Diamonds and Frost

Sometimes, the pain of your soul will reveal, where your heart truly dwells.

Sometimes, 
I welcome the pain.
when it means I'm alive, 
that my heart still beats, 
With something beyond it's mechanics of survival, 
the rush of life's blood, and the rhythm of  breathing.

Sometimes, 
it's good to wake up with a memory of muddled dreams, 
where I fought for something undefined 
and awoke with a vague sense of loss
that tells me I'm struggling for meaning, 
I haven't yet sold my soul 
for a fist-full of gold

And sometimes, 
When I surrender to the urge,
to own, to buy and to consume, 
I remember that sunshine was free, 
as was love, friendship and the scent of rain

I still miss the red dust of Africa on my shoes, 
And the warm smiles cracking 
on tanned, work-weary faces
I miss the belief that I had plenty, 
that I did not need to ease the pain of existence, 
with shopping online

And it hurts me so, that I will soon surrender
the kiss of copper and bronze on my skin, 
to the blue-tinge of winter cold, 
And although I am privileged and envied 
I  know what I lost
I traded golden sunshine and hearts,  
the perpetual green, and the smell of warm earth 
for expensive perfume,
for style and high culture, 
at a great cost
for gold that only glitters, 
for diamonds and  frost. 

Somehow I’ll Find My Way Home

I spend long times dwelling on the questions of being and belonging, in a place, in a time or within a group. And after over half a century on this earth, I realize that I relate most to people who have similar questions about belonging. I gradually drifted from people who closely identified with ideals, from a nationalistic or religious angle. My nature is a questioning one, and I feel that my personality, my likes and dislikes are not fixed. Nothing ever remains the same so why should people relate closely to identities and groups they did not even choose.

If we can rethink our choices of careers, partners, friends and favourite activities, why can’t we revise our ideas of home, culture, religion and tribe? The identities we were born with were imposed on us and we should have the power to question and change them. If I take this thinking further I can venture to say that the least interesting people I know are those who were born into certain categories of existence and spent their lives defending them and trying to tell me and others that theirs was the only way to live. When I am faced with such arguments I mostly nod my head sadly and wonder about where their convictions came from when they haven’t tried other options. The most powerful arguments of this type come from religious or nationalistic camps. It is easy to get trapped into logical fallacies when you proclaim your way as the only way, given that you have tried no other options. That is why religious propaganda and missionary work often relies on converts who have found their true saviours in Allah, Jesus or Jehovah after being failed by one of the former or by any other styles of belief or non-belief that exist in the world today.

The most compelling spiritual stories are about people who have spent a long time on their journey and altered their destination or worldview to arrive where they are. None of the inspiring people we know was born into the lifestyle and existence that inspired us. We are mostly inspired by change, by moving from one state into the next and this in essence is what we seek for our spiritual life.

I type these words now as I look outside my window into a back courtyard of a European residential building. The neighbouring buildings are hiding behind the green veil of tall trees swaying in the breeze. The oak trees are still carrying their full foliage and haven’t yet turned colour and I am looking forward to the autumn palette that I have not seen in many years.

My own journey of belonging is taking another turn, and I now live in Europe. I still feel the pain of leaving Africa. Today I re-organised some of my things, most of which are still packed in suitcases. I came across some gifts I received and items I cherished. The vibrant colours of Africa spilled out of my luggage from shirts, clothing items, kikoys, shopping bags, and masks. The ache is still there, and I miss the friendly faces of my Kenyan friends who became like family to me. But I also notice that I am slowly making this city my own. I walk the streets and see myself in many people, the crazy, the non-conformist, the woman who wears fluffy fur sandals in the mall, and the woman who sings audibly as she awaits the traffic light to change colour. I see myself in the ageing man with a pot belly wearing his socks with his sandals and in the young-looking grandma choosing her three apples carefully in the market.

I love the colourful markets and the niches of counter-culture I discover every day. I have even developed a secret admiration for graffiti artists and those who stick copies of their poems on the bridges that cross the river and its canals.

