24 January 2016

Sleeping


When we landed in Birmingham, it was raining. We got off the plane and stopped at the bathroom, as you do when you are a family travelling with small kids. There was no queue at immigration by the time we got there, and the border agent joked with the kids and they gave him a sweet, which he took and ate. Our bags had already come and the girls ran around the carousel, pointing and trying to pull them off. There was no one else to stop us and we walked out into the rain to the waiting Sikh men in black cabs, and then to our hotel where we had been parked. I worried for the ten days we were in the States that the car wouldn't start, but it did. We got home, and unpacked the basic things and then slept 18 hours, like we hadn't slept for a week.

When we came to Birmingham in 2014, I was rushed and pressured to put everything in place quickly, to right all the wrongs of having wandered off to Malaysia. I was terribly insecure: this wouldn't work out, would it. Famously, I rented our house in a morning, 2 hours. This and this and that, and we were settled. I wrote five module datasets that January too, and finished my book, and prepared for teaching, and filled out visa applications, and schools for the girls, and car insurance, and a car, and the list went on and on. There was a momentum though, the kind of momentum I can't remember now, the way I can't remember the heat of Malaysia or the bugs. Like it was all some dream.

Last night, I said goodnight to Yoko and fell asleep more quickly than I have in years. Yoko came to bed and I didn't hear her come to bed. The alarm goes off at 2:30 or 5:30 or 5:40 and I get dressed in the dark, and kiss all the girls goodbye and go. Where am I going today, who am I meeting today. I looked in the mirror as I was running and saw, for the first time, me as a father and husband, not as anything else. Fatter and older, but like the lines in my face had taken in a meaningful way.

04 January 2016

Seven Love Letters

Yoko!

I fell in love with Yoko in a moment. It was this picture that did it. When you fall in love with someone you can't initially communicate with, you fall in love with something inexplicable about them. Their energy, the way they move and touch you on the shoulder while laughing. My Japanese was overconfident and sloppy: Yoko was older and had her shit together. She had a nicer apartment than me and clothes that fit well. She was perennially optimistic, and this day that I took this picture, we walked out to the beach with our group of friends and I strung together simple sentences with simple verb structures. I am teaching English. I am going to do an MA by correspondence (I had learned that word). I am happy in Japan.

In a year, almost exactly one year from when this picture was taken, we were married. It was madness — complete madness. We held hands and then kissed and then we were engaged without stopping to breathe. When we went back to America in March, four months before the wedding, I sat at our dining room table with my friends, confident in the way that makes other people confident. Confident enough that my parents projected happiness and support. What would you say to me anyway: I was mad and in love. I was speaking in tongues, in simple Japanese verb structures.

At the end of that trip, after getting through security and on the plane, the wave of madness crested, hit the high water mark, and began to recede. We argued — I don't remember about what. We got on the plane and then, as if madness was suddenly gone, we started sobbing, Yoko first and then me, on the right side of the plane, the sunlight streaming through the windows. We sobbed in the way you can't control, something guttural, something that if you tried to stop would only get worse. We held hands and a man threw a packet of tissues to us over the seats. This was real — there was no going back.

We married anyway. Yoko suddenly went off the pill because she was so sick and we found out on 19 September, two months after the wedding, that Naomi would come in May. All the energy and the chasm between us suddenly gone like two people stranded in a lifeboat together. You can't be mad when a fleck of baby floats inside someone you love. I bought new clothes and lost weight and went shopping for baby buggies and nappies. We went to the classes and I sat with other nervous men in the waiting room of the clinic thinking, this is the great leveler, isn't it. All of us have no clue what we're doing here, do we. It doesn't matter that I'm 24. We're all just making this up as we go along, aren't we.

And then ten years passed.

On Sunday, we went to church: the children had new dresses, so we walked up the hill to St Peters with umbrellas. Yoko hung back with Mia and Naomi, who were slower, while I dragged Mei on, scolding her for walking into me. The vicar preached on love overcoming fear and I listened until it was time for communion. The vicar said the table is always open to everyone, provided you had been baptised, but really, that didn't matter either. I thought of the times Yoko had gone forward by herself these last two years, how I had sat and waited for her to come back. I thought of all the graces I have experienced this last week, of forgiveness and understanding despite my obstinance, Jesus, the idea of Jesus, of the Kingdom of Heaven coming and having come in Yoko: this woman who had followed me across Asia and Europe. Who had never given up on me.

