Songs of Praise and Other Stories

Monday 12th October 2015

Hello Birthday Week, I have waited for you for a whole year and at last, here you are.

This week, on Saturday October 17th, I turn a year older. Let me take this early opportunity, friends and family, to welcome (and suggest, you’re welcome) all kinds of gifts – cards, pictures, memories, music, song dedications, quotes, jokes, puns, poetry, books, notebooks, paintings, shoes (can share my size, no problem), clothes (the size here varies from week to week 🙂 ) jewelry, hugs, cake, love, the works. While we are here, please let me also request that if you are really busy on that day and feel that you can only write HBD, kindly just wish me in your head, and wait until such a time when you will have more time and energy to be able to write out the full sentence- Happy Birthday, okay? Seriously, what is HBD? You get to bless someone once a year, once, and the best you can do is HBD? Really?

On a more serious note, last year at this time I was going to turn 30. This year I am also going to turn the same age, for the second time. In the weeks leading up to this week last year, I remember feeling like I wasn’t doing enough with my life. The feeling is still there and I guess it is a good thing because the day we feel that we have done enough is the day we stop living and start existing.

Last week I was in a meeting at work where we were preparing for a leadership program and one of the activities proposed was to ask people to write their own Eulogy. What would you want people to say about you at your funeral? This exercise, when it’s been done before, has really gotten people thinking, and has gotten them to change the way they look at and live their lives. I find that yes, it is a good exercise but it is not enough to inspire me to change my life. You see, I have attended enough funerals to know that when you die, people will almost always say nice things about you, unless you were really bad, in which case people will say ‘Good riddance!’, and even then, under their breaths, not publicly. Somehow, even the most cowardly person becomes a hero at death, and why not? Death has a way of making us remember people in clean bright light; we obliterate anything bad they had done from our memories, we place them on a pedestal, praise them, almost glorify them. It is natural and it is not a bad thing. So by all means, at my funeral, guys, go ahead and laud me; like everyone else, I want my funeral to be one where the starring character is referred to with fondness, admiration and great respect.

Anyway, how funny is it that we are discussing death when we really are talking birthdays here? The thing about that whole eulogy exercise is that I want to know what people would say about me now. I am not as interested in knowing what happens when I die because then I won’t have a chance to change anything, will I? I want now, to hear it said that ‘She is caring, she is loving, she is hardworking, she is foolish, she is annoying, she is inspirational, she brings sunshine to my life, she lifts my spirits, she helped me when I was down, she dances hard and sings heartily, she makes me laugh, she makes me cry, she cried with me, makes my life more meaningful…’ I want that now because then I have a chance to change the things that I am not doing right and to perfect the ones that I am doing right.

Last year, in a similar post leading up to my birthday, I made reference to the fact that Jesus began his ministry work at 30 and by 33 he was done, having performed a number of miracles including raising people from death. So one year has gone by since then, I only have two years left, to be as amazing as Jesus. Not sure if I can beat his record, but I am trying to live up to it. Minus the miracles part- which might be a little tricky. Only a little.

Last year, at this time, Poriot and I were managing a children’s home (what some people call an orphanage) and its attached primary school in Londiani, Kericho County. One October afternoon while Poriot was away at work, teachers from our school, came to visit the Home. They brought gifts and we sang, prayed and shared the word of God. When we got to speeches and sharing, a few teachers spoke, and then the headmaster stood to speak. In trying to motivate the kids to work hard, he asked them who or what they would like to be like when they grew up. Many of them mentioned that they would like to be a doctor like Poriot and also mentioned the names of their class teachers as well as the headmaster and his deputy. The headmaster kept saying, “Good! And who else? Who else is a role model to you?” I saw what he was trying to do- because I was seated right there. He was hoping that at least one of the kids would say that they’d like to be like Elishibah when they grow up. Listen, the kids did not say Elishibah. They did not. Not even one. Can we just pause for a moment to absorb that?

Do you know how I felt? Shall I tell you? Let me tell you. I felt discouraged, disillusioned, disfigured, dismembered, deflated… (Okay maybe not dismembered and disfigured but you get the point). I felt like I was nothing, like I was rubbish. In that moment, I smiled and closed the session graciously with a huge Thank you to the teachers for visiting us. I told the headmaster afterwards that I had seen what he had been trying to do and that I appreciated it. He said that he was sure they all wanted to be like me, but just hadn’t voiced it. I thanked him for his kindness but knew in my heart that the damage was already done. Suffice it to say, when I got back to our house and our room that afternoon, I cried really hard. I cried because all my life I had grown up being a role model. The first born. The prefect. The head-girl. The wonderful daughter. The great sister, cousin, neighbor. A well behaved child at home and in school. A leader. A star. And so on. I realized, on that day, that I had gotten drunk on praise and had come to expect it. Of course this all suggests that I may actually be not too shabby a person- let’s be kind here 🙂 But to be honest, I realized that I had come to assume I would always stand out as not only good but very good and exemplary.

