16 July 2019

The mother we share

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In the student accomodation at the University of Liverpool, you can pull a kind of sliding Ikea cabinet door over the window to block out the light. On the ceiling, there is what seems to be a pull-cord alarm marked 'Anxiety Alarm' without a cord. In the course of the conference, it came out that this was true of all the rooms, none of the anxiety alarms had cords. What sort of metaphor is this, I thought: they've installed an alarm, but it can't be used. When my Garmin Vivosmart+ buzzed me awake on the second day, I felt disoriented the way you do in a new place, inside this cabinet. I sweated all night because the window didn't open more than an inch, presumably so if you felt anxiety, you didn't jump. I took a piss and pulled on my trainers, and set out on a run towards Everton, where I had looked online and found a long park to run through with some stretch of road that seemed like you could go down without thinking.

The house my parents sold early this week is the house I grew up in, but that's a bit of a misnomer. I didn't grow up in any single place — we moved around a lot, I say, although that's only true in a small, un-American way. We moved a normal amount; this was the house I was a teenager in and where I went home for all of my twenties and twice now, in my thirties. The house was, by any standard, huge, much bigger than my family ever really needed. I stayed in the finished loft and had it full of guitars, and for most of high school treated like a museum to myself. I saved anything that meant anything: pictures, ticket stubs, receipts, the strings from the acoustic guitar that I had used when my band recorded our EP. I had all of my books from university for most of my twenties, but then when we were back the last time, I gave them all away in a fit of minimalism, even my Faulkner books which I regret now, though I would never read them if I had them. My grandmother died in one of the rooms. And then all the memories you can't say to anyone, the ones that you keep to yourself. I think now, if Jesus hadn't spoken to me there, if he hadn't called me to Japan that summer, what had.

After my legs warmed up and I came to the top of the hill at the park, I saw the Mersey and the port down below and suddenly I could see slave ships coming and going like a kind of tracing paper over the horizon. The past stacking up on itself. I ran past a Victorian building that had been boarded up, and in the blue light, everything was haunted. Then at the conference dinner, when I got away from the crowd for a moment and looked out, I had the same sense — who had fallen here, had been killed or beaten. How much blood was in the water, diluted after a hundred years or more now of everything circulating in and out.

It's a silly thought. Why this violence, why this memory. I was on the phone with a friend on Friday night, ecstatic to share some vague positive news. I had ordered an insufferable pizza without cheese — I clarified to the man several times I didn't want any cheese and he had to clarify it several more times to the man further back in the shop making it. I went outside and was talking and pacing and almost stumbled over what I thought was a pile of rubbish, but turned out to be a homeless man bent over and barely conscious. But this is not an emergency in Brexit Britain, not even something to note. You just think, I best not get involved, and walk away, because these tragedies are on every corner and what am I: I'm one person and I pay my taxes and this is what they, the British wanted, isn't it, and can feel marginally better about myself.

The metaphors continued: there wasn't enough vegan food and then too much. The girls are collecting toys to give to a girl they know about who's become homeless. I got back to the house on Victoria Road on Sunday and it was cool and empty — some of the children were gone, although I forget where and which ones. You eat sandwiches for eight days from conference tables and you feel disoriented and bloated. I'm not sure what to eat anymore. Am I high fat, or am I no longer thinking about calories — have I stopped making the protein cookies or do I need to start them up again. I drank more than I normally would in all that haunted darkness, but it was vegan wine and vegan ale. Local, of course, that ale. Ethically sourced. I eat an apple and sit at the dining table, waiting for the girls to start to wake up and thinking that I should meditate.

10 July 2019

When to say goodbye

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Niigata City, in northwestern Japan, is the Japanese Pittsburgh, I've said in the past. Hull, in the UK, I suppose, more accurately, a grey port city with a river and paper factories spewing smoke in a way that I was never comfortable with when I taught in the primary school across the road. I ended up in Niigata by accident, having failed as a missionary in Fukuoka City and hoping to hide for a time, to regroup and make sense of the world again and decide what it is that I wanted. Have a good time maybe, for the first time in my life. Nothing had worked out the way that I thought, and all I wanted was to disappear, buy a motorbike and make some money. Take a year or two out, and then get back to it.

When I left Niigata four years later, I was married with a one-year old baby and another child on the way that I didn't know about. We got on that ferry that pulled away from the city and I knew I would not be back, there would never be any reason to be back even though it was, by any measure, my home. The tiny 2DK apartment I had in Matsuhama outside of town — the one I rented because I could afford it and it was convenient — is a perfect metonymy for everything my life has become: accidental and random and blessed through misguided bloody mindedness. You could just see the river between the houses from the window in the second room. Yoko came to me in that apartment, and then Naomi came, just like that, without any effort, without any plan. The windows could open on three sides to let in the sea air. Everything changed so suddenly, in ten months really, but it didn't feel like that at the time. It felt like a day was a week, that we had been together for years and years and of course, whatever we did, we would be okay, because what is love but a commitment to being okay, no matter what. You say that, don't you, when you marry, when you lie to each other about what you'll do and not do. In good times and bad, sure, how bad can it get.

