15 November 2017

Loving kindness



I'm busy proofreading my book manuscript, so it can come out early next year as planned. Like my PhD thesis in the weeks before my viva, I couldn't open the pdf the publisher sent for the first couple of days, terrified of what I might find. Then, when I finally did have the courage and did open it, there were immediately a flurry of errors. Tautologies and repetitions and misspellings and statements that were demonstrably false. I tried to sleep, but sleep has been impossible this month — I go two hours and I'm up again. I know I should just eat, but I can't just eat because the number has been steady and I feel fine. I don't want to sleep anyway — I want to work, to confront this manuscript and sort everything out because everything can be sorted out.

After gnawing on the edges of meditation, I've finally gone all in, making an effort every day to get down on the ground, on the little bench I built for myself, and take a few minutes. At first it was ten and now it's twenty: I feel like it will keep going up the worse I feel about it. The moment when you kneel and you stop, that moment, is everything I could wish for. I breathe in and out and in and out and suddenly there is nothing. There is nothing for a moment, for one breath, and then there is something and something else and then something else and I have chased the silence off. This is nothing new in the experience of anyone who has ever meditated. I shouldn't be surprised by its acuteness, but I am. Every frustration I can't confront coming back again and again. People I love to hate and my petty grudges. Or if not them, then the things I like, the visions of grandeur. Or the to-do list. Or the future, the planning of the extension, the tiles. Or the children. Or Trump, the permafrost melting, my impending doom, all of our impending doom — Trump again of course, who could forget Trump. Or calorie counting and running and weight. A flood of things, of all my insecurities, over and over and over again until the timer and my eyes open.

My father was here this weekend and we didn't argue, were not even on the edge of argument. I attribute this to the cushion, to being down on the ground, but this is a falsehood, a vanity — my father has changed too and now we've come to the point in a paternal relationships where you put your defences down and realise that it's silly to fight about silly things, isn't it. I order beer over lunch and there's no reason to talk about Trump, about the permafrost, and why I am not raising my children to be terrified to me. Last year, I felt I needed to say something, to explain my position, but now I wonder what it matters, what can I say anyway that would make me feel better or feel heard or validated. The validation is already there, you just have to uncover it inside yourself.

One of the things you learn when renovating is the actual size of a space. Not what you imagine it to be, but what it actually is. The space where we are putting our new bathroom is small – 1710mm by 2350mm. That space is smaller than you think and when you start to insert bathtubs and toilets and radiators into it, it becomes even smaller. I had imagined it to be much larger, like you could have a separate toilet and bathtub, in two separate rooms. But of course, you can’t actually. There isn’t really space for that. The space goes up, thankfully, with the ceiling on the left hand wall when you look back going up to the height of the vaulted ceilings in the house, and I think this slope upwards will feel comforting in a way, when it’s finished. Like the space is small, but not that small.

As I comb through the Internet and look at the different possibilities, the space is starting to take shape too. The colours of tiles, which I initially was dispassionate about, started to be clearer to me. I like this and not that. I think back on different aesthetics I’ve appreciated over the years and how I’ve always hated black leather sofas and dark spaces. I do have an opinion, it's always been there it turns out. I can remember them from my childhood, weird memories like the neighbours who had the rottweiler and high chain link fence. Everything was black in their house and it felt like a cave. I didn't like it, did I. 

To be able to choose what you want to do with your living space is not something I suppose I would have appreciated as much when I was in my late twenties. There was no time between the babies, and the pregnancy, and the PhD. Everything was treading water. Now, I suppose I am more busy, but I have more more money and more security. Things are starting to come together, and the anxiety about the future was just my own general anxiety manifest in a particular way. As the anxiety recedes, it feels like things can be bought and I can relax. It should work out, it has been thirty five years of working out, after all.

Perhaps relax is the wrong word. I don't think I'm actually relaxing. I am sprinting on a treadmill, trying desperately to make fifteen kilometres in sixty minutes. I'm reaching as far as I can to have empathy for my students. I'm looking at the dishes that haven't been washed and trying to be better. There's more to realise, to think about, or try not to think about. Breathe in deeply again and again and again. Keep trying. You'll never make it, but keep trying. The sun is coming up anyway. 

04 November 2017

10% happier



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After completing on the house last month, there has been an endless list of tasks – things to buy and tear up and paint. With the crowbar, I pulled off all the doors in the downstairs and like that, everything opened up. I replaced the curtains in the front room and pulled up the rest of the carpet to scrape and sand everything down. The architect is coming on Monday to talk about extending the back of the house out to make a bathroom. I made a list of things we need to decide when we redo the kitchen and make this extension: all the fittings and the bathtub and toilet. Sinks and light switches. A spreadsheet of miscellany. A friend of mine, a guy who enjoys these types of projects, came round the other night and I listened, nodding along and thinking how little I cared about all these choices that needed to be made. Tile colours: surely there isn’t a multiverse where I care about tile colours.

