15 January 2018

False Spring

blurry

Every January, there is a day or two where things become unseasonably warm. You feel a sort of British guilt that the winter seems to have gone away. With some luck, the weather report will warn of snow and sleet later in the week and you can relax knowing that you aren't getting away with anything and the whole of it will back sooner rather than later. You can walk up the street to take care of whatever errand needs taking care of and think, well, you have to enjoy it while it lasts.

A year ago, I couldn't have imagined that I would be standing in a shop trying to pick out tiles for renovations on our house, but that is what I was doing this weekend. Now, I have some elementary knowledge of building materials and VAT costs for builders and negotiating techniques. A year ago, I wasn't sure we were going to get our visas. Now, I seem to have put away any concern about the impermanence of life in the UK or the house on Victoria Road with all the British assurances I can now give about how when one invests in brick and mortar, one is guaranteed a return. I say this, but it's not entirely right.

I attribute this lack of concern for the future to meditation and Donald Trump. These two forces are duelling, different sorts of nihilism — one extremely positive, the other an acceptance that evil wins out eventually anyway. The vicar this Sunday spoke about homelessness in a poignant way, refusing to come to a happy conclusion. How we all want to be seen as doing good, but don't actually want to make any sacrifice — I then wondered if anyone can do good at all anyway. I shamefully helped a woman up to the alter for communion, shamed because my initial thought when she asked for help was smug, about how good I must appear with my beautiful wife and kids, the perfect sorts of immigrants. The atheist husband, dutifully coming along and participating despite his own misgivings. I'm a hypocrite from every angle.

During the creed, I don't recite any line except the last one: the life of the world to come. I recite this because it reminds me of the Mountain Goats, but also because if there's anything I hope for, it's that. Some life in some world to come. Not after death, really, but what comes next, the now that one hopes to stretch out in front with some certainty. Donald Trump and North Korean missiles aside, of course.

What is there to be afraid of, if not the possibility of something bad happening in the future. Last night, at ten forty, the doorbell rang, and I tensed up with fear, before going down and realising that it had just rung. The doorbell is old, it does this sometimes, but when I laid back down, after checking and locking the backdoor, I thought about spirits about evil and a story or stories my father had told about praying evil spirits out of the house, asking for angels to watch over us. Now, and last night lying in my bed, this all seemed silly, despite the fear that washed over me in the moment and my desire to reach out for something outside of myself to steady me. I took a couple of deep breaths. No one was going to kill me, the house on Victoria Road is old, not haunted. There are plenty of things to fear if I need to be afraid — best not worry about ghosts or evil spirits.

Something must be said about ontology and reality — I keep trying to parse this in conversations with people in an annoying way. My brother said after I told him that my wife had been tell people at church that I was an atheist, You are, no? I am, yes, I am, but it's complicated, isn't it. God is not real in an ontological sense, but he is real in the sense that he is the ghost captain of the ship behind a closed cabin door. You put your ear against it and think you hear the scratching of something inside. If you're a believer, you say it's the thing you believe in and you pray for angels to watch over your children. If not, you say it's just the sound a ship makes.

What you say about the closed door and what you project behind it makes reality what it is. When you meditate, you don't judge the voice or speak to it's realness. You just accept it as part of your experience, without judgement. It doesn't matter if the captain is there or if he is speaking, isn't it. It only matters what you hear, and what you do with what you hear. I'm not happy to say there's nothing to hear, that sometimes doorbells go off without any reason. It's just the truth, it's just not real in an ontological sense. I'm sure you can make it real in another sense.

10 January 2018

Stolen bikes in old homes

Birmingham

With January come to Birmingham, there is constant low cloud cover and mist. One of these days, we ticked off four years living in the house on Victoria Road, although which day it was, I don't remember now. It was one of them. Everyone is older and more mature, although I look at these pictures of the girls from our moves and only see courage. Naomi especially, but all of them, starting again with their book bags and some vague promise from me that it would be okay.

Now, the kids run off in the morning alone, Naomi and Mei, up Victoria Road to school. I take Mia ten minutes later, even though she's crying about having lost her glove. I want to be more sympathetic, but I'm not. A better father would be more sympathetic. Instead, I rush her along, tell her to stop crying, and when the teacher sees Mia's sad face, I say, She's had an emotional morning.

Things change and they don't, isn't it. I look at this picture of me and the bike and the girls. The grass is overgrown and they are all so small. I remember feeling happy at this point, like things might be coming together finally. I knew, but did not really know, the truth that changing places, moving countries very rarely solves problems. It heaps sand on them, buries them, then two or three years later the wind starts to blow. This is the way things go.

