31 December 2018

V is for plant-based

At eleven-twenty on Christmas Eve, we left the house to walk up the hill to St Peter's for midnight mass. The girls were singing in the choir for the third or fourth time in two days, and we came into the alcoves in the entryway of the church, as the community carol service was ending. I could see Father Graeme through the glass windows on the inside doors, wearing a black robe and collar and as I looked past the vergers, I could see him leaping in the middle of the sanctuary, willing the carolers with their coats on but open, to sing more loudly, more clearly. One doesn't always take one's coat off for worship at St Peter's. In practical terms, the heating may or may not be working, but in theological terms, you may also need to make a run for it. The community carolers were singing loudly, but not as loudly as they could and were looking at Graeme with a begging, collective weariness. It's eleven-thirty on Christmas Eve — surely, this level of enthusiasm is sufficient.

28 December 2018

As good a story

Nearly five years now in Harborne have come to an end, and more years, I thought to myself as I walked back from the High Street on Boxing Day, than I ever spent anywhere else. After living here for so many years, everything seems to run together. Which year was which; was I fat or thin that December. I find myself telling the same origin stories whenever there's someone new to tell, but I've worn these stories out. Like the story which starts with Yoko and I marrying in a fever and ends with our disastrous honeymoon. Yoko said once, as I recounted with practiced precision our misery as we came by ferry into Gozo at golden hour: He likes telling that story, and I thought, it's not that I like telling this story. It's just the story that I have to tell. If I had a different story, I would tell that story.

That's a lie, of course, every story you choose to tell has a reason for its telling — my whole career is based on this theory of narrative. I make the same point in academic presentations, proclaiming to the audience that you only tell the story of little Red Riding Hood if you're trying to get a point across. You're trying to scare your children, for example. I've made this analogy enough that I know where to pause, where the laugh lines are, like I'm some sort of failed stand-up comedian. The point is, I'll say, summing it up, whatever story you tell, it reveals something about you, about what you believe or don't, what you're cynical about: paternity, matrimony, fraternity. Whatever.

Stories don't have natural beginnings or endings; their meanings can change over time. Another story, one I initially told as an anecdote about trusting God, really needs to be told for that first story to make sense. This story began when I was twenty-one and left the States to be a missionary at a small church in Japan. The plan was simple enough: I would go, I thought, for a year, put the failed relationships of my late teens behind me, and then come back to the States to do a Master in Fine Arts somewhere, become a writer, or work in marketing, whatever it was. Healing by distance, by immersion — the things your therapist tells you you're not supposed to do. I'm overstating it, of course — I was young and had nothing going on, really. What's a year of your life when you're twenty, twenty-one.

I went to Japan in October of that year, after raising money from Evangelical Christians who wanted to hear my trusting God story and were just happy they themselves didn't have to trust God too. I had one thousand US dollars a month in Evangelical money, half of which was deposited in my US bank account and which I saved and half of which the church in Japan paid me in cash and which I spent on bare necessities. That year, I smoked a pipe and listened to jazz and had too much free time. I went to an empty beach all winter and tried to pray, tried to write, tried to study Japanese, tried to fall out of love. It didn't work out, but I can't explain why exactly. After the summer, and going back to Chicago for several weeks to lick my wounds, I left again, this time to teach English full-time in elementary schools in the sleepy industrial Northwest of Japan, someplace away from it all, where no one could find me.

The company that hired me, or rather the British recruiter, promised stability, but when I found myself that September in the head office in Tokyo after one day of training, I was slowly realising they were taking advantage of me. I wouldn't be paid for at least six weeks, but they were happy to lend me my first pay cheque with a marginal interest rate if I absolutely needed it. I was young and stuck and everyone seemed to know things I didn't know. When the recruiter was thumbing through my passport, he pointed out that it had only been by some miracle they'd let me back into the country when I left and came back in August — he held up the page: you didn't have a re-entry visa. I didn't know what to say. I didn't know why I didn't have a mobile phone or a bank account. I hadn't needed one, we were paid in cash. Hagino-san had taken care of us, I wanted to say. I began to doubt if the women from the church had been real. The recruiter was dumbfounded like he had discovered some Mormon who had wandered into the city looking for food after the church abandoned him.

I can't remember which ward the company's office was in. I can't remember how long I was there. I remember vague things about the building and my hotel. I remember the vending machine outside the headquarters had Dr Pepper. I remember standing on the north side of the Imperial Palace, smoking a cigarillo and looking up at the stone walls. I remember feeling panic as I realised how far from home I really was. I convinced myself that the whole mess was a punishment for doubting, for giving up on the mission. I was Jonah in the belly of the whale. I was Samson chained to the pillar.

That story doesn't have a natural ending: it ends wherever you want. With an apartment on the Agano River that had a glimpse of the Sea. With Yoko before she was my wife, kneeling seiza and reading the newspaper spread out on the tatami. With us leaving Niigata two years later on a ferry. Or with me, this last week, walking home from Sainsbury's on Boxing Day. I texted Naomi and we met up, all five of us, in the car park of St Peter's, where Mia was roller-skating and Mei and Yoko were riding the scooter around and around. I said hello and climbed up onto the brick wall and walked down it, balancing like a child and standing at the end, looking up at the church clock tower. Yoko tells me that it was completed during a plague that killed all the good artisans — the plague explains why the clock is not perfectly centred. I had never noticed it before she said something, but yes, if you look closely and don't allow your mind to adjust it, you see it's not exactly right. Of course, you can't see it unless you're looking for it. I jumped down from the wall and Yoko said to the girls, Shall we go? Dusk is falling, down the hill to Victoria Road, where our home is, like it has for years. Tracing on tracing, a dark line now, a rut, a beginning or ending of some other story.

27 December 2018

No time is wasted

From the top of the estate behind Saint Peter's, there is a steep hill leading down into the valley. The fog comes in and sits there, waiting for some change to dissipate or move it, but nothing changes. The sun comes up late and goes down early and the valley is still full of fog. It's perfect weather to run in, but I'm resting my legs. Instead, I put on my grey coat, the one my mother bought for me in two thousand and three for thirty dollars at a thrift store in Park City, before I left the States forever. I walk through the church cemetery to the other edge of Harborne, to fetch one of my daughters from an address scrawled on some scrap paper. Early afternoon now, and night is falling. 

It's been five years in the house on Victoria Road. With the work done, the new plaster and paint, the nagging inconsistencies of the white paint and the furniture we need to buy aside, things are finished for now. There are no gaping holes in the wall. I wake up and the blue-grey light comes in from three sides, like we had knocked a wall down. I make posher coffee than I have in the past and stare up and out the window as the kettle boils away. 

We watch the end of the year, the different shades of grey sat in the valley. Next year there will be more waiting, won't there. In Malaysia, the never-ending summer meant that the year went on and on without a perceivable sense of future. In the UK it's different, of course. Things stall, they don't spin out. I ask Naomi, as we look up into a tree at some birds, if she remembers the monkeys in Kajang, at the top of the hill near our house. I remember them as proboscis monkeys, but they must not have been. The mind plays a trick. 

Whatever profound thing I meant to say gets lost in the muddle of memory. I'm staring at my phone again — I'm lost in some other world. Night is falling, we need to get home before dark. 

17 December 2018


I fell asleep on the sofa with my head next to the iPad I had set an alarm on — thirty six minutes to sleep after meditating and then I would run. I woke before the alarm went off and had another apple and cup of coffee before finally willing myself to put on my trainers, open the door, let my activity tracker catch the GPS and then I can start running. Just start running, nothing more. I tell myself I can stop, if I want to, but once I start and I make the first kilometer and then the second, I am on the trail and of course I am not going to stop running, what sort of dumb lie was that.

Never a fan of dialectics, I've spent the year looking for my own words to describe what is essentially a dialectic — the void and self-efficacy. My weight has been some measure of my own self-efficacy, my ability to say I will do something and then do it. It's an imperfect measure, and after struggling for years, and going through periods of weighing myself day in and day out and then lapsing, eating without stopping, loaded down with cookies and whatever else I can get my hands on, it all seemed to stopped this year once I committed to my insufferable plant-based lifestyle.

