Slouching Towards Bethlehem

On Turning 30 At A Time of Uncertainty and That Which Abides In A Time of Certain Change
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Turning and turning in the widening gyre   
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst   
Are full of passionate intensity…
– William Butler Yeats, The Second Coming
19 days ago, on the 19th of August, I woke up in New York City to the first day of my 30th year of life. 41 days prior to this auspicious milestone, I unceremoniously lost my job. Suffice it to say, that I have not made it to 30 without my share of stints in life’s centrifuge, whirling like a dervish and shaken to bits by the forces of the growing gyre, leaving me separated into elemental suspension of my beliefs, my creeds, my joys, my hopes, my frivolities, the art that has formed by bedrock and my inveterate”principles of being.” It was a dark time, the day I turned 30, despite marching sure-footedly about NYC brightly hued clothing . It is a dark time. I never imagined that I would usher in my third decade wading through such a thick and damp swamp of uncertainty,  but here, in this melée, I find myself. As the fabric I have for so long known to be structure of my universe hangs is rent into tatters, I am forced to peer into the gaping holes (and through the lenses of the poetry– and art– that has been my religion since as far back as I can trace my cognition) at 30 x 525,600 minutes for which I feeling nothing but unvitiated gratitude to to have lived.
It is difficult to know what to do with so much happiness. With sadness there is something to rub against…
– Naomi Shihab Nye, So Much Happiness
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Indeed, happiness is an unwieldy emotion. I should know: I have felt its pangs atop the mountains of the Andes and deep down in the gorges of Todra. I have rubbed shoulders with it chortling to the point of choking over an inside joke with a dear friend. I have seen it flicker in the candlelight that, it its alchemy, transmutes a dinner table into a magic carpet. I have certainly known haute happiness of drowning myself in profiteroles, stationed for hours on terrace of the Café de Flore  and the simple pleasure of sinking my head into the chest of a man I once loved as he read a book by the fire. Joy has been no stranger to me. And I am lucky– yes lucky– enough to have known the sort of soul-rending sadnesses that have, by the gift of contrast, draped my joys in infinite incandescence. Certainly, one such sadness was the call that I received on July 9th informing me that my employment of seven years would be coming to an end. Immediately,  from within the cacophony in my soul, the words of C.P. Cavafy drowned the din:
When suddenly, at midnight, you hear
an invisible procession going by
with exquisite music, voices,
don’t mourn your luck that’s failing now,
work gone wrong, your plans
all proving deceptive—don’t mourn them uselessly.
…listen with deep emotion, but not
with the whining, the pleas of a coward;
listen—your final delectation—to the voices,
to the exquisite music of that strange procession,
and say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing.
– C.P. Cavafy, The God Abandons Antony 
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You see, perhaps the most resounding lesson of my residence on earth thus far has been to welcome defeat…and to wrestle the angel of defeat for the blessing by its wing. The phone call the spelt disaster also promised me a reason to practice the acceptance that is only an admission of forces greater than one’s self, and not to be confused with a resignation to an unhappy fate:

…Whoever was beaten by this Angel 
(who often simply declined the fight) 
went away proud and strengthened
and great from that harsh hand, 
that kneaded him as if to change his shape. 
Winning does not tempt that man. 
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively, 
by constantly greater beings.

-Rainer Maria Rilke (trans. Robert Bly), The Man Watching

Cliche though it may sound, I am inclined to feel that  it has been these moments of defeat that are molding me into my truest incarnation of myself. Perhaps we mumble these platitudes to ourselves an analgesic coping mechanism; a palliative ointment for the pain of disappointment in ourselves and the direction in which our life is heading? I cannot purport to have an answer. I do know that I believe with every fibre of my being that it has been in my moments of abject defeat that I have drawn closer to my true self. In the utter heartbreak of 2010, a time as stygian and as regenerative as volcanic ash, I was led back to the writing I’d forgotten was a part of me, forced into yoga, opened to exploring the concept of beauty and introduced to the equanimity with which I have, quite proudly if even with vicissitudes, been able to handle the current currents of life’s present storm. It is because of that defeat that I can now repeat,  with almost childlike conviction, the words of Sir Winston Churchill:

I felt as if I were walking with destiny. and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial…I thought I knew a good deal about it all, I was sure I should not fail.

