On Your Birthday

It’s twenty years, