ESTEE, ON WAIHEKE (PHOTO: SUPPLIED)

The distance between us

Jillian Sullivan lives in a strawbale house in Central Otago’s Ida Valley. This essay, Between Lands, is from Map for the Heart, a new collection blending memoir and environmentalism.

There’s a moment on the ferry crossing, mid-journey, when a bird hovering over the charcoal water turns and flies towards us, wings outspread. This bird, mollymawk, suspended between waves and an apricot sky. The bird turns again, and the boat speeds on towards a bank of clouds, the plume of them covering the island, Rakiura, where tomorrow I’ll be teaching.

When the ferry motored past the last ramparts of the South Island, the last rocks, I lifted my phone to take a photo and saw the place I’d stood seven years before, newly on my own. I’d driven to Bluff because it was the southernmost end of the South Island, the furthest I could drive. I thought that would be a place to start, to get my bearings. And I’d stood on that ground and looked out at the ocean and wondered what would become of me. Where would I make a home? On the ferry, I salute that memory of my unknowing self. And now we’re travelling beyond what I had imagined my life to be, heading full tilt into the waves towards a land of small coves, dark bush, birds and the ever-lapping sea, where people when they first meet you ask, “How was your crossing?”

My granddaughter Estella, who is just three, lives on another island, Waiheke. She lives 10 hours away from me – a two-hour car trip, a two-hour wait for the plane, a two-hour flight, an hour at the airport, an hour on the bus, an hour finding my way to the ferry, an hour crossing the sea, and then the bay and the dock, the green furled hills and a small girl with curls and a hesitant smile holding her father’s hand.

Sullivan with her son Nick and granddaughter Estee, on Waiheke (Photo: Supplied)

I want to dismiss some facts about being older. You do not stop yearning. You do not stop wanting to find someone beside you when you turn. You do not stop remembering the clothesline with the tiny singlets and handmade pinafores and hand-washed stripy jerseys. The small people who wore them no longer exist in any cell form on this earth, but are now six foot and bearded, or have long shiny hair and a child on their lap, or are walking their dog on a beach you don’t know, where stars are out and flax rattles in a squiffy breeze. There are new smaller ones tucked up asleep, the books read, the apples eaten, the teeth cleaned, the water drunk, the nappies on. At home alone I bring in an armload of wood, for stars mean frost. The curtains closed, the lamps on and the quiet of a thick-walled house saying shhhh, all is well, and it is.

The small girl, Estee, lives with her parents who are also isolated on their island – from sisters and brothers, and parents and grandparents, and aunts and uncles, and from friends they once knew who knew them. And they too are saying the goodnight story and passing the lidded cup of water and whispering, if not aloud, all is well. Outside the punga ferns brush against the verandah post, the white shells glimmer on the steps, and further down the road past the fish and chip shop and the pizza cart and the swings and climbing tower, the quiet waves lift and curl like breath onto the sand, the shells with their rounded white backs to the sky – and far away my own mountains with their white sides glisten under the moon.

On the first morning, before teaching, I walk down to the sea with my coffee. The sand is damp and flat and the sea calm. Grey like the sky. These are the quiet few moments before the hard work and the journey of the day begins. Somehow, as I walk along the beach, there needs to be a transformation, from interior dweller to leader. From going mad sinking into my own psyche to helping others sink into theirs. Gulls careen across the bay. I cross the playground and walk up the street to the library door.

Hoar frost and visiting grandchildren (Photo: Supplied)

In the Gulf of Mexico there is an island called Isle de Jean Charles, and it is slowly disappearing into the sea. It is tethered to the mainland by a five-kilometre road, and there the sea eats and eats until only a ragged gravel edge remains. A child can stand there, bare feet in the water. But the school bus will no longer travel that watery highway, and on the island the hurricane-ruined houses stand empty and soggy mattresses lie on abandoned lawns. There are grandchildren and grandparents there too, almost everyone related, but where will they go? They too are standing at the bottom of the world, wondering what will become of their lives.

*

On Waiheke Island I wasn’t sure of my direction as I drove. Estee, clipped in her carseat, watched out the window.

