25 October 2022

Of Love that is strong to suffer

...all the sin and sorrow of the world, is revealed as the comfort and confidence of man, whose own deepest experience is love that suffers, whose highest worship therefore must be of Love that is strong to suffer. -Julian of Norwich 

I don't know why I run. I know why I started running. I know why I've made various choices about running over my life, but why I actually do it? I don't know, and I particularly don't know around the twenty or twenty-second miles of the Abingdon Marathon, muddy and wet, when I start to write and try to distract myself with the things I will tell people about the race. I used to have a mantra, taken from Murakami, I run to find the void, but that's not something that comforts you late in a race. You aren't running to find the void, you're running because you'll feel shame if you drop out. You're running because you don't want to stop in front of the supporters, the ones saying things in a quiet voice, You're doing great, you're almost there, well done, the way you coax a child when they're throwing up in the middle of the night. 

Several people said to me before the race, Enjoy yourself, and I understood what that meant intellectually, but I didn't understand it in my body. Running is my hobby, but I don't think I'd say I enjoy it. I realised that after running for two and a half hours on Sunday — I was not, on any level, enjoying this experience. Surely there must be something else I could be doing: I turned this over in my mind, what would I rather be doing if it was purely about enjoyment, but things that I thought I might genuinely enjoy if I wasn't worried at all about public perception of me, were all some vice, embarrassing in one way or another, and having them as a hobby would require a lack of shame, something I'm particularly incapable of. No, I've always chosen my interests based on how they fed a perception of being socially desirable, determined, intelligent. In jr high school, for example, I liked classical music, but I'm not sure if I actually did like that music, or if I just liked how it made other people think I was whatever it was they thought I was.

Running has pulled me in because it fulfills my beta desire to be physically strong. It's given me a thing I never had when I was young: athletic success. I was never good at any sports, but I'm a pretty good runner, whatever that means. Being good at running, particularly to be good at long-distance running, is just the ability to do a straightforward thing over a long period of time. It's a sport that rewards persistence, bloody-mindedness. I follow marathon training plans like they are the gospel, like I believe them, like any deviation from them will lead to judgment. And indeed, when I ran the Great Welsh Marathon in the Spring, when I broke three hours and felt a sense of accomplishment that matched almost any sense of accomplishment I'd ever felt, it made some sense to me. You keep going and going and going and then, eventually, you succeed.

These last three months though, I have not been training well. I've been running what you call junk miles, not easy miles, not hard miles, but in the miserable middle miles, just barely testing your ability and never resting. For me, that's one hundred and forty beats of my heart per minute. I can run a fast marathon at one hundred and fifty-eight, those thirteen extra beats a minute are all the difference in the world, and if you don't train for it, you can't do it. Or rather you can do it, you are able to do it, your body is able to do it, but you can't do it. You can't make yourself do it and when you're slow, when you're losing time as you get into the last hour of running, you need to tell yourself a story with a reward. When the reward is just finishing, all you can do is finish. The reward becomes your family still being together, your marriage not having broken down yet, your career progressing, and your body having no major illnesses. That's enough, really, when you shuffle into the final six hundred meters, and willingly forget whatever pleasure you would have felt if you had run just eight and half minutes faster than you did. 

I will, of course, keep running and will run another marathon — on Monday I got news, sitting in my favourite pub eating breakfast, that the two hour fifty-nine minute, thirty-four-second marathon last April meant I could run the London Marathon next year, having qualified in what they condescendingly label Good for Age, but this describes me well, describes my whole life from when I was three onwards: I am good for my age. Whatever I thought on Sunday, less than 24 hours before, when I thought this was meaningless, why suffer, why do this of all the things I could do, all the vices, why get up every morning so early and run in the dark. Those questions were gone: who wants a religion they have to choose, a tweet I see quotes Hauerwaus as saying. I agree: I only had to choose it once and then I stopped choosing it. I don't want anything I have to choose, much less choose more than once. I want the plan to tell me what to do, I want it to work out when and where I will rest. I want people to praise me for the things I do. It doesn't need to make sense. 

19 October 2022

The Taper

I was homeschooled until I was sixteen — sometimes I feel like leading with that explains more about me than anything else I can say. My unchecked enthusiasm, lack of filter, oversharing: I blame all of this on not having real negative feedback when I was a child, no one telling me to shut up, only my siblings goading each other on with whatever snippet of reality we'd captured from church group or better, the kids in the neighbourhood. I've always felt like I'm in the uncanny valley of social normalcy, performing some version of appropriate social behaviour that I learned from watching Saved by the Bell and playing with the Mormon kids in our cul-de-sac. Here is where we laugh, here is where we listen, here is where we speak.

