Thursday, November 24, 2016

You Never Unlove People

You never unlove people. You don’t wake up one morning and find you no longer love the person you once loved. It doesn’t happen when you give it a month. Or a year. Maybe not even in a lifetime. 

You will always love the people you once loved. Memories of them, all of them, will gather into what looks like a road trip you meticulously planned but never took. Something both familiar and alien. Those gathered memories will run parallel to your every day life. In some ways they will seem to grow, evolve, as if they were a living thing. In other ways they will seem cartoonishly stunted. But mostly they will seem to mock your real life with the unspent possibilities they always hold. 

You never unlove people and they never leave. No matter how far they travel. No matter how emphatically they rejected you. No matter how unthinking and cruel they were in the end. No matter how misguided the whole venture eventually came to seem. If they once came in, they never leave. You never unlove people. 

What happens is that you come to terms with the futility of wanting them. Or perhaps, the futility of wanting them exhausts you. One day you wake up and you know this: given another chance, I am too exhausted, too beat, to show up for the job. 

This isn’t a tale in which I tell you how to deal. I haven’t the faintest idea. Maybe you don’t deal. Maybe the cynics are right, after all; we are dying everyday. So those memories; ghosts of parts of you that are now dead, are dead cells off your soul. But unlike dead skin cells, there isn’t an ointment to oil them off you. There isn’t a set of rituals to implement and eventually check them off as resolved. Maybe you just find a place for them somewhere inside you. An urn, for all the loves gone futile. Maybe you curl the rest of the journey around them. I haven’t the faintest idea. All I know is that is that you never unlove people. You don’t. I don’t. 

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Silver Linings: Four Books That Have Given Me Life, This Heartache Season

This is my earliest memory of reading: I am 8, 9 or thereabout. It’s probably the long school holidays, at the end of the year. I just completed P.4. Could have been P.5 or P.3. The contextual memories are fuzzy but the immediate experiential ones aren’t. The specific moment I remember is this: I am lying on the grass in my grandmother’s large compound. Somewhere beyond my head, my cousins are playing football; our family on one team, kids from the neighbourhood on the other. Their play sounds riotous and fun, but I am crying. I can hardly see the page of the book I am reading but I am reading anyway and making myself cry even harder. The book is David Copperfield. My grief? His grief. Why are adults so cruel to a child? I just cannot; as we say these days. From the back end of the compound emerges my grandmother. Somebody probably noticed my crying over the days I have been reading the book and ‘reported’ me to her. Now, she watches me silently. Only one of my eye half sees her silhouette. I can’t tear myself away from the book and my associated grief to fully look at her. She watches for a while, makes up her mind about something and leaves me alone. 

Later that evening, she had one of my cousins write an explanatory letter and a few days later sent me back home to my parents with it. That was okay, though. I finished the book before she could find a trusted traveller to take me along with them from Mubende to Kampala.

My cousins wrote that letter in a team. One that included my big sister. Of course they embellished it. Have you been a child given a chance to tell on another? My mother was pretty upset about it content. “Why would you misbehave so badly at my mother’s home. Grieving for days like you had been orphaned. Do you really hate your grandmother that much? The woman who gave birth to me and looked after you during the war and when I went back to Busuubiizi college? What kind of ungrateful child are you?” Imagine then, how deflated she was when I explain that it wasn’t about me. “It is just that in England, there is a boy called David Copperfield who lives with his mother and stepfather and they really mistreat him. They even locked him up in a dark room. The stepfather beat him and his mother let him do it because she wants him to love her and now she no longer loves her child and yet she is the one who gave birth to him.” 

Long story short, my mother explained that stories are just made up but acknowledged that it is legitimate to cry your heart out over them. As a teenager, she too had cried her eyes out over Elechi Amadi’s The Concubine. Then, she came to the completely logical conclusion that what I needed going forward was more books. Before I could complete primary school, I was reading Okot p’Bitek’s Song of Lawino, a text she had been assigned at university.

I have told the above story before. What I have never explained about it, is what got me reading a book when a kid, even the socially awkward kid I was, would have been out playing with the others. Play, not books, is why we all loved holidaying in the village. Those endless options for hiding places in games of hide and seek. That fat cousin, who always ended up the seeker because even if she found your hiding place, you would outrun her, kick the tin into a bush and go back into hiding before she retrieved it. No, that wasn’t mean. Those were the legit rules of the game. 

Yeah, so why was I reading a book instead? Because my big sister had stopped loving me. My big sister used to be divinity itself. In my eyes, of course. The eyes of a little girl whose big sister made the prettiest banana fibre dolls for her, warmed her bath water and cooled her tea. I don’t know why my big sister stopped loving me like that. One day she was my protector, caregiver, best friend; and the next she was a mean person who didn’t choose me for her side in kwepena, and walked to church with my cousins, leaving me far behind. I mean, dogs could have eaten me off that village path and she would not have even noticed, given how far ahead she was. Change is cruel, and that particular holiday is when I first noticed those changes in our relationship. So, I turned to a book. 

