Shrinking Worlds

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.

Friendship

The plane touches down in Sydney. It’s been a long time since I’ve been on a plane. It’s a little reminder of my old life; the one where the airport felt like a second home and I was constantly on the road. I see Laura. A week ago I was laying on a beach in Fremantle imagining this moment. Now here she is and I want to drink in all of her hilarity and wit and affection.

It’s dark and we walk to a pub where people drink ciders on the concrete with their dogs. I get a pint of cider. Anxiety hits. The waves are too big. “I think I’m too anxious for this,” I say. Laura gets it. We walk home.

Georgia arrives with her bleached peach hair, Doc Martens and contagious laughter. We’d booked her a flight for her birthday. We’re all together. It’s incredible. I’m with two of my best friends and we all live in different states but it’s okay because right now we’re all in the very same place.

We eat delicious things from food trucks at the Marrickville Markets. I run into an old friend of my little brother. He talks about Zake. Grief sways me. We watch Planet Earth and order three pizzas and soft drink like we’re at a slumber party. We all squish into Laura’s bed and sing along loudly to our favourite songs.

I’ve been telling Georgia and Laura how alike they were long before they ever met. They’re both so extroverted and confident and funny, the kind of people everyone wants to befriend and date and be. They’re protagonists. I soak in all of their stories. I feel so lucky.

I walk through the Newtown graveyard with my mother and little sister Pixie. Mum tells us stories of her youth. I imagine her at my age as totally free in the world. Reading the books at the bookstore where she worked, writing poetry in her journal from park benches and having love affairs with all kinds of interesting people. It hurts me to think of what she faced from my father and stepfather after that, the challenge of raising my little brother in a world that didn’t understand him and then losing him.

She’s changed since Zake died. Become softer somehow. More loving. My sister is pregnant with a little girl, at the same age I fell pregnant with Alba. Our mum jokes that she warns those who come to her for parenting advice that she’s had two daughters drop out of school and become teenage parents and a son who committed suicide. We share a dark sense of humour. I’m glad they’ve left our hometown to move here. I never thought they would. They had a lot to escape from.

Klara. The biggest reason I’ve flown across the country. My best friend. Love of my life. The last time I saw her was in a cabin in a forest in a tiny town in Sweden over a year ago. Her band First Aid Kit is touring the east coast. The night she gets in she’s going to a Lana Del Ray concert and she asks if I’d like a ticket. I would.

I’m sitting outside the stadium when I see her and her sister Johanna walking towards me. They’re so tall and breathtaking in person, the kind of people you know are superstars before you know a thing about them. We run towards each other and hug tightly and spin in circles. Klara holds my hand through the concert and I keep catching her eyes to grin in a way that says, “you’re really truly here.”

We swim in the infinity pool on the rooftop of the hotel and the city is lit up and glittering around us. The water is warm and we’re all laughing. The hotel bed is big and white and soft and cosy. I fall asleep smiling next to Klara. I’m really fucking happy.

I wake up to panicked texts from Georgia and Laura. Everything has fallen apart. Georgia is flying home early and their friendship is destroyed. I’m shaking. Klara has to leave for an interview and she’s worried. My mind is racing and my heart is banging in my chest and I have no idea what to do.

I’m about to catch an Uber to see Georgia when Laura calls me. “God Nirrimi, why the hell do you like pranking people? That was so stressful! I can’t do it!” Relief floods me. I’m so proud. Pranks are my thing and they got me so good. Everything’s just fine.

Soundcheck. It brings me back to when we toured the states. I wear a pass around my neck that says I’m with the band. This life feels so different to my regular life; to school runs and grocery shopping and dirty dishes. Yet I’m completely at home here. Between songs Klara calls me up on stage to wrap her arms around me. The stage is being broadcasted to the dressing rooms in the venue and Stella Donnelly messages me to say she can see me from hers.

I love Stella. She’s a brutally honest feminist wonder woman. I watched her play to a packed crowd back in Fremantle and have since had her music on heavy rotation. I’m nervous meeting her. Not in a starstruck way, but because I really admire her authenticity. I try to be cool, but clumsily fall over coming into the dressing room. She says she’d been following me online for a while now, that she used to know Bee. She’s opening for First Aid Kit and it all feels wonderfully serendipitous.

