Winging It

I am seating in a meeting, listening to the folk around the table drone on about some subject now lost to memory when it hits me – in the way I imagine an out of body experience might – just how much of what is often dressed as expert opinion is little more than strongly expressed opinion. Far from thumbing my nose down at others, it is a farce I very much consider myself as a contributor to. That sense of winging it, making things up as I go along, is one which has come to define the first half of the year for me; from the vagaries of the aforementioned work situation to the minutiae of doing life, spread as it has been between the grey, dull granite of the ‘Deen and the leafy, colour-suffused greenery of the Wey country.

In the best of years, I face the second half of the year with a sense of tentativeness, primarily due to the fact that the six weeks between the 8th of July and the 15th of August are deeply emotive ones. This year, that sense of being dragged unwillingly into the second half of the year is heightened by my middling attempts at meeting the goals I set for myself at the beginning of the year. Boiled down to its essentials, 2018 was the year I would read (and write) more, lose weight (to the tune of ~ 10kg), go a long way towards replenishing the savings my Chelmsford exertions drained and complete a timed 10k race. Some progress has been made towards running that 10k (I am currently training for the Simply Health Great Aberdeen Run) and have managed to complete 7 of the 25 books I hope to read in 2018, but what is abundantly clear is that a humongous effort is required to recover and meet these targets.

Elsewhere work (and multiple trips to the middle of nowhere), travel and machine learning have been my continuum. In addition to Pula, pit stops over the course of the year have included Inverness, Glasgow and various dodgy London backwaters. I am only six weeks into a twelve week machine learning course on Coursera but what it has done to reignite niggling doubts in my mind about the future cannot be completely quantified. Poring over matrices, gradients and numerical computations has brought back to mind things learned in Further Mathematics many years ago, with the near instant feedback a few lines scripted in Octave can bring raising the question in my mind of what I want to do long term. A year ago, I could have sworn the corrosion and materials discipline was it for me (hence the Rust in RustGeek) but a combination of needing to move down south and studying has made me question what shape or form the move should take. I am far from being at a level of proficiency required to completely dump my past life and switch industries but I suspect if this horse had its wish, I would be dumping my rust geek card and picking up a Deep Mind one, never mind they are riddled with contractors.

It is not only on the subject of the future that niggling doubts assail me. Faith, developing a coherent world view and how that interfaces with science and what we know about the physical world is something that has floated on the periphery of my consciousness for a long time. The pitfall in all of this thinking is entertaining doubt for its own sake only, or worse as a proxy for a cool, worldly wise spirituality rather than as a means to an end, figuring out objective truth. That, this engagement of the mind and reason in the sphere of faith, is one that the church has a rich tradition of; Augustine, Origen, Eusebius, Anselm – to whom the motto fides quaerens intellectum – and more recently the likes of CS Lewis and John Stott all come to mind. Three books, one on the go and two on the to-read list, are likely to feature prominently here; Diarmaid MacCulloch’s (the partly read one) A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years which attempts to chronicle the coalescence of various ideas into what we know and practise as Christianity from a historian’s viewpoint, NT Wright’s Paul: A Biography which looks to reinterpret Paul’s legacy from the perspective of a theologian’s who is not afraid to colour outside the lines a bit, and Rachel Held Evans’ A Year of Biblical Womanhood which given her antecedents is likely to be a more modern, doubter turned believer again view. Paul looms large in all of this, predictably, given his outsize influence on the New Testament and its shaping, and also how a lot of the ‘problematic’ bits of the new testament, especially it’s treatment of women relate to his teaching.

Identity is also another topic which has lingered on my mind these past few months, triggered in the main by the World Cup and the make up (and performance) of the French, Belgian, English and German teams. Trevor Noah’s take, the response from the French ambassador and his response all demonstrate how deeply nuanced the subject is. Whilst there is certainly some delight in seeing people like me do well for these countries (sans the English team of course which being the dour, Calvinist almost Scotsman I am I must hate), the fact that none of the ‘proper’ African countries made it out of the group begs the question of if these sons of African émigrés have achieved what they have in spite of, rather than because they have African roots. The Mezut Ozil saga does suggest it is a little bit of both, with there being a sense in which the acceptance of one’s visible otherness is bestowed almost as a reward for being of the good other. Acceptance or not, the one question I have’t being able to wrap my head around is what I would do if I had a kid who was great at sport. Would I encourage them to represent Nigeria or their adopted country?

