sitting

window pic jpegthe view from where I was sitting 

It’s so long since I last wrote here. So much has changed. Suddenly the things we thought we could depend on and the ways we reassured ourselves have become less sturdy. I went to the doctor on Monday and could see the stress on her face. Tuesday morning at school our pandemic plan was presented. Now we know when a school will close, what will trigger each respective stage. In January we were reading about a virus which was so far away. Now it is very close, and it’s unlikely that anyone will be unaffected, in some way.

I am wrestling with my own anxiety, and feeling a primal urge to self-isolate – a word which has strong-armed its way into common usage in record time. Self-isolation, social distancing – these were new words yesterday, today they are familiar as the hills. I am not in the category of the most vulnerable, but I still have weird things going on with my health. Even ordinary sickness ramps things up for me. I don’t want to get the virus.

I’ve been pretty germ-phobic since I was pregnant with my eldest sixteen years ago. My midwife had a client who ate a pie in the car after going to the supermarket, without washing her hands first. She caught listeria and lost the baby. Being pregnant is obviously intense – physically and psychologically – and that information coalesced with my heightened state and transformed me. I became germ-phobic overnight. Once I went back teaching, spending all day in contact with hundreds of teenagers, my cautious behaviour increased. I pushed open doors with my feet, pulled down my sleeve to turn door handles. It felt like self-care.

At times I’ve been embarrassed by this behaviour. We now understand that unless you have a dysfunctional immune system, living in a perfectly sanitized environment is dangerous. I wondered, for a while, if I had been overreacting all those years. And yet as we head into a period of unparalleled global emergency caused by a single virus originating from a single source, I’m thinking that all these years of “paranoia” have actually been useful training. I have skills. I can turn a tap on and off with my arm. I already avoid touching my face.

But all the hand washing in the world is not going to completely stop the course of this virus. What we are collectively facing is unprecedented. We are going to lose people. People are going to lose jobs and businesses. The arts community is reeling. The hospitality industry is beginning to reel. One of my best friends has had to postpone her wedding. My dad was due to visit next weekend. Normal, whatever normal looked like for each of us, has gone. I can feel it in my gut, it’s a heavy wariness. The world is going to look very different when we come out the other side of this.

I’m not religious like I used to be, and that’s a good thing. But I still pray. And somehow it’s one of the few things that make sense for me right now. It’s not that I think my sitting quietly is going to change anything external to me (although I hold space for the possibility), it’s just that I have to do something. I can’t think of the families who have lost or will lose loved ones and do nothing. I can’t think about those facing the loss of their income or their life’s work and do nothing. So I pray. I pray a simple version of the lovingkindness prayer, thinking of a person, or a group of people.

May you be happy. May you be safe. May you be healthy. May you live a life of ease.

It seems impossible to think about a life of ease right now. But perhaps it’s the right thing to ask for, even if it’s only relative ease, or ease in a small detail, or ease in spite of what’s going on, or ease on the inside of us, when the outside is so unpredictable.

eight and forty-four

IMG_2860Warrington, Monday 16th July

I’ve taken a while to find myself. I was looking for so long. I caught snatches every so often, glimpses of my reflection in the still water of calm, when the calm found me. There were moments when my reflection was so vivid, so arresting in it’s me-ness that I thought I’d actually found myself, but then the image would inevitably fade, and things would grow murky again.

It was like searching for something through silty water. Every time I took a step forward my movement stirred the mud again, and there I was, seemingly no wiser than before I took the step. And yet perhaps it wasn’t so futile. Perhaps it was more like the kind of methodical turning over that happens in an archaeological dig. Laboriously scraping back layer after layer, not with the infinite care of a professional about to uncover some world treasure, but with the desperation of someone who knows they have yet to live. Each layer compelled me downwards. My nails were caked.

I saw The Return of the Jedi at the Civic Theatre with my dad when I was eight. I remember it was eight because it was the first movie I ever saw in a theatre and the event played a starring role in my childhood folklore. I didn’t go to the movies until I was eight. My mum didn’t let me because she said going to the movies was evil. What a movie to see on my first trip to the cinema. And what a theatre! I could take you to our seats today. Upstairs just left of the middle, about three rows below the aisle. Peering down at the golden lions either side of the stage, eyes glowing, and back up to the midnight sky above, those tiny blinking stars calling me into my imagination.

What an invitation! And I heard it loud and clear! My saving grace through those early years was my imagination. Through it I rescued myself, as often as I could. I was like the dancing princesses, in the collection of Grimm’s Fairly Tales gifted to me on my eighth birthday, who escaped from their beds every night and danced until dawn. I was like them because I could escape. I could take myself away, up into the wide open spaces of my mind. And reading was the best way of doing that. Dear Moonface. Dear Uncle Bilbo. Dear Muffie Mouse. Dear Wombles, all of you.

There were so many things that happened the year I turned eight. As I sit here writing it down I find myself wondering if it really all happened in one year. But this is my story, not a historical account, so here’s a list. I had a sleep over at my friend Celina’s who lived around the corner. We slept in a tent in her garden and were awake until after 11pm. I know because I saw it on the digital clock on the dresser in her parents’ bedroom which we kept getting up to visit, even after they’d gone to sleep. One weekend my mum made homemade ice-cream, chocolate chip mint, icy and sweet and we shared it with the kids from next door.

Other things happened. I watched the old woman next door water the garden with an empty kettle. My dad came back to New Zealand and my mother wouldn’t let me see him. He turned up at our flat one day with a present for my birthday and I sat on the lounge floor frozen, while he and my mother talked in low tones at the back door. Go and see your father, said the friend of my mother’s who was visiting. Go and see your father. But I couldn’t move a muscle. How could I? That was the year I lay awake for hours most nights, sleep as far away as the moon. When the heavy weight of sadness descended in the evenings as the sun went down, the same weight I recognised as depression much later.

