A Return

It has been too long, and I am fighting the hitch in my breath, the paralysis of my hands, to write about what has been one whirligig of a year. I will start with what I find easiest- a vignette- and try to proceed from there:

December 27, 2018. I am standing in a cold, dewy field with my family and a small assortment of strangers at 4:30am in Ipswich, Queensland, Australia. We watch as a truck pulls up beside us and a crew-cutted man kicks a large basket out the back. He makes a joke we can’t hear, but his three man crew laughs at as they begin spooling out the hulk of parachute silk attached to the basket. This is our captain, and vessel, for the next three hours. We are going up in a blue and yellow hot air balloon. 

Cut to an hour later and we are airborne, drifting over farmland somewhere west of the city. A steady drip of condensation on my neck from the gas heater brings me back to the basket again and again from the silent rapture of silently coasting on nothing as the sun rises around us. It is so quiet in the balloon. Even the nervously chattering couple from Japan has quieted as we bob along. The passengers take selfies, point at the river and fields below, and sometimes as a question of the pilot. 

My head is pulsing along to my heartbeat, watching my family soaking in this moment and thinking how much I love this place. I am swollen with the promises dangled before us of work sponsorship and permanency. I am confident and secure and so, so damn happy.

The teen almost smiled
Everybody almost smiled

A few days later, I was badly injured on the way to work at the Queensland Museum. It was a drizzly January morning and the brakes on my bicycle gave out on a 45• descent on the bike path into city. Luckily another cyclist managed to stop my careening toward the busy road at the bottom of the hill. Unluckily, that person was a complete ass and proceeded to stand over my bleeding, semi-conscious body and yell at me for being “a bloody idiot” and “stupid” and “the reason women shouldn’t be allowed on the bike path.” The other commuters managed to chase him off and I was shuttled off by a doctor that happened to be passing by on his way into work at the Mater Hospital. I got morphine and stitches a CT scan and, later, they discovered a massive hernia from where the handlebars had ripped completely through the muscles of my abdomen. 

At least I never let go of the handlebars
Swole

I got top-notch emergency, follow-up, and physical therapy care. When they discovered that the lump on my belly was not just a hematoma, but a massive hernia, I was admitted into surgery with Queensland’s top specialist a week later. I received mental and emotional health support, and started EMDR therapy for trauma- not just from the wreck, but for all the preexisting trauma that it triggered. I was awarded worker’s compensation and full-time pay because I had been on my way to work at the time (yeah- not even THERE yet! Just en route!). I was cared for and attended to with dignity and understanding and the best of care. 

And I thought “what if this had happened in the US?” And I spent a lot of days crying because I knew *exactly* what. We’d be bankrupt. I was so grateful that we were exactly where we needed to be.

***

In February, I started my dream job. I shipped out to Bougainville for the first time to work with our local team members there, and to train them on how to use participatory and documentary video to enhance their peacebuilding dialogues. I immediately felt welcomed by our local partners and respected by our international team. I felt accepted both professionally and personally in a way I never had before. This is what I’m meant for! is what I kept thinking and I really felt, for the first time in my life, that I had “arrived”. I was living in Australia, with (mostly) happy kids and a wonderful marriage, my dream job, health care, great neighbors, and a path toward the future that felt like all the past crap had been worth it.

Hutjena, Buka Island, Bougainville
Wakunai performing arts group in Arawa, Bougainville Island, Bouogainville.

And then.

B sent me a message the last day of my trip in March. The museum was “restructuring” because they got audited and realized the dolts upstairs had gotten themselves $6 million in debt. And, being the upstairs, they decided the best way to handle this was to cut all the contracts of the workers downstairs to compensate for their own ineptitude. This meant that all non-permanent contract employees (including those who had been renewing yearly contracts for upwards of a decade) had the option to find work elsewhere, or stay on as a “casual” with no benefits or guarantee of steady work. For us, this meant that the very promising path toward securing a work sponsorship- approval had been made by many of the higher-ups and was being negotiated by the final decision makers- was suddenly ripped out from under us. That sponsorship had been the final egg in the last basket we had for making Australia a permanent reality for ourselves. 

Over the next few months, as we had in the four years preceding, we followed every other possible lead to extend our visas. We bowed and scraped and, yes, we begged- we were shameless in our hustle. But it didn’t matter. Nothing we could do would have changed anything. And there was a very real financial threat dangling over us if we opted to try to “pay” our way for another year. Like- to the tune of $100,000 up-front. And, look, we have never had that kind of flow. I don’t suspect we’ll ever just have anything close to that just hanging out in the bank. I mean, if we breach the 4 number mark, I’m like “HOO-WEEE! Ain’t we rich now!” But it wasn’t just that.

We were exhausted. Fighting visas and immigration is so draining. Hearing over and over again that you don’t have enough “points” to qualify is disheartening. Chasing the certificates and experiences to gather points negates itself when your time spent attaining them is simultaneously losing points for you as you age. Turn 40? Oup- sorry, take five points away. And, if I’m being perfectly honest, it started to bother us that we were seeing so many people get permanent residency just to fuck off and move back to whatever country they came from. It is INFURUATING to work so hard at something and watch another person get it and fritter it away. I literally heard a person at a party say “yeah, well, my dad just paid an immigration lawyer. Anyway, as soon as I get permanent residency next month, I’m moving back to Brazil.” I wanted to jump on them like a screeching spider monkey and bite their face off. 

But then the depression set in. Between my injury from the bike wreck (though it did, eventually, get attended to with a no-cost surgery in July, I had to just live with the pain and giant lump from the massive hernia for a long time), and the fact that this beautiful confection of a life we had concocted was melting around us, I lost the thread. 