I used to identify as African, defying my son who branded me with cultural appropriation. I still relate to the simple African lifestyle, to the spirit of the good people, their patience and benevolence. How they are ready to welcome a stranger into their lives and make him or her feel at home. I felt at home in Kenya, and I believe that I shall return to visit often. But after over two decades of moving places, countries and continents, I learned that the only home I need to make for myself is within my own heart. I learned to welcome and accept myself at every stage of my life, and acknowledge that I had a blessed one. I am lucky to be where I am now, and I was lucky to stay six years in Kenya. I now know that I was even lucky for my four years in New York. In those four years I did not learn to befriend the city and its people, but now I know that it was possible to find my niche even in that wild city. I could have hidden somewhere from its blatant consumerist culture and found a space where art and counter-culture thrive on the challenge the city’s existence created.

There is always a place to call home. And it changes with time. Ten years ago, I visited South Africa for the first time after moving to New York. My friend and her children met me at Cape Town airport. They held signs that welcomed me and my son home, decorated with stars, hearts, and glitter. The childish colourful drawing and words touched me deeply, and I kept these signs for a long time. When I moved to Nairobi I stuck the welcome signs on the wall of my bedroom. The rising sun shone on them every morning, and I gazed upon them every night as I drifted to sleep. The symbolism of the sign was that I was truly home, safely in my bed, in Africa.

I gave up that symbol after six years. I now understand that a gypsy like me might always be on the lookout for a home. That the home that I am looking for might not be an actual place, just a feeling that I have when I like myself just as I am in this moment. And somehow I’ll find my way home. Somehow, I will be going somewhere.

I Wish You Knew

I would like to call you sometime. To tell you that you visited me in a dream, after a long absence. I would mention perhaps that we kissed, in the dream. I tasted your lips that remained forbidden to me in my waking life.

I would like to tell you that I am struggling to belong, in a place that you have never visited. That I feel like a stranger here, although I have been here before, I speak the language, and know how the locals operate. I wish I could tell you that this gypsy only found home in your eyes. I wish I could tell you what you meant to me, what you still mean.

I wish you knew that no matter how far I walked away, you always remain with me. I wish I could tell you that the best version of me was the woman who experienced the intensity of joy and suffering in loving you. I would tell you she was free from suffering for now, but lived in a shadowland, away from your light.

I am no longer the creature of fire and light that burned brightly in your presence. I am just a soul that soared once on the wings of angels, then crashed to the ground. But sometimes I can feel the remaining embers of that fire glowing in my innermost core, and I recall how it felt, to fly. And I still want to be gentle with every human I meet, because you walk this earth.

The Shape of My Heart

It is early morning in a smallish European capital that is laden with history, both for me and my family and for humanity. I am trying to make this city my home for the second time. Although the person who walked here over 30 years ago could have been a stranger, someone I heard about or imagined. My half-formed self has changed profoundly since then. And even the city whose existence is counted in millennia changed a lot in three decades.

I am not yet sure whether I will befriend my new place of dwelling or loathe it. I have had both good and bad times here, and I fear what the northern cold would do to me. After six years of living in temperate climate, I find this European summer a bit cooler than the tropical winters of Nairobi. I am now wearing the same light jacket that I wore there when it got cold. The rain and thunderstorms arrive with the same frequency. But Africa’s weather, just like its people’s temperament, changes quickly from dark to light, and from cold to warm. Here, it takes longer for the air to warm from a cold spell, as it takes time for people to thaw from partially frosty and stand-offish attitudes.

I admit that I what I am saying is just my heart missing the warm embrace of Africa. With the exception of one glum taxi driver, who was not even local, I have seen nothing but warm welcome from colleagues and from the city itself. I look forward to exploring it on foot and enjoying, for once, the pleasure of being a flaneur in a well-organized walkable city. Because while African populations largely prefer walking, most of their cities and towns are anything but walkable. People still walk everywhere, among fields, on dirt roads and even on city highways. There are no rules nor paths for walking, the people just make them by the tread of their feet.

