23 May 2014

Happyness is a choice

My sister says to me the other day that basically, given enough time, all men will get prostate cancer. It's not entirely true, the internet tells me, but it's also not entirely false. I haven't been able to stop thinking about prostate cancer since she said that. It's one thing to know that you're going to die, I thought, it's another to know how. Luckily, it appears that prostate cancer is not a cancer that kills you and if it does, it will kill you around the time in life you expect to die. Not now, not this year: some time displaced in the future.

I am thirty one now, almost thirty two. If you double that, you get sixty four and I expect to live well past sixty four. Last week, I smoked the last of the pipe tobacco that my father-in-law had left for me in Malaysia. It feels like another life now, but it was only five months ago that we were sitting on the vinyl sofa in front of the house, watching the hot Malaysian night. I put the pipe back up on top of the cupboard and thought it was time to take a break: smoking has been making me sane, but I need to choose a less dangerous vice. Alcohol and sex are both out. Drugs, too, of course. I've not had the energy to run long distances. What other vices are there? Is clear-eyed stocism a vice?

I found a small pipe tobacco shop in the city centre, right off Colmore Row in the Great Western Arcade, the sort of old tyme English shoppe you expect in England — next to a place selling whiskey, next to a candy shop. I went in, trailed by Naomi who looked concerned and said, as I was looking at all the options, 'But daddy I thought you were going to stop smoking your pipe?' The woman behind the counter smiled at me and I said, yes, yes, I did, and left without buying anything. Maybe another time.

The kids bring with them complex responsibility that fences you in odd ways, acts as a conscience following you around. At a writing retreat on Thursday, after a day of selfishly typing away while my wife and kids waited for me, a young woman I had just met asked, 'So do you like having kids?' What an odd question, I thought: it's not the sort of thing one can like or dislike, is it? I didn't want to problematise the question, but my pause, my repeating of the words 'Like having kids?' made it worse, more awkward than it needed to be. I left, I walked out into the rain, and went home.

Mia fell asleep to me reading the other day: laid on the sofa under a blanket, while Mei sat next to me and I recited Daisy Head Maisy. I don't read enough to the kids, don't spend enough time with them in general. Mei loves it when I read. Rapunzul and Snow White, and Oh, the Places You'll Go. That one, of course, is the one that I like the best. We crack it open and look at the wide open air, all the choices the book tells you that you can make. 'Where do you want to go, Mei?' I ask, and we map out the streets that one would avoid and why. There's a dinosaur there? Yes, I say, it looks dangerous doesn't it. We finish, and I carry Mia up to the big bed.

Dr Seuss must have known about the cave, but chose to ignore it in his writing. You'll look up and down streets, look them over with care, but your future is more complex than just picking one street over another. Who wants to believe that even if it's true; who wants to tell that to their children. Like faith, like belief in fate and order, you have to choose to ignore some things, simplify others. Sure, you may get prostate cancer, but who doesn't. You'll be okay either way.

14 May 2014

A Quaker faith

Take heed, dear Friends, to the promptings of love and truth in your hearts. Trust them as the leadings of God whose Light shows us our darkness and brings us to new life.
When someone asks, why are you here, it's always a long story for me. How far back would you like me to go, I want to ask. To the beginning? Which beginning is the beginning of this?

Somewhere in the course of today, I told the story of my failed honeymoon, a story Yoko doesn't like me telling, but one I have perfected over the years: starting with us standing in our apartment in Matsuhama in Japan — Yoko having been so sick from the pregnancy — plane tickets in hand and trying to decide whether or not to go on... and ending with me walking alone around Rome, angry and displaced. Look, the Sistine Chapel. Great. This last line is the laugh line, delivered deadpan and sarcastic, the ending that draws it all together before moving on or back to whatever prompted the story in the first place.

That night that Naomi was born, we were still in Matsuhama, in the small 2DK apartment where, if you craned your neck looking from the bedroom window, you could see the Agano River flowing into the Sea of Japan. I paid 42,000 yen a month for it, and when Yoko and I got married, we moved her out and into my place. The night we completed the move, I remember shutting the door with all of her things piled in the kitchen and thinking, this is where we will start. We had been cat-napping in the bed for six months, Yoko always going home around two or three to avoid the appearance of staying over, but we were married now and this was where it was all going to happen. We shut off the lights and opened the windows and although I don't remember being able to hear the water, I can remember it now. That bed we had, we had bought it together, and it was so big, I remember, bigger than any bed I slept in for years. 

Naomi came, as I've said again and again here, unexpectedly both in the first instance and in the last, when at 1:30 in the morning, only 40 minutes after Yoko and I were happily chatting and waiting for the doctor, I saw her face emerging and suddenly there and in my arms. Look at her and how much she looks like me: my own little girl, after so many months of only resenting her and hating everything she had done to my wife and marriage. No, how stupid that had all been, I remember thinking as I left the clinic early the next morning to go home and shower and stand in front of the teacher room at Meikun High School and announce that she had come in the night. Everyone pitied me, I think, a silly gaijin assistant language teacher with a year-to-year contract and nothing to speak of in the works. At least his wife has a good job, I could imagine them saying right before I came in the room: at least they have something.

And then, seven years later, this morning, standing at the top of Bristol Rd in Selly Oak. It was bright and clear, and I had just been in Sainsbury's looking for a birthday badge: Naomi said that she wanted a badge. I came down past a part of the University I hadn't seen yet, another series of buildings on both sides of the road, and finally at the bottom of the hill, the Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre, and that question, at reception, why are you here? There's no good answer for that question, not ever: I don't know, I want to say, somewhere I took a wrong turn and ended up here. Here is as good a place as any, isn't it? If you don't mind and it isn't too much trouble, I'd like to do a bit of writing and stay, at least until I can figure things out.

