I have always found it amazing how easy it is to be defeated by your own thoughts, or on the contrary, built up by them. That’s when, of course, I am standing on either side of a storm of thoughts— the front or the back end— and am composed enough to assess my state of mind. This blog is about about my personal hurricane season which comes around every six-months.
The past two weeks were filled with a flurry of activity that left me little time to read or write. I was leaving the US and heading back to Nigeria after what morphed into a nearly three-month stint in the States. Unexpected events cropped up to change the drivers and duration of my stay: a fellowship I was offered fell through, I got a dream job offer that I could not take because of the location, and then Tami needed a simple but unplanned procedure. Like every long stay before this one, I would be returning to Nigeria with no concrete plan for the next six months until I returned to the US with Tami for our twice yearly checkups, with Yinka joining us at some point. Until I move beyond infrequent paid and unpaid gigs, this is kind of my life at the moment.
My storm winds start blowing about three weeks out from my departure date when I suddenly have to ramp up purchasing for the six months ahead of us. Yinka gives me a list of things I should not forget, then squawks when I give him the budget that does along with it. I narrate events on a sheet of paper to kick off shopping: Tami is starting playgroup, I may have job interviews, I need study materials for this certification exam, and I need to beef up my kitchen supplies—and then I populate a detailed list of items that stem from those activities. I have actually grown to hate this travel ritual which I call “Nigeria shopping”. This is when I become part hoarder, part fortune-teller, and part fashion buyer to ensure that all of my family’s consumable needs are met until we return to the States. Could I buy a lot of these things in Nigeria? Yes, I could. But it would cost two to three times more and require plenty of hit and miss shopping trips, so it’s better to front load this agony.
I make trips to the wholesale club for diapers, wipes, and club-sized Nature Valley bars, gallon-sized storage bags, Tazo teas, vitamins…the list goes on. Weeks before, I had ordered what I thoughts was a 6-month supply of school and play wear for Tami from Carter’s, and then topped up her wardrobe with a visit to the Children’s Place and Walmart after seeing that we already wore third of the outfits and half of shoes that were supposed to take us into December 2015. In four suitcases and two backpacks, I masterfully fit dozens of items, electronics, toys, undergarments, even Tami’s favorite potty. Then I smiled at my caravan, which was completely packed 24 hours to departure. After playing the fifty-pound guessing game a few times, I didn’t have to play the shuffle-your-items-from-bag-to-bag game at the airport to distribute or reduce my carriage to meet the weight requirements; I had reached the 200 pounds of goods I was allowed to travel with. As annoying as all of this is, it’s not at all the worst part of my travels.
I was dreading the flight and my return as I checked in online, and I could almost hear rumblings of thunder in my head. This is when the heavy rains and threatening winds begin. After 16 hours of traveling on a British Airways flight that took Tami and me through London, I arrive in Lagos and am instantly beset by a fog of disappointment as I walk through the airport. My stroller isn’t waiting for me when we disembark (I am told to pick it up with my luggage), so I carry two backpacks, a duty-free bag filled with chocolate, and at times, my daughter, through to Immigration. Before I leave the airport more than two hours later, I am asked for money by airport workers on three occasions, have one of my bags opened by immigration officials when I refuse to give a bribe, and receive a $200 phone bill via email from my Nigerian carrier who had not honored instructions I had given to disconnect my data plan. By now, the winds are howling, stuff is flying everywhere, and my face was as long as it gets. Yinka hardly recognizes me by the time I come out with the caravan of bags.
I was pissed upon my arrival. It’s a bit of crass description, but apt to sum up how I’m feeling. Many things go through your mind when you leave a place where things generally work and return to a place where the airport hums of deep-set body odor, amplified by humidity that could easily be contained with powerful central air conditioning.