I stopped writing. I started staring at my phone way too much. I stopped taking walks around random parts of the city. I started laying in bed most of the day. I stopped feeling a part of my own life. I started just going through the motions. I stopped enjoying the time I had left in Brisbane, and started mourning the loss before it was even gone. 

Eventually, I got honest with my GP about what was going on and she got me in with an amazing therapist. EMDR therapy helped me overcome some old traumas, and that was hopeful. I was still depressed, but trying to claw my way out.
I made a video for an inclusive choir that I volunteered with (don’t worry- I didn’t sing, only cooked- not trying to kill anyone), and focused on helping my kids navigate their own grief at having to leave. I poured myself into working as many hours as possible at my many side-jobs, to save money for whatever was to come next. 

Over. It.

I brainstormed on how I could keep my job in Bougainville, despite not being able to live in Australia. I briefly considered moving to Bougainville, but knew it was not a great choice for my family. And we pretty quickly ruled out any other closer nations- again, we were just so defeated by chasing visas, we didn’t have it in us to start that process again. It came up that we could potentially live rent-free in B’s dad’s house in Oregon, but that was an immediate and firm “no way.” We looked at California, then started in on closer, US-occupied territories: Guam, American Samoa.. and then, while driving to work one day, it came to me “hey, dummy, what about Hawaii?!” I pulled over and called Brian. He was also working, and clearly distracted, but he said, “yeah, okay, that makes sense.” 

Neither of us had ever been to Hawaii, but logistically, it made sense. And, as we’ve somewhat reticently come to realize, we think we’re “island-people” (he always thought of himself as a mountain-person, and me as a city-person, but here we are).
He applied for a Naval apprenticeship and went to Honolulu in May to take a test for it. He reported back with his observations and, if we couldn’t have Australia, Oahu seemed like a good enough fit. 

In June, I took a second trip to Bougainville and fell in love all over again. I began feeling like we had made a good choice, and tried to start getting excited about Hawaii.

Buka Town, Buka Island, Bougainville

In July, I had my hernia surgery. Despite it being a week of the MOST agonizing recovery I have ever experienced, it helped me (along with some intense EMDR) to overcome some of the trauma I felt from the wreck itself. 

In August, I turned 42, worked some amazing events through the various catering companies I picked up with, volunteered extra days with the choir, and started thinking about writing again- but didn’t. A clear sign that I was still depressed.

Night view of Brisbane from the choir kitchen
The Brisbane “Wheel”. Many ups and downs in Bris-Vegas

In September, despite my desperate clinging to my friend and neighbor, A, tangled in limbs on the couch, each of us crying into the other’s cleavage as her children clambered over us, oblivious, we moved to Oahu. We even made B cry with our blubbering. But the plane was soon departing, and we had to get on it.

Last photo in Australia, some of us are smiling, but no one is happy


We had some funny ups and downs trying to figure out housing, transportation, jobs, and education for the boys, but we worked it out (I may, or may not, make a separate post about those early days later on). Two weeks after we landed, I was back to Bougainville. Yeah. Crazy.
But, it solidified the idea that this is possible. I am able to actually pull off this wacky scheme of living in the US and working in Bougainville with an agency based in Australia. … wait… did I achieve “internationalism?” Dang.

Things are looking up in Hawaii
And we can visit sea turtles any time

In October, I was home (“home?”- still feels weird to say) to Oahu for 2 1/2 weeks before flying out to act as the “best man” in my dear friend, Sparkles’s wedding. We had the bachelor party at the NC State Fair, and acted somewhat presentable as suited-up people in a wedding.

The bachelor party- a blur
Very respectable people in suits
Well, maybe not “so” respectable
The stunningly beautiful bride tolerates our shenanigans

In November, the dust settled. I unpacked all my bags and rearranged furniture that had been wildly tossed into rooms during those precious few days I had been in Hawaii between trips. I started working a side job- doing teak finishing inside a yacht in Waikiki- that is blissfully monotonous and soothing. I agreed to become a full partner in the organization I work for in Australia/Bo0ugainville. I approached a children’s shelter about volunteering, and have been asked if I’m interested in making a documentary about their work. The answer is YES! And I’m making a few little videos to help generate some funding for X’s service group trip to the Philippines next year. And I have slowly started building friendships with people here (or at least haven’t totally scared them off yet).
This probably sounds like a lot to many people. My mom tells me that I remind her of those circus performers that spin plates on sticks. But, for me, busy means healthy. I’m pretty good at managing my time, and tend to get squirrely when bored, so more is better. 

Not me, not my plates- image borrowed from Google Images

For what it’s worth- I’ve decided to postpone applying to a PhD program at the University of Hawaii until next year, so I can focus on me first. 

That said- we’ve had a chill December, without a single lick of the holiday stress or bad weather (so hot in Oz, so cold in NC). A bit of rain, but that only means more rainbows here. And I know that the weight of depression is finally lifting in earnest, as I’m able to sit and write without freezing in a draft of dread.

So, there it is. The answer as to why I haven’t been blogging about this new adventure is simple. It didn’t feel like an adventure until recently. This year was a damn slog. One full of tears and blood, jet-lag and crushing grief. 

My hope for 2020 is that we continue into this Hawaiian experience with optimism and openness to whatever these islands bring. And (excepting some pre-scheduled dental work for me), no major surgeries or illnesses. I also hope to make peace with the fact that I live in a place where mongoose are just hanging around, waiting to fight whatever gets too close. I hope not to get too close to a mongoose. 

This cove is a five minute walk from my house
Sunset over the boat yard where I have my side job