05 May 2015

Responsibility

I'm so happy

I was a responsible teenager and I came from a culture of responsibility. There was no margin for error. It's hard to explain this to people, particularly outside of the States. I can only do it in anecdotes: I had a friend who was grounded — couldn't go to the cinema for a year — because he saw Titanic without his parents permission. There were, I'm sure you'll recall, breasts in Titanic. I can recall them because I saw them too and still feel guilty for seeing them, if I think about it too much. Or this: I was in a men's accountability group that spent several hours each week talking about avoiding sexual temptation. Not having sex, of course, but just thinking about it.
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 
I lived my teenage years thinking I was an adulterer, having cheated repeatedly on my wife, whom I had never met, but who I was told would be deeply hurt by all the things I had thought I might think about doing. I prayed again and again — perhaps it would take at some point. I harassed everyone around me: we cannot, must not, lose our purity. Our future marriages depend on it.

What was that I said about lying to your children, or needing to lie to your children. Naomi was crying again this morning, not wanting to go to school, and I have nothing to offer her. I never went to school, I never moved schools. I have no idea what to say: I hug her and put her on the back of my bicycle and say, sternly, You're going to be okay, you're going to be fine. I don't, of course, believe that she will be. I say it as a kind of imperative. What I mean is, Be okay, be fine. Accept this, move on.

Traveling to Malaysia

Yoko was telling the story of our move to Malaysia, and as I thought about what she was saying, I remembered how ridiculous and hairbrained the whole mess had been. When we got off the plane in Dubai, Mia was crying and the other two girls were sleeping. We had ten carry-ons and three car seats. We're moving, I'm sorry. I remember getting to the gate, the next flight and Yoko taking Mia away for a moment and thinking that this was all going to come undone at some point. Who was I fooling anyway.

And then the story cascaded into another, yes, and it was worse because it was a repeated mistake, one that I had made when we first moved to the UK and had brought fourteen 30kg boxes with us with no way to get them to Milton Keynes. And then repeated again when we came back to the UK and we packed that Chinese taxi full of all our crap and Mei sat on my lap as we raced toward the Kuala Lumpur airport, the old Chinese driver swerving on the road, either drunk or just exhausted. I hadn't learned anything about anything.

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In retrospect, Kate Winslet's breasts in Titanic were the least of my worries. Or making out under a streetlamp with impunity, consequences be damned. All this fear of sex and losing my purity. No, you lied to me about the real trouble. In three years, none of it mattered: the real trouble was something entirely different.

04 May 2015

What is that song you sing for the dead?

Martha's birthday

Oh death, you hector me, decimate those dear to me. 

The last few weeks have been saturated with death: people dying, or waiting to die. Songs about death and realisations that some people are closer to death than others. We turn a corner at some point where people's moms and dads start to die. It's happened twice now in the last six months. It won't stop happening.

When I was in high school, I was responsible. People thought of me as responsible. I played worship songs on the guitar while my girlfriend sang, and people looked up to us. I didn't smoke or drink or run with people who did. In our youth group, I was a leader of some colour family: we had 'family' groups that were assigned a colour. You could be in the blue family or the red family. There were two adult leaders, a male and a female, and then two youth leaders.

One night in September or October, we went bowling as a family and although it was church policy that students not drive to these events (or at least, as I recall it being explained to me), I was trusted to pack a car full of students and make our way down to Mundelein. Somewhere along the way, I had the idea that it would be funny to put Amos in the trunk of my car. We stopped at a light and I said, Amos, you want to get in the trunk of the car, and of course, Amos obliged and I hopped out into the rain and opened the trunk and he jumped inside.

The idea, of course, was that we would arrive at the bowling alley and Amos would jump out of the trunk to everyone's delight. He did, although I remember the joke falling flatter than it should have. Look! It's Amos! In the trunk of the car! None of the girls were impressed or interested.

I went to get my shoes at the counter and remember seeing Lori, one of the adult leaders, come angrily in the door of the bowling alley and make her way towards me. She had been driving the car behind us and didn't think this was funny at all: what if we were in an accident. I remember thinking, as responsible kids do, I hadn't thought of that. I felt horrible for days and days and ended up writing her a letter to apologise. I'm sorry, Ms Bergin, you had trusted me and I failed.

