In August I went to live with my friends and their children in the Sunshine Coast. Just Alba and I and a few suitcases that made up our worldly possessions. They had plans to travel the country and live out of their converted truck, but until then, they let us call it home. Living in that truck reminded me of the Summer long ago when my father came to visit us in his campervan.
I’d lay shirtless on the bed some hot afternoons while Alba drew on my back with coloured pens. She’d go to sleep early and I’d spend most of the night writing from the truck. In the morning I’d make us picnics and we’d sit on a rug by the flowering jacaranda tree looking at books. “You’re my best friend,” I’d tell Alba and she’d reply, “You’re MY best friend.”
While there were idyllic moments with the light of my life, there were really tough ones too. Not putting roots down meant I never really felt there. When Alba ran off to play with the other children and I was alone, my thoughts were dark. I was grateful to be temporarily found, but I still felt overwhelmingly lost. Caught in a limbo. I didn’t know where we would go after this. There was so much on my plate to deal with, on top of parenting and working. Other heavy stuff I was dealing with back then.
I’d cry in the middle of sentences and find difficulty in doing really simple things, like getting out of bed or taking photos. I’d cook healthy food for Alba but eat terribly myself. I felt like a stranger in my body. I’d beat myself up about all of it.
But I was so thankful for my friends. One night Errol came into the truck with my favourite chocolate saying, “I know today has been really rough for you but I thought this chocolate might help,” and I knew I was loved, and that love meant I would always be okay.
I needed to shoot again so I planned a photography tour down the east coast. I got more bookings than I had free days and that was perfect, I wanted to spend all of my time away from Alba being too busy to miss her. Alba was supposed to spend the time I was working with her Papa but everything fell through. Through tears I told Georgia that I would have to cancel all the shoots I’d already booked in, that I had no idea what I’d do now without the work.
She hugged me and told me she thought Alba should just keep staying there while I worked, that they’d love to have her and thought Alba would love it too. We’d spent so much of Alba’s life living together before this and she was in a good routine there. Family in all but blood.
It was really hard for me to feel like it would be okay. Late one night I told another Mama friend very seriously that I felt like the worst Mother ever and she just laughed at me and said something along the lines of, “There are Mothers out there who sell their kids and babies who are addicted to heroin. You’re up crying because you’re working for a few weeks while Alba stays with the most loving family ever. You’re not the worst, you’re doing the best you can. She’ll be fine.”
When it was time to say goodbye Alba kissed me and waved me off happily. I was shooting only a few hours away for the first few days, prepared to come home and cancel everything if Alba needed me to. But thankfully my resilient little wanderer took it all in her stride and I could hardly believe it. When we skyped she was so excited to recount all of her adventures with me. Georgia told me they wished they could have her forever. No tantrums or tears, she was helpful and independent. If she hadn’t been so happy and content, I wouldn’t have been able to keep going.
Brooke assisted me in Brisbane and together we shared ecstatic amounts of raw salted caramel chocolate and boy stories. James Vincent McMorrow was the soundtrack to our roadtrips. After a day of shooting we drove to the Eat Street markets. Of the entire tour somehow this night felt the most cinematic of all. Every smell and sound and colour was vivid and we wandered through the galaxy of lights and faces. I sat amidst all of it and listened to a song that reminded me of someone (that someone, always that someone) and I was swept up in life. Lost felt more like free.
I stayed by the beach in Sydney. I’d catch the ferry to the city and sit out on the deck listening to music. Now and then I’d stand on the edge and watch the calming patterns of the water, imagining the world hidden beneath. My life started on a houseboat and maybe that’s why I find so much peace being rocked by the water.
I felt so blessed to be photographing in nature every day. Shooting barefoot on the sand or from cliffs where there was only blue sky, green valleys and golden light. So blessed to be capturing little moments that would be cherished long after the moment was gone. A Father throwing his laughing son in the air, the blood-like bond between musicians, a Mama soothing her crying daughter, the moment two lovers forget I am there and all that exists in their worlds is each another, the beauty in the girl who doesn’t even realise it’s there.
One night I found myself in a courtyard in Newtown lit by fairylights listening to my friend Sam read aloud the children’s book he’d written. Another lucid moment. The burning ends of cigarettes, the deep red of wine in our glasses, The Middle East playing from a little speaker on the table. That afternoon I’d photographed him and his boyfriend for a photo series. I took a sip from my wine glass and thought, this is it, I’m a grown up. Aren’t grown ups supposed to know what they’re doing?
I wish I could say I always embraced being single, but some nights were very lonely. Deep down I have always been a lover. From the very first boy I loved in grade three to the endless string of boyfriends that followed, until my very intense five year relationship with Alba’s Papa. I’ve always had more love than (perhaps) is good for me. My biggest strength and my biggest weakness. I knew this space was important for me but the bed always felt too empty. Some days I was doing three or four shoots in a day and if I was lucky I would be so exhausted I’d fall asleep right away.
