Friday, October 23, 2015

Scars

There are some stories you want to tell.

They are testament that good things do happen, even if they happen on the other side of a messy, uncomfortable ride. They will -  probably -  make at least one person feel less alone. They are hope and wisdom and hopefully some funny anecdotes, and people falling over thrown in for good measure.

Then there are stories you wish you never had to tell again.

This one is both. And I’ll tell you right now, it’s not going to come out all that pretty. Maybe it’s too close to the bone, or maybe it’s just the kind of story I wouldn’t believe, if it hadn’t happened to me. It starts, more or less, in June, 2014. It’s strange, the details you remember: it starts at a bathroom sink.

Specifically a bathroom sink in Uganda, at the guesthouse where I’d been staying for just over a month. I was going to church that day, because going to church is something lots of people in Uganda do. I had my nice dress on and was brushing my teeth, and out of nowhere, I was hit with the desire to cause brutal and violent harm to one particular person, so much so that I had to stop and go sit down on the bedroom floor.

I knew this fantasy. I’d had it before. In it, I, an unequivocal pacifist, pull the kind of stunts that would rival Uma Thurman in Kill Bill. There is lots of pain and bone-crunching on the part of the recipient. I’m okay with this. I believe we have to honour our darkest thoughts, and that there’s a difference between imagining something and acting on it, which probably has a lot to do with what fuels Quentin Tarantino’s films in the first place, and… where was I?

Oh yeah. Going to church.

As anyone with a smartphone would, I decided to distract myself from my imagined martial arts maneuvers. I opened my inbox, and saw an email from someone whose name I didn’t recognize. Then I saw the subject line.

It read:

“I believe we were drugged in Greece by the same man”.

The same man who, seconds earlier, had been the subject of my make-believe black belt skills.

I stayed on the bedroom floor.

This is the part of the story I never want to tell again. Not because it shouldn’t be told, but because – well, I guess it’s obvious.  So, briefly, here we go: in 2005, I was backpacking in Greece and met a man in the street. He told me he was a pilot, and offered to take me on a walking tour of the area around the Acropolis. It was broad daylight, not that that makes a difference. But I agreed. He bought me a spinach pie which was laced with sleeping pills. I woke up in my hostel room with enough of a memory of what happened to know what happened. I still think about harming this man, at random and unrandom moments, like standing at a bathroom sink in Uganda.

The woman who wrote the email is Erin. Hours before, she had been googling a string of key words, hoping she’d find clues towards unanswered questions about her own story, which happened in 2004. It is, to the letter, almost exactly the same as mine, except that Erin woke up in a hotel room, alone, a few hours before her flight to America. She didn’t have support in Athens that I had, or the time to file the paperwork and go on record, like I did. But she never forgot. Of course. Oh, and just in case that’s not enough: I realized later that the day I receive her email was exactly one year since the day the rapist was imprisoned.

We began emailing daily – me from my bunk bed in rural Uganda, her from her home in Little Rock, while her toddler slept. Aside from our shared story, other similarities pop up. She is divorced. She’s struggled with infertility. And, she’s a writer.

The friendship formed without a second thought. We’ve still never met, aside from over Skype, but Erin has become someone I trust implicitly, admire outrageously, and confide in unquestioningly. Having someone who shares my story, even though I wish it never existed, is one of the most precious gifts I’ve ever been given. But having such a wonderful person as a friend is the true treasure in all this.

Wait… there’s more.

Erin is one half of an independent publishing company, and when we met, was in the midst of compiling an anthology. Did I want to contribute a piece, she asked?

Duh.

The anthology, fittingly, is about scars. Physical ones, not because those are more worthy than emotional ones, but inspired by Erin’s own, incredible story about the loss of one her twins, and the near loss of his sister, who was born 4 months premature at just 23 weeks gestation.



My contribution to the anthology is not this story. Actually, it may sound strange, but it took more guts to tell than this story. Probably because it’s about my own mother, and our very difficult relationship. I wrote it for to make people who have been through abuse feel less alone. If I could tell only one story in my life, it would be that one. If I could tell two, I’d probably throw in this one, about Erin and me.

Imagine if scars, physical and emotional both, weren’t something we tried to hide with makeup or plastic surgery or stiff upper lips and vodka. Imagine if we wore them proudly. My scars, visible and invisible, are memories of what I have lost, but also of what I have learned, and who I have loved. They hurt like hell when they happened, and now are badges of honour, as I’m sure are yours. 

