Pieces

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May 2016

The woman had something to tell everyone. Her green ankara wrapper was almost falling off her waist, revealing her black underwear. One end of her scarf that was hurriedly tucked behind her ear had removed and was now floating on her shoulder, beads of perspiration covered her face. But she did not care about all that. She had something to tell everyone in the market, and that was all that mattered. “Ejowo, e ran mi l’owo,” she said. She would appreciate whatever amount we could give. Cancer was slowly eating her sister away.

I beg you. God bless you. You will not die young.

There was an urgency in her pleas, in her prayers. I saw a few notes squeezed in her palms, mostly twenty naira. As I watched her, I suddenly came to the realization of how much humans fear death. How we resist and fight it with all our might, despite being aware of our mortality all our lives. Seeing her in that moment made me think of my aunt’s husband. Cancer, too, was taking him in pieces. I imagined him lying on the hospital bed, his wife holding his hand, watching his chest rise and fall.

September 2016

The man whose shoulder my aunt is leaning on in this photograph is dead. They were both standing, faces glowing, and lips stretched in bright smiles. Her skin was a smooth yellow. They were young and in love, brimming with life. As I stood now, watching her walk to the small area enclosed with white clothes, ribbons and flowers, her body was more rounded, skin glowing yellow still, a few wrinkles dotting the edges of her lips, marking her years. Their years.

Here, one was standing, the other lying; one moving, the other still. She placed her hands on the gold edge of the white coffin. I watched her looking down at her husband’s body; those strong arms that had held her for four decades, the shoulder she had leaned on. What was she going to do now? What did she do as life leaked out of him? What did she do when the machines surrounding him could no longer do what they needed to do? What did she do as his fingers dug into the bed, his lungs fighting to get one more breath? What did she do when he became still? If she were to pray, what would she have prayed for—to commit his soul into God’s hands or to ask that he help him stay another day? It is one thing to know that death will come one day, but nothing adequately prepares people for that moment it arrives.

One of the saddest things that can happen to someone is to die and be forgotten—forgotten as though they never existed. At the wake-keep, family and friends testified to his life and deeds, how he deposited himself in their memories.

He got me a job

He helped with my financial needs

He always asked after me

In the tribute, my aunt wrote: “I thank God for the privilege he gave me to share in your pain.” Their son-in-law talked about the day he and his wife were watching a movie with him, and despite being in pain, he had laughed hard. So hard, he said. And he and his wife had joined him to laugh. He stopped speaking as his words almost brought the urge to weep. They could not take the agony away, but I imagined their love stood between him and the pain, widening the gap. The pain was not his alone, just as his laughter was not his alone.

When I saw that woman in the market, the other thought that came to my mind was: how fortunate it is to have someone in one’s life who would do anything to help them stay alive. I was reminded that with family, we have people to fight for us to keep occupying a space on earth. The twenty naira notes might not amount to much in furthering her treatments. But her sister had her, she had her, and she was not going to fold her arms and do nothing. She was going to keep begging until she had raised the money needed. Perhaps her sister will survive, perhaps her body will surrender to the cold, crooked arms of death.

Family related by blood, and family chosen, came from far and near. Not only to bid the dead farewell and ensure he had a befitting end, but also to comfort the living. People talked and laughed with my aunt. Although there was little anyone could do to assuage her feelings, they wanted to share in her burden. It was as though in carrying her bag and serving her food, my life became more useful. As I prepared to leave a few days later, she called her driver to drop me off at the park. There was a sudden urge to say something, anything. What do you say to someone who just lost her lifelong partner? The car jerked to life. It was time to go. I turned around and realized she was still standing where we said our goodbyes, watching me. “Take care of yourself, ma,” I said. She smiled and replied, “I will.”

As the car drove out of the compound, I remembered how, the day after I arrived, everything around me felt faraway: the clinking of plates and cutlery, the voices, the entire house suffused with aroma of bean cake. I walked around the compound, thinking of how his feet had walked those places. Memories started coming back to me. In one, I was in the living room with my cousin, his last child, watching Drag Me to Hell. He came into the living room and, in wonder, asked why, of all movie genres, it was horror we decided to watch in the middle of the night. He smiled and returned to his room. There were other memories, but there was none in which he was not smiling. His smile, that smile that made you believe he truly cared about you, had burnt in my memory.