I put on Plant Love Picnics in each town I visited and for this one I made white chocolate truffles with lavendar my friend/assistant Bec picked for me on an earlier shoot. It was a perfect day. It is where I first met Laura, her bright red hair braided into a crown. I thought she told some of the best stories I’d ever heard but I had no idea our paths would soon merge. From where we picniced we could see both the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge and it reminded me of where I was.
I sat across from a boy on the train. He had long lashes and dark eyes and olive skin and he was reading Haruki Murakami. I asked it a few times in my head before I said it aloud. “What are you reading?”
He showed me his book grinning and I grinned too because I did it, I broke through that barrier that always stops me from connecting to strangers. I almost asked him what he was passionate about but I bit my tongue this time. That was a beginning, I told myself.
Everywhere my father goes he embraces and connects to strangers in an extraordinary way. Everyone is his brother or sister, every stranger just a friend he hasn’t met yet. I think of him each time I want to tell a stranger they have kind eyes or a beautiful laugh, or I see somebody I think might need a hug. And I am slowly but surely becoming braver and more open, like him.
For weeks I’d been helping Beau with the writing for his newest book and he’d been giving me advice. He made his way into my words and he wove me into his own. There was this feeling there’d be a romantic connection there, but when we met for the first time at Melbourne airport it was immediately obvious we were destined to just be friends. We were two romantics, but we were from completely different worlds. And it was so much better this way.
One night Beau drove us into a forest until we reached the base of a mountain. We walked until we reached a plateau where we could see the shining lights of the city sprawled out before us like a mirror to the starry sky. I sat between his legs and we watched the world in awe. I knew he could also feel the immense beauty before us in the intense way I could and there was something very special about that.
He was only four years older than I was, making his living through the books he wrote from his bedroom and he told me I had nothing to wait for, that I had no excuses. And he was completely right.
I stayed at a friend’s place in St Kilda. It was a magnificent old mansion once owned by a famous artist. We had candlelit picnics on the living room floor and spoke into the night about making the world a better place. My friend said he was going to Svalbard soon to build an art piece that would bring focus to the state of the Earth. He told me he’d like to fly me over to photograph it all. I dreamt of pure white snow as far as I could see and huge polar bears.
One night I had to share a bed with a stranger, a green-eyed long-haired artist who hailed from my hometown. He seemed young and I felt so exhausted that I just wanted to sleep. But he was warm and bright and we ended up talking and laughing until the sun was up. In the morning when he kissed me goodbye he asked me to stay longer but it was time to go. The familiar thought crossed my mind that even though we connected on a deep level, I might never see him again.
I traded photos to get my hair dyed lilac and I felt like the mermaid I always pretended to be as a child. Every time I caught my reflection in a window I couldn’t help but grin.
I stayed with Belle next. Her book ‘The Whole Pantry’ was sitting on her table when I arrived and she told me no one had seen it properly yet, not even her. She asked if I’d like to be the first. I was amazed and honoured and proud, so proud but when I tried to say so my words felt as small as dust. By the time I reached the last page I was crying and I wrapped her up in the most loving hug I could.
The next morning we ate raw caramel slice by the sea while her little boy danced around us and I quietly longed for my own little girl. Me and Belle lay under the sun holding hands and the world stood still just for us. My sister, maybe not by blood but definitely by spirit.
The next night I saw Boyhood at the old cinema in Carlton. Afterwards I sat in Beau’s car with the windows down, looking up at the tall trees above, bare branches like dark spindly masses of veins. He was smoking a cigarette and lost to his own moment.
I could feel everything. All the lives I’d lived were more than just stories. I’d been the toddler cradled by her abandoned mother, the little girl writing by torchlight under covers, the child abused by her stepfather, the broken-hearted teenager cutting her thighs with knives, the girl rollerskating hand in hand with the boy of her dreams in the city she’d left school to run away to, the sixteen year old photographer shooting campaigns in America, the young pregnant girl in the cabin in the mountains and now I was the nomadic single Mama trying to find her place in the world again.
I realised (a realisation that comes often in lucid moments) that this, here, now, this is life, the marvellous, crazy, chaotic thing that all those books and films and songs are about, THIS is life, the fragile, precious miracle that can begin and end in a very instant, without warning, this is it, this moment, every moment. It seemed so crazy to me that I could ever get used to it, that any of us can.
On my very last day of the tour I wasn’t shooting. So I wandered alone, savouring the space. I got frozen yoghurt and then I lay under the sun in a park. There was a time when I didn’t even notice the way the sun felt on my skin, or the way the wind was like a caress or how much I could love the blue of the sky. I watched people pass and I imagined, as I sometimes do, how those people would look if I was in love with them.
Then I was back in the Sunshine Coast with my Alba in my arms and I was crying and she looked so heart-breakingly beautiful and her voice was so sweet and her smile shone and I fell to pieces in the best way. She picked me up and put me together again and kissed my forehead and said “You’re so beautiful Mama, I love you Mama.” And I was mesmerised, completely utterly captivated by my little human. And I was home.
(I am doing another photo tour in March 2015. I am always looking for assistants/new friends & places to stay. Dates & cities here.)