The power of good enough

The realization came after a meeting one evening last week. Time zone differences. I breathed in relief when the Zoom call ended and I silently thought –

It’s good enough.

As soon as I thought it, I realized a few things. First, that I could not remember the last time I said it. Second, that the last time I allowed myself to think it, has passed for some time now. Third, that the quiet sentence felt good.

It was a particularly sluggish day. I was feeling a bit unwell with a mild headache. For days, I was unable to get myself to sleep at healthy hours which used to be no problem for me. The meeting was a content-meeting about a paper I would be contributing to. I wasn’t absorbing the points nor responding as clearly as I would have liked. I could say I did my best to engage in that meeting. But doing one’s best doesn’t always mean being at one’s best.

I realized only that night that I had hidden the words “it’s good enough” into a basement in me I’ve not cared to remember. I can’t exactly remember how it came to be this way, but I came to take “good enough” to mean “not really good enough”. Because good enough should be good, or really very good. And because I confused those words for a different meaning, sometimes I’d ignore the good when it came, work-wise. I would receive good feedback on something I wrote or something I talked about, and in silence I would think – do they really mean that? Maybe they just really missed something that would show them there is nothing good in what I’ve written or said. Or maybe they are being kind. Old-fashioned impostor syndrome. I’ve buried the words “it’s good enough” because I’ve also taken it to mean settling for something less. All these, without realizing the habits of my mind.

As thoughtlessly as I locked those words away, so thoughtlessly they made their way back that evening. It was only a sentence at the closing of a day. One long unused. But it came as gentle thought. A refreshing thought. And it struck me that it felt good because when I allowed myself to say it was good enough, I was kinder to myself. It meant I accepted my not feeling well that day. That I was ok with my thoughts being slow and my responses being less clear than I would have liked. That I didn’t worry. That I didn’t hold myself up to an unfair standard. That I didn’t expect to be at my best always. That during some days when one’s best only comes so far as the act of trying, that that’s really ok.

It was as if I stumbled into a discovery of the good behind this long discarded sentence. I will continue to say this to myself. On the days I write a manuscript and I close the laptop feeling that the draft is not yet in the shape I want it to be. When the theoretical dimensions are not yet drawn out as well, as clearly, as sharply as I wish. When sentences are still long and meandering, and the arguments are far from distilled. I’ll say “it’s good enough” at the end of the day. And it will mean I let go and I embrace the next important thing. The meal. The jokes. The downtime. The family time. Even the humdrum time for brushing my teeth. The sleep. And it will mean I will go back the following day to pick up where I left off. To keep at it. And some later day, I will get to where I can say “it’s good”.

Love is

love is —

truly seeing the imperfect in others

and allowing others to see the imperfect in us,

and loving anyway;

being accepted for who we really are

and accepting others for who they really are

without complaints that we are less,

or we are more others want —

a radical acceptance,

and a radical support for all the growing we still need to do.

love is understanding and being understood

if imperfectly,

deeply;

love is a constant return to one another

a home

a safety

a belonging;

It is being and staying unmasked

unpretentious

without a need to dim our lights

or to shine brighter that we really do;

Love, that which expands the soul

and makes us a humble part

of something larger than we are,

that which pleases to give

itself

and of itself

and to receive

that transcends here and now and self

sees better

knows better

life

if imperfectly

deeply;

Love,

Life,

Are one.

A good life

The last couple of months spent almost entirely indoors altered daily rhythms and routines amongst many. As someone who loves the quiet, domestic pleasures indoors, this was not entirely unpleasant and I found some thrill in the idea of being able to spend the longest time at home than normal conditions would allow. Currently, I am still sheltered in my brother’s and sister-in-law’s home in Manila, in the company of my sister. One of my friends in Bremen said to me at the start of the lockdowns – someday, we will be able to look back and think about all the time we got to spend with family – and was she right!

These past days, I have been thinking about a good life and what it means to me. Coming out of this lockdown, what are the things in life whose importance have stood clear for me? What is a good life? And how can I live with intentionality so that they are protected and nourished?

There is much to be said and shared about our different lockdown experiences, but I know I can say, this has been the longest time spent in the Philippines and with a family member in the last five years, and God knows how much I needed this. The lockdown had allowed me to stay, and in the stillness of the days, retrace parts of my heart that I had disengaged with in all the stress, pressure, and changes of the last two years. Here, I re-read The Chronicles of Narnia, called with the Bisdak friends every week, joined in the family’s breakfasts and lunches and dinners in video calls without differences in time zones, laughed with family, danced, learned to sing Baby Beluga (because, Ollie), engaged in conversations about Philippine politics, went to bed happy and grateful that we are alive and well. And while I do usually spend time in the kitchen, I’ve probably never spent as much time in the kitchen as I have in the last two months. There is so much that is heart-breaking about what the world has come to. But I will also allow myself to say, I have been deeply grateful. I have been anxious about the mounting sufferings all over the world. But I have also allowed myself to find reasons for joy in the most quiet of days, and simply, to be content and happy.