I have often wondered why my fairly ordinary childhood gave me so much to work through. Everyone else around me seemed to be getting on with things pretty easily. Other people with more tragedy in their lives than I’d experienced, or perhaps more obvious tragedy, seemed more resilient. I grew up timid, anxious, shy, and more than all of those things; acutely sensitive. I managed to build a kind of armour around myself as a teenager, but it was mostly bravado, and a thin bravado at that. Underneath I was all open and aching heart.

I’m reading The Choice, by Edith Eger, a survivor of the Holocaust.  It’s an incredible book, not just because of the power of her story, but because she narrates it as a psychologist, from the perspective of someone who has worked through her own story and also walked alongside others as they do the same. Something early on in the book moved me to tears. “There is no hierarchy of suffering,” she writes. “There’s nothing that makes my pain worse or better than yours, no graph on which we can plot the relative importance of one sorrow versus another…I don’t want you to hear my story and say, ‘My own suffering is less significant.’ I want you to hear my story and say, ‘If she can do it, then so can I!’” Her words gave me permission to tell my story as it is, without shame or excuses. And with that permission came a rush of self-compassion.

There was an evening earlier this year when I’d been hurt by something. Something ordinary became a trigger of enormous proportions and I was completely adrift in a sea of grief. The pain was extreme. I tried to make sense of my hurt, tried to rationalise it. Tried to figure out why it felt so bad. I’ve been aware of the little girl inside me for a while now, and as I slowed my thinking down I realised how terrified she was right in that moment. Terrified that she was all alone, terrified that there was nobody who could help her. A memory came flooding back. The scariest scene in The Last Jedi. Jabba the Hut’s pit, and that awful monster with the sucking tendrils at the bottom. And there I saw myself; a little girl holding on to the side of that pit for dear life, about to fall in.

There’s fear and then there’s terror. This was terror. It was completely overwhelming. It wanted to swallow me up. It wanted me to fall into it and never get out again. It was the fear beneath the fears. The terror that had lurked behind every loss and hurt that followed. And I was finally feeling it. Finally, I could witness that terrified little girl.

What happened after I saw myself on that edge is the kind of thing that can happen to any of us, when the circumstances are right. I was with my partner, and she was holding me. It wasn’t so much the words she said as the fact that I knew I was with a wise witness. Somehow her presence helped me to see that the moment I was in was sacred. That it wasn’t to be avoided or run away from. Suddenly I could see that I’d been waiting to get to this place all my life, and that now I was here, there was work to be done. Holy, magic, soulful work. The work that can change the course of a life.

So I focused on that girl, that dear, terrified girl. Holding on so tightly because if she didn’t hold on tight she would fall in and never get out again. And as I watched her, I saw angels. Angels. They weren’t doing anything. They weren’t trying to rescue her or even stop her falling, they were just being with her. Being with me. Because being there, witnessing her, and letting myself feel that terror was one of the bravest things I’d ever done. The angels confirmed that. They were there because what I was doing was important.

Then I looked up and saw I wasn’t alone. There were people just above me at the top of the pit. They were the people who I knew loved me and would help me if I asked. There weren’t many of them, but I didn’t need many. I just needed to know I wasn’t alone. And then one of them stepped forward. The most important one of them all. Me. Forty-four year old me to be exact. With the most exquisite look of calm determination on her face as she walked towards the edge. She climbed over and let herself down to where I was holding on, picked me up, and wrapped me in her arms. I was found.

I’ve taken a while to find myself. I’ve been looking for so long. It’s a life’s work. One I won’t ever completely finish. And yet there are moments along the way, like this one right now, when I know I’ve got somewhere significant. When I know I’ve seen something important, and rather than ignore or hide I’ve faced it, head on. And in the facing of it I find myself, right there at the centre of the pain. Each time is incredible. Like a homecoming and a reunion and an unveiling, all at once. I am witness and rescuer. Every time.

happy giving-birth-to-myself day

September2 067

I’ve been writing about giving birth to myself for a while now. Every year for the last five years I’ve dragged myself out of whatever muck I was wading through at the time and come out the other side feeling like an arrival. Grimy with vermix and sucking in air like my life depended on it.

And then I actually came out. I said the most astonishing words. Astonishing to me, anyway. I’m gay, I said out loud for the first time on Saturday the 19th of November 2016. 100% lesbian, I wrote in emails to friends in June 2017.  The arrival of arrivals.

I’ve spent every year since 2012 playing detective on the case of me. It’s a blink of time, in many ways, but a long hard slog all the way. There were some foul truths about my childhood I had to name. To carry on without naming them was to be complicit in my own injury. To leave them unspoken was to leave the blame on the child I was – who believed it her fault.

So something had to change. If I was going to actually live. I had to give up playing stop-gap for my broken past and let it stand on its own. It was a brutal thing to do. Nobody who featured there was going to thank for me for it. Every family feeds off its own fantasy, to some extent, because memory is always part fiction. The bank of shared memories a family raises like a banner to the world; this is us, is curated by the subconscious. What the mind can’t cope with, the mind forgets.

But I never really forgot. I left myself clues at various layers of consciousness and each layer uncovered propelled me down to the next. It was surreal. Scores of memories along the way that had sat patiently waiting to be apprehended. Seemingly without purpose or meaning until I was ready to understand.

Like the memory of seeing a woman naked for the first time, apart from my mother or step-mother, and how beautiful she was. Like the time I played families with my friend at primary school – she dad, I mum – and the feeling was electric. Like the time I was twenty-one or twenty-two and joked with a girlfriend recently married, oh I’ve always wanted a wife, and she looked at me strangely. As soon as I uncovered the truth; I am lesbian, the memories bubbled up. And they added to that truth; I always have been.

