This is in some ways, a series. Part One, Two and Three here. This is the final chapter, in some ways. But of course, it’s just the beginning too.
I came with very few hopes and expectations.
Those have been dashed long ago on the cliffs of other years, other places, other dreams.
I just wanted to be pragmatic:
If this place was okay for us, we might stay. If it didn’t work out, that’s fine too, and we’d have another adventure. At least I wouldn’t feel stuck anymore.
I had to, otherwise the vice grip of Needing To Make The Right Decision For The Rest Of My Life would have held me hostage.
It was a Saturday afternoon by the time we drove down from the green leaved hinterlands towards the sea.
We cut through swathes of sugar cane peppered with palm trees: the foliage of my childhood.
The air is sweet, the mountains those old volcanic mounds, now plump with life. All of it so deeply familiar.
The incessant, vivid relief. This land that is my not my birth place, but so very close in all the ways I adore.
I didn’t know how much I needed this, until I went grey and lifeless without it.
Through the sugar cane, and out onto the coastal plains loaded with gums and wattles. Down a dirt track to the AirBnB bush cottage we are staying in while we wait for our furniture to arrive.
It is rainforested, just like our old acreage in Kuranda used to be. That acreage had been our dream come true, but it was in the wrong place for us. And we’d had to give it up, let it go, and wrestle with the loss of it since.
And here we were, back again, on a rainforested acreage, pulling up at the sweetest wooden shack. A scrub turkey runs in front of us and we shriek TURKEY DURKEY! We have missed them so dearly, our odd, ridiculous, glorious friends. Our acreage had come with free pets – scrub turkeys and pademelons and Ulysses butterflies as big as my hand and guinea fowl and lace monitor lizards and all the birds in the world, the kookaburras and the catbirds and the curlews and the kingfishers and the fruit doves and that one strange bird that flew to my husband’s shoulder and refused to leave. It had been painfully hard to leave them, to leave those friends. It was a wild life, glorious in its wildness, and we’ve struggled with its loss ever since. But here was one rediscovered friend, and I’ve never been more excited to see that extraordinary fan of a tail.
We tumbled out, and settled in, barefoot of course.
We had been worrying about her before then. Worried that she was losing her joy, her spark, her light. She began sighing, and telling us she felt glum.
My husband and I both were raised in childhoods full of wild. He spent his tramping around army camps, cracking frozen rivers in Tasmania and hiking up boulder-soaked mountains in the Hunter Valley. I’d spent mine on a cattle farm in the Whitsundays, riding horses bareback in rivers, befriending wild cats, building elaborate mud constructions in the lake. It was our connection to nature that saved us in many ways when our childhoods were painful, confusing, sad, broken. That deeply, mystical love of earth has sustained us through our lives, the thread so strong it carries on.
And we wanted the same for our kids.
We wanted our children to have wild lives. With a deep, close connection with nature, an abiding love of Mother Earth that would carry them through for the rest of their life.
We’d experienced that kind of wildness before when we had our acreage, and noticed the shift in our kids and in US when we moved to the colder city. We became insular, enclosed, cut off, cautious, miserable. We started living in our heads instead of our bodies and hearts.
What’s more, we worried about both of our girls. Our bush kids were becoming city kids. They didn’t want to play in the backyard, they were becoming increasingly afraid of nature. It was a constant struggle to get them outside for even the smallest amounts of times. We feared they were losing their inner wild child, afraid they would grow up bereft of that wild spirit. And of course so many can thrive and connect with Earth in places like that. But we couldn’t and we didn’t need to.
It was bloody hard to make the decision to move again, and I judged and doubted myself fiercely. But the longing was too much. We had to leap again. And so we did.
Here we are.
We took them to the ocean, they were timid and locked up. They stayed beside us tightly, had freak outs walking through the dune scrub. My youngest at first refused the whole experience, declaring that she hated the beach. They tentatively splashed, and both of them cried because they got water in their eyes. My kids had become city kids, and they were fish out of water.
I looked at my husband with worried eyes and he said “Don’t worry, give it time.”
We move into our new house. We bought a little suburban house as a hub to find our feet, our little nook along the coast. Eventually we might buy an acreage again.
We begin the process of settling in, finding ourselves, and our way, and our place in this place.
It’s been two months.
How are we settling in?
Here’s my notes:
First up: homeschooling.
I’ll be honest with you. I was starting to lose my joy for it before. I felt too isolated, too much like I had to do it all on my own. I tried connecting in with other homeschoolers in Canberra. There were some lovely peeps, but it didn’t feel like enough.
Once we arrived, I started connecting in with other homeschoolers. And discovering just how much magic there was here, how vivid and wide and HUGE the homeschool community is here.
There are homeschool classes and meetups and co-ops out the wazoo. We could be triply booked every hour of every day and still have more things to do. There’s Forest School and Beach School and Garden School and all the educational possibilities under the sun. Equine therapy, art, music, gymnastics, yoga, science, robotics, drones… not to mention all the run of the mill classes. We do more classes/meetups here in a week than we did in 18 months in Canberra.