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“Past life”…past lives. Indeed, I have been many beings at different times and sometimes all at once. I have been the impetuous and impatient child; I have been the confident teenager and the surreptitiously diffident adult; I have been that girl who couldn’t run between two goalposts had my very existence depended on it and I have inhabited the life of, as my friend Tom christened it, “the Ghanaian Lara Croft”; I have gone from the girl who couldn’t boil an egg to the woman who mandolins potatoes into cream, stacks them in a loaf pan and transforms them into the macaire potato brainchild of Thomas Keller (but finds the most fulfillment in the simple pleasure of crafting a pie crust, an activity during which the immersion of ones hands into dough becomes the sacred act of creation, as if forming clay). Perhaps as the feeling of worthlessness that tends to pervade one after the loss of a job spills within me, I have sometimes forgotten that I have a few accomplishments under my belt of which I can proud. Indeed, I am proud that I have come to understand the self as an ever-mutable entity that takes on varying avatars within which our core being is enshrouded. But perhaps  I am most proud of the other selves with which my self has comingled along away: the friends that have persisted and those that have evapourated into the ether of the passing years; they that have populated the many snowy woods within which I have stopped, transfixed by the beauty of the journey.

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me…
– Stanley Kunitz, The Layers

Ah, and here we are again, turning and turning, even as one is thankful for the friends that one has made all over the world: the friends that “make the latitudes and the longitudes.” There are the friends I may know intimately for at least a labourious lifetime, and those I shared the space of time with but on a single occassion, echoing the Japense sentiment of ichariba chode,– like dear Ephraim, with whom I likely never to cross paths again; the man I chanced upon at the jagged zenith of Machu Picchu as the clouds parted, with whom I shared only the chasm  of uncommon language, but who showed me such kindness before we parted  at the foothills of the mountain with a hug. All the varietals  and vintages of friends have meant more than I have the art to delineate. Some have crumbled like moths wings, and some soar now higher now in my atmosphere of want than ever before, but all of them, each companionship, has meant something.

Before I was struck in a fell swoop by this year’s iteration of defeat, I had began planning a party in celebration of my 30th birthday. Quite clear to those who know me is the fact that I sincerely enjoy parties for two reasons only: planning them and the act of getting dressed for them. But this was to be more than a night out of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s fecund imagination: it was to be evening where I could give back to my friends in gratitude for all the times they’d rescued me from the brink or the abyss. And now, there I found myself, debating the feasibility of pulling together the event that would commemorate the beginning of a new decade and three decades of gratitude. Swoop! There were my friends again. In an act of unspeakable kindness, they came through, putting together a campaign to help me realise the night of magic I had been conjuring in my heart.  Beyond all else, they remained my champions, expressing a belief in me far more profound than I could ever have in myself. How does a girl find the currency of language to repay such an act. Where does one begin to draw the lines of gratitudes for and to the friends and family, the tribe, that have over all the years anchored me while giving me wings; that refer to my hiccups as our  thirst? What would this life be without those that have so coloured and textured my existence?

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Nye is right: it is difficult to know what to do with so much happiness. I find it harder still to know what to do with so much thankfulness, but to say “thank you” and “thank you” and “thank you” over and over and over again.

And from gratitude springs hope. Though much remains uncertain as I chart the uncharted territory of decade 3.0, the change that has been thrust upon me only mildly frightens me.  As Rumi admonishes, I shall search the darkness.

Night travelers are full of light, and you are too:
don’t leave this companionship.
Be a wakeful candle in a golden dish,
don’t slip into the dirt like quicksilver.
The moon appears for night travelers,
be watchful when the moon is full.

