the signal house
Selkie Skin, Tale Tail, Mountain Mouth
Valerie Asiimwe Amani
Valerie Asiimwe Amani
the story of a faithful childhood and a doubtful adolesence
You only get one life, or so we’re told, and you should make the most of it.
With endless possibilities branching off at every moment, and no way of knowing all the consequences of your actions, this seems like a tall order to me. Imagining that you can pick the ‘best’ path is absurd, and forever comparing your own path to the ones you didn’t take sounds like a recipe for misery. And yet, just muddling through the whole time, never taking the plunge, ducking all your biggest choices by pretending you didn’t have a choice—well, maybe that’s not a great way to live either.
But what if you didn’t just get one life? Of course, there’s no shortage of theories, not to mention books and films, that deal with an alternative view. Perhaps the path not taken isn’t something lost forever: perhaps there’s another me, elsewhere in the multiverse, doing all those exciting things I never quite got round to doing. If there is, then my missed opportunities aren’t such bad things after all.
Among the four attitudes of mind that Buddhists try to cultivate, three are perhaps quite well-known and widely associated with Buddhism: loving-kindness, compassion, and equanimity. But the other one, mudita, is not such common currency. It’s the quality of sympathetic joy: it means finding pleasure in the happiness and well-being of others. Lately, with a few big life decisions presenting themselves, I have been trying to develop this feeling not just towards other people, but, eccentrically, towards other versions of myself. I can’t be everything, everywhere, all at once—to coin a phrase—but I can wish the other versions of myself well. As a way of taking the pressure off a big decision, I can recommend it.
Big decisions are everywhere in the Summer 2023 issue of the Signal House Edition.
Both Lisa Nelle’s deeply personal essay and Melissa Chambers’ fascinating conversation with Adi Goral explore the journey away from a strictly religious upbringing. Goral gives us an insight into the stories of people who have left the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel: they show our freedom to make choices of enormous magnitude, but they leave us in no doubt that either choice—to stay or to leave—comes with a cost. Anna Testar’s wide-ranging interview with Valerie Asiimwe Amani touches on how our decisions both reflect who we are and shape who we become: a theme given dramatic form in the myth of the selkie, which makes clear just how dear the cost of our choices can be. And in this issue’s poem, Beate Sigriddaughter’s ‘Habits’, we find an unblinking reminder that, even when we do summon the courage to set out some kind of grand vision, others may be perfectly happy to let our overwhelming questions drop, and to watch us fall flat on our faces.
All of which brings me back to the poignant climax of Nelle’s account of her Christian childhood, a story suffused with mudita: and it leaves me wondering if, for all the big decisions we might ponder in our own lives, the best thing of all might be a loving act that gives space for someone else’s choice.
Please enjoy—and let us take pleasure in your enjoyment.
Guest Editor, Summer 2023
VALERIE ASIIMWE AMANI is a Tanzanian interdisciplinary artist and writer based in London. Her practice interrogates the ways in which body erotics, language, place and perceived reality are used to situate (or isolate) the self within community. She has exhibited internationally including group shows in Lagos, Paris, Cape Town and Leipzig. Recent solo projects include a performance at South London Gallery in collaboration with the Roberts Institute of Art, and an exhibition at Alliance Française, Dar es Salaam. [images: Selkie Skin, Tale Tail, Mountain Mouth, 2022]
JOHN FREW lives in Falmouth in Cornwall. He is working on a memoir based on his time living and working in Myanmar, and encounters with modern and traditional Buddhist practices. He written for The Signal House Edition on Aldous Huxley, in Issue 12, and his essay on Han Shan, Gary Snyder and the Dharma Bums is published in the anteroom.