These past days, I have been thinking about a good life and what it means to me. Coming out of this lockdown, what are the things in life whose importance have stood clear for me? What is a good life? And how can I live with intentionality so that they are protected and nourished?

A good life

Is simply

Slow, healthy meals at home with family

Deep, long sleep and wholesome dreams

Long walks

Forests and trees and their rich life within

A garden like Mama’s

Birds

Sunrises and sunsets

The view of a still sea

The sound of the steady breaking of the waves

The raucous of reunited friends

Long and brave conversations where we are vulnerable and ourselves

Many quiet, unfilled hours

Thoughts that are attended to

A home that houses love

Fresh air

A handful of clothes

Soaps and whatnot

Good old books that one can fall in love with over and over again

An old orchid by the windowsill

Stories before Ollie goes to sleep

Hugs

Jokes

Spending oneself for what one believes in

Writing

Coffee shared

Parents

Siblings

Friends

Communities

Faith in God

Truth and justice and love

Memories

Songs

Tears

Hope

The courage to be afraid

The color yellow

A world where everyone else can speak and live their own form of a good life

Without malice and greed

Where the blade of grass is allowed to be green in the span of its lifetime

Where forests are alive

And oceans are not choked

Where the land is not gashed

And the birds are not silenced

And viruses stay where they were without jumping

To people who are forced to go without goodbye

Where we all can grow old

Full

Perhaps with gaps between our teeth

A world where the only power that matters

Is love

And we multiply our wealth by sharing, not taking

Where families still pray together

And equality is not analysed because it is

Where we smile more

And sincerely greet with the Kiwi’s hongi

Where men aren’t tacitly forbidden from accessing the part of their hearts that involve tears and tenderness

And women are allowed to be their strong, beautiful selves

A world where love wins

And hurts are healed

For a start,

That is a good and wondrous life to me

These are hard stuff

Even now, the old orchid four summers old

Dies by the windowsill without a drop of water

And people go without goodbyes

A black man dies by the knee of a white man

I breathe

And climb my bed to sleep after a thousand breaths

Under a blanket of gratitude for all the good things that are

Hopeful

To wake

And help make

The things that are not yet.

Rethinking our political divisions

There are things that we take for granted that they become almost invisible, but sometimes, distance helps us notice the things we miss to see. During my trips back to the Philippines this year, I noticed what seems to me like a fascination and a deep attachment to the idea of unity and oneness. Confronted with the Covid-19 crisis, the phrase “we heal as one” very quickly caught on. When the Philippines hosted the Southeast Asian Games in 2019, it was, “we win as one”. This notion is deeply meaningful. But the irony is that our country has probably never been this divided. The economic, ethnic, religious, (dare I say) gender, and political divisions have existed in different forms and to different extents in our country’s history. But never have political divisions played out as starkly as now, with virtual connection at our fingertips. Our political divisions play out in social media even as most of us are confined within the walls of our homes and the anonymity of our electronic devices. We are a country bitterly divided along (many but particularly) political lines. This has intensified at the time of Covid-19 when government representatives are under the spotlight for the small and large things they say and do – and rightly so, because of what is at stake.

It is important to talk about our political divisions because banners like “we heal as one” do not make divisions go away. At times, such a phrase also belies the fact that the effects of the Covid-19 crisis and the capability to cope and bounce back are socially differentiated. There are social groups that suffer more and are likely to take a longer time to recover than others. One-size-solutions will not fit all.  At a time when collective action, collaboration, generosity towards others, and kindness are so important (and they have always been), it is highly important to reflect on our political divisions and think about how we may move beyond them.

In social media exchanges these days, there are often two distinct voices – one supportive of the Duterte administration and the other critical. This dichotomy of course, oversimplifies the real picture. There may be supporters of the Duterte administration who have the capacity to critique aspects of his policies, actions, and speech, as there may be critiques who can give a praise when it is deserved. But in the space I call ‘the underworld of social media comments’, these nuances are often buried beneath the caustic exchanges of those that support Duterte and those who do not. My experience in that space of social media comment exchanges following the day Duterte said on TV – shoot them dead, showed me how conversations can very quickly descend into a battle of words, how anger on both camps is very real, and how difficult coherent argumentation can be. On thinking further about that experience, I realized that comment exchanges quickly turned into a Gordian knot mainly because people argued along different logics. One side talked about good governance, the other insisted on interpreting the statement as Duterte being a chastising father. One can hardly expect a coherent conversation along such different and shifting lines of thinking. While such exchanges may be dismissed as just ‘Facebook battles’, they are highly important because they mirror social narratives and cleavages behind the screen, and because institutional actors have become more responsive to social pulse as expressed in social media.

