Teach Me So I Don’t Wither
i almost loved the dog? i mean the bruise.
or maybe the smoke. i have not known love
beyond a need to punish someone else.
— Precious Arinze (Sometimes i am my father’s daughter, but mostly i am his hands.)
I see myself scampering from me as I no longer have the feels and the balance to see myself fight and go against the words of man. I watch myself wallow in darkness as I find comfort in it, and in every light I absorb, there is this man who tries in his ways to dim it. This person I almost married is my punishment for trying. For trying to blend into the world where everyone proclaims their love for one another and still pronounces their hate for their partners’ dreams.
In my shadows, I make moves, and I find comfort in his weakness and wisdom in his lies.
Two months before I finally let everything out, I am reminded of the space that I used to have alone before the cracks started to take shape on the wall. I watched the news on a Tuesday morning about a girl who was raped and murdered in her own apartment; whether her predators were caught or not, I am afraid I do not know. But there was no raging fire filling my heart. I was still and cold. No fusion of emotions. No dots to connect.
I watch myself lose affection for people. I no longer dream of the spaces in which I want to find myself. I no longer see myself for who I used to be. Disconnecting from the world has me depressed. I lose myself to the world, and I feel its feet crushing my neck, asking me to give in to the oppression and insecurity surrounding me. And at every arrest life makes of me, I am reminded to look back at who I used to be before this man.
When I was six years old and in primary school, I was at ease to know that people were taking care of me. My mum would pack my breakfast and lunch in a basket to take to school, with instructions that I must finish my meals. I was expected to have my breakfast and lunch at specific times. When I returned home with an empty food flask – no grain of rice and no stains of porridge remaining.
An overwhelmed joy would take over my mother’s face. But how could I have told her that it was not me who ate them?
Sometimes I returned home with my clothes torn. Another day, I’d come home with loose hairs. Other days I’d lose my earrings.
“What happened, my daughter?” She would ask.
At a tender age, I was taught to tell lies. I was taught that lies comfort people, and they save people from situations. But I was not told I would have to keep up with them to mask the truth. Until I learnt to tell the truth, I did not know what freedom lay therein for me. My mother sat me on her lap one afternoon while I cried out the pyramids of pains I’d built inside my chest with lies. She taught me to fight back.
“In this world, you have to fight back. You’ve got your hands and feet.”
“You can always have the world at your feet.”
It is not like my mother was teaching violence; she was teaching me how to hold the world within my fist. So the next time I got to school, like a flower that blooms in summer, I shone. I raised my head to the stars to fit in my glory, and with every move I made, I was reminded that I held the world in my fist, and nothing was going to demean me. I watched them all look on when I did not succumb to their follies. A girl with grace and power, I made them my captives.
How do you repent for sins not committed?
By pretending that they are mine, that I own
them, that they are my scars.
— Rasaq Malik Gbolahan (The Other Name Of Grief)
So, yes, two months before I let everything out, I carried his scars and integrated them into mine. While I nurtured them, I lost focus of the pains I endured. Sometimes, I doubted that he manipulated me, but in my mind I went along with it. It became my journey. I had wished for the type of husband I had in him.
So, the first time I met him, there was a dark cloud radiating heat. I had just returned from my three-month-long teaching practice exercise. I needed to rest and hide from the stress of standing in the judgmental views of others after my teaching assessment. I hid myself in a class. On the said day, I was beginning to hate the noise outside, and inside was way cooler. A lecture was ongoing, but I entered nonetheless. Standing at the front was a young man with an afro. I was not even taken at first by this man’s appearance. I needed the cool air coming from the class. The second time I noticed him, I was in a pool of light, tensioning my emotions to form the kind of memory I’d like to have with someone – as husband and wife. He stood at the podium with some research books in his hand and a blue marker to write on the whiteboard behind him. As he was teaching what type of material and websites his students should use for their research projects, I was taking notes while I said my little prayer.
Sometimes, when God wants to punish us, he answers our prayers. He will make you watch as everything unfolds. He will bless you with tranquillity in doubt. You will love with no reasoning, and when you hear that a man you love was once in love with your friend, you will say, “He chose me, and it was God’s doing.” You will begin to question yourself if this is the Lord’s way of blessing you.
And this Lord’s blessing was the scar I carried for months.
When it dawned on me, whelmed in doubts, I confronted him about the romance he had with my friend. He denied it.
“Even if I did, it was before I met you,” he said.
