This morning I awoke with a line of deep purple crescents on the heels of my hands. Little bruises from having my fists clenched tight while I slept. I’ve been holding on too hard, I think, to something intangible. An alternate storyline for BLOX that is not meant to be right now.
In my dreams (awake and sleeping), we are exploring Australia: diving the Great Barrier Reef, visiting the sacred sites at Uluru, penguin and whale watching on the Coastal Drive, trekking across the vast wasteland of the outback to gaze at Burringurrah, visiting the artists on Tiwi Islands, doing whatever people do in Tasmania, so many more. Our adventure bank sits neglected, full of unattempted ideas. We’ve been encumbered by daily life: work, school, chores and errands. Working class grind has and will always erode plans made by ambitious minds. And we recognize that we are immigrants, not travelers. Our finances and schedules don’t allow for extended holidays and travel. Still, we’ve been happy here- at least content on most days. And that’s what I’ve been digging my claws into. But I’ve left bruises on my palms because there’s nothing here for us to hold.
I’ve leaked it to a few, more here than there, but when you’ve said “this isn’t public knowledge yet” to a certain number of people- it’s time to reckon with the fact that it’s pretty much public knowledge. And even though plans are being made and confirmed, it doesn’t feel really real yet and I am quaking at the notion that announcing it will cement the fact.
And the fact is: we are leaving Australia.
BLOX’s great adventure in Oz is drawing to a close. Just a few months ago, we were getting close to a breakthrough on gaining permanent residency, but a lot changed very quickly in February/March and those prospects dried up. We fought it- bowed and scraped to make a new path to the same destination, but it’s proving too difficult. Impossible, really.
I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating- Immigration is HARD. It’s hard for everyone, but especially for blue-collar families. People of privilege have suggested we “just” try to pay our way through another year here and the path will open back up. Sure, I’m sure it would, but we don’t have another year’s worth of money to throw at the still-slim chance that taunts us. And, as much as that- we don’t have the mental and emotional reserves left to keep fighting to stay in a place that is even more prohibitive to poor immigrants than the States. We can’t- and don’t want to- keep paying private school sums for public education, get taxed at outrageous rates, get denied for every opportunity, credit lines, job placement, and fight for recompensation on every dollar we are entitled to from health insurance, just because we are not from here. We are exhausted and broke, but not broken (though I think if we were to keep bashing our stubborn heads against staying here, it would eventually wear us to bits).
Our next move is one of convenience. None of is ever considered this place- not even as a holiday destination. And yet, it makes the most sense in terms of continuing my work in the Pacific and B has passed through the first few levels of what will (hopefully) be a fantastic job/training opportunity for him. We know there will be challenges there, too, but we hope that the good outweighs the bad (and maybe some of our U.S. friends will get off their lazy butts and actually come visit us there). I feel like a big baby whining about having to move to a place that many people dream of, but here I am.
We are moving to Oahu, Hawaii.
Thank you all for joining us on the Big Australian Adventure. We are sad that it is coming to an end, but looking forward to our new future.
And, as our next jump is still “over the rainbow” I will keep this blog name and format intact so you can follow along as we do it all over again.
With that, I will sign off- leaving you with this music video that I was crying over this morning.
I read the words “Hillbilly Diaspora*” a few weeks ago and haven’t been able to shake it since. It hit me deep, y’all.
* Now, I’ll tell you- I had never heard of this word “diaspora” before I went to university. It can be a complicated concept, and it’s too political and complex to get into here. But I’m using it in its simplest terms- when people of a certain group leave their homeland and live in different parts of the world.
Perhaps it’s because I’m really struggling with migrant life right now. Perhaps it’s because I am still coming to terms with my own Southernness in a place where most Americans I meet are from Colorado (why?- oh, right- rich folx). Probably has something to do with my shortage of grits and Texas Pete. The most likely reason is that I know that I know I am an exception to the rule and that sits real uncomfortable with me.
A number of people here have said to me that they haven’t met many Southerners in Australia. “Yeah- we don’t get out much,” is my joking (not joking) response. See, it’s true. Hillbillies don’t go far from home. And there are a lot of reasons for this.
