Feeling Everything Everywhere

In hindsight I see that 2014 was the year I recognised the importance of human connection.

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.)

Alba is Three

(This is the most recent photo of you, taken by Noël. Your last day as a two year old)

My dearest Alba,

Today you turn three. Three years seems very little, yet somehow you have filled the last three years of my life with so much joy it feels like an eternity.

I remember the first time I held you in the arms. The morning light was coming through the windows of our mountain home and I was so exhausted but so happy. Happier than I have ever been in my entire life. You were here and I was whole. Somehow you’re not a baby any longer, and that is okay. It’s wonderful actually, seeing you blossom into the amazing little girl that you are today.

Alba Joy, you were always with me. I imagined you for a long time before you were born, long before I’d ever met your Papa. Somehow you turned out bigger and brighter than my wildest imaginings. Of the endless things I love about you right now, I will share just ten.

The way you tell me “Mama, you’re so beautiful,” in awe every single time I brush my hair, or have a shower, or put on a dress. And though I may shake my head in reply to anyone else (oh, I know I shouldn’t); with you I always glow with pride, every single time.

The way you run. Every few leaps becomes a skip and it is so ridiculously sweet that strangers pause to watch. You stop to smell flowers and collect feathers and talk to ants every now and then and I am reminded that magic is real after all.

The way you close your eyes smiling when you cuddle me, as though nothing in the whole wide world could make you happier.

The way you burst out in song, even if we’re in a quiet waiting room.

The way you listen. Whether it’s about sugar or road safety or accepting things we cannot change, you take it all in. I don’t know how I got so lucky with you and perhaps I am speaking too soon, but the terrible twos were not so terrible at all.

Your giggle. I swear I could bottle that sound and sell it. You laugh at my jokes even when they’re so lame no one else would. And not even in a pitiful way, you genuinely think I’m hilarious and I genuinely think you’re hilarious right back. Because you are, especially late at night.

Your grumpy face and your grumpy voice. When you cross your arms over your chest and glare at me I am secretly trying not to laugh. I’m sorry, it’s not that I don’t think your feelings are valid (I get it, you’re mad that I painted the flower you wanted with the wrong shade of blue and it’s a serious thing) I just can’t help it.

How easy-going and resilient you are. Things haven’t been easy for us this past year, it’s been the hardest year of my life, but you continue to amaze me. We’re still finding our place in the world but in the meantime you embrace it alongside me with that cheeky grin on your face, rich with love.

The way you say “Mmm, this so yummy Mama!” between mouthfuls of my cooking. Whether it’s a green smoothie or an eggplant curry or a random concoction of whatever-is-in-the-fridge. Your opinion is the one I care about most. I’m so happy I get to have a fellow foodie as a daughter and best friend.

The way you forgive me for not always being perfect. Your love is unconditional and I am so blessed to have it. More blessed than I will ever know and endlessly thankful. I will always try to be the best Mama I can for you.

Happy birthday moonflower,
Here’s to your bright and marvellous existence, it has only just begun.
Love, Mama.

(Pictures by your Mama & Papa.)

The Darkest Shadows

Sexual abuse has cast a shadow over my family’s life. I was abused as a child and a teenager by three men I am too afraid to list, my mother was abused as a child, my siblings were abused and my young cousin was abused for years by our uncle. And somehow of all the stories, the last one is the story that has held the tightest grip on me. I didn’t think I could talk about it before, but now, with the encouragement from my cousin and my family, I am talking about this openly in hope it can help others. Often the hardest things to say are the things that need to be talked about the most.

This particular story has many parts and this is only mine. Not the most significant part, but nonetheless real.

It was a summer afternoon and I was sitting with my three girl cousins in a circle on my sister’s bedroom floor. I was visiting my hometown and I was so happy to be reunited with them again. Throughout my teen years I had looked after them almost every weekend and it was bittersweet to see how much they’d grown in the short time since I’d left home to chase my dreams.

They had something to tell me and I waited patiently while they gathered courage, whispering secrets in each other’s ears. Then the stories came tumbling out all at once, like nightmares retold in the middle of the night. Stories I can’t repeat. This sweet little girl I have loved and known her entire life had been hurt and raped for years by someone we all deeply trusted.

I felt sick but I calmly urged them to tell their Mother. The youngest of the sisters began crying, “I am scared I am next” and so I took her into my arms as I had so many times before and I promised her she wasn’t, that it wouldn’t ever happen again, that everything would be okay. My words felt empty in my mouth and I didn’t feel nearly as big or as strong as they saw me.

