Mortality

I can’t remember much of my childhood, I can’t go back to it, and it’s frustrating to think that I once had my whole life stretched out in front of me, all of it, without knowing that life passed, was used up, and one had to make the best of it. I remember my mom dying when I was eight. I remember going to live with my father afterward and being shocked by how harshly he treated me (and others). I remember my grandma dying, and my aunt, and my uncle. I remember, vaguely though, days in boarding school, unruly senior students, abusive ones, me growing up to become one of the seniors, and then WAEC and JAMB and Uni, time zipping away. It makes me so sad thinking back to when I was a child and teenager; all that time passed and I didn’t realize I was using up my life, would never be able to go back to those years again.

I first realized this about life when I was 25 and had moved to Lagos for work. I had started thinking about death a lot, about our mortality and the futility of everything, and I remember being so terribly sad for days. I wasn’t really sad because I was going to die. I was sad because it felt like I had squandered my entire life. It’s like having billions of naira and spending it thoughtlessly and only realizing what the billions of naira could have done for you when you get it down to the thousands. But life moved on after that. I continued going to work every day, slaving at it. I resigned after two years and went to study for a masters, during which I was broke. I got to do an internship that wasn’t paying half of what I was earning before I went to do my masters, and therefore stayed broke mostly, and when you’re broke you can hardly think beyond where you are, beyond how to survive the next day. Later, I got another job as a teacher, which I love and enjoy, which I’m thinking a lot about because when you are in a place you are mostly uncomfortable in but you are paid enough to keep the body and soul going and you enjoy what you do, what do you do?

For many years, again, I stopped seeing my life before me. I stopped thinking about death. Until two weeks ago. It came with a force, a violent one. I was watching a video by Sadhguru where someone was asking him how to deal with anxiety and he referenced our mortality and said that if we will all die someday, then why do we worry about all these things? Why don’t we just live our best lives, confident and happy in the truth that this will all pass away? Hearing this shook up something in me, made me tremble with fear and anxiety. I had to pause the video for a moment to catch my breath. When I resumed and let the video play to the end, I found that I’d become relieved in a way. Something had happened to me, a kind of awakening. Since then, every day, every moment, I carry that thought with me: that all of this is nothing, my writing, my life, my fears, my failed relationships, my successes, nothing. It’s frightening to think about it like that, and human beings would rather believe there’s a purpose to life. I don’t. Not anymore. We’re all figments and nothings in time. We come, we go, someone else comes, they go. We don’t know that there’s a purpose to our lives; we can’t know. We can only assume or speculate or believe.

Confronting this reality has helped me in the past few days. I am now more aware, more sensitive about my life, more thoughtful about how my time is spent. I see every day that I wake to as a gift. I live it as my last, with so much energy and passion and intentionality. In the event that I live to eighty or hundred, I will know then that I lived my best life, that I used my time in the best possible way.

P.S. I just finished reading this novel, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, and I found that a lot of it dealt with this subject of mortality, of growing old and dying, and how those who are still alive live through all of that. In the last page, Strout writes:

What young people didn’t know, she thought, lying down beside this man, his hand on her shoulder, her arm: oh, what young people did not know. They did not know that lumpy, aged, and wrinkled bodies were as needy as their own young, firm ones, that love was not to be tossed away carelessly, as if it were a tart on a platter with others that got passed around again. No, if love was available, one chose it, or didn’t choose it. And if her platter had been full with the goodness of Henry and she found it burdensome, had flicked it off crumbs at a time, it was because she had not known what one should know: that day after day was unconsciously squandered.

The Complexity of Needs: On being seen and loved

One of the many things I learned after my recent breakup was that I have emotional needs, and when they are not met I become very frustrated. My needs are numerous and intense and nothing like an average person’s needs. And I’ve come to accept this last fact and even the implication of it: that I will most probably live out my days alone, or even if I find that love, I will have to accept that there are some things they just simply won’t be able to give me, some things I have to find a way to give myself or come to terms with their absence in my life. It’s frightening to come to this realization, to embrace this reality, but it has given me some perspective and made me confront some of my biggest fears.

In the past few days, I have been trying to articulate my needs. What are these things I need from people I share my life with? What are these things I need to thrive in a relationship? I found that in most of my previous relationships, I struggled to name what exactly I needed from my partners, and because I didn’t know what I needed from them, I couldn’t directly ask them, and because I couldn’t ask them for what I needed, I was unfulfilled and this manifested in other ways like resentment, passive-aggression, impatience, withdrawal. You can’t fight your demons if you don’t know them, if you can’t name them. And so, I have been trying to name my needs, to be as clear as possible about how they make me feel, and I have as well been thinking about what it means to have them, where they come from.

When I get into a relationship with someone, I want to be acknowledged and seen by them. Perhaps, I myself do not know what it means for someone to see me, but I do know that I need to have a sense that I matter to the person I’m with, that the person wants to be fully present in my life. Again, this is more intuitive than logical. It’s something you just sense. It’s also not something sweet words can take care of. It has to be felt. In any case, whatever being seen means, I want to be seen. I remember how, in my previous relationship, I did not feel seen many times and tried to voice it, and how I was told, “I see you, babe.” When someone tells you they do not feel you see them, your response should not be that you see them. Do not use that opportunity to make yourself feel good. Your response, if you need to have one, is to find out what it means to see them, to listen, because chances are you have no clue, and to try, to work towards acquiring what it takes to see them. It’s a difficult thing, this seeing business. It requires being present, paying great attention, listening and absorbing details, remembering. You will not see the person you’re with if you are all over the place and not being mindful and thoughtful, or forgetting almost every little detail they tell you about themselves, or mostly aloof. Seeing also requires a reckless sort of acceptance, but it’s an acceptance that comes with reason. “I accept this person because of so, so, and so.”You will need to think of this reason now and again, to remind yourself of it.