I stood and experienced St Peters in a way I hadn't before, walking up the centre to the alter. Kneeling and Father Graeme ever enthusiastic and confident saying, Do this in remembrance of me. There's nothing wrong with this, I thought: remembering Christ with my wife and children knelt there. There is god no god but god, and there is no god. I ate the bread and drank the wine and remembered Jesus: that's all we need to do, isn't it. We need to follow our conscience and do what we are inclined to do, when we are convinced it is right. Remember Christ even if he died at 33, the age I am now. At least he tried; you too should try.

Family

03 January 2016

A number

Me and my new girllfriend

My number is low for a man of my age. Men tend to round their number up, counting any sexual activity. Women round down. Studies suggest reasons for this, that men are not necessarily reporting in bad faith, we just count differently when asked. I'm emotionally a woman, but terrified of being caught in a lie, so I report my number as getting close to 2. Maybe one and eight-tenths, just to be safe. I'm 33 now (the year that Jesus was killed) and married, so this number is of little importance to anyone. I sleep with my wife — every document I have reports this to you.

I grew up terrified of sex in the way you are terrified of something that is hidden from you. I bought a cassette in the late-nineties, DC Talk's 'Nu Thang', that first introduced me to the idea of sex as something to avoid. DC Talk was the Evangelical response to NWA, so they rapped about sexual purity instead of fucking the police. One song I remember well was all about not wanting sex — the band sang 'I don't want it/ I don't want it, want it/ I don't want/ your sex for now.' I remember my parents hearing this for the first time and hurriedly asking for the lyric sheet before resigning themselves to the fact that the word 'sex' was going to enter our lexicon at one point: it might as well be at the hands of some cool Christian rappers who were warning us off it, like it was a drug.

The ethos of the culture which produced 'Don't Want it' affected me deeply. More than sex, I wanted to not want sex. I dreamt of being above it in some way, free from it. The best Christians not only avoided sex, they avoided sexual desire entirely. Like monks: I once thought I should be a Franciscan, and called a Catholic retreat in Wisconsin asking if I could come up for a visit over Spring Break. The person I talked to on the phone told me it was essential that I be Catholic before I considered the monastic life. I can't see how my commitment to Calvinism would allow that, I thought as I hung up the phone.

The Evangelicals around me rejected the notion that children should be taught about sex by the State. Instead, they argued, it was the responsibility of the church and the family. Having won the right to keep the State out this part of their lives, nothing was subsequently taught to me about sex. I construct that sentence passively because I'm not sure who to point fingers at. The church or my parents or my mentors or any of the adults. It was no one and everyone. 

Instead of sex, we were taught exhaustively about avoiding sex and about marriage and the roles of men and women. We had books like Every Young Man's Battle that saw sexual desire as something to struggle against, a kind of medieval fight with swords and armor. We learned about how to be good husbands, Promise Keepers. Men were to be the heads of their wives. Men were to lead the family. Women were to serve. Marriage was the goal for all of us suffering with chronic erections: in five years or so we would be led to a woman, and god would open that door for us. He would bless us. Until then, we were to suffer, to avoid sex completely, to never masturbate, and to sit quietly through church services, fighting. Struggling.

Purity was described in different metaphorical packages: imagine a piece of gum that has been chewed by several people — would you want to chew that piece of gum? Sex is like pouring two cups of water into a vase. Sex is giving up part of your soul that you can never give back. We all imagined our wives and husbands sobbing with the revelation we had masturbated once when we were 15, that part of our soul thrown away in some bathroom tissue and now, unrecoverable. We believed this.

I remember a bachelor party where we thought it would be funny to take the groom to Walgreens to buy condoms and lube before his wedding day and then to have the person at the register, a tired looking 18-year-old woman, call in a price check on the condoms. How embarrassing, we thought, to be stood there as they price checked the condoms. This guy was going to have sex: look at him.

Now, some 15 years later, I wonder about the mindset that thinks a man the night before his wedding needs to be taken out to buy condoms and lube of all things, by a crowd of horny, confused Christian boys. Of course, karma paid me back: there was me, standing in a convenience store in Japan six weeks after I had been married trying to buy condoms. It wasn't funny anymore: I didn't know what I was doing. I called a friend on my phone, one of my friends who might have known about this stuff I needed help, I didn't know what I was doing.

