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 C├íceres‎ — 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.