18 July 2018

A more suitable metric


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 inexplicably, 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, which made no sense. 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


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:
Even in Kyoto
Hearing the cuckoo's cry
I long for Kyoto
I prefer a more literal translation of the Japanese which makes clearer what the poem requires of you:
Kyoto, even
Kyoto nostalgia and
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


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 seems because the narrative imposes itself. Somedays, 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


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


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


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


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



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



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



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


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. 

02 April 2018

Pasta for love


I woke up in Tokyo a few weeks ago. There is something settling about the transfer to the JR line, the Yamanote, that makes me feel young and at home. I had a hotel room this time, a proper one rather than the capsule I stayed in last time when I was on my way to Sapporo. After dropping my bags, I walked up to Ginza, remembering for some reason a day that Yoko and I had been in a Starbucks there after Naomi was born. I don't know why we were there, if it was because of visas for the UK or what exactly. I just remember sitting there in the summer and Yoko looking healthy and happy after the pregnancy, and feeling like things were going to be okay.

The next day, I took the shinkansen north to Toyama City and fell asleep again through the tunnels where the pressure changes and your ears feel it. I had taken a shinkansen north the second year I was in Japan, when I wasn't paying for it and the company I had gotten a job with told me to meet Mrs Nunogawa in Niigata and bought the ticket. I had a pit in my stomach then, a fear that I had made a mistake and shouldn't have left Fukuoka, or Chicago, or anywhere. That I was stuck, but didn't have any choice but to keep going, what else was I going to do. Nunogawa-san did meet me in Niigata station and took me up to a little apartment near a school I was teaching at, just down the road, and I realised as we came into the town, and looked out, the Sea was right there. I could walk to it. 

My new apartment

Last year, there had been a build up to my return to Japan and we were in the midst of some visa crisis, thinking we would need to go back to Japan after being deported by the Home Office. This time, I didn't have time to think about much — Yoko and I had lunch the day I left, eating without anything to say. I finally came around to packing my bag at three or four in the afternoon and drove to the station with Yoko and Mia, the other girls all off with their friends. I drank a small bottle of wine and got on the plane in Charles de Gaulle with the intention of just sleeping. We took off and I fell asleep and then read and then slept through the landing, looking out to see Tokyo in the rain. 

Japan creates a different pit in my stomach now. It's regret, I think — if I'm looking for the best English word I know — regret for a life that I could have lived, in Kobe where I would have taught English and done my PhD part-time. Yoko and I would be better, I tell myself as the train coasts through some town in the mountains and a well-dressed family passes with bento lunches and the father smiling. There would be less pressure on us to make things successful. There would be no British pessimism, Edwardian terrace houses, or non-stop Anglican lent services. 

On Sunday morning, I ran the 10 kilometers from the University to the Sea of Japan. In Matsuhama, where I lived in Niigata, you could just about see it from my window. Yoko and I stayed in that apartment when we got married — Naomi came back to it, and the windows could be opened to let the sea air in. I ran the Matsuhama Bridge over the Agano River again and again thinking about the future in the UK or some other place, like I needed to prove it to myself.

This time, in Toyama, I ran up to the sign, the one that said you couldn't go any further on the jetty. I stopped and took pictures of the grey morning. There were men fishing on the rocks and the sun was coming up. I took pictures until I realised this was it, this was all there was. There was no magic to be had, all you can do is look and turn around and keep going. The decisions can't be remade.

12 March 2018



The weekend seemed to flare out. I woke this morning and thought that I needed to get up, even though it was dark still and I didn't know what I needed to do. I made eggs and then listened to a meditation, lying on the new kitchen floor tiles that haven't had the grout put in yet. The woman in the meditation assured me this wasn't a waste of time and that my self-care was good for everyone, but all I could think was how much I had eaten over the weekend and the clanging of whatever argument had derailed things. The tile is cool and although I know I am not supposed to lie down when I meditate, I did and it was good enough. Today is another day, isn't it.

A few Tuesdays ago, I came home to find a box from Cambridge University Press on the table in the living room, among all the things I've been buying for the house extension, the lighting fixtures and 18 LED light bulbs. The box contained 6 copies of my book — my second book, I say, depending on how insufferable I'm feeling, and I thumbed through it, until I found an error and a part of the analysis that was inelegant, and I shut it quickly, knowing that looking any further wouldn't end well. I sent out a couple of copies to family members, that only signed after wondering for a while if they would want their books signed, something that only an academic would think. I tidied up the pile of things in the living room and went upstairs to put my running kit in the washing hamper.

