Independence Day.

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On the 4th of July two years ago I had my very own Independence Day. That was the day I left my house in the country and drove 200kms away blasting a playlist I had created called, “I’m coming home.”

I don’t know what I expected when I came down here because at the time I was mostly just fleeing where I was. Basically at that point the plan was to just get here and then decide. And I’ve sort of done nothing except fall apart. Actually, that’s bullshit and I need to change that internal dialogue because it’s unhelpful.

I went away for the first time in my adult life. I met friends who I had never seen in person and some who I had been conversing with over the Internet for a decade. Do you know how surreal it is to wrap your arms around someone who you have shared the most intimate parts of your life with but never seen in the flesh? I fell hopelessly in love. I bought furniture that I liked without asking if anyone else did. I watched fireworks light up the city on New Years Eve. I bought handspun and hand knitted gloves from a market in Salamanca and drank tea made with water from the Huon River. I went to the movies with my friend. I ate birthday cake with my family. I shaved my brothers head at 4am one morning. I stood in the snow in a lace gown while my friend took photos of me. I read hundreds of books. I wrote poetry and prose – thousands of words to make sense of all my sparkle and all my fault lines. I picked shells along a beach in Tasmania and laughed when the ocean ran into my shoes and soaked my pants even though it meant I had to make the drive home in my underwear. I shot photos. I made love. I built fires. I listened to music. I danced. I sang. I swore. I cried. I laughed until my cheeks hurt.

Fuck it.

I lived.

Fifteen years later.

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Do you remember the worst day of your life?

My middle daughter is my rainbow baby. A rainbow baby is the child born after the loss of another. They’re the child that can never erase the pain of who you lost but remind you there is joy in the world.

The worst day of my life happened in 2001. I didn’t know when I woke up that anything would be different. In fact, I was looking forward to the day ahead because I was 15 weeks pregnant and was going for an ultrasound that day. The pregnancy was hard from the start. At 5 weeks I had begun bleeding – sure I had miscarried I already had grieved the loss of that baby. The next day I went for an ultrasound and saw a tiny bean floating unscathed. A repeat ultrasound a few weeks later after the bleeding stopped showed a flickering heart beat. The tech saw a shadow of something though and said I should go to the Royal for a better ultrasound. That was the one I was scared for. But there they waved the wand over my stomach, the gel cold on my skin and declared everything perfect. They told me to book in later for a follow up but everything seemed great. Perfect.

By 15 weeks I thought it was just a cool chance to see my baby again. I felt like it was a boy. My stomach had already begun to swell beneath my pants, I had bought the next size up and joked I would need maternity clothes soon. I could feel the faintest of butterfly wings sweeping inside me as he swam in his watery cocoon. I had picked names. I wondered what Christmas would be like this year with a tiny baby. I wondered if my daughters would be excited by their new sibling.

On the worst day of my life I lay in a thin table in a dimly lit room while my husband sat beside me anxious to see our baby. A woman I had never met squirted gel on my stomach and a smooth wand glided across the small rise of my abdomen.

I knew instantly something was wrong.

Here was my baby who was waving his arms and legs in a greeting, here was his rounded stomach and tiny face. But, oh, his head. I can never describe the quiet of that room. The silence as she repeatedly went back over his skull and viewed how misshapen it was. From the front on, he was a baby like any other. From the side, his skull stretched upwards, elongated and almost twice the length it should be. I kept wanting to say to her to please go back to the front view. I didn’t want to see what I was seeing. And I couldn’t pull my eyes away.

“Excuse me,” she said, and left the room.

The quiet between myself and my husband hung thickly in the air. What comfort could I possibly offer him at this time when I knew in my heart that something was terribly wrong? My thoughts spun out in a thousand different directions. Our baby is sick. Something is wrong. I thought of all the ways they could fix babies now, even doing in utero surgery. This was terrifying but they would fix him.

The woman came back with a man. I could walk past him in the street and never recognise him. I have no idea what he looked like. But his words are scarred into my memory. He looked a long time. And then he spoke, “What do we have here? Well, what we have here is a bad baby. A very bad baby. This baby is incompatible with life, a nurse will discuss your options.”

He left and I excused myself to the detached bathroom leaving the woman and my husband alone in the darkened room.

Incompatible with life, incompatible with life, incompatiblewithlife….

A mistake. It wasn’t. They could fix it. No they couldn’t. My son was going to die.