I’m really proud to be part of this book. And I’m not ashamed to use this story as part of an unabashed sales pitch. I earned it. We both did!

Finally: none of the writers who contributed to Scars were compensated financially, so if you buy the book through me, I get to keep, like, a whole bunch of the profits. Which is pretty amazing. They will go towards writing new things, including a book, which includes the detailed story about how Erin and I met, and also tales from Uganda/Indonesia/Australia/New Zealand, some of which are almost as wacky as that one. So if you want to support a brand new, independent publishing company, one writer in particular (me,) and even start your holiday shopping early (Told you! Unabashed! Ho ho ho!,) get in touch and I’ll sort you out.

You can read more about Scars and Et Alia Press here.

Without cover-up, but with love and gratitude,

Natalie







Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Perth

It’s been almost 15 months, with a 3 month break, since I left Canada. I left with a mission: to find a different way of life, that was less about depending on one person and a frantic career to fulfill me, and more about being in community, having purpose, and creating the kind of existence where I didn’t live for vacations.

I’ve volunteered in Uganda, hung out in Australia, cleaned toilets (and meditated) on the side of a mountain in New Zealand, and housesat in the most boring city in the southern hemisphere. I’ve gone on silent retreats, sunk my feet into the sand of many beaches, and slept in many, many beds. I have searched my soul, and borne witness to thought patterns so ingrained they might as well have built decks and planted perennial beds in my brain. I have pushed myself and forgiven myself, and learned to find peace in my own company in ways I couldn’t previously have imagined. And yet, I’m no closer to my goal than I was in May of 2014.

Although at least I’m housesitting in a different city.

I’m in Perth, Western Australia. I spent two months here last year as well, because this place is home to some people I really love. And I love it, too, with its endless white sandy beaches and ridiculous sunsets and “oxytocined-up-the-wazoo” (to quote a Melbournian friend) residents. It’s the kind of place I always thought, in another life, I might call home. But that's the thing: this is another life.

Dead of winter, Perth

I’ve been so incredibly lucky to be able to travel like I have. But in many ways, traveling is the opposite of building community. Or at least, it has been for me. I’ll arrive somewhere, full of hope and expectations, stay a few months, decide said place doesn’t tick all my boxes, leave and do it all over again. I have been, if I’m honest, hoping to just land someplace and find this so-called community waiting, fully formed, with a welcome sign and a gift basket, wondering what took me so long. As I drive to my Perth housesit one night, past the red dirt and the kangaroo crossing signs, I realize that, possibly, this isn’t the way to go about doing things. That maybe something other than my scenery needs to change. And that maybe that something is me.

So I decide to conduct an experiment. Instead of waiting for whatever I'm searching for to come to me, I’m going to attempt to seek it out. I have two weeks left in Perth, which doesn't make this a very realistic goal, but I make a high chance of failure part of the experiment, too.

On Day One, I visit a Buddhist centre I’ve been meaning to check out since last time I was here. That night, I attend a writing group in a pub downtown. Neither blows my mind, but strangely, being a traveler again - being curious and open-minded, hunting places down and talking to strangers – energizes me.

On Day Two, a friend takes me on a tour of the countryside. We drive through rolling hills, have lunch in an ancient, underground pub built by convicts, and explore an amazing bookshop. It’s a great day, and also one that brings back a thought that's been nagging me since I arrived: where are the Aboriginal people? And how can I find out more about them without going to a museum, or having some kind of forced, tourist “experience”?

That night, another friend tells me of a couple who run an Aboriginal rights group, and who are looking for a scriptwriter to help them with a documentary.

“Isn’t that what you do?” she asks.

Anyone who has traveled knows how there are the days that blend together, the days you remember, and the days that change you - that stay with you for the rest of your life. On Day Three, I visit Dumbartung. I stay for five hours.






The couple, Robert and Selina, who run every aspect of Dumbartung, give me the world’s fastest history lesson on the colonization of Australia’s Aboriginal people. I learn of slavery, of children stolen from their parents, of unfathomable statistics of Aboriginal suicide rates - one of whom was Robert and Selina’s own son. I meet two people who have given everything they have for the past 30 years to raise awareness about these issues and more, and to try to reclaim the rights, the culture and the life taken from their community. This documentary will aim capture that work, the lives that have been changed, and the state of things now for the next generations.

It normally takes months to complete a documentary. Robert and Selina have 6 weeks. They also have no money, because Dumbartung is about to run out of funding, a matter that doesn’t seem of any consequence to the Australian powers that be. 

