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.


Coming Home

August – 2015 

I’m back on Australian soil. Bee has come to the airport to get me and he sees me before I do. His arms wrap tight around me and I’m so surprised that I accidentally hit an old lady in the side and I’m apologising to her while he’s trying not to laugh and I’m thinking that this is the moment I’ve imagined for so long and of course it happens like this. Of course.

Six weeks apart and here he is. Tall and grinning and real. All those letters and the longing and the endless thoughts and this is it. He picks up a big box and hands it to me. It is filled with gifts, each wrapped carefully, tied with string.

I unwrap them as he drives. Among them is a polaroid camera and a little purple key. “That’s your key to the house,” he tells me. Purple is my favourite colour.

We stop by his house to pick up some things. Before I left for America I’d put up a hundred post-it notes with the things I loved about him on his wall. He’s added a hundred more with things he loves about me. I sit on his bed and I read them. I’m floating but what I really want is to sink deep down into this moment. Maybe I’m jetlagged.

We drive to mine. This is where I’ll be living and I’ve never seen it before now. It’s so much nicer than I imagined. There’s a big bathtub in my bathroom that is perfect for Alba. He walks me through the house until we get to the door that leads to the garage. “There’s one more thing I want to show you.” He opens the door and there in front of me is a new shiny purple bicycle with a wicker basket.

In bed we find our places again in the shapes of one another. I wake at sunrise overflowing with unbridled happiness, the potential of life exploding just like it did when I was a child. I wake Bee and cry with joy into his shoulder as he kisses me over and over. I’m not floating any more, I’m here, feet in the earth.

We go to Fremantle to get Alba. Every single time there’s an element of shock in how beautiful she is. How sweet her voice sounds. How whole it feels to have her back. She’s a real living person and she’s running into my arms, to me, to her mama.

We all play at a park together. There’s a moment where Alba asks her papa to push Bee on the swing and the image looks so absurd to me it makes me laugh out loud. Sometimes I think of myself years ago and I wonder what I’d make of my life now.

We buy Alba a little wooden camera and she spends the entire afternoon running around town taking pictures of flowers, of strangers, of graffiti. Not only does she have two parents who are photographers, but now a step-dad too. No wonder that camera looks at home in her hands. Bee asks me seriously, “How soon can I give Alba her own film camera?” And I’m laughing.

For a few days being home and being part of my little family again is perfect. Sunlight filtering through the trees as Bee and Alba play on the grass, baths lit by candles, all of us cosy on the couch watching films – that kind of perfect.

But then the lows come. And though I expected them after the transition of touring to parenthood, they take my breath away. It’s impossible to fully comprehend how dark the shadows are when you’re standing in the light.

The hopelessness rushes in and over every thought. Little things grow big. I spill hot tea down my hand and all of a sudden my tears are spilling too and there is Bee, steady as ever. I hold onto him tightly, like he is a rock and I’m desperate to not be pulled away by my torrents of emotions. Sometimes I hurt the people I love when I’m like this but if I’m ever looking for some kind of negative reaction from him to fuel my mood, nothing but love ever comes.

His Mother tells me, “I see you as fire and Bee as water.” And I wonder if she knows just how right she is.

I grow tired of feeling so much. Maybe it seems poetic in retrospect but in the moment it’s just ugly and exhausting. So much frustration lies in the senselessness of my sadness.

But luckily, as effortlessly as rain clearing, the darkness lifts. Suddenly life is full of promise again and the shadows feel so far away. How easy it is to forget they were ever there.

What has happened to my easy, happy little baby? I was unprepared for the tumult of toddlerhood. I’m in the middle of a hard phase and it’s breaking me. Mostly it breaks my heart because I know she is feeling so much and there’s little I can do but be there for her.

I had so many ideas of who I’d be as a mama. I would always be strong, calm and gentle. Full of energy to play all day long. Who is this girl raising her voice, bursting into tears and putting on a disney film just for some peace? Imperfect through and through, but loving, always.

