09 August 2022


Somehow, again, the summer got away from me, like I've been waiting for something to happen, something to write about, that never seems to happen. I turned forty and couldn't manage to write about it, except to say that I was unhappy. It wasn't a new unhappiness, I am exactly the same person I have always been, worried about having peaked, worried I've had all the big thoughts I will have, and coming to the realisation that this is just who I am. This is just the way that it is and this is all there is. Classic midlife crisis. Helpfully, my own existential dread became manifest in what turned out to be the hottest days ever in the UK rolled in. I was in France for a week and came back unable to stay awake, falling asleep on the sofa and then in bed some two or three hours before everyone else. On the day the record was broken, on a Tuesday, I came into the office and fell asleep on the floor, thinking that if I wasn't awake for the worst of it, it would pass. I bought some short-sleeved shirts and a pair of shorts, which felt like a kind of resignation, another step towards the irrelevance of a man in his forties, in sandals next probably, maybe my shower flip-flops from work. 

Last week, we drove up into the Brecon Beacons to camp in Wales, as we have now every summer since the pandemic. The grey Picasso I bought after the other grey Picasso gave out during the start of the second year of the pandemic, is really too small for this sort of adventure and whenever I am packing this car, I feel a sense of deep failure as a father, that I had got this car without really thinking carefully enough about how it would fit the rest of the family and failing to ask enough questions about the size of the boot. We all still fit, for now, and I've come to a kind of father discourse which includes a future when one of my kids will not be living with us full time: that is, we don't really need a big car in the long term because one of the kids will be slowly leaving us in the next two or three years. And then another, and then another. Mia finished primary school and we all stood around on that last day when she was saying goodbye to her friends, feeling like some era was over now. The Pihlajas of Harborne have kids who went to St Peter's, not kids who go there anymore. 

The car trip into the mountains was manageable, and even stuffed tightly, the girls seemed fine, or happy enough, singing and chatting and full of the sort of youthful energy that you listen to as a parent and can't help but think sounds older now than it did even a year ago. You don't have anything to add, it turns out, nothing from your own experience that is even remotely related; like at some point you could have said something, but you can't anymore. If you feel anything, it's an irrelevance, but irrelevance laced with a profound sense that you are necessary, or needed, if the distinction between these feelings can be made meaningful. It's a uneven and inconsistent necessity, but you are still needed.

Unhappiness is not depression. Frustration is not ungratefulness. I used to mix all of my feelings up. Now, I can put my finger on the distinctions, even if can't solve them as problems. Or even if I am unwilling to solve them as problems. Perhaps I have realised that one simple problem is better than a series of increasingly complex problems. I thought about this as I sat naked in a Welsh river, flowing down from Llyn y Fan Fach, the sun coming through the trees at an angle. The river next to the camp was clean enough to drink without filtering and before dusk, I put on some running shorts and took my towel and walked up through the riverbed to the place where it was deep enough to crouch down and submerge my body in it. It was cold, but not too cold, and to enjoy it, to have the full experience of it, you needed to persist through the initial discomfort. Then, at some point, it was alright. And you can then think, it's okay to have a season of unhappiness. It can last a decade even, this is not unheard of in a life. Just beyond the horizon there, through the trees, there are people that need you.