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.