That was almost fifteen years ago, as I think about it. I romanticise it now, but that's just because I was reckless and me in my mid-to-late thirties admires the recklessness of me in my early-to-mid twenties, even if he was misguided and foolishly optimistic. Even if he was full of magical thinking and insecurity. That version of me didn't give a fuck. He wasn't thinking about consequences — I was twenty-three, what was the worst that could happen. My broken Japanese was a joke. We got married on a clear blue day and the windows were open because it was warm and the cicadas were out and the future, what was the future, before everything, before the melting ice shelf, before the mortgage and the visas and the children needing whatever they need. I walked to the seven-eleven to buy ice cream.

Of course, you're only twenty three for one year and then you're twenty four, and then twenty five and then and then and then. Now, the children are leaving for school and I too need to get on with things. My petty responsibilities that pay the bills, the new four hundred pound vacuum cleaner that I would have been apoplectic about even last year now seems to make perfect sense. I had to sell my motorbike at some point, the mini-cub that you kick started and went faster than it was legally allowed to go. It was fun while it lasted, but eventually the baby, the fleck, the shadow that I saw for the first time on an ultrasound monitor and took my breath away became real. I didn't even have to think about it — things become real without you doing anything. You see the face of your child and it is part your face and that sense that the world is just spinning what does it matter, ends. It counts now. I trawl through pictures from that year and see it in my eyes, the slow realisation that things have started to count.

03 July 2019

Try to forgive

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The British summer hangs on, and it’s bright and cool in the morning. I can, for the minute it takes my Garmin to find a GPS satellite, stand and enjoy it. There was more bad environmental news and I think about all the self-talk and cognitive dissonance the changing world will require of us. I have a car, how silly that is as an evolutionary coping mechanism. I want to attribute blame for things that we cannot blame anyone for. Maybe it’s Trump’s fault, or Boris Johnson, or whoever. Some rich person who doesn’t think about using plastic. Not me, the insufferable plant-based vegan who bought Quorn slices without checking if they had egg whites and then struggled for the next half hour with what to do as I walked from Sainsbury’s to Starbucks. There was no choice, it seemed, but to throw them away or eat them. I bought vegan shoes with birthday money from my in-laws, but the shoes are plastic, non-biodegradable, so I have to apologise for them too, to people that care, anyway. They’re pouring some terrible amount of concrete every minute in China, but these shoes will last for two hundred or more years and that will be my fault.

The same environmental news that had me thinking about a world without clouds and how soon it would be before the antibiotics stop working, also mentioned 2014 and I remembered that year like it had just happened, or indeed was happening now, the way the past is omnipresent when you're thirty seven and starting to feel like there's little chance things are going to change drastically for you. We had just come back to England, free from Malaysia and I was ready to be nostalgic. The weather this week, that crisp morning when it’s still a bit dry, makes me think of the Cameron Highlands and how we had gone strawberry picking and walked out into the tea fields in the mountains, whatever sweaty haze that was below us, hanging about KL, gone in a memory. And then in a month we had come back, come home to England and started the new chapter of troubles, our visa troubles, a chapter which is itself finished. What now, you wonder, what troubles now.

Mia had her birthday party, her first real one, at a trampoline park. We never really have had a proper birthday party for her, an embarrassment that came up when she was naming off potential friends to invite. I initially thought that can't be right, but I was smart enough to shut up because it must be, they told me it was. Eight partyless years — I thought about them while waiting for the late children to appear so I could shepherd them up to the trampolines. What litany of mistakes have I made as a father and husband — sure, I am holding my daughter's purse and phone now, but what things have I failed to notice, what things have been wanted that I didn't provide. The party clipped on, and the kids were happy with the junk food served to them by a tired twenty-something woman who didn't seem bothered by the copious amount of wasted plastic we generated. Like that, the eight partyless years faded into memory — I bought slushies for whoever wanted them and offered leftover sandwiches to the parents standing on the edge and watching.

In their grace, the girls seem blissfully unaware of my failings so far, although they do occasionally call me out for my constant swearing and furrowed brow. One assumes that they have noticed something, that they’ve encoded all of this stress deep within their psyche, the way I have vague memories of my father being upset, but I can't remember when or about what. I can hear my irritated sarcastic comments in their British voices sometimes, like some developing polaroid of myself.

Of course, you need to keep your expectations in line. What’s a manageable goal. What responsibilities do we have. The Garmin catches its satellite and buzzes that it’s ready. How silly, next to this car, I have a machine that I tell where I am going so that it will then tell me how fast I’ve gone there. How silly that I run in circles and circles because I’m afraid I ate too much. How silly to have plastic vegan shoes so that some animal, somewhere might not suffer. I ate the vegetarian Quorn slices with the egg whites in them and tried to forgive myself. Can this chapter be about forgiveness, can we do it all again from the beginning. You could wind back in the tape, like a cassette and a pencil. Of course, that assumes some beginning, doesn’t it. Before everything, before the children and the news about the ice shelf melting. I’m waiting for you, anyway, out by the garden, because it’s sunny now and they have the windows open.

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