Europeans only walk for pleasure, not to commute or to get themselves from point A to point B. My current city is spoiled for choice when it comes to means of commute, as it has Subways, buses and street cars. And it is a fraction of the size of Nairobi, both in terms of space and population.

My current apartment is tiny in comparison to my place in Nairobi, but is well-designed and organised in a manner that makes its size irrelevant in comparison to its convenience. But there are still things to learn. How to sort waste, in the absence of informal recyclers who would make use of all discarded items of plastic and glass. And how to choose healthy foods from supermarkets bursting with choices and temptations.

It is relatively easy to replace mangos and avocados with apples and pears, even when your preference runs to the former rather than the latter. But it is much harder to go back from coffee capsules to regular ground coffee from a pour-on filter. My preference for plain water is already challenged by a myriad of fizzy drinks that offer low sugar content but god knows how many additives and sugar substitutes. And the African definition of fresh vegetables will surely be challenged by agricultural productions practices in Europe. My next learning tasks will be how to eat clean, when I am tempted by discount grocers and fast food outlets on a daily basis. How to maintain a frugal existence when I am surrounded by elegance and style. I am now an unwilling participant in the machine of capitalism, but I am powerless to resits it. The first thing I bought when I landed here was a fancy, and expensive, new smart phone. My African sensibilities cringed at this decadence, but I still produced my credit card and swiped it, confident in my financial and professional security. I made many excuses about this, but I know it is an unnecessary luxury. There are many cheaper phones that could do the job, but it is so easy to follow the temptations of luxury and convenience here.

I will watch carefully how this move will change me, to the better or worse, and I will learn more in the process about myself and my evolution as a human. The first lesson I am working on is how to let go of people, places and things that I loved deeply, and how to love new people, places and things. I will try to adapt and keep my humanity, and stay fair to those I interact with.

And while I am here, I will acknowledge that mother Africa and its people still have a big hold on my soul. Europe has the bling, the prosperity, and the convenience, but Africa has the shape of my heart.

The Shifting Landscape of Longing

Whether I am at my best or my worst, I always try to read. I read more when I am the best version of myself. And at those times, I have a structured route map for where I am going with my reading. My life would be going somewhere, I would be getting over specific difficulties, trying to learn something new, or attempting to fit what I am experiencing to some philosophy, life path or self-help doctrine. But there are also the times when I find myself completely without a compass. I lose sight of the meaning I once derived from suffering, love, or the struggle to learn. At those times my reading becomes equally lost, and I read discarded pieces of ideas, or obscure titles that I want to sample or consume before passing on. I try to grasp for meaning in once cherished practices, and get once more in touch with my hidden longings.

In the past three years I experience profound changes in my inner life. I suffered a lot, but I thought that I came out as a better version of myself. I ran a marathon, ate healthful food, exercised and meditated. I read and wrote a lot. If not on this blog then at least in my daily journal, and in my gratitude diary. Yet everything else in my life was in a state of flux. I was in a holding pattern, dealing with the worsening toxic situation at work, and the constant mismanagement from my supervisor. When Corona hit, I was not sure what to do with my travel plans, my career, and my investments. Only my soul was following its own north star, and steering by it. I loved, and the love I felt overflowed to everyone around me. It lent meaning to my life.

In my native Arabic language, the word “heart” shares a root with the verb to shift, change or reverse. So it is not a good idea to place too much trust or meaning to the whims of the heart, or trust the shifting landscape of longing to provide a permanent map. My guided meditation practice often dwelled on the idea of “impermanence” so I knew intellectually that change is inevitable, and nothing ever stays the same. In fact everything can change completely in the blink of an eye. And this is what happened to me. I was already feeling disillusioned with my life. My struggle with the toxic work environment has reached a new high that drove me to draft a formal complaint, and apply to jobs in places that I did not like, just to escape. And my trust in the capacity of my own love was starting to erode. I retreated to a selfish state of self-preservation where I stopped opening my arms to embrace the universe (or to get stabbed in the chest by its inhabitants). I cowered instead in my shell, waiting to be acknowledged, sought, and consoled. I lost sight of my north star, stopped exercising and meditating, and simply devolved into a worse version of myself. Not quite the worst, but one I knew was so much inferior to the one bathed in loving kindness, and positive cosmic energy.