When I had my first daughter, Naomi, she gave the letter back to me, smiling and knowing. I was absolved now, I would understand in time.

Naomi and I walk up to the High Street yesterday. I owed her one, one pound coin that she had given me the other night. I get the money and we buy a secret treat. The sun is going down late now and all the red brick glows from eight until nine. Well-dressed middle class men and women coming in and out of the Junction.

We pass a sign that said: Does God exist? Yes, No, or Probably. Naomi says, Daddy, which one would you tick? I don't know, I say, and we walk on a bit before I ask her. Yes, she says, I think there's a god. We get talking about heaven and I finally tell her the truth, that no, I didn't think there is a god or a heaven, but it is fine if she thinks there is: most people do. She doesn't seem bothered by this. What happens when you die? she askes me, and I say, Well, what was it like before you were born? Naomi thinks and says, I don't remember, and I say, it's sort of like that, I suppose. You don't remember.

She thinks again and I say, How is your new school, you've changed schools a lot? I help her climb up to hang on the fence of the Cerebral Palsy home where a woman was earlier shouting out at us. If I have to change schools again, I think I'll kill myself. I have the urge to chastise her, to tell her not to say that, but I try not to, I've been trying not to. Why's that? Because it's hard, and there are new people. She jumps off the fence and we walk the rest of the way home. You'll be okay, I say. You'll be okay.

There's some scientific research to be done on how much we lie to our children. I'm trying to lie less. Play the long game, when and if I can. It's impossible with books about Jesus lying around and prayers that must be said in school. This word, hector. We are hectored by death, but more so by the remedies we accept to alleviate its pain. All the songs and words and myths. There is no shade in the shadow of the cross. We just fall asleep. Do we. The bells of the church chime again, on the quarter of the hour. You can hear them, like a call to prayer.

01 May 2015

Death with dignity

St Peter’s church, on the top of the hill in Harborne, is surrounded by a cemetery. The headstones, when you take the time to read them, tell the story of the parish and the town by extension, reaching back hundreds of years. Some of them are sunken deep into the ground now, only the very tops sticking out. There, the ground has settled to betray that there was once a body under the soil, but that body is gone now. It’s five years or six years only and the body is gone, taken back, dust to dust, ashes to ashes.

The kids are now accepted, all of them, at St Peters’ school, which comprises two buildings on either side of the church and cemetery. Every morning, the kids walk to school and are surrounded by the dead and the ringing of bells, like it is 1930 or 10 or 50. The buildings are all red brick, and you can look down at the University of Birmingham if you get the right view. There is the walkway into the town centre, past the cricket greens. It is the best of the options we have now, in our little orbit of the house on Victoria Rd that is still cold and damp even into May. The kids can walk there, with Yoko, in less than ten minutes. The whole ecosystem of our life shifted, recentred, on this hill, with the dead couples going back hundreds of years. Millions of pounds of granite.

I have, however, lost hope, in a way that I haven’t ever before. I wonder, as I think about it, if this is a function of a time in life or a natural consequence of the choices I’ve made, trying to fit a lifestyle from twenty years ago into 2015. It’s simply not a life that can be lived on one income, three kids, a foreign residence, the pets, organic food, Japanese imports. Mei has finally been accepted to swimming club and the question can never be, can we afford it: we must afford it, this is the life we’ve chosen, we can’t let anyone down. Every other conversation is about money and what someone needs. Thank you, daddy. 

I get up, and run to work. I'm still gaining and losing weight. My hairline recedes some more. I hear one of the daughters screaming in her sleep. I'll be 33 soon and then 34. The government doesn't value me anymore. I've heard if you go into care with a full bank account, they can drain it. Death with dignity: best to buy those shoes you want now. Best to not gamble it away. 