It’s fascinating because population-wise, Canberra and Sunshine Coast have a similar population (the Coast just has the population more spread out), but the homeschooling community would be at least 5x larger. And it is active as fuck (that’s the scientific term for it I believe). And the homeschooling community follow the same educational ethos as we do of eclectic, project-based, vaguely unschoolish learning (not strict curriculum followers or overtly religious). And the peeps are similar to us… hippy-ish types who aren’t into drugs. It’s bloody easy to make friends (both for mamas and kids!)
Take this week for example:
We went out to an acreage in the rainforest for a Book Week-themed homeschool co-op. The kids played in this incredible play area with all the other homeschooler kids of all ages. We traipsed down to let the ducks out and collect and examine duck eggs, and ate wild raspberries and peaches from the orchard, and the orchard owner taught us about the varieties of plants they grow and how they grow best. I read books rambunctiously in a stupid cardboard hat that I loved and the kids loved. Afterwards, the kids went and wrote and illustrated their own books. And then they made tents and lean-tos with bamboo. And all this incredible learning happened across all “school subjects” and it was so much damn fun for all of us.
Then we’re off to a homeschooling co-op where we drop them off for a few hours, and they do English and Geography and Science and Art explorations in a big garden with more friends.
We went to the beach (always the best place for P.E., geography and biology learning!)
My kids also had a private swim class with one of their co-op tutors.
And today we had an awesome family day where we went to The Ginger Factory, and went on this amazing themed boat ride that takes you around the world through puppets and it was the best Geography lesson I’ve ever taken. Came home, decorated our own gingerbread women and the kids decided to do a scavenger hunt with binoculars to see what wildlife they can find in their backyard. Then some worksheets and both the kids wanted to do twice the amount I asked them to do. And now they are doing some gaming with their Padre (they learned some Spanish and decided that’s what they call their Daddy-o now and it’s hilarious and we are going with it).
All in all, weeks are full and glorious and I feel totally saturated with love for this homeschooling community and its connections and possibilities.
Can you tell I’m excited? FUCK I AM EXCITED.
Can you tell I’m relieved? FUCK I AM RELIEVED.
Honestly, I was struggling with homeschooling by the end of last year. I felt isolated, and alone. We were so close to going back to Canberra’s Steiner school, but decided not to as that particular school no longer felt like the right fit for us anymore. I started looking around at other schools in Canberra, but none of them felt like they were the right fit either. We started feeling really bloody stuck.
By moving here, we wanted to give ourselves all the educational possibilities under the sun. We knew the homeschooling community was more active here, and we figured we’d try it out here for a while, and if we needed to do a return to school, there were loads of schooling options here in terms of alternative and independent schools.
Now that we’re here, I realise that this was a huge piece of the homeschooling puzzle that was missing for us. We have so many friends and activities now. My husband said to me a few weeks ago: “I don’t even know if the kids could go back to school now… they are too busy!”
It feels incredibly scrumptious. I am so grateful that we’ve found such a glorious nook for homeschoolers. I knew it would be more active, but I had no idea just how glorious it would be.
And I don’t know how I could leave now… I think I would be hard pressed finding a homeschooling community like this one in Australia.
So that’s homeschooling. What else?
We left an alpine city that spends about 8 months of the year in Winter.
Now we are in the sub-tropics, where even in the depths of Winter, my kids can rum amok in the backyard with water pistols and togs on. (Togs, by the way, is Queenslander language for swimming costumes. TOGS! It’s short, it’s useful, it feels great to say, it gets the job done. TOGS! Take it, use it, spread it! TOGS!)
Me and my husband are both tropics-loving creatures, so the relief we feel is IMMENSE.
Sunlight! On my shoulders! Makes me happy! Like I should be!
I didn’t realise how much I needed this, how deficit my eyes were, craving colour.
I didn’t know how much I needed the tropics, how much I was hungry for those deep blue skies and vivid greens bursting with chlorophyll. All I knew was that I was starting to fade into grey, that my husband looked at me kindly and said “you’ve been losing your spark more and more, and I don’t know what to do without that spark of yours, so I think I need to take you home.”
And home isn’t a place we’ve lived before but it’s a state and it’s an ocean and sugar cane and farms and wide swathes of land. And mostly it’s these colours, the turquoise and lime, an earth radiating with energy and life.
And I got here, and my eyes are full, and my heart is filling up too. And all the beauty comes into me and wants to come out as art and the watercolours and ink got dusted off. I didn’t know my joy and my art was so intrinsically tied to these colours of the land, to the ocean, to this sunlight.
But now I do know. I’m going to hold onto that knowing so tightly. The knowledge of what I need to thrive.
Some stories of days I’ve had here.
Magic days, so full of life and love and beauty they have filled my dusty, bare cup.
Me + Jodles, instant basket weaving BFFs
The first: one of those magical days of synchronicity and instant friendship clicking into place.
We went to a basket weaving workshop this morning, as we hippies are apt to do.
