Tuesday, 18 February 2014

The Other Elephant in the Room

I knew the big question was coming.

I’ve known this since last year when we were talking about something completely unrelated at the dining table and my daughter suddenly asked me a question about our ‘unique’ living arrangement. I can’t remember exactly what it was that she asked, but her puzzlement was obvious. Her little head was clearly filled with questions that she couldn’t quite articulate – or simply wasn’t ready to yet.

Then, two weeks ago, my daughter really wanted to have a picnic and I had promised her two or three weekends in a row that we’d have our very own picnic. (As she lamented, ‘I’ve only had one picnic in my whole life!’) Unable to put it off any longer, I promised we’d have the picnic that Saturday. In her relentless fashion, she came to me literally every hour that day to ask when we were going to set things up. When I was finally done with whatever I had to get out of the way, it was around 4 pm, and it suddenly started raining cats and dogs. My daughter hung her head, convinced her hopes were dashed. But we were going to have that picnic, come hell or high-water so that I could cross this activity off of my ‘to do’ list.

We spread a blanket in the living room and had an evening picnic which all household members were mandated to attend. It turned out to be a lot of fun for every one of us, actually, and my daughter was literally bouncing off the walls with excitement, very proud of herself for coming up with this grand idea.

As we all chatted about this and that and munched on this and that, she suddenly asked, ‘How come we only have a Mommy in this house?’

‘There are different kinds of families,’ I replied. ‘Some have Mommies and Daddies, and some don’t.’

‘Oh,’ she replied, satisfied. At least for that moment.

Tonight, she came upstairs to watch TV in my room. First, though, she stopped by my bed and asked: ‘What’s the reason why you and Daddy live in two different countries?’

She has homework due next week that involves interviewing grandparents about life in the olden days. My guess is that they’re talking a lot about families lately during her Social Studies lessons.

I had prepared for this moment for the last six years and so I replied calmly and comfortably, not skipping a beat: ‘Your Daddy and I haven’t always lived in different countries. When we started doing so, it was because our work took us to different countries. When I came to Kenya, we moved here together. You weren’t even born then. And then, some years later, we had a beautiful baby girl and we were so happy …’ – at this point, she gave me a beautiful smile – ‘… About a year later, things weren’t really working out between Daddy and I. So we decided it would be better for us to live apart.’

I had prepared for this moment for the last six years. I hadn’t prepared exactly what I was going to say, but I had prepared for how I was going to say it. I wondered if this preparation was making a difference now that I finally needed it.

I paused, trying to read her expression for any hints of sadness. All I found was curiosity.

I had prepared for this moment forever and maintained a calm exterior. On the inside, I was anything but calm, though. I was talking to ‘Daddy’s Girl’ here, and being one myself, I was tiptoeing for dear life on eggshells.

Since I’d finally let it all out to her for the first time, I thought I might as well make sure she was clear on where things stood: ‘Your Daddy and I aren’t together anymore, but he’ll always be your Daddy and I’ll always be your Mommy.’

‘Oh,’ she said, almost cheerfully. I was confused by her tone, expecting a totally different reaction and yet not wanting to provoke the sort of reaction I dreaded. So I gently pushed for more information, trying to get into that little head of hers.

‘So, what d’you think about the fact that your parents don’t live together?’ I asked.

‘I think it’s interesting ‘cause most houses have a mom and a dad and kids.’

I thought that ‘interesting’ was an interesting choice of a word, and I was suspicious of it.

‘You think it’s interesting, huh? And what else do you think about it?’ I asked.

‘I think it’s amazing,’ she replied seriously.

Amazing?’ I threw my head back and laughed out loud. ‘What’s amazing about it?’

‘Um … maybe I used the wrong word,’ she said. ‘What I meant was, it’s good to hear and good to know about the reason why we only have a Mommy in this house.’

It was my turn to be amazed. I wondered what exactly was going on in that little head.

Before I could probe further, my daughter asked earnestly, ‘Do you know something interesting? With seahorses, it’s the other way round: instead of Mommies giving birth, the Daddies give birth.’