20 April 2015

Sleepwalking

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There's some place to pick the narrative up.
Then the devil taketh him up into the holy city, and setteth him on a pinnacle of the temple, And saith unto him, If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down: for it is written, He shall give his angels charge concerning thee: and in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone.
Peter and I listened to the bells of Big Ben chime at midnight and I got up to leave for the airport, the last week, as it was, a residue of memory. I was in the Netherlands, and then riding on a bus with that girl, yes, I remembered it all like dream you wake up from suddenly. Peter and I looked at the Rothko pictures together and spent the day talking about how faith had failed us in different ways, and love placed and misplaced, and how we had, like pachiko balls falling through a machine, landed in this place. We walked up Tottenham Court Road: yes, I hadn't imagined that.

At Luton, after the bus let us out and I woke up, I wandered in to find only thirty minutes of free wifi, I tried to sleep in a corner under the fluorescent light, all these other travellers suffering to make do in different ways. I put on my headphones and shut my eyes, listening to brown noise and a 12 hz tone, waiting for three o'clock, or four or five. The M&S was open, and I bought hotcakes.

What else had I dreamed: I had been on trains and buses and planes for how many days. There were pensioners all around getting ready for holidays — a flight to Alicante, yes. The mates all drinking pints in the airport lounge at 5 because they can, and I had picked up an abridged copy of Dante's Inferno, with just the bits about hell, as a joke. Which circle was this.
The highest Wisdom and the primal Love.
Before me there were no created things.
I woke up again on a plane in Belfast and went back to a hotel I had been to before: a Polish man speaking in an Irish accent. He gave me a room with a shower. And then I was in Cardiff, walking down these streets again that I have now walked silent three times this year, once holding Yoko's hand, once alone last month, and once alone again. I spoke about ethics and doing good, and a hijabi shook my hand saying, 'It's okay: I'm one that shakes hands' and I couldn't tell how she knew about my interest in hijabis shaking hands.

I woke up on Saturday and threw up twice then laid in bed for 8 hours waiting for whatever I had to pass. Sunday, I woke up and took Nana to swimming and then to a play and then they played in the park while I stood at a fence and Yoko sat inside, on a bench.

Monday, today, I woke up and the girls started a new school, the one I told them we had been waiting a year and a half for them to start. They both had no trouble: Naomi has been to so many schools for a little girl.
Of Angels, who have not rebellious been,
Nor faithful were to God, but were for self.
The heavens expelled them, not to be less fair;
Nor them the nethermore abyss receives,
For glory none the damned would have from them."
And then I woke up.


25 March 2015

A strange light

Last week, on Friday, there was an eclipse. I didn't know one was coming and had not prepared — instead I had made my way to the barber to have my hair cut and think about some things. Dez, my barber, charges £6.50, but I always pay him at least £8 because I enjoy talking to him so much. Dez was not there when I arrived at 9, but the lights were on and I knew he would be close, so I stood outside in my shorts, thinking I would go running afterwards. Dez came around the corner eventually, holding a coffee and a newspaper and excitedly talking about the eclipse. Where had I been: how did I not know about it.

I remembered, as we stood outside, trying not to look directly at the sun, a moment in my childhood when there had been an eclipse. A full one, in Texas. I remembered that we had been sold these visors like sunglasses that allowed us to look at it, but being told again and again, 'Don't look directly at the sun.' As a child I was curious, but also terrified, both of god and my parents, so I didn't look up at it as I was told. 

With Dez, however, he implored me to look at it — 'Look at it! But just a second, like this' and he held up his hand to cover and uncover the sun briefly. I looked at it briefly as well, but felt guilty suddenly, like I had done something wrong.

Dez cut my hair and chatted on and on: this is how religion started, someone had to explain this. Look! There are two magpies outside, have you ever seen magpies in this area, even the birds know.

I had my glasses off and let Dez clip away, happily, as we talked about the sun and longboats and caravans, the things Dez and I discuss. He told me about the caravan park where his caravan is, just into Wales, where it's beautiful. He worked steadily and finished, handing me my glasses. That'll do, of course, here have £8, and Dez said, Oh are you sure: bless you, have a chocolate. 

We went outside again: Dez had said it would be pitch black, but it wasn't. It was just a strange light, like a lampshade put on. I ran home, wondering how the people in the past had seen that, before religion and god. Was it an omen or portent. What did you do when it went back to normal and never happened again: how could you explain it to others, would they believe you. One day the light went strange. I don't know what it means. 
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