One is education. In Western cultures, it is higher education that drives migration, and most poor folx in the South/Appalachia (cause we all know Ohio ain’t the South) don’t have the same educational opportunities. Our schools are underfunded, understaffed and under-attended. Many don’t see the point of finishing high school, much less going on to college. If you can get a job paying anything slightly over minimum wage- why bother? It’s expensive and will probably take you away from home (I’ll talk about that soon). Heck- go to trade school. It’s cheaper and close. And, honestly, without the crippling debt of university loans- you’re probably better off in the long run, so long as you don’t have any travel aspirations. I sometimes regret not having gone to trade school- but that’s another story.
I tell you what- I HATE academia. I do. Office-dwelling theorists who hide behind their research and steal from their grad students first-hand reports piss me off more than just about anybody*. But I must acknowledge that the only reason I am where I am today is because of opportunities that started opening for me in undergrad. I met professors that helped guide me to things I never thought possible. I was invited to conferences and “networking events,” met people who knew people, and got those all-important letters of recommendation. I took an internship that inspired me and completely changed my career path. I got that string of letters behind my name that affords me legitimacy in “polite society.” Academia, for all the insufferable bores rattling around in it, gave me the chance to move up and move forward with my life. I don’t take that for granted.
* I just want to note here that I have met a great many lovely academics who do their own work and are awesome people. But y’all, if you’re reading this, come on- you know it’s true. Look down the hallway. I bet you can identify at least one jerk in your department that has built a career on siting other people’s research (or acting as “first author” on a student’s work) instead of going out and creating their own.
Another reason hillbillies don’t go is because of money. Some people say that education leads to employment and financial gain. Those people were probably born into rich families. I could not get a decent job straight out of undergrad. I worked a series of crappy little jobs and when I landed a “big deal” gig (for me, anyway) at Duke University, I had to buy into their insurance and made so little per hour that my take home pay every two weeks was less than $200. But, hey, at least I had dental and vision- right? Pretty awesome when you can’t afford food or electricity. My savings account stood at $25 for nearly five years. There was no money to travel or move. When I took this fellowship that initially brought us to Australia, we landed here with exactly $1000 to our names, no jobs and nowhere to live. It was a damn leap. That kind of adventure is not for the faint hearted. Lucky for us, we’d been poor for so long that it just felt natural to be piss-broke. A ramen noodle dinner feels pretty fancy when it’s a brand you’ve never had before.
Okay. Let’s talk about social ties. You ever been hugged by someone so tight that you are awash with so much love that you can’t breathe? But also, you really can’t breathe because they are literally crushing you to death? Yeah- that’s the love we get in the South. The kind that wants you so close it would rather you die than break the embrace.
The kind that continually asks when you’re coming “home,” even though you’ve made it clear that your home is the place you’re living now. The kind that points out your accomplishments with pride tinged with distain and mockery- because look who’s too big for their britches. The kind that says things like “y’all soun’ diff’rent- must be pickin’ up an ax-scent.” The kind that makes your friends cry out for help from you, even though you are literally on the other side of the globe and there’s nothing you can do but love love love them with that crushing hug from afar. The kind that reminds you not to forget where you came from- as though you could.
I have a cousin* that was awarded a substantial scholarship- but the university was further away from home than their parents were comfortable with. Two hours. A two-hour drive, straight shot. The family could not bear the thought of their baby moving away to “the big city” (read: they didn’t want an 18yo adult to move to a moderately-sized university town a few hours away). Their friends were all starting to work at the local Dollar Tree and have babies- they wouldn’t be able to visit much. No one ever said straight-out that they should, but this young person ended up turning down a FREE RIDE to college because they didn’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings. They turned out just fine and are doing very well now in their industry, but I use this story to make the point of just how strong the strands of the social web are. Nobody told them not to take the scholarship, but they knew damn well what the expectation was. Stay home or else we might lose you forever. Even though most on the Hillbilly Highway end up right back where we started, there are a few who don’t. And the South doesn’t know how to manage the ones who don’t want to return. And what if – godforbid, they accidentally up and turn into a Yankee?
* I hope this cousin doesn’t mind me using them as an example- it’s just that most of my other cousins are in jail, on parole, have been or should be. No shame in it- and it makes for great stories- just not the one I’m trying to tell today.
Even though there are SO many more reasons, I have to end this soon. So I’ll wrap up with this: being in the Hillbilly Diaspora hurts. And it’s scary. And it is hard.
