Loving thyself and why this matters to your work

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I read an interesting blog post that argued that in order to be an artist- whether it be through visual arts, or writing, or music, etc- you need a healthy dose of narcissism.

This concept struck as curious because we often associate narcissism with ugliness: quite the opposite from the more socially acceptable character of self-doubt (which many confuse for humility). But as I thought deeper about this, the more I realized that we all have the ability to create, but we don’t, because we are often the victims of our own ideals of perfection. I can’t tell you how many times I have shamed myself into not writing because I think that I am not good enough, or that the sentences that I write are pathetic compared to others. I create excuses of not having enough time, or not being inspired, or being too tired to think when in reality, it’s nothing but my self doubt taking over the show.

When I first started living with my husband, Anwar, I was taken aback by how self-assured he was. A keen hobbyist in taarab music, he loves nothing better than to sing for an online audience through Facebook live and Youtube and then to re-watch his videos and smile with himself.  I often joke that he is his biggest fan-boy.   Anwar’s father-Juma Bhalo- a well known musician in Kenya,  was the epitome of musical excellence in the taarab genre. My husband was profoundly influenced by his father and although he emulates his music, he will be the first one to tell you that he will never be as good as his father.

Anwar makes beautiful music but sometimes he sings off key and sometimes he doesn’t get the notes right on the keyboard. Sometimes people tell him that “your father, Juma Bhalo is better”. And rarely does his daily work schedule allow for enough time to practice and perfect his technique.  Does this realization temper his enthusiasm for singing? No. If anything, it releases him from the angst of perfection that afflicts so many artists, thus allowing him to express himself with the joyful authenticity often associated with children at play.

There is a particular video on his Youtube channel that I used to find highly amusing in the beginning of our relationship. In it, he is smartly suited up, fingers resting lightly on the keyboard, hair gelled up, and his mega-watt smile ready to dazzle his audience. Before he starts singing, he says (in Kiswahili), with an cheeky expression on his face:

“Asalaam Aleikum. My name is Anwar Bhalo. I know that I am not really a singer but I sing to make myself happy. As long as singing makes me happy, why shouldn’t I sing? Maybe someone out there will feel as happy as I do listening to my singing. For me, this is enough.”

We will never be smart enough, skinny enough, good enough, …etc as long as we compare ourselves with others. In the race to out-do each other, especially in this Instagram world of perfection, we have lost our authentic voices.

In a frank article about originality vs. authenticity, Elizabeth Gilbert asserts that “whatever it is that you dream of doing (creating, traveling, loving, inventing, transforming) just do it. Don’t worry if you’re the 100th person to do it. Just do it, anyhow, and be sure that you bring the highest purity of intention to your pursuit. Act from a place of your deepest authenticity, and the rest of it will take care of itself.”

What are your fears when it comes to creating art? What’s holding you back back from authentic self-expression? What would you do if you believed that you are enough as you are?

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Meditations on joy

“In my own worst seasons I’ve come back from the colorless world of despair by forcing myself to look hard, for a long time, at a single glorious thing: a flame of red geranium outside my bedroom window. And then another: my daughter in a yellow dress. And another: the perfect outline of a full, dark sphere behind the crescent moon. Until I learned to be in love with my life again. Like a stroke victim retraining new parts of the brain to grasp lost skills, I have taught myself joy, over and over again.”
—Barbara Kingsolver, High Tide in Tuscon

*I took this picture during one of my daily walks recently. I give gratitude to  nature for reminding me time and time again of the privilege of being alive.* 

Habits: It’s all or nothing

I’ve been reading Gretchen Rubin’s book ‘Happier at Home’ in little snippets whenever I can find pockets of time enough to accommodate a paragraph or two. The book is generally a very easy read and I glossed over some parts but something that caught my eye was this:

““I’m not tempted by things I’ve decided are off-limits, but once I’ve started something, I have trouble stopping. If I never do something, it requires no self-control for me; if I do something sometimes, it requires enormous self-control.”

She either does something consistently, or doesn’t do it at all. She offers an example of junk food: she just chooses not to eat it. Deciding cut-off points and limits is just too burdensome a decision for her. Another example that she gives is exercise: carving out a schedule of working out a few days a week is a sure recipe for inconsistency, and therefore, failure. What is almost foolproof is simply committing to exercising every single day, preferably setting a routine to do an activity (such as walking) daily, preferably at the same time and in the same way.

I get it.

How many times have I whipped out my calendar and set up timetables for exercising, meditating, drinking water, writing, etc etc, all for them to fail within a week of two? I always feel terrible about not sticking to my timetables.  On the other hand, I have been walking my kids to school (and back) everyday for the past few months without penciling in ‘exercise’ into my calendar. This is just something that I do routinely everyday.  I don’t have to think about it as exercise (even though it is) and I don’t have this cloud of guilt hanging over my head for a task not accomplished. Walking is not a chore anymore, it’s a habit. I feel better now than I have felt in a long time, all from a simple act of consistency.

What about you…..What do you want to do consistently to develop it into a habit?

