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how much I want

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From the 16th to the 18th of November I cried. In the car, walking the dog, in the toilets at work. In the shower, cooking dinner, hanging out the washing. Wherever I was where no one could see me.

On the 19th of November I got up in the morning and vacuumed the lounge. I hung out a small load of washing on the drying rack in front of the window. I drove into town for Greer’s end of year dance show. At the library afterwards a blue spine caught my eye out of a pile of withdrawn books. The subtitle; Coming out in the Anglican Church. For a moment, my whole body came alive. I bought the book.

At about two o’clock I drove across town and up the hill to my friend’s house. Together we went to the gardens, where tall trees lean over the edge and green shrubs produce bold flowers beside curves of grass. We sat on a bench in the sun looking out. I opened my mouth. I said something I’d never said out loud before. I’ve realised I’m gay, I said. Deep down I know I’m longing to be with a woman. We cried.

Dinner was chicken and vegetables, roasted by Pat back at our little bungalow on the other side of the hills. We ate it together, all five of us around the small borrowed table in the corner of the lounge. It was a normal Saturday night, except that we both knew we needed to talk. We waited, me skulking, obsessively tidying, waiting for the girls to sleep. It was a long evening.

There wasn’t much to say. I just had to get it out. I have a deep desire to be with a woman. I’m not bi, I’m gay,  I said. The words were clipped, serious. His face fell. He stood up. He paced the room. What is that supposed to mean? He said. What does that even mean? He sat back down on the couch. I told him everything I knew. He listened.

It was like taking our future into my bare arms and throwing it off the edge of a precipice. We both watched as it fell, broken faces. But neither of us reached up to grab it. Once I had let it go, we could not pick it up.

We cried. We kept crying. I sat there watching him, knowing exactly what I had done. Wishing like anything I could do something to take it back. But there was nothing I could do. Once the words were out, they were out.

Let’s take communion, I said. I went to the kitchen and came back with a plate. Two squares of bread on it, two glasses of juice. It was a meal of desperation. I think I said God help us.  After that we played a round of scrabble, my idea. I wanted us to stay on the couch. I felt like once we got up off the couch it would be the end.

But it wasn’t the end.

*          *          *

I wonder now how the stories will go. All the half-written essays. The one about flying and telling the truth. The one that whispered to me every time I tried to finish it; really? Are you really telling the truth? How will the stories go now that I know who I am? Now that I’m here.

Let me tell you about beautiful women. Soft faces, whole worlds behind clear eyes. That little bit of smooth skin at the waist. I got to see my friend. She was going but I saw her before she left. She was on her way but she was so present sitting next to me. Ella took a photo of us: smiling wide and beautiful. My friend had no idea what I’d realised about myself. I sat next to her smiling and knew without saying a thing. She was beautiful to me. She is beautiful to me.

To be unable to speak those words: she is beautiful. This was my life. From the age of ten, when I saw a woman’s naked breast for the first time. I can still remember the line of it as she turned towards me. Beautiful, I thought, but couldn’t say. Then later, a friend, I loved to watch her mouth when she read her poetry. Beautiful, everything in me knew it. But did I let myself know it?

And in between, all the girlfriends I loved dearly and wondered why the friendship never came back to me in quite the way I gave it. What was missing? Why did I love them so much? I never knew. They were beautiful to me. But I couldn’t say it.

I went on a Sunday school camp with a friend. We were ten or eleven. We talked late one night in two top bunks, head to head. Her voice was soft and her face was kind. I asked her if she wanted to hold my hand and she did. We fell asleep, hands clasped. It was heaven. There was nothing in it. Oh but there was everything in it. The kindness of a friend. A picture of intimacy. A clue like a magic stone I wouldn’t pick up until more than thirty years later.

What is it like to live for so many years without putting voice to a longing? What is it like to feel something but have no words for it? What is it like to feel something and simultaneously reject it? To nullify it instantly? To feel it and unfeel it at exactly the same time?

It is like wrapping yourself up in bandages. Winding the pressing grey weave tight. Winding it tight, layer over layer. This is wrong, this is a feeling I am not feeling. I am not feeling this feeling. Over and over. Tight and covered.

Give me a roomful of women. Give me a world of women. Give me one soft hand; my own. Let me clasp it, soft on soft, all my own. This is how I learn to love a woman, by learning to love myself.

*          *          *

On the 18th of November I started listening to Sinead O’Connor on IV through my headphones while I sat working in the staffroom. Working face down so that no one could see my dark eyes. Take me to church. The ones that don’t hurt. I don’t want to love the way I’ve loved before. Hitting refresh over and over. Dragging myself to classes and then hiding away as soon as they were over.

On the 21st of November I changed the song. There’s no safety to be acquired. Riding streetcars of desire. I have chosen, I have chosen, to become the one I’m longing. And in the moment I first heard it, I knew. What did I know?

I knew that I had chosen to become what I was longing for.  To become her. To become the one who takes my hand, the one who loves me back the way I love her. The one who watches me, the one who knows how beautiful I am.

Tell me, how does that go? How do I do that? Who will teach me?

*          *          *

I looked for a picture to go with this essay. I wanted to be in the picture. The picture needed to be of me. And it needed to be close to the time I am describing here, a picture from before I said the words out loud to all of you, I am lesbian. I scrolled through image after image on my phone. Searching for myself. Where was I?