05 May 2014

The battle of Flers

At the church on the hill, the one with the bells that ring through the night, I've been reading gravestones while the children run or ride their bicycles in front and behind me. The cemetery has been not be looked after, and many of the headstones have fallen over, or sunk into the ground. One, from the late eighteen hundreds, for a boy that died when he was six months, is almost completely gone, swallow up by the soft moss that covers Harborne like a blanket.

The headstones show how some men were devastated when their wives died, buying tonnes and tonnes of granite to memorialise them and assuage some guilt. You can tell yourself all sorts of elaborate stories if you want to, imagine some Emily Dickinson poem giving the Victorian creepiness presence — like Mei saying she doesn't want to ride her bike there because the dead people are watching and she's shy. Eighteen hundred eighty seven, Nineteen hundred and seven, eighteen hundred and seventy five — the dates written out.

The kneeling angel without hands, watches over several people, notably John Randolph, aged 52, who fell at the Battle of Flers. Wikipedia tells me that nearly 30,000 British soldiers died with him. It was the first battle where tanks were used, but largely unsuccessfully — many wouldn't start. In this war, the great war, people just died, over and over and over and over. The memorial placard at the church on the high street, with the virginal couple strumming the guitar and singing, showed how devastating the war was even for Harborne. A hundred names, at least.

So many people come past the church on the way up to town. A couple of boys in trainers with iPhones. Old couples with lap dogs, and Mei falls down hard on the path and I have to go pick her, up rub her knees and say, It's okay, it's okay — here get on the bike again, try again.

Naomi says to me, 'Daddy, how do you say tengoku in English?' Heaven, I say. 'Daddy, do you know I believe in heaven, so I will go there because I believe?' Oh? I say, why do you want to go to heaven? 'Because it's happy there and there are no sad things.' It sounds boring, I say to her, laughing, and she laughs too, and we head on to the park, to practice riding the bicycles some more.

01 May 2014

The momentum of settling

Part of the momentum of settling — a strange oxymoron of my life now — is the accumulation of things that tie you to a place. For now, Birmingham feels like home for me. As we came back from the South several weeks ago, Yoko commented on it too — the ramp off the M6 onto the A38, down into a trench that leads to the city. You come through a series of tunnels under the city, and up towards Edgbaston, where the University of Birmingham is. Bristol Road has a grassy median lined with trees, something I remember from my first time in Birmingham in 2009 when I gave a talk at Westmere House. Now, the car guides itself up towards Harborne, the terrace house on Victoria Rd which, with each furniture adjustment and evening spent in the garden, feels like home.

Pets were, of course, always next on the list and although I managed to keep kicking that decision down the path — much easier in Malaysia and Milton Keynes when there was a expiry date to our time — there was nothing holding us back anymore. We have no plans to leave and no reason to not give the kids what Yoko and I had growing up, menageries full of all sorts of small animals and rodents. Although I am allergic in an awful way to cats and dogs, Yoko had made up her mind that we would get guinea pigs. I joked that it was like when we decided to have Mia — the choice had been made before the conversation began and I found myself relegated to participant observer. I watched it all happen at a distance, hearing myself say the words I knew I was supposed to say.

The guinea pigs came through Gumtree: two in need of a home because 'Kasia', the seller, was moving abroad. I felt good about these pigs, more so than the ones at the pet shop, because I imagined the Kasia was Polish and I have only had good experiences with Polish people. I also, however, imagined that we would go to pick them up and would be surrounded by beautiful, blonde Polish children who would be giving up their beloved pets, a scene ending in heartbreak and sobbing, something I wanted to avoid at all costs.

Instead, we found the house on the north of the city to Handsworth, the guinea pigs actually the property of a teenage girl and her mother, who were indeed going back to Poland. Naomi had the chicken pox, but they didn't care — Mei and Naomi both held a pig a piece, while Yoko waited in the car with Mia who was sleeping. As the girls cuddled the two of them, I waved Yoko in and knew that this was it, the next piece of the puzzle. It was £37, they had posted — 'Here's forty,' I said to the teenage girl, 'You can keep the change' and she said, 'That's very generous.' For some reason the word 'generous' stuck in my mind. I am not generous. I am the least generous person I know, I wanted to say. I'm vain actually, I don't want to look petty asking you for three one pound coins.

It was clearly hard for the girl to give them up, Bogdan and Philip, but I said we would take good care of them '...isn't that right Naomi?' and Naomi said, earnestly, 'That's right, we'll try not to kill them with knives.' I was shocked:  'No, no, of course not,' I said, 'Don't say that. It will be fine, they will be fine.'

Bogdan and Philip have been renamed several times, and I'm still not sure what their names are, but the girls have been taking care of them every morning with Yoko's help, of course, and taking them out in the garden after they come home from school. Yesterday, it was perfect. Bogdan and Philip sitting in their cage outside, watching as Mei and Naomi performed Disney songs and danced. Mia had the trowel and was helping me, she said, her old dad who was smoking his pipe and drinking a £1.25 Stella Artois from a tall can and cutting brush. Let it go, let it go, the girls sang, with overly dramatic dances and waves of arms, Bogdan and Philip looking on. Won't hold me back anymore. Yes, I thought, pausing, looking up at them all, yes, that's right.