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.

16 September 2018

Meridian Lines

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A week passes into the new school year and things fall back into the natural ruts of middle class, Harborne life, a meridian line behind us and before us. The morning routine with the children stomping and laughing and crumbs on the sofa. The fever pitch of the summer part-time work finally breaks and new running shoes come in the post. I eat too little or too much, but sense somewhere inside that equilibrium is starting to inch its way into my life, like a habit rather than an act of will. I say that but it's also not true. You can eat too much of anything. You can become angry again in a moment, even for things you set your intention against. Given enough time, the man comes around.

The plasterer was by again last week and we chatted about brick walls and patching and how much work still needs to be done in the house on Victoria Road. Whenever one project finishes, another appears. In some time, all one hundred years of damage might be erased. This current project is aimed at putting up new plaster and paint to restore a former, or rather new, glory, because who knows how dark the walls were initially. You can only guess as you strip one layer of paper and paint after another. The walls could be bright again or for the first time, and create the sense of space if not actual space. The mould deep in the cracks, sealed up and hidden away for some other person in a future, because of course there is a future, to uncover and repair again.

For my part, I wake up and still feel disoriented. I had been sweating in the night, hadn't I. It had woken me up. The washing machine is broken and smelled like burning. We ran a few loads of laundry through it and nothing burned down so we think it's okay for the time being, for the next couple of days anyway, before we call some man called Mike or Steve to have a look at it. Whatever you can say about this, the looming Life in the UK tests and the inevitable pile of paperwork with the Home Office, the hostile environment, all of that aside, the Pihlajas of Harborne are as middle class as can be. Eating less meat and never taking plastic carrier bags. Saying please and thank you and I'm sorry when we don't mean it. The woman in the mediation app has me thinking about how all of life is connected and I am distracted by thoughts of laminate flooring or carpet. They reappear and resolve, just like everything, before the bell rings.

13 September 2018

The tenth year

Light in old apartment

The summer of running has given itself over to the dark autumn mornings, the day creeping to equity with the night, and the timetabled demands of work and family. I have retreated back to the treadmill in the Newman University gym, staring at myself running in the mirror and thinking about whether or not I got any better this year. I weighed myself one morning a few weeks ago and then last week, but it was pointless. I knew that my weight had not changed; I had realised the thing I should have realised the first thousand times I was told it. I want to declare myself healed like the daughter of Canaanite woman that Jesus rebuked (Matthew 15:21-28), but I know the moment I do that, I will be sick again.

In May of the year that we came to the UK, I won a PhD studentship out of the blue. I fell into it: I hadn't earned it or done anything worthwhile except respond to a few emails. I got lucky, is what I mean, and everything started changing. The week after I heard, I went away for a conference about metaphor in Cáceres‎ — I met my supervisor for the first time and remember now the place we had coffee, looking out on the Spanish countryside, espresso in small paper cups. I was ecstatic. I flew through Madrid and a Christian friend, someone I knew from college met me, and we walked around the city and he awkwardly prayed over me on a bench in a plaza, asking God for emotional healing. We drank champagne in the bathroom of the airport, hiding from a security guard, and I went to Moscow for a day and then back, through Tokyo, the whole of the world buzzing inside me like things now, things finally, had come together. 

When we left Japan, ten years ago next week, we had blind faith. We sold everything and I was cruel and hasty the way you are when you're twenty six and terrified. We put the things we didn't sell or give away, the things I reluctantly agreed to take with us, into plastic tubs. Naomi was so small and I had no idea what I was doing. We gave up so much, things that I still miss and tell stories about. A good mattress and a big refrigerator. And the tatami mats as I think about it, that smell of tatami. We just left and then we were here, in Milton Keynes, misty and cold and green. I rode to the Open University on my Japanese Louis Garneau eighteen speed road bike, the bike I wasn't willing to give up and took on the plane because it was free to take bikes on planes back then. I looked for an apartment while Naomi and Yoko stayed in the one bedroom we had at the B&B in Woolstone. I don't remember anything else. I remember meeting two or three people. I remember how lucky I felt.

On the anniversary of that day, when I took the hired car up the M1 for the first time, my little family sleeping in it, ten years after that, the plasterer comes to the house on Victoria Road in Birmingham, the house that I own a small part of. Yoko and I both have dentist appointments. Naomi goes to school, or I walk her towards school until she meets some friends. Yoko takes the other girls, both in the juniors' department of St Peter’s now. This is still not ideal, though, not in my mind at least. I have a list of things that make me unhappy with our current situation — I gesture angrily in the direction of Finland, like it would save me from disappearing into my own navel, being anything other than what I am. You are still lucky, you are still falling ass-backwards into everything, that is the truth isn't it. I look at my aging, my exhausted face in the mirror after twenty minutes of running at tempo pace, as I bring up the speed of the treadmill another half-kilometer. I'm lucky — I've always been lucky. 

11 September 2018

Physical walls

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The house on Victoria Road is held together by red dust — pull a bit at the wallpaper and it's bound to come billowing out. When we were putting in the bathroom this last winter, curious, I had done this in the staircase and found that some part of the wall was just being held up with layers and layers paper, a century's worth of bad decorating decisions. The builders were supposed to fix this quickly, but it never happened and we've lived with this divot in the wall, until I finally made another effort to chase down the builders before going to Sweden. The plasterers made some estimation of the costs and gave me some dates in September, but of course they couldn't make a real estimation until all the paper had come down and we found out how bad things were.

With the dates in diary to have it all sorted, I started to pull down the wallpaper in earnest on Saturday afternoon, thinking the whole thing wouldn't take several hours: the same foolish thought I have at the beginning of every one of the events. By well after four on Sunday, I was still ankle deep in wet paper and glue, covered in red dust, with bits of brick falling down as I climbed up and down a one story ladder thinking, well, this is becoming more complicated than it should be, isn't it. Still though, there's something about having your hands in the work, the mess, and looking at whatever you've done, whenever it's done and thinking, I did that. Look at that thing I did.

The bare walls, the construction, create an odd anxiety that is hard to describe, like an unmade bed or an unwashed dish on the table. You learn to cope with it, but it's better if you acknowledge its effects. I trudged up to St Peters, my arms aching from manual labour, and found our place, in the front pew and sang through the songs, watching Mei and Mia in the choir and sitting close to Yoko. When we went to kneel down at the altar rail, I put my hands out and realised they were not entirely clean — I had washed them, but they were still grey and cut up. I took it anyway, took the wine, and sat back down.

The music ended and I left early, skipped the coffee to go back to work. Everyone came home and played and we ate tofu and vegetables that I cooked in soy sauce and blackstrap molasses, and I went back to it until everyone was in bed. Finally, sometime after nine, I stopped working and walked up and down the stairs to survey where we were. Everything was a mess, dusty light bulbs and exposed electrical cords. It's progress, anyway, I said to myself. You gotta strip it back completely, like I'm a person who knows something about something, like a person who takes a cigarette break. You complain and complain about these things, because that's what you do, but you know, you realise, in the back of your mind that, like everything, when it's done, you'll miss it.
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