At this time, I met a strange book. It is an obscure volume by a British/South African author known for his police procedurals set in South Africa (Imago by James McClure). The book has some hints to the crime genre, by masking or hiding the motivation of characters and then showing the strange influence these motivations have on subsequent events. But in truth, the story is about a competent doctor who is suffering a midlife crisis. Tom the main character, is a married doctor in his early forties. We meet him, as he becomes besotted with the teenage daughter of a friend. In a space of a few days, his life takes an absurd turn as he pursues this love, with the stories he tells himself. He mis-interprets events, misreads the meaning of each encounter, and lies to cover up and misdirect in the manner of a confused teenager. I cringed as I watched his laser focus, which should have been on his work and patients, turn to this new object of his longings, to the extent that he only performed all tasks mechanically, as he went on inappropriate flights of fantasy.

The story takes its tragi-comic turns, with flawed characters who are blindly following their own route map of longings, and unrealised dreams. The irony of finding the book, when I did, was not lost on me. I did not think I was as delusional as Tom in my love story. I definitely had more evidence that the object of my longing had some feelings for me, but did I really? If I took the approach of hard logic to my narrative, I could have also been reading non-existent signs in the sand and misinterpreting innocuous kind remarks or facetious flirtations. It is all a shifting landscape depending what you are looking for, and what you believe. For Tom, the delusion gave way to something new, but it somehow mapped the rest of his destiny and pointed him to a new direction that answered to his longings. Maybe it will be the same way for me.

Shortly after the book found me, my world tuned itself around. I am now in the midst of switching workplaces, countries and continents. In two months, I will be departing from my beloved Africa, and starting a new life elsewhere. I am also leaving a piece of my heart here. My inner life is now coming into a state of flux, while my outer life is changing completely.

My heart still wants to believe that there was more to my love story than the void I am now left with. And I still long for the better person I was, when I loved. But I am not abandoning hope of one day finding a new meaning, a new direction to follow in the shifting landscape of longing. And while the evolving chance for change presented itself to me, by an unexpected, and welcomed, relocation, I will always remember the mesmerising blue eyes that first led me to search deeper into my soul.

When I Loved..

I was a better human, 
I floated on silver wings and saluted the sun.

Never worried who called or texted first, 
Reached out to those who have forgotten me. 

My sorrow turned to joy, in a heart consumed by fire, 
And the fire lit and enlightened my soul.

When I loved, the universe made sense, 
I knew my own spirit, and yours, 
I was one with humanity, its joy and pain. 

On the morning I stopped believing, 
My wings burned to ashes, my heart stopped expanding, 
settled back in my mortal chest.

My pain constricted
to the size of a single human, 
but so did my once boundless joy.

Now I go to sleep with the small sorrows of  living, 
And rise to diminished potential, 
once a carrier of light, now a fallen angel.

And I still question, the half-remembered dream, 
where I danced with the spirits, and almost touched the divine

When I was fully alive. 











			

Love is…

In the previous post, I tried to discuss love, aided by the definition* given by M Scott Peck, in his important book The Road Less Travelled. Today I will expand a little bit on the definition with my own ideas on the subject, by way of introducing my own experience of love as an intense soul connection.

As wide and varied the concept of love is, I think the Greek philosophers gave a good approximation of its various types and degrees. According to them there are eight types of love. The three most well known ones are: Agape – Spiritual, unconditional love; Eros – Romantic love and Philia – affectionate love. And then there are five further types: Philautia – Self love; Storge – familial love; Pragma – enduring love; Ludus – playful love and Mania – obsessive love. On this spectrum of eight types, agape is the most noble and evolved type of love, while mania represents a regressive type of love, that turns it sometimes into a destructive force, both for the lover and the beloved.

