06 November 2018

How will you know that death has occurred?


With October closed out, the last mile of the marathon is here. Three months after one hundred and eight months. Only three months more and the Pihlajas of Harborne can apply for indefinite residency, we can be recognised on paper for whatever it is we are now. I have nervously stopped checking the Home Office site, knowing that whatever changes can occur now have passed. The new laws they will put into place after the party conference are pernicious and unfair, but not focused on us this time. We'll be okay, we think, won't we. Why wouldn't we be.

I'm tired of non-stop conflict with myself, with the institution, with the governments. Everyone wants you to fight in two thousand and eighteen. Someone came into our house the other night and took our phones and Yoko's purse. I wanted to be angry, but I never got angry.

With some luck, the next eighty four days will pass without anything else going. There's nothing else to say, is there.

25 October 2018

Thirst for hunger

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I moved to Japan on the eighteenth of October two thousand and three, although as I think of it now, we missed our connecting flight in Seoul and ended up arriving a day late, nineteenth October, a Sunday afternoon, not knowing for sure if the news had gotten through to the small church we were meant to be serving. Only my second trip abroad, I didn't know what I was doing, had packed hangers in my suitcase like this was the thing I would need most when I arrived. We touched down and made our way out into the arrivals — people were there to meet us and we rode through the city to Imajuku, to the church and a whole congregation of nervous people waiting to welcome us. I remember thinking that it wasn't what I expected. I remember thinking that there were more rice fields, it was more rural, but in an urban way. Rice fields and then overpasses. Concrete rivers and vending machines.

Coming out of Newman yesterday, a green mini comes tearing up the street and I have a flash of anger at the students who can't behave themselves and make the University look bad — I'm like my own parents, telling off some kids they don't know like it's their responsibility. I get through the gate and ask if the guy coming out of the car is a Newman student, and he's incredulous, of course he's not, why am I asking, and I'm walking away telling him to never mind and he's following after me. I pull out my ear buds, turn and say, it's because I don't want the students tearing up and down the streets like that, but he can do what he wants, and he launches into a litany of complaints about the students — he lives here, his parents live here, the students make it hard for him and he can't get out of his house. And so I say I'm sorry — I'm sorry that he feels that way and that the students have done all the things students do. I'm sorry about his father, about the anger, about the people that can't do anything. If there's anything I can do, I will do it. I give him my card and we shake hands and I run home.

We mistake thirst for hunger too often. I found myself finally, after years of trying, able to stop eating when I'm full, to not panic at the end of a meal. How silly to write that out, to tell the truth, but it is the truth. I panic when I eat too much, or I used to panic when I ate too much. At some point the past becomes the past, but I'm not sure when you can use the past tense. I used to be be afraid. I am still afraid.

24 October 2018

Rigor Mortis

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The house on Victoria Road had, for many years, a dirty cream carpet in all the rooms. When we started our lease in January 2014, I remember thinking how dumb it was that they had put carpet in the entryway. I had coded it as a particularly British oversight, the way you would find carpet in toilets sometimes, and recoil, instinctively. We lived on this carpet for many years, until I became a homeowner, homeowner of this particular home, and we started to pull it all up downstairs. Last autumn, I did most of it, cleaned up the floorboards through the first floor and then up the stairs and then into the room that was the bathroom and became Naomi's bedroom. The boards were full of nails from carpets over the years, but I dug them all out, my hands cut up and the recurring thoughts of whether or not any of this made sense to do.

The last rooms with carpet — the master bedroom and the second bedroom where Yoko and I sleep — had been put off indefinitely, but several weeks ago, I pulled it out of the girls room in a dramatic display of a box cutter and tearing. That done, I had Mei and Mia pick out a paint colour they liked (Blue Wool), and then found an analogous, cheaper version of the same colour — Pale Duck Egg — at Homebase. They would love this name, of course, and I knew that when I bought it, patting myself on the back for both saving money and retaining the novelty. Who wants wool when you can have duck eggs. I sealed the cracks in the ceiling then painted for a weekend and then finally decided to put down laminate flooring, this faux wood print that I had avoided buying because I wanted one the original boards. I loaded the flatbed trolley with fifteen boxes of planks, and all the sundries I needed — underlay and some trim — just over five hundred pounds. I tried to not think about the money as I handed over my credit card and pushed it out to the car. 

When I closed my eyes to meditate yesterday, I saw the laminate flooring that I had put down and my mind flooded with all the thoughts of renovations and then Brexit and then the visas and the money and the changing rules. I had looked at our credit card statement closely and I realised I didn't make enough money, did I, to cover the costs of life and that there was no one to blame, no one at whom I could direct my anger. The years of moving on and around are done, the Finnish dream or another run of life in Southeast Asia. These are the thoughts that I have when I close my eyes, and the man asks about our posture, where we are holding our stress. I'm holding my stress in the thoughts of my laminate flooring and the sofa we have purchased on zero percent credit even though we don't know if they are going to send us out of this country next year. We know they won't, I can say that, I should say that, but the thought is still there when I close my eyes and try to focus on the breath. Something always tries to take your attention away.

I fell asleep with the lights on last night. The house is warm, although I keep turning the thermostat down — the monthly bill has gone up again. I did say goodnight to the girls, I do remember that. Yoko fell asleep beside me at some point. I dreamt I was in Texas, that I was headed to a birthday party at the foot of the Franklin Mountains, in a park that only exists in my dreams, an amalgamation of Cannon Hill Park and some vision I have of the desert still. I found the party, a group of people under some trees and a family I haven't seen in decades. They smiled when they saw me, and I said, it's been years hasn't it. And then I woke up. 

