Friday

Al Huda Mosque copy

The Friday morning before the mosque shooting I walked with Abigail to school, along North Road and all the way up Blacks Road. I was completely out of breath, but so alive and mobile after months of sickness it was incredible. From the top I could see across the valley to the hills on the western side of town, repeating slopes of white squares and green, and just visible the grey blur of the hospital building of the rehab ward I stayed in.

I put Jean-Michel Jarre on to walk back down the hill, and as I was walking I realised it was the kind of music I would have listened to on my walkman bussing home from school in 1992, my final year of high school. The year which could have meant so many different things,  could have given birth to so many different parts of me, could have opened up the wildness I hid inside. But it didn’t.

The music was trippy in my ears as I walked steady down the road, and I kept thinking about that time, when I loved The Pet Shop Boys and wrote strange little stories, and constantly talked to myself in my head. That was the year I could have known I was attracted to women. The year I could have had some sort of plan about what I wanted to do with my life. But there was so much I was avoiding about myself, so much I didn’t understand.

That Friday afternoon news about the shooting started filtering through. Our first reaction was puzzled disbelief, and then as the number of victims continued to rise, total shock and dismay. We shouldn’t watch too much of the news, we said, as our fingers kept hitting refresh on our phones. We should try to distract ourselves, we said. But the number kept growing.

The weekend went by in a daze, and on Sunday morning we went to church. We needed peace, and space to process. We wanted to share our grief, not wrestle with it alone. The choir sang Pleni sunt coeli – Heaven and earth are full of your glory – Dona nobis pacem – give us peace, and I cried. After church we bought three bunches of what was left of the flowers in the New World Supermarket on St Andrew’s Street and took them to the Al-Huda Mosque only a few blocks away. What else was there to do?

The focus of the morning’s service had been the image of God as mother hen, wings stretched over her chicks.  The text was taken from the book of Mathew, where Christ is recorded saying “Jerusalem, Jerusalem… how often have I longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wing.” The text was poignant for two reasons, one being that the city of Jerusalem is sacred to all three Abrahamic faiths, the other being that the image of God as mother hen is one of the most tender of the feminine images of God in the bible. And oh how we wished she could have gathered her children away from that Friday afternoon.

The service kept referring back to the tragedy, and to the Islamic communities in Christchurch and Dunedin. It was a human response to the horror more than a Christian one, and that felt right. The verb the minister returned to as he expanded on the text was gathering. He asked a question: how can we be a people who gather under the wings of God? What a question it was. I picked up my phone and typed it into a note, and as I typed it I thought of how the question would read if we replaced “God” with “Love.” How can we be a people who gather under the wings of Love? What would that look like?

Around that time I’d been thinking about the parable of the lost coin, the story the book of Mathew recounts Christ teaching. In it a peasant woman has lost a valuable coin, and sweeps every inch of her house to find it. An engraving by the English painter Millais has her with a broom, bent over a candle. The room is dark, and through the window above are stormy clouds. A traditional reading of the story would have God as the woman searching, us frail humans the lost coin.

It occurred to me as I was walking that Friday morning, while I was thinking about 1992 and everything I was avoiding in myself back then, that if God is in me, as I believe God is in all, then I am both the woman sweeping and the lost coin. And I have been looking for myself all along. Searching diligently. Sweeping and turning and looking. I’ve had the broom. I’ve had the candle. The sky was wild and dark, but I found myself. Or should I say, I keep finding myself.

I’ve said this kind of thing so many times here it feels like a truism. But I got sick in October and didn’t really start recovering until April, so I’m in the mood for telling the truth. The six months between October and April disappeared in a blur of fatigue and vertigo and trouble walking. Most of these symptoms were functional, which is another way of saying we don’t really understand why. But the symptoms were as real as the hard ridge that formed underneath my right little toe from limping for so long.