Leaving the South is performing open heart surgery on yourself. For all the reasons I mentioned above, but also because no matter where you land- you’re likely to be alone. If you’re abroad, the chances of there being another immigrant from the US South is even slimmer. We don’t get out much, you see.
People are like “oh! have you met so-and-so, they’re from Colorado” and that’s basically asking a person from Turkey if they know someone in the Netherlands (a bit of hyperbole here, I know, but roughly the same distance between the places). The food is different, the people are different, the climate is different. And unlike our counterparts from Colorado, who ship their trust fund babies out all over the place*, Hillbillies are alone out here.
And we are often misunderstood.
*No hate on Colorado, it’s just my experience that the vast majority of rich transplants I’ve met are from there. Probably also seeking to escape, but I can’t speak on that.
“What’s ‘grits’,” the woman at customs sneered at the suitcase full of food I had brought back after my last trip to the US. Try to explain grits to people who don’t even use corn meal for anything. They don’t even sell it here- I have to go to a special import shop to buy masa, for crying out loud!
Try convincing someone to play cornhole and see what their faces do: “did you just say… corn HOLE?”
Tell a story about shooting cans off a fence when you were ten— no, not with a bb gun.
Go ahead and ask for hot sauce or iced tea at a restaurant. See what happens.
Wear cowboy boots and short shorts and see how many people ask if you’re from Texas- WE ARE NOT ALL FROM TEXAS… and that’s a different South, anyway. Like Florida’s a different South. No, I can’t explain it- you just know when you know.
And…. I gotta take a deep breath on this one….. Biscuits. You’ll have to forgive me if I close my eyes to collect myself anytime someone says “oh- you mean scones.” No. I do NOT mean scones… I am breathing through the urge to throw this whole damn fry pan of hushpuppies against the wall. Scones are hard tasteless things Yankees eat. Biscuits are biscuits. Now get out of my kitchen.
And that’s all the external stuff. What about that heart clenching squeeze that comes when you hear about big things happening. Weddings, birthdays, illnesses, deaths, holidays, new babies, new jobs, and new love interests. You’re far away, missing it all. And even when nobody else is guilting you about it- you feel it.
When you wake up to the sweet-heavy scent of mock orange and, just for a second, it smells like honeysuckle mixed with wisteria and you want to cry from how much you miss those vines.
When you feel your inner mean-ass self dripping the honey-venom that is “Bless her heart” and someone hears you and doesn’t at all understand what that means and then you’re stuck.
When your child accidentally drinks the fry oil out of the jar in the window sill, thinking it’s sun tea, and you laugh and laugh and nobody around you understands what any of those things are or why there’d be confusion.
When you finally find out that there’s a restaurant called “Carolina Soul Food Kitchen” near you, owned and operated by a family actually from NC (!!!) and you get your hopes up, just to see that they closed down a few months ago. I didn’t cry (that’s a lie- I cried).
At the moment, I can’t explain publicly what all is going on with our immigration stuff. This is entirely because we don’t quite know ourselves. But I can say that we are waiting on some things to fall into place that are not 100% certain to happen. We do have a Plan B, but even that is up in the air. We have no Plan C at the moment, but I’m working on it- but it is not moving back to NC (don’t even “why not” me- if y’all knew, you’d know).
But, for now, for today, we’re here. The kids are happy, B & I are happy, we love our friends and neighbors, schoolmates and co-workers (most of the time).
We’ve convinced our neighbors that cornhole is cool and found another Southern boy for B to play trucks and such with.
We grill out (and I will die on the hill that it is NOT bbq- despite whatever Aussies say) a lot and put our feet in the ocean sometimes- but not the river, because there’s sharks in there.
We take the dogs for walks and eat terrific Thai and Indian food and continue our search for a decent Mexican restaurant.
We get introduced to people from Colorado and shop at the market where you can hear families bickering in at least six different languages.
We buy produce we don’t recognize, google how to prepare it, and then either love it or feel deep regret about our choices.
Hard choices may need to be made soon. And we’re readying ourselves to make them. But either way- we are officially part of the Hillbilly Diaspora- and even though it’s lonely sometimes, I don’t regret it. I just wish there was more of y’all out here with me.