10 October 2018

The dark can't hide it

Naomi's photos

Our neighbour on Victoria Road who is talking to Yoko as I pass by on my way home after running, says to me, Do you know why I hate you? with a look of preparedness and anticipation, ready to reveal the second half of the joke. I pull out my earphones, disoriented, confused — the answer comes quickly: because you are so energetic, she says. I smile, embarrassed, aware of the insufferability of exercising in public, where others can see you and assume you are, in your good health, attempting to shame them. I demur the way one should demur, offering some false apology, downplaying whatever energy I might appear to have and pessimistic with some reference to my age and how I must be getting to the twilight of my running years, my knees are sure to give out. It's only a matter of time. She quickly says that she doesn't really hate me, and I should keep running while I can, and I thank her, apologise again and continue up Victoria Road, towards the house, struggling to find my keys and peeling off my clothes.

With winter coming, and the looming date of our application for indefinite leave to remain, the final visa stage which should secure our future in the UK, the days pass with the slow, uneasy expectation that some increased suffering is both coming and will pass. Like I imagine the feeling before childbirth. I have a list of things now to accomplish, the things that I can do myself and the things I need others to do with and for me, but at some point in February next year, maybe, March, it will have all passed. The passports will be with the Home Office for one hundred and eighty days and we will be chained to the city, to Harborne, to our little world with the children coming and going, the backpacks piled in the entryway, and some house project to be done. There will be nothing left to do but wait.

My left foot, the ball of my foot connected to my middle toe, is sore on long runs because the new shoes feel a half-size smaller than they are. I don't mind enough to replace them and they are still new enough that they should give in eventually. With the autumn darkness creeping in, I run in the dark, leaving around six and heading to the canals, towards the city. It's three kilometers to the canal in Selly Oak, and when you finally reach it, having crossed four lanes of traffic several times, the water is still and sunken down in the city. The bridges you run under are dark, and there is a nervous excitement running towards them, like running towards a black hole. Of course, it is nothing like a black hole — you enter it and suddenly your eyes adjust and you see the end. All you need to do is trust in what you know about the bridges, your own experience of running on this path. The fear wells up, comes up to the edges, but it's manageable, isn't it. You keep running through the dark and eventually you hear the bell tower, Old Joe at the University of Birmingham, striking six thirty or seven on the way back and there it is. Everything has been fine, like they said it would be fine.

21 September 2018

Newer Shoes


The rain and wind hit Birmingham hard just as we roll into the proper autumn. In this country, you say the rain is pissing down, and there’s a kind of pleasure in that pronunciation, like the sharp barb of a swear word that isn’t quite a swear word. I didn’t recognise this change in weather until I was running to work and got caught in it. I immediately thought of my shoes, my new shoes, which I gradually realised, as I tried to avoid puddles, would now be wet and muddy, and no longer strictly new.

Having discovered that the Garmin app, which had previously had a more important administrative role in my life, was meant to track mileage on shoes, I went back and added my previous pair, the nondescript blue Asics I bought in Bristol the last time I was there, to all the runs I had taken them on. The app spit out an impressive number: one thousand six hundred and eighty kilometres in just under ten months. I proudly showed Yoko and started to track my new shoes immediately, ten kilometers and then thirteen and then sixteen, and so on. Having been through the puddles, I put them on the radiator to dry and thought about the future.

The house on Victoria Road is going through an opposite transformation as the good work by Keith the Plasterer dries and the entryway and living room have a fresh, glassy finish. You can walk from the front of the house to the back and provided you blink at the right time, you miss the walls that haven’t been done yet. I feel a kind of buoyancy — my first annual mortgage statement which told me I had made a small, but noticeable scratch on the surface of the debt I went into, to establish this home for the Pihlajas of Harborne.

I want to show the letter to everyone and say, look, I’ve made good on something finally. This is actually working, isn’t it. I’m happier to spend money when I feel this way, particularly on the house which I view as a kind of bank account. Let’s paint this thing and that one. Let’s get this fixed. Let’s all go out for brunch and I’ll get toast because I like toast, but everyone else should get whatever they want. You can tell no one trusts me in moments like this, because they know, my wife and kids do, that I will swing back to worrying about everything in moment. I reassure them, though: we have money now, some money, and some money sunk in this house, ready to be taken out whenever the dream fails and the man comes around. I’ll be back to my old self then, don’t worry, but until then, let’s live it up and have all the coffee and chicken nuggets we want.

These are the thoughts that wake me up at 11:55 and then 1:45 and then 3:14. I finally give in thinking I’ll just get up, weigh myself and eat my protein-molasses pancakes, and meditate for a half hour, and then start work around 5:30 after I go through some papers and reorganise a shelf and make some coffee. I do all those things and am disappointed with my weight, but having primed myself for this disappointment, I can accept it and move on. The scale told me I lost fat anyway, and that my body is two years younger than I am, in Japanese years of course, because it’s a Japanese scale. I eat and then light candles and kneel down and the man tells me to feel my body collapsing into my heart. I try to feel it. Is it a collapsing, man in the app, man who is speaking slowly and deliberately. I don’t know. I don’t know if I like that metaphor. My thoughts slip to the thing I need to write and I recognise that my thoughts have wandered before we, the man in the app and I, take a deep breath together. Some things get better while others get worse. They’ll swap around.
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