I was the safe one in high school, despite wearing clothes that made my parents uncomfortable and wanting to listen to Christian hardcore music. My mom once came into my room to find a friend and I jumping around, listening to a Strongarm song that all she could understand was someone shouting when I die. This being a Christian hardcore bad, I was able to retort quickly, 'He's singing, When I die, I live,' which was unarguably a Christian principle, and she shut the door nervously and Chris and I went back to expelling whatever energy had been winding us up. All of these bands had names that sounded in some way violent or dark, Living Sacrifice being the best example, that also doubled as safe references to the death cult elements of Evangelical Christianity, which somehow got hidden behind men in polo shirts and khakis, holding Bibles in canvas Bible covers.

Some 20 years later, and free from all the dogma, I seem to have not shaken this sort of miserable safety and I resent where it's led me. I have a pension, like I am ready to die, but another 50 years to go. Another 50 years of a calorie counting app, of drinking too much on a Friday night and then arguing with my wife about Japanese particle use and sentence construction. There are no mirrors hung in the house now where you can look into them above sinks, so I feel like I can just lie to myself, avoid looking myself in the eye and taking stock.

23 February 2018

What we cannot imagine


Daily, the builders come in two trucks and make their way up through the passage to the back of the house and in through the backdoor. For the first two weeks, they weren't in the house, but working in the three small rooms behind the house that had been used for storage for the last fifty years, but are now becoming the bathroom. We didn't see much of the builders then. They tore down and rebuilt the walls, and then one day, broke through the wall into the kitchen. They took out the chimney breast which had needlessly been taking up space in the kitchen and the house smelled like one hundred year-old smoke for a week.

The builders use the two mugs that we have with Union Jacks. Yoko buys a mix of biscuits: Jammy Dodgers and digestives with and without chocolate. Rich tea and Tesco Bourbon Creams Biscuits. They get fish and chips for lunch sometimes, from the shops at the roundabout, and work steadily from 9 to 4:30 every day. More and more we linger to chat about things, about their families and I'm starting to feel like I will miss them when they leave.

The walls went bare one day, and then they were patched and plastered, and then the floor was torn out and then replaced and then the kitchen went in. Last Friday or Thursday, they put in a new boiler, moving it from the bathroom to under the stairs. I thought this would be incredibly difficult, take weeks to do, but just suddenly it was there and I felt stupid for not realising how the whole thing worked. I asked the plumber how much the boiler had cost, but this question made him uncomfortable. He said he had the receipt and would talk to Wayne, and I knew immediately that I had made a mistake. I don't pay the plumber, I pay Wayne the Builder. Wayne the Builder will tell me how much it is. There's a hierarchy.

Every day you pull back the curtain that is feebly trying to hold the dust in the back of the house, and another part of the old plastic kitchen, more of the mouldy particle board and linoleum, has been hauled out to the skip. Now, there's no trace of it and this thing I had imagined, just simply imagined, has become an empirical reality. Look at this, I want to say to everyone, look at these pictures on my phone. You'll never believe what's happening, where my life has brought me. In a presentation this week, I said that I want to be a good immigrant, something  I've said in the past to audiences. It's an unintended laugh line. I'm not joking, but because I'm white and speak English, people think it's a joke. Of course, it is easy for me to adapt, to make sense of this society and do the right thing. But of course, it's also not easy, I want to say, it's been a struggle, this whole thing has been a struggle. I feel silly saying that, so I don't say it. It hasn't really been a struggle, has it. It's been easy, hasn't it.

28 January 2018

The birth of the asylum

Broken down walls

Last weekend, after I had agreed to pay Wayne the Builder to do the work on our house, the house on Victoria Road that I bought last year, I felt a kind of freedom from choice. Having weighed the options, it made sense that we should go with Wayne. He is older, although Yoko and I, sitting up in bed like an old couple, couldn't agree on what we thought his precise age to be. It's certainly over fifty. I wasn't sure when Wayne would appear, but it was Monday morning, when I received a cheerful e-mail from Yoko that he had arrived and they were already knocking down walls. Well, I thought, that's that.

Wayne works with another man, whose name I asked and then promptly forgot. He gives me a thumbs up in the morning, as I look out the window from my standing desk and watch them. They come in a flat-back truck and a van, both with WAH emblazon on them, and I feel like I should go out and help. We have tea and biscuits for them, which I heard through a colleague is what one should do when one has builders, although I thought hard about the quality of tea and biscuits we were providing, and whether or not this gave the impression that we had more money than we have. They had a skip delivered on Tuesday and filled it quickly with bricks and mud and some other sundries that seemed to be coming from another site. I gathered that they, Wayne and the other man, had negotiated some understanding with a builder working across the road. That builder is younger and his van has nothing written on it — at the end of the day, they all lean against the flat-bed truck and exchange, I assume, information.