I laughed out loud again, charmed by the complete innocence that only a child can display.  

‘Yeah, that’s true. That is interesting.’

‘May I change the channel?’ she asked.

‘Of course,’ I replied, and off she went with my eyes following her wistfully.

Oh, ‘My Sweetheart-Princess’ (my favorite pet name out of my zillion pet names for my daughter).

I’m sorry that this is your ‘normal.’

I wish I could give you the world. I’ll die trying.



Thursday, 13 February 2014

I forgot

Maybe I would’ve remembered on Saturday. I don’t know that for sure, though. My thoughts have been occupied by so many other things lately. Plus, my brother’s in town and his birthday is tomorrow. We’ll both be working, so I asked him to come over on Saturday instead with some of his colleagues for a small get-together.

My children’s father called today. After asking how I was doing, he said solemnly: ‘Happy Anniversary.’

I hesitated and then asked, ‘Happy Anniversary?’ I was confused as I wondered what he meant. Which anniversary? My mind flitted to my brother’s impending birthday. I guess I heard ‘anniversary,’ but my mind processed something else. It was on the tip of my tongue to point out that the birthday will actually be tomorrow, and then, half a minute into this thought process, it hit me.

Our 16th wedding anniversary would have been this Saturday. How could I have forgotten?

‘Ohhhh …’ I said, with a little chuckle under my breath. ‘Very funny.’

‘Why’re you laughing?’ he asked, still solemn.

I paused. We’ve had an almost identical conversation every year around this time for the last few years. It always went like this. He would ask why I reacted the way I did (I always seemed to inadvertently have some reaction that would make him question me), and I would get defensive.

This time, I decided to be original.

I didn’t respond to the question. Instead, I replied, in spite of myself, ‘Happy Anniversary.’

‘Thank you,’ he responded solemnly.

He was calling to ask for my intervention with ‘the Nigerian phone,’ which has been dead for almost a month now, apparently, and I assured him I’d take care of it.

I hung up, startled by my own forgetfulness. I felt decidedly guilty. My rational side says there’s no reason why I should feel that way. My ‘Nice Girl’ side begs to differ.


I have never forgotten before. 

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Book Cover: What d’you think?




I was planning to do some sort of trivia exercise or something to get people to guess what the book title was going to be. Alas, this idea was overtaken by events (I’ll blame it on my procrastination).

A couple of weeks ago, I got an urgent call from the publisher around 7 pm or later. We’d been shooting emails back and forth, trying to come to a consensus on what the book cover should look like. I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted. I wanted something minimalist and without a whole lot of color or a whole lot of stuff going on. The book cover designer had other ideas, though, so I kept rejecting different samples. Out of exasperation (ha ha), the publisher asked if I could rush over that evening. I was still on leave then, thank goodness, so I was over there in a few minutes. His thought was that the designer and I needed to actually meet each other in person so I could tell him face-to-face what I wanted, rather than via email. We all huddled around a computer in the publisher’s office that evening. I think it took us about an hour of talking and tweaking things until we all finally stood back and stared at the large computer screen with a satisfied silence.

‘We’ve got it,’ I said. ‘No more tweaking. This is it.’

They both agreed.

‘That’s it,’ the publisher said.

‘I never would’ve thought this lack of color would work out,’ the designer said, ‘but I can see what you mean. We’re done.’

The book cover was needed in a hurry because it had to be part of the publisher’s catalogue of books that will be released in 2014. I just found out the day before yesterday that the book catalogue was out. Since it’s in the public domain now (the catalogue, that is), I thought I should share the cover here as well, right away.

The book has an unusual title, but one that I think is appropriate, and will either resonate or generate curiosity. In the Preface of the book, I explain what the title is really about. I’m going to share the Preface here for now and take it down later. Much of it will be familiar to regular readers of the blog. It’s being copy-edited as we speak, but not much is expected to change.

Enjoy.

***
PREFACE
Why this book was necessary

I started writing this book for one reason and finished writing it for another.