Builders have been around to look at the back of the house and make plans to put in the new bathroom. The house on Victoria Road being built at the beginning of the last century had originally had the bathroom downstairs, but at some point, in the opulence of the 50s or 60s or 70s, it was moved upstairs, taking over a full small bedroom. The Pihlajas of Harborne, with our many growing children have decided to move the toilet back to give Naomi her own room and in this, do some other renovations. Take out a chimney breast, move the boiler, add a nicer bathtub, quartz counter tops, a new frig and hob — a long list of middle class amenities which will make the home more comfortable as the children slip into their preteens. It's a fantasy made out of money, but money that is there now, magically, after four years of not moving from country to country.

Of course, this wasn't the plan when we came back from the jungle. I was just holding my breath. All I wanted then was some permanency. Some grace, a year or two to recapture whatever British life we had. I don't know what I imagined. I look in my eyes in this picture and can see myself faking it, faking the optimism. Things worked out, didn't they. They did and they didn't.

02 January 2018

On violence


New Year's came with an explosion of fireworks out the back of the house on Victoria Road. Yoko and I both stirred in bed, but didn't get up, the way your brain registers something happening and what that thing is, without fully coming around. Yes, it must be the new year rather then the end of the world, and you fall back into whatever dream you were having. When the morning came, I got up with the intention to run, but lingered longer than I wanted to, first eating and then meditating and then putting things away. I got on the road, finally, just before eight, with everyone in the house still sleeping and some idea that I wanted to run on the canals. The distance I intended to run stretched out little by little and when I finally turned around at fifteen and half kilometers, I had that feeling you do when you run and run and run, where you are simultaneously remarkably weak and strong at the same time. You can't do anything but run, but you can run forever. My headphones died and I ran back in the silence of the morning, thinking at two hours I would have to give up. I pushed on and on, getting home and adding another 500 meters because I could. What is a limit, anyway. Who tells you what you can and can't do.

I was terrified of punishment as a child. I remember sitting on my bed, waiting to be spanked, screaming for someone who wasn't there to come and save me. There was always a lag between told you would be punished and then being punished, which heightened its effect. You dreaded it, the wooden spoon, crying so much that your mouth goes numb. You try to reason and negotiate, but you are a child and you can't negotiate, but only say no over and over again. Of course, you had done something wrong, but whatever that thing was became completely divorced from the experience of being punished. I never felt regret or empathy or sorrow for having done wrong in the face of punishment. I never understood that what I had done was wrong. I was only afraid.

The fear scales, from fear of your parents to fear of God. The bed was the location of punishment in my family, you sat on your bed when you were being punished. You had to sit alone and think and you would sit crying until you exhausted your emotional energy from fear and then you waited. But I also feared god in bed, trying to fall asleep but terrified of punishment, and begging for forgiveness for whatever I had done. I had internalised whatever that fear of punishment was, and I would ask again and again and again to be forgiven and then I knew in my asking to be forgiven that I was failing because I would have been confident if I had really been saved. I would have felt the love of God, wouldn't I.

I want desperately for my children to not fear me, but they do. You internalise violence — even when you don't hit anyone, the intention to hit them is there. They can see it in your eyes. Violence teaches you that you can control other people with violence. You can make them appear to love you. You can force them to do and say things they don't mean. You can abolish free will. You can make fear look like free will.

This morning the alarm went off at five-thirty and I felt a sense of relief, that I had a clear plan for the day: something to eat for breakfast and a list of things to do. I stepped down into the dark of the house and meditated, listening to a man talk about the solar plexus chakra, the yellow lotus flower that I was told to put my hands on and hear vibrate. You have strength when you focus on this chakra, not because the chakra gives you strength, but because your belief that the chakra gives you strength does. You animate the yellow light that you imagine pouring out of your body, beyond all thoughts of punishment or fear or the love of god. If violence scales, peace scales too. Look in my eyes, I want to say now, the fear is gone, isn't it. No one needs to be afraid — we are birds, we are flowers.

31 December 2017

Moral economies and madness

Snow through the crack

I stopped eating meat in December of 2014 – I had to think what year it was when a room full of people were quizzing me last night. I had wanted to go for thirty days or six weeks, I forget what I had decided, and when the time was up, I ate a sausage at dinner with the family, thinking that would be the end of it. I don’t remember if I finished the sausage or not, but something had changed and whatever switch I had been able to flip to not think about meat in terms of a moral economy, was gone and I couldn’t do it. Something about avoiding violence, sure, but also something about the environment, and something about my health. At the time, I appreciated the insufferability of it all, but there was nothing I could do. It was like when I stopped having faith: I wasn’t scamming anyone, it just was what it was. I looked at the meat in the freezer and could only think, that is a dead thing that doesn’t need to be dead.

