21 September 2018

Newer Shoes


The rain and wind hit Birmingham hard just as we roll into the proper autumn. In this country, you say the rain is pissing down, and there’s a kind of pleasure in that pronunciation, like the sharp barb of a swear word that isn’t quite a swear word. I didn’t recognise this change in weather until I was running to work and got caught in it. I immediately thought of my shoes, my new shoes, which I gradually realised, as I tried to avoid puddles, would now be wet and muddy, and no longer strictly new.

Having discovered that the Garmin app, which had previously had a more important administrative role in my life, was meant to track mileage on shoes, I went back and added my previous pair, the nondescript blue Asics I bought in Bristol the last time I was there, to all the runs I had taken them on. The app spit out an impressive number: one thousand six hundred and eighty kilometres in just under ten months. I proudly showed Yoko and started to track my new shoes immediately, ten kilometers and then thirteen and then sixteen, and so on. Having been through the puddles, I put them on the radiator to dry and thought about the future.

The house on Victoria Road is going through an opposite transformation as the good work by Keith the Plasterer dries and the entryway and living room have a fresh, glassy finish. You can walk from the front of the house to the back and provided you blink at the right time, you miss the walls that haven’t been done yet. I feel a kind of buoyancy — my first annual mortgage statement which told me I had made a small, but noticeable scratch on the surface of the debt I went into, to establish this home for the Pihlajas of Harborne.

I want to show the letter to everyone and say, look, I’ve made good on something finally. This is actually working, isn’t it. I’m happier to spend money when I feel this way, particularly on the house which I view as a kind of bank account. Let’s paint this thing and that one. Let’s get this fixed. Let’s all go out for brunch and I’ll get toast because I like toast, but everyone else should get whatever they want. You can tell no one trusts me in moments like this, because they know, my wife and kids do, that I will swing back to worrying about everything in moment. I reassure them, though: we have money now, some money, and some money sunk in this house, ready to be taken out whenever the dream fails and the man comes around. I’ll be back to my old self then, don’t worry, but until then, let’s live it up and have all the coffee and chicken nuggets we want.

These are the thoughts that wake me up at 11:55 and then 1:45 and then 3:14. I finally give in thinking I’ll just get up, weigh myself and eat my protein-molasses pancakes, and meditate for a half hour, and then start work around 5:30 after I go through some papers and reorganise a shelf and make some coffee. I do all those things and am disappointed with my weight, but having primed myself for this disappointment, I can accept it and move on. The scale told me I lost fat anyway, and that my body is two years younger than I am, in Japanese years of course, because it’s a Japanese scale. I eat and then light candles and kneel down and the man tells me to feel my body collapsing into my heart. I try to feel it. Is it a collapsing, man in the app, man who is speaking slowly and deliberately. I don’t know. I don’t know if I like that metaphor. My thoughts slip to the thing I need to write and I recognise that my thoughts have wandered before we, the man in the app and I, take a deep breath together. Some things get better while others get worse. They’ll swap around.

16 September 2018

Meridian Lines

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A week passes into the new school year and things fall back into the natural ruts of middle class, Harborne life, a meridian line behind us and before us. The morning routine with the children stomping and laughing and crumbs on the sofa. The fever pitch of the summer part-time work finally breaks and new running shoes come in the post. I eat too little or too much, but sense somewhere inside that equilibrium is starting to inch its way into my life, like a habit rather than an act of will. I say that but it's also not true. You can eat too much of anything. You can become angry again in a moment, even for things you set your intention against. Given enough time, the man comes around.

The plasterer was by again last week and we chatted about brick walls and patching and how much work still needs to be done in the house on Victoria Road. Whenever one project finishes, another appears. In some time, all one hundred years of damage might be erased. This current project is aimed at putting up new plaster and paint to restore a former, or rather new, glory, because who knows how dark the walls were initially. You can only guess as you strip one layer of paper and paint after another. The walls could be bright again or for the first time, and create the sense of space if not actual space. The mould deep in the cracks, sealed up and hidden away for some other person in a future, because of course there is a future, to uncover and repair again.

For my part, I wake up and still feel disoriented. I had been sweating in the night, hadn't I. It had woken me up. The washing machine is broken and smelled like burning. We ran a few loads of laundry through it and nothing burned down so we think it's okay for the time being, for the next couple of days anyway, before we call some man called Mike or Steve to have a look at it. Whatever you can say about this, the looming Life in the UK tests and the inevitable pile of paperwork with the Home Office, the hostile environment, all of that aside, the Pihlajas of Harborne are as middle class as can be. Eating less meat and never taking plastic carrier bags. Saying please and thank you and I'm sorry when we don't mean it. The woman in the mediation app has me thinking about how all of life is connected and I am distracted by thoughts of laminate flooring or carpet. They reappear and resolve, just like everything, before the bell rings.

13 September 2018

The tenth year

Light in old apartment

The summer of running has given itself over to the dark autumn mornings, the day creeping to equity with the night, and the timetabled demands of work and family. I have retreated back to the treadmill in the Newman University gym, staring at myself running in the mirror and thinking about whether or not I got any better this year. I weighed myself one morning a few weeks ago and then last week, but it was pointless. I knew that my weight had not changed; I had realised the thing I should have realised the first thousand times I was told it. I want to declare myself healed like the daughter of Canaanite woman that Jesus rebuked (Matthew 15:21-28), but I know the moment I do that, I will be sick again.

In May of the year that we came to the UK, I won a PhD studentship out of the blue. I fell into it: I hadn't earned it or done anything worthwhile except respond to a few emails. I got lucky, is what I mean, and everything started changing. The week after I heard, I went away for a conference about metaphor in Cáceres‎ — I met my supervisor for the first time and remember now the place we had coffee, looking out on the Spanish countryside, espresso in small paper cups. I was ecstatic. I flew through Madrid and a Christian friend, someone I knew from college met me, and we walked around the city and he awkwardly prayed over me on a bench in a plaza, asking God for emotional healing. We drank champagne in the bathroom of the airport, hiding from a security guard, and I went to Moscow for a day and then back, through Tokyo, the whole of the world buzzing inside me like things now, things finally, had come together. 

When we left Japan, ten years ago next week, we had blind faith. We sold everything and I was cruel and hasty the way you are when you're twenty six and terrified. We put the things we didn't sell or give away, the things I reluctantly agreed to take with us, into plastic tubs. Naomi was so small and I had no idea what I was doing. We gave up so much, things that I still miss and tell stories about. A good mattress and a big refrigerator. And the tatami mats as I think about it, that smell of tatami. We just left and then we were here, in Milton Keynes, misty and cold and green. I rode to the Open University on my Japanese Louis Garneau eighteen speed road bike, the bike I wasn't willing to give up and took on the plane because it was free to take bikes on planes back then. I looked for an apartment while Naomi and Yoko stayed in the one bedroom we had at the B&B in Woolstone. I don't remember anything else. I remember meeting two or three people. I remember how lucky I felt.

On the anniversary of that day, when I took the hired car up the M1 for the first time, my little family sleeping in it, ten years after that, the plasterer comes to the house on Victoria Road in Birmingham, the house that I own a small part of. Yoko and I both have dentist appointments. Naomi goes to school, or I walk her towards school until she meets some friends. Yoko takes the other girls, both in the juniors' department of St Peter’s now. This is still not ideal, though, not in my mind at least. I have a list of things that make me unhappy with our current situation — I gesture angrily in the direction of Finland, like it would save me from disappearing into my own navel, being anything other than what I am. You are still lucky, you are still falling ass-backwards into everything, that is the truth isn't it. I look at my aging, my exhausted face in the mirror after twenty minutes of running at tempo pace, as I bring up the speed of the treadmill another half-kilometer. I'm lucky — I've always been lucky. 

11 September 2018

Physical walls

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The house on Victoria Road is held together by red dust — pull a bit at the wallpaper and it's bound to come billowing out. When we were putting in the bathroom this last winter, curious, I had done this in the staircase and found that some part of the wall was just being held up with layers and layers paper, a century's worth of bad decorating decisions. The builders were supposed to fix this quickly, but it never happened and we've lived with this divot in the wall, until I finally made another effort to chase down the builders before going to Sweden. The plasterers made some estimation of the costs and gave me some dates in September, but of course they couldn't make a real estimation until all the paper had come down and we found out how bad things were.

