Beginnings & Endings

December, 2015

I devote this month to my music. I’ve held this passion close since I was a child but never given it much attention. I wasn’t born with an incredible voice, I struggle with learning guitar and I’m very shy; so I never let myself take it seriously. What would be the point?

But then life went on teaching me lessons and it taught me that these things don’t matter as much as I thought they did. What matters more is the high that rushes in when I play. What matters is being brave. What matters are my stories.

The day I begin is reminiscent of my first day of year five. When I changed schools, My Mum and the school decided I could skip year four entirely. I remember staring in horror at a test that first day. The mathematical signs and science terms I’d never learned were like a foreign language to me. I felt stupid and afraid they’d change their minds and send me back. The sound of the other kids scribbling their answers was deafening against the silence of my pencil. I couldn’t stop my tears rolling onto the paper.

And now here I am staring at software I’ve never used, trying desperately to understand a hundred terms I’ve never heard and produce a song from nothing. Everyone believes in me and I’m already a failure. Even once I figure out the microphone and recording my guitar track, I can’t sing and I’m so close to crying from frustration I can’t write a single thing. “I give up!” I shout dramatically after three hours.

Bee finds me upset and when I tell him I expect to produce a song every day I can tell he thinks I’m insane but he doesn’t say so. He just holds me and asks me what I like about making music. I try to describe the feeling I get when the music comes.

So then it’s just me and my guitar. I write songs as I play but it’s still all wrong, everything is all wrong. I can call photography, sometimes call writing, but music refuses to be called; it comes only when it wants to.

I try to write instead. I rewrite a single paragraph eight times before I realise it is no better than the first. Time keeps on passing as I am slowly crushed under the weight of my own expectations while all around me everyone is doing everything and I am doing nothing.

I lay on the floor just to breathe. Breathing out this obsession I’ve developed of always having to be productive. I lay there until I realise failing is productive. Laying on this floor thinking is productive. It all counts for something, if only living.

One morning I wake up and the first words I speak are the lyrics from a song I was writing in a dream. I run around the park and a melody wanders into my mind. I finish my first song. The music comes.

More and more often I look at Bee without that manic consuming love. Often I look at him and he’s just Bee and I’m just me. Stripped of magic, stripped of electricity. These ordinary moments hurt me now and then, they seem to highlight the way love changes. I write.

“This is the part where your touch becomes so familiar that I forget where I end and you begin. Where I begin to talk to myself out loud because even though you’re right beside me it feels like I’m all alone. Where I stop wearing make-up, wear ugly old shirts all day, leave the dishes piled up by the sink and sing songs I can’t sing well. Where I’m cooking pancakes naked and you don’t bat an eyelid. Where I lament the fireworks of the beginning and romanticise the excitement of singledom. Where you tell me my soup is too salty and I tell you I hate that song you love. Seriously, I really hate it.

But this is the part where I don’t need to tell you why I’m crying, you already know why and you know all the right things to say. Where we work silently on our projects for hours on end without getting distracted by each other. Where we know each other’s bodies so well that sex is divine. Where you know just how I like my avocado toast (so much lemon) and I know just how hot you like your tea. Inside jokes, all the inside jokes. This is where you know all the characters in my stories and I know the narrative of your life as though it’s my favourite novel. This is where all games end and our flawed, messy, marvellous true selves begin.

This is the part where love whispers instead of shouts and even though it’s quieter now, it’s stronger than it ever was.”

Alba’s conversations wander from how much she loves ponies to the inevitability of everyone we love dying. When she wakes in the night from nightmares I rub her back and sleepily soothe her. “Imagine fairy princesses riding rainbow unicorns through glitter skies eating strawberry ice-cream in long sparkly dresses.” And she smiles that smile I love and drifts back into sweeter dreams. She is both girly and morbid, and I like that about her.

I’m cooking dinner when I am seized with anxiety. Bee is at work, Alba is being clingy and the day’s plans have all fallen apart. The rain beats at the roof as if to reflect the chaos of my mind. But will I look back to this day and only remember the calming sound of the heavy rain, the warmth of the bath I shared with Alba and the familiar smell of pumpkin soup simmering away on the stove?

This thought stays with me. How often do I daydream about those ‘perfect’ days when Alba was a baby or the idyllic days of my youth? How often do I hold my raw present reality up against my romanticised past or future and long to be there? The truth is life is never perfect and one day I’ll be nostalgically longing for now so I might as well embrace it.

We’re staying at Bee’s Dad’s home while he’s in New York. He owns an advertising agency and lives in a big house near the beach. Bee’s childhood dog Crunchie lives here; a sweet golden labrador who falls in love with Alba. As we swim in the pool he waits for us by the gate.