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Hands that Bind

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1.
The girls in my dorm sang Shakira’s Whenever Wherever, as someone drummed on a wooden surface. I stood in the middle of the room twisting my waist, when from the window, we heard, “Will you keep kwayet!” We paused but did not keep quiet. We whispered, “Will you keep kwayet,” to each other, mimicking the voice of the matron on night patrol, and stifling laughs. After she walked away, we resumed business. It was still my turn to dance. In that moment, I overcame my self-consciousness and danced with all eyes on me. I rarely dance in public because I still feel self-conscious. But when I do, I remember that night in secondary school and I feel light and free.

2.

In this photograph, we rest our heads against each other’s, you in a blue swimsuit; me in black, at Tarkwa Bay Beach, where the waves roll and froth like white foam. We roomed in the same dorm in junior secondary school; bunk beds joined so we lay side by side, the ceiling nearer us from our top bunks. While others slept, we traded stories, gossip, and laughter. You are in my earliest memories of holding hands. Sometimes, while others went to the dining hall for dinner, we took long walks, hands laced together at fingers and talked the way teenagers do: in earnest and in jest. You are the reason holding hands has become a lifelong habit. I peer at the picture once more. Even in the water, my right hand is on your elbow.

3.

One night in our first year in the university, we dressed up and headed to a room full of teenage bodies pumping hormones and loud music coaxing hands into the air. I was dancing with a guy when another guy stood behind me. In seconds, I was sandwiched between two sweaty, gyrating bodies. My eyes searched for her across the room. There. Also sandwiched between two guys. Our eyes met. We slipped away from the crowd. Side by side, we sat outside, silence wedged between us. Cool breeze brushed against our skin as trees swooshed around us, and above us, the big moon watched.

4.

I used to tell my friends, “If you’re going to sleep on my bed, your legs have to be clean,” and they could not understand why dirty feet irritated me so much. One night, in my room off campus, three of us sprawled out on my small bed and talked about the future, how our hard work would translate to wealth and travel. We promised to make time to hang out no matter how busy our lives became. Someone was supposed to sleep on the other bed across the room, but when I woke up, it remained neatly laid. Perhaps our tangled limbs heralded the future we had planned hours before, the connections we would always share. For once, I didn’t mind seeing dirty feet on my bed. Maybe I even smiled.

5.

Back then, physics and chemistry tried to make school frustrating for her. I didn’t know what it felt like to pour effort into something and not get the desired result. When she cried, I held her, wishing I could share my good grades with her. After secondary school, we proceeded to different universities. When we met again, she asked me about school.
“I haven’t been doing very well,” I replied.
She looked at me for an infinitely revolving second, “What happened?”
I shrugged, “I don’t know.”
She held my hand, “Kemi, you have to do well.”
I didn’t know what to say, but I knew she understood this kind of struggle and heard my unvoiced frustration.

6.

For weeks after we broke up, I didn’t tell my friends. All I wanted was to heal from this thing I mistook for love. Then I told them.

What? Is he out of his mind?
How could he have done that?
Kemi, you have to let go, that guy never even deserved you in the first place.

Two years later, she still says, “He’s such an asshole.” I want to reply, “Babe, relax. I’m long over it,” but I smile instead.

7.

On one of our evening walks in senior secondary school, I asked you about your biggest fear. “Old age,” you said, “wrinkles, shaky knees, and dementia, that’s scary.” I imagined myself, grey and waddling to my favourite chair in the living room, but I was not afraid. My biggest fear is getting old and looking back at empty years of tedious inaction, never having achieved what I was created to do, and wondering if memories of Shakira’s Whenever Wherever, are phantasms sent to tease me.

First published on Livelytwist

Reading Sylvia Plath

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Reading Plath was quite difficult in the beginning, but there was something about her soul that I found myself clinging on to. Her words feel like a voyage of discovery and insight. To call her poems just “confessional” would be to underestimate her work. Plath loves to push to the extreme–humour, irony, pain. Her fluidity of language, use of metaphors and intensity are three very notable elements in her work.

She often employs descriptive words and metaphors to create the world she wants to take her readers. The imageries are astounding. Her sarcasm, humour, wit, gut, can be seen all through the pages. Some lines of her poems now live in my head:

“Always in the middle of a kiss

Came the profane stimulus to cough

Always from the pulpit during service

Leaned the devil prompting you to laugh

I observed some transitions in her works:

  • There were some villanelles in earlier poems but I did not see any in her later work
  • Her allusion to natural elements like the universe, sun, moon, was more apparent in her earlier works compared to the poems she wrote between 1956 and 1963.
  • Her later works mirrored more candour and intensity
  • Use of rhymes in her later works compared to earlier ones was also evident

She has become one of my favourite poets. On some days, I run to her words. Her poems amplify our sameness and differences. This collection of 274 poems communicate her pain, loss, joys. The part I enjoyed reading most is the section: “Juvenilia.”