I ask Klara to put my friends and family on the list so they can come to the show. I feel indescribably happy, like I’m high on the magic of so many of my favourite people being in one place. I’m buzzing from the wine I’m drinking and the excitement of seeing First Aid Kit play again. I’m floating a few inches off the ground.

I find Georgia and Laura and my sister and my niece. We watch Stella play. Then Klara and Johanna come on stage and the venue erupts with noise. Laura and I know the words to every song so we sing to each other and dance like we’re at a high school disco.

They play a song called ‘You Are The Problem Here’ – it’s raw, born from anger towards perpetuators of sexual violence towards women, towards a society that blames victims for their abuse. Afterwards Klara speaks and the room is dead silent. Laura, Georgia, my niece, my sister, me; we’ve all been abused by men. Her words hit us.

“We wanted to ask some questions to the perpetuators of rape crimes,” Klara says, “like why did you do this to another human being? Instead of asking victims what they were wearing and what they were drinking, because it is completely fucking irrelevant to what’s just been done to them.”

I bring my friends backstage but Klara and Johanna are surrounded by fans. We say we’ll meet back at the hotel. Klara joins us at midnight with a bottle of wine from the dressing room. We all cheer and lay together on the bed laughing and conspiring and accidentally spilling red wine on the white sheets.

Here are my three best friends in the world together in one bed. Reality takes on this intensely fragile quality; a little part of me silently panics at how rare and precious this is, how quickly it’ll only be a memory. I’m quieter than usual, watching these women I love so much. The three of them so inspiring and so sure of themselves. I’m not really sure how I got so lucky. How I came to deserve them.

I can tell I’m happy because I can’t stop singing to myself and talking to all the strangers crossing my path. It’s my last day in Sydney. Georgia flies back home to her children and I try not to think about how long it will be until I see her next.

Laura and I get dumplings and fried eggplant from a hole-in-the-wall dumpling house with fake vines all over the ceiling followed by Turkish gelato; rockmelon feta and fig walnut. Our friendship is paved with these almost religious food ecstasies. We hug goodbye, but I’ll be seeing her in Melbourne in a few days.

Melbourne. My friend Elle is playing in her band Woodes tonight at the Recital Hall. I take her portrait backstage. She looks otherworldly, like she belongs in the Lord of the Rings. I sink into her performance, I know her songs by heart. As her last song ends I am gone. I get to the next venue as Klara and Johanna come on stage.

It’s such a nice feeling, this busyness. Always having somewhere to be. I feel like the version of myself that I dream of being. More confident, more brave, more bright. Less anxious, less lost. There’s a moment where I catch my reflection and think, I like that girl. She is a light. She makes things happen. I want to hold tightly to that self love. I don’t feel that way every day.

I love just doing nothing backstage. Just sitting on the couches with Klara and Johanna and the band, eating Thai food and telling stories. At one point Klara brings me a rose and gets down on one knee to propose to me. I say yes. Our love is a bit of a running joke to everyone else and we play it up.

Klara sings so beautifully with so little effort. No vocal warm ups. Giggling with me about stupid things right up until the moment she walks out to the sea of applause. Sometimes I stand to the side of the stage just watching her proudly and she catches my eye and grins.

Their last show is hard. Toward the end they dedicate a song to me and I begin to cry and I have to leave the venue and sit alone outside in the cold Melbourne air because it’s all too much. I don’t want this to end. I don’t want to have to say goodbye. God knows how long it’s going to be this time.

The tour manager says she’s taking everyone out for margaritas to celebrate. We sit in a booth in a dark, cosy Mexican bar. We get a bit tipsy and jokingly make eyes at the cute DJ and explode into fits of giggles. We dance and Stella joins us. We want to go up to the rooftop and see the city but it’s locked up. A man who works there comes and he tells us he can take us to the roof.

On the rooftop he asks if there’s anything else he can do for us, anything at all. Perks of stardom. “Maybe some strippers,” I say very seriously. “And some cocaine,” Klara adds. “I’m not sure about the strippers but I might be able to organise some coke,” the man says and we burst out laughing, telling him we are joking.

I’m hit with the realisation that I’ve been here before. I was sixteen and I’d just moved to the city. It was summer then and the rooftop was filled with people. It had been so wild back then, when all I’d known was the suburbia of my small town. It was a new world.

