Saturday, 16 February 2013

Just say no

This woman was clearly not the greedy type, but she had another human weakness. She was caring.
                                                Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani’s I Do Not Come to You By Chance, pg. 206

I read I Do Not Come to You By Chance over the Christmas holiday. I first heard about it from an Indian colleague of mine based in New York, and then later from another non-Nigerian colleague based here with me. This must have been about two years ago, but I only bought my copy in the last quarter of 2012. And then I left it by my bedside, ignoring it for about three months. I could’ve kicked myself when I finally did begin to read it as I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. So much so that I ordered my sister a copy so I could laugh about it, grieve over it, and discuss it to death with someone else who would really ‘get’ it. And we did exactly that.

I underlined a few sentences in the book that really struck me, such as the ones cited above. Several times during my reading of the book, I said to myself: I really need to become more street smart. I do feel like I tend to get taken advantage of far too much. In the past, I’ve wondered why I tend to get approached with all kinds of strange requests while my friends don’t. I’ve wondered what I need to do to remedy this. Should I just start ‘boning’ all the time? I tend to smile a lot and greet a lot. But that’s not something I can change easily as it’s just a part of my cultural background and upbringing. I’d really have to work extra hard to shed this natural inclination.

I have decided to simply start saying ‘no’ more often in order to balance out the ‘yes-es.’  I feel like I get such a large volume of requests because people can tell I’ll say ‘yes’ – and so they end up overlooking everyone else that they easily could’ve made the same request of. One of my friends laughs at me when I get yet another one and says: ‘How come no  one ever approaches me to ask for such things?’ How come, indeed. My sister loves to remind me that I’m a single parent of two children and need to keep that in mind when trying to ‘save the world.’

And so I have said ‘no’ at least six times this month. Not mean ‘no-s’, though. Polite ones. Like telling two people (neither of whom I know well) that I simply won’t have the time to review their grad school theses, but also reminding them that this is the role of their supervisors. Like telling someone I honestly didn’t have the funds to lend – and I didn’t. This person had never approached me for money before, though, so I felt really bad about not being able to help. But rather than consider any funds I might have had in my bank account that day (like I was tempted to), I reminded myself of the student loans I’m trying to pay off for good by the end of March. Like sending out two polite emails a minute ago to turn down invitations to do stuff (work-related, but external to my own organization) that I wasn’t interested in doing and don’t really have a whole lot of extra time for. Like not calling back the two people that ‘flashed’ me yesterday on my way home. I thought I’d call them back once I got home, but cramps got the better of me and I dozed off before I knew it, getting myself a good night’s sleep instead. Today when I remembered it, I figured if it’s really that important, they’ll send me a text message or call me. Like letting someone else know I didn't have enough space in my home for them to temporarily move into my home with their child. 

And finally, like saying ‘no’ to my children’s father a few months ago. I got a rare phone call from him and we exchanged pleasantries in a guarded fashion, with me wondering when he was going to get round to telling me what he was really calling about, and with him seeming hesitant on the other end.  

He finally explained that he was going to be receiving some sort of community service award in a few weeks.

‘Normally,’ he began carefully, ‘for these kinds of award ceremonies, the awardee is expected to attend with his umm … uh … woman.’

Okay, so this is what this is really about, I thought to myself. It was clearly difficult for him to make this request and I felt sort of bad as I formed my response in my head.

‘But I’m not your ‘woman’,’ I reminded him out loud, even though I knew he only used the term because it would’ve been out of place to say ‘wife’ instead.

‘I know. It’s just that the normal thing would be for one to come along with a woman.’

I did feel a bit bad and almost wished I could have been more ‘evolved’ not to have denied him this one thing. But I really am working hard not to allow myself to be ‘used’ by others anymore. And so I found a polite way to say no, and to remind him that we really are divorced.

Sometimes, you just need to draw the line. And people can generally tell when you haven’t. 

As Nwaubani would say, people's needs have a way of 'sharpening the sense of smell.' You'll be sniffed out and targeted before you know it. So I'm working overtime to change my scent. 

Wednesday, 13 February 2013


I have not written a single word in over a month and, strangely enough, I have not felt compelled to.

It certainly hasn’t been for a lack of things to write about. Admittedly, there are fewer things now to get out of my system than there were a year ago. But there are still ‘things,’ nonetheless. I still maintain my list of bullet points ( – phrases, sentences, or partial sentences just waiting to be elaborated upon and written up into a post. Today, there are 6 bullet points on the list, to be exact, drawn up over the past several months.

But I find that I am bored by my own list. Events that have occurred recently, which at one time would’ve been ‘juicy’ fodder for a blog post, now appear ‘stale’ somehow. The silence is not a reflection of the fact that nothing has transpired, but rather of the fact that I no longer find some of these events remarkable.

I thought to myself the other day: This must be what healing feels like.

Not the instant-miracle-type healing. But the conventional kind – the kind where you feel every bit of the pain … until you don’t. The kind that is by the every day, banal sort of faith. You know: the sort of faith that gets you up every morning and makes you keep moving, get through the day, and prepare for the next – not knowing exactly what tomorrow holds, but figuring that as long as you’re alive and breathing without medical assistance (and even if you aren't), you are operating in a context of possibilities – anything can happen. Convinced that as long as you have a precious, precious life, you might as well live it and use it.