A great advantage of social media as a platform for discussions is its widespread and easy access. With a smartphone and internet (even if only Free Facebook), anyone can weigh in on any issue of the day. But a serious drawback is in how anonymity can lead people to suspend norms of courtesy and respect. And typing on phones can lead people to resort to short, unsubstantiated but insistent responses. In such a platform, finding a common ground or at least coming to shared understandings about an issue can be very difficult. It is likely only a few, if any, leave that comment exchange space with a better understanding of where the other’s political views are coming from. And yet exchanges between people with opposing views are vital for co-creating a better socio-political fabric on which much of this country’s future depends. Digital interactions continue to play a very important role in political and governance issues, particularly during this time of lockdown and so-called new normal. How then can we move beyond the deadlocks in our informal political discussions? Can we turn dissent and disagreement into something constructive and useful? Is it possible to foster virtual safe spaces where people are allowed to disagree without disparaging people we are in disagreement with? Can we have better political conversations between people or groups of people with different political views without labelling each other as Dutertards, Yellowtards, and whatnot, even when it is tempting? I don’t offer clear-cut answers, but for anyone who cares about this country, these are probably questions that we can and should reflect on individually and collectively. How can we rethink and remake our political divisions? Below I share initial thoughts to which more ideas may be added.

Cultivating self-awareness. Many people are already aware about the characteristics of online exchanges on issues related to politics. Some have altogether avoided these spaces because they know what happens there and they view such spaces as unproductive. But less are aware of their own complex emotions when and even after engaging in such exchanges. Yet this is very important because it enables one to step back, refuse to respond to fire with fire, and keep the core issues on the table.

Redefining winning. At the peak of online clashes, one wonders what people really are fighting about and are fighting for. Often, discussions cease to be about exchanging thoughts on an issue as they descend into a competition of insults or sarcasm. At that point, who wins? Even the person who has said the most, or has had the last word will have alienated someone. That is not genuine winning. We win only when people come to a level of shared understanding, even when they disagree. To have shared understanding as the goal changes our purpose as well as position in the discussions we engage with. We won’t say words to challenge and negate others. We will say words to seek to understand where the other is coming from and to seek to be understood. Instead of responding with the “truths” we believe, we may well respond by first asking honest questions and really listening without judgment. The first step to gaining ground in political conversations may involve a good strategy, but most of the time, it really is about our own humanity. Respect, common courtesy, and the humility to open oneself up to try to see things from others’ point of view are as important in virtual exchanges as they are in personal exchanges, if more difficult.

Go beyond social media. We have virtual platforms; we are not virtual people. Our lives are lived in the flesh, out there in communities where we cannot help but meet people along the roads, in markets, and churches. While our discussions happen online, our communities are being built or eroded through our daily enactments and the interactions in our normal lives. Going personal, changes the conditions of our interactions. Anyone arguing for social justice just might find that the people they think they are speaking up for have a different preferred policy in mind. How does one navigate that? Political divisions are likely to continue to result in difficult exchanges online, to say the least. But can we foster constructive political conversations in our own communities, away from our screens, face to face with people? Can we make safe spaces for difficult but constructive conversations where we are?

These are only starters and rough sketches and I would love to hear your ideas.

Going back to oneness, I don’t think it’s a reasonable goal for a country. Every country is diverse, and we are bound to have different backgrounds which shape our different perspectives. I think the more reasonable goal in place of oneness, would be togetherness, which means we can differ, but we can develop a process to make something fruitful out of our differences. And in so far as our political divisions are concerned, this togetherness may require us to ask – at this period in our history, how can we build bridges to one another?

Latest Posts

The power of good enough

The realization came after a meeting one evening last week. Time zone differences. I breathed in relief when the Zoom call ended and I silently thought – It’s good enough. As soon as I thought it, I realized a few things. First, that I could not remember the last time I said it. Second, that … Continue reading The power of good enough

Love is

love is — truly seeing the imperfect in others and allowing others to see the imperfect in us, and loving anyway; being accepted for who we really are and accepting others for who they really are without complaints that we are less, or we are more others want — a radical acceptance, and a radical … Continue reading Love is

A good life

The last couple of months spent almost entirely indoors altered daily rhythms and routines amongst many. As someone who loves the quiet, domestic pleasures indoors, this was not entirely unpleasant and I found some thrill in the idea of being able to spend the longest time at home than normal conditions would allow. Currently, I … Continue reading A good life

Rethinking our political divisions

Digital interactions continue to play a very important role, particularly in political and governance issues, particularly during this time of lockdown and so-called new normal. How then can we move beyond the deadlocks in our informal political discussions? Can we turn dissent and disagreement into something constructive and useful? Is it possible to foster virtual safe spaces where people are allowed to disagree without disparaging people we are in disagreement with? Can we have better political conversations between people or groups of people with different political views without labelling each other as Dutertards, Yellowtards, and whatnot, even when it is tempting?