We pulled up in the carpark beside another car. I smiled and said hello to the other mother, and she did a double take and asked me if I was Leonie. She’s been reading my blog for ten years (!!!!) and I liked the cut of her jib so I declared us instant BFFs. We shared pregnancies with both our kids and spent the rest of the morning gasbagging and discovering all our other synchronicities while our kids ran wild in the amazing garden.
Fuck all basket weaving was done, but the weaving of connection and community and conversation.
We didn’t want the day to end so we convoyed over to an outdoor cafe to eat while the children roamed and played and adopted another kid into their merry band.
We didn’t get home until the end of the day, all of us muddy and smile-strewn.
What a happy, full heart I have. It’s been too long since a day like that happened. I’m so glad the rain has arrived and is drenching my life with such succulence.
The second: where adventure flows into the next.
Go to the park and beach with my dearest darling Kel who was visiting from Kuranda. She was my closest friend while I was there, and was also one of my biggest supports while I had hyperemesis gravidarum and was even there as my acupuncturist/doula for Beth’s birth. I adore her sage counsel, her hilarious humour, her huge heart and how she lives her life. Our daughters were sweet friends during that time, and it was pure magic to see them reconnect again, romping in the sand and sea and sun like the wild blooming homeschoolers they are.
And then we were off to a homeschool photos day held on a magic farm nearby, with the most incredible handcrafted building.
On the way home I realised we were driving past my lovely friend Nadine’s place so we pulled over to say hello and help feed the horses and alpacas their dinner.
Then we drove home into the night, moon brimming and sugar cane fires burning, the air smelling so very sweet.
Gladness soaking my very bones.
I feel so very, very lucky.
The third: we drive down to visit our basket weaving BFFs.
Spoiler alert: the hastily-declared BFF prophecy is coming true.
We are thick as thieves, and our identically-aged/looking children are too.
The kids make art and LEGO and do science experiments and show each other their favourite books and play in the sun and make all manner of plans. And we drink tea and have chocolate cake and there’s a million moments I’m healed as a homeschooling mama and a heart in those conversations. We go for a walk around a warm sea lake, and clamber out onto a fallen tree. And I’m standing out there, watching my kids so alive and bright in the mud and the salt and the eucalypt, and all the beauty around me.
And I realise this:
I know why I was so sad before now. I was missing this life.
Somehow my heart knew this life was out here, this alternate reality. And my heart was wrung with grief at its loss.
I had given up hope
of things ever being good again.
How good this is, how perfectly it fits us?
This is the sweetest, most delightful surprise.
Better than my highest hopes.
What a miracle.
This morning we went to the beach. It’s been two months since we arrived. The difference was profound. Our children, bare foot, whooping and running through the dunes. No longer timing. No longer holding back. Brave crested salt children leaping in the waves with glad hearts. Sandy and alive and at home. Wild children in the making, their spirits and bodies blooming.
So glad I didn’t give up on this need and value of mine for my children to grow up wild. So glad to have made the hard choice, the one that feels so very easy now.
Thank you for sharing this winding, wonderful journey with me.
I am so very grateful and blessed.
With love and turquoise turquoise turquoise everywhere,
P.S. I’m sitting in a little wooden cafe by the beach as I type this. They are playing my soul music: James Taylor and Paul Simon… even an independent album from some friends of friends in Canberra that I’ve always loved and have never heard in public, ever ever. They have tea in chipped cups and delicious lemon, coconut, meringue pie. I’m looking out over the trees. There is a labrador wandering around outside, greeting customers, being patted by the waitress. I think he’s the cafe dog.
This morning I found a journal entry from February. I was cold with fury, desolate with desperation.
I will never find the right place for us. I will never feel at home again. I have to give up on my dreams. I don’t know how I got so far off my path. I feel like I’ve made the biggest mistakes in my life. I don’t think I’ll ever feel happy with my life and where I live again.
I read it out to my husband as we sat outside, under a vivid blue sky, children running wild and free again amongst luminous green. Our life, so easy and joyous again.
And we laughed at how little we knew then, at how THIS was waiting for us.
I don’t know how we got so lost. But we’ve made it back.
And our pockets are full to brimming with even more lessons, and love.
We venture forward with all those things.
It was hard, but it was needed.
P.P.S. I’m never fucking leaving the tropics again. Ha!
If ya need me, I’ll be right here. Nestled in the blues and greens with these ones I love the most.
Where were we, my loves?
I’d fallen from a cliff into depression, and spent over two years fretting over where to live.
Finally, we made a decision, turned the car north and left the city.
This is the story that comes after.
Of the journey between here and there.
Of the space after the leap before we land.
Of Leonie pretending she’s Paul Theroux or Bill Bryson, travel writer for the day. (She may also be in the mood for talking about herself in the third person today too, it seems.)
Of the insights that emerged from a road trip across inland Australia.
We pointed the car’s nose north and headed out of Canberra for the second momentous time in our lives.
The children were hungry before we even got out of the suburbs (of course).
When you are going on a long trip, it feels like the time spent trying to get out of your own city seems infuriatingly long. SET ME FREE DAMNEST CITY, I LONG FOR THE OPEN ROAD!