Instead, I’ve felt a dull silence attaching itself to everything. I can or can’t sleep and wake up just wanting to sit and avoid whatever decisions need to be made. I’ve been meditating again, but the silence which is so sweet at the beginning grows into a dull roar of thoughts about everything and anything and nothing. You’re taught when you meditate to accept the thoughts as they come, to not judge yourself, but I have been judging myself for thirty five years. How do you just stop. I keep thinking I’ll fall asleep, but then I open my eyes and I haven’t been sleeping, but I haven’t been anywhere.

And then there is the number, whatever that number is. It got stuck for a month and I was frustrated, meticulously marking down what I ate like a slave. I am judging myself by a number because I make that number to mean not failing like I have again and again. Whatever failing is. The number is right, but what is right. I'm still fat, because fat has nothing to do with a number. I ate some ginger snaps and feel like I should confess it, but to whom. 

I saw a couple of shows last week: the Sleaford Mods and then Weezer. I didn't plan on seeing Weezer but had gotten on the guest list after a series of weird interactions on e-mail with the lead singer and his PA. They played most of the Blue Album, which keyed into the nostalgia I was looking for, but which felt less compelling as the night wore on. I wasn't ever that happy when I was a teenager. I knew from looking at the set lists online that they would play Buddy Holly in the encore, and I thought about leaving early. What did I care anymore about the drama of high school. About kissing dating goodbye, and purity, and loving Jesus more than everything. I didn’t, I realised — I didn’t care about anything. I came home and Yoko and her friend were drinking wine in our house, the house that we own, in Harborne, in Birmingham, with the white people. I sat with them, eating cheese and talking about home renovations and how I thought I was going to get married when I was seventeen. It's worked out, I guess, I said in Japanese, and went to bed, the rest of the world spinning on and on and my body waiting a couple of hours to wake me up again.

19 October 2017

Absolute zero

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After all the white drama, at noon on the second of October, I became a homeowner. This came, of course, without any fanfare, given that we were already residents of the house on Victoria Road. Nothing happened. I was at work, and had to teach. The solicitor e-mailed me to say that things had all gone through and the mortgage company was giving me some cash back. I came home and there it was. The house on Victoria Road as it has always been, with all of its problems that we can now start to chip away at. With the carpets pulled up, and the floorboards sanded and stained, there is a warmth that was lacking before. I tore down three of the doors that had partitioned the ground floor rooms. We got rid of a sofa and I drove out deep into Leicestershire to buy a table from someone in a farmhouse. All things that we have wanted to do for the years we've lived here, but couldn't. Yoko bought lamps, and now the rooms much dimmer at night. Tonight, for example, I was alone in the living room, one lamp lit and all the girls out at various events. I didn't want to go out and understood something I hadn't understood ever before.

This levelling off and achievement of what seemed to be unattainable this time last year, when I still hadn't resolved either my visa nor the money for the visa, makes me think anything is possible. It's a patently American thought. Trump is President; I own a home — what other realities can be made with confidence only. With saying, I will do this.

It is difficult not to feel optimistic. Of course, the persistence, the British pessimism of Brexit and the looming visa applications, the English test for Yoko, and the money to be spent on fixing the house... there are still plenty of holes to fall into. I need a new suit that fits me. I need to put the kids to bed. One thing at a time.

22 September 2017

It's the end of the world


Yesterday, as the rain was stopping, Naomi and I set out for an open night at the secondary school she will likely attend — an all girls school just about a mile walk from the house on Victoria Road. We walked up there and back, holding hands and chatting about the school and life in the UK and the trip to Japan Yoko and the girls will take sometime next year. The school was everything I wanted for her, from my impression — small and serious, but not too serious and the student that took us around had an intelligent conversation with Naomi and me about the things that they did. I worried a bit outloud about it being single sex, and the student told me not to worry, that girls took on the role of boys in the school sometimes. It's hard to explain, she said, but I knew what she meant. Later, I brought it up to Naomi during a small rejoinder about gender fluidity, after she shrugged her shoulders when I returned to the point.

On the way home, Naomi and I also talked of alcohol and drugs because the year sixes has seen a video wherein some boys have a drink with their mates. Naomi used that word mates to describe the friends and that stuck with me for some reason, standing out like an odd marker of Britishness in an otherwise unmarked conversation. Naomi was adamant about never taking drugs or wanting to drink and we chatted about our experiences, her's with me drinking, and mine with my teetotal parents. We talked about her friends and the schools they wanted to attend and the entrance exams. We rounded the corner at War Lane and came back to home, Naomi disappearing into the house and me lingering on some work that I needed to do on my computer in the front room.

The contracts for the house on Victoria Road are finally signed today. Once the landlady has signed them, no one can pull out, which seems to be the underlying concern in house buying — it will be ours from the second of October. Like the completion of the PhD or my weight loss this summer, the ending of this process has felt like less of an accomplishment than I thought it would. I'm thirty five, and this is the first home I've owned. I shouldn't be worried about settling down, and the implications of another three to five years in this place, but I am. What other future could have been imagined, I think as I ride my bike down and then up and then down and up again to Newman University on the edge of Birmingham, this place that I love, but only really fell into by accident. Chris came through on Wednesday night, sleeping on our sofa on the way to Herefordshire like it was 2015 again, and I suddenly wanted to be back in the Swedish woods, heaving with spirits. Some image of me, the atheist, standing after a long run, my shirt off and sweating in the early morning air, mouthing take me with you to the trees, like my life might suddenly become a Haruki Murakami novel.