I didn’t want to cry. I gripped the sides of the basin in front of me and stared into my own wild eyes and whispered through gritted teeth, “Stop it! Stop. It… Don’t.”

And then all at once I broke. I keened. I sobbed raw, wretched cries, painfully aware that on the other side of the flimsy sliding door my husband and the woman stood awkwardly listening to the sound of a heart breaking.

On the worst day of my life I was ushered into a room in the antenatal clinic and spoke to a nurse about therapeutic termination. I spoke to a doctor who was efficient and kind and explained the process.

This was what was wrong with my son. He had encephalocele. A severe neural tube defect that made his skull bones fail to fuse. His brain was exposed to the amniotic fluid. He would likely not survive that much longer. He would never survive delivery. He would never take a breath.

The procedure would be a series of pessaries inserted near my cervix to begin labour. After some time I would give birth. He would be sent for autopsy. They would cremate him. His remains would be interred at the hospital. There was a service once a month for the babies like him. Babies too young to be legally recognised as babies. Babies born before 20 weeks. “You won’t have to have a funeral,” they said by way of a comfort. As though the fact that his existence could be erased so easily would be a comfort to me.

On the worst day of my life I set a date to come back. We rode home in silence, my swelling stomach a painful reminder of what we were going to lose.

When I came back to the hospital days later I laboured for 7 hours. They offered me morphine because there is no danger to taking drugs when your child will not survive. I refused because I needed to feel everything. My water broke just after 7pm. A midwife came in and delivered the tiniest fairy of a baby you have ever seen. She announced he was a boy. I couldn’t bear to look at him so she took him away. The placenta wouldn’t shift so I was wheeled to theatre. The shot me full of something that made me sleepy and calm. My face was a blank stone. Tears rolled from my eyes unchecked. A nurse opened the curtains and looked alarmed. “Are you in pain?” She asked. I shook my head, mute and stared at the ceiling. She stepped forward, laid her hand over mine, dry and warm, “Just your heart, hey?” She whispered. My eyes met hers, I gave an imperceptible nod. She gave one back.

They put me to sleep.

The next day they brought him to me. His hands and feet bore blue ink from where they had printed them. He was wrapped in a blanket. I didn’t shift it from the top of his head, not willing to look at the defect that had stolen him from me. I was scared to touch him because I knew he would be cold. I stayed with him a long time. I admired his long feet and tiny toes. Riley.

We went home. I stayed in bed for three days.

Riley would be almost 15 if he were alive today. If I look at his siblings I can almost patchwork together a picture of how he would have looked. For years after his short time on earth, spent entirely within the safety of my womb where he was nothing but completely loved and wanted, I felt his absence often. Because of who I am I wanted an answer why. I researched everything. I second guessed myself. Two years after his death I called the doctor and she patiently went back over everything with me. The hardest things to deal with is when there is no why.

I met a woman a couple of years later who had recently lost her daughter in the same way I lost Riley. She was the biggest comfort to me, someone who understood completely the Worst Day, who knew the helplessness, the agony. Who else could I explain to that even though he passed away, my sorrow was mixed with a joy, because he had also lived. That what you wanted was not always to brush him away as though he never existed but to talk about him. We passed our children’s names to each other and held them like a gift. We could speak freely of regret and sadness and love. I will love her forever for the space she gave me to talk of my son. I hope I gave her some comfort to talk of her daughter.

Now, years later we both have more children. Rainbow babies whose presence in our houses smooth over some of the cracks in our hearts. Children who yell and laugh and dance and sing and remind us that joy can be had.

You may wonder why the worst day in my life was not the day he left me, the day he was born. The worst day was when I knew I had to give him up, never the day I first saw him, a fleeting glance before the nurse took him away. I could never regret that. Seeing him was one of my best memories, however tinged with sadness.

For all the babies who we carry in our hearts, whose mothers and fathers silently sing their name. Whose place in the house is a Christmas ornament on the tree bearing their name, a statue in the garden, a photo on the wall. You were never forgotten.

City.

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Image by Hyggelig Photography – Melbourne

We were outside Starbucks in the city, people walking around us with the sunlight filtering between the buildings. The rush of the city was a shock to the system after so long. Did I really walk here? Nearby is an escalator I kissed a boy on once – a lifetime ago. Would my 15 year old energy still be floating around in the ether there somewhere?