On the list of the things I need, and on the same category with being seen, is my love for long messages and emails in which I am told random things, things that matter, things that don’t matter (say, for example, about a book my partner is reading or a movie they are seeing and how it made them feel or what it made them think). I want to be able to do this as well: write this special person long messages often and on, baring my heart and my soul, feeling intimately and infinitely connected to them. I can do without calls, but I cannot do without messages: intimate, romantic messages, in which I immerse myself and feel the heart of my partner, in which I drown myself and come out feeling on top of the world. Starve me with your voice, but do not starve me with your words. Messages are thoughtful. To write good messages, you have to sit down and think. You have to spend some time collecting your thoughts. You have to be thoughtful and intentional. Anyone can call. Anyone can lift their phone and dial my number, but it takes a great degree of mindfulness and emotional presence to sit down and compose a message that reflects exactly what you are thinking or feeling. Do not think that calls will ever replace this process. They never will.

Honest conversations are important to me. I want us to talk, really talk. I want to feel that I can have ANY conversation with the person I call mine, any conversation at all, about the things I like in the relationship and the things I don’t like, about my fears and anxieties, about the things that make me happy. I need a gist buddy, a conversation partner, someone who enjoys spending long minutes over the phone, who never gets bored with chatting, who thinks about new ways of making conversations refreshing and interesting. The last thing I want is to be involved with someone I even slightly fear, someone that the thought of telling how they have treated me or made me feel scares me. That would be a disaster, and I would be repeating patterns from my childhood that I have tried so hard to flee from.

There are other things I need from a relationship, like surprises, like someone who really listens to me, like safety, like reassurance. I need to be told I am good-looking and brilliant and kind. Not that I don’t know these things myself, but it’s good to hear them from someone else, especially a significant other.

My needs are many and monstrous; these are only some of them. I think I’ve got them under control when a relationship is just starting out, and then they pop out, unleashing their terror. I have often thought that maybe I am just too needy and too desperately seeking affection, that my needs are much more than I can manage, more than people in my life can manage, and I have wondered why. Why am I not able to get by with what is offered? Why do I not accept what is given with gratitude? Does this have anything to do with my childhood, with growing up feeling unloved, starved of affection, begging for it but never getting it? Is that why I go through life looking for affection from other people — strangers, friends, teachers, mentors — never really finding it, at least not as wholesome as I want it to be, never really achieving that intimacy in relationships? Is this what it is, childhood trauma that has followed me into adulthood?

When we get into relationships, we always look out for parts of the other person that will fill up something in us. We want them to do things for us that we are not able to do for ourselves. Some people think this is selfish because instead of looking outward, instead of focusing on giving love, we focus on ourselves, on receiving love. But the thing is, no matter how good or selfless we try to be, no matter how much we dissociate our needs from the relationship and focus on pleasing the other person and making the other person happy, we will come back one day, in full circle, to the place where the relationship began, a place of loneliness and longing and an ache to be seen and heard, maybe now tinted with resentment. We are emotional beings. We are all somewhat selfish. We need certain needs to be met in order to be fulfilled in a relationship. The person getting into a relationship with us also needs certain needs to be met emotionally, physically, and mentally. We cannot deny it, cannot pretend that those needs do not exist, cannot simply wish them away. We do so at our own peril. The very least we can do is acknowledge them, and dialogue about ways to fulfill them; else, we remain deeply unsatisfied, and what a sad way to live.

Random thoughts after a devastating break-up

Let’s call the person I dated last BIL. It’s actually how we saved each other’s contact on our phones. We both agreed to pin our names to the top of our WhatsApp chat list so that at every point in time BIL was the first name that appeared there. It was a beautiful, glorious thing: I had never done that before, never given someone that kind of space in my life. Sometimes, when the relationship wasn’t going well, I unpinned BIL from my WhatsApp just so I would see how farther down the name would go, and then I’d change BIL to H. It was silly of me, I know. I didn’t know what I was doing, why I was doing that, but I thought maybe if I moved that acronym out of my sight I wouldn’t hurt so much from whatever it was that was crushing me. The relationship often went back to normal, and I often undid what I had done: changed H to BIL again; pinned BIL back to my chat list.

We started dating on May 3. By December 10, the relationship came undone. It had been building up, this break-up, even though I didn’t want to confront it; perhaps because of how warm the relationship made me feel sometimes, perhaps because of the faith I had that things would eventually pick up, perhaps because I was a coward and too afraid to confront the truth that it just wasn’t working, that we lived in separate worlds and couldn’t coexist no matter how hard we tried. And we did try for seven months. We tried to live in each other’s world, to see things from each other’s perspective, to see beyond ourselves and our positions in the world; it just didn’t work, as people say when something fails to meet expectations. It just wouldn’t work.

I’m still trying to understand the dynamics of the conversation that led to the break-up, one week of evading conversations and circumventing the real issues, of feeling defensive and badly hurt, of contemplating break-up but never mentioning it. One week of doing anything but sit down and talk like two adults. We broke up via a series of WhatsApp chats, very simply and casually, as though the relationship meant nothing more than a one-night stand, like two people deciding whether to attend a poetry event together or not. “It doesn’t make sense to keep going back to this same place every time,” BIL wrote, to which I replied, “I’ve been thinking about it as well,” and that was how, after a couple of other messages, we walked out of each other’s lives, with the fewest possible words, out there to repeat the cycle of being single and alone for some time and falling in love again. A friend texted me a day after to say, “You’re back on the market now.” Lmao. I didn’t know how to respond.

