30 March 2020

Before everything

Warwick Castle

Mei says, The start of Week Two, while stretching her arms above her head and I think, yes, it is isn't it. It's been one week or two weeks, or two months, or two years — it doesn't seem to matter. Someone said on the TV that we might be like this for six months and I thought, what is six months. September? Who even knows what a month is, time is just a construct.

The apocalypse was never far off when I was young — I lived in constant fear of the rapture, that Jesus would appear in the clouds and take my family and hopefully me, on to paradise. I've been told a story about when I was young, sometime before I can remember, of coming into the house and telling everyone excitedly that Jesus was coming back. My parents ran out with me into the garden, the American backyard, and there over the trees, a Mickey Mouse hot air balloon had appeared. This story is supposed to be funny, but it's not funny to me anymore, because now all I can think is how, in this time that I don't remember, had I known a story of Jesus coming back. How primed had I been from two or three or four to think that in a moment, everything would stop, that a trumpet, an actual physical trumpet, would be blown and Jesus would come back to either take me away or not, depending on some set of rules that I could not, of course, understand. How fundamentally unstable does that make a person. 

That end never came. I wonder now about the people that were the most whipped up. There was this kid called Lance and his parents were prophesy junkies who thought the rapture was even more imminent than my family did. I wonder if this crisis has them back into it, reading Revelation like they can figure out who the beast is now, and what each of the seven heads and ten horns, and the crowns on the horns, represent. I'm sure, somewhere in my family's basement there is a three-ring binder from a course his parents taught at the church, explaining what each of these things represented in the early-mid-nineties, when it must have been Madeline Albright or Bill Clinton. But who is the antichrist now. What things can you count as multiples of ten or seven or what could be added up to be six-sixty-six. It was credit cards then for a while, wasn't it — the beast was everywhere. 

Marking time in a lockdown is not simple. The weekend came and went and as I think about what we did, I can't remember. I suspect this will be the whole experience. We were in lockdown for three or four or six months. We fought sometimes and cried sometimes and laughed sometimes. We did a lot of drawing and school worksheets. We didn't think about the future for a while. We tried to stay out of each other's way as much as we could. Or some concrete things: I finally cleaned a stain on the medicine cabinet in the bathroom. I finally fixed my bike brakes. Naomi and I made dinner. We ate together and put aside some of the frustrations. There's no point in making any decisions anyway if we are here for now in suspended animation. I will get paid this month, yes? And next month too? Then we will be okay. 

Things feel okay now, but it's hard to tell. They say deaths are a lagging indicator in a pandemic, so more people can be dying even when things get better. And any number can mean anything you want it to mean. There is always something that will have killed more people than this virus. And Jesus could still be coming back, we can't rule that out. This is just another chance to be right, another series of three-ring binders to fill with cloze test nonsense answers. It turns out you can count anything by ten or seven or six. It's Monday now, the thirtieth. Make of that what you will.

25 March 2020

I wish we'd all been ready

Batu Cavees 

When the lockdown order came, we had been expecting it. These are unprecedented times people are saying, but then that is starting to sound trite even after a week of it. It all came so slowly and then all at once. A week ago, I was still going to work, I think now. A week ago the kids were still in school. A week ago, we could go to the pub. Writing about it now, in the midst of it feels melodramatic. We can't go outside except for essential goods and that suddenly feels normal after only a day and half of it. Now we say things like, I hope there is bread in the supermarket, but if there's not, we'll manage. We feel like things haven't gotten that bad, that they could still get worse, but that we could still be okay.

I went to Sainsbury's in Selly Oak on Saturday afternoon to get Yoko a card for Mothering Sunday and some other things, some fruit and veg and some bread, whatever we could find. People were not panic buying, but there was no toilet paper and some of the refrigerator cases had blinds pulled in front of them because they were empty. I got apples and bananas and cucumbers and found a card for Yoko, although I didn't know what to buy. There were no bagels at first glance, but when I got down to look in the bottom shelf, there were two wholemeal bags, and a man, seeing me on the ground asked me to get one for him. I gave him the one I had, and he said, Thanks ever so much and then Oh, no, these are wholemeal my wife isn't that healthy. I took both of them thinking, is there any time for that now, for not liking one kind of a bagel over another.

I ran on Sunday morning, twelve miles up the canal, and finally, the weather was good — crisp and clear air and the water from the canals reflecting up in the underside of the bridges. I passed people running and had the sense that the air they were breathing out was the air I was breathing in, that I was closer to them than I had ever been aware. I ran under Galton Bridge and when the watch ticked over 6 miles, I turned to go back, thinking that the lockdown order was coming and this might be my last run for a while.