I still fear weighing myself after a period of not weighing myself and that fear is irrational; I accept that. I accept that all my thoughts about my body and what I should and shouldn't eat are self-made problems, the result of letting my obsessing mind take over different parts of my life, with promises of diminishing returns of success and eventual burnout. I'm a sucker for obsession. If I could, I would wake my wife up at two in the morning and share whatever concern I have on my mind, likely about our application for our visa. I'm proud of myself for not doing this, but you can't ask someone to appreciate that you haven't done something bad to them, even though you want to.

On Saturday, I peeled off all my clothes and willed myself onto the scale, afraid like I have trained myself to be afraid, but there it was. I had no one to announce this to, of course, no one should care. I made coffee and sat on the sofa reading all the online bad news and waiting to feel some sense of accomplishment for having willed myself into a body that I wasn't given. I used to be fat, I tell people, a-matter-of-factly, like the rejoinder should be, And now you're not. Well done.

The ax is already at the root of the trees. Jesus prunes the branches while John cuts the whole tree down. The run is over before I know it. I think I should do more, perhaps, press for another ten minutes, but I don't. Some years ago, on this day, I finished my PhD and then moved to Malaysia the next week. It was ten days later. See, anything is possible. You don't need anyone to pat you on the head, you just need to get up.

15 December 2018


It hasn't snowed heavily this year, but the cold has set in, the bitter 1920s cold of the house on Victoria Road that comes in through the fireplace. I don't want to ride my bike, so I have been running everywhere, changing out of my running kit into a jumper and jeans like superman when I arrive at work or the city. It's a good cold for running and feeling the inevitable mud-suck of winter removing your agency in the nights that become longer and longer until they don't. At the end of the year, everything is erased — nothing has happened. I feel it as I struggle through the paperwork of my final visa in this country, the indefinite one. I went through my calendar for the last five years, everything that had happened as entries of events and plane departure and arrival times, but I couldn't tell if they had really happened. I was in the States this year, wasn't I. I was in Japan. There was that AirBnB in Queens, and the runs around the lakes in Växjö. I'm sure they happened. I'm sure there are pictures.

Evidence is both a verb and a noun. Evidencing the truth can be a complicated matter, particular when you need to evidence an ongoing state. Evidence that you have lived in the house on Victoria Road with your partner, as an example. This does not mean evidencing that you both lived in the same place, this means evidencing that you lived together in the same place. It's a small, but important distinction that the government judges through official letters addressed to both of you, at the same address. But what does any of this mean — I came home from work and shuffled through papers, happy to see that the water bill and council tax bill were in both of our names. Proof: see here, proof that I am married, that my marriage is real and not just some discourse accumulated over the years.

I can't sleep, of course, that should go without saying. A few days ago, I got up, hungry at two in the morning and ate and just kept going. Who needs to sleep when there is no evidence you exist any way. I read the news and meditate and then the kids start to wake up and I pester them. They need things from me, one pound coins for Christmas jumper day at school, or use of the credit card to pay something, or spelling words read out to them from the Tory spelling curriculum. I happily oblige, like they are some handhold on the cliff edge of my own reality in the world, because the evidence otherwise is just not there. At work, I'm told the right people had not authorised everything I've done. I sit in a chair in a small office and say that I didn't know I was supposed to report whatever it was that I was supposed to report. I'm sorry. I say to the barman at the Plough, our pub in Harborne, after I put my phone up to the credit card machine to pay for my toast and coffee, It's weird that this NFC chip in my phone makes me real. It's a neoliberal trick — capital as evidence you have agency and that agency is just the capital itself, it's not really YOU in any meaningful way and he asks me which table I'm sitting at.

Evidencing is not something everyone understands. As I write this, a letter comes from the water supplier that I ordered to evidence that Yoko and I were together in the house on Victoria Road in the first quarter of 2017, but the letter they have issued has yesterday's date, with all of our water use for the last two years. No, I say, in my head to the woman I chatted with on the Severn Trent website on Wednesday, No, you don't understand. I don't need to prove that I have used water for the last two years, or that I have paid for that water. I need to prove that you, the water supplier, thought in 2017 in March, that Yoko and I were using water together in the house on Victoria Road. That's the proof I need — what you've sent is useless to me. I have literally already thrown it away. I argue with a woman at the Life in the UK test centre about where I was born. I argue about immigration law with people who need to write letters for me, official letters. I go to bed, but I wake up forty-five minutes later. You're stressed, you should relax, I tell myself in the mirror. You shouldn't worry. The LED light has been flickering, you should replace that, anyway. That you can do without evidence.

04 December 2018


It's a mild heresy to start advent on the first of December — Advent begins on the first Sunday of December. The children have their advent calendars with chocolates and I considered getting a vegan one for myself, because I am a child too. I thought better of it and instead, followed my wife and daughters to the first carol service at St Peter's, to sit in the dark in my long grey coat that I've had for years now and try to clear my mind. In Japan, Japanese men are expected to avoid sweet things. 

When I was a child, Christmas was a straightforward, Capitalist anticipation for goods — some heap of plastic coming in my name. All I felt for a month was desire for things, big things. This made sense in the American context, but now, I am thirty six and half and have my own children and my Japanese wife and we are living in a country that I never can quite understand. What we should do, what we should keep and discard from our cultural repertoires gets muddied without any momentum. It comes to a head at holidays. I'm not sure what I should be doing, what I should be giving to my children. It leads to a kind of paralysis, a starting and stopping of incomplete traditions. I let things happen to me rather than do anything myself. I sit in the darkness of the church, and wait for the darkness to fill with the sounds of singing voices, for something about the past to help me make sense of the present.

The house of Victoria Road was finished, or mostly finished, this last week, when the plasterers came and made all the holes in the walls disappear. We had had been living with them for what felt like a lifetime, but was really only several months. I did a poor job painting and laid down some laminate flooring and suddenly a corner had been turned and it felt like it had always been this way. You can walk from the front of the house to the back and not be distracted by some ongoing construction, a wall that appears to be falling down. The next step is to get furniture — I threw away a sofa and on Saturday bought a big TV, big beyond reason, after debating back and forth about whether or not I needed it. Was it excusable, an excusable offence, when there is so much suffering and I've done so little. I bought it, finally, gave in and drove home and hung it up in the living room like it was some evidence of something. Look at your father, look at your husband. He can be normal. 

Of course, the pantomime of normalcy doesn't last. Soon, I'm berating my children about some behaviour I irrationally expect from them. I'm complaining in bad Japanese about the UK immigration system. I'm not eating normally. I have a burn on my hand that people are staring at, but I can't decide if I should bring it up or not. I'm meditating but thinking of shelving. Of plastic in the ocean. Of something I said in 2006. Of whatever unknown unknown will come up in my application for indefinite leave to remain in this country. Of my own body which is bloated, or not bloated.

The singing starts and my candle gets lit by Naomi, who sits next to me, who sits with me as the lights come up and we sing 'O come, O come, Emmanuel'. Emmanuel is a placeholder as I sing — O Come, Something, O thing for which I am stretching out in the darkness. My eyes have stopped trying to adjust. I just sit now, and listen. It will come to an end, won't it: Graeme assures us all that we will be judged. The applications will go in to the government, I will pay whatever fees are required. The house on Victoria Road's walls will be scuffed by small hands. The church choir will keep singing and all of us, with faith or no faith, will sit with candles, listening. 

06 November 2018

How will you know that death has occurred?

With October closed out, the last mile of the marathon is here. Three months after one hundred and eight months. Only three months more and the Pihlajas of Harborne can apply for indefinite leave to remain, long-term residency, we can be recognised on paper for whatever it is we are now. I have nervously stopped checking the Home Office site, knowing that whatever changes can occur now have passed. The new laws they will put into place after the party conference are pernicious and unfair, but not focused on us this time. We'll be okay, we think, won't we. Why wouldn't we be.

I'm tired of non-stop conflict with myself, with the institution, with the governments. Everyone wants you to fight in two thousand and eighteen. Someone came into our house the other night and took our phones and Yoko's purse. I wanted to be angry, but I never got angry.

With some luck, the next eighty four days will pass without anything else going. There's nothing else to say, is there.

