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.

 

three

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The dream was about collecting things from the past. We were visiting a strange city and I was looking in a cupboard for something that would give us a clue as to where we should be going. Was it a scrap of paper? A tourist brochure? I found a pile of papers, things I’d saved. An envelope full of little toys one of my daughters had left behind somewhere when she was younger. My mother-in-law had collected them up and posted them to us.

I got up and walked through the dark house to the kitchen while everyone else was asleep. It was the darkest morning we’ve had all year, and when I stepped out the back door to get chives for my lunch the light was grey and shadowy. I kept remembering things, everything echoed, everything was layered with memories, time was stacking itself up. I drove to school under a muted sky, feeling like I feel when I know I am a writer. A strange feeling of being full and floating at the same time. As if there are a million things waiting to be written. That if I only just sat and wrote, they would be revealed.

The other night in a dream I lost my boots. I thought, this is a dream, if I re-trace my steps I’ll find them. I walked up a curving staircase looking for the restaurant I thought I’d left them in, and as I walked I saw on every step, on either side of me, a myriad of small objects. Little ornaments, shells, small things filling every space on the stairs. And in the dream I was amazed. I knew I was dreaming, and I looked down at all those tiny things and realised every one of them was a symbol.

I’m so aware of time passing. My daughters were babies, once. I held them in my cradled arms, later propped them up on my left hip. That was the way they were carried, soft bums resting on the pelvis that made them, small backs tucked into the crook of my arm. The pose so natural that when I pick up someone else’s baby it all comes flooding back. How many things could I do with a baby on my hip? So many.

At the time I thought it would last forever. Youth, when we are in it, is an endless stretch. An expanse of time that seems to keep renewing itself. Age is a horizon so distant the eye can’t register the pace with which we travel towards it. And yet I see it now. The babies are sprouting, gangly and feisty and full of life. Their interior worlds proliferate. Daily they add new experiences, new skills, new awareness. She is swimming on her back. She moves, without anyone holding her. She has joined the orchestra, she knows how to stop and wait for the next bar when she makes a mistake. She has no spelling words this week, she got them all right the first time.

I am itching to tell them the stories. How I watched them play in the back garden of the house they were born to. The jacaranda tree in the middle of the yard was wide and whispery and underneath it was a blue cube playhouse bought second hand from a kindergarten. There was a plank from the roof into the tree, and a ladder to climb up to the roof. It was a convergence of worlds, each layer a new territory. There were piles of sand, leaves, branches, purple blossoms, books, plastic trowels, a family of soft toy animals, the trike with the trailer at the back. They were always busy, my daughters. They made things, they went places. I could barely keep up with them.

One warm September day we went for a walk and came back with the roof of the red canvas buggy covered with spring’s bounty. Yellow kowhai blossoms, seed pods, bold stalks of green grass, red leaves, tender pale petals. We made art that afternoon, outside on newspaper spread thick because I couldn’t fight the worry about the mess they were making. Later in the day she planted her precious kowhai seeds and watered them. She was sure they’d grow. There’s a photograph of her pale head bending down over a pot of soil, small fingers pressing into the dampness.

I took so many photos. I was desperate to remember. I took so many that in the end, with the limping thing that my brain often is, I couldn’t do anything with them. They wait patiently, digital versions of themselves, for me to attend. Thousands of photographs, each one a marker, a sign on the way to something, a symbol. I walk up the stairs of my mind searching them out, longing to find their meaning, to put them into a story for my three daughters.  There are gaps to fill, errors to compute, failings to apologise for. I am waiting, waiting for them to be old enough to tell.

the truth right now

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This is my question: what is the truth right now?

In her lecture “The Value of Not Understanding Everything,” Grace Paley instructs writers to remove these lies:

  1. The lie of injustice to characters.
  2. The lie of writing to an editor’s taste.
  3. The lie of writing to your best friend’s taste.
  4. The lie of the approximate word.
  5. The lie of unnecessary adjectives.
  6. The lie of the brilliant sentence you love the most.

