Purpose + Being Forced to Focus

I assume, if you’re a believer—and perhaps, even if you aren’t—that you believe in purpose. I do. And although I can’t front like I know exactly what my purpose is in this bleak life, an educated guess tells me that if it exists, whatever it is, it’s deeply related to writing/storytelling/lexivism.

For anyone who believes in purpose, I think it would be natural to consider that this too has a purpose: that there’s a reason I’m only permitted to have a faint idea of my own purpose; like signs consistently pointing me in the right direction without ever telling me explicitly where I’m headed—and that maybe this is for my own good.

“Mystery is such a strange gift. The unknown is such a wonderful vegetable. It’s a good thing we can’t see the future. Because we’d ruin it every chance we get.”—Propaganda [Was It All Worth It?]

 

I think natural talents and abilities are, by definition, God-given gifts. I also think that too many of them in one vessel is dangerous—particularly for the vessels themselves. It may be as easy to be inspired by endless possibilities as to become crippled by them. But more importantly, too many gifts just might result in potentially endless confusion about one’s purpose because of one’s apparently endless potential; or, endless possibilities of ending up on a path which might not necessarily be in line with one’s purpose. For instance: If my purpose is to be Something, and yet I have the potential to be anything, the chances are that, without proper direction, I might easily end up being Another Thing instead of Something. And it might not even be my fault.

I’m starting to believe I have been, for a good part of my life, in exactly this kind of danger. I also believe I have been—am being—saved from it, albeit in ways that displease me greatly.

 

My childhood was saturated with activity and high achievement, inside and outside the classroom. I wrote briefly, in “Terror + Taking A Semester Off,” about my early academic success. Suffice it to say, there was not a single field of study that I could not excel in—and I was no less prolific with my extracurriculars. Ten years of dance classes and a couple awards from my Dance Academy; three or four years of roller-skating ­and roller-blading until I could do tricks backwards and forwards like nobody’s business; playing the piano from age three and composing my own music by age ten; picking up Mandarin Chinese to my level of Twi fluency within two years of biweekly lessons… You get the picture.

To put it another way: there really wasn’t a semblance of singular focus in my life.

 

Once, I found myself in a hall of many unlocked doors. I ran in and out of doors and rooms haphazardly, because I could, and I seemed to be full of boundless energy. I never got far enough beyond any door to explore the mansion-sized possibilities that could have lain within either. Consciously or unconsciously, I asked for direction—but instead of simply being told where to go, doors simply began to slam in my face, automatically limiting my possibilities. It wasn’t exactly what I had in mind, but I can’t conclude that it wasn’t exactly what I needed.

Purpose+BeingForcedtoFocus

The moment I began boarding school, at barely-fourteen, I was forced to let go of almost all of my beloved extracurricular activities. Tearing me away from ballet and hip-hop classes and the possibility of progressing from intermediate to advanced levels in my dance academy is something I have never forgiven boarding school for. Doors upon doors, slamming in my face.

I decided I wanted to be a writer at age ten. I liked books and stories; therefore, I wanted to make some of my own. This aspiration was non-exclusive—the way people preferred it. Just because I wanted to be a writer didn’t mean I refused to be anything else. After all, I was still good at everything else—especially the things people wanted me to be good at. i.e. STEM stuff… Until, high school, when my STEM talents began inexplicably deteriorating. Doors upon doors, slamming in my face.

Halfway through high school, I was honestly still entertaining thoughts of being an engineer or lawyer—although I’d thrown the doctor dream away years earlier, once I’d realized the toy stethoscope I’d been given for my one birthday was no match for my dislike for being exposed to the icky insides of human bodies. I mean, halfway through high school, I still had it; mathematics gave me my overall highest IGCSE grade, and my science and English grades pretty much levelled with each other.

When it came to time to choose my IB courses, I had already expressed my complete lack of interest in law. So, of the African’s Approved Careers™, only “engineer” was left on the table. My father and I selected my courses accordingly, but not long into the very first semester, during which I began encountering astonishing, successive failures, I entered a two-year-long season of “WHAT THE HELL IS HAPPENING?!” The answer? Doors upon doors, slamming in my face.

