For The Sunday Muse Prompt #175, and the shades of that garden it reminds me of:
I am dreaming again
of days gone by,
of nights – heavy
with the weight
of solitude – lightened
by the joy of discovery,
a light born of tumult
in an age of innocence.
This is what the
glow-worms in their
of light a whisper
into the night
to see and be seen.
Image Copyright Sky News
Hailing, as I do, from a corner of the world in which colonization has left its mark in more ways than one, I cannot help but see the stark similarities between the Afghanistan story and that of my other country. Two podcast episodes from the Rest is History podcast (a general one and one specifically focused on the First Anglo-Afghan War) provided some context to the history of the country, dotted as it has been with inter-tribal frictions and the burden of being prized as a gateway location. The similarities appear to be more than superficial: both countries have had borders drawn on the back of envelopes splitting tribes between countries, have fairly well established Islamic insurgencies and have significant deposits of natural resources. There is also the British (read East India Company / Royal Niger Company) connection too, the tip of the spear by which both regions were economically exploited.
The images coming out of Kabul are stark, and speak to a very desperate situation with the Taliban gaining the ascendancy in very short order after the American withdrawal. Inches of paper and columns of ink have been spent on weighing up the pros and the cons, making moral arguments for remaining and framing the withdrawal as effectively ceding control of Afghanistan’s rare earth metals to China among other takes. Given its reputation for being the graveyard of empires, linked to all the aforementioned interventions which have never really ended well fore the occupiers, it is interesting that the powers that be have never really seemed to learn from history. The human tragedy is huge and, given the attack on the airport, only likely to increase as the Taliban gain ascendancy, which makes for very worrying times for those left behind, the regular folk who do not have the power of being visible working for them. One hopes that the noises being made by the Taliban have some substance, although given their priors, there seems little real hope for that. The question of just why the US and their allies have the right to appoint themselves the policemen of the world is a different one altogether but needs exploration.
The speed at which the Ghani government collapsed would suggest that there is a critical mass that supports the Taliban, for all the noise the public intellectuals make. The irony is that nothing has really changed, not in the last twenty years, and maybe not by much in the last 200 either. Previous Afghan President Hamed Karzai is a direct descendant of the puppet the British installed, Shah Shuja. The Taliban come from the tribe that brought him down. Now and as it was then, deep fissures remain, and only by understanding the history and the local context can these widespread failings be prevented.
One take away from the two podcasts I listened to was that current president Ghani was a very different beast from Karzai, one that was seen as rude and snobbish, failing to keep the tribal leaders onside. That and the manifest corruption (case in point that Instagram post) suggests that in the end, failing to make the country work for everyone perhaps made it unlikely that ordinary folk would stick their necks out and fight. A functioning state that cares for the ordinary person and imbues a sense of ownership in the ordinary citizen has a lot more heft than any outside influences propping it up, it seems to me. Given the state of Nigeria at the moment, and the increasingly disconnected ruling class from the ordinary citizen, I can’t help but have a niggling worry as to what fate might lie ahead.
For The Sunday Muse Prompt #174:
The empty glass
catches the fading light,
its pale blandness
turned in an instant
into a merry band of colours
wending their way
around its rim.
In the still moments
of yielding to the night
we see, through heavy eyes
that in the brilliance of
the radiant light, and the shadows too
there is beauty, everywhere
For The Sunday Muse Prompt # 173: Self Portrait with Accordion, (original image by Guido Vedovato) and How To Paint A Self Portrait by Nicole Tinkham.
First form the silhouette,
press the mound of wet earth thin
till it yields, pliant, to the probing
of the finger and the thumb.
Place the eyes, in the space
between the first and the middle third,
let the ears and the eyes align:
two eyes, two ears, one mouth
Because Light must fill the inward parts,
and breath is the flimsy thing
that turns earth to feeling flesh;
and the shadows too can be beautiful
in their strange, shifting symmetry
For the Sunday Muse prompt #172:
When the rain comes
breathe in the clarity it brings-
savour the stillness you remember
from the times it came before,
the delights the memories of
past days and gone weeks
and seasons long disappeared,
bring you. Cherish the muscle memory
of the steps that draw you along this path
to the days of innocence, because
drop by drop, the sorrows
of the far country are dissolving
in the rain.
