I wake up some days with unwanted particles of the sense of inadequacy sticking to my skin like the residue of dreams I never invited into my mind, and I want to flick them off, but they cling stubbornly like they are coated with adhesive. This is one of those days. Sunday, 19th February 2017. There is no apparent trigger. Thoughts of “my writing is not good enough” and “I don’t know how to do life but everyone else does” penetrate my mind’s firewall. Sometimes my firewall fizzles out into a mere tower of smoke whose ability to resist intrusion is laughable at best.
Many Sundays, I do not have the strength to rekindle the flames. The weight of the beginning week’s work begins to settle and my heart gets heavy. I pick up my phone and complain to my best friend, vaguely wondering how tired he must be by now of hearing me complain about the same damn things over and over again. I wonder if he has learnt these encouraging accolades that he always types in response by rote. And unfortunately, I wonder if either of us even believes them anymore, or if we ever truly did.
Church today is a healing service. The Holy Spirit speaks to pastors, directly revealing burdens, illnesses and infirmities borne by members of the congregation. We pray. A man’s eyesight, corrupted by some type of diabetes, begins to be restored. He can now read the worship lyrics on the screen and the small print on a business card. We barely hear him say the words, interrupting him with cheers and applause. He has tears in his eyes as he reads, and why shouldn’t he, when he has been the grateful medium for the performance of a miracle?
He is here. The Holy Spirit. I can sense his presence. I never wail or fall down dramatically when I do. My experience of her is through sensations within my skin, in my spine, within organs of my body that do and do not exist. Transcendental peace. He is here and he is working. Does he want to speak to me?
Things calm down after the healing. The pastor’s daughter sits in front of me to the left. She is doodling in a notebook, practicing calligraphy that I can see as soon as she puts the book down. It is gorgeous and I wonder if she is responsible for the calligraphic art on the walls and in the bathroom as well. Envy rises, pulling forth an unnecessarily long and troublesome string of connected thoughts.
I know a girl. I met her here in college. She is art without effort. You can see it in the way she dresses and the objects she owns. You can see it in the way her hand moves; whatever she draws is beautiful, she has made her room beautiful, everything she makes is beautiful, and she is beautiful. An evil thought: I would be beautiful too, if I was as creative as her.
Why am I an inadequate artist? How come, when I am constantly told I am creative, I can neither see nor manifest the creativity everyone else says I possess? I think of my dislike for a story I am writing and my cluelessness about how to begin another story I want to write. I start to panic. I start to pray.
A fictional demon called Screwtape encourages the ineffective prayers of humans who, for example, after praying for the virtue of being charitable, then try to elicit feelings of charity within themselves. As if humans can generate virtue. As if humans can give themselves what only God can gift to us. But if humans were able to manufacture the answers to their own prayers, they wouldn’t need to pray often, would they?
And so my prayer changes. Creativity is a gift and a virtue I have been mistakenly trying to generate. Of what I gave myself none, I cannot give myself more. Let its giver write through me to produce the content I was purposefully designed to produce, at the quality I was designed to produce it. Let him speak the words and use me as his medium. Why worry when he will provide?
The service ends. There is pizza for lunch and I join the queue. A woman I have never seen before walks up to me and smiles. I think she is coming to join the line behind me, but she remains at my side. So she is here to talk to me. I am used to church members engaging in friendly conversation with strangers for the sake of community, and I assume that’s what she’s here for. But I am wrong and the first sign is how she doesn’t ask me my name. This is because she is not here to ask me to tell her who I am; she is here to assure me of what I should already know about myself.
She asks me if I’m a student.
Yes, I reply, and I tell her my college.
Am I new here? She has never seen me in church before.
Well, I’ve never seen her either. I reply no, I have actually been coming since near the end of last semester, alternating between the early morning service and the late morning service.
“What are you studying?”
“I haven’t declared my major yet. I’m kind of studying everything right now.”
She smiles. A few seconds of silence.
“You are very creative. You are an artist.” She says them like statements, even though they should really be questions, given that she has no idea who I am.
“How do you know that?” I inquire, slightly startled. I look down at my ordinary black-tee-and-trousers outfit, wondering how anything about my person as presented could possibly have given it away, when I had never considered my outward appearance to be anything like my idea of self-styled wacky artist. “Do I look like I am?”
“Then how did you know?”
She doesn’t answer.
“You just know?”
More moments of silence.
“You have a lot of passion. A lot of things you want to do as an artist.”
“How do you know that?!” and I am nearly yelling now.