In the days that followed the break-up, I tried so hard to get used to being alone again. I didn’t have anyone to text Good Morning, to obsess over during the day, to text or call at random intervals. I didn’t have someone to call my own. My body fought so hard with this reality; a pile of pain settled in my chest, tears welled in my eyes, my mind wandered and wandered. I was alive but not living. For days, I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t work, couldn’t eat, couldn’t read, couldn’t write, couldn’t get out of bed, couldn’t do anything. I cried when I spoke with friends over the phone. I cried when I walked the streets. I regretted agreeing to let go of the relationship. I blamed myself for how things turned out, for not fighting. Maybe if I had been more patient. Maybe if I had insisted on working things out. Maybe if I had been less needy. Maybe if I didn’t expect people to love me so intensely, so soulfully. Maybe.

Or maybe not.

One thing I know for sure is that my needs are monstrous. They rear up their heads when I settle into a relationship and start swallowing things up. I want to receive carefully thought out text messages, to be surprised with long emails, to be engaged with mindful and thoughtful conversations. I want to feel grounded in a relationship, to feel safe and close to my partner at all times, to truly and completely share my life with them and have them share theirs as well with me. I want to be in their life, to feel grounded in their life, to be loved radically by them, to feel like I am needed and wanted and not just an afterthought. When these things do not happen, I doubt, I question, I pick at everything, I worry, which is exactly why relationships have not worked out for me so far. I ask for too much and people I get involved with shudder at the intensity of my needs. They do not know how to respond to my needs or at least do not care to know. Or maybe it’s that I do not know where to draw the line between my needs and another person’s individuality, and so end up not feeling enough love, enough affection, enough presence.

In October, I told BIL that I didn’t think I was getting the love and affection I needed to thrive in the relationship, pointing out instances that made me feel this way — messages ignored, scheduled time together canceled with no good reason, a general lack of healthy communication, a certain aloofness and emotional unavailability. This, after I had been passive-aggressive about the issue for a few days. BIL called the relationship off, saying it was too much to deal with, and then wrote me a message two days later saying, “I know you like letters, so I decided to write you one. I want to be better. I hope you give us another chance.” I had been hurting and hurting in the two days before this message came, so I was relieved to read it. We met afterward, talked, and got back together. I remember a friend, who was staying with me at that time, asking me, before BIL’s message came in: “What do you want? Do you really want this relationship to end? If BIL comes back now, what will you do?” I said, “I don’t know.”

I’m thinking now about that question “What do you want?” after this recent breakup that has lasted two weeks, how important it is to be sure about things, to decide within yourself what you want independent of the other person. When we broke up in October, I wasn’t sure. Now, I feel a little more certain. I don’t want a relationship with BIL anymore, but I can endure a friendship. A lot of times we take a relationship that shouldn’t grow beyond friendship farther than it ought to go, either because we overestimate our compatibility with the person or because we have a poor judgment of ourselves and what we really want. It’s been 14 days, and I feel myself growing already, knowing where I failed, what I want in people, what I can compromise, what I can’t. But I’m also learning an even more significant lesson from all of this: that being alone isn’t at bad as it seems at first, and that with the right amount of self-awareness and self-preservation one can stand up to loneliness and the constant nagging ache for companionship.

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Restraint

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This photo was taken at Rele Art Gallery, by Atanda Obatolu.

I started thinking about this word “restraint” a lot recently, not necessarily about its meaning, but its practice, especially as it relates to speech. I find, these days, that I spend a lot of time thinking about the meaning of words rather than how they are lived out, perhaps because of my job as an English teacher which means that I have to teach students how to use words precisely to convey their thoughts and feelings, and how to use those words within the framework of properly constructed sentences and paragraphs. With the word “restraint”, however, my focus has been on how it is lived rather than its linguistic import so that I am always asking myself, “am I saying more than I need to say or doing more than I need to do?”

I am not given to fluidity in speech. When I talk with close friends, I am often asked if there is something I am not saying, if my okay really means okay, and the assumption is that I am almost always hiding something, holding back, and I do hold back sometimes because what kind of person would I be if I told you everything that’s on my mind exactly the way they come to me, if I told you, for example, that instead of talking to you I would rather do something else or be somewhere else or talk to someone else? What would you think of me or of the relationship you have with me? How would that make you feel? So, yes, sometimes I hold back a little because some relationships thrive on the altar of the things left unsaid.

Someone may argue that the above can be detrimental to a relationship, that if you keep holding back, one day you will explode, and my response will be that holding back at the moment does not mean holding back forever; it means holding back until you find the right time, until you find the right words. It’s buying time to interrogate your thoughts and feelings before you finally let them go, which I think is a powerful thing to do.

I give an example now with my use of the word “okay”, which a lot of people use to express agreement. Yesterday, during a phone conversation with a friend, after so many months, he went on and on about how he has been meaning to call and how he thought of me that morning and how he sometimes wondered if I would answer if he called (to be fair, on a number of occasions in the past, I didn’t), and I said okay. I did not know what else to say, I did not know how to respond to what he was telling me, and I did not want to say something I hadn’t carefully considered. Okay felt right and safe. It always feels right and safe. When my brain is not working as fast as I want it to and I need some time to contemplate where a conversation is heading and what I should say, I say okay. I have noticed, however, that it makes people uncomfortable, like my friend who when I said okay gave me a small lesson on expression and how people should learn to say more.

