south

sth is journey pic2

It’s been three weeks since we left, two and a half weeks since we arrived. This was the sky that spread itself over us as we travelled south, the wide wide blue pressing down onto yellow-dry land. Driving off the ferry and through Malborough to Kaikoura was like turning a corner and suddenly finding ourselves somewhere completely different. Not so different that we didn’t know where we were, but different enough that there was no doubt we were somewhere else.

And it’s all new down here too, in this place we now call home. Dunedin is different to Auckland in almost every way. The size, the weather, the landscape, the people, the pace of life. I spent the first week or so pinching myself, reeling as if I’d just stepped off a ride at an amusement park. Where was I? Was I really here? The first few days were mad, the hallway so full of furniture and boxes we could barely walk through, the floor in the girls’ bedroom a forest of partly unpacked boxes, the contents spilling out over the floor.  We had no internet for two weeks,  waiting for our fibre to be connected. Every time we got in the car we had to use GPS.

Even now, here in this tiny sunroom that is my study, I can only get into the room by gingerly walking sideways, careful not to knock over the towers of boxes and papers and books stacked up behind me. We knew it would be a challenge downsizing to a small three bedroom house, but we really couldn’t have imagined just what a challenge it would be. On the day the truck arrived with all our things I stood on the footpath watching the movers ferry our boxes and furniture into the house and it dawned on me that our lounge suite was not going to fit, not in the lounge which we had measured up carefully on paper, nor through the front door and into the hallway which was already filled with furniture which we hadn’t yet been able to fit into place. I rang my friend Stacey and said By the way I’m crying and Do you want to borrow our entire lounge suite? She said yes, having just done the opposite of us and shifted from a small place into a much larger one. There were no words for how grateful I was.

I wrote about letting go a while ago, about the process of paring back. We did that in plenty of ways before we moved down here, but it wasn’t until we were here in the reality of this new life that we saw how much more we needed to do. Isn’t that just how life goes? There’s only so much preparation that can be done prior to the event. Preparation takes us so far, and then at some point we have to step out and do the thing we’ve been preparing for. Whether an adventure or venture or some mix of the two, we really have no idea how it’s going to go until we begin it. And look, I’ve just written my way to the word Advent. From the Latin adventus, to arrive or approach.

The season of Advent finishes today, Christmas Eve. Our Advent this year has been the least advent-y of them all. We put the Christmas tree up a few days after we arrived and bought a few presents for the girls, but other than that we’ve been living in a nebulous time, as if we somehow became separated from the calendar. The light down here at the bottom of the world is so different, it barely gets dark before ten in the evening. The days stretch out so that we completely lose track of time. We’ve hardly known what day it is, let alone how far away we were from Christmas. And yet we were living an advent of our own as we prepared for the big move. And living in a wider, less tangible advent over the last two years as we sensed a growing need within us for change.

Significant change doesn’t have to involve physical change, but often it does, the outward transformation becoming an external representation of what has happened internally. I think of a friend of mine who transitioned from female to male over the last couple of years. I watched from afar as he ‘crossed over’ via surgery. It seemed to me that the surgery he underwent both confirmed and crystallised the state of being that already was already  a reality for him on the inside. The physical change he experienced in surgery was a representation of something internal and at the same time the catalyst that brought the change about in its fullest, most complete sense. It brought congruence.

I’d already shifted, before I moved south. I was already somewhere else. The move was simply an external representation of what had been an internal reality for some time. And yet it was more than that. The change in location crystallised my inner transformation like nothing else could. It brought out what had been inside, it made physical what had been metaphysical. It shifted me to where I already was. So that I can now be where I am.

I can’t help wondering whether the Advent of Christ did something similar. That perhaps it brought into being something that had already existed. That the physical birth of Christ into a physical, tangible location was a representation of the divinity that was already present metaphysically. That by being born as a human child in the most ordinary of circumstances, Christ gave us what we already had. The presence of God.

We had no idea how much we needed to move, until we got here. We had no idea how natural the change would be, how easily the girls would fit in, make friends, make themselves at home. Just as we could never fully prepare for the worst that the shift would entail (and there were moments when the upheaval was overwhelming,) neither could we fully prepare for the best that was waiting for us. We couldn’t have imagined how good it was going to be.