I was nervous to see him, the last time had been in the forest alone and quiet. A private place to unlock the mysteries of his lips. Darkness creeping into the clearing as I slid my hands under his shirt. His lips softer than I expected. He had grazed his mouth slowly along my neck, his eyes closed as though he were drinking me in. His hands cradling my face as he turned it upwards…

But here in the daylight it would be different. He walked up to us and sat down, he didn’t touch me but he proximity had all my nerve endings electrified. The girls left and he asked if I would like to take a walk. When we stood up he took my hand as though he had been taking it for years. Naturally. We stopped at traffic lights and waited with a herd of people for the ‘walk’ symbol to flash green. He came around in front of me, slid his hand up my cheek until his fingers were tangled in my hair, leaned forward and out his lips to mine.

I felt hyper aware of everything. The cars in the street, the people surrounding us, the smell of him, the warmth of the sun, the feel of his lips, his tongue gliding over my lip and my sharp intake of breath…

The daylight was different, but still magical.

The Door.

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The first door I remember belonged to my grandparents house in suburbia in the city I was born. I don’t remember my first entry obviously, but there is a photo of me having my first bath in the bathroom sink, a pale green fashionable in the 70s that had fallen out of vogue by the time I was old enough to look at that photo and be intrigued. I lived there with my mother and grandparents and my two aunties who were 2 and 5 years younger than my mother. I remember my time in that house as a carefree existence. I must have run in and out of that door hundreds of times without giving it a second thought.

Later there would be other doors. The door to the caravan we lived in by the sea. The old door of the house we rented before my brother was born. The door of my childhood home. I walked in and out of them never really sensing a barrier between me and the outside world at all. I barely even registered their existence.

When I was newly pregnant with my second daughter and she was barely bigger than a lentil, tucked away in my womb, I went for a walk. I wanted to go to the library – a place of comfort for me my whole life. Bookstores and libraries were like church for me, I could spend hours breathing in the calm that surrounded them. I was a child that drove my mother crazy with the state of my room, clothes and toys strewn everywhere, but my bookshelf was immaculate. I would carefully alphabetise the authors and arrange them by genre. I pushed my eldest daughter in a pram to the library, I was excited to introduce her to the written word. Her father accompanied us. It was summer and the midday sun beat down on us during the walk home. I felt a little light headed. My heart rate picked up. I felt ill. I thought I might throw up or pass out and we were still a good fifteen minutes from home.

It was an anxiety attack.

I didn’t know what was wrong just that I was suddenly ill. I had to lie down – right now. He went back with our daughter for the car, I lay in the shade of a struggling sapling on the grass by the footpath.

When I returned home I rapidly became much better. And I was terrified it would happen again. Better to stay at home than experience that kind of crippling experience in public. I was embarrassed and horrified. I still didn’t know what happened. I thought maybe heat stroke or morning sickness. I should take it easy. I should stay inside.

The door became a terrifying thing. Suddenly it was no longer a benign presence in the house, barely given another thought. Now it signified the very real difference between ‘safe’ and ‘unknown’. And I have always been a cautious person.

Agoraphobia took me under it’s wing like an old friend. It whispered fears into my ears and wound it’s fingers into my hair. It seeped into the marrow in my bones.

I was housebound. I left only a handful of times for antenatal appointments. I didn’t go see my family. I didn’t go to the shops. At my worst, I didn’t even go to the letterbox. I would watch as the postman dropped our mail into it and suggest my eldest daughter toddle down to it. I told myself she enjoyed her ‘big girl job’ while I stood at the threshold of the doorway, unable to cross the line to the outside.

When I finally reached out for help after my second daughter was born, when I could no longer pass off my fear as related to pregnancy, my counsellor came to the house and visited me bedside. At that point, at my very worst, I left the bed only to go to the bathroom. The day I made it to the couch she cheered. And I was so frustrated and confused because who gets praised just for making it to their own goddamn lounge room? That’s insanity. It’s depressing.

Slowly, I learned to MANAGE my fears. That is very different to overcoming. Managing means you learn ways to deal with it, not that you are no longer frightened.

Some days I could step out that door without giving it much of a thought. Some days it would loom before me like a threat. Some days the very act of turning the doorknob and stepping into the sunshine felt like rebellion.