 

I am no longer the multitalented kid. Now, more than ever, it’s extremely obvious that writing is my thing. I have spent a lot of time resenting the “loss” of my multiple talents, but as my path gets narrower, it also seems to get clearer. I no longer resent my transformation (…as much), because I recognize that everything that I have gone through in this regard may be directing me towards fulfilling my intended purpose.

Fortunately or unfortunately, the transformation is still ongoing. I am now being forced to focus in a way that’s at least as uncomfortable and annoying as the limitation of my talents. Now, it’s the limitation of my physical capacity that’s doing the door-slamming.

If you’ll remember, I wrote about some of my physical struggles in these blog posts: My Faith + My Body and Self-Care: The Thing I Wish Was A Myth (But It Really, Really Isn’t). Although combinations of rest and medication are gradually and non-linearly making me more of a functional human being, the overall effect of my physical malfunctions is that I can usually only achieve a small fraction of what most people around me might be able to, in twenty-four hours. I have often thought of my physical malfunctions as purposeless suffering, but now I’m being led to believe that there is at least one specific purpose to them: focus.

I’ve observed the effect my limited functionality is having on my daily life. When your body severly limits your activity, you start becoming a lot more mindful of how you use your energy. If I only have 2.5 hours of productive potential each day, I naturally become a lot more conservative with each day’s quota. When it’s not discouraging the hell out of me, it makes me a lot more purposeful. Not to mention, my choices on how to use my energy quotas each day speak volumes about which work is most important to me.

Recently, a Bible story hit me like a pestle on a ball of fufu. Remember when Jesus visited Martha and Mary? And Mary was just based at Jesus’ feet, while Martha was at her wits’ end trying to do everything? My NIV translation calls her distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. The word “distracted” caught my attention because I ordinarily wouldn’t call work that seems necessary a “distraction.” But here’s how Jesus responded to Martha’s complaints about the situation:

“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one.” –Luke 10: 41-42

Are you serious? All this work to do, and you’re telling my sister that only one thing is needed? It’s hilarious, lowkey. See, Martha had to get pissed enough to come to the realization that she wasn’t focused enough on some one important thing. And I had to get tired enough to realize it. In the middle of murky, muddled thoughts and madness, I often have one clear thought ringing out in the background: “You need to focus on writing [this thing].” (Where [this thing] is often some specific project at any given time.) I am worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed, only one.

I am being forced to focus. And while I am enjoying neither the pain nor the process, I am finally seeing some sort of purpose in both. While this all sounds like I might be rationalizing, I do feel like I’m too pessimistic of a person to go looking for the bright sides in things. So, the fact that I’ve considered any positive purposes behind my suffering alone is more powerful to me than others may realize.

Also, I have little doubt that if I one day regain my full energy and start getting distracted again, some new or old weapon to get me to focus once more is going to attack me mercilessly.

-Akotowaa

Shattered (A Long Short Story)

This post is dedicated to Simeon Mark Cofie. It’s been like 10 months, but I’m sorry about the Rose Quartz.

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You see that fracture at the right side? Yep, there’s a piece missing. This is my inspiration for this particularly story. Why do tragedies breed beauty?

Shattered

Joshua Barth was dead. The word on the street was that he had died of starvation – at least, that’s what the doctor’s report said. “Died of starvation” was a bit euphemistic. “Starved himself to death” was perhaps the more accurate phrase.

Confining himself to his living room floor for days on end, he had deprived himself of food and water until all his vital organs had given up. His living room, to add irony to the matter, was situated right across from the kitchen, which contained a fully-stocked shelf of cupboards containing preservatives, a rather plentiful amount of food in his fridge, and a considerable mass of meat in his deep freezer. He had starved in a room next to another room that was capable of feeding another ordinary man for at least a three weeks, if the man was absurdly hungry.

Joshua had had no maids, servants or help, nor did he live with any relatives. From time to time, he had paid a company to provide cleaning services so that his home did not fall completely into desolation.

The reason he lived with no relatives is that he had no living ones, at least that were traceable or that he knew of. He had been the only child of his parents, both only children, and now both deceased. He had had no children – nobody to pass all his belongings to. There had been, for a long time, nobody in his life…until he had met her. Sapphira, his late wife.

Joshua had met Sapphira at a crucial time in his life: in college. It was crucial, not because his survival had depended on it, but rather, his sanity. He had been at a point in his life where he’d felt like life had no point. He hadn’t understood anything or its purpose – why he existed, why he was at school, what he wanted to be, and why he wasn’t happy, and generally existing in a continuous state of confusion.