Which lies am I guilty of? I am guilty in part of writing to an invisible editor’s taste, yes. I am guilty of the lie of writing to my best friend’s taste – if you replace best friend with “audience of IRL people who I’m aware read my blog sometimes.”  The lie of the approximate word? No. Tell me if I have ever done this and I will rectify it immediately. The lie of unnecessary adjectives? God I hope not. The lie of the brilliant sentence, chapter, section, character, event, you love the most? Absolutely.

So I am learning to be cutting with my work. To be my own worst critic. Not before the thing is written, not during the writing of the thing, no, then the critic is in solitary confinement, all doors and windows locked. But afterwards? After the thing is written? Critic I must be. I must be ruthlessly after my very best. Nothing else will satisfy.

So what is the truth here?

The truth is this. I was lost for a long time. I didn’t know the sound of my own voice. I didn’t know what I was capable of. I was driven to please.

About Goya, Andre Malraux writes:

“To allow his genius to become apparent to himself it was necessary that he should dare to give up aiming to please.”

I have been driven for approval. Thinking that as long as I finished the novel I would gain it. That somebody would like the story and validate me, and then my whole, desperate, life-long search for approval would be over, once and for all. Ha! What was I thinking? It also happens that I was burdened with a false sense of importance. Oh dear. What a contradiction. To completely lack self-belief and at the same time be weighed down with self-importance. I thought the world needed me. I thought my story would fix things, make a small corner of the world better, even in microscopic amounts. I thought I had the power to ameliorate. Ha.

The truth is, I need me and I need this story. The truth is, I do have the power (by the grace and mystery of God) to ameliorate  myself. I can help myself, in microscopic, incremental amounts. That is all.

So this is the truth: I write for an audience of one. I have known this deep, deep down, for a very long time.

And this is what I tell myself: shut the door, turn off the phone. Shut down every highway that brings you information and comment from afar. Turn away from every source that leads you away from you. Turn down the volume to the world until all you hear are whispers and quiet songs and ancient murmurings. Close the curtains on the peripheral – the constant, blinding movement of other people’s lives. Narrow your focus until all you can see is your own sacred present. Leave all else in shadow, it is not your concern.

Now, when everything is almost silent, present yourself to yourself. Step out of the shadow of your own obscurity to yourself and take a good look. You are not what you expected. You are neither as good as you hoped, nor as broken as you feared.  You are not the knight in shining armour you thought you needed, not the vision from afar you were waiting for. You are no more and no less than you. And there aren’t any options. You did not come with an exchange card. You are irreplaceable, a unique composition. Available and useful primarily to you. The beginning of everything. Look up at the mirror and say it: here I am.

Now what will you do with yourself?

I will take care of myself. I will listen to myself. I will write the words that I most need to hear. I will harness the stories I most need to listen to. I will ask the questions I need answered. I will seek the learning I lack. I will not cover my wounds. I will not hide what is broken. I will not walk when I should be limping, will not run when I should be walking. I will not move when I should be still, will not be still when I need to move. I will not stay when I should go, nor go, when I should stay. I will treat myself with tenderness and kindness. I will go ferociously after my own best interests. Which I believe, in the end, are the best interests of all of us. Honesty. Safety. Quality. Nurturance. Growth. It’s not rocket science.

Will you let me go? Will you help me to release myself from the heavy bonds of loyalty I gave to everyone but myself? Will you hear me when I say no, not now, not yet, not ever? Will you let me be silent while I wait for new words to come, because the old words didn’t always serve me well? The old words kept me heavy and bowed down. God knows they kept you bowed down sometimes too.

I thought I mattered to the world. I was misinformed. I matter to myself. Now, to see to that.

mountains

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I have been hanging out with mountains. That’s just what I have been doing.  I live in their neighbourhood now, I am local with them. I walk out of my house, get in the car and drive a few hours – three or four at the most – and there I am. Walking along the street while mountains tower ahead and behind.