Yoko and I went to Ikea on Tuesday and in two hours decided how the kitchen would come together. Over coffee and soup, I talked about my feelings with my wife whom, twelve years ago that day, I had asked to marry me. We made a series of decisions and cheerfully worked through a series of decisions about what we wanted,  Judy the Ikea Planner clicking away and drawing it all together.

I wonder what Wayne thinks about our little family, if he thinks anything at all of us. I thought about this as I stood in the kitchen drying dishes and listened to them working. They weren't talking to each other because there wasn't anything to say. I opened the door to wave goodbye, tell them that I had left tea and biscuits for them and, of course, if they needed anything to let me know. I wanted to tell them something about how I'm feeling, about the miracle this all seems to be, but it didn't seem appropriate. How silly, isn't it, that I feel the way I do, because of course this is a thing that people do.

15 January 2018

False Spring


Every January, there is a day or two where things become unseasonably warm. You feel a sort of British guilt that the winter seems to have gone away. With some luck, the weather report will warn of snow and sleet later in the week and you can relax knowing that you aren't getting away with anything and the whole of it will back sooner rather than later. You can walk up the street to take care of whatever errand needs taking care of and think, well, you have to enjoy it while it lasts.

A year ago, I couldn't have imagined that I would be standing in a shop trying to pick out tiles for renovations on our house, but that is what I was doing this weekend. Now, I have some elementary knowledge of building materials and VAT costs for builders and negotiating techniques. A year ago, I wasn't sure we were going to get our visas. Now, I seem to have put away any concern about the impermanence of life in the UK or the house on Victoria Road with all the British assurances I can now give about how when one invests in brick and mortar, one is guaranteed a return. I say this, but it's not entirely right.

I attribute this lack of concern for the future to meditation and Donald Trump. These two forces are duelling, different sorts of nihilism — one extremely positive, the other an acceptance that evil wins out eventually anyway. The vicar this Sunday spoke about homelessness in a poignant way, refusing to come to a happy conclusion. How we all want to be seen as doing good, but don't actually want to make any sacrifice — I then wondered if anyone can do good at all anyway. I shamefully helped a woman up to the alter for communion, shamed because my initial thought when she asked for help was smug, about how good I must appear with my beautiful wife and kids, the perfect sorts of immigrants. The atheist husband, dutifully coming along and participating despite his own misgivings. I'm a hypocrite from every angle.

During the creed, I don't recite any line except the last one: the life of the world to come. I recite this because it reminds me of the Mountain Goats, but also because if there's anything I hope for, it's that. Some life in some world to come. Not after death, really, but what comes next, the now that one hopes to stretch out in front with some certainty. Donald Trump and North Korean missiles aside, of course.

What is there to be afraid of, if not the possibility of something bad happening in the future. Last night, at ten forty, the doorbell rang, and I tensed up with fear, before going down and realising that it had just rung. The doorbell is old, it does this sometimes, but when I laid back down, after checking and locking the backdoor, I thought about spirits about evil and a story or stories my father had told about praying evil spirits out of the house, asking for angels to watch over us. Now, and last night lying in my bed, this all seemed silly, despite the fear that washed over me in the moment and my desire to reach out for something outside of myself to steady me. I took a couple of deep breaths. No one was going to kill me, the house on Victoria Road is old, not haunted. There are plenty of things to fear if I need to be afraid — best not worry about ghosts or evil spirits.

Something must be said about ontology and reality — I keep trying to parse this in conversations with people in an annoying way. My brother said after I told him that my wife had been telling people at church that I was an atheist, You are, no? I am, yes, I am, but it's complicated, isn't it. God is not real in an ontological sense, but he is real in the sense that he is the ghost captain of the ship behind a closed cabin door. You put your ear against it and think you hear the scratching of something inside. If you're a believer, you say it's the thing you believe in and you pray for angels to watch over your children. If not, you say it's just the sound a ship makes.

What you say about the closed door and what you project behind it makes reality what it is. When you meditate, you don't judge the voice or speak to its realness. You just accept it as part of your experience, without judgement. It doesn't matter if the captain is there or if he is speaking, isn't it. It only matters what you hear, and what you do with what you hear. I'm not happy to say there's nothing to hear, that sometimes doorbells go off without any reason. It's just the truth, it's just not real in an ontological sense. I'm sure you can make it real in another sense.

10 January 2018

Stolen bikes in old homes


With January come to Birmingham, there is constant low cloud cover and mist. One of these days, we ticked off four years living in the house on Victoria Road, although which day it was, I don't remember now. It was one of them. Everyone is older and more mature, although I look at these pictures of the girls from our moves and only see courage. Naomi especially, but all of them, starting again with their book bags and some vague promise from me that it would be okay.