I am annoyed. Why won’t she answer my questions?
She asks me if she may pray over my hands. I am startled but I agree. I give her my hands, my favorite parts of my physical body, also the parts I curse and blame most often for causing my artistic inadequacy.
As I listen to her prayer, the words pass through my head as if my mind is a tube with two open-holed sides, but the meaning sticks, and I am freaking out. She is praying over my hands, over my artistry, and nearly repeating everything I prayed on my own a few minutes ago, back to me, back to God. She prays over my writing but does not know I am a writer. She prays over my drawing but does not know that I draw, that I wish I drew more often, that I envy artists, or how often I wish I was a better visual artist. She prays over the fruitfulness of any creative endeavor my hands deign to undertake, and I want to cry.
He is still here. The Holy Spirit. Working subtly, not in huge bangs nor in the deafening rush of a waterfall, but like a river whose reassuring trickling I am occasionally tuned in to hear. He heard my prayer. He prayed my prayer for me after he spoke my life. Perhaps he gave me that prayer in the first place.
Now that I have recovered somewhat from the shock of the moment, I just want to say: thank you.
Rapper Lecrae Moore’s autobiographical book, Unashamed, is one of the most important books I have read and will read all year. I made so many notes when I was reading, which is usually a sign that I’m reading something fabulous.
The title of the book, of course, comes from the Romans 1:16 verse that begins with “For I am Unashamed of the Gospel…” and is the central and underlying theme of basically everything the label Reach Records (which Lecrae owns) does.
The packaging and presentation of the publication has a deliberateness about it which I think is adequately though implicitly explained at the very least by the book’s first two chapters. So, for example, I sincerely hope – and I think this was the intention – that a retailer of this book wouldn’t just dump it in the “Christian literature” section of the bookstore, if it could go in the biography/non-fiction section. As many people as possible, regardless of which faith they ascribe to, should read this book. And I know how limited the audience would be if there were explicit indications on the packaging that it should be placed among Christian lit. It’s not Christian lit. It is, as it says in the paper jacket of the book, “the story of one man’s journey to faith and freedom”.
Lecrae doesn’t call himself a Christian rapper or a person who makes “Christian music”. He goes as far as to deny that there is any such thing as Christian music, but I’ll get to that later. Lecrae is a rapper. He is a Christian. I personally know people who are upset that Crae disclaims the “Christian rapper” label. In their minds, what reason could a Christian rapper possibly have for reflecting the label other than shame in being referred to as one? But then you look at the title of the book and his career motto and then you realize your hypothesis doesn’t make sense. (Or at least I hope that’s what happens to you. Don’t go around thinking wack things!)
One of the reasons reading this was so refreshing to me was the raw honesty with which it is written. It’s not glamorized in the way that commercial biographies are. It’s not a self-help motivational book either. But it also isn’t a fairytale rags-to-riches. The good, bad and absolute ugly is all in there. He writes about his issues in the uninhibited way that I’m only used to reading from myself.
The reason why I say this is no fairytale formula, even though in general, it is a journey from captivity to freedom: I realized there were so many places that the book could have ended at – if it were a Disney fairytale, for instance. You see drudgery. Sex problems, school problems, alcohol and drugs problems, and many more problems prevail. Then Lecrae finds Jesus. The book could have ended on page 87:
“It was like the God of the universe had looked down on that dark rooftop in Atlanta and spoke to his son, Lecrae, saying, “You have the answer to all of your questions…The answer is Jesus.””
The realistic part is that it doesn’t end. Consistently, you see periods where it looks like everything is going to be rosy for the rest of his life. But either a flaw is realized, or life goes all the way downhill again, relapses and all. This is so important to me because one of the most common misconceptions people have is that accepting Jesus Christ is automatically meant to solve all your problems instantaneously. Which is absolutely false. The salvation is instantaneous but the sanctification is a process that is lifelong. When I think of this, I always think of Jackie Hill Perry’s lyrics in I Just Wanna Get There:
“God you’re making me better
You’re making me better
And you choose to do it however, whenever, wherever”
We’re not already perfect. We’re being made better.
Nearly throughout the book, there is a very clear depiction of the evolution of Lecrae’s music based on his experiences and mindset and stage in his spirituality. As for the evolution of his music, I have something personal to say about it.