Also, she has an indirect and direct way of alluding to things, incidents, encounters and experiences. In Stillborn, she metaphorically describes her dissatisfaction with her poems:

These poems do not live: it’s a sad diagnosis.

They grew their toes and fingers well enough,

Their little foreheads bulged with concentration.

If they missed out on walking about like people

It wasn’t for any lack of mother-love.

I find it unsettling that many people view her poems through the lens of her mental illness and suicide. She writes with both cheerfulness and gloom about a range of topics: love, marriage, literature, depression, suicide, nature, feminism. Her words are raw. It’s as though she speaks from a place of isolation, like a voice crying in the wilderness. I also observed the use of two particular words in several poems: “great” and “clock.” Plath was one of a kind and this is a collection I know I will keep returning to.

A Measure of Silence #5: This Is Mine

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After My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

  1. There is the question of how children become aware of what the world is and how to act in it. How do you even know what you look like if the only mirror in the house is a tiny one high above the kitchen sink, or if you have never heard a living soul say you’re pretty?
  1. While it is said that children accepted their circumstances as normal, both Vicky and I understood that we were different. We were equally friendless and equally scorned, and we eyed each other with the same suspicion with which we eyed the world.
  1. Her mother had not treated her well, she said, and so when she had her first baby she became very sad, and her psychiatrist told her that she was feeling grief because of everything she had not received from her own mother.
  1. A few years ago I went there not to look like my mother. The doctor said that almost everyone came in the first time and said they looked like their mother and didn’t want to… She put tiny needles into the wrinkles by my mouth. You are beautiful now, she said. You look like yourself.
  1. The rage of my girls during those years! There are moments I try to forget but I will never forget. I worry about what it is they will never forget.
  1. I think I know so well the pain we children clutch to our chests, how it lasts our lifetimes, with longings so large you can’t even weep. We hold it tight, we do, with each seizure of the beating heart: This is mine, this is mine, this is mine

A Measure of Silence #4: Run

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Noah Salloway in the TV series, The Affair, sits across this woman in her office, trying to understand how he got to this point. He was a good, faithful husband with four kids, but just within a year, he had cheated on his wife of twenty years, moved in with the woman he had an affair with, and was already at the verge of sleeping with another woman.

Maybe, he wonders, the traits – ego, intensity, drive – that make some great men achieve extraordinary feats are also what lead them to cheat. But should it matter? After all, in the grand scheme of things, they would have touched lives and made remarkable impacts in their generation.

I find their dialogue quite interesting and engaging. “My father,” he says to the woman, “told my father-in-law he was also an artist but he gave up in order to care of his sick wife. But no, it’s not true, the man did nothing for his sick wife. My sister and I did everything. He never cheated, and so genuinely thinks he’s a fucking hero. He was a delinquent father and a terrible husband though. Fuck him, because if that’s what being a good man is, I don’t want any part of it.”

“It makes sense to me given the history you described that you might have developed skepticism about fidelity as a virtue,” said the woman, Noah Salloway’s psychotherapist

This also makes me wonder how often the past judges the present. Faster, faster, we run from something, only to meet it in front of us. Perhaps it takes more than sheer determination to run away from some things. Perhaps, it’s not everything we can run away from?

A Measure of Silence #3: Don’t leave home

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Image Credit: Silent Man

The past never lacks proof: old clothes, game boards, letters, and photographs. Materials that bear witness to who we once were, what we once held dear. On the bookshelf in the corner of the living room was a photograph of a boy who was now a man. He grew up to the realization that freedom, the thing he sought the most, would not be handed down to him – especially not by his father. He fought to get it, letting go of everything else. In the face of the five-year-old boy in the photograph, this old man saw someone who would become who he failed to be. Refusing to allow himself to live in the shadow of someone else, the boy, who was now a man, had said to his father “I will not live my life trying to make up for your failures” and left the house. As this old man stood in front of the photograph, remembering the words his son said to him, he swallowed the lump that had formed in his throat. “Such an innocent child, how could he have resisted so much,” he said to the photograph, tracing its frame, as his wrinkled fingers searched for solace in the image of the now grown man who has vowed never to come home.