When I began writing it, I was a married Christian woman going through a divorce. Writing was cheaper than therapy. Writing was my therapy. I needed to talk in order to heal and so I had talked to whoever cared to listen, trying to make sense of what had occurred in my marital life. I learned that you can only talk so much to your family, friends, and other loved ones without sounding like a broken record. After a while, you begin to sense that your ‘talking time,’ as a person desperate to heal, is up. Writing picked up where others left off.

With the passage of time, I became a divorced Christian woman. My reason for writing necessarily evolved. I still found writing therapeutic, but that’s not the only reason for which I wrote. Looking back, I now realize that, subconsciously, I wrote to create ‘elbow room’ for myself and others like me – in the Church, in Africa – Christians that just happened to have experienced divorce. I wanted to emphasize that there’s enough room for us, too – for us and our realities.

One of the first books I read after I came to the decision to file for divorce was Stacy Morrison’s  Falling apart in one piece: One optimist’s journey through the hell of divorce. As this author put it: ‘My family and friends had gone with me on this journey as far as they could go. I would have to go the rest of the way on my own.’

This book represents ‘the rest of the way’ for me. It has afforded me the luxury of having an endless conversation with myself, fostering one layer of healing after the other. It has allowed me to say as much or as little as I have wanted, when I have wanted, when I have needed to. The book is part of a process that has helped me make sense of the demise of my Christian marriage, and in so doing, create closure for myself.

It began as a collection of memoir-based essays on my laptop just over a year ago. It began entirely for me and no one else. I discovered that if talking was therapeutic, there was also something incredibly restorative about putting things down on paper. And then I started to share the essays with my sister and she encouraged me to start a blog, patiently walking me through the process of setting one up via phone and email. And then, I started getting comments on the blog from people I had never met and probably never will. And I realized that the issues I was writing about, which I thought were all about me, actually had a much broader application. The issues pertained to other women, too, and the larger society. I occasionally wondered why none of the books I had found about other women’s divorce experiences were by African women like me. And I kept writing.

One of the earliest blog posts I wrote was entitled ‘Strange Women.’ I wrote it right after a church conference during which the Christian women in attendance prayed against ‘strange women’ – that is, women that their husbands were already romantically involved with, or could potentially end up in extra-marital affairs with. I was fascinated by this particular prayer angle and later discovered that it is actually quite common among African, Christian women. I soon noticed that some of the most popular internet searches that brought women to the blog contained words such as ‘prayers against the strange women in my husband’s life.’ As I write this, the most recent visitor to the blog arrived from East Africa by entering the following words into her search engine:  ‘prayer bullets to eliminate the strange women.’ Another visitor arrived on the blog from North America a few minutes before this, after using the search words ‘prayer points against husband snatchers.’  Similar search words have brought, and continue to bring, what I’m presuming are African women, from literally all over the world, to the blog. As a result, the ‘Strange Women’ essay was the number one post on the blog for a long time.

Although I believe deeply in prayer, I grew concerned by what I saw as the immense amount of pressure that Christian women seemed to be putting themselves under to ensure their husbands’ faithfulness (as if doing so were their mandated role, or even possible). It occurred to me that these actions represented a sort of ‘stranglehold,’ for lack of a better term – one that could potentially lead to the asphyxiation of many important phenomena: of one’s joy, peace, and self-esteem; of critical, practical actions that could actually save a marriage; and, finally, of oneself. While I have never personally prayed the ‘Strange Women’ prayer, I have definitely experienced my share of ‘strangleholds’ in different forms, and in this book, I have not been shy about revealing and dissecting almost every one of them. Nearly every chapter in the book showcases a mindset, a belief, an attitude, or an action, that represents a potential ‘stranglehold’ which inhibited my own marriage from remaining strong, or which could have served as a stumbling block during my transition to, and in the aftermath of, divorce.

