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.
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