Reader, I don’t know about you but I have drunk the Kool-Aid so many times without realising I was sipping on snake-oil. There is a toxic mirage at the heart of modern capitalism wherein toil is presented as triumph; whereby every marginally amusing pastime has to be immediately streamlined into a side-hustle. Do you enjoy crocheting badly-made beanies for your own enjoyment? Well, did you know you could create a whole line of badly-made beanies© and sell them on Etsy, eBay or your very own e-commerce site? Did you know that you could contribute to the global economy with your badly-made beanie enterprise? All you have to do is take your boring little hobby and blow it up into an emotionally, spiritually and financially hobbling endeavour that reduces you to a broken-down mess staring directly at a midlife-crisis.
You will then find yourself turning to God AKA the internet for solutions to your metaphysical rot. You will read listicles about how patchouli oil is a miracle cure for every mental and physical ailment mismanaged by ‘Big Pharma’. You will read thinkpiece after thinkpiece by people who can’t string a simple sentence together giving you tips on how to become a fuller human being (‘Don’t Know How to Flush the Toilet? Here Are Twelve Simple Steps to A Healthier, More Joyful Bathroom Experience — Tip Ten Shocked Us Too!’).
I was spending over twelve hours a day on the internet, alternately working and doomscrolling on social media, which would send me into a spiral of undiluted desperation. If this new technology was the future — and the primary source of income for me and my partner, Kayd — why was it making us so conflicted and self-doubtful? Were we coding the whole exercise with more complexity than it called for? Were we manufacturing our despair and then projecting it outwards until we sounded like a pair of deeply embittered old codgers?
‘You’re not imagining it,’ said Doctor Bilan Altman, my Hooyo’s homegirl and my therapist, which sounds like it might be a conflict of interests, but wasn’t. ‘You’re being gaslit into thinking that you’re a broken-down mess by a system that’s not fit for purpose.’
‘What does that mean?’ This was in the runup to Christmas. Because of London’s draconian lockdown measures, Doctor Altman and I were no longer meeting in her Islington office but, like everyone, via Zoom. She was sitting in her spacious living-room, stroking her Persian cat, Bessie Smith, who was lying on her lap, looking sulky.
‘The thing about depression and anxiety is that they’re anchored in your own, very real experiences of the world,’ she said. ‘A lot of times, particularly in cultures like ours, there is the explicit misperception that poor mental health is a signifier of overindulgence. I’m sure you’ve heard of the myth that Africans don’t become mentally ill because it simply isn’t part of our collective cultural vocabulary. What you’re describing to me is an extension of that school of thought. You will be told by many a well-intentioned Tom, Dick and Dahabo that your condition is a symptom of some deep interior lack: a disintegration of your identity. Reject this doublethink.’
‘How?’ I said.
‘Think about it this way,’ said Doctor Altman, ‘If you spend twelve hours a day processing information, you’ll be shattered by the end of that shift. How could you not be? And when you become exhausted to the point of burnout, your circadian rhythm is completely disrupted, your appetite becomes depleted or cavernous depending on your disposition, your sex life starts to suffer, as does your sense of self. That’s when depression and anxiety take root. The reason why you’re being gaslit by hustle-culture is you’re being told that all these very real, oftentimes negative and even traumatic struggles are actually beneficial to your wellbeing, that you have to ‘level up’ or ‘catch a massive L’. You’re being sold a phoney philosophy that working yourself to the bone, often for peanuts or literally nothing, even getting in debt, is the end goal as opposed to a potential means to said end goal.’
‘So what’s the solution?’ I said. ‘Embrace Luddism?’
‘No,’ said Doctor Altman. ‘Simply treat the technology the way you would any other drug. For example, if you have a mild headache, a tiny dose of paracetamol should do the trick. That paracetamol, which is so useful in targeted increments, can turn deadly if you binge on it. The same is true of anything with beneficial properties: eat too much food and you become sick; sleep too much and you become lethargic; exercise too much and you risk serious injury; fuck around too much and you might catch an STI. The list is endless. The internet, and the way you use it for work and pleasure, is no different.’
‘You’ve given me context for my cognitive dissonance, but is there a step-by-step solution to fix the problem?’ I asked.
‘All the obvious stuff,’ said Doctor Altman. ‘Give yourself a break. Go outside for long walks. Make space in your life for silence. Log off when you’re not working. Discipline is a muscle: exercise it. At first it’ll feel foreign, be tiring in a brand-new way, but eventually you’ll have created a sustainable system. The trick is to be self-forgiving. I genuinely believe you can do this.’
After I finished the Zoom call with Doctor Altman, Kayd and I put on our face masks and went for a stroll around Peckham, talking about what the future had in store for us.
