04 December 2018

Indefiniteness


It's a mild heresy to start advent on the first of December — Advent begins on the first Sunday of December. The children have their advent calendars with chocolates and I considered getting a vegan one for myself, because I am a child too. I thought better of it and instead, followed my wife and daughters to the first carol service at St Peter's, to sit in the dark in my long grey coat that I've had for years now and try to clear my mind. In Japan, Japanese men are expected to avoid sweet things. 

When I was a child, Christmas was a straightforward, Capitalist anticipation for goods — some heap of plastic coming in my name. All I felt for a month was desire for things, big things. This made sense in the American context, but now, I am thirty six and half and have my own children and my Japanese wife and we are living in a country that I never can quite understand. What we should do, what we should keep and discard from our cultural repertoires gets muddied without any momentum. It comes to a head at holidays. I'm not sure what I should be doing, what I should be giving to my children. It leads to a kind of paralysis, a starting and stopping of incomplete traditions. I let things happen to me rather than do anything myself. I sit in the darkness of the church, and wait for the darkness to fill with the sounds of singing voices, for something about the past to help me make sense of the present.

The house of Victoria Road was finished, or mostly finished, this last week, when the plasterers came and made all the holes in the walls disappear. We had had been living with them for what felt like a lifetime, but was really only several months. I did a poor job painting and laid down some laminate flooring and suddenly a corner had been turned and it felt like it had always been this way. You can walk from the front of the house to the back and not be distracted by some ongoing construction, a wall that appears to be falling down. The next step is to get furniture — I threw away a sofa and on Saturday bought a big TV, big beyond reason, after debating back and forth about whether or not I needed it. Was it excusable, an excusable offence, when there is so much suffering and I've done so little. I bought it, finally, gave in and drove home and hung it up in the living room like it was some evidence of something. Look at your father, look at your husband. He can be normal. 

Of course, the pantomime of normalcy doesn't last. Soon, I'm berating my children about some behaviour I irrationally expect from them. I'm complaining in bad Japanese about the UK immigration system. I'm not eating normally. I have a burn on my hand that people are staring at, but I can't decide if I should bring it up or not. I'm meditating but thinking of shelving. Of plastic in the ocean. Of something I said in 2006. Of whatever unknown unknown will come up in my application for indefinite leave to remain in this country. Of my own body which is bloated, or not bloated.

The singing starts and my candle gets lit by Naomi, who sits next to me, who sits with me as the lights come up and we sing 'O come, O come, Emmanuel'. Emmanuel is a placeholder as I sing — O Come, Something, O thing for which I am stretching out in the darkness. My eyes have stopped trying to adjust. I just sit now, and listen. It will come to an end, won't it: Graeme assures us all that we will be judged. The applications will go in to the government, I will pay whatever fees are required. The house on Victoria Road's walls will be scuffed by small hands. The church choir will keep singing and all of us, with faith or no faith, will sit with candles, listening. 

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 leave to remain, long-term 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.
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