My friend Mary asks if she can take styled wedding pictures of us. I’m dressed in white lace dress, holding a bouquet of native flowers and kissing Bee, when I realise I’d really like to do this for real with him. I’ve never seriously considered that with anyone before.

My friend Zal gets us tickets to a festival where he is playing. Zal, the boy who will do anything for anyone without expecting a thing in return. He is Indian with long curly hair and we cook dahl together from his mother’s recipe. At the festival he plays in a chapel and the whole place is full of people and I am smiling at him between songs as if to say, “I’m so proud of you.”

Elle Graham is playing here too. She wrote a lullaby album for Alba when she was just a baby. We’ve never met in person but when I hug her it’s as though we grew up together. In a way, we did. We grew up in the same small hometown and chased our creativity while the world around us told us to be ‘realistic’. I watch her play from one of the couches strewn across the grass. Her hair is braided down the middle of her head and she is like an elven princess up there. I drink coconuts and eat crêpes and get tipsy and I love everyone.

For the first time in my life I throw Christmas. This is possibly the most grown-up thing I’ve ever done. It is made especially difficult by the fact I am doing it plant-based and our families are keen meat eaters. Once I brought a kale slaw over to my grandparent’s and my grandfather refused to eat it because he didn’t eat ’seaweed’. I tie my hair back; this is my kind of challenge.

I’m preparing every day until Christmas morning. I am sweating and stressing and everything that could be failing feels like it’s failing. I’m cooking too many things at once and suddenly the mushrooms are burnt and the picked fennel tastes weird and I forgot some vital ingredients. I’m biting my cheek raw when Jasper grabs me and tells me to chill out in the nicest possible way. It’s hard not to listen to Jasper.

And it’s fine. Not perfect, but fine. My aunt’s husband eats my raw cashew cake and says, “This actually isn’t too bad,” to which I shoot Bee a look to say, ‘did he need to say that?’ And the day ends with my little family in the pool under the beat of the sun, laughing and happy.

Jasper is over most days and he gets along with Alba so well we joke he is our nanny. The first time I ever met him I didn’t think I liked him. He seemed so quiet and serious. He looked like someone who might beat you up if you said the wrong thing. Now I love him. I can cuddle him and he knows exactly what I mean by it. I know he fights demons and I think our positive little family is a kind of medicine for him.

Alba’s Papa books a one way ticket to the other side of Australia for a job and momentarily my world tips upside down. Before I know it she is seeing him for the last time in a long time and I am making peace with a lot of confusion and hurt.

Then my girl is back in these arms she’s always known. I brush the knots from her hair, trim her nails, rub coconut oil on her skin, braid her hair. I dress her in clean pyjamas that smell like lavender and sun. I make her hot chocolate in her favourite cup. These simple things are delights I’ve always dreamed of and I feel blessed to do them. Blessed to make sacrifices for her and to struggle sometimes. Blessed to stay.

New Years sweeps in and as 2015 take its final breaths I think of myself at this time last year. A single girl in Melbourne watching fireworks explode outside of a moving tram. Yet to face her fear of public speaking. Yet to have her heart shattered. Yet to tour across America with her favourite band. Yet to meet the boy she’d been dreaming about. Yet to find her way home.

Images by Mary Parker. 

The Weight of a Big Heart

November, 2015
After three flights, a six hour road trip and a ferry, I am on a tiny island floating somewhere in the Tasman Sea. As I step off the boat and onto the pier I am greeted by loud smiles, New Zealand accents and shots of tequila.

I am here for another speaking gig. I know little about this retreat, but I feel an air of sacredness here. Like this is a piece of extraordinary amongst the ordinary of everyday life.

We all huddle together in a tiny room with wooden walls, listening to Si speak. His voice booms. He speaks about the the responsibility and power of being an artist, of sharing the uglier parts of life for those who can’t and of changing the world through art. The days we have together on this island are a gift, he says. This is a time and place where we can be totally ourselves, as weird or as mad as we certainly are. It’s a fine welcome.

From my bed I can see the sea sweeping in and out of the shore. I miss my little family. The thought of them is the warmest thing there is. I write Bee a love letter.

‘The hardest part of missing you is the things I ache to tell you, they pile up on top of each other, swallowing the ones that came before. They’re insubstantial things. Like, the sun was falling through the airplane windows in such a way that there were these lovely circles of golden light on the cabin walls. Or, I met a man who reminded me of a character from one of Alba’s picture books. Or, I thought of that word we couldn’t think of and it is sonder. But they matter to me because I know that they matter to you because they matter to me.

