The day I borrowed my neighbor’s wife
I have a neighbor who constantly needs to be warned before throwing Udoka’s ball back into our garden. It’s not just a prompt; wife wants a thank you every time she does. And that could be many times in a single weekend. I don’t really blame her. The white picket fence separating our yard from his isn’t high enough for Udoka’s basketball to stop flying every time he plays outside.
For a long time, this woman’s inclinations troubled me. I am a calm and calm person, but somehow I feel irritated. In “Quiet Night Thought,” Li Bai wrote, “We sit together, the mountain and I, until only the mountain remains. I didn’t want it to be my faith. Whenever I thought about what to do, I heard Jalal al-Dim Rumi say in Masnavi-ye Ma’navi (Spiritual Verses): “Raise your words, not your voice. It’s rain that makes flowers grow, not thunder.
Over the years, I’ve done well with the neighbors, but not with this woman. Pablo Neruda wrote: “to feel the love of the people we love is a fire that fuels our life”. The opposite is a nightmare that darkens our dreams. Once in this situation, the only thing to do is an inversion. And that’s what I faced. I was on the precipice of people TS Eliot called “The Hollow Men”. With this woman, I faced the shadow.
“Between the idea
And the reality
Between the movement
And the act
The shadow falls…
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the answer
The shadow falls…
And the spasm
between the power
Between the essential
And the descent
This is the story of the day I borrowed my neighbor’s wife.
I have so many touching stories like this. I don’t tell them because you are too critical. You won’t even wait for the end of the story to form your opinion, your judgment and your condemnation. You mistreat people you don’t know, or even if you know them, you don’t know their true living conditions and how those conditions caused those people to make uncommon decisions.
I tried to find out, but I couldn’t figure out where you got this habit from. I guess it’s the fault of those foreign religions you embraced. I don’t think our ancestors had this absolute image of good or evil. Think about it very well. Deep within the philosophy of life that saw our ancestors thrive for generations, we realized that things are not just black and white. They recognized the gray areas. Achebe writes in Arrow of God that “a man can worship Ogwugwu to perfection and yet be killed by Udo.” These gray areas are where most of the actions that move the world happen. The African world stalled when we started playing in the white or black arena.
So I have these neighbors. They are white. I don’t see the husband very often, I guess he has two jobs or travels a lot. But I see the woman. What? I can see what you did with your head. You shook it just to say you weren’t surprised. That’s always the problem. You were already profiling and stereotyping my neighbor’s wife. You haven’t learned anything from Chinua Achebe, who noted that “stereotypes are not necessarily malicious. They can be well-meaning and even friendly. But in any case, they show negligence or laziness or indifference of attitude which implies that the object of your categorization is not worth individual evaluation.
Just because my neighbors are white doesn’t mean they couldn’t be black. And that the story I’m trying to tell you involves borrowing my neighbor’s wife doesn’t instantly mean they have to be white. There are black men who let you borrow their wives. It wasn’t like I had borrowed her for a week or two. It was just for one day.
As full disclosure, I have a problem. This is a problem that has haunted me for a very long time. I couldn’t define it. I tried talking to several therapists, but they couldn’t quite put their finger on what it was. I sit on their sofas and they gossip and chat about the Oedipus complex, interference, unconscious bias, lack of emotional intelligence, Henry Harlow’s avoidant attachment theory and the counter- transfer. None of this was of any help to me. One even suggested that my problem was that my mother didn’t hug me enough when I was a kid.
I followed their 12 steps and tried all of the recommended coping mechanisms, but nothing worked. The other day, a $30 an hour therapist told me my IQ was low. This is the day I stopped therapy. I concluded that there are two types of therapists, those with cognitive dissonance and those with narcissistic personality disorder.
From the therapist’s office, I went to a nearby library. I questioned myself for a long time. I found myself in the poetry section, where I leafed through poetry books. I’ve always known that poets are the closest to mad people you can find in any society. I once noted in an unpublished novel that “a poet who looks back becomes a madman while a madman who looks forward becomes a poet”. Sasha declined to tweet it because she said it wasn’t directed at female poets and their relationship with crazy women. Of course, I didn’t have time for Sasha’s didactic feminist post-traumatic stress disorder and persistent borderline personality disorder.
As I said, I picked up several books of poetry. I started with some of Robert Frost’s poems. I love it. Whenever I feel stuck in a bind, I read “The Road Not Taken”. I took a look at the poems of Edgar Allan Poe. I stopped at the poem, Annabel Lee, read it and made the sign of the cross. I leafed through the pages of the collections of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. When I arrived at TS Eliot and Langston Hughes I felt like I had been offered bitter leaf soup and pounded yam. I skipped Rudyard Kipling. Because of what he did to Sylvia Plath, I skipped Ted Hughes. I caught Emily Bronte, Maya Angelou, Christopher Okigbo, Ezra Pound and Ralph Waldo Emerson. On my way to find a desk, I stopped near the bookshelf that had Rumi. I love Rumi and visit him when I want to be comfortable with my feelings. That’s where I found John Milton, John Donne, Lord Byron and a few other old white men dead. I ignored them and chose Pablo Neruda. And that made all the difference.
That same night when I came home, my neighbor’s wife talked about dying slowly. She was in her early thirties. That she was talking that way really bothered me. It was a simple greeting that I sent him. A banal, nonsensical conversation about the good weather and she recounted how she was slowly dying with the pandemic and life in the suburbs. As she spoke, I could see she was losing her grip on her dreams. Langton Hughes wrote, “If dreams die, life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly.”
His cry for help quickly triggered my inner John Donne. He told me: “The death of any man diminishes me, because I am involved in Humanity; And therefore never send to find out for whom the bell tolls; because it sounds for you.
The good news was that I had communed in the library with Pablo Neruda earlier that day. I had read his poem “We die slowly”. He provided me with the ammunition needed to save my neighbor’s wife.
The last lines of the poem echoed in my head.
“You start to die slowly
If you don’t change your life when you’re unhappy with your job, or your love,
If you don’t risk what is sure for the uncertain,
If you’re not chasing a dream,
If you don’t allow yourself,
At least once in your life,
Fleeing wise advice…”
This is how, for the first time in my life, I shunned sound advice and borrowed my neighbor’s wife for a day. And as Robert Frost said in “The Road Not Taken”, “it made all the difference”.
Now when Udoka’s ball falls in her backyard, she throws it back to us without needing any prompting or thanks for the act of kindness. I tell you, John Milton was right after all. “What is beautiful is good, and what is good will soon be beautiful.”
Happy poetry month. Now go read a poem. Please. It does not matter whether it is a visible or invisible poem. Any poem will do.
Rudolf Ogoo Okonkwo teaches post-colonial African history at the School of Visual Arts in New York. He is also the host of Dr. Damages Show. His books include “This American Life Sef”, “Children of a Retired God”, among others.