Can we do it? They ask. Of course, I tell them, knowing how much of a stretch it is. I spend the next week and a half immersed in books, DVDs, and articles; brainstorming, debating, outlining. Every day, I’m exposed to stories of struggle I can’t wrap my head around, about the demise of a culture that, it seems to me, holds answers to some of the questions about which much of the Western world is scratching its head in vain. I know there’s no way this project will be as good as it should be, or reach as many people as it needs to. Each night, I drive home stunned silent... and up to my eyeballs in purpose.

Please understand: I’m not saying hey, look at this terrible tragedy that happened, and here I am, holy white girl, to save the day and feel all great about myself. But I needed to be reminded of something, and that’s this: purpose is about helping when you’re needed, and asking for help when you need it. So is community. It’s about giving what you've got – not asking for anything back, and then, usually, being stunned by how much you receive. 

One morning, just before I leave Perth, I find myself watching a Youtube video about the South of France. It’s a glorious rainbow of eye candy – cobblestones and sunlight and mussels and people riding bicycles by rivers, all set, naturally, to accordion music.

“Maybe I belong in the South of France!” I wonder, out of sheer habit. But after that, I don’t feel the usual tug, or hear the voice in my head helpfully pointing out that yes, the South of France is where is at, ‘cause honey, you ain’t finding your answers where you are now. Instead I jump in the car and head to a crumbling, soon-to-be-shut-down office, full of kangaroo skins and heartache and people who already feel like family. And there is nowhere else on earth I’d rather be.

*

Dumbartung is funding this documentary on less than a shoestring, and hoping to screen it to audiences around Australia. Any donation, no matter how small, would be hugely appreciated. If you want to learn more about Robert and Selina and the incredible, invaluable work they do, please visit Dumbartung's website.








Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Hamilton

I have to come clean about one of the reasons I came to New Zealand.

Usually, I say that I fell in love with the people here. That is true. Also, the jaw-dropping beauty around every corner, and the laidback pace of life. The fact that Kiwis  go to the mall barefoot, still use landlines and have tea breaks. Lots of tea breaks. I think you see what I'm getting at.

But also, I came here for a meditation teacher.

I know. Spark up the patchouli. Call Elizabeth Gilbert.

I’ve been meditating for a few years now, and for most of that time I saw it as a way to calm my mind. Meditation was the first pathway I found through what Anne Lamott calls Radio KFKD – that mental channel which loudly and regularly reminds me that I'm getting it wrong, that other people do it so much better, and that I might as well not bother. But as time went on, I learned that the study of meditation and mindfulness also involves developing compassion for myself and others. It's an extremely accepting community where people look out for each other, and try to make a difference in what seems like a rapidly unraveling world. The more involved I got, the more I realized I needed all of that to be part of my life.

I met my teacher when I was in New Zealand last year. She is a down-to-earth, city-dwelling, sometimes-mojito-drinking working mother, and I was drawn to her right away. I spent two weeks living at her house, which felt like the equivalent of 7 years of therapy, and came out a changed person. She’s also trying to make mindfulness and meditation more accessible to the general population, effectively taking the scariness out of it and bringing it to the stressed, the neurotic, the overwhelmed - and the folks who don't normally have access to this kind of support.

Obviously, I had to come back.

I have done this through luck and fate, and joining a housesitting website. Housesitting is a great thing for travel: you can stay in someone's home for a few days or a few months in exchange for caring for their pets, and sometimes their lawns or gardens. This especially handy in New Zealand, where food and fuel are exorbitant.

My charges are two cats and a rabbit. The cats are super well behaved, and inform me that it’s time for breakfast by having purr-ins on the bedroom floor. The rabbit, whom we’ll call Rocky to protect his identity, is twelve, which is apparently like 160 in rabbit years. His owners casually mentioned that he might die while they’re away.

“They even showed me where to bury him!” I told the neighbor.

“Oh, don’t worry,” she said. “I'll bury him if you don't want to.”

I am starting to like Rocky more and more. One of his ears sticks up and other lies flat. He’s smaller than a football, and so soft. When I bring him his sliced pears for dinner, he gets up on his hind legs and wiggles his little nose through the bars of his cage. He is also a renegade, which is why I spend many an afternoon on my stomach in the dirt, coaxing him out from underneath the porch so I can bring him inside for the night.