What an awkward and lonely journey. Some days I feel like the only person in the world who has her head in the past like it’s one of those airport thrillers, reading with a fine tooth comb. But of course I’m not. There are plenty of us, and perhaps you are one of them. We scour the pages of the past because something somewhere doesn’t add up. Or because something somewhere has to change.

The journey backwards has nothing to do with blame, and everything to do with owning or refusing to own. I own my sensitivities, for example, but I refuse to own the lack of understanding on the part of those who were charged with my care. I own my compliant personality, but I will not own the way my compliance was taken advantage of. I own my impetuousness and my dreamy other-worldliness, but not the criticism and punishment that was laid down heavily for it. To do so would be to join those voices in my own judgement. I already did that, for too long.

So when I say, here I am, it’s my birthday tomorrow and I’m born again, the words are not light-hearted. I might have said it in a similar way before here on this page, but that’s because it’s a process, the journey of a life. I’ve felt out of synch with most of the people around me for a long time. This journey is not one that makes easy dinner-table conversation, it’s not the kind of talk that goes with a coffee on a Sunday morning. But I’m not ashamed of it any more.

In re-naming my birthday my “giving birth-to-myself” day I’m not displacing my mother. A mother is a mother, is always a mother. She had the sex that conceived me, chose to keep me, carried me and pushed me out in a foreign country. She brought me halfway round the world to home, found rock-bottom and then to her great relief, found the rescue she’d been longing for all her life. And as she forged forwards without looking back, running on limited resources and support, something important inside of me was broken. This is my story.

I was her partner in all of it. I have memories: vivid memories, sense memories, strange surreal knowings that go right back to the beginning. My world was her world, we were twins in the same sac. Her sadness was my sadness, her happiness my joy, her anger my pain. Until I realised it wasn’t. Until I realised her world wasn’t my world. Until I realised in shock and awe that my world was waiting for me. That my life was yet to be lived. And so I bust myself out.

We can live, without really living. We can speak, without really saying anything. We can spend our lives smiling and nodding and keeping ourselves busy. Babies, houses, renovating, de-cluttering. We can pour enormous amounts of energy into things that seem so productive; relationships, projects, addictions, other people, other people’s projects, and never pour an ounce of energy into our own actual lives. The ones that only we can live. The ones that wait empty and static until we bear down and push ourselves out.

When I look at that photo above, Last night in Madrid, a funny kind of knowing comes over me. There’s something I remember about that night. The muted light, the energy, the momentary connection between people in time and space like a spiral at its tight core about to be thrust outwards. My father behind the camera, my step-mother reaching out to stroke my forehead. My mother holding me tight. You can see I was loved. You can see how important I was, how much I had to teach this bunch of wild kids. My mother chose me, and so I came. The prophet-storyteller had arrived.

 

daughters

paul-gauguin-the-siestaGauguin, The Siesta

I tell them they can love whoever they want. I tell them they don’t have to love, that their lives can be rich and full as they are to themselves, without needing to be attached or partnered or taken. I tell them they are beautiful, just the way they are. And they dance up the hallway singing last Friday night, we were kissing in the bar and they stop at the mirror and they preen.

The eldest asked when she could buy her first lipstick. But you’re beautiful without it, I protested. My lips are pale, she said. I didn’t ask who she wanted them to look bright for. The middle one asked me if I wear lipstick to work and I said yes, sometimes. I put it on when I get there, I said. I can’t be bothered stopping before that. Mostly I just can’t be bothered.

The mirror tells me what I am. A woman who has passed the forty mark, who has little time for appearances, who pays attention to the bare essentials: clean hair, wide smile, clothes assembled with a nod to form and interest. I can see the evidence of the years, the line between my eyebrows, the mole on my chin. Underneath the clothes there is more evidence. The silver lines at the top of my thighs. The soft round of crumpled belly, a gift from my daughters.

I wouldn’t trade these markers for anything, not for all the youth in the world. I think back to the days when I stood in front of the mirror and doubted, and I feel tired. You couldn’t take me back there, I would never go. The mirror is now nothing more than a tool, no longer the reflection of my worst critic, no longer fodder for all those taunting voices; not good enough, not pretty enough, not tall enough, not skinny enough.

He is the morning parent. He slices the cheese for her lunch. He wraps it in tin foil so that it doesn’t make the crackers go soft. He cuts the apple into wedges and then puts the whole fruit back together with a rubber band because she won’t eat it brown. Then he masterminds the logistics; music practice, lunchboxes, raincoats, getting out the door. He is also the nurse of the family. The one most deft at cutting medical tape. He is more inclined to take a sick child to the doctor. He worries.

I realised, not so long ago, that if I didn’t show my daughters how to live, what good was I? That if I didn’t live, my whole actual real life, that I was failing them. And so I get up first in the morning and head down the path to the car in the murky grey light of not-quite-morning. I often work in the weekend as well. Some times in a quiet corner of the library, and other times at home in my study with the door ajar, and then they know the music has to be quiet and there’s no yelling in the hallway.

They brush their teeth when I’m in the shower and I do not hide. They like to touch my belly and they know it’s soft because I held each of them inside me for weeks and weeks, long enough for them to grow entire. They hardly notice the scar that runs down my spine, or the messy one above my hip, faded purple. I’ve told them they’re from an operation, but they don’t care. They haven’t noticed how crooked I am, how one shoulder always droops slightly. They think I’m beautiful.