I still turn to books to when I am in pain. If pain is the cloud, the great books to it leads me to, are silver linings. I have been in pain lately. Heartache, again. As it was in the beginning, although of course, this time it involves a man. Following a two year entanglement in a loop of confusion that tripped over itself at every turn, we stopped.  We stopped because we each deserve; if not better lovers, better lives. And because that’s just my level of maturity, the end, is exactly when I fully recognized how utterly in love, I had been all along. 

Initially, I was pretty sure heartache would leave me blind. Every morning, I would wake up to discover that fog was the new atmosphere. I could barely see the floor my feet landed on or my face in the mirror as I brushed. If I squinted tight enough, I could see my skin; a grey featureless thing. But I didn’t go blind. Indeed, through the tears I could clearly make out words in books. So I read books. As it was in the beginning. 

The books; the silver linings:  

A Grief Observed by CS Lewis
This came to me through my book club. My book club of 13 of this country’s brightest, most fiercely feminist women. This book club is for me what church is for a nun; a watering hole for my soul. In A Grief Observed, Lewis mourns the passing of his lover and wife, H. It is a beautiful, beautiful text. I am atheist. Lewis was religious and so is his grief. You would think that would present a disconnect for the atheist reader but it didn’t for me. He steps away from, navigates through and succumbs to pain, by intellectualising. That certainly is something I can relate with. Where he intellectualizes and questions his God, I intellectualise and question what I hold sacred: my belief in the fundamental good nature of human beings; of myself as one of those human beings. But, perhaps the biggest gift this book gave me was the passage below. 

He supposes that our beings are each a sphere or globe — unimaginable, eternal somethings, but the part of our beings that we share with others, as in love, are circles (circles are slices of spheres). Grieving the loss of love (in his case to a lover’s death) he writes of: 
“Two circles that touched. But those two circles, above all the point at which they touched, are the very thing I am mourning for, homesick for, famished for. You tell me, ‘she goes on.’ But my heart and body are crying out, come back, come back. Be a circle, touching my circle on the plane of Nature. But I know this is impossible. I know that the thing I want is exactly the thing I can never get. The old life, the jokes, the drinks, the arguments, the lovemaking, the tiny, heartbreaking commonplace. On any view what- ever, to say, ‘H. is dead,’ is to say, ‘All that is gone.’ It is a part of the past. And the past is the past and that is what time means, and time itself is one more name for death, and Heaven itself is a state where ‘the former things have passed away.” 

Now, of course, the man lost his wife so I am not going to compare my own failures in love to his grief, but I found a lot to relate to in how religion fails to console this very religious man. Our life tools, whatever they might be; humour, writing, philosophy, god-belief, etc; gathered and tested over time to keep us from despair, have a way of abandoning us when we are at our most desperate. You can measure the depth of my pain by inability to write, even though in the first place, I write for the craft’s therapeutical powers. I imagine religious people love God at least in part, for how he lends them power to overcome. Yet here is C.S. Lewis writing, 

“Talk to me about the truth of religion  and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand. Unless, of course, you can literally believe all that stuff about family reunions ‘on the further shore,’ pictured in entirely earthly terms. But that is all unscriptural, all out of bad hymns and lithographs. There’s not a word of it in the Bible. And it rings false. We know it couldn’t be like that. Reality never repeats. The exact same thing is never taken away and given back. How well the spiritualists bait their hook! ‘Things on this side are not so different after all.’ There are cigars in Heaven. For that is what we should all like. The happy past restored. And that, just that, is what I cry out for, with mad, midnight endearments and entreaties spoken into the empty air.”

Oh, sigh… How badly, I want “the happy past restored!” How many midnight entreaties I have spoken into the empty air! Even knowing the futility of it all. Even doubting that the ‘happy past’ ever existed as I remember it.  There is a lot in that book. You should read it. 

The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknovitch
Ms Yuknovitch was a screwed up, screw up. With an alcoholic mother and a physically and sexually abusive father, she started life off with all the disadvantages you need if you are gonna be a loser. And she set right onto that path. She could swim like a fish and that got her into college on full scholarship. She quickly went on to lose that scholarship — because of rage channelled into drugs, hyper sexuality, alcohol and other damaged daughter things. Before she was 30, she had gone through a divorce, had a still born child, seen both sides of several  rehab doors, and she wasn’t anything like done with that self destruct road. 

