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Christmas, and an Ode to midlife

By Obi Nwakanma
I am a Christmas child. No, I was not born on Christmas day – but an exact week to Christmas – on the 18th of December – that last week of active shopping and frenzied last minutes preparation for Christmas celebrants. So imagine Nigeria on the 18th of December, 1966. Two coups had taken place earlier that year – one in January and the other on July.

The mood in the country was recondite. Like many Igbo, my parents were living on the edge in every part of the Nigerian federation – theirs in Ibadan. I was born to that edgy moment, forty-five years ago. I think that being born at that edgy threshold of great events lent me my restlessness – and my importunate cry ever since for balance.

I am a child of the war that followed; was taken back to become a citizen of the new and hopeful Republic of Biafra, fed on ration milk, and was lucky to survive that war, because, one, as my mother insists, providence had given me educated parents who knew what to do in the most extreme of circumstance, and two, my maternal Grandfather was a Divisional Committee member of the local Catholic Relief Agency – and so had access to protein. My transition from city kid to village boy was none too smooth either.

My mother tells the story frequently of arriving to my ancestral village and into nightly drama. Every night, I would cry until the next morning. The next day, I’d become once again my sunshiny self.

It happened every night without fail, and for weeks, so much that my usually unflappable paternal grandmother would come early in the mornings to admonish this six-month’s old child with such wind in his lungs, often saying, “Why’re are you disturbing this poor child(my mother).

Is it such a curse to return to your home?!” My mother did not at first understand it all; she thought my discomfort was from the heat and from all the strangeness of relocation. It was apparently more, for one night, unable to stand this anymore – this nightly cries and torture of my mother – the matriarchs of the family came as one one night with one of my father’s uncles, took three pence from my mother, and took me from her hands, and went off into the night.

They returned with me at first light the next morning. It was the end, my mother said, of my nocturnal cries. I had become rooted – returned to the land. Perhaps I draw from that, a sense of my own romance with that land – which is why Olu Oguibe’s poem, “I’m bound to this land by blood” from his A Gathering Fear speaks to me in a special and intimate way, always.

And here I am today, a sort of exile, uprooted from that land, and at the height of my instincts, unable to measure in concrete terms the real work or significance of my generation and the age in which I’d been born. Last weekend on December 18, I turned forty-five.

I was ambivalent about celebrations. But Mira – my wife –invited some friends, and laid out a fine banquet on a menu of wild salmon, beef stew, plantains, curried rice, her special, to-kill-for sweet potato soufflé and spring lettuce and pomegranate salad with nuts and goat cheese, and Rum cake – and of course, fine cognac and claret.

We ended up after dinner playing the guitar and the piano in the living room, and singing the moon to sleep. I was grateful to Mira, my friends and my visiting mother for a thoughtful birthday party. Nevertheless, I’d spent much of the day ruminating on transitions; the passage of time as I have known it.

I have always been terrified of an inessential life; of meaninglessness to this striving, and of the gaunt emptin
ess of familiar things and places in the full cycle of life.

This year, perhaps because of my sense of mid-life, or as I arrive to it, leaves me with a strange longing for something indeterminate; call it lost grounds or innocence; perhaps it is the illusory life which absences make more acute and vivid – the permanent and irrevocable goodbyes of death.

This year’s loss of two aunts almost as in a relay, including my favorite aunt; the untimely death of a dear friend, one who was once a nanny; real people that I have known – of course Ojukwu – that iconic semaphore of our life and times. There are of course the births – new nephews and cousins – and that is what birthdays are: a memorial to the goings and comings which the poet says goes on forever.

And of course, it is also Christmas today: the birthday of the Christian messiah. It is my favorite time of the year. To the faithful, it marks the great redemptive promise of the renewal of the world symbolized in the birth of their savior. I am not a man of faith. I am in fact, agnostic.

I’m not ambitious for heaven. If God is as described in the books, he’s too monstrous and I’m not too eager to see that face.On the scale of the beatitude, the promise on the mounts, I shall probably be among those, who shall inherit the earth, or whatever is left of it by greedy capitalists who are intent on sucking it dry.

As it should be clear, I’m not a card-carrying faithful.But I accept the principles, and I practice the teachings of the Nazarene teacher from Galilee as a secular mandate.And so it is Christmas.

Today, after rummaging under the Christmas tree to see if Santa came with any gifts, I shall join my fiercely catholic mother at mass at the St. Charles Borromeo church to fulfill her seasonal wish. But to be certain, that would not be Christmas.

Christmas to me are the things that have passed: the last forty-five years. Christmas is waking up on the Harmattan morning in my village; feeling the dry harmattan wind on my skin, in the branches, and in the air.

It is the fierce bacchanalia of the festivities; the arrivants from across the globe, the in-gathering of folk, the going and coming, from town to town, market day to market day, the masquerades, the camaraderie – something that the now late Christopher Hitchens might call a “sodality” –the entire seven days of it.

Christmas is that twilight we spend with love and the promise of a new year. It is jingle bell. It is people. It is our finest memories held close to heart. It is hope in spite of loss. It is merriment. I wish you, my readers, a merry Christmas.


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