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.