Because I learnt how to manage it so well and I could hide it so effectively, I had virtually forgotten I suffered at all. Until one day a few months ago I found myself staring at my front door unable to step past it. Until I retreated back to my bedroom and refused to leave. Until my lover brought me flowers and begged me to leave the room to put them in a vase in an attempt to coax me out and when I cried and said I couldn’t he fetched a vase himself and put them by my bed so I would have something ‘beautiful to look at’.

Then I knew. It had never left, just gone into remission. And now here it was again, ruining my life.

But see, last time I just bowed down. Last time when the door would threaten me I would retreat. This time, I’m fucking angry. This time I am committed to getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. This time – no remission. I’ll cut it out myself. This time when the door stands in front of me, I will call it’s bluff.

Hand to handle.

Pull it open.

Just one step.

Outside.

Grafted.

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I long for the quiet of the country sometimes. I remember when I moved out there feeling this true excitement at the fresh start. The country was beautiful and I had moved at the best possible time of year, September – the beginning of Spring. When the worst of the cold is over and the wildflowers line the sides of the roads. The flocks of galahs greeted me. The drive out was always soothing, acres of fields in a patchwork of green and gold and brown, dotted with gumtrees. The sign into town signified home. The old buildings unassuming and friendly.

I didn’t realise until I fled to the city two years ago how much of my photography lay in that town. I knew every inch of it. The light was different out there, more golden when it isn’t filtered through street after street of suburban houses. The city was the same thing after the same thing. Anonymous. Without character. All the lawns the same, the housing estates were the same handful of houses duplicated one after another like they had been xeroxed. Where was the beauty? I would kill for a dirt road, for a lopsided fence, for a crumbling brick wall, a rusted piece of corrugated iron. Give me a weed, an unintentional dandelion – some wildness – and keep your polite gardens of plants that never changed.

In the country when I felt overwhelmed I would take my camera into my backyard, only a 1/2 an acre on the edge of town and spend some time shooting. The chickens would cluck around me curiously as I shot them scratching beneath the peach trees. The goats would nuzzle at my hair and I would breath in the smell of hay and feed and earth and sunshine and shoot the camomile that grew through the cracks in the bricks, wildly escaping the confines of the garden bed. I would shoot the animals and the plants and the children as they played. I would lose time and come in hours later with grass stains on my jeans and leaves in my hair, my cheeks pink and I would feel alive and refreshed. The photos weren’t brilliant, just parts of my garden, but it was mediation for me.

Now my camera gathers dust because the animals are gone and my backyard is short lawn and there is no afternoon light begging me to play in it. I don’t know how to shoot in this place where everything is planned and the camomile would have been ripped out and tamed and people put on special clothing to take a walk.

I didn’t expect this to happen. I grew up here, I was raised in the city. I dreamed of housing estates and perfect lawns. The country…it was serendipity. I never planned that. So how did it creep into my blood?

I cast my lot here two years ago, amongst these carbon copy houses and traffic that never stops even in the darkest hours. Where you can never really see the stars properly because there are too many lights and I can hear my neighbours conversation like they were sitting in my own living room. Here I am. But it is not where I am meant to be. I am wild, open spaces and lazy fields of yellow flowers. I am closed stores on Sunday and rambling camomile. I am wooden floors and tongue in groove walls. I am the sound of rain on a tin roof. I am quiet gumtrees standing silently in a field. I am the smell of lavender in Spring. The country sings to me. I belong to it.

Some plants cannot survive on their own, they must be grafted on to a different plant to be strong enough to make it. Roses are one. A knobbly graft marking the place where the stock plant was merged with the rose. The stock plant would be chosen for it’s hardy roots, the other may be chosen for its beautiful blooms. Perhaps I was never meant to be here. Perhaps I was always supposed to be attached to another place where I could grow strong and bloom.

Spark.

Your fingers pull at the threads of my soul.  They coax words from me like coddling flames from dusty coals.  I thought I was ashes and dust. A memory of a fire long burnt out.  But the words pour from my veins.  I write on slips of paper, in coffee stained notebooks.  I write on the wind and sky.  I write.  A flame flickers to life.  The words weaving the tapestry of our love.  The fire dances.  And I write.  And I write.

Drought.

“What do you really want to do?” She asked me.

I stared at my fingers, fiddling with the rings on them because when I would look up into her face she was watching me with such expectation that I felt like I’d just been called on to answer a question that I was supposed to know automatically and I was embarrassed to admit I had no idea.

“I don’t really know, I suppose.”

“Well, what do you love to do?”