Isn’t that a beautiful thing about love? Who else would care about my thoughts on smoked paprika, or my sore ankle, or my dreams every single morning? I’ve grown so used to telling you every little thing that I’m being crushed by the weight of my unspoken thoughts, dreaming of the nights to come when they’ll all come flooding out like a tsunami of moments and ideas in-between hurricanes of kisses.”

The flames of the bonfire are impossibly red against the blue sea. The island is full of people and I want to disappear into a great big shell like a sea snail, but I don’t. Instead I tell myself these people are just friends I haven’t met yet and just like that, they are.

I walk with my new found friends across the edge of the island until we reach a little cove. The silver stars are so fierce their reflections burn in the water. “Let’s go swimming,” I say and I’m met by disbelief, arms crossed tightly over winter jackets. I shrug, take off my clothes and dive into the sea. The water is so cold there is nothing to do but laugh. I beg the others to come in and a few do. A seal swims in the sea beside us. We swim in the stars.

As we walk back shivering we watch glow worms in the forest trees. Tiny pinpricks of glowing light like stars themselves. We climb into a spa and watch the others warming their palms against the fire, quite possibly thinking we’re out of our minds.

Minutes pass like years all tangled up together, wondering aloud how we were just strangers hours ago. Every light goes off on the island until it is just us and the universe. Galaxies are spread thick and glittering across the sky like wet paint. The feeling I feel, within the warm water, the milky way, passionate conversations and these incredible humans, is everything. In those marvellous few hours all is profoundly good.

The few days before I am due to speak, I explore the island and listen to the others. They share stories that rattle bones and lessons born of great failure. I am blessed, sitting cross-legged on that floor soaking it all in.

On the day of my talk we’re all piled in Oli & Eric’s bed. The morning feels sweet and still. As people come to the door we bring them all in until the bed is a crowded mess of limbs and laughter. I often downplay my immense love and affection for people so I don’t weird them out but here I feel like I can just be me.

I’ve always known myself to be more loving than most other people I’ve met. In the same way I’ve known myself to be more sad, more excited, more sensitive, more introspective. I seem to only feel things at full force, which can be either crippling or the best thing in the world.

A single comment can leave me obsessive and sad for days but the thought of my love for my family can make me burst into joyful tears in the middle of the night. It’s part of the reason why writing is deeply important to me, if I kept all my feelings inside I’d go crazy.

I’m shaky so before I speak I go down by the water and listen to a song my friend Elle wrote for me. It’s a song about standing up and speaking my truth without fear, even in the face of misunderstanding or criticism. It gives me the strength to say all the hard things I’ve come here to say.

In the middle of my talk I look around the room and see people crying. They’re not just listening to my story, they’re feeling it. I am overwhelmed by the reality that these people are giving a piece of their lives to hear my story. When I finish, I ask if I can please hug everyone before they go. One by one I hold everyone in gratitude. People whisper all kinds of beautiful things in my ear and I find myself crying too.

I am high on this euphoria. I’ve never done work that feels this raw and fulfilling. A girl I know pulls me aside. I realise she must have hung back after I spoke, because I never got to hug her. I’m still grinning, still caught up in the glow of my talk.

“I think you know why I need to talk to you,” she says quite seriously, and I shake my head naively. I’m totally unprepared for what she is going to say. I don’t know how long she talks to me; all the colour leaves my face and the people around us blur into nothing.

She tells me my affection is making people uncomfortable and the organiser regrets inviting me. She repeats a hurtful comment my friend Andrea made about me being loving. She brings up the spa. My tongue is tied with the horror of being so misunderstood and disappointing these people I’ve come to love.

I feel myself being picked apart thread by thread and resewn darker, more broken. She offers the abuse I experienced as a child as a reason I’m so touchy. Says that when she met me I wasn’t the person she expected from reading my blog. I can see she’s trying to be helpful. Trying to say things that are hard to say, reminding me that not everyone sees the world like me. But these are daggers.

I am weak. I’m stumbling over words, crying, offering up apologies. Trying to explain me. I keep thinking she is right, that if these people I admire feel this way about me there must be something deeply wrong with me and I am ashamed for being so blind. It’s true that my heart has gotten me into trouble in the past, true that it has confused people, true that I’ve made countless stupid mistakes. But here I felt so understood and that is shattering around me now.

Then she asks me what Bee would think and it snaps me back to my good intentions, because I already know exactly what Bee thinks. My love for everyone is one of the reasons he loves me.

I remember when I first went to a grocery store with Bee. He ran into his friend and gave him the longest, most loving hug I’ve ever seen a man give another man and I fell a little more in love with him. I think of movie nights where a bunch of us just cuddle on the couch or times where I’ve almost fallen asleep on his best friend’s shoulder. He gets my platonic love for the people I connect with because he feels it too.

