31 December 2014

26 December 2014

Boxing Day

It rained all day until we opened the door to head out, the first time in two days. The rain looked heavy, and then yes, as we stood in the doorway, it was snow: thick and heavy and wet.

20 December 2014

1910 cold & a top that won't wobble

The house on Victoria Road is cold now. Cold like when it was first built and whoever lived there made fires to warm the whole house. A 1910 cold. I have been building fires sometimes, when I have the energy to tend them, but most days I just stand at my desk and am cold. We went to St Peters on Sunday morning, a rash decision for me. I was lying under a blanket on the sofa and the girls wouldn't go with Yoko, but wanted to stay with me. So I got up and we walked in on the liturgy. The heaters were broken and everyone was wearing coats. When the vicar spoke, you could see his breath. Who are you? he asked, and it rang out in the way that sound does in the cold.

When you settle, the things you own settle with you and do not physically weigh you down. In 2013, we packed boxes, all of our things and tried to make everything fit into a space much smaller than it could. Now, the weight of the things I own is dispersed throughout the house at Victoria Road. I don't know how much it weighs unless I try to move it. I don't know how many thirty kilogram boxes we would need if we had to move in a month.

Every morning, after I wake and eat my breakfast, I go upstairs, pull on my running gear and pack my bag with my computer and some of the things I need for the day: some weight, to be sure, but not nearly all of it. I touch Yoko on the leg, and say, I am leaving, and she says goodbye. I open and close the front door and lock it — run down Victoria Road to the double roundabouts at the end of War Lane and then head into the darkness. Cross the road at the first pelican crossing or later down the road because it doesn't matter. I run like I could run this same route, down this same road, for five or ten years, all my things safe and sound in the house. It could go on and on and on, like a top spinning, but never falling. You watch it and wonder when you'll see the wobble.

I work out and shower and write and teach and then run home. Sometimes I pick up the kids at school. I get home, I shower. It's warm in the house at the end of the day and I don't worry about the heating bill anymore. It's irrelevant anyway. I go to bed and wake up and take the kids to school and run up and down the same roads again.
When the plane pulled up, away from KLIA, I shut my eyes and put my head back. Every choice you make is just one in a string of choices. Which ones are good and which are bad, who really knows.

05 December 2014

If I just keep saying it

Tonight’s Bible study was pretty great. We talked about idolatry and I realized that I've never talked to someone who honestly worships an idol. The conversation was really encouraging because we got to talk about some of the things that Japanese think about Christianity and life in general. Sensei told us a little bit about the history of Christianity in Japan and how Buddhist monks persecuted early converts. Hagino san cried. Anyway, it looks like we may be making headway with at least one of our students. Sensei said that things look like they are improving with her and she seems to be a little bit less hostile. That would be great. I'm excited about it now.
When Christmas came to Fukuoka in 2003, when I was a missionary, my mission partner and I had just arrived. I was feeling, as you do when you land somewhere so disorienting, tired and fat and displaced. I had come to share my Christian faith in the darkness of the East, but the metaphor wasn't really holding — Fukuoka pulsated with electricity. The white missionaries were out of place, as fat and awkward as me, but I did my best to pray and persevere. Of course there would be challenges. The walls of our apartment in Susenji were thin and I could never relax, lying on the futon, trying to sleep hours away on the weekend. There was no money and going out meant spending money. I walked and rode my red bicycle. I tried to grow a moustache. 

My father came with the video camera that December and I remember being so self conscious: he sat us down and had an interview to show at church, a video I'm sure no one ever watched, but it documented, as I remember it, how scared I was and how It seemed I might blurt out, 'Something is wrong.' That wrongness was blossoming in a way that I couldn't really say.
We (Sensei and Hagino san and I) dropped him off at the airport at the crack of dawn this morning. In true Japanese fashion, it was much more difficult than it needed to be and we ended up following him into the airport and watching him go through security. We prayed before he left, a very awkward moment where we held hands. It was just weird. I ended up talking Hagino san and Sensei out of having us stay and watch his flight leave. I got home around 7:30 and just went back to bed. When I woke up, it was like I had been asleep all weekend. Mom called and I didn't really have anything to say to her. I pretended that the weekend didn't really happen until I went to work tonight. Now, it seems like I have enough distance. 
At some point during that year, I stopped praying. The missionaries would go on about the darkness, like they were in a different world. I wanted to apologise, to say that I had made a mistake. I told a story to myself and everyone around me that allowed me to escape: I wanted to be in the world of the Japanese, not the church. That's where I could make an impact. I told myself and everyone around me the same thing: I believed it even though I didn't. I wanted to believe it, even if I didn't. I went through the motions, until I was sleeping on the shinkansen on my way through the mountains to Niigata City. I got off the train: my huge suitcase was broken and someone from the company had come to pick me up. I didn't have a bank account or mobile phone — only a bit of cash.

I remember the smell of the woman's car who picked me up: she took care of me that year, but I don't remember her name. She was shocked that I didn't have a phone. I went to open a bank account directly from the station and she said, 'You need to deposit something.' What was the minimum, I asked. I had two one hundred yen coins. Was that enough? She took it from me, and they printed it in my first Japanese bank account book: 200円. There it was.

She took me to my one room apartment — Nunogawa san, I just remembered her name. She had some bedding for me, that she had from a friend. She would pick me up the next day again and take me to visit the schools I would teach at. Was that okay? Did I need anything? I didn't, no: I thanked her and she left me her number, although she laughed because I had no way to contact her. We'd have to go to the shop first thing tomorrow.

