Coming home

An old upright piano sits in the park, near the public toilets. It is wooden, painted white, and a bit dishevelled. I sit at it and open the lid. The keys are discoloured, some of them chipped. 

I play. 

I play a little piece I’ve made up over many years. I don’t even remember when I started playing it. Maybe in high school. It’s very simple. Based on a single chord in the left hand, and the notes of that scale in the right hand. It’s different each time I play it, and that’s the point. This is the piece I play when I really just want to play. This kind of playing, where I’m just making it up as I go along, takes me to some other place. The whole of me becomes this music, this play. 

It is a relief to become something else for a time, and a joy. 

I’m in Sydney Park. A place I must have walked a thousand times when I lived nearby some years ago. I’d been wandering around the park before I found the piano. Noticing what had changed, noticing what was the same. 

I haven’t lived near here now for years. I’ve lived in another state for nearly three years. I’m visiting Sydney with a man—a little adventure we’re having together. He’s somewhere else in the park now, writing. Later we will walk down King Street and Enmore Road, my arm looped through his, and we will talk about how important this part of Sydney—the park, Newtown, the Inner West—is to me, to my story. To who I am and who I’m becoming. We’ll talk about what home is, what coming home means—a conversation we’ve been having on and off for quite some time. 

By the time I find myself sitting at a piano in Sydney Park, I’ve been home from my travels overseas for a few weeks. I’ve been confused and a bit lost for most of that time. More than a week of the fog of jet lag, not being sure where I was in time, wanting to eat at strange hours, sleep when I should be awake. Actually, just wanting to eat and sleep pretty much all the time. 

But the confusion is more than just jet lag. 

Home is strange to me. That feeling when you get back from being away, where the house looks different in some way you can’t put your finger on, that has lingered.

It’s something to do with time, and something to do with change. Time has passed for me and time has passed for my home, and things have changed, but it’s happened separately. I have an ongoing feeling of needing to catch up, and of needing to catch others up, but not having the words with which to do that. 

The beginning of this year was incredibly difficult for me, in ways I’m not ready to talk about publicly. My mental health took a pretty heavy beating. I’m okay, mostly, but I’m changed. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I’m changing. 

The overseas travel was difficult for me. I was fragile when I left Australia, and frightened. 

The trip helped me find myself, in the way that travel often does. I found my courage again, my capacity to make decisions and deal with uncertainty and unfamiliarity. But it also helped me lose myself. Things that were really important to me no longer seem quite so vital. I’ve changed my mind about some things I thought were more solid. A lot of this is good, of course, but there’s a certain quiet kind of grief involved in letting go of parts of oneself. Saying goodbye. 

And so coming home is strange. I’ve come face to face with an old version of myself, a person I sort of still am but also am not. It will take me some time to make something of the threads between these different versions of myself. 

In Sydney Park at the piano, I play as people and their dogs walk past. I’m not much of a fan of performing; but I’m not feeling self-conscious about playing in front of people like this, which is new for me. 

Some of the piano keys don’t work, and there are pauses in the piece where I don’t intend there to be. Many of the keys are slightly off in their tuning. The sustaining pedal doesn’t work. The piece I play sounds both the same and different to any other time I’ve ever played it, on this different piano. The keys feel different under my fingertips, the piano stool different under my sit bones. 

The sameness, though, is me. The threads of me that link all these different selves. The memory that’s in my fingers as they play, in my body as it sways with the rhythm of the piece. The part of me that was always at home.

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Traces of things from the past

Ceiling from the floor In the mornings, I roll out of bed and onto the floor, where I breathe and move my body through a series of strange shapes and stand still and move again and sit and lie down and breathe. Some mornings my breath is difficult, sometimes my back or my hips or my neck and shoulders hurt. Most mornings my bedroom carpet smells like the dog who used to live in the house with the people who lived here before I did.

