When you’re a garden gnome, you’re a garden gnome

It’s Saturday, enfin, the end of a bad week. I have a mild but well-deserved white wine hangover. Paris snoozes in the throes of pre-August abandon.

I don’t have a plan, as such, but I have a book and a picnic rug and the first hint of hunger rumbling in my belly.

I buy some tomatoes, an unapologetically large peach. Some fresh bread, cheese, a bottle of lemonade.

I wander into the covered market, blinking in the low light. I’ll buy some jambon serrano, I think.

‘Bonjour Madame,’ I begin, ‘just two slices of ham, please.’ I refrain from my usual, defensive, it’s-just-for-me speech.

She slices the ham, holding the first one up to the light, so I can approve the thickness.

‘You have a lovely accent, where are you from?’

I smile, she isn’t to know that this is a conversation I both love and despise; and conduct every other day. ‘Sydney,’ I explain, ‘But I’ve been in Paris for five years now.’

‘Well you can’t tell!’ A man wheeling vegetables to his neighbouring stand chimes in.

I wait, unclear if he’s referring to my pale skin, poor accent, or something else entirely.

‘I mean, because you’re still so charming! Parisians aren’t charming.’

I smile politely as my market stall lady dismisses him with a wave of her hand.

‘I was supposed to go to Australia, you know,’ she says, holding the package of ham close to her chest. ‘He was Italian, I met him on vacation. 15 years we wrote to each other. 15 years! Tu te rends compte?

‘But you didn’t go?’ I ask.

‘No, the month the trip was planned I lost all of my family in an accident. Aeroplane. Horrible. All of them, all at once.’

‘Oh, I’m so sorry,’ I say, uselessly.

‘But he just thought I didn’t want to come.’ She shrugs. ‘He’s married now. Could have been me.’

She isn’t to know that this has been the theme of my week, being forced to imagine those sister lives, the ghost lives, the ones we came so very close to living but through choice or circumstance instead, saluted from the shore.*

‘You know what I like best about Australians?’ I blink, as the vegetable-seller’s voice brings us back to the present. ‘They’re just my size,’ he says, snaking an arm around my neck.

Eh, ben, when you’re a garden gnome, you’re a garden gnome, hein!’ she tells him, snorting as he saunters off, mock-offended.

I smile at my new friend as I hand over the money and she releases the ham from her possession, but not before grasping my hand, and making me promise to come back soon.

I will, I say. I will.

*To paraphrase the great Cheryl Strayed

Something Just Like This

You eat the grilled baby octopus and raise a glass to Spain, to yourself, to being 28 and to the absurd range of choices currently afforded you.

You’ve been here less than a day but already the weather and the proximity to water has healed you some. The recently appeared acne on your chin, the work stress, the million tiny heartbreaks of late, shrink back in this seaside air. 

You could stay or you could go. Go to London or Barcelona or Sweden. New York, back to Sydney. You could find important, impressive sounding work, you could start your own business. You could get the motorbike license or the cat or a tattoo or all three. 

You can be independent and self sufficient and world-wise and badass and still fall asleep in strong arms when offered. You can be resolute and serious and do the hard things, the necessary ones, the tough parts, and let yourself cry for 45 seconds in the coworking bathroom.  

You eat dinner alone, read the books, sit by yourself on a bench, on the sand. 

You listen to the Spanish choir playing Abba and Coldplay songs; you receive a text out of the blue. You revel in the glorious symmetry. The small wins. The promised pizza, the delivered back massage. You refuse the hug, endure the silence. The wanting. The waiting. The knowing. 

You smile at a Sweet Caroline singalong breaking out along the beach. The wind in your hair, the promise in the air. 

What is this, you wonder.

Summer. Freedom. Possibility. Solitude. Enough. More than enough. 

Telling Stories

How’s the writing going, he asks. It’s late, on the longest day of the year, and the Paris streets are sweltering. We’re shouting to be heard over the music.

Oh, you know, life, I said. Working too much, there is a guy. Was a guy. I don’t know. I’m not running either, I say, hoping to steer the conversation towards a more general, I’ve-let-things-go-a-bit theme.

You have what it takes to be a runner, sure, he said. You could be a decent runner. But you have a gift for writing. You should be writing.

Through the rosé-filtered haze, I understood what he meant. He wasn’t complimenting me, not at all. It was a reprimand. A quote from Marianne Williams came to mind: “Your playing small does not serve the world.”

Why do I write, I asked, back in 2014.

I write because it’s something I can do, because sometimes it’s all I can do.