With the dates in diary to have it all sorted, I started to pull down the wallpaper in earnest on Saturday afternoon, thinking the whole thing wouldn't take several hours: the same foolish thought I have at the beginning of every one of the events. By well after four on Sunday, I was still ankle deep in wet paper and glue, covered in red dust, with bits of brick falling down as I climbed up and down a one story ladder thinking, well, this is becoming more complicated than it should be, isn't it. Still though, there's something about having your hands in the work, the mess, and looking at whatever you've done, whenever it's done and thinking, I did that. Look at that thing I did.

The bare walls, the construction, create an odd anxiety that is hard to describe, like an unmade bed or an unwashed dish on the table. You learn to cope with it, but it's better if you acknowledge its effects. I trudged up to St Peters, my arms aching from manual labour, and found our place, in the front pew and sang through the songs, watching Mei and Mia in the choir and sitting close to Yoko. When we went to kneel down at the altar rail, I put my hands out and realised they were not entirely clean — I had washed them, but they were still grey and cut up. I took it anyway, took the wine, and sat back down.

The music ended and I left early, skipped the coffee to go back to work. Everyone came home and played and we ate tofu and vegetables that I cooked in soy sauce and blackstrap molasses, and I went back to it until everyone was in bed. Finally, sometime after nine, I stopped working and walked up and down the stairs to survey where we were. Everything was a mess, dusty light bulbs and exposed electrical cords. It's progress, anyway, I said to myself. You gotta strip it back completely, like I'm a person who knows something about something, like a person who takes a cigarette break. You complain and complain about these things, because that's what you do, but you know, you realise, in the back of your mind that, like everything, when it's done, you'll miss it.

05 September 2018

The roads away


By eight last night, it was dark, or dark enough, and I went out to walk around St Peter's after dinner, catching a glimpse of myself in the reflection of the real estate agent at the bottom of Victoria Road. I was wearing basketball shorts that my father had given me in 2012. They were too small for him and were always too big for me, and I had the impulse to go home and change in case someone might see me. I passed people on the way up the hill to the church, but no one I knew, and when I reached the cemetery stones in the churchyard, the path was starting to ferment, decaying leaves gathering and the subtlest sweetness of the autumn and the streetlights.

After putting everyone to bed, the Pihlajas of Harborne each in their place, I poured a glass of whisky and organised my emails, made lists of things to do, and felt again like a well-oiled cog in the machinery of my life. Getting up at five in Sweden was pointless — I ran and had breakfast at seven thirty, was at the empty university by nine, stood around at my Ikea desk overlooking the city, trying to write. But the schedule was made up, arbitrary. It didn't matter, did it, where I was, whether I had run or when, or if I did anything. Now, the Garmin Vivosmart HR+ buzzes me awake at five and it's a race against time, to make my insufferable blackstrap molasses protein pancakes, meditate, and respond to emails before the first sounds of waking children and the bathroom becomes unusable. The activity is contagious.

Today, at seven-forty, Naomi and I set out to walk to secondary school for the first time, up Fellows Lane, the other way from St Peters. I timed and narrated our walk in a patronising, paternal way, knowing she would need to do it herself in the future. Watch for the cars here, and see this asshole isn't looking, you can't walk out in front of him, and make sure you get to the crosswalk there, but make sure they see you, because they aren't looking for people, just other cars. And then she walked away, on to whatever was unfurling before her, like the morning she walked up the road in Malaysia, to the International school in the palm trees. She was pulling her books in a rolling suitcase, two hands behind her.

Still, things need resolving in the house on Victoria Road, the cycles of euphoria and grief and anger and acceptance, the histories that write the present and future. The Pihlajas of Harborne are by no means a done deal, I say to anyone caught in my orbit at the wrong time and forced to abide me as I go on about plastering and visas and the madness of Brexit. The Wikipedia page on epigenetics is useful, but it doesn't resolve the issue of responsibility — we need to hold someone responsible, I assume, someone must be punished for all the wrongs we’ve accumulated, the books need to be balanced before we can start again. When I was a child, the rules were clear: it was either Jesus or you, who gets God's wrath is your choice. I laid in bed and worried about this endlessly, had I said the prayer right, I must have said it right, but there was no change that I could see. Was I saved if I didn't change. Now, my own children sleep soundly, I check to make sure, but of course I don't know. My parents watched me sleep too, I assume. The lights go on and off and it’s the morning again. I pull out the stool from under my desk and breath for a time, let my body breath me, as the man says. You can will nothing, can you. The girls will be up soon, best to set my intention first.

04 September 2018

Late stages

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Twenty one thousand three hundred and fourteen photos document the Pihlajas of Harborne's improbable life arch — on the Internet you can flick back and forth between them. Worried, as I am, about late-stage capitalism and the imminent collapse of the world economy, I have kept a small hard drive with all our photos beside my desk, something I might grab in a fire, after making sure everyone was safe. I spent a few hours this morning and last night trying to update the photos from our different phones and travelling back and forth between this summer and the last five months, collecting together the different memories that had been hoovered up into different cloud services, from our different Moto G phones, and felt like I was ready for the winter. It can snow now.

In June, when the bells of the church rang out while I was meditating in Moseley, the sun streaming into the Buddha Hall, I felt resolved to accept the inevitable ending and beginning of everything. Every moment is reincarnation, you're meant to remember — the breath comes in and out and that is one moment. This is an easy thing to forget whenever there is fear or the anger and stubbornness that falls out of that anger. Of course everything is insolvent, of course everything is going away. I opened my eyes and rode my bicycle home in the dark, until the vivid edges of the world got rubbed off and the breath, like everything else important, fell into the background.

A friend of mine has the sort of cancer you watch rather than treat. Cancer can be an unforeseeable outcome of living longer. You write and rewrite DNA long enough, mistakes are bound to come up. My friend shrugs his shoulders — it's something you live with. There's only a small chance that this will be the thing that kills you anyway, why dwell on it. What's worse, knowing what could kill you, or not knowing? I don't honestly know. The conversation stops there and my children, or one of my children, runs up to ask a question, and show us a thing she has found and the cancer is gone when you don't think about it.

Solvency is hard to judge. You're always indebted and owed, but how can you tell what the sums are. I keep lists of every wrong I've ever endured, angry for lifetimes about the smallest thing. My anger goes back generations, a heritable phenotype change that made me a perpetual child. You're acting like your father is the truth — I am, of course. And my father's father and his father, all in the late stages of every relationship we've ever been in, all trying to not be found out. Does saying it help — is it worse to know or not know. I hug the girls goodnight the way my father hugged me, after he prayed for me, knelt beside my bed and asked for God's blessing on me. We don't choose which parts we escape.

02 September 2018

Fine

Trip to Scotland/ York, 2010

And then I was standing in Birmingham Airport again, staring at my phone and waiting, the end of my pathetic bachelor dad summer that seemed to stretch on and on until it was done. On the arrivals board, there was that same Flybe flight from Stuttgart that had caused all the trouble to my father when he came in July, when he had missed the boarding of his first delayed flight and needed to take this one, the second one that he had to pay for out of pocket. The second flight was late that day and it was again today — I felt a phantom anxiety he might appear, anger like tar spilling out on everything and making me feel like a child again. I leaned against the railing and distracted myself glancing down at my phone and watching happy Sikh and Southeast Asian families come through one after another.

The bags came unpacked in the living room, with the girls showing me thing after thing they had gotten in Japan, plastic sundries, anime characters that we don't have in Great Britain, or not yet. I watched them, before some whiskey from my father-in-law appeared, and then endless other gifts for anyone else who might have been remembered. Yoko asked if I was working and everyone went to bed and got up and everything was normal. I meditated, I had to accept, breath with, the sound of Coyote Peterson in the background, amazed by some giant tortoise, and the sounds of Japanese greetings which I was meant to return, regardless of how distant I felt, how alone, how close White Tara might have been.

In Paris, a woman had stopped my brother and me at one of the fountains — she'd come up and asked us where we were from and her accent gave away before she said it that she was from Baltimore and here, in Paris, for some reason or another, something I don't remember or didn't hear. She walked with us for a bit and then went off, back to her family and her adventure. When you looked, there were any number of Americans like this, on holiday and desperately needing to talk to someone, to anyone. We joked about the polo-shirted dads you could categorise, the angry ones, the tired ones, the smarter ones in linen, the well-groomed ones, the helpful ones, the annoyed ones, the ones that were telling off their children or their wives. The same dads seemed to be plodding around Stockholm and Tallinn, complaining and looking around for something they recognised, wanting desperately to announce a fact or opinion, to be heard, for someone to ask them about America, where they are from, something they knew something about.