What is a mountain if not the very core of the earth reaching up to the sky? It is the land from its deepest centre stretching towards heaven. Our truest reminder of those earliest days. When papa our mother and rangi our father, as the creation story goes, were wrenched apart and reached for each other ever after. And we were born in the empty space of their longing. We inhabited their loss. These craggy peaks and soaring ranges remind us; something is not as it was. The land wants to be one with the sky again.

I can’t take my eyes off those layered folds. The way one curve of green gently rises out of the one before. Standing on the edge of the lake looking out, the layers are uncountable. Ridge after ridge folds down from peak after peak, as far as I can see. Each one nestled into the company of others. A community of mountains, sitting in regal conversation, presiding over our small lives. Continuing the dialogue they began all those millions of years ago. We come, have our moment in the light, and then, at the end of our days, fade away. While they remain.

And that doesn’t make us any less consequential. If anything, it spurs us to do something with this tiny but unknowable piece of time we have been given. This stretch of days we call a life; what are we going to do with it? How are we going to live out the longings that lie at the core of us? How are we going to count our losses and learn from them? How are we going to take care of ourselves? What stories are we going to tell ourselves?

I have been swiftly covering ground, moving backwards and forwards in time at great speed. Answering questions that had gone unanswered for all four decades of my life. This is enlightening and devastating at the same time, thrilling and disturbing. It takes courage to face the things that haunt us. Turning away from them is easy. Ignorance and denial are temptingly sweet. Reality is far harsher and yet it is a sure foundation, the only way we can truly know ourselves.

We demolished the old garage that sits down from the house on the edge of the footpath, as is common in Dunedin. The roof leaked and the door was rotting, stiff and awkward on ancient hinges. It wasn’t fit to be a garage, it housed the things we had no where else to put. Old bikes, boxes of tools and random things still waiting to be unpacked from the move. The water pooled in the corners when it rained, and the floor was a sandy base covered, some time ago, in a layer of black polythene that was now ragged and torn. We talked about what to do with the garage from the moment we arrived. A year later, we took action.

The iron roof was carefully peeled back, the sheets cut in half with tin snips and thrown into the rubbish skip that sat waiting on the side of the road. Then the roof bracing, rotting in places, was strategically demolished and the heavy door taken off its hinges. Finally, the polythene was lifted up and the floor swept of debris. Now all that remains are three concrete block walls and a pale sandy floor. The open space is tantalising in its simplicity, hopeful in its possibility, completely stripped back, a blank slate.

The process of deconstruction was more complex than my description portrays. There was a lot of shifting involved. Things had to be moved out before anything could happen. I said good-bye to some of it, there was grieving to do. The rest was ferreted away wherever it could fit. New spaces surprisingly presented themselves. Unused corners came to light. Spaces that had been ignored were given attention. And there were people involved besides us. A student we’ve got to know, my Dad, the next-door neighbour. Each of them intersecting with the process in unpredictable yet vital ways.

This process is not unlike the one we all go through periodically, when we allow ourselves to see things as they are and find the courage to do something about it.  We shed light on dark corners, explore what had been hidden reaches, find new ways of seeing the familiar, discover untapped resources within ourselves. We’re all on our own timeline when it comes to this internal deconstruction. There is no one-size-fits-all, no cookie-cutter recipe or perfect mathematical equation. There’s no point in comparison either, or in thinking that what worked for us will necessarily work for someone else. But we all need to do it, at some point in our lives. We were born into loss, in some way or another, as those mountains remind us.

I go to church

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I go to church. Not the way I used to. Not three times a day, not desperate, not believing blindly. Not storing treasures in heaven, not trying to save people from hell, not piling up discrete answers to discrete questions. Not following behind myself with a clipboard and a pen and a checklist of required actions, a list of never-must-do’s.

