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.

09 June 2018

The heat

You’ll remember the heat, won’t you, I thought in Malaysia, when the last few weeks of my time there were coming, when I was standing, looking out of the house in Taman Sri Minang into the park that had at times been filled with packs of feral dogs or with men spraying chemicals to kill the dengue-laden mosquitoes. Naomi remembers this well. It was always hot. It rained and things would become muggy and cooler, but it was still hot. You could lay on the bed without covers, in the heat, and look up at the fan, knowing that the autumn wasn’t coming but still thinking that it would come.

The heat that came to Birmingham this year is not real heat, but British heat. The numbers are meaningless, but they are enough to make you sweat when you walk and wear jeans and boots. This is hot in the United Kingdom. It’s muggy until you think of any other place where it is also muggy. I bought linen trousers and told everyone about them. I walked up and down the High Street, enjoying my temporary thinness, cool against the sun, and taking issue, as an international figure in the community, when someone complained about the weather. Let me tell you something about Southeast Asia and Texas. Let me tell you about heat.

Cyprus is hot too and I’m told that Cypriots also think that it is hot. They aren’t stupid, they know what heat is. Momentarily thin in well-pressed linen slacks, I stand in the shade, in the heat, and soak it in. I like it when I don’t have to move, when I can look out at it.

My Grandmother, my father’s mother who raised him alone, who was one half Italian, also loved the heat. Her skin was leathery from the years and years of lying in the sun, smoking cigarettes, though her hair was jet black well after it should have gone grey. I remembering thinking of her as mad and eccentric, but what these mad eccentriticies were exactly escape me now. She liked the sun, and had a fur coat that my parents bought for her. She was petty at times, known to give and then take back gifts. She bought our piano and then resented us when we stopped playing. She said what was on her mind, but couldn’t abide other people doing the same thing, particularly her son and his wife, my mother and father, who loved her with Christian diligence and quiet sadness.

Rosie is hard to pin down as a figure in my mind, now the result of an archeology through reports of her and memories. I can’t tell, as I think about her and her life, what is true. We, my family, my parents and brother and sister, were strict fundamentalists, and Rosie was a free spirit. She was in Germany for a while, sending us nutcrackers at Christmas, and then she was in Minnesota where we would visit her in a house that I remember vaguely. There was a tennis court in the backyard, and a man, shirtless, smoking a pipe. She lived with or nearby an aunt or great-aunt, a woman who appears in my mind as sat at a table in a small room watching television and pressing out from a waffle iron pizzella cookies that would then come to our house by post, stacked and wrapped in aluminium foil.

In my memory, Rosie is there, but not there. I can’t think of anything she said or did. I can’t see her. I remember the clothes she wore, light sun dresses and hats. At some point, she coudn’t stand the Minnesota winters anymore and moved to Arizona and became a Jehovah’s Witness. Dad and I visited her once, sleeping on a fold-out sofa bed. There must have been tension, knowing my father, knowing her, knowing my father and me, but I don’t remember the tension. I remember the smells of Tucson, the citrus, but I can’t find any memories of Rosie.

We are trying our luck in Britain. Another weekend of sun before I left on my trip to Europe. Where are you going again, another person asks, treating my travels like they are much more elaborate and exotic than they feel. Another trip, is it, where to now, Stephen, what country are you going to now? I feign being annoyed, in my linen slacks and thin European shirt. Look at me, I have broken free from my American-self, the fat one in the heavy polo shirt and cargo shorts. I’m just going to Europe for work, as you do. I put on sunglasses and head out onto the tile patio in the Cyproit heat and the blue sky. See me, Rosie, your grandson. I am here now.

07 June 2018



The leader at the Buddhist Centre primed us for visions of dogs on Tuesday. She said the mind was a dog, that you don't drag on a lead, but whistle to come walk with you. When I closed my eyes, my consciousness appeared as a white husky, with one blue and one green eye. I was a little boy and the husky was bigger than me, but I held the collar from the underside and we walked through the snow. There was snow for some reason. I could hear and feel it under me until a thought which I can't remember now dissolved it like a sugar cube in my mouth.

My weight is back to wherever it is I think it should be, and nine times out of ten this month, or these last ten days, I’ve had my morning routine, placing the scale on the cold tiles, stripping naked, and weighing myself. The scale tells me, based on my body fat percentage and weight and age and a Japanese algorithm, that my body age, my true age, is thirty-five, down from thirty-eight or nine. When I’m manic, I can’t weigh myself because I am afraid of it. When I dieted, the weighing was a competition with myself to get lower and lower. Now, I don’t know if my mind is any more healthy. It’s not, it can’t be. The scale beeps and beeps again and there are two numbers. You can do with them whatever you want.