We hear music and turn to see a man dancing and stripping for us. He takes off his jacket, his shirt, he unbuckles his belt. We roar with laughter. He gets dressed again and disappears and we call after him, “that was amazing!”

It’s midnight. Laura texts and says she can sneak us into a Comedy Festival afterparty. My phone is low on battery and on the walk there it dies. It feels like we’re on an adventure. We walk up and down streets and knock on doors and talk to people, but no one knows what we’re talking about. We’re about to give up when Laura shouts our names and pulls us behind a billboard.

Her hands are full of ID’s from people who work at the Comedy Festival. “I got as many as I could,” she says, “choose one that looks like you and memorise it.” I’m Nicole and I’m a producer. Klara is Cassie and she’s a comedy writer. “Watch where I go and follow me in 5 minutes,” Laura says, and she disappears.

Our hearts are racing but we act completely calm as the bouncers check our ID’s. There’s a pause and my heart stops. “You’re good,” they say, stamping our wrists. We walk down a set of stairs into a basement thumping with music. The moment we’re out of sight we do a victory dance. We made it. We get drinks at the bar and weave through the dance floor, dancing to pop music until 4am.

On the walk back to the hotel Klara asks me how I found their music. I tell her it was the Fleet Foxes cover first, then Little Moon. “God, not that song” Klara says and I begin to sing it. She joins in. We sing her old songs all the way back to the hotel. We crawl into our big cosy bed, say we love each other and fall fast asleep.

Johanna and Klara hug me outside the tour bus. “Let’s please not do this goodbye,” I say. But we have to. I watch them disappear. I return to an empty hotel room and my heart is heavy, but mostly because it is so full.

Laura comes and I take her to Vegie Bar for her birthday. We pretend to the Uber driver that we’re in a band called Wildbloom and we’re big over in Korea. My name is Luna and her name is Heidi, as always. We watch a cult documentary from the hotel bath. “Goodbye Luna,” Laura says as she hugs me goodbye. Then I am gone too and it as though I am waking from the most marvellous dream of all.

Abundance

There’s a full moon tonight. Not an ordinary full moon; it’s a blood moon and a blue moon and an eclipse all at once. We light many candles and I write down my desperate hope for abundance into a letter. I burn it under the moon. The moon burns red as it is eclipsed, the fire burns my words.

By the next morning we are walking through a beautiful home that has just come up for rent. The real estate agent tells us there is another home just across the road. It is beautiful too. “How is this for abundance?” I ask Bee, giddy that all of this has happened so quickly after weeks of searching. We drive to an Airbnb near Alba’s school. The owners read a post I’d shared about not finding a home and kindly offered it to us for a few weeks.

It’s an A frame house set down a path bordered with vines. It has brick walls and a staircase and high ceilings and hanging lights. It’s my dream home. “We’re thinking of renting it out,” the owners tell us. We walk around in a daze, in utter disbelief that we could call this place home. We decide we will. We have to.

We read books from the hammock beside the bamboo trees, we work on our laptops at the kitchen table, we have movie nights. Mira comes to stay and we ask if she’d like to live with us and she says yes without hesitation. We drink rosé and play our guitars and sing and plan creative projects together. Too quickly we have to leave, they have bookings for the house for another month and we’ll be able to move in after that.

Anxiety builds about the in-between. We have to be close enough to school for me to take Alba, since I don’t drive and Bee works. But all of our friends live in the city. Anxiety becomes a resting place. It becomes normal to feel on edge, for my chest to feel tight and my head to ring.

Things with Bee are still hard sometimes. I feel so far from my friends and my family. I have this feeling with my career like I am running and running and running but not getting anywhere at all. The unknown is a hard place for me to be.

Every day has sharp edges. I stay between them, smiling and joking. But I reach out to touch them sometimes. And sometimes the space between me and them grows too small.

I think when you grow up with violence, you sometimes grow more susceptible to the pull of anger. I am ashamed for how angry I feel sometimes. I don’t tear apart rooms like my mother did and I’m not violent like my father and ex were, but I still lose my temper. Most of the time I can numb myself to it, blur the sharp feelings like I’d blur streetlights into soft glowing circles as a child in the backseat of the car. But sometimes it blinds me. In one of those blinded moments I throw my phone against the ground and it fills with fractures.

