22 November 2015


A shadow

The park that snakes the edge of Valencia is paved with stone, so when you run, you feel it. I brought my shoes with the expressed purpose of running: I looked on the map and thought the park was a place I could run. When the alarm went off though in the morning, at 6:30, I balked, fat again and bloated from stress eating and failure. And it was dark too, so dark for the morning. I remembered that time we were all in Torremolinos, now four years ago, and Yoko had wanted to take the kids to the beach to take pictures with the sun coming up.

Somewhere in my gut memory, the Spanish language floats around. I can remember it, bits of it, when I'm pressed, although so much has been supplanted by Japanese. The numbers are still there, and the things you say when you leave. The Spanish accent, when I hear it again, always surprises me and my first reflex is to laugh at it. I remember my sister and me on a train to Paris when the Spanish announcement came on and we laughed. We looked at each other and laughed. 

There are so many things to remember if you travel to Europe. When Paris got shot up, all the insufferable digital memory of my generation appeared: the digital photographs and the narratives of being right there. We all have been, of course — who hasn't been to Paris and taken the picture of the Eiffel Tower and had some story to tell about it. There was first the story of the trip I took with my little sister, my younger sister. That trip we said goodbye to each other in a way: she grew up suddenly. My story: we sat on the top of the tower, typical of our generation, amazed at how we had gotten there, buying into the lie of Paris like believing Disneyland is real. We sat and we looked out over the city, having the experience that is not at all unique, but which millennials like me think is unique.

Then another time, with the girls, with Mei and Naomi, when they were so young and it rained and rained and we soldiered on in the rain. We traveled those years because we had planned to go back to Japan and knew that Paris and London would evaporate if we didn't take the chance when we had it. We had a completely different imagined future, full of Japanese paid tours and university professorships at out-of-the-way Japanese universities in the mountains. Yoko getting older, her spine bending and me getting fatter, but happier, my polite Japanese developed from years of committee meetings.

No, none of that came true. The real future was me in Valencia for a couple of days, a conference to attend but starting the day by looking in the mirror and realising my hair was falling out, and that I was getting fat again and I needed to run in the dark. I set out, imagining gunmen in the dark streets and Europe falling apart around me; please, all we want is for our happy fantasy to go on and on. I ran into the park and back again, the sun coming up and the well-dressed Spanish runners speaking in that accent. I showered and went to my conference, bloated and angry about this year of failure.

The pictures hang on like a memory as I run out into the dark. The girls were so young then. I had ideas then that hadn't yet failed. The sidewalks were marble there too, shining in the darkness.

Yoko and the girls at the Eiffel Tower

07 November 2015

Kissing the relics

Shrine of Blessed John Henry Newman

After the mass on the first Sunday of the month at the Birmingham Oratory, in the side chapel, the shrine of Blessed John Henry Newman, people gather to pray. John Henry Newman is the same Newman as Newman where I teach Stylistics: the fourth or fifth university in Birmingham, depending on how you count it. You can get into Newman with two Es, a guy tells me at a comedy night in Cradley Heath and I say, That's not exactly true.

I sat in the back of the shrine, though the woman I was with had gestured for me to sit next to her. One miracle has been attributed to Blessed John Henry Newman now: a crippled deacon in America prayed and was healed — he could walk again. The Catholic church verified this miracle with a team of investigators. Newman was beatified. He intercedes for the faithful: it is an empirical fact. In the shrine, people pray for a second miracle: they write the requests on papers that the priest reads out loud.

When I hear a Hail Mary prayed, I think of my Grandmother who died on the first floor of our house in America, north of Chicago, in the winter of 1999. I was just 16 then, and Grandma Tootsie came, the cancer growing through the months. We had Christmas in her room because she couldn't come downstairs to the tree and she was hollowed out by the cancer. I remember being angry when, after her death, the priest said that the rosary, the Hail Marys, had brought her comfort in the last days. I righteously thought, bullshit, we brought her comfort in her death. My mother bathing her. My father helping her up and down the stairs with the oxygen tank. Bullshit. 

Now, my own faith vetted, the Hail Mary is the prayer I most want to pray: I want Mary to pray for me in the hour of my death even though I don't or won't or can't believe that she will.

In the shrine, the priest raised his voice to say, with confidence in his heavenly intercession, we make the following petitions and read off the requests — for a man to come back to the sacraments, for a terminally ill someone, for another terminally ill someone, for a deformed baby, for peace, for the poor. I sat watching, seated, not kneeling like the others — for the recently passed mother, for the terminally ill brother, the chronically ill sister, for the unemployed son.

And then we stood to kiss the relics and I remembered suddenly the miracle. I was in the jungle, wasn't I, just two years ago today when the e-mail came that they would interview me for a job at a university I had never heard of named after a famous Catholic intellectual. I had given up at that point; I had resigned myself to a future of traffic jams and heat. Then an interview and that night an e-mail, Newman calling me out of my exile, back to the West. I remember wanting to cry: why did I want to cry. It wasn't ever that bad.