I haven’t been fat this year, and fat in the empirical sense, in the terms of however any doctors define it, by BMI or body fat percentage, or looking at you and declaring you fat. This has never happened to me, no one has called me fat for years. I’ve never been more than slightly overweight in a medical sense since I was in Japan. But I am still fat.

At thirty-five, almost thirty-six, I am also now free to be fat because I have money and a wife and children. It’s expected, preferred even. And of course, none of this matters, because I remember being thin, those years ago when Mia was baking along inside Yoko and we were in Turkey and I wasn’t just healthy, but thin. Thin for me, at least, even though I was still fat.

You feel thin when you cross your legs in the pew at St Peter's, looking up at the stained glass and waiting in the moment for the service to start. You can think about nothing when you don’t have to think about food. You feel thin when you catch a glimpse of yourself in the storefront having bought new trousers that fit you as a thin person. Those same trousers can, of course, betray you in several months when you fail and aren’t thin anymore, but that moment, walking with confidence and getting a new haircut and trying on clothes as a thin person, you feel thin.

My dad once criticised me for being vain, as I looked at myself in sunglasses in the car mirror before football practice. I go back there in my mind all the time, to set him straight, to tell him: ‘Vanity is about pride, excessive pride. This, what you see here manifest in me as a twelve-year-old, is not pride but is me trying to love myself, to have any sense of confidence or happiness. It’s clear to me now, as you say this to me, and as I consider the next twenty years I will ruminate about it, that self-love is impossible when you hold a doctrine of sin.’

The husky is there again, but then the bell rings and we all come back. White Tara, have you appeared to me in the form of a dog. What is the ontological truth. I close my eyes again, hoping, a phantom body hanging around me, reminding me there is no such thing as loss. Everything is always still with you.

05 June 2018

The eternal, great British summer


Because the weather has been nice, the Pihlajas of Harborne have been spending all the time we can outdoors. Most evenings, when the sun is still out at seven thirty or eight, we end up in the cemetery surrounding St Peters church, stone hub of our lives. The church in the centre, then the gravestones, and then the kids’ school on both sides, and then Victoria Road, where I bought my first house this last year. The kids have been cycling on the paths around the church, through the graves, chasing one another, and me walking in circles around and around, thinking about the present as much as I can, rather than the future, rather than the past.

The girls on their bicycles are still children, but when I look at them sometimes, even the youngest one now, when I catch a glimpse of her across the room, she looks like she will in ten or fifteen years. That thought of the future though, can just pass if you let it, and take another few steps in two thousand eighteen, in Harborne, where they are still children, still giggling and screaming and shouting at each other. They eat ice lollies, popsicles, and we hector them into bed some time after nine or ten. The sun doesn’t feel like it goes down in the UK in the summer. It does — it can be quite dark, but by four or four-thirty, the new kitchen and toilet that Wayne the Builder put in over the winter is completely lit up and bright. I have trouble sleeping until my alarm. Instead, I get up and weigh myself and get on with things thinking, well, there’s no point fighting what you want, is there.

All the girls were born in this season, this edge of the great British summer that never actually comes. I think about this, and why there is such an overwhelming sense of positivity in May and the beginning of June, regardless of whatever negative news has come through on the email today. I remember the morning Mia was born and the smell of everything in bloom. I remember the sun, the first time you feel the sun on your face when you leave the clinic or hospital, holding a newborn baby. Now, the school year is almost over, and I can walk a bit and think about what I want to write now, what I need to write. I can browse through charity shops, looking for linen and having breakfast with Yoko at the Plough. I can ride my bike up the canal, through the new tunnel that has been widened and feel like things are straighter and clearer than they have been in the past.

The statute of White Tara in the Birmingham Buddhist centre is adorned with metaphorical meaning. White Tara is touching the ground, it’s a metaphor. White Tara looks happy in a knowing way, the way the Buddha does, it’s a metonymy. White Tara isn’t real in an ontological sense, or she is real in an ontological sense, depending on who you are what you believe. When I was young, all I worried about was what I believed. But what does it matter. I close my eyes, or I don’t close my eyes, and take a breath again and again and again. I can hear the children on bikes behind me, shouting and laughing and joking and I turn around so I can watch them pass and then pass again. The sun is still shining and hanging in the middle of the sky, an eternity if you let it be an eternity.