The first time I met one of my most amazing friends, @EDWVN, we had like a 4-hour long conversation about music. When we were talking about “Christian music” – classically the Reach Records, Humble Beast Records, HGA etc. people, EDWVN had a lot to say about the “boldness” of the content of the music they made. The particular word he used was “safe”. I realized later that, I agree: that for a long time, the content seemed to be stuff that would gain easy acceptance and minimal criticism among the conventional Christian world; that not a lot of it was new, or daring, or relevant, outside of certain spaces, and that only recently had some of them ventured to make risky, challenging music that contained hard truths and values. And here it is, in Unashamed, confirmed by a music maker himself. Which brings us to a very important topical discussion: the reaction of Christians to the content.
“I was still unashamed of my faith – that hadn’t changed – but now I was being bold with my art. Why were people attacking me?” (p. 174)
Well, because they don’t want to hear anything that makes them uncomfortable. (Shout-out to Andy Mineo, who has a whole album dedicated to shaking our comfort zones.) Most of the time, we just want to hear what we already know, what won’t make us think too much or call for radical self-evaluation.
Some pastors are corrupt. Why should Christians get mad if other Christians acknowledge that? Some members of the church are gay. Why do you get mad at someone who’s telling the story of a closeted church choir member? It’s stating facts. To go as far as writing explicit hate comments online, calling someone hurtful names and trying to get them banned from performing, is honestly not what I would call Christian behavior from so-called Christians. It’s this conservative fear that’s been holding us back since the beginning of time – so I’m so glad that rappers like Lecrae are helping us break out of it.
At the same time, an important theme I found within the book is how to influence the culture with grace, rather than being obnoxious. It is acknowledged multiple times how much of an ass Lecrae was, with his obnoxious “evangelism” in his early stages, more often than not, serving to push people away from the faith rather than draw them closer.
Grace isn’t a compromise on truth.
At some point, he talks about how he doesn’t perform a certain line in a song where he took a shot at some church. And it’s not because what he said about the church wasn’t true; it was because it was ungraceful. And honestly, truth spoken without grace probably won’t have any positive effects. Repulsive effects are far more likely. It’s probably one of the major causes of church hurt. So, I like what he said on page 136:
“I almost never perform that song anymore, and if I do, I don’t sing that line. Not because I don’t still believe the truth of what I said – I do – but because I’ve learned to temper the truth with grace.”
I really hope this speaks to anyone with a tendency to just go off on others in the name of God.
Preaching at people isn’t the only way to spread good news through art.
There’s something strange about what we call secular music. It makes me upset that we have typecasted all music with a Christian message to have a particular sound. If it’s not Don Moen or Hillsong, we can’t deal, right? And even when we get past that and acknowledge that some rap lyrics may belong in the church, we don’t want to acknowledge that rap can be edifying even if every other lines does not mention the name Jesus or quote a praise Psalm. =(
“I felt like if I wasn’t teaching, preaching, reciting Scripture, and evangelizing through my music, I wasn’t doing it right. Being theologically educated is a great thing. And using music to explicitly express theology is needed. But I mistakenly believed it was the only way to make music.” (p. 139)
But what happened when he let go and wrote personal music? Suddenly, people could personally identify – duh. Music that speaks to people’s own hearts and struggles can actually do way more for them than preaching to the choir sometimes. There are too many things we feel obliged to hide when we are members of the church. But pretending that problems don’t exist doesn’t make them go away. Lecrae’s honesty about drug abuse, sexual abuse, difficulty with prayer etc. spoke to people going through similar issues in ways preachy lyrics never could.
A division between content is not a division between genre.
By which I mean, hip-hop is hip-hop. It doesn’t suddenly become an entirely different genre because it lacks swearwords or whatever.
Page 193 has my favorite paragraph in the whole book:
“This has changed the way I do music. There is no such thing as Christian rap and secular rap. Only people can become Christians. Music can’t accept Jesus into its heart. So I am not trying to make Christian music or secular music. I’m just making music. Hip-hop, like all music, is a good thing. I could use it for evil by filling it with violence and misogyny and profanity. Or I can use it to glorify God. Every song I write doesn’t have to have the Gospel spelled out or quote Scripture so that people will know I love Jesus. My goal is just to use my gifts to produce great art that tells the truth about the world. If I see the world through a biblical lens, the music will naturally paint a picture that serves people and honors God.”
Wasn’t that beautiful?