In this country, where I am a British foreigner, it's less of an issue because before I am a homeschooled person, I am a foreign person and precisely an American foreign person. In the constellation of things that make me whoever I am in this context, being homeschooled is less important than at least ten other things. I left a message on someone's phone last night, and just said, Hey, it's me, without saying who me was, and after I hung up, I thought about calling back and clarifying that I was the one who had called, but thought, she'll get it from my accent, how many American men are calling her. Today, I saw her and joked that she probably didn't have that many Americans calling her on a Monday night, and she said she knew a Canadian guy, it could have been him, but it didn't matter she hadn't heard the message anyway.

Being homeschooled, you live with a known blindspot, filling in things that it appears other people learned in school that you didn't quite pick up in the church youth group that was meant to supplement the lack of interaction with other kids your age. As I've grown older, I've felt this feeling of not being in on the joke, fade in some ways. Everyone's personality develops differently, surely, and even if my gregariousness emerged out of that, I've been living like a normal human being in the normal social world for many more years than I was homeschooled. I have only myself to blame. Still, though, I wonder what I've missed, particularly when I'm in a primary school, where I have found myself quite a bit over the years, first with the girls and now as a school governor. I look at the kids interact, and I think, what are they all learning that I never learned. I'm not confident I could take a punch: is that the sort of thing these kids know about themselves, or am I just projecting.

After the Great Welsh Marathon this spring and my inexplicable time of two hours, fifty-nine minutes, and thirty-four seconds, I have not had much of a yen to run. Instead, I've found myself eating and then running out of a sense of guilt and self-pity, that this is the time I can have alone, without any expectations on me, provided I'm back before it gets light. In the glow of the time this Spring, I signed up for the Abingdon marathon, a place I had not ever really heard about, but in comparing my options for an autumn run, decided it was the best because I could drive there in the morning and not have to stay in a Travelodge the night before, lying awake in a strange room and wondering what I was doing with my life. Now, I only have to spend ninety minutes thinking this, as I drive down the M40 in the darkness of an October Sunday morning, hoping the car breaks down, and I won't actually have to run. 

The training has not gone well, partly because I achieved my goal of running a marathon in under three hours already, and partly all the turmoil at home which started four years ago, but seems to have really come together this summer, when I was given and promptly returned a bean-to-cup coffee machine I received for my birthday. After that, things have not been right, and I have dealt with this not-quite-rightness with eating, taking on more and more responsibility, and running. The imperfect balance of gluttony and binge exercise hidden as self-improvement got me through a trip to Scotland with my parents and immediate family, but at the end of September, I had had enough of it and was determined to drop the extra weight I'd gained in three months, something ridiculous like eight kilograms, and try to get some control. I've done it for many years, this same cycle. It's impossible to break until suddenly it isn't. You just flip the switch. I can't explain it.

Things have gone well enough since that flipping of the switch. I've lost about four kilograms and am running with a bit more strength ahead of my marathon, although this week, the taper week, has been full of cold symptoms and running about with obligations that seem to endlessly cascade on me until some time in the evening when I sink an hour or more into my phone and feel guilty that I've not written anything all day and not made any progress in mending the fallout of the bean-to-cup coffee machine, something I need to mend for some semblance of a future. I fall asleep and wake up exactly where I was the day before, another series of tasks and time when I should be writing that I end up watching YouTube videos about drama or chess or some influencer who is pregnant now and unbelievably happy, although I know that they are not, of course, unbelievably happy. 

The blindspot I sense here is an inability to pace myself against others, something I never learned as a homeschooled kid. I couldn't think of anyone but myself, and what I was capable of and whether I was achieving that. Was I doing my best: I certainly wasn't, I never was. Jesus, when Jesus could be a bit of an asshole, said, Be perfect, therefore, as your Heavenly Father is perfect. I took this seriously like it was a thing that could be done, not catching the irony, actually considering cutting off my hand for sinning. How high should I jump, Jesus, just tell me and I'll do it. My kid ask me what I want out of life and I say sarcastically, I don't know, to be happy? but I'm actually sort of serious about it. I say something about the pursuit of happiness, being American, and I can't tell if I'm joking anymore. Who can really think about that in an honest way when there are so many other things to think about. Can I be honest? I want the people I love to not resent me. I want to be loved and wanted. What a pathetic middle-aged man thought, it's embarrassing. In a dream, a woman I don't know flirts with me — how silly it was to fear that when I was younger, to never believe it was okay to be wanted. I do want to be happy, as petty and silly and American and immature as that is.