Home.

A Measure of Silence #2: When the centre cannot hold

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All he did his entire life was play the flute and consume gourds of palm-wine bought with borrowed money. So Chinua Achebe wanted the life of his character, Unoka, in Things Fall Apart, to be. As this loafer, Okonkwo’s father, lay dying on his mud bed, he said to him “A proud heart can survive a general failure because such failure does not prick its pride. It is more difficult and more bitter when a man fails alone.” Okonkwo was ruled by one passion – to hate everything that his father Unoka had loved. Being young makes us seek explanation; premature attempts to trace our way back to wholeness, the wholeness we really never had. Some people carry the past with them, not only with their hands, but even their sighs bear witness. They do not wish to accept it, but they preserve it, they furnish it, they sharpen its rotting edges and use it to shield themselves again and again. I refuse to make the same mistakes, they say to themselves. I will not be caught unawares this time. I’m protected. But Okonkwo would never understand why his son turned out effeminate right under his nose. In the end, he could not protect himself from the failure that soiled his pride.

He did not save himself from dying alone.

A Measure of Silence #1: As if you have a choice

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“All fathers want to do is hold you down”

“Anyway,” he continues, “I finally work up the nerve and tell him: ‘I don’t want to spend the rest of my life on a goddamn tugboat.’ Well, I turned myself into an artist. A tattoo artist!” He says, unfastening the buttons of his shirt to reveal his chest. He stands up, removes his trousers, and turns around. After all, Benjamin Button must see all these beautiful drawings on his body. “You have to skin me alive to take my art away from me now. When I’m dead, I’m gonna send him my arm,” he says, raising his left arm. On it is a drawing of the upper part of a naked lady. He plants a gentle kiss on it. “Don’t let anyone tell you different. You gotta do what you’re meant to do. And I happen to be a goddamn artist!”

“But you’re a tugboat captain,” replied Benjamin Button.

One of the saddest things that can happen to someone is to become who they once swore never to be. And I’m not talking about telling yourself in your twenties that you’d never have anything to do with politics, and then finding yourself treading that path in your forties. I’m talking about living a life you detest. A life you hate so much that you wake up everyday, wishing you could run away from it.

There are parents that impose their desires on their children. As though their children’s achievements will somehow correct or erase their failures. They want them to accomplish what they couldn’t, irrespective of what the child wants. But it gets to a point in our lives where we can (or should) no longer blame our parents for what become of our lives.

Still, some said words and actions remain deep beneath the skin, leading them down a path they do not want. They know they should not take it, they know they should turn back, but they keep walking anyway. Farther and farther. Some words just never go away.

“They shot the hell out of my painting!” he cries out. In anguish, he raises his arm to remove his shirt, blood gushing out from his chest. He wants to behold his wonderful art one last time, but his skin has been shattered by bullet. Before he takes his last breath, Captain Mike holds Button’s hand as though he were his father, and says to him, “you can be as mad as a mad dog at the way things went. You could swear, curse the fates. But when it comes to the end, you have to let go.”

It’s just sad, sad, sad. Miserable. For someone’s life to end without them pursuing what they truly desire. Throughout his life, Captain Mike struggled so much against living for his father’s expectation that he ended up doing just that.

In the end, he did not, could not, send his tattooed arm to his father.

P.S: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a film adaptation of a short story by F. Scott. Fitzgerald.

A Measure of Silence

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Image Credit: www.pinterest.com

There is a distance that exists between strangers, a mutual silence. Conversations easily dismissed by a smile, a nod, a phone call, or just the turning away of the head. No words owed. No entitlement. No offence. We are thankful for the thin layer of shield that guards us from the gawking eyes on the road, the warm feel of the hand of the person sitting beside us in a bus. But this unspoken familial distance that offers us no protection, this silence that erects itself as a barrier between a woman and her daughter, a man and his son, brother and sister, what shall we say of it?

In the past few months, I have been drawn to learn more on familial relationships. Not only because they are primal, but also because they shape how we see the world. I believe a lot will be better in the world if we can pay close attention to the family unit.

I will be writing on this topic for the next few weeks, using instances from movie scenes, books, visual arts (perhaps), conversations, experiences, on how familial relationships affect people positively and/or adversely. The forms of art will be my interpretation and understanding of this topic in relation to real life situations. First post will be up next week Sunday.