I tried to get him to hang out with me and the cats, but he indicated his thoughts on this matter by leaving a tiny poo on the carpet, hopping down the stairs and waiting for me to let him into the garage, where he sleeps.

*

The house I’m sitting is in Hamilton. If you don’t know New Zealand, that might evoke images of long sandy beaches, or Mount Doom, or two nerdy guys playing guitars. Well, I'm sorry. Hamilton, population approximately 150,000 and inland, is very, very quiet. So quiet. I drive down the main street on Friday night just to see where the people are going. There are no people. I google “what to do in Hamilton” and find something called a Rabbit Show, which I assume involves burlesque. It is, in fact, a rabbit show. For people who have rabbits. Admission is free. 

It’s almost impossible to get around New Zealand without a car, especially going back and forth to Auckland, where my teacher lives and where things do happen on Friday nights. Because everything is still so up in the air with my visa, I've rented one from a cheapo used car place. It’s a Toyota Vitz, whom, naturally, I call Fritz. Fritz is wine-coloured and has a tape player. When I floor it going up a hill, he might hit 83. On the winding roads of NZ, driving a properly functioning vehicle feels like sex on wheels, so I feel for the people behind me. I keep wondering if I should get a bumper sticker that reads, “My car doesn’t actually go any faster than this.”


*

Part of the study of meditation is the idea that all we have is the present moment. Which we’ve all heard a thousand times, and is a hell of a lot easier said than done. Before leaving Canada, packing and slogging through paperwork and what felt like bottomless grief, I kept catching myself believing that I just had to get over here and life would really begin. Even though I’ve thought that same thing so many times, about so many trips, life changes and ordeals.

Before arriving in NZ, I spent two weeks in Australia with some of my favourite people on earth. It was so total, gleeful, top of the world fun – the kind of fun I hadn’t had in, well, possibly ever. I’d be having a picnic on a beach at sunset, or spotting a koala bear in a tree, or jumping on a trampoline under the stars – oh, the stars in Australia! – and think, “This is my life,” and nearly drown in gratitude.



Byron Bay



Nimbin



First ever koala sighting. Him: continue eating. Me: pee my pants.

Now, in Hamilton, I fall back into it the old habit: thinking that this isn’t life, but some kind of intermission. I’ll be standing in front of a jar of almond butter at the supermarket, calculating whether it would be cheaper to buy it or just fly home and get one there; or I'll consider how many friends I have here (two) and how far away I am from most of the people I love, and how hard it's going to be for me to stay here if that's what I decide to do. I’ll walk around this house, looking at the photos of babies and kids, the artifacts of a family history, the little magnets that say things like, “I made a wish and you came true.” And I’ll remember that life has begun. It’s ticking along, right this second. It’s just up to me what I’m going to do with it.

I hate it when that happens.

*

One of the first things I did when I got to Hamilton was find a pool. If you’re a regular swimmer, you know that learning your way around a new pool is disconcerting, like a dream: figuring out change room geography and lockers and showers, all while mostly naked.

“Is it busy today?” I asked the guy at the counter, when I arrived.

 “Kind of,” he said, apologetically. “You might have to share.”

I looked over his shoulder through the indoor window. There were four lanes open, and two people doing laps.

When I got to the change room, a small blonde girl bounded out from a cubicle.

“Hi!” she shouted, as if she’d been waiting for me for years. "I like your shoes!"

Later, reeking comfortingly of chlorine, I drove Fritz home under the watercolour evening sky, relieved to find Rocky very much alive and awaiting his pear slices. We’re on a dead end street in the suburbs, so by 7 o’clock it is utterly silent. I lit a fire, and the cats joined me on the couch, one on either side, like purring bookends. I had some gummy worms and we watched a bad movie together. 

When I got up to go to bed, they stayed by the embers, curled into little furry balls of contentedness.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Part Two

I spent New Year’s Eve 2014 alone.

The friends I told were a little worried for my mental health. I don’t blame them. What kind of weirdo spends the last night of the year without company and booze and an at least medium-sized celebration, by choice? Although, to be fair, I did have booze.

But I couldn’t face it. The idea of smiling and being all positive and ra ra about 2015 felt phony and exhausting. Because, if you haven’t already guessed it, 2014 was the year Tony and I decided to go our separate ways.

I’m not under any Gwyneth Paltrow delusions here, but when one writes about one's personal life in a blog, certain things eventually need to be shared. There are two sides to every relationship. I would never try to tell Tony’s story, but here, very briefly, is mine.

My name is Natalie, and I’m a perfectionist.