I've been keeping my mouth shut, if and when I can. The Pihlajas of Harborne walk up and down to the High Street, and I suddenly feel like people can see me again, after they greet the children and then Yoko and then me, superfluous like a skin tag, just standing there, but at least visible, present. And you went away too, right? I did, yes, I did, I did have a good time, I suppose, yes, I was working, but... and I don't have the energy to finish whatever it is that might come next. Something about writing as prison, about plant-based food and the amount of saturated fat in cheese. Yeah, fine, it was fine, thanks. We walk to the Works and then towards St Peter's like a lodestar, and back home. Everyone goes to bed, but the lights are still on. I go through the house and shut them off, collect cups and bowls from wherever they've been left — shut down the computer and fold a blanket. We'll wake up together in the morning.

29 August 2018

The touch


I got off the train in Helsinki, and the air was undeniable — the summer had ended. I was primed for this ending in the carriage, listening to an American exchange student talk to someone from London about their first week studying in Finland, about the clear, slow English one of their lecturers used. Yes, classes would be starting up, wouldn't they, it was time for that, and when the carriage door opened, the narrative logic demanded a crisp bite that wouldn't have been there otherwise. I found my hostel and climbed up seven floors to my room overlooking a concrete courtyard, and beyond it, somewhere, a city I tried to imagine covered in snow, the sun never coming up. Of course, that potential reality, that future reality never materialised in my mind, though I wandered the streets alone in the autumn air, perfect, a perfect balance of Japan and Sweden and Britain as you imagine Britain.

I was alone and then I wasn't: that's all there is to say about this summer. I felt the loneliness like a wound, until I didn't feel alone anymore, like it had scabbed over. All the disjointed messenger conversations — are the kids sending these pictures to themselves, or to me. Am I just their memory now — would I know if I was already dead. I ran Woodgate Valley again this morning after running it yesterday and the day before, and I wondered if I was real. I passed someone on the trail, someone from the day before and I wondered if they saw me. I meant to stop them: am I real, do you see me? The American, the fat one in the baseball cap.

I took this week off with the intention of getting things done, but I got nothing done. I went out looking for some insufferable plant-based product at the supermarket and then came home with plans to read and immerse myself in a book or project. But I didn't — I laid on the sofa all Sunday and did nothing until I fell asleep. I tried to meditate and couldn't. I tried to read and couldn't. I shut off the light and went to sleep and woke up, alone. I gave blood on Monday afternoon and they were worried about my hemoglobin — your hemoglobin needs to be 13.5 grams per deciliter of blood and mine was 14.1. I'm sorry, but I'm above the minimum, right? How is this a problem? I asked. They called the sister over, the nurse who runs the whole show, and she looked stern and told me it wasn't a problem, but it could become a problem. I was coming in too often, she said, and I needed to come every six to eight weeks, not every month, and gave me a pamphlet. I apologised, as I have apologised for the last month — I became a vegan. I'll be more careful. 

There were no complications, of course: the bag filled with the thick yellow part of my blood that I never believe actually comes out of my arm. The machine played an upbeat series of notes, and they unplugged me, but not before pestering me for another appointment. I apologised again, I'm sorry, I can't do Mondays anymore because I need to teach and besides the sister told me just a moment ago that I can't give in a month anyway, didn't she, did I imagine this, am I really here, do you see me? Still, with the anticoagulant dissipating in my system, I was buzzing, and took an apple, feeling smug. This was my blood; I hadn't cannibalised it from some non-human animal, what we new converts to plant-based food call animals to show we are better than people who just say animals. Of course, we're all animals, and those platelets (and I say this to whomever will listen) that is my blood, made from soy and water. I peed and took cautious steps down the stairs, the autumn air meeting me again just outside the door.

Alone, with nothing to do, no kids or wife or work, I walked around the city centre, past a black man with the backpack preaching about Jesus and a man in thobe next to him, leaning against the wall, texting. Someone from some charity tried to stop me to talk, but then they realised that they couldn't see me, that I was invisible, and passed their hand through me like I was a ghost. I kept walking, the past and the present and the future all just a moment together. I picked up the kids, my wife. I spoke on the phone, some figment of my own imagination now. I'm in Helsinki, I wanted to say, but the person on the other end didn't ask where I was. I hung up. Shut the light off, the city out there. I'll wake up and run, try for negative splits.

21 August 2018

The great dialectic


Trummen was completely still this morning, with mist rising up as I came into the fifth kilometre and had the best view of Teleborg Slott, the castle, in the morning light. I looked up and around and felt the prick of seeing that I wanted earlier this summer, kneeling on mats in the Birmingham Buddhist Centre and waiting. I came around the corner and my Garmin Vivosmart HR+ buzzed the sixth kilometre, which was slower than I wanted and I picked up my pace, my body pulsing with the worst lie I know, the lie that will collapse in on itself before the semester begins: why run if you aren't going to run fast.

Running has been the great dialectic this summer, the thing I have loved while hating, and dreaded and desired and laid awake all night thinking about, through ninety minute sleep cycles and dreams that I can't believe I've had, the subconscious build up of experiences since June, or May, or April. All the countries, the travel, the planes, the hotels, people missing out of my life, my missing children and my missing wife. I've run faster than I've ever run — I confess it like a terrible sin I need forgiveness from. I ran to Hissö and looped the 1.1 kilometre road at the end of the island four or five times. The air was clean and clear and I thought this must make me run faster, but then doubted the thought — what difference does it make really, how clean the air is. It's a placebo. I looped around and let the thought come again, but then what does it matter if it's true or not, if it's true, and I breathed in deeply and ran up the hill towards the middle of the island and then off through the suburbs and back into Växjö. The Garmin Vivosmart HR+ buzzed at twenty-two kilometres and I jogged another five hundred metres. There was nowhere for me to go.

On Sunday, I went out to Björnamo on the bike Chris loaned me while I've been at the university. I rode, and my jacket came on and off as the mist built and dissipated and then became rain, or almost became rain. I sweated up the hills and around the bend, and when the cabin came into view, the door open and the black woodfired oven piping out smoke, the summer felt like it had ended. The clouds had come back down from the north, from wherever they have been hiding, and given enough time, the well won't be dry anymore. That's a question you ask at the cabin — has the well run dry. Because of the summer drought, you shouldn't mind getting wet now. You should sit out in the weather, whatever the weather is — a marriage of foxes, the sun both shining and the rain coming down in torrents, like a touch of stability, a hand that gently steadies things. Throw your head back and laugh. Everything comes around, doesn't it, if you just look.

14 August 2018

How to suffer without writing


The rain finally made its way through Växjö and a mild Swedish humidity, neither hot nor cold, has been sitting low on the city. I tried to welcome it, of course — the heat had been echoing through the deserted campus all week, making me uncomfortable in my British broadcloth shirts and reminding me I should be somewhere else. Still, I got back damp to the hotel last night and immediately wanted the sun back, however sweaty and slow it felt.

The rain has also sealed the feeling of flacid lethargy that comes from trying to write — the sort of lethargy where even a low grade incline on the bike path feels like something you can't pedal up. You do it of course, and from the outside, it looks effortless, but you know how it felt when your Garmin Vivosmart HR+ buzzed you awake this morning. It felt like hell. There is nothing glorious in writing. You write a good sentence, and you are alone. You write a bad sentence, and you are alone. You pace around the empty campus, you buy lunch, you fall asleep in the sun for a moment, you write, you don't write. It doesn't matter one way or another.

The rain suggests this summer is winding down. Two weeks from tomorrow, the girls will touch down at Birmingham airport and the Pihlajas of Harborne will regroup to put our lives back together. I won't need to refresh the Facebook messenger window again, nervously checking to see if the kids or Yoko have called or will call, or whether or not they too had slipped off into the enchanted mountains in Tosa, deep in Shikoku, never to be seen again. I know this isn't going to happen, that it's a lie creeping in, but I've stopped believing enough that now I can believe anything. Anything is possible.

On Sunday, I took a long walk alone up to Hissö. I came over the bridge on to the island and walked to the nature reserve, finally sitting on a rock at the water's edge. I thought about how much energy I had wasted worrying about God's plan for me, how when I was young, we would come to places like Växjö on retreats to hear from God and I would sit on similar rocks, praying and wondering. How I found meaning in everything that was said to me by everyone, how the world was full of signposts and signs. Twenty years later, the meaning has evaporated. I look at the log bobbing up and down just off the shore and think nothing at all about it. There is a log.

