14 August 2018

How to suffer without writing


The rain finally made its way through Växjö and a mild Swedish humidity, neither hot nor cold, has been sitting low on the city. I tried to welcome it, of course — the heat had been echoing through the deserted campus all week, making me uncomfortable in my British broadcloth shirts and reminding me I should be somewhere else. Still, I got back damp to the hotel last night and immediately wanted the sun back, however sweaty and slow it felt.

The rain has also sealed the feeling of deep lethargy that comes from trying to write — the sort of lethargy where even a low grade incline on the bike path feels like something you can't pedal up. You do it of course, and from the outside, it looks effortless, but you know how you felt when your Garmin Vivosmart HR+ buzzed you awake this morning. It felt like hell. There is nothing glorious in writing. You write a good sentence, and you are alone. You write a bad sentence, and you are alone. You pace around the empty campus, you buy lunch, you fall asleep in the sun for a moment, you write, you don't write. It doesn't matter one way or another.

The rain suggests this summer is winding down. Two weeks from tomorrow, the girls will touch down at Birmingham airport and the Pihlajas of Harborne will regroup to put our lives back together. I won't need to refresh the Facebook messenger window again, nervously checking to see if the kids or Yoko have called or will call, or whether or not they too had slipped off into the enchanted mountains in Tosa, deep in Shikoku, never to be seen again. I know this isn't going to happen, that it's a lie creeping in, but I've stopped believing enough that now I can believe anything. Anything is possible.

On Sunday, I took a long walk alone up to Hissö. I came over the bridge on to the island and walked to the nature reserve, finally sitting on a rock at the water's edge. I thought about how much energy I had wasted worrying about God's plan for me, how when I was young, we would come to places like Växjö on retreats to hear from God and I would sit on similar rocks, praying and wondering. How I found meaning in everything that was said to me by everyone, how the world was full of signposts and signs. Twenty years later, the meaning has evaporated. I look at the log bobbing up and down just off the shore and think nothing at all about it. There is a log.

I believe different lies now. My legs can't keep up with my heart — if you can't run at a tempo pace, what's the point. I lay in my hotel bed wishing for some sort of absolution for the day, for a body that is not my body. On Saturday, I ran and ran and ran, getting lost somewhere out near Sandsbro, having made a wrong turn along the way. I just ran and having shut off the heart rate display on my Garmin Vivosmart HR+ — I didn't think anything about my pace until I got home and plugged it into my computer. It's no use. Looking in the full-length mirror in the hotel, I can say, I am not fat, but I am still fat. I can manage it for another week, perhaps, for another month, maybe, but I am still fat. I search online for the magic amino acid I've been missing, wondering if I just stopped altogether, what would happen. Surely things would be easier if you had less to do, if you stopped caring about what you ate, about the industrial production of beef, about dairy and sugar, about your career, about your heart rate, about your family, your marriage, your relationships — if you remade yourself in some Latin American country, some new lover, some new life. I look in the mirror again, trying to be honest with myself. If we could only be honest with ourselves.

08 August 2018

How subtle, how slow


The walk up Victoria Road to St Peter’s school becomes slower through the summer. My daughter and her friend ahead of me are now taller and more confident than I have seen them, and the jokes they tell become more cynical and mature. You can’t lie to them the way you can lie to children, the way you can tell children to not do something just because. You want them to hold your hand, if even for a moment when crossing the road. It’s over now, isn’t it, this part of the story.

The last three weeks were a disk of dreams you put in a View-Master. I pull the lever and the image changes. I'm standing at the Birmingham airport arrivals after midnight, feeling like a child, my father on the other side somewhere, and me full of dread and fear because I know he is angry. I pull the lever, and I am kissing the girls goodbye, they are going to Japan. I pull the lever, and I am sitting on the Place George Pompidou in Paris, drinking a bottle of wine with my brother, plastic cups and a kid on a bicycle circling around again. I pull the lever, and I am in Sweden, the wind whipping up Södra Bergundasjön and I am swimming away from the shore.

Or, if not a disk of images, present like tracing paper on the past. Beau and I climb up the Eiffel Tower, and I am there again in my mind with my sister, with whom I came when I lived in Milton Keynes, when Yoko said I smiled for the first time in a year. I look down at the metal corral for the queue as we wait to climb up in the sun. I think of the double stroller I had with Mei and Naomi, in 2009, when we came on the Eurostar, when we thought we were going back to Japan and needed to see as much of Europe as we could. I was eating meat then and smoking cigars and pushing that stroller through the same corral in the rain. Or Sacré-Cœur, with the Southeast Asian men selling beer on the stone steps and being chased off by invisible plainclothes officers. Yoko and the girls and I were there too, weren't we. I light a candle in the darkness inside and cross myself, even though I never cross myself. Sacred Heart of Jesus, behold each one of us freely consecrates himself today to Thy most Sacred Heart.