14 October 2022

The burning heart of God

The period in my life from 1997 when I moved to Chicagoland to 2003 when I left for Japan, was marked by going to shows. Every show I remember is bundled with some other memory, something adjacent to whatever band I went to see, often about a girl one way or another. All of those bands at the time were only mildly popular — they were playing in the Fireside Bowl, or some smaller theatre. They then ended up breaking through at some point, Jimmy Eat World was probably the biggest one, but then Death Cab for Cutie, and the Dashboard Confessional, and Weezer of course, each of which is now embarrassing to like on one level or another, even though I remember being in the back of Colin Crockett's car in 1999 hearing My Name is Jonas on tape, for the first time, and no one having any idea what a Weezer was. When I left in 2003, I wasn't cool anymore, not that I had ever really been, but at least I knew bands that other people didn't know. Now, everyone knew about everything, and my whole personality collapsed. I saw a reunion show for Hum at the original Furnace Fest and I was already nostalgic for a time that I had actually not really lived through.

I did have several exceptions, bands I liked that everyone else liked, namely Dave Matthews Band and Counting Crows, both of whom had big hits in that same time I had not been old enough to really clock it because I was still listening to DC Talk and Audio Adrenaline and Jars of Clay, the Christian knock-off bands that didn't swear and talked about not having sex. My older brother though somehow managed to get around this, and got into bands that didn't sing about Jesus, bands like Pearl Jam and the Spin Doctors, and of course, Counting Crows: he had Recovering the Satellites, and the year he was a junior in High School and I was still in the eighth grade, the music was percolating through, I was starting to hear it in the car with him here and there, until he left for college and I got a copy of Dookie, ironically from someone at church, and I started to cultivate my own pipeline to real music.

Counting Crows was the sort of band that I wouldn't normally see, because you had to get the tickets through Ticketmaster and I normally didn't want to spend more than ten dollars on a show, particularly if there was only one band I wanted to see. I did this with my brother earlier that year and regretted it: we went and saw MxPx with Blink 182 at the House of Blues, and we left after MxPx because all the other bands had been joking about sex and swearing and I was very uncomfortable. Counting Crows in 1999 had released their third album and they were still big, but on the backside of the crest of their popularity. I loved the third album though, and when they announced the tour, I got tickets to see them in Milwaukee in November with my brother and girlfriend, and waited months and months for it. The show itself was unmemorable: it was at the Eagles Ballroom and there were way too many people, but I remember it being one of the first shows I stood behind a girl with my arms around her waist, singing along, and feeling like life was on this constant edge, everything just about to come but not quite there.

It's twenty-three years later and when I saw that Counting Crows were coming to Birmingham, I thought about going, but couldn't justify spending fifty-five pounds on a ticket. I more-or-less knew what it would be like anyway and had no motivation to buy a ticket, particularly because I had no one to go with: your patience for music your partner likes but you don't begins to wane exactly one week into the second trimester of your penultimate pregnancy and never returns. Still though, on Sunday afternoon, a day before the show, lying on my side of the king-sized zip-and-link bed, I looked at a resale site and bid for one, for £34 with fees. I'll go alone, fuck it, I said to several people, telling a story about a show in 2003 when I bought one ticket to see a band I misremembered to be Dave Matthews at Alpine Valley in Wisconsin and the couple I sat next to, upon hearing that I was alone, said, Well, now you're here with us, but as I told the story several times, I realised it was actually Radiohead on the Hail the Thief tour, not that any of that matters to anyone. The rest of it was true. 

When Counting Crows played in 1999, they were tired and on autopilot, I think: this was the year of Woodstock and how many years of being as big as they were. There was terrible feedback all night, expensive production, frat boys, and twenty-somethings that had liked them in 1993 and were even then starting to realise they were getting older. Now, of course, that realisation has metastasised and spread, resulting in divorced dads pushing fifty, or well past fifty, and me, alone, in the middle of it all, realising that I too might as well be a divorced dad: being seven years younger than someone at this age is nothing, and I'm indistinguishable from everyone around me. My judgement on the whole system, all these normies, is now a judgement on myself. I'm just another charmless, sweaty middle-aged man, annoyed at the cost of everything and all the other sweaty middle-aged men around me, and angry with a number of them who had managed to talk their partners into coming out, or worse, whose partners were happy to be there with them. 

