Forty-One

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

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It was my birthday the other day, and in keeping with what is becoming a tradition of sorts, I spent the morning wading through a flurry of WhatsApp and text messages before a fairly lengthy video call with the niece who I almost share a birthday with. The rest of the day was spent off-grid, which has become one of the more enjoyable parts of the day. I don’t remember when the need to unplug on the day first came to the fore but I am finding that in the aftermath of all of that mental stimulation, some downtime is helpful. As I have reflected on here before, the five weeks between the 8th of July and the 15th of August tend to be emotionally draining ones. Dealing with a move – which is quite frankly a culture shock of sorts – has only added to that this year.

Turning forty seems significant, to be the onset of an important phase of life and a milestone (never mind it also being a magnet for slander on the interwebs :)). Forty-one, on the other hand, seems like an afterthought, just another notch on the pole of life occasioned by yet another spin around the sun of the earth. Having spent the first twenty and some in the Nigerian state of my birth, the next ten making my way in the world in Nigeria and the next eleven in the UK, it very much feels like a third phase of life. Interestingly, each move has taken me away from the safety of the cocoon in which I grew up, complete with all the trappings of the evangelical industrial complex. My focus this year is Delve Deeper, I suppose there is no better place to test one’s depths and roots than in a far country – to use the metaphor of the prodigal – with all the trappings of having to build credibility all over again. There is certainly no room for coasting. There are also the challenges of living and thriving in a post-oil world which, given the current source of my livelihood, I need to focus on, using today’s opportunities to create the tomorrow’s ones.

In all of that, I am finding the lyrics of NEEDTOBREATHE’s Hang On particularly fitting:

So hang on to the light in your eyes and the feeling
Hang on to your love drunk original reason
So hang on to the small town you love but you’re leaving
‘Cause you won’t be a fool for so long

Economists suggest I am a few years from hitting the bottom of my happiness u-curve. An uptick in happiness is at least something to look forward to, and the enduring tension of leaving the small town I love but which I’m leaving…

About Town: Weird gifts, names and Children on Trains

 

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Sometime ago, not without some misgivings I must add, I moved desks at work, all part of the new re-stacking policy designed around optimising our use of space. Following the move, I went from a desk which looked on into the central corridor with my computer facing away from the door to one where my view was the bus station across the road. The view was decidedly an upgrade, what came with it though was a sense of being blinded to people milling about behind me and coming in to meet me, particularly on the occasions when I have my head phones plugged in to maximise my concentration.

Enter the weirdest – but most useful gift  – I’ve ever been given; a mirror which stuck to the top of my monitor resolves the blind spot around the things behind me. Given to me by the previous occupant of my desk, it now means I have the best of both worlds, a decent view and a significantly lower risk of being blindsided by people door stepping me from behind. Bliss.

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S and I share an inside joke from time to time, centred around ageing – gracefully or otherwise,  depending on which of us the joke is on. Things like falling asleep in the middle of a conversation, emoji related faux pas, or particularly weird and wonderful auto correct generated communication mishaps bring the joke up; mostly at my expense given my penchant for WhatsApp typos. The latest instalment of this long running joke was precipitated by a typo in a long string of text I sent, Dear somehow becoming Deer. To her credit she waited all day till the evening to point it out, the conversation which ensued  taking a different tenor, one which went down the lines of pondering the etymology of names lovebirds call themselves rather than focusing on my latest foible.

It is an interesting subject, I think, given what the range of the literal meanings  to the ones I pick up from conversations around friends and their significant others can be: defenceless objects which need protection (baby, doll?), unhealthy sweet things (honey, sugar, candy?) and objects of worth (gold, diamond, precious).

In the end, I dig myself out of that hole by referring S to the Songs of Solomon; that provides validation of deer, and the parts thereof as a metaphor for love. 🙂

***

They board at West Silvertown, they being a little girl and someone I assume must be her older brother. She is dressed in what looks like her school uniform, and has a bright pink backpack with some child super hero of some description on it. He on the other hand has huge beats headphones on, and an iPhone in his hand, clearly listening to something. Once aboard and settled in – it is standing room only – she tries to peer into whatever it is on his phone, an act he prevents by moving his phone outside her reach. That attempt at playful, sibling bonding on her part, and an insistent aloofness on his part is a pattern that repeats itself as we chug along towards Ilford where we all disembark. My tired, cynical mind – work, a flight up from the ‘Deen to London City and then this train ride have taken their toll – goes to work analysing the situation, the conclusion being that he has been tasked with getting his little sister home, a task he considers an intrusion on his own plans and space. Not quite content with that, she being the energetic, doting little sister wants his attention but his phone and whoever is on the other end are more important in the moment.

With time, I suspect that he will learn that family trumps the heady heights of young love, and that in ten, fifteen or twenty years time she will still be kicking about in his life, the person on the other end, most likely not.

A Year of Living Earnestly…

 

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Three chance occurrences over the space of the last month have done a lot more to unsettle me than anything else in the year so far. Not in a bad way by any chance, but in an ask-myself-hard-questions way. Of the myriad of questions bobbing around in my mind, ones that relate to authenticity, passion and faith and how these can be melded into a coherent practice have come to the fore, inspired by how the people in question are doing life in their real worlds, leaving marks in ways I can only aspire to at this stage.

The first of these was stumbling on @IntensivEpicure‘s spiel for the WA Awards Video in which she talked about a range of issues affecting perceptions of successful women. That chance click led to another and then Google from where a truly fascinating story unfolded; one that took in UNILAG, Harvard, ten years and then a return to the bedlam of Nigeria.