It hasn’t been the ‘sudden healing’ type of experience. I have felt everything I needed to feel. I have been busy raising and trying to organize the lives of two children – each at very different stages of development, and both growing in every way at an incredible pace; busy surviving in an NGO-world with less funding than ever and more responsibilities and pressure as a result; busy trying to contribute in my own little way to ensuring that my church home thrives and is a refuge for others while remaining meaningful for me, too; busy trying to identify and invest in things that will help take care of me when I’m no longer young enough and strong enough to work as hard as I do now.

As I thought about writing this section of this post, I was prompted to go back and re-read a couple of pages from Jessica Bram’s Happily Ever After Divorce: Notes of aJoyful Journey. I share an excerpt from this book below (pp. 181-182). It is lengthy but worth sharing and drives home the point:

The lawyer held his pen over a yellow pad. “When it comes to custody decisions, the court always considers the degree of each parent’s prior involvement with the children. Let me ask you a few questions. Which of you schedules pediatrician visits and takes them to appointments?”
“I do, of course,” I answered.
“What about play dates with other children?” I did that, too.
“Buys them their clothes? Shoes? Vitamins?” Yes, also me.
“I want you to make two lists and bring them to me next time we meet,” said the lawyer. “On one page I want you to list all the items you do related to the children – every last thing – everything you arrange or buy or do for them. On the other list, write down all the things your husband does for them.”
I started on my list on the train home that afternoon. One page quickly filled, followed by another. First came the major responsibilities, which I admitted were mine: researching preschools and then enrolling them; furnishing their rooms; planning and preparing meals; scheduling pediatric appointments for checkups, immunizations, and illnesses. These were followed by the less obvious: planning birthday parties; buying school supplies; signing them up for swim lessons, gymnastics, and art programs; keeping their toys organized and battery-stocked; monitoring and replacing outgrown clothes; packing backpacks. Then I got down to a staggering amount of minutiae: clipping fingernails; sewing on Boy Scout patches; buying gifts for other children’s birthday parties; filling out permission slips and absence notes; taking them for haircuts.
By the third page, I was flabbergasted by the volume of work that caring for three children entailed. I had never stopped to look at it that way.
Then I began the list of my husband’s responsibilities. Baths. Putting them to bed with bedtime stories. Boy Scouts. The fun stuff. Oh, yes, and he attended Open School nights and parent teacher conferences.
There were four items on his list. There had to be more, I thought. He was the real parent, wasn’t he? But that was it. Four items, to my seventy-nine.
I held the lists up side by side and began to cry. I hadn’t really been sure that I was all that important to my sons.

My point is that I deeply relate to this level of activity in my life as a mother and I’m sure many other women reading this will, too. Frighteningly, this is only one component of my life. With all this activity and more, it’s understandable that I’m sometimes caught off guard when I’m hit by a sudden pang of grief, provoked for a minute by some random memory. I do not live my life wallowing in grief and so I’m usually unprepared for this unexpected visitor. I’m surprised that this tiny pang is powerful enough to penetrate the many layers of my life and make me actually notice.

But feeling a pang or two now and then is part of the healing process, I think – a sign of some serious progress, even. (It’s a pang now and then, as opposed to a full-blown wave.) Sort of like when a scab begins to form over an open wound. The tightness of the scab causes twinges of pain initially, but the pain is no less a sign that some major healing processes have occurred. And that the end is in sight. The scab will eventually give way to nature, loosen up, and then disappear. There might always be reminders of the wound, though, just like an indelible mark from a wound that has healed will always serve as a reminder. I suppose it’s a lot like the kind of healing I have gradually experienced in regard to my father’s death. It is still deeply painful to think about it, but thinking about it does not practically incapacitate me like it would have six years ago. I have not ‘forgotten’ and I do not want to forget. But I can say that I am as ‘healed’ from that experience as I will ever be. Despite this healing, I will always carry a considerable amount of the pain with me. And I welcome this pain because I always unabashedly treasured and always will unabashedly treasure my father.

In the same way, I welcome these unexpected pangs of pain now and then. They remind me that I was once part of something that was meant to be really special – a deep, deep covenant. Before I got married, I always treasured the idea of marriage, having no inkling of what it could potentially involve. During my marriage, I treasured the reality of (my own particular) marriage, believing that two people on the same page could conquer the world, even if my then spouse and I were not. Post-marriage, I still treasure the notion of a real marriage. I do so unabashedly.

I look back now and I am proud of the 26 year-old me who – ignorant and na├»ve as she was – dared to dream and enter into marriage with all her heart. I am proud of the 36 year-old me who found the courage to face some hard truths about her life, and to make a distinction between a dream and a nightmare.  I am proud of the lessons I have gleaned – the soon-to-be-forty-one-year-old me – older, wiser, and more alive now than I have ever been in my adult life.

If this is what healing feels like, then it isn’t half bad.