That’s Close Enough, Thank You

Sometimes distance was [is] easier than acting, or explaining. – Laura Kaye

In my estimation, I have not done a good job of being a superb friend. I have snubbed phone calls and messages, I have walked away when I could have called out a hello, I have all-out gone silent without bothering with explanations or warnings. I have quit WhatsApp groups, especially the ones where my family members and closest and oldest friends are in. I had skipped events, hangouts and ruracios and such when instead I was Netflix and Chilling or watching the Guardians of the Galaxy cartoon series.

I wish I could say all this makes me a little dull. It does not. A warmly throbbing sense of well-being washes over me when I sever the ties. The silence and lack of distraction, not needing to contribute and engage are welcome. It frightens me how comfortable I am with walking away, with letting people go, ones I shared love and pain.

There are days when I am thrust into a biting melancholy and spend hours tearing at myself, unravelling my already threadbare person. Why am I the ways I am? Even at my worst behaviour I have individuals who take me as is, and embrace the cactus of me.

I have been excused and forgiven in ways I do not think I have the fortitude to reciprocate or display to others. Often, I do not have the strength to love back, to want and to feel, to understand and to appreciate the same way I have been wanted and felt, understood and appreciated.

It could be inertia. Getting off my arse to care, to show more than token concern, is uncomfortable and straining. It could be that this is my style of interaction, putting you at arm’s length and further. But, no. I am capable of great affection. What it might be is fear: the fear to get hurt by getting too close. Maybe that is why I also do not have a sentimental attachment to things. Kama kukaribia watu ni shida, sembuse vitu?

One of my aunts succumbed to cancer about two years ago. The funny thing is that she was not a smoker. It started as a persistent cough and by the time it was caught, it had spread, and she was gone, seemingly overnight. The many chemo sessions did not help. My parents and I went to visit her, well, to say goodbye, and I almost could not bring myself to look at her or be near her. Near death. I walked out of her room after saying hello.

This was a woman I remember as being regal and proud, tall and with long silky hair all the way to her shoulders. She had been reduced to a weave and a wheelchair, skin, and bones, unable to speak and sashay about like the queen she was. However, she never lost the naughty twinkle in her eye, ever intimating a shared mischief with everyone with whom she talked.

I admit I was relieved when she died. There is a particular kind of life that is not life – the pain, the discomfort, the uncertainty and stark inevitability of it all. Brought low: from a woman who got things done, who oversaw and saw all, to an invalid, to always having to be kept warm as a baby and taken care of, whereas she was the one who was always doing the caring. The dissonance was disquieting for me.

Another one of my aunts’ died suddenly from a pulmonary thrombosis. A woman just cannot prosper, eh? She and my Papa were tight. She and I were not, only slightly in the way a cool aunt would be with her nephews, one of the many I was. Not old enough to be, to appreciate a relationship with a liberal, kind, funny and thoughtful much more elderly person, I was busy being juvenile, self-righteous and aloof, swimming in angst and childish insecurities.

I should say all of this grieves me. It does not, not as much as it should, although, who determines how much grief one should endure? Yes, it comes back to that, the fear, of loss, of pain, of letting go. Not the letting go I have intimated, actually letting go: never coming back, disappearing forever. And in my constant distancing, I am pre-empting the last agony, of losing those I hold dear, those who have managed to stay close…
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Self-Portrait in Blue

Or, The Apology Dressed up in Vanity and Me

The problem these fifty-nine years has been this: how can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, is also God? There is no one, no entity or higher form that she can appeal to, or be reconciled with, or that can forgive her. There is nothing outside her. In her imagination she has set the limits and the terms. No atonement for God, or novelists, even if they are atheists. It was always an impossible task, and that was precisely the point. The attempt was all. – Briony Tallis, Atonement

You could argue that if I were serious about making amends, whatever form that may take, I would do this in person. But, bear with me. I did and said things without thinking them through, and by writing this, I am better placed to reflect on what I am saying. You could also argue that I may be doing this to edit myself and come across a shade lighter. I am not. I cannot, not after what I put you through the deceit, the empty promises, my abandonment of you at a time when you needed a friend most and the reckless way I treated you.

I should have started by saying how sorry I am, for throwing your heart into a blender. The why does not matter, but here it is: I felt invincible. For the first time in a long time, I had everything I wanted. All the cogs in the machinery of my existence were oiled and interlocked and ground smoothly against each other, singing to the same steady beat as I marched on into the world.

For a short spell, I forgot the moving parts in my life, the breathing laughing people, none of them as close to me as you were, with feelings and dreams and hopes that included me. I did not include them, and you, in return. The evilest part of all this is that I did not even give it a chance. I barely lifted a finger. I am sure you noticed, how lazy and arrogant and entitled I was.