All I could find was a picture of my feet. It was my birthday, a whole year ago, and we were at the beach. A wild day, windy and grey. We were right out on the edge of everything, facing the arctic. I was happy to be there, happy to be with my family. But I spent most of that day with an ache I couldn’t name. Something was missing.

You might think my story is commonplace. Plenty of people come out later in life. Coming out, in our moderate nation anyway, is now a familiar cultural event. It’s not so unusual. Or perhaps you’re on the other side of things and think my story is broken. That I’ve broken my family. Perhaps you think I could have asked for help. Perhaps you think I could have changed.

But none of you have any idea how much I want to live.

 

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happy giving-birth-to-myself day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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daughters

paul-gauguin-the-siestaGauguin, The Siesta

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

lit up

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The sun was full and bright through the lounge sliding doors this afternoon and I knew what I wanted. I came and sat down, crossed my legs and turned my palms upwards. It’s a good spot to meditate, there on the lounge floor. The glass doors look out over the deck and the houses below and up to the hills on the other side of the valley. In winter the sun sets early but wild, in a straight line across the roof of our house and onto the lounge floor. I sat in the sun and shut my eyes. And there it was. The peace that comes when I’m ready for it.

The sun was so wide and strong over me sitting there that I could see it through my eyelids. As if it were the middle of summer and I had flecks of sun-blur beckoning me from the corner of my eye. I felt like a trumpet-shaped flower just opened, a snap-dragon or an exotic datura flower, narrow and long with the stamen and pollen deep in its centre, the sun pouring through.  As if for the first time the full blast of sun could reach its core.

It’s hard to describe how right now feels for me. But if you can imagine a flower just unfurled for the first time, you might get close. I’ve spent a lot of my life in a strange state of creative barrenness, whole parts of me curled up and hidden, far from the light. And yet in another sense I have been growing myself all this time. I have been growing myself in those dark and hidden places, and here I am. I am my own fruit.

I can understand why people might feel sad about our news. The news that I have realised I am lesbian, and that Pat and I are recreating our relationship. It’s the end of an era, the end of the relationship as it was. Certainly last November and December – the time immediately following my enormous realisation – are worth feeling sad about. Both of us in massive shock at that time, both in various stages of grief. Both full of fear for the future, and for each other. And yet if you saw us now, if you were sitting at the dining table this afternoon with a cup of tea while the sun streamed in, you’d realise we’ve got it pretty good.

All I asked for back in November was my own bedroom. All I could say to Pat was; I love you, I’m gay. Because at that point it was all I knew. Just give me time, I asked. Time to process what this means. He did. We started a long conversation about what it would look like for us to live in the same house and remain a family, even with us in different bedrooms, even just for a time. On a grey day we saw a house for sale over in the valley. Five bedrooms upstairs and an office and rumpus downstairs. We were prickly with each other, our words laced with anxiety, but I knew this house was something. Let’s give ourselves the chance to grow into something new.

 Last weekend Pat moved downstairs. I call it his “man-burrow” because it’s dark down there at night, perfect for sleeping, and because there’s something magic about the idea of hibernation. An animal can absent themselves from everything for a time and survive, and then in spring return to a whole new world. He’s got a gigantic screen down there, a pool table and an office on the other side of the stairwell. He’s strung up fairy lights and arranged things just to his liking.

I went and bought myself a bed five days after I told Pat the truth. I was in a daze, hardly eating, hardly sleeping, functioning on instinct. I bought the kind of bed I’ve always wanted. And I bought a single bed. I couldn’t articulate much that week, but what I did know was that I was coming out as lesbian for myself. I wasn’t doing it to replace one relationship with another. I was doing what I needed to do to love myself.

When I wrote here on this blog that I was bisexual, I was elated. I was elated to be telling the world I knew I could love a woman, that I had loved a woman. Yet at the same time I felt a palpable regret somewhere deep, a regret that I had never given myself the permission to act on what I knew my heart was capable of. I wish, like I’ve never wished for anything in my life, that I got to come out at an earlier age, I wrote. I read those words now and feel the longing pour off them.

But those regrets are gone. I look back over the years now and see something which I can only describe as the miracle unfolding of life. Each moment or marker in time borne out of what I understood about myself at that point. The day I married Pat; one of the best days in my living memory. I’d spent the years leading up to it wading in and out of depression, with no real idea how to make a life for myself. Pat made me laugh, encouraged me to take risks, to dream and to adventure. Marrying him was my first real act of agency. A choice I made for myself. And in doing so I chose someone who would provide the fight I needed to grow, and who would love me faithfully as I journeyed home to myself.

I understand how breakups get toxic. I’ve watched us teeter on the thin line between love and hate over and over. I understand why divorce is brutal. Why it makes people bitter. I get how it is that the person we once loved can become a complete stranger. But somehow we’ve managed to come out the other side of crisis still friends. Good friends. Still able to look each other in the eye, still able to say I love you. I don’t know exactly how we got here. I think grace has something to do with it.

In many ways where we are now doesn’t look a lot different from where we were. We still eat altogether at our oversized table. The dog still lies on his side in the middle of the kitchen floor while we try to get dinner cooked. The lunches still get made, the music practice still happens, the girls still spend most of their waking lives running or singing or yelling. We’re a family.

That photo up there is a random one from last night’s Mid-Winter Carnival. We bundled the girls into the car and drove into town, nudged our way through the crowds and found a spot at the side of the Octagon. There we stood side by side in the freezing cold and took in the wonder of it all; the lanterns, the children carrying them, the bold shapes of light bright against the ink black sky.

 

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.