Sunday, 30 September 2012

Losin’ my religion

It was supposed to be just another Sunday today. Or so I thought.

There was nothing particularly ‘spiritual’ about today. The weekend was entirely too short (as usual). I was almost running late for the workers’ service (story of my life). I was feeling a bit overwhelmed by my schedule for the day and slightly disorganized (like I said, nothing unusual). We still don’t have copies of the new Sunday School manual, so I had no idea what I was going to be teaching the young adults this morning. I meant to wake up early to plan the lesson for my teenage class, but of course I forgot to set my alarm. It was eleven minutes past 7 am and I needed to get to church by 8. I was just about to dash into the shower when I had this idea to check the church’s Sunday roster. I never check the church’s Sunday roster on SUNDAY. I mean, I may get in over my head sometimes, but I’m not that disorganized! I tend to check it on a Wednesday about once a month to make sure I don’t have any surprise responsibilities.

Well, this morning, I checked it, and guess whose name was on the schedule for September 30th to lead prayer during the workers’ service? I kid you not. There, as clear as the blue sky, was MY NAME on the roster.

I blinked and wondered what date it was on Friday. Friday was the 28th. That meant today, Sunday, was the 30th. How was this possible? The last time I checked the roster I was so sure I didn’t have to do anything else until October.

I wasn’t in the mood to lead prayer today. I hadn’t taken the time to prepare during the week as I normally would have, and it had been a challenging week. I felt depleted and, frankly, didn’t feel like I had anything left to pour into anybody else. I toyed with the idea of asking a known prayer warrior in my church to swap with me. Why do the church a disservice by arriving unprepared?

As I stood in the deliciously hot shower with my eyes closed, it occurred to me that I couldn’t be the only one that woke up and didn’t really feel like going to church today. I couldn’t be the only one that felt like I just didn’t have anything more to give. Not for today, at least. And so I decided to just go with the flow. Yes, I’m not prepared, but if anyone else felt like me today, then whatever I had to say would be for them. I was just going to have to ‘wing it.’

I got to church at 8:00 am on the dot. Not a second to even try to rustle up some ‘powerful’, last-minute prayer points. As I walked into the sanctuary, the music hit me. A young person (our worship leader) was busy playing the key board and singing a worship song to the Lord with all his heart, waiting for others to arrive. Gosh, I wish I could remember the songs he sang – they were so powerful.

I picked up a microphone and began to sing along with him as church members began to trickle in. I sang along with the worship leader and right now I can’t remember any of the songs! What I cannot forget, though, is how God met me there, standing at the altar, ‘unprepared,’ without my list of anointed prayer points, and without carefully selected scriptures to back them up, for good measure.

We took no more than three prayer points – all revolving around ourselves as ‘workers’ in the church. ‘The thing about workers,’ I said, ‘is that we tend to forget we’re sheep, too. We spend all our time pouring into other people, and we forget we need to be filled, too. And we still show up in church, and on time, too. We have to – we’re workers, after all. How we feel isn’t supposed to matter because we’re supposedly mature enough to handle things on our own. But guess what? When you’re running on empty, you’re no good to anybody …’

And so we prayed for God to fill us again, to strengthen us again, to revive us again, to meet us at the point of our needs.

I began to cry and could barely pray coherently (actually, I really started crying when I started singing). What was wrong with me? I had never cried in front of my church members. Sure, if I were particularly touched by a song or a message, I would privately blink away tears – but to stand in front of the whole church practically bawling for no particular reason … this made absolutely no sense.

My mind wandered back to the previous day to try and figure out if anything had happened to affect me – maybe this was some sort of delayed reaction.

It had actually been a good Saturday. I did absolutely no work, even though I’d brought work home with me. I had already decided not to write a blog post this weekend. I don’t want the blog posts to start feeling like work deadlines. I want to ensure that the blog remains something that relaxes me, rather than stresses me out, so I thought I’d just take a break and not think about it. I started watching a documentary and then dozed off for about twenty minutes or so. I woke up really energized. So energized that I baked two pans of brownies, walked around the corner armed with one of them to visit a good friend of mine, sat and talked and laughed with her for an hour, walked back home, and cooked up a mini-storm: a huge pot of turkey vegetable soup, a huge tray of meatloaf, and some ‘barbecued’ fish (Nigieran style). Like I said, a really good day. Nothing to set me off at all.

At the end of the prayer session, I told them I had one more thing to say. I was still crying – I mean really crying – and making everyone else get all emotional (I think they were really just more in shock than anything else). I had totally ruined my make-up – my Bobbi Brown Long-Wear Gel Eyeliner that I can’t live without.

