23 May 2016

Habits

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At least the sun is shining now. The kids, in the morning with their lunches and bags, walking up Victoria Road. It is non-uniform day, which means you can wear what you want, including your uniform, the girls say. I worked out first and then put on my shirt and jeans before taking them to school because I noticed I was the only dad taking the kids to school in workout clothes. And then today, I notice everyone else is now wearing running shorts. Hug and kiss, I say to Naomi and Mei and Mia before they run off. Hug and kiss. A proper kiss. 

When I get off the bus and am walking towards the station, two men are staggering and drunk and one of them has a bottle of beer. I keep my head down, as you do, because I am in a suit and headed the opposite way. One of them says, ‘Mate, do you know where the pub is?’ And I look up and say, ‘Which pub?’ And he says, ‘The one across the road.’ I don’t know, I say, there are pubs on Broad Street. And I keep going, ignoring him saying after me, ‘You American mate?’ like I didn’t hear.

I sleep nervously when I need to get up early. I woke up at 3:04 and checked the time. I’ll lie here until the alarm, I think. And then at 3:30, I get up at the first sound, before the alarm can wake Yoko who has finally come to bed sometime in the night. I make eggs and put on a suit and go out to wait for the bus, although I can order a taxi, I think, I'm not paying for it anyway.

Because it is almost summer now, the sun comes up so early and there are touches of the light on the edge of the horizon at the bus stop. The War Lane Road roundabouts are quiet and everything is closed. I stand there for a moment, in the quietness, and look at the big van across the way that says, 'Man and Van'. 

How many of my problems are just built on bad habits, bad habitual actions. This week I realised I had grown up eating constantly; I was always eating. An Italian woman, a parent of one of kids' friends who I am talking to at a birthday party at Boing Zone says this to me, triggers a series of thoughts: The problem with the British is that they are always eating. They will eat on the street. In their cars. In Italy, we eat three times a day, unless you are a child then you will eat a snack maybe in the afternoon because you can't control yourself. As she says this, a mother comes by offering us cake that the children have passed over, Asda cake, a Galaxy chocolate cake, and I take a piece while the Italian woman of course refuses. I think, yes, this is the problem. I am a child. 

In a committee meeting the other day, when I am referred to unironically as the 'subject expert', I feel again like a child in an ill-fitting suit because I ate a cookie that morning — I felt unhappy and stressed and ate a cookie, like a child. I know they are all thinking, look at this fat child, what is he doing here, even while they say, this is the expert, let's hear from him. 

I know I appear like a bureaucrat now, but I used to be someone who wanted to be a writer. And then I realised that writing is not a vocation, it is an identity. It can be a vocation, sure, but who wants to get paid to write. I want no strings attached. My father asked me when I graduated from university [I say university though I mean college because as an American masquerading as a British bureaucrat, you need to know the lingo], he asked me, What did you learn? and I said, I learned how to write a sentence. 

Later, I recount the story to my father, and he says, 'You said, I learned how to write a good sentence, or I learned how to write a sentence well. You qualified it.' And I had to agree, because I didn't remember saying it anyway, but I thought, actually, that's not a very good sentence if I put a qualifier into it. It should have been, 'I learned how to write a sentence' and I should've trusted the reader to fill in the rest. 

I finished my expert committee role and thought that even though I had money to ride the tube, I should walk up from South Bank to Soho. I had, as I said, eaten a cookie, and then later a scone, and then later a cheese sandwich and some crisps. I was a fat man again with my bag, weaving through the traffic. I remember this same feeling in Malaysia, the feeling of being stared at even when people aren't necessarily staring. You get it in your head and you start talking to yourself in the voices of all the young men on motorbikes: Look at that fat white man, who is simultaneously a child and rich bureaucrat with a nice home. Earlier, I saw him eating ice cream at the seven eleven.

I walked up towards Westminster, past all the Asians and Italians with selfie-sticks on the bridge in front of Big Ben. And then up towards Trafalgar Square, past all the war monuments, the men on horses and the Americans taking pictures, and I was feeling hot and fat and angry at the world for loving war so much. Really though, I was angry with myself, the cookies, and tight fitting shirt that ripped at the elbow when I went to pick up something. I know I'm not blending in, I too would take a picture of the men on the horses and the clock and everything else if I wasn't so self-conscious. I may appear on the outside like a good bureaucrat, but wait until I open my mouth. 

