exploring cornwall park in auckland, new zealand with ruby.
March 2015 – Part II
I’m stranded in a hospital in a city where I’ve never been before, where I know no one. I am still shaking from the car crash. I feel like I’m existing in an alternate reality. I need to get out of here.
I think of a girl. A calligrapher who emailed me days ago. I email her back and I know it is a long shot but I ask for her help. Our story begins with her driving over an hour on her birthday to rescue me. Rain beats against the car windows and she buys me a hot coconut chai that warms my fingers. Her name is Emma.
She takes me to a house in the hills. My room has a big, cosy bed and I feel as though I’ve never seen anything so wonderful in my life. I hide beneath the covers of my cocoon; I am safe here and nothing can hurt me.
Emma invites me along to her birthday dinner. I want to keep hiding but I wonder if distraction is better. After all, I am alive, I should embrace life. We catch the bus into town and I write in my journal.
“I’ve realised something. I place too much importance on romantic love. But love is more than that. Love is a girl I’ve never met picking me up from the airport with flowers, love is my daughter thanking me for being her Mama, love is my best friend saving me the last piece of chocolate, love is the way I treat my body and the way I follow my heart.”
I’m surrounded by strangers at dinner. The crash plays over and over in my head. If I close my eyes I can feel it all over again. I mention it and it sounds so insignificant put to words but it feels devastating. I can’t pretend I’m fine. I disappear into the bathroom for a long time and I sob. I don’t understand why I’m being like this, people are in car crashes all the time.
On the way home Emma takes me into a place called The Garden of Unearthly Delight. I am plunged into wonderland. Trees drip with fairylights, we sit together in an old double-decker bus and there are so many market stalls with delicious foods. It’s like a switch has flicked inside me. Suddenly I’m euphoric. Life is so beautiful that it is almost painful. “I’m so happy I am alive to see this,” I tell Emma.
But later the fear returns. The car headlights blare behind my eyelids and I am hit over and over, thrown like I am nothing. I call the boy who occupies my heart and he talks to me until the sun comes up. “I’ll put a spell over you to protect you,” he promises, telling me to be quiet for a moment. “All done, you’re safe now,” he says. It makes me laugh and I imagine it’s true.
The very next day the media is buzzing with rumours about my friend Belle Gibson. Firstly that she lied about donating to charities and secondly that she never had terminal cancer, that it was all a lie. I remember sitting on her couch in tears because I was afraid she’d be gone soon, leaving behind her boy not much older than Alba. My calendar is still marked with the months she’d asked me to housesit for her book tour across America. The whole thing hurts me so deeply I become obsessed with it. I read articles, newspapers and watch people discuss it on television. I don’t know how to feel. With the car crash and the news, my mind is a scary place.
Emma’s presence is my solace. She has another desk across from hers in her workspace that becomes mine and there are moments where I lose myself so deeply in my writing that I forget anything else. But it’s been a few days now and I can’t take any more days off. I have to fly to Melbourne and throw myself back into working, ready or not.
When I’m shooting everything in the world feels just fine. There’s an invincibility when I am behind the camera. I don’t feel pain or cold or hunger. In some ways I’m hardly even there. I give a talk at a community centre to a group of aboriginal kids from broken families. They gather around me when I am finished, hugging me and thanking me. A girl says, “It’s inspiring that you started from nothing and did everything you have. You made me realise what I could do.” And I’m smiling genuinely for the first time since the crash.
Belle asks to see me. I still don’t know how I feel or how I’m supposed to feel, only that it must be right to go and help. Her house feels very different. The energy here is frightening. She is holding my hand and crying. Everything is falling apart. I don’t ask her if she has cancer or not, or why she would lie. Instead I share what’s been playing on my mind.
I tell her I think she should write a brutally honest open letter. To not be defensive but truly vulnerable and share, even the ugly parts. Especially the ugly parts. It’d be the hardest thing to do but ultimately the best thing. We are all human. Ultimately people just want to understand. I leave feeling good, like I have made some difference. I’m not sure I did. I leave at 4am to catch a flight to New Zealand.
I am staying in a mansion on a peninsula. From the great big windows I watch the sea spill in and out of the inlet each day. It’s like a painting out there. For three days I don’t leave this house. A shadow takes my place. I feel broken by the crash, by betrayal, by unrequited love and by my immense longing for my daughter. I feel so alone out here. I barely move, I barely eat and I barely exist.