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How does one free-write about her own life again?

It’s like saying hello, to a friend I hadn’t met in 10 years. It hasn’t strictly been that long. But it feels so. This is awkward. And I’m not sure about the first words. I read and ask and think and write for a living. And it means most of the time, I sit down to write, to record an observation, to note a thought, to think through a topic, and to make a point. This is one part of my life that I am really grateful for. But my relationship with writing wasn’t always like this. I used to write to breathe. And writing, that is, free-writing about my own heart, the meanings and messiness of my life, was the better half that I came home to. Rustling winds and falling leaves, blue skies and bare trees. Smiles. Stories. Heartbreaks. Healing. Loss. Dreams. Ashes. Love. Memories. I’d rush home and skip the socials and sit with any of these for hours, until I feel I’ve sat long enough because the thoughts and feelings have been poured and my heart had spoken. I remember sitting for hours one rest day writing that note on coffee in Ethiopia. Not because I needed to write, but because I wanted to—which made me need to. And I was happy. I sorely miss that. And right now, writing this and looking back, I feel like those were among the times when I most felt myself. It stopped when I went through a break-up. And stopped again sometime in the middle of my PhD when I wrote day in and day out to state a point. Can I go back to free-writing about life? I’d like to go back. Is my mind nimble enough, my heart large enough to live in two writing worlds? In the daytime, writing in the structure and language my work requires; in the evening and weekends casting them all aside and tumbling and hopping and weeping and laughing in untamed sentences? More importantly perhaps, can I try and be brave and put some of my most personal thoughts out there like I did ten years ago? I know it’s worth it. It has always been. Some of my closest friends, I found because I dared write my heart out and we found kindred spirits in one another. It’s true, you can lose what you already have when you get so busy running after other things. I was so busy learning to write within a structure, I forgot to write like wild, which the heart can be. And I probably got so busy learning to be careful, I forgot to be more open about who I am. Heart, I’m sorry. You deserve better than what I have given the past three years. You deserve the letters and the notes and the blogs that let you out. You deserve openness. You deserve my courage, one more time. Shall we do that? Shall we write again? Free and unafraid? Absorbed and engaged? True and exposed? Back to describing the bare bald trees against a winter moon? And painting the view of a sunset in words? Shall we again say how in love we were, and still are with Narnia? Then Heart, let’s write again.

Expanding problem-framing beyond lack of discipline

Whether in social media or in personal conversations, one is bound to hear that the problem of the Philippines stems from a lack of discipline. The same narrative typically punctuates issues, from garbage disposal to queuing up and more acutely now, following stay-at-home orders during community quarantine. That Filipinos lack discipline, and that this lack explains a great deal of the challenges we face as a country, is so normal and taken-for-granted that it escapes questioning. But that is precisely what is necessary. If discipline or its lack is so central to making life better here, it should be worth unpacking. What, after all, is discipline? How useful is it in gaining a proper understanding of societal problems in the country and in envisioning solutions? And what is potentially lost when societal problems are framed as ‘merely’ being the result of an undisciplined populace?

From childhood to now, when I meet or hear from people who have travelled to other countries particularly the West and the more advanced economies in Asia, I would hear statements about how nice it is to live in those countries because places are clean and organized. And always, the added – and people are so disciplined! But what is discipline? I went to the dictionary. There are different ways that the word is defined, but discipline is the practice of making people obey rules and punishing them when they do not. It is also the quality of being able to behave and work in a controlled way which involves obeying rules and standards. Three words stand out in these definitions – control, punishment, and constraint. Viewed from the perspective of rules and rule-enforcement, discipline is a specific approach for getting people to follow through the use of control mechanisms and the threat of punishment. In most social media exchanges and personal conversations, the type of discipline that is typically referred to is the second definition referring to self-constraint. This places the onus for obedience on individuals, which seems to be an efficient approach, if it works.

On one hand, discipline does play an important role in addressing societal problems. Societal problems are human-made and are amenable to human-made solutions. The effectiveness of rules in addressing problems and achieving desired outcomes – whether in relation to solid waste management and involve proper garbage disposal, or in relation to the Covid-19 crisis and involve leaving home only for essential activities – do ultimately depend on individuals complying with the rules. Discipline or self-mastery enables individuals to follow a rule and keep with standards which can eventually promote public good. People who discipline themselves can contribute to keeping surroundings clean. People who stay at home out of sheer discipline can help slow down the spread of Covid-19. However, the usefulness of discipline as a lens for understanding problems and a basis for creating solutions is very limited. It may apply to personal goals; it does not suffice for complex societal problems.