25 October 2018

Thirst for hunger

I moved to Japan on the eighteenth of October two thousand and three, although as I think of it now, we missed our connecting flight in Seoul and ended up arriving a day late, nineteenth October, a Sunday afternoon, not knowing for sure if the news had gotten through to the small church we were meant to be serving. Only my second trip abroad, I didn't know what I was doing, had packed hangers in my suitcase like this was the thing I would need most when I arrived. We touched down and made our way out into the arrivals — people were there to meet us and we rode through the city to Imajuku, to the church and a whole congregation of nervous people waiting to welcome us. I remember thinking that it wasn't what I expected. I remember thinking that there were more rice fields, it was more rural, but in an urban way. Rice fields and then overpasses. Concrete rivers and vending machines.

Coming out of Newman yesterday, a green mini comes tearing up the street and I have a flash of anger at the students who can't behave themselves and make the University look bad — I'm like my own parents, telling off some kids they don't know like it's their responsibility. I get through the gate and ask if the guy coming out of the car is a Newman student, and he's incredulous, of course he's not, why am I asking, and I'm walking away telling him to never mind and he's following after me. I pull out my ear buds, turn and say, it's because I don't want the students tearing up and down the streets like that, but he can do what he wants, and he launches into a litany of complaints about the students — he lives here, his parents live here, the students make it hard for him and he can't get out of his house. And so I say I'm sorry — I'm sorry that he feels that way and that the students have done all the things students do. I'm sorry about his father, about the anger, about the people that can't do anything. If there's anything I can do, I will do it. I give him my card and we shake hands and I run home.

We mistake thirst for hunger too often. I found myself finally, after years of trying, able to stop eating when I'm full, to not panic at the end of a meal. How silly to write that out, to tell the truth, but it is the truth. I panic when I eat too much, or I used to panic when I ate too much. At some point the past becomes the past, but I'm not sure when you can use the past tense. I used to be be afraid. I am still afraid.

24 October 2018

Rigor Mortis

The house on Victoria Road had, for many years, a dirty cream carpet in all the rooms. When we started our lease in January 2014, I remember thinking how dumb it was that they had put carpet in the entryway. I had coded it as a particularly British oversight, the way you would find carpet in toilets sometimes, and recoil, instinctively. We lived on this carpet for many years, until I became a homeowner, homeowner of this particular home, and we started to pull it all up downstairs. Last autumn, I did most of it, cleaned up the floorboards through the first floor and then up the stairs and then into the room that was the bathroom and became Naomi's bedroom. The boards were full of nails from carpets over the years, but I dug them all out, my hands cut up and the recurring thoughts of whether or not any of this made sense to do.

The last rooms with carpet — the master bedroom and the second bedroom where Yoko and I sleep — had been put off indefinitely, but several weeks ago, I pulled it out of the girls room in a dramatic display of a box cutter and tearing. That done, I had Mei and Mia pick out a paint colour they liked (Blue Wool), and then found an analogous, cheaper version of the same colour — Pale Duck Egg — at Homebase. They would love this name, of course, and I knew that when I bought it, patting myself on the back for both saving money and retaining the novelty. Who wants wool when you can have duck eggs. I sealed the cracks in the ceiling then painted for a weekend and then finally decided to put down laminate flooring, this faux wood print that I had avoided buying because I wanted one the original boards. I loaded the flatbed trolley with fifteen boxes of planks, and all the sundries I needed — underlay and some trim — just over five hundred pounds. I tried to not think about the money as I handed over my credit card and pushed it out to the car. 

When I closed my eyes to meditate yesterday, I saw the laminate flooring that I had put down and my mind flooded with all the thoughts of renovations and then Brexit and then the visas and the money and the changing rules. I had looked at our credit card statement closely and I realised I didn't make enough money, did I, to cover the costs of life and that there was no one to blame, no one at whom I could direct my anger. The years of moving on and around are done, the Finnish dream or another run of life in Southeast Asia. These are the thoughts that I have when I close my eyes, and the man asks about our posture, where we are holding our stress. I'm holding my stress in the thoughts of my laminate flooring and the sofa we have purchased on zero percent credit even though we don't know if they are going to send us out of this country next year. We know they won't, I can say that, I should say that, but the thought is still there when I close my eyes and try to focus on the breath. Something always tries to take your attention away.

I fell asleep with the lights on last night. The house is warm, although I keep turning the thermostat down — the monthly bill has gone up again. I did say goodnight to the girls, I do remember that. Yoko fell asleep beside me at some point. I dreamt I was in Texas, that I was headed to a birthday party at the foot of the Franklin Mountains, in a park that only exists in my dreams, an amalgamation of Cannon Hill Park and some vision I have of the desert still. I found the party, a group of people under some trees and a family I haven't seen in decades. They smiled when they saw me, and I said, it's been years hasn't it. And then I woke up. 

10 October 2018

The dark can't hide it

Our neighbour on Victoria Road who is talking to Yoko as I pass by on my way home after running, says to me, Do you know why I hate you? with a look of preparedness and anticipation, ready to reveal the second half of the joke. I pull out my earphones, disoriented, confused — the answer comes quickly: because you are so energetic, she says. I smile, embarrassed, aware of the insufferability of exercising in public, where others can see you and assume you are, in your good health, attempting to shame them. I demur the way one should demur, offering some false apology, downplaying whatever energy I might appear to have and pessimistic with some reference to my age and how I must be getting to the twilight of my running years, my knees are sure to give out. It's only a matter of time. She quickly says that she doesn't really hate me, and I should keep running while I can, and I thank her, apologise again and continue up Victoria Road, towards the house, struggling to find my keys and peeling off my clothes.

With winter coming, and the looming date of our application for indefinite leave to remain, the final visa stage which should secure our future in the UK, the days pass with the slow, uneasy expectation that some increased suffering is both coming and will pass. Like I imagine the feeling before childbirth. I have a list of things now to accomplish, the things that I can do myself and the things I need others to do with and for me, but at some point in February next year, maybe, March, it will have all passed. The passports will be with the Home Office for one hundred and eighty days and we will be chained to the city, to Harborne, to our little world with the children coming and going, the backpacks piled in the entryway, and some house project to be done. There will be nothing left to do but wait.

My left foot, the ball of my foot connected to my middle toe, is sore on long runs because the new shoes feel a half-size smaller than they are. I don't mind enough to replace them and they are still new enough that they should give in eventually. With the autumn darkness creeping in, I run in the dark, leaving around six and heading to the canals, towards the city. It's three kilometers to the canal in Selly Oak, and when you finally reach it, having crossed four lanes of traffic several times, the water is still and sunken down in the city. The bridges you run under are dark, and there is a nervous excitement running towards them, like running towards a black hole. Of course, it is nothing like a black hole — you enter it and suddenly your eyes adjust and you see the end. All you need to do is trust in what you know about the bridges, your own experience of running on this path. The fear wells up, comes up to the edges, but it's manageable, isn't it. You keep running through the dark and eventually you hear the bell tower, Old Joe at the University of Birmingham, striking six thirty or seven on the way back and there it is. Everything has been fine, like they said it would be fine.

21 September 2018

Newer Shoes

The rain and wind hit Birmingham hard just as we roll into the proper autumn. In this country, you say the rain is pissing down, and there’s a kind of pleasure in that pronunciation, like the sharp barb of a swear word that isn’t quite a swear word. I didn’t recognise this change in weather until I was running to work and got caught in it. I immediately thought of my shoes, my new shoes, which I gradually realised, as I tried to avoid puddles, would now be wet and muddy, and no longer strictly new. 

Having discovered that the Garmin app, which had previously had a more important administrative role in my life, was meant to track mileage on shoes, I went back and added my previous pair, the nondescript blue Asics I bought in Bristol the last time I was there, to all the runs I had taken them on. The app spit out an impressive number: one thousand six hundred and eighty kilometres in just under ten months. I proudly showed Yoko and started to track my new shoes immediately, ten kilometers and then thirteen and then sixteen, and so on. They broke in quickly, in less than a week and were no longer new and having run through the puddles, I put them on the radiator to dry and thought about the future.