The last thing I have to comment on is that there is no point in Lecrae’s life where, as far as I can tell, there was a stark resolution to atheism. Yes, there was a falling in and out of faith cycle, doubt, but never truly an atheistic belief period. It is the reason for this that struck me – particularly because I could identify with it and have even written about it myself before:
“But I was such a mess at this point that the thought of being responsible for my own life was mortifying.” (p. 56)
Exactly. No way could I possibly be expected to rely on my messed-up self to be my own savior, no matter what 21st-century rhetoric you throw at me. This is consistently what keeps me grounded.
I think everyone should read this book, because it’s extremely relevant. If it doesn’t speak to at least one misconception in your life or mind, I will be genuinely surprised.
Disclaimer: Anything I say as part of my interpretations could possibly be partially to entirely wrong.
As I write this, I must admit I have known of Gallant, the RnB singer, for just about a month or so (note: I wrote this way earlier than I am posting this). But I haven’t fully fallen into obsession this fast since Jon Bellion. I legit spend a significant amount of time watching just about any Gallant interview or documentary I can find, and I memorize his lyrics and decode them at my leisure.
I am glad that, after watching some of those documentaries/interviews, I can say that Gallant is human. I had my doubts when I listened to his album Ology (the only body of work of his I have heard. He released an EP or something before these but I haven’t looked for it). I doubted he was human because he writes nearly exclusively in imagery and metaphor, and his trademark is a yellow sadface! I honestly started to fear that sadness and stone-facedness were his only emotions. (And yes, I will insist right now that the latter qualifies as an emotion. Don’t tell a lexivist what to do with words.) But in his interviews, I think I’ve seen him smile twice and laugh twice so I can sort of breathe now and let go of the fear that he’s going to kill himself any second.
I remember, many months ago, something or the other (I think it was Kanye West) triggered a social media rant from Andy Mineo, who made very valid points about the way the world, especially including Christians, don’t like to accept the spiritual status of someone who is searching, as “searching”. We like to limit ourselves to understandings of “Okay, they’re in. Or they’re out.” No in-between period. So what I love about Gallant’s Ology album is that the whole project feels like that in-between period, which so many people are scared to display, for fear of condemnation – presented marvelously in metaphor. And I love Gallant for it.
Ology means knowledge. Technically, science – and I choose to pronounce that as “shee-ence” as in omniscience and conscience. Ology seems to be an exploration of science – what “it” means. Where “it” is absolutely everything. I think it goes as far as the question of bare existence. And Gallant makes it clear that he and his mind are out of this world. A large percentage of Ology’s imagery is extra-terrestrial; that is, goes beyond earth, to the moon, other planets, the galaxy, the gods. The scope is as wide as he could help. And of course it only makes sense that in an exploration of science and meaning, spirituality will be a frequent stop – like a popular company that has gas stations planted every few kilometers.
My focus on what I assume to be his spiritual journey will focus on 3 songs that stood out to me. In chronological order as they appear on the album, they are: Bourbon (4), Bone + Tissue (5), and Chandra (15).
Imagine how shocked I was to find out Bourbon was an alcohol, as opposed to the supposedly innocent chocolate biscuits I know from Ghana. =(
Bourbon sounds to me like it’s by a speaker who struggles with his attachment to atheism/agnosticism/rejection of the faith. (Side note: if you try to cross-check my analyses using Genius.com, you will probably find that they correspond…because I annotated this song. And a little bit of Bone + Tissue. And I think all that’s on Chandra so far is mine as well.) It’s like an addiction to unbelief. And for addiction, he uses bourbon, a metaphor for the metaphor of alcoholism; addiction in all its glorious absurdity. “Bourbon in my coffee cup”? As in, you have alcohol for breakfast? Or perhaps, does it also double as a vessel that contains something it shouldn’t? But let’s backtrack to the beginning.
“I’m a headless horseman
On quilted sand dunes
With my neck wide open
I pray for refuge”
Aside the tone of vulnerability, I see a slight allusion to the horsemen of the apocalypse. Aside that also, there is an imagery paradox. “Sand dunes” are symbols of isolation in a desert; but they are lyrically painted here with beauty, so much as to be “quilted”. There’s a consistent attempt to paint something ordinarily bad as attractive.
The pre-chorus for me put things into perspective:
“Cause since I’ve been found, I’ve been living a life in cages
Withering down to the champagne quicksand
Wrestling doubt I’ve been dragging around for ages
I tried to let it drain, but my veins are hopeless”
I think this speaks to his relationship with a faith, and I assume without basis that it is Christianity. I associate being “found” to symbolically speak of his integration into a/the church. So why does it feel like a cage to him? Are there too many religious restrictions he can’t handle? Is he so uncomfortable that he feels like a spectacle? Like an animal behind bars? Again, the paradox of an enjoyable danger in “champagne quicksand”. Curiously, even his integration into faith couldn’t cure him of his doubt. Maybe it’s because he feels pretentious that he feels like he’s been caged.