I once stood in front of a full auditorium and earnestly declared “we all need Jesus.” It was a heart-felt plea, a genuine profession. I believed whole-heartedly that my faith was everything. My sustenance, my guide, my reason for being. I thought I couldn’t live without it. And I presumed that meant neither could you.

You may have been in the audience that day. You may have squirmed uncomfortably; perhaps you looked down and picked at your trousers when I made my earnest proclamation. You were sitting there at my invitation, your presence there in that bright school hall all the evidence of your unconditional support I’d ever need, not that I’d see it at the time. I was trying to win you over. I wanted you to see how much life I had, I wanted you to see the glow of the light I could feel burning me up on the inside. I was trying to convert you.

I could apologise, right here. I could come clean. I could tell you how sorry I am. That I’ve regretted that day, and all the days like it, for a long time. I could re-count my sins in a list as long as all four of our arms put together. I could repent. Oh the litany. Of all the things I could repent of. The assumptions, the narrow-mindedness, the fear. The fear. But I know you don’t need it.

You saw right through me. You saw how small I was, how afraid. You saw how the light glanced off my eyes and blinded me. You knew my world view was a shaky construction, held up by dogmatism, the most flimsy of flimsy supports. You knew, somewhere deep inside you, that if my faith was a building, it would fail every building code out. That I had not tested anything. I had put no weight on it at all.

And so you kindly tolerated my enthusiasm. You took my cheerful positivity at face value. I was happy, I was finding my way in the world and you were proud of me. You were interested in my life. I turned up at your house one night, ostensibly for no other reason than to say hi, and you were very glad to see me. At the end of the evening I asked you to pay for my bible college fees. I had believed the money would come, as everyone else around me did. And when it didn’t, I came and asked you. You said yes, of course.

It took a long time for everything to fall apart. Self-deception is the true world super-power. There were several bouts of depression, more than one round of mild burn-out, and still my story stayed the same. If I could just do the right things, and pray the right words, or get the right people to pray the right words, everything would be fine. I knew that something was wrong with me, but I couldn’t admit that something was wrong.

Life has an uncanny way of presenting us with the exact circumstances needed for us to learn exactly what we need to learn. Almost twenty years after the day I stood in front of you under the glaring lights of that sterile school hall, the day I graduated with the bible college diploma you had paid for, I finally found myself in the dark. Looking into the murky reality of my completely unknown self. Everything was steadily becoming undone, and there was nothing I could do about it. There was no area of my life that had not been touched by chaos. And it was the beginning of everything, the pre-labour of my own re-birth.

I’m waxing metaphorical here, I know. But hear me out. I thought I was already re-born. The story I’d been told, that I had absorbed and recounted a million times, was that I began again the moment I believed. It seemed so simple. It seemed to make sense. Some kind of metaphysical interaction had occurred on the night that four-year-old me asked the holy spirit of God to look after me forever. Forever and ever and ever. I have this feeling I was being efficient. A shred of a memory tells me I thought I was praying once so I’d never have to pray again. But my mother, opportunist and recent convert that she was, saw eternal potential. “Do you want to ask Jesus into your heart?” she asked me sincerely. I did.

If I could go back to that tender night I would not change a thing. Children see where adults do not. They understand things we find obtuse. They believe, where we scoff. My conversation with God that night, aided by my mother, was the real thing. I wanted something more than this world had to offer. I wanted to be part of something bigger than myself. I wanted to believe.

I could look back on the years since then as one long loss. My simple four-year old faith was quickly tarnished. It wasn’t long before I was convinced I was right and everyone else wrong. I read the world through newly converted eyes. Even at four I had opinions about what Christians should do and shouldn’t. The day I found out that our closest church friends ate white bread, I was horrified. Christians ate brown bread! I was a prodigious fundamentalist.