Then, one late night as he was walking around the vast, nearly deserted campus grounds, pondering over the vacuity of it all, he had seen this little fairy sitting on the bleachers of the football field, solitary, deeply engrossed in whatever book she was reading. She wore a sparkling blue garment he couldn’t immediately place as a robe, a sari, or a kimono. Her hair was wrapped up in the same kind of cloth her garment was made of, and long, large earrings made of little, bright blue stones dangled from her earlobes. Her lips were painted a soft red.

Aside from the two of them, the field had been completely empty; there was no one to divert his attention away from her – but that wasn’t the reason he was captivated. He had been lost, his mind had been vaguely searching for something that could possibly point him in the direction of his soul, and at that moment, all available compasses told him that this woman was his North.

Though he could tell that she wasn’t particularly pretty, there was something unconsciously alluring about her. Perhaps it was a thing to do with destiny, an attraction that was unexplainable in the physical realm.

She was so thoroughly captivated by her book that she didn’t hear him approach until he was only a few feet in front of her. He halted there, because he didn’t want to get close enough to make the either of them more uncomfortable than could be helped. She greeted him unexpectedly with a smile, and though it was late in the night, that smile felt like sunshine. The pleasant welcome was unprecedented because he knew that if he were to be approached by a random stranger interrupting his activities, hostility would have been his first option.

“Hello,” she said welcomingly.

“Hi,” he responded. That wasn’t bad for a first statement, he decided. He might otherwise have said something condescending in an attempt to get her attention, like, “What’s a pretty girl like you doing out here at this time of the night?” or “Don’t you know it’s bad for your eyes to be reading under this light?” But “hi” was a good start.

“What’s your name?” she asked gently.

“Joshua,” he responded equally softly. The entire experience felt surreal and enchanting, almost like he was under a spell. For goodness’ sake, what was he doing? He didn’t randomly approach strangers in the dead of the night and strike up conversation. He never spoke unless he had to, even in class. He went out to no social events. His roommates were never in the room, because his presence had always been an unspeakable damper. Yet here he was, almost-flirting with a woman he didn’t know from Eve. “What’s yours?”

“Sapphira,” she said. “My parents called me that because it’s my birthstone. They believe in the importance of embracing the circumstances of any being’s placement. My name is an unashamed acceptance of my circumstances of existence – in this case, my birth. What about you?”

“Hmm?” Joshua’s head was still trying to process everything this young woman was saying. She wasn’t speaking too fast; he could hear her. But he’d never heard of a conversation like this before, not even in movies. Who on earth said things like this to people on their first meeting? She was treating him like a sort of acquaintance she’d known vaguely for at least a few years. It was unusual, in a world where people were learning to be so private and wary of each other. Thinking all these thoughts got him disoriented, and he was unsure of what question he was supposed to be answering.

“Your name,” Sapphira clarified. “Do you know what it means?”

No, he did not know what ‘Joshua’ meant. Why had such a thing, such a mundane but integral part of his identity, never been of as much importance to him as to find out what it meant? Suddenly, his name seemed to him like the first key to a series of doors, behind which were the mysteries of understanding himself; a series of doors from which he had been barred for so long.

“I don’t,” he admitted shamefacedly, dropping his gaze to the ground. Suddenly, he looked back up with new hope in his eyes. “Do you?”

“Of course. It’s one of the most common names I’ve encountered throughout my time in this ephemeral realm. Joshua means ‘Saviour’. Do you believe in salvation?”

“I…I’m not sure yet.”

What was salvation? For some reason, that was a word that in itself seemed other-worldly. Salvation, though it had a perfectly literal meaning, more often than not, was used in ways pertaining to matters of spirituality. When he heard “salvation”, he never thought of it in terms of physical peril; it was always more about the salvation of a soul. And even that, he wasn’t certain he believed in.

“I don’t know why I’m here,” he confessed to Sapphira, surprised at himself for finally realising and voicing the fear that had constricted him for longer than he could account for.

It was true. More and more, he lost pleasure in everything the world could give him. His stomach now only craved food for the sake of survival and not for the sake of enjoyment. Even looking at girls wasn’t as exciting a pastime for him as it was for his mates. He couldn’t understand what it was they saw in the chases after what he saw as futility. Even attempted methods of escape into unconsciousness were not particularly pleasant, because his sleep was plagued with nothingness.

