Papa

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Papa. It is what I have called you all my life. A term that at once refers to you with affection, and yet carries so much weight for me. It allows me to share a special bond with you. It allows me to be your daughter in a warm and tender way, and yet preserves the respect that I have for you, a value treasured by us, both.

Papa. Your smile is always there, comforting, gentle, an opener to every conversation. Now that I am older, I appreciate, so profoundly, how a smile, your smile, defused so many moments of tension, allowed the nub of the issue to be discussed with greater clarity, calmness. And now the lesson learnt, I am learning to greet the world with a smile, with openness, with a radiance that touches another soul and draws them into the warmth.

Papa. Your stillness as you listen, to the profound, to the mundane, to the superficial. Seeking to understand first, before making a move, before charting a path. Another lesson for me, that now truly resonates with me. That seems so obvious now. We are so many of us in this world, all of us important, all of us here for a reason. Yet often, we fail to grasp the message, to understand what the other person meant. I have watched you interact with so many, young, old, important, ordinary, obnoxious, respectful, the gamut of what the human experience has to offer. And through it all, because of your ability to listen, because of your ability to focus on the other, you navigate, seemingly effortlessly, through interactions that I find unbearable.

Papa. You have taught me to build, not to break down. I see you with my sons, and the emotion wells up in my heart. You speak encouragement. You speak appreciation. From the first time you met them, you have conveyed to them how important they are, what wondrous people they are. You recognise them as that, people who have a critical and positive role to play in life. Your interaction with them is always with a gentleness and dignity that, even for a child, leaves them with a sense that they are called to more.

Papa. You have been my greatest teacher. You have taught me through your deeds, by the way your own life has panned out. Set high standards and achieve them, but don’t let your success result in arrogance and conceit. In all you endeavour to do, do with excellence and a sense of service. To serve is to accept humility, to put yourself in another’s shoes, and therefore to appreciate the journey that the other has trodden.

I am blessed to have had a life touched and enriched by a soul like yours. I have been blessed to have one whose life I wanted to emulate, to aspire to. I have been blessed to see the best that an imperfect human condition has to offer. And the baton is now passed, and I too must also become an inspiration to another.

Remembrance: For Koome

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If sit still and listen closely, I can hear your laughter. Spontaneous, sparkling, infectious! When I think of you, over the years I have known you, it was your cheeriness that most touched me. A big smile, quickly dissolving into laughter. The ease with which a “Hello” would turn into a laugh out loud moment, was so fluid. And it was always a good belly laugh that would ensue, not a giggle, not a snicker, but a cleansing from-the-soul laughter.

We’re on the steps outside your parents’ house. It’s a beautiful sunny December day. (Was it just this past December? It feels like it was just yesterday). And there you go again, teasing, joking. The inevitable laughter! Quick to come, drawing me in, a moment shared, a soul refreshed.

Of the brothers, you were the first one I heard about.

“Who is Koome?” I ask looking quizzically at Etta, as Eugene continues describing your antics. “They’ve just moved in across the road!” she says pointing to the house on the hill. We were the children of the triangle – Mandera Road meets Gatundu. Playing football in your backyard. Where did the time go? More teasing – “…tuu, tuu, thilee, fo, silatu sya ngolova…” A phrase from a lifetime ago. But even if you didn’t get the Kikamba right, you had the intonation down pat! And I couldn’t even protest, because, there you have it, the smile and inevitable laughter would draw me in every time you said that to me.

I can see you on your beloved bike, and you really did love that bike! Up and down the road, tirelessly, incessantly. And when you weren’t riding it, you were fiddling with it, tweaking a gear, tightening a chain, tending to your toy.

Koome, now an altar server. Can’t remember too much that really stood out for me during all those Sundays Masses at Consolata, but I can remember your earnestness as you served.

Running into you at the Metro. Hadn’t even realised you’d come to the States, but such a pleasant and welcome sight you were, that cold, blistery morning. Your dazzling smile the ray of sunshine I needed that morning on my way to class.

Through the years, you remained true. It didn’t matter how many days, weeks, months, years had gone by, the reconnection was always immediate, needing no explanation, a continuation without pause.

We have lost another child of the triangle! And now I shed a tear because it never is easy to say goodbye. I’m terrible at dealing with heartbreak, and this is a heart wrenching moment. I can’t quite swallow the lump in my throat and the tears stream unbidden. For now I mourn, but I hold on to the sunshine that was your spirit, the warmth it brought, and cherish always the blessing that is you.