P.S: If you’d like to suggest books, movies, stories, just about anything that deals with this topic, I’d very much appreciate it. Kindly send an email to kemifaloxy@gmail.com

Learning Resilience: You Don’t Stop When You’re Tired, You Stop When You’re Done

And so after the hiatus that lasted two months, I went for a run. I had been awake for over an hour so I didn’t need extra motivation to drag myself out of bed. At exactly 6:26AM, I stepped out of my house. Usually, I would go knock on Fola’s door to wake him, and we’d go together. But he had traveled, and I wasn’t going to let that stop me. So, off I went.

After about five minutes, I started breathing so hard and all my body wanted to do was stop. Usually, Fola jogged behind me, so no matter how tired I was in the beginning, hearing his foot falls gave me some encouragement, so I wouldn’t, couldn’t stop.

It was hard for me keeping up the first few days we started running, and though he was stronger and faster, he would remain behind me just so I would keep moving. There was a time we were returning, and I was so tired he had to piggyback me on the road and passersby couldn’t help but stare.

He would keep saying “move it, move it.” And I moved my ass. After a while, I began to improve and then he would say, “Ha, Kemi, you’re the strong one now. See the distance us.” Even though I knew he was kidding, that it was his way of telling me I was getting better, I would smile and savour the moment. I no longer tired easily. There were times he’d point to an electric pole in the near distant and ask us to stop there. And I’d say, “No, let’s not stop there, let’s keep jogging,” and I could almost feel him rolling his eyes and smiling behind me.

But this morning, alone, I started breathing hard after about three minutes. If there’s one thing I have learnt from past experiences is that you cannot afford to stop to catch your breath. If only you can just endure that moment that insists you stop and breathe, if only you can continue, then you’d be fine. After that phase, it would almost feel like being on autopilot, at least that is how it is for me. For a while, I would barely be able to feel my legs. My mind would be everywhere thinking and imagining; my eyes busy looking at trees, rocks, people and everything around; while my legs would just keep carrying me.

But after some time, I would start feeling so tired again I had to will my body to continue. You don’t stop when you’re tired. You stop when you’re done. You don’t stop when you’re tired. You stop when you’re done. You don’t stop when you’re tired. You stop when you’re done. I’d repeat to myself. And so the cycle continued. It was easier for me going on all those times because Fola was behind me, he wouldn’t let me stop. But this morning, with no one telling me to move it, all I wanted to do at that point was stop. But I didn’t. Even when my heart was threatening to come out through my mouth, I didn’t stop. And to my surprise, I ran the distance we normally did, and I wasn’t as tired as I used to feel in the past.

I have been genuinely tired at some points in my life. Although life has been fairly good to me. I find myself fortunate not to have experienced/encountered some tragedies that alter people’s outlook on life. But this world sometimes insist we bear more and more pain even after we can no longer bear it. Life gives you your share of troubles at some point. No one is completely free.

There are days I wake up feeling unprepared for life, like I am not well equipped. I mean, I have been around for over two decades and I still feel I’m not used to living. Some days I’m so worried I’m not making as much progress, that my potentials are just there for nothing, and my life is just wasting away. Sometimes it feels like I’m not even present in my life, like someone else is living it and I’m just there to observe. I think about the things I haven’t got right, the stuff I told myself I was going to do but haven’t got around to starting. And even though I know I’m not exactly folding my arms and watching my life go by, on those days, in that mental zone, nothing really feels enough.

There are times I get so tired and it almost seems like I’m jogging on the same spot. But I don’t stop because I know if I do that, starting over will be more difficult. So even if I have to wait for a car to drive past, I keep jogging in that position. You don’t stop when you’re tired, you stop when you’re done.

I know if I were to jog alongside someone else, the distance that usually takes me about an hour to cover might take them forty-five minutes or less. But it doesn’t matter. The most important thing is that I recognize my lane, stop looking at other runners and just focus on my own race. In the past few months, my mantra has been your race, your pace. It’s my race, and I can only run it at my pace. Running fast and finishing early is good, but that isn’t the goal.

The goal is to finish.

I recently happened on this quote and it’s fast becoming one of my favourites:

Those who are blessed with the soaring swiftness

of an eagle and have flown before, let them go.

I’ll travel slowly and I too will arrive – Ayi Kwi Armah

Of course we need people, no one makes it out here alone but no one will run your race for you. Your friends have theirs too. And as much as you need people to cheer you on, it’s still your race. Your loved ones can only be on the sidelines, prodding you on.