But it’s bigger than that, bigger than me, or my circle of friends or my experience. My writing is inherently, essentially, inextricably personal. The people and situations and words and feelings are mine and mine alone, but herein lies the secret: we’re all desperately unique in our similarity. That we are drawn to each other’s vulnerability but repelled by our own.

That art of all forms has only ever been about translating the jumbled yarn-ball of feelings and musings and a-ha moments and despair and sheer hopefulness that we feel deep down in our core, into the form we’re most familiar with.

That the work is in the making of the art but the magic is in the interpretation.

Art is not static nor objective, it is experienced and received and swallowed by a whole, separate, wildly different person just like us.

That our stories have the power to draw out other stories; that our human experience is so strikingly similar to the neighbour whose gaze we avoid as we shuffle out the door in the morning. That our least favourite colleague suffers and delights and cries in the crawl space beside the washing machine too. That our sisters contain worlds too, that our fathers feel the deep pit of loneliness in the midst of a full life. That our bosses are scared shitless and have imposter syndrome just like us.

That we get all tangled up inside trying to work out what the signals mean. The read-but-not-replied-to whatsapp message. The furtive looks across the crowded bar. The silence oh the goddam silence. The what-do-they-all-think-of-me-really moments. The fear. The joy. The grit. The glory. The who-the-hell-am-I-anyway to be wearing red lipstick and a high ponytail on a Thursday night where nobody can see me.

That we contain multitudes, that our selves are ever changing, that sometimes we do the best we can with what we have but often we do the bare fucking minimum. That we spend our lives ‘connecting’ and ‘chatting’ but we’re all just crying out to be heard, to be held. To be whole.

That if we knew that our playing small, and safe did not serve the world. If we saw that the cracks are where the light gets in, that the unexpected, the didn’t-go-to-plan is where the magic happens. That the point, the whole fucking point is that we’re human, lonely, and that it doesn’t have to be this way.

Subtle shifts

He positions himself between me and my friends at the bar. Touches my forearm, squeezes my shoulder, leans in to me in agreement. I am the only girl in the bar; the only person in the world.

Yesterday he was the beautiful stranger, the almost-missed meet-cute. That smile, the quiet confidence. The perfectly timed bad joke, as I pushed the door on my way out.

A look back.

Yesterday he was shiny and full of hope and possibility. A sort of something, not nothing. The topic of late afternoon conversation with colleagues, the object of text-message analysis.

Tonight he is dulled by the effect of one too many gin tonics and physical proximity, and the necessary logistics that were required for us to find ourselves together in the same bar again.

He stares into the emptiness, here and not here.

‘What are you thinking about?’

‘It’s complicated, I’m complicated. I haven’t had an easy life. I don’t want to burden you with any of it.’

Old Me (leaning in): Here are my scars, here is my story. Have it though you haven’t earned it. May it serve to reassure you that you’re not alone.

‘I’m not really looking for complicated right now.’

‘So I should have said I was perfect, then, to get you to kiss me?’

Old Me: Your perfection doesn’t interest me. The hundred different ways in which we are uniquely damaged are fascinating and beautiful. Let me help you.

‘Why don’t we get a coffee tomorrow, instead.’

‘But I want to talk now. I never get along this well with people I’ve just met, with girls I like. I trust you. That must mean you’re special.’

Old Me: I know what it’s like to be misunderstood. I live for those nights where time ceases to matter and conversations open our world and we are more human than usual, more vulnerable. Maybe I am special. Most people don’t see that, but you do. I will waste many good hours trying to understand you.

‘I think you should go meet your friends, we’ll talk tomorrow.’

‘Okay. But come with me. Please. I don’t want to leave you just yet. But here, this bar, this context I can’t be myself. Let’s go somewhere else. Please, Ali.’

Old Me: Okay. Because we never do know. And isn’t it the unplanned nights, the days you did the unexpected thing, took the chance, that pay the biggest dividends? And maybe he is handsome and deep and thoughtful and maybe only you can understand him. Maybe this is the whole point. What do you have to lose? At the very least it’ll get your mind off the Other One.

‘Passe une bonne soirée, au revoir.’

It feels something like progress.

The Unbearable Lightness of Be(com)ing

I’ve spent a lot of midnight hours wondering about the ‘who’ of becoming. Who am I, now, who will I be when the shadows of the night stretch into the clear light of tomorrow? Who must I be for this world to seem less cold, to be the one in the centre of the moment, not the sidelined observer?