Sometimes I have this sense I am a spectator of my own life. I wonder about this childish girl who thinks she has such a handle of herself but breaks a phone she can’t afford to replace. It seems like it’s her desperate way of saying, I’m not doing okay, I’m really not doing okay. I decide I need to listen. I need to slow down. I need to look after myself better.

One day I’m dropping Alba at school when a group of parents gathered outside the classroom call me over. “We heard you guys were looking for somewhere to stay a while,” they say. They offer their spare rooms, their sofa beds, their homes. Their kindness floors me.

We stay with Alba’s friend Caroline’s family. One night Caroline’s father tells us the most wonderful stories late into the night. Stories of daring sea rescues, a goodbye note scrawled on the back of an airplane manual in case he never returned to his family. Of growing up amidst unbelievable violence in Ireland. Of the French prime minister flying here to shake his hand in gratitude for saving a French man lost at sea.

He was a real life hero. I’d never have known if we hadn’t stayed here. It strikes me that I often go through life underestimating those around me. It reminds me of the depth of the lives of strangers and makes me long to know everyone’s stories.

We stay with my step brother Oli after that. I didn’t grow up with him but he’d do anything for me, just like family. He lets me work from his studio and brings me kombucha and takes me to yoga classes. He laughs when I tell him about my phone and gives me his old one. My father met his mother in England and my father has lived there since. Oli is a filmmaker and when he was travelling the world making films he fell in love with Fremantle. Now here we both are.

Some days feel too good to be real. My friend Nicole comes to Perth and one day Al picks us up in his van and takes us out. We eat giant slices of pizza on the sidewalk and run into the ocean and head to a free gig by a lake. Bands play sets from the back of a truck and we lay down on picnic rugs warm from wine and sunshine.

One day Bee and I are driving around our soon-to-be suburb when we pass a little cafe and plant store. We stop the car to look inside. I spot creative studios downstairs. I ask about them, out of curiosity really, it feels like a wild and distant dream to have my own space. “Actually, there’s someone wanting to rent a desk space out in her studio,” someone tells me. I write down my email on a piece of paper. I thank the universe.

The owner of the studio invites me in to look. She tells me she’s been reading my blog for years and that she’d love to have me in there. Just like that I’m signing a lease and I have a space away from home for my creative work. It feels profound. I drop Alba to school and I walk through the smell of fresh coffee and the jungle of plants and I unlock the door to the studio with my own set of keys. I can hardly believe it.

I get glasses and suddenly the world is sharp and crisp and I walk down the street gasping and crying at the details in leaves and the edges of clouds and all the little patterns in the world I’d been missing all along.

Alba sees the joy in all things. Falls asleep happily in any bed, so long as I tuck her in with kisses and she has her favourite soft fox. One day we’re sitting with my friend Zal and she says very genuinely, “Thank you for being the kindest person Zal.” He’s so touched, and I’m so touched to see her expressing gratitude like that.

She’s always doing that. Friends tell me I’m the same. Each day I put a love note in Alba’s lunch box. She keeps her favourites tucked away safe and it makes me want to squish her face and cover it with kisses. I’m so happy she still lets me.

We finally have a home. We throw a housewarming where bands play in our front yard and people play ping pong and I cook enough food for everyone. What a difference it makes to have a cosy home and kind friends and a creative studio. All this abundance. It was worth waiting for.

A journal entry.
“You think about death a lot when you’ve lost someone close. At least I do. Every day. This intangible mythical unimaginable horror becomes as real as birthdays and the ocean and fevers. I’ve seen the deaths of everyone I love in my mind again and again. I’ve seen their bodies and spoken at funerals and cried myself to sleep in my thoughts. Goodbyes have a dark underlining, a real possibility that they could be the last. After hard days I look at my sweet daughter fast asleep and I wonder if she’ll wake, and if she doesn’t, how will I ever live with myself not appreciating her enough, not being patient enough, not being present enough? How could I ever live in a world without her, where every little fucking thing would remind me of her. When Bee is away I look at our messages and wonder, terrified, if those are the last messages he’ll ever send me. What if I’m stuck staring at those little hearts and daily declarations of love for all of time, the place where the stream stopped forever. Have I told my friends I love them enough? My mother? My father? If I die tomorrow will my family be okay? I mourn all the novels I left unpenned, all the projects left half finished, all the mistakes left unforgiven. Life feels fragile. It’s beautiful to know death in some ways. I make my love known. I remember to notice the fleeting tiny breaths of moments with my family. To see the world like I’ll never see it again; so that’s a sky, and that’s how music sounds, and that’s how ripe strawberries taste. To recognise the preciousness of time. To live honestly with myself. But it’s a dark undercurrent. It hasn’t even been two years yet since my brother died, maybe it’ll get easier, maybe the anxiety will let up a little. But right now I’m equally heartbreakingly grateful for all I have and terrified for all I have to lose.”