‘I just want to thank God for brokenness,’ I said.

This statement met with a round of thunderous applause.

‘Why are they clapping?’ I wondered. Maybe they were just embarrassed. Or, on second thought, maybe they were just really happy for me. Getting to the place of brokenness can be hard, after all.

‘I have no idea why I’m crying right now. But I do want to say that I’m glad I can be vulnerable here, in front of all of you. I don’t want to come to church each Sunday like a piece of wood and not be moved. I want to come to church and be touched, and be changed. I don’t want to come here to waste my time, and you shouldn’t, either. I’m crying, but it’s okay. This is the way it’s supposed to be. Let God do whatever He wants to do in me and in you.’

Needless to say, everyone got more than they bargained for this morning. I was so overwhelmed that I couldn’t teach my youth class – someone else had to. I sat in my car for an hour until I’d composed myself.

I’m losing it, folks, I’m telling you – I’m absolutely losing it. But in a good way.

To God be the glory. 

Saturday, 15 September 2012

On re-marriage

I often get asked if I will ever get married again. My answer to this question is that I have no idea. Sometimes I think there’s a 50-50 chance that this could happen, and other times, I think the chances are zero.

I do not know if I can truly trust again, or if I even want to, knowing what can happen. Why would I want to put myself in a position to potentially go through something like this a second time? And this saddens me because I always prided myself as being ‘marriage/wife material.’ It saddens me that the experiences leading up to my divorce seem to have radically altered my very essence. This means that I’m suddenly no longer the same person anymore and I have to get to know who this new person is for myself before I even consider sharing this person with anyone else. I really liked who I used to be. Or at least my personal notion of who I was back then. I suppose I could get to like who I am now much better (since she’s much smarter) but I don’t know her well enough yet.

When I was married, marriage, for me, was largely about giving. I am not sure that I want to give that much ever again, or to make any one person so central to my very existence. Having done it before, I now find the idea absolutely terrifying.

I would also have to learn how to demand and how to receive, and these would be new skills for me. I’m not sure that this ‘old dog’ (terribly inappropriate term, I know) wants to learn ‘new tricks’ at this age.

To further complicate matters, I’m an ‘all or nothing’ sort of person. (Remember Daouda Dieng from So Long a Letter? I loved that guy! "All or nothing.") I’m beginning to think that this a rather extreme way to be. Perhaps I need to exist within more of a happy medium between the two (i.e., ‘all’ or ‘nothing’). But how do you switch from being an idealist all your life to being a cynic all of the sudden? This, too, would be a brand new skill that I’m not sure I really want to acquire.

And who wants to go through the trouble of having to blend a family (which would be a likely reality, getting re-married at this stage in life)? Or of not knowing whether someone will love my children, or whether my children would like them? Or whether their children would like me – or whether I would like them? Goodness! Far too much trouble.

The good thing is that (surprisingly, wondrously) my primary considerations here have nothing to do with the real possibility of being alone for a VERY long time (a very valid fear for many women). My primary considerations are about whether re-marriage would be a good deal for me and my children. (I’m REALLY pleased that I’ve grown up at least somewhat.)

So there you have it. I have no idea. I’m open to being surprised. One day at a time. 

Part III: Do we dare judge?

I think that, for people who will one day judge angels, Christians need a lot more practice in carrying out judgments.

I don’t think the term ‘judge’ always has to be seen as a dirty word. The Bible encourages us – commands us, really – to judge ourselves. To do continuous self-assessments so that others don’t have to. It also encourages us to ‘judge’ (in my mind, meaning ‘assess’ or ‘appraise’) each other, when necessary, within the household of faith.

What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? (I Cor 5:12)

Those that profess Christianity are definitely held to a higher standard.

But judgment has a unique and important purpose: to make the one being assessed better. This should be the envisioned goal. Not to make ourselves feel better, or to carry out a vendetta, or to subconsciously protect some part of ourselves.

The problem with most judgments (when we pronounce them) is that they tend to be more about us and the instant gratification that can be derived from giving our opinion about the person being judged.

Do we dare judge?

I think things have been set up so that we have no choice but to judge sometimes, and these periodic judgments are essential. When done properly, it is the responsible thing to do – to judge ourselves with the goal of self-improvement, and to judge others with the goal of their improvement in mind, too. To do so properly, though, a full set of information is required – and that’s the tricky part.