I don’t think the beauty of a conversation lies in the volume. It’s rather in how what is said drives the conversation forward. Where does it leave us? How does it help me understand myself and you who I am communicating with? How does it help you understand me? What sort of meaning are we forging through the words we exchange? It is, perhaps, the reason why I have been thinking a lot about “restraint” because that way I take charge of every conversation I have and think carefully about what is being exchanged and what I am communicating about myself.

It is important, I have come to understand, that in this journey of cultivating restraint, I build a solid and vibrant interior life where my thoughts are thoroughly processed and refined before they are expressed. A lot of work would have to be done in the inside. But restraint does not mean keeping mum in the face of injustice or oppression. It is not a deliberate act of malice or silence, but a way of exercising more control over speech. This means that I will only say what I have carefully considered, only what is necessary. It means that my mouth won’t be open all the time, letting out whatever garbage comes out of it. In my office, for example, when my colleagues are having a conversation, restraint means that I will not intrude and that I will contribute only when my opinion is needed and that even that opinion will have to be passed carefully through my mind. Restraint means that in class, before my students, I will only say what is necessary. It means that on social media, I will talk only when necessary, when I have something important to say, something that adds perspective, that fills a gap.

A writer (I can’t remember who now. I think it was either Alice Munro or Toni Morrison, God bless her soul) said that restraint gives her the freedom to decide what to hold back and what to tell, makes her feel like she is doing some work and giving the reader some work to do as well because the reader will then have to fill up holes and spaces that have been intentionally created by the writer. I find that intriguing. I think Morrison was a master at giving out just the right amount of information and holding back just the right amount. There’s a quote from one her books, Tar Baby, that doesn’t deal with this subject directly but connects nonetheless: “At some point in life the world’s beauty becomes enough. You don’t need to photograph, paint or even remember it. It is enough.” Do we need to take selfies and photographs of ourselves or of places when we go out and meet people, and post them on social media? Maybe not. Do we need to say something about every issue that comes up on social media to prove that we know? Maybe not. We have to constantly remind ourselves that it’s important to speak only when necessary and that it’s okay to not say anything when we don’t have anything meaningful or thoughtful to say or when we don’t know what to say. It’s enough.

 

P.S.

To anyone reading this,

Thank you for stopping by. I wish I could write more often, but I find myself unable to, and I don’t think anyone reads what I write (not that it’s an excuse). It’s why it takes all the time in the world to get one post out. But, I hope to do better, for the sake of the craft.

Many thanks to Aluka Igbokwe for his warm and timely message, and for encouraging me to keep it going.

Reading the final pages of a book is an act of courage

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Sunday, May 12, 2019

I was going to the airport to welcome my friend who was returning from a trip to Kenya. The plane would arrive at 11.30 am, and because my house was a planet away from the airport and I’d left a couple of minutes short of two hours, I half-worried that, should anything happen on the road (as it often happens in Lagos), I’d be late. And I didn’t want to be late. It was important to me to be at the airport in good time.

We’d passed Lakowe, passed the street I used to live in five years ago, a narrow untarred street that got flooded during the rainy season. Every time I pass the street, I steal a look to see what has changed: perhaps a new building, or a new store, or a new giant hole on the road. But I didn’t notice anything this morning, so I looked on, focused on the journey before me.

The expressway was scanty; not a lot of people were moving about. Stores were closed. Junctions were stripped of the bustle that characterized Lagos life. Buses rattled on almost empty. Bible-carrying pedestrians, all looking decent, walked with a sense of purpose that is rare in Lagos. In front of a Catholic church, cars filled the parking space and spilled onto the road. People, dressed in mostly traditional attire, trooped out of the church compound. The sign in front of the church, as close to the expressway as possible, read: Regina Pacis Catholic Church.

The car slowed down.

“What’s happening?” I asked.

The taxify driver pointed ahead and said that people were leaving church after one of the masses. He said this with the certainty of someone who knew the schedules for Sunday mass in the church, and so I pretended as though I didn’t know, as though I hadn’t once been a chorister in that church, a member of the Legion of Mary, one of the six parishioners who counted offering money in the priest’s office after the masses.

I looked at the driver, at his hairy hands gripping the steering wheel firmly, his eyes fixed on the road. He was patient. He did not blare his horn at the church leavers. He did not scream profanities at the woman driving a Honda, who swerved right in front of the car from nowhere. His name was Efe, and he had been courteous since he picked me up. He greeted me, presented a smile, did not try to force a conversation, did not ask a lot of questions, turned down the volume of the music in his car without my having to ask. I liked him.

When we passed the church and the go-slow eased, I opened the novel on my laps to page 250, chapter eighteen. The front cover was unassuming, almost bland. I hadn’t liked it. Half the page was lemon green; the other half, a dull yellow. A tiny woman in flowing gown was pulling down the NEXT in THE WOMAN NEXT DOOR, which was typed out so that each word occupied a separate line on the front page, and the woman on the other end was almost crouching, peering through her binoculars.

I had started reading The Woman Next Door two weekends before this, stopped after 16 pages or so, picked it up again this weekend, and was now 28 pages away from the end. I didn’t want the story to end. Before I got ready to go to the airport this morning, I’d read a hundred pages or so, and in the last chapter, Hortensia, the protagonist, had slapped Marion. The slap was unexpected, it had surprised me, and I stopped reading at that point because I wanted to think about the slap. I wanted to process it.