Framing the Philippines’ problems along the lines of a lack of discipline holds individuals as the only ones accountable and absolves government organizations and their representatives from effective enforcement. And where enforcement is concerned, the language of discipline very conveniently draws on control and punishment as tools – ones that are not only narrow but have proven to lead to disastrous consequences, such as the abuse of power leading to the killing of a disabled retired soldier by a police in Quezon City. A narrow focus on individual action, misses the wider context in which individuals act. In my experience interviewing local residents on various topics in the Philippines and elsewhere, I found that while people can choose their actions, most actions are a result of people’s immediate surroundings and a host of other factors. For instance, the residents I interviewed in an island somewhere in Central Luzon were not throwing trash into the sea because they lack discipline. It was rather because there was nowhere else to throw the garbage into. With limited island space then full of homes, there was hardly any place to dig a pit. Just as I don’t segregate my trash in Germany where I live because I am disciplined but because I know its benefits and it’s just that easy to do. The system for collecting segregated trash is so well in place it works and one does it almost automatically without even thinking. When we reduce our problems to a lack of discipline, we lose sight of all the other factors, including really subtle ones, that make people act the way they do. Our framing of our societal problems needs to be expanded, from an individual scale, to one that covers the rules themselves and the provisions for implementing those rules. Are the rules reasonable given a specific context? Are there mechanisms in place that enable people to follow the rules? And in cases where the answers to these questions is no, which institutional actors can be held accountable and responsible? And instead of thinking of enforcement in terms of constraint, we can also think about enablers. What factors can be put in place to nudge people towards a new behaviour? What would make it easy to follow a certain rule? In such a conversation, we will not only consider the role of individuals but also of organizations, communities, and especially the government. We will stop describing our problems as being the result only of individual’s lack of goodwill and grit, but come to understand our situation as being the result of institutional and broader forces at play. We can better devise solutions and stop putting our hopes on the unfounded and unguaranteed prospect that everyone will cooperate even without proper support. We don’t lack discipline. One can see that easily enough in many Filipinos who move to other countries and adjust to new rules rather speedily. We need better governance for a start.

I live a double life

I live a double life.
There I had said it. The line had been on my mind for a couple of days now. And maybe tonight, sitting here, typing this, is my surrender, my recognition of that line that floated above me demanding to be acknowledged.
The thought came yesterday, a Thursday morning. I walked half an hour along a footpath from the flat I’ve been staying in, to the campus I’m visiting here in Lancaster. It was sunny. There were no clouds above. The footpath ran beside a small, clear, quite musical stream. The trees were still bare of leaves — revealing the nests they hold, crisscrossing their intricate patterns of branches and twigs. Farther up the path on my left, the ground sloped up from the stream to a green pasture. The lambs grazed quietly in the distance. And the birds sang — how they sang. How they sang indeed.
And I watched.
And came the confusing mix of being filled and also feeling like one was being hollowed out inside. It was a little ache.
It ached because it was the kind of morning one wants to paint with words. And I thought about it yesterday — how words are colors that one can paint with. And it’s a very different matter from real painting or any visual art, but words — there are shades and hues and intensities and life in them that create a tribute to life. It was the kind of morning that one could take a good photograph of and print and hang on a wall. But it was also the kind of morning for watching, for taking to paper or to a blinking cursor too. Because there really is a way to capture a scene, a moment through prose. Victor Hugo did this of Late Middle Ages Paris. I wanted nothing more that sunny morning than hold on to my cup of coffee and capture the joy of that bright, quiet morning in writing.
I did not. And that’s how this realization of a double life came. I remembered weekends a couple of years ago spent sitting by a river or walking past a river, and going back to my room to paint the moments in prose. Many weekends and nights of painting in prose — that human attempt to put time in a bottle. I used to spend hours writing letters to friends, keeping record of thoughts and feelings in old notebooks, writing raw and messy, following the coiling and moving and flying and falling and flowing and settling and waking and sleeping of the matters that moved in my own heart — of my own heart.
And it stopped.
Gradually. Until tonight, when I can’t even recall the last time I allowed myself to free-write, to write as to be..
I remember a time I was taking my master’s. There were nights, after long days of reviewing for the comprehensive exam, when I’d go to bed and stories came — it didn’t feel like I consciously made them up, they came like they were flowing in between my wakefulness and sleep. And I had thought, it would be nice to write these stories down.. I remember a 15-hour bus ride from Dipolog to Butuan ten years ago when I made a skeletal outline of a book I wanted to write. Am I just now talking about lost opportunities? Or a disconnection from what I really love? Because even now, writing this, it doesn’t feel fluid and there is quite a lot of rust about. But no, I don’t think this is about substantial loss or disconnection.
Yesterday, I didn’t write when I really wanted to because I was working on references to a paper. I said I live a double life because as a PhD student, I am under training to think and write in ways that are not always the most natural to me. I write papers with conceptual frameworks and results and discussions (and I feel really grateful for the privilege of being able to do this matter that I also love) but there’s also a big part of me that wants to sit down and write stories in the fashion of The Velveteen Rabbit but one that tells the story of Sheepie the Monkey or others of the kind. To write for Ollie. To sit down, and welcome the muse when she comes. To write poems again. It’s been years since the last wave — those two years with nearly thirty poems.
My PhD — working on the topics I care for, in a country I love working in, with the most wonderful team one could ever ask for — it’s been one privilege of a lifetime. And the training and molding have been just what I needed, just what I wanted, just what I had hoped to find.. But maybe I also gave up of the other writing I value, a bit too much. And maybe today is a reminder not to lose that. Perhaps there are ways, I’m sure there are, to walk in the world of research and the world of writing about fresh, sunny mornings — they are after all, both world of wonders that can co-habitate in a single soul. CS Lewis was different, but that wonder of a man who lived in strict, “cold-blooded” (he would probably not like this) philosophical deductions, went on to create a large world of which Narnia was but a part. Heart and mind are distinct and different, yes. But I suppose they are possessed by one soul so that in oneness, neither one or the other perpetually subsumes another, but both function and flow in a unity where one would be hard pressed to say where one begins and the other ends.
I don’t want to live a double life. And with this writing today, I tried. And I think I will keep navigating..