“There’s the supermarket we went to yesterday,” I said. “There’s the road to your kindy. And there’s the road to the beach. Shall we go swimming later?”

“Grandma, I’m a bit shy of you.”

I look up at her brown eyes in the rear-vision mirror.

“We don’t see each other enough. I live at the bottom of New Zealand and you live at the top. Do you know ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’?”

“Baa baa black sheep, have you any wool?” We sing across the island.

*

One of my students, Chris, owns the restaurant on Rakiura with his wife. He said it only takes one good person in a small community and things get done. “We built this hall,” he said. “We sawed the timbers and worked in the weekends. People did what they knew. Christchurch wants a conference centre. They’re a city, and they ask – who’s going to do this for us? Our hall here is the equivalent of a four-million-dollar centre. People in cities forget they can help one another, they can do things. They ask instead, who’s going to do this for us?”

What I want to know is, how do you hold everything in your heart? The toetoe frosted silver and snow beginning to fall in dizzy spirals, and a granddaughter’s arms linked around your neck, right there beside the sea, and knowing you are it, you are Grandma.

When the class stood outside to watch the sand and the wavelets furl and unfurl, the temperature dropped. The rain changed from a shower that was dampening to rain that was continual and wetting. Wet jeans on thighs, the rain windblown towards the harbour, and cold legs, cold wet hands, wet notebooks. The sea and sky at one with this. I remember how elemental life is on an island. If there is a storm, you cannot leave. The island has the final say.

When I go to leave my granddaughter’s island, her parents are at work. I must drive her to day-care and help her take off her sandals at the door and carry her backpack in and place it on the table. I sit with her on the carpet in a circle while Ginny finishes reading a story about frogs. Estee’s face is lifted to the story. I hope she forgets, momentarily, that when I say goodbye, I am leaving the island. I know, in a way that she doesn’t, that when I return she will be someone else. There’ll be another story, not the frogs, and her sandals outgrown and perhaps some other favourite lunch. When I climb onto the boat it feels as if it’s forever. It is like forever to a three-year, two-week-and-one-day-old girl. And to me.

Sullivan and Estee (Photo: Supplied)

Rakiura has steep humped sides. Even if the water rises, the island’s going nowhere fast. Waiheke is the same. That much we can be grateful for. At the writing workshop, in our cramped room lined with books and the long table and chairs, we write and write.

“This morning one of the guests said my fire alarm woke her,” Raelene says. “I thought, fire alarm? No, it was the kiwis.”

“Do they sound like this?” I ask. “Kweet kweeet kweet? I heard that outside my window.”

“No, it’s more kwiiiiiiiireet kwiiireeeet.”

“No, like this,” another said, and ended in a rumble like a man clearing his throat.

Outside rain, sun, wind, mist, rain.

*

Everyone has loss. Some, great loss. This is the one truth of writing groups, for this is the well we draw on for courage and humour as well as for grief. To go back and back for the strength to hold now. To hold.

We write a poem, one line each, like donating a square for a quilt to keep someone else warm. “The sea is … An island is … Choose one,” I say, and I write too. There is silence, then slips of paper passed along the table.

 

The sea is our borderline; it tells us where we are … 

 

On the last morning I teach at the local school. Thirty-two students. Not one farm on this island; the living comes from the sea. “My dad’s a fisherman,” a young girl tells me. “And mine,” says another. Some students come from Ireland, and Christchurch, and Queenstown. Some tell me, “I’m 11 years old. I’ve lived here all my life.”

There’s a boy who doesn’t want to write. He wants to write. He is full of story, but how to start?

“Just start,” I tell him, like I tell my adult students. “It doesn’t matter how you start. Something will come. You don’t know what that is. You can trust it will come, though.”

He grips his pen harder. It’s poised over his book. Then half a minute before the timer goes off, he writes two sentences. He doesn’t want to read them out loud. When the teacher says he must, he looks to me as if I will save him.

Life will only get harder, I want to tell him. One day you’ll have to go off to boarding school, you’ll have to stand up, put your creative endeavours in front of those who don’t know you. Better to begin here, in this small circle of islanders. Better to feel what it’s like to take that leap – the fear, and then the achievement – now.