That apartment was like a cell — the company had only set me up there because you didn't need key money or a deposit, and it had some basic amenities. It didn't matter: it was a beginning. I set up my computer and looked out the window at Matsuhama, where I had landed. In this world, no one told me that I was surrounded by darkness. I e-mailed my parents to say I had arrived, made cup ramen, and went to bed alone. Whatever it was, it was different and that was something, some place to start, at least.

03 December 2014

Half truths and outright lies

I used to write fiction exclusively — I'm finding it now on my hard disk as I clean things out and look through all the old writing I'd done at college. I find these stories that I see right through, having written them. They're full off embodied memories of the past, nights from high school where all the rooms I was in late at night had Christmas lights hung about and the drone of indie rock in the background. This week, I hung the Christmas lights we took from Malaysia in the living room here, in Birmingham, on Victoria Rd, and they pulse on and off through the night. I told the girls that when mummy and I started dating I had the lights hung round my apartment, which is true: that tiny place in Matsuhama where the Agano River flows into the Sea of Japan. I had a Nissan Alto too, another thing I point out to the girls as I walk them to school and for some reason, there is an Alto on Tennal Rd. Blue like mine was blue. I had this car, I say to the girls.

Where my ability to write fiction went, I don't know. I read through the stories and think about how I was trying to hide and encode memories of things. My character sits on the sofa with his girlfriend and thinks about putting his hand up her shirt. It's plausible deniability in fiction: my character says fuck all the time, not me. I read through these stories that lead to tremendous precipices, and teeter on the edge. I liked to drive up the tension and not resolve it for the reader. This says something who I was at the time. A liar, really, but the kind of liar that thinks he's telling the truth.

One story was called 'Half Truths and Outright Lies', a term I had taken from an accountability group I was in. Accountability group met on Wednesday nights, in Martin's apartment: we were a group of 'men' who had a list of 11 questions we asked each other. One of them was about telling half truths and outright lies. The list of questions though really centred, as these sorts of Christian self-criticism sessions do, on sex and purity, a metaphor now as I think about it, but the kind of metaphor that was lost on me at the time. Yes, of course I had looked at a little porn and lusted, but less than the week before. Someone had a streak of 10 days. There was one of us who never looked at porn and we were very impressed.

I remember, particularly, walking home from accountability — the mytonym we used for the group — in the middle of the night, across the Knox College campus, wondering about my future, about Heather and whether we would make it through the year apart from each other. In December, I went home and asked her, in my parents' garage, to promise to marry me. I don't remember if it was that year or the year before.

Now, I have fewer reasons to lie, but I still hide things throughout my writing. There are no more characters, just myself as a character. Stephen is a fat white man, looking away: I encourage you to fill the truth about what I'm looking away from or towards, whatever it is that you want. In ten years, I suppose I will come back to this writing and remember the feeling of sitting in this room, in the terrace house on Victoria Rd, in the cold with my back to the radiator as the Christmas lights blink on and off. I will remember what I was thinking. There is a list of new failures, not as simple as they were when I was 18 and 19, trying to keep the girl I loved from walking away from me. Now, there are wives and children and bank accounts. No one's leaving anytime soon, nothing as simple as putting your hand up someone else's shirt, or worrying that you might be caught out, that your parents might wake up at the wrong time. Now, there is less to hide — why hide anything at all.

I hear the girls stir in bed. One might have woken up. In this Christmas light lit world, the writing stops at a different precipice.

01 December 2014


December has come around, and for the first time in two years, the Pihlajas are not packing everything away to send to a new country. In 2012, I was standing, this week, in the garage, as two Malaysian men loaded up a lorry with 14 boxes — it was snowing that day in Milton Keynes, or it had snowed the night before, and they were taking photos of it and throwing snowballs. Snow, could you believe it. The house emptied and was emptied throughout the month until that last day when we all hugged and said goodbye and I told a lie at the time: Don't cry, we will be back in a year.

And then last year, we were doing it again, in Kajang, outside of Kuala Lumpur. I wanted, that time, to just leave it all and chalk it up as a complete failure. All the broken and cheap furniture, the plans I had for making something. I wanted to leave behind Yoko's burning skin and all the tension of a bank account with this currency I didn't trust. The car, the house, the whole thing: I wanted to just walk away, back to Milton Keynes and the snow and pretend it never happened. When we got on the plane, at the end of the month, our Malaysian experience behind us, the stress was like a residue on my hands that I couldn't wash off for months and months. If I apologise more and work harder, maybe then it will go away.

Of course, it did work out — it wasn't a loss. It's hard to say how much better I feel this 1 December, the first first of December that I have, in 6 or 7 years, felt like I am standing on two feet. The financial news is optimistic — it has always been fine, but now it is optimistic. The girls are healthy and happy, even though they have always been, but I, for once, am also happy and healthy too, on a first of December. Not waiting for the implosion or snapping again at my wife for saying the wrong thing or asking the wrong question.

We took the bus into the city centre yesterday: walked through the Christmas market and had coffee and I looked at Yoko and thought, For some reason, we have made it more than nine years. We have three kids, and a pension now, and a place that feels like home. We both are wearing the same coats we wore in Niigata City in 2005. When I say now, I love you, I mean it. I meant it, in 2005, when I said it for the first time. But now, I mean it.