Whenever things happened in my life I’d ask what they said about me, as a person. If I readily forgive the friend who damaged me, does that make me a willing victim? If I stay, does that make me a trooper, someone admirable with grit and determination? If I go, am I flighty and flaky and unreliable and unemployable and unlovable? If you can watch me sleep and still walk away, what kind of nobody must I be? If I run a marathon on little training, am I brave or foolish? Badass or just slow AF? If I get my motorbike license will I become someone else entirely or just be same old tiresome me with the renewed ability to run ever more swiftly headlong into (metaphoric) walls?

I spent so much time on the who, that I failed to realise that the who is auxiliary to the how.

And so, how do you become?

When I was little and living in suburban Sydney the magnitude of the world used to both dwarf and awe me. I was convinced that nothing would ever happen to me. Nothing of consequence. And in all of that nothingness I saw the days and weeks and months and years rushing forward, overwhelming and enveloping me like a great wave from which there is no escape. I thought the problem was perhaps partly geographical, partly personal. I was blonde, freckled, pale-skinned. Average, unremarkable. Bookish, sure, but not brave about it.

I was sure real life was ‘elsewhere’, and that to experience it I would have to go out looking for it, in the dark, in the dregs of the night, calling its name at the top of my lungs. I read Sartre, de Beauvoir, Henry Miller. Alice Munro, Cheryl Strayed and Nora Ephron too, but they would come much later, too late, one could argue.

I thought that one became by being better than yesterday. And that day by day we build on what we already know, growing stronger and smarter and healthier and more whole. I didn’t know that real life has zero f*cks to give about the arbitrary linearity of my imagined life. That happy and stable and employed and in love one day has no bearing on tomorrow, let alone on a five-year plan (perhaps the most idiotic concept in the history of idiotic concepts; but I digress).

That we would never have chosen the things that happened to us. That ‘no regrets’ is a beautiful lie and a false choice because we can’t change how it went down but by God, we would, wouldn’t we, if we could? That the year you spent drunk on cheap beer and the sweet words of half-grown boys and misdirected energy and half-thought-out projects and friends who were anything but, and writing angsty manuscripts tarnished by the endless flow of tears: that was it.

The great becoming.

That the muck, the dirt, the down-on-the-ground howling. The incompleteness. The taking-of-the-punches. The my-God-this-cant-be-it moments. The traitorous bottles of red and the false intimacy and the cigarettes on the balconies and oh the glorious waste.

We would never have chosen the things that happened to us.

But they did.

Every single heartbreak, every disappointment, every harsh word, every ‘this-is-all-you-get-and-not-a-crumb-more’ injustice. Every time you went home alone and it broke you, every time you didn’t and it broke you all the same. The words that were spoken, but more importantly those that were not. The moment, when you saw things starting to change. When you said, this is it: the reason for the rest of this shit. Because of now, because of you. The beautiful fall. So stunning, so predictably unexpected. So pure. So seriously f*cked up.

You would have chosen to heal like this: surrounded by good friends, your energy put cleanly into your work and your running: good and noble causes. Early nights and reading books and general, classy ‘waiting for the storm to pass’ behaviour.

Oh, sweetie, ha, how deliciously naive you were.

How wholly necessary this all was. How awful. How unavoidable. How gloriously messy and ugly and unforgivably human of you.

Who do you become? How do you become? What do you become?

The answer is as it always was. Not who, or how or what. No, my dear, the whole point is this:

“You become. It takes a long time.”*

*Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit

You go home

And so you go home.

Home. It’s funny how universal and yet how wholly individual that word is. How instantly recognisable, how visceral, how we feel home in our gut. How with all the adjectives and photographs in the world we couldn’t explain it properly to an outsider if we tried.

I’m lucky. ‘Home’ is the house I grew up in, down the street from the school I went to, around the corner from every childhood memory I ever made. It’s 2017 and everything and nothing has changed.

Going home doesn’t just mean 22 flying hours and 17,000 kilometres. It’s a form of time travel.

You run sweaty morning laps around the oval where you once staged a peaceful protest against the high school cross country run. You take the ferry to Manly, eat Copenhagen ice-creams on the beach. You discover the F3 is now the M1. You learn how to pronounce Berejiklian. You listen to Jonesy and Amanda over breakfast, which is as reassuringly early as ever. You forget to remember that the indian restaurant moved a hundred numbers down the road. You find that your third favourite Thai place now serves Afghani food. The curry puffs at Pimarn haven’t changed.