To now say how sorry I feel pretentious and vain. I am not the one who got hurt, or rather I am not the one who got hurt the most and in the most meaningful ways. The wielder of the knife also cuts himself, but not as intensely, and does not bleed as much, like the one he cuts. And I cut you deep. I do not know whether or when I will pay for my sins.

My thoughts have been punishing me, eating at whatever illusions I had about myself: I am not the shiny smiling person you first met. I have been, for most of my public life, devious and careless. And deceitful, seeing as I hid from you for so long. It would be expected to say that I never meant to hurt you, and by this point, I have implied it enough. If this were true, I would have made better choices. My actions said it all.

I do not expect you to forgive me or to understand. I feel that I am beyond that, too far from any redemption, at least not for a long time. Restitution is a dream for me, the same way you have dreamed of me getting hurt in return, or even dying, for what I did. Time will take care of that for you. In the meantime, the turmoil within me will keep me busy, and prevent me from plunging someone else to the darkest parts of myself.

It was not my intention to place myself the centre of this narrative, but I do not know how not to. These are my truths, and this is the best way I have of speaking them. I sincerely wish you well. I know you will get to those heights you aspire to, and I hope that one day soon I will become a faded memory. It might be the same one day you look back at your life and realize the grand sum of it had nothing to do with this anguish.

If any good can come out of this, I hope it is more than the seemingly recreational use of your agony to fuel your writing and mine. All of this tastes a bit gimmicky and cheap, and maybe this is because it is like a feather against the tides of our emotions. And still, none of this may mean anything. I am sorry, for what I did, said, did not say, and did not do. I am sorry.

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Dear Michael.

Fuck you. Just fuck you. You just walk away?

After all you said to me? After all we did? After all those fucking promises? After all that fucking fucking?  – Bella, Anomalisa

Cactus

A friend of mine told me recently that I could almost write like Zadie Smith. It was a glowing compliment. This piece is my attempt to run with it and still be humble. She sent me one of her articles, Zadie that is, and pointed out something that I had not previously seen: how she weaves entirely unrelated concepts and realities into a word quilt, threading each of the subjects she talks about into one dazzling montage. You could say the same of any writer, but as I was reading that piece, she was that writer.

In one of her essays, Alice Walker talks about two people she has known. One was Langston Hughes, and the other was, I forget his name, one of those charming alcoholic blues singers and raconteurs. She says that a real artist can reach down into her or his pain and use it to weave elegant haunting beauty and implied that both men had this capability and expressed it unabashedly.

One could argue that a real artist is tortured. Just look at Billie Holiday or Miles Davis. I fear that this is true for writers as well, agonized in myriads of ways and using their pens as lances for what boils they have. No one would be doing this if they had their shit together. I have often stumbled in doing this, in communicating better, in attempting to make something other than a fancy but forgettable hodgepodge of words using my experiences.

At first write about other people and their experiences, a situation that caused one of my readers always to cringe whenever she opened these pages: she might have found herself there, exposed and made naked to the world for something that was supposedly a shared intimacy. When I started writing about what I have been through, what I have seen and done, not merely what others have seen and done, it felt self-indulgent and narcissistic.

But, it occurred to me as time went on that I had to start with my stories before, and with permission, talking about other people’s. In finding my voice footing, I have been accused of pimping the pain of the people around me. Choice expletives, threats of lawsuits, murder and such things followed these moments of intense anger. To some degree, for me, I cannot shake the sensation they were not empty warnings.

I have also been told I came across as whiny and juvenile. My aim was to evoke the aching eroticism that often characterized (and still does sometimes) my turbulent and often short-lived relationships and various life happenings and to squeeze some meaning out of them, a lot more than a casual and dhirst-inducing piece. My earliest attempts came off as forced, wooden and bland and platitudinous. The only way I could remedy this was to tie my stories and what I perceived to be my truths into a long-standing wisdom or at least grasp at a hidden epiphany, a message in the shadows.

What began as an effort to nurse my wounds (the wounds of others are not no longer nursed here) and figure my world out has ended up providing a pleasure almost as thick as the joy I get from a long brisk walk along quiet shaded roads, alone with just my thoughts. Writing is cathartic for me in whatever form it takes. This site’s tagline was, when it had one, mentioned this.

I am a bit bewildered about why I even bother to write well when a scribble and scratch will give me the near-quiet high of what feels like an exorcism. I once railed against writing about writing and, for people starting out, it is, to put it chastely, frowned upon. However, it is something (something for the week, the flavor of the week), my something that I am watering and nurturing slowly. Writing is my cactus to grow. Who knows? One day it may sprout a flower.

