Unfold

“I want to unfold.
Let no place in me hold itself closed,
for where I am closed, I am false.”—Rilke

As an adult, there are certain memories from my childhood that I can remember more clearly and readily than others. These are mostly pivotal moments which have influenced the trajectory of my life and shaped the development of my character, behaviour and personality.

One of my earliest memories is of me sitting at the top of a slide at a playground while singing made-up songs to the sun and the trees and the flowers and the birds. I am six years old and I love to sing outside. It’s at this point that a group of older children approach and start mocking me. I don’t understand what I’ve done wrong, but I quickly learn that something I’m doing is not normal.

“What are you singing about?” “Why are you all alone?” “You’re a weirdo.”

I turn away from them and then run and hide.

The soft blanket that I wrap around myself for comfort hardens to become an impenetrable shield. My simple and honest expressiveness is replaced with something false yet tough and sophisticated. I no longer sing. I am closed.

There are places within me that remain shut.

I want to unfold. To be true. To sing again.

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Totems

When I lived in Zimbabwe, people often asked me about my mutupo. In Shona culture, a mutupo, or totem, is an important symbol of identity within clans and communities. Each person is given the same totem as their father, which could be an animal such as the lion (shumba), elephant (nzou), zebra (mbizi) or monkey (soko), or even a body part such as the leg (gumbo) or heart (moyo). Early on I was adopted as a shumba, while my wife, Rochelle, became a soko murehwa. Yes, this means I married a monkey.

It is forbidden to eat of your totem, so a mhofu cannot eat of an eland, a ngwena of a crocodile, nor a bpepe of a lung. More importantly, you cannot marry within your own totem, which helps prevent intermarriage within tribal groups.

In Zimbabwe, it’s highly respectful and formal to address people by their totem. Once people knew that I was a shumba, this became the primary name used to address me. Rochelle, in turn, was referred to as Amai Shumba, or Mrs Lion.

My totem connected me with other shumba across the country. As I travelled around Zimbabwe, I met hundreds of new fathers and brothers who were my extended family. In addition, it felt as though I met thousands of fathers-in-law and mothers-in-law who I was connected to through my wife’s totem of soko murehwa. Why so many more in-laws? Well, if you had to get down on the ground and clap your hands for every ambuya (mother-in-law) who called you her mukwasha (son-in-law), you’d also think the numbers were significantly higher. Rochelle used to share an office with a woman who was also married to a tsoko, which made her one of my many ambuya. Every time I entered their office without knocking first I was reminded that I owed my ambuya a fine. There are so many rules for mukwasha to follow. Let’s just say that I still owe a lot of chickens for my many infractions. And let’s not discuss the many conversations about lebola (bride price or dowry).

There is something beautiful about the way in which totems connect people in Zimbabwe. The totems are also accompanied by praise names, such as shumba nyamuzihwa, and praise poems and songs, which help people to understand their history and origins.

However, there is also something troubling about how this can negatively impact abandoned babies who grow up without a familial totem and praise name. In a culture which generously encourages families to look after all of its members (even extended family), it is sadly not expected, and sometimes even superstitiously avoided, to look after those who do not belong to your family or who have no known connection to their ancestors. This lack of a totem can also impact a person’s ability to marry or to be buried appropriately. In a country with such a low life expectancy, and with so many orphans and vulnerable children, this is a concern that can’t be ignored, particularly when it puts marginalized people at even more risk of isolation.

But when I think to my first culture here in Canada, with our western notion of closed and small family groupings, I still prefer the wider sense of community and familiarity found in Shona culture. I miss travelling through Zimbabwe to new communities with the expectation that I will be closely connected with others living there, despite knowing that I will likely need to get down on my knees and clap for my countless ambuya.

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One Box

Last week I packed up all of my personal belongings from my office and brought them home. After five years of working in the same large office space, I’d filled up the shelves with books, placed artwork on the walls, and arranged photo frames and trinkets on the desks (for some reason I have two desks and a meeting table, probably just to fill up the ridiculous amount of floor space). It felt so liberating to remove everything personal from my workplace.

When I first moved into this office I was embarrassed by its size; I often say to people that it’s larger than the first apartment I lived in when I got married. Now that I’ve removed the personal items I’d accumulated over the years, the office feels even larger, but it’s also become sterile and barren. This week I plan to replace the personal artwork with material from our recent advertising campaigns, so that should restore some vibrancy to the walls, but the art will now reflect the organization’s branding and not me personally. I think that’s a positive step for both me and my employer. I want to avoid any sense of entitlement or complacency at work. My office is not my home nor do I have any ownership over it. While I do want to feel valued and respected, I don’t want to be taken for granted—and I shouldn’t take the organization for granted either.

Today at home, I gathered a few books and put them in a small brown box along with a photo frame of my family and a personal item for my desk. These I will permit myself to bring back to the office. The personal item is a blown glass orca whale given to me by my mother after I completed my graduate studies and we travelled to Vancouver Island together for my convocation weekend. The orca reminds me of many things: the unfailing love of my parents; walking on Long Beach in Pacific Rim National Park where my brother’s ashes were scattered; and the accomplishment of receiving my master’s degree (the glass orca is much more beautiful to look at than a framed degree mounted on a wall). I’ve decided never to accumulate more personal items at work than I can quickly fit into one small box, which I plan to keep beneath my desk as a reminder.

I suppose if I was more courageous, I’d delete the previous two paragraphs and share the real reason why I packed up all of my personal belongings last week. Either way, I do feel more free.

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A Thief of Fire

“Every form of love, of suffering, of madness; he searches himself, he consumes all the poisons in him, keeping only their quintessences.”—Rimbaud

In his letter to Paul Demeny in 1871, Arthur Rimbaud wrote that the first step for a would-be poet is to study himself entirely. He must look for his soul, inspect it, learn it. And then, as soon as he knows his soul, he must cultivate it. Rimbaud goes on to depict a poet as truly being a thief of fire, and charges that humanity is his responsibility.

Sometimes I wonder if I wholly know myself. At times it seems as though there is no fire within left to cultivate. Sodden with polluted news and contaminated social media, I must now wade through all the muck inside myself in order to navigate through the mess outside. I want to create again, to be passionate, to explore anew the wonder and strangeness that is all around and inside me.

I will reclaim my humanity by seeking to understand myself and the world around me.

Today I started writing in a red wirebound notebook. I visited the memory of a young boy sitting in the elbow of a tree as he watches a man by the river throw a canvas bag into the water. I have decided to write at least a page each day in my notebook over the next year. This notebook will be used primarily for creative writing and poetry.

Today I also created this blog. Although blogging now seems obsolete in this age of social media, I plan to write and publish a post every day for the next year as well. I’m sure I’ll regret this decision within the month, but I’m committed to seeing this process through. My hope is that this daily discipline will help me to focus more intently, think more deeply, and ultimately know myself better.

There is thievery ahead.

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