Reflections on Gratitude

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In recent times, I have been reflecting on where my writing, intermittent though it has been, and my thoughts have focused. Following the experience with N – fully coming to terms with her schizophrenia and then discovering that she is HIV positive, led me to a place I initially didn’t think I’d be able to fully allow myself to experience, acknowledge or even get comfortable with. It was a difficult place to be, and what it evoked for me was the pain and anguish. Why had all this happened to my sister?

There were many who stood with me, and continue to do so. I am so grateful for their support, their counsel, the strength they helped me recall. There were times when the experience felt too heavy to bear. But in the backdrop the constant remained for me: seek gratitude, be grateful, practice gratitude.

Finding that core of gratitude is a journey I am still travelling. What rose to the surface easily, and what I was able to express with depth in my journalling was the pain, the loss, the sadness, especially in the circumstances surrounding the journey we, as a family have been walking with N, and my personal experience with that journey. And yet, despite the articulation of this pain, I wasn’t in a dark place, black and hopeless. I was in an uncomfortable, sometimes difficult-to-sit-still-in space, and it wasn’t always easy to really confront all the issues head on. I was passing through a stage in my journey that I needed to confront, stew in for a while, in order to get closer to the destination I believe I am headed towards: Gratitude.

In consciously making the decision to put myself in a gratitude space, I began with prayer to focus me on what my sons and I call the “thank yous”. And the challenge was to find thank yous for seemingly small and insignificant things. And so it began, with a morning prayer session, with my children, in the car on the way to school and work. And we each in turn say a prayer for the intention(s) we want to focus on.

We now invariably begin with “Thank you, Lord for…” Several things have happened in this process. The seemingly small and insignificant things are almost invariably the starting point for this dialogue.

“Thank you, Lord for keeping us safe through the night.”

“Thank you, Lord for waking us up this morning in good health.”

“Thank you, Lord for the sunshine.”

“Thank you, Lord for the rain that has watered the earth.”

This calling out of thank yous has helped me become calmer in the morning as I drive through Nairobi traffic, which at best can be an exercising affair, and at worst can cause one to contemplate ways of ending one’s life and those of many others! This space of tension, angst, anger, fill in the blank with whichever dark negative you will, had characterised a significant part of my 30s. I have chosen to end that cycle, and slowly, gradually, the thank yous are working wonders for me. A ray of light is shining through, and the warmth is beckoning many other rays that are pushing the clouds away.

The thank yous are also helping me take charge of my life in a more positive way. Over the last three or so years, I have been paring down my relationships and personal interactions. And boy, have I pared down! I’ve never been Miss Socialite surrounded by a million and one people, but I find that I have been very quick to accommodate and make space in my life for others, even if this meant compromising what I would really have wanted to do. I’ve realised that often times when I have gone above and beyond the call of duty, bent over backwards, gave genuinely from the heart, it was quickly followed by hurt and pain. Many of those around me, were only looking at what they could get out of me and not what they would share with me, give back, or contribute to building our relationship. I was in toxic relationships. In some cases I didn’t know it, in some cases I didn’t want to acknowledge it. This toxicity was colouring my view of life and of relationships as a whole without my realising it!

Paring down is not easy. It involves excising, a necessarily painful act. There were some relationships that I had held dear, for a very long time! Those were the most painful to cut off. My heart bled; it felt like the sun would never shine again. Some were not so painful or difficult to cut off. But there was the habit of having these people around, that itself took some effort in breaking. What to do without them in my life? What to do indeed! And even more amazingly, what a transformation I was about to embark on. There is a lightness about me now that I feel, that I see, that others see.

Shouting had been a key character trait of mine. I still shout (she says sheepishly), but not as often, nor with as much gusto as I used to. I feel exhausted when I’m about to embark on it, after I’ve let my voice crash against the walls and the rafters. I don’t want to be there in that space any more. I don’t want to be that person who’s vociferous anger would send my son scurrying for cover in the pantry!