My mother has started using the phrase “you can’t unring that bell.” She spouts it frequently in our monthly-or-so phone calls – always in context of something she needs to do or wants to say to someone, but fears the consequences of that action. I don’t know where she picked it up, and it annoys the shit out of me, but it has become a repetitive part of her monologues and so I have to live with it. And, let me be clear here- I am not one of those “accept the things we cannot change” yahoos. I will bulldoze those things I cannot accept, but I am also of the “pick your battles” mentality and so I do little more than roll my eyes when she blurts out this boring little phrase (you didn’t know how many cliches you were in for with this post, did you? It’s cool- I’ll note them for you with this little star ★ from here).
But, I have made it a practice to investigate those things that irritate me. Why does this saying get under my skin★? And for those of you thinking “well, also, parents just tend to get on our nerves in general”- I concede you that point. As a parent myself, I can unequivocally attest to the fact that we are obnoxious. It’s part of the job description. But I digress★.
So, anyway. The phrase “can’t unring the bell” means you cannot undo a thing that has been done. And that’s true. But here’s the thing: you can’t live life in fear of consequences.
Let me restate that. YOU CANNOT LIVE LIFE IN FEAR OF CONSEQUENCES!!!!
Every action has results. Some are good, some are not. And, sure, paralysis is an option too. You can absolutely do nothing- tiptoe around★ every bell, but that also comes with consequences. By avoiding one action, you are taking another. We’re all just ringing bells all over the place, all the time. Life is a cacophony of bells. At least ring the tune you really want to ring.
Look. I’ve been told “that’s easy for you to say★”. I know that I am naturally a risk-taker. I am accustomed to discomfort. That doesn’t mean that it’s any easier for me than anyone else. I am, at my core, a terribly anxious person. I, too, am a person that lays down at night and replays every embarrassing thing I have ever done. And it’s a LOT. I am a troubling character, full of mischief and thus many, many humiliations. Let’s put a positive spin on that and say that I have developed a practice of stress inoculation. The more you practice fear, the easier it is to overcome.
Three years ago today, I landed my family in a strange country on literally the other side of the planet from everything we knew. It was scary. It was the scariest damn thing I have ever done and I’m no slouch★ when it comes to terror. There were moments, of course there were, where I changed my mind- the fear of the unexpected★ was a lot- but I always changed it back. I threw myself off the cliff ★.
Some days, I still experience what I call “the fuckits” and want to throw in the towel★. Immigration is hard. It is a gruelling and thankless task★. Going back to the States feels like it would be easier some days. But I know that really it wouldn’t be at all. It would not be returning to what we left (at the VERY least, we left in early 2016 before the whole political machine went ass-up★). The context is different, and we are different.
This post started with my mother and I will round it out by returning to her (how very Freudian). Our conversations have developed a cadence. She talks, I listen. She talks about work, about my sister, and then she finally asks me – every time – what my “plans” are. What she is really asking is when we are moving back to North Carolina. She asks me this every. single. time we talk. As though the answer will have changed if she just asks one more time. Or another. Maybe now. But no. My answer is always the same. And it disappoints her, but she’s allowed to be disappointed. Our entire relationship has been built on disappointment. It doesn’t change my feelings.
“You don’t have to live every moment like a Hallmark card,” my oldest and dearest friend once chastised me, “just because you’re afraid you’re going to lose it all.” That was fourteen years ago. Last week, while morphine dazed in the emergency department after my wreck, her words echoed up from the canyon in my mind. I had been trying to remember if I’d kissed my sleeping children before I left for the day, wondering what my last words to them were. I knew I wasn’t dying- but WHAT IF I WAS DYING?
Because of my injuries, I’ve had an unusual amount of downtime. This manic, hyperkinetic, overachieving bustle-booty was forced into a lot of stillness. Physical immobility is not something I am good at. I chafe at meditation (WHO CAN STAND TO BE QUIET THAT LONG?!?!) and idleness gives me shingles. But I was forced to plant my butt in a seat and just reflect for a while.
And what I found was that it was those Hallmark moments that came up. I started looking back through this blog. Things I had forgotten about made me laugh and, a few times, cry. We have been in Australia for three years now. That’s a quarter of O’s life, and 1/5th of X’s. This is significant. But much of it has not made the pages here.
