18 August 2021

The Production of Memory

For some time now, I've felt our life in England has become impervious, that there is no future anywhere but here. Why would we want to go anywhere else, having won the hard-fought visas and then citizenship. Our children speak like British children and the house on Victoria Road has been ours for almost four years now. The girls are happy more-or-less, with the circumstances, with their schools and friends and if you listen to them talk to one another, as I did last week driving back from the holiday through the Welsh countryside, everything seems to be careless and free the way you want your children's lives to be. You want them to laugh and argue with one another and for the five of you to sit around a fire with the sun setting and think, the incriminations aside about how the tent should or shouldn't be put up, or how happy I never am on holiday, or how no one is particularly comfortable, despite all that, things are okay. 

The Welsh campsite this time was packed fuller than before, with families who clearly had been doing this for many years, with Land Rovers and tents you can stand up in. I walked up to where I needed to wash the dishes and saw some other guy, older and thinner than me, with a full beard, wearing proper camping clothes and coming from a proper tent, one that he clearly had not been given by a friend after it had sat unused in a loft crawl space. That guy, I thought, he has it together. He waited to have children until he had money and he and his slightly younger wife had spent many years travelling together in Europe before they settled down, getting drunk, making love, and lying on the balcony of some Maltese hotel for days and days. Some time later, after some deliberation and one pregnancy scare that didn't materialise, they decided together to have kids. He accepted that he was not getting any younger and at thirty-five when the boy was born, he knew things would change, but it was time for things to change. He knew that, he accepted that, and consequently exuded the sort of steady male energy I'm never managed to summon. 

That was the story I told myself about him anyway, as I balanced the dishes in the plastic tub and thought that I would likely not be able to wash them to an appropriate level of cleanliness and I sensed in my future, a fork being scrutinised, and some remnant of an overcooked plant-based burger being scraped off with a fingernail while I sighed loudly and annoyed — that exchange you can have when you are with someone for long enough, where you avoid the same arguments with performative metonymy, one disapproving look for all disapproval, followed by one expression of discontentment for all discontentment. You needn't say anything actually, it's all been rehearsed so much that like stars in a long run of Waiting for Godot, you could play your partner's part one night, say all their lines with the same passion and conviction, and no one would know. 

The production of camping as a family is, I realised, the production of memory for children and the memories you produce are unlikely to centre on anything remotely related to the inter-turmoil of the father figure. As I thought about my own experiences camping, when I was a child canoeing deep into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Northern Minnesota, my parents are almost non-existent characters. I remember it all without any sense of stress or danger, even though I remember dangerous things happening: I fell and cut my hand badly; a canoe went over and my brother and mom fell into the lake with our food and supplies. There was a bear on the island we stayed on one year, and I slept walked then too, waking up in the middle of the night to shout that the bear was coming into the tent. I can remember all of this, but I can't remember my parents. I don't remember them playing any role in this experience that they had produced, that they were integral to, that they must have in some way also suffered through. 

I also, as I thought about it, remembered that we had camped together once, before the children came, in the month we were alone after we married. We had a two-person tent that had, again, been given to us, but I don't remember who had done that. All I remember is that we drove north on a Saturday, it must have been, up the coast from Niigata and Shiibata to Murakami, the windows open and some food for the night and next morning, and just set up the tent on the beach and made a fire from driftwood. I remember that we swam and took pictures and that the tent was hot at night. I can't remember any turmoil, beyond the heat and the way you're awkward when you're first married, but before anything seems to matter too much. Before any serious responsibility could suddenly catch you unaware. 

This memory reoccurred with brief talk of returning to Japan this week, a thought that managed to linger longer than I thought it could, my assumption that everyone would have been roundly and passionately opposed. I rolled it around in my mind in a way I had not in a long time, thinking of the parts of Tokyo that feel like the post-war Showa era, or even a Soseki novel. The sound of cicadas in the trees and the heat like there is never really heat in the UK. Lying on tatami and looking up at the ceiling. I wanted this suddenly for the girls, forgetting the rest of the trouble that would inevitably come from leaving everything behind. This is the first requirement of radical change, to put aside any thought of the inevitable reality of things and focus instead on some ideal which you can will into revealing itself. The inevitable reality, when it sets in, will be too late to stop you. You'll have already made the decision, be years into it, before you realise what you've done. 

I look back at pictures for some insight about my founding myths, how the first time you do something, you establish what it will be. That year, the year we married, went so quickly, I had been so bold and sure of myself. I had pushed all my doubt out of my mind. Anything could change, I thought, if I willed it. I could be whatever I wanted and the world would unfurl for me like a flag. You say when you're older that you miss people or miss places, but you always need to preface those statements with some awareness that things were different then. You were younger. You had fewer responsibilities. There was less to bog you down. It would almost certainly be different if you went back, you need to keep that in mind. 

17 August 2021

The Pursuit of Happiness

When I stand on the top of the cliffs of the Welsh coast in the south, overlooking the sea, I think that I am only one or two steps, realistically, from falling to my death. This is a thing one thinks when you have kids, three of them, to watch out for. Several years ago in Dover, I was completely distracted by it the whole time, worried that one of them would wander off the edge. Now they are all older and have a sense of this themselves, so I spend less time worrying that they might fall, but instead, that in some moment of irrationality, I would throw myself off. Like I could just do it if I'm not careful, if I don't keep my wits about me. It's a part of that same pattern of thoughts, that everything I am experiencing isn't really real, that the world could just end suddenly. A friend tells me I need to stop blaming everything on pastors and my religious upbringing and this is true, I do need to stop doing that, I do need to take some responsibility, but the impending end of the world, I still blame my faith for that. There's a clear line you can draw from one feeling to another. 

When you come down from the cliffs, to the beach, the sense of impending death goes away, thankfully. The girls and Yoko all went out for swims at Church Doors, and I, in my strange, uncomfortable body, sat on the beach thinking about how all of this needs to be paid for, or how much work I had been putting off, or how tired I am. I went around the corner to pee in an alcove and an older man came out of nowhere and we were both embarrassed, but he assured me he had done the same thing, but higher up, in a cave. I went up that way, and then slipped and fell badly, landing awkwardly on my hand, on my thumb, and I limped back to the girls. I ended up dozing off on a rock and listening to the waves until everyone was ready to go and we walked back up to the car. The night came and went and came and went again and then we were home.

I can't seem to get my heart rate up even in what I think is an all-out sprint. It is not an all-out sprint my watch tells me when I finish, as it's been keeping tabs on all the things that you can't keep tabs on, me being a person with a body rather than a machine. It's hard to tell yourself to keep running, to run harder and harder when you are at your anaerobic threshold, but to get better, to improve, you need to push past that and the watch, it can't make you run harder. You have to sort that out for yourself, and as I come lumbering through the forest, past dogs on leads, I think that to myself. I need to run faster, I need to get my heart rate up. The watch will not be happy with me if I don't work harder. It will call this run average, rather than exceptional. This feels like an exceptional effort.

Of course, if I've learned anything, it's something about the uselessness of metrics. The watch, the app, you can follow them for only so long and then they stop working. This is true of all placebos, all the things you use to control your body and mind until they stop working, until the real you comes through again. The fat you, the angry you, the you that doesn't want to try any more for anything, to be a good person, to be a good husband or father, or a good runner, or a good worker, or happier. That you never seems to go away. Still though, evangelical and bloody minded, I keep trying something else. Some other magic that might overcome it. I've cracked the code, I'll say, I've figured it out. How many times can that same line come back, how many times can you keep trying. You fall asleep on the sofa, but wake up to try again. Let's try again.