I've never been comfortable being called a vegetarian due to the complaints of a roster of cynics in my head who are responsible for overthinking everything. They like to hector me about this label, though they have a variety of different reasons. For example, American Stephen, the voice in me that understands Donald Trump on a basic level and has been looking with covert lust at SUVs, hates Vegetarian Stephen for thinking he’s better than everyone, for how much trouble he causes at dinner parties, the way he implicitly judges everyone who eats meat. American Stephen has Vegetarian Stephen’s number: he’s just a hipster, a fraud, a bullshit artist. He doesn’t actually believe in avoiding violence, he just wants to be perceived that way so his liberal friends like him. When pressed, American Stephen is full of whataboutism that goes on and on, about air travel and plastics and bottled water, an endless list of things that culminates with him throwing his hands in the air and eating half a bag of Doritos because he can. American Stephen has worked hard and he deserves what he has.

American Stephen can sometimes tag team with Aspirational Vegan Stephen, the one who hates Vegetarian Stephen for some of the same reasons as American Stephen, for his hypocrisy and his trendiness and his leather, but also his lack of vigilance and passivity. Whereas American Stephen wants to throw up his hands and give up, Aspirational Vegan Stephen wants to try harder, to be more ethical. Aspirational Vegan Stephen wants Vegetarian Stephen to give up his boots and to stop lying by saying he bought them before he was serious about animal products. He wants Vegetarian Stephen to stop drinking milk and eating cheese like that is somehow not any worse that killing an animal – newsflash, asshole, they do kill those dairy cows too.

The moral economy makes for hard living in 2017, almost 2018. We took the kids shopping with their Christmas money and I thought I too might buy something, but just hated myself after five hours of walking through racks and racks of things to buy. I finally found a jumper on sale that I wanted and pathetically showed it to Yoko like I needed some special dispensation for buying it. It was money I had gotten as a gift, it was for me to spend on anything I liked, and although I already have three jumpers (four, if you count my dad’s wool fleece that I brought back from the States), but I want this one too. Is that okay? I put it back on the rack and left the store and then went back to buy it, feeling heavy as I took it home and then guilty for how good I felt wearing it.

I'm unhappy with how this has turned out, the meaningless moral choices and hypocrisies. I'm unhappy with my own unhappiness. The jumper is just a foil. We got back to the car and Nihilist Stephen suddenly, saying we could give up, forget about all of this and head out into the woods by myself. Forage for nuts and berries like a bear and be whatever animal we are. What does any of this matter, why all the confession. It's madness. This lasted for a full quarter of a minute while the kids strapped in, but then real life started again. The car key needed to be turned  and someone, Daddy Stephen, had to push our way into the jammed traffic of the strip mall. So it goes, I end up thinking: the traffic moves and another year ticks by. I guess I am a vegetarian, I say, when it comes up again. It's complicated; I don't really like talking about it. I'll just not have the cocktail sausages, but please, enjoy yourselves. Really, they look delicious.  

28 December 2017

Ten percent more

Snow at night

The snow came again on Boxing Day. I was closing up the house for the night and rain falling in the streetlights got heavy and changed as I watching. The girls saw and shouted back and forth to each other that it was snowing again. I got up the next day hoping I could run, but it was clear from one look that it wasn’t going to happen. I weighed myself a few times over the holiday period, worried that this would be the end of me, all the food and chocolates and fruit filling up the kitchen and my complete lack of self-control. Somehow, I managed it the best I could and today, after changing out the batteries on the scale and taking off all my clothes, I felt some sense of accomplishment of having failed but having caught it quickly enough that I didn’t spiral into a month or a year of bad habits. Maybe 2017 can be the year of learning to accept failure and success.

The family has been hibernating, or at least Yoko and me, waiting for the new year to come and all things I have to face: book proofs again, a trip to London on the eighth, a new module to write, the travel and budgets and everything else. I haven’t been able to sleep much this year, but I managed a couple of long rests on this holiday — I slept once for more than eight hours, which is the longest I had slept in years. I’ve avoided my real work, the reference I need to write for a student and some marking, but have been reading all the books that piled up at the end of last year. I was reading through a slurry of things, about consciousness and mysticism, feeling like there was some meaningful connection between everything. Of course, the connections are whatever I'm choosing to make. You can make them if you want and then if someone asks or you find some way to talk about what you’re reading, you can make all the connections in hurried, exhausting discussion of the eternal now and god as a void and the gender.

Perhaps if there were no snow, I could run off some of this caged energy, but the ice is still thick on the pavement, and running on it is only asking for a trouble. Instead, I’ve been doing pushups and looking the mirror, wondering if my back is more defined because of course it wouldn’t be, but maybe it is. I’m finding my way to the rug where I meditate and listening to a kind woman with some sort of accent that’s not British or American tell me to focus on my breath. I chant along with her and feel silly until it stop and my chest is still humming with the same repetition of syllables. Is this the void, I wonder, and the moment I think it, it’s gone. Perhaps it was, perhaps it wasn’t. I fold up my stool, check my Twitter feed to see how the President is winding people like me up. The new year, I think, will be 10% better. Ten percent less of this and I’ll be doing well for myself. I'll be 10% less angry at the traffic, and my wife and kids. Ten percent less likely to fall into some bad habits, of purging on long runs and self-pity.
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