The whole of my experience in this country can be described in the anecdote of ordering toast instead of full English breakfast at a men's breakfast. I describe myself as an immigrant and people stare at my blankly — I guess that you technically are, but it's different. There are immigrants, and then there are immigrants. Of course you would buy a house. I feel my British consciousness magically appears at these moments to say, You must remember that the organising principle in this country is class. Your class dictates the future you have, not your immigration status. My life is full of these little interactions that are best explained in the awkwardness they produce — it's funny the things one can learn by being stared at blankly. Oh, you were being disingenuous. Right, yes, sorry. Who knows if you should apologise or just shut up.  There is nothing less British than a genuine apology.

I feel fine. I feel out of place and awkward. I feel baited. I feel complacent. I lack energy. I feel the opposite of angry most of the time now, but I don't know how to describe it. I feel like I have more to do than others. I feel tired. I feel worried about the end of the world, and then silly for worrying about the end of the world. I feel happy to be under seventy six kilograms and then immediately worried that next week, or next month, or next year, I will not be. I'm frustrated with Britishness and my lack of it. I've let my coffee get cold, haven't I. The sun is coming up — I best go for my run.

17 September 2017

Seventy six


The weather continues to fall into wet leaves and early sunsets that will now repeat until March of next year. This, for me, is a welcome return, one that signals an end to one kind of mania triggered by the sun coming up before five in the morning. I reluctantly turned on the heating on Friday, after feeling like I wasn’t going to ever get warm underneath a jumper and my coat. I stood by the radiator as it warmed up and thought about the things that we need to do to fix the living room after we torn out all the carpet in July. I need to seal the floorboards and put some sealant under the skirting. Buy a rug. Have the boiler replaced.

The house is almost nearly ours, after several months of going back and forth with the solicitors. I email Tina every few days now to push the point that things haven’t been completed and ask why it seems to have taken so long. Tina assures me that they have been passing information back-and-forth between each other, two sets of British solicitors having tea at every occasion they can and moaning about something having gone pear-shaped, one imagines. Or rather, what I imagine, as an American who is trying to get in the minds of the islanders and who just wants it all to be done last week.

Luckily, thanks to some apparent personal growth afforded by meditation, the house-buying process has beem less upsetting that it might have been last year. Two or three weary British acquaintances looked at me with pity when I talked about my brother buying a house in a week in the Lubbock, in the States, and told me to expect it would take several months, even in the best case scenario. So I’ve relaxed now, and am taking it in stride, saving my wrath for customer service elsewhere, like my father might. Besides, something is bound to break on the house in the next week anyway, and better it be the landlady’s responsibility.

In the meanwhile, there are other things to attend to, like my weight, which finally has fallen back below seventy six kilograms, to where I was in the end of 2015 for several months. It took a couple of weeks, once when it was low and I was euphoric before it ticked up again for a week, and then low again, and then back up, but now up and below seventy six, which is what I wanted all along. I don’t feel good about it, unfortunately – now it just feels like a number. Instead, I have the sort of nervous energy that comes with having accomplished something that you now need to maintain. Thinness is not something achieved, it is something maintained. You gotta do it every day, while still thinking to yourself, I am a fat person. You look in the mirror and still see eighty eight kilogram Stephen looking back at you.

My legs are hurting from running on new insoles, so I had to take a day off of running, but with no weight to drop, that part of the game and the motivation to bring down the number even further diminishes. There is little else to do. The fitness vloggers I watch all talk about an endless series of challenges, but this just sounds exhausting to me. I don’t want to have a positive mindset. I don’t have the patience for it. Instead, I just want to be normal. I want to eat a cookie and not think about it. I want to wander around a pet store without feeling lethargic and tired, without taking note of the expected life span of the small animals, and wondering about the next thirty years, and whether I will feel this way forever.

Instead, I am still overly cautious, ordering toast at a men’s breakfast I went to with some people from the church, and causing some consternation among the organisers for not ordering what everyone else had and then suggesting, it appeared, that I was eating less as some morally superior position as a thin person, rather than the truth that I was worried about eating too much and spending too much of the family’s money, which makes no sense from the outside. You look fine, Stephen – you have plenty of money and no one is going to kick you out of the country. Yes, no, you’re right, it’s just that, I just don’t… and of course it can’t be explained.

The work is beginning to pile up again and I marked MA dissertations for several weeks and then worked on transcriptions for one of the new books and then transcriptions for another book chapter about deixis and then edited some of the writing for another. We had a staff meeting and I took over some responsibility for our research group and managing a small budget. Yoko and I had coffee and I disappeared into the the Birmingham University library for an afternoon. All the things that have become habit around this time of year, ignoring the feeling of my body and however uncomfortable or comfortable it is. I look in the mirror and still feel fat – I can’t seem to make sense of myself as a thinner person. My suit coat is probably too big now, isn’t it, but I will also probably be fat again in no time. Better wait it out until after Christmas at least.
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