And it was true. To me, he was faithful and would not do things that would cut short our joy. It was fresh. I thronged along in faith even though doubts clouded my heart, laughter on our lips and smiles on our faces. We coasted along in love that under-bellied our dirt, refreshing our minds, purifying our hearts.
Still, I was in doubt about the connection we said we shared.
We had just got back from Jummah, still in our purified state, Fridays are made up for the stone that rested on my chest during the week; it had a way of melting my heaves of anxiety like the sun does butter. I had just listened to a sermon from the Imam that day:
“Be like the ocean: it is pure. Don’t let things stick to your mind. Empty your mind, so that you may flow.
“Don’t be like a gutter. It is filled with so much darkness. You can’t know what is on the inside.”
We went back to his office. To be sure that I was ready to let things out, I asked him why he introduced me to a student – a fresher who happened to be a lady – as his sister earlier that day. He said it was nothing. “I just wanted to make her comfortable.” I asked again three days later because I needed a concrete answer – I wanted to hear something else. I wanted to feel safe, and I wanted to trust the process of our blessing. The one God answered.
“You have an assurance issue,” he replied.
It was like I had never heard of such a word before. What else was there if not to tell me your mind and make me feel happy? Yes, I needed the assurance, the safety net, to be sure I was worth being with someone. It felt like the end of security. And the beginning of a forceful event, a deceptive love, a widening hatred of myself because I thought I was not worthy of someone’s faithfulness. We looked for peace in every question I asked by burying it. My questions became my nightmare. I worried that I might be alone, all by myself, if eventually we ended up together. I wanted to quit as I found myself in the pit of depression, wiggling to find my way back to who I was: a girl who held the world in her fist, the girl with grace and power. I watched myself trying to discover my path again. The path that speaks solemnly. I coiled into myself. In the mirror, I would cry to witness what trauma wrote on my face. I would say to myself:
“You are worth it, and you deserve better.”
“You dance with fire. You are strong. And you can douse this fire.”
“Do not let this negativity affect your growth.”
The power of words. Like the metamorphosis of a butterfly, radiant with growth, I found my way out, forming into something I hated.
Hurt people hurt people. That I read somewhere. And in my own consciousness, I fought back.
Every time I tried to fit back into my world – a world of class and literature, feelings and emotions, laughter and humour – I fell right back to fighting myself. How do you have a partner, and yet fail at everything?
“Don’t do this. Do that.”
“You shouldn’t be a writer.”
“Oh! You are too much for me.”
It was about time to ask, and I needed answers.
“Why did you choose me?” Silence.
“Why did you choose me?” I asked again.
“Why did you choose me?”
If there are no answers, should you consider yourself a gardener? How do you pick a flower, like a sunflower or dandelion, only to toss it out your window? Why do you choose to squeeze out its life and drop it dead like it’s nothing?
I remember the story told by Amos Tutuola in his book Palmwine Drinkard of a young woman who disposes of the proposals of her suitors – fishermen, farmers, hunters – but falls for a stranger for his physical appearance and accepts his proposal. She marries the young man who possesses all the attributes she wants in a man. Far away from home, her family has no idea what town the young man is from. Thousands of miles away from home, she finds out that this man she married, is a skull that borrows flesh to make up a complete human. She is held captive. She feels sorry for herself. Fortunately for her, she’s rescued by a man of all powers, the Drinkard.
In this story, I do not blame the woman. As humans, we don’t see beyond what is there for us to see. We choose people who feel right to us. And we choose without terror. We choose our mistakes, wholeheartedly feigning ignorance.
I have heard stories of women that married men much older than them, who walked the journey of their love through friendship and expressed themselves through the laughter and joy they share. I wanted that for myself, an experienced person who will look out for what love we share. I’m still young, and I know no man. This is the right way to live a modest life. But no matter how much the heart pretends, it still feels pain. It still feels the coldness of a man who pretends to love you and hides in his dungeon. Hides you away from dreams: what your eyes can see, what your stomach can feel, what your hands can draft. Now you want to break free. But this is a pain. A pain tied to you around the neck like a dog bell. This is me. My pain is obscure. It is innate. Only a man who is righteous himself can hold this hand and free me of it.
It’s common to live properly to pretend
You don’t feel the heat or grief.