Echinocereus_maritimus


There is nothing as exhausting as a continual repentance, an atonement for sins done in stupidly innocent times, in times that even if one should have known better one did not, in times that will never come back, relegated to forgotten histories that will never be relived.

Punished by a vivid and vain imagination – wondering what they are saying about you – into shame, guilt and silence, you retreat into a shell, that unfortunately, cannot insulate you from your conscience, from the zephyrs of knowing thought that the pain you have caused still lingers, stinging where once it was sweet.

But, you will get tired of being tired, and your shell will break, and you will flow out, no longer scared of your mistakes or afraid to show your scars where you cut yourself with unwitting, and sometimes cognizant, knife.

Agony has an ending. You can only whip yourself so much, your skin finite, peeled off to leave deadening gristle and bone. How much more of your self-hate can you take? How much more of you is left to make? Cease.


 

On My Name

Boy, who your peoples?

My first name is Rufus. It is a name that has taken me more than a decade to embrace. I prefer Marundu. I never used to. Growing up I got made fun of endlessly because of this name – manundu, marungu, maundu, matundu, to say nothing of the mispronunciations and condescension, “Ati unaitwa?! Ni jina ya wapi hiyo? Uko sure sio ‘Maundu’ ama ‘Malundu’?” 

For a boy trying to navigate a confusing and unfriendly world, you can imagine I detested introducing myself and speaking my name out loud.

In my culture, the term “kurunda” means “wrestle” and my grandfather was quite the wrestler in his day. He has a name, his name, my name, that he never uses, that I use in extremely private contexts, in my mind and, to my recollection, only one friend knows it.

So, as it went, he was called “Marundu,” “the one who wrestles,” “The Wrestler.” I do not know how true this may be. Papa says, with a rakish grin, his father, my grandfather, is full of tall tales. Whatever, it makes for a good story.

I wondered why I did not have a cool name like John or Michael. I would have even taken Kamau or Otieno. When I was about ten years old, I tentatively started using Rufus. My friends and classmates never latched onto it and reverted to Marundu.

My friends and classmates never took to it and reverted to Marundu. I once lied my baptismal name was Richard (Papa’s first name). I remember where I was, with whom and what we were doing. A good friend, Karanja, and I were going home from school when I said this.

He was one of those kids: charming, laid back and social, with a hint of danger and a neat haircut, a Philly Fade. With the shape of my head and the parents I had then (they were different people – younger, energetic and idealistic, hence their often enthusiastic enforcement of mine and my sister’s discipline) I could never have pulled that look off.

Everyone liked him, and I thought by lying about my name he would like me more. He quickly forgot about this and went back to calling Marundu, Marosh (one of my aunts still calls me this), since he was that kid.

There is another name, Dodo. Only my family’s members can call me that. When I was growing up, I would get instantly enraged whenever someone I was not related to called me this.

I have a friend who used to call me that when she wanted my attention, and still does when we are together. She seems to enjoy ribbing me. I have a younger cousin who has now taken it up. Whenever someone calls him and I happen to be around, I answer loudly, much to his caller’s good-humoured annoyance.

I have a complicated relationship with my name Rufus. I do not like it or dislike it. It is a bit cumbersome to say and lacks the je ne sais quoi which makes some names roll of a tongue smoothly.

I tried re-introducing Rufus into my life when I was in Standard Six. Our class teacher, Miss Hafsa Kaley, had trouble with Marundu. She asked me if I have any other names .Yes, Rufus. It is what she used throughout the year.

She also had a problem with my handwriting. All my teachers did. She never let up on making me write better. I hated her constant policing, so I once asked my father to have a chat with her. I was doing my best in school and improving my penmanship. She backed off a bit and held no grudges, none I could perceive.

But, I also had problems with her: her caramel skin, and her hazel eyes. Her smooth face made a portrait by her tightly tied hijab. The way beneath her slightly billowing garb I could see the sway of her hips. How on some days her bust looked unusually buxom, the sardonic smile never too far away from her mouth.

The testosterone had just started raging and rage it did, a slow-burning tightly-coiled violence. During class, I could barely keep my eyes off her. I would watch her every move, pay attention to her delicate yet aggressive movements, hang onto her every word, and ride on her lilting and clipped diction.

She assisted in running the school canteen and every time I bought something, and she happened to be serving me, I would freeze, captured by her playful gaze, pulse running, breathing in her spicy perfume. I really liked her. We eventually came to an unspoken compromise: I would do my best to write more neatly and do well in her class, and she would leave me alone (not as alone as I would have wanted, but alone).

The same year one of my uncles made fun of the name Rufus. I held back the tears as he asked me sarcastically who named me. I was too shy to talk back or stand up for myself and whatever lesson he thought he was imparting was lost on me. I promptly stopped using it until high school during the customary introductions of form ones.