If we try to apply these archetypes to human relationships, we can see that they are not discreet. Because romantic love can be playful and affectionate. In rare cases, it becomes the enduring love of couples who have loved each other since their high-school days. It can also show the dark side of mania. Similarly, familial love can be affectionate, unconditional, and even obsessive.

At first glance, self-love might look like an odd one out among all the types of love as an emotional bond between humans. But it forms the unseen foundation for all types of love. Loving and accepting one’s self is a pre-condition for experiencing a wholesome and evolved love. It did not escape my attention that the definition of love in The Road Less Travelled, included an element of self-love*. It is important to understand here that healthy self-love is quite the opposite of narcissism and arrogance. True love, by Dr Peck’s definition is a quest for spiritual growth and evolution. It is a journey that starts with accepting our faults and continues with embracing others with kindness and forgiveness. And it has no end destination, the ultimate goal is to continue growing and loving. There are many spiritual traditions that aspire to growth through unconditional love for all of creation. For the Sufis, for example, the ultimate goal is to be one with the universe and its creator. This is the ultimate evolution of love, to embrace the whole universe in the heart, and to experience what is felt as the creator’s ultimate love, the highest form of Agape.

There is no one definition for love, because the way we love is dependent on the stage of our spiritual evolution. Love, the way it is perceived and given, mirrors the awakening of the soul. I came to this conclusion after I was led on my own journey of love, which is still ongoing. Up until then, I was convinced that love was a proclivity of youth. Hormones, physical attraction, and an urge to procreate drove this emotion. I had a lot of sympathy for my younger (and sometimes older) girlfriends who suffered heartache. But I was smug and happy in the knowledge that the years of my angsty youth, and the ticking of my biological clock were long behind me. I didn’t see myself as an easy victim for Eros, and I didn’t believe that other kinds of love existed, but destiny had other plans.

Heartache was a territory I knew, and was not keen to visit again. My biggest heartbreak thus far had been my first boyfriend. I cried my heart out over him, but the young heart heals fast. It is easier to replace one lost love with another. The angst of youth, the neediness, the wish to be attractive and desired, are all faults of youth that invite fresh heartache, but they also keep young hearts moving from one relationship to the next, healing old wound by acquiring new ones. It is said that the young have elastic hearts, so falling in love and out of love is much easier on them.

Love is easy on many older people too, depending on how they perceive love. The less evolved spirit would mistake animal lust, attraction or infatuation for love. The more mature spirit would settle for affection and friendship. Some couples get lucky and evolve together from one stage of love to another, arriving together onto a mutual level that is satisfying for both of them, or achieving enduring love. This makes me think of love as a mountain. All people are capable of stepping onto its base, some get to the top half, and very few reach the summit. I think of Eros as the base, and the most accessible part of that is simple sexual attraction. The next level is Philia and the farther limit of that is enduring love. But the true triumph of the spirit is to reach the summit of agape.

Almost all works of psychology take a secular view of love. They recognise erotic love as fickle and temporary, and accept Philia and Pragma as the only types of true love. So Peck’s work of love could be understood as working to advance from one level of less enduring love (like Eros or Philia) to Pragma. This is a very “pragmatic” and secular view of love. I feel that the concept of Agape, on the other hand, was overtaken by its devotional and religious content. Sufi love and devotion are a form of Agape, so is altruism and the love for all humankind. But in some cases this “Higher Love” is also possible between mortals, and when it happens then it is an ultimate love that can encompass all other levels. To come back to my mountain analogy, those who scale the summit have previously reached the lower base camps. Similarly, when you love an individual on the highest level, you are also capable of feeling affection and erotic love towards them. The only difference is that these emotions are not central to your connection.