The house on Victoria Road is going through an opposite transformation as the good work by Keith the Plasterer dries and the entryway and living room have a fresh, glassy finish. You can walk from the front of the house to the back and provided you blink at the right time, you miss the walls that haven’t been done yet. I feel a kind of buoyancy — my first annual mortgage statement which told me I had made a small, but noticeable scratch on the surface of the debt I went into, to establish this home for the Pihlajas of Harborne. I want to show the letter to everyone and say, look, I’ve made good on something finally. This is actually working, isn’t it. I’m happier to spend money when I feel this way, particularly on the house which I view as a kind of bank account. Let’s paint this thing and that one. Let’s get this fixed. Let’s all go out for brunch and I’ll get toast because I like toast, but everyone else should get whatever they want. You can tell no one trusts me in moments like this, because they know, my wife and kids do, that I will swing back to worrying about everything in a moment. I reassure them, though: we have money now, some money, and some money sunk in this house, ready to be taken out whenever the dream fails and the man comes around. I’ll be back to my old self then, don’t worry, but until then, let’s live it up and have all the coffee and chicken nuggets we want.

These are the thoughts that wake me up at 11:55 and then 1:45 and then 3:14. I finally give in thinking I’ll just get up, weigh myself and eat my protein-molasses pancakes, and meditate for a half hour, and then start work around 5:30 after I go through some papers and reorganise a shelf and make some coffee. I do all those things and am disappointed with my weight, but having primed myself for this disappointment, I can accept it and move on. The scale told me I lost fat anyway, and that my body is two years younger than I am, in Japanese years of course, because it’s a Japanese scale. I eat and then light candles and kneel down and the man tells me to feel my body collapsing into my heart. I try to feel it. Is it a collapsing, man in the app, man who is speaking slowly and deliberately. I don’t know. I don’t know if I like that metaphor. My thoughts slip to the thing I need to write and I recognise that my thoughts have wandered before we, the man in the app and I, take a deep breath together. Some things get better while others get worse. They’ll swap around. 

16 September 2018

Meridian Lines

A week passes into the new school year and things fall back into the natural ruts of middle class, Harborne life, a meridian line behind us and before us. The morning routine with the children stomping and laughing and crumbs on the sofa. The fever pitch of the summer part-time work finally breaks and new running shoes come in the post. I eat too little or too much, but sense somewhere inside that equilibrium is starting to inch its way into my life, like a habit rather than an act of will. I say that but it's also not true. You can eat too much of anything. You can become angry again in a moment, even for things you set your intention against. Given enough time, the man comes around.

The plasterer was by again last week and we chatted about brick walls and patching and how much work still needs to be done in the house on Victoria Road. Whenever one project finishes, another appears. In some time, all one hundred years of damage might be erased. This current project is aimed at putting up new plaster and paint to restore a former, or rather new, glory, because who knows how dark the walls were initially. You can only guess as you strip one layer of paper and paint after another. The walls could be bright again or for the first time, and create the sense of space if not actual space. The mould deep in the cracks, sealed up and hidden away for some other person in a future, because of course there is a future, to uncover and repair again.

For my part, I wake up and still feel disoriented. I had been sweating in the night, hadn't I. It had woken me up. The washing machine is broken and smelled like burning. We ran a few loads of laundry through it and nothing burned down so we think it's okay for the time being, for the next couple of days anyway, before we call some man called Mike or Steve to have a look at it. Whatever you can say about this, the looming Life in the UK tests and the inevitable pile of paperwork with the Home Office, the hostile environment, all of that aside, the Pihlajas of Harborne are as middle class as can be. Eating less meat and never taking plastic carrier bags. Saying please and thank you and I'm sorry when we don't mean it. The woman in the mediation app has me thinking about how all of life is connected and I am distracted by thoughts of laminate flooring or carpet. They reappear and resolve, just like everything, before the bell rings.

13 September 2018

The tenth year

The summer of running has given itself over to the dark autumn mornings, the day creeping to equity with the night, and the timetabled demands of work and family. I have retreated back to the treadmill in the Newman University gym, staring at myself running in the mirror and thinking about whether or not I got any better this year. I weighed myself one morning a few weeks ago and then last week, but it was pointless. I knew that my weight had not changed; I had realised the thing I should have realised the first thousand times I was told it. I want to declare myself healed like the daughter of Canaanite woman that Jesus rebuked (Matthew 15:21-28), but I know the moment I do that, I will be sick again.

In May of the year that we came to the UK, I won a PhD studentship out of the blue. I fell into it: I hadn't earned it or done anything worthwhile except respond to a few emails. I got lucky, is what I mean, and everything started changing. The week after I heard, I went away for a conference about metaphor in Cáceres‎ — I met my supervisor for the first time and remember now the place we had coffee, looking out on the Spanish countryside, espresso in small paper cups. I was ecstatic. I flew through Madrid and a Christian friend, someone I knew from college met me, and we walked around the city and he awkwardly prayed over me on a bench in a plaza, asking God for emotional healing. We drank champagne in the bathroom of the airport, hiding from a security guard, and I went to Moscow for a day and then back, through Tokyo, the whole of the world buzzing inside me like things now, things finally, had come together. 

When we left Japan, ten years ago next week, we had blind faith. We sold everything and I was cruel and hasty the way you are when you're twenty six and terrified. We put the things we didn't sell or give away, the things I reluctantly agreed to take with us, into plastic tubs. Naomi was so small and I had no idea what I was doing. We gave up so much, things that I still miss and tell stories about. A good mattress and a big refrigerator. And the tatami mats as I think about it, that smell of tatami. We just left and then we were here, in Milton Keynes, misty and cold and green. I rode to the Open University on my Japanese Louis Garneau eighteen speed road bike, the bike I wasn't willing to give up and took on the plane because it was free to take bikes on planes back then. I looked for an apartment while Naomi and Yoko stayed in the one bedroom we had at the B&B in Woolstone. I don't remember anything else. I remember meeting two or three people. I remember how lucky I felt.

On the anniversary of that day, when I took the hired car up the M1 for the first time, my little family sleeping in it, ten years after that, the plasterer comes to the house on Victoria Road in Birmingham, the house that I own a small part of. Yoko and I both have dentist appointments. Naomi goes to school, or I walk her towards school until she meets some friends. Yoko takes the other girls, both in the juniors' department of St Peter’s now. This is still not ideal, though, not in my mind at least. I have a list of things that make me unhappy with our current situation — I gesture angrily in the direction of Finland, like it would save me from disappearing into my own navel, being anything other than what I am. You are still lucky, you are still falling ass-backwards into everything, that is the truth isn't it. I look at my aging, my exhausted face in the mirror after twenty minutes of running at tempo pace, as I bring up the speed of the treadmill another half-kilometer. I'm lucky — I've always been lucky. 

11 September 2018

Physical walls

The house on Victoria Road is held together by red dust — pull a bit at the wallpaper and it's bound to come billowing out. When we were putting in the bathroom this last winter, curious, I had done this in the staircase and found that some part of the wall was just being held up with layers and layers paper, a century's worth of bad decorating decisions. The builders were supposed to fix this quickly, but it never happened and we've lived with this divot in the wall, until I finally made another effort to chase down the builders before going to Sweden. The plasterers made some estimation of the costs and gave me some dates in September, but of course they couldn't make a real estimation until all the paper had come down and we found out how bad things were.

With the dates in diary to have it all sorted, I started to pull down the wallpaper in earnest on Saturday afternoon, thinking the whole thing wouldn't take several hours: the same foolish thought I have at the beginning of every one of the events. By well after four on Sunday, I was still ankle deep in wet paper and glue, covered in red dust, with bits of brick falling down as I climbed up and down a one story ladder thinking, well, this is becoming more complicated than it should be, isn't it. Still though, there's something about having your hands in the work, the mess, and looking at whatever you've done, whenever it's done and thinking, I did that. Look at that thing I did.

The bare walls, the construction, create an odd anxiety that is hard to describe, like an unmade bed or an unwashed dish on the table. You learn to cope with it, but it's better if you acknowledge its effects. I trudged up to St Peters, my arms aching from manual labour, and found our place, in the front pew and sang through the songs, watching Mei and Mia in the choir and sitting close to Yoko. When we went to kneel down at the altar rail, I put my hands out and realised they were not entirely clean — I had washed them, but they were still grey and cut up. I took it anyway, took the wine, and sat back down.

The music ended and I left early, skipped the coffee to go back to work. Everyone came home and played and we ate tofu and vegetables that I cooked in soy sauce and blackstrap molasses, and I went back to it until everyone was in bed. Finally, sometime after nine, I stopped working and walked up and down the stairs to survey where we were. Everything was a mess, dusty light bulbs and exposed electrical cords. It's progress, anyway, I said to myself. You gotta strip it back completely, like I'm a person who knows something about something, like a person who takes a cigarette break. You complain and complain about these things, because that's what you do, but you know, you realise, in the back of your mind that, like everything, when it's done, you'll miss it.