Cracks In Everything

The car is packed for a great adventure. Meals meticulously planned and organised. Clothes washed and folded. Tent, bedding, camping stove, water, towels. A box full of lego. Blank journals and books we’ve been meaning to read. We’re excited. We haven’t been on a road trip since we drove all the way here from the other side of the country.

The trip is a two week voyage down to the beach with the whitest sands in the world, with ten or so friends. The morning we’re set to leave Bee and I wake with fevers. We’re desperate not to call off the trip so I curl up in the passenger seat and Bee pushes on.

It’s just Al in his combi van when we arrive at the first campground. He sees how sick we are and insists we rest in his van. He makes us tea and plays lego with Alba on a rug outside the door. We feel horribly sick, but we figure it’ll pass in a day or so. We’ve been looking forward to this for so long.

Everyone arrives and cooks pizza in a wood fired oven, smoke curling in the sky and the endless stream of happy conversation we’re too sick to take part in. We toss and turn in our tent.

We drive on the next day to a big house by a forest for New Year’s. The bright energy feels so discordant with how dark we feel. We watch our friends climb the hill to watch the last sunset of the year. Our bodies ache to join them.

We crawl into our tent early, the music is too loud and it’s too nice out there. Great webs of fairy lights are strung through the eucalyptus trees and they glitter in the last light. Alba is fast asleep while Bee and I listen to the people counting in the year. 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. Ecstatic yelps and laughter. How you spend New Year’s is how you’ll spend the next year, my mother once told me.

Someone unzips our tent. Al and Nathan have laid out a picnic rug and strung some lights over the sapling outside. “It’s really not fun without you guys,” they say. We’re wrapped up in blankets watching the stars and I think, maybe this coming year won’t be so bad. We might be sick right now but we are loved always.

I’m writhing with fever in the van the next day when Bee says, “We can’t keep doing this. We have to go home.” My heart breaks. I’d argue with him but I worry that Alba will fall sick too. We pack the car. There isn’t much to pack, most if it is still packed for the adventure we’ll never go on. We say our goodbyes. I hate goodbyes. We drive home mostly in silence.

We spend a week sick in bed. Then one morning our bodies don’t ache. The sun is hot and bright. We go to the beach and dive into the ocean. The water is as crisp as biting into a cold apple. The ocean is like that on the west coast, not like the warm sea that I grew up with on the east. It feels incredible to just be outside and moving and well.

Al has his birthday party on a carpark roof in the middle of the city. The sun sets over the buildings and I am reminded of the roof of the apartment I lived in when I was sixteen. I remember feeling so hopeless and afraid that at times I felt like jumping from the edge. It felt like I’d never escape. It feels strange to remember. Sad. Grateful I did escape.

I get a tattoo of a giant moth across my ribs. It has crescent moons on its wings and a fat furry body. Heather puts Howl’s Moving Castle on for Alba and I melt into the feeling of her needle on my skin. It’s sharp in a way that demands my attention and pulls the focus from my thoughts. I like it.

There are reasons behind my moth. A few days after my little brother died a giant moth with thick furry legs landed on my chest and just sat there. When it finally flew away I felt changed. Like it’d been sent to me.

When I was a child, my father would tell me dreamtime stories. In the dreamtime the wings of moths were as colourful as butterflies, but the land beneath was grey. One day a kind and selfless moth sacrificed her own colours to the land below, so that the flowers and the plants and the earth could be filled with colour. That was always my favourite story.

