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flying

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I travel domestic more often now that I’m in the south, and I’ve found I really don’t like flying in smaller planes. Maybe it’s something to do with getting older, but whatever it is, it’s inconvenient and a bit embarrassing. In landing and in turbulence my body is convinced I am about to die. She tells me in no uncertain terms that these are my last moments. She says: you are about to die right now, or if not right now, at some point in your life doing this exact (crazy) thing, you are going to die.

The feeling is a kind of liquid dread, one that fills every pore – toes to scalp. My insides explode outwards, or they feel as if they are exploding outwards, as if they can’t possibly take any more input. My skin is on alert, absorbing the rumble and blast of the engines as if I were actually sitting inside them. My hearing is acute. The slightest change in tenor of the vibrations or the addition of an unfamiliar sound sends my stomach into paroxysms. And I don’t have the science to reassure myself.

So I sit hunched over with my fingers in my ears, and I squeeze my eyes shut in any attempt to deny the reality of what I am experiencing. And I repeat the mantra which runs through my mind at the height of the anxiety; my guttural response to what feels like the end. My husband knows I love him, my daughters know I love them, I told my mother the truth, I told my father the truth, I told my sisters the truth. And in that moment, I know there is only one thing that matters.

I pay attention to the flight attendant in the “what to do in an emergency” dance. You bet I do. I watch very carefully and make note of all the relevant details within my vicinity.  Under my seat for the life jacket. Somewhere magically dangling in front of me for that funny yellow plastic thing. I take out the instruction card from the pocket in front of me to confirm the correct bracing position for my seat (it is some comfort to see I have options). The flight attendant reminds us that in an emergency there will be no time to pick up our belongings. “Leave everything behind,” she says. I smile.

A long time ago I measured the value of money in plane tickets. A few days after I finished high school I got on a plane, my first solo trip.  The plane took me to LAX, where I sat waiting for eight hours, only taking my eyes off the clock to eat a hamburger that tasted like cardboard and to write in the pink striped journal my sister had given me as a Christmas present before I left.  Then it was Lima Airport for three hours, Buenos Aires for one night, and finally Santiago. I had arrived. I wanted to learn how to describe a city. I thought I’d end up going everywhere, eventually.

Flying has always been a resonant metaphor for me. I have flying dreams, dreams where I’m above the earth, where I’m looking down over cities. Dreams where I take giant leaps up into the air and back down again. I’ve seen my life in an instant, watching a plane take off, turn around and land again, and do the same thing over and over until finally it rises up one last time like a space shuttle, straight up into the sky. Was this a dream? A day dream? I can’t remember. But the image haunts me. This is your life, it tells me, and don’t you forget it.

I haven’t lived a truthful life. I hid from myself for a long time. I was beholden. To a person, to a great stack of should-do’s, to a set of beliefs, to my own desperate insecurities. My mind was walled-in, I could only move forward two steps or so before returning back to the exact spot I’d tried to leave. I was deaf to anything I didn’t understand, blind to everything that frightened me. I tried very hard to convince you that I knew who I was, but when you reached out to touch me, I wasn’t there. I shifted, wavered, evaded. I was not who I said I was.

Two months after arriving in Santiago, I returned home. Back to my bedroom, my piles of books and my desk. University started a few weeks later, and there I was transported to the brand new world of adulthood. Everything a door of opportunity waiting to be opened. Or so people said. I came home from the first day pretty unmoved. I had a headache. I can show you the page in my journal from 1993, it’s all there.

I spent the next three years in denial, in various ways. I sat in lectures for my favourite women’s lit paper enchanted with feminist theory, and yet I was absolutely not a feminist – my Christianity had supposedly cured me of that. The best marks I got were in Spanish language and literature papers, and I loved every text we studied (Borges, Garcia Marquez, Allende… all wonders) but saw no value in it, because the only way I knew of individuating back then was to be as unlike my mother as possible, and she was a tutor in the department.

I had a darling crush on one of my best girlfriends at least half of that time, and yet I could no more see it than I could have visited the moon. As far as I was concerned, my gay had been prayed away. It was my shadow life, I told myself. The dark B side I would be living if I didn’t “have God.” If I’d trusted you back then, and we were having a quiet chat at the back of a dim café somewhere, I would have told you. If I wasn’t a Christian, I’d be gay.

