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.
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.
“I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again.” ― Oscar Wilde
In the spirit of just getting on with it, I’ve started writing a poem a day. It doesn’t have to be great, I don’t need to spend all day on it, I may not even share it with anyone – and somehow those facts have liberated me. Okay, so this is only day two of the project, but I have a good feeling about it.
I always learn something about myself when I write a poem. Yesterday’s poem had these lines in it:
A future exists again and again I say:
This time is a gift.
My ability to think about the future comes and goes and it’s hugely reassuring when I can see those first rays of light above the horizon again, as I can now.
But the slippery nature of the future means it’s always renewing itself and therefore can exist “again and again.” Also, I need to remind myself that having time to write is a gift, so writing a poem a day is really the least I should be doing with that time, something I remind myself of over and over: “and again I say…”
Seeing the future can also help alleviate my anxiety and hold me in the present – enjoying now with a feeling that the future is going to be okay. “This time” is the present; right here and now is a gift.
Having explained my intention with those lines, I do acknowledge that “This time is a gift” is completely cheesy and the kind of memefied nonsense I’ve railed against in the past. So today I changed it to:
A future exists again and again I say:
This time, it’s a gift.
I hope the same levels of meaning remain: A view of the future exists again and again; the two separate thoughts, one of a future existing again after it had disappeared and one of me again telling myself to enjoy the present; and also the acknowledgement of the gift of free time – but I’m learning something else too. The comma changes “this time” so that the future I now see is a gift, something good, implying I’ve seen it before and it looked unappealing or possibly frightening (a classic role for Future to play).
These altered lines reassure me because the slippery nature of a future (note indefinite article still) is grounded slightly with “this time” – perhaps it won’t elude me this time. There’s something different (probably better) about the nature of the future I see…this time.
There’s a feeling of trust too if a future is being gifted to me and I can relax a little from worrying and straining to see or create it myself.
“This time, it’s a gift” also seems to lend more weight to the nature of time when there’s a pause just after the word and it’s reiterated through the pronoun. It expands beyond the present, which we know we must value and into that future – whatever it is this time – time itself is a gift.
But I’m still left trying to reassure myself “again I say: This time…” as if, naively, I’ve believed in this idea every time with as much conviction as I do now.