You gulp down the clean, crisp semillon sauvignon blanc before remembering why you stopped drinking it in the first place. You get invested in the latest season of My Kitchen Rules despite yourself. You copy their dishes, and scoff at the melodrama. You never miss an episode. You find the sangria you loved from Barcelona, you slice the strawberries enthusiastically. You add ice cubes in the shape of Eiffel Towers.

You run up the purple-carpeted stairs, don’t walk. You soak the washers in cold water and lay in front of the fan, feverishly dreaming of snow. You eat the sushi, all of the sushi. And the Bondi burger at Oporto. And the pork buns at yum cha. You go to the cinema where you’ve seen hundreds of films before. Everything is more expensive than you remember. Even the choc tops. Especially the choc tops.

You walk from Coogee to Bondi and back again. You run around the Bay and talk of Paris. You swim breaststroke with your head out of water, you float. You drink cocktails by the pool. You read the books, all of the books. You float again. You get a tourist sunburn.

You ride the buses, you top up your Opal card and only call it ‘Myki’ or ‘Oyster’ a few times. You memorise the 621 timetables. You eat Thai in Newtown and dance in Surry Hills.

You play the board games, the one Grundy always loved, and the less painful one. You wish he was there to beat everyone as usual. You sit at his table, at his desk. You read the notes he’s added to old political cartoons in his careful uppercase scrawl. ‘Show Pony. Hypocrite.’  You can almost hear his voice.

You take the bridge, admire the opera. Count the kangaroos in the Hunter. Eat all of the seafood.

You grieve. You sleep. You dream.

You heal.

And then you go home.

You go home to the glorious light-filled studio at the end of the stairs. Whose memories are equal parts wonderful and awful and only a year old, but whose future is as bright as the sun streaming through ill-chosen flimsy curtains on lazy Sunday mornings.

The Consumption Assumption

I was reading an article the other day that suggested we have two main functions as human beings. We are either consuming or creating.

It’s a simple enough notion, and yet, in a world where everything is content, everyone is a journalist and the data of our everyday lives is a for-profit business, the line starts to get a little blurry.

Am I consuming or creating on Facebook if I comment on a friend’s cat meme? If I write an impassioned rant about the plight of heel-shod humans in a cobblestoned world? If I stalk a friend’s new Tinder match on LinkedIn?

When I read a book I am consuming, but when I have a richer, better conversation at some future time because of it, am I creating?

When I bought the ingredients for dinner I was consuming, when I prepared the ricotta gnocchi I was creating. Then, I consumed the gnocchi. Later that evening, I created- okay let’s stop the food analogy there..Ahem.

My point is, maybe it isn’t an either/or, an on/off switch.

Perhaps we must consume in order to create.

We must nourish ourselves, both literally with food and water, and figuratively, with art and music and poetry and love and walks beside waterways on cool sunny days. As Julia Cameron insists, we must ‘fill the well’ if we intend to draw on it.

The oft-cited image of the reclusive writer holed up in a remote cabin with nothing to do but work, work, work, work, work has long appealed to me. And yet, would the isolation, the lack of stimuli, the relative lack of consumption actually be stilting to creativity?

In our noisy, first world it is so easy to consume. We have an app for everything, a 3am burger to our door, a soundbite of truth via Twitter. But perhaps we don’t need more articles making us feel bad about that, rather ones that push us to do something with the thing that we’ve consumed.

If reading Whitehouse press releases gives you high blood pressure: get involved in the solution. If watching Australian drama television makes you cringe: write a better script. If you’re sick of eating average takeout: give cooking a go.

I think the problem isn’t necessarily with consumption, it is with the assumption that consumption is the opposite of creation.

Perhaps we’d do better to see it is a cycle, that we consume to create. That our creation is consumed by others, who then use it to fuel their own creative fire. And so on and so forth.

Night / Fight / Light

It was about a week out from Christmas. I was do / did / DONE with 2016. And I was especially done with talking about how bad 2016 had been. I felt like a broken record. I felt like people were sick of me, sick of my vulnerability, sick of my neediness. One friend had adopted the habit of taking a deep breath in and visibly preparing himself every time I opened my mouth to speak.

2016 was loss. The loss of my marriage, of money, of my wisdom teeth. The death of hope, of AA Gill, of “Manuel”, of Leonard Cohen, of Gene Wilder. Of Alan Rickman, of Muhammad Ali.  Those who inspired me to write, to laugh, to feel, to dream. To forgive, to fight.

But the bad guys won, and we were told if we couldn’t be perfect then there was no point in trying.

All I wanted was for 2016 to slip away, to go gentle, into that good night.