I believe different lies now. My legs can't keep up with my heart — if you can't run at a tempo pace, what's the point. I lay in my hotel bed wishing for some sort of absolution for the day, for a body that is not my body. On Saturday, I ran and ran and ran, getting lost somewhere out near Sandsbro, having made a wrong turn along the way. I just ran and having shut off the heart rate display on my Garmin Vivosmart HR+ — I didn't think anything about my pace until I got home and plugged it into my computer. It's no use. Looking in the full-length mirror in the hotel, I can say, I am not fat, but I am still fat. I can manage it for another week, perhaps, for another month, maybe, but I am still fat. I search online for the magic amino acid I've been missing, wondering if I just stopped altogether, what would happen. Surely things would be easier if you had less to do, if you stopped caring about what you ate, about the industrial production of beef, about dairy and sugar, about your career, about your heart rate, about your family, your marriage, your relationships — if you remade yourself in some Latin American country, some new lover, some new life. I look in the mirror again, trying to be honest with myself. If we could only be honest with ourselves.

08 August 2018

How subtle, how slow


The walk up Victoria Road to St Peter’s school becomes slower through the summer. My daughter and her friend ahead of me are now taller and more confident than I have seen them, and the jokes they tell become more cynical and mature. You can’t lie to them the way you can lie to children, the way you can tell children to not do something just because. You want them to hold your hand, if even for a moment when crossing the road. It’s over now, isn’t it, this part of the story.

The last three weeks were a disk of dreams you put in a View-Master. I pull the lever and the image changes. I'm standing at the Birmingham airport arrivals after midnight, feeling like a child, my father on the other side somewhere, and me full of dread and fear because I know he is angry. I pull the lever, and I am kissing the girls goodbye, they are going to Japan. I pull the lever, and I am sitting on the Place George Pompidou in Paris, drinking a bottle of wine with my brother, plastic cups and a kid on a bicycle circling around again. I pull the lever, and I am in Sweden, the wind whipping up Södra Bergundasjön and I am swimming away from the shore.

Or, if not a disk of images, present like tracing paper on the past. Beau and I climb up the Eiffel Tower, and I am there again in my mind with my sister, with whom I came when I lived in Milton Keynes, when Yoko said I smiled for the first time in a year. I look down at the metal corral for the queue as we wait to climb up in the sun. I think of the double stroller I had with Mei and Naomi, in 2009, when we came on the Eurostar, when we thought we were going back to Japan and needed to see as much of Europe as we could. I was eating meat then and smoking cigars and pushing that stroller through the same corral in the rain. Or Sacré-Cœur, with the Southeast Asian men selling beer on the stone steps and being chased off by invisible plainclothes officers. Yoko and the girls and I were there too, weren't we. I light a candle in the darkness inside and cross myself, even though I never cross myself. Sacred Heart of Jesus, behold each one of us freely consecrates himself today to Thy most Sacred Heart.

The summer goes on and on everywhere, in every country, whether you are sitting on the Seine or running on the canals in Birmingham or eating lunch by the lake, Trummen, in Växjö as it recedes away from the shores and reveals whatever the water had covered over. The summer crosses borders, across the globe to Japan where Yoko and the girls come to me through some technology. It is also burning in Japan, this confluence of factors leading to a hot house effect, the ocean full of plastic. The girls tell stories about their grandparents and the rivers, and are excited and I don't know what to say. I am not there, am I. Should I be there. I go to bed and I wake up and come into the university to work. I've forgotten how long or short I am here for, there are more e-mails, more students needing something and keeping me from whatever it was I wanted to do, whatever it was I had promised to write.

Now, I want sleep like I wanted sex when I was nineteen. I woke up at four thirty again, the same way I did last month, the week of the conference I organised in Birmingham, my brother discovering me in the middle of night, awake like the sun had never gone down. I can't explain it to anyone, I'm sorry — I'm tired of trying to explain. I hugged him goodbye in the airport and I was alone for the first time in months, no one needing me to get food, no plans to make. I got on my own plane to Amsterdam and then on to Växjö, and found myself surrounded by the enchanted forest again. In the trees just off the trail, something beckons me to disappear, like a Murakami character, or my great-grandfather John Omerza. I didn't want to cry like I did, finally, sat on the edge of the toilet, my bag lying unpacked on the bed. Who else needs me now — I wipe my eyes and get up before it sets in, before I can feel any weaker than I am.

18 July 2018

A more suitable metric

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The clouds moved in yesterday, over Newman, and I set out walking back towards town with the feeling that I might get rained on. I walked up through Weoley Castle and past Selly Oak Park where I had, several years ago, confronted some travellers for driving on the grass. The clouds stayed dark for most of the walk, but there was never any rain and I came across to the University of Birmingham both relieved and disappointed because we really do need the rain now.

Like a new convert, I have taken to the insufferable life of plant-based and ethical eating with my typical religious zeal, but I've been feeling like a failure, to be honest, with all the nibbling I've done on the edges, both consciously and unconsciously. The last straw was the vegetarian Quorn sausage I eat at work, which turned out to be full of (free-range) egg whites. My frustration about losing them and about my carelessness in not realising they weren't plant-based slipped into feelings of inefficacy about the state of the world, a spiral of thoughts about Trump, Evangelicalism, and the plastic that seems to choke everything in the modern world. On a better day, I would have turned inward to focus on my breath, meditation being the other wire of zealotry I am holding at the moment. I've recently learned that there is no self anyway, no me to eat the (free-range) egg whites, and if I were just able to see (in italics) the world as it is, my anxiety would fall away. I've had promising results, but more often than not, I find myself drowning in an elaborate story, my past and present flooding over me. I'm told I should expect this.

The sausages behind me, I recommitted myself, in the queue at Costa. Turning over a package of a nut and dark chocolate snack, I figured it was okay — no egg whites or milk or butter lurking inside. Sure, it had sugar, added sugar even, but I could forgive myself for that, today at least. I ordered an iced coffee and was disappointed with myself for not having my own cup. I asked for no straw or lid and the barista taking my money nodded annoyingly, but told no one else. Having experienced a similar situation before at the Harborne Costa, I knew I would have to follow its progress. Glancing up from my phone, the plastic cup did, of course, get a straw carelessly thrown into it. I panicked and leaned over the counter to repeat myself for the woman making the drink, the one to whom the message had not been passed: I asked for no lid or straw, please. This woman also stared at me, confused and annoyed, and I shot an angry look at the first barista, while pushing down the urge to make more out of it. I'm living more ethically, I stopped myself from saying, a series of insufferable choices has led me here.

Despite the vigilance this plant-based diet requires, I'm feeling a noticeable freedom from choice and anxiety, bad habits I've fostered about food since I was seven and half or eight years old. I've called off the agreement I made with the fitness app, the agreement which stipulated that as long as I was below a certain, arbitrary number, I could eat as much butter as I wanted. Now, with it all out of the picture, I'm free to pursue other, more suitable metrics. Perhaps, eventually, what I see, when what I see stops being a lie.

I woke up this morning, made my vegan protein pancake with almond milk and applesauce (normal, not unsweetened — ego me absolvo) and pulled on my shoes to run. I've focused recently on keeping the heart steady at a high aerobic rate, one hundred and forty nine beats per minute. This is always hard initially. My body chugged to a start — the old man, the fat man, telling me that I was still fat. But then it broke through, as I got to the canal, to one hundred and forty five and then fifty and then I slowed and sped up and fell into a groove, like a metronome. There it is, I thought, the yawning now, the thing I am meant to see, the blue morning light and the narrowboats mooring on the banks. One hundred and fifty, and then slowing and falling back. I stopped looking at my wrist, my body now somewhere underneath me or beside me or in me. My body somewhere, breathing in and out, in and out, like a lung.

08 July 2018

What we can count

Before Recessional.jpg

On Friday, I stepped on the scale, after my first week of eating more whole foods and another failed attempt at implementing a ‘plant-based’ diet. This is what you say when you don’t want to use the world vegan, with its potentially negative valence for people who inexplicably take pride in eating meat. The failure had been marginal, a bit of cake (butter and milk) and then some butter with my toast at the Plough, though I had asked them specifically not to bring it and was upset that I had been forced into the ethical conundrum of throwing away versus consuming the butter. I ate it, of course, and hated myself and the world for making it so easy. Still, I had done well, I hadn’t eaten too much, the app said, and had eaten cleanly. The app had even praised me and promised a small loss of weight over the next five weeks. But after I stripped down and prepared myself to see a slightly smaller number than last week, my weight was up, a full kilogram and a half. Why, I wanted to ask. Explain this to me. 