There are a lot of weighty things to mull over, and a few trips to the middle of nowhere to navigate but I would like to think I can make writing more a focus for this second half of the year. The benefits are obvious, I think, from providing an outlet for clearing my head and organising the prodigal thoughts swirling about in my head to providing opportunities for deliberate practice. I make no promises though, may what will be be.

Pula Notes

***
There is something infinitely fascinating about a gaggle of Brits suddenly transposed from their dour, grey climes into warm, sunny 24- degree weather. Once the coats and jackets begin to lift, the noise levels increase. I suppose nothing says ‘your holiday begins now‘ more succinctly than being hit by a wall of hot air.  On this occasion though, before the holiday properly begins, we have to navigate the small matter of customs and passport control at Pula Airport. Thankfully, it is a lot less painful than  before, thanks to new passports, and good timing – just before the rush of traditional holiday season.

Giancarlo, our Croatian guide with an Italian name, does a good job of finding everyone on our bus in time, and keeping us entertained with useful tattle as we make our way to the various hotels to drop folk off. The views from the window of our coach  – red earth, plenty of greenery and (mainly) quaint, boxy buildings  – suggest this is a place very much in its own image, yet to become fully subsumed in serving a tourist culture. That does not spare it from the long arms of globalisation though, the Lidl store not far away from the local Plodine underscoring some of the pressures behind the Asda – Sainsbury tie-up. Our hotel, the Park Avenue Histria, is the last stop, a walking distance from the Verudella marina. At first blush – grand facade apart – it doesn’t have the spanking new look of the Movenpick from Marrakech or the King Evelthon from Paphos, but once we are settled in, it feels like a good enough compromise between price and location, given what views of the sea we can see from our windows. The rest of that first day is spent catching our breath, having been up at 4.00 am for a 7.00 am flight from Gatwick (which ends up significantly delayed).

***

The next day, having been suitably energised by a good night’s sleep – and a hefty breakfast  – we made a beeline for reception, where we found a walking tour of the city just about to set off.  A wizened widower, returning for the first time since the loss of his wife, a retired banker who had taken up writing as a second career and his wife, and a couple from Montenegro now living in Berlin were in our group as well as a couple of British couples and ourselves. Our guide was yet another Croat with an Italian name, Romeo. The first stop on that tour was the local market where we mingled with the crowds eyeballing fresh fruit, vegetables and cheeses, with the smell of fresh fish from the adjoining fish market following us around. It was here we saw our first black face, in one of the stalls selling cheese. We did the thing, that barely perceptible nod that black people who find themselves interloping in the middle of a sea of other faces do to acknowledge each other. Once done with the market, our walk took us through the Golden Gate (more properly the Arch of the Sergi), then up steep, narrow side streets toward the maritime museum. Highlights of the route we took were James Joyce’s residence in Pula (click here for the fascinating story behind that) and the great view of the harbour with a few semi-subs in for maintenance. The shops along the way all had football shirts – Croatia had two players on the Real Madrid team which won the UEFA Champions League final, and will play in this year’s Football World cup. Football also came up in conversation with Romeo, when it came to light that we were Nigerian. The most breathtaking aspect of the tour was the old arena, its magnificent facade towering over that section of town – it is supposedly the most complete/ outstanding amphitheatre outside Rome.  Once done, our group broke up with quite a few folk wanting to have a wander about the insides of the arena whilst others wanted to press on elsewhere. We made mental notes to return to the arena and the maritime museum later in the week.

***

It was a good thing we did the city tour when we did as the next two days ended up being miserable and wet, ruining our plans to go out on a boat tour. The silver lining from those days was running into Romeo at reception, alongside the writer and fashion buyer couple from our second day. At his prodding, we headed off to the sports facilities to golf in the rain and afterwards enjoy a mini table tennis tournament. When the rain let up on our fourth day, we visited the nearby aquarium, housed in a re-purposed Austro-Hungarian fort. The grey, boxy fort brought back memories of Vienna, and the Haus Der Meeres – housed in another re-purposed military installation.

The rest of our stay served up much better weather, which we took advantage of with a couple of packaged tours. The first of these, the flavours of Istria tour which we booked via our TUI representative, took in a number of the main tourist cities (Medullin, Vodnan, Bale, Porec and Rovinj) as well as a few out the way places (Zminj & Grzini from memory). Lunch was at an agro-tourism restaurant in Zminj (the Familija Ferlin) where we had a soup (manestra) for starters, hand made potato dumplings in a ragu sauce for the main and some fritule for dessert. Although our guide compared them to doughnuts, the more pertinent association in my inner Nigerian mind was to puff-puff. The second was a boat ride out of Medullin with a pit stop at caves for the more intrepid divers to explore and a grilled lunch aboard.