I smile more! I laugh out loud more! My voice has come back, I can sing again! I’m also more forgiving. Of others, of myself. Especially of myself! I am realising, over time, sometimes through profound revelations, and sometimes through snippets of momentary flashes, that I have been extremely hard on myself and I haven’t truly learnt to forgive myself. What was it I said earlier? Journey! It is a road I am travelling, and these days, with less trepidation, even when I don’t quite know where I’m ultimately going to end up.

One of my biggest sore points but one that I’m realising is actually one of my biggest points of gratitude, is being a single mother. Let’s begin with the “single”. In my mind, I had always assumed the construct that had been tacitly and outwardly stated would come true: go to school; get the degrees; get a job; get a husband; get married; have children. Necessarily in that order. I seemed to have been on that road, having successfully done the school thing (two degrees by 24), had the job nailed and the proposal also by my mid-20s. And from the boy next door, no less, who was from a good family, whom I had known for a considerable part of my life, who was known and liked by my family, whom I had dated in high school, who was Catholic, who himself had successfully done the school and job thing and was very focused and responsible. This one I could bring home to the parents. The recipe for a match made in heaven was there. And then he called me one day, and told me, “It just won’t work!”

I was devastated! I cried, actually, I wailed (I was good at wailing in my mid-to late 20s, heart wrenchingly so!) from my soul! I was deeply hurt, but I was also not brave enough to ask him, why? I accepted the rejection, but with the fear that if I’d asked the why, I would hear something about myself that I would not like, that would destroy the image that I was a good girl, worthy of being validated by a good husband.

My hurt festered and became anger, an emotion I had nurtured over time, that would occasionally escalate to rage! I was never going to hurt like this again! And with great resolve, I began building a fortress around my heart. I would engage on my terms, as far as I wanted to go, with whom I wanted to engage. And just for good measure, I cloaked myself in a veneer of toughness, a bit of edginess and no nonsense demeanour designed to deflect any riff raff that happened to skirt the periphery. Of course the world and the universe had been grossly unfair, unkind, pick the appropriate “un” negative adjective here. I was a good girl and this is what I got? Well now I was going to be a tough girl, so deal with it, world! This became a hallmark of my relationships gone awry, with both women and men in my 30s. I would open myself up only partly, and in the instances where even a sliver of hurt sifted through, I would cut off and disengage, with lots of anger accompanying the disengagement.

I was not loving myself very much, my judgement on many of the relationships I had was skewed and unhealthy. There were those relationships, particularly with men, where I did not fully assess the pros and cons, or on even a more basic level, what I really wanted from the relationship. I simply went on the emotion of the moment, inevitably got hurt, and became even more stand offish. I used the shield of my independence, my intelligence, my ability to hold my own as the buffer that kept men at bay. There were a few that got through, with whom I developed relationships, but I would torpedo the development of anything meaningful, anything wholesome. And whilst I was perpetrating this circle of negativity, I was at the same time continually questioning myself, and wondering and reeling with disbelief as to why the husband still had not happened.

My children, I called to me.  For as long as I can remember, I always knew, definitively, that I would have children. So I had always seen the “mother” bit. I just never saw that combined with “single”, but “married” had never been as crystal and as definitive as “mother”. And we are truly given what we ask for. My children arrived when my anger from “single” and a few other issues was really festering. They caught the brunt of that anger in the early years, particularly my older son. But they have also been my angels who have helped me see that I needed to work on a change. They have been a huge catalyst that has spurred me on to the path of Gratitude.

Truly, from the mouths of babes shall come profound words of wisdom. Each of my children, and they had to be sons, has a gift that has touched and transformed me. T, you are my sage. You observe, you see a lot, and in a very quiet, but determined way, you speak truth. You draw my attention to the things that I need to change, that I need to forgive. You lived through my anger. You were touched by it, in a very physical, very brutal way. And while I visited this on you, I worked through a lot of angst and anguish, because I truly love you, and yet I was caught in a cycle where the love sometimes did not come through. Where you were catching hell for nothing that you had done, but for things that I had done. And it took me time to acknowledge, accept with shame what I had done that was so wrong, and to truly begin the healing process.

Today, I look at you, and I am so proud of you. You have accomplished so much. In your quiet way, without much fanfare. You have risen, and you are coming into your own, as you walk your own journey. And here the gratitude takes on a whole new light for me, because now I am able to celebrate. Truly celebrate! Unabashedly so.