At last, onto the highway. North to Yass, Boorowa, Cowra and beyond.
We drive up along the alpine ridges through platypus country, take unexpected backroads down tiny country roads, watch the morning light sprite over frosted gum trees.
I imagine myself living in every house we pass, wondering what life would be like if this was home.
Who lives here? How did they end up here? Are they happy?
Could I live here? Would I be happy here?
We begin playing a game in the car, a game we will come to rue the moment it fizzed into my overexcitable brain:
KIDS! EVERY TIME YOU SEE AN ANIMAL, YOU MUST SHOUT WHAT SOUND IT MAKES!
It was glorious fun for quite a long while there.
It was a car that echoed with 80% BAAAAS, 15% MOOOOOOS, 3% NEEEEEEEEEEEEIGHS and 2% WOOOOF, BOING BOING BOING (kangaroos and rabbits) and MEEEEEEH (goat).
I guess that gives you a fairly good indication of the country we drove through.
It’s a long ass journey, from there to here. Australia, the land of the great expanse, long stretches of road with no one in sight.
The first night, we drive off the alpine ridge and descend down into the western plains. Here, there’s a big country town that I’ve dismissed for years. We’d stopped here 16 years ago, right at the beginning of adulthood and life, on our trek to move to Canberra for the first time. We were young and broke back then, so we stayed at the cheapest hotel on the cheapest street. It was littered with trucks and fuel stations and fast food joints. That’s all I saw, and it left a dusty aftertaste in my mouth, so for years afterwards I called it f: Dubbo, The Overgrown Truckstop.
My husband likes to tease me for my snap judgments, so for the past 16 years, his first response to questions about where he’d like to holiday or move to has always been a deadpan: Why, Dubbo of course. And I would respond in furious tones: NEVER! FUCK DUBBO! GRUMBLE TRUCKSTOP GRUMBLE! And we would both laugh wildly. (I should mention that we’re at that phase in our relationship that our inside jokes are SO inside they are inbred and barely comprehensible even to us. This does not make them any less funny however – the ridiculousness of just how recycled and worn they are make them even better. Like fine wine, our repertoire of old couple jokes.)
So my husband was so excited to AT LAST be staying in our favourite joke town that he suggested we stay for TWO NIGHTS and really live it up. And hey, why don’t we finally go to the zoo there too?
Now, from the outside, it would look like I would be the opinionated driving force in the relationship: in public, I’m extroverted, loud, obnoxious, frequently inappropriate, flamboyantly ambitious. My husband is the gentle, quiet quintessential introvert who appears to be mildly amused by my behaviour. Behind the scenes in life though, our roles reverse. He likes to talk more, I prefer to have my head jammed firmly in a book. He wants to discuss feelings, I want to watch TV. He makes most decisions on what we do on a day-to-day basis, I don’t really care either way. I’d rather just sit and read, thanks, so he’s going to need to decide if we leave the house and where we are going. This may also be due to the fact he’s a Rebel, I’m an Obliger and we’re in a quintessential Rebel-Obliger relationship (as coined by the ever fabulous Gretchen Rubin).
All of that, of course is a very long way of saying: Chris wanted to do something, so I went along with it as I usually do. I don’t know why I didn’t say that to begin with, or why it even needs saying, but there it is. I’m a writer. It’s what I do. If I’m ever erring on whether I should include more details or not, I’ll take more details for 600, thanks Alex.
So that’s how we ended up staying in Dubbo for two nights. Because of a joke and a zoo. We aren’t broke anymore, so we rented a sweet little cottage in a sweet part of town. It also meant our absurd white fluffy dog could stay with us so she could continue her decade-long obsession with staring at my husband. I don’t blame her, it’s my obsession too. Here’s the cottage, incase you ever find yourself there because of a joke and a zoo too. We bunkered down for the night, ordering Hogs Breath dinner to be delivered (OH THE DELIGHT!!!!!!) and I washed my kids in the little tub at the bottom of the shower.
The next day we went to the Holy Grail: DUBBO ZOOOOO. And immediately shelled out to hire a golf cart to tour the zoo because FUCK YES GOLF CARTS. Dubbo Zoo is a big ass zoo that stretches for kilometres. You can walk, bicycle, take your car or hire a zoo golf cart. HIRE THE FUCKING GOLF CART FOR THE TIME OF YOUR LIFE GUYZZZZ. NO OTHER OPTION IS WORTH LIVING FOR. The golf cart was honestly at least 80% of our zoo excitement as a conservative estimate. Sure, there were animals, but GODDAMN A ZEBRA PRINTED GOLF CART WITH 4WD WHEELS. I’m trying to think of other notable memories from the zoo and the below is the sum total of our day beyond those golf carts:
Meerkats are terrified of planes as they believe it is a bird of prey.
“Honey, have we ever seen an elephant before IRL? I can’t remember?”
“Ummm… YES! Don’t you remember like… ALL OF INDIA? And all the elephant-related traffic jams?”
“Oh! Yes! There’s that!”
(I’m the forgetful one.)
