27 February 2023

Stay with me

The winter has been, the news tells me, relatively mild, but the gas bill and my own feeling in my hands when I head out to run just after six tells me differently. I've been sleeping the same way I have been sleeping since I started my marathon training in earnest, the sort of sleep that hits you in seconds after you shut your eyes. The sort of sleep where you feel you have died. The training calendar is unrelenting in this particular programme I've chosen, but it's what I feel I need to punish myself for all the things I feel I need punishment for: gluttony, lust, wrath. The punishment snowballs into a terrible cycle of binging, secret eating, and earlier and earlier starts to the morning run. I ran twelve miles before seven on Wednesday; I ate three protein bars in ninty seconds last night. Or this one, I ate four hundred and sixty-two calories of corn thins and Flora hard plant butter three minutes after I woke up last Monday. You look thin, someone says, and I say, I don't feel thin. I feel fat, and I am still fat — if you want to see a thin person you need to watch this YouTube video the algorithm showed me, of ultrarunners on a five hundred metre track under a stadium in Norway, running for twenty-four hours straight in the dead of winter. Those are thin people.

The year continues to pass day by day, despite the feeling that I had over Christmas that I couldn't continue on, that something had to change. One day, the car breaks and needs to be repaired and that day is gone, and then another and another, and then a week is gone. I fall into the same cycle of bad habits and repentance, and every day, the kids get older and one more day has passed where we all had dinner together and laughed and everyone seems okay, they seem to be okay. As Dad, I don't really know though, do I. I sit in the H&M, on a chair, holding bags and cups and wait, while something outside of my view is happening, and time seems to stop as I remember doing this very thing as a teenager, sitting in a dELiA*s (stylised) dressing room as my girlfriend tried on the sort of t-shirt that would make me crazy. Now, I sit and bat back all the patriarchal thoughts that come up so naturally in me, the things that I know I should not say or even think about young women and their clothes, about modesty and what they should or should not wear. I just want to wait patiently and silently, I want to be that Dad, the Dad that is supportive, the Dad that doesn't judge or just keep talking. I've said enough already, enough for two lifetimes of Dad. 

I can't manage to find a charitable reading of my Evangelical past, to understand how someone felt it was in my best interest at seventeen to install these technologies of control in me, to teach me to think of my body as not my own, but some resource in Evangelical mission, that I would, if I remained faithful in the right ways, understand the point of it all. Some Christian says something condescending to someone else about purity culture: oh you were so hurt because someone told you not to have sex? like everyone knew all along it was just a thing people said that no one believed. The same people who were the most hardcore can just laugh at Nate Bargatze jokes and think, yes, Christian culture is really weird, isn't it. But I'm forty now, and that joke was my formative years — it wasn't an experiment, it was my life, goddammit, I find myself muttering out loud before I realise I am arguing in my head with a comedian on Amazon Prime about my youth pastor. Who could care less about the unhappiness of some apostate anyway. I was warned this would happen if I left and indeed, it has happened: I have no one to blame but myself. 

I'm forty now: in the GP's office to get my blood taken for the second time, to reconfirm I don't have a serious illness, the nurse says, You qualify for an additional health check for your blood sugar and cholesterol, would you like to book that in? and I say, It's because I'm forty, isn't it. I was faithful and unfaithful at the wrong times. When will the reward come, and the nurse looks at me blankly, like I've said too much. Yes, no, sorry, book me in, let's try to find all the problems we can with this body that has never really been mine anyway. I'm very healthy, but we're all worried about microplastics, and the nurse says, Indeed, as she slips in the needle and the blood, my blood, from my body, fills three vials and gets shipped away to be checked. 

That probably explains it all, doesn't it: the early morning run is just a counterbalance to all of that reality, the strange responsibilities of patriarchy as father and husband; the yawning void of Evangelicalism; the inevitable blood test that will mark the beginning of the end, the time when it won't be nothing. When I run, I am just my body, only my body. The earlier I run, the less awake I am, the more it becomes like a dream, like the perfect ballast to reality. My family is literally asleep, and while they are asleep, I can just run, pushing on the edge of everything, a dream world that flits in and out of my mind like a crane on the path seeing me and taking flight, only to meet again down the way. 