You can fill in the gaps between four and fourteen, and fourteen and twenty-four. The desperate prayers for myself and the entire world. The missions trips. The youth groups. The compulsive bible reading. The conferences, the sermons, the mega-healers on TV. My heart was full to bursting, or so it felt. But my mind had checked out a long time ago.

I’m not here to recount the evils of organised religion. You know them all. I can’t even bring myself to hint at them; the horrors beggar belief. But I can tell you why, after all these years, I still go to church. I go to church because I like to go to church. I like to sit in the quiet of the one hundred and fifty year old stone building we worship in and think about my life. I like to look up at the rafters towering above me, and imagine the people all those years ago who put so much energy and resource into building something soaring and magnificent, something so impractical. I look up to the balcony floor and wonder what the days were like when most people went to church on a Sunday. When this old building was full and bursting with life. I think about the Reverend Wallis, a character in my novel, who preached in buildings just like this one, to a full house. And somehow, sitting in that building, partaking in the ritual and the community it offers me, my life makes sense. I go to church to understand.

I used to go to church for you. I thought that if I did the right things, and prayed the right prayers, that you would have your moment of transcendence too. I wanted you to be happy. I wanted you to be free. I wanted you to know that sweet indescribable feeling of being loved by something bigger than you. I wanted you to find something soaring, magnificent. I wanted you to know that you are beloved, end of story. I still do.

You are welcome to join me at church any time, but I’ll never invite you like I invited you before, all serious and hopeful. Every precept I once held, tightly as if it were a rock and I drowning in a sea of uncertainty, has crumbled. What’s left is beautiful. But it’s beautiful to me. I won’t presume you’d feel the same way. The children will probably want you to come and hear them sing in the choir, and I’d recommend it. The sound of their clear and steady voices pierces the still air, and above them the morning light streams in reliably through ancient glass in a myriad of colours. There’s nothing like it.

You see, I still want more than this world has to offer. That’s why I go to church. Not like before, when I was so unaware. I go like the new-born newly-adult self that I am, everything fresh and undone. It’s the best way I know to begin again.

is there a plunket nurse for the born again?

baby noah pic

My nephew Noah, two weeks old

The reason it is exhausting looking after a newborn is because it is exhausting being a newborn. All that complicated feeding, getting it in, keeping it down. And then there’s the digestion, tiny winding threading curves of intestine, extracting, excavating, extruding. The food has to go somewhere, it must be in constant motion. Must be constantly transforming and being transformed.

Have you seen a newborn writhing in pain? One or two bubbles of gas is bad enough, imagine more! Imagine them constant – torture. The infant’s small frame becomes one tight hot bundle of pain. It cries, of course it does, screams if it has the energy. What else can it do? There is barely any remedy, only the purposeful, skilful cajoling of the digestive system towards its final goal. What has to happen must happen, there are no short cuts.

Today the world seems harsh and cruel and I am tired. I want to shut off, shut down, turn away, like an anemone poked with a stick or jabbed with the clumsy finger of a child. I have no eloquent words for this, I am crying like a baby. Everything is hard, everything hurts. The ache. The ache.

If I listed all my doubts here, if I lined them up like small children about to be sent in from recess, or if I tried to exorcise them with dark colours and mad scribbles on a roll of butcher paper spread out from one end of the room to the other, you would smile and pat me on the head. There there, you’d say, everything is going to be ok. But your words would do nothing, because I would roll my butcher paper up and tuck it under my arm, and march those grubby children right home again. And carry on much the same.

I am a baby lying on a playmat. Staring up at the constant white ceiling. I can’t speak a word, can barely get my own fist in my mouth, can’t sit or crawl or in any way effect shift or transfer. And this is excruciating. It is terrible, and frustrating, and wonderful. This helplessness is my beginning. Our beginning.

Not that we are all fragile newborns, our existence is more complicated than that. We are part newborn part ancient, lurching unevenly through success and failure and every stage in between. Just when we think we have made a gain, settled some existential score, another challenge rears its head. We stumble, slip, fall.