 

When My Beloved Aunt Died: A Reflection on Life

Two weeks ago, on a Sunday night at 11pm, I got a call that would change my family’s life forever.

My aunt, a mere 50 something years old, had just died hundreds of miles away in Mombasa, Kenya, due to post-surgery complications. I was alone in bed with my two sleeping toddlers and all I could think of was how surreal this news felt. My aunt, whom my husband had taken a funny selfie with just a few hours earlier, had fallen down on her way to close her living room window at night two days prior, and fractured her hip. I’ve been told that this was an accident waiting to happen, that her hip ligaments had been worn out to almost nothing, and that they had given in to the weight of her body. I’ve been told that this was fate.

At first I was angry.  I was angry that the hospital had been negligent in giving her care: perhaps the anaesthesia was messed up, or they mismanaged her diabetes before surgery. Had they been careless enough to let her go hungry for over 24 hours before going into the operating room? Shouldn’t they have referred her to a bigger hospital, one with more facilities and more expertise in surgery and diabetes? I had a pile of questions but everyone I talked to who was there with her in her final days told me simply that her time had come. 

I talked to a doctor friend of mine and expressed my feelings over the whole affair. “Was it medical negligence”, I asked her, “or was it fate?”

“It may be both,” she replied back after much deliberation on the topic. “The alleged negligence may have been the catalyst in enabling fate.”

I wonder: Are we really in control of anything?

I think of my aunt every single day. When she was widowed over 20 years ago, she had 5 children to feed, house, and educate.  With nothing more that a Singer sewing machine, she made barely enough money to make ends meet, yet she was never one to complain about what she didn’t have.  Sometimes when things were really tough, the family would go quietly hungry but nevertheless, they thrived under the loving canopy of their mother’s presence. The children were each other’s greatest wealth and their mother was Queen of their kingdom.

For most of her life almost everyone called her Aunty but since becoming a grandmother, they resorted to calling her Nyanyaa. She was the communal aunt and grandmother because not once did she ever show preference to her own biological relatives over non-relatives. Everyone respected her merely for her endless capacity to love indiscriminately. And in her death, people from around the world- those who spent years by her side and those who had the pleasure of spending a few hours with her- mourned for her.

And as I wind down writing this post I come to the realisation that maybe we are in control of our lives. Fate may have given my aunt markers that signify major life events-her birth, marriage, her husband’s death- but she was fully in control of her life. God chose her first and last page but she wrote her own story. She was her own author and her book, her legacy to the world, is a bestseller.

………………………………………………….

This post is in loving memory of my aunt, Fatuma Mohamed Ali Peni, who was my mother’s best friend, our family’s guiding light, and my inspiration. In the past few years, I have drawn so much strength and resilience because I had her shining example to emulate from.

May Allah rest her soul in the highest levels of Paradise.

How to Retire Early and Save The World

It’s another dreaded Monday: you wake up, shower, brush your teeth, drop the kids to school, drive to work, sit at the desk for 8 hours, sneak into Facebook in between the hours of 9-5, drive back home, eat dinner, put the kids to bed, throw yourself on the sofa, watch TV, drag your body to bed…and repeat the next day and the next, until Friday comes around when we all celebrate a hypothetical break, only for the cycle to repeat itself again next week, and next month, and next year….until death comes calling.

It’s mind-numbing.

We work to create wealth but does all this wealth really make us any happier? According to studies on happiness, wealth only makes us happy to a certain point. Once we’ve made a certain amount of money (we’ll call that the plateau), then any extra dollar made does not equal to a corresponding gain in happiness. In other words, any leftover from the plateau-fancier cars, bigger house, more elaborate holidays-are mere conspicuous luxury commodities. We upgrade to brighter bling simply to show the world our financial worth.

I’ve been following Mr. Moustache on and off for a few years now, and in his popular lifestyle blog, he preaches that the key to retiring early (he retired at 31 years old) is to spend a lot less than you earn. As a natural thrifter, I whole heartedly agree. In this fascinating talk, Mr. Moustache argues that 3 facts will make you richer:

Fact 1: We all suck at money…but we can change that with an attitude shift

Any money spent that does not make you happier is wasted (most of us fall in this category). Marketing convinces us that YOU MUST BUY X, Y and Z IF YOU WANT TO BE HAPPIER! but all that is really a pack of lies. A $2 spatula is really the same as the $20 spatula, a fancy car will get you to the same destination as a standard one, and a $200 outfit won’t make you any prettier than one for a fraction of the price. Luxury, in and of itself, is a state of mind. I’ve seen people living on a dollar-a- day diet who wear charity shop clothes and cycle to work, and carry themselves with so much self-love.

Fact 2: You can save enough to retire in 10 years….if you spend less then than you earn

A high income earner and an average income earner can both retire at the same time, adjusting for spending habits. If I make $30,000 a year and spend significantly less on living basics yearly (eating in, cycling, cheap housing), I will have, on average, saved the same amount in 10 years as someone earning $300,000 who spends much more on a ‘luxury’ lifestyle (eating out in fancy restaurants, daily taxis, mansions).