‘I like making things,’ I said, as we walked down the deserted high street. ‘I like creating beautiful writing and lively queer spaces. So do you. But it feels like the last couple of months have produced a profound crisis of confidence. I think Doctor Altman is right: we’ve been bamboozled into thinking that these technological advances are the only way to survive as creative people.’
‘Maybe we’re both looking at it from a wonky angle,’ said Kayd.
‘How’d you figure?’
‘Maybe we should just see the technology as a shop window that gets our creative ideas out into the world,’ he said. ‘Then the issue no longer becomes an issue. We stop using our screens as a source of displacement activity and use them purely as a work tool.’
‘You’re right, but it’s a real shame, though. The internet used to be this super-fun, subversive joint. Now it’s just a joyless shopping mall where we are both the consumer and the product.’
‘This pandemic has forced us all to assume the stress-positions of prisoners,’ said Kayd, ‘but I still have a lot of hope. If anything, these last couple of years have fortified my faith in the goodness of human beings. It’s reminded me that we need each other in the most primal, humbling way. Sure, we have had to endure Brexit, bad governance and the global resurgence of neofascism, but my heart remains tender despite our collective trauma.’
‘I would love to get to that point,’ I said, taking his hand.
‘When you’ve been on the planet for as long as I have, you’re repeatedly reminded of the fact that peace is a process, and a promise. And I promise to nurture you.’
We walked down to Old Kent Road in silence. Folks were still lining up outside Tesco to buy last minute presents, turkeys and Tanqueray. I pulled down my mask and urged Kayd to do the same. I kissed him in the cold and we embraced as if it was our last moment together.
‘I promise to love and protect you, habibi,’ I said, ‘Gracias for allowing me to safeguard your heart.’
‘I have never felt more secure.’
Reader, where are you going? Come join Kayd and me as we schlep over to my parents’ house, which is just a few blocks down from our apartment building. I come from a Muslim family so we don’t celebrate Christmas, but we still like to kick it together on the holidays: binge-eat, get baked and boozed-up. You ready? Let’s rock and roll.
When we arrived, Habo Fahma, my mother’s wife, was burning frankincense in the living room, my Aabo was buried neck-deep in a book, and Ari Lennox’s Shea Butter Baby LP was spinning on the record player.
‘Whatchu reading?’ I asked.
‘Patti Smith’s memoir,’ said Aabo.
‘Which one, Just Kids?’
‘Yeah, have you read it? It’s awesome.’
‘More like a cautionary tale,’ said Kayd.
‘I thought it was super-soulful,’ I said. ‘I read it in my teens and I remember crying all the way through.’
‘It’s a life lived, ain’t it?’ said Habo Fahma. ‘For me, the book is a celebration of love in all its knottiest forms: love of literature and art, romantic love and, finally, the memorialisation of a soulmate. We’re all very lucky to have found our respective twin flames in this family.’
‘Habo, when did you know you were genderqueer?’ I asked.
‘I think we all know our sexual and gender identities from an early age, but cultural conservativism, which comes with a heady dose of distrust and heartlessness, forces us to bury our truths as queer children. Bullies will try to beat the beauty out of you. I wanted to be a teacher when I was young. I was a practical pickney. But the educational system in the UK was not designed with the spiritual and scholarly development of black kids in mind. Most black youts have to morph into autodidacts and school themselves if they want to become well-rounded adults. It’s difficult to do this deep self-learning and psychic restoration when every odd is stacked against you. The teaching I do now is anchored in the natural world. On the surface I’m just a gardener, but I try to teach each of my clients how to nurture the earth: how to feed it, water it, be gentle with it. Mine has been an existence dedicated to the land. What a sweet song this life is,’ she added languidly. ‘What a pleasure and a privilege.’
‘Are you high?’ I asked.
Habo Fahma smiled, mischievously. ‘I’ve made a special vegan cake. You should try some.’
‘I’ll have a slice,’ said Kayd, brightly.
‘We should all enjoy it together after dinner,’ said Aabo, closing his book. ‘Maybe catch the new Pixar movie, too.’
‘Colour me excited,’ said Kayd.
‘Let me go say hi to Hooyo and Adeer Anatoly,’ I said, leaving Kayd with Aabo and Habo Fahma, and heading down the hallway to the kitchen. As soon as I opened the door I was greeted by a gust of steam, spices and sensi. Adeer Anatoly was tinkering with the pots on the stove and Hooyo was making salad. They clapped eyes on me and each gave me a hug.
‘We’re getting suitably buzzed up this Crimbo,’ said Hooyo, handing me a tumbler of scotch. ‘Bottoms up.’
‘Actually, I’m laying off the booze,’ I said.
They both gasped dramatically.