I hate appraisals at work. They come around every year, this time of the year at my office. I hate appraising others and I hate being appraised even more. I hate being ‘judged.’ But it’s so necessary. I have to admit that the knowledge that I will be appraised helps me focus on what’s important and makes me work better. And the fact that the appraisal process is actually pretty fair (and that all the information necessary to finalize the appraisal is thoroughly utilized) always makes me determined to do better next year. Rather than break my spirit, it makes me expect more of myself, want more for myself.

I think that’s what ‘judgment’ should look like.

Part II: Where is my anger (or: Am I for real?)?

For the life of me, I can’t find my Stacy Morrison book entitled Falling apart in one piece: Oneoptimist’s journey through the hell of divorce. She tells the story of how, in frustration one day, her sister-in-law asked her where her anger was. How come she was anything but totally outraged by the fact that her husband woke up one day, and, for no clear reason under the sun, decided he was ‘done.’ Some parts of the comment from the anonymous visitor in Part I make me feel almost as if I’m being asked the same question.

Am I for real?

Ha ha ha – I really did have to laugh at that question!! I certainly hope I am!

I’m trying to ‘get in touch with’ my anger as I write this – just so I have something to write here.

Where is my anger hiding?

Among the gamut of emotions I have gone through over the last few years, anger has never seemed to make it to the top five. I don’t have a complete sense of why, but I realize that its absence has the effect of making me appear almost ‘angelic’ (this anonymous visitor is not the first to use the term, frankly), when in reality, I’m anything but.

In sifting through my memories and cracking my brain, I can only remember one scene in which I starred as the angry lead.

I hadn’t had much to say in months. And then, I had to go home for a memorial event in honor of my father. After that, I spent the next three days or so travelling from city to city at a frenetic pace, trying to ensure I saw my mother-in-law and other in-laws before I left the country again. It has just occurred to me that we were still legally married at this time, although it didn’t feel like it. He and his brothers made sure they personally chauffeured me around from State to State (bless their hearts).

Maybe it was the combination of being on the road and in a different city every day, and the emotional stress of attending this memorial event. On my last day, I just flipped and went all ‘mental’ and ‘gangsta’ on everybody. I felt seriously provoked by his attempt to cover up his real feelings with deceit and a show of cockiness.

Do you think this is a joke? I yelled, not caring who heard. Do you mean she hasn’t told you she’s HIV-positive? You’d better go get yourself tested and put this charade aside!

He and his brother stared back at me – his brother, in utter shock, and him … well, I couldn’t read his expression clearly.

You know what? I continued, wanting badly to hit below the belt. My father wasn’t a perfect man. So why d’you think everybody is so torn up by his death? Why do you think people travelled from far and near after all this time to honor him? I’ll tell you why: he wasn’t a perfect man, but he was a principled man. He was an honest man, I spat at him while he walked out in annoyance for a few seconds. As he walked back in, I turned to his brother and said pointedly in a dangerously quiet tone: The last time I slept with your brother was in February 2008. I will NEVER sleep with your brother again.

My poor brother-in-law stood in the middle of the room staring helplessly at me, not sure whether to be embarrassed, sympathetic, or upset. None of my in-laws had ever heard so much as a peep out of me before, and they didn’t know what to make of this ugly, livid creature. They were used to a woman that smiled and laughed and joked all the time. I don’t think I’ve ever talked as much in my life as I talked that day. I needed to get it all out and I did just that.

My sister-in-law – an extremely quiet, discreet woman – later leaned next to me for a quick moment and said under her breath: Don’t sleep with him again O. The weight of her words didn’t strike me until I was gone. She saw him more than I did, so she knew what she meant. I took her advice seriously.

Long story short: have I had an angry moment or two? Absolutely. Could I be more outraged over the turn of events? Absolutely.

And if I’m not, then there are several good reasons why.

First, I was in a weak, sick, dysfunctional marriage, and so I was more inclined to embrace the chance to live healthier – even if it meant I would no longer be married. Why be perpetually angry over what could very well turn out to be a new lease on life?

Second, I honestly feel I have so much to be grateful for that living in anger really seems pointless. I’m writing this on a plane and, as I usually do on airplanes, I’ve spent some time watching a movie. The first time I watched Kramer vs. Kramer, I was seven years old and I watched it with my father. All these years later, it remains a timeless classic – as poignant now as it was then. It reminded me of the fact that I got a divorce with absolutely no custody battle. Now, if that’s not something to rejoice over, then I don’t know what is. I walked away with my everyday life intact and with my children to share it with me.