It's a habit to eat when you are happy or when you are sad or when you are angry or when you stressed or when you are bored or when you are afraid. Here, this cookie will solve your problems, Stevie, you child. Jesus will come back soon enough. At least I realise it now, I say to myself, the fat reflection of me in the mirror. I say, You look fat to me, but I know you are not fat. It's okay: any habit can be broken. You just have to break it. 

14 May 2016

Under the tree

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Why are you here.

London had touches of spring last week. The Megabus was late, but it didn't matter in the end. I woke up as I seem to always wake up when the driver swings past Marble Arch, and I look up and try to remember how this was ultimate success when I was 19. This was the dream; this is living one of the dreams. I got off, got on a bike and rode up towards UCL, towards Senate House library, through Hyde Park in the sun. Hyde Park, where I came when I first came to England, when I first had whatever insatiable sense that there was something here, something in this park that wasn't wherever I was. I parked the bike, I got coffee, I went to my meetings. At 8:30 that night, I stood in Euston Station looking up at the boards and fell asleep on the train going home.

The time keeps going and going and when I sit to say something, to write it out, it disappears. I thought I would write on the train and then, after the 15 hour day, I couldn't do it. Was it 15 hours, I thought? Was it more? I had gotten up at 2:30. Every day this year I've done something. Why can't I remember it now. The girls had their birthday party: I told the woman at St Martian's about it today, trying not to cry like you try not to cry sometimes because you've been told it makes you look weak. I'm not happy, I say: we were at the zoo and the girls were there with my wife and it was them and it was me, like there was some wall. She gestures, I gesture, this is what separation looks like when you make it with your hands. I am here, they are there. Another gesture, I'm stuck. I sit back, and she smiles and takes out forms we need to fill in.

Do you purge. What a miserable word: I mishear it first, 'What? Purge? Like vomit? No, of course not,' I say and then realise that is the wrong thing to say, 'I mean: no.' Okay, good: that's the real problem. If you just eat, if you just binge, you just gain weight. I want to stop the conversation there: no just. Just is the wrong hedge. I marked an essay about hedges, I'm thinking about hedges. No, no, I don't purge, I eat sometimes and I can't stop. It's a terrible experience. She nods. No, I don't want to hurt myself. I don't want to hurt others, no.

There's a pause and I make a point to stress that these are extraordinary circumstances. I'm okay, normally, if I was in a normal situation I would be okay, but it's not normal. My family isn't here, my parents or my brother or sister: we're alone, there's so much uncertainty. She nods and I realise I've gotten worked up. I've been waving my hands: I can see myself and I can see what she says, It sounds like you have a lot to be anxious about, which I do, but I wonder, Is she saying that because she actually thinks that, or because it's what she thinks I need to hear. I sit back. I do, I say, I feel like I do.

The girls just keep going and going, getting older and older. The birthday party, the one I held bags through, and played with my phone until the phone died, graciously, sacrificially — they ran around the zoo and I asked Naomi, What do you think you'll remember about being a little girl, about me and about your birthdays? She laughs: I don't know. We were all sitting under that tree that was blossoming, will she remember that? They all swapped toys that they had won in a game that Yoko made for them. Perhaps they will remember that. Perhaps they won't. 

I don't remember my father. I remember his shoes, his big shoes that I used to put my feet into. I remember him sleeping on the sofa after work. I remember that on my birthdays, he was always happy. He took me to breakfast at Pannekoeken Huis, a Dutch pancake house that we rode our bikes to. So. I took the girls to breakfast for their birthday, like my dad did. I tried to talk them into a nicer place to eat, a finer restaurant, but they weren't having it: We all sat on the high stools at McDonald's while Yoko slept at home. Everyone was so happy. Everyone chatted.