The man healed through his prayers to Newman, who could miraculously walk was struck down again after three years. The article in the Telegraph highlights this point, but that part of the story can and should be left out. What does it matter how it ends. Newman was buried in wood and moss, his body completely decomposed. We are making up a story about him anyway: say whatever you want and leave it at that.

I asked, Should I kiss the relic too? and she nodded. I stood and waited and put my lips on the gold. For his insight into the mysteries of the kingdom, his zealous defence of the teachings of the Church, and his priestly love for each of your children, we pray that he may soon be numbered among the Saints. Yes. I am not one of the children, am I. I am one who lights the candles and buys the cards with the pictures of the saints because I like candles and images and prayer cards. I like to look at the people who gaze into the void and can see something. Never mind what I cannot see.

06 November 2015

A kind of exhaustion

October 2015

The days continue to get shorter in Birmingham. The time changed like a metaphor and then it was dark in the middle of the day again and I run home now in the dark. Because it is dark all the time, my insomnia came back to me and I got up this morning at 2AM and thought I couldn't sleep anymore. I can't sleep in my clothes — I start to sweat. Yoko and the girls are asleep and fine, and I am fine too. I just can't sleep.

I can't write either: I try to not write about writing unless I can't write and then I have to, until I can find the next story, or pick up the narrative thread wherever it left off. The fact that I can't find that moment, I can't follow the thread back to some point suggests that I've lost the plot and I need to start a new story to find it. New stories don't just generate themselves. You have to go out and find them. Or you have to mine them from your experience. Find something to talk about in the flow of the days and days of the same thing. Like you're an ox walking in a circle, pulling the yoke.

Nothing is ever that bad. The girls are all well. Jun, their Korean friend, comes in the morning and walk them all to school, scolding them for walking slowly. We drop off Naomi and Jun and they stand at the window and wave goodbye to us. Then I walk Mei and Mia through the cemetery to the infants school on the other side of the church. All the parents are around and we all pretend to be good parents. No one is ever harsh with their children in front of the other parents. I walk home on the wet leaves that have fallen. Winter is coming, but so is spring.

The girls are all well. All I want is that, I guess. Yoko says we have bought Christmas presents for them, the exact thing they want. There is nothing better than knowing the exact thing you want.

30 October 2015

Back and forth

Today, I walked through St Peter's, through the cemetery surrounding the church and school and looked up at the walkway that comes through the cricket greens and into the town centre of Harborne. I thought I might take a picture. The leaves are coming down and the path glows from above with the orange light. You feel something. I walked up to the town to get £50 for Naomi for her school trip and £20 for Yoko to have curry tonight with some friends and £10 for myself, in case I needed cash. I got free coffee at Waitrose and 3 for 2 Cox Apples. I walked home, opened and shut the door and went back to work.

That is the day. Walking up and back. Money in and out. The kids to school and back. Yoko sitting drinking tea and another Skype meeting or job application sent out. All this talk of the precipice this last month and nothing. No one wants to hear about my visa.

So I plod on and find myself in silly, disastrous situations. I tried stand-up comedy in a club, but got a minute into the set and realised I didn't know what I was doing. It was palpable. I said, 'I don't think I'm supposed to do this' handed the mic to the organiser and walked out. I still don't believe it happened. Maybe it didn't.

If there was anything else to say, I would say it. I don't think there is.

08 October 2015

One night

Yoko and Stephen

The kids are going to school again every morning in yellow polo shirts and black jumpers — the summer rolled up like a rug you and the man with the van hoist on your shoulders. I am standing or sitting in front of a class again. After the crises of wondering what's next or why we are on the path, there is less time to reflect when you're working — you just have to go forward with all the things you need to do. It's not will or desire, although you need both will and desire, but it is habitual and ritual and seasonal.

Yoko and I have been together for ten years now. The anniversary of that night in September, walking towards the Sea of Japan, when I spoke English out of the blue to her. We sat on the beach that night and looked out into the darkness. I put my arm behind her and she rested back on it. That place where the Agano River came out into the Sea. What was this really: just two people smiling at each other and joking about my bad Japanese. This will be fun, at least for a little while. 

Then, ten years later: I am trying to iron my shirt this morning and the breaker keeps blowing. The washing machine has stopped — I know, I know, Jesus Christ. I wait outside the toilet door as Mei finishes. I rush through the shower, the baby pigeon that Yoko is nursing back to health looking at me with disdain. Naomi's Korean friend — Korean by way of Germany — comes in the morning now and we all go to school together. It's a rush, 8:25, we have to go now, ladies, now, and I kiss Yoko and Naomi hugs and kisses Yoko and we all rush out, up the hill, towards St Peter's, politely, smiles, greeting all the women dropping off the kids.

And then it starts raining. The real autumn has come now. I'm in London again.
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