I don’t receive spousal support, but I don’t have to pay any, either. Not every woman in my position is this fortunate. I don’t get spousal/child support and I did not ask for any. I didn’t want a big fight; I just wanted to be able to move on peacefully. I’m also convinced that no matter what is or isn’t written down on paper, a real father will be concerned about and want to contribute toward his children’s upkeep. And at some point, I had to accept reality: my children’s father was either ‘real’ or not, and whichever he was, my children would not suffer. It would be nice to have this sort of support for my children, but I do not need it. My life and the children’s lives have not changed without it, and that is a super-duper blessing, if you ask me.

I don’t have to rearrange my children’s lives, nor mine, in any significant way because their father doesn’t live here. We are all spared the agony of having to shuttle the children back and forth between two homes.  Another reason not to be angry.

I would definitely have been devastated had I been a stay-at-home mom (which I was once) when all of this happened. I’m thankful that it happened at a point in my life when I could make a particular decision because I wanted to, rather than being compelled to make a different decision for financial reasons. Few women are that fortunate. I could go on and on and on ... but you get my drift.

Third: because this blog focuses on divorce, it is hard for an outsider looking in to have a sense of the good side of my former spouse. As an insider, I’m privy to the ‘bad’ and the ‘ugly’ aspects of this failed union, but also to the ‘good.’ In earlier years, the positive aspects of my ex-husband’s character actually convinced me that I was ‘marrying up.’ It’s unfortunate that the ‘good’ wasn’t enough to overwhelm the other aspects. The stark contrast between what was then and what is now persuades me that something is not quite ‘right.’ But whatever that ‘something’ is, I finally had to accept that as much as I once wanted to and tried to, it was not my job to remedy it. It was his.

Fourth and finally: If I’m going to spend my life angry at him, then I necessarily have to spend my life angry at myself, too. Did he do a lot of things that I’d like to strangle him for? Sure. But out of all the people in the world, out of all of my suitors, I chose him. To be fair, I should also be angry at myself for not making a different choice, for not being wise enough, for not putting myself in a position to be wiser, etc., etc., etc.

The problem is that I don’t have the wherewithal to beat myself up forever ... and I’m certainly not going to spend that amount of energy doing this to someone else. 

Part I: Did I marry beneath myself?

There’s something really gratifying about having people respond to something you’ve blogged about. This is one of the reasons why bloggers blog, I think: to (hopefully) inspire a shared conversation around issues that are particularly meaningful to the blogger concerned.

An interesting dynamic when it comes to blogging is that bloggers aren’t always privy to all the conversations that their blog posts inspire.

Long before I really ‘got’ what a blog was, I was a daily reader of a particular blog that simply amazed me. The blogger is the mother of two small children, in an interracial marriage. Her son is autistic while her daughter is not, and her husband just happens to be a recovering sex addict. I came across her blog three years ago or so, during one of my internet searches as I tried to make meaning of my own crazy life. I went back to that blog again and again, stunned by how this blogger managed to keep it together.

As much as I admired and still admire the blog, I never left a comment. I was very content to be a regular lurker – and yet, I talked about the blog all the time to whoever cared to listen. And so, I can relate to the comment below from an anonymous reader. Someone forwarded it to me on behalf of this reader, leaving it up to me to decide whether to post it or not in response to ‘The help’ blog post.

I read it, thought about it for some days, and then decided to write several posts around it, seeing as it brings a number of important issues to the fore. Plus, I’m guessing this comment speaks for a lot of lurkers who, for various reasons, may just have decided not to say anything yet. Lastly, I just want this anonymous visitor to know that her comment is important to me and appreciated, and I wanted to thank her for inspiring a three-part post:

If this ain't something, what is? Am so entangled emotionally with this blog I cannot even bear to leave a comment. I read each post with knots in my stomach not sure what next to expect. SMH. Na wa should sum up how I feel. Bless the helps and may God save that husband-character from rotting in hell. I daresay this babe must have married beneath her in the name of christianity. The man sounds to me like "vermin". Who is to blame her? Not when we've all sometimes acted like we've been brain washed. I am talking to us nigerian Christians, yours truly inclusive. This scum of a man deserves to be beaten into a pulp for putting this angel through all this. "But who are you to judge?, I hear the proponents of "judge not" say. mscheeew. I refrain from verbally abusing this scum of a man lest I join the twerp in hell. He is a real "unam ikot". P.S  … Copy and paste this comment in the blog for me please. I fear that if I leave this comment on that blog, the blogger would throw me off her blog. She sounds too nice and may probably give me a sermon about loving my enemies one of which is this man. Reading about just how much she has forgiven makes me feel so unclean besides such saintliness. No offence meant but "Is she for real?"