You have long struggled with getting organised and sticking to plan on those things that you don’t enjoy so much. The transition to high school was a difficult one for you, and for a while there, I thought you would not get your act together. Since this year’s mid-year holidays, I have watched you get your head in the game, commit to working hard, working ahead and keeping to plan no matter what. I have watched you take on the challenge of Math, a subject that for a long time you struggled with, and I have seen you overcome the challenge. The diligence and determination with which your homework is now done, notes for the subjects you’ve chosen are being done, over and above the requirements of all your teachers, sharing with me your victories, sharing with me your goals and timelines by when you want to achieve them.

Over the years, you have been a true friend to your brother. You have been such a wonderful example to him. You have watched over him. And the relationship continues to grow. You have taught him that we look out for each other, no matter what! When he goes down the wrong path, you bring him back to centre. You have been a rock!

M, my sunshine, my bundle of laughter. Your arrival marked the beginning of bonds being cemented. T and I became closer because we needed to protect you. You drew N to all of us, by drawing her first to you. You have been the one who has been able to get her to think of another in a positive way, by spurring her to action. A simple action that meant the preservation of life, feeding you. You have been determination and focus personified. You looked around you and saw what everyone else had accomplished and you refused to be left behind. Your hard work, your setting the bar really high has been an inspiration. You refuse to accept failure, and will repeat a task over and over again (after some tears of frustration) until you get it right. And through it all, that quick and easy smile that so easily becomes bubbling, infectious laughter.

And so what seemed like the failure to achieve the social construct in “single mother” has been one of the central points of my gratitude. My sons have taught me to forgive myself. To strive to be a better person for me, for them and for those around me. My sons have brought out my empathy even more. They have helped me allow my softness to shine through, to not feel I have to hold onto that veneer of toughness with which I had worked so hard to armour myself. My sons have taught me to be more reflective of how I live my life, because it is important for me to be a good example to them. To be the teacher who tells them that as a human, we have some very wonderful facets, but we also have some very distasteful sides to our nature. The trick is to learn to focus on the positives and not waste so much time on the imperfection of humanity. We should not neglect to acknowledge is, but we should strive to build on the positives, and let those be ones that guide our lives and our relationships with others. My sons are the gift that I have been given by God and the universe to help me walk assuredly on my journey of Gratitude.

I light the candle below as my thank you for today. A thank you that there is light. A thank you that I AM light. A thank you that I am on the way to opening up. A thank you that I am a vessel being filled with purpose. And so now I await for the clarity of that purpose to which I am being called. But it is not a passive waiting, it is a waiting guided by thank yous, because in the seeming insignificance of mundane routines, I am being called to take up the mundane with just that much more care and concern.

gratitude

gratitude (Photo credit: nathalie booth)

Friendships

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What is friendship, if not experiences shared? What drew me to you? What brought us together? What keeps us together? What drew us apart?

Your smile, which quickly became laughter, opened the door through which I took a step and was soon enveloped in a colourful world. A cup of tea and cookies shared outside, as the sun’s rays warmed us. A story begins, woven with words that draw more laughter. And soon it blends into another. We are kindred spirit. Motherhood is a central part of your life, and I can hear familiar patterns in your stories, themes that mirror my own experiences, even if differentiated by nuance.

Today so proud of the children – nothing earth-shattering in the accomplishments; but then again, a mother’s pride often draws from the seemingly small milestones achieved. Beds were made without my reminding them. A warm, unexpected hug enveloped me, drawing me out of slumber so gently and so lovingly. I wanted to hold onto that moment, suspended between sleep and wakefulness, feeling the tiny hands holding me with such certainty. Tomorrow it will be one or the other that disappoints: upsets the balance, causes anger, questions the ability to parent.

Those moments, those disappointing moments that sometimes slide to a dark place. The reaction sometimes escalate to the extreme. I lash out, shouting, the slap snaps me back to my senses. I stop abruptly. Was that really necessary? Couldn’t I have found another way of communicating? The remorse washes over me. Our eyes connect, and I can see the confusion? Why, Mummy? Why did you do that? I can’t face you. The tears flowing down your face speak volumes. I am mortified!

We continue sipping our tea, and the sun’s rays gently caress our skin. The gentle breeze picks up and dies down, a whisper. Here now, making the basking so much more enjoyable, gone again, teasing us, playfully. Here I feel safe. Here I can speak the mortification that I couldn’t even allow my brain to process. Here we are human and our faults speak to nuances that make us what we are. No judgement. Two friends whose experiences help us to face life’s journey with greater courage and conviction.