When I leave I’m sobbing like a child, hiding my face behind my hands. When I come into reception in my room I finally call Bee.

“It’s okay,” he soothes, “I know your intentions, I’m sorry they don’t understand. All you can do is just be honest about who you are.”

“But what if I really am a bad person?”

“You’re not. You love a lot, and that’s a good thing.”

He helps, but I still feel hollow. I so desperately want to explain myself and it gives me the resolve to brave the outside world. As I’m walking I feel like a shell of myself. I am exhausted and confused. Andrea emerges from by the fire and stops me. “I need to talk to you,” she says, and I’m instantly sick with the guilt of knowing I upset her. “I need to apologise,” I say. She replies, “no, I need to apologise.”

She takes my hand and walks me out by the shore. “After you spoke today I climbed out of the window to cry because I had judged you. Once I heard your story it all made sense. I was wrong. I am so sorry. Please keep on loving and hugging and being you. It’s what makes you special. Please never stop.”

Her words are like hands reaching down into the hole where I lay curled, pulling me up and up and up. She hugs me tightly as I begin to cry again. I’m crying for so many different reasons tonight. Her message about my love being good is one I hear several times throughout the night and each time the reassurance lifts a little of the weight.

Oli takes me for a walk across the pier. I feel closer to him than anyone else here and I’ve been desperate to talk to him. As soon as we’re alone my words spill out fast and thick while Si is letting off fireworks on the shore. Oli just laughs and tells me, “of course I get you Nirrimi, don’t worry.” The more he talks, the less alone and weird I feel and the smaller this whole situation seems. I tell him he’s my hero.

He reminds me that it’s our last night and we should be heading to the party. On the way the incredible lady who organised this retreat tells me how grateful she is that I came and she is the final hand pulling me to the light. Inside the hall everyone is dancing. The owner of the island is dressed as a woman with a blonde wig, dancing on the table. The energy is brilliant.

My despair melts into joy again. From the euphoria of my talk, to the darkness that followed, back to joy again. It’s exhausting. I’m not sure I’ve ever connected with people the way I did here and maybe I never will again. Whatever it is that makes this place special, this is my last chance to embrace it. So I soak it all up for what it is worth, and for what it is worth, I love even more than ever.

I climb into bed at 4am feeling strong. Feeling like my love isn’t a flaw but a strength. A superpower that comes with great responsibility and a need for transparency. Not for the faint of heart.

I head home via Wellington so I can see my best friend Kelsey. She’s dressed in high heels, sparkly earrings and pink lipstick. I’m dressed in boots, some wacky pants I found in a Balinese supermarket and a boy’s army jacket. We’re clearly soulmates.

We book a hotel room, down fancy cocktails, eat sweet crêpes and peanut pie for dinner and fall asleep late holding hands, as we always do when we’re together.

I tell Bee I’m coming home a day later than I truly am so I can surprise him. He’s at a gig the night I arrive so I secretly book tickets for myself. I get to our place only minutes after he’s left. While I shower I am shaking with excitement, nerves and a serious lack of sleep. By now it’s 3am in New Zealand.

I wear a new white lace dress I bought in a secondhand store in Wellington, hoping he won’t recognise me in a crowd. When I walk into the venue my heart is beating like mad. I hide in shadows and text Jasper who tells me Bee is near the stage.

As I walk over I am wondering why I didn’t plan this far ahead when he suddenly sees me. His eyes meet mine in one breathless moment and the gig is up but then, just as suddenly, he’s looking at something else like he never saw me at all. I run to him and when I’m right next to him I ask, “care to dance?”

He looks at me like I can’t possibly be real. It’s a long moment before he registers that it’s truly me. He shakes his head and just says, “oh my god.” Jasper is laughing beside us. “That was really good,” Bee says, between overdue kisses.

It’s becoming hot and sticky. Most mornings we drive five minutes to the beach and dive into the cool ocean. We come home and do yoga, all three of us. When the sun is low I tie up my runners and head to the park at the end of our street. Bee pushes Alba on the swings and I run laps. I’m moving so much and it makes me so happy that I wonder why I so easily fall out of these habits

I call my little brother Zake and tell him about what happened in New Zealand. We are one and the same and he tells me his own stories about his affection being misunderstood. We joke that maybe we should come with warning labels.

Laura comes to stay with us for her friend’s funeral. I’ve never been any good at knowing the right things to say or do in these situations. I just hold her as she cries. Through Laura’s stories I can feel her friend’s absence from this world. There are times where life feels inexcusably cruel.