Ramblings in Haworth

I don’t have an actual bucket list that I’m committed to. Those things to do. Or places to visit. But if I did, Haworth would be in it. Because some five years ago during the Christmas holidays of 2012, I read Jane Eyre. And I thought it perfect. Not that it stood superior over my other favorites, or that it had more to offer than other excellent writings. But thence at last, I found though I was not aware that I sought, one weaver of words, so true, so brave, so precise as ever rose to bare up the female heart. Charlotte. And eventually after more readings, I found her sisters too to be women of kindred thoughts — Emily and Anne.

I came to Haworth by plane from Hamburg to Manchester, and train up to Hebden Bridge, and bus up to the Cross Roads at Keighley and finally by foot up to Myrtle Drive just at the edge of the fields. I came in the fashion I most prefer for a matter so dear — on my own, without a schedule, five days in a tiny village. The afternoon of my arrival was cold and windy. But it was alright. One could not have expected it to be otherwise. Not when one remembers the moorland of Wuthering Heights, its brooding aspect, its howling winds. And not in a month like May.

The Bronte home sits at the top of a cobble-covered slope of stone houses. One walks up, past a number of shops, into an almost level path, with The Black Bull to the left, and the humble Haworth Church just beside. A small path leads from the church entrance to a grey stone-building. This was a school built in Patrick Bronte’s time as clergyman in Haworth. The same place where his children, the Bronte women and son Branwell taught. The very place that held reception after Charlotte’s wedding to Arthur Bell Nicholls. A few steps away to the left side, their home — the one place I had long wanted to see.

I shall not attempt to describe the interiors of the home. But I will write about what’s outside.

Only a few paces from the door of the Bronte family is the old graveyard full of markers of people long gone. Many of them died in the 1800s. The Bronte family’s faithful servant of thirty years, Tabby, was buried there. As was Martha Brown who served the family until the death of the last Bronte, Patrick. The cemetery reminded me of the cemetery near my own home, at the back of our house on the other side of a small creek, down a subtle slope. It was one of the places I loved spending time in when I was seven or so. Perhaps my cousin Ate Mai-mai would still remember how we used to bring snacks and some things to read and sit cross-legged above Lola Bibing’s rectangular concrete tomb under the bright, mild light of a late afternoon and how we watched people passing to and fro the concrete path nearby. For some reason, visiting Charlotte Bronte’s home reminded me of my own home.

Walking away from the church and the home and the graveyard, one comes to a narrow avenue hemmed on both sides by low stone fences and trees. A few steps farther on, the moorland. Oh, the moorland. Lavish in space. Unsparing in solitude. Beautiful in many subtle ways. Riotous with its winds.

I walked to Top Withens, meeting only three people along the way. It is a place where even the most hungry, the most thirsty, the biggest-bellied of all souls for a drink of solitude would find an ocean. And the solitude it offered was the space for a dance between the inner and the outer, where the inner thought and felt, and the outer helplessly commanded notice for all its untamed, wild, vast, beautiful self that is the moor. I passed the Bronte bridge which the sisters used to walk over in their walks, the Bronte chair — a chair-shaped stone believed to have been used for their rest, and the Bronte falls — to which Arthur a few months after being married to Charlotte, invited the latter for a walk where she got soaked and caught the illness that was to be her last. I walked farther on until I saw on the horizon a structure I could not quite figure out until I was a close. It was the ruins of a stone house, believed to be the inspiration for the home in Emily’s Wuthering Heights. The place was some heights alright. And wuthering too. As if it was under a perpetual tempest. As if the winds owned that part of the moor and held all rights to blow as much as it would, as long as it liked. It filled one’s ears. It whipped. It danced a violent dance. It swept the land that knew it well. And there, one could look, and it was moorland as far as the eyes could see.

