I sit here to write after watching a beautiful film; The Red House. It’s about Lee (a kiwi ecologist) and Jia (his Chinese wife) and the life they have woven together. They have only a portion of language in common, but their intimacy is all the more deeper for it. And despite her frustration with English, Jia has the most incredible way with words, they come tumbling out with a disarming freshness. At the end of the film she is cutting Lee’s hair and talking to him about the purpose of life, and he asks her, how would you live, if you could. How would you imagine your life to be? And she smiles and laughs and says something like it would be to not be forced to do anything. To not have to make my parents’ breakfast, to not have to cut your hair. It would be to suddenly go and read a book, to suddenly go to the movies, to suddenly write.
At this I take an audible breath. Somehow in those surprising and seemingly clumsy words I find this truth; that freedom is a sure self. It is to know what we want, and then, at the appropriate time, to do it. To suddenly read. Or to suddenly, surprisingly, write. It is having a sure sense of self within, and the agency to act on it.
I see now that it is ten minutes until my birthday. And I remember all the other birthdays, those singular days jam packed with meaning; they couldn’t possibly hold any more of it. Some people can’t do a birthday without sharing it. The sharing is the meaning. For me, the older I get the less I need to share it. The sharing is lovely, and the love is always appreciated. But in the end this day is about the deep space inside of me, the one that only I can see. It is a chance to gaze within, to absorb the meaning of a lifetime, the meaning of a life.
I imagine that as I get older this will become even more true. I can imagine a birthday at ninety, completely alone. I know there will be children and grandchildren and an ancient husband, God willing. But my sense of peace and contentment will not come from without, great though the joy will be in sharing it with so many loves. Those loves will come and go, the presents will come and go, the praise, perhaps, will come and go. And in the end I will be alone, and happy. I will look back from that great distance and see everything, how all the twists and turns and dark spaces came together to form one incredible, unimaginable whole. I couldn’t have planned it.
It is obvious that every challenge and painful thing I have experienced has become and is becoming the raw passion and truth that I write from. It is obvious that there is nothing that has been wasted. There is no pain or difficulty that has been, or will be, without its own fruit. Strange fruit it may be. The unexpected and disconcerting fruit of the tropics, perhaps, like that wild-shaped and bleeding dragon fruit they eat in Cambodia. But fruit it is, all the same. It won’t be to everyone’s taste, but I will relish it. And in the lean years of age it will feed me. When my adventures can only be made on the inside, I will look back over all of it in wonder. In wonder that one life could hold so much grief and so much joy.
This is my gift then, and will always be. The joy alongside the grief in complete union, my very own dance. I could wish the latter away all I wanted, but without it the joy would lose its depth. And the grief is my window onto the world, it is how I know you. It is how I came to be standing in the supermarket today with tears running down my face, feeling so alone and yet not alone, looking around at the people beside me and in front of me and behind me and knowing, suddenly, that between us all we had everything. We had money and the lack of it; health and the want of it, peace and the need for it, life and the dregs of it. Right there, in a suburban supermarket in Mt Albert, we were a microcosm of the world.
I wrote about this in my book. I wrote about it without even realising exactly what I was writing, and now I’ve written it, it can’t be undone. I feel it growing steadily inside of me, humming like a faraway rhythm, like a current of electricity. It’s a simple knowing, and it’s this; we are one.
I can’t live the same any more, not after what I’ve written. I cried at dinner last night because I realised that there were other mothers who served their children more than they served themselves, as I had just done and as my mother would have done once, and they were everywhere, all around the world. Only they went completely without, their hunger spreading through every fibre of their body until they were nothing but hunger, could feel nothing but hunger, could think nothing but hunger like an ache like a constant pain like a dullness in the mind, a shutting down.
And I can’t eat the same knowing how hungry they are.
My mountain knows this, the mountain I told you about when I last wrote. She knows that we all belong to each other, that we are all connected. That the leaves on her trees are connected to their branches, and that the roots of those trees reach down into the soil which reaches out to everything, and all of us, everywhere. So that we are never truly alone. That everything we do and say reaches out in ripples and touches the people around us, those close and those far away. Even our breath goes out from us and mingles with the breath of every person who breathes with us now on this planet. We are never cut off, never separated. We live and think and speak and write and love and grieve and eat and want, together.