We studied hippopotamus (hippopotamusses? hippopotami?) for a long time. In particular, their pooping habits. This stems from our family obsession of this video clip. My kids are also at the stage where butts and farts and poops are pretty much the funniest thing in existence, so they were chanting “OOOH YEAH! JUICY JUICY HIPPO BUTT! HIPPO’S GOT A JUICY BUTT BUTT” and taking extremely zoomed in photos of said juicy hippo butt butt. I duly noted down in my homeschooling mother’s journal the important lesson that had taken place in animal biology that day.
And then we toddled back to that sweet little cottage to ponder how early we could order Hog’s Breath to be delivered again.
(And relive in vivid detail our DAY IN A ZEBRA GOLF CART.)
The next day we take more Google Maps-instigated back roads and wonder what sound we are supposed to shriek when we see EMUS!
I’d like to take this opportunity to provide an important pronunciation lesson for all Americans.
Emu is NOT pronounced E-moooo.
It’s pronounced E-mew.
It’s our bird, so I reckon we get pronunciation rights on it.
Anyways, we saw ’em.
We drive through the largest nature reserve in Australia, all red dirt and black-barked trees.
There are slices of excitement when we see wild goats and a wilder pig.
Mostly I just let the sun wash over me and feel gladness:
for a new road, a new view, for land I haven’t seen with these eyes before.
I’m no longer stuck in indecision, I’m free and moving forward.
This is a grand adventure, no longer the sunken regret of my life.
The relief is immense.
It grows warmer as we travel north and I start to peel off winter layers.
My husband’s Pepsi explodes in the car somewhere between Dubbo and Moree, soaking all four of us, our seats, the car ceiling, our confused dog.
We can barely breathe for laughing so hard. We pull over to find towels to mop us all up and to get new clothes for thoroughly drenched me. We drive off again, slightly sticky skin for the rest of the day.
I roll up my sleeves, let the light seep in.
The trees and mountains begin to thin until we realise they have thinned so much they are non-existent. We are in flat-as-a-tack cotton country. There is nothing here. Nothing but flat lands, and cotton. We marvel at how you can stare for miles until the mirages make your eyes wobble.
I text one of my dearests who grew up here and left as an adult.
Fuck me mate, your joint is thrill-a-minute. So much to see!
I take a photo of the void as evidence. There’s three things to see in every direction you face: land that stretches unchanged in colour, texture or flora, horizon, parched blue sky. There’s less here than in the desert.
She messages me back:
I used to dream of what it would be like one day to see a mountain.
That thought sticks with me.
Her, as a little girl, hearing about mountains, wondering what those magical things must be like. It seems to me we are all raised with those blind spots, of the things that weren’t visible in our reality, until one day they suddenly were. I wonder what soul lessons must be born from living in this kind of sparse triptych painting, what it would feel like to walk the landscape as the tallest vertical around. Would you feel more alive to the blunt, bare, naked truth of it all: that we are spinning on a ball in space, only just barely held down by gravity?
These are the kinds of things I think of.
The cotton trucks leave wafts in their wake, and the cotton balls cling to the sides of the road. It looks like it is snowing, it looks like rabbits have had their tails caught in a weed, it looks like the truck drivers have been weeping and thrown their spent tissues as they went.
My children marvel at it out the window, and I smugly tell my husband this is the best geography class our kids could ever take.
Just when I think I can’t bear the bare anymore, vegetation begins to re-emerge again, as does such anomalies as mounds of grass! Trees! Rivers! Oh look! A hill! A mountain range off in the distance!
My palette has been washed anew and my eyes can not be more excited to have more things to fixate on.
CACTUS! I SEE A CACTUS!
First one, then another. We crow and crane to search for more. My children haven’t seen wild cacti before, and each new sighting is a miracle. Within an hour, the far and few between sightings begin to cluster until cacti is our new normal.
The sunlight slants golden red by afternoon. It’s not sunset, but there’s a fire somewhere, sending up great gobs of smoke, choking all other colours out.
We keep driving as the land grows greener and the temperature raises higher celcius by gradual celcius.
We cross the Queensland border, stop at a motel at at the river town of Goondiwindi.
My eldest daughter gets out of the car.
It’s been four years since we left Queensland. She’d spent her first four years there and was used to living barefoot, or in thongs if shoes were essential. So much so that when we’d moved to Tasmania and suddenly rediscovered the need for shoes, we’d had a bloody hard time finding footwear she could tolerate.
“Mum, please! These are so uncomfortable! I don’t want to wear shoes! They feel so bad around my feet! I don’t like it!”
It took months of experimenting and buying different styles of shoes before she didn’t complain. And then she’d adapted, and we didn’t hear anything more about her hatred of shoes.
Until we crossed the border back into Queensland, four years later.
Unannounced, my daughter discards her shoes and informs me:
“I won’t be wearing shoes ever again, I’ve decided. We are in Barefoot Country and I’m going to be the Barefoot Kid again!”
My husband and I blink and stare at her, then each other.
We shrug and say:
“Okay. Sounds good honey.”