Soul connections are not recognized by psychology. They only come up in esoteric spiritual traditions, mystic fringe beliefs or pseudo sciences. I was myself an agnostic, or even an atheist when it came to my faith in love. I wrote a post about this some years ago. Ironically, it was written while I was experiencing the first stirrings of my soul connection. My rational self, and my ego, were trying to remind me of what was real on earth. I rejected love, all the secular or garden variety types of it. And I would have laughed at anyone who claimed that true love existed. I thought that people who spoke, wrote or sang about the love that stir the soul, then rocks it and purifies it from the inside out were either using extensive poetic license, or mind-altering drugs. That is, if they weren’t nutcases or outright liars trying to sweeten the bitter fruit of love for the unafflicted. From where I stood, the lower slopes of love mountain looked rocky, barren and uninteresting. And although the higher sections looked greener and more inviting, I was convinced that I was too old to care about reaching them. The summit was completely invisible to my eyes, and I did not believe it even existed. I was trained to believe only what I could perceive with my senses.

But I was about to be taught life’s greatest secret, about the essential things that can only be perceived through the heart.

Voici mon secret. Il est très simple: on ne voit bien qu’avec le cœur. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.

Le Petit PrinceAntoine de Saint Exupéry

Here is my secret. It is very simple: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.

The Little Prince – English Translation

* In the Road Less Travelled, M. Scott Peck defines love as “The will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth”.

Loving the One You’re With, is it really the Road Less Travelled?

A few months ago I read, with great enjoyment, an old but still very relevant book, The Road Less Travelled by M. Scott Peck. The book is subtitled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth, and it is definitely worth reading.

The author, is a psychologist by training and brings out several interesting ideas with examples about common types of neurosis and disorder in the human psyche. Yesterday I started reading the section on love, a main theme in his book as can be deduced from the subtitle. He defines love, as the ” the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth“. The author admits that his chosen definition might not be the only one, or even the correct one, but he is content with emphasising the choice and action elements of love. He refers several time to the “work of loving”.

The author also acknowledges that love is too big and too wide to limit to a single definition, so he tries to establish common grounds through a process of elimination. Because while philosophers and psychologist differed significantly on defining what love is, there is general agreement on what love is NOT. The books itself gives several examples on cases of dependency and self-sacrifice that are clearly not love. But the author also insists that love is NOT an emotion, it is action. He repeats several times that “love is as love does“. He also feels that the term “falling in love” denotes an emotion based on erotic attraction. It is nature’s way of tricking us into reproducing and preserving the human race. Once the honeymoon phase ends, he says, we slowly fall out of love and this is where the work of loving starts. What he calls real love, or true love, is rooted in the will, so choice and intellect play a huge role in it, unlike the falling in love, which is all emotions and seems mostly to be out of our choice or control.

Interestingly, he does not deny the potential and power of the emotion. He explains, that falling in love with another person destroys the boundaries of an individual’s ego. The lover becomes hugely invested in another person, and this destruction of the ego, feels exhilarating. When we fall in love we are reborn into the wonder of feeling unity with our beloveds. He compares this unity to the one we felt as newborns with our mothers and the whole universe. But the novelty of this feeling wears off, and we soon find out that our needs do not match those of our lover, and the ego boundaries rise again. For babies this is the moment of starting awareness and experience, and for a couple it is where falling in love ends and the work on loving starts. The journey of loving, as he sees it, is made of the effort of listening, giving attention and bracketing, the conscious act of putting oneself into the shoes of another, suspending judgement, and seeing the world through their eyes.

This rational view of love mirrored one I have believed in for the longest time. It is also rooted in the teachings of Christianity where the sanctity of marriage, and monogamy, need to be protected and preserved. It is also a simple practical tenet of life: If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with. Or simply just love the one you are with and ignore all impulses of love that come your way, because they are an illusion anyway. True love is hard work and commitment to a common goal, to raising a family, to mutual spiritual growth. I agreed with this wholeheartedly until a few years ago, and I still agree now but with many reservations.