Adam Duritz, for anyone not following any of this, is the lead singer for Counting Crows and known for his insufferable depression, a kind of poster boy for dreadlocked, white male angst from that era. Indeed, if one were doing an archaeology of my own insufferably, he would be an important figure, sat brooding alone on a chair, hugging himself, singing, I am fine when clearly he wasn't and just hoping that someone, ideally a woman, would attempt to comfort him and get sucked down into that darkness. Something, however, has happened in the last several years: Duritz cut off his dreadlocks, gained weight, and started to get close to sixty. The result, it seems, as the lights went down and the band came on stage with just their instruments and venue lights, is a kind of gratitude. He sang all the songs the same way, about grey being his favourite colour and being covered in skin, but it felt a bit like he was covering those songs, like he was actually genuinely happy to be on stage after 31 years, with all of us, us middle-aged men some with real-live partners, singing loudly like we were at a football match for guys who like Counting Crows. There was a kind of strange intimacy, like hey look at us: we're still here, on a Monday night, past nine

I learned all the wrong lessons from Duritz — women don't want to save brooding, insufferable men. My girlfriend broke up with me after I went to college, and in my mind, those last two years of high school became a kind of missed turn in my life that I tried again and again to backtrack to, a place in my journey when I felt like I was going in the right direction. When the show ended and I got past the crowd, I felt and then remembered the feeling of ringing in my ears after a show, how you were underwater and how quiet home was after you'd made out in the car as long as you could and raced back for curfew. It is silent, but sound hangs on in a strange way inside you. Now, I let myself into my own house, the house on Victoria Road that I would never have imagined in 1999. I check the locks and get into the sort of bed we bought which would purposefully not disturb each other. I turn off the lights and close my eyes and the sound hangs on. 

13 October 2022

You could forgive me

As the autumn returns, the same social media reminders come up for me, the same set of pictures of that day we first came here, that Wednesday night in 2008, with Naomi and Yoko and just barely the beginning of Mei. It feels far away and it is now, far away, well before there were five of us and when I was so full of hope that I was unrecognisable from who I am now, a version of me that won the lottery. I remember riding my bike in Milton Keynes in the morning to the University and feeling out of control, but lucky, genuinely and obviously lucky. Whatever you want to believe about dreams coming true, this was it. When you're that age and you're newly married, the sheer force of will is enough to accomplish things — I said we would do it and we did it, the end of a five-year period of my life where I was just ahead of the wave and couldn't seriously articulate any potential downsides for all the decisions I was making. The only possibilities were good ones. 

When the Queen was reported dead, we were all there as a family, watching the television and waiting for it. The last week I had been in London with Mei and her friend and we walked by Buckingham Palace and I remembered feeling the way that I felt when I first saw it, when I saw it as a foreign thing. I can still see it that way if I try. I can still feel whatever I felt when I saw the Houses of Parliament the first time as a fat American, the way everything in England seemed old and serious. Now, of course, the artifice is obvious, embarrassing even. From the inside, Britain's neither that old nor that serious. It's the two guys sitting on the pavement outside of the Co-op asking for change, that's Great Britain as it is, where you need to decide what it is you're going to do, if you're going to stop and talk to them, or ask them what they need, or just keep walking past. It's class discrepancy and racism and the sort of embedded colonial thinking that makes you think the apocalypse is the only solution, how can something so corrupt be remade into something good: it can't be.

The framing of the world, and the world to come, in biblical terms is not something I find useful, but I've come to accept that I'm beholden to it. Even if I can't mouth along with the Apostle's Creed, even if I haven't prayed in fifteen years and have no desire to, I'm beholden to it. I can still quote verses from the Bible that I memorised when I was eight or nine, earning trophies and certificates, and being the best Christian boy I could be. What's the point of denying it, when your first thought is some verse, when your whole worldview is to do good while there is time, Ephesians 5:16, the days are evil and the end is coming. It feels like everyone has finally caught up with the dread I felt when I was seven: you can conceive of the end any way you'd like to, it's coming.

I wake up every morning and the end hasn't come. Instead, it's another day wondering when salvation will arrive at the Pihlajas of Harborne, when I will be forgiven not for what I've done, but for who I've become, the person whose will is not enough anymore, who cannot will love or respect, but only duty now. Somehow that is the bit that hangs on, the disease without the cure. The Kingdom of Heaven is like yeast in the bread, you can't see it anywhere, it's just there, but I'm still trying to disbelieve something else, some false gospel, some Moral Majority trick that got played on me before I was even aware of it. Before I can even remember, I was anxiously looking into the sky for Jesus to come back, to judge us all. I can curse it, I can deny it, but it keeps rotting inside of me somewhere.

The Kingdom of Heaven is good seeds sown among tares, it all grows together, who can differentiate which from which. So I get up again and say good morning, and keep trying for another day — if it's duty now, it's duty. Maybe forgiveness can come, maybe I can see my sin as sin and repent. Or maybe there is no sin, maybe I am the one being sinned against: who can tell, good seeds grow up with the tares and we all just wait. Forgive my debts and I will forgive those indebted to me. I don't believe, help me in my unbelief.