So I’ll tell you what I think. I think the gathering of the mother hen is a similar action to the searching of the woman looking for her lost coin. The mother hen is bent on drawing in, collecting, gathering all of her chicks, and the woman searching for the lost coin is gathering too – collecting, searching and sweeping. If we can see ourselves in both the woman and the coin, then we can see ourselves in both the hen and the chicks. It’s not an either/or. We are not bound to the passive, dependent role, our rescue always from outside of ourselves. No, we get to do the gathering too. We can, if we choose to, search out and gather together all the parts of ourselves. Collecting and drawing in what we’ve avoided and repressed and misunderstood.

The white gunman who planned and carried out the mosque shooting in Christchurch had been a resident of Dunedin. His car was registered to an address in Sommerville Street. That’s not my street. I don’t live there. But if he had been my neighbor, I have this heavy feeling I would have avoided him. I don’t know what to do about that. I’m sorry. And I’m wording this carefully, so as not to be insensitive to the trauma and grief of others, but I want you to know I’ve begun to gather myself together. I’ve stopped avoiding myself. I’m carefully drawing in the disparate parts of me, even the ones I avoided for so long. And maybe that helps? It might help.

eight and forty-four

IMG_2860Warrington, Monday 16th July

I’ve taken a while to find myself. I was looking for so long. I caught snatches every so often, glimpses of my reflection in the still water of calm, when the calm found me. There were moments when my reflection was so vivid, so arresting in it’s me-ness that I thought I’d actually found myself, but then the image would inevitably fade, and things would grow murky again.

It was like searching for something through silty water. Every time I took a step forward my movement stirred the mud again, and there I was, seemingly no wiser than before I took the step. And yet perhaps it wasn’t so futile. Perhaps it was more like the kind of methodical turning over that happens in an archaeological dig. Laboriously scraping back layer after layer, not with the infinite care of a professional about to uncover some world treasure, but with the desperation of someone who knows they have yet to live. Each layer compelled me downwards. My nails were caked.

I saw The Return of the Jedi at the Civic Theatre with my dad when I was eight. I remember it was eight because it was the first movie I ever saw in a theatre and the event played a starring role in my childhood folklore. I didn’t go to the movies until I was eight. My mum didn’t let me because she said going to the movies was evil. What a movie to see on my first trip to the cinema. And what a theatre! I could take you to our seats today. Upstairs just left of the middle, about three rows below the aisle. Peering down at the golden lions either side of the stage, eyes glowing, and back up to the midnight sky above, those tiny blinking stars calling me into my imagination.

What an invitation! And I heard it loud and clear! My saving grace through those early years was my imagination. Through it I rescued myself, as often as I could. I was like the dancing princesses, in the collection of Grimm’s Fairly Tales gifted to me on my eighth birthday, who escaped from their beds every night and danced until dawn. I was like them because I could escape. I could take myself away, up into the wide open spaces of my mind. And reading was the best way of doing that. Dear Moonface. Dear Uncle Bilbo. Dear Muffie Mouse. Dear Wombles, all of you.

There were so many things that happened the year I turned eight. As I sit here writing it down I find myself wondering if it really all happened in one year. But this is my story, not a historical account, so here’s a list. I had a sleep over at my friend Celina’s who lived around the corner. We slept in a tent in her garden and were awake until after 11pm. I know because I saw it on the digital clock on the dresser in her parents’ bedroom which we kept getting up to visit, even after they’d gone to sleep. One weekend my mum made homemade ice-cream, chocolate chip mint, icy and sweet and we shared it with the kids from next door.

Other things happened. I watched the old woman next door water the garden with an empty kettle. My dad came back to New Zealand and my mother wouldn’t let me see him. He turned up at our flat one day with a present for my birthday and I sat on the lounge floor frozen, while he and my mother talked in low tones at the back door. Go and see your father, said the friend of my mother’s who was visiting. Go and see your father. But I couldn’t move a muscle. How could I? That was the year I lay awake for hours most nights, sleep as far away as the moon. When the heavy weight of sadness descended in the evenings as the sun went down, the same weight I recognised as depression much later.