My daughters know that if I hadn’t married their dad I’d have eventually fallen in love with a woman.  Sexuality is something we’ve talked about with them since they were old enough to understand. They knew when I thought of myself as bisexual, and I told them the truth when I realised I was lesbian. We’ve always explained that most people grow up to love someone of the opposite sex but that some find they love someone of the same sex and that’s no big deal. We’ve made sure they know they are free to make up their own minds about who they love and they like this knowledge. I can see it on their faces, that it’s one more thing that makes them strong.

My daughters like to stand in front of the mirror, especially the eldest one. Sometimes I have to bite my tongue and hold back words about wasting time. But then I see how her eyes light up as she meets her own gaze, how her face softens and her chin lifts as she appraises herself from all angles. I think I understand now – I hope I understand – how important this is. That this is something she needs to figure out. That the voice she needs to hear in her head is her own.  She wants to answer the nagging question am I beautiful? with a resounding yes.

 

finishing and beginning

selfie-with-wellingtonSelfie with Wellington, 5th November 2016

I had to do it on my own.  It was something that required me. To show up to myself. I didn’t think about counting. The hours of reading. The days and days of writing. The minutes and hours and days and weeks and nights of thinking. Did that make it lonely? No. I was alone with my thoughts, which is not exactly alone, and always a rewarding experience. There were moments of doubt; I had to face them head on. I had to look at myself in the eye and not shrink back from what I saw. The raw gristle and meat of me. Me in all my frailty and fervour. I saw myself.

It could have been almost anything. The thing I had to do on my own. It could have been a very long race, run on my own two feet until my lungs were fire. It could have been a piece of art. A canvas the size of a wall. Or a throw. A crouch and turn and heave of a weight away from myself. Or the first year faced newly alone, or the first year with a tiny one, newly responsible. Any of these feats require the person only. To show up to themselves. To look the challenge in the eye and decide, perhaps despite the evidence, that they are up to the task. And then to follow through.

I had a meltdown, of course I did. Before I’d even started writing. I thought it was too much. I thought I couldn’t do it. I started catastrophising. I wasn’t the person to do it. It was going to get harder and it was going to get too hard for me. I hadn’t been born with what it took and there wasn’t anything I could do about it. So I started planning how to give up. How to get through the bare minimum and bow out gracefully. How to avoid biting off more than I could chew by exiting the dining room. I was full, thank you. I did not need to eat.

But I was starving. I was withered and skinny on the inside for not having eaten a full meal for years. For having spent too long watching what other people were eating, following their lead, not wanting to be greedy, not wanting to be different. And so I starved myself. Routinely ate small portions, avoided seconds. Became a chronic snacker. Almost convinced myself that social media was a food group. Narrowly missed contracting one of those ubiquitous online diseases. You know, the ones where you end up forgetting how to actually live.

I’d spent way too long flitting over the surface of things. Parenting magazines. Books about how to get your baby to sleep. Books about how to get your baby to eat organic vegetables and organ meat. Great big homeschooling manuals. How to get your kid to learn everything you missed out on learning in one year. And every now and again I’d pick up a book off my shelf and read an old favourite. But new fiction? It was either too bland or too thin or too male or too strange to my ear – for some reason I could never put my finger on.

I went back to work. Is that what was missing? A sense of being, in amongst it, out in the real world, getting up in the morning and coming home at night. All those hours in the car alone to think and notice things. That got me going back to study, a post-graduate counselling paper – gender studies. So this is how it goes, I thought, this is what thinking feels like. The lecturer talked about creating an intellectual genogram. A record of a journey of reading and thinking. His was eclectic, from Tillich to Foucault and everywhere in between. Where was mine, I wondered? Had I actually been thinking?

So I started reading again. Fiction. Being an English teacher is good for that. We’re peddlers of other people’s words, us English teachers, and if we don’t read we don’t have anything to peddle. I had a sparkly class of girls that year I started studying again, who I thought might handle An Angel at My Table – Jane Campion’s film of Janet Frame’s autobiography. They were fifteen and sixteen and bright-eyed and maybe I broke them a little, maybe I shouldn’t have shown it to them, disturbing as it is. But I did so much reading to teach it that I could have written an over-sized essay myself. And I remembered all over again how much Janet Frame’s words meant to me.

I was twelve when I read Faces in the Water, and after that, I wrote my first story. It was about a girl going blind (God knows why), and it was melodramatic and stuffed full of repetition and run-on sentences. I wrote it in pencil on a pale newsprint pad and showed it to the mother of my friend Zoe. Who said that it wasn’t the kind of writing she normally read but that she liked it, and thought it was good. Well that was high praise. That was feedback I could run with. I decided, almost out of nowhere, that I was going to be a part-time writer and a part-time speech therapist. I don’t know where the latter idea came from, but you can see that from the beginning I was pulled in opposite directions. One inward, the other outward.

Reading is an entirely interior act. It excavates us on the inside, brings in the materials required to progress with the next stage of building. There’s nothing to show for it. Not initially. Reading is private, invisible, profound. It is something we do for ourselves, by ourselves. After all those years of being pulled outward, desperate for approval, sitting down to do my Master’s was like giving myself the gift of attention. Once I’d started down that long road of focused reading and writing, I couldn’t turn back. I couldn’t change tack, or change subjects or change my mind. I had to stay. With myself, with my thoughts, and with the words.

This was my transformation.  I sat in silence and hauled the words in one by one. I made them mine, I added them to myself. I used them like travel guides, like clues, like the shining shreds of bread that Hansel and Gretel followed home. The words took me to me. I showed up to the work and found I was showing up to myself. This is how I finished something I thought I could never do. And this is how I will do it again.

 

right now

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The girls are cooking dinner, a bastardised version of nachos using shoestring oven fries, something they can cook without blowing up the kitchen. They’ve got music on, and I can hear the bass, strong and reliable, from the other end of this small house. They’re singing one of the songs from Moana loud – like really loud – and I can tell by the way they are singing that they feel like they’re on top of the world.