The ancient voice in my head is the voice of wisdom and experience. “You’ll get over this”, she says, “you’re growing up. One day soon you’ll roll over and everything will look completely different. Then, before you know it, you’ll be six months old and sitting up, burping unassisted. Can you imagine it! Burping on your own!”

Oh if only there was a list of milestones printed somewhere. Milestones for the recovering adult, for those of us re-made and beginning again. An expected time line, a description of growth patterns, a guide. We could take regular measurements, chart our developments, weigh in on some vast stainless steel scale, large enough for our oversized mass and accompanying baggage too. Then we could compare ourselves to the median, identify our progress against expected performance. Finally we’d know the answer to that pesky question: are we getting anywhere?

There are two trees outside my window. One is a kind of ornamental plum, well pruned in autumn, a chubby round bush of a tree above a stout trunk. The branches are thin and new at the tips, and reach straight up to the grey sky. It is early spring, and the cold air still feels like winter, but this tree has been busy budding papery pink blossoms for two weeks, and at the ends of the branches tiny leaves, tight and tender and earnest, grow faithfully.

The other tree, so close to the first that their branches intertwine, is on its own timeline. It was bushy and green in summer, a mass of curled leaves like a thick head of hair. The leaves predictably turned brown and dry, and some blew off in the autumn wind. But most remain, holding steadfast in their lifelessness, not ready to move on. I’ve been watching these two trees for a while now. Marvelling at their lack of synchronicity, willing the second tree to drop its leaves and get ready for new growth. Because it will come, won’t it?

In the meantime, I write. Every word written a molecule absorbed. I can’t curl up, can’t turn away. I am in constant motion, constantly transformed. Each time an old pattern is ditched, a new one is forced into being. It’s pure necessity that drives the process, my desperate instinct to survive. What has to happen must happen, and there are no short-cuts.

re-made

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Here I am. I am alive. As of right now, I am born.

What did it take? I wrote some words. I did some things. The things that I did, and the words that I wrote set a process in motion. The beginning of everything.

I imagine a banner unfolding over my head. It reads: welcome to the rest of your life.

I’ll start by telling you something; you and I are connected. You are reading these words moments after they were written. I put them on the page, and you picked them up. I couldn’t do this without you.

I’ll tell you something else. I’ve been waiting for you. I’ve been sitting in the corner of the room, layers of words and lines and pages piling up inside. Layers, words, piles of words, piles of lines. Lines upon lines. Too many. I needed a witness. Someone to take this load off my chest. And here you are.

There are plenty of people who find, at a certain juncture, that they get to begin again. This is not unusual. An opportunity to be completely re-made presents itself, perhaps later on in life, after the early ardour of youth has passed, and the urgency to keep a certain keen façade has waned. The tight aching pain that we had bound over with enumerable forms of ointment, and which we had almost forgotten, almost thought we had recovered from, returns. Wild, bright, fiery, refusing to be calmed or tended to or medicated. And this, though it seems like an awful regression, becomes our rescue. The pain forces us open.

I danced naked in the street, like King David, like a small child in the rain, like a madman, a leper, like a streaker across the vast grass of entertainment. I was desperate to be seen, to be known, for someone to understand me. I was holding an entire world of twisted pain inside. I needed release. So I did the only thing I knew: I took off my clothes. I lifted up my arms.

Beginning again is a lot like beginning the first time. We take a breath and yell. The force of air into our fresh new lungs is confronting, astonishing. And yet it is not enough. We take another, and another, and another. We had waited so long to take this breath. And now it fills us.

You may know this already. Perhaps you are already one of the re-made ones. You picked yourself up and you walked away. Or you picked yourself up and stayed. Or you picked yourself up and said the words you’d been waiting all your life to say. And then you went and did those things that you had not done yet. You went to the places you had not seen yet. You impregnated yourself with possibility, and then, despite the risk and the naysayers, you carried your potential to full term. Until you were round and full and bursting. Come on!