The first year was strong- at least bi-weekly posts. The second year there were only four. Last year, there were three- each several months apart. I re-read every one. And I realised that, though I started the blog so that loved ones in the States could keep up with our adventure, I ended up really only writing for me. I was chronicling my life in this new, strange place and trying to make sense of what it means for me and my family. And I sputtered out because I got a little lost in the shuffle of it all. I was so busy DOING life that I neglected the reflection part, and that’s the necessary part for UNDERSTANDING life. Damn. That hit me hard.
And I also realised that writing is my form of meditation. It’s my time to harness all the rattling thought marbles into an organised space. It’s also the only time I ever shut up for a minute.
*sidebar- I LOVE to talk. I talk all the time. I talk to anyone, about anything, all the time. Also to myself. And the radio, and inanimate objects. I will talk through a whole damn movie- unless it’s in the theatre, in which case (as everyone who has ever taken me to a theatre movie knows), I sleep through it. I apologise to everyone who has wasted their money on paying for a movie ticket for me. If any of y’all ever want to talk- hit me up- I’m also a great listener!
Looking back through these past three years of writing, I noted that a theme emerged for each year:
Year One – 2016 – Adjustment. We fell onto this continent with a few pieces of luggage and the knowledge that we had no idea what was going on, how to find out, and that we would have to re-organise ourselves as individuals and a family in this strange land. It was a confusing year.
Year Two – 2017 – Establishment. With Bambi-legged determination, we made the hard decisions to make it work to stay in Australia. We sold our house in the States and threw everything we had into this project. It was a difficult year.
Year Three – 2018 – Nesting. Things started to fall into place. I turned in more to the home life. Bringing beloved items and our dog from the States, moving furniture around, forging bonds with neighbours. It was a tender year.
Now we are entering Year Four – 2019 – Building. Since my accident on the 7th of January, I have taken the time to think very intentionally about what it is that I want to get out of this year. Now that my nest is padded, it’s time to get out of it. The accident reminded me of how fleeting our time is here. So, it is time to build.
I am focused on building my career. Things are taking off with that this year and I am so excited for my upcoming assignment. I love travel, and I love a challenge. This work is going to have both in spades.
I am focused on building my relationships. I am spending time doing things with my husband and kids that they love, even if I don’t care for it, because I love them. I am going out with friends and agreeing to meet up with strangers at events, even when I am feeling very home-ish, because it’s important for me to be with people besides my family (I’ve mentioned I talk constantly, right? They deserve a break).
I am focused on building my relationship with myself. I have had both a breast cancer scare and a traumatic accident within a nine-month period. I have lived 41 years on this Earth and have no guarantee for another. I often put my own needs behind those of others because it gives me joy. But I also like being nice to myself. I fucking deserve it.
I am focused on my writing. It is at once a part of my Self, but also a thing in itself. Something that I love and have neglected too often over the past year. So I’m making a commitment to just sit down and write. Some will make the public blog, but I am also going to return to my work on the memoir. It will be available in the private “Members Only” section. If you are interested in keeping up with that, and ONLY if I know you personally, contact me directly and I will give you the password.
So, yeah, my friend was right. I don’t have to live life like a greeting card. But my accident reminded me that life is delicate, and I could lose it. I want the Hallmark moments, damn it.
The evening before the lunar eclipse, the moon hung fat and dusky orange in the sky. It was so close that it seemed I could reach up and scoop it out of the sky and pocket it like a Hi-Bounce ball. Speckled in a line leading away from it were five visible planets- Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn and Mars.
I’m not usually one to take notice of celestial events, but this felt somehow different- something special. Or, perhaps more accurately, I’ve been keeping myself open for meaningful things. The past year has been a series of kicks in the teeth- Life trying to get my attention, to help me focus on clues and cues as to what is really important.
And, so, at 5am the morning after the “mega-moon,” I shook 11yo O awake to watch the full lunar eclipse. When we got out to the porch, bundled in our fuzzy blankets, there was already a slight shadow on the top right corner of the moon, which now glowed a halogen white-blue extra-bright. Mars was visible, raging red up to the top left of the moon.
Oskar and i chatted about science and the universe, the difference between cookies in the US and Australia, what we would do with a million dollars, and a book the school librarian suggested to him, that he returned and asked her to remove from the collection because of its racist depictions of Native Americans. Over that half-hour, the Earth’s shadow crept over the too-bright moon, staining it a deep red to match Mars.