In the weeks before I travelled, I had conversations with Yinka where he would tell me about some of the things I had to look forward to. For instance, for the past six weeks, he said, the power supply had been uninterrupted for almost 24-hours each day, which is unheard of in a place where, just months ago, people had no power for weeks on end. So it was somewhat uncanny that on my first full day back, the power went off and we were forced to turn on the generator. My mother-in-law, who is visiting with us, marveled at why the steady power supply failed suddenly while Yinka stopped short of calling me a bad luck charm.
Bad luck because I had been more than a bit disgruntled since before I got to Nigeria. In the past, I would cry quietly the night before departure, on the airplane as the captain landed, or when I slipped into bed in Lagos on my first night back. This time, I did not cry because of Nigeria. Just marveled, much like my mother-in-law did, about how a place that used to excite me for all its potential had grown into such a place of scorn. This is the eye of the storm for me, where there is no place to run. I can’t toy with the idea of missing my flight, nor can I reasonably pick up my things and fly back. I look at marriage, motherhood, and familial commitments and have to swallow my self-interested thought and do what is clearly right—just stay put. I boil water for baths and add disinfectant, take steps to guard against Malaria, sit through hours of terrible Lagos traffic to get groceries, deal with fuel shortages, adjust our diets and eat what’s locally available, and make sure I am home by nine or ten if I go out, for safety reasons. I live life within a 10-mile radius and get very nervous at the thought that my vulnerabilities could be exposed easily if I venture beyond the island I live on: I can’t speak or hear a local language, can’t mask my accent, and would not know how to get home if ever dropped off and left alone in 90% of the city, let alone other parts of the state. I would be completely at someone else’s mercy. I war inwardly with thoughts like this, going through highs and lows—being ok one minute and manic the next.
It usually takes me a few weeks—no more than three—for the storm to pass completely. By the time I read enough devotionals and scripture, talk to encouraging people, and stop comparing where I am to what where I was, I adjust well enough and move into my routine just fine. I start to really enjoy my friends, appreciate fresh local foods, and plug into the local energy. There are even weeks where I actually love life. However, this feeling fades when something appalling happens in the news, or to someone I know. Or to us. And then it is time to travel again.
But this time around, I am two days into my three-week curve and I feel two weeks ahead of schedule. That’s because upon returning to Lagos less than twenty four hours ago, two things happened: I had two deeply profound conversations with my mother-in-law, and I stumbled across a website called Zen Pencils, which was highlighted in the response feed of an article I stayed up reading while battling jet lag.
The short of if is that Zen Pencils’ cartoonist, Gavin Aung Than, created inspirational cartoons based on famous quotes, poems, thoughts, and teachings from great individuals. I was instantly uplifted when I read the first cartoon about the destructive power of self-pity. I didn’t realize I was harboring self-pity! But it is true. I was—am—feeling sorry for myself, for missing out on so many opportunities because I can’t prioritize what I want out of life right now, and for having to adjust to a less than conventional life. Viola! My storm rains exist and persist not because all of the tedious shopping and packing, long-haul flights, and unpredictability in my schedule, but more or less because I loath it, complain about it, obsess about it, and throw myself pity parties multiple times a day. What a hugely uncomfortable truth to deal with.
I am very late in discovering Gav’s beautiful collection of inspirational cartoons, and do not yet posses my mother-in-law’s mental strength, so I came into these much-needed talks and good reads at exactly the right time. My self-pity revelation is huge news, and not at all easy to confront. How do you tell yourself to get over yourself, and actually do it? I don’t have a real answer yet because I am still testing out a few strategies. Relying on God is where it starts, although I am trying to figure out what that should look like. I am challenging myself to rebound more easily from this recurring storm and leave the obsessing and dreading behind. The good thing is, when you’re of sound mind, it is difficult to make a very obstinate choice to continue to do something you know is unhealthy for you, like sulk and replay disappointments. So I do know better, and therefore must do better. The more reasonable part of me is challenged to stop dwelling on bad smells, overwhelmingly street traffic, and the chaos that Lagos can be and just live without adding captions, and negative ones at that, to each experience that I have in this city, and in life in general.