Yoko and I married twelve years ago, today. We married when I was just barely twenty four and when I was confident in a way that you are when you marry someone whose language you barely speak and whom you have dated for less than a year. I knew and didn’t let myself doubt it, the commitment of a believer or soldier. Within a year, that confidence had melted away, but that wedding day was glorious and perfect, my family from the States nervously happy, and my future unfurling like a flag in the July sun. The day before, I had smoked cigars with my new brother-in-law on the beach and he had said to me, whatever happens, remember that you have family. It didn’t make sense at the time. 

What can’t you quantify. My Fitness Pal, my smartphone app, helps you log the food that you have eaten in a day. The calorie, or the kilocalorie, is just a measure of how much energy it takes to consume something. How much you have to burn it, physically burn it with fire, in a lab before it disappears. They say — the Internet, the experts on it — one kilogram of fat is burned with seven thousand kilocalories. This science is applied as a pragmatic truth: if you want to lose a pound, make a thirty five hundred calorie deficit. It’s only right as a guiding principle based on an abstraction about fat in a vile in a lab. But it’s like saying most successful couples aren’t afraid to fight: try to apply it and you only get so far.

My ongoing epistemological crises make me a terrible party guest: what is a number anyway — it’s just a metaphor isn’t it. I have an anecdote about numbers and the Vietnam War, but I’ll spare you. And what is twelve years. What is one year. What is a minute — we sit silently with the same cups of coffee in front of us in the pub searching for things that haven’t been said. I didn’t think of this, sitting at the front of that church in Niigata City, waiting and pushing down all my anxiety. You can’t quantify faithfulness. You can count cups of coffee that have gone cold, and nights you’ve gone to bed angry. You can count the time before another child needs to be picked up and brought somewhere else. You can count years together, but it won’t tell you much of anything. You might gain or lose, depending on the conditions. All love is unspeakable anyway, it’s just an abstraction of the day-to-day making and unmaking of a relationship. When you say you are thankful that we are all still healthy, that is love. It is a different love. 

05 July 2018

Pace

Stephen Helps Baby

Every summer I fall into the same cycle of wanting to run faster and run farther. The last couple of years, this has been a distraction from losing weight, but this summer, for the first time in years, I am not fat and am not trying to lose weight. These conditions should lead to a sense of calm, a faster, more open pace, and they have, to an extent. Still, there is also the nagging reminder of the old man (Ephesians 4:22-24), a biblical principle which I seem to portage from one stage of life to the next. I run with the weight of the old man on me, the one that is corrupted by its deceitful desires and was crucified with Christ (Romans 6:6). Somehow, despite being dead, it lives on — a typical Paulian double bind. The old man is both something that you must recognise as being dead, but something you must actively lay aside because it lives on in you.

Whatever is flowering along the newly paved Woodgate Valley path in Birmingham where I run in the morning, smells of Milton Keynes in two thousand and nine, when I first ran long distances in this country. At that time, I was nostalgic for the rice paddies in and around Niigata City and Shiibata, where I had run for much of my early twenties, across Matsuhama Bridge, the Agano River flowing out of the mountains into the Sea of Japan, if you call it the Sea of Japan. Now, running with this smell, I am nostalgic for my late twenties, when I lost my faith, while reading Nietzsche and running along the canals in Milton Keynes. I feel a nostalgia for that precipice, before my faith was gone and before anyone had noticed that I wasn't mouthing along with most of the words anymore. 

And so, the poet Bashou (松尾 芭蕉, 1644–1694) writes:
京にても
京なつかしや
時鳥
Even in Kyoto
Hearing the cuckoo's cry
I long for Kyoto
At some point, the never-ending summer becomes a drought. The patches of yellow grass are worrying, and I am starting to see them, as I cut through Senneleys Park on the way home. The football pitch is usually too damp to run through, but not this summer. The British are right, of course: every pleasure turns to worry. The wells dry up and you begin to want the rain, to beg for it. Naomi puts on shoes and hugs me before heading out to secondary school for the first time, for her induction. She cried in that summer heat in Matsuhama, in Japan, now more than ten years ago, when I longed for Matsuhama in Matsuhama. When I pulled on my own shoes to head out and run, like I will this morning, and tomorrow and every day after. The drought can only last so long and it will rain again. This is the nature of things.

02 July 2018

Lodestar


The British summer goes on and on, like the biggest lie I have ever believed. Yoko set up the tent in the garden and I slept out in it with Mei the other night, surprised by the light, at eleven thirty and then two thirty and then four thirty, giddy with the coolness and the warmth and the feeling of the grass through the bottom of the tent. I went running and running again and again, on the canals and through Woodgate Valley, the sun omnipresent, like a bodhisattva sat on the edge of my meditating mind. The book I’m reading now says that we need to see and that means to experience the world before the narrative. If only we could see the world before we start to talk to ourselves about it, start telling whatever story we want to hear.

Seeing is harder than it should be. Some days, it’s easier than others. You can look down the walkway at Harborne Cricket Grounds, through the canopy of trees, towards St Peter’s, where bells are almost always ringing. And then, on Sunday, in this same place, a man on a bike, shirtless and drunk, ran up on me and the girls as we walked slowly through the shade, sunburnt and full of stories from the High Street carnival we were going home from. This man rode past and scowled at me, and I said, ‘You aren’t supposed to ride here’ and he slowed, angry and looking back said, ‘It’s a dedicated cycle path.’ He used the word dedicated, which sounded odd, and I laughed a bit pointing at the sign with the bike in the red circle, and he said, ‘I don’t give a fuck what the sign says — this is my country, not yours’ and rode off. The girls didn’t hear, and I said to them, but also to everyone who was there, the people behind us on the path and the woman walking ahead of us, ‘Did you hear that?’ They hadn’t. No one had, just me and this man, who was gone, and whom I hated with all the hate I had in my heart.

White Tara still won’t appear in the summer heat, even though I sit quietly in the coolness of the Buddha Hall. The hay fever, and the frustration of whatever is frustrating me. Where is my compassion, my grounding — White Tara is said to be touching the ground. Why do I hate someone for suffering, there is so much suffering. The leathery skinned man on the bike, full of Strongbrow and angry and afraid, is suffering too: this is what you see prior to the narrative about him, about his hate and ignorance. Who can see him. At St Peter’s, we break to share the peace and I find Yoko through the crowd to share the peace, to make peace. What will guide us through the storm, I wonder, looking up at the stained glass and whatever light is behind it. I’m suffering, and now I see my suffering. Will the narrative drop away in this neverending summer, as the girls run ahead of me, after I have insisted that we go for a walk. My feet are on the ground. I can reach down and touch it.

19 June 2018

Still the breath

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When the sun doesn’t go down, you feel giddy and even though you are tired, you aren’t tired. This is what someone said to me in Sweden last week, a man with a moustache in a restaurant who was instantly believable, the way Swedes are in my experience. They come off as having no pretense and when I left after dinner, when I walked home in the midnight sun, I thought he was of course right, and I appreciated this word giddy like I was some sort of child waiting for a summer birthday. I woke up at four or five in the morning because I didn’t bother to close the curtain and left the window open when I went to sleep and the sun kept waking me up. After a week of travel and writing and listening and talking, I was exhausted, but I couldn’t stop myself from getting up and going, running around the lakes in the cool air and finding, by a stroke of luck when I was trying to run another kilometre, a new path through the woods, through the canopy of trees, deeper and deeper into the forest.

Växjö is a small place, but big enough to buy falafel from immigrants in the town centre or to get lost in some group of houses that might as well be a subdivision in the American sense. I saw, walking down the road, an American Chevy Suburban, the big SUV that had surprised me with its ubiquity in Queens this spring. It didn’t seem out of place, but more civilised next to the smaller house and the narrower Swedish streets that had, in one place, flower planters in the middle of the road to slow the traffic. This, I thought, is very Swedish, ardently un-American — people over wealth and machines. I wanted to snap a picture, but didn’t in the end, thinking of how they, the beautiful, imagined Swedish people I was trying to impress, might perceive it, me standing in the road like an idiot. Instead, I kept walking, until I saw Chris across the road and felt whatever feeling you feel when you’ve come home.

When it ended, I woke up in my own bed, in Birmingham, at four thirty in the morning, the British Summer seemingly gone now and my wife sleeping next to me. I made coffee and looked out in the garden, my garden in my home that I can afford for the moment. I weighed myself and felt the fleeting pride of staying thin for another week. I cooked my breakfast and sat at the Ecrol table I bought last autumn after years of eating on the coffee table and thought, but why am I here and not there, or anywhere, in Japan, or Malaysia. It’s the same thought I’ve had for fifteen years, although it lingers less now that I am soon to be thirty six and have begun to realise there's no master narrative. Now, there are things to be done, meditation to get on with and then emails and then the kids will be up to hug me around the neck. There is also, I am reminded, still the breath. Yes, the breath, which you can come back to at any moment. There it is — in and out. Here, in and out, Sweden, in and out, Japan, in and out. In and out. It will continue for some time.