Now, the kids run off in the morning alone, Naomi and Mei, up Victoria Road to school. I take Mia ten minutes later, even though she's crying about having lost her glove. I want to be more sympathetic, but I'm not. A better father would be more sympathetic. Instead, I rush her along, tell her to stop crying, and when the teacher sees Mia's sad face, I say, She's had an emotional morning.

Things change and they don't, isn't it. I look at this picture of me and the bike and the girls. The grass is overgrown and they are all so small. I remember feeling happy at this point, like things might be coming together finally. I knew, but did not really know, the truth that changing places, moving countries very rarely solves problems. It heaps sand on them, buries them, then two or three years later the wind starts to blow. This is the way things go.

Builders have been around to look at the back of the house and make plans to put in the new bathroom. The house on Victoria Road being built at the beginning of the last century had originally had the bathroom downstairs, but at some point, in the opulence of the 50s or 60s or 70s, it was moved upstairs, taking over a full small bedroom. The Pihlajas of Harborne, with our many growing children have decided to move the toilet back to give Naomi her own room and in this, do some other renovations. Take out a chimney breast, move the boiler, add a nicer bathtub, quartz counter tops, a new frig and hob — a long list of middle class amenities which will make the home more comfortable as the children slip into their preteens. It's a fantasy made out of money, but money that is there now, magically, after four years of not moving from country to country.

Of course, this wasn't the plan when we came back from the jungle. I was just holding my breath. All I wanted then was some permanency. Some grace, a year or two to recapture whatever British life we had. I don't know what I imagined. I look in my eyes in this picture and can see myself faking it, faking the optimism. Things worked out, didn't they. They did and they didn't.

02 January 2018

On violence

New Year's came with an explosion of fireworks out the back of the house on Victoria Road. Yoko and I both stirred in bed, but didn't get up, the way your brain registers something happening and what that thing is, without fully coming around. Yes, it must be the new year rather then the end of the world, and you fall back into whatever dream you were having. When the morning came, I got up with the intention to run, but lingered longer than I wanted to, first eating and then meditating and then putting things away. I got on the road, finally, just before eight, with everyone in the house still sleeping and some idea that I wanted to run on the canals. The distance I intended to run stretched out little by little and when I finally turned around at fifteen and half kilometers, I had that feeling you do when you run and run and run, where you are simultaneously remarkably weak and strong at the same time. You can't do anything but run, but you can run forever. My headphones died and I ran back in the silence of the morning, thinking at two hours I would have to give up. I pushed on and on, getting home and adding another 500 meters because I could. What is a limit, anyway. Who tells you what you can and can't do.

I was terrified of punishment as a child. I remember sitting on my bed, waiting to be spanked, screaming for someone who wasn't there to come and save me. There was always a lag between told you would be punished and then being punished, which heightened its effect. You dreaded it, the wooden spoon, crying so much that your mouth goes numb. You try to reason and negotiate, but you are a child and you can't negotiate, but only say no over and over again. Of course, you had done something wrong, but whatever that thing was became completely divorced from the experience of being punished. I never felt regret or empathy or sorrow for having done wrong in the face of punishment. I never understood that what I had done was wrong. I was only afraid.

The fear scales, from fear of your parents to fear of God. The bed was the location of punishment in my family, you sat on your bed when you were being punished. You had to sit alone and think and you would sit crying until you exhausted your emotional energy from fear and then you waited. But I also feared god in bed, trying to fall asleep but terrified of punishment, and begging for forgiveness for whatever I had done. I had internalised whatever that fear of punishment was, and I would ask again and again and again to be forgiven and then I knew in my asking to be forgiven that I was failing because I would have been confident if I had really been saved. I would have felt the love of God, wouldn't I.

I want desperately for my children to not fear me, but they do. You internalise violence — even when you don't hit anyone, the intention to hit them is there. They can see it in your eyes. Violence teaches you that you can control other people with violence. You can make them appear to love you. You can force them to do and say things they don't mean. You can abolish free will. You can make fear look like free will.

This morning the alarm went off at five-thirty and I felt a sense of relief, that I had a clear plan for the day: something to eat for breakfast and a list of things to do. I stepped down into the dark of the house and meditated, listening to a man talk about the solar plexus chakra, the yellow lotus flower that I was told to put my hands on and hear vibrate. You have strength when you focus on this chakra, not because the chakra gives you strength, but because your belief that the chakra gives you strength does. You animate the yellow light that you imagine pouring out of your body, beyond all thoughts of punishment or fear or the love of god. If violence scales, peace scales too. Look in my eyes, I want to say now, the fear is gone, isn't it. No one needs to be afraid — we are birds, we are flowers.
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