My little family collect me from the airport. They’re so happy to see me. So happy. I come home to a house that smells like baking and incense and home. “It’s just so good to have you back,” Bee says, wrapping his arms tight around me.
There’s a big bunch of native flowers on my desk in my bedroom. A love note that says my bicycle has been fixed and there is a week’s worth of salads in the fridge for my studio lunches. I tell all the stories I’ve been collecting.
I ride my bicycle to the studio and into town. I go to gigs and see my friends and curl my toes into the sand by the sea. I give workshops on creativity at a theatre in the city, gushing about the healing powers of art. I lay under the sun and I think that this must be the best my life has ever been. Surely. This must be it.
Bee takes me to a float tank. I’ve always wanted to go to a float tank. The water is so buoyant my naked body rises to the top, floating like a paper boat in the total darkness of night. I imagine I’m in the womb. That I’m in outer space. That I am a fish in the deep sea.
I can feel the dark tendrils of anxiety clinging to the edges of my thoughts, so I try to think nothing. To empty my mind. My breathing catches. I try to hold onto something good but everything good slips away and it is so dark and constrained in here. I leave well before the hour is over.
I’m ashamed. Bee will think I’m too sensitive, I think darkly, it’ll confirm how much of a child I am. Maybe he will wonder why he’s even with me. Bee’s friend Honzik, who works there, asks how it was. “Oh it was,” I start, but I burst into tears before I can pretend it was nice. He catches me in a hug. When Bee asks if I’m okay I just nod blankly, obviously not okay.
In the car I unfairly let out all of my fears as accusations. “You must think I’m so dramatic about everything. It must be so embarrassing being with me!” He’s upset. I’m always doing this, deciding he must feel a certain way and reacting to my fears like they are real. He tells me that he loves who I am, that he understands.
Being in a relationship is like holding a mirror up to yourself, you see all the good things but you see all the flaws too. I want to see all those flaws, even if I’m ashamed at times by how many there are. I want to see them, so I can fix them.
I go to a festival. A band called Kid Dingo are playing. From afar the lead singer looks so much like Zake. The lankiness, the expressions, even the way he holds himself. I watch their whole set. I watch their next set too. Alba dances on the grass. “This is probably so weird to say,” I tell the singer as he passes me in the festival grounds, “But you remind me so much of my dead little brother, and it’s really nice.”
I’m struggling with dark emotions and I spend most of the festival in Al’s van, curled up reading ‘The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart’ by Holly Ringland. It’s a beautiful book about loss and love and abuse. One that I can relate to so intensely I have to pause often to cry, great sobbing cries. The story works its way into my heart in a forever kind of way.
When I publish a photograph of me reading in the van, Holly herself comments. “I saw that Holly commented on your image,” a friend tells me, “she’s in Perth right now on a book tour!” So I message her, heart racing, asking if we can get tea together. She has one hour at the airport before she flies out. Just one hour and it is mine.
Her arms are full of butterfly tattoos, flowers dangle from her earrings and she hugs me like we’ve known each other all our lives. Here is this radiant women, who has summited the very mountain my heart longs to summit, who has poured everything she has into a novel and published it. Here she is and she has time for me. More than that, she tells me my writing is wonderful and assures me I have time. It means the world.
The winter is cold and I keep a hot water bottle tucked under my shirt, burning hot on my bare skin. Some nights Al brings his Xbox over and we all play Fortnite and order in burgers. I find comfort in these nights, perhaps because gaming was the only way I connected with my little brother in his darker years.
Bee gets three jobs. He’s always in a rush and his free time is so fleeting. We keep missing each other. I feel like I’m always reaching out for him and he’s always saying, “Sorry I just gotta go.” I feel like I’m trying to find him and he’s not there. Like I’m picking up all the pieces he’s leaving behind and it’s all too much to carry. I feel a quiet desperation that I try to not to feed.
“It’s just until I leave for Nepal,” he tells me, but that is still months away. His mother asks me how I’m doing. “Don’t worry about Bee for now,” she comforts me, “just focus on you, do things that make you happy. He’ll come around.”
So I work harder. I devote more time to my routines. The writing, the yoga, the meditating, the planning; it helps. I start to pray. I think of God but not the God of any religion, my own God, who is also the universe, who is love and life. I can feel the power in prayer, in the transference of emotional weight and the trust that a higher power is looking out for me.
I fly to Melbourne to shoot. I visit the snow with friends while I’m there. I’ve only ever seen snow once. I want to love it but my skin prickles painfully from the cold. It’s slippery and harsh and unfamiliar. I escape to a cafe with a roaring fire, reading a good book and writing in my journal that I much prefer the heat of summer. There is something in it though, seeing the white land sparkling in the sun outside while I cradle a hot chocolate.
I shake off my stubborn resistance to leave and I trek through the snow to the lifts. I ride them up and down the mountain four times. I can’t feel my fingers or my toes but I’m so consumed by the beauty of the world I hardly notice. I study the patterns that the skis make in the land, the way the trees hunch under the weight of snow and the green plants that peek out from the white.
I photograph an actress in the city. She tells me stories of the children she takes in who have been rescued from unsafe homes. Of the children who have to sleep on the couches of the Child Protection agencies when there is no one to take them in. It tugs on my heartstrings, it plants a seed.