We had no idea it had still been weighing so heavily on her soul/sole.
The motel owner comes over to give us milk, and stays with us, talking for a long time. She kneels on the ground, pats our dog, talks to our kids. She asks us questions about our life and tells us about hers and is all round the most friendly person we’ve met in years.
My husband and I turn to each other, weary, blinking.
We’d forgotten how friendly people can be out of the city. We’d forgotten how much we’d missed this.
Is this why we’d grown so sad?
My barefoot children decide that since they are officially in the semi-tropical north again, they need to make use of the hotel pool. It may be dead of winter, but the temperature is 20 degrees – something we hadn’t felt in months in Canberra, and it would have been months more before we felt it again.
I let them wade, see the puffer-jacketed Queenslanders oggle at us.
I know what they are thinking:
It’s what we used to think when we were here and saw Victorians sunbaking in Airlie Beach in July.
I laugh. This winter, we are the crazy Southerners feasting on 20 degrees.
Next winter, we will return to our Queenslander ways of shivering under 25.
The next morning my barefoot children clamber in the backseat, restless for landing.
Today is the day we turn east – glad east – and slip off the ranges into the coast, to greens and blues, to our new home.
I don’t know what we were expecting on this trip following the Queensland border towards the sea.
It’s land we haven’t traversed before which continues to make me giddy.
We thought it would gradually grow busier, denser with people and population.
Instead we drive for hours through shrub. The only signs of people are the tiny dirt roads every so often with a wooden sign denoting the property name. I don’t know what they farm here: cows? Sheep?
We see nothing, and can only assume they are farming dirt and trees.
Still, there’s a sweet relief in my bones when I see the tell-tale signs of my home state:
The palm trees. A sky that is saturated cornflower blue.
The wooden Queenslander houses in all their verandah-ed glory.
I didn’t know how attached I was.
Finally the great expanse of dust and tree farming ends and becomes the greens of horse studs instead. We manoeuvre through the industrial expanse of Toowoomba before suddenly hurtling down the range. It is steep – far steeper than we expected, and our car begins to shriek in resistance.
My husband and I give each other Looks, and hold our breaths until we can finally pull off.
I picture the rest of the day being swallowed with mechanics and maybe a new car. We test and check, and by we, I mean my husband. Once he’s satisfied it was an anomaly, we saddle up and carry on east. (Spoiler alert: it ended up shitting its pants a couple months later.)
East and the inland becomes hinterland as we swarm closer to the sea. The greens become greener, the blue becomes bluer. We drive through rainforest, past wildly shaped mountains, remnants of volcano lava cores now lush with trees. Villages are sprinkled through here: fudge stores and antique shops, all the kinds of things that are generally fucking useless to locals but fabulous for tourists.
Under a motorway, then up a highway, past the stories of my husband’s youth.
This is near where my friend died, he tells me.
And we are silent because even though it is new land for me, it is old for him, and it comes with its own stories both glad and hard.
And I am grateful because he’s said yes to this, yes to me yet again, yes to finding what our family needs together. Despite all his reservations, he’s taken the leap with hand in mine.
And I am full of love for him, grateful for his grace.
The sign points to our new suburb on the Sunshine Coast.
We indicate and turn towards it.
At some point, between the gums and the gullies and that great golden light flickering, I turn to Chris and say:
You know, all this talk and soul searching about where home is, and I’ve been thinking of something.
People always ask me why we don’t move overseas. We can live anywhere, so why wouldn’t we live in France, or Japan? But I’ve never even toyed with the idea, it’s never once tempted me, and I don’t think you’ve ever wanted to either.
And I’ve been thinking about why that is, and I think for me it’s because I would become so homesick for this land. Remember when we spent a month in India and Singapore, and when we got home, I just sank down on the ground outside of the bus stop? I missed the Australian dirt so very much.
I think at the very heart of it all, Australia is my home. And it hasn’t been one town or one place for me to call home, it’s been all of Australia. I just love her, all of her.
And I feel so very lucky that I’ve been able to love so much of her.
All this time I’ve been looking for home and I’ve been inside her all along.
And he smiles, and he nods.
He loves her just like I do.
And we turn and watch her great beauty unfolding beneath our wheels.
Home. We were inside her all along.
(To be continued… as ever…)
I came back because of them.
Them, the women who have known and loved me for years.
Loved me long before I was a mother, long before I was The Leonie Dawson.
There’s the one who loved me when I was a teenager, greeting me on my first day of boarding school. I was mildly terrified at what this new world of boxes would bear, but I saw her open face and kind eyes and wide open smile, and knew I was safe with her.
There’s the one who had purple hair when I first met her, who talked loudly about her womb in an elevator filled with stiff public servants. I saw her and knew I wanted to be just like her. She was the one who led me by hand into my first women’s circle, to that moment I knew I was home, to that knowing I’d been walking to a women’s circle for all the moments before.
There’s the tiny, wild haired woman who was sitting in that circle, loving openly with her big brave heart. We’ve walked kindred journeys into motherhood and that tough, knee-skinning initiation. She is grace and courage and warmth.