The 2 lines in the chorus that get to me are:
“Angels say trust the detox
But I’m shaking, I need it like bourbon in my coffee cup”
Whichever “angels” he has encountered keep trying to detoxify him of perhaps his agnosticism – but he can’t let go. He’s like an alcoholic; an addict experiencing withdrawal symptoms. Why is there bourbon, rather than coffee in his coffee cup?
The album takes us from one wrestle directly to another. Bone + Tissue comes right after this, and I personally feel like the lyrics are so wishy-washy that it’s nearly impossible to understand exactly what he’s saying. But I’m fine with the idea of finding more questions in other people’s art than answers.
All the verses scream entirely of dissatisfaction. I actually recognize Gallant’s writing pattern from listening and turning over in my mind so much. He has a formula where both verses and sometimes bridge say the same thing with different imagery.
He wants “more than God in a courtroom”; is the concept of God as a judge of man not acceptable for some reason? And what’s up with all the pain and destruction imagery? “broken glass in my house shoes”; “rocks in a windshield”; “kerosene in a minefield” etc. Is faith painful? I don’t know what it was about it that essentially sets him off.
And as for the people who are apparently giving him all these things, and making him experience all this pain, they seem to be doing pretty illogical, self-deluding things to themselves as well, like “spending all your days making days feel shorter” – a comment on the belief in eternity, perhaps? – and “taking your time making time feel better” – which sounds like a similar thing but maybe this alludes more to the idea of convincing ourselves there is a purpose to the life/time we spend on earth, an opinion that Gallant in this song doesn’t seem to share.
But then it all goes back to apparent feelings of (Gallant’s) worthlessness and obvious skepticism. The entire chorus sounds like sarcastic snark with an undertone of desperation.
“Sell me something I can use to catapult my value
Treat me like the cardinal anointed in my vessels
And anytime I bite the hand that feeds
Won’t you lie through your teeth and
Tell me I’m a monument to more than bone and tissue”
I can’t understand how anyone would readily believe that their soul and spirit are lies, that there is nothing more to them than the physical. But maybe this is a way for Gallant to present our fallible humanness in a raw but exaggerated form. And again, the sarcastic emphasis on humanity and our flaws, somehow trying to prove we are also (connected to) divine beings.
“If I falter on my oaths, will it prove I’m more than skin and bone?”
I don’t think so. =(
But then, the possibility…maybe it isn’t to be entirely ruled out. Chandra. Chandra is the “maybe” song. It’s the closes thing you’re going to get to an “I believe” on the album. It’s also the last song.
When he opens with “Are the chemicals controlled?”, I’m hearing two things. One is a question of depression; the kind which can be clinically defined as chemical imbalances in the brain. The second is a question of whether there is a force behind the physical world of natural science/phenomena. AKA – is there a transcendental being controlling all this?
The computer science imagery kind of stumped me for a while, really.
“Are they written in my native tongue
Open-ended cosmic code”
So, if the universe is programmed, does it run on an open-source software, whose code is accessible and comprehensible to us? For example, if the Designer/Programmer is God (tell me you didn’t just start singing either Panda or Tiimmy Turner and I won’t believe you), who made the cosmic universe, has he truly given us the “code” to this creation of His in the Bible?
When he says he has “felt vibrations across a burgundy sea”, I can’t imagine what the sea could be, other than his own blood. An instinctual feeling from within, from everywhere. To have “bent my head on a mission I couldn’t lead” seems like an acknowledgement of one’s lack of complete autocracy. I think it begs the question of who is leading, then, if not oneself.
Then comes a string of more mystical, hopeful, possibly begrudging “maybe”s.
“Maybe there’s a moon behind these lines
Habitable and chosen
Maybe there’s a home behind these eyes
Waiting until my logic falters and I’m losing hope
The part about hope appearing when the senses and one’s own logic fail, is probably my favorite thing about the whole album. It echoes of something transcendental, past all the qualities of mankind, past the limits of our knowledge, our “Ology”.
As inconclusive a journey as this is, I don’t think an album of “searching” could have ended any better. Christopher Gallant, I am waiting with bated breath for your next album. =)
This post is dedicated to Simeon Mark Cofie. It’s been like 10 months, but I’m sorry about the Rose Quartz.
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.”