It’s always strange leaving a home. Our worldly belongings are packed into boxes and suitcases and our home is a shell, soon to be knocked to the earth and rebuilt again. At the last moment we’re sure we’ve found somewhere to go next. An old house by the beach. I ask Bee to pass it one night and I press my palms into the house and I make my plea. “Please be our home. We will love you so well. Please.”

The day before we leave they tell us it is not ours. I’d felt so sure. Our things end up all over, in friend’s garages and family’s spare rooms. First grade is about to begin for Alba and she turns six the day our lease ends. We stay with our friend Jess in the city for a little while. Our children play together and we send them off on their first day of school. My girl is getting so big.

We struggle in the unknown. We’re not sure when we’ll find a place to call home, or where to go next. My relationship with Bee fills with fractures. I lived through a series of fiery relationships before Bee and was so proud of the way we never argued. Now we slip into silly little arguments when Alba isn’t around.

The want for another baby overwhelms me. I see them everywhere I go. I dream of them and wake up holding their ghosts. I think of my little brother, of the hole that is left behind by his absence. I long to give Alba a sibling that will understand her like mine did.

Bee isn’t ready for a baby. We don’t have enough time, enough money and what about our dreams? The state of the world? He’s fuelled by logic and I’m fuelled by instinct. We argue in circles. We say stupid things and push each other away.

Sometimes I look over at Bee and the distance between us is written all over his face and my heart is heavy like it’s filled with water, like my whole body is heavy with water. I want to be close. I reach out my arms and give loving words like white flags of surrender. Then I’m triggered and I take them back and we’re strangers again.

It’s 4am and I can’t sleep. I’m curled up in bed reading about babies, about partners who don’t want babies, about sibling age gaps. It strikes me that if I keep holding this against Bee I will lose him. It’s okay that he isn’t ready. Maybe in some ways I feel the same. Having children is often thankless and selfless and hard and I can understand.

He’s fast asleep but I bury my head into his warm body and I breathe out. I let go. I stop bringing up babies. I still dream of them. I still see them everywhere. But I start focusing more on what I do have. The gap between us closes again. Love fills in the cracks.

Clear Skies

 

The sun chases away the cold. We pile into the car and drive to the beach before school most mornings. The sea is still cool from spring. Diving in strips away all thought and leaves me in my body, just another living creature beneath the water. Life feels simple. Little white butterflies float above the sea around me. The water is so clear and calm I can see the sand beneath my feet.

Alba runs from gentle waves squealing and says hello to passing dogs. Bee wraps his arms around me, cool wet skin with fire burning underneath. His neck is salty when I kiss it. I sit on the sand and I watch my little family play in the water and I don’t think about work or dishes or tomorrow. I think, this is what it’s like to live a good life.

We play music in the car with the windows down and my hands dance. Alba puts her uniform on when we get to school; checkered dress, flower underwear, white socks, pink shoes. Our hair is wet and we’re still in our swimmers as we kiss her goodbye at the classroom door. A little late, usually.

Then blank open space, an empty page waiting to be filled. Backpacks are packed with laptops and planners and pens. Our favourite place to work is a place called the Raw Kitchen. There’s a boy who works there who is our friend and there’s a table within a shipping container full of fairy lights that becomes our spot. Bee works away at his camera store, I work away at my projects. I hold his hand across the table and try not to interrupt him with my running thoughts.

Sometimes the hard work comes easy. Sometimes it doesn’t and I decide not to battle the resistance. I do easier things instead; answer emails, edit images, make plans. I’ve been writing for a long time now and I know when to push and when to pause.

3pm always comes so soon. I try to catch a glimpse of Alba through the classroom window before she sees me, curious about this other life she lives apart from me. She tells me Clancy wants to marry her and Zahara wants to have a playdate and a boy called the teacher mum. She is getting so big now, she can talk and talk and talk about anything.

Bee gets a new job at a restaurant. He ties his hair back into a bun, tucks in his shirt and wears a linen apron. I like hearing stories of entitled customers and grumpy chefs and his Brazilian coworker, even though they are mundane to him. I’ve never worked a regular job like that.

Now and then I’ll be hit with anxiety. I feel it in my chest first. It’s like giant hands squeeze my upper body and my mind buzzes, not just with thoughts but something else too. I fold my arms across my chest and tap my shoulders with my hands, a butterfly hug, something my mother taught me. But the anxiety only comes from something, not nothing like it did before.