Since I was old enough to watch movies, I longed for a Hollywood romance. I thought I'd found it when I met Tony. I got the soul mate, the spontaneous (and very early) engagement, the beautiful wedding. Despite not doing anything else in my life by the book, I felt, at least, like I’d done this right. Like I’d scored some kind of victory. And then, since all those boxes had been ticked, I proceeded with what I believed to be the next logical step to Happily Ever After: I took virtually every emotional need I had and put them all on him.

Sure, I still had girlfriends. And guy friends, and therapists. But when the shit hit the fan – which it does a whole lot, when you’re a perfectionist – I turned to my husband. And when he didn’t provide support on every level, because – what? He’s human? - I became convinced that something was wrong, with our marriage, with us, or sometimes, I’ll admit, really just with him.

By the time I accepted that I’d been doing this, the damage had been done.

Again, let me be clear: we both had our parts to play in the path our relationship took. But despite how cliché this sounds, when I met Tony at the ripe old age of 29, I didn’t know who I was. Or rather, I did know, but didn’t admit it to myself. I loved him madly, ferociously, completely. If that wasn’t enough to compensate for all the other stuff I was leaving behind, I didn’t know what was.

Last year, after eight years together, I took off traveling for seven months. I wasn’t sure what I was looking for, aside from that I wanted to do something positive in the world. I didn’t know how long I’d be gone, or what I hoped to find. Here’s what I didn’t expect would become painfully obvious: that I didn’t know who I was without a man in my life.

Whoa. Right?

I mean, talk about a Feminist Fail. It shouldn't add up: educated, world traveled, outspoken women’s rights advocates are not supposed to look to men for for validation. But the more my journey went on, the more I realized this was exactly what I’d been doing, for as long as I could remember. Which is pretty ironic, since none of them had ever been able to give it to me. Not even the one I married.

The clearer this became, the less I was able to ignore that the mirror I was holding up to myself almost exclusively reflected my flaws and failures. My determination to succeed at my marriage had been as much out of love as out of a conviction that I wasn’t complete or even acceptable without someone else’s love. And love, I’d believed, meant living in a universe built for two. I didn’t understand that for a relationship to be healthy, neither person can look to the other for completion. And that both people need a community - love of all kinds, coming from different directions.

Luckily, Tony and I have both owned up to our respective contributions to all this, and how the baggage we brought to the relationship just wasn't sustainable. I don’t know what it’s like to have the kind of split where there is blame and rage and serious conflict, not to mention when children are involved. Still, ending my marriage was one of the most difficult periods of my life. Hence my solo New Year’s Eve.

Which is not to say I didn’t feel somewhat pathetic about being alone and in my sweatpants on the big 12/31.

So. Close to midnight, I piled the winter gear, opened a bottle of sparkling wine and went outside. There was a perfect, clear waxing moon lighting up the sky, and when the clock hit twelve, I stood and listened to the cheers and the snaps of firecrackers echoing from the surrounding houses. And then, totally without warning, I burst into tears.

I must have stood there for 10 minutes, much to the amusement of the people smoking on the other side of the fence, clutching my glass and sobbing. But here's the thing: I wasn’t crying from sadness. 2014 was a motherfucker of a year, but now that it was over, I was overcome with gratitude for all of it. Because despite what I have lost, what I've learned and gained is beyond measure. Don't worry - I still have bad days. I still get caught in the idea that I failed at marriage, or that I let people down – friends, family, the people who believed in us. Our wedding was in a movie, for godsakes. Ours was supposed to the happy ending, the victory before the credits roll. But it wasn’t. And pretending otherwise would have been at the expense of too much.

Sometimes I feel it would be easier if I hated Tony, but we still love and care for each other, a lot. We also still have spikes of anger and misunderstanding and heartache, but I think we’re on our way to becoming great friends. In fact, we probably get along better now than we ever did. Lack of power struggles will do that, I guess. He is my family and he always will be.

And so, in a few weeks, I’ll be heading back on the road. I’ve found something like a community in New Zealand, although it looks nothing like I’d imagined it would. (This applies, I’m learning, to most things.) I don’t know how I’m going to make it work, or long I’ll stay. I don’t know what’s going to happen at all, really. I still want a home, love, to be a parent. But I don’t know what any of that would look like, either. 

Here's what I do know: what things do look like have very little do do with what they're made of.

That there's no right way of doing anything.

And most importantly, that I am, even on my own, madly, completely okay.