My room is small. Over time, I’ve worked out where I need to stand at the beginning of a sun salute so I don’t end up kicking my bedside table half way through the sequence, where on the floor I need to lie so I’ve room to let my legs drop to the floor on my right side and then my left for a lying twist. I’ve worked out these same things about how my body fits into the space in each of my bedrooms for the last eight years or so. In most of those houses, I’ve also practiced in various shared spaces: the lounge room, sometimes the kitchen. The feel of carpet, floor boards or kitchen tiles under hand and foot; the layer of dust that gathers under furniture; the way hip bones, knees, shoulder blades dig into and are bruised or not by various floor surfaces; the way light plays on the ceilings and light fittings — these are things I know about the houses in which I’ve lived, these are the ways I remember those places.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the Buddhist concept of ‘samskaras’, or ‘traces of things from the past’. Which is probably another way of saying that I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my own past. I recently had an essay about the traces of places in memory and the concept of ‘home’ published on Tabula Rasa. I’ve often wondered about how much what we think of as home is really just about familiarity, or whether there are also places for individuals that feel genuinely more like home than others, regardless of how much time a person has spent in that place. How much of ‘home’ is inherent and how much is learned?

My thinking about samskaras and place and home has done strange things to time. I’ve not been entirely confident about where I am in the week, and often where exactly I am in the timeline of my life. It’s a sentiment I’ve repeated several times in the last year, and I wonder whether it’s the effect of making a change in my life like moving interstate, and everything that’s come with that. Moving back to a place I’ve lived before has perhaps amplified that weirdness in time. It’s pushed me to see again past versions of myself, and to try and integrate both past Sophies and present Sophie into some kind of coherent narrative of identity. It’s an odd process. Not entirely unpleasant, but definitely weird.

Another way of thinking about samskaras is to think of them as habits — in doing, thinking, responding — that have formed because of the stuff of life. Of course, periods of great trauma or stress or joy leave traces, but so too does the mundane, everyday stuff of our lives. So it makes sense that a period of transition or big change like moving interstate, where many or most of one’s everyday habits are shed, would have the potential to shine light on some of the other habits or traces.

The shake-up of everyday rhythms and habits might also explain why time is so strange for me right now. In her post on Claudia Hammond’s book, Time Warped: Unlocking the Mysteries of Time Perception, Maria Popova summarises Hammond’s theory about why a good holiday feels at the time like it’s flying by, but long when you look back on it later.

“…the Holiday Paradox has to do with the quality and concentration of new experiences, especially in contrast to familiar daily routines. During ordinary life, time appears to pass at a normal pace, and we use markers like the start of the workday, weekends, and bedtime to assess the rhythm of things. But once we go on vacation, the stimulation of new sights, sounds, and experiences injects a disproportionate amount of novelty that causes these two types of time to misalign. The result is a warped perception of time.”

Change, they say, is as good as a holiday. I wonder whether that’s because, like a holiday, change injects this novelty into life. It gives us an opportunity to see things from a different perspective. And if, as research suggests, the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves are so important to our wellbeing, then what a great opportunity this is.

Something I love about the concept of samskaras is that it’s entirely neutral. There is no judgement; the traces are just there. Whether or not a habit is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is a judgment value we place on it after it’s noticed. The idea in noticing is to have some idea of what we’re carrying around with us, because those things inevitably affect the way we think and behave in the present. They affect who we are. Figuring out what in that luggage (or is it baggage?) is helpful and what isn’t is a tricky process though.

I remembered the other day that when I moved to Sydney from Melbourne all those years ago, I wrote about packing memories into boxes. (But I also wrote about packing ideas for the future into boxes… and then abandoning them. Clearly moving and packing was a powerful metaphor for me.) My life at that time was incredibly confusing. I’d been through a particularly heartbreaking breakup, immediately after which I’d decided to move interstate. This meant quitting my job, then having to find a new one; it meant meeting lots of new people and learning to live with a whole new set of people. I had to get to know a new city. I felt like I had to get to know myself again too.