09 June 2018

The heat

Taman Sri Minang

You’ll remember the heat, won’t you, I thought in Malaysia, when the last few weeks of my time there were coming, when I was standing, looking out of the house in Taman Sri Minang into the park that had at times been filled with packs of feral dogs or with men spraying chemicals to kill the dengue-laden mosquitoes. Naomi remembers this well. It was always hot. It rained and things would become muggy and cooler, but it was still hot. You could lay on the bed without covers, in the heat, and look up at the fan, knowing that the autumn wasn’t coming but still thinking that it would come.

The heat that came to Birmingham this year is not real heat, but British heat. The numbers are meaningless, but they are enough to make you sweat when you walk and wear jeans and boots. This is hot in the United Kingdom. It’s muggy until you think of any other place where it is also muggy. I bought linen trousers and told everyone about them. I walked up and down the High Street, enjoying my temporary thinness, cool against the sun, and taking issue, as an international figure in the community, when someone complained about the weather. Let me tell you something about Southeast Asia and Texas. Let me tell you about heat.

Cyprus is hot too and I’m told that Cypriots also think that it is hot. They aren’t stupid, they know what heat is. Momentarily thin in well-pressed linen slacks, I stand in the shade, in the heat, and soak it in. I like it when I don’t have to move, when I can look out at it.

My Grandmother, my father’s mother who raised him alone, who was one half Italian, also loved the heat. Her skin was leathery from the years and years of lying in the sun, smoking cigarettes, though her hair was jet black well after it should have gone grey. I remembering thinking of her as mad and eccentric, but what these mad eccentriticies were exactly escape me now. She liked the sun, and had a fur coat that my parents bought for her. She was petty at times, known to give and then take back gifts. She bought our piano and then resented us when we stopped playing. She said what was on her mind, but couldn’t abide other people doing the same thing, particularly her son and his wife, my mother and father, who loved her with Christian diligence and quiet sadness.

Rosie is hard to pin down as a figure in my mind, now the result of an archeology through reports of her and memories. I can’t tell, as I think about her and her life, what is true. We, my family, my parents and brother and sister, were strict fundamentalists, and Rosie was a free spirit. She was in Germany for a while, sending us nutcrackers at Christmas, and then she was in Minnesota where we would visit her in a house that I remember vaguely. There was a tennis court in the backyard, and a man, shirtless, smoking a pipe. She lived with or nearby an aunt or great-aunt, a woman who appears in my mind as sat at a table in a small room watching television and pressing out from a waffle iron pizzella cookies that would then come to our house by post, stacked and wrapped in aluminium foil.

In my memory, Rosie is there, but not there. I can’t think of anything she said or did. I can’t see her. I remember the clothes she wore, light sun dresses and hats. At some point, she coudn’t stand the Minnesota winters anymore and moved to Arizona and became a Jehovah’s Witness. Dad and I visited her once, sleeping on a fold-out sofa bed. There must have been tension, knowing my father, knowing her, knowing my father and me, but I don’t remember the tension. I remember the smells of Tucson, the citrus, but I can’t find any memories of Rosie.

We are trying our luck in Britain. Another weekend of sun before I left on my trip to Europe. Where are you going again, another person asks, treating my travels like they are much more elaborate and exotic than they feel. Another trip, is it, where to now, Stephen, what country are you going to now? I feign being annoyed, in my linen slacks and thin European shirt. Look at me, I have broken free from my American-self, the fat one in the heavy polo shirt and cargo shorts. I’m just going to Europe for work, as you do. I put on sunglasses and head out onto the tile patio in the Cyproit heat and the blue sky. See me, Rosie, your grandson. I am here now.

07 June 2018

Loss

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, March 2011 

The leader at the Buddhist Centre primed us for visions of dogs on Tuesday. She said the mind was a dog, that you don't drag on a lead, but whistle to come walk with you. When I closed my eyes, my consciousness appeared as a white husky, with one blue and one green eye. I was a little boy and the husky was bigger than me, but I held the collar from the underside and we walked through the snow. There was snow for some reason. I could hear and feel it under me until a thought which I can't remember now dissolved it like a sugar cube in my mouth.

My weight is back to wherever it is I think it should be, and nine times out of ten this month, or these last ten days, I’ve had my morning routine, placing the scale on the cold tiles that Wayne the Builder and Chris put in over the winter, stripping naked, and weighing myself. The scale tells me, based on my body fat percentage and weight and age and a Japanese algorithm, that my body age, my true age, is thirty five, down from thirty eight or nine. When I’m manic, I can’t weigh myself because I am afraid of it. When I dieted, the weighing was a competition with myself to get lower and lower. Now, I don’t know if my mind is any more healthy. It’s not, it can’t be. The scale beeps and beeps again there are two numbers. You can do with them whatever you want.

I haven’t been fat this year, and fat in the empirical sense, in the terms of however any doctors define it, by BMI or body fat percentage, or looking at you and declaring you fat. This has never happened to me, no one has called me fat for years. I’ve never been more that slightly overweight in a medical sense since I was in Japan. But I am still fat.

At thirty-five, almost thirty six, I am also now free to be fat because I have money and a wife and children. It’s expected, preferred even. And of course, none of this matters, because I remember being thin, those years ago when Mia was baking along inside Yoko and we were in Turkey and I wasn’t just healthy, but thin. Thin for me, at least, even though I was still fat.

You feel thin when you cross your legs in the pew at St Peters, looking up at the stained glass and waiting in the moment for the service to start. You can think about nothing when you don’t have to think about food. You feel thin when you catch a glimpse of yourself in the storefront having bought new trousers that fit you as a thin person. Those same trousers can, of course, betray you in several months when you fail and aren’t thin anymore, but that moment, walking with confidence and getting a new haircut and trying on clothes as a thin person, you feel thin.

My dad once criticised me for being vain, as I looked at myself in sunglasses in the car mirror before football practice. I go back there in my mind all the time, ‘Vanity is about pride, excessive pride. This, what you see here manifest in me as a twelve-year-old, is not pride, but is me trying to love myself, to have any sense of confidence or happiness. It’s clear to me now, as you say this to me, and as I consider the next twenty years I will ruminate about it, that self-love is impossible when you hold a doctrine of sin.’

The husky is there again, but then the bell rings and we all come back. White Tara, have you appeared to me in the form of a dog. What is the ontological truth. I close my eyes again, hoping, a phantom body hanging around me, reminding me there is no such thing as loss. Everything is always still with you.

05 June 2018

The eternal, great British summer

Mia 

Because the weather has been nice, the Pihlajas of Harborne have been spending all the time we can outdoors. Most evenings, when the sun is still out at seven thirty or eight, we end up in the cemetery surrounding St Peters church, stone hub of our lives. The church in the centre, then the gravestones, and then the kids’ school on both sides, and then Victoria Road, where I bought my first house this last year. The kids have been cycling on the paths around the church, through the graves, chasing one another, and me walking in circles around and around, thinking about the present as much as I can, rather than the future, rather than the past.

The girls on their bicycles are still children, but when I look at them sometimes, even the youngest one now, when I catch a glimpse of her across the room, she looks like she will in ten or fifteen years. That thought of the future though, can just pass if you let it, and take another few steps in two thousand eighteen, in Harborne, where they are still children, still giggling and screaming and shouting at each other. They eat ice lollies, popsicles, and we hector them into bed some time after nine or ten. The sun doesn’t feel like it goes down in the UK in the summer. It does — it can be quite dark, but by four or four-thirty, the new kitchen and toilet that Wayne the Builder put in over the winter is completely lit up and bright. I have trouble sleeping until my alarm. Instead, I get up and weigh myself and get on with things thinking, well, there’s no point fighting what you want, is there.

All the girls were born in this season, this edge of the great British summer that never actually comes. I think about this, and why there is such an overwhelming sense of positivity in May and the beginning of June, regardless of whatever negative news has come through on the email today. I remember the morning Mia was born and the smell of everything in bloom. I remember the sun, the first time you feel the sun on your face when you leave the clinic or hospital, holding a newborn baby. Now, the school year is almost over, and I can walk a bit and think about what I want to write now, what I need to write. I can browse through charity shops, looking for linen and having breakfast with Yoko at the Plough. I can ride my bike up the canal, through the new tunnel that has been widened and feel like things are straighter and clearer than they have been in the past.