Unwashed, unshaved, unkempt

January came and went without any changes. I kept TikTok off, so the divorced dad messaging didn't get through in any meaningful way, and I found myself redoubling my normie efforts, although I'm not sure that I could articulate why I felt that way. I felt again like I had become a Calvinist, convinced that my damnation would be to the glory of God. It's silly, we can all agree it's silly, but existence is silly. The whole thing is silly. It's silliness all the way down.

16 January 2023

Something obvious and well-known

I read War and Peace for the first time at the beginning of 2011, when I was very thin and using an automatic rower in the garage of the house we were renting in Milton Keynes to count exercise calories and listen to audiobooks on my iPod. I had never read any Russian literature in college or high school, beyond a few short stories, and I always felt that I was lacking something. War and Peace turned out to be, as I would recount for about three months, really good, I mean, of course, everyone knows it's a classic but like... it's really good, I would say to the carousel of people from the University and students I was teaching in London. It was how it was good that was so impressive to me, the way you could be inside of so many different perspectives at the same time, the way the story stretched out for years and years, the way things from the past were the same as they were in the present, but more importantly, how it had put its finger on the mirage of faith, how looking into the void, there was only the void. My evangelical fervour for it ended up being like my evangelical fervour for everything else. The American guy is surprised by, getting very wrapped up in, something obvious and well-known, like a child discovering ice cream and insisting you try it.

At this time in my life, the second year of my PhD, things were completely in flux.  I had been in the process of,what I euphemistically called losing my faith, but this was not entirely true: I knew exactly where I left it, at what precise point. A third baby was coming. I was working in London two days a week. The other girls were very young. I decided it would be sensible to get a vasectomy so as remove at least one variable from my future: certainly, three children were enough children. I went to see the GP and he said, You're quite young to be getting a vasectomy, and I said, I have two children and one on the way, and he didn't ask any other questions. A letter came quickly with a date for an outpatient surgery that ended up being so anti-climactic, I secretly had hoped it would have been worse, that I would have suffered more, so as to gain some sympathy. But as with most of the sicknesses I have endured, I was fine the next day and running again the next week. The third baby, who was of course Mia, was born, and I somehow convinced myself, at twenty-eight, all of these things could be managed, I could behave like all of the choices I had made could be taken forward without my faith, even if that faith was the basis for them originally. The whole of the plan, what God had pre-ordained, I had managed to accomplish without God, in spite of God.

Ten years seem to have evaporated. That January to now, to the other day when I started listening to Anna Karenina read as an audiobook while I was running in the pitch black before dawn. Those years have been filled with many things, I'm sure, but for the whole of that time, more-or-less, I have been in the same physical place, in the house on Victoria Road, with the same partner, and three kids who have changed imperceptibly, day by day, until all three of them have become women before my eyes. Covid, I suppose, taking the last three years. Now I am forty and my interest in Tolstoy has been less on the talk about faith, and more on the relationships, the freshness of marriage at first, how the narratives about love, about family life, about work, map onto life now: you give up bear hunting convinced that there is no more joy than can be found in loving someone, only for that love to be split again and again and again until there is only a sliver left.

I somehow feel younger at forty than I did at twenty-eight. I remember joking after the meeting with the GP about the vasectomy, of course, I will never want to go through this again, it's been an absolute nightmare. It was a joke, but only because the truth was too complicated. I love my children, but how am I a father, I am desperately, constantly afraid, and if I did not have spite for all the people that would judge me for failing without my faith, who would tut and say it served me right, I would fall off this, I couldn't keep going. At forty, I look at a man slightly older than me holding a newborn baby and am jealous, jealous that he waited, jealous that he took his twenties to himself, jealous of his partner who looks at him with love. I'm ready now, I want to say, I know what I should have done then, I know what I should have said. We make eye contact and I smile at the baby and then at the man, at his partner, and back at the little boy looking at me intently until I turn away to my own children, to my women, whom I love and whom love me, and with whom I have managed to stay, holding down my fear and my inadequacy, with some hope that they, that we, will be okay, despite all of this weakness.

