On A Return to the Reassurance of Routines

In which an odd holiday season comes and goes and the reality of work is strangely comforting...

Photo by ian dooley on Unsplash

**

In the early hours of the holiday season, it looked like I would spend the bulk of it virtually, the hours a blur of Zoom and WhatsApp video calls. Sometime on the 26th though, my luck changed. I woke up to the persistent sound of my door buzzer. I was half minded to not answer it, given multiple experiences with the gardening folk looking for more work. The door ringer wouldn’t leave and I needed to return to sleep so I dragged myself downstairs to the door. A pleasant surprise greeted me there; the neighbour from a street over stood there with a tub of fried rice and a bottle of wine - of the non-alcoholic kind of course. As it turns out, he remembered there was a lone Nigerian dude across the road with no family nearby and thought to extend some Christmas cheer my way. The rice and meat were wolfed down over the course of the day, saving me the hassle of wondering what to have on the day. Two more invites came my way over the next few days, resulting in my wolfing down some pounded yam and afang soup (the first time since my Eket days) and some pepper soup and snails on the other day. For all my quibbles with being a prodigal Nigerian, and being around Nigerians, moments like these remind me that redemption lurks in there somewhere. My experiences of fellow prodigals have been overwhelmingly positive. I wonder though, if they are a self-selecting group.

The three or so days of downtime ensured my year in reading has gotten off to a steady start. Last year was the first time since 2011 that I cracked the 20 book barrier, most definitely an upside to being out of work for three months, and the lockdown. Adam Gopnik’s A Thousand Small Sanities, a stirring defence of big L Liberalism is done whilst I have David Olusoga’s Black &British, A Forgotten History and Bill Bryson’s Notes From A Big Country on the go.

**

Nothing jolts one back to reality like a 4.30am alarm on the day you return to work though. As I scrambled through my morning routine - a quick 5k, setting up my day in Notion, morning ablutions and then jumping on to the bus, it seemed like I was another person watching me go through the motion. Only when I had reset my password, downed two cups of tea and properly positioned my bag of wipes did it feel like I was properly at home at my own desk again. Who knew that the familiarity or routine could soothe the mind?

Recent Finds

  • Talking to yourself is not half bad. I knew I was on to something!

  • I’ve been catching up on my Desert Island Disc backlog. I found Cliff Richard’s one particularly interesting

  • The dearth of British Asian footballers in English football is a recurring motif which I suppose prompted the BBC to research the story of Jimmy Carter. This resonated particularly, I suspect, because I have reading David Olusoga’s book which includes stories of the Black British Victorians such as Francis Barber whose descendants may or may not know of their Black heritage. The accompanying BBC Series is on iPlayer for another 5 months it seems.

Season's Greetings

A first Christmas, and a sense of déjà vu

It feels very much like my first Christmas up in the ‘Deen, what with being house bound, friends and family some distance away and there being a decided chill in the air. Now, as with then, I woke up to We Three Kings in my ears with all the rabbit holes of memories it brings with it.

The key difference this time is that the lockdown has given everyone practice of staying in touch across the distance. Fortunately or unfortunately, that means I have several family zoom calls to jump on. It is a small inconvenience I guess, given the year we have all had - the best of years and the worst of years to use that oft quoted line from Dickens.

There is a lot to be thankful for on all counts, so all I’ll say is give those friends and family members a call over this period and catch up.

Season’s Greetings from the Edge of The World!

Lights, Language and this (c)old December weather

In which I reflect on language, and inadvertently become the poster boy for not wearing a jacket

Photo by Lawless Capture on Unsplash

**

In about as low key a manner as could be, lights - I won’t go so far as to call them Christmas lights - are slowly making their way on to trees around me. That they first turned up in front of the communal lounge and then a few houses here and there complete with inflatable Santas made me think they were put up by individuals. I am no longer so sure of that, given that some lights turned up on the tree in the middle of no man’s land in front of my house. Lights apart, you would have no inkling it was a week to Christmas - work continues apace and the only official holiday is the 3rd of January. For all the sameness that living in the bubble I live in seems to cultivate, it is these little differences that drive home the realities now and again. The positive is that I get to take the days off when I want which, all things being equal, should be soon-ish.