I have seen many working marriages, even good ones, that are based on types of partnership and reciprocity, on the work of loving, in the words of Dr. Peck. These marriages always have some rewards and fulfilment for one partner, or both, and they can be very solid, with each partner being courteous and attentive to the other. But while I once believed that attaining a good marriage through the work of loving is the only happiness possible, I now recognise that this type of love has its limitations.

There are times when two souls, despite all good intentions, can head towards two different paths of evolution. There are times, when one partner evolves, and another stays on the same path. No amount of loving work can fix this. The answer sometimes is to accept it, and continue to love, if not the husband (or partner), then the children (or the life/business/career/home) we created together. The mutual love for the children carries many marriages through. Countless women have settled for it in my culture. They married, they loved and adapted to their lot, their destiny, and that was their life. But sometimes there are other choices. The author himself admits, perhaps grudgingly given his Christian background, that he believes an “open marriage is the only kind of mature marriage that is healthy and not seriously destructive to the spiritual health and growth of the individual partners”. So deep down it seems that his belief in the work on loving, in exclusive monogamy, is rather flawed.

The work of loving, and the will to love are powerful antidotes to human promiscuity and experimentation. It will certainly allow many couples to experience gentle loving, and sometimes very happy, relationships. It is a good rule, but it does not explain everything there is to love, even if it accounts for most shades of it. From my observation, I feel it is rather the road we are most likely to travel towards a rational and secular type of love. It accounts for the true love of friends, companions and for most lasting partnerships. The rarest type of love, however, is the one that stirs the soul. And the journey to this type of love is truly the one very rarely travelled. I will try to delve into this in my next posts.

________________________________________________________________________________________

You can borrow a copy of the The Road Less Travelled from the Openlibrary, which is an excellent resource for reading out of print books.

What A Gen-X Remembers

From a generational perspective, I have a bit of a strange family. My parents are older baby boomers, but I have a millennial brother. My child, on the other hand, is a post-millennial or generation Z. Therefore, most of the time I feel like a mediator of the generational and cultural gaps existing in my immediate family.

Even before I turned half-a-century, my child would always comment on how dull and boring my life must have been without the benefit of the internet. But contrary to his firmly-held belief, I feel privileged to have experienced both analogue and digital aspects to my life. I had a childhood where I played hopscotch, throwing pebbles and marbles. But I also played a version of pong, one of the first primitive video games on a black and white TV, and wrote simple BASIC code on an early programmable calculator.

My mother gets easily flustered by technology. She only reads physical books, and keeps all her phone numbers in a notebook. My brother, almost exclusively reads eBooks on his phone, and my child only reads Wikipedia articles and is more interested in YouTube and social media than he is in any kind of publication.

I might be the only one in this tight family group who is comfortable navigating between both mediums. For my cooking, I have handwritten recipes, magazine cutouts, and cookbooks (both printed and digital). However, I sometimes still do a quick search on my phone when I get an ingredient I have not worked with before. I do yoga classes online, but I still have my illustrated books. I make shopping lists on paper just like my mom, but I type the things I need to pack for a trip on my notes app. I journal both on paper and on an online multi-platform app.

I am far from being a digital native like my child. On many occasions, I have consulted that pre-teen on a hidden smartphone setting. And I am quick to cry for help when I suddenly see a split keyboard on my tablet, which I never intended to create, and do not know how to return to normal. I probably use about 20% of all the features on my phone camera, while my child knows most of them. But I am clearly more comfortable than my mother with the device. After all, I can do my own updates. New technology does not petrify me. I learn to handle it, albeit slowly. But I do not feel pressured to get the fastest phone, and I can manage for a day or so without internet connection. My child hasn’t learned this essential survival skill yet.