***

The long and varied history of the Istrian peninsula – from being first populated by an Illyrian tribe through various conquests and interactions with the Greeks, Romans, Franks, Goths, French, Venetians, the Austro-Hungarians, modern day Italians, Germans, and being part of Yugoslavia – was on display all through the whistle stop tour in the arena, numerous temple ruins, Rovinj with its colourful buildings down to the edge of the water, old church buildings with detailed murals and paintings, forts and military installations. This  is a region of Croatia which has clearly been enriched by its various interactions with people over its history. How that history has affected the demographics of the region is a subject I cannot pretend to know enough of from a few days spent here but amidst the clamour of voices suggesting it has been good for the region there was the odd voice of discontent praising the central region for never being subsumed into the Venetian republic. Tito’s legacy was also another subject that spurred vigorous discussion. For all the vitriol lobbed in his direction in the West for being a dictator, I got a sense that he was venerated in many quarters in Pula. As one guide put it, even now we struggle to paint the things that Tito built. 

P.S. If more pictures are your bag, feel free to drop by here.

3 Day Quote Challenge – 3

The greatest enemy of hunger for God is not poison but apple pie. It is not the banquet of the wicked that dulls our appetite for heaven, but endless nibbling at the table of the world. It is not the X-rated video, but the prime-time dribble of triviality we drink in every night. For all the ill that Satan can do, when God describes what keeps us from the banquet table of his love, it is a piece of land, a yoke of oxen, and a wife (Luke 4:18–20).

From John Piper‘s seminal book, A Hunger for God. For the third day of this challenge for which Mrs T nominated me (thanks Sis!).

3 Day Quote Challenge – 2

Image Source

Not all who wander are lost

For the second day of the challenge for which Mrs T nominated me, this J. R. R. Tolkien quote comes to mind. A line in a poem in the first volume of Tolkien’s Lord of The Rings,  it refers to the Rangers who although often considered vagabonds are actually protectors and bulwarks against evil in Middle Earth.

For me it speaks of hope, a reminder that despite times and seasons in which life conspires to rock my faith and unresolved questions bubble to the surface, I am not lost. Just wondering, pondering and finding my way home in the end.

3 Day Quote Challenge – 1

Mrs T, she of the keen mind and boundless energy,  nominated me for the 3 day quote challenge, the key requirements being:

  1. Thank the person who nominated you. (Thanks Mrs T).
  2. Post a quote each day, for 3 consecutive days and say why it appeals to you.
  3. Nominate 3 different bloggers each day! 🙂

PS. As I am no longer as personally connected to tons of bloggers as I used to be, I’ve opted to fulfil items 1 & 2 only.

Image source; 

He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.

My first encounter with this quote from Jim Elliot’s diary is lost to the blurred edges of memory but if I were to hazard a guess it would have had to be at one of the myriad youth camps and Sunday schools I was dragged along to in my teens. Jim Elliot’s story is a fascinating  if morbid one, of martyrdom, forgiveness and building an enduring legacy, things which matter in the long run.

#NaPoWriMo18: Day 27

For S. Six months.

Beneath the light
of the autumn sun,
perched on the edge
of that seventh hill
we quivered in the
chill of the breeze,
basking in the delight
of a promise shared.
I walked away
with your name etched
on my skin, a weight
borne in my heart
like an anchor in
an uncertain storm.
Moons ago
there was trepidation
there,but now
like a once floundering
ship finally headed home,
there is a whole,
where a hole once was.

#NaPoWriMo18: Day24, An Elegy for the ‘Feeble-minded’

Image by M.E. Grenander Department of Special Collections and Archives, University at Albany, SUNY (via NPR’s Hidden Brain Podcast), for the Day 24 prompt. Inspired by Emma, Carrie and Vivian’s stories.


They branded them
the feeble minded,
when all they were
were the wronged ones.

Once a face begins
to fade into the fog
of otherness, doubt
begins to assail the
humanity of the other.

We wished we spoke
for you when they came –
before your lives
were stashed behind
that cordon of red brick

Emma, Carrie, Vivian
Emma, Carrie, Vivian
May your voices be eternal