On the fourth day I run out into the sunshine and stand on the hill above the water. Days were empty and now they are full of meetings, shoots and editing. I’m left with little time to think and it’s better this way. I stay with a girl called Ally. We drink wine and walk to a park late at night. We lay back against the grass beneath the stars and I listen to the slap of a basketball on concrete. I remember what it’s like to be young and to notice everything. To not be so lost inside my own head.
My journal is mostly about him. I am strong but he makes me weaker than I’ve ever known. I hardly recognise myself. My unwavering confidence wavers. Maybe I’m not beautiful enough. Maybe I’m not successful enough. Maybe I’ve ruined everything. I want to forget him, but he’s there in my thoughts more than I’d like to admit.
I board the smallest plane I’ve ever seen to a little town in the south island called Blenheim to shoot a campaign. I think about how he must have been on many planes this small and then I curse myself for bringing everything back to him. From the clouds I write in my journal.
“I think one day I’ll look back on this time and laugh about how crazy I felt about him. Maybe I’ll be with someone who shows me what healthy love is, someone truly good for me who makes me realise this pain wasn’t all for nothing and that everything will be okay. Or maybe I won’t and I will realise it anyway.”
The founder of Paper Rain is Indigo. She has bright long red hair and a contagious smile. She drives me through endless vineyards, engulfed by mountains all around. We stop by her orchard-turned-workshop where she screenprints with her lover, then by her friend’s house in her small hometown. I get this weird feeling that everyone we meet is just an actor and the houses are all sets. After a series of big cities this tiny town gives me the strangest feelings.
I have my own little studio. When I arrive there is a crate filled with gifts and a handmade skateboard engraved with Alba’s name. I get the inkling that I may have the best job of all. It is brilliant to be working with a small label, one that puts goodness above profit. Founders who become friends.
Every day begins in the cold, silent hour before sunrise. We all eat breakfast together. There are big bowls full of sweet ripe figs, apples and fejoias from nearby orchards. The food is all made with love. The locations are familiar to everyone else and startlingly beautiful to me.
In the middle of the day the sun is high and I am in my little studio selecting images. These are the quiet times my heartache waits for. When it gets bad I go outside into the garden and listen to “Stay Gold.” As the chorus rushes in I throw my body around, fists clenched, unthinking. It’s energy I cannot contain and when the song ends I fall to the ground with my heart racing, feeling better.
“What if to love and be loved’s not enough?
What if I fall and can’t bear to get up?
Oh, I wish, for once, we could stay gold.”
The whole campaign is one big adventure. We have a picnic by a river and I dive into the cold water where my ears ring with silence. We eat breakfast on a boat headed to an island at sunrise and seals wave to us. We watch fog roll over the land from atop a mountain. We roadtrip in a van to a forest with the biggest tree I’ve ever seen. We have our last dinner inside an abandoned barn.
The end of every campaign is a little hard. I begin to fall in love with the routine. Waking up before sunrise begins to feel exciting instead of hard. I fall in love with the team and they fall in love with me (even in spite of my terrible jokes and annoying fake New Zealand accent). And then I go.
I spend my last day in Auckland. I eat blueberries as I walk down the street. It’s a simple, little thing and it makes me happy.
Then I’m in Sydney and I’m delirious. All of the sleep I missed on my tour is hitting me hard. As I get off the bus a boy trips over my suitcase. It seems like a sign to befriend him so I launch into a deep conversation as though we’ve known each other all our lives. We sit together on the ferry. When we say goodbye he tells me he will never forget the advice I’d given him. I wish I was always brave enough to break through the barriers of strangers.
Dylan picks me up from the wharf. I’ve never met him before but I recognise him from a television show I used to watch. He has freckles across his face and sun-bleached hair. He’s really cute and sweet and he calls me ‘Nirri’ so I can’t help but crush on him a little bit. The sleeplessness has filled me with this manic energy and I talk all the way to Faith’s house.
Faith is sewing samples for Dylan’s clothing label. He sits on the floor drawing and I am pacing around talking and talking about all of the adventures of the past month. It’s past midnight and I should be sleeping but life feels too full of adventure and my arms are wide open.
A few nights later Dylan comes over again. I’m sitting on the couch playing guitar and he watches me for a little while, memorising the chords. My cheeks burn. He takes my guitar and plays. It’s a love song by Bright Eyes and we’re both singing together. He pulls me onto his lap and holds my hands and I embrace the fleeting love because it makes me forget I’m heartbroken.
Then my path crosses with the very boy I’m trying to forget. It is painful to be around him. To have him close enough to touch but not be able to any longer. Things are different between us now. The air is thick with the words we can’t say. We cover up our feelings with jokes. Once upon a time we thought things would work out between us. We loved each other and then we hurt each other. Now we’re here and we can’t go back.