Fact 3: Work is better for everyone if you don’t need the money

Imagine that you’ve finally saved away enough money to retire at a relatively young age. You still work, but you work on your own terms and you work at a job that you love. I love this quote by Mr. Moustache: The purpose of work is to create. The purpose of earning money is to have enough money.

Anything that you create out of love feels good, and people tend to buy goods and services laced with goodness.  Think about your own buying experiences: how good did it feel to order from a company whose owners cared about the product they were selling, versus buying from sales people who felt like they were being forced to go to work?

Also, when you work out of passion, you will be able to focus on projects that matter to you and to your community. Passion-driven work is hard, but it rarely feels ‘stressful’. If it feeds your soul, it will also feed the world around you.

What do you think about these facts? Have they inspired you to change your own life?

Is It Stress or Is It Passion?

Sometimes writing can feel a little like building a house specifically for the purpose of air to pass through its windows and doors. No human lives there and day and night, the sound that you put out echoes right back. You pour so much heart and soul into each and every single word  and send your writing out into the world, only for it to go unacknowledged or worse, unnoticed. It’s lonely sometimes and to the immature mind, this- the act of writing and releasing-can seem like such a foolish waste of time. Who in their right mind would spend hours  creating something only for it to wash down the internet drain like a pot of discarded pasta water?

Stress and passion. 

Anything you do out of passion will not feel discouraging. In fact, you will often take failures as directional signs that will helpfully point you on the right way. You may get lost once in a while, but you will always have a resolute determination to find your way home. Writing is my thing; the process of writing is my real reward and the recognition I get from others is just an extra bonus point to the intrinsic joy I get out of expressing myself through words. For others, it may be painting or making music or cooking.  The point is, whatever makes you come alive is never a form of punishment. It is will always feel like an interesting curiosity to be pursued.

This reminds me of the time we had just moved into our new home and I had to paint a sunshine yellow coat over my kids’ deep auburgine colored room. I painted and painted, one coat, then two, then three, and by the end of the day, I was fuming. I never wanted to see purple again. I never wanted to see paint again. I never wanted to touch a paint brush in my whole life ever again. I called up my artsy sister that night, hands and hair covered in specks of yellow, and told her of my frustration and exhaustion. “I wish I was there to paint that room!” she said excitedly. In her mind, a day painting was a day well spent.  To each their own, I guess.

Writing, like any other creative pursuit, is not about receiving. It’s about giving. When I put myself out there-when I write with honesty and authenticity-I am, in fact, offering to the world the best of myself. I often write with an annoying voice in my head screaming ‘failure! failure!failure!, but I write anyway because I know that not writing for fear of failing is actually the biggest failure of all. So fingers to keyboard, I tap away as lovingly as my fluttering heart can guide me.

“As a soul, you have the freedom – and earned responsibility – to transpose your personal process of evolution, to manifest your greatest talents and vision, into the work that matters to you most as a means to personal redemption.”
― Darrell Calkins

 

When I Cried For My Dead Mother-in-Law, God Sent Me This Instead

On a recent clear sunny day, I was sitting on a bench in the playground crying my heart out.

The tears came down my cheeks fast and nothing my husband could do or say would make them stop. I was having one of those days again which, as a mother living far away from two of her children, felt hopeless. There were so many complex thoughts going through my head and I couldn’t make a single one of them hush down.

‘Children should never live apart from their mother’ I thought to myself, over and over again like a trapped hamster in a running wheel.

I felt depressed,

and guilty,

and angry.

Due to circumstances beyond my control, my boys weren’t living with me and there’s nothing that I could do (at least at that moment) to bring them home.

“The only woman who could have ever understood what I feel is Mama Sakina,” I angrily answered my husband when he asked if there’s anything he could do to ease the pain. Mama Sakina was my husband’s mother (now dead) and like me, she also had to endure an extended period of distance parenthood. My husband was raised by his father and stepmother.

“If she was still sitting here with me, I’d ask her so many questions. I’d ask her how she survived, how she kept hope alive, how she never let this experience turn her into a bitter person.She’d understand. She’s the only one who’d understand.” I leaned forward on the park bench and dug my face into my hands.  That moment felt like a very dark and lonely hole.

Just then, Sakina, my four year old daughter, and late mother-in-law’s namesake, came closer to stand beside me. She had heard me crying so she dropped her playing to come see what was wrong. She stroked my hair gently and softly released the grasp of my fingers from my face. With her little hands, she raised my chin and brought my eyes level to hers. Her eyes softened as she gazed into mine; they spoke of understanding and companionship. Then, with her tiny little fingers, she brushed my rolling tears away. Her presence filled the air with tranquility.

“I’m sorry, Mama” she said in her sweet, innocent voice, “everything will be fine.” And with as far as her hands could stretch, she hugged me tightly. As our cheeks touched, I could feel myself melting into her warm embrace; the urgent thudding of my heart calmed down and my breathing came back to normal. I felt light again.

I looked up and smiled. Sakina smiled back and just then, as if nothing momentous had happened, she skipped back to little her brother who was busy trying to climb up the ladders to go down the slide.

God had just answered my prayers in the most unexpected of ways.