‘Put away your pearls,’ I said, ‘I’ll have a drink with you. But only one, y’hear?’
‘Talk to us when the night is over,’ chuckled Adeer Anatoly. ‘You’re going to be crawling your way home.’
I knocked back the scotch and said, ‘How’re you both holding up with this lockdown?’
‘Like everyone else, we’re alternating between counting our blessings and climbing the walls,’ said Hooyo.
‘And how’s it going with Kayd?’ asked Adeer Anatoly, stirring a pot of stew.
‘I don’t want to jinx it by blabbing on about it,’ I smiled.
‘Man is getting proper dicknotized,’ cackled Hooyo, fist-bumping Adeer Anatoly.
‘You certainly look it,’ teased Adeer Anatoly, giving me the once over. ‘Kayd is a good-looking guy.’
‘Okay, enough about my sex life,’ I said. ‘Just know that I’m happy.’
‘What’d I tell you?’ said Hooyo, nudging Adeer Anatoly. ‘Proper bussdowns blatantly. There’s no way my son would have stuck around if the sex wasn’t worth squat.’
‘It’s about more than that,’ I grumbled.
‘We’re just joshing, Migil,’ said Adeer Anatoly. ‘We know you’re on your love jones tip.’
‘This ain’t a nineties romcom,’ I said, forgetting my resolution and pouring myself another scotch. ‘You act like every boyfriend of mine is on a conveyor belt.’
Adeer Anatoly and Hooyo exchanged knowing looks.
‘I feel like I’m being attacked, so I’m going to exit this scene,’ I said, leaving the kitchen, glass in hand.
‘Dinner will be ready in two ticks,’ called Adeer Anatoly.
After we had pigged out on slow-cooked lamb stew and brisket with sweet potato fries, crunchy broccoli salad, spicy vegan Oaxacan bowls and my Hooyo’s extra-special rice (the secret was the xawaash that most Somali women used in their cooking, plus a dash of puréed dates), we all waddled into the living room. Habo Fahma brought out a lavishly sculptured chocolate cake and set it on the coffee table. Fins of latticed dark chocolate gave a misleading impression of delicacy.
‘It’s been made with love, no eggs and magic mushrooms,’ she said matter-of-factly, before cutting us each a hearty slice.
Kayd pulled me to him and whispered, ‘I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to get high with your parents.’
‘Don’t worry, Kayd’ said Habo Fahma, overhearing him. ‘I’ll bring you a slice of the mushroom-free edition.’
‘Mahadsanid,’ said Kayd, visibly relieved.
‘What’s the matter, Kayd?’ said my Aabo. ‘You don’t like mushrooms?’
‘I do, but I don’t want to act weird or self-conscious around you guys. Mushrooms make me a mess.’
My Aabo nodded.
‘Do you at least want a splash of brandy or rum?’ said Adeer Anatoly.
‘I always knew I liked you, Anatoly,’ smiled Kayd. ‘Brandy, please.’
Adeer Anatoly chuckled at this as he went over to the liquor cabinet, poured the drink for Kayd and handed it to him.
‘Right then,’ said Hooyo, switching on the telly. ‘Let’s see what this Soul movie is saying.’
‘I have a feeling I’m going to get very sad watching this,’ I said.
‘I gotchu,’ said Kayd, wrapping his arm around me. I felt sacred, protected.
As soon as the movie started playing, and as we munched on the mushroom-infused cake, I entered the most vivid dreamscape. Soundtracked by a saxophone solo that took off from the film’s soundtrack, I imagined myself walking the empty streets of London at night. It wasn’t apocalyptic like the past year had been. It was oddly restorative.
I walked all the way to the Thames and the water was no longer polluted. The once dirty river was now filled with holy zamzam water, and so I decided to undress and go for a midnight swim. The air on my bare skin was somehow exactly body temperature. I dived into the water, and even though the railings and stones glittered with frost, it was as warm as mother’s milk. I swam from bank to bank until my heart was exploding with joy, until I released my shadow self, until the moon was completely underwater.
I eventually came down from my high, sweaty with hope and excitement.
‘What are you thinking?’ asked Kayd, kissing me on my forehead, each cheek, my chin and, finally, my lips.
‘Everything must change,’ I said. ‘Everything must change.’
I’m delving into my spirit and unearthing diamonds glazed with grit. I have stopped trying to make these stones glint. Sixir and soulwork are more specific terms for such self-mining. Sixir and soulwork are a kiss from God and, as such, won’t submit to burnishing, to cutting. A kiss from God is a dirt-coated diamond buried inside the evening-red of the human animal.
A kiss from God is how we live and die in this spirit-trapped multiverse.
Image by DIRIYE OSMAN and JAROSLAV SCHOLTZ