One night I ask Laura, “Do you think Bee is a good match for me?” It takes a lot to ask this. Laura is brutally honest and has disapproved of every love interest I’ve had since I met her.

“Yes. In all the right ways you’re the same and all the right ways you’re different. Like yin and yang. I usually don’t give a fuck about what anyone thinks of me but I do with Bee. He’s special.”

I recognise the fire in Alba’s eyes, I think she has more than I ever did. She’s spirited and stubborn but if she sees that I’m down she will kiss me so tenderly and sing to me until I smile. In the hard moments it can be difficult to find gratitude, but when I do, it’s all there is.

Bee & I listen to parenting podcasts together. After a particularly tough day we talk over everything, figuring out what went wrong and what we can change. He has all the time in the world for Alba. Sometimes I wonder how my life would be different if I’d had a step-father like that instead of one that frightened and abused me. Many of the men who have come into our family have left us with scars. I’m grateful for my scars for what I can bring to others, but I would never wish them on Alba.

One night we drive into the country to spend a night at a friend’s house. Most of Bee’s friends are here and we’re all playing board games and drinking wine. He is so happy to have them all together he can’t stop grinning. In the height of the fun it is time to get Alba ready for bed so I say goodnight, kiss Bee and leave. When I turn to close the bedroom door behind me Bee is standing there saying, “you didn’t think I’d miss bedtime, did you?”

Instead of staying with his friends he chooses to brush tiny teeth, read bedtime stories, listen to ‘I’m thirsty’ and ‘I’m not tired’ a hundred times and lay in the dark for an hour while Alba falls asleep. As we lay quietly in that dark room, faint sounds of laughter trickling through the windows, my heart is exploding. That little gesture is big to me. We’re a family.

A poem by the sweetest poet Joel McKerrow, written as he listened to me speak.

Growing up around mangoes
and mothers who had hopes and dreams taken,
or left behind
or stripped bare, like mangoes, stripped bare, like strangers, stripped bare.
The abuse of a man to a girl is perhaps the worst of all,
it splits a body.
Two halves and the rupture. The splinter. The cleaving separation.
Holding yourself together when torn
is harder than it looks so we throw up the darkness.
Pick up sticks. Pick up knives. Pick up portraits.
The potential of a camera in the hands,
dripping tears onto lenses,
changes pictures
And soon a new self. And soon the true self.
And she looks through glass now. She holds herself now.
A lens held stable is a life held stable,
even roller skates,
even boys who break,
even circumstance and a romance that never tasted right,
even through it all, she holds and she holds and she holds and now she holds life inside her.
When a child forms in the womb it brings with it
so much more than just body. Just soul. Just herself.
She was not the only one born that day.
Her mother was born again. Given new life. Everything changed.
And this is who she is now,
she chases hope now,
chases joy now
chases stories now,
the beauty and the tension of broken.
She calls her life a film,
and for some this brings a posture of projection,
the casting of a false self out to those who are watching.
But not for her.
Her life is a film, because everything that happens is taking her somewhere,
nothing is left alone, left stranded on a beach with no meaning,
everything is pieced together into the larger. And this larger is a story.
And its the story of her life.
And this life, it began around mangoes and mothers and broken and fear and photos and punches and lovers and bodies and lenses and babies and daughters and stories and stories and stories.

A week with Alba


I followed Alba around for a week with my camera as a snapshot of what she was like at 3. From our home in Perth, to roadtripping with friends, to adventures on mountains, to veggie burgers and ice-cream. October, 2015.

Dancing with Fear

 

October – 2015 

In one week I’ll be somewhere in America, standing on a stage in front of hundreds of strangers telling them the kinds of secrets I’m supposed to keep close to my chest, held within tight fists or locked behind a cage of rib bones.

I remember delivering talks to my class in school. I’d be talking about the diet of humpback whales or the population of Africa and I would be shaking like a leaf. Talking so quickly it all would become just one nervous, incomprehensible sound. I’m not a natural. Each day I question if I’m insane for saying yes to this job – but of course I said yes. I said yes because life is richer when I face my fears.

I Skype my father in London, who has built his career on being a storyteller. He tells me the story of the time he was pulled onto the stage at the Opera House and gave a spontaneous speech to a quarter of a million people. “Were you nervous?” I ask. He just laughs. I was not born with his unshakable confidence.

One week and all I have is a knot in my stomach and a mess of notes. A great big block of stone that I’m supposed to carve something inspiring from. Not only that, I also have hundreds of images to finish from the tour I just returned from. Bee promises he’ll help and he does. He takes the whole week off work to help me.