Employing the medium of writing, I ‘remember my journey’ (Micah 6:5, NIV) through marriage and, ultimately, to divorce, as an African, Christian woman. My hope is that, by reading about my experiences and memories, other professing Christians in my part of the world will become more comfortable with the idea of telling the truth – will realize that it’s okay to tell the truth about the unexpected ugliness that sometimes creeps up in all of our lives. By telling the truth myself, I also hope to ‘spark a process’ by which African churches and African society at large can deal with divorce more honestly, astutely, compassionately, and effectively. Along this journey, I have found myself continually problematizing divorce – revealing it for the immensely complex, multi-dimensional concept that it is. Hopefully, this process will be useful for others that are in the same place as I was when I started writing, and for the loved ones in their lives. Hopefully, it will help us all refrain from oversimplifying the issues that often lead to divorce, so that our solutions to these predicaments can be better thought-out and more practical and successful.

I have to warn you, though: the book is not written in chronological order by any means. I write about whatever comes to me, whenever it comes. This is a healing process, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that healing can often be haphazard.




 








Saturday, 25 January 2014

Writing while healed

“As empathetic or emotional writers, we write better when we are going through it.”

---- PradaPrincipal


When I started this blog in March 2012, I was in a phase in my life where I felt absolutely compelled to write. I would be going about my day when I would suddenly be hit by strong and vivid thoughts and memories, along with words that I had to write down. They would be so powerful that sometimes, I would have to stop in my tracks.

That was two years ago almost, and things have changed since then. Change is good, and I am very relieved to have moved on from what was a pretty dismal point in my life. But change is uncomfortable, too, if you’re a creature of habit like me. I’m referring here to the change I see in my writing. I find that I’m writing for very different reasons right now.

In a recent post on the Romance Meets Life blog, a reader posted a comment, erroneously assuming that Myne Whitman (the blogger) might have written the post out of guilt. Myne corrected this impression, indicating that, in actual fact, she shares stories ‘to connect’ with others. This statement deeply resonated with me because in my current phase of life, I feel like I should continue to write for that same reason. To connect with others. And yet, there is something about this rationale for writing that I’m not yet completely comfortable with. I’m sure it’ll pass eventually, but for now, I’m a bit unsettled about it.

I struggle with a feeling of ‘inauthenticity’ because I’m no longer necessarily writing about where I’m at. Rather, I am reaching back in time and writing about where I once was. Ordinarily, there should be no problem with that, and really, there isn’t. But I do feel uncomfortable sometimes – guilty, almost – about eliciting emotions in response to a long-gone situation. I question how ‘authentic’ I’m being because, in reaching back, I end up writing about what I felt rather than what I feel. I realize that this is sort of irrational. I mean, you should be able to write about whatever you want, right? But it is something that I am dealing with right now.

When I mentioned this to my sister, she immediately got it, saying, ‘I feel you. As empathetic or emotional writers, we write better when we are going through it.’

(She’s such a brilliant girl!!)

I replied: ‘I love that expression (emotional/empathetic writers)! Never heard it before. Yeah, we write better when we’re going through …’

If you are an emotional writer, you need to have a deep connection to what you’re writing in order for it to feel ‘right.’ Without that connection, you are uninspired, even though that doesn’t necessarily stop you from writing. I think this is why I have mentally boxed myself in when it comes to writing fiction. I have convinced myself that I can only write about what I have felt (or seen, or touched, or heard, or smelt, or tasted …) – that I can only really write about what I’ve experienced and connected with, rather than about what I’ve imagined.

But I’m now in the process of coming to terms with the fact that there’s no one reason why I have to write. My life is evolving and I need to give myself permission to have my writing evolve right along with it.

When I wrote Our Song, I didn't think I would post it. I held onto it for a day, convinced I would let it go, and then thought, ‘You’ve written it, so you might as well post it.’ When I got Teddy Teddy’s comment in response to the blog post, I was quite taken aback that something I had planned to discard was actually what someone out there needed to hear at the time. (So, thank you, Teddy Teddy, for reaching out!)

I think sometimes, we tend to feel like we can/should only do stuff when we are ‘under the anointing.’ But if we have a desire to do something (even if we feel like we can’t really hack it), maybe we should take a step of faith and do it anyhow. For it is God that works in us to will and to act according to His good purpose (Phil 2:13, NIV). Maybe when we act on the will that we have been given, the grace simply follows.

I just realized that this is the blog’s 100th post.