At 5:30, the eclipse was complete. The neighbourhood was still dark and quiet. O and I sat in the silence of the moment- absorbing the marvel of the night sky- each in our own thoughts. A short time later, we retired back to our beds for a few more hours sleep.
That day, I get a text from my friend, E – a link to a news article. I read that an old friend had been killed in a collision with a tractor trailer. He was 42 and left behind three children. E told me that, only the week before, he had been talking about how excited he was to have closed on a new house for his family.
A was one of the nicest, kindest guys I’ve ever known. I met him and his brother when we were all may 15-17 years old. They used to come party at the gross punk/metal house I lived in. There was always an air of menace surrounding us. We were angry young people- the poor and neglected, the shithouse drunks and paint sniffers, the fighters and bomb builders. But A was always nice, laughing and joking, calming the situation. And I never saw him throw a punch- that’s saying a LOT for our friend group at that time. Maybe I don’t remember everything, maybe I’m painting too glossy a picture of him- there may be other stories, other memories- but these are mine and I choose to trust them. Our paths crossed over our adult years, often at private parties, and he was always as respectful and kind as I remembered him being as a teen.
We have reached the stage on life where our friends have (mostly) stopped dying from their own folly and are now being taken out by random tragedy, illnesses and suicide. There is no more strange “comfort” of having figured it would happen sooner or later. We’re past the overdose years, the drug-deal turned robbery/murder days, the misadventures- falls and train impacts and consequences of all stupid risks we took just because we could. We’re not leaving behind friends who shrug at the news, even when it hurt, but rather those that can’t catch breath at it. Though we hold death as inevitable, we all think we can stave it off just a little longer. The youthful devil-may-care attitude has been replaced with the idea that we made it through our 20s and 30s, so we must be on our way to old age now before we succumb to the reaper.
But that’s not so. And when death happens, we’re all a little dumbstruck.
I searched through all of the photo albums I brought with me to Australia for pictures of A, knowing there must be one- at least one- but I couldn’t find him there. Perhaps he’s in the box of loose photos I left in a box in my in-laws’ attic. Maybe he just somehow managed not to make it into my collection. It nags me to think that there are people from that time that I don’t have captured on film. The best and worst days of my life are becoming a hazy forgetful blur now. Chapel Hill Boot Crew, Bull City Syndicate, and various peripheral social group members are fading into the bog of middle-aged amnesia.
As a child I dreamt of Australia. It was the destination poor Alexander yearned for during his Terrible, Awful, No Good, Very Bad Day. It was a wild, mysterious land full of adventure and curious creatures- enchanting and deadly. It was literally the furthest point away from the place I had come from, the place I felt so trapped and suffocated by. A place you could disappear in. I hold no illusion that I was alone in this. Nearly every American thinks it was their own special dream to escape to the outback. I, like so many, envisioned a different life down under- one I could choose the framework for, be the self I felt I couldn’t be in my hometown.
Now I am here, trying to remember people and events from there and who I was then. There are things we forget, and things we choose not to remember. Sometimes important information falls through the cracks in between. Other times it is replaced with different important information.
There is a sub-clause in the Queensland Department of Transport and Main Roads “Fauna Sensitive Road Design Manual” that addresses the matter of lighting on and near roadways. The guidelines restrict the placement, height and luminosity of street lights so as not to disturb nocturnal wildlife in both rural and urban areas. The result is long stretches of darkness come nightfall, punctuated by only the dimmest of lights.
In these pockets of evening, it is easy to see clear to the next galaxy. I stare up again and again at the night sky noting which planets are aligned in the sky, allowing my mind to travel across space and the spaces between.
It’s nearly 2am and the fog is so thick I nearly miss the sign for my exit off the freeway. Down in this industrial gully in southern Brisbane, only my little yellow car and a handful of delivery trucks are on the road. I am headed in to my shift at a production kitchen, where I will be preparing and packaging food for delivery to daycare centres around the city. When I arrive I have to don a special coverall, white rubber boots, hairnet and blue latex gloves before I can enter the kitchen.