13 January 2023


The new year came, as they do now that I am forty, while I slept. In the UK in recent years everyone now everyone seems to shoot fireworks at midnight, and though I was asleep, the sound of the fireworks came into my dreams and I remembered it in the vague way that sound can come into your subconscious. I had thought I might try to stay up, but by 10:30 it no longer felt viable — we had spent the day in London, with me out in front of everyone, Dad, annoyed and pointing and deciding and weaving us through Soho to see Phantom of the Opera. I had done Dad well, I had collected the train tickets from the girls when they came through the train gates. I ticked off all the places everyone had wanted to go, and I had not become annoyed at the play when annoying things were happening all around me, recognising as you do when you're forty, that you are on a slow roll downhill that ends with you annoyed in every queue in which you're made to wait. I bought ice cream when asked, or rather, I just gave up my credit card and ice cream was bought, and I watched my children watch the play, filled now with more joy from that than from anything else. And then collapsing finally, dead asleep as the new year appeared in Harborne, the skies apparently lit up like end of the world had also come. 

The holiday period in this country, particularly for the Pihlajas of Harborne, is filled with church services and choir concerts. Almost daily it seemed I was climbing the hill to St Peter's, through the dark, bells ringing sometimes, but always with some quietness at the end of it, candles and the eucharist, which I still take without reservation. At the local pub, the girls sing and I stand there, holding bags and coats, and ordering lemonades, and wondering when all this service will be enough, when the suffering will abate, and someone who really knows, who's seen it all and has no reason to lie to me, will say, You've done a good job, considering. Divorced Dad TikTok has clear, opposing views on this: the American woman who confidently tells me she left her husband because he wouldn't drain the pool despite her many requests, and Jordan Peterson saying no one can really separate once they have had children, it's an impossibility. Both sides started coming up with a regularity that made me feel bad constantly, and the Peterson video was the last straw. I could not have some app insisting I was someone I didn't want to be: I don't want to be a person who watches Jordan Peterson videos, regardless of what my demographic interests and my use of the app said about me. I shut it off, downloaded the Sudoku app and didn't open it again. 

I remember when I was in Japan as a missionary, the spark of my linguistic interest lighted upon learning that the Japanese word for God couldn't distinguish between singular and plural forms and how this had serious, almost existential consequences like I had discovered the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis for the first time. The longer I stayed and the more Japanese I learned, the clearer it became that I was a different person when I spoke Japanese, this whole world of things that everyone who didn't speak Japanese couldn't access. It felt clever, exceedingly clever, but now, some twenty years later, the opposite is obvious to me: that I was still who I was. That when I said, I love you,  in Japanese, I meant it in English, that I had no idea what the Japanese meant, past a simple one-to-one equation. It didn't mean what I thought it meant, it mapped onto a completely different set of cultural values and histories. You could translate the word, but you couldn't ever mean it in Japanese, could you. 

I woke up early on New Year's Day to run, and then the next day to run again, now that I am training for the London Marathon. Both were easy runs that I waited for the light of day to do. I went up and down the Woodgate Valley Path, like I have hundreds and hundreds of time, meeting the same people who I have seen weekly, daily even, for the last nine years. The girls came and went and at night, lying bed, I could hear them laughing below, all in a room together, full of life and happiness and whatever feeling of contentment that has been the underlying state of my life, the basis on which the sadness can be managed, came up, and I could recognise it, like some Mary Oliver poem manifest in experience. You want all these other things, the things you can't have, but what about the things you do have. What if you just accepted those things and stopped counting everything else. What if you just turned off the light for once, and turned over to sleep because today and the day before and the day before, every day back as far as you can remember, has been enough. And tomorrow too, for whatever you can't have, will be full of things you already do have. And you'll wake up to run, to work, to come home, to a life you can, in the most British way now, agree is fine, really.