I barely got on the plane. My stomach reflux flared up again after a workshop in Manchester. My doctor in Sydney had given me enough tablets to tide me over until I started my sabbatical in New Zealand, a three-month fellowship at a retreat centre on a sheltered strip of beach at Long Bay. But not even strong medication could quell my familiar companion as I took leave of absence from work and any semblance of home.
My body must have known it was headed in the right direction as soon as we lifted above the clouds. We crossed over Erbil where refugees sought safety in the Kurdish capital thousands of metres below my window seat and continents away from the safe haven awaiting me. I had never felt more grateful to be on a plane.
‘The project you came with may not be the project you leave with,’ warned John Fairbrother, the director, over our first cup of tea in the dining room.
I’d applied to write stories of displacement, the lost threads of girls who’d fled war. Bright roses, cats and birds, someone’s initials, the intricate patterns and colours of homes and families embroidered onto cloth that a museum in Vienna had boxed in darkness for a century. To mark the war’s centenary the museum exhibited the refugees’ handiwork. I gave my first public lecture in Vienna two days before the workshop in Manchester.
Two years later it all seems like another lifetime. John was right. I left my project and profession and discovered my own silent threads in the dark.
Before I arrived at Vaughan Park, I’d struggled to articulate the displacement in my chosen academic life. As though my language of the past had been buried by a wave crashing from a Pacific storm and spreading its white foam carpet over my ground of understanding. As the storm receded and left a beach full of broken shells, I started to learn to live between the tides, carried by the ocean’s breath.
‘It’s like being inside Mary’s womb,’ a visiting Episcopalian priest described the retreat centre chapel that overlooked the water.
We were speaking after mass on the feast of Mary’s assumption six weeks into my sabbatical, but her words had nothing to do with a liturgical event. Suddenly I saw what had been happening to me in the rhythmic swelling and falling, crouching on slippery rocks and climbing steep cliffs, sitting on the heated tiles of the chapel floor with the day disappearing behind green hills. Hearing the older woman’s voice outside the chapel I knew it was time. I wrote my first words of resignation as inexplicable as the assumption.
Six weeks of pacing cliffs and rocks came to a standstill. Once the inward process of leaving was set in motion I kept close to the centre, only venturing out for an errand or to sit in a café in the rain. At night I took my thermos of tea to the top of the retreat centre to watch the moon from a miniature shell garden in the shape of a koru unfurling.
Sometimes it takes darkness, poet David Whyte says, to learn / anything or anyone / that does not bring you alive / is too small for you.
In the presence of the moon I asked what might make me alive, doubted about ever outgrowing the confines of these broken shells, wondered if I’d be able to learn not just when to leave but also when to stay. I’d been moving so long, I didn’t know how to stop. The moon had travelled even longer than me, but she seemed to understand my need for stability. I’d stopped believing in an itinerant God who travelled to earth and died homeless. If she was a mother, she’d know how to make a home.
The stories that touched me most at Vaughan Park were the mothers of high needs children who came to unburden and find strength to give again. I could see the difference in their faces from Friday evening to Saturday as they opened up at dinner after a day of massages. The quilters were some of my favourite retreat companions with stories as vibrant as their recycled fabric: Japanese kimonos worn by monks stitched into a wedding present for a bed, scraps sewn into a keepsake for a friend or grandchild. The loudest group turned up on their motorbikes for a white ribbon ride around the country. Some had spent time in jail, some had lost children to family violence, but each taught what forgiveness sounds like when they held me in a circle with their voices soaring in a Maori hymn of peace.
Leaving Vaughan Park was harder than leaving my career. Yet in some ways I never really left. I’m still learning to live between the tides, still listening to the song of broken shells unfolding in a prayer for peace. The conversations I’ve become part of are like so many I joined at Vaughan Park. One of those conversations was the history of an adult faith centre in Sydney, Aquinas Academy.
‘It doesn’t feel finished,’ I told Michael Whelan, the Marist priest who invited me to write the Aquinas Academy story.
The stories are never finished. They are only given back to the ocean like the shells at high tide. Sometimes the stories have been hidden, covered up by an institution in the false name of security. Those stories, too, are carried by the tides. Sometimes the stories, like the monks’ kimonos made into a wedding quilt, are stitched out of silence into blessing. I will keep listening to those prayers.
Image Sally Longley