– Jelaludin Rumi, Search The Darkness

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As a child of the moon, “held in a lunar synthesis” (T.S. Eliot), I should delight in this familiar lack of light, working in the dark till I have “unfold[ed my] own myth” (Rumi). Kunitz, above, talks about our capacity to live many lives both successively and successfully and Dr. Maya Angelou reminds me that the onus is on me to create for myself my best life:

We need to remember that we are all created creative and can invent new scenarios as frequently as they are needed…You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have

I have “miles to go before I sleep” (Frost) and perhaps, I am only just waking up to the power piled up within me over time like charges within a capacitor. It is at this most nebulous of times that I must find the will within me me “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield” (Tennyson) and to harness the gifts that fortune has bestowed upon me.  So much is pulsating inside of me that wants out. I am frightened by failure but often stifled by that very fear: yes, the vicious cyle of inaction keeps me spinning. But, “…the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom” (Nin). Before neuroscientist and writer, Oliver Sacks, lay dying of cancer he wrote these mesmerizing words in reflection on his own life:

I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.

Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.

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I am now faced with one choice only, for I was born of an indefatigable mother whom I intend to make quite proud one day: to embrace change (starting of course, with accepting the colour pink into my wardrobe)  and plunge into plod, so that when my hour comes at last, I can say with certitude commensurate with Sacks’, that it has been the ultimate adventure, and not just some wading in a pond. My 20s were as fraught with mistakes and youthful frivolity as they were a grounding flight through grave graces to equip me for all that lies ahead of me. With the memories, I have kindled the conflagrations about which Edith Piaf croons, I have no regrets, only fuel.  I have learnt to love my idiosyncrasies and paradoxes. Perhaps  I am Flaubert’s camel–eccentric and mundane in one awkward incarnation: an opera lover who loves to get dolled up but hates to go out and one who would rather serve a meal in an apron than party the night away in my best frock, but wants all the Delpozo in the world. Whatever the case, I have , in my 20s, fallen desperately in love with the art of living, in diametric opposition the very real  and ongoing struggle I face with depression.  In my 30s all begins anew with continuing to heed the words of Mary Oliver:

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Do you think this world is only an entertainment for you?

Never to enter the sea and notice how the water divides with perfect courtesy to let you in! Never to lie down with the grass, as though you are the grass!

Never to leap to the air as you open your wings over the dark scorn of your heart!

…listen, are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?

…For how long will you continue to listen to those dark shouters, caution and prudence? Fall in! fall in!

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I have fallen in. This is no time to to shy away from risk. I have learnt that life is not for the faint of heart. I am Feeling hopeful. Even though my car got booted a few days ago; even though somehow the screen on my macbook has developed a colony of variegated vertical lines that are steadily creeping across the entirety of its surface like algae voraciously blooming on a pond; even though the odds are, at this moment, stacked against me like a vertiginous tower of Jenga blocks poised with the potential to crumble and crush me, I am feeling hopeful. We all should, because life itself is enough. So “I’ll keep turning and turning in the widening gyre.”

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.   

what rough beast, its hour come round at last,   
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
– W. B. Yeats, The Second Coming
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I shall trudge ungracefully along through the mud, sonorously leaving ugly footprints in the beautiful swamp. Better I slouch toward Bethlehem,  to live whatever rebirth might await me in this next decade of my life, should I be so fortunate, than never put one foot in front of the other. Yet may I remember that there is as much power in being a the force that shakes the centrifuge as there is in sitting in sitting suspended in silence and listening to what ecstasies life has to reveal.
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You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet, still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.

-Franz Kafka, Aphorisms

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All Photographs taken on my 3oth Birthday, August 19th, by Chi-Chi Agbim in New York City

What I Wore (Blues): Issey Miyake dress, Nicholas Kirkwood shoe, Yves Saint-Laurent “Arty” ring, Hermès bracelent, Céline bag, Dior So Real sunglasses.

What I Wore (Pinks): Dress inpsired by Dior and constructed by Ms. Anne in Atlanta, Dior Shoes, Dior So Real sunglasses, Yves Saint-Laurent “Arty’ ring, Kenneth Jay Lane bracelet.

About Natasha

Word- and dough-smith. Girl in search of "the illumination, that ecstatic flash, from which truth emerges".

3 comments

  1. The Universe only serves us what we can handle! I’m excited for your new chapter in life. Nothing like the forces of 30 to propel us onto new journeys.

  2. Julius

    She burned that midnight oil and devoured the quill’s supply for this one. Category IS truest incarnation of thineself and so far the results look sickening.

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