I have often wondered why my fairly ordinary childhood gave me so much to work through. Everyone else around me seemed to be getting on with things pretty easily. Other people with more tragedy in their lives than I’d experienced, or perhaps more obvious tragedy, seemed more resilient. I grew up timid, anxious, shy, and more than all of those things; acutely sensitive. I managed to build a kind of armour around myself as a teenager, but it was mostly bravado, and a thin bravado at that. Underneath I was all open and aching heart.

I’m reading The Choice, by Edith Eger, a survivor of the Holocaust.  It’s an incredible book, not just because of the power of her story, but because she narrates it as a psychologist, from the perspective of someone who has worked through her own story and also walked alongside others as they do the same. Something early on in the book moved me to tears. “There is no hierarchy of suffering,” she writes. “There’s nothing that makes my pain worse or better than yours, no graph on which we can plot the relative importance of one sorrow versus another…I don’t want you to hear my story and say, ‘My own suffering is less significant.’ I want you to hear my story and say, ‘If she can do it, then so can I!’” Her words gave me permission to tell my story as it is, without shame or excuses. And with that permission came a rush of self-compassion.

There was an evening earlier this year when I’d been hurt by something. Something ordinary became a trigger of enormous proportions and I was completely adrift in a sea of grief. The pain was extreme. I tried to make sense of my hurt, tried to rationalise it. Tried to figure out why it felt so bad. I’ve been aware of the little girl inside me for a while now, and as I slowed my thinking down I realised how terrified she was right in that moment. Terrified that she was all alone, terrified that there was nobody who could help her. A memory came flooding back. The scariest scene in The Last Jedi. Jabba the Hut’s pit, and that awful monster with the sucking tendrils at the bottom. And there I saw myself; a little girl holding on to the side of that pit for dear life, about to fall in.

There’s fear and then there’s terror. This was terror. It was completely overwhelming. It wanted to swallow me up. It wanted me to fall into it and never get out again. It was the fear beneath the fears. The terror that had lurked behind every loss and hurt that followed. And I was finally feeling it. Finally, I could witness that terrified little girl.

What happened after I saw myself on that edge is the kind of thing that can happen to any of us, when the circumstances are right. I was with my partner, and she was holding me. It wasn’t so much the words she said as the fact that I knew I was with a wise witness. Somehow her presence helped me to see that the moment I was in was sacred. That it wasn’t to be avoided or run away from. Suddenly I could see that I’d been waiting to get to this place all my life, and that now I was here, there was work to be done. Holy, magic, soulful work. The work that can change the course of a life.

So I focused on that girl, that dear, terrified girl. Holding on so tightly because if she didn’t hold on tight she would fall in and never get out again. And as I watched her, I saw angels. Angels. They weren’t doing anything. They weren’t trying to rescue her or even stop her falling, they were just being with her. Being with me. Because being there, witnessing her, and letting myself feel that terror was one of the bravest things I’d ever done. The angels confirmed that. They were there because what I was doing was important.

Then I looked up and saw I wasn’t alone. There were people just above me at the top of the pit. They were the people who I knew loved me and would help me if I asked. There weren’t many of them, but I didn’t need many. I just needed to know I wasn’t alone. And then one of them stepped forward. The most important one of them all. Me. Forty-four year old me to be exact. With the most exquisite look of calm determination on her face as she walked towards the edge. She climbed over and let herself down to where I was holding on, picked me up, and wrapped me in her arms. I was found.

I’ve taken a while to find myself. I’ve been looking for so long. It’s a life’s work. One I won’t ever completely finish. And yet there are moments along the way, like this one right now, when I know I’ve got somewhere significant. When I know I’ve seen something important, and rather than ignore or hide I’ve faced it, head on. And in the facing of it I find myself, right there at the centre of the pain. Each time is incredible. Like a homecoming and a reunion and an unveiling, all at once. I am witness and rescuer. Every time.

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, something important inside of me was broken. 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.

 

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.

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 lacked confidence in my intelligence. 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 thought I couldn’t do any of that. So I avoided my gaps and weaknesses – trying 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.