The statute of White Tara in the Birmingham Buddhist centre is adorned with metaphorical meaning. White Tara is touching the ground, it’s a metaphor. White Tara looks happy in a knowing way, the way the Buddha does, it’s a metonymy. White Tara isn’t real in an ontological sense, or she is real in an ontological sense, depending on who you are what you believe. When I was young, all I worried about was what I believed. But what does it matter. I close my eyes, or I don’t close my eyes, and take a breath again and again and again. I can hear the children on bikes behind me, shouting and laughing and joking and I turn around so I can watch them pass and then pass again. The sun is still shining and hanging in the middle of the sky, an eternity if you let it be an eternity.

28 May 2018

The rains came down, the floods came up

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Several thunderstorms have rolled through Birmingham this weekend, and yesterday I stood at the window of my house on Victoria Road, watching the water rush down the street and thinking, given my anxiety about a string of bad luck I feel like I'm experiencing, it would not come as a surprise if this house were to wash away now, after some hundred years. We sang songs about this as children in Sunday School, about the wise man and the foolish man, and the rains coming down and washing away the house built on sand. Luckily, in the hundreds of pounds I spent last year on surveys, I know exactly what the house is built on — I saw Wayne the Builder digging it out by wheelbarrowful in February. It is not sand. The lightning flashed close to the house, and I remembered suddenly my own father, building a rock wall in the rain in the eighties, because our house, the house that he had built to his dream specifications on a hill in Minnesota, was also potentially about to wash away. Of course neither happened, and my Edwardian terrace house, which I can afford for the moment, made it through the afternoon and a muggy, almost Malaysian air was left hanging when I went to take the rubbish bins out.

Somewhere in Tokyo, near Roppongi I assume but I've forgotten now, I had to make my first application for a British visa. The UK government which is constantly saving money and has been saving money for many years now, still maintained an office to make an application, a physical location, but it wasn't at the embassy. Instead, Yoko and I took a train down from Niigata to a nondescript office building, with a placard saying the UK immigration service was on the Japanese second floor (rather than the British first floor). A man in the sort of silly fake police uniforms that security guards wear in Japan sometimes, spoke in curt Japanese to me and Yoko, going through our documents, and I was angry that I had to speak Japanese at this moment, the moment I was escaping a future of Japanese bureaucracy and English language classes. It would be all worth it.

We got into the waiting room, despite the security guard's misgivings. I don't remember if he sent us away to make more copies. He might well have. Inside, there were no British people, but a row of desks with Japanese people behind them, looking out at us, and large posters on the wall, of Big Ben and then a red double decker bus, that made me think that this was all a giant scam, that the letters I had gotten from the Open University, which I partially doubted was a real university anyway, were not real and maybe some toothy TV presenter would appear and this would be some joke, some elaborate sick joke. When, however, we were finally called to a desk, the woman spoke clear and fluent English to me and although indeed I didn't have all the paperwork with me I needed, it would be okay, and I could come back the next week to provide it. We got back on the train and rode back to Niigata and in some six weeks or eight weeks or ten weeks, we were lying in a bed and breakfast in Woolstone, in Milton Keynes, and everything had changed.

The next day after the rain, there is little trace of it. Victoria Road looks as though the potholes have grown, but I wonder now if that is something I am just noticing because of the rain or if it is actually the result of the rain. It's hard to tell. The girls are going away for a party on this bank holiday, and I am debating what to do, where to walk to for the day and pass it not working, if I can manage. I have already done some work. My excuse, as I wave my hands and try to convey my deep sense of anxiety as I as do my taxes and prepare for another visa application, is that I feel like this is the only thing I can do now, the only thing I can control. I can work, I can work more and harder than everyone else.

These are the rush of thoughts when I close my eyes and start to count. One: In a year, or next August, I won't have the same excuse, but I'll deal (two) with that in a year. I'll have the flexible mortgage to blame. I'll have the rising (three) costs of education, and the uncertainty of Brexit and climate change. Look (four) now, the rain's come back, hasn't it, (five) and slowly eroding my hundred year old brick. It hasn't given out (six) yet, but that is no guarantee it won't give out soon. Seven. There is no guarantee. Eight... Nine... One.

17 May 2018

Weighing

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There are two shops at the bottom of the roundabouts on War Lane. The War Lane Cellar and another family shop, that's now a chain, although it doesn't feel like anything has changed inside. Both of the shops are owned by Southeast Asian families. Ganesha is there, in the restaurant next door, reminding me of our Indian taxi driver, Letchu, in Malaysia who awkwardly had us over to his house once. When you go into the shop, even though it's now a chain, it smells like spices and everything is overpriced except beer and Barefoot Merlot. The second shop, War Lane Cellar, is mostly booze, with one wall of snacks. Two for one pound mini-pappadums and onion rings like American funions and cheese puffs like American cheese puffs. Under a small TV, they have lager from all over Europe, all one pound nineteen or one pound twenty nine or one pound fifty nine depending. They have ice cream too, Magnums and popsicles and Twisters and Cornettos. There is an Indian man who owns it, I think, then his wife and perhaps his brother and then there is another man sometimes, an older white man, who once got upset at Mei because I had given her money to pay for everything we were buying and he said it was against the law to take the money from her because there was also beer.

Somewhere in the last year, I thought I had fixed myself, or that I had been fixed. I thought the meditation had done it. My heart rate is barely perceptible. And then, on Wednesday, I ate six thousand kilocalories. It happened in the present tense. I find myself at nine thirty at night in one of the stores at the roundabouts, buying beer and cheese puffs. I feel my thighs rubbing against each other. And I eat it all quickly and hide the wrappers in my bin at my desk underneath everything so that no one finds them. I rationalise this by saying that it's about the kids seeing and being jealous, but it's about being ashamed, about my wife finding out that I'm a child. I bought M&Ms this time and not the ice cream because M&Ms are less than two hundred kilocalories and then I am under four thousand today. I know this because I enter the calories, all of them, in my app, the calorie counting app. Four thousand better than five thousand, I tell myself, until a moment later, I thinking of buying cheese naan at another shop on the roundabout, the balti takeaway. The naan is more but I’m still under five thousand. That's bad, but it's not the worst.

My heart rate is barely perceptible. When I went to give blood a couple of weeks ago, the nurse, the sister who is really a sister, the sort of woman you want with you if you're dying, got upset because my heart rate was too low. We were face to face in a tiny consultancy room with a drop of my blood weighed down with iron at the bottom of a vile of green liquid. You gotta bring it up, she says, or you can't give blood. And we can't let you run up and down the stairs anymore, they changed the rules. What do you want to do. I felt like a little boy who had done something wrong, like Paula Johnson — that was her name wasn't it —  was shouting at that Baptist Church we used to attend in El Paso, Texas off Redd Road. I'm sorry, I said to the sister who was looking at me with faux anger, I run a lot. I meditate. I started to breathe hard and she checked me again, annoyed. Look, I'm going to give you one more chance. I'm going to go out there and come back and you do whatever you have to do, or you can't give.

I remember the way the late afternoon light was in that church in Texas. There was always some club going on, some set of activities, games that melted away into a story about God and hell and me asking for Jesus to forgive me again, hoping that it would take this time. I prayed whenever they invited us to because I was never sure whether I meant it enough, or if I even knew what it meant to mean it. I remember there were pizza parties and huge plastic gallon bottles of Walmart knock-off pop, the generic kind, Dr Thunder, Max Cola. It's not a real memory, but a conflation of memories, sitting on a folding chair, my fat legs in shorts sticking to the metal seat and a paper plate in my lap. The pile of pizza seemed to grow and grow, and then chips and we all kept eating, Paula Johnson pacing about somewhere, not upset at me exactly but upset.

How do you bring up your heart rate. I realised afterwards I should have thought of something sexy, but it didn't occur to me. I breathed quickly and shook my arm. If I could just stand up and run in place. If I could just stand up. I pretended I was running in the dark at night, and that I was being chased. I put two fingers on my throat and thought about a terrorist attack. I thought about all my family dying. The sister came back  and I apologised, and she went in again for the pulse, and then immediately to the clipboard. Fifty six. I made it, I got over fifty, they can take it from me. She started to leave and I felt like I wanted her to forgive me — please forgive me. Why do I want her to forgive me.