In the dying days of 2016, I decided to dismantle the only remaining stability in my life. The thing that had allowed me to leave my marriage, and allowed me to stay in France. Like everything else this year, it was messy and underscored with tears, but wholly necessary.

Later that same day, I escaped the overwhelming festivity of the office Christmas party for a few moments of much-needed solitude at my desk. As the music ebbed below my feet and the war cries bounced off the blow-up toboggan – I breathed out.

THIS is how 2016 ends, I thought, opening the file that held my “you had to be there” CV.

I’d barely updated my address when my book-and-wine partner-in-crime rounded the corner with two full glasses in hand.

“Ça va?” he asked, knowing full well what the answer was.

Bit by bit others dropped by: first glasses, then bottles in hand; until the usually solemn space was filled with a glorious hodge-podge of people who’d somehow made this year bearable, fun, even.

My friend’s phone rang, and in the raucous way of people who’ve enjoyed the open bar a little too much, we answered on speakerphone.

A moment of serendipity in the middle of chaos; that led to an afternoon I skipped home from.

And out of the blue two days later, an interview that inspired.

Neither this job nor this person will ‘save’ me. Neither could cancel out that which came before them. And they may both yet turn out to be castles in the air.

But as 2016 slips through our fingers, like the sand from a beach holiday long-forgot, I make one last request: Do not go gentle into that good night. (Let’s) Rage, rage against the dying of the light.*

 

(*Dylan Thomas – Do not go gentle into that good night)

Where does the good go? 2.0

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: 2016 was balls.

On a personal, national and international stage.

You’ve heard most of it before: I got divorced, struggled with money, adopted and de-adopted a dog, lost friendships along with the will to do anything other than sleep and watch Netflix.

Then BREXIT passed, Trump was elected and Le Pen drew ever-closer to a Presidential term. Hope for the future was replaced by a sort of desperate nostalgia for years passed.

Professionally however, I led a full scale HR Transformation Project in a change-averse environment. In a foreign country, in a language that was not my own. If you’re not passionate about HR, this will not mean much to you. If you are passionate about HR or are looking for people who are passionate about HR, you know where to find me… (Kidding, kidding!)

Anyway, we called it Project Phoenix, and set about burning sh*t down and rebuilding from the ashes.

Amazingly, the parallel with my personal life escaped me, until now.

The burning down of stuff was easier than I imagined. A marriage without children or real estate or real personal wealth is surprisingly simple to end. (On paper, that is.) Moving out of our shared apartment (thanks to a bunch of amazing friends) was relatively easy.

The rebuilding was harder. Much harder.

I had to figure out basic stuff like how to manage a budget and how to cook for one. I had to work out how to stay legally in the country, and how to sleep alone. I’d lived in France for over 4 years but I’d never dealt with tax forms on my own. I had to learn how to be alone, and how to be lonely. How to fill my weekends, and later, how to love the quiet un-structuredness of my Sundays.

I had to decide what my life would look like.

What I would eat for breakfast, who I would drink wine on Monday nights with, what hobbies I would try or abandon. The ways in which I’d occupy my hours and days and weeks. The principles I’d live by. The degree of flexibility I’d permit myself. The number of fuck-ups I was allowed. The things I’d fight for, not back down for. The battles I’d pick. The ideal amount of sleep I needed in order to be a whole person. The things I’d spend my money on. If buying flowers every week was frivolous or crucial. If I had the stomach for casual relationships, if I had the audacity to look for more. What that would even look like. If I’d even want to.

And the biggest decision of all: who am I?

If we can leave relationships (and our status as ‘wife’), if we can change jobs and titles and friendship groups and postcodes and our opinion on cats, what then, defines us?

If we thought we were good (good friend, good wife, good employee, good eater, good runner, good egg) but then it turns out actually we were bad, and we loved our friends and our husbands but it wasn’t enough to stop us hurting them, and ourselves: then who do we become? What adjectives remain?

Yearning

As the years go on you learn

That many people you want will not want you

That this not wanting doesn’t have the decency to be active

More an absence of thought

When all we can do

Is sing your name in our head

All day

As the punches add up you learn

That things can get worse

That there are no guarantees

Of lighter days to come

That there will be times where

The smallest of things

Will make you weep, slumped against the wall of a stranger’s bathroom

As the days turn into weeks blur into years you learn

That loneliness is palpable and tangible and that

Nobody actually cares to speak of it

Lest it consume them too

As the silence rings out clear in the night you learn

That your words are not enough

Were never enough, perhaps