Perhaps you can see where this is going. I told you I was bisexual eighteen months ago and I felt like my world exploded with light. But for the three years previous to that, my question hadn’t been am I bi? My question had been am I gay? And the only way I could find an answer to that question was to come down on the side least likely to upturn my life. I love my husband, and of what I understood to be attraction back then, I felt for him and for a couple of other guys previously. So, almost on a technicality, I decided I must be bi.

In November last year I came back from handing my thesis in, and in the headspace vacuum that great finishing created, I realised something enormous. I’m gay. Lesbian. Dyke. Sapphist. Queer. Whatever you want to call it, that’s what I am. It was a knowing that rose up from somewhere deep, and once I faced it head on, after a week of awful grief, I couldn’t un-know it. It was the truth, and it wasn’t going anywhere. Slowly, in tiny and careful steps, I began to tell it.

There are no words to adequately describe how those first few weeks felt. I felt like a bomb that was about to go off and blow up my family. Like I was about to lose everything I had worked so hard to keep. As if I was about to say ha, I never wanted you, respectable nuclear family in the suburbs, I never wanted you at all. But I had wanted it. And what if I still did? What if the thought of losing everything was terrible enough that for a long moment I considered taking it back in? Pretending I’d never said those grave words to Pat sitting on the couch one long evening in November. I need to tell you something.

But I couldn’t bring myself to take it back. Once the words had been spoken, they couldn’t be un-spoken. Once I’d started moving forwards there was no other direction I could go in. Moving felt too good. The knowing made too much sense. It explained so much. And the relief I felt was incredible. It was like finally, after all these years, I could sit down on the inside.

And so I come back to the truth. And the realisation I have when flying – that the truth is the only thing that matters. I can’t take anything with me, I leave it all behind. So this life I have, this very present moment of now, is all I’ve got. I’ve spent so long in hiding, I can’t do it any more. Everything in me, every fibre of me – body, soul and spirit – is calling me to come out.

It’s complicated, obviously. But I married the right man. Pat has stood by me faithfully while I systematically deconstructed almost every part of my life over the last five years. When he had every reason to say I can’t take any more, he stayed. He listened and he sought to understand and he changed and he supported. Whether we stay under the same roof, as we are doing now, or not, we will remain committed to each other. We will continue to be a family. To love each other and our girls the best way we know how.

There have been oceans of grief to travel, don’t be misled. There have been oceans and deserts and low tight forests of sadness. But we did it in a dark cocoon of privacy, down here at the bottom of the world. Few have known the road we’ve travelled since November, and that has helped us to process together, to travel together, to keep saying, over and over: I love you, I’ve never stopped loving you. 

I’m not writing to ask for your pity and I’m not writing for your advice. I’m not interested in hearing your anxiety about the future of our family (the girls are doing really well, thanks), or all your bible-bound reasons Christians can’t or shouldn’t be gay. And that’s not because I’m stubbornly forging ahead without any care for anybody else’s opinion, it’s because I already know it all. There’s nothing you can tell me about broken families or church dogma that I don’t already know. Save your breath.

There are many days when the label “Christian” doesn’t fit me. My ideas – about God and the world and how beloved we all are – sometimes feel too wide and broad to fit into a narrow category. But the one constant I’ve felt since November is the gentle tug of something within me, something good and strong and wise, coaxing me forwards, coaxing me out of hiding. Calling me to live. If I know anything right now, it’s that this something within me, this something bigger than me and beyond me and yet in me at the same time, is the surging core of life within all of creation. The life that created me is calling me out. I can’t put it any other way.

 

 

becoming whole

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I went to church on Ash Wednesday. Back to that cavernous place I haven’t been in for a while. Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent – the season of the church calendar which leads up to Easter. I hadn’t given Lent any thought until then, but at some point on that Wednesday afternoon I realised I wanted to go to church.

I drove into the car park a few minutes late. The service was supposed to start outside but I couldn’t see anyone, so I presumed it had already begun. I walked in the back entrance and saw people filing in the main door in front of me, past the minister and past something burning on the ground by the doorway. I walked round to the back of the line of people, and peered down at the metal bowl on the first step up to the entrance. It was a bowl of fire. A pile of flax crosses burning.

