I didn’t realise the front yard’s potential until you took to it in gardening gloves, trimmed back the privet.
As last year changed from this year, and I could stop saying ‘last year’ with such portent, such regret; a phrase loaded with the weight of an on-coming sob-story, we were camping by the Wellington river. A settlement of pegged-out shelters, fairy lights and bonfires. I was miles from my Wellington home.
I say the h word again with a kind of inflection, trying it out for size, sighing out the həʊ, the m buzzes past my lips. I hold it in my mouth like a pill. This constant starting over exhausts me. Always has. Newness of a cleared front yard. I’ll dig in my toes, resolve to thicken like the trunk of a grapevine, let the porch be built around me for a change. Feathered things perch in my branches.
Disturbing the privet seems to be making my eyes stream, but on New Year’s Day I sprained my finger, slipped on rocks in flimsy jandals, a little drunk. There were bull ant bites on the tops of my feet and a blush of sunburn between my breasts. What I mean is, these things pass, they clear up. We heal and adapt. We look back and see fairy lights strung between trees, flickering with comforting regularity, we move closer to each other on an old brown couch. We look back and then we don’t look back.
I’m digging beneath trellised nasturtium in the garden of someone new. Planting star jasmine in the sun as a rain cloud approaches, but it’s the other kind I long to breathe in. The kind of jasmine that gushes over fences, escapes rambling front gardens, permeates shared paths. I pick sprigs of it always, carry it until it wilts. It takes me places.
So much has happened and I wanted to tell you. I’m astounded at my capacity to forgive. I’ve opened my heart to the gently damaged people of this world over and over, let them project their hurt onto me. I get it, but I won’t do that anymore. They seek help or not, move back home as I work through, work through, work through. Soil under my fingernails and the smell of almost-rain.
But I wanted to say something about the visits home. The places where family live lives I couldn’t have predicted and I’ve decided to tell the truth now. Stop listening to that voice in my head that nags at me to speak aloud the words and just speak aloud the damn words. I’ve lived long hours in transit, just to reconnect.
It seems everything I’ve ever written has been a metaphor for clouds: looking down on them from planes, watching them roll in darkly from the east, trusting they’ll rain themselves empty or just move on. It’s always been about clouds. The way they look reflected on the water’s surface, distracting me from the reedy depths.
Seasons change and I let anniversaries pass through me like a southerly at first, but even the wind feels warmer when you look back. The red flag of that first betrayal wilts like picked jasmine, fades in the briefly sunlit garden of someone new.
That summer I was reading A brief history of seven killings, a weighty hardback issued from the library. Too heavy to lug out to parks or café courtyards, it anchored me into my new home. I lounged on the daybed and when people asked aloud what I’d been doing, the book’s title drew out my kiwi accent almost as thick as the tome itself. A reminder of the recency of my migration.
An odd choice of book, perhaps, but held in place by it I felt the sun pass through the house and, when I needed a break from the intensity, I walked to the supermarket in my new neighbourhood; each day a little taller, feeling more present. Roses bent their heads over picket fences and I learnt to recognise those worth stopping to breathe with. I took in the street names, smiled at locals, became one.
It’s been a difficult couple of months. Individually, universally. Hell, it’s been a tough few years if you really want to start scraping back through it all and trying to remember the last time you sat still, looked around at your personal, professional and creative life and thought, Yeah, things are okay. I wish I’d made better note of those moments of contentment, but perhaps that would have shifted them out of the present and it’s being present in those moments that makes one content.
I’ve been counting words – proud of a year spent launching a novel and working on two more. Gathering poems into a third collection and reading everything I can find. But in there somewhere I lost count. Lost track of how to hold onto what was mine, lost count of the number of job applications, inquiries and rejection letters, the social interactions cancelled or rain-checked beyond redemption. I can’t bear to try and count the heartbreaks and moments of self-doubt of the last few years.
I have, however, counted the flights. 21 international flights in the last two years, 10 since moving to Melbourne. There have been adventures and family celebrations and always something good waiting at each end – but counting and losing count has made me exhausted.
My last flight back to Wellington landed 24 hours before the 7.8 quake last month and as lovely as it was to see my family and friends and know they wanted me there so they could check in, hug me and try to settle me after what felt like a complete life-fail, I got the strong sense Wellington was trying to shake me free. Again.
But slowly the after-shocks stopped and things seemed to shuffle into a shape I could make sense of. The feeling that home wasn’t quite home anymore, the outrage or compassion my friends expressed on my behalf at the situation I’d found myself in, the daily routine and purpose my brother provided and the obstacle-ridden journey my mum endured to come and see me, care for me and give me a copy of Sarah Laing’s Mansfield and Me all helped me feel like me again.
There’s something pretty special about Sarah’s book. Reading about her journey juxtaposed with that of our shared literary hero, Katherine Mansfield, reminded me of what I need: To stop counting, stop flying, sit still again and write. To be somewhere that could become home, somewhere bright, open, flat and stable beneath the feet. Somewhere I can keep putting my words down, one after the other and build something, anything, that looks like a life. And sure I need love and connections; to be honest with the people around me, to ask for help and show others I can help them too, but right now I just need to stay alive and to write.
Back in Melbourne and every day I feel slightly different. Last week, when the moment felt right, I cycled round to look at a spare room in a cottage on Mansfield Street. Stained-glass bay window, picket fence. In Thornbury, but it would not be out of place in Thorndon. I thought of Sarah moving to New York and Katherine moving to London and me, now, with all this hope and determination despite what feels like months of disappointment.
So I’ve moved to Mansfield Street, into a room of my own. The wifi’s dodgy and we don’t have a kettle, but my optimism is boundless. It surprises me sometimes.