23 June 2017

The House on Victoria Road

March 2014

What can I say about the house on Victoria Road that I haven't already said. I've told the story again and again of landing here in Harborne, in the middle of the British winter. The girls were sleeping somewhere outside of Milton Keynes, and I came up here alone to find a place to live. I rented this house — it was sufficient, that's really all you could say about it. It was dirty, but sufficient, which seems like a metaphor as I think about it. I'm not sure what analogy I would like to draw though, as I think about it. Compared to the house in Malaysia, it was damper, with no tile. Parts of it were rotting. The linoleum, the walls in the cupboard where the washing machine has been kept.

All that has been pulled up and out now. The whole place is cleaner and after a year or two, it started to feel like home and then now, after three years and half, after a scare with my visa this spring, and a visit from a builder and conversations with all the British people I know who make money on properties, I decided we would buy it. I say I because I mean I. Yoko has felt strongly about the house for a long time, wanting to stay here, close to St Peters Church where she climbs the hill three or four times a week towards the ringing bells. But I needed to decide, to make the machinery actually work. So with more white hair, and sitting with a man who is putting numbers into a computer, I start the process. We talk and we talk and we talk and then at one point, I finally give a credit card number. There it is. It has started, hasn't it. I look at him for some sort of assurance, like I have done. You're almost old enough to be my father, I want to say. Tell me it's okay. Tell me this is the right thing to do.

To decide while at the same time not having an opinion: these two opposing things are, I feel, expected of me the older I get and the more ensconced I am in the apparatus of a family. I am a kind of necessary internal organ that one thinks about only when it is causing problems. The father who appreciates a bottle of whisky added to the trolley, that he still must buy, but must buy for himself as a gift to himself — one must also provide for gestures of kindness to oneself. And one must not draw attention to this. You think about Foucault in this situation, speaking French and seeing the whole of the system perpetuating itself. You want to point to him; Foucault can explain this.
I will judge you according to your conduct
and repay you for all your detestable practices.
I will not look on you with pity;
I will not spare you.
You don't unchain yourself from ideology. The talk about letting the horse out on the lead and letting it run without feeling the pull of the lead. It is still on the lead, even when it doesn't feel the pull. I am the horse always at the end of the lead, always it digging in my neck and telling everyone else, There is a lead here, don't you see it. And everyone shrugs to remind me that if you don't pull on it, you can't feel it. That's not the point, I want to say.

I sign a couple of papers and there it is. It's started, like you have pushed off from the shore now in your own little boat. You orient yourself towards the deeper water. I'll be 35 on Tuesday — I started late, I think. I'll catch up though. Don't worry. It's worked out better than we all imagined.

07 June 2017

I'm hardcore, but I'm not that hardcore


There was a kind of false summer a few weeks ago, right before half term, giving us the sort of evenings that seem to go on and on, and you can sit in the park, while the kids play, watching the trees and thinking that there is nothing you should really want. This, of course, will end, everyone said to each other — we must make the most of it while can. Open the windows, let the light and air in before it starts raining again. And a day later, of course, the heat is on and you think to yourself, wasn't I just walking outside yesterday in shirt sleeves?

To make the most of the two days of summer, we took the kids hiking up to Lickey Hills on the edge of Birmingham on Saturday. Naomi wanted to stay home and rest, but I pushed the point and we all headed out, Naomi and Mia dragging their feet and cross that we didn't stop for sweeties, into the forest and hills. I've been caught up in meditation recently, which has made me want to just stand places, natural places particularly, and look at things. At Lickey Hills, we went on the Woodpecker Trail and headed out over the road and up Beacon Hill overlooking the city and a golf course. At the top of the hill, we all sat down and ate jelly beans that the girls had brought — there were sweeties after all, it turned out. They discussed the ones they liked and passed them back and forth. I had the sensation of not wanting to move or push things forward, but to just be there, with them, for that moment. Naomi, 10 and strong-willed and still happy to hold my hand. There might be rain coming, I thought.

Meditation has been an antidote to my Evangelical Christian-induced anxiety, where my fundamental badness could only be soothed by God, but if God was going to soothe it was anyone's guess really. You needed to worry — if you didn't worry then you ran the risk of falling away. You were also not supposed to worry, and these two contradictory weights held you down and let strong, confident sounding men control you. You prayed as a kind of casting out, trying to catch something to come back to you. Peace or forgiveness or faith, because you couldn't make the faith yourself. It didn't come from inside of you — it only came from God, who was always beyond the horizon and loved you unconditionally, on the condition that you loved Him back.

There is enough uncertainty, isn't it. The city centre is full of police with guns, and we all seem to be waiting for Birmingham to be hit. Surely it will, people say, it's only a matter of time. The IRA bombed Birmingham — people remember this now, we all imagine some disenchanted kid who can't keep up and can be convinced that he can make himself famous, and earn God's favour. That's the point after all, I say, to a few White British people looking at me with blank expressions. They've somehow stumbled into asking me what I thought about all of this, as a way of finding a way to tell me what they think. But I don't say whatever they expected and block out their contributions like I do when I talk to Christians who tell me about their own sad, begrudging vote for Trump and lower taxes and a supreme court justice — I'm trying to be better at listening, to not just wait to talk, but not on this point. It's my area, I say: I study this. My next book is about this exactly; I'm waving my hands.

I ride by the Edgbaston Cricket Grounds and Pakistan is playing so there are people everywhere with Pakistani flags. As I come into Moseley, a cab has a woman in the back with the window open, the green and white flag hanging out and people cheering. Is this where it happens, I wonder, as I ride my bike past the police barriers, past the police and all the people walking up the road. Of course, it doesn't; of course nothing happens. Yoko meets me at the coffee shop after having been in the city centre and I breathe a sigh of relief. Of course not, of course she's safe. I am not afraid, I say again and again and again, and tell the kids to say to it themselves: Be afraid of the right things. They know about moments of silence and suicide bombers and we all just sit there together.

When you meditate, you don't judge yourself or your thoughts. You confront them and you admit that they are your own thoughts. There is no stuffing down and away. There is no casting off, or trying to get something else. It's already there. Sit with it, with yourself, it's okay. You can have your feelings, the woman says, feel whatever you feel. This poem she reads.

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
       love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Fuck, I think, yes, exactly. I want to open my eyes and announce it — You don't have to be good. You don't have to do anything.
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