I’ve written many times over the last few years about being pregnant with my self, about giving birth to my self, about being born, finally, after all these years. There were times when I wrote as if I was out, born, alive. And yet the actual birth process was much longer and more complicated than I ever could have seen. I’ve been born in little ways, bit by bit, for a long time. But perhaps it wasn’t until now, until I picked myself up by the scruff of the neck and threw myself down to the bottom of the country, that I could really breathe.

getting ready

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Of all the places I’ll miss when we leave, this is the one I’ll miss the most. This is the spot I come to, walking down towards the beach and then veering left before I get there. Down to the estuary and along the stream that meets it, splashing through the shallows and then walking up the path through the bush above. At the top is a hidden playground, a surprising open space on a small promontory with a bench seat out at the point , and this view. It’s beauty doesn’t depend on the tide. When it’s out the wily mangrove roots are exposed, reaching down into the fertile mud, and the water becomes a green ribbon winding its way down from the dam. The beauty is in its wildness, in the way, if you position the camera lens just so, you can’t see the raw earth of a new subdivision on the left, or the glinting glass windows of the houses high up on the ridge. The low line of trees in the background deftly hides the main road that takes us all back and forth from the city.  I watch the sea birds swoop and soar down towards the water, and it takes my breath away.

Everything went through last week. This house sold, the one we are moving to bought. We are tenants now, living here on someone else’s kindness. We have time to say good-bye to the place we once thought we’d never leave. It’s a bittersweet time, and there’s plenty of sweet with the bitter. It’s not our job to fix anything anymore, or improve anything, or deal to the weeds we know are waiting under the wet bush for summer warmth. The plans we conjured up for this place in naïve hopefulness have been laid to rest. We leave them here in the soil, like dreams or seeds or whispers from the past. They were here before we arrived, and they’ll remain long after we’ve left.

There are other plans to make now, practical ones. Our sprawling house-lot of belongings won’t be contained in the three bedroom house we are moving to, and so the process of culling and sorting must begin. This is a first world problem, of course. One that has spawned an entire industry of plastic storage bins and wardrobe organisers and self-help books. What do we do with all our stuff?  The religious men and women who’ve taken vows of poverty have it right. They know that there is an inverse relationship between peace of mind and material possessions. Our “stuff” costs us in more ways that we are aware of. It creeps its way into our subconscious, piling up in the corners of our minds, taking on a life of its own.

Some people deal with this by maintaining tight control over their possessions. Furniture positioned just so, boxes in storage meticulously labelled, strict rules regarding the approved territory for certain objects. And then there are the rest of us. The creatives, the easily-distracted, the absent-minded ones. We can’t exert that kind of control, no matter how hard we try. And so we learn to live with it, more or less. We tidy when we can, but the piles of books and papers and mail and school notices and children’s artwork are reliably regenerative. It’s a sign of life.

Moving day is three months away. Pat and I are slowly getting ourselves mentally prepared for the day when everything we own will be undone, unmade, packed up and transported down to the other end of New Zealand. We have been mapping out the rooms in our new house, deciding what will come with us and what will not. Writing lists, thinking through the options, talking out the pros and cons of keeping one piece of furniture over another.  It is a process of reduction. We are jettisoning, cutting back, giving up. Letting go.

I’m finding my focus steadily narrowing. Like a runner prepares for a race, or a woman in late-pregnancy readies herself for labour, my world is shrinking to the things I must absolutely give full attention to. Anything else is slowly fading off my radar. It feels strange, as if I’ve suddenly walked into a sound-proofed room and the noise of the world outside has reduced to a faraway hum. I can hear the blood thumping in my ears, the air rushing out my nostrils.