If you’ve read The Woman Next Door, you will of course know that Hortensia is not someone to mess with. She’s mean, petty, bitter, unsure, yet sure; she gives it to you the way it’s on her mind. But one particularly striking thing about her is that all of that negative energy was more self-harming than other-harming. She internalized pain and didn’t let it out and actually only did through scathing words and sometimes silence.

So, when she slapped Marion who’d lived in the same house with her and who I thought had earned the right to be called her friend, I wondered at the significance of that action. Did it mean that Hortensia would finally let go of all of that pain she’d been carrying for a very long time? Would the slap be freeing for her? Would it be the channel for pouring out all the hate and resentment she’d been carrying with her for so long? I thought about this as I got ready to go to the airport, as I cleaned my shoes and trimmed my nails, as I folded the sleeves of my shirt. Would she apologise? Would she, Hortensia, open her mouth to say I am sorry? She was eighty, and she’d never slapped anyone in her life. I wondered how this action would change her.

And truly, it did change her. She was remorseful and her apology was sincere and contained the “one thing all apologies require in order to be called such — an admission of guilt.”

I’m sorry I hit you. I shouldn’t have done that. It was wrong of me.

Hortensia is a force. She is raw, caustic, venomous, rusty, but she is, beneath all those layers, undeniably human. I love her humour, her pettiness, and how she has the right answer to everything, and I completely understand how the sting of betrayal can push you and push you and make you become a different version of yourself. In the end, it is Marion’s friendship and a forced encounter with the child her deceased husband had with another woman, outside her knowledge, that redeems her and makes her whole.

I could have finished the 28 pages in the ride to the airport. But, I didn’t. I reserved the last chapter for the airport. I wanted to remember reading the last pages of the book at the airport, waiting for my friend. I wanted to work that memory into time somehow.

The driver stopped me in front of some army officers at the international airport and drove away. I found my way to the sitting area in front of the arrivals — I was fifteen minutes early — and found an empty seat under the shed. A middle-aged man sat beside me. He did not look at me, did not as much as try to force a smile.

At the entrance of the arrivals, police officers lurked, harassed people, begged for money. I felt for my bookmark and opened to Chapter Twenty, the ending at last.

Hortensia had noticed that some people delighted in designing the events that would take place upon their death. Now she had to admit to herself that she was one of them.

Why was Omotosho reminding us of death in the last chapter? Of course Hortensia was an old woman. Of course she’d lost her husband. Of course people have to die. But why did the writer choose to start her last chapter with thoughts about mortality? A few events that had happened earlier in the novel came back to me then, made sense to me then: Hortensia’s husband’s betrayal, her intuitive discovery of it, her silence in the face of it, her journey through it all.

I closed my eyes, and when I opened them, the man beside me was sleeping, oblivious to the moment, his head inclining backward, spit dripping from the side of his mouth. He would never know, could never know, that right beside him, on a sunny Sunday, someone was negotiating two worlds: the real and the unreal, the factual and the imagined.

Reading the final pages of a book is an act of courage. If it’s a book you have enjoyed reading, you want the story to never end, you want to continue living with the characters. Even when you’re done, you realize you’re not done. You realize you are not ready to be done just yet.

I finished the novel in good time, before my friend arrived. The arrival announcement came through the speakers and I messaged my friend who then suggested we meet at departures instead so that we would get a ride easily. I walked to departures. In front of departures, I stood in the sun and waited. An old woman climbed out of a Prado, slowly at first, but then she broke into a run and collapsed on her buttocks almost at the entrance marked Gate C. The police officers ignored her. A young lady, presumably her daughter, climbed out of the car and ran to her. She stood in front of her and called her Mama and cajoled the older woman to follow her. Eventually, the older woman yielded, but I couldn’t quite get that scene out of my head. The older woman could very easily be Hortensia, but in this new life, Hortensia would have a daughter and her daughter would force her to reconcile with parts of herself she was at war with.

A few minutes later, my friend stood in front of me and hugged me and we were soon in an Uber, journeying away from the airport, away from time so gracefully and so intimately spent.

Let me go to God the way I am

Live and let me live
From lovethispic.com

I started a writing group in school in the course of last week. To decide who would be a member of the group, I put the ability to question things above everything else. Does the person have that uncanny ability to see things differently? Is there space for growth? Can they acknowledge human weakness? Are they, above all else, human? It was important for me to gather a critical mass of writers, who were not only good at writing but also good at being human beings. I wanted them to be curious about the world, to be curious about things, to be curious about establishments, life, people, everything.

When I looked back to the class I taught last year, I thought, who and who fits this description? Of course, I had a number of fantastic writing come out of that class, but in a school where free expression is subtly censored and dissenting views are intercepted even before they are formed, I needed people who could think for themselves, freely and wildly and courageously, whose foremost responsibility would be to capture the human condition in clear and honest words. It mattered to me, also, that they were gentle and kind, capable of giving thoughtful, constructive and insightful feedback to others with love. I spent quite some time trying to decide who to invite, but I think I may have gathered the best possible people, and that makes me feel so fulfilled.

Yesterday, we had our first meeting. Before this meeting, I had shared a story with them and asked them to read it ahead of our meeting and come ready to share their thoughts. I was looking forward to hearing their opinions about the story, but then, our meeting took an unexpected turn because, somehow, for the first thirty minutes, we talked about religion and religiosity and the tendency for Christians to impose their beliefs on others. I thought it was a necessary conversation, so I let it happen, and I sat back in my chair as I listened and evaluated what each person was saying against my own beliefs and experiences. Sometimes, I chimed in; however, I mostly listened and observed as I had a lot to learn from them.

