22 August 2015

British Pessimism

White Cliffs of Dover

The White Cliffs of Dover are, indeed, white. When you come over the hills, particularly in the morning, having driven through the early hours to avoid the traffic, they are stunning in the way that you've imagined them to be, like something you've seen before, but have not. The cliffs are also cliffs, which although a meaningless tautology is something you don't think about as you look out across the grass at France only to realise that there, right there, the ground is just suddenly gone. You think about people backing up for good shots at the edge. You think about the wind whipping up. The children, where are the children.

There was so much British Pessimism that surrounded the trip to Kent, pessimism including, Isn't it flooding there and The traffic will be awful and Kent? with a screwed up face, suggesting why would anyone want to go there. I realised that this pessimism about the trip was hanging over me as we went everywhere: I worried about traffic and parking problems that never materialised. Huge crowds which were nowhere, and when I moved the car closer to Botany Bay, after having parked a half mile away, happy to get a spot before realising that you could just park at the beach, it wasn't so busy, I was cross with England. Dammit, it's not so bad. We're all going to be okay, let's enjoy this: this is a lovely beach, these little coastal towns are lovely. Americans are supposed to be optimistic, and I have somehow lost that in the constant fear of long queues and crowds. I parked the car, got to the beach, took off my shoes and shirt, rolled up my jeans and thought, This is lovely.

I remembered Fukuoka on account of the smell, particularly the first time I remember smelling the ocean, the first night I was there and the pastor of the church we were serving at took us out to eat at an Italian restaurant on the beach. I remember the smell, because it smelled of fish to me as a fat white kid from the Midwest. There were oysters in the spaghetti. I had walked on another beach on the way to Maebaru so many times in 2004, and that smell, that summer, the summer I started losing my grip on god, all came back to me. And then standing, looking out at France and the wind coming up off the water.

We stayed in a hostel with an Italian family and a little girl, Emma, who taught the girls how to say thank you and yes and no and good night in Italian. They played hide and seek and chased roosters around, while Yoko and I sat inside and talked about life and the lives of the Italians who ate beautiful food and were driving home, across the continent. We talked about things that you don't normally talk about as a couple with three kids. We talked about the past. I started a sentence, When I was a missionary, struggling to remember the word for missionary in Japanese: I had to say, When I did missions, and it surprised me that I had both forgotten the word and forgotten I had, despite my current appearance, been a missionary. I said, as we were on our way through Faversham to Canterbury that next year we needed to go to Europe in the car. Damn the finances, damn the visa costs, damn all the reasons to not do anything.

The girls ran around, playing in the ocean and making sand balls. They dug holes and looked for seashells and ate ice cream and we stayed until the sun went down. Then on to Viking Bay, to Broadstairs, which was like a dream, the town that I had seen in my imagination, but never experienced. There it was though, and when I walked up to see the ferris wheel, lit up as the sun went down and the girls ate fish and chips on the beach, I thought about Woolf. Woolf was the starting point to all of this; she had put the British coastal holiday town as an idea in me.  And here it was, the thing that Woolf had promised to me. It existed, this thing I was looking for and didn't even know it. The lads and beer soaked cover band aside, there it was, the hotels and restaurants and European holiday pensioners.

The fireworks came and went and we packed into the Picasso, set out for The North in the rain, the children all sleeping in the back and Yoko dozing the way Japanese do on trains and cars, leaning forward. I smiled in the sort of way you smile when things are okay, in the silly sort of way that things are okay at the oddest times. At one in the morning, passing the Oxford Services, the best band from Chicago playing on the radio. When you can suddenly take a step back from the collage of life and hold back the pessimism and fear and uncertainty, and see how it's taken shape and is continuing to take shape.
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