“All I want is for her to be happy,” I cry to Bee when Alba is finally asleep. There is comfort in having someone to share all of this with. Before it was just me and the rough patches were brutal. When Bee reassures me I’m a good Mama, Alba is okay and this will pass, I believe him.

And it does pass, just like my own did. She is back to her affectionate, bubbly and happy self. God it feels good.

She’ll be okay. And I’ll be okay too. This life thing is quite a whirlwind and I’m just glad we’re there to hold each other’s hands through it all.

I’m turning twenty-three tomorrow. I have a little party, just a few of my friends and my failed bubble tea cocktails that end up poured down the sink. By 9pm it’s just Bee & I. I’m not feeling so good about this whole birthday thing.

At times life and love is as cinematic and romantic as I want it to be, but mostly it’s just moment after moment. I so wanted this birthday to be more than a moment.

The next morning I’m just wishing this day would just pass. Bee asks me to pack a bag for the night. I spend most of the three hour drive looking out the car window thinking about how old I’m getting and how I should have done more by now. What a joy I am to be around sometimes, I’m ridiculous.

We arrive in the middle of nowhere. Bee takes my hand and leads me through a valley. I’m still uselessly fighting to stay sad, but out here that fight doesn’t last long.

There are hundreds of big white lilies growing all around us. The petals are so smooth they look like they belong to another planet. We walk until the dirt turns red and the earth becomes rock and the tree cover becomes bright blue sky. Bee helps me down to a cliff edge where we have a picnic.

“Feeling better?” Bee asks. I’m smiling, I can’t help myself. Below I can see the shore and the sea. We trek down to the sand and we stand in icy tidal pools and kiss. In that kiss there is only our love. The sun disappears into the sea.

We eat dinner in Margaret River and as we’re both sitting there in the stillness that comes from being truly comfortable with someone, I have to admit it is all panning out quite wonderfully.

Bee tells me we’re sleeping in sleeping bags in the forest and I am up for anything, really. We drive in the darkness for an hour before stopping. I open my door and find myself beside a sweet little cottage in the woods. “So I lied… we’re not really staying on a forest floor tonight.”

Bee lights the fireplace, we share chocolate and peppermint tea and play games until late. We can watch the stars from our bed and we make love and laugh and talk for hours. With the heaviest eyelids of all I whisper, “This was the best birthday ever.” And Bee replies, “There’s still more to come Nirrimi Joy.” Of course there is.

The next morning we are descending from the glaring light of the sun into the pitch black of a deep cave. The railings are wet and cold beneath my fingers and the deeper I go the more I am overcome with an emotion I’ve never felt before. I have to stop and breathe. The stillness is piercing and the blackness is absolute.

I feel such a powerful connection to my indigenous ancestors and to this Earth. I feel in my body where I have come from and the generations before me. How different this country was not so long ago. How deep the history hurts when I let it.

We crouch beneath a low wall of stalagmites and go deeper into the black. We turn off our torches until there is only the sound of water dripping and our slow breathing. I am twenty-three and I am still afraid of the dark. I wonder if there are Bunyips (Aboriginal dreamtime monsters) in this cave until I can’t bear it anymore and turn on my light.

On our way out the light is falling in sheets, like entire galaxies are contained in those beams. I wave my hand through them and watch the particles dance around me. When I climb out of the dark cave after hours it is like seeing colour for the first time.

We drive to a place called Sugarloaf Rock. I lay back against a smooth flat rock and watch transfixed as rocks as tall as houses are engulfed by violent waves. Sugarloaf looks like a mountain rising from the sea. I could watch for hours, but the sun sets in all of it’s glorious colours and it is time to make the journey home.

I write until it is so late it’s almost early and then climb into my bed with Bee, whispering “I love you,” to which he replies softly in his sleep, “I love you, Nirrimi Joy.”