The first thing that struck me was that some of them were doing the kind of thinking I only started doing two years ago when I was twenty-eight. They are all most probably between 17 and 20, mostly in the second year of their undergraduate studies. It wasn’t until two years ago that I started questioning my own faith; in fact, I am still on that journey. But there they were dissecting faith with a kind of boldness I did not have when I was their age, saying things like “I need to discover God for myself” “I stopped going to church one year ago” “I have a lot of questions”. It was interesting and astonishing at the same time to watch them speak about faith in a manner stripped of the vigorous piety and devotion of the everyday fanatical Christian. It excited me.

When I said an atheist on twitter posted that he wanted to know if other atheists had sanctuaries that they go to to connect with some higher power like he does, someone said, maybe the guy is just confused because if he is truly an atheist he would not be seeking to connect with some higher power. I did not think about it this way. I had never thought about it this way. I always thought, well, an atheist could believe in something, not just God, so when I saw that post on twitter, I did not stop to think about it. But then, prompted by this conversation, I typed “atheist meaning” on Google search and what I saw next was “a person who disbelieves or lacks belief in the existence of God or gods.” An atheist is not an agnostic, someone said. I did not even know who an agnostic was. My ignorance stung me, but not as much as the validity of that state of confusion in my own life.

Recently, many people have been asking me, quite subtly I must say, when last I attended mass, if I wanted to be in a doctrinal class, pushing albeit quietly that I enroll in one church group and attend retreats and meditations and masses and go for confession. I do understand the good place where this is coming from, but sometimes I just want to be left alone. I am a man, a 30-year-old grown man. I know right from wrong. I can think for myself. I may be confused, yes, an agnostic maybe, but I would rather be left to discover God, by myself, for myself, on my own, and on my own terms, not on other people’s terms. That much is clear to me. I think that Christians, in trying to help other people they perceive as lapsed, can be overreaching in both thoughts and actions.

There’s a thin line, I think, between caring and being imposing and maybe people need to find that line and stay on one end, and as someone else in the writing group said, we need to be able to allow other people the freedom of their own convictions just as they should know to allow us the freedom of our own convictions — except, of course, in situations where their actions harm us or could potentially harm us and society as a whole — for that is the only way we can have a society that respects diversity, fosters inclusion and honours humanity. The Igbos have a beautiful saying that perfectly captures my precise thoughts on this: bili ka m bili. It means live and let me live; live your own life and allow me the freedom to live mine. I couldn’t have said it any better.

 

May you not lose yourself in that which you love

Before I walked into my first Communication in English class this year, I hadn’t planned to ask my students any questions about their holidays. I try as much as possible to maintain a considerable distance from my students, to keep away from their personal lives. But as I stood before them that morning, it occurred to me to start a conversation about new year resolutions. And so I asked, “what does new year resolution mean to you? Do you believe and practice new year resolutions?”

It was a very wild question, almost lacking in essence. At first, nobody said anything, or rather, people simply said yes or no. But I asked for specific details. “If you say no, why? If you say yes, justify your position.” Some still didn’t get it because they said things like, “some people end up not living their resolutions. What’s the use?” But that didn’t quite cut it for me, so I pressed on. What I really was getting at is critical thinking. I wanted them to consider for a moment why they make the choice to either practice new year resolutions or not. So, at the end of that exercise, I had, on the green board, a list of reasons for and against new year resolutions, and that provided the much-needed background for delving into our topic for the week, “Argument writing.” After that exercise, the atmosphere was heightened and my students had on their faces satisfied expressions, the looks of people whose attention had been piqued and satiated.

I narrate the above story to illustrate just how tasking the job of a teacher is, can be. And I mean this for people who want, beyond being any kind of teacher, to be good teachers. To find oneself in a classroom teaching is one thing; to really be a teacher and embody the virtues of a teacher is another different thing.

Anyone that knows me personally knows I have always wanted to be a teacher. When I was eight and had a lesson teacher, Mrs Chukwunelo, who came to our house twice a week to teach me and my brother Math and English and General Studies, I wanted to be Mrs. Chukwunelo or Mrs Adigom my class teacher. I admired them, their patience, their zeal, their dedication. I wanted so desperately to be like them: I would know and help others know. When I was fourteen, I went around the entire school, from class to class, asking students what subjects they found difficult and teaching them. When I was fifteen, I started holding holiday lessons at home for my younger siblings. I’d teach them, administer tests and exams, mark areas for improvement. Teaching, as a profession, became a natural aspiration for me, and teachers became living saints before my eyes.

Despite all these, I did not imagine that this same profession I loved so much would be this tasking. I did not imagine that grading could be so grueling and morally conflicting that sometimes the battle to shut down the voices in my head becomes so real and so insurmountable. I did not imagine that preparing good content is one thing, but choosing the right delivery method is an equally important thing, and maybe even more important than the content itself because how, in this generation of Snapchat and iPhone X, do you attract and sustain students’ attention without being edgy or snappy?

I’ve said this to my close friends a number of times but I doubt that they really get it: every time I walk out of a class, I feel as though a fundamental part of me has left me. There’s some energy that leaves me each time I go to class. Some people say maybe I left a part of my soul with my students. I don’t know exactly what that means. I can’t say. On the one hand, I am grateful that I am able to give something to my students and I can sense that some of them see this and take hold of it because some come to me after class with all kinds of questions and needs (and there’s a sense in which you know that they don’t go to every lecturer in this manner).