I am ashamed to say I so desperately wanted it not to be true that it took me weeks to call their Mother. I had kept my own abuse secret in the past, under the impression that it was my fault for being a ‘pretty’ girl. I thought the men just couldn’t help what they did and I didn’t want to hurt anyone by telling, besides, I thought it wasn’t such a big deal. But it dawned on me that this was much darker than anything I’d experienced and I needed to help stop it from ever happening again. Under the weight of the knowledge it would tear apart our family, I picked up the phone. When I finished speaking to my auntie I knew it was the right thing to do. They went to the police.

The detective on my cousin’s case sent me email after email begging me to testify and when I never replied she began calling me. I cried to M, that I was being torn apart and I couldn’t do anything about it. My silence was a betrayal to my cousin and my family and my words were a betrayal to my Uncle. My Mother cried to me that she just wanted to invite him around for coffee. In our heads we couldn’t separate the kind, sweet man we knew from the monster he had secretly been, because he was both. But we also felt great aching pain for the girl we loved with all our hearts. A little while later she did invite him around for coffee but the police were waiting for him there.

Then I stayed with Megan and their daughters. Earlier in my life she’d always been in my Uncle’s shadow and so I missed her light. Here was this unbelievably strong woman, who was pregnant with their third child when he was arrested for abusing her niece, now raising three girls on her own. Just by being with her and the girls made me realise I needed to be brave too, I needed to testify. It was the very least I could do. And so I answered the phone and before I knew it I was staying in a bare little hotel room across from the police station, terrified of what was to come.

During those days, memories played like films on repeat in my head. Late night drives with my arm dangling out the window, a cigarette dangling out of his mouth and my favourite songs playing too loudly on the radio. Bleaching one other’s hair bright yellow in the motel bathroom. Him throwing me high into the clouds above the pool, where time stood still for a magic moment. Staying up past midnight eating pizza and too many sweets and watching the movies I’d picked out at the video store. Him sneaking me wine on Christmas day and laughing about inside jokes only we understood.

He truly believed I could be anyone and he told me so. Once he promised if I wasn’t smoking by the time my 18th birthday came around he’d give me $500, but when I was 18 I knew nothing between us would ever be the same again.

He loved me and I loved him. He had been the coolest grown up I knew and here I was standing before a court room numbly reciting my statement to send him to jail. His lawyer asked me questions that confused me and they preyed on my love for him. I felt him watching me and I almost couldn’t go on.

Afterwards I snuck away from my family and found him in the smoking area. The light in his eyes was gone. He was like a hollowed out man, only a shadow of who I knew. As I ran at him a police officer grabbed me by the arm but I tore free and I buried myself in my Uncle’s chest, my arms wrapping around him desperately. I let the tears flood and I said “I’m sorry, I love you, I’m sorry” and he held me and said “it’s not your fault Roo. Maybe you can come visit me after this and everything will be okay.” But my arms dropped and now I was hollow too, he was acting as though he had done nothing wrong, as though this could all be forgotten.

I wanted to scream at him to stop lying, to apologise for fucking everything up. I thought: my family loved you, I loved you, you have three beautiful daughters, you lied to us all, we really trusted you, you were so important to me, how could you do this to us? At least be sorry. Please, please, please…

I ran away as quickly as I’d come and I found my cousin, her hair golden in the light and her blue eyes bright and wise. I cuddled her and as I cried again, she looked up at me and said gently “it’s okay Nirrimi, don’t cry.” And I was ashamed that I was the one falling apart and she was the strong one, when it was meant to be the other way around.

It was years later that I sat in the courtroom again, biting the inside of my cheek and digging my nails into my arms, waiting for the verdict. I was pregnant and just beginning to understand the intensity and vulnerability of being a Mother. I wanted to hear ‘guilty’ as much as anyone else. For my cousin, for my aunties, for his daughters, for my family and in a very strange way, for my own daughter growing in my womb. And he was guilty, on all counts, and I breathed a sigh of relief weighed down by sadness. Sad that this was the way it had to be.

My auntie, the Mother to his three girls, is one of my closest friends now. Another auntie has quit her job to write books and develop a website with resources on child sexual abuse.

When I was younger I felt completely alone with the weight of my experiences, nobody talked about abuse and so I didn’t either. But I am far from alone in having scars and there is power in uncovering them. Power in saying this is real and it hurts and it is okay to talk about. I hope we can help to create a world where if our children are ever hurt, they have the courage and support to talk about it too.