We are both flying out on the same day. We hold each other for a long time at the airport. From his shoulder I ask, “do you think things will ever be okay between us?” and he says, “someday they will be.” But I don’t know. All I can do is hand him the letters I’ve written him that contain my heart and soul and say goodbye.
Then the loudest silence of all. The realisation that some chapters don’t have endings. Sometimes they just stop in the middle of a sentence and it’s up to me to turn the page.
“Love through the fear of loss. Love the things and the people that wander into your life, love them while you have them, love them when you lose them, love them when you don’t have them and love them while you’re waiting to get them. All things will be, all things must pass and all things must fade; it is our job to hold them tight until they do. The secret of life is to be Home, to those that stumble into your life.”- Tyler Knott Gregson
March, 2015 – Part I
The photo tour begins in Brisbane. It’s only me again and I feel like I can take on the whole world. I spend my first days in cafes organising the chaos to come. The calm before the storm.
At sunrise I wade through the ocean in my overalls photographing a model with horses. At midday Lauren (who is assisting me) dances with me in the middle of a field. In the afternoon I am chasing the sun with Jack Carty and his girlfriend Natasha in return for the logo she illustrated me. Then the sun is gone and I am laughing like mad in the car with all of them. I cannot believe this is my job.
The next day I shoot The Jungle Giants. They all live together in this magical big bohemian house that I get lost in. I am shooting a few shoots every day and sleeping very little. I’m thriving.
Sometimes when I am talking to Alba over the phone we argue, saying “I love you more,” “No, I love YOU more” endlessly and insistently and I know she’s smiling while she says so, just like I am. I’ve recorded videos of me reading her favourite books and telling her how much I love her so she can watch them whenever I’m away.
My friends Sophie & Maddison told me tales about the ways they manifested their loves and I’m curious, so one night I write my own. I write things like: tall, long hair, adventurous, paternal, kind, silly, creative, spontaneous, optimistic, passionate… I close my laptop and lay out on the couch where I’m sleeping and imagine him. ‘I wish I could know you now,’ I think, ‘I wish you could tell me about the way it will all work out.’
In Melbourne I stay in the same house I started the year in. I walk the same streets I walked so many times with Laura, wondering how those days were anything more than a dream.
I’m on the tram to the Palais Theatre, listening to First Aid Kit‘s newest album and grinning. I’ve hardly slept all week but I’ve never felt more awake. Tonight I see them play, but it’s more than that. Klara (the lead singer) emailed me herself asking me to come, telling me she’s been reading my blog for five years now, for as long as I’ve been loving her music.
I am in another world watching them play. Songs that have been a soundtrack to precious moments in my life become real. It is the most wonderful show I’ve ever seen and it ends too soon. Suddenly I am part of the crowd being pushed out onto the street. I want to hug the sisters, to say, “It felt like a dream come true watching you play tonight.” But as I stand out there in the cold dark night I accept I won’t get the chance to.
My phone lights up and it’s an international number calling. When I answer it is Klara. “Come to the side gate,” she says, “I will send someone down to bring you in.” A security guard pulls me through the fans waiting for autographs and into a door leading into darkness. At the top of winding stairs stands Klara and she catches me in a hug. Moments ago I was just a tiny part of a sea of faces watching them play and now she is staring at me saying, “I can’t believe it’s really you.”
I sit cross-legged on the floor and drink champagne with the rest of the crew. I tell stories about the time I was in a gang before I have to go because there’s a boy picking me up on a motorcycle. Klara asks if I’ll join them at the festival they’re playing tomorrow. I say yes, of course.
I am buzzing like never before. My friend Jason is standing by his motorbike on the street below and I am grinning to my ears as I run to him. I throw my arms up in the air and I yell out into the night. I have all this energy; this wild, untamed electricity running through me. Life feels immense. I’d just been drinking champagne backstage with one of my favourite bands. “I must be dreaming!” I say, like the huge dork I am, totally beyond playing it cool. “They really liked me!”
I ride on the back of his bike through the big city. I see it all like I am seeing it for the first time. Skyscrapers reaching the stars, bright lights blurring into a haze all around me, a thousand faces with a thousand stories I’ll never know. We weave through the traffic and my heart beats like crazy in my chest. He drops me home and I curl up like a cat in my bed. My heart slows down just enough to let me sleep.