I make a ritual for you, right here. Let your shoulders drop, your chest stretch wide. Cast your mind over the endless possibilities that await, fill your lungs, and begin.

 

 

this

matisse

I can’t tell you this without telling you a story. So here’s the story:  for almost as long as I can remember, I was given the message that being gay was not okay. The message came through loud and clear.

There was a man at church who used to be gay and was now happily married, thanks to an ex-gay support group. This was important information for me to know. My school friends’ suspect behaviour was eagerly identified. One wore aftershave as perfume; this was not approved. I sat at a dinner table for more than an hour listening to a group of church women gossip about one of the women’s gay sons. The tone of the conversation was superficially of concern but the stories his mother regaled us with were merely fodder for our curiosity.  We’ll pray for him, the women said, as I sat frozen. Any time the word homosexual was mentioned in church, or in books I read, I stiffened. Someone once, without asking my permission, decided that I needed the gay prayed away.

Somehow I made up my mind that if I hadn’t been brought up Christian, I would have been gay. I said it occasionally, in quiet tones, in private conversations with friends. I even said it once as a joke, and laughed. I don’t think anyone heard me.

And who would have heard me anyway? I was all about boys. Truthfully, anyone who knew me back in those dark old days could tell you that. I was desperate for love. And in a church community which idolised marriage, and having grown up without a Dad close at hand, I was yearning for love in the masculine form. I was also desperate to get on with my life, convinced that marriage was the ticket to success and approval.

But I never managed to procure a long-term boyfriend. My heart was always with my girlfriends. Boys were foreign, they spoke a completely different language, and as much as I appeared keen to learn it, in reality I was a lacklustre student.

I met Pat at the ripe old age of twenty-six. Plenty of my friends had got married already, I was one of the “spinsters,” or so I thought. He was sitting at a table in a café next to a friend of mine; I noticed him straight away. He made me laugh, was interested in things I was interested in. He rang me that same night and asked me out. We fell in love and were married eight months later.

I had no idea how much I needed to fight. I had no idea how much I needed to be put into a position where I had to fight for my life. It’s a truism to say that marriage takes work. But there are some marriages which, owing to the baggage the partners bring into the relationship and the unconscious lacks which spur their initial attraction, are hard work from the get-go. There is no shame for me in saying we had one of those. Most come to an end, or become one groundhog day of misery after another. The lucky few go to battle and come out the other side. The victory is sweet. The wounds are spoils of war.

The battle was my saving grace. Everything I failed to learn in childhood I learnt then. For the first time in my life I had to open my mouth and speak the truth. I learnt, over many grey and weary years, to put my needs into words, and then to go after them. I dragged myself out of the murky depths of compliance and passivity kicking and screaming. For the very first time in my life, I got angry.

Anger is a vital emotion. We can’t act without it. That I grew up with a profound inability to feel anger was a great abuse. It left me bereft of the fuel my introverted and compliant self needed to be able to speak up for myself.  I was incapable of agency or autonomy, completely unable to arrange the elements of my life in such a way as to benefit myself. I had what every abuse victim has in common; a complete and total lack of self-love.

I will spend the rest of my life living out the lessons I learnt in that battle. What I’ve said here barely scrapes the surface. But the most important lesson I learnt of all was to own my own mind. The battle forced me to discover, incrementally, what it meant to think for myself.

After that the world began to look different. Broader, wider, more sparkling. I systematically went through every belief I’d collected over the years, starting from the very beginning. What did I think? It was a thrilling process. And it’s probably obvious to you that my old ideas about being gay were some of the first to get the toss. All of sudden, being gay was actually ok. The ground shifted.