And I thought, here is a place to love. One loves it because it is itself. And loves it because it is there. And doesn’t every writer, every weaver of words, every maker of stories, need a place to love? A place to be? And it is not only about a place to do the writing in.. I mean a place to think in, to feel in, to begin to conceive.. A place for thinking and feeling and being.. For coming alive and for being in touch with that life.. For a safe place from the intrusion and demands of things in the world that sometimes comes and steals away what was beginning to form inside. The modern writer may have the means to push that aside. But here, away from all, here, the place itself pushes all those aside. Charlotte, Emily and Anne — for all the sad things to be said of Haworth at the time, I imagine had something most of us now lack — the protective enclosure of a place that was their home, and a landscape for exploring and knowing and conceiving things in imagination as broad as the land is vast.

Charlotte railed against the life women led in her time and if she was alive today, she would have rejoiced over the possibilities and options now available to us but non-existent for her generation.

And yet, Charlotte, you might have railed too over our present loss.. You and your sisters walked that moorland absorbed. While I took out a phone, took some pictures, and sent them to a few friends. I have what you didn’t. You had what I lack — your being so singularly absorbed in a matter, be that the landscape you are walking in, or your inked nib on a parchment. Your life, as most of your family’s was short, but it was substantial. It was a focused life. And while you may have written with hopes of your work being received well, you probably had not thought that Jane Eyre would outlast you well into the second century since you were born. You wrote from your heart with an honesty that was a pure flame. And it burns bright still. It reached me, hundreds of years and thousands of miles removed from the table where you wrote.

I love walking on dirt and pebbled paths. The sound and feel of my own footfall on a dirt path often brings back the feeling of home, wherever I am in the world. And as I walked from Top Withens back to the church yard, the graveyard, the Bronte home, I remembered mine. I remembered mine because my home is in a small town too.. Because I knew its moods and colors and sounds and turns and corners, like Charlotte knew hers, like we all know ours.. But she stayed in her home. And in the circumstances surrounding my own generation, I had the choice to leave and be somewhere else. And yet, I will never find anywhere in the world, the feeling, the being, that only springs at home. There Charlotte lays even now, with her family except Anne, in the vault under the old church. They all lived in that home almost all the days of their lives. Read there. Wrote there. Were buried there. But in their short, focused, undistracted lives and undiluted days, that family wrote beauty and meaning and quietly passed away like wisps of smoke.

I walked away aware that all my travels and the many long years spent away from home, though good, had also taken something away from me. Something Charlotte had. The blessing of being at home. And I walked away, wanting to live the kind of life she led — focused. Unafraid in honesty. And because of solitude in and with the Lord, secure. And because secure, able to live as herself, without a hint of apology.

I shall go for a walk again tomorrow before I leave..

An Invisible Thread

There is a danger in trips like forty six days in Jimma, Ethiopia. And it’s not the traffic hazards. Not the possibility of an encounter with a hyena or a leopard which in my type of field work is infinitesimally small. And it’s not the possibility of being attacked by a person who is not quite normal though Girma had once been aggressively threatened. The real danger, I tell you, is a thread.

It’s that long, inexhaustible ball of so slender a strand that unwinds itself away and winds itself around something else. You must know this thread. Invisible. Ubiquitous. Almost helplessly imperceptible. Almost. To be discovered only at the close of things, like the content of the Golden Snitch. It’s the thread that winds itself around one’s heart, moment after every ordinary moment, thickening as the clock ticks. And in that one final moment, when almost all are done and only the goodbyes are left hanging in the air waiting to be said, when there’s only the stepping out of the kebele, or the stepping out of the house one has rented, or out of the car at the airport, the thread is invisible no more. Because one turns to go but something tugs inside, and then one knows. Markus Zusak in The Book Thief said something about souls that have “ ..more of them ..found their way to other places”. I wonder if that’s not very different from the souls that have thick invisible threads coiled around their hearts.

I didn’t know, you know? I had no idea. No inkling that it would feel like that. But shouldn’t have I known, who has left Polanco, Marawi, Butuan, and Los Banos? And yet I didn’t see it coming.

That I’d sit at the back of that car on that last work day in Gido and watch the landscape recede as the car pulls away, watch as the people go about their daily lives in Tobba, the sun setting behind the hills.

That I’d stand at the gate while Dadi walks Sintayehu and Lemane to the bus stop and think, they won’t be in the house anymore. That the Sunday before that would have been the last rest day together.

