deposit into something substantial. In my head, it was the perfect opportunity to kick-off dollar cost averaging into Bitcoin. Thankfully, the exchange/wallet I ended up signing up for had a 24 hour cooling off period before one could transfer coins out, by which time the website was down and I had managed to do the google search I should have done at the onset. The silver lining is that I am left with about 1,000 GBP worth of Bitcoin which I suppose is as good as any starting point. The downside is that it puts my inner greed into perspective. There is much to shudder at there, I must admit.

On a slightly less troubling note, I found myself stepping into the shower several times this week with my glasses on. Whilst I am not sure what it means for my long term sight, I am willing to speculate. I am taking it as a sign to enjoy the things I still can see now. That, and learning to keep my greed in check, are perhaps the life lessons for this week.

Recent Finds

What It means when I step into the shower with my glasses on…

Photo by Hermes Rivera on Unsplash. For The Poetic Asides prompt #554

**

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.