It’s been useful for me to remember that time now and how confusing it was for me. Partly because this time around I’m not hurting anywhere near as much as I was then, and partly because it shows me that perhaps, for me at least, prolonged confusion is just part of the process of making big changes.

But now, instead of figuratively packing and unpacking boxes, I’m breathing and standing and folding forward and bending backwards and twisting and sitting and lying down and breathing. Having that thread, the yoga, has become, unexpectedly, a way of remembering what it’s like to take up space in the world I inhabit now as well as what it felt like to do so in times and places I’ve left behind. It’s a way of remembering what it felt like — in every sense of that phrase — to be me at those times, and of noticing what it feels like to be me now. It’s a way of feeling time and all the things it changes and all the things it doesn’t and to see that things just go on even if it’s not always easy or straightforward. It helps me see that at some point I’ll be looking back on this present, perhaps as I roll around on the floor in some new place, and be seeing the traces, the samskaras, left by what’s happening now.

Walking home

This last week or so I’ve been walking home from work on the three days a week that I’m in the office. It takes me about an hour to get from my office to my front door, which is about double the time that it would take if I caught the tram, but I much prefer it.

When I was teaching yoga full-time in Sydney last year, I walked fair distances very regularly. I didn’t realise until I started walking home from my current work just how much I missed it. Walking somewhere gives me a feeling of being capable, on a very basic level, in a way that catching public transport or driving somewhere doesn’t. My body can get me there.

And walking for an hour definitely gives me a good sense of my body – not really of what it looks like, but of what it feels like. When I walk, eventually all the little tight bits make themselves known to me, and the dodgy alignment of my hips and shoulders is increasingly obvious (a side note: when I walk long distances shortly after an osteo session, where my skeleton is nicely aligned, it’s absolutely magic). After an hour’s walk my feet are sore and I’m tired. I sleep better.

Now that autumn’s upon us, walking home in the evening means facing the chill in the air. Something I loved about walking places in winter when I lived in Sydney was watching my body warm itself up with movement. I’d leave the house layered up with jumpers, jackets, gloves and scarves, and usually by the time I’d reached my destination, I’d taken most of it off, even when it was a very cold day.

Walking home this last week or so, I’ve been aware again of that warming process, and I’m still amazed by it (even though it makes complete sense). In cool weather, walking warms me up from the inside, and I love the contrast between that internal warmth and the coolness of the exposed skin of my face and hands.

Walking home, Princes Park It’s always been my habit to end up with favourite sections of regular walks. They’re usually parks or nature strips of some description. I have a feeling my favourite bit of my walk home from Melbourne City to Brunswick will end up being the section along Royal Parade where I can walk along the edge of Princes Park (pictured). Walking, more than anything else, is what helps me feel like I’m really in a place. There’s something about moving through the same place on a regular basis that helps it really sink in.

Of course, the other fantastic thing about walking home is that by the time I get there, I’m calm. Walking, like yoga, helps me move my way through frustration and anxiety. Regular walking (and regular yoga, for that matter) makes me a generally calmer person. This can’t be a bad thing.

Six months in

Today it’s been six months since my housemate and I landed in Melbourne. I can’t quite believe it’s been that long. But at the same time it seems like I’ve been here much longer. Time is still doing strange things for me.

A number of people said to both my housemate and I before we left Sydney that it takes six months to a year to really start feeling at home in a place after you’ve moved, and that’s certainly what I remember from when I moved in the other direction five and a half years ago.

Actually, when I’d been in Sydney six months, I had a bit of a breakdown. The enormity of what I’d done hit me for the first time. I’m not sure it will be like that this time around (well, I certainly hope it isn’t), if only because there was a lot more lead time before this move than there was for the earlier one.

Do I feel at home in Melbourne? The simple answer is yes. Yes, I do feel at home here. The more complicated answer is that I feel more at home in myself here than I think I ever did in Sydney — but I don’t really know how much of that is to do with the places themselves and how much is just growing up a little more.