Midnight Streets

I took these of my friend Nicole under the lights of a small suburban street in the Blue Mountains. It was following a day of filming and I couldn’t bear for the day to come to an end, I just wanted to keep on creating forever.

Fleeting Heart

(Note: There are times I feel we are all tiptoeing in an online world made of eggshells. Our lack of openness and honesty may save us from judgement and vulnerability, but it keeps so many lessons and so much raw beauty from being shared. Today I’m deciding not to tiptoe, instead I am going to leap and dance and run. I think love stories are the best kind of all, even when they don’t end in a happily ever after.)

I was not expecting to fall in love as soon as I got back. Perth was only a quiet stop-over on the way home after the intensity of Bali. But love found me anyway.

The very first moment I saw him something came over me. I felt like I was only a single star in a galaxy of him. Right away I knew there was something about us, something I couldn’t explain. A feeling I couldn’t shake long after he’d left. I did what I always do, I wore my heart on my sleeve and I told him. He said he felt it too.

He saved me tickets to a big show he was organising a few days later. I had butterflies all day long. I danced, ran a bath, drank homemade mulled wine and braided my hair as time crawled by. Then it was night and I was there with my friend Claire and my heart was in my throat as we walked down a dark hallway caught in a rush of excited people.

We rounded the corner and there he was. Burning like a sun. I was overwhelmed again, so little and insignificant beside him. Then he saw me and his embrace lifted me into the air and I closed my eyes and I wished I could stretch out that moment to last forever.

I only saw him fleetingly through the night, he was constantly surrounded by people but every time our paths crossed his hands found mine and his eyes lit up. “Do you think he likes me?” I asked Claire. “Yes,” she said, and I skipped around like I was a thirteen year old with a crush. I couldn’t believe it.

He was doing some interviews the next day and he asked if I wanted to join him. I kept my cool but inside I was delighted. He picked me up in his car the next morning. During the interviews he answered questions about his passions with an excitement I recognised in myself. His hand found my knee while he spoke, like we’d been lovers all our lives. And when he was driving back he kept my hand under his on the gearstick so our hands wouldn’t have to be apart.

Late one night we were walking the city streets after an exhibition. It was cold and I was shivering so he wrapped me in his warm jacket. He pulled me into a cinema, buying us tickets to whatever was playing. We sat near the back so I joked “is this the part where we make out?” And for the first time he kissed me, fully, spectacularly. My mind was all explosions and confetti and him, all him.

For the brief time we shared together we were almost inseparable. The knowledge that I was leaving in a few days gave weight to every moment. There was so much joy in the littlest things; the dimple that appeared from nowhere when he smiled or the way he reached for my hand as we walked down the street. We lay wide-awake in bed until almost morning, laughing and cuddling and fighting off the sleep that’d bring another day to a close.

Together we’d spontaneously improvise scenes in movies that didn’t exist and tell jokes that went on forever. We were ridiculously silly, both of us still children deep down. In other ways we were very different, I was an open book and he was guarded. I was strong-spirited and he was gentle-spirited. But there was fire with us. I’d never met anyone like him. When he and Alba met they played and laughed like they’d always known each other and it made me warm all over.

I was kind of flitting between two lives. Half of the time I was Mama. Staying with my family, taking Alba and my cousins to the park, cooking Alba’s favourite foods, reading bedtime stories and kissing her sore spots better. Then she was with her Papa and I was going on adventures and sleeping in late.

On our last night together everything was lucid. He took me out for dinner with one of my best friends. I looked at his hand holding mine on the table and then I looked at him smiling at me, so goddamn fucking beautiful and I thought, dear god, I know I’ve resolved to not be with anyone for a long time but this is almost enough to make me rethink it all.

I had to leave, like I always do. Me, the disappearing act. It felt like one moment I was falling in love as he was kissing me goodbye and the next I was falling asleep with Alba on the opposite side of the country.

I really missed him when I got back. All the energy I had put into loving him couldn’t just disappear, it had to be redirected. And so I wrote every free moment I had and every story seemed to contain pieces of him. I held onto our memories like souvenirs. It all felt so precious to my romantic mind.

I’ve learnt many times over that the duration of things doesn’t equal their importance. Single moments can influence lifetimes. He left an imprint on me. A reminder to keep on playing and never grow up.

That first night he kissed me I wrote this in my journal.
“This is how I see it. As an artist it is my responsibility to not have a boring life. To feel deeply. To listen to the stories of strangers. To try new things and go new places. To say yes. To question everything. To find beauty in the commonplace. And to fall in love. Over and over. Because through the highs of love and the lows of heartbreak I truly know what it is to feel. “