“she’s mad, but she’s magic. there’s no lie in her fire.”
― charles bukowski
muse: eliza (img)
set design: laura nagy
In Townsville the sun is as brutal as I always remembered and beneath it I am home. Alba & I stay with my mum and my little sister out in the suburbs. Days melt into each other with the heat.
Alba’s papa has a place with his new love now. A cosy home where pools of light spill over wooden floorboards, homemade dreamcatchers hang from the walls and a garden bursts to life. I notice a book I bought him for his birthday on the shelf and a shirt I got him on a summer trip to LA. It’s so surreal to see these little momentos of our past scattered in a home he shares with his present girlfriend. Not so long ago this would have been unimaginable.
Two years ago we had our own home, sweet and familiar in the mountains. Our family was whole. It could never have broken, yet it already was. Being here in this house is so intense for me I feel nauseous. They chase Alba outside to the garden where their laughter echos back to me through the open door. Back to me. Just me. A lone comet hurtling through wide open space. I wipe a tear away roughly, afraid someone might see it.
And then, a moment later it is good. So good that I find myself smiling. I find the strength to push past all of my hurt and find genuine happiness that things are coming together for them. I wanted this. I hug all of them before I go. Kindness wins. The past falls away. I begin to long for my own home, and though I find it difficult to admit, for someone to share it with.
On the surface I feel okay with the way everything is unfolding, but deeper down I am broken. I am lonely out here. Toddlerhood is a difficult stage and when I am parenting I am doing it alone. I am trying to stay present but I keep on wondering how I got here. I’m a single mama with no home, a photographer who barely photographs and a girl who many look up to with no real idea of what I am doing. The darkness pulls at me daily but I always pull myself back to light. To gratitude for the endless good that fills my life.
The dark times are necessary for me. They are the lows that pull me back and back and back like a slingshot, before launching me higher than ever.
I’m not moving so I start running. The first afternoon I feel like I am flying. I can feel my body and my breath and for the first time in a long time I know I am truly alive. The sky is bright one moment and breaking open the next. Rain slaps the hot concrete and soaks through my clothes. Instead of finding shelter I dance in it all the way home. I don’t worry what the people watching out of the car windows think, they’re only a blur of lights to me and besides, I know by now it doesn’t matter. I stop thinking and I only feel.
Alba is settled in at her Papa’s home and I fly to Sydney. It’s time to be a photographer again.
I step off the bus from the airport into heavy rain and hold my little suitcase above the flooding streets as I run toward a terrace house where a fellow purple-haired photographer named Rachela lives. We sit on her bed wet and laughing and though it is the first time we’ve ever met, she tells me she doesn’t know where she’d be without me.
It isn’t out of the ordinary for me to meet people who already know me in ways even my own family don’t, for a stranger to reference a thought I’d had one sleepless night or a memory I’ve almost forgotten myself. Somehow I’ve grown used to it. It is strange that my blog can feel so abstract but have a tangible effect in the real world.
Rachela invites me to watch her friend’s band play at the Oxford Art Factory. Once upon a time I watched a show here, pushed my way to the front to watch the band play a song about me and kissed the lead singer as he left the stage. I lived in a different world, deep within another chapter of my life. It feels like a lifetime ago.
All of her friends are our age. Among them I am struck with the realisation that they lead much different lives to mine. And yet I see parallels too. I still crave the excitement, adventure and freedom they do. For all I may be, I am still a 22 year old girl.
Everyone goes on to Rachela’s after and the house is full of smoke, music and dancing. I live through my camera because it’s the only way I can belong. At one point I sit in the hallway with the keyboardist from the band who confesses she wants a child so much it hurts. I see my past self and in some ways it frightens me. I disappear from the party and stay awake until sunrise editing the photos I’ve taken.
The next night I lay beside a boy on a river dock where the lights of the city reflect brightly in the water. It begins to rain and we watch as the raindrops hit the river and shatter the perfect little circles of light there. It looks like fireworks exploding on the water’s surface. I look at him and he kisses me. My heart is elsewhere, everything is beautiful but nothing is right. I run all the way home and crawl into bed with Rachela and tell her everything like we are sisters.
One day Rachela gives me a pair of overalls she bought in Texas. I wear my purple hair in braids. and lace underwear and red boots and a necklace my friend made from sea glass. Just like my daughter, I wear the things that make me happy with little thought to anyone else.
Sometimes I walk over an hour to get to where I am going, not because I can’t catch a bus but because I want to experience everything. I want to feel my body moving, run my hands along the fences and plants I pass and smile at strangers. When it is too far to walk I catch buses and trains and trace the engraving on the back of my ipod that reads “wherever you are, be all there” and I am, mostly.
I am shooting every day. The high rushes back. I remember why I’d thrown myself into photography with such reckless abandon. I find myself again in those ecstatic moments where my photos come together and I am shouting with glee.
One afternoon hostages are taken in a cafe not so far from where I am staying. Almost every channel on TV is covering it, with the usual hysteria of the media. I am almost too afraid to leave the house but I am meeting the director of one of my favourite films today and where I am meeting her is in the opposite direction to the seige. The normally bustling streets are now like a ghosttown and shivers roll down my spine.
Every day brings more pictures and videos of Alba from her papa. They are little bursts of light throughout my day. Her collecting eggs from the chickens, playing at the beach, eating food from the garden, picking flowers, dancing, sleeping, smiling. I talk to her on the phone and hear her excitedly recount all of her adventures. I say, “I love you so much Alba, to the moon and back, even when I’m not with you I am loving you. Look up at the moon and you can feel my love.”