Here’s to writing and all the reasons why we bother to do it.


Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Our Song

We didn’t really have a special song that we labeled as ‘ours.’ I might be wrong, but I’ve always thought that if I couple did have a song that was considered ‘their’ song, it was generally because the female partner chose it and then declared it as such (J). It’s no wonder that I don’t have one ‘special’ song even now, as I am surprisingly indecisive about many things.

For instance, my daughter asked me yesterday what my favorite color is. I told her that I like too many to pick out just one. ‘I don’t really have a favorite color because I like a number of different colors. I like pastels, though – anything that’s pastel-colored works for me.’

‘Oh, yeah – I keep forgetting,’ she said.

It’s the same thing with songs and books. I love far too many to really be able to decide which ones I like ‘best.’

My former husband was keenly aware of my indecisive nature, and this is probably one of the main reasons why it took him forever to believe that the relationship was over. He was used to getting his way in the relationship and, for the most part, I really didn’t mind too much if he got it. I think he was certain that there was no way I could’ve completely made up my mind and that the passage of time was sure to change things.

We used to be really into Bebe and Cece Winans in the early years of the marriage. I’m still into them, actually. We would play this duo’s Different Lifestyles and Relationships albums to death as we drove around just for fun. We would look forward to Bebe’s solo on the Relationships album – ‘These What-abouts.’ We never actually discussed the song but I was really drawn to it and I think he was, too. It just seemed different from the rest of the songs on the album. Maybe it’s because it was slower, with a haunting interlude of instrumentals that really spoke to me. The instrumentals were beautiful and messy and painful and confusing, and they made you stop and just listen.

It’s a tragic song, actually, and if I had to choose my ‘divorce soundtrack,’ this would probably be the one. It could easily serve as the soundtrack for the tail end of my marriage as well. The lyrics were almost prophetic now that I think about it. In the song, the protagonist frantically tries to reach out and connect with his lover – with little success, though. We’re not told what exactly caused the rift between them, but we can tell it’s something serious. It’s one of those ‘too little, too late’ scenarios. He realizes it’s way too late, but he tries to appeal to the memory of the hopes and dreams they once shared as a couple:

‘Cause what about the plans we made?
What about the dreams of cascades?
What about the vows we pledged?
Are they still alive or dead?
And what about the promise to stay?
Can I still believe it's okay?
Can we somehow talk about these what-abouts?
These what-abouts

But these are the wrong questions to ask. The problem with ‘what-abouts’ is that they are just about appearances if you all you do is refer to them without taking ownership of how you got into your current mess. It’s not about the what-abouts. It never is – unless you think about the what-abouts beforehand and hopefully allow them to steer you away from actions you’ll later regret.

During my days as a master sleuth, I came across a series of text messages on my then husband’s phone. It was a conversation between him and one of his relatives – someone who later tried to act as an intermediary between us, and with whom we both ended up communicating extensively about our issues.

‘Be careful,’ he warned my then husband. ‘She sounds more convincing than you.’

‘Should I tell?’ my then husband asked him in return. (I’m paraphrasing now as I don’t remember his exact words.)

‘No. Don’t tell.’

At first, I was taken aback by these words. But much later, I thought about it and came to the conclusion that in advising my then husband to withhold the truth from me, this person may not have meant any harm. I’m convinced he thought that everything would eventually blow over and that it was in everyone’s best interest for my former spouse to keep mum because the truth would hurt too much, destroy too much. I was a Nigerian woman – a Christian one at that – and I wasn’t going anywhere (he must’ve thought), so it made sense to just let sleeping dogs lie.

My ex-husband was an adult, though – capable of figuring things out for himself, so I cannot use this piece of advice as an excuse.

And when the outcome turned out to be what they did not expect (what even I did not expect), it was because I wasn’t Nigerian enough. My not being born on Nigerian soil had somehow suddenly tainted my Nigerian-ness after all these years. A ‘real’ Nigerian woman would have known how to handle this matter with more decorum, how to value her marriage. A ‘real’ Nigerian woman would’ve known how to expect less.