The summer goes on and on everywhere, in every country, whether you are sitting on the Seine or running on the canals in Birmingham or eating lunch by the lake, Trummen, in Växjö as it recedes away from the shores and reveals whatever the water had covered over. The summer crosses borders, across the globe to Japan where Yoko and the girls come to me through some technology. It is also burning in Japan, this confluence of factors leading to a hot house effect, the ocean full of plastic. The girls tell stories about their grandparents and the rivers, and are excited and I don't know what to say. I am not there, am I. Should I be there. I go to bed and I wake up and come into the university to work. I've forgotten how long or short I am here for, there are more e-mails, more students needing something and keeping me from whatever it was I wanted to do, whatever it was I had promised to write.

Now, I want sleep like I wanted sex when I was nineteen. I woke up at four thirty again, the same way I did last month, the week of the conference I organised in Birmingham, my brother discovering me in the middle of night, awake like the sun had never gone down. I can't explain it to anyone, I'm sorry — I'm tired of trying to explain. I hugged him goodbye in the airport and I was alone for the first time in months, no one needing me to get food, no plans to make. I got on my own plane to Amsterdam and then on to Växjö, and found myself surrounded by the enchanted forest again. In the trees just off the trail, something beckons me to disappear, like a Murakami character, or my great-grandfather John Omerza. I didn't want to cry like I did, finally, sat on the edge of the toilet, my bag lying unpacked on the bed. Who else needs me now — I wipe my eyes and get up before it sets in, before I can feel any weaker than I am.

18 July 2018

A more suitable metric

IMG_20180615_122848564

The clouds moved in yesterday, over Newman, and I set out walking back towards town with the feeling that I might get rained on. I walked up through Weoley Castle and past Selly Oak Park where I had, several years ago, confronted some travellers for driving on the grass. The clouds stayed dark for most of the walk, but there was never any rain and I came across to the University of Birmingham both relieved and disappointed because we really do need the rain now.

Like a new convert, I have taken to the insufferable life of plant-based and ethical eating with my typical religious zeal, but I've been feeling like a failure, to be honest, with all the nibbling I've done on the edges, both consciously and unconsciously. The last straw was the vegetarian Quorn sausage I eat at work, which turned out to be full of (free-range) egg whites. My frustration about losing them and about my carelessness in not realising they weren't plant-based slipped into feelings of inefficacy about the state of the world, a spiral of thoughts about Trump, Evangelicalism, and the plastic that seems to choke everything in the modern world. On a better day, I would have turned inward to focus on my breath, meditation being the other wire of zealotry I am holding at the moment. I've recently learned that there is no self anyway, no me to eat the (free-range) egg whites, and if I were just able to see (in italics) the world as it is, my anxiety would fall away. I've had promising results, but more often than not, I find myself drowning in an elaborate story, my past and present flooding over me. I'm told I should expect this.

The sausages behind me, I recommitted myself, in the queue at Costa. Turning over a package of a nut and dark chocolate snack, I figured it was okay — no egg whites or milk or butter lurking inside. Sure, it had sugar, added sugar even, but I could forgive myself for that, today at least. I ordered an iced coffee and was disappointed with myself for not having my own cup. I asked for no straw or lid and the barista taking my money nodded annoyingly, but told no one else. Having experienced a similar situation before at the Harborne Costa, I knew I would have to follow its progress. Glancing up from my phone, the plastic cup did, of course, get a straw carelessly thrown into it. I panicked and leaned over the counter to repeat myself for the woman making the drink, the one to whom the message had not been passed: I asked for no lid or straw, please. This woman also stared at me, confused and annoyed, and I shot an angry look at the first barista, while pushing down the urge to make more out of it. I'm living more ethically, I stopped myself from saying, a series of insufferable choices has led me here.

Despite the vigilance this plant-based diet requires, I'm feeling a noticeable freedom from choice and anxiety, bad habits I've fostered about food since I was seven and half or eight years old. I've called off the agreement I made with the fitness app, the agreement which stipulated that as long as I was below a certain, arbitrary number, I could eat as much butter as I wanted. Now, with it all out of the picture, I'm free to pursue other, more suitable metrics. Perhaps, eventually, what I see, when what I see stops being a lie.

I woke up this morning, made my vegan protein pancake with almond milk and applesauce (normal, not unsweetened — ego me absolvo) and pulled on my shoes to run. I've focused recently on keeping the heart steady at a high aerobic rate, one hundred and forty nine beats per minute. This is always hard initially. My body chugged to a start — the old man, the fat man, telling me that I was still fat. But then it broke through, as I got to the canal, to one hundred and forty five and then fifty and then I slowed and sped up and fell into a groove, like a metronome. There it is, I thought, the yawning now, the thing I am meant to see, the blue morning light and the narrowboats mooring on the banks. One hundred and fifty, and then slowing and falling back. I stopped looking at my wrist, my body now somewhere underneath me or beside me or in me. My body somewhere, breathing in and out, in and out, like a lung.