The next day I am wandering the Golden Plains festival with Klara and Johanna. They are stopped for photos so often that we disappear backstage instead. I am on the stage with them the moment before they step out and in those few fleeting seconds there is a change in the air. Suddenly Klara and Johanna are in tune, like the rest of the world has fallen away for them. Beyond the heavy curtains the grounds are flooded with people. I imagine what it must be like to be out there.
I watch them play from the side stage. It is such a different feeling watching them play as a fan the night before to watching them play as friends now. When the show is over I braid their hair, humming under my breath. “You should come on tour with us in the states,” Klara says, and then I am dreaming of summertime festivals, life on the road and cities I’ve never seen.
We lean against each other on the drive home. We stop at a petrol station and get out to stretch. I take off my shoes to run and then Klara and Johanna do too. We run around the car park after one another; flying, skipping and dancing. The rest of the band watch on amused, all grown men. “It would be sweet to have another girl around when we tour,” Johanna says.
I get home around midnight and discover my key isn’t working to open the gate. I try all I can think of before my fingers grow numb from the cold. The fence is impossible to scale, the family are away camping and my phone is about to die. With my last 1% I send a text to Jason, not sure if it will send or if he will come. I hug my knees to my chest and I wait. My suitcase is in the house and I am flying to Adelaide in the morning, this is bad.
After an hour Jason’s car pulls up and he is my saviour. He says for now there’s nothing we can do but I can sleep at his house and we’ll work it out in the morning. I feel so grateful for the kindness of this boy I didn’t even know yesterday. But I can’t sleep, I’m too worried.
Morning comes and I should be at the airport but I’m not. The family call me. “Silly Nirrimi,” they say, “You didn’t need a key, there’s a latch on the gate.” I’d lived there for three weeks and opened that gate every day and yet I’d completely forgotten and missed a flight, a job and picnic I was hosting. It is so typically hopeless of me that there is nothing I can do but laugh.
I fly into Adelaide later that afternoon and someone waits for me on the other end, holding a bouquet of wildflowers. Her name is Ashleigh and she is a writer. Since this is my first trip to Adelaide she tells me all about this sleepy city while we drive to her home. We drink tea and talk in her overgrown backyard and then settle into bed.
Ashleigh wakes me before sunrise and we sleepily get dressed, packed and into her car. I bring a pillow with me, something I haven’t done since I was a child. We get into the car and begin to drive, a sunrise shoot that begins like any other. We are shooting by the ocean.
The music I am playing is mellow and making us sleepy so I say I’ll put on something more upbeat. I play “Pina Colada” by Jack Johnson, not knowing it’s the last time I will be able to hear it without flashbacks. Very suddenly a 4WD slams into the right side of the car. It seems to happen both in slow motion and all at once. I can feel everything, like it is slamming against me. Reality shifts completely and then when it settles again I realise I can’t breathe. My body isn’t mine anymore. That happy summer song is still playing from my speaker and it sounds morbid. It doesn’t belong here. I am so desperate to turn it off.
Ash is as white as a ghost, her hands still clutching the wheel. “It’s a story,” I tell her. “What?” she asks in disbelief. I continue, “When bad things happen I just think of them as a story and then they’re okay.” She begins to sob and I keep feeling like I shouldn’t be okay. People come and people go from the window and I keep insisting, “I’m okay, I’m okay.” But time doesn’t exist and I don’t exist either. There’s glass in my feet and the blood is bright, the seatbelt has left deep bruises I will feel for weeks, but I feel that I’m okay. The pillow is still at my side, if I didn’t bring it I would have been thrown against the door.
I don’t know how long we wait for the ambulance, it feels like seconds but it isn’t. Firemen cut off the car door. Ash is put in a neck brace and a stretcher and I wish it could have been me injured, not her. There is some weird sense inside me, some curious and unreasonable delight at the idea of coming so close to death and surviving.
At the hospital I become conscious of the fact I’m not really okay. I’m not in a hospital bed but something has shifted in my mind and body. I feel this energy rushing up past my chest and I have to hold my face in my hands and let my body shake, sobbing but not crying. A few times I feel the crash happening all over again and realise how deeply my body aches. I hold Ash’s hand while she cries but I find no words. Her family comes and thankfully she will be okay.
I catch my reflection in a window and I’m startled by myself. It is like seeing someone I really love after a long time apart. I see that I am young and beautiful and very much alive. The crash stripped away my identity and now it’s rushing back.
I call Alba to tell her I love her and when she tells me she loves me back it is like hearing it for the very first time. How sweet and pure she is, how incredible that she exists. I was almost gone today. My life feels as though it has been split in two. The time before the crash and the time after.