I find it really sad, though, this mentality. The usual thing would be to be sad for myself – sad about the fact that they would want to assign me to such a position. But that’s not even where I’m coming from right now. I am just saddened that they appeared so comfortable doing it and did not seem to give any thought to what that made them if that was what they expected for me and from me.

Apart from the interlude of instrumentals, this is my favorite part of the song (Picture Bebe crooning in a desperate, tortured tone, accompanied by equally desperate violins.):

Can we somehow talk about?
Somehow work it out?
Can we somehow find a way, find a way?
Can we somehow find a plan? Somewhere there's a plan
Can we somehow work it out, somehow work it out?
Somehow find a way, somehow find a way?
Somehow talk about it, somehow talk about it?
Somehow there's an answer, somewhere there's an answer
Can we somehow work it out, somehow work it out?
Can we somehow talk about these what-abouts?
These what-abouts
Can we talk about these what-abouts?
It won't hurt to talk about
These what-abouts


The problem with ‘these what-abouts’ is that they’re meaningless when they come way too late.





Saturday, 11 January 2014

Something Old, Something New

My Bible is about as old as my marriage turned out to be. I was (legally) married for 14 years to the very day. (That sounds almost ‘biblical,’ if you know what I mean: ‘The length of time the Israelite people lived in Egypt was 430 years. At the end of the 430 years to the very day, all the Lord’s divisions left Egypt’ [Genesis 12:41-42, NIV].)

My Bible has got to be either 12 or 13 years old. My then husband bought it for me as a birthday present when we were married. I had always wanted an Amplified Bible. I think I developed this desire from the days when I used to watch Joyce Meyer regularly. So on my birthday a year or two into the marriage, I was presented with an NIV Rainbow Study Bible.

‘Oh …’ I said, when the birthday present was handed to me. ‘… Thank you … I thought we talked about getting an Amplified Bible, though.’

‘Yeah, but I went to the bookstore and noticed this one. I thought it was better. It’s all color-coded and everything, so it’ll make a better study tool.’

‘Oh … okay. Thanks.’ I swallowed my disappointment. It was just a Bible, after all, and I could always get myself the Amplified version some other time. I decided to look on the bright side. It was an NIV Bible, and that’s the version I’m most comfortable with. I’ve used this version since I was 17, which is when my mother somehow got a good deal, came home with a whole stack of NIV Bibles, and gave me one. Ever since then, I abandoned the almighty King James Version, and I’ve just been hooked on the NIV, which I find so much easier to understand, but still elegantly written.

I have never gotten round to getting myself an Amplified Bible. I eventually forgot all about my wish to have one; and today, with easy access to the internet, I can look up whatever I need to in the Amplified online in a matter of seconds.

I haven’t missed not having one, frankly. Even though I’ve never paid attention to its color-coding system, my NIV Rainbow Study Bible has served me just fine. It has allowed me to remain in my comfort zone, which the NIV represents. It’s in a disgraceful state right now. Between two kids who were both intrigued by my colorful Bible during their toddler years, this Good Book has suffered: a few pages half torn out and then badly taped back in, holes in a couple of pages, some scribbles and words in my children’s toddler hand-writing, my own notes and scribbles and underlining … Its front cover got torn off, so I sent it out for re-binding, giving instructions for a similar, leather cover to be used. It used to be a sort of auburn color. By the time I got it back, it was a shadow of its former self: an unattractive hard cover in pitch black. I was aghast, but figured it was better than not having any cover at all. Then, that cover eventually got ripped off and it’s been that way for the last couple of years, which means the pages are starting to get all curled up as well. A total mess.

I never seem to remember what shape it’s in though, until I get to church – especially when I have some sort of public role to play. Last Sunday in church, I tried to straighten out the curled up pages to no avail. I wondered why I didn’t simply start using one of the new Bibles I have at home (at least in public). I probably have about 3 new Bibles lying around. I never use them, though. It’s hard for me to leave my good old Rainbow Study Bible behind. I can find anything I need to in there, and the nice print is easy on the eyes. The other Bibles that I pick up on a whim because of their attractive jackets or shapes simply can’t compete.  