Unaitwa?
Marundu.
Uko na jina moja kama kuma?
Marundu Muturi.
Uko na jina mbili kama Blue Band?
Rufus Marundu Muturi.

He, the ostensible bully would then smirk in satisfaction, at what I cannot fathom, and walk away. I was more irritated by these exchanges than scared. The real bullies were quiet weed heads who spoke in whispers and never did anything in a hurry. They would sneak up on you or beckon you with a smile and a head nod, and you could almost hear your bladder’s sphincter contract.

Such was their power and the fear they inspired, and this might explain my somewhat uninformed beliefs surrounding cannabis. I hear it is not all bad. I have tried it a few times and have found it more hype than substance.

In high school, Rufus stuck. I felt disconnected from it. It was a name used for convenience. It was more like a ticket number, something to get my attention, not something with which I identified. Again, the boys I made friends with ended up calling me Marundu. By form two even my maths teacher had taken this name up.

In this way, my love for my second name was refreshed. As an impressionable teenager, it was easier to accept this name, by seeing others receive it first. Somehow, I was never made fun of because of it. I still find this odd. I expected high school to be meaner than primary. Kids can be such shits.

This trend continued to university. Rufus was the walking stick I used to navigate the world when I felt crooked, to navigate a twisted world. Marundu is the embodiment of what is good and bad within me, what is me. After university, when I started looking for a job, because all good boys who finish college have to look for jobs, using Marundu became a bit of a challenge.

However memorable a name it is, it bruised a few too many ears and tongues. For the sake of professional courtesy, I re-adopted Rufus. And, make no mistake, it was an adoption. I spent as much psychological and emotional energy agonizing over whether to pick it up again as I did writing. Re-Writing, editing and sending out application letters and CVs.

It was a decision that paid off and over time, the name Rufus has become part of my professional identity, like the ugly orange Lumia phone from the company for support I was the custodian of. In the funny way the universe works, my family now calls me Rufus.

My parents only use it when they are sarcastic. Cool peoples, them. When I introduce myself, “Hi! I’m Rufus!”, I feel like I have given you my contact card. It is not the name I pick when I want to make a profound and meaningful connection, although I have established such by using it. It is the shirt I wear to work which makes you feel at ease.

When I was submitting my passport application documents, I got into a nice chat with the lady at the counter. I had been turned back and asked to bring proof “Rufus” is one of my names. It is on my ID card but not on my birth certificate. I come from a religious home. Mum brought us up Anglican.

Even if I was given my first name when I was baptised (we all wailed inconsolably during our baptisms), I had to go for catechism classes and finally get confirmed, after which I received a confirmation certificate from the church as proof I am the holder of the name. I explained all this to the friendly lady.

She then asked me what “Rufus” means. I said I do not know, but proceeded to tell her its provenance. Remember Simon of Cyrene, the guy who helped Jesus Christ carry his cross? I am not sure he should be celebrated, considering he was pivotal to his crucifixion, but I get the feeling he is regarded highly.

He had two sons, Alexander and yours truly. She seemed thrilled, and we talked a bit more, whether my parents have been out of the country, a bit about my Mum, how she likes cookies. All this time the was a flurry of paper before her was coaxed into neatness and returned to me.

I have never used my name here before. I made this decision after reading one of Alice Walker’s responses to a lady who had written to her concerned about her reaction to the criticism the character Mister in The Colour Purple received. The woman and her husband had adopted African names despite being African-American and it got me thinking of how we, I, have an English name I use more than my African one.

The reason is a professional courtesy, as I have mentioned. But, it has more to do with inertia. How am I going to get people to call me “Marundu” organically, without convincing, like how it just happened when I was younger? The bigger question is why I would want to be called Marundu. A way to stay in touch with my roots, to cement my identity? Perhaps. Maybe I am just not very fond of Rufus.

One of the characters in a book I read ditched his given American name when he saw the light when he woke up and recognized the presence of what he calls black noise. I am not sure something as radical as changing my name would get me closer to my ancestors or my history. It is not something I have thought about deeply.

My real reason is vanity. I love the name Marundu. I love how it rolls around my mouth before tumbling out, the slight almost drum sound it makes on exit. It feels more authentic than Rufus. We do not care about first names, which are often English, in my family. Some of my cousins do not even have theirs on their ID cards. Some of them out and out refused their English names. My feelings towards mine could be an expression of this implicit conditioning.

So, what about my name? What is in a name? What is in my name? It is everything, and it is nothing. It does not capture the person I am and never will; it cannot carry my struggles, my stories, my fears and hates and longings and dreams and realities. But, it is here, with me, I have it. Nothing more, nothing less.