The sun is finally out and glowing bright on the desk in my study. The leaves on the cabbage tree out this window are glowing too, and I remember what it was like to have sun on demand, back up in Auckland, more sun than we needed. In those days the morning sun streamed in across the wooden floorboards of our funny oversized house and turned them yellow, and the late afternoon sun on its way down lit up the bush that spread out all the way to the harbour in front of us, golden green.

The life we lived up in that faraway place was completely different to the one we live here. Sometimes I think back on it and shake my head, as if remembering the flash of a dream the morning after. Did we really have all that space, all that sun, did we really go down to the beach on the other side of our own bush and swim? Did we drive ten minutes down the road and find the bush peel back to reveal the harbour wide wide and blue green all the way to the heads? We did.

But I wouldn’t have it back. There was a dark underbelly to that life. So much time given over to getting from one place to another, waiting in traffic, crawling down the motorway. There were complications between ourselves and others that we couldn’t make head or tail of up there.  And then there was the exhaustion, the anxiety, and this pervasive sense which never really went away that we weren’t quite getting there. Wherever there was.

Distance was needed. To pick ourselves up by the scruff of the neck and throw ourselves down to the bottom of the country. We went as far as we could – we couldn’t have thrown ourselves much further. I’m not knocking Invercargill, that strange old beast that holds New Zealand’s most southern parts together, but we’re not cut out for small town life. We needed somewhere big enough to give us that feeling of being in the middle of things. We had friends in Dunedin, and the house prices, well you know about the house prices. So Dunedin it was.

I feel like every stage of my life has been completely different to the others. I’ve got several large plastic storage bins’ worth of journals, at least one for every year of my life from about the age of fifteen. It’s a gigantic mass of words, and the detail is overwhelming. Here is how I felt when I was eighteen and thought I was about to take on the world. Here is what my life was like in those vaguely-lost years I spent working in the fiction section of the Queen St Whitcoulls store. There is my first year teaching, right up until I burnt out just before the end of Term 4 and the pages go blank. And those agonisingly exquisite first weeks of my eldest daughter’s life in detail, including feed times and night wakings and the shadow of depression, always the sting in the tail.

I could put my hand down into that mass of words a hundred times over and each time I’d pull out a different story. In each one the light would be slightly altered, the view changed. There would be something new, something freshly learnt, a sense of awakening in each of them, as if now I understood. But how many times over would I have to learn a variation of the same thing before I could live it? How many times would I have to walk around the same track before I realised it wasn’t the track I wanted to be on?

Things are changing here. There is a new house waiting for us in the valley, north-facing and ample. There are established vegetable beds, a green house and a hand-me-down tramp waiting in the back corner of the garden. We’ve let go of one dream to grab hold of right now, to make the most of the present, the one we are living, the one that is ours. It doesn’t look exactly like we thought it would. It’s complicated in ways I never expected, and yet there’s a naturalness, an ease to living in the now that makes me want more of it. It feels like something somewhere between acceptance and surrender, and both are incredible.

You can sure there will be stories to tell out of all of this. Sitting here writing to you is part of what helps make sense of everything. I’ve spent a lot of my life feeling like I don’t know very much but of course I do. I know about having to learn the same thing over and over. I know about being nineteen, twenty, twenty-five and convinced that my actual life was just around the corner, that as soon as I could get x, y, z lined up, life would begin. I know how it feels to look back and wonder why it took so long to get to here, to wonder why right now was so long in the making.

The girls are still dancing in the kitchen. Belting out the Moana soundtrack as if their lives depended on it. I know how they feel. They’ve got that sense like they’re on the edge of the rest of their lives. It’s the thrill of getting the notes out mixed with the thrill of all the possibility and potential of their as-yet-unseen future. They are becoming themselves with every breath. I know how they feel, because I remember exactly. There in those piles of journals, where the words wait patiently for the stories to be plucked out, is everything I know and everything I’ve ever learnt. Pull up your chair.

I want to

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It’s like climbing up a mountain, or trekking across a vast plain. Whichever way you look at it the point is your feet get sore. It feels a long way. You wonder, is this all there is? Is this it, this ongoing business of sameness, one foot after the other? Will anything ever change?

She’s ten and she sings Katie Perry in the shower; louder than a lion, dancing through the fire. She’s so loud you can hear her clearly in every part of the house. The fact that she manages to hit the right note almost every time is testament to her attitude and determination, rather than any sign of prodigious talent. If she’s going to be heard, she’s going to get it right. You’d better believe it.

I wonder sometimes about how we become ourselves. I marvel at the people who know what they want to do with their lives from fairly early on and then go and do it. They suffer a reasonable dose of common-garden interruptions and hurdles (how else do we ever learn anything?) and then go about doing, creating, being the thing they saw themselves doing, creating, being all those years previously. Of course that doesn’t mean it’s easy, since when was anything worth doing easy? But they’re doing it.

If I was going to sit here and write to you all night, if I was going to stay up until the small hours and inhabit that black and silent space where time is elastic, I would tell you about a time when I was twenty and a student and I came down to Dunedin to visit a friend. I’d tell you how we walked for hours on the dark streets at night, and when we came back to the house I was staying in, found it freezing cold and filled with students partying. I couldn’t see anyone I knew. I panicked and walked straight out. Went with my friend to his flat. Slept in his bed, top and tail with my fur coat on, an orange bar heater glowing strangely on the wall.