I really just like my old things. I like new things, too, don’t get me wrong. But there is a certain comfort I find in familiarity; in the deep, thorough knowledge of a particular thing.

Back in the day when I was searching for answers – anything at all – to help me make sense of all that had occurred in my marriage, I stumbled upon a particular woman’s story. The woman is married to a recovering sex addict who had acknowledged his addiction, sought long-term professional help for it, and was bending over backwards to get help and to try to be husband and father he needed to be. In her analysis of what it was that made her husband seek out and sleep with random and not-so-random women (or have other inappropriate interactions with them), she came to the conclusion/understanding that it all boiled down to her husband’s quest for ‘newness’ – the one thing she couldn’t give him. They’d been married for several years, so she wasn’t ‘new’ anymore, and she reasoned that, much as he wanted to be committed to her, he had this compulsion to seek newness elsewhere.

I was really struck by this analysis and I still wonder what proportion of men and women it would resonate with. I mean, we all like new things. New things are exciting: a new car, new house, new clothes, new books, new dishes, new silverware, new love … But all new things grow old.

I’m one of those people that are really okay with that, though. Because, if you think about it, ‘old’ is a kind of ‘new.’ It’s no longer exactly what it was originally. It’s changing, while remaining essentially the same. It’s comfortable. Cosy. Tested. Proven.

I’m intrigued by the notion that the need for newness can prove so powerful. I actually like the ‘oldness’ that marriage, for instance, often represents. You know: the rituals that become rituals because you’ve done them over and over – yet, with joy. Knowing what he’s going to laugh at, or say next. Knowing for sure who’s yours and whose you are. Knowing how to make your spouse’s favorite meals just right, ‘by reason of use.’ You just become an ‘old hand’ at it. (I marvel at the grace I used to have in the kitchen during my marital years. Without any exaggeration, I used to cook like an absolute maniac. All kinds of stuff to ensure there was variety and that there were pleasant surprises. This ‘anointing’ mysteriously lifted after the marriage ended. I look back and I’m just amazed as, even though I still cook, I’m no longer able to muster anywhere near that amount of energy.)

‘Old’ comes with its own set of thrills, if you think about it. Or care enough.





Friday, 3 January 2014

Vulnerability

‘Vulnerability is like gold.’

I made this statement during a conversation with my sister this week. The words came out inelegantly, though, I thought. I tried to figure out another way to express what I meant. We were talking about how sometimes in relationships, couples just come to what seems like an insurmountable brick wall in relating with one another. A wall that is invisible to everyone else. It’s hard for anyone else around them to put a finger on exactly what the problem is because there’s often no ‘major,’ visible incident for others to witness. The relationship involves neither physical nor verbal abuse. There’s no child sexual abuse. There’s no sudden discovery of another wife, or of a child fathered outside the relationship. None of ‘the biggies,’ in short.

And yet, for some reason, the couple just can’t seem to connect. And then they get to the point where they’re not sure they even want to anymore. There are two walls built: one around each partner. It’s no longer even clear which wall was erected first and why. It seems almost easier to each party to just remain within the confines of their individual walls – a place where there is some semblance of safety, no matter how momentary this may be. Reaching out is just too hard. Excruciating, really.

I made another attempt: ‘Vulnerability is precious. It’s like a special gift. A sacred gift, almost. If the recipient doesn’t value it, or know what to do with it, then it’s hard to keep giving it. It’s akin to throwing your pearls before swine.’

I winced a bit at the last sentence even as I said it. Not the best choice of words, but my sister got it. She understood that I didn’t mean that letting yourself be vulnerable isn’t worth it. It is worth it when the person you’re engaging with gets it, appreciates it, and knows what to do with it. I just meant that it’s tough (and probably even pointless) when the person doesn’t get it.

We could both really appreciate what it’s like being in that tight spot.

When I was married, I remember being puzzled about how my then spouse seemed to have this desire (need?) to see me cry. I honestly didn’t get it back then. With my recent reflections on vulnerability, I think I understand it better now. He would periodically remark that he’d never seen me cry (although he had – just rarely). He would say it almost in a frustrated fashion.