I’d never smelt anything like it. It was acrid and pungent and bitter. There were no base notes, there was no depth to it at all. It was not like the smoky sweetness of incense, which is rich and beguiling; or like the smell of charcoal burning for a BBQ, the promise of a good meal. It was sour and disconcerting, impossible to ignore. And as we filed into the church and sat down it followed us.

I used to go to church a lot. You’ve probably heard me say this before. I went to church every week, usually several times a week, for a long time. The church I went to was the kind of church where what you believed came in bullet points. Where belief was a concrete, absolute thing that existed outside of a person, and was either accepted and absorbed, or rejected. And it was the kind of church which categorised people accordingly. You either believed, or you didn’t. You were either in, or out.

It was a pretty ordinary church, as far as evangelical churches go. We believed in a literal heaven and a literal hell, and that you needed a conversion experience to secure your place in the former. We felt pretty grateful for our own said personal conversion experiences, and so we had a lot to be happy about. And happy and clappy go hand in hand, well they did in my case.  But we were also burdened. We were burdened for the world. Because we didn’t take our ticket to heaven for granted, and we wanted as many people as possible to come for the ride.

At best, this kind of evangelicalism is benevolent, shoring up a host of social programmes and charities just about everywhere you look. But at its worst, it quickly morphs into fundamentalism; which – as far as I can see – is nothing less than the scourge of our age. In fundamentalism those bullet points of belief come laced with fear and control, and the categories are iron-cast. There is no wriggle room, no tolerance for grey. If you are not in, you absolutely out.

If we mapped out a spectrum – benevolent evangelicalism moving to the benign and then through to toxic fundamentalism at the other end – my church experience would span almost the whole range. I know how attractive it is to be part of something big and thriving, and how strong the pull of conformity is in that environment. I can attest to the value of community, to the change that can happen when someone has the support and resources necessary to change. I was never ostracised, and never part of an actual cult. I was always “in.” And yet I’m only just now beginning to understand what it cost me to stay “in.”

One loss from those years was that I was disconnected from symbol and metaphor. Those bullet-pointed tenets of faith acted like a rigid layer of certainty over everything in our tradition which was ambiguous or open to interpretation. Anything less than absolute was rendered invisible. And metaphor; the great language of art, literature and the unconscious was wiped from the register. It was not a language we were proficient in. If anything, we were suspicious of it. Anything that was less than concrete was likely to lead us down the slippery slope to “out.”

I went to church that Wednesday night to get ash on my forehead. I knew that if I went to church I’d come home with a black-grey smudge in the vague shape of a cross. That was what I wanted. I wanted the ash. I wanted to be marked. I wanted to sit in that sprawling and beautiful building and think about my humanness. I wanted to own up to my smallness, to my need, to the dust that I am made of. And I knew that the smear of ash would mean something.

My insides haven’t always matched my outsides. I’ve been a master of disguise. Smiling but internally torn. A bundle of anxiety and nervous energy which made me look like a go-getter, a worker, a get-things-happening kind of person. I was on an endless mission to improve things. The things I was bent on improving were always external. Houses. Relationships. Organisations. Domestic functions.  Somewhere deep inside me was this nagging sense that something was wrong.

My search led me to explore Catholicism. Suddenly I found I had a voracious appetite for ritual. I wanted to cross myself. I couldn’t get enough of the incense. I was enchanted with transubstantiation – the belief that in the Eucharist ritual, the bread and wine literally become the body and blood of Christ. I’d spent so long singing and praying about God being in me, that of course I wanted to eat God – it was an obvious progression.  Yet at the same time the idea of eating God was so natural, so ordinary. Eating being such an ordinary activity and hunger our most base need. The juxtaposition was thrilling. And I was hungry.

I was hungry for the saints. The way you could see them. The ones sculpted in white, watching the parishioners kindly from the back of the church. The small ones on cards you could carry around with you – pocket saints. You could touch them. The pocket saints came with their own prayer on the back, words that they (more-or-less) had prayed themselves. You could pray with them. And the saints felt real. Their stories might have been (more-or-less) fabricated, but that wasn’t the point. I knew that behind all the layers of story was a flesh and blood person. And I loved the women saints. There were so many of them. They led me to Mary.