I observed with fascination as ‘The help’ rose, literally overnight, to become one of the most popular blog posts. A bit suspiciously, I wondered exactly what the appeal was. Was it that the writing was any better than that of the other posts (I completely doubted this)? Was it that the ‘gist’ was just unusually ‘juicy’? Was it that I have become such a pro at painting myself as the ‘victim’? Or did it strike a chord simply because the story represented the stereotypical nightmare of the African woman – the impending one that she just ‘knows’ is coming sooner or later – and so it leaves many readers with a sense of relief that this horrible fate has so far not befallen them?

Whatever the answer to these questions, the comment from the anonymous visitor is loaded with issues that I thought I would divvy up into three separate questions:

  1. Did I marry beneath myself?
  2. Where is my anger?
  3. Do we dare judge?

I don’t think there’s a simple ‘yes/no’ answer to the first question. In my mind, it only leads to a series of other questions.

When we talk about a person marrying beneath him/herself, what are we really referring to? Are we referring primarily to one’s own money or wealth, the money or wealth of one’s parents, the social ‘class’ of one’s family, one’s level of education, one’s character … or all of the above?

My father would’ve given a blunt answer to this question (perhaps the sort of answer that many are hoping for). As far as he was concerned, I had selected a life partner who was beneath me, and he made this clear before the marriage. He wasn’t the only one that thought so.

Back then, I was deeply intrigued by this concept and asked my father to elaborate. He didn’t articulate what he meant beyond saying that my parents were highly educated and his were non-literate, and so, in a sense, I was choosing to ‘start all over’ – losing the gains my parents had worked hard to make. I didn’t get it then and (to tell the truth), I still don’t really get it now. ‘It’ (whatever it is) would’ve been crystal clear to me if I were marrying an uneducated person, while being educated myself. But this wasn’t the case. The parents of the person I married may not have been to school, but they produced remarkably high-achieving children whose accomplishments rival those of my own parents' children.

I guess I’m just of the opinion that, no matter whom your parents were or are, you still have to prove yourself and make your own name in your own generation. Having the ‘right’ set of parents may or may not help you in this regard. Coming from the ‘wrong’ side of the tracks may or may not end up being the motivator that propels one to unprecedented heights.

A young person I know recently told me that she could never marry a ‘poor’ man, being from a relatively well-off family herself. Her point was that being raised ‘poor’ establishes a certain kind of psyche that the person concerned cannot escape from, even if they end up striking it rich on their own, or rising to a higher social ‘class’ – and she could foresee this as causing unnecessary problems in marriage. I admired and applauded her for doing her own thoughtful analysis on this issue at such a young age. I wish I’d been that ‘street smart’ in my early twenties. While I appreciate where she’s coming from, I also know that strange mind-sets aren’t the preserve of the ‘poor.’ If the ‘poor’ have ways of thinking, then so do the ‘rich.’ And either mind-set could come with its own problems.

I know of a really wealthy heir who doesn’t have to work (and doesn’t). At age 40, his life is spent traveling to exotic locations and doing only the things that he thoroughly enjoys. But his mind-set is, in many surprising ways, that of an impoverished man. He tends to be unusually (embarrassingly, even) stingy toward others, and (apart from the exotic trips), toward himself.

Who’s to say exactly what effect money (for instance) has, and whether this effect is consistent across all individuals? What if in-born personality has the greatest effect of all, irrespective of who one is or what one has?

As I pointed out to my Dad at the time (with my idealistic, youthful self), he was once that young man whose parents were non-literate. But nobody remembers that now because of his own achievements – so why (and how) did it matter?

I don’t claim to have any of the answers, but I do know that whatever occurred during my marriage could have happened even if my ex-husband’s parents were the President and First Lady of Nigeria (okay, maybe that’s not the best example – LOL – just kidding!). My point is, I know quite a number of people with seemingly the ‘right’ pedigree who have made really horrible spouses.

Having said that, let me also say that Christianity absolutely does (or, at least, ideally should) level the playing field. Being a Christian will often mean that you will constantly engage with people from all walks of life – some ‘above’ you, some ‘beneath’ you, and some ‘at par’ with you. It also often means that you will tend to give each of these categories of people a fair chance when it comes to marriage. Our prayer is that, whether the person we end up with is viewed by others as ‘beneath’ you or not, let it not be because of their character. And if there are any other ‘inequities’ between the two of you, they should be carefully examined before you say ‘I do.’