It dawned me quite hard then, that these kids saw me in different light. Poriot tried to tell me, when I told him about the incident a few days later (I needed time to absorb first before sharing), that it was because the kids saw me as a Mum and not as a career person/option to grow up to be like. But you see, even if they saw me as a Mum, at the very least, they should have admired my Mothering skills. Surely even if I wasn’t working and was staying at home managing things and people, I wanted them to want to be a good home manager like me! I wanted them to see me as an example of good leadership, humility, excellence, discipline, hygiene, good character, felicity, anything! (What is felicity?) But kids can be quite honest. They didn’t sit and plan to not mention my name, so the fact that I did not appear anywhere on their mental radar as a role model meant that I was doing nothing! At least that’s what it felt like.

I was already feeling low for not being as amazing at running the Home as I had thought I would be, and there were many issues- financial and otherwise- that were going on at the time and that were really hampering our effectiveness as directors and parents at the Home. I felt that at 30, I really had failed because here I was, having resigned from my job and moved my whole life and family from Nairobi, and the very people that I had given up that for did not view me as a good Mum leave alone a Director and role model. I felt empty, hurt and confused.

But at the same time, I learned a big lesson. I realized that I had to keep being a good Mum whether or not it was acknowledged. I know that kids grow up and realize much later that they should have been grateful to their parents for this and that, I get that. But I grew up in constant and complete admiration of my mum and took every opportunity to tell her how much I loved her, respected her and admired. Much like I do with Poriot now as my partner in life, and my kids and everyone that I interact with. I find it easy to seek and see good in people and often take any opportunity, when I I love, respect and admire people, to let them know that I do. This had almost always been reciprocated, until this one afternoon. What was I to do in this situation where I felt like rubbish but yet had to step up to the plate? Was it because I was too strict, I wondered? Was I was not hands-on enough? Was I too demanding, over-bearing or too detached as a guardian? What was I not doing that I should have been doing? I had a million questions- and very few answers.

I came to see, later, that the kids and workers did respect me, just that it was expressed in very subtle ways. They did, to my relief, all sign my birthday card with very kind words- phew! But a birthday is one of those things like eulogies. I mean what mean thing are you really going to say to someone on their birthday card? Really? (Except HBD… 🙂 )

But that is not the point. A year on, there are still very many areas in which I feel that I am not succeeding- very many, more than I care to share here. But one thing I know is that I have grown to a point where I am able to do what I do without being worried whether someone praises me or not. I have come to realize that I cannot take my motivation from what people say or don’t say. Okay let me rephrase that. I have come to see that I can work on getting myself to a point where praise doesn’t make me or break me. It is a work in progress. At times you do really well and nobody appreciates you for it- it doesn’t take away from the fact that you have done something with all your heart.

Two weeks ago in one of the WhatsApp groups that I am in, this one is for family but ladies only, we were talking about character traits that make us who we are, and my cousin said that I love fiercely. Fiercely, she said, do you hear that? That is one of the best things I have heard said and I felt like if I wanted something written on my tombstone, this would come pretty close. What better way to sum up my life philosophy? ‘Here lies Shibs. She Loved Fiercely.’ The reason everything means so much to me, including things that really maybe shouldn’t, including that session with the teachers and our kids at the Home, including how people react or don’t react to this or that on a daily basis, is because I love so passionately and expect the same back, but unfortunately life does not work like that. Be that as it may, I believe we all serve a purpose in this world- some perhaps a more obscure one than others, but a purpose all the same.

As I turn a year older, I hope that some young people (and older ones too) do want to be like Shibs ‘when they grow up’. Not because I am so awesome, but because, if we look hard enough, we will find that we all have something that we could learn from each other. Something that we could offer each other and something that we could gain from each other. In light of that, I want to do amazing work, like Jesus did, for the next two years of my life, and then for many, many more, as many as I’ll be around. I want to give myself to life, to people and to God, without dwelling on praise or no praise. I want to live well for the now not just for my eulogy. And most of all, I want to continue to love. And I will. Fiercely.