He begins to read. A small step, and I am overwhelmed again at how much courage a child needs to live. His voice is clear and measured and strong. Hearing him, one would not know the clenched pen.

“This is how it is for writers,” I tell the class. “Sometimes you don’t know what to say, and you have to say it.”

Sullivan outside her strawbale home, and her remarkable essay collection Map for the Heart (Photo: Supplied)

Seven years ago, when I left the North Island for the South Island, my blue car was packed to the ceiling (minus the soup pot, which I’d given to my daughter). Blustery wind in Wellington. A photo shows me with my hair blown across my face. The air sharp, fresh, though it was December and summer. And all along there was a home waiting for me on the other side, though I didn’t know it then. A home that needed to be imagined, constructed, committed to, but it arose. I didn’t know I would become strong in my arms and legs. I could have sailed from north to south and emerged as practical and capable on the other side because it was necessary, and it happened anyway. As it was, I took my positive and naïve self and blundered into the building process and then grew stronger. And now I have a home, far from my children.

When I lived in Wellington there were three children out of my five living in the same city, and Estee not born. Now my children and grandchildren live in different localities the length of New Zealand, and in Australia. Is it possible we could all live near one another again? Some would have to change islands, or country, move from snow to tropical, or sea to mountains, from city to village, from mainland to island. I would have to leave my handmade house, because who would choose to live in the coldest valley in the country? Where there are limited jobs and you take turns cleaning the public toilet and it’s a long way to buy groceries? If we could all have chosen the same place … but we have grown idiosyncratically and have flown like particles to metal attraction. I cannot change a thing.

Yet how do you hold it all in one heart, one island?

*

On Isle de Jean Charles, in the southern bayous, some of the islanders want to stay and some have already gone. What they hope for is to be together. The government has purchased a 222-hectare sugarcane farm an hour’s drive away to relocate the community to.

“What are they going to do when they get there?” asks 81-year-old Theo Chaisson, interviewed for the Independent. These islanders have always made their living from the sea. “You think they’ll have oysters in their backyard, speckled trout, red fish, shrimp? No.” Yet they’ll be joined again by pathways, from grandparent to grandchild, friend to friend.

The binds of a land lived in for seven generations hold strong. Though this land was once a forest of oak and fir, and now smells of the rot of salt-infused trees, there are those who don’t want to go. “I’ll tell them, ‘No, no, no’,” says Chaisson. Maybe only his grandchildren will grow up amid the scent of sugarcane.

We are a turbulent world, one criss-crossed by those who leave, those who search for a new home, hearts wracked by memories of those they leave behind, and their land, but also by the effort of living with such loss.

Of being disunited.

Leaving Waiheke (Photo: Supplied)

I walk away from my granddaughter to the car, then to the ferry. I stand on the aft deck for the crossing, facing the sea, arms crossed over my stomach for balance. I watch the waves churn and the island recede, bearing witness to the distance lengthening between us. One small bay becomes an island, becomes a dark horizon, becomes one island among headlands and other islands, becomes diminutive in the expanse of sea and sky. Behind me the obelisks of the city rise.

*

How do we live without the people we love? It is a question that has no simple answer or solution. We are condemned to loneliness. We leave or are left by the small ones, or the old ones, or our own ones. The landscape changes inexorably: rivers we once swam in now cannot be entered, trees we once loved have been felled. There were open spaces we once gazed across, now blocked by fences, by malls. We live with this too. I place my suitcase on the asphalt at the city end. People brush past me.

I don’t know how to carry on. How to walk my way to the bus. Back to my life of mountain, valley, tussock, hawk.

*

On Rakiura, before I left, the sea was grey, the surface roughened by wind. A low surge of water rolled over itself into foam. The boats faced the shore, their ropes leading to matching orange buoys, looped in that space between air and water. The boats lightly held on the surface of the sea.

Map for the Heart: Ida Valley essays, by Jillian Sullivan (Otago University Press, $35) is available from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington




The Spinoff is made possible by the generous support of the following organisations.
Please help us by supporting them.