On the other hand, I feel as though I am losing a significant part of my being. I am not able to do the things I deeply care about anymore. There’s always more work and more work and more work. Yes, I can take care of my responsibilities as an adult and I can afford the luxury of owning and caring for a cat, but I also care about feeding my soul, and I can’t seem to do that – at least not yet. I haven’t been able to write or read anything good since I started teaching. I used to be able to pick up a 300-page book and just lie on my bed all day until I finish it. I can’t do that anymore. I can’t even start writing a story and finish a first draft in a few days like I used to do.

And there’s a letter from a friend, a four-page letter that arrived early this year. Each time, I reply that letter in my head but never in a document. I can’t seem to find the time and strength to collect my thoughts and pin them onto pages of MS Word. It makes me wonder what would happen if, one day, I wake up to realize I cannot read or write or do the things I love.

May the day never come that I will be unable to recognize my own life. Not for me. Not for anyone.

Because Nothing I Have Is Truly Mine, Or A Beginner’s Guide To Philosophizing Human Existence

life for rent
Source: discogs.com

I seem quite unable to shake off the nostalgia that almost always comes with listening to Dido’s Life for Rent. Can’t say I remember the first time I encountered this song, but I do remember two years ago, in one of the last months of 2017, when, sitting at my desk after midnight and brooding over my life, a car drove past my house with music blasting so loud I could imagine people waking up from sleep. It was about 2am and the driver must have been returning from a club, because how else do you explain the inconsiderate loudness, the undisguised carefreeness? He must have thought that turning up his music to the loudest volume would keep the club alive in him until he, at least, got home, never mind that it was past midnight and normal people would be sleeping at that time. It was a Saturday night cum Sunday morning, and I remember thinking, at first, what nonsense? And then I thought, perhaps this is what it means to be fully alive, to be living your best life.

I’m grateful for that singular experience because now that I think of it, how else would I have remembered Life for Rent? What memories would I have had of it and how strong could they have possibly been?  Should he have turned down the volume or even delayed at the club a few minutes, I may have missed that opportunity to create this memory I now have of the song. He may not have passed by my house at that exact time or Life for Rent may not have been playing on his stereo or the volume may have been turned down and I would not have heard the song at all. There are a number of possibilities, and it makes me ponder on how a few seconds or a few minutes have the capacity to alter our lived experiences and make us create totally different memories. Dido’s words in that song couldn’t have been truer: that this life we live is for rent and although we may like to think that we’re in control of things, we really are not because sometimes life just trots on, all by itself.

After the car passed and the music faded, I stood from my desk. The lyrics of the song had whizzed into my soul and stretched out into the core of my being. I felt assaulted, invaded. It was a brief moment, a few seconds, but those seconds left me utterly breathless and miserably vulnerable. I felt suddenly alone and overpowered by a sickening sense of nostalgia. I went back to my desk, opened a blank page, stared at the screen, stood up, stretched, walked around a bit, stepped out to the balcony for some fresh air. The uneasiness was still there. When did I first hear this song? I thought. Was it during my secondary school? How come I know the lyrics by heart? I tried to remember the early days of wondering and wandering, of naivety, of innocence, of falling and failing, of becoming. Perhaps, I’d heard the song on radios during that time or not. (I’ve never been invested in music; in fact, most of the songs and artists I know today I stumbled on or got introduced to by friends.) Perhaps, it was my friend Ifeanyi whose interest in pop culture intrigued me, who knew all the songs that had to be known and all the celebrities that ruled the world. Maybe he’d sung it one day and it landed on my tongue. I couldn’t exactly remember. I couldn’t account for that time, for that memory, and it hurt. I’d lost something of value, something that should forever be a part of me. A memory. MY memory.

Now, when I remember Life for Rent, I try not to think too much about when I first encountered it. Instead, I think of that quiet night in my former apartment, me wide awake, a car blasting past, both of us fulfilling a moment in destiny. I remember googling Life for Rent afterward, downloading it. It must have been on repeat for days until I got bored and moved on to another song. Such has been my relationship with music: I love one and love it and love it, and then I move on. In all, however, music is the perfect expression for all the things we (would) never (be able to) say. Life for Rent, on its own, is such a thoughtful, melancholic song. There’s something about the lyrics, Dido’s voice, the beats, the things not said. Dido once said in an interview, “Life for rent means that my life isn’t really my own. I only rented it for a while, but if I don’t manage to buy it, to own it, then nothing of what I think is mine is really mine.” I don’t know another stream of thought that most concisely captures the undeniable frailty of human existence.

 

And I can’t wait to go home…

30

I am living the last hours of my 20s and wondering if I am living it right, if I have lived my 20s well, if so far there has been a purpose to my life. This must be some narcissistic way of reasoning because why does life have to have a purpose in the first place and why are we humans so genuinely bent on finding it? Why can’t we just live?

Reminds me of this time last year, days before I turned 29, when I couldn’t sleep at night,  couldn’t think right, couldn’t eat, couldn’t do anything. I would turn and turn in bed and step out into the night to cry. I remember how M called on the second night of November and I just started crying, and for minutes over the phone, over the distance, we did nothing else but cry.  I remember how N and O traveled all the way to the island to see me, to make certain that I was still alive. I remember how my friend C, who was staying over at my place for some time, followed me into the silence of the night to ask what was going on with me. I couldn’t explain what I was feeling. I couldn’t pin my sadness on anything, except a thick gauze of dark clouds that was swooping down on me, enveloping me.