You want to think back to remember some happiness from the past. What had it been like to be able to do anything and choose not to. What were the concerns about money, about planning for the future. What had stopped you from doing anything. 

Before all of this, we had been paying a woman forty pounds for fifty minutes to help us talk to each other and make sense of where we've found ourselves at this point in our lives, like Tom Sawyer and Becky having unwound kite-line as they ventured into the cave. For years and years, we've unravelled it, heading deeper and deeper into the dark, and when asked to pull on it, to remember the way back, the line's gone slack. I pull and pull hoping at some point it will become taunt, that it will finally catch on whatever we anchored it on. And then what's the point of catching on that anchor, of finding a way back if the tunnel collapsed at some point. You can say you never should have come in, you never should have started, but none of that matters now. We are where we are, sat in the dark together.

I ran again this morning, joking as I left about government-mandated exercise. The girls are all in high spirits, watching films, and chatting with their friends on the phone. Every night they make a presentation about their days, which are clever and funny and then we read the Hobbit out loud and I obsessively check the news on my phone, until I am completely mad. We go to sleep and then wake up and maybe we will think about the future at some point, about what it is we want, about what love is, really, about what we want. For now, it's just another day. The sun has come up and for now, we can go into the garden and sit in it and be grateful.

09 March 2020

In these final hours


Every long run this year has found me caught out in the rain and wind — this is the peril of training in February in the UK. The other day I got up too early on a Saturday morning to run twenty miles, the peak of the training schedule which you hit twice in this particular plan. You pull on your shoes this early in the morning and you set out alone, but you can't think about it too much. You can't think as you huff up Victoria Road, you can't think that you have almost three hours of this ahead of you. You just have to go.

This run went well until mile thirteen where I may or may not have hit the wall, but the real problem was the torrential downpour that started right as I came back through the city centre and was trying to cross a bridge. Suddenly, out of nowhere, there was wind and big, heavy drops of rain and I lost a minute on mile fifteen and then sixteen and then seventeen and then up the hill back to the house eighteen and nineteen. I got home and my hands were frozen, and I spent the next hour reliving it in my mind, looking at the data my smartwatch had recorded, thinking about heartrates and race pace.

I was alone during the Chuetsu earthquake in 2004, the year before I met my partner and wife and everything changed. I was watching Magnolia on a VHS tape and sitting on a used sofa, in my apartment on the Agano River and I remember wondering what to do. Should I go outside. Should I shelter under the table. I wanted to call someone, but there was no one to call, I realised. I just sat through it, feeling the building shake and thinking it was too much like an amusement park ride. It felt fake. And then it stopped. My apartment building — Heights Riverside, spelt in katakana haitsu ribasaido — which was old and rusting, stayed standing and I looked out the window into the night to see if anything had changed and at least in that small fishing village on the edge of Niigata, nothing had.

Everything in that apartment was used or had been given to me. A woman from my company, Mrs Nunogawa, took me to some house where she was helping a friend move and she gave me flatware and something to hang my washing on. She found me a car, a Nissan Alto, for 50,000 yen that needed snow tyres I couldn't afford, and which had a load of VHS porno tapes stuffed in a paper bag underneath the driver's seat. I was still faithful then, still worried about things like purity, and when I put the first tape in and saw what it was, I shut it off immediately and threw it all out, feeling guilty and afraid and excited.

I keep trying to remember that year, 2004, 2005, remember what I was feeling without fifteen years of everything that's happened obscuring it. I was alone a lot wasn't I. I was wandering around the back streets of Niigata on the weekends, trying to get out of the debt I took on moving there. I had been teaching English at a church in Fukuoka and I felt like Jonah, but without a call I was running from. I was starting then to realise that terrible yawning black hole thatbwould eventually swallow me: there never was a call was there. Whatever I had planned, whatever future I thought was in front of me when I was so certain and so young, had been an Evangelical fever dream. None of it had been really real. And now, in the absence of that, there seemed to be nothing left to lose, I thought I had lost it all.

You remember yourself fifteen years later and wonder how you could think that, but that's it, that's what I was thinking. I was twenty-two.

I have my students define love sometimes because it's hard and it makes the point that useful concepts are difficult to articulate, that words are a mirage. What is love. You think about this when you're on a long run and you've filed through whatever backlog of thoughts you've had for the week, the arguments you need to avoid, so you have them in your head. When there's little left to think about, when you've been alone for two hours on an empty canal towpath outside of Birmingham on the other side of the world from where you started. You're shaking out your mind like a piggy bank, trying to make that last coin align perfectly and come out in your hand. That perfect truth, whatever it is before the rain starts up again and your body takes over.

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