05 September 2018

The roads away

By eight last night, it was dark, or dark enough, and I went out to walk around St Peter's after dinner, catching a glimpse of myself in the reflection of the real estate agent at the bottom of Victoria Road. I was wearing basketball shorts that my father had given me in 2012. They were too small for him and were always too big for me, and I had the impulse to go home and change in case someone might see me. I passed people on the way up the hill to the church, but no one I knew, and when I reached the cemetery stones in the churchyard, the path was starting to ferment, decaying leaves gathering and the subtlest sweetness of the autumn and the streetlights.

After putting everyone to bed, the Pihlajas of Harborne each in their place, I poured a glass of whisky and organised my emails, made lists of things to do, and felt again like a well-oiled cog in the machinery of my life. Getting up at five in Sweden was pointless — I ran and had breakfast at seven thirty, was at the empty university by nine, stood around at my Ikea desk overlooking the city, trying to write. But the schedule was made up, arbitrary. It didn't matter, did it, where I was, whether I had run or when, or if I did anything. Now, the Garmin Vivosmart HR+ buzzes me awake at five and it's a race against time, to make my insufferable blackstrap molasses protein pancakes, meditate, and respond to emails before the first sounds of waking children and the bathroom becomes unusable. The activity is contagious.

Today, at seven-forty, Naomi and I set out to walk to secondary school for the first time, up Fellows Lane, the other way from St Peters. I timed and narrated our walk in a patronising, paternal way, knowing she would need to do it herself in the future. Watch for the cars here, and see this asshole isn't looking, you can't walk out in front of him, and make sure you get to the crosswalk there, but make sure they see you, because they aren't looking for people, just other cars. And then she walked away, on to whatever was unfurling before her, like the morning she walked up the road in Malaysia, to the International school in the palm trees. She was pulling her books in a rolling suitcase, two hands behind her.

Still, things need resolving in the house on Victoria Road, the cycles of euphoria and grief and anger and acceptance, the histories that write the present and future. The Pihlajas of Harborne are by no means a done deal, I say to anyone caught in my orbit at the wrong time and forced to abide me as I go on about plastering and visas and the madness of Brexit. The Wikipedia page on epigenetics is useful, but it doesn't resolve the issue of responsibility — we need to hold someone responsible, I assume, someone must be punished for all the wrongs we’ve accumulated, the books need to be balanced before we can start again. When I was a child, the rules were clear: it was either Jesus or you, who gets God's wrath is your choice. I laid in bed and worried about this endlessly, had I said the prayer right, I must have said it right, but there was no change that I could see. Was I saved if I didn't change. Now, my own children sleep soundly, I check to make sure, but of course I don't know. My parents watched me sleep too, I assume. The lights go on and off and it’s the morning again. I pull out the stool from under my desk and breath for a time, let my body breath me, as the man says. You can will nothing, can you. The girls will be up soon, best to set my intention first.

04 September 2018

Late stages

Twenty one thousand three hundred and fourteen photos document the Pihlajas of Harborne's improbable life arch — on the Internet you can flick back and forth between them. Worried, as I am, about late-stage capitalism and the imminent collapse of the world economy, I have kept a small hard drive with all our photos beside my desk, something I might grab in a fire, after making sure everyone was safe. I spent a few hours this morning and last night trying to update the photos from our different phones and travelling back and forth between this summer and the last five months, collecting together the different memories that had been hoovered up into different cloud services, from our different Moto G phones, and felt like I was ready for the winter. It can snow now.

In June, when the bells of the church rang out while I was meditating in Moseley, the sun streaming into the Buddha Hall, I felt resolved to accept the inevitable ending and beginning of everything. Every moment is reincarnation, you're meant to remember — the breath comes in and out and that is one moment. This is an easy thing to forget whenever there is fear or the anger and stubbornness that falls out of that anger. Of course everything is insolvent, of course everything is going away. I opened my eyes and rode my bicycle home in the dark, until the vivid edges of the world got rubbed off and the breath, like everything else important, fell into the background.

A friend of mine has the sort of cancer you watch rather than treat. Cancer can be an unforeseeable outcome of living longer. You write and rewrite DNA long enough, mistakes are bound to come up. My friend shrugs his shoulders — it's something you live with. There's only a small chance that this will be the thing that kills you anyway, why dwell on it. What's worse, knowing what could kill you, or not knowing? I don't honestly know. The conversation stops there and my children, or one of my children, runs up to ask a question, and show us a thing she has found and the cancer is gone when you don't think about it.

Solvency is hard to judge. You're always indebted and owed, but how can you tell what the sums are. I keep lists of every wrong I've ever endured, angry for lifetimes about the smallest thing. My anger goes back generations, a heritable phenotype change that made me a perpetual child. You're acting like your father is the truth — I am, of course. And my father's father and his father, all in the late stages of every relationship we've ever been in, all trying to not be found out. Does saying it help — is it worse to know or not know. I hug the girls goodnight the way my father hugged me, after he prayed for me, knelt beside my bed and asked for God's blessing on me. We don't choose which parts we escape.

02 September 2018


And then I was standing in Birmingham Airport again, staring at my phone and waiting, the end of my pathetic bachelor dad summer that seemed to stretch on and on until it was done. On the arrivals board, there was that same Flybe flight from Stuttgart that had caused all the trouble to my father when he came in July, when he had missed the boarding of his first delayed flight and needed to take this one, the second one that he had to pay for out of pocket. The second flight was late that day and it was again today — I felt a phantom anxiety he might appear, anger like tar spilling out on everything and making me feel like a child again. I leaned against the railing and distracted myself glancing down at my phone and watching happy Sikh and Southeast Asian families come through one after another.

The bags came unpacked in the living room, with the girls showing me thing after thing they had gotten in Japan, plastic sundries, anime characters that we don't have in Great Britain, or not yet. I watched them, before some whiskey from my father-in-law appeared, and then endless other gifts for anyone else who might have been remembered. Yoko asked if I was working and everyone went to bed and got up and everything was normal. I meditated, I had to accept, breath with, the sound of Coyote Peterson in the background, amazed by some giant tortoise, and the sounds of Japanese greetings which I was meant to return, regardless of how distant I felt, how alone, how close White Tara might have been.

In Paris, a woman had stopped my brother and me at one of the fountains — she'd come up and asked us where we were from and her accent gave away before she said it that she was from Baltimore and here, in Paris, for some reason or another, something I don't remember or didn't hear. She walked with us for a bit and then went off, back to her family and her adventure. When you looked, there were any number of Americans like this, on holiday and desperately needing to talk to someone, to anyone. We joked about the polo-shirted dads you could categorise, the angry ones, the tired ones, the smarter ones in linen, the well-groomed ones, the helpful ones, the annoyed ones, the ones that were telling off their children or their wives. The same dads seemed to be plodding around Stockholm and Tallinn, complaining and looking around for something they recognised, wanting desperately to announce a fact or opinion, to be heard, for someone to ask them about America, where they are from, something they knew something about.

I've been keeping my mouth shut, if and when I can. The Pihlajas of Harborne walk up and down to the High Street, and I suddenly feel like people can see me again, after they greet the children and then Yoko and then me, superfluous like a skin tag, just standing there, but at least visible, present. And you went away too, right? I did, yes, I did, I did have a good time, I suppose, yes, I was working, but... and I don't have the energy to finish whatever it is that might come next. Something about writing as prison, about plant-based food and the amount of saturated fat in cheese. Yeah, fine, it was fine, thanks. We walk to the Works and then towards St Peter's like a lodestar, and back home. Everyone goes to bed, but the lights are still on. I go through the house and shut them off, collect cups and bowls from wherever they've been left — shut down the computer and fold a blanket. We'll wake up together in the morning.