Joshua did not dream while asleep. Perhaps, he thought, it was because he had no dreams while awake. If you had asked him to name his aspirations, he probably wouldn’t have been able to mention a single one. Yet, somehow, with the help of doubt, his faith grew deeper. His continuously growing dissatisfaction with what he was supposed to aspire towards increased an unconscious conviction that there was something beyond the physical that he was looking for, and only that would satisfy him.

“That’s alright,” Sapphira said. “Lots of people feel like that, but they’re also terrified of themselves, so they refuse to admit it. But you’re courageous, because you have. And you’re still here.”

“Still here?” he repeated. “What do you mean?”

“I mean that this world puts so many opportunities in your way for you to take yourself out of it permanently. But without even knowing why, you have resisted, all this time.”

Sapphira couldn’t be normal, Joshua concluded. The way she spoke, dressed, thought…there was something ethereal about her, and perhaps that was what had made her, a complete stranger, alluring to him in the first place. She spoke as if the spiritual world and the physical one had no distinctive barrier, and she spoke to him as if somehow, she knew him, on a deeper level.

“Are you human?” Joshua asked, feeling stupid as soon as the question had quite finished rolling off his accursed tongue.

“Yes. I’m just what many choose to call weird. I read people’s spirits the way ordinary people read each other’s facial expressions.”

“Doesn’t anyone find that intimidating?”

“Only the people who are afraid to hear what I have to say because they are constantly running away from who they really are.”

“And do you know who you are?”

“I don’t think anyone on this realm really does, or is even meant to. The point is not to reach perfection, but to constantly strive towards it. I may not know who I am yet – that may only be revealed to me in the next realm. But at least I’m not running away from me. I’m moving steadily towards it. Here, why don’t you have a seat? You’ve been standing for too long.”

He obliged, and when he sat, he blurted out, “You’re very beautiful.”

Sapphira rolled her eyes and laughed. “Boys. After the deepest conversations, they’ll always manage to take you right back to the physical. What’s wrong with you?”

His laughing retort was: “Hey. That’s an unfair generalization.”

Something in his perception had swiftly changed. Five minutes ago, he hadn’t thought she was even that pretty. Now, all of a sudden, he was proclaiming her beauty aloud? Intuitively, he knew that the beauty he was only now beginning to see had nothing to do with her face or her body.

For a while, they continued to converse and became better acquainted with each other. To Joshua’s surprise, the next time he checked his watch, he saw that a full two hours had elapsed. Reluctantly, he suggested that they both went to bed before they had to attend lectures. Before they split ways, they agreed to meet back there the next night – but not before picking up coffee and doughnuts at a nearby café. Goodness knew they’d need that, after the minimal sleep this conversation had caused them.

The years at school continued to pass by, and the bonds between the two beings only grew stronger, as only the souls meant to meet could do. They were barely past graduation when Joshua asked for Sapphira’s hand in marriage. She accepted elatedly. She told him he might as well have asked her to marry him on the first day they’d met. She would have readily accepted, even then.

“So I take it you believe in love at first sight, then,” Joshua ventured, grinning like an old fool, still drunk on the joy of her acceptance.

“I believe in soul-deep connections. What you people call ‘love at first sight’ is actually two souls who know each other, recognizing each other’s physical forms for the first time.”

“Whatever you say, you Sufi mystic.”

She punched him playfully on the arm. “Says the yogi who meditates every day?”

They got married and started a business together, right after college. To the outsider, they looked ideal, and to each other, they felt very similarly. They were each other’s pillar of stability, in a relationship where there was a scale; one person was always more balanced than the other. At one time, it would be Joshua; another, Sapphira. Joshua’s mind expanded, and gradually, he began to think and say things far stranger than those Sapphira had said and thought before they’d met. They shared new books, advice and ideas. Joshua even came to believe that his life force was tethered to hers.

He always told Sapphira he loved the man she’d made out of him. She always told him, “People don’t ‘make’ other people who they are; they only bring out what has always been inside them.”

For their fortieth anniversary, she had bought him a fantastically well-crafted sculpture of a horse. The equestrian was both hers and her husband’s favourite animal. She had paid a professional craftsman to make this exquisite piece of art, out of pure sapphire.