A few days later, a chance conversation with a friend of a friend somehow segued into a critique of life in our corner of the world and our lack of viable love interests. Somewhere in all that, a name popped up, of someone who now lived down south in a corner of England my traipsing had yet to lead me to. Egged on by curiosity, I ended up on Google again, from where I ended up on a church pod-cast site, listening spell bound to this message on singleness. Well worth a listen – it opens in a new window – if I say so myself.

And then there was Jürgen Klopp, whose arrival on Merseyside has us Liverpool fans – real, arm chair or pretend ones – buzzing again. The press conference at which he was unveiled, was a tour de force of hope, joy and anticipation. He does of course have pedigree, having delivered success on what was comparatively a shoe string budget at Dortmund, but peppering his answers with words like intensity, emotion and passion did his image no harm at all.


One of the things I have struggled most with over the past year is regaining the sense of focus that defined my early years, which is perhaps why reading and listening to people such as those I stumbled on over the past few weeks – and I would add Louie Giglio, John Piper and Francis Chan to that list – puts these questions front and centre in my mind. That some of the most important influences in my life from growing up are people who were incredibly passionate about what they did; such as G & H from children’s Sunday school, DEL and MK from work, has only served to reinforce the sense that I am missing something by simply coasting along.

No where at the moment is the lack of passion and earnestness more visible in my life at the moment than in my spiritual practice. Although ebbs and flows here have been part and parcel of my experience, in my quiet moments there is a deep dissatisfaction with where things are – and have been for far longer than I’d care to admit.

I’d like a year of tearing everything up and beginning again, of focus – of living earnestly and intentionally, one which includes more praying, more meditating, more reading and more engaging with the thorny issues bobbing about in my head. Like Francis Chan puts it:

I want to fight, I want to know that I am battling and doing something with my life. There’s a joy of a soldier walking out of a battle all bloodied up and cut up because he went and did something. This Christian life is very difficult sometimes, but even in that suffering, it’s something we desire, that we want to rescue, that we want to be part of this battle.

On Loving, and (Not) Marrying…

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

Chaos and Nostalgia.. Postscript

In the end this trip – all ten days of it – was about absolution for sins yet to be committed. Unbeknownst to everyone I strove to meet up with, if I had my way, Nigeria would not feature on the holiday destination list for the next three years at least. So this was the last guilty splurge – the second time this year – where I sought to inhale as much of Nigeria and family as I could, like a free-diver does with oxygen before submerging.

Chaos was a constant – bubbling under at all times and at others taking centre stage. The bedlam that was driving in the wrong lane on the Benin Shagamu road, no thanks to the ongoing road works, but also the intransigence of the bus drivers plying the road.

The scourge of kidnapping once again hit close home. I suppose the heady mix of students being free for all of five months due to the ASUU strikes, and the increasingly vocal narrative of lecturers as fat cows creates a volatile situation which one or two miscreants may have exploited, to the detriment of a couple of my parents friends.

There were bright spots too though – adoption, ever a thorny issue – came up in a conversation with the Mom. She was quite accepting of it, strangely. It must be my intransigence in getting her a grand child at work.

Sister #2 is a Psychiatry Resident at a teaching Hospital around town. Given how much of the system she knows, it was no surprise her considered opinion was that a lot more needed to be done with regards to mental health. Hopefully that is an area that gets improved over the next few years.

With all these things – there’s a sense of nostalgia. A sense of loss that belies my overwhelming state of mind – lostness…. Such is the life of a lost son, I suppose.

Woolwich, the aftermath

In the immediate aftermath of the Woolwich murder, once that truly harrowing video had surfaced and the Nigerian connection was first mooted, I found myself cast in the unwilling role of the Nigerian ‘expert’ at work. For most of the people in my corner of the world, I was the most handy Nigerian they could talk to. The odd attempt to parlay it into banter did come up, but for the most part, these were people looking to get some perspective on what was both vicious and senseless.

My initial response was one of disavowal. Afghanistan has never really being a bog standard concern of the typical Nigerian as far as I am aware, neither is the typical Nigerian so disconnected from self preservation that he/she would take to causes without a personal dimension of gain involved. Additionally, the name being bandied about that night on twitter wasn’t Northern Nigerian in origin, precluding a Boko Haram connection.

The initial media reaction predictably focused on the Nigerian heritage of the two suspected attackers. The BBC’s Nick Robinson went as far as using the cringe-worthy turn of phrase ‘of Muslim appearance’, which he later apologised for. There were a number of  ‘reprisal attacks’ – the likes of the EDL using the opportunity to perpetuate their own brand of dialogue.

Interestingly, within the wider circle of my (Nigerian) friends and colleagues, there was a certain reluctance to discuss the attack. Eventually, the reluctance did seem to go away, replaced by two main narratives – one largely focused on the privileged life the perpetuators led (these were young men born and bred in Britain, so the narrative goes, who were radicalised in the UK and had nothing to do with Nigeria) and the other focused on how just much harder the lives of law abiding Nigerians the world over, already stigmatised enough by the green passport , would be thanks to the additional scrutiny they would be afforded at border posts.

Barely a year ago, the likes of Mo Farah, Lutalo Mohammad, Nicola Adams and others were roundly feted as heroes post the London Olympics. In fact, a few days after Woolwich, Andrew Osagie, a name as Nigerian as they come would be roundly hailed for his performance at the IAAF Diamond League Meet in new York.

I suppose therein lies the conundrum of the visible immigrant – acceptance is tenuous at best, predicated on good behaviour, and heroic action. 😦