29 August 2018

The touch

I got off the train in Helsinki, and the air was undeniable — the summer had ended. I was primed for this ending in the carriage, listening to an American exchange student talk to someone from London about their first week studying in Finland, about the clear, slow English one of their lecturers used. Yes, classes would be starting up, wouldn't they, it was time for that, and when the carriage door opened, the narrative logic demanded a crisp bite that wouldn't have been there otherwise. I found my hostel and climbed up seven floors to my room overlooking a concrete courtyard, and beyond it, somewhere, a city I tried to imagine covered in snow, the sun never coming up. Of course, that potential reality, that future reality never materialised in my mind, though I wandered the streets alone in the autumn air, perfect, a perfect balance of Japan and Sweden and Britain as you imagine Britain.

I was alone and then I wasn't: that's all there is to say about this summer. I felt the loneliness like a wound, until I didn't feel alone anymore, like it had scabbed over. All the disjointed messenger conversations — are the kids sending these pictures to themselves, or to me. Am I just their memory now — would I know if I was already dead. I ran Woodgate Valley again this morning after running it yesterday and the day before, and I wondered if I was real. I passed someone on the trail, someone from the day before and I wondered if they saw me. I meant to stop them: am I real, do you see me? The American, the fat one in the baseball cap.

I took this week off with the intention of getting things done, but I got nothing done. I went out looking for some insufferable plant-based product at the supermarket and then came home with plans to read and immerse myself in a book or project. But I didn't — I laid on the sofa all Sunday and did nothing until I fell asleep. I tried to meditate and couldn't. I tried to read and couldn't. I shut off the light and went to sleep and woke up, alone. I gave blood on Monday afternoon and they were worried about my hemoglobin — your hemoglobin needs to be 13.5 grams per deciliter of blood and mine was 14.1. I'm sorry, but I'm above the minimum, right? How is this a problem? I asked. They called the sister over, the nurse who runs the whole show, and she looked stern and told me it wasn't a problem, but it could become a problem. I was coming in too often, she said, and I needed to come every six to eight weeks, not every month, and gave me a pamphlet. I apologised, as I have apologised for the last month — I became a vegan. I'll be more careful. 

There were no complications, of course: the bag filled with the thick yellow part of my blood that I never believe actually comes out of my arm. The machine played an upbeat series of notes, and they unplugged me, but not before pestering me for another appointment. I apologised again, I'm sorry, I can't do Mondays anymore because I need to teach and besides the sister told me just a moment ago that I can't give in a month anyway, didn't she, did I imagine this, am I really here, do you see me? Still, with the anticoagulant dissipating in my system, I was buzzing, and took an apple, feeling smug. This was my blood; I hadn't cannibalised it from some non-human animal, what we new converts to plant-based food call animals to show we are better than people who just say animals. Of course, we're all animals, and those platelets (and I say this to whomever will listen) that is my blood, made from soy and water. I peed and took cautious steps down the stairs, the autumn air meeting me again just outside the door.

Alone, with nothing to do, no kids or wife or work, I walked around the city centre, past a black man with the backpack preaching about Jesus and a man in thobe next to him, leaning against the wall, texting. Someone from some charity tried to stop me to talk, but then they realised that they couldn't see me, that I was invisible, and passed their hand through me like I was a ghost. I kept walking, the past and the present and the future all just a moment together. I picked up the kids, my wife. I spoke on the phone, some figment of my own imagination now. I'm in Helsinki, I wanted to say, but the person on the other end didn't ask where I was. I hung up. Shut the light off, the city out there. I'll wake up and run, try for negative splits.

21 August 2018

The great dialectic

Trummen was completely still this morning, with mist rising up as I came into the fifth kilometre and had the best view of Teleborg Slott, the castle, in the morning light. I looked up and around and felt the prick of seeing that I wanted earlier this summer, kneeling on mats in the Birmingham Buddhist Centre and waiting. I came around the corner and my Garmin Vivosmart HR+ buzzed the sixth kilometre, which was slower than I wanted and I picked up my pace, my body pulsing with the worst lie I know, the lie that will collapse in on itself before the semester begins: why run if you aren't going to run fast.

Running has been the great dialectic this summer, the thing I have loved while hating, and dreaded and desired and laid awake all night thinking about, through ninety minute sleep cycles and dreams that I can't believe I've had, the subconscious build up of experiences since June, or May, or April. All the countries, the travel, the planes, the hotels, people missing out of my life, my missing children and my missing wife. I've run faster than I've ever run — I confess it like a terrible sin I need forgiveness from. I ran to Hissö and looped the 1.1 kilometre road at the end of the island four or five times. The air was clean and clear and I thought this must make me run faster, but then doubted the thought — what difference does it make really, how clean the air is. It's a placebo. I looped around and let the thought come again, but then what does it matter if it's true or not, if it's true, and I breathed in deeply and ran up the hill towards the middle of the island and then off through the suburbs and back into Växjö. The Garmin Vivosmart HR+ buzzed at twenty-two kilometres and I jogged another five hundred metres. There was nowhere for me to go.

On Sunday, I went out to Björnamo on the bike Chris loaned me while I've been at the university. I rode, and my jacket came on and off as the mist built and dissipated and then became rain, or almost became rain. I sweated up the hills and around the bend, and when the cabin came into view, the door open and the black woodfired oven piping out smoke, the summer felt like it had ended. The clouds had come back down from the north, from wherever they have been hiding, and given enough time, the well won't be dry anymore. That's a question you ask at the cabin — has the well run dry. Because of the summer drought, you shouldn't mind getting wet now. You should sit out in the weather, whatever the weather is — a marriage of foxes, the sun both shining and the rain coming down in torrents, like a touch of stability, a hand that gently steadies things. Throw your head back and laugh. Everything comes around, doesn't it, if you just look.

14 August 2018

How to suffer without writing

The rain finally made its way through Växjö and a mild Swedish humidity, neither hot nor cold, has been sitting low on the city. I tried to welcome it, of course — the heat had been echoing through the deserted campus all week, making me uncomfortable in my British broadcloth shirts and reminding me I should be somewhere else. Still, I got back damp to the hotel last night and immediately wanted the sun back, however sweaty and slow it felt.

The rain has also sealed the feeling of flacid lethargy that comes from trying to write — the sort of lethargy where even a low grade incline on the bike path feels like something you can't pedal up. You do it of course, and from the outside, it looks effortless, but you know how it felt when your Garmin Vivosmart HR+ buzzed you awake this morning. It felt like hell. There is nothing glorious in writing. You write a good sentence, and you are alone. You write a bad sentence, and you are alone. You pace around the empty campus, you buy lunch, you fall asleep in the sun for a moment, you write, you don't write. It doesn't matter one way or another.

The rain suggests this summer is winding down. Two weeks from tomorrow, the girls will touch down at Birmingham airport and the Pihlajas of Harborne will regroup to put our lives back together. I won't need to refresh the Facebook messenger window again, nervously checking to see if the kids or Yoko have called or will call, or whether or not they too had slipped off into the enchanted mountains in Tosa, deep in Shikoku, never to be seen again. I know this isn't going to happen, that it's a lie creeping in, but I've stopped believing enough that now I can believe anything. Anything is possible.

On Sunday, I took a long walk alone up to Hissö. I came over the bridge on to the island and walked to the nature reserve, finally sitting on a rock at the water's edge. I thought about how much energy I had wasted worrying about God's plan for me, how when I was young, we would come to places like Växjö on retreats to hear from God and I would sit on similar rocks, praying and wondering. How I found meaning in everything that was said to me by everyone, how the world was full of signposts and signs. Twenty years later, the meaning has evaporated. I look at the log bobbing up and down just off the shore and think nothing at all about it. There is a log.

I believe different lies now. My legs can't keep up with my heart — if you can't run at a tempo pace, what's the point. I lay in my hotel bed wishing for some sort of absolution for the day, for a body that is not my body. On Saturday, I ran and ran and ran, getting lost somewhere out near Sandsbro, having made a wrong turn along the way. I just ran and having shut off the heart rate display on my Garmin Vivosmart HR+ — I didn't think anything about my pace until I got home and plugged it into my computer. It's no use. Looking in the full-length mirror in the hotel, I can say, I am not fat, but I am still fat. I can manage it for another week, perhaps, for another month, maybe, but I am still fat. I search online for the magic amino acid I've been missing, wondering if I just stopped altogether, what would happen. Surely things would be easier if you had less to do, if you stopped caring about what you ate, about the industrial production of beef, about dairy and sugar, about your career, about your heart rate, about your family, your marriage, your relationships — if you remade yourself in some Latin American country, some new lover, some new life. I look in the mirror again, trying to be honest with myself. If we could only be honest with ourselves.