It struck me the other day that even after a year out here, there are still work colleagues whose faces I have not seen without masks on. Arriving in the middle of the pandemic, masks were required in all public spaces – and rigorously enforced – with more than a few people cited for either having theirs pulled down or not wearing one as they approached the security gates and barriers that dot the landscape. Only when I then see a face without a mask does it register that I have made up the hidden contours, seeing the mask as an integral part of these faces. This brings with it a mild sense of discomfort, stemming from – I think – the fact that even though I have built relationships and friendships with these people, their uncovered faces scream unknown rather than familiar.
Faces apart, I have found myself returning again and again to Carlos Andres Gomez’ poem, Father. I first heard it read by Pádraig Ó Tuama on the excellent Poetry Unbound podcast, its second stanza perfectly encapsulating how I felt on many a visit to the ICU in the aftermath of L’s arrival. Those moments, in which I grasped at everything that I hoped could provide certainty, come back to me in lines such as:
I confessed every wrong
of my life to an empty, over-lit room of steel
and sterile instruments
I never wanted
so badly to have been wrong
about anything in my life
This, for me, is part of the allure of poetry. Sometimes, amidst the many lines we read, we can feel seen and known in the words of others.
The question of God’s sovereignty has a different heft when what lies at stake is the health of one’s nears and dears as opposed to the navel gazing satisfaction of an academic exercise. Not to say that academic exercises have no point – being able to dispassionately assess a subject on its merits without the cloud of emotion and peril has its place – but when the stakes relate to matters of life and death, hope and desire sometimes trump cold hard facts. Implicit here is the assumption that God exists, that he is reasonably well depicted by the Bible and that some objective truth about his character can be deduced from that book. The orthodox Christian (Calvinist?) position is that God is Sovereign and in control, and that he “freely and unchangeably ordained whatsoever comes to pass“, to quote the Westminster Confession of Faith. Tim Gombis, Professor of New Testament at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, offers a rebuttal of that position in a four part series [Part 1, 2, 3 & 4] from last year, one that I read in the middle of my season of rethinking. L’s arrival and the ICU trips which followed have afforded me the opportunity to re-read the arguments from the perspective of someone with skin in the game. As I understand it, the core of Dr Gombis’ argument is that there is a distinction between God’s identity as sovereign and the manifestation of that in the world today. What guarantees there are, if any therefore, relate to a final transformation of this broken world not control over the minute details of our lives. Until then pain, sorrow, chaos and the likes are part and parcel of our experience this side of the divide.
It is not the concept of God being in control that Dr Gombis’ has a problem with per se, I don’t think, but rather the wrong responses, actions/ inaction and decisions it can engender in our lives. The second part of his essay identifies five such responses:
- Inaction, in which we fail to consider ways in which we can positively affect outcomes, instead folding our hands waiting for God to act,
- False hope, in which we conclude that if God is in control then the reality of the pain/ undesired outcome that stares us in the face is somehow not real and that things will work out
- Discerning a divine logic, ie if God is in control and something manifestly wrong has occurred then there must be a meaning to it
- A refusal to engage grief and lament, instead focusing on trying to learn the lessons in the pain ‘God’ has sent our way
- Speculating on God’s purposes in the pain
The problems articulated in the article and summarised above are ones I recognise, several of them being core beliefs of the American brand of Charismatic Christianity exported to my native Nigeria many moons ago. In that worldview, if you sow seeds, name things and claim them, life will be all honky-dory with nary a cloud on the horizon. That this is a manifestly warped view of the world is not in doubt – even the most cursory of glances reveals the falsity of that. What we have to hold in tension with this on the other hand though is the question of prayer, and what we hope to achieve by prayer.
If God is not in control, then what does prayer seek to achieve? Is it merely preparing and changing us to accept whatever outcomes come our way or does it/ can it materially affect outcomes? Fortunately or unfortunately, I have more questions than answers, a consistent theme I see in these musings of mine.
“Roots” 1943 by Frida Kahlo, for the Sunday Muse prompt 171:
They say that fiery flames
beget cold ash, the certainty of beliefs
passed down petering out into the lukewarm
ambivalence of doubt and questioning.
These roots are the things that hold us still
each tendril like a link tethering us
to the ones who went before.