I needed to know that God looked like me. I needed to know that God was soft. I needed to know that God had a womb. That God laboured, that God had breasts, that God comforted, that God hovered like a mother bird over her nest. Those images were all in the bible – which at that time I read like my life depended on it. But I couldn’t see them properly until I saw Mary. Mary was everything I missed out on in the male-dominated and performance-driven Christianity of my upbringing. Ever-present Mary, she who carried the divine seed and let it grow, patiently pregnant with God. She was my antidote.

Anyone who knew me could have seen that my crush on Catholicism wasn’t going to take. The fact that I would have had to be baptised again was a deal-breaker. In the midst of all the coercion and control I experienced as a teenager, both at home and at church, getting baptised was one of the first things I did in my life for myself. It meant something incredible to me then, and it does now. And then when you add the fact that the Catholic church doesn’t ordain women, and is probably about a thousand years away from being open and affirming of queer Christians, well… you get the picture.

But we should always pay attention to what we’re attracted to.  My attraction to the Catholic church was telling me something. It was telling me I wanted to smell God. It was telling me I wanted to look at God with my natural eyes, that I wanted to look in the mirror and see God staring back at me. It confirmed to me that I wanted a new experience of God – something grounded in ritual, something grounded in the simple movement of my own body.  I wanted an expression of faith that sprang from more than just the latest edict from the latest male to grace the pulpits of my youth.

I still haven’t found what I’m looking for. I often wonder if I ever will. But the night I sat in my favourite ancient place, the air rank with bitter smoke, and came home with a grey smudge on my very own skin, I knew that I had found something. Every time I surprise myself by capturing the mystical and dragging it into the ordinary bounds of my very real life, I feel just like I did when I was sixteen and freshly baptised. Like the mystery I felt burning inside of me was lit up on the outside of me as well. I was one.

sixteen: letter to myself

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Let me start at the beginning. I smile when I look at your face. That photo of you, hand on an open book, eyes wide and glinting. You are so happy to have found that people know what you’ve known for a while; you are good at something. Specifically, you are good at writing. That’s what your smile is about. Look at me, I’m a writer.

Right now, at sixteen, you think that’s all you need to know. You are convinced that the pathway of your life is lined with books, every piece of stone underneath your feet a page of words. Of course. You see things very clearly, and that is exactly what you see.

You think you’ll have written your first novel by the time you’ve finished university. Or at least have started it. You have no idea what you’ll do at university, or what the point of university is, but you’ll go there, because it seems the obvious thing to do. It’s an interlude on the way to writing your first novel. Because that will happen, it’s only a matter of time.

You wonder briefly if you should have a better idea of what you want to “do” when you finish school, in that official kind of earn a living kind of way. You absolutely do not want to be a teacher. You wonder if you might like to be psychologist. You don’t know exactly what a psychologist is but you went to one the year your mother tried to stop you seeing your father and it was fascinating. You were eight and sat spellbound in a wide chair while the psychologist asked you questions you still remember thirty-two years later.

On the spur of the moment at the end of your last year at school you stop by the careers office to ask about the difference between psychiatry and psychology. The woman barely answers your question, certainly fails to articulate any difference, and then tells you that you’ll do well at whatever you do. Somehow this confirms your vagueness. You are awash in a sea of possibility, no fixed options, no definite horizons.

So you go to university, do the things you are already good at, and avoid anything you might fail. You think about doing Psychology 101 until you find out that there are labs involved, and rats, and you change your mind immediately. Because you don’t do science. You say it’s because the subject is boring and you are squeamish. But really it’s because you struggle to remember individual facts. You need a story to hold them all together. You know about stories.

What you don’t know anything about, dear girl, is your brain. You have no idea that the way you doubt yourself before you go to open a door (is it push or pull?), the way two pieces of information can swap places in your mind without you even realising, the way you forget which colour toothbrush is yours, forget what day it is… that none of it is your fault.

So it’s no wonder you are smiling. You’ve spent your whole life trying to hide how stupid you feel. Stupid, forgetful, clumsy, careless, silly. Stupid. You’ve been wrong so many times you can’t even begin to count. But you can write. Finally, something you can do. And when you write, you feel as if you are flying. So of course you are going to be a writer.

But not a journalist. Definitely not a journalist. You say it’s because you don’t want to work at the local paper writing stories about blocked drains. But actually it’s because deep down you believe that you are incapable of writing non-fiction. You can’t trust yourself to get the facts right, or in the right order. And you don’t even know what day it is, half the time.