There’s the one who I sat beside at cubicle desks for 7 years. She was apparently my boss, but most of all she was my comrade, my sister, my co-conspirator in mischief and glee. A mutual friend once remarked: “You two were the most unlikely love story on Level 11. Complete opposites who fit together like puzzle pieces.” She, the fastidious, elegantly dressed Virgo who willingly talks about her discomfort about all things hippy and spiritual, and her love of all things shallow. Me, the wild haired messy Scorpio who is a 24/7 channel for hippy, spiritual and deep. Together: unconditional love and mutual adoration.
These are the women I came back for.
I’ve had many glorious adventures in the past eight years. Trolloped all over the country. Two years in the Whitsundays in a tiny old wooden cottage my grandmother had lived in, spending our days by the beach, watching eagles in the backyard, listening to the sounds of the sugar mill heaving at the end of our street. A few months in Cairns, in that wild hot tropics, living in that treehouse, marvelling at the magic and the mould, visiting every white-sanded beach around. A couple of years on an acreage in the rainforest that I had hoped would be our forever home, but was too wild and unsettled for us. I still miss that timber home with vaulted ceilings and pademelons out the back and kookaburras that flew through our lounge room. That hippy village with its markets weaving down the hills and rainforest. Six months in Tasmania, that isolated island at the bottom of isolated island of Australia. Daily walks on a cold, brilliant blue beach, gazing up at the great snow-capped mountain each day. Being woken by him, as excited as a boy, at 5am. Get up, get up, it’s fucking SNOWING! It fulfilled my husband’s teenage wish to return there. My husband said six months there was worth thousands of dollars in therapy sessions.
And then one night after I’d fallen and hurt my foot badly, an injury that would take another 18 months to recover from, I was overcome with homesickness for my Canberra people. My foot was swollen and I couldn’t sleep. The Antartic wind hurtled around our house on the hill at midnight. I was tired of feeling alone, tired of being the new girl in town, tired of feeling like we had no one to call on.
I was faced with a sliding doors moment.
I knew if I woke my husband and told him, he would agree to move.
If I didn’t, we would stay, on that out of the way island that was at equal turns fiercely cold and stunningly beautiful.
In a moment that I would come to regret more than any other decision I’ve made in my life, I woke him.
Five days later, we had bought a nice suburban house online, and one month later we were landing back in Canberra.
At first I was giddy to feel so comfortable, so at ease, so at home.
I adored seeing my old friends so dearly. It felt deliciously safe to have them just around the corner from me.
It was a gift to have that time to be together, to see our own kids become friends too.
But within a few months, I was begging Chris to let me remake that decision, to go back to that midnight moment. The alpine suburban life felt like the saddest, beigest outcome after all our dreams of wild adventures and acreages. We felt like rainbow rainforest parrots caged, colours fading fast.
I was afraid of leaving too: I didn’t want to make the wrong decision. Didn’t want to find myself lonely again. Scared of losing the support I had outside my husband and kids.
To our excruciating surprise, it took almost two and a half more years to leave. We kept trying in earnest, and feeling utterly trapped and stuck. We’d discuss for months a new place we could move to, only to visit and feel repelled, uneasy.
I flew across the country by myself to visit a stunningly beautiful hippy town that is adored the world over, one with sky high mortgages and celebrities aplenty… a place that on paper looked perfect for us… only to feel instantly and profoundly repelled on landing and actually experiencing it. I returned home feeling like I’d just walked through energetic dog shit, and we crossed that one firmly off the list too.
We couldn’t go back to places we’d been before for various reasons: my Tasmania-loving husband didn’t want to be off the mainland again so he could be more available for his ageing parents. The other places we’d lived were beautiful in their own ways, but were shoes that didn’t quite fit.
Again and again, I tried to give up on my dreams.
Tried to contain myself to the life, the house, the land that didn’t fit.
I wondered if I was too greedy. Why I couldn’t just settle already, dammit. Why everyone else seemed so happy, so content, so unquestioning with their lives. I became convinced I was fucking up everything. I was sure I’d never find the right place for us, that we would be doomed to be restless, bereft of a sense of home. I began to worship at the altar of Nothing Will Ever Be Okay Ever Again.
This story is intrinsically woven with my cliff fall into depression.
Where the wanderlust worries became a crisis of chemistry. They are tied together, and it is hard to tell them apart, except that the worry was painful, the depression was seismic.
Still, it woke me and my husband up in a way we needed.
After it was over, and I was no longer comatose with sadness, my husband sat me down and said:
I need to tell you something. I couldn’t tell you when you were lost in depression. I just needed to be there for you. But I need you to know when you were down so far, I was worried. I worried that you might be broken, and I wasn’t sure how to fix you. And I knew I needed to look after you, and look after the kids. And so I decided I needed to take you home. The thing is, since we left the tropics, you’ve been losing your spark, the thing that you’ve always had, the thing that makes you Leonie. And the depression felt like you’d lost it all together.