I’m bisexual, and I’ve known it for a while. I wish, like I’ve never wished for anything in my life, that I got to come out at a younger age. To explore what it means to follow my own natural attractions, uninhibited by dogma or social coercion. That’s not to say I have any regrets about the path my life has taken. There were lessons I had to learn, and this was the way I learnt them. And I have a family. A dear husband who loves me, and three daughters who are growing up in a very different world to the one I grew up in.

But I know what it’s like to love a woman, and I carry the memory of that love with me still. It is a sweet memory, and rich its own way. It leads me towards paths I have not yet taken. Paths that move me deeper into self-awareness, deeper into myself. I was sad for a while, wondering if I had missed out on something precious and irreplaceable. And then I realised, like I was Odysseus landing on home shores after a lifetime of journeying, that the woman I needed to love most was myself.

forty-one

forty one

This is the life, this one. I wasn’t mistaken. I am in the right body, occupying the right square of space on the planet, tucked up warm in a three bedroom house on a wide highway that heads out of town, with the people I love. This is my life.

It was my birthday yesterday and I sat in a cafe in the earliest moment of the day and wrote, watching the students file past in their jackets and hats; busy people going places walking purposefully along the footpath outside the cafe window. I saw a woman in her early fifties, well-dressed, hair just so, scarf in order, ears bejewelled. I wondered, what will I look like when I am fifty-one? Who will I be? Not her, with her jewellery and her ordered appearance.  But her poise? The way she lifted her head as she crossed the road, shoulders back? That’s me.

Some people take a long time to get to the good bits. I have utmost empathy for those, because I am one of them. I keep company with the lost and the downtrodden. We share the same language, traveling together on an uneven and murky road. When one of us trips, a hand reaches out of the darkness.

I found my way by moving. This is what gypsies know, what nomads and pilgrims do.  A shift, a change, a significant adjustment. Sometimes this is the most vital, most imperative action. To pick ourselves up from where we were and take ourselves to where we had not yet gone. A physical exchange from old to new. A conscious decision to take part in the natural order of evolution. A continuing improvement. A continuing movement.

I have things to tell you. There are things that I know. My eyes are clear now, my mind alive. What was starved, smothered, clamped down, left to wither and fade, now thrives; veins pulsing with life. This is me putting myself back together, this is me growing up. I was girl for far too many years. Good girl, broken girl, mute.

Take in the day, take in the grey light with the tinge of pink behind the clouds, shepherd’s warning. Take in the road dark with rain, the steel and glass buildings, the green field, ancient windows perched beside it, everything connected, nothing an island here in this compact city. I’ve got so much to tell you. I could spend my life telling you.

An emotional trigger is like a tidal wave in miniature, arriving suddenly on the landscape. Put into motion by an unseen, subterranean force. It is unstoppable, completely irrational. I cannot resist it. It picks me up, takes me where I do not want to go. Tosses me back and forth until I am dizzy, I am overwhelmed. Until I am dumped out the other side, worn and relieved. Wiser.

We tread a fine line between progress and regression, one step forward two steps back, two steps forward, one step back. We talk as if the present and the future were partners in a seductive dance, one leading the other surely on. But we forget, oh how we forget, that the past is our jilted lover, hiding in the shadows that press into us, waiting for a chance to take our hand again. Desperate for another dance.

I turn my head away, I do not look back.

It’s Time

Change. The church has been doing it since she was born. We are a responsive creature. We move, adjust, transition, re-configure, re-imagine, re-group, adapt, alter, and transform. It’s a sign of life.

Here’s a potted history: Pentecost, Constantine, Polycarp, Clement, Iraneaus, the Council of Nicaea, Arianism, the Council of Ephesus, The Nestorian Schism, the Iconclasts, monastic reform, the Inquisition, the East-West Schism, the Crusades, John Wycliffe, the Protestant Reformation. Each name or event a marker for a moment of tumult…

I wrote a guest post on Pat’s blog for the series we are writing together about marriage equality. You can read it over there.