08 August 2018

How subtle, how slow

The walk up Victoria Road to St Peter’s school becomes slower through the summer. My daughter and her friend ahead of me are now taller and more confident than I have seen them, and the jokes they tell become more cynical and mature. You can’t lie to them the way you can lie to children, the way you can tell children to not do something just because. You want them to hold your hand, if even for a moment when crossing the road. It’s over now, isn’t it, this part of the story.

The last three weeks were a disk of dreams you put in a View-Master. I pull the lever and the image changes. I'm standing at the Birmingham airport arrivals after midnight, feeling like a child, my father on the other side somewhere, and me full of dread and fear because I know he is angry. I pull the lever, and I am kissing the girls goodbye, they are going to Japan. I pull the lever, and I am sitting on the Place George Pompidou in Paris, drinking a bottle of wine with my brother, plastic cups and a kid on a bicycle circling around again. I pull the lever, and I am in Sweden, the wind whipping up Södra Bergundasjön and I am swimming away from the shore.

Or, if not a disk of images, present like tracing paper on the past. Beau and I climb up the Eiffel Tower, and I am there again in my mind with my sister, with whom I came when I lived in Milton Keynes, when Yoko said I smiled for the first time in a year. I look down at the metal corral for the queue as we wait to climb up in the sun. I think of the double stroller I had with Mei and Naomi, in 2009, when we came on the Eurostar, when we thought we were going back to Japan and needed to see as much of Europe as we could. I was eating meat then and smoking cigars and pushing that stroller through the same corral in the rain. Or Sacré-Cœur, with the Southeast Asian men selling beer on the stone steps and being chased off by invisible plainclothes officers. Yoko and the girls and I were there too, weren't we. I light a candle in the darkness inside and cross myself, even though I never cross myself. Sacred Heart of Jesus, behold each one of us freely consecrates himself today to Thy most Sacred Heart.

The summer goes on and on everywhere, in every country, whether you are sitting on the Seine or running on the canals in Birmingham or eating lunch by the lake, Trummen, in Växjö as it recedes away from the shores and reveals whatever the water had covered over. The summer crosses borders, across the globe to Japan where Yoko and the girls come to me through some technology. It is also burning in Japan, this confluence of factors leading to a hot house effect, the ocean full of plastic. The girls tell stories about their grandparents and the rivers, and are excited and I don't know what to say. I am not there, am I. Should I be there. I go to bed and I wake up and come into the university to work. I've forgotten how long or short I am here for, there are more e-mails, more students needing something and keeping me from whatever it was I wanted to do, whatever it was I had promised to write.

Now, I want sleep like I wanted sex when I was nineteen. I woke up at four thirty again, the same way I did last month, the week of the conference I organised in Birmingham, my brother discovering me in the middle of night, awake like the sun had never gone down. I can't explain it to anyone, I'm sorry — I'm tired of trying to explain. I hugged him goodbye in the airport and I was alone for the first time in months, no one needing me to get food, no plans to make. I got on my own plane to Amsterdam and then on to Växjö, and found myself surrounded by the enchanted forest again. In the trees just off the trail, something beckons me to disappear, like a Murakami character, or my great-grandfather John Omerza. I didn't want to cry like I did, finally, sat on the edge of the toilet, my bag lying unpacked on the bed. Who else needs me now — I wipe my eyes and get up before it sets in, before I can feel any weaker than I am.

18 July 2018

A more suitable metric

The clouds moved in yesterday, over Newman, and I set out walking back towards town with the feeling that I might get rained on. I walked up through Weoley Castle and past Selly Oak Park where I had, several years ago, confronted some travellers for driving on the grass. The clouds stayed dark for most of the walk, but there was never any rain and I came across to the University of Birmingham both relieved and disappointed because we really do need the rain now.

Like a new convert, I have taken to the insufferable life of plant-based and ethical eating with my typical religious zeal, but I've been feeling like a failure, to be honest, with all the nibbling I've done on the edges, both consciously and unconsciously. The last straw was the vegetarian Quorn sausage I eat at work, which turned out to be full of (free-range) egg whites. My frustration about losing them and about my carelessness in not realising they weren't plant-based slipped into feelings of inefficacy about the state of the world, a spiral of thoughts about Trump, Evangelicalism, and the plastic that seems to choke everything in the modern world. On a better day, I would have turned inward to focus on my breath, meditation being the other wire of zealotry I am holding at the moment. I've recently learned that there is no self anyway, no me to eat the (free-range) egg whites, and if I were just able to see (in italics) the world as it is, my anxiety would fall away. I've had promising results, but more often than not, I find myself drowning in an elaborate story, my past and present flooding over me. I'm told I should expect this.

The sausages behind me, I recommitted myself, in the queue at Costa. Turning over a package of a nut and dark chocolate snack, I figured it was okay — no egg whites or milk or butter lurking inside. Sure, it had sugar, added sugar even, but I could forgive myself for that, today at least. I ordered an iced coffee and was disappointed with myself for not having my own cup. I asked for no straw or lid and the barista taking my money nodded annoyingly, but told no one else. Having experienced a similar situation before at the Harborne Costa, I knew I would have to follow its progress. Glancing up from my phone, the plastic cup did, of course, get a straw carelessly thrown into it. I panicked and leaned over the counter to repeat myself for the woman making the drink, the one to whom the message had not been passed: I asked for no lid or straw, please. This woman also stared at me, confused and annoyed, and I shot an angry look at the first barista, while pushing down the urge to make more out of it. I'm living more ethically, I stopped myself from saying, a series of insufferable choices has led me here.

Despite the vigilance this plant-based diet requires, I'm feeling a noticeable freedom from choice and anxiety, bad habits I've fostered about food since I was seven and half or eight years old. I've called off the agreement I made with the fitness app, the agreement which stipulated that as long as I was below a certain, arbitrary number, I could eat as much butter as I wanted. Now, with it all out of the picture, I'm free to pursue other, more suitable metrics. Perhaps, eventually, what I see, when what I see stops being a lie.

I woke up this morning, made my vegan protein pancake with almond milk and applesauce (normal, not unsweetened — ego me absolvo) and pulled on my shoes to run. I've focused recently on keeping the heart steady at a high aerobic rate, one hundred and forty nine beats per minute. This is always hard initially. My body chugged to a start — the old man, the fat man, telling me that I was still fat. But then it broke through, as I got to the canal, to one hundred and forty five and then fifty and then I slowed and sped up and fell into a groove, like a metronome. There it is, I thought, the yawning now, the thing I am meant to see, the blue morning light and the narrowboats mooring on the banks. One hundred and fifty, and then slowing and falling back. I stopped looking at my wrist, my body now somewhere underneath me or beside me or in me. My body somewhere, breathing in and out, in and out, like a lung.

08 July 2018

What we can count

On Friday, I stepped on the scale, after my first week of eating more whole foods and another failed attempt at implementing a ‘plant-based’ diet. This is what you say when you don’t want to use the word vegan, with its potentially negative valence for people who inexplicably take pride in eating meat. The failure had been marginal, a bit of cake (butter and milk) and then some butter with my toast at the Plough, though I had asked them specifically not to bring it and was upset that I had been forced into the ethical conundrum of throwing away versus consuming the butter. I ate it, of course, and hated myself and the world for making it so easy. Still, I had done well, I hadn’t eaten too much, the app said, and had eaten cleanly. The app had even praised me and promised a small loss of weight over the next five weeks. But after I stripped down and prepared myself to see a slightly smaller number than last week, my weight was up, a full kilogram and a half. Why, I wanted to ask. Explain this to me. 

Yoko and I married twelve years ago, today. We married when I was just barely twenty-four and when I was confident in a way that you are when you marry someone whose language you barely speak and whom you have dated for less than a year. I knew and didn’t let myself doubt it, the commitment of a believer or soldier. Within a year, that confidence had melted away, but that wedding day was glorious and perfect, my family from the States nervously happy, and my future unfurling like a flag in the July sun. The day before, I had smoked cigars with my new brother-in-law on the beach and he had said to me, whatever happens, remember that you have family. It didn’t make sense at the time. 

