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.


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.