We’re from different ethnic groups, and there was this one time that he got back really late from a trip. We were visiting his village and I stayed back with his mother and our son. People began to wonder where he was and what might be wrong. We were all happy when he got back and the people in the compound surrounded him with greetings of joy and relief. He turned to me and mentioned casually that a woman from his ethnic group would have met him in tears. He didn’t say it in an insulting way, but the fact that I’d heard this before (‘A woman from [insert name of hometown] would be crying by now, thinking she’s now a widow …’, etc.) made me wonder if I needed to do anything differently. He would say it almost as if he felt like he’d missed out on something.

Maybe I’m just too pragmatic for my own good. It wasn’t unusual for him to get back late from such trips. It was pretty much the norm. I just got used to it and came to accept that he’d be late, but he’d be back.

I now see that crying, to him – the idea of my crying – probably signified that I’d given up myself fully to him. That I wasn’t holding back. That I was vulnerable. Maybe this was a gift that he hoped I could repeatedly give.

Now that I’m taking the time to think about it, I realize that in order to allow myself to be completely vulnerable, I need a certain level of assurance: Do you know what to do with my hurt? With whatever it was that led me to tears? Or does it make you feel uncomfortable? Helpless? When I bare my soul, when I strip down to nothing … do you know how to cover me? Or do you leave me there, naked, shivering and ashamed, because you’re not sure what to do with me?

Think before you answer.

And understand that your leaving me there doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a bad person (although it can). Sometimes, all it means is that you simply don’t have the tools to deal with me when I’m all undressed, when I don’t have it all together. After all, I’m The Calm, Composed One. The One That Never Loses Her Cool. The One That Always Has It All In Check. The Level-Headed One.

To rub this in further (and to my greatest shock), I had just finished typing the paragraphs above when a visitor stopped by – a young lady in her early 20s. I put my laptop aside and we chatted for about a twenty minutes when she said, ‘Please don’t be offended, but may I ask you a personal question? Do you ever cry?’

I was astounded.

‘Of course I do. That’s such a spooky question, given what I was writing about before you got here. Why on earth do you ask?’

‘Oh, I guess it’s because I just see you as so strong. I seem to cry about my problems all the time, and I just see you as such a tough person – like someone who is able to handle her life so well …’

‘Nothing could be further from the truth, though,’ I protested. ‘I’m actually extremely sensitive and not tough at all. I cry like everyone else, even though sometimes I feel like I don’t have the time to. I might not create a lot of time for it, but I do have my moments when I just let the tears come for a couple of minutes.’ I’m pretty good at not giving myself an excuse to wallow in depression, but I’m just like everyone else.  In fact, those that know us well (including my sisters) would describe me as the ‘softest’ and the most emotional out of all the 4 girls in our family.

I don’t think I convinced her, though. I then realized how difficult it must be to see me and come to terms with a different side of me when you already have a totally different perception of who I am. How hard it is to allow me to be all the other things that I am, too. And so when I do dare to show a different side of myself, you’re thrown for a loop. It’s a vicious cycle: you’re thrown for a loop and therefore unable to treasure my gift. I take that as rejection and decide to keep my valuables to my sweet self. Without understanding exactly why, you sense that even though I’ve poured myself out to you, I’m still withholding some important drops. This makes you withhold a part of yourself, too. And the cycle continues.

Thinking about these things led me to look up the word ‘vulnerability.’ Someone defined it this way: ‘Vulnerability is about sharing our feelings and our experiences with people who have earned the right to hear them.’

Bull’s eye!

This explains why it was so hard (impossible, really) for me to really share my father’s death with my husband when I was married. As badly as I felt about it, I just couldn’t bring myself to cry in his presence. The ability to do so actually seemed beyond me. My tears would just automatically dry up. I felt like he hadn’t earned the right to see my tears. I felt like when he’d seen them before, he hadn't quite known what to do with them. I felt like I had been left uncovered and alone. Therefore, I didn’t understand why there was the expectation that I would put myself in that position again and again.

Vulnerability. It’s like gold.