That the nine-ish Masud would be at my door one early morning to give the kilo of coffee and the kilo of honey that was his mother’s going-away gift to me. That I’d deliberate in the car on that last morning if I should run to their house to say farewell and hug one more time simply because I had had the opportunity of once being an occupant in their house and this second time, as in the words of one oldish man, I’ve become a neighbor, an ola.

That the fifteen-something young girl would say “Sumaya” and look away, and I’d know she’d called the little girl, her sister. And the little girl would come up to me and raise her face and I’d stoop because I know the drill, she’d plant a kiss. That this Sumaya would hold my hand, confident, self-assured, without a drop of shyness so common in other children. But she wouldn’t have understood me when I was saying goodbye, that it would be another year till we meet again, and how many inches taller might she have grown then?

That Alima who had sat under the mango tree while she told me about what the recent years of her life had been like, would spend that last morning sad, because “I always feel sad when someone goes away and I don’t know why.” That she’d almost tear out at the last and say “I like you too much. I love you.”

That Seyfu’s handshake would be a firm, extended grip.

That Dadi and Sinta and Lemane would sit me down at the hotel in Jimma because they had something to say and a gift to give. It was the dress that I looked at one Sunday afternoon, about which I said — that’s pretty. And they caught that. And came back to buy it.

That Tolera and Elias would drink with me, two cups of fine macchiato, on that last night in Addis, and I’d walk to the airport, down to the last meters accompanied by these good people, good friends. That I’d walk into the airport thinking, I came here first in 2015 unmoored, and I’m leaving fastened with a sense of the importance of the privilege I’ve been given to be around, to just be around and meet wonderful people in that truly wonderful place.

That down to the last minute of that trip, I’d feel a keen sense of how grace-soaked it all has been, how, because God’s hand was on that trip, it was permeated with lightness and joy in many forms and many names, the kind that filled you right to the brim, the kind that spools the invisible thread right around your heart. And the sense of wonder deepens, thickens, at so marvelous a world, at so joy-giving the meetings, at small moments that, like I always say, make life big.

But if that thread, that one that tugs at us from inside so that we cannot decide whether to leave a part of ourselves or bring with us a part of that place and the people — as in life, we do both.. If that thread, that invisibly wounds itself around one’s heart, is a danger, then it is a danger to all things dead and gloomy, because the thicker it gets, the more alive we become — in relationships, in knowing that in one time and at one place we met wonderful people. And if the thread is a danger with all its imperceptible winding around so delicate and yet so strong an organ as a heart, it’s a danger I never bother myself to be safe from. Nor ever will I.

Winter

There is a small path I take on most morning walks to the office. To the left, a stretch of infrastructure in different stages of construction; to the right the flowing Ilmenau flanked by tall leafless trees. There are willows that stoop down and kiss the river.

It was in this path the other day where I thought about how different winter is to summer, as different as night is to day. What can be more different to the lushness and greenness and thickness of leaves crowning every last twig of even the youngest shrubs, than the absence of them all? What can be more distinct from cloudless skies and hot sun, than thick grey skies that hang on, the whole of most days? What’s as different from days that stay bright until ten in the evening to days that are dark at four? But the wonder to me, is in how two very different matters, could stand so remarkably equal in matters of substance and beauty. I am now very tempted to liken, and perhaps I should give in, summer to Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley, as winter to her Jane Eyre. But this post is not about comparisons. This is about winter.

There is so much more to winter than sub-zeros and layers and thick blankets and books and coffee. Although these are wonderful too.

But winter is also —

Finally discovering how many nests have been made on this one tree because at last they are visible!

Seeing the birds perched on branches because no leaves cover them.

The sight of a full moon hanging behind the criss-crossing bare branches. There are many matters of beauty in the world. Some light and happy. Some almost a piercing shaft from another world. This is one of those shafts.

It’s the sunrises at nine, in those rare days when the clouds had not bothered to come, and the sky glows a pale orange hue in the east and waxes for a bit, and the jutting sun rises by the minute to its full round self.

It’s the sunset that blushes up the ceiling of the world, a backdrop to all the proud, bare, old trees that have witnessed this kind of season over and over again.

It’s the puddles near the gardens that freeze over the night.

The mist that rises from the quiet surface of the river upstream, visible from the bridge, illuminated by the light of the early sun.

It’s happiness over occasional blue skies, which never gets old.

And once in a while, it’s those few mornings when one pulls up the window blinds and a leafless tree stands illuminated by the yellow lamp post in a way only a snow-covered tree can be illuminated — as if it had come most peculiarly alive overnight. It’s when streets and the paths are covered, and the shrubs are a heap of white, and the snow takes on the outlines of intricate, delicately thin branches and freeze them there. In those days, it is as if the world had become a different place.

And if winter was a woman, she would be a grave woman, allowing warmth only in the confines of the indoors. But isn’t inward, the most honest place there is? And she would be a proud woman. But proud she should be.