What can’t you quantify. My Fitness Pal, my smartphone app, helps you log the food that you have eaten in a day. The calorie, or the kilocalorie, is just a measure of how much energy it takes to consume something. How much you have to burn it, physically burn it with fire, in a lab before it disappears. They say — the Internet, the experts on it — one kilogram of fat is burned with seven thousand kilocalories. This science is applied as a pragmatic truth: if you want to lose a pound, make a thirty five hundred calorie deficit. It’s only right as a guiding principle based on an abstraction about fat in a vile in a lab. But it’s like saying most successful couples aren’t afraid to fight: try to apply it and you only get so far.

My ongoing epistemological crises make me a terrible party guest: what is a number anyway — it’s just a metaphor isn’t it. I have an anecdote about numbers and the Vietnam War, but I’ll spare you. And what is twelve years. What is one year. What is a minute — we sit silently with the same cups of coffee in front of us in the pub searching for things that haven’t been said. I didn’t think of this, sitting at the front of that church in Niigata City, waiting and pushing down all my anxiety. You can’t quantify faithfulness. You can count cups of coffee that have gone cold, and nights you’ve gone to bed angry. You can count the time before another child needs to be picked up and brought somewhere else. You can count years together, but it won’t tell you much of anything. You might gain or lose, depending on the conditions. All love is unspeakable anyway, it’s just an abstraction of the day-to-day making and unmaking of a relationship. When you say you are thankful that we are all still healthy, that is love. It is a different love. 

05 July 2018


Every summer I fall into the same cycle of wanting to run faster and run farther. The last couple of years, this has been a distraction from losing weight, but this summer, for the first time in years, I am not fat and am not trying to lose weight. These conditions should lead to a sense of calm, a faster, more open pace, and they have, to an extent. Still, there is also the nagging reminder of the old man (Ephesians 4:22-24), a biblical principle which I seem to portage from one stage of life to the next. I run with the weight of the old man on me, the one that is corrupted by its deceitful desires and was crucified with Christ (Romans 6:6). Somehow, despite being dead, it lives on — a typical Paulian double bind. The old man is both something that you must recognise as being dead, but something you must actively lay aside because it lives on in you.

Whatever is flowering along the newly paved Woodgate Valley path in Birmingham where I run in the morning, smells of Milton Keynes in two thousand and nine, when I first ran long distances in this country. At that time, I was nostalgic for the rice paddies in and around Niigata City and Shiibata, where I had run for much of my early twenties, across Matsuhama Bridge, the Agano River flowing out of the mountains into the Sea of Japan, if you call it the Sea of Japan. Now, running with this smell, I am nostalgic for my late twenties, when I lost my faith, while reading Nietzsche and running along the canals in Milton Keynes. I feel a nostalgia for that precipice, before my faith was gone and before anyone had noticed that I wasn't mouthing along with most of the words anymore. 

And so, the poet Bashou (松尾 芭蕉, 1644–1694) writes:
Even in Kyoto
Hearing the cuckoo's cry
I long for Kyoto
At some point, the never-ending summer becomes a drought. The patches of yellow grass are worrying, and I am starting to see them, as I cut through Senneleys Park on the way home. The football pitch is usually too damp to run through, but not this summer. The British are right, of course: every pleasure turns to worry. The wells dry up and you begin to want the rain, to beg for it. Naomi puts on shoes and hugs me before heading out to secondary school for the first time, for her induction. She cried in that summer heat in Matsuhama, in Japan, now more than ten years ago, when I longed for Matsuhama in Matsuhama. When I pulled on my own shoes to head out and run, like I will this morning, and tomorrow and every day after. The drought can only last so long and it will rain again. This is the nature of things.

02 July 2018


The British summer goes on and on, like the biggest lie I've ever believed. Yoko set up the tent in the garden and I slept out in it with Mei the other night, surprised by the light, at eleven thirty and then two thirty and then four thirty, giddy with the coolness and the warmth and the feeling of the grass through the bottom of the tent. I went running and running again and again, on the canals and through Woodgate Valley, the sun omnipresent, like a bodhisattva sat on the edge of my meditating mind. The book I’m reading now says that we need to see and that means to experience the world before the narrative. If only we could see the world before we start to talk to ourselves about it, start telling whatever story we want to hear.

Seeing is harder than it should be. Some days, it’s easier than others. You can look down the walkway at Harborne Cricket Grounds, through the canopy of trees, towards St Peter’s, where bells are almost always ringing. And then, on Sunday, in this same place, a man on a bike, shirtless and drunk, ran up on me and the girls as we walked slowly through the shade, sunburnt and full of stories from the High Street carnival we were going home from. This man rode past and scowled at me, and I said, ‘You aren’t supposed to ride here’ and he slowed, angry and looking back said, ‘It’s a dedicated cycle path.’ He used the word dedicated, which sounded odd, and I laughed a bit pointing at the sign with the bike in the red circle, and he said, ‘I don’t give a fuck what the sign says — this is my country, not yours’ and rode off. The girls didn’t hear, and I said to them, but also to everyone who was there, the people behind us on the path and the woman walking ahead of us, ‘Did you hear that?’ They hadn’t. No one had, just me and this man, who was gone, and whom I hated with all the hate I had in my heart.

White Tara still won’t appear in the summer heat, even though I sit quietly in the coolness of the Buddha Hall. The hay fever, and the frustration of whatever is frustrating me. Where is my compassion, my grounding — White Tara is said to be touching the ground. Why do I hate someone for suffering, there is so much suffering. The leathery skinned man on the bike, full of Strongbrow and angry and afraid, is suffering too: this is what you see prior to the narrative about him, about his hate and ignorance. Who can see him. At St Peter’s, we break to share the peace and I find Yoko through the crowd to share the peace, to make peace. What will guide us through the storm, I wonder, looking up at the stained glass and whatever light is behind it. I’m suffering, and now I see my suffering. Will the narrative drop away in this neverending summer, as the girls run ahead of me after I've insisted that we go for a walk. My feet are on the ground. I can reach down and touch it.

19 June 2018

Still the breath

When the sun doesn’t go down, you feel giddy and even though you are tired, you aren’t tired. This is what someone said to me in Sweden last week, a man with a moustache in a restaurant who was instantly believable, the way Swedes are in my experience. They come off as having no pretence and when I left after dinner when I walked home in the midnight sun, I thought he was of course right, and I appreciated this word giddy like I was some sort of child waiting for a summer birthday. I woke up at four or five in the morning because I didn’t bother to close the curtain and left the window open when I went to sleep and the sun kept waking me up. After a week of travel and writing and listening and talking, I was exhausted, but I couldn’t stop myself from getting up and going, running around the lakes in the cool air and finding, by a stroke of luck when I was trying to run another kilometre, a new path through the woods, through the canopy of trees, deeper and deeper into the forest.

Växjö is a small place, but big enough to buy falafel from immigrants in the town centre or to get lost in some group of houses that might as well be a subdivision in the American sense. I saw, walking down the road, an American Chevy Suburban, the big SUV that had surprised me with its ubiquity in Queens this spring. It didn’t seem out of place, but more civilised next to the smaller house and the narrower Swedish streets that had, in one place, flower planters in the middle of the road to slow the traffic. This, I thought, is very Swedish, ardently un-American — people over wealth and machines. I wanted to snap a picture, but didn’t in the end, thinking of how they, the beautiful, imagined Swedish people I was trying to impress, might perceive it, me standing in the road like an idiot. Instead, I kept walking, until I saw Chris across the road and felt whatever feeling you feel when you’ve come home.

When it ended, I woke up in my own bed, in Birmingham, at four-thirty in the morning, the British Summer seemingly gone now and my wife sleeping next to me. I made coffee and looked out in the garden, my garden in my home that I can afford for the moment. I weighed myself and felt the fleeting pride of staying thin for another week. I cooked my breakfast and sat at the Ecrol table I bought last autumn after years of eating on the coffee table and thought, but why am I here and not there, or anywhere, in Japan, or Malaysia. It’s the same thought I’ve had for fifteen years, although it lingers less now that I am soon to be thirty-six and have begun to realise there's no master narrative. Now, there are things to be done, meditation to get on with and then emails and then the kids will be up to hug me around the neck. There is also, I am reminded, still the breath. Yes, the breath, which you can come back to at any moment. There it is — in and out. Here, in and out, Sweden, in and out, Japan, in and out. In and out. It will continue for some time.