The sun browns my skin and paints me in freckles. Alba too, her nose is the tiniest and most wonderful constellation of freckles I’ve ever seen. She lays beside me and we just look at each other’s faces. She calls it eye time. She always filled our days with declarations of love and gratitude. Each time I overhear her telling Bee how much she loves him, I wrap it up and tuck it safely in my heart.

Sometimes she’s happy and sings under her breath as she plays. Sometimes she is grumpy, arms crossed tightly and eyes narrowed to everything I suggest. I’m learning not take on her frustration or to try to make her happy all the time.

I imagine I can float above the bad feelings. An empathetic, safe presence. Sometimes she just needs to cry, to scream “I hate you!” and “you’re so mean!” and kick the ground. I tell her, “You must be feeling really mad right now, I’m sorry, I’m here whenever you need a cuddle.”

She often ends up curled in my lap crying until it’s all out and then she is okay. She needs this outlet, emotions are hard to process when you’re five. Emotions are still hard for me to process at twenty five.

Later we talk through what happened and she apologises for the things she says. She says with great awareness that she only said them because she was upset. There are so many lessons hidden in the daily challenges of parenting. These meltdowns have taught me how to find calm in chaos and how to also have empathy for myself when I’m struggling.

There are so many cool things happening. I run an exhibition in The Corner Gallery where several artists spend the night painting over my photographs while everyone watches. Demon Days play a set, and then Pow Negro. Sweet people come up to tell me how long they’ve been following my work. Friends stream in to support me. I walk around in a daze.

There’s this thing called Yardstock. Local bands play in people’s backyards and no one knows where until the day. At the end of each set the band announces the next address and everyone walks there together. The sun is warm and our friends brought sangria and Alba draws tattoos on anyone who asks nicely.

Every weekend is filled with music gigs and playdates and friends. When have I ever had this? When have I ever been surrounded by so much love, with friends who just pop by for tea? I’m in love with the town. I love the way that in a few minutes we are by the sea, or in our favourite coffee shop, or at Alba’s school. This is the best place I’ve ever lived.

I miss my little brother. I miss the way he loved me. I miss the way he listened intently to each word I spoke like every idea carried so much weight. I miss feeling understood. The way he always called me sister. The way we knew it was us against the rest of the world. How we’d never be alone in the ways we were fucked up because we had each other. Identical invisible scars.

We never spoke about it enough. The violence from our stepfather, the chaos of childhood, the abuse from men we trusted to take care of us. I want to spend all night long telling him how much he means to me. I want to hug him so long he has to laugh and tell me to let him go. I want to tell him it’s going to be okay, that I will make sure it’s okay. That I will never ever ever let him go again. But I can’t. Not anymore. Not ever.

Sometimes the pain buckles me. Makes me cry in public. Makes me disappear into myself until the rest of the world is nothing. I don’t want to explain to anyone. I can’t. How could I ever explain how much he meant to me, how much he made me laugh, how lost I have felt since he left this world.

I’m supposed to be shooting outside when it starts to rain. I think of my new friend Al and his house in the trees with windows that stretch up to the ceiling. He says I can shoot there and I do. Then my model leaves and it’s just us on his rug drinking peppermint tea.

Six months to the day before my brother killed himself, Al’s brother killed himself too. We wear the bracelets our brother’s wore that day. We look at the full moon and we think of them. When he speaks of his brother he could be speaking of mine. So many parallels.

The walls we both so carefully and masterfully constructed get torn down around each other. It’s painful and it’s terrifying; but it’s beautiful too. There is so much power in simply being understood.

I am learning that I am not my emotions. I am not my anxiety or my sadness or my fear; I am not my joy or my passion either. I’m a sky and my feelings are the weather. They come and they go. I embrace clear skies and I know that the storms will pass.

I have some wild weather patterns, that’s just how I’m wired. But I’m beginning to unravel the dark threads of brokenness that I have sewn my identity together with. I’m learning to step outside of my emotions and notice the way I’m feeding them or responding unhealthily to situations. To note negative patterns even when it painfully highlights how far I am from who I want to be. But that’s the point of all of this, isn’t it? To keep on growing.

The way I feel is important, but it doesn’t have to be my compass any more. I can let weather pass without being broken by it, without letting it rule my life. At least I can keep trying to.