Time as a trickster of sorts is a theme I find myself coming back to again and again, the key motif being how in the moment life and time can seem like drudgery, but when viewed from the vantage point of hindsight it can seem compressed, like a video watched at 2x speed. My thoughts as I packed up my bags and began to prepare for the short hop back were very much in that vein, not helped I suspect by the long hard year I had had. Between L, her boundless energy and various work related niggles, I was running on empty for the final few weeks before I left. Awaiting me on the other side – in addition to reintegrating myself back – were a big house move, and the mother of all Nigerian parties on the other side of town. If there was any anticipation, it was hope that I would finally get to sink my teeth into a juicy burger, indulge in all the bacon and sausages I could manage, and hop along to the odd Parkrun. As it turns out, all of my fears – and none of the things I was looking forward to – materialized.As is its wont, Reality and expectation never quite matched up.
Besides the physical reasons (being in places quite some distance from where I needed to be), the disruption to my routine was a key reason for the sense of disconnect between the expectation and reality. A slightly different time, not being able to escape to work, and having to drive quite a few less miles to the shops all differed from my lived reality of the past fourteen months. That was disconcerting in some way I am yet to fully understand.
One of the understated joys of living in this corner of the world where I return to from time to time is the lush greenery, always never more than a few hundred metres away. On previous returns, I have had the time, the space and the energy to take it all in – morning runs, afternoon saunters to the shops and the odd city-centre meet up with a friend. On this occasion however, I found myself perpetually short of time. This is also a theme, I am finding. Life and my time as I know it seems gone away for forever, now permanently centred around S and L and all the things they need to get up to.
The year of being forty-two is slowly winding down. Forty-three needs to come with a big reboot switch.
The heat hangs heavy on the head, the way a wet blanket only partially wrung dry after being pounded by feet in a washbasin hangs listlessly in a barely-there breeze. The short afternoon walks to the canteen, to grab some combination of a salad, chicken and rice is beginning to feel like a chore, not helped by the sand which has become a permanent fixture it seems. Some days G and I wonder if the haze is from fog or dust but the loud whirl of my air purifier settles it for me; dust it is – that most irritating kind that finds its way through every tiny crinkle in our armour, covering everything with a fine layer of brown. Not far away in their ubiquity are the flies which flit around everything, their persistent buzz the soundtrack to life in these baking summer months. With Ramadan behind us, it is the season of long vacations and every other day it seems someone else in the wider team disappears for a few weeks. My turn to disappear is in about a month, and for the first time in a long time, I am looking forward to kicking back, waking up at my leisure then sticking L in her stroller and grabbing brunch with real bacon. Adding a few more Parkruns to my total – with maybe one push for a new PB – would be a welcome bonus.
Listening to the news on the odd occasion I catch it, it strikes me just how much of it is prattling on about the unserious stuff – Depp and Heard and Rooney and Vardy are a case in point – but out here amongst fellow prodigals abroad the impacts of the Ukraine-Russia conflict loom large. From the Ukrainian family who persists in spamming a WhatsApp group with images from the war to the Russian chap who can’t send money home to his descendants, the abstractions that are the news of sanctions and bombs falling here or there hit home. An unintended consequence is that Europe has finally gotten their finger out and their heads from being bent down navel-gazing to start thinking about energy security again. Companies which let tons of folk go are back on the market trying to recruit; it is very much boom again, and just how long it will last remains to be seen. I remain bullish on nuclear and carbon capture.
It seems that along with death and taxes, twists and turns worthy of a Stephen King page-turner in Nigerian politics, gun deaths in America and yet another sexual abuse case in bible-belt America are (unwelcome) facts of life. The less said about these the better I suspect, though my inner complex systems enthusiast can’t help but ponder the social and religious interactions which have resulted in the state of affairs these three (not entirely disparate) events represent. Regardless of what one thinks about the benefits of “thoughts and prayers”, there comes a time when they are functionally the equivalent of burying one’s head in the sand (a less charitable reading would be that they are an excuse for permitting the status quo from which we benefit persist).
In reading, a return to catching the bus at a slightly less obscene hour has enabled me to catch up on my plan. In the past month, Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto and John Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis One have been very good reads. Finally digging into Fola Fagbule and Feyi Fawehinmi’s Formation: has also been an interesting experience; I am finding myself pausing to go google some arcane fact and/or look up a map. I have also reread bits of Julian Barnes’ Booker Prize-winning The Sense of An Ending, from which a very prescient quote jumped out at me:
Time … give us enough time and our best-supported decisions will seem wobbly, our certainties whimsical
Coming up to the two-year mark out here, I can’t shake the feeling that it very much is the beginning of an ending of sorts. Fingers crossed.
It feels somewhat trite, given what is afoot in the world, to be riled up about life in my
gilded prison corner of the world. The Ukraine and Russia conflict looms large of course, but for all the outpouring of support – and some might say posturing – it feels more like a cause célèbre, than anything else. As others have pointed out thousands more have lost their lives in Yemen,. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars were hardly less gruesome for ordinary civilians. Closer home, it seems like Nigeria teeters more on the edge of imploding, with power, security and the general hardship levels all running away in the wrong direction. Of course, concurrent occurrences of bad things does not make any of them less ‘bad’. One can only hope that the energies expended in mobilizing and blanketing the air waves with the plight of Ukrainians is also extended to other (blacker and browner) bodies.
Energy, and energy security, are back in the news again, the chickens of short sighted decisions very much coming home to roost as Russia holds Europe over a barrel with gas. It is good to see common sense coming to the fore again with nuclear energy being an option on the table. Sadly, these things are not magic taps that get turned on and off at the snap of fingers, so long hard periods of weaning ourselves off Russian gas are inevitable. North sea oil and gas is another beneficiary of all these, with the likes of Shell looking to invest 25 billion in the sector.
It has been a hectic past five months, on a personal note, my days spent hard at work and at home. High stakes, high profile deliverables at work have meant work weeks stretching into the weekends with extended hours. As I joking remarked to A the other day, it very much feels like I took a huge breath in November and am yet to breathe out, whilst keeping several plates spinning. Burning the candle at both ends is perhaps the best metaphor to describe the current state. The month of Ramadan and the slower pace of life can’t come soon enough for me.
If there is a silver lining in being maddeningly busy, it is that the year has sped right by. Somehow it is the end of March, and L is all of 10 months! 2022 was meant to be the year of re-thinking, which I have hardly done any of. To me at least, proper re-thinking requires the luxury of time, and moments of extended quietness, things which I have not had the luxury of over the past year. First order of business though must be to re-think the world of my work, and what I am truly aiming to get out of it. For the complex dynamics involved in it – current states, employer considerations and my future desires – what is obvious is that there I would like to not be doing the same sorts of things in five years time. The Clay Christiansen book, How Will You Measure Your Life, is one that I intend to re-read in April, as a first, tentative step towards re-thinking what work should look like for me in the five+ year time frame. Before all that re-thinking, I think the zeroth step is being intentional again about self care.
The phrase/word of the week (or month, or quarter – you decide) is Kaif halak, which means how are you? I hope like me you are in an improving place and are being intentional about self-care.
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.
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!
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.
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
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.
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.