08 May 2018

Arriving

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I came up from Copenhagen to Växjö in the snow. Or, it came to snow as the train pulled into Växjö on Easter night and I found my cab after going up and down the wrong set of stairs. Everything was quiet on campus, where the cab dropped me off at the castle and where I checked into a small cottage on the edge of the castle grounds. The window in the bathroom above the toilet had a large, clear glass window that looked out on the lake, and I wondered if people could see in.

I had made a mistake in telling everyone I was coming a week later than I actually could come, causing a sort of Swedish trouble I couldn't properly gauge as an American having spent too much time in the UK. I can’t seem to take anyone at their word about their feelings. Because of this error, the next day was lost — a holiday, Easter Monday. I still woke up early, and ran around the lakes on campus. And then I wandered into town to buy fruit and bread and have an early fika.  I sat at the table in a cafe away from the square, where we, Yoko and the kids and Chris and me, had sat at in the summer, and I slipped into the hum of nostalgia I knew would follow me on the trip, as I walked up and down the main road of the city. The experience felt oddly internal — I didn't make eye-contact with anyone, except a man my father's age, as we both tried to reach for the coffee jug at the same time, smiling and apologising the way you do when you're not confident in a language.

There were two young American women sat at the table across from me, Macbooks open, planning for the next part of a trip, to go further east towards Russia with the money they had left and I thought that it must be Spring Break in the States. I listened to them the way you fantasise when you're young and imagine meeting other young people abroad, but then remembered suddenly that I was old to them, probably, that I wasn't their peer. The fantasy fell flat as it awkwardly required me to confront whoever I was, a mid-level academic in my mid-thirties, sitting alone with a cup of coffee and a roll. What was I doing in Sweden anyway — I could see myself trying to explain and falling into some convoluted story that wouldn't include simply being on break from college, because they would say college as Americans, not university. My story, as it might need to be told to a stranger in a Swedish cafe, goes too far back.

I was there for the rest of the week and every morning I ran around the lake and meditated and then had Swedish breakfast in the castle, cutting thick slices of bread and cheese, and piling on muesli and eggs and biscotti. I drank too much coffee and found my way to the centre for post-colonial studies where I was meeting people and stood at a borrowed Ikea desk and transcribed a debate between a Muslim scholar and an incorrigible old Christian apologist. I apologised daily for having made a mistake in telling everyone when I was supposed to come, but it didn't matter in the end. People bought me lunch and we talked and talked about everyone's work, about the Qur'an and computer-assisted learning and polemics and translation and America and Sweden and the UK. Another cup of coffee and fika here and there, before it was Saturday and I was again on the train back to Copenhagen thinking I would be back in a month again, and it didn't need to be anything but routine.

The plane was on time. We descended into Amsterdam and I stepped out on the tarmac in the sun. The first beautiful day in the city this year, someone said. My flight to Birmingham left later in the evening and I made my way towards the connecting flights, before suddenly turning around and heading the other way, to the city. I know Amsterdam well enough, I thought, I can have pizza and beer on the canal and wait for the plane there. I took the train in and walked up, through the heavy tourist armaments at the front of the station, towards Vondelpark. I didn't get that far, instead collapsing in a pizzeria and ordering a beer. I ate and took my time wandering back to the airport and my flight home to Birmingham, sunburnt and bloated and satisfied.

There are absent memories of a backpack version of me, if he was ever even real. I feel like I was in Germany one summer, trying to sort out train tickets, but I know that I wasn't. At 21, I was already settled in Japan and then married with a baby at 24. It all happened so fast — I ended up in Europe only after I became an academic, and had two kids by then. I remember taking the train in Spain, but I was a PhD student then with all sorts of attachments. I was never that young, was I. I never chatted anyone up anywhere.

It doesn't matter, it turns out — if you just keep going the adventure doesn't have to end. Perhaps you get old and don't get to have any sort of regrets, if things worked out anyway. I remember thinking this for the first time, coming out of the chunnel from Paris into St Pancreas, our trip to France finished. France was over for the time being, yes, but England goes on and on. The kids were small then and I was younger, but it's the same. It goes on and on.

05 May 2018

Conclusions

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When I bought the house on Victoria Road last year, there had been plans to have work done on it. The house is, after all, Edwardian, which means a hundred years old or nearly, and the house had a list of things that needed doing. This list, I had proudly said to people, was what I had used to negotiate a lower price for the house, but after the sale finished, it felt like a burden and wondered if it would have been better to just buy something else, on another road. My passion, however, for Victoria Road in Harborne hasn't been rational, so we started to chip away at the list.

The main building that needed doing was the renovation of the kitchen and the conversion of the upstairs bathroom into a bedroom, or moving the bathroom downstairs, depending on how I explained it. Discussion of this project always included the word 'nightmare' when I spoke with my faithful British friends and colleagues who had done work on their houses. Everyone had a nightmare story, and spoke about it as a necessary evil, which makes up most of life in the UK, I've come to believe — a series of necessary evils. The list of things that can go wrong at any one time is frankly staggering.

Still though, I got the quotes and Wayne the Builder said he could squeeze us in before spring, and before I knew it, we had spent the first ten thousand pounds on the architect and planning and first round of breaking down the walls. The space started out as an image on an Ikea planning screen and then piece by piece came together until last week when Wayne came the last time, and I bought the emulsion paint and finally did the painting I needed to. I resealed the sink and counters and put the toilet paper holder up, the one that said Victoria on it. I wiped paint from the floor.

Of course, the work will go on and on: the house of Victoria Road has years of projects to be done, one imagines. But for now, I had wondered what it would be like to stand in a space that wasn't in the house before, how you could create a space to live where there wasn't one before. Now, there is this space, a concept that became physical, the word made flesh as it were. The light pours in now, there is no stopping it.

01 May 2018

Archaeology of self

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America is an idea that gets transmitted through the Internet in clips on YouTube and overheard accents when I stop myself from swinging around in a store or on a train and seeing who is there with me. Waiting in line to pre-clear US immigration in Dublin, I stood in the US citizens' line, with a photo of Donald Trump looking over me and suddenly the voices were everywhere. A man in a goatee and long-sleeved henley t-shirt standing there with his partner, whom you would not call his partner, but his girlfriend or wife, depending. The number of them only grew as I got further along in my trip: on the campus at the university where the conference was, other varieties of Americans I hadn't thought about in years. Everyone in sweatshirts, and people talking the way that Americans talk. You can't put your finger on what it is exactly, if it's the topic or the words they are using or what exactly. A conversation I overheard about whether or not a friend was being 'immature' or not and I wondered, have I ever heard a British person describe someone as immature. Is that a word they use.

On the subway, there was a man lying on the bench opposite from me, using his shoe as a pillow. He was black and perhaps homeless and there were raisins on the ground in front of him. He was like that, laid out, from Queens all the way into Manhattan when I got off. I watched people interact with him, or rather his body. Who sat and who didn't sit. Who moved when they could, or just stood, glancing at him and then at their phones. Later, I recounted this to my meditation teacher, Naga Davi. I told her that I found myself daydreaming about all of them, these people with this sleeping body — where they were going and what they were doing and if they had families and partners and mothers and fathers who cared for them. Was this a manifestation of metta, unconditional love for all beings, I wondered. Perhaps it was. It was something.

The conference I went to was ostensibly about Language and Religion, but most of the talks focused on translation. Someone mentioned metta. Someone talked about the Bible in the Solomon Islands. Someone talked about the Jewish scriptures in Greek. Between talks, you could look out from the huge windows of the university at the New York City skyline and eat fresh fruit provided on plastic plates which people used and threw away without any obvious guilt. It's America, after all — not Trump's America, but America America. With all the diversity of Americans who are still American, the SUVs and the drugstores that we don't quite have in the same way in this country. You can throw everything away.

And then I was in Newark, getting back on a plane to fly through the night and arrive home by bus. I came back inside the house on Victoria Road, which I own, and Yoko said, Is that all you had with you? I took off the small backpack I had brought, with a couple of shirts, my toothbrush, and A Hundred Years of Solitude, which I had read on the plane instead of sleeping. It was only a couple of days, I said, I didn't want to get bogged down. This was the truth, of course. I wanted to leave quickly, if I could, because I was unreasonably afraid of running into someone I knew, even in that huge city. I was afraid of the American me appearing, with a stain on a polo shirt, fifteen pounds heavier, telling me to stop lying. I am an American. It's insufferable to have to say that to yourself. Of course America is who I am, and where I belong. There are buttons on my shirt, yes, but you can't hide with this accent, with this passport. Everyone here will still ask where you're from. Near Chicago, that answer will never change, no matter how many British houses I buy or British children have my name and call me daddy. I'm American. It's obvious, isn't it. 
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