And then before I know it we’ll be driving. Us in front, kids in the back. Bags of snacks and books and activities piled up.  Our eyes taking it all in, fixed on the road ahead. The way it pulls us ever south, the way it winds and turns and opens out along the unbroken coast. Leading us towards the mountains that wait, green and strong.

together

canon13JULY 048

I sit here to write after watching a beautiful film; The Red House. It’s about Lee (a kiwi ecologist) and Jia (his Chinese wife) and the life they have woven together. They have only a portion of language in common, but their intimacy is all the more deeper for it. And despite her frustration with English, Jia has the most incredible way with words, they come tumbling out  with a disarming freshness. At the end of the film she is cutting Lee’s hair and talking to him about the purpose of life, and he asks her, how would you live, if you could. How would you imagine your life to be? And she smiles and laughs and says something like it would be to not be forced to do anything. To not have to make my parents’ breakfast, to not have to cut your hair. It would be to suddenly go and read a book, to suddenly go to the movies, to suddenly write.

At this I take an audible breath. Somehow in those surprising and seemingly clumsy words I find this truth; that freedom is a sure self. It is to know what we want, and then, at the appropriate time, to do it. To suddenly read. Or to suddenly, surprisingly, write. It is having a sure sense of self within, and the agency to act on it.

I see now that it is ten minutes until my birthday. And I remember all the other birthdays, those singular days jam packed with meaning; they couldn’t possibly hold any more of it. Some people can’t do a birthday without sharing it. The sharing is the meaning. For me, the older I get the less I need to share it. The sharing is lovely, and the love is always appreciated. But in the end this day is about the deep space inside of me, the one that only I can see. It is a chance to gaze within, to absorb the meaning of a lifetime, the meaning of a life.

I imagine that as I get older this will become even more true. I can imagine a birthday at ninety, completely alone. I know there will be children and grandchildren and an ancient husband, God willing. But my sense of peace and contentment will not come from without, great though the joy will be in sharing it with so many loves. Those loves will come and go, the presents will come and go, the praise, perhaps, will come and go. And in the end I will be alone, and happy. I will look back from that great distance and see everything, how all the twists and turns and dark spaces came together to form one incredible, unimaginable whole. I couldn’t have planned it.

It is obvious that every challenge and painful thing I have experienced has become and is becoming the raw passion and truth that I write from. It is obvious that there is nothing that has been wasted. There is no pain or difficulty that has been, or will be, without its own fruit. Strange fruit it may be. The unexpected and disconcerting fruit of the tropics, perhaps, like that wild-shaped and bleeding dragon fruit they eat in Cambodia.  But fruit it is, all the same. It won’t be to everyone’s taste, but I will relish it. And in the lean years of age it will feed me. When my adventures can only be made on the inside, I will look back over all of it in wonder. In wonder that one life could hold so much grief and so much joy.

This is my gift then, and will always be. The joy alongside the grief in complete union, my very own dance. I could wish the latter away all I wanted, but without it the joy would lose its depth. And the grief is my window onto the world, it is how I know you. It is how I came to be standing in the supermarket today with tears running down my face, feeling so alone and yet not alone, looking around at the people beside me and in front of me and behind me and knowing, suddenly, that between us all we had everything. We had money and the lack of it; health and the want of it, peace and the need for it, life and the dregs of it. Right there, in a suburban supermarket in Mt Albert, we were a microcosm of the world.

I wrote about this in my book. I wrote about it without even realising exactly what I was writing, and now I’ve written it, it can’t be undone. I feel it growing steadily inside of me, humming like a faraway rhythm, like a current of electricity. It’s a simple knowing, and it’s this; we are one.

I can’t live the same any more, not after what I’ve written. I cried at dinner last night because I realised that there were other mothers who served their children more than they served themselves, as I had just done and as my mother would have done once, and they were everywhere, all around the world. Only they went completely without, their hunger spreading through every fibre of their body until they were nothing but hunger, could feel nothing but hunger, could think nothing but hunger like an ache like a constant pain like a dullness in the mind, a shutting down.

And I can’t eat the same knowing how hungry they are.

My mountain knows this, the mountain I told you about when I last wrote. She knows that we all belong to each other, that we are all connected. That the leaves  on her trees are connected to their branches, and that the roots of those trees reach down into the soil which reaches out to everything, and all of us, everywhere. So that we are never truly alone. That everything we do and say reaches out in ripples and touches the people around us, those close and those far away. Even our breath goes out from us and mingles with the breath of every person who breathes with us now on this planet.  We are never cut off, never separated. We live and think and speak and write and love and grieve and eat and want, together.