Two conversations this week, and one of my favourite podcasts, brought the subject of language to my mind. First was a conversation around learning French which for me remains lost in the dregs of the someday/maybe folder. Three months of lockdown had me diving into Duolingo on a regular basis but in the face of real life since then, the inscrutability of gendered nouns, tricky pronunciations and head scratching verb conjugations have put paid to that desire. Maybe English is far too reductionist - or more likely as a reasonably fluent English speaker I have become lazy with languages - but one wonders what the world-view behind gendered nouns is.

The past few episodes of the On Being podcast have focused on the subject of love and loving. In the notes to Ellen Bass’s Bone of My Bone and Flesh of My Flesh, the subject of language and how we refer to the ones we love comes up but perhaps most close to my heart was a conversation with O. O is a distant cousin who insists on speaking to me in our shared mother tongue. In the aftermath of our last conversation I couldn’t shake the thought of how we greet in the morning from my mind. In my mother tongue (and why is it mother tongue?), we say “mole muude”, which loosely translates as welcome from yesterday. Maybe some distant ancestor realized that life was a hard slog, and making it through a night exposed to the elements and wild beasts deserved a welcome of sorts, or not. Given the multiple theories on the origin of language, I suspect we will never know for certain.

When the morning temperatures first dipped below 10 degrees a few weeks ago, I spurned the use of a jacket as I the one I had was not fire retardant. Fast forward a few weeks now, and every morning when I get off the bus without my jacket, I am invariably asked if I am not cold. My usual response is to say that I’ve seen worse, and that 10 degree weather, sans the bracing Scottish wind - is hardly cold. This is an explanation I have overhead others repeating. I fear this is one of those things that will take on a life of its own, with interest continuing until the day I finally cave in and turn up with a jacket. For now, I am still holding out.

Recent Finds

  • Michael Curry (he of the rousing homily at Harry & Meghan’s wedding) & Russell Moore (one of the more considered and nuanced voices amidst America’s Southern Baptists) come from widely differing Christian traditions but manage to have a friendly, wide ranging conversation on the On Being podcast. Well worth a listen if conversations around public theology are your thing.

  • On the subject of language and poetry, David Whyte on the Art of Manliness talks poetry, life and the intersections therein. A theme which seems to be popping up a bit amongst friends and acquaintances turns up here too, the need for men to develop friendships that encourage difficult conversations.

  • Somewhat related, the folk from Love Thy Neighbourhood talk about gender on Where The Gospel Meets Manhood.

  • From Math Twitter, Steven Strogatz (The Joy of X, Infinite Powers) posted a link to The Mountains of Pi which delves into the story of the Chudnovsky brothers and their quest to build a super computer to compute the digits of pi, back in the early 90s. They’re still going, incredibly.

Coming Up For Air...

In which I finally get to pause for breath after a manic past few weeks...

Based on a photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

***

That doing and not doing are both habits is something that I have come to grudgingly accept over the past month, seeing as the longer I was away from here the harder dragging myself back here seemed. In my defence real life has been manic, the stultifying pressures of time-sensitive deliverables not lending themselves to the pursuit of non-essential, creative pursuits. I have myself to blame for some of that pressure, seeing as I somehow thought fitting a poem a day challenge into everything I had going on would be doable. I made it through fourteen days of that - a minor miracle at least. With some breathing space coming up towards the end of the month, my hope is to go back over the prompts, edit, write some more, and begin the process of pulling some of the pieces together into a chap book for the evaluators in January 2020.

Winter is very much here, not enough to turn on the heating (I love it cold at night for sleep) but enough to feel the bite in the wind at noon when I make a beeline for the canteen to grab my regular lunch time fare. My evening walks now include a hoodie for some warmth and protection against the chilly weather which, believe it or not, hovered just above 10 deg C the other night. We have had rain a couple of times too, in addition to the occasional heavy fog rolling in like a wet blanket. Rain and fog most assuredly did not cross my mind as weather effects to expect out here. A learning experience if ever there was one I think. The next milestone - six months in the current gig - is just round the corner. I’m hoping that it goes well, bucking the recent trends of lay-offs, hiring freezes and all the other things the headwinds facing my industry seem to have driven every one from small, nimble operator to lumbering erstwhile giants to. Back in Blighty, Boris and his oven-ready deal have proven to be anything but that, with recent briefings suggesting that no-deal - by whatever name it is called - seems to be the most likely option. Surely his days in the hot seat must be numbered with any number of challengers from his ranks waiting in the wings it seems.