I'm going back to London again on Monday. And again on the twenty fifth, and again on the first, the sixth, the seventh, and then the tenth. The part-time work trickles in and now, after being told emphatically, No, you can't work part-time, I can. I have a contract. And I think I have enough money. Touch wood, fingers crossed, we're going to be okay. I can take today off and walk around in the sun. Have a cup of coffee, go with Yoko and the girls to dinner at a friend's house. Buy some pipe tobacco, maybe. Maybe have a drink. Go back to the woman at St Martian's, try to sort happiness next: gesture less, or more, or whatever amount of gesturing is normal for me, for my circumstances, for my illness. And work on my book some more.

29 April 2016

Sometimes is Snows in April

My ankle gave out on me while running: it was a metaphor. This year we have pushed and pushed and not made progress one way or another. I gained all the weight back. I couldn't sleep and then I slept too much.

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25 April 2016

Half of the way

Yesterday, as we trudged up Vicarage Road to St Peter's, it struck me that Naomi will be nine soon. Almost ten, almost eleven, almost eighteen. She's moody now, like me, annoying her mother in the same way I annoy her mother. She doesn't want to go to church, but does because she has to. She sits with her legs crossed, thinking. I put my arm around her because I want her to be close to me.

Mia needed to be held yesterday, just while her mother cleaned her boot. I held her and it was awkward because she is too big to be held now. She will be five.

On our hike, which Naomi didn't want to be on until she did, we talked about Justin Beiber song lyrics. We talked about teenage things, about love and who they liked. I saw a man struggling with a pram and thought that I would never do that again. I had already done my time.

Now they cook for themselves, and make pancakes. Naomi says that I have too much white hair. Yes, I say, let's make a pact and never grow up, you and me. Let everyone else grow up and we'll stay young and happy and carefree. They laugh and ride off on bicycles. Mia too, now: go on, I say, and then immediately, please stay, I'm sorry, don't go.

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23 April 2016

Touches

Now, spring comes to Birmingham in fits and starts. I've been waiting to write something. I want to come to that moment, when I can make some sense of the last month, but it's never quite what I want. I lost and gained weight. People came and went. I taught. The girls were home from school, and I took my pagan communion at St Peter's several times. Yoko and I stood around in silence in different places. The girls went back to school; Mia cried loudly and demanded things while I scowled. Mei lost her hearing for a while. Naomi worked on a presentation about guinea pigs.

I've been writing too, working on a book, a special issue of a journal, an edited collection, a couple of book chapters and an article with a friend about the use of scripture to justify violence. I've been writing an application for a prize that requires me to say something about how influential I've become, but I'm not very influential at all, it turns out. I wrote a blog post for another site. I wrote references for students. 

Writing a book is an insufferable experience, surrounded by insufferable phrases like, 'I'm working on a book' or 'I'm writing a book' or 'I was working on my book yesterday.' People say, Oh yeah? I'm thinking of writing a book too, and you want to say in response, You have no idea what you're talking about. I'm submerged in a collection of ideas that I'm not sure is right, that I'm not confident is right, but I'm thirty one thousand five hundred and eight words in now: I can't turn back. The only way out of a book is to write it, and every day you write it you feel like you failed that day because it's still not finished, regardless of how well you did. I wrote four thousand good words when I only intended to write three and I felt remarkably unsettled. I walked home, ignoring my ringing phone in my jeans.

I wrote for four days at the Quaker retreat centre I go to sometimes. I wrote and wrote and wrote, more than ten percent of the book at the end of the time, but when I got on my bike and rode home on Thursday evening, the hill on Bristol Road felt like too much to handle. Like I couldn't get up it. I wanted to sit on the pavement, and just stop. Not say anything or do anything or decide anything for the rest of the night. I saw a man at the top of Victoria Road doing this once, with a beer. Just sat there. Yes. Let me be that person, please. 

The man at the gym at the check-in desk, to whom I pour out my heart sometimes, looks at me like I'm mad. 'Body builders must have eating disorders, it's an inevitable result of trying to take that much control, right?' I'm wearing flourscent yellow shorts. I take my work too seriously. I come home and I can't make any decision about anything. The girls run round and round and round and I sit in the middle of it. I've been writing and writing and writing. I'm writing about writing. I got up this morning at 2:30 and I was writing. 


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