Each long night of working becomes morning before my eyes. A few hours after I’ve curled up in bed Bee wakes with Alba. He makes her breakfast, gets her ready for the day and plays with her until I’m awake. Each day he cleans, cooks and listens to my talk over and over. He is my hero and I love him, I love him, I love him.

I pause often to join them. To play monsters or read stories or paint. Before Bee came along I didn’t play imaginary so much, now I play every day. One day I’m a lost princess, the next I’m a hungry lion. Alba is usually some variation of a magic rainbow glitter unicorn with superpowers. Bee is everything and anything and I suspect he enjoys playtime the most of all.

After fifty hours of travel I am finally in North Carolina. I’m supposed to be taken to the convention where I’ll speak and teach, but there is a hurricane travelling this way and no one can get me. Weather warnings play over the radio on the shuttle ride to the airport hotel.

A clean empty hotel room. It always thrills me. My little yellow suitcase parked by the door. Long showers with soft towels. Clean, crisp white linen. How luxurious a bed feels after sleeping like a pretzel in an airplane seat or on the cold floors of foreign airports. With such stillness I’d never guess there was a hurricane at all.

There is a twelve hour time difference but I don’t have time to adjust. In a few days I will be travelling all the way home again.

The drive is spectacular. Hours pass through lush forests, vines that swallow entire trees, wooden cabins set into mountains. Landscapes lifted out of fairytales. As an Australian child I romanticised American culture. I devoured it in films and in books and now I find myself swallowed up by it.

The creative convention is hosted at a retreat on a mountain. The air is cold and wet, like I could drink it. I wear the coat I bought in NYC as a sixteen year old who’d never known winter. I also wear a sign around my neck. It reads speaker. People stare at me. They are probably thinking I’m a lot more impressive than I really am.

When I’m alone I listen to the recording I made of my talk. It’s an hour long. I watch the other speakers and they are all so confident and effortless, like they’ve been doing this all their lives. But not me, I feel like I’m just pretending and someone is going to catch me out soon. Maybe when I get up there I’ll be so terrible that people will leave. Maybe my throat will seize up and I won’t be able to speak.

Beneath all my worries and nerves there is an underlying sense of peace. I know that whatever happens on that stage I will come out of it alive, having not let my fears dictate my life. That is my kind of success.

Something profound happens to me here. As I listen to the other speakers share their passions, I feeling like I’m reconnecting with the parts of me who began creating in the first place. I came here expected to inspire and I am surprised at how inspired I feel. I’m asking myself again and again, what sets me on fire? What will I do with the time that is mine? From age thirteen it was photography, now that is just one of the many ways I tell stories.

I spend a lot of time daydreaming. One of my dreams is myself on a stage (just a little one, perhaps at a bookstore or a market) wearing a white dress and velvet flares, cradling an old guitar and singing songs I have written. Maybe people stop to listen, maybe they don’t. But I am there, bare and unafraid. Another dream is passing a bookstore and seeing a book I have written in the window.

I teach a workshop on shooting portraits and there is some confusion over how little equipment I use and how the sun is my only lighting. As a teenager I started shooting with so little, simplicity has become my way. It’s less about what you use and more about how you see.

Then it’s time to speak and there is no way to stop time, no way to back out; this is it now Nirrimi. As an introvert, I feel really heavy. Like I’m carrying the weight of a million eyes on me as I walk onto the stage. Every hour of sleep I’ve missed seems to be rushing up to catch me.

I clutch my notebook, notes scribbled like a map so I won’t lose my way. My life as a story. The abuse, the loss, the passion, the growth. The lessons I have learned about being an artist. Everyone promised me once I was up there it would be easy. It is never easy. I struggle and want to stop many times but I keep on going.

Even though I stumble, the stories and honesty are enough. Countless people thank me. They wrap their arms around me. They whisper into my ear that my stories changed them. They cry. They look at me like they love me. Like in an hour of vulnerability I’ve become someone dear to them. As the convention ends, Brooke Shaden, goddess and founder of Promoting Passion, cuts her long hair off on stage in an act of letting go.

Then, a glow. Within it I call Bee and talk to him for the first time since I left. I call Alba. Tears tumble down my cheeks. Everything feels big and bright and beautiful. I’ve done it. I can breathe out. I can go home to my family now.

Our friends Nicole and Jack come to live with us a while. We all get on like mad. We take turns cooking dinner each night, share riddles, watch documentaries and go on roadtrips. One afternoon I get up so quickly that my head spins. I fall back against our big, soft bed in a rush of bliss and when my reality settles I am still grinning. That night Bee bakes Jack a birthday cake and we all sing happy birthday out of key. Alba shouts “Hip hip!” and we shout, “Hooray!”

