01 August 2016

What to expect when you're expecting

Canon Hill Park

Whenever I travel, I save my train tickets in a rubber band like baseball cards . This year, I've been back and forth to London every month, to Euston and then parking myself in Senate House or Starbucks or some other place as I wait for some meeting I've booked. Sometimes I've taken the 4AM Megabus to save money, to squeeze all that I can out of the £300 I asked for at the beginning of the year. All these trips haven't amounted to much yet, even though last week or the week before, I thought that they might. I had one last trip this school year, for an interview that went well. I rode the train home that night not sure of what narrative I needed to tell myself. There are so many different narratives you can tell.

The narrative, it turns out, is the same one I've been telling myself for the last two and a half years, of working at a small university and affecting change in a meaningful way, one that I've gotten very used to saying as I hand out the teardrop shaped business cards I've been given. When I drove Mei up to Newman last Wednesday, to print a picture for her friend that was going away, we stopped at the statute of the university's namesake John Henry Newman in the centre of the quad and I brushed off some cobwebs from the back. I thought of Newman the man, who only wanted to radiate Christ's light to the world, and felt guilty about my own lack of interest in serving others, before taking Mei's hand again and heading back to the car.

Instead of a new narrative, I replayed an old one, coming back to Cagliari, in Sardinia, for an academic conference on authenticity and style. I had been here in 2014 at the beginning of my time at Newman, for a conference on metaphor and I remembered, the way that you remember by being somewhere a second time, a night I had met two beautiful German PhD students who knew my work and were perched on the steps of Chiesa San Michele smoking cigarettes and drinking. I got a beer at a shop that had beads hanging in the door frame — everything was golden and faded, and we sat there looking out over it.

This time, I've felt older — sweaty and fat trudging up and down the hills, thinking about my failure again to secure a better job and all the questions I should have answered in the interview with more focus on teaching English rather than all these other things I've been writing about. And how does sexuality fit into your work on religion? The truth is I'm not sure that it does — I just assume that in twenty years I'll look back on my life and it will make sense. It's all narrative, isn't it? The panel looks at you, but no one writes anything down: this is a sign that you haven't said the right thing.

I told someone about the interview and they said, I'm sure you did wonderfully, but I immediately thought, how would you know though. What if I didn't. 

My book was on sale at the conference for twenty euros, but no one was buying it, and in the end I asked the publisher to let me have it to give to one of the plenary speakers, someone whom I had wanted to give it to for a while. I got the book and as I sat in a session and thumbed through it, I worried that she had left the conference already. This is okay, I thought, not that bad, before finding a spelling error and a poorly written sentence and stuffing it in my bag. When the session ended, I went in search of Elena, the speaker, and had a sense that she would be sitting outside, under a tree in the shade, which she was. I went down with it and gave it to her, You might find this useful, I said, and went back to another session. 

I went running on Saturday morning with a Japanese colleague, although we didn't speak any Japanese and he was a much faster runner than me. I felt like an ox next to him, and said at one point, you should set the pace, it's been too long since I've run. It was early and the Sardinian baby boomers, the ones you can imagine have been told then need to take tablets and get some exercise, were out jogging and walking on the sea front. We took a narrow path on the road, towards the river and the centre of the island. Suddenly, and without warning, I tripped and fell on my hands and knees, immediately shocked and embarrassed. I fell down, I said, and got up wanting to keep running, to pretend it didn't happen, but we walked a short way. I was fine — an ox is resilient, but I felt like a child the way you do when you fall. I scrapped my knees; I'm okay.

It's August first now, and my flight back leaves in three hours. I have to put on my warmer clothes, and get ready for another year of the train and Megabus. The girls are waiting for me: the girls who forgive me and find meaning without need of a narrative yet. I will shut and lock the door while Yoko reads them a Japanese storybook and they all fall asleep, their father lingering and hunched over his laptop in the living room trying to fix another sentence before giving up and falling asleep too. Let the imagination take over the narrative for a bit, let it dream in the cool Birmingham night, the sun just below the horizon and coming again before you know it.
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