Not so long ago I sat in a park and noticed some guys taking their shirts off to embrace the sun. I imagined what it’d be like to do the same. To feel the heat of the sunlight on my chest and the cool wind playing at my back. But I couldn’t, for no other reason than because I was a girl. And so I imagined instead that I was surrounded by other girls and we were all sitting around shirtless and picnicking and laughing like it was no big deal, because it shouldn’t be. My idea of the nipnic was born.
I hold the first nipnic in Gordon’s Bay, an inlet of sea enclosed by rock all around. A living postcard of summer. We spread rugs over the rocks above the ocean and share the food we’ve all brought. Somebody brings a whole tray of ripe mangoes and the flesh is bright orange beside the deep blue sea. Laura brings raw chocolate fudge so good I have to close my eyes when I’m eating it.
We are all topless, lost in our own worlds of bliss. It all feels natural and normal and not at all like breaking the law. We’re surrounded by beach-goers but no one comments or stares. Somebody says, “this is the way it should be.”
There is a flat rock jutting out from the sea so we dive into the cool, salty waves and swim to it. Our skin is cold and the rock is hot and we lay bareskinned under the sun. When the sun disappears the wind draws goosebumps all over us but we are glowing, like the sunshine has gotten under our skin.
A few of us pile into Bec‘s car. We listen to pop music loud and sing and dance like the children we still are deep down. We drive to Laura’s house where bands play music from a stage in the back of a truck. We dance shirtless among everyone else in the backyard, because we can, because we aren’t afraid to. We sit together on the grass and share all of our ideas for changing the world. We are all wildly, stupidly, overwhelmingly happy.
Jarrad flies into town for a shoot the day before I have to leave. We sit in stillness while I braid his long hair, we wander through gardens at dusk and I beat him in a round of laser tag. He’s been an almost daily part of my life for many months now, yet sometimes I look at him and feel like I’ve never met him before. It is like we are both best friends and complete strangers. Without him rekindling my love for photography, I’ m not sure I would be in Sydney at all.
I invite Laura, Claire, Rahkela and Jarrad to my last breakfast before I fly out. That very early morning is the clearest of them all. It is the morning I realise how much my friends mean to me, and how much I mean to them. My connections to others are more precious than anything else I could ever have. All else pales in the face of love.
My journal is stolen on the plane ride home. It’s on my seat when I go to the bathroom and when I get back it’s gone. It is my little companion that helps me collect my thoughts, my little garden where my ideas begin to grow. It is a piece of my heart but instead of being devastated I just accept that it’s gone. I’m surprised by how easy it is to let go. I wonder who took it and what they’ll take away from my thoughts.
I am home with Alba and she captivates me from the moment I see her. I forgot about how perfect she feels in my arms, how sweetly she skips when she runs and how mesmerising her voice is as she tells me stories. We walk hand in hand to the store and all the while I am full with love for her. She smells flowers, picks up rubbish and narrates the world around us and I think, this here is my daughter and I could not be any luckier.
We take the ferry to Magnetic Island with my family. I hold Alba as we watch the waves. We stay in rooms by the beach. I keep finding beauty in the smallest things. The soft fuzz on Alba’s back, the way my Mum’s forehead creases when I say something deliberately inappropriate, the smell of the clean sheets and the taste of salt in my hair.
I let myself feel everything. The caress of the sun, the hug of the wind, the whispers of the trees. The cold, the longing, the heartache, the uncertainty, the love, the gratitude, the boundless potential of everything like some swelling bursting star. Once, not so long ago, I feared I was condemned to numbness. Afraid I’d already felt too much and could never feel so much again. But now, alone, I am learning how to feel again.
I sit in the still sea at sunset with my sister and I think of him. I imagine him sitting behind me wrapping me up in his arms. Hot blood under skin as soft as silk, keeping me warm. I close my eyes and I am kissing his shoulders, his neck, his lips. I open my eyes and there is only the pastel colours of the sky as the sun dips beneath the ocean, the distant city lights and the smoke pouring from my sister’s lips like there is a fire in her soul. No, not only, that is enough, it is more than enough. I am exactly where I am and everything is perfect.
One day my sister Pixie comes home in tears and in the misery of the moment I am overwhelmed by how beautiful she is. Her eyes are electric blue and her eyeliner bleeds down her cheek. She laughs in between sobbing, like she finds it ridiculous that she is crying. I see myself in the way she loves. Wholly, recklessly, selflessly. I see all the heartache I’ve ever suffered, but all the bliss too.
Before I know it, as it always goes, I am leaving again. My girl runs happily into her papa’s house and blows me kisses as I shout out declarations of my love. I am heavy but I refuse to be sad tonight. I pass a field on my way home and I take off my bag and shoes and I dance and dance and dance until all my thoughts have disappeared. It’s New Years Eve and I have a flight to catch to Melbourne. Tonight isn’t an ending, it’s a birth. It’s in the air, like the whole world knows it.
“tonight i am alone
curling into myself to disappear
a flower before spring
so tightly bound and
impossible to open
but the sun comes and i do
arms spread wide to all there is
exposed and unafraid
with love enough for all of us
before the dark comes again”
Lovers: Sam + Brad
Lovers: Lorelle + Jake
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.)