So I need to take you back home, because you’re alive there, and your spark is so bright. I think we need to move to the Sunshine Coast. It’s not your home town, but it’s your home state, and it’s got the things we need there: the beach and the warmth and educational options for the kids. And you can see your Dad more often, and we can visit those places if we want to. But mostly, I just need to take you to the ocean and be in the sun again so you can get your spark back.
And I sobbed.
I felt so deeply seen.
I responded simply:
It all became so abundantly, searingly clear.
More cautious than ever, we decided to send me on a scouting mission.
Send the sensitive canary down the mine, see if she steps in energetic dog shit.
I called him that afternoon, hair curling in the humidity, barefoot and sandy.
I think I might like this quite a bit, I tell him. The air is so very sweet here. I can smell the ocean and the trees.
The next day I call him again, watching children ride through the village, joyous and free.
I think we might be happy here.
The next day I call him late at night. I’d just spent the day on a friend-bender visiting mates I’d met in every other place we’d lived who’d all moved here. I’d played with horses and alpacas by the mountain with one friend, waded through an ocean lake with another, laughed in a rainforest acreage with another, had dinner by the crashing surf with another. Just give me land and animals and outside wilderness, and I’m happy as a pig in fucking mud.
This has been the best day I’ve had in a long, long time.
In order to say yes again, I had to let go.
I had to let go of judging myself so deeply about all the moving we’ve done, all the choices we’ve made and unmade. I had to let go of that stranglehold of a need to get THIS decision right.
Instead, I had to become gentle and fluid, graceful and forgiving of myself. I decided to choose a grateful heart instead of a festering one.
I’m so glad we’ve had all these adventures. We are so very lucky. We’ve learned and experienced so much from each place. And even if this one isn’t the right place forever, that’s okay too. I can choose, and choose again. It’s okay if other people think I’m crazy, it’s okay if my friends won’t understand. I know myself and I know why we are doing this.
And we chose to move again. Put half our old house into storage. Find a smaller house near the sea that we could use as a hub to explore this gold blue green coastline, maybe find an acreage eventually.
Find some wings again after feeling stuck for so very long.
Stuck is our nemesis, our kryptonite. Have to keep moving forward, evolving, choosing what is right for us next.
I don’t know what I thought my dear friends would say when I told them we were leaving. I was so sad to be leaving them, but I couldn’t remain. I didn’t know how I could explain it without sounding ungrateful, crazy, a loose cannon.
I didn’t expect to be met with so much understanding.
We were sitting in a gravel car park at sunset. It was my final night out with my dear sisterfriends.
I’m so sorry I’m leaving, I tell her.
Oh honey, it’s okay. I knew we couldn’t keep you here. You’re a mermaid out of water, you need to be back by the sea. We didn’t think you’d even last this long! We will come visit.
I squeeze back the tears. Oh to be so understood. That she knew all along. That she still loved me anyway.
We walk down the path in the darkening air. There is a labyrinth by the lake, one I have visited and walked so many times over the years. We meet another friend there, and we begin walking it silently, one by one.
It is icily cold, and I shrug my hands deep into my pockets. Around and around, goes the labyrinth. This way, then a sharp turn that way. The trail is long, confusing, hard to follow. Just as you think you are getting closer to the centre, you curl back out. The labyrinth is life, of course. The path takes you every fucking direction under the sun. You question whether you are on the right path and doing the right thing often. And just when you can barely stay with it any longer, you emerge into the blessed centre.
In the centre of this particular labyrinth is a gnarled old tree that hold prayers and offerings. Beside it is a large slab of ancient rock from the desert of Australia, so powerful you can touch it and find yourself connected to the beginning of this land. One of my dearests is sitting on the rock already. The wind blows colder, and like a heat-seeking missile, I sit down and press my back against her.
We sit there for a long while, meditating alone together. It struck me how perfect it was: this one has always had my back. The bell tower, for the first time I’ve experienced it, is in full song. Melodies ripple out from it across the lake, bells singing together. I don’t know why, but it is a miracle I tuck into my pocket.
I look up, watch the bare wavering tree limbs over us. Squint my eyes, the stars are jewelstrewn across evening’s velvet blouse now. I smile as I watch one friend still making her labyrinth journey. Smile as the warmth from my back buddy seeps into my jacket. Smile as I think of our other friends joining us later at the restaurant.
Suddenly, a wave washes over me, and I hear the words:
You are loved. You are infinitely loveable. This has all been a gift to teach you this.
Tears well in my eyes. I had no idea I was holding onto any idea that I was unlovable, unadored.
But there it was, and it had just been healed.
I soak in the warm wash of love.
If I had to go through all of this just to know this, that’s okay. I can carry this love with me wherever I go.
And I do go.
Go to the restaurant, and laugh, and tell stories, and listen. Look around at the faces of these women who love me just as I am.
Go home and kiss my husband and my children, give thanks for that cosy nest of love we’re building together, stick by stick, moss mound by moss mound. Our family is our home, no matter what state we’re in.
Finish loading the car, drive out of Canberra early one morning.
Point our car’s nose north, and head off towards the sun.