08 July 2018

What we can count

Before Recessional.jpg

On Friday, I stepped on the scale, after my first week of eating more whole foods and another failed attempt at implementing a ‘plant-based’ diet. This is what you say when you don’t want to use the world vegan, with its potentially negative valence for people who inexplicably take pride in eating meat. The failure had been marginal, a bit of cake (butter and milk) and then some butter with my toast at the Plough, though I had asked them specifically not to bring it and was upset that I had been forced into the ethical conundrum of throwing away versus consuming the butter. I ate it, of course, and hated myself and the world for making it so easy. Still, I had done well, I hadn’t eaten too much, the app said, and had eaten cleanly. The app had even praised me and promised a small loss of weight over the next five weeks. But after I stripped down and prepared myself to see a slightly smaller number than last week, my weight was up, a full kilogram and a half. Why, I wanted to ask. Explain this to me. 

Yoko and I married twelve years ago, today. We married when I was just barely twenty four and when I was confident in a way that you are when you marry someone whose language you barely speak and whom you have dated for less than a year. I knew and didn’t let myself doubt it, the commitment of a believer or soldier. Within a year, that confidence had melted away, but that wedding day was glorious and perfect, my family from the States nervously happy, and my future unfurling like a flag in the July sun. The day before, I had smoked cigars with my new brother-in-law on the beach and he had said to me, whatever happens, remember that you have family. It didn’t make sense at the time. 

What can’t you quantify. My Fitness Pal, my smartphone app, helps you log the food that you have eaten in a day. The calorie, or the kilocalorie, is just a measure of how much energy it takes to consume something. How much you have to burn it, physically burn it with fire, in a lab before it disappears. They say — the Internet, the experts on it — one kilogram of fat is burned with seven thousand kilocalories. This science is applied as a pragmatic truth: if you want to lose a pound, make a thirty five hundred calorie deficit. It’s only right as a guiding principle based on an abstraction about fat in a vile in a lab. But it’s like saying most successful couples aren’t afraid to fight: try to apply it and you only get so far.

My ongoing epistemological crises make me a terrible party guest: what is a number anyway — it’s just a metaphor isn’t it. I have an anecdote about numbers and the Vietnam War, but I’ll spare you. And what is twelve years. What is one year. What is a minute — we sit silently with the same cups of coffee in front of us in the pub searching for things that haven’t been said. I didn’t think of this, sitting at the front of that church in Niigata City, waiting and pushing down all my anxiety. You can’t quantify faithfulness. You can count cups of coffee that have gone cold, and nights you’ve gone to bed angry. You can count the time before another child needs to be picked up and brought somewhere else. You can count years together, but it won’t tell you much of anything. You might gain or lose, depending on the conditions. All love is unspeakable anyway, it’s just an abstraction of the day-to-day making and unmaking of a relationship. When you say you are thankful that we are all still healthy, that is love. It is a different love. 

05 July 2018

Pace

Stephen Helps Baby

Every summer I fall into the same cycle of wanting to run faster and run farther. The last couple of years, this has been a distraction from losing weight, but this summer, for the first time in years, I am not fat and am not trying to lose weight. These conditions should lead to a sense of calm, a faster, more open pace, and they have, to an extent. Still, there is also the nagging reminder of the old man (Ephesians 4:22-24), a biblical principle which I seem to portage from one stage of life to the next. I run with the weight of the old man on me, the one that is corrupted by its deceitful desires and was crucified with Christ (Romans 6:6). Somehow, despite being dead, it lives on — a typical Paulian double bind. The old man is both something that you must recognise as being dead, but something you must actively lay aside because it lives on in you.

Whatever is flowering along the newly paved Woodgate Valley path in Birmingham where I run in the morning, smells of Milton Keynes in two thousand and nine, when I first ran long distances in this country. At that time, I was nostalgic for the rice paddies in and around Niigata City and Shiibata, where I had run for much of my early twenties, across Matsuhama Bridge, the Agano River flowing out of the mountains into the Sea of Japan, if you call it the Sea of Japan. Now, running with this smell, I am nostalgic for my late twenties, when I lost my faith, while reading Nietzsche and running along the canals in Milton Keynes. I feel a nostalgia for that precipice, before my faith was gone and before anyone had noticed that I wasn't mouthing along with most of the words anymore. 

And so, the poet Bashou (松尾 芭蕉, 1644–1694) writes:
京にても
京なつかしや
時鳥
Even in Kyoto
Hearing the cuckoo's cry
I long for Kyoto
I prefer a more literal translation of the Japanese which makes clearer what the poem requires of you:
Kyoto, even
Kyoto nostalgia and
hototogisu
At some point, the never-ending summer becomes a drought. The patches of yellow grass are worrying, and I am starting to see them, as I cut through Senneleys Park on the way home. The football pitch is usually too damp to run through, but not this summer. The British are right, of course: every pleasure turns to worry. The wells dry up and you begin to want the rain, to beg for it. Naomi puts on shoes and hugs me before heading out to secondary school for the first time, for her induction. She cried in that summer heat in Matsuhama, in Japan, now more than ten years ago, when I longed for Matsuhama in Matsuhama. When I pulled on my own shoes to head out and run, like I will this morning, and tomorrow and every day after. The drought can only last so long and it will rain again. This is the nature of things.
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