Something big happens that triggers my past trauma. A friend suggests I call 1800 RESPECT, a domestic and sexual violence hotline. I tell a little of my story before I’m transferred to a counsellor with a voice like honey. “Tell me what’s going on in your body,” she says. I explain the unbearable weight of my limbs, how I want to curl in on myself.
“That’s the feeling of giving in,” she explains, “when you were in an abusive relationship you had to give in in order to survive another day. But you’re not in that relationship any more.”
She maps out the cycle of violence and explains the fight and flight response. She puts words to my responses and mostly, she affirms that what happened was not okay. I am not overreacting. “If someone in the street had done what he did to you, they would be in jail right now.”
Relief rolls through me. My fears and anxieties are warranted. I’m not just an overly sensitive person. I share things that are hard to put to words. My confusion over whether I caused it or whether it was really that bad, over whether I’m a bad person myself, over toxic habits I took on as my own into my current relationship.
I call the hotline whenever I’m intensely triggered. They put me through to specialists, trauma informed counsellors who know all the right things to say. The knowledge they share are weapons to fight the darkness with. The heavy cloud of confusion clears.
The florist I share a studio with tells me she is ending her lease. I am devastated. It’s such a big space that I could never afford on my own. A little thought pops into my head like a bright spark. I’ve always had a dream of starting a creative co-working space. A place for artists to come together and chase their dreams.
At the last possible moment I have just enough people say they’ll join. Common Good Studio is born. “I’ll sign the lease,” I tell Stackwood, a thrill running through me. The space is so big and light and empty. I set it up with a long communal table with stools, a cane couch I find by the side of the road and fix up, a tea station, plants, a hanging chair and a nice rug. On the first Monday of every month I run Mondates, where creatives from all over come together to work on their creative projects. It’s a dream come true.
My mum and sister come to visit. One night I stay up late talking to Pixie and she tells me her own stories of abuse at the hands of someone she loved. She seems so sure of herself, so strong. She tells me it doesn’t really affect her now. It didn’t for me either, at first. Maybe it’s because I’m in a safe place now that I can feel the depth of what happened.
I hold my hand over her belly, feeling my cousin kick. I love this baby and it terrifies me a little. I’m always trying to keep space between my family so the distance doesn’t hurt so much. Little Ember. I pack a bag full of baby clothes and a nice carrier for her. My heart hurts softly. These are the things I’d packed away for my next baby. I’m not sure if that will happen for me. Maybe that’s okay.
There’s a maker’s market at Stackwood. I hold an exhibition and sell prints. It thrills me seeing my photographs up on the wall. Strangers stream in and out of the studio, commenting on how lovely it is. I feel proud. I work obsessively on the course I’m making, writing and researching all day and late into the night. I’m asked to give another workshop, I call it Committing To Your Craft and it sells out.
Bee catches chicken pox. He spends the night burning hot and moaning about dying. I think he’s being dramatic. Then the spots come. They cover his hands, his arms, his face. I take time off working and bring him endless cups of Earl Grey, run him oat baths and watch Netflix in bed beside him.
These wide open days together are a blessing. We’re best friends again. When the spots begin to heal Bee mentions that he wants to quit his two barista jobs and go back to one job again. I hide my utter delight, not meaning to push him. He does quit and things feel balanced again.
I turn 26. This birthday I have a sense that I’ve grown into my skin more than I ever have. Like I’m becoming more and more aligned with the woman I want to be. Alba and Bee wake me with homemade cards and gifts and love. They take me out for pancakes. I’m so happy to be me, to be getting older and more sure of my place in this world.
One morning Alba makes posters while I sleep in. The titles say ‘Morning Rituals’, ‘Afternoon Rituals’ and ‘Nighttime Rituals’. My heart swells. She puts them up on her bedroom wall. They say things like ‘Relax outside in the sun. Listen to bird’s music. Draw fairies and horses. Goodnight kisses.’
I’m so proud to be her mama. So proud of this girl who is so curious and bright and loving. We put her to bed each night at 7:30pm and I work from my desk to the sound of her reading aloud. It’s my favourite sound in the whole world. She’s up to the twelfth book of ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’ now, she reads through novels so hungrily. I go to secondhand stores and buy books to bring home for her, just like my mother used to.
We all start rock climbing. There’s a bouldering place around the corner from us, an open space with walls covered in colourful rocks. I’ve never been sporty, not ever. But climbing feels good. I feel like a child again. Alba climbs in a dress and grins down at us. Bee leaps across the wall like a monkey. Friends join and we sit and chat on the soft floor between climbs.
Sometimes I get the feeling I’m shrinking my world. My family say I don’t call them enough, Bee says I have built walls around myself and I feel content with simplicity. I find a divine joy in small acts of comfort; slipping into a hot bath, crawling into a clean soft bed to read a book, waking between the warm bodies of my family. Is it a part of getting older? Am I settling too much? Curling into my shell like a snail?
Spring washes over everything. Flowers bloom. I stop to wonder at the native flowers dangling from trees, pick the yellow flowers bursting from the grass and pass boxes sitting by the sidewalk, filled with free lemons and herbs from gardens. We see the buds of mulberries and figs growing from the trees outside our home.
The first moment I truly feel the heat of the sun, like the heat of another body against me, I am struck with complete and utter happiness. It reminds me of what it feels like to be warm. It reminds me of mornings at the beach and days in the sun and nights walking around night markets in just a summer dress. Of roadtrips and fresh berries and picnics and backyard music gigs. It hasn’t been so long but it feels like I’ve been waiting a lifetime.