Let’s call him Cren, the one whose bed I slept in with my fur coat on. And my other friend, the one I’d flown down with and should have gone looking for amongst all those people that night, let’s call her Stella. Stella was angry with me the next day, understandably. She hadn’t known where I was. Should she have been out searching? Was I in danger in any way? I went into her room later on and saw a half-written letter on a notepad on the desk. I read it. More angry words. So this is what the trip was all about. A boy! We came down because of a boy.

How little anyone knew back then. How little anyone understood. Time was a thick heavy mixture; it could take days to wade through an hour. We thought our eyes were working perfectly, but we were blinded by youthful optimism. We could barely see a foot in front of us. At some point, something was bound to go wrong. Someone was going to make a faulty calculation.

Stella was beautiful. I realised this about twenty years after I saw her last. Her eyes were olive-brown and shaped like almonds. There was a poem of hers I would ask her to read just so I could watch her mouth as she read it. What a crush it was, that crush I had on her. That invisible unnamed untouchable unspeakable thing. How adorably tender and naïve and innocent and repressed I was. Dear girl. Who could have seen it?

But Cren I loved like a brother. Like a twin brother, as if we were born out of the same skin. When I read the words he wrote to me it felt as if I was reading words of my own. As if I could see straight into his brain – which was impossible, he alone was master of his murky complexities. But his words were windows, telescopes, a satellite dish from his end of the country to mine. We were thousands of miles apart except when we were reading the letters we wrote to each other, week in, week out.

I wonder how things would have gone back then if I’d known what I know now. How would it have been if I’d  been able to own my own mind, my own body, my own words? I thought I was on the edge of something. I felt it kicking inside of me as I flew home from that strange trip to Dunedin. I thought that any moment I’d write the thing I’d been waiting to write since I was seventeen. I thought I was about to do it, I thought I was pregnant and becoming progressively overdue.

But how long the miles have been since then. Twenty years, twenty years. And how many wistful realisations have had to be faced since then, for all the years, all the years.  For all the ways I held myself closed, all the ways I let myself be tight and wound up and cold. All the days I was mute and panicked and mistaken. What can I say but that I’m sorry and I’m sad.

So she’s ten and she sings in the shower so loud its ridiculous, half the neighbourhood can probably hear. And she’s the kind of girl who wears her heart on her sleeve, who puts her hand up for anything, who wants to do it all. She’s fragile in ways that only I can see and yet there’s nothing I can do but watch and wait. And when it’s time she’ll fly and fall and fail and find her way again. And that will be her story, how she had an inkling early on and god-willing, with a good dose of common-garden scrapes and mistakes, she got on with it.

And I’m forty-two and I want to sing so bad its ridiculous. I want to tell you everything, the whole sordid broken tragicomic mess. It’s been twenty years since I was convinced that I was about to write the next great thing, and I haven’t forgotten a day of it. My legs are tired and I’m bored of the same plodding trek, day in, day out. But it’s my story and it’s the only one I’ve got.

All the clocks

3salvador-dali-persistence-of-memory.jpgThe Persistence of Memory, Salvador Dali

All the clocks in the house are telling the wrong time. Greer has lost her watch. I am in this funny surreal space where I feel like I am re-making my life. I know I said a similar thing a year ago, that I’m back at the beginning again, but it’s true. I actually do get to start again. Every week I learn something new, and it’s a process that continues to unfold. This ‘growing’ business is ongoing. Why would it ever stop?

I went up to Auckland last week and got a brain update. High school statistics, plus a few extras. My supervisor is gifted with the ability of teaching with the barest minimum of spoon feeding, and in the kindest and most gentle way spent almost a whole day explaining to me what comes as naturally to him as tying his shoelaces. The update was successful: I am now immersed in analysis of the data from my Master’s research, and there are numbers everywhere. I’m swimming in them. After previously having almost zero faith in myself as a mathematician, here I am doing maths.

I’ve never been more aware of the gaps in my brain. Great holes I’ve allowed to stay wide open for so long. Although it might have seemed otherwise, I’ve lacked confidence in my intelligence. Everywhere I looked there were people more coordinated, more organised, and more consistently performing than I ever was, and somehow along the way I decided they were the smart ones. They were the ones who studied law, or held down full time jobs at the same time as bringing up their babies, or had letters after their names. I thought I couldn’t do any of that. So I avoided my gaps and weaknesses – trying to escape the shame of them.

But it would be a half-truth to say that my lack of confidence was the sole reason for those gaps. My insecurities were well and truly enabled by the religious framework I was brought up in. A framework which conditioned me to see the right answers as situated outside of myself, which convinced me that others were the experts in my life, and which valued a body of knowledge that could only be accessed through those same experts. And more than that, it was a framework which denigrated reason and discouraged any learning that was not of a religious nature, and a very narrow version of religion at that.

I grew up in the bosom of Pentecostal Christianity.  Pentecostalism is the “happy-clappy” version of Christianity. It’s always evangelical and often fundamentalist. Its roots are blue-collar, and its emergence at the turn of last century was in part a push-back against the traditional dominant structures of religious power of the day which were strict, ritualised and top-heavy. It began because a group of ordinary, uneducated people wanted more than the current Protestant orthodoxy had to offer. They were convinced they were part of something bigger than themselves and that that something was available to be experienced; to be touched, felt, heard, and seen. Even more than that, they were convinced that such an experience should have an effect on their lives. Whatever their need was – physical or otherwise – they brought it with them. Their spiritual experience was borne out of the reality of need.

I think it’s important to understand that the birth of the Pentecostal movement, while it had detractors  both from inside and outside the traditional church, represented an important rejection of the racial segregation and sexism that prevailed at the time. Those ordinary people who came together to seek a tangible experience of God were from marginalised communities. The leader of the movement in its early days was William J. Seymour, an African American and the son of former slaves. Many of the people who joined him were from immigrant or lower-class families, and women were free to preach and lead. These were people without social status or wealth and in this new experience of God they found belonging, security and a new kind of freedom.