By the time we leave at 9am, we will have made over 1000 sandwiches and wraps, cut and portioned out hundreds of kilos of fresh fruit and veg, over 50 gallons of yogurt, four vats of pasta with sauce so big I could easily take a bath in them, and sealed and labeled individual containers for each one of these items. My back will ache, knees stiffen, and feet swell. I will be covered top to tail in speckles and sloshes of food. My eyes will be puffy from exhaustion and onion juice. I will be exhausted and wound up, too tired to sleep.
But, as tired and sore as I am- I cannot deny that, at $25/hour, I am making more money (nearly twice the hourly amount) than I was ever did as a professional working for a prestigious university in the United States.
When I get home I will try to rest, fail at that, and set to finishing up editing a video commissioned by a restorative justice program for their upcoming Youth Justice Forum. This forum, I understand, is a pretty BIG DEAL event that draws professionals from every level of youth justice- from police and barristers, to judges and parliamentarians- to discuss the current state and future goals for youth justice in Australia. The topic this year is Aboriginal Youth- a long overdue and touchy topic for government to wrangle with.
I conducted hours of interviews with a young Aboriginal woman (we’ll call “C”) and her mother about their experiences with the juvenile justice system that I must whittle down to 10 minutes or less. Their story is compelling, heartbreaking, and inspiring. I was referred into this role by a colleague of mine who knew just about my personal history and professional experience to know I was a good fit for the job. He didn’t know just how much overlap there would be between our stories. I wasn’t prepared for how deeply this assignment would affect me.
In listening and listening and listening back to the interview recordings, I hear something in “C”’s voice, and I can see it in her body language off camera…. a hesitation. An understanding that, while there are people who understand, and those who are compassionate- there are also those who diminish and shame- to subject to humiliation. And that’s why they want to remain anonymous in the video. I get it. I am still judged by people and institutions based on things I did in the late 1990s/early 2000s. There are some consequences that linger- especially if you are black/brown; poor; female; physically, mentally or emotionally disabled/challenged; LGBTQI*; linguistically different- need I go on? We live with these dents in our status and reputations for generations longer than the actual impact of what we did- much less than that of who we just happen to have been BORN.
But. Many of us continue to do the work. Physical work in housekeeping/homemaking, maid services, retail, sex work, food service, and construction. Social work in teaching, therapy, community services, arts and humanities. Spiritual work in religious affairs/upkeep, psychic and empathic services (and other things I don’t claim to know about). Emotional work in ALL OF IT…
*** And, please, understand that these items are not comprehensive and I legit have no idea what all people do- but can you get my drift here?***
Work is work is work.
I can only speak for myself here. But here it is:
By many accounts, I am a “housewife.” The bulk of my work occurs in the home. I cook and clean and grocery shop and every-fucking-thing-else shop for the entire family most days. I take care of school stuff and social agendas for the kids- and my husband, and myself. I am the keeper of the calendars and lists and appointments and finances.
I am an international peacebuilder. I have worked with individuals, families and communities in North, South and Central America, Australia and the Pacific Islands on analysing and elevating conflict issues and working toward peaceful resolution to them. I am building my skills here, and the work has been trickling in. I am flexing my skills at documentary arts to promote the work, and it is beginning it take foothold here. But also-
I also get up in the wee hours of the night to do the hard, invisible work. I slop baby food into containers. I offer samples at grocery stores to people who will never buy the product. I am a server at events where rich old men slap my ass and laugh because they know I can’t do anything about it- because I am there to clear tables and smile at people whose shoes cost more than my car. I cry myself to sleep some nights- in physical or emotional pain at what I’ve had to endure over the course of the day.
And all of it is good work. All of it deserves respect and dignity and fair wages.
Prologue- December 2017 – Brisbane, Queensland, Australia
The messages are frequent and insistent- my phone brrrings and lights up- “When are you coming home? When can I see you???” I close my eyes, pinch the bridge of my nose, and try to summon a breath before responding. “Soon,” is always the answer, or some version of it. Because it would be unkind for me, sitting here in my yard in Australia watching the lorikeets fight over fermented mango pulp in my neighbour’s tree to respond, “I AM home.”
I know what people mean, and I am excited to visit with family and friends in the United States, but it’s still hard to remind people that I never felt North Carolina to be “home” in the first place. I spent the majority of my life trying to escape that place, be it physically or through the use of (all the) substances. It is not home to me- it never was.
I was born there, left as soon as I could, returned against my will, was trapped there by circumstance, and became complacent over time. I resisted until I relented. It was like a creepy family member that you’d rather avoid, but since you’re dragged to the reunion, have to make nice with.