The first few months in Melbourne were very strange for me. I guess because I’d lived here before, and because my housemate and I have ended up living in a neighbourhood in which I’d lived before, I had the strange sensation of not being entirely sure where I was in time. I mean, I knew intellectually, of course. The best way I can think to describe how I felt was that my body wasn’t quite sure. The scents, the sounds, the particular colourscape of Melbourne; those things belonged to a different time in my life, and here I was all of a sudden living among them again.

I was describing this sensation to a friend from Sydney who came to visit, and he asked me if it was because Melbourne had changed, either subtly or otherwise. I realised that it wasn’t that at all. Melbourne was much the same. But I had changed. I’d changed in the five years I’d lived in Sydney (of course), and being in Melbourne again was like being face to face with the version of me who lived here all those years ago.

Thankfully, that strangeness has mostly passed now. And what’s settled is a increasing calmness. I’ve found myself being paid to do things I love, which is obviously great. I’m living in a great house in a great area. I feel like I can take a breath and, for the first time in a long time, think about what I might like to do in the next few years. Of course there are plenty of little improvements that could be made (there always are), but for the most part, life is pretty good, six months in. Thanks Melbourne.

~

TreesWhile I’ve been settling in, I’ve been taking pictures of the garden as I play around in it, improving the soil and planting things. The bottom picture is of a couple of lilly pillies that were already in the garden when we moved in. I think I took this the day we picked up the keys. The top picture I took a couple of weeks ago. That they’ve grown so much (and gone a bit wild, really) I think perfectly illustrates the first six months of life in Melbourne for me.

Mental ambling

These last two weeks, when I’ve put myself in yoga postures, I’ve found myself mentally traversing the streets of inner-western Sydney that I used to frequent. I’ve travelled mentally down King Street in Newtown, and down various side- and backstreets I wandered; through Darlington and Redfern; up and down Glebe Point Road. I’ve also found myself mentally inhabiting my various bedrooms and lounge rooms in Sydney — particularly those from my last two houses there. It’s an odd experience.

Up until a few weeks ago, I’d not been on the floor for yoga with any kind of regularity, and it seems that being back in my physical body now that I am yoga-ing every day again is putting me back in those places I spent lots of time in. It’s not really like reliving particular memories — although my memory of those places is obviously necessary for the experience. There’s no such specificity. Instead it’s like I’m wandering through those places anew; a mental experience that’s no doubt cobbled together from various more specific memories. It’s like a waking dream.

There’s a sadness to it, a missing. But it’s a missing without longing. Not at all like the way I miss the various important people it’s now much harder for me to see.

It’s almost as though my mind is taking me slowly through the various places that have been important to me — or at least places I went frequently — so that I can let those memories settle and get on with things here.

The strangest part is that these mental journeys only happen when I’m doing yoga. Not when I’m going about my day, not when I’m lying in bed at night trying to sleep, not when I go for a wander in the nearby park. Of course, the mental and emotional sorting that yoga seems to encourage is half the reason I do it in the first place, so it shouldn’t surprise me that the practice is bringing up all this stuff.

Melbourne and Sydney are compared with one another an awful lot, and I don’t really have anything to add to that conversation, except to say that they’re very different places and that each has its own list of pros and cons. But in a way this is a process of comparing my physical experience of them in my own mind. I had a conversation the other day with a friend on Twitter about my missing of Sydney’s farmers’ markets. There are, of course, plenty of farmers’ markets in Melbourne — a number of them a short way from my house. I said to my friend that none of them were quite the same, and while this is true, I think that what I was really trying to get at is that I’ve not yet settled here into the familiarity I had with where the markets in Sydney were, how to get there, what I might find there. Of how those places fitted into my life, or how my life fitted into those places. And this, really, is indicative of where I am with the move on a larger scale. Despite the familiarity of Melbourne itself to me, and despite my fondness for it, I’ve not yet figured out how my life fits in here, of what it is that this place means or will mean for me this time round.