— Kaveh Akbar (My Kingdom for a Murmur of Fanfare)
When people speak of grief, it is not just about the people they have lost. It’s also the thought of never having them around. We feel the heat of memory brewing in us like coffee. We smell their absence, and we shove it down our throats with tears. Our hearts long for comforting words that would make us better and alive. We try to play their sounds in our heads so they don’t fade away. We sniff the last spray they wore so we are refreshed of their invisible presence. And we smile at ourselves when their smiles dot our minds.
It is not just our loved ones whom we grieve; we grieve ourselves too. I have grieved my lost father and brothers. I am now grieving myself.
Yes, it is disastrous to grieve oneself for losing oneself to trauma.
I sit in my parents’ house. Everything is at a standstill. I lose my drill to find words that suit and comfort mee. The madness and thoughts of the hatred I develop when I see people was unfair on who I was. I see myself undeserving of anything: laughter, praise, happiness. While I try not to show all this, Mum wears her eyes spiritually and sees what transcends beyond the beauty on my face, she sat with me on the bed one day and said,
“All around you is greatness, child. Walk up to it. Don’t dwell on the past.”
“Listen to this greatness, so that it may guide you.”
I don’t know what it means to seek guidance or answers in nature or to walk through it. How do I listen to voices that have stiffened themselves? I just have to watch how the seasons take their turn. The summer blooms the flowers; harmattan cracks the skin; rain waters the plants. Every season comes with patience. To be like the seasons, I have to pride myself in patience and wait for what nature has in store for me. In my waiting period, I found God again. I talked to myself more, I loved more, and I did everything with patience in my heart. Like a woman waiting on a child, I stopped waiting.
So I’ve never caught a live grenade with my bare hands.
So I don’t know exactly how it feels, but I imagine it’s a lot like getting a text that says,
“Hey, we really need to talk.” — Rudy Francisco (Welcome)
I watch myself trying to yield again. I’ve been buried alive, and I’m finding every way to sprout my way up the soil, and this damage doesn’t stop there. How do I shy away from the experience? To be whole again, I need to face this experience and not scamper from it like a coward.
I had just finished praying to Allah for guidance. I was still on the mat, observing the light in which I live. Admiring my shadow in the touch lights dancing on the ceiling. I admired how big my head appeared on the wall. Away from the pain burning my heart, I smiled. Faintly, I heard someone knock three times. I stood up from the mat immediately, walking to the door, and so did my shadow. I waited for the fourth knock before I asked who it was.
A tension of hatred and vigour ran wild inside of me at the sight of this man right there at the door.
“Good evening, madam.” How being called madam makes me feel way older than I am. Calling me a madam shackles me in a constant reminder that some things are said without meaning. No basic admonition at the choice of words.
“I’m still a young girl, please,” I answered him.
He sat on the couch opposite where I prayed. I sat back on the mat with my legs folded on each other as I resumed my azkar, reciting them in my mind. There are ways I speak to God in my quiet moments and he listens. The love of God speaks through the walls as I sit to face this man and find out why he came around.
In my silence, I waited for the first words he’d utter. He said, “I can’t bear with fortitude that you have dreams. You’ve got dreams, I know. But you have to choose either me or your dreams.”
The caged bird sings with a fearful trill
of things unknown but longed for still
and his tune is heard on the distant hill
for the caged bird sings of freedom.
— Maya Angelou (Caged Bird).
He was letting me go. He just didn’t know how to put it. He was confused between perhaps apologising for his wrongful behaviour and saving the relationship and letting me go. “Pebbles or diamonds?” I ask myself. How would I have both before me and choose the former? I identify what stone I choose to carry with me. Like Nolitye, the keeper of a magic stone in The Hidden Star, I choose to keep what stone ignites my beauty, my brain, the strength to keep me moving, to choose and love myself again.
In my dreams, there are avenues of opportunities laid out before the stars that are written for me. With faithfulness in my heart, I choose to follow my stars, my freedom.
When I remember what it was like, I sing songs of praises that I survived. The songs of the birds are anthems to freedom. I sing them with much passion in my voice, stern in my veins. I sing words that birth happiness. I sing my story to life and hold onto it dearly. I sing till I am able to flip the pages of the past that no longer follow me. I ignored foolishness as I honoured and chose myself.
Halimah Adisa is a Nigerian poet and essayist. Her works have appeared in The Lagos Review, Punocracy, Critical Muslim Mag, AfroRep, among others. She was shortlisted for the 2020 Prize for Satire. She is a reader for Agbowo Magazine.