It’s not surprising then that the Pentecostal denominations which grew out of those very unstructured beginnings became staunchly anti-intellectual. The ordinary people who flocked to Pentecostal meetings were rejecting not only the orthodox church as it was, but the education that went with it. The education that was available either by becoming one of the elite ministers themselves (if they were male) or by sitting in the pews each Sunday. That, alongside the social class of the majority of those first Pentecostals, meant that the leaders and dominant voices of the movement were largely self-educated.  In itself, this was not necessarily a dangerous thing. But when combined with the power structures of the church – which ironically evolved to mimic the structures of the traditional church – it created a powerful minority who were suspicious of higher education. These leaders valued experience and personal belief above all else. This has been a hallmark of almost all Pentecostal churches up until the present day.

I realise you don’t want to read an essay about power and the church, so I’m trying not to write one. But what I do want to say is that the dominant theme of my religious upbringing was that experience outranked thinking and education by a long shot. I was taught to be suspicious of my own ideas, and to consider them automatically inferior to the ideas and teaching of those in power in the church. The experts were always right. If I disagreed with them, it was because there was something wrong with me, not because there was something wrong with them or their ideas.

It’s been fifteen years since I began my slow journey to the very outer edges of institutional religion, and it’s taken me that long to even begin to understand how damaging those early years were. I’m aware that the way I’ve described my religious upbringing makes it sound like I was in a cult. I wasn’t. But it’s very easy for a religious organisation (or any organisation) to have cult-like characteristics without actually being a cult. And being in a cult-like organisation is almost as damaging as being in actual cult, as far as I can see.

But here’s the clincher. My religious upbringing didn’t just happen in church. My religious upbringing happened at home. And all the messages I got at church about distrusting my own thinking and relying on the experts for the right answers were amplified there.  In fact in many ways, home was cult-like too. There was very little room for me to develop my own thinking in either place. By the time I turned twenty-one I was pretty sure of one thing: that there were right ideas and wrong ideas, and if left to my own devices I was more likely to come up with the wrong ones. It wasn’t a winning strategy for life.

I’m not writing this to garner your pity. I’m writing this because I’m in a strange time of life, the clocks in the house are all different, my daughter’s lost her watch, and I’m starting again. Writing helps me get my head straight. These are things I’ve thought at various times and in different ways for a while now. But it wasn’t until I began to believe in myself as a thinking person that I realised it actually all makes sense. It makes sense to me, anyway.

So here it is: despite having seen religion at its worst, I remain a fan. And in these strange times, when in the same week Turkey’s president claims the military coup was “a gift from God”, and televangelist Pat Robinson has a vision of Donald Trump sitting at the right hand of God, I actually believe we need religion more than ever. Because we can’t talk about religion without religion. And we can’t even begin to understand that fraught intersection between religion and human experience without at least some understanding of religion itself – it’s language, ideas, symbols and practices – as strange as they may seem.

After all, that’s what religion is about – human experience. In other words, people. People with longings and desires and needs. Underneath the dogma and the power-play and the flawed organisational structures are a bunch of humans who have this crazy and yet quite sane idea that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. And I can’t argue with that.

seven, ten

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I had a dream the other night. I was in the passenger seat of a large bus, and my daughter Greer was driving. We were trying to get to the bus stop where she was going to take another bus to school. But she was having trouble stopping. She turned down the wrong road. Went left when I was trying to tell her to go right. I was worried she was going to miss the bus and it was frustrating to watch. Yet she was doing a pretty good job of driving, for a kid.

I’ve dreamt a lot of buses in the last year. Buses, cars, boats. My dreams have been punctuated with transport imagery. I’ve dreamt conversations in cars, long journeys through changing scenery. I’ve travelled alone, I’ve travelled with companions, I’ve had my companions change within the same dream. One minute I’m travelling with my sister, and then all of a sudden I’m not.  The cars are always going somewhere, the buses are always huge. Sometimes I’m trying to get large numbers of students all on one bus. Sometimes I’m in the dark.

Abigail, my youngest, turned seven yesterday. Wow. It is a little number and she is a little person and yet seven is a whole lifetime. I remember being seven and how long ago babyhood seemed to me even then, how it felt like I’d been alive for an age. I was no longer in my infancy, no longer completely dependent. I was dreaming and planning and reading and imagining and escaping; writing little poems in the exercise book my teacher gave me especially for words. Poems about pigs and daffodils and books.

How will she shine, this newly seven year old girl of mine? What will light her up? What will she do that makes her heart sing, that makes her shiver on the inside? It’s too early to tell. Like any parent, we want her to enjoy being herself, to grow into herself, to become comfortable in her own skin. We nudge her in certain directions, provide opportunities, take note of her interests, but in the end only she can possibly know. Who she is. Where she wants to go. What paths she wants to take.

I don’t always write about my daughters here. I’m aware of the obvious; not everyone has children. I don’t presume that all who read here identify with or are interested in parenting stories. And yet I see mothering and fathering in the broadest possible sense, as roles we can all embody at different times, if we choose to. I love what French feminist philosopher Irigaray wrote about mothering; that we are always mothers once we are women.  And perhaps that same sense of universal father-ness is available to men too. But more than that, I believe the best way to understand ourselves is to reflect on our family of origin. Our first family.  When I write about my children I’m connecting with the child I was.

Greer, the middle sister, is about to turn ten. She’s a feisty, fiery young woman, and every day she gets a little more sure of herself. That dream I had of her driving a bus, a ridiculous vehicle for a child to be driving, seems to remind me of what I know instinctually about her life. That she is in the driver’s seat. That her life belongs to her. I’m close beside her, watching every move, but I’m not driving. No matter how challenging the road gets, the bus is hers. And as much as I take my responsibilities as a parent seriously, other than in an obvious emergency it’s vital that I don’t take the wheel.