One night we go the beach. It’s only a five minute drive from our house and the waves are wild, crashing loud onto the moonlit sand. It’s too loud to think out here, that’s one of the reasons I like the sea so much. Nicole sits in Jack’s lap and kisses him like they’re teenagers. They’ve been dating eight years now but you’d never know. “Let’s always be crazy in love.” Bee says. “Let’s make out even when we’re really old.” I say.

Bee & I start hosting creative adventures on Sundays. We spend the first at the top of a waterfall. Fifteen of us sinking into the cool little pools formed by rock; sharing picnic food, taking photos and playing music. We watch the sun melt into the distant sea as the world beneath lights up with streetlights. We talk and talk until we can no longer ignore the cold wind or the mosquitos biting our toes. How sweet it feels to be able to do this, to create a community.

The house is quiet when Jack & Nicole leave. It’s just our little family again. Before I know it, it is time to board another plane to another country to give another talk. Only this time I’m not so afraid.

Puzzles

September – 2015 

I’m talking to Alba’s Papa. The intense relationship we used to have now feels like a dream I’ve almost forgotten. I’m telling him about my longing for home. For family, for the Queensland sun, for tropical fruit, for rainforests. “Let’s do it,” he says excitedly.

I call across to Bee, who is playing with Alba. “Do you want to move to the Sunshine Coast next year?” I shout. He shrugs and grins, “Why not!”

I am so happy in the knowledge that we’re moving to the place I always longed to raise my children. Days pass by so sweetly. I feel like a good Mama, a good lover, a good artist. The future spills over with light. One of those rare times where everything feels almost just like I dreamt it would.

The more I experience in life, the more I begin to see signs. The moon is full when I’m filled to the brim, a friend calls just as I’m thinking about them, I get a gig just when I’m worrying how I’ll make ends meet.

I’ve found myself becoming superstitious after years of being a skeptic of anything I couldn’t prove. But what is the point, even if it isn’t scientifically true, of taking the magic out of life? I’m returning to the way I used to think as a child.

It seems to me that as tragic as my move to this city felt when it happened, it was meant to happen to meet Bee. To me, his very existence proves my kind of magic exists.

I’m going on my last photo tour for a long time. We fly to Melbourne and rent a little car. We drive under grey skies and heavy rain. Ready for the madness. We stay at the same house where my year began, a spectacular mansion in Fitzroy where we watch the water running down the window panes. Crossed fingers. Rain, rain go away.

I realise that this entire trip is a puzzle for Bee to put together piece by piece. As he puts it together my stories will have colour and detail they never had before. They will tangle with his own stories with the characters and places from mine.

Somewhere between our first shoots we’re driving to a location we’ve just discovered is closed for the day, the weather is terrible and Bee is panicking. I may be playing up my hopelessness for dramatic effect. “This is mad!” He says, “is this what touring is always like for you?!”

I shoot in the forest surrounding the closed gardens and the portraits are beautiful, light softened by menacing clouds and only a little rain. On the drive back Bee says, “you know what you’re doing, huh.” And I give him a look to say, I’ve been playing this game for ten years now.

I’ve organised vegetarian picnics in every city we’re passing. The first is on a friend’s balcony, sheltered from the rain. On the ride some of my friends are in the back of our car giggling and I’m fretting that no one will come. I am wrong.

The balcony is lit by countless candles and fairy lights, there are people stretched out on couches and cushions and there is a table covered in delicious homemade food. I fall into some kind of vegan brownie high. It’s 1am before we’re home, alarms set for a sunrise shoot, sharing gratefuls like every single night.

It’s a ten hour drive to Sydney. Perhaps it would seem intimidating to drive it in a day but after having a toddler it seems like a piece of cake on our own. While Bee drives I sit in the back and work on the talk and workshop I am giving next month in the US. I stop often because it makes me feel carsick but I can’t stop, I have so much to do and it feels like time is slipping through my fingers like water. I’m not ready.

I stop on a street corner in Manly, Sydney. “This is where I spoke to you on the phone and you asked me about a hundred questions about my childhood, remember?” I stop in the middle of a supermarket, “This is where you called me on your big road trip and I accidentally bought millet instead of rice because I was so distracted.” Piece by piece.

We have a shoot in the Blue Mountains. There’s a moment where I’m not shooting, where I’m watching Bee put my lens back into my camera bag and I am struck down with gratitude. He didn’t have to come on this tour with me; to drive ridiculous hours, spend his free time doing my selects and running around after me on every shoot. But he does without a single shade of complaint or expectation. It is who he is.