In the past few hours, I have been reading articles and blogs online about how different people in different parts of the world turned 30. So far, I observe a trend of anxiety and sadness and a deep feeling of pain and maybe a little regret about lives not fully lived. A lot of people go through a very difficult transitioning phase whereas some others glide through it like nothing happened. It is gruesome for some and pleasantly smooth for others. The former describes my state of mind last year because, this year, I feel nothing close to sadness. I am happy. I am content. I am a tad thrilled even. I think about turning 30, but I don’t think about it so much as to be depressed or worried or anything. I’m not even sure if it is okay and normal to feel how I feel because almost everywhere I look online, I see stories of anxiety and sadness and a total dissatisfaction with life. They say it is the existential crisis.

There’s something about 30 that makes people not to want to turn 30. Perhaps, the number itself, which makes it seem like senility has finally caught up with the person. Or could it be that people who are single and 30 are shamed for being over 20 and now find it difficult finding love, or are ashamed of the age themselves? Or the fact that they are no longer qualified for certain job openings which set maximum age at 30? What is it about 30 and anxiety?

As for me, I think that, somehow, my life has gained some meaning, or I have created meaning for myself and set my life on that path. I now live unashamed, unrestrained. I pour my soul out every time I go to the classroom (and I feel it. I literally feel a part of me leave after teaching a class). I mentor students. I am kind to myself and to people. I have a lovely cat. I write when I can. So, in every sense of the word, I am stepping into my 30s with grace and confidence!

It’s been a hell of a journey for me. I have had ups and downs. My twenties were years for me to learn how to make my own decisions and stand by them, how to face the consequences of my decisions. But it was also a time for me to pass through fire, because the process of taking stock of the years I have lived and juxtaposing that with the years I am yet to live opened up a fresh emotional plane for me.

I now understand a few things better than I did when I was, say, 14. When someone says to me now that they want to do a job because they want to be rich, I don’t scowl or frown or judge, because I understand. Because I fully understand. I understand that responsibility is like a child you have brought into the world, and whether you like it or not you will have to deal with it at the end of the day; it does not matter what profession you choose; it does not matter who you decide to be or what you decide to do with your life. You can decide to be an artist and you will still have to feed, place a roof over your head, take care of your health, move from one place to another. You will have to clothe. These are necessities, not luxuries, and when the weight of unfulfilled responsibilities descend on you, there is no escape from the regret or anxiety or hopelessness that will come.

What I am really saying is that I now understand that it is perfectly okay to pursue money, to take good care of oneself before you start dreaming and calling your dreams into life. It’s perfectly okay to want to postpone your dreams and survive first. It is he who has first eaten that will challenge the gods to a fight. My late 20s taught me this. And although this may not work for everyone, although some people will still prefer to throw themselves deep into their passions, they do this knowing that their passions can burn them, because, really, passion can be everything and it can still be nothing.

It’s a few minutes before midnight, before I fully turn 30, and I am sitting in my house, typing this and craving good music and wine. When Ed Sheeran sang, “And I can’t wait to go home…” I imagine home to be somewhere I’ve never been. Of course, I have several homes, but I can’t wait to go “home.”

For the rest of the night, I’ll probably listen to a lot of music and drink something, but if there’s one thing I feel genuinely in my heart, it’s an outpouring of gratitude, for the experiences of the 20s, for the ups and downs and lows and highs, for the loves that ended before they even got a chance at life, for the solitude and the aches and the victories, for the last precious days.

I will have to make a lot of decisions in the coming months and years, and I know I still don’t understand the meaning of life, why people die just as casually as people are born, but I hope it all makes sense some day. I am stepping into 30, single (painfully), aware, and with a small prayer to the gods of the golden 30 years, that I live more, that I be more aware of my days, that I cherish the beautiful things and people around me, that I be content with whatever I have and wherever life takes me especially in this age of garish social media life.

A very beautiful happy birthday to me!

I mourn

…my writing.

I miss her. I miss her so very much. It’s not so much about the satisfaction I get when the writing is over, when I look at a piece I have birthed (or am birthing) and can’t help the smile that plasters my lips, but about the therapeutic and painstaking process of peering through my glasses, at my screen, and trying to decide whether “birth” is a better word in this sentence than “create.”

I haven’t always been this person that demands nothing less than perfection from my writing. I would usually not care about quality. But this person that I am now, this person that spends more time contemplating an idea than doing the actual work, this person that spends hours wishing he could write better or more, is new to me.

Maybe if I take a good look into my life, I’ll find that the person I’ve become came into existence after a writing workshop with Adichie. Or maybe not.

It was two years ago, in a small hotel in Lekki. Adichie drilled and grilled 24 of us in the chilly conference room on the ground floor of the hotel.  The writing exercises. The short stories. The conversations; long hours of talking about almost everything. The awe. I walked out of that hotel, after 11 days, a totally different person.

Before the workshop, this was who I was:

Eager: to publish anything no matter how terrible and despicable.

Rash: in thinking, in writing, in pushing things into the world.

Smug: Too proud of my abilities and overconfident of my very ordinary self.

After the workshop, me:

Tortured:

Scared like a lamb:

Slow:

Changed:

Months of silence and hesitation. Months of doubting myself over and over again. Months of rejection emails, of contemptuous remarks about my writing, of shame. I learned to disguise my shame and incompetence.

Two years after the workshop, I have more doubt than ever before. I teach writing, but that has not convinced me enough to get down to it.

I question every idea. I question every word I let onto the page. I question the very fact that I feel this way. I doubt the place my writing comes from. There’s nothing there, I tell myself. You’re an impostor, I say.

I worry and worry and worry.

But writing is something I love. I want to do this for as long as I live. And so, I am distressed that this is happening. I am sad that I haven’t written anything serious in the past six months.

Maybe I need some inspiration. Maybe I need to try harder. Maybe I’m not called to do this. Maybe this is a phase that will pass.