This book, this memoir, is an invaluable gift from a damaged daughter to all of us who have picked up a cocktail of damage along the way. It doesn’t tell us about healing; because we, the damaged, are not guaranteed to heal. But it tells us about being. It says there are places for us anyway. Spaces that might even bring us healing. For her, and I suspect for me too eventually, that space is creativity and its intellectual circles. 

However, in the immediate, when my misery sought company, this book was like whispered code from my secret self. A self I suppress, so that I can have a functional level of self esteem. A self I hide from others, such that they may respect me enough to: hire me, report to me, have an intellectual argument with me, have fun sex with me without being burdened by my histories. A self that has learnt to never show up, until, of course, I am driven insane by circles touching mine too close, too well.  Abandoned daughter; not someone you can just want. Illegitimate daughter; an apology. Sexually assaulted girl; good for the body but not for love. 

I want to paste here, all the passages that speak to damage but I’ll exercise some self restraint. 

“This is something I know: damaged women? We don’t think we deserve kindness. In fact, when kindness happens to us, we go a little berserk. It’s threatening. Deeply. Because if I have to admit how profoundly I need kindness, I have to admit that I hid the me who deserves it down in a sadness well.” 

And so of course, we don’t know how to accept kindness or generosity. 

“You see, it is important to understand how damaged people don’t always know how to say yes, or to choose the big thing, even when it is right in front of them. It’s a shame we carry. The shame of wanting something good. The shame of feeling something good. The shame of not believing we deserve to stand in the same room in the same way as all those we admire. Big red As on our chests.” 

I wanted this book to adopt me because this book understands and accepts. 

But you? Read this book because Ms Yuknovitch uses her body as a literary canvas and she isn't "what you'd call a blushing flower." She has loved women, men, athletes, scholars, professors, painters, musicians, writers, losers, the works. She's been going at it like a rabbit since her early teens; alone, with single partners, in groups, with a woman professor who used to lash her vagina and preferred to be called Mummy. She's done it all and it's written on the page in delicious detail. Go live. 

I Didn’t Do It for You by Michela Wrong
After The Chronology of Water, I was ready to step out of myself. So, on to political history. I Didn’t Do it for You is a 100 year history of Eritrea, right up to 2002. If you are going to take a crash course in the history of a country, I say 395 pages of fast reading is quite a bargain. These 395 pages, I dare say, are also the best Michela Wrong has written yet, not counting the novel because it is fiction and I haven’t read it yet. I have read all the others, or at least started to and the obvious difference with this one; is how fast it goes along. Perhaps because she is going towards fiction writing as a writer, this book animates the events better, sets scenes more vividly, and plays characters off each other more dramatically. I am still reading it and I do actually sneak an hour off work, here and there to get a chapter in. The general arc is that the world  really screwed Eritrea over and over, but that’s a familiar African story. The plot twist in this case is; Ethiopia. As in, an African country colonized another African country. Very recently too. And with all the unashamed zealousness, deceit and brutality of every colonial power ever. It’s definitely worth getting into those details.  Also, it really made me regret naming my child with a nod to Haile Selassie. Going forward, I am going to have to tell people that I named her after Eminem’s daughter. 

The Bin Ladens by Steve Coll
This book isn’t about Osama Bin Laden. It is about the family he came from, an assortment of millionaire characters so eclectic and amusing, the pages of the book are a reality show. There is the patriarch who proposed to his four western girlfriends at the same time, in the same room, helpfully elaborating that he would build them a four house compound in Saudi Arabia and each house would fly the flag of the wife’s country: like a UN compound. There was the brother who used to hire a top range Mercedes Benz on rainy days because his Rolls Royce just didn’t deserve to be burdened through the rain. Then of course there was Osama Bin Laden, investor in international terrorism, lover of loud explosions with a penchant for making and watching videos of himself. Steady handed brothers who built and maintained a business empire through the worst international PR disaster imaginable. Women as varied as the world itself; pilots, businesswomen, housewives, a struggling, but hilariously high maintenance, artist on first name terms with Paul McCartney, of the Beatles. Reading this book was so much fun, I, for a while, took to waking up at 4am to get chapters in. Its end felt like a break-up. But for a change, a break-up I can balm with a quick replacement; I have two more Steve Colls on my shelf. 

Side note to journalists: Steve Coll’s books are the closest thing to a true journalism textbook; they come with about 150 pages of notes and citation of source material to make you hang your head in shame for every “he said, she said” story you ever wrote. Read him. Read every book he ever wrote. It will amount to at least 50% of a masters degree in journalism. 

Ah, Books! Mending my heart since the early 1990s! 

Now, while books can mend your heart; here is something they can’t do. They can’t cure you of love. On that, you are on you own, friend. You and the person you love, if they happen to love you back. As for me, now in the immediate, burn incense and tell the goddess to take over.