To be fair, none of the many places I lived in the US felt any more “right” than Durham did. There were many that I preferred, but none that hit that button in my brain that triggers the warm, safe feeling people speak of when they talk about HOME.
Desire Lines- January- Durham, North Carolina, USA
The term “desire line” or “desire path” is used in transportation planning and environmental design to describe the worn areas of earth where people (or animals) go off the designated roads or walkways to create a preferred path. As a frequent user-maker of these alternate routes, I often wonder how and why the paved ways were decided upon. I wonder who the others are who share my desire lines, as I rarely see another person traversing them with me.
I have always wandered, allowing my curiosity to guide me. Occasionally I take shortcuts, but prefer the long way around- which seems in some ways counterintuitive even to my own reckoning. I want to go where I think I want to go but often discover, on my way there, that I am compelled in another direction. Often, I find myself somewhere that I didn’t expect to be and wonder how I managed to get to such a place- but the answer is always that I simply wanted to “look around,” and ventured further than expected. I was never one to go half way. Never one to turn back. I’ve found many things, many places, situations, people. The results have been varied. I regret none of them.
The BLOX family landed in North Carolina just in time for the holidays. This was entirely by accident, more a result of circumstance than any planning on our part. I certainly would not have opted to arrive in the frigid weather conditions (“bomb cyclone icy death-ray machine of DOOM” or whatever hyperbolic label it’s been given by the media). We’re not big “winter holidays” (or summer, if you’re in OZ) people. We don’t decorate or drag drying foliage into the house: our December 25th meal is typically Chinese take-out. Not bothered by the trappings, it’s just not a thing for us. Certainly not something we would travel for. But, sometimes the paths we take are out of necessity rather than desire.
We have, in one conversation after another, had to explain why our desire line has led us to stay in Australia rather than back to here- this place where the label “home” was assigned to us by no choice of our own. Questions abound about our plans for the future and what we hope to get out of continued stay in the Pacific. For these, there are no answers. The truth is that we just opened ourselves to the path that opened to us, at a time when we were able to walk it.
I was walking through a semi-hidden park on the back underside of a neighbourhood by the railroad tracks last month. Behind a row of apartments, balconies strung with sagging laundry lines, there is a dense wooded area. A narrow path leads through eucalyptus trees to a shade-cloaked wooden bridge. Tiny birds hop through the underbrush and lizards dart between rocks and water, snatching up water sliders and backswimmers off the surface of the stream. “Barry,” the prolific tagger of this side of town, has graffiti-mopped his trademark on the handrail in laser yellow. The wooden slatted bridge leads out to a pea gravel path to a small playground. In October, the ground here will be littered with purple jacaranda blossoms, but now the air here is heavy with mock-orange and frangipani. A wisteria covered gazebo acts as an entrance on the far side of the park. Desire lines sprout off in several directions from the sidewalk under the archway.
I sat for some time on the swings of that playground, contemplating the nature of pathways and desire. A train rumbled by, slowing to pull into its station just up the way, where commuters and travellers would board or de-board as they moved along whatever paths were theirs for the day. It would be simple enough to have gotten on that train and taken the 30 minute trip to the coast. The same train, in the other direction could take me to the airport, another hour and I could be at the Southern tip of the Great Barrier Reef. I often fantasise about all the places I could go, or could have gone, but tend ignore all that in the moments where I am actually in motion.
Instead of focusing so hard on what path I was told (and often internalised) I should take or have taken, I’ve found a way to make this wandering curiosity work its magic in taking me wherever it does. Sitting in that park, lolling on the swing beside the overgrown creek bed, I hadn’t yet planned to be in the States in January. But here I am.
And today I am sitting at the window of a cozy little kitchen, overlooking another stream. This one frozen near-solid. Stubborn remnants of the snowfall huddling in the shade, and patches of ice where the sun melted the flakes just enough to re-freeze them into slick patches. There are footprints of deer and rabbits, squirrels and chickadees around the bird feeder. The sun is just starting to go down, topping the naked tree branches with a golden hue as the lower layers of the forest slowly turn the lavender-black of night.
Two years ago, to the day, I was overlooking this same scene- saying “see you later.” Today I am here saying “goodbye.”