“Read. Write. I use to take photographs but I don’t do that anymore. The last time I felt a passion it was photography but it’s gone now.”

“Why do you think that is?” Her pen poised over a notepad, occasionally scribbling down something I would say or making a note.

“It went away, I guess. The light….I can’t find it here. I was shooting families and I was…it was like a cookie cutter. I would say the same thing. And they would laugh because it was the first time they would hear it but it was all the same. Even if the people or location was different. It was the same.”

I tried to explain my favourite shoots. The ones where you would wake in the middle of the night and the image would already form in your head. Where you knew that everything else that day would disappear, the clothes would go unwashed, the dishes wouldn’t be done, we would eat something you could just throw together because until that shot was taken and out of me, I was obsessed with it. I showed her some images to explain.

“Maybe you should just start shooting again, see if you can’t find that passion again.”

And she tells me I was good. And I have no response to that because I can see all the flaws in each image, I can count dozens of people I know that are better off the top of my head. And even if how good you were didn’t matter, and it doesn’t if you are just shooting for yourself, it was art. It was art and I was never the creator of it really. I was the vessel. And I can’t explain to her that I could shoot all day and maybe never hit the mark. That each image came into being because I NEEDED to make it. That it was already created before I ever took the camera from its bag. My muse, whatever it was, is silent. I don’t know how to force it, it always just came.

“Why don’t you try? See how you go.”

“Yeah. Maybe.”

But I already know, I won’t. If it comes back to me at all, it will be because it returned on it’s own. Not because I went looking. It’s not the ocean. It’s the rain.

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The Details.

The first post is always the hardest. Sometimes I want to skip it and get straight to the middle where you already know who I am and how I got here and I don’t have to pour my joys and devastations at your feet to pick over. It’s confronting because you are forced to explain who you are and half the time I have no idea who I am. I’m nearly 35 and I’m still figuring that out.

When we meet people we offer them a collection of words that we think defines us, “I’m a swim instructor,” they might say. “I’m a nurse.” “I’m a recruiter.” “I’m in retail.” But that isn’t who we are, not really. That’s our job. And even when your job is a passion, a calling, it still isn’t really who you are. People are in the details. When I fell in love I fell for a million reasons but one was that he paid attention to the details, asking and then remembering how I took my tea before he had even made me one cup. In the details is that someone loves peonies the best, or that they’re scared of storms or that their favourite place in the world is their grandparents farm where they spent summers when they were young. Those are the details that make us who we are.

I am a lover of details, the woman who will drive past a broken house every day for a week, taking a route I don’t usually take simply because I am fascinated by the leaves on the leaning porch and the way the door stands open like the owners went out one day and simply never came home. I am the person who photographed peeling paint and drunken fences and crumbling brick walls. I am the woman who bought her first house because the bed was built into an old Queenslander and someone had carved the words ‘Cat Here’ into a wooden beam so high you would need a ladder to have done it and I spent hours trying to decide what they meant.

The details. They’re everything.

And so I am not going to tell you who I am immediately because over time we will come to know each other as we move from topic to topic like a good conversation. Instead I’m going to tell you three details. That I cannot leave a copy of Angela’s Ashes in any second hand bookstore, I buy them all and hand them to friends and relatives and insist it’s the best book. I’ve lost count of how many I’ve bought over the years.

I’m going to tell you that I learnt to spin because when I learnt to knit it wasn’t enough. I have always needed to know exactly how something is done. I needed to know how to spin the yarn. And after that I needed to know how to process the raw fleece myself so that I could know that I could take a fleece directly from a sheep or alpacas back and complete every step to turn it into a garment.

I will tell you that I woke up one morning and realised I was broken. I was so broken I didn’t know how to fix myself. I didn’t know if you could go to an ER and let them know you were broken inside, but I felt that if you could – I would definitely need to do that. I would have words drift through my head when I thought of myself, ‘fragile’, ‘delicate’, ‘ruined’. I was both horrified and fascinated by how destroyed I was. It was like the time my house burnt down and I walked through it, mortified by blackened onions on a bench and the warped dishwasher and at the same time I couldn’t help but stare at the wreckage. I fingered my own wounds and scars and marvelled at what had happened seemingly without me even noticing. Long days of therapy, of breathing, of one day at a time. Rebirth is so painful. That first breath of fresh oxygen rips through your lungs and tears at you. And now I collect the details of me. Gathering them up and studying each one to rediscover who I am.

This is what I offer you.

 

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