On the drive back I point out the train I used to catch when I was pregnant and the fruit market where I’d shop with Alba & her Papa. That’s another thing I’m grateful for. While I can’t bear to hear about his past romances, he loves my love stories.

I have my next picnic in a Newtown Park. A little city of rugs and yummy food and laughing people. Bee whispers to me, “You looks so lovely Nirrimi Joy, honestly. If I didn’t know you I’d be flirting with you like crazy right now.”

Laura joins us and I’m so glad to have her fiery self making us laugh from the backseat. We all drive to Wollongong to visit my family. From their house on the hill we watch the sky change from colours to stars. “This is where I spoke to you every night, just after we’d met.” It feels so long ago now.

There’s a big fire and we all tell stories into the night. Laura tells us the story of her cousin who was kidnapped and murdered, whose murderer joined the search party when she was declared missing. My skin crawls. Nicky tells us the story of her little brother’s tenth birthday party, where he drove his mother’s car with his friends and crashed it. Their mother was passed out drunk and Nicky had to explain to furious parents why their children were injured. Bee tells us stories of his travels. I drink up all the tales; collecting them like I used to collect shells.

11 hours to Byron Bay. It’s past midnight when we arrive. Another sunrise shoot. Breakfast at a cafe by the beach. A text from Nicky that says she loves Bee and the way his eyes light up when he talks about Alba. Such joy. Bookstores. Another whole day driving to Brisbane, binging on podcasts.

We have dinner with my grandparents and all the time I can see how nervous Bee is. All those silly questions like what do you do and what did you study, but his goodness shines through the stream of formalities.

In the Sunshine Coast we sleep in the truck I used to call home. On the bed is a basket full of more chocolate than I can possibly eat and a belated birthday card from Georgia and Laura. We spend the morning with our toes dipped in an icy creek. The kids hang off Bee and when it’s time to leave Theo cries for him all the way home.

Little things go wrong sometimes – for one thing we’re constantly getting lost – but mostly life is too full and busy and easy to be sad.

I am sitting in a motel pool at Golden Beach with my cousins swimming around me. I run my fingers through their hair as they cuddle up to me. Sommer looks just like I used to. Will I ever feel like the grown up I’m supposed to be? Or a mother? I miss my girl. Bee does too. When we speak to her on the phone we savour everything she says.

In Brisbane we have the best pizza of our lives. We wander down an alleyway and get so swept up in a bustling night market we nearly miss our flight. Next year this place will be a little roadtrip away, what a wonderful thought.

As the plane touches down in my hometown the pilot announces passionately over the loudspeaker, “The Cowboys won!” And a moment later the plane is in uproar, people yelping and applauding. It’s like the very plane is shaking. “Welcome to Townsville,” I tell Bee, as he stares at me in disbelief.

In the taxi we pass my public high school. I tell stories of the days I walked these streets late at night with a gang of other kids, looking for fights or playing spin the bottle in the dim light of somebody’s garage. We pass the shopping centre where I’d walk aimlessly with boyfriends or eat McDonalds with my best friend each Thursday night. Worlds away.

At my mum’s house my little brother leads me through the hallway and shows me a baby sleeping in my sister’s bed. “I’ve had a baby since I saw you last,” he tells me, stone-faced. “You have not,” I say, “where’s the mother?”

“I’m a single dad, she couldn’t handle it.” I’m asking my sister and my mum where the mother is and they just shake their heads, trying to keep straight faces. The baby stirs and as Zake soothes her just like a father would he tells me it’s his housemate’s baby, she’s a young single mum and he spends a lot of time looking after her baby.

The loving way he holds her makes me proud. Just years ago he was little more than a ghost, without the slightest hint of empathy for another human. I’d walk into his bedroom and try to speak to him and it was like I didn’t exist. For years we lived in the same house and I didn’t even know him. I don’t think he knew himself. But that’s a story for another time.

And so, that’s how we ended up with an unrelated baby on our family holiday to Magnetic Island. Sun shining, ocean calling. Surrounded by my nearest family and my love. My sister played her guitar and sung on the beach and I pretended not to pay attention to how beautiful she sounded. We challenged my mum to bananagrams and lost devastatingly every time. I forget all deadlines and expectations and I’m simply there.

On the flight home I look over at Bee fast asleep, he is so familiar to me now. I realise how profoundly my idea of love has changed since he came into my life. I long to go back in time and tell my young self that love doesn’t need to suffocate. I long to go back to tell my mother and my aunts they deserve more. I long to tell every woman in every painful relationship that it doesn’t need to hurt. That love can be good and they deserve good love that nourishes them, not poisons them. We all do.