Then I remember that I’ve only been here for just shy of four months and my not feeling completely settled makes a lot of sense. Before we left, a few people said to my housemate and I that it had taken them six months to a year to feel settled in a new place the last time they made a big move, and now I come to think of it, it probably took me that long to feel settled in Sydney when I moved there from here five years ago. So I’ve got a way to go yet, and probably a few more mental journeys through Sydney’s streets to take. In the meantime, it’s awfully interesting to watch those mental organising processes, if that’s what this is, occurring.

And as for the markets question, there are a few contenders that I think I might warm to over the next few months. Here are some shots I took the other day at Collingwood Children’s Farm, which has a market every Saturday that I’ll get to for the first time this coming weekend. (CCF is a city farm, which none of markets I frequented in Sydney were — it’s rather lovely.)

Ghosts and New Beginnings

Life is very strange at the moment. Well, it has been for quite some time now, but it’s been extra strange since my housemate and I landed in Melbourne. It’s taken me a little while to tease out the strangeness, to get a good sense of where it’s really coming from.

The answer isn’t simple, of course, but part of why I’ve felt pretty weird these last couple of weeks is that I’ve found myself trying to marry together different parts of myself. The parts of me that existed when I lived in Melbourne, the parts of me that were there when I visited and missed this city, and who I feel like I am now. I’ve mentioned here before that Melbourne often feels to me like it’s haunted. For me, it’s a place full of ghosts — ghosts of the past me, ghosts of long-over relationships, ghosts of friendships changed. And perhaps the missing of the place has made each of those ghosts just a little more powerful now I’m living here again. Nostalgia is a strange thing, cruel at times.

A while ago, for a piece I was writing, I was reading a lot about narration and the self, and how vital it is for our mental wellbeing to build a coherent sense of self. So much of that building process is about making connections between events, objects and places that are, really, not closely related to one another. In other words, we tell ourselves a story about what happens to us in order to make sense of it, and in order to create the character we call our ‘self’. What’s happening to me now, I think, is that those stories aren’t quite matching up. There’s a bit of rearranging to be done in my thinking about them.

Along with that confusion though has been an immense sense of relief. I feel relaxed here, at home. I guess the weirdness will settle eventually, and that I’ll figure out how to fit all those parts of myself back together again. And, I hope, I’ll learn to live more easily with the ghosts here. They are, after all, mostly benevolent ones.

Breaking

This week I’ve taken (mostly) a break. After last week’s adrenaline-fueled activity, doing very little this week has felt… well, actually, it’s felt a little like breaking. Taking a break has given me space to break a little. And I think that’s a good thing.

But I’m interested in how closely related those two things are — stopping, and falling apart a little, that is. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the word ‘break’ covers both. My body is sore and bruised and tired from all the moving of belongings. I’ve got back into a more energetic yoga practice this week, and noticed that tiredness more than anything else. My flexibility and strength don’t appear to have changed all that much after a week or so of only restorative yoga, but just how much my body’s willing or able to do has changed quite a lot. There’s just not a lot of energy there.

It’s funny, I often notice the effects of stress as fatigue in my physical body before I notice that I’m feeling it emotionally. Yesterday, my arms didn’t quite want to hold me up in poses they normally have no trouble with, and my legs were wobbly where they wouldn’t normally be. I had to stop for a while quite a lot. My body was relieved when I finally lay down on the floor to rest at the end. Then last night I finally cracked and cried about some of the logistical issues we’re having with the move. And I realised that what I was crying about was not just the particular worries from yesterday, but about all the worries that are associated with this (and any) move.

So today I’m moving slowly. I slept in this morning, then pottered around before going into town to have lunch with Mum. This afternoon I’ve done a few bits and pieces and will spend a little more time on my yoga mat. I’m just letting myself be a little broken because, well, I am a little broken, and it’s not going to help me to pretend otherwise. Instead of pretending I’m okay, when really I’m fragile, I’m going to put that effort into picking up the pieces and making sure I’m keeping them all together in a safe place.