So by the time you finish school you know this much. You definitely do not want to be a teacher. You do not want to be a journalist. You’ll go to university because there doesn’t seem to be anything else to do. You might do psychology, except that would be science, and you don’t do science. So you’ll do all the things you already know how to do. And bide your time until that first novel arrives in perfect form on your doorstep. It’s on the way.

But what you don’t know is that at some point in those three lonely years at university, even some of the things you are good at won’t go so well. One day you get a C plus for a history essay and something inside of you closes shut. No more history. The next year you get a B for a Shakespeare essay and something else inside of you closes shut. No more Shakespeare. You do politics, when you could have done psychology, and you tell the tutor that it feels like maths. You think it’s a cute joke. She looks at you like she has no idea what on earth you are doing sitting in her office.

But you decide it doesn’t matter. You get through your final year with the barest effort. You do a creative writing paper, thinking that this will give you your first novel, but it only makes you more disillusioned. You are the most recalcitrant writing student. You don’t want to play games with words.  You tell yourself the B’s don’t matter, the bad feedback from your famous writing tutor doesn’t matter, none of it matters because you are going to be a writer. No matter what they say.

It helps that you’ve realised there’s something else you like to do. You like to think and talk about God. You feel called. You feel like there’s room for the whole entire world in your heart. And for a brief dark moment you abandon writing altogether. Why would I want to spend all my days in a room by myself? You say. And so you devote yourself, compulsively, to the work of saving the world.  And unfortunately, no matter how much you strive to throw yourself towards the light, your world slowly becomes darker and darker, and smaller and smaller. Until you have nothing left to give.

It’s not the first time you’ve been depressed, you realise. Now you know the name for that internal darkness that came every evening at dusk the year you turned eight. The two darknesses, the inner and the outer, went hand in hand. You remember sitting on the lounge floor with your mother after dinner, and looking up at the wooden light fitting in the centre of the room. To you, it was a skull and cross bones. It just looked that way, as the heaviness came down over your small frame. But you couldn’t tell her, and she never asked.

I’m on your side now, dear girl. I worked against you for a long time, I’m sorry to admit. I was desperate for approval –  from your mother mostly – and I needed you to comply. I made you do things you didn’t want to do. I made you hide feelings you should have talked about. I made you pretend you were ok. I made you so tired with all the trying to be good and normal and popular and organised. I hurt you.

The best thing I can do for you now is what I know I can do; be the parent. It’s been more than ten years since my first baby and I think I’m slowly figuring things out. The best thing I can offer you now is my love. If you let me, I’ll take you into my arms and hold you. And tell you everything is going to be ok. I’ll tell you that yes you can write but there are so many other things you can do. Like think. And notice. And teach, funnily enough. You’ve got a long road ahead of you, I want to tell you. But you’ll get there. And when you look back it will all make sense.

You see what you don’t know, what you can’t possibly understand, is that you are working very hard to appear some kind of normal, when really you are anything but normal. What you can’t see, and what you won’t see for a long time, is that the mother you love desperately, the one you can’t escape, the one you are afraid of, the one whose displeasure sends chills down your spine, has hurt you so badly you can’t trust yourself to think straight.

You’ll need to let her go for a while, when you’re ready. You’ll need to find out what it means to be yourself, to own your own space, to have autonomy, volition, agency. You’ll need to separate from her to do that, as awful as it will feel when the time comes. You’ll need to get out from under the shadow she’s cast over you for forty years. And when you do, everything will change.

The novel, you’ll realise, is not done yet. You wrote it in half-shadow, living in half your brain. Don’t be afraid to pull it apart, put it to one side even, for a time. You’ll find the next story just comes, that your pen wants to keep moving on the page. After all, you’ve never stopped writing.

And you’ll want to go back to university. You’ll feel giddy at all the space you realise is there in that funny brain of yours, and you’ll be itching to fill it. Not just with images and fragments and bits of every novel you’ll ever write, but bookshelves lined with books that are labelled, ordered, a library. Only this time you won’t be afraid of what you think you can’t do. Because you’ll have realised that you could always do most of it anyway, with a bit of help and a lot of self-understanding.