When I was her age, I didn’t know what it felt like to be in the driver’s seat of my life. I didn’t have that kind of control or agency. There are reasons for this, and I’ve reflected on all of them over the last few years as I’ve become aware of the ways in which that lack has played out in my adult life. I’ve witnessed chilling depths of powerlessness within myself, and in the moment I saw the worst of it I had two choices; either collapse in on myself or change. So I changed, slowly,  almost everything about the way I live. I’ve seen, with frightening clarity, what my life would have looked like if I didn’t step into my own driver’s seat.

I had a pretty ordinary childhood. You probably experienced some of the things I did. Maybe we watched TV at the same time after school, maybe we were both brought up on the DPB. Maybe you lived on a street lined with familiar state houses too, with a rusty car on the grass verge five houses down. Maybe you packed your bag to go and see your dad like I did. God knows there were and are great hordes of us who did that. It’s nothing so unusual.

But for all the reasons, for whatever reason, for all the whys and wherefores and ways I was and wasn’t and would never be, I grew up broken. So when I dream that my daughter is in the driver’s seat of her own bus and I’m right there, and even though I can see how much she has to lose if she gets it wrong my hand doesn’t reach out even once to grab the steering wheel, I’m a happy woman. Every day I get to start again.

 

building plans

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We went for a walk along the harbour the other weekend. The girls rode their bikes ahead of us, wheeling off into the distance and then coming back again. It was a beautiful day, warm and clear, although over on the edge of the harbour the wind was cold. On the way home we stopped at the section we’re planning to build on, to pick apples from the trees at the very top. It was amazing to be there in the full afternoon sun, looking down over the valley and the hills on the other side. It’s a little piece of paradise, and one day we’ll live there.

The apples we picked sit overflowing in front of me here on the table. Two bowls of them;  red and tart and real. I look at them and I am amazed. Apples from our own trees! We’ve been eating them crisp and fresh every day, and cooking them with cinnamon and ghee until they are soft and unctuous. We are producing, it seems, after some lean years. The fruit may be tentative, but it can’t be denied. There it is – hanging off the north facing trees of our future.

This is how it is you see; we’ve lived through a long winter. It’s been three or four years now of harsh weather. The worst weather I’ve seen, a full range of extremes. Gale force winds, heavy blasts of rain, low grey clouds for months at a time. I’ve learnt how to batten down the hatches, how to step in and shut the door behind me. I had no alternative but to pay attention to my interior spaces. Sometimes it takes us a long time to learn how to give ourselves what we need the most.

I’ve been off facebook for a while now and one of the reasons I left was because I got sick of all the rubbish that kept filling up my feed. Superficial ten point nothings about how to have a successful relationship, blah-blah-blahs about how marriage is nothing to do with what you need it’s all about what you can give the other person. These are particular views, hailing from the evangelical headquarters of the world, and once upon a time I wouldn’t have batted an eyelid at them. But I can’t stomach that kind of garbage anymore.

There was a time early on in the stormy weather, when the fierceness of it was still bewildering, that I thought fixing our relationship was what needed to happen. Financial difficulty had triggered the storms, as it often does, but it was the fundamental weaknesses in our relationship that were uncovered almost immediately. Whole sections of roof lifted off in the wind and what we’d managed to avoid noticing was now plainly clear.  There were rooms missing entire exterior walls, and half the house needed re-piling. We’ve never liked the idea of giving up, so we worked at it. We sought professional opinion, made game plans, developed strategies. There were late night dramas, bags packed and unpacked, ultimatums delivered, and whole sections of the house abandoned, deemed completely unliveable. Everything was negotiable.

But as soon as we patched up one corner, another blew out in the wind. The repair list didn’t seem to be getting any smaller, no matter how many things we crossed off. And the weather wasn’t letting up. It was the longest winter. One day I stepped out of the house and looked at the surrounding land. It was good, flat land with a northern aspect, and there was so much more of it than either of us had realised. I picked up a shovel and started digging. Before I knew it, I had the ground prepared for the foundations of a small house. I ordered concrete, supervised the delivery, and then kept building. Once Pat saw what I was doing, he did the same thing a few paces away. We got on with the difficult but completely necessary job of building ourselves.

To say we ditched the flimsy edifice that was this relationship we’d tried to put together, is an understatement. All that is left now of that weather-beaten building are a few piles of old bricks, a corner of concrete poking out of the earth. We keep it there as a reminder, a warning for our children. We’ll tell them the story when they’re old enough to understand, and hopefully it will mean something to them. But it’s more than just a cautionary tale. It’s a testament; a bold monument to hope and to the possibility for change than exists within all of us.

Meanwhile, I’m still building. It takes work to go right back to the foundations of our lives and start again. I’ve had to make some hard calls, and there are parts of my life that may still look ugly to the outside eye. Everything I do now is intentional, I do it because it works for me, because it helps me to build. I have no interest in keeping up appearances, or in putting energy into what is superficial or false. I’ve lost friends, allowed formative relationships to lie fallow, abandoned a million “shoulds” and “must-do’s.” I’m finally learning how to look after myself – I wouldn’t have survived otherwise.

And it’s very nice to have company as I build. It’s a miracle, in some ways, that Pat and I still love each other. But it’s even more of a miracle, I think, that we are friends. Even better friends now than we were before. We have fifteen years together, which is long enough to create history. We share a tall stack of memories, haunting and otherwise. I know not everyone gets to start again together, and for many, separation is the only way forward. But the building requirements are the same. In the end, all we can do is build ourselves.