dry-bush-jan2017

Today, Jan 6, is the Feast of Epiphany.

In our household growing up, it marked the day when my mother thought it time to take down the Christmas decorations. It felt like an appropriate day. Christmas, after all, had occurred almost two weeks before. It had long come and gone, or so it seemed. Besides, the initial excitement of putting up the tree was beginning to feel old.  We’d read through all the cards two or three times and were ready to toss them into the recycling bin. It wasn’t until years later when I thought to ask Mum why we shut down Christmas on the 6th that she explained that’s when the Magi were supposed to have reached Bethlehem.

As I was re-reading that familiar story this morning, I was struck by the image of these wise men journeying from distant lands, mapping their movements to a place they weren’t sure of, by following a star. I was struck by the fact that they had been on the lookout for that star; otherwise they might not have seen it. In fact, if they hadn’t been on alert, the star would have appeared and they would have missed it. That would have ultimately meant they would have missed the defining event of history up to that time. They would have not seen Jesus, and Mary and Joseph. They would have forfeited the joy and worship this experience brought them. They would have not had the opportunity to travel home by a different route, guided this time by wisdom given through a dream. Their lives would not have been transformed as surely they must’ve been.

As this new year begins, I’m contemplating what the stars in my life might be and where they are to be found. Am I on alert? Am I looking for them? Am I looking in the “right” places? Am I willing to wait until they are revealed? Am I anticipating finding them? And am I ready to act once I recognize them? Am I ready to leave what feels safe and known to take risks to unfamiliar places in the hopes of being changed?

The story of the Magi suggests that signs and wonders do appear, but in the least likely of and places, and probably in ways we don’t expect.

An epiphany (or two) awaits.

I pray I’ll recognize the signs, in amongst the ordinary, and have the courage to venture into the unknown –with joy and expectation.

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So I arrived in London 3 weeks ago now and though I’ve been here many times before, it’s been over 25 years since I spent 21 or more days here in a row. You encounter a place very differently when you live there than if you are here on a short visit. You are more on alert, paying keener attention to street names, bus routes and train stations, where the doctor’s & dental practices are, the different ways you can top-up your travel card, what events the local library is hosting, who the families are that live along your street beyond the neighbors down below and on either side, what day the rubbish gets picked up, how late the corner shop stays open, the list could go on and on. Yes, the ordinary aspects of every day life — many not germane to someone on holiday — become very relevant to a new resident.

When I lived in New York, I frequently heard that it was the “greatest” city in the world. I’m not going to take that on here, but from my observation alone, London seems far more multicultural than my experience of NYC. Though there isn’t a significant Latino presence here, I’ve been struck by the wide variety of southeast Asians, many different kinds of both Western and Eastern Europeans, and a greater variety of Caribbeans & Africans. The Nigerian presence is very high, from hearing Yoruba (one of the 3 main languages) spoken at the airport, to meeting a young Buddhist Londoner at church. When she heard I was part Nigerian, she didn’t hesitate in trying to guess which tribe I was from! In all my years in New York City, many Americans barely knew where Nigeria was located– even some close friends had trouble locating it on a map of Africa — and hardly any could name it’s 3 largest ethnic groups. The reach of the British Empire accounts for much of London’s heterogeneity but so does the UK’s proximity to the refugee crisis that has gripped the middle east but spills across Africa and western Europe. As both mainstream political parties consolidate their leadership here, there is much talk of how to curb immigration which is not unrelated to concerns about what it means to welcome ” the other.”

Living in a new country is exposing my heart in new ways too: It’s surfacing grief at leaving the life I had come to love — especially the many rich and varied friendships — along with generating deep gratitude for what that was. And there’s some sadness lurking because I didn’t fully appreciate that community while I was a part of it.

The experience of being new here is also extremely humbling:

  1. There is far more that I don’t know about how things work than I’m used to and that’s not a very comfortable place for me. I, like most of us, feel more myself when things are familiar.
  2. I know few people and have fewer friends (2 @ this point!) –though am v grateful for those precious few and the wonderful network of people they’ve brought me into contact with already.
  3. I don’t have a job. And I’m not sure what that will be or look like here. Or when it will materialize but I’m OK with that so far.                                                                                                                                                                                  In being humbled, I find myself having greater compassion: for those who are lonely and without any family or friends; for those without a job, unable to work, or those who’ve been looking without success for what feels like a long time; for those uprooted from their homeland due to war or famine or some other crisis and forced to navigate a new culture in a country that has welcomed them with reluctance.

My current situation requires patience and perseverance but it’s stretching me in ways that are healthy and good, and for that I give thanks. It also gives me a small sense of what I share with the millions of displaced people across the globe and helps me to see many glimpses of just how fortunate I am.

 

 

For someone with a Nigerian father, I have an unusual surname. Not only is my family name unAfrican and all together British but it’s also hyphenated. Hyhenated names, somewhat unusual in the U.S., are usually thought to be formed from the surnames of both parents. From time to time, people who know my background ask about my surname: ‘Brown-Peterside’. Perhaps because my mother is from Northern Ireland, they assume that ‘Brown’ is her maiden name and that ‘Peterside’ is from my father’s side of the family. That part is true, but our surname is a bit more interesting than that.

‘Brown’ is my grandfather’s first name. The tradition is that men on my father’s side of the family take their father’s first names and add them to ‘Peterside’ (the family name) to create a new surname with each generation. My father’s first name was ‘Gally’, short for ‘Galbraith’, so technically my brothers should be: ___ ‘Gally Peterside.’ However, they are not ___ ‘Gally Petersides,’ they are ‘Brown-Petersides.’ The reason  for this is that my father — as a tribute to his father, (Brown), who mortgaged his modest home to be able to afford to send Papa to the best secondary school in Nigeria in the early 1950s (King’s College), — added a hyphen and legalized ‘Brown-Peterside.’ So, we have become a new branch of the Peterside family.

Every Peterside — by birth or by marriage — can trace their ancestry to a compound on a small island in the Delta region of Nigeria, called Opobo Town. For most of my childhood, my grandfather, Brown Shoo Peterside, was the Chief of Peterside compound. He died in 1978 and was succeed by Dr. Peterside, a London-trained physician and the first in the family.  A few weeks ago, Dr. Peterside passed away at the age of 97. This weekend in Opobo, he is being buried in a 10 day ceremony with all the requisite traditions including a regatta of boats that will bring the casket from the mainland to the island with much pomp and circumstance. (Unfortunately, I was not able to go to bear witness to these events.) At some point soon, following Dr. Peterside’s burial, the family elders will select another chief for life.

You may be wondering what the origin of the name ‘Peterside’ is. It’s quite unique I believe in that it’s not Peterson or Petersen which are quite common. Our ancestral home, Opobo, is in the south of Nigeria on the Atlantic coast. When the British, our former colonizers, entered Nigeria this way, many generations back a number of families in this area — not just ours — adopted British-sounding names. It is believed that our original name was Biriye but no one seems to recall how or when the switch to ‘Peterside’ actually occurred.

So there you have it: a British family name long adapted from a Nigerian one and a lasting tribute to a (grand) father who made costly sacrifices.

Below is a statue of my great great grandfather (Sunju Sima Peterside) atop his grave. This monument sits in front of the home where my grandfather (Brown Shoo Peterside) is buried, in the living room.

sunju peterside statue opobo