Oil, and the head winds facing the industry, are never far away from the conversation. The recent up-tick in oil prices and what seems to be some sense prevailing amongst the sabre rattling big producers and cartels perhaps delays the inevitable but oil has certainly has its day. In conversation with G the other day at work, we concluded that our generation is probably the last one that will benefit from the ‘largesse’ of the oil industry. The latest cuts at one of my previous employers - whilst borrowing to keep up paying dividends - certainly removes any sense of rose tinted glasses. It is a numbers game now, and any notions of pride in esoteric knowledge very much need t be tempered by the realities of life. I am betting on data and porting my skills into adjacent industries.

Proper reading has taken a back seat to everything else with the only real time I’ve had been on the bus to and from work. Audio books and podcasts have come to the rescue in that regard. Here, for your pleasure are a few bits and bobs from what I have managed to consume.

  • Season 2 of perhaps my favourite podcast is still going strong, now standing 22 episodes deep and featuring a wide variety of work from folk such as Lucille Clifton, Chris Abani, Gregory Pardlo and Ada Limon. Next to Roger Robinson’s A Portable Paradise, I am finding Dilruba Ahmed’s Phase One an especially evocative one. Something about learning to forgive oneself is particularly resonant given the year we have all had in which carefully laid plains have been disrupted by things outside our control

  • A thoroughly fascinating and wide ranging conversation between Nanjala Nyabola and Yousra Elbagir over at Intelligence Squared had me nodding and smiling to myself from time to time at how very articulated several of the thought which have been kicking about in my head were made. The power of passports is something that I know only too well.

  • My views on government are shifting, decidedly I think, in the direction of smaller, less bloated forms. Fareed Zakaria certainly makes the argument in Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World that the quality of governance is what matters more than the quantity. Nigeria certainly has a lot of quantity (and bloat) and very little quality, good old Blighty seems to have neither to me.

  • And from Church of the Way, Land of The Living, which has become one of my favourite songs over the past month. It might be the song itself, or its lyrics which soothe a craving for certainty but all told, I think it is well worth a listen.

A Hundred Days of Being...

In which I somehow end up surviving (in my gilded prison) for a hundred days and counting...

Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash

**

A calendar reminder brought to mind that somehow I had lasted a hundred days out here, not that a hundred twenty-four hour periods are any more significant than say a hundred and two, or ninety. It does feel like a sufficiently long amount of time, and distance, from which to look back at the early days here and reflect on what I have learned, and there have been a lot.

If I had to choose, I would go with learning to accept a slower pace of life as being one of the most important, because it is one of the ones which I have struggled with the most. Being the detailed, procedural person that I am, my life is organized around knowing what needs to be done, and setting out a plan to get there. Being out here has taught me that the best laid plans depend on people to come to fruition, and regardless of how detailed they are, the system trumps any individuals. As an older, wiser head told me recently, learning to accept that life moves in gear one out here rather than gear five would do me a lot of good.

Speaking of older, wiser heads learning to lean on them more has been one of the things I’ve learned since being out here. The beauty - or the downside - to slow, bureaucratic systems is that documented information is never a reliable indicator of how things will work for you. People who have been there and done that are thus critical, as they can speak from experience and potentially have contacts who can help smooth over bumps along the way. It makes for slow, inefficient systems - I once had to take a taxi ride lasting two hours and some each way to attend an appointment that lasted twenty minutes - but knowing that you’ll get there in the end does help deal with the angst of the present.

Perspective is also critical as I have found out several times when I have called up O to moan about something or the other, like having to hop forty-five minutes to the next town to get basic electronic supplies. For every gripe I have, someone else has it worse. Accepting that and moving on has been a key part of surviving my gilded cage.

In tandem with navigating the culture and location changes, there has been the challenge of navigating the credibility deficit of moving jobs from a city where my name had some recognition to one which, by nature of its insularity, places great stock in experience local to the region. Having moved jobs relatively infrequently, I have had to hark back to 2011 to find a comparable period in my life. Thankfully, my personal histories of that time include my thoughts on navigating that move and finally wrestling the sense of imposter syndrome down. If anything, having those notes to refer to underscores the importance to me of curating a personal history, something I am keen to become better at.

All told, there is a sense of slowly bedding in, becoming a cog in the system slowly churning out work and doing life. The upside of this is I have began to pick up a few words here and there. In keeping with one of the inspirations of starting this weekly letter, I’ll share a word now and again. This week it is habibi. It means beloved, I am told, but is more appropriate with really good friends rather than professional colleagues. Considering almost everyone who reads this is a close friend and/or family, it feels appropriate to begin with this.

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