It was your smile that drew me to you. Gap toothed and confident, definitive in its openness. And I was drawn to you. And even though you were older than I, at an age where every single day mattered so much and we yearned to be older, more important, taken seriously, you didn’t make me feel like a little, irrelevant and insignificant kid, your junior. You embraced me with your laughter, the lilt in your voice unravelling the story quick, fast! The words, unstoppable, tumbling out weaving the tale, mesmerising me. We’re traipsing along the river’s edge, picking up a stick here, throwing a stone into the water there, devising little games as we go along. The twinkle in your eyes holds rapt my attention, as I listen to your words, punctuated with your laughter, which in turn draws mine. I feel so free, so alive, so warmed by this moment.

My son lies nestled in your arms. Fast asleep, he radiates that angelic aura so characterisitic of infants in slumber. We stand round him, and bless him, as instructed by the priest. The water trickles down his forehead as the Baptismal Rite is invoked. The anointing is complete. I can feel the tears well up in my eyes, as they always do in moments like this. None of the activity around causes a stir in him. We were children just yesterday, and here we stand today with our own. Grown up, mothers, still together decades later (can it really be decades?!). The smiles are still there, bubbling over into laughter as Father makes some comment about the quietest Baptism he’s ever presided over. Even now, the girls by the river remain with us, popping up unbidden, the thread that weaves itself through our lives and holds us together.

The tea mornings have faded away. I cannot recall any one instance that led us here, to this desolate place. The sharing was not a sharing. Betrayal wedged itself hard and fast. The words that had flowed thick and fast were designed to draw me out. Lull me into a comfort where my sharing was the fodder from which you would weave stories designed to slight, to malign, to recreate a spectre of me that dehumanised and debased.

When the first discordant notes started falling intermittently in the tale, the laughter chased away the hint of ice touching the edge of my heart. But only fleetingly. The venom seeped, insidiously, almost imperceptibly through bonds that had tied me to others that had been close to me. I did not hear quickly enough the laughter transformed. The mockery settled, the mask of a smile, the trill of laughter was needed no more! The words continued, a staccato tattoo that took aim and, with unfailing precision, found their target. That which you had never built and sustained in your life, you destroyed in mine. You insinuated yourself at the core of my friendship circle and you unleashed a tidal wave of destruction!

That season is now past. As with all storms, there are always survivors. The bitterness and anger have subsided. New rays pierce through the clearing sky to bless another day.

Your smile drew me to you. Desk mates in high school, we sat through interminable lessons. And over the years, that smile, so quickly dissolving into uninhibited, infectious laughter, has held me and encouraged me through so many moments. That smile, accompanied by your quiet, yet strong voice, has been a solace for me on so many occasions.

In my lowest moments, you have been there, quietly guiding me to really interrogate the situation, showing me points of view I had never even considered. When unsure of a defining decision, I know I can reach out to you, and in your quietness, you help me articulate my concerns, air out my worries, and find the strength to push on to a decision. Our bond is not defined by the material or social stature. I can be myself, unfettered by worry as to how I should present myself when I’m with you. We’re in a phase in life where we can be carefree, but the reality of responsibilities, and the season we’re in, checks the buoyancy just so.

When did we become parents and the counselors to the parents who raised us? They still stand, but not as resolutely and seemingly omnipotent as they once did. A word, a look, can take us back to our childhood, but more and more we feel the weight of the now stooping bodies, now creaking joints, sometimes tired minds, as they seek the support that we had grown so accustomed to drawing from them.

We share now, truly, deeply with the confidence that the concern, the caring, the respect, the inspiration have become a part of our being, what binds us. You stand with me, accepting of me, accepting of mine, answering yes to my request for your buttress of support, as you take on yet another role: mother to my own.

And that is friendship. Shared experiences. Opening up to and accepting the influence of chosen ones. And even when we may have not chosen wisely, even when we look in hindsight and wonder, why did I ever get myself in that situation, friendships are what move us through the dance of life. They make the experience bearable, euphoric, joyous. They teach us lessons that remain etched in our hearts. Whether for a season, or if so blessed, for a lifetime, friendships are the bonds that tie us together in the circles that colour our lives.