The money hadn’t been too much of a problem. With their joint business thriving, the two of them had been millionaires. There was, of course, the fact that there were no children to spend their income on. (Sapphira, they had discovered, was barren. She had been fine when she found out, though Joshua had feared that the news would rattle her. However, the only thing she had said to him was, “Sometimes, Joshua, the Universe knows some people are so full of life that there is no need for them to bring in any more to compensate. That way, the world’s total energy is balanced.”) Instead, they spent their money on charity and doing good for other people. Even so, they still had much to spare, and so Sapphira had been able to afford this gift.

Joshua had nearly wept when he had received it.

“It will make you think of me,” his wife told him, “and the sapphire will help you to remember to embrace the circumstances of my existence.”

“What do you mean, think of you?” asked Joshua. “I’m always thinking of you. My love, I sleep next to you every night, and you are the first I see every morning.”

Sapphira smiled sadly. “Even so…We all need something to help us remember to accept circumstances from time to time.”

Perhaps she had known she was going to die that year, at the age of 62. For those who engaged in deeply spiritual business, it was said that they were able to predict their own ends. Maybe Sapphira had had an inkling that an undetected aneurysm would be the swift, sorrowful end of her. Joshua could never tell. But her departure felt like a hole in his heart, an emptiness in his essence. When his mind finally registered that she was gone, he felt a sort of plunge, like he was thrown back into his nineteen-year-old self: lost, looking for salvation he didn’t know he didn’t know he believed in.

The only thing that kept him from taking his own leave of life immediately was the blue sapphire horse. He placed it on his bedside table after his wife’s death, because only then was it truly serving its purpose: to remind him to accept the circumstances. Sapphira lived on with him, not in the stone of the horse, but in Joshua’s sustained faith in the ideology of the deliberateness of occurrences.

Unfortunately, in his old age, arthritis was catching up to him. At seventy, he couldn’t truly hold things like he used to be able to. In his insistence on obeying maintenance routine, however, he would not let up on periodically dusting his belongings, at least when the cleaners he hired were not there. The unrelenting Harmattan season and its dust were not going to stick to schedules that abided cleaning only once a week, though. And so it happened that one day, as he attempted to carefully pass a rag over the horse, his hands shook a little too much, and it descended, seemingly in slow motion, where it took what felt like an hour, during which the old man himself was helplessly frozen, to fracture on the ground.

To Joshua, it wasn’t the splintering of the horse he connected with the sound he heard; it was the shattering of his own heart. Now was the real time to accept circumstances. Sapphira was gone. Sapphira’s horse was gone. It was time for him to go too.

In what felt like automation, or perhaps spirit-led instinct, he shuffled towards his living room, where he lay down quietly and wordlessly on the floor. From that point, nothing else was difficult. None of the struggles of this world could touch him; he had disconnected with his body and with this realm. There was no more need to consume nutrition or release excrement, for his spirit no longer felt his body’s needs. Slowly, his organs began to shut themselves down, a process he endured peacefully and painlessly. His eyesight switched off. The sensitivity of his flesh retired. His last words were, “I am finally finding salvation. And all this time, all I had to do was lose myself.” And then his soul took leave of his flesh.

 

 

“It isn’t possible,” the first policeman said to the other. “How can you die of starvation in a room next to a fridge? Wey nonfa be that?”

It was a discussion happening in the break room, after the results of the autopsy had been released.

“Be like his legs give in so he no fit walk to kitchen,” offered the second policeman.

“Massa, there was nothing wrong with his legs. You spy the way he was lying down? He didn’t fall on the ground by accident o! His pose eh, check like he was ready for his coffin kraa. Hands on chest and everything.”

The other man grunted. There was a pause.

“I kind of want my end to be like that, you know?” blurted out the second man unexpectedly, releasing the pidgin slang unconsciously, for the sake of the profundity of his personal expression.

“Like what?” asked the first.

“Like that crazy guy’s. All peaceful-looking and fulfilled-like. To go out not like you suffered, but like you were saved.”

“Heh. That what he looked like to you? Saved, huh? Goodness knows we could all use a bit of bloody salvation in this hell of a world.”

“You see the thing, chale.”

-Akotowaa