If the wages of sin is death, the wages of faith is guilt. The Evangelicals will tell you that at least the terror about sex protected you. It protected you from unwanted pregnancy and STIs. While all your peers were lined up at abortion clinics, you were not, were you. You did well on the SAT and went to a good college where you told others about Jesus and had many good friends that were girls, but whom you never slept with. And then you married when you were supposed to and had sex like you were supposed to. What do you have to complain about. Look at the others, the sinners, who fell into debauchery and unwanted pregnancy. Into alcoholism and drugs. You did well, didn't you: with the eight-tenths exception, which (if we're honest) we can knock down to zero based on your record of good behaviour. Who among us hasn't fingered a lover in the back of their parents' car. We're only human. 

At 33, the year Jesus died, I am still one and eight-tenths. This number is unlikely to change. Instead, I am now responsible to my children. I need to tell them all the things I needed to hear, but didn't. I need to tell them the number matters less than how they respect themselves and the people they make love to through the years. That the number matters less than consent and love. That the number doesn't speak to their character. That they should pee before and after they have sex: someone should tell them that. That they have to be responsible, but you will often be irresponsible. That it's okay: whatever it is, it is okay. No one will be angry or surprised. Perhaps this can assuage my own guilt for being naked when I wasn't supposed to be, and the fear that someone might come down the stairs suddenly and find us entwined and confused and searching. There are some things that can't be avoided.

02 January 2016

Share in Christ's suffering

Me and Dan and the Ladies

"For I know the plans I have for you," declares the LORD, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future." Jeremiah 29:11

As a boy, I memorised Bible verses in different clubs. My trip to America reminded me of how mad for the Bible we all were and how much I excelled in the madness. There are, in my boxes in my parents' closet, awards for memorising the most verses and for being able to find the verses fastest in the Bible. I won second and first prize in different years: I still have the ribbons. My daughter asked me if I was famous for memorising verses. Yes, I say, in a small way, in a small church in rural Minnesota. Yes, we were the famous, well-behaved, homeschooled children who knew the Bible well.

The verses we memorised all served an ideology built on the doctrine of original sin: we are all sinners. Yoko says I like the word sinner. I do: it's appropriate to describe everyone. Romans 3:23. The wages of sin is death. Romans 6:23. The gift of god is eternal life. Acts 16:31. Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved. It was a connect-the-dots exercise of decontextualised sentences. The Roman Road because it was mostly in St Paul's letter to the Romans (circa 55 AD).

The explicit threat of judgement came up in skits and sermons, and the constant presence of the tribulation — a time when Jesus would unexpectedly come back and if you hadn't been saved, you would be left to a world without god, a world that would last seven years more. The mark of the beast: 666. Could you say no to the mark: I wasn't certain I could. I was 9 or 10. I laid in bed thinking about it: how and where I might hide. How hungry could I be before I gave up. How would I like to die. 

These are not the verses you see written in flowing script on placards in my parents' house. The face of the church is one of love with euphemistic concerns about gay marriage. We love you, we're just worried about you. The words are a political dog whistle now. We are Christians, but the real kind, not the fake ones. The ones that believe in a literal hell. You will literally burn. You understand, right. If you don't, you probably aren't the right kind of Christian. Fundamentalists who meet me now will just say that I had a false faith: it's easy for them, but it was not a false faith.

And then I was 22. It was nine at night, and I was standing on a river bank in Japan with a group of Japanese school children and some theology students from a seminary in Tokyo. There was a bonfire and they were talking about hell. My Japanese wasn't good enough then to follow it, but there it was: the Roman Road in Japanese. All the fear and terror replicated in complex, passive verb structures that I was familiar with in English: God is not sending us to hell, we are sending ourselves. We are being sent by ourselves. We have already been sent by ourselves. And I was losing it. We were asked: what image do you have of god and drew pictures. I drew a heart filled with love for the world and realised it couldn't be right. I didn't actually believe that, did I.

My God

A year later Yoko and I would be walking on a beach in Niigata for the first time. I said I wanted to be with someone who wanted what god wanted for me. I was waiting for god to open that door for me. I didn't know what it meant, but knew what whistled. I didn't intend to stop then: I never intended to give it up. 'What if you had dated someone you met playing baseball and all you did was talk about baseball and play baseball and you got married and the person you married suddenly started hating baseball. Hated everything about baseball.' I don't know. I'm an injured baseball player, I say: the metaphor doesn't work. I stopped playing baseball because I was injured and couldn't play anymore. I still want to play, but I can't. The metaphor doesn't work.