Digital did make my life easier on many counts. Given my poor sense of direction, I am grateful that I do not need to carry city maps in my car. When I drove in Cape Town, I never went anywhere without consulting my city map first. But even my diligent study did not help, and I often got lost. Then, I had to hunt for a safe place to stop and regroup, find myself on the map, and finally re-route the car back to my destination. My google maps helper does this for me seamlessly now. I do not miss the time I spent checking city map quadrants for an unknown street address. But I keep my city maps, just in case. I also have an Africa road atlas. I use it for my imaginary travels. Something about seeing the thin road lines and landmarks on paper and flipping through its pages, gives a more direct feel of the distance. I have a better perception of miles traced with a finger, or pages flipped than those just scrolled through.

Perhaps it is just me, or maybe it is something that I share with some of my contemporaries of Gen-X. Those of us who still hold on to some analogue and approximate perceptions of life, rather than the strict digital hyper-realism of technology. I am more content to look at my watch and register that it is a little after ten to seven, rather than find out that it is exactly 18:51:29.3. I am happy to live with the intangible less exacting, unless I am waiting for the precise time to say Happy New Year to my loved ones. And even this moment is never fixed since we might be in different time zones.

In trying to assimilate all new technology, I sometimes feel like a novice who had stepped outside of a heavy cultural tradition. I am pleased to have adopted a new easier way of life, yet still attached to some of my familiar symbols. Some aspects of technology, I have adopted wholeheartedly. But others I am still reluctant to embrace or accept fully. It is not entirely clear to me whether I have logical reasons for this, or whether I am only reacting to anecdotal observations mixed with sentimentality and superstition.

Technology has given us a lot, but I think we sacrificed small pieces of our imagination for all the things we received. Some of the magic has been lost. When we travel, my child looks at photos of the city we are visiting and checks out such details such as what the room looks like, and the view that we would see from our window. I am more happy to leave much of this as a surprise to experience on arrival. If I arrive there having seen everything, then what would be the point of taking the trip?

On the surface it seems as if the digital age has allowed for more freedom and democratised creativity. But true creative power has become more difficult to find within a crowded world, where each person is a content producer. Truth has also suffered, since everyone is now capable of expressing immutable beliefs, and getting likes for them. Fallacies sometimes get more support than the humble truth. So while it is easier than ever to find and produce stuff, it is more difficult to find quality and truth.

Collectively perhaps we now read more on the internet than we ever read in the past on paper. But in the past we had time to read longer books rather than bite-sized, and mostly irrelevant, status updates. I once read the entire Sunday newspaper, but now I rarely look at print media. I sometimes look at online headlines or read one or two stories from reputable news outlets, but I am reluctant to pay for a digital subscriptions when I know I will not have the time to take advantage of it. There is no such thing as buying a digital newspaper copy, when you feel like it. You are always pressured for a subscription deal.

We are bombarded with information, and have little time to digest and process. We are confused, and less likely to make a carefully reasoned decision on anything. The closest thing to online shopping I experienced while growing up was shopping by mail order. But instead of scrolling through endless suggestions of things that are not quite what we wanted, we only went through one big (but finite) mail-order catalogue. We studied it closely for weeks. We lived in the pictures and imagined what it would be like to own that dress, that toy or that kitchen device. The choices were many, even then, but the static catalogue was always there, and we could examine it for months if we needed. So we took our time, and consulted the colourful pages together as a family, or dreamed about the items individually. Now shopping is more complicated, with more variety, more decisions required, and more pressure to buy NOW. I am not sure this is all an improvement.

For my post-millennial child, this is just his old mother missing her childhood. The truth is more complicated than that. By being a generation X-er I straddle the digital fault line, and I can still remember what has gone missing. The new humans born today are unburdened by this memory, and will therefore proceed fearlessly wherever this digital age takes them. Sometimes I fear that this culture of technology will be detrimental to the way the human race will develop, that it will damage our aspiration to evolve in spirit. At other times I read some ancient text where a person who had died centuries ago, asks the same questions we are asking ourselves now. And I am then reassured of the essence of human spirit. Perhaps, the more we change, the more we will stay the same.

For more insight into the digital age, and how the internet changed the way we think, I recommend the following book: The Shallows: How The Internet Is Changing The Way We Think, Read And Remember by Nicholas Carr.