It’s like starting again, at the very beginning. As if forty was always going to be a good year. It would seem an age away, if someone told you. If someone told fresh-faced sixteen year old you that nothing would make sense until forty you would resist it with every ounce of your being. There’s no way I’m waiting that long! You would say. So I won’t tell you that. I’ll just smile and tell you I love you. I’ll tell you that you are beautiful, and intelligent. And one day it will all make sense.

 

 

finishing and beginning

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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 always lacked confidence in my intelligence deep down. 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 was convinced I couldn’t do any of that. So I strenuously avoided my gaps and weaknesses – anything 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.

twelve years old

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My big girl turned twelve last month. How about that. She’s growing, lanky and long, trying on curves for size. A was-child’s body barely containing the woman within. She’s waiting to break out.

What will that woman be like? I watch her and wonder. Kind, above all else. Thoughtful and sensitive, without a doubt. Inquisitive and searching, definitely. Light hearted and fun-seeking, yes. Growing in confidence and attitude, in gut feelings and feisty reactions, I pray so. Developing a voice that speaks without hesitation, that says, “this is me, this is who I am, and this is how I expect to be treated.” Come on girl!

It’s my moment, I know, I can feel it in my bones. This is where I get to play my most important role. Everything else almost pales in comparison. The babywearing, the midnight feeds, the cuddles, the songs, the stories, the trips to the beach the zoo the park flooded with autumn leaves, they’re all in the past, their time is gone. This is where I get to take on the role of airfield officer, to put on my high-vis vest and get down there and clear the runway.  It’s a very serious job. Watch out anyone who tries to get in her way! And what can’t be moved, of course, we talk about. We’ve got a lot of ground to cover.

I’m in the middle of a Masters in Education, carrying out research in the area of twice-exceptional students (students who are gifted and have some kind of disability). It’s a fascinating subject because it brings together so many different areas – giftedness, learning disabilities, disability studies, educational psychology, neuroscience, pedagogy, and all those important self’s: self-knowledge, self-concept, self-efficacy, self-awareness. I’m surrounded by case studies – at home and at school – so everything I read is real. I sit here in my tiny box of a study, piles of journal articles wherever I look, and I laugh, I cry, I talk back to the researchers I disagree with. I’m in heaven.

Part of my reading has been looking at the role of the family in talent development. It’s heavy going in places, sobering and inspiring at the same time. It all boils down to one very obvious fact – the influence of the family can be a determining factor in the development of a child’s potential. Whether their ability is developed to a high level or not can depend on the family context. Of course there are always exceptions. History gives us plenty of examples of highly successful individuals who succeeded despite their family background rather than because of it. But research has highlighted some interesting factors in the way a healthy family works to support the child’s development, and I find it fascinating.

Paula Olszewski-Kubilius points out that a disability in a child can set in motion within a family a psychological process that either helps or hinders the child’s development.  A disability combined with giftedness (which is what I’m studying) can result in reduced opportunities for the child’s development, or in a disproportionate focus on the disability, to the detriment of the gift. However, she interestingly suggests that any characteristic of a child that results in rejection by their parents (such as a disability), can help free the child from “strong psychological identification” with the parents, thereby supporting the development of the child’s own unique identity.

It reminds me of Jung’s idea of individuation. I’ve written about it before, I talk about it often. I’ve lived it, better late than never, and I believe in it. Individuation; the process by which we become our own unique selves, is a process contra naturam. Meaning, against human nature. To individuate we go against every force within us and without us that would will us to comply, to fit in, to keep the peace. Separating from our parents, defining ourselves as ‘other’ in relationship to them, is the first step. It’s teenage rebellion in a psychological frame. But it’s more than that too. It’s the hard work of pushing back on the world when the world tries to tell us who we are and how we should be behaving. It’s the risky, enormously brave step of standing up and saying “this is me, this is who I am, and this is how I expect to be treated.”

As far as my role in these teenage years goes, I realise the tarmac metaphor is limited. When the time comes for my twelve year old to take off into life she might rather dance than fly. Or paint, or sing, or yell. You get what I mean. But however she decides to do it, she’ll have my full support. It won’t all be, well which cliché shall I use? Fun and games? A walk in the park? Plain sailing? At some point I’ll be the thing she fights against with every ounce of her strength. I’ll represent everything she’s not, as she does the work of discovering what she is. I’m wincing at the thought, but I’m also kind of excited. It’s an amazing season to be in, full of potential and possibility, and I get to watch it unfold. The least I can do is get out of the way.