My punishment for leaving the faith is the pain it causes. My wife suffers; my parents suffer. Sola fide: in faith alone — but only the right faith. The dog whistle faith. The tombstones at St Peters sink into the ground for another year as the soil gets softer and softer. I'll pack my pipe and walk around the block again. In another world I kept on, don't worry. You don't suffer in that other world. 

30 December 2015

Seven boxes


'For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?' Mark 8:36

In my parents' house, in Gurnee, Illinois, there are seven boxes with my things: the dark matter of life. In its concrete sense, dark matter is a thing that we think is there, but we can't see. We infer its presence from its effects. When you are standing at the top of a hill in Harborne in Birmingham in the United Kingdom where I live, at three in the morning because you can't sleep and the church bells are ringing, the things in those boxes, they speak through time to you: you know what's there, or what you think might be there. Your journals. Your empty CD cases. Your Bible awards. You stand and look up at the ringing church bells, how many thousands of miles away, and you can feel it pulling on you.

Chicago is my lost city: I come back and remember a time in my life I made plans to stay and be here forever. In my senior year at Knox, I was going to do research at the Newberry Library. I was going to have a small studio apartment near Washington Square Park. And then, the next year, I interviewed for a job in the Aon Center. I wore a black suit.

The dark matter of those years, when I left high school and went to college, is piled up in short stories I wrote for writing classes and in textbooks. Poems about hands and breasts. In a lunchbox I bought as a joke in 2001 before the towers exploded, there are all the pictures of my band. The fire red Gibson SG with those pick ups. (They make such a fat sound, I say to Yoko in Japanese and ask if that metaphor works: if I say the sound is fat, do you understand?)

Before I came back home for Christmas this year with Yoko, my wife, and my three children, I made a plan to finally deal with my things, to throw away and give away all that I could. All the books. My papers. My past as an Evangelical and conservative Republican. Most of it was comedy, my letters to the editor I wrote as jokes when I was 12 and 13. A response from Oprah Winfrey to a letter I had written her (I had written Oprah a letter). But there was also the dark, dark matter. The dark matter of a failed high school relationship, and the things I was unable to throw away the last times I had been home. I didn't know what they were exactly until I was holding them, swallowing, traveling in time. A box of Virgina Slims, cigarettes I had taken from her in a fit of self-righteous rage. When I had faith.

There are some stories you can't tell without implicating others. I don't want to implicate anyone else. I can only tell the bits of the stories that implicate me, a seventeen-year-old hand holding another hand. There was some point in my life when I could follow the story past my own body, into hers, but it's been fifteen years and now the story stalls. There are only artefacts: the cigarettes, a pair of socks, and photos.

It had made sense when I was in England that I would see her, but then the time came and I almost panicked and escaped. What was I doing, what sort of complex lie was I telling myself. Instead, I sat waiting with tea and let myself remember, look out into the snowy darkness, the cars passing, all of Chicago aware that the lost son has come home for the night and looking back at me like an absence, a Tolstoyan void. The well of memory doesn't dry up. It's a metaphor.

Chicago, I lost you, but I gained the world. Istanbul, yes, and Paris. London and Dhaka. A Sunday morning in Moscow and then Seoul and then Seoul again. Madrid. Amsterdam, when I was drunk on that bike. Rome, of course. Tokyo, and the night I smoked outside the walls of the palace. Fukuoka. Kuala Lumpur. Vientienne, and the Mekong River. Bangkok. In the absence of god's perfect plan for my life, I had set out to gain the world, the parts of it I could at least. We have to, don't we. We have no choice but to make our own path when we are led into the thicket. When we are stuck, when we have no way out, we must take risks. We must say the things to the absences in our lives that we mean to say to ourselves. You don't need to implicate others, do you. We want forgiveness, but we can only forgive ourselves. We want understanding, but then we only need to understand ourselves. When finally you can say the things you needed to say, you are just speaking out loud to yourself. You look back at yourself when you were young and you say, don't worry. It's okay. You're okay.

Standing ankle deep in snow slush on North Wells, I finally realise this. After all these years. I am pushing a black Ford, the tyres spinning in the ice. A man comes out of nowhere to push with me. And then another and another. The car rocks back and forth and back and forth without going anywhere. Back and forth and back and forth and then the feeling you have when you are pushing a car and it breaks free. You are suddenly pushing against nothing. You are standing there with your bag. You are alone after having not been alone, but you can do anything, can't you. The world is yours.
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