30 December 2015

Seven boxes

'For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?' Mark 8:36

In my parents' house, in Gurnee, Illinois, there are seven boxes with my things: the dark matter of life. In its concrete sense, dark matter is a thing that we think is there, but we can't see. We infer its presence from its effects. When you are standing at the top of a hill in Harborne in Birmingham in the United Kingdom where I live, at three in the morning because you can't sleep and the church bells are ringing, the things in those boxes, they speak through time to you: you know what's there, or what you think might be there. Your journals. Your empty CD cases. Your Bible awards. You stand and look up at the ringing church bells, how many thousands of miles away, and you can feel it pulling on you.

Chicago is my lost city: I come back and remember a time in my life I made plans to stay and be here forever. In my senior year at Knox, I was going to do research at the Newberry Library. I was going to have a small studio apartment near Washington Square Park. And then, the next year, I interviewed for a job in the Aon Center. I wore a black suit.

The dark matter of those years, when I left high school and went to college, is piled up in short stories I wrote for writing classes and in textbooks. Poems about hands and breasts. In a lunchbox I bought as a joke in 2001 before the towers exploded, there are all the pictures of my band. The fire red Gibson SG with those pickups. (They make such a fat sound, I say to Yoko in Japanese and ask if that metaphor works: if I say the sound is fat, do you understand?)

Before I came back home for Christmas this year with Yoko, my wife, and my three children, I made a plan to finally deal with my things, to throw away and give away all that I could. All the books. My papers. My past as an Evangelical and conservative Republican. Most of it was comedy, my letters to the editor I wrote as jokes when I was 12 and 13. A response from Oprah Winfrey to a letter I had written her (I had written Oprah a letter). But there was also the dark, dark matter. The dark matter of a high school relationship, with the girl I thought for some time I might marry and who had followed me for many years after, despite having gone to the other side of the world, to Japan, to Yoko and the girls. There were things I was unable to throw away the last times I had been home. I didn't know what they were exactly until I was holding them, swallowing, travelling in time. A box of Virginia Slims, cigarettes I had taken from my girlfriend in a fit of self-righteous rage. When I was consumed with worry. When I had faith. There were layers and layers of artefacts, her things, things I had made about her, things she had given me: cigarettes, a pair of socks, and photos.

I thought I might also see her finally after all these years to catch up and reminice for a bit, but I felt guilty about wanting that, some embedded Evangelical belief about guarding your heart and never putting yourself in a place where you think you might sin. When I had been back some years before, we had planned to meet and I had cancelled at the last minute, afraid that someone might see us, that my parents would find out, that everyone would find out, and that my desire for her would still be there, that something would happen that I couldn't undo. 

This time I had told Yoko, who didn't seem to care one way or another but I had not told anyone else. I made plans around it so I would have to leave at some point, go meet up with friends for a show at Second City later, still going through the motions of following the rules, whatever the rules were, even though I am in my thirties and haven't believed in anything resembling Christian belief for years and years. I took the train into the city and it was snowing, and I went to the De Paul University bookstore alone and then up to where we were meant to meet, a Lebanese restaurant because I don't eat meat now. When the time came and I took my seat and ordered tea, I almost panicked again like I needed to escape. What was I doing, what sort of complex lie was I telling myself. But this time, I managed it: I sat waiting with tea and let myself remember, look out into the snowy darkness, the cars passing, all of Chicago aware that the lost son has come home for the night and looking back at me like an absence, a Tolstoyan void. And then she was there. 

Chicago, I lost you, but I gained the world. Istanbul, yes, and Paris. London and Dhaka. A Sunday morning in Moscow and then Seoul and then Seoul again. Madrid. Amsterdam, when I was drunk on that bike. Rome, of course. Tokyo, and the night I smoked outside the walls of the palace. Fukuoka. Kuala Lumpur. Vientiane, and the Mekong River. Bangkok. In the absence of god's perfect plan for my life, I had set out to gain the world, the parts of it I could at least. We have to, don't we. We have no choice but to make our own path when we are led into the thicket. When we are stuck, when we have no way out, we must take risks. We must say the things to the absences in our lives that we mean to say to ourselves. You don't need to implicate others, do you. We want forgiveness, but we can only forgive ourselves. We want understanding, but then we only need to understand ourselves. When finally you can say the things you needed to say, you are just speaking out loud to yourself. You look back at yourself when you were young and you say, don't worry. It's okay. You're okay.

Standing ankle-deep in snow slush on North Wells, I finally realise this. After all these years. Our time together is over and her car is stuck in the snow. She gets in, after we have hugged goodbye and said it was lovely to catch up. I tell her I will give her a push and the ritual of moving a car out of the snow comes back to me, in muscle memory. The tyres spin in the ice and I push. A man comes out of nowhere to push with me. And then another and another. The car rocks back and forth and back and forth without going anywhere. Back and forth and back and forth and then the feeling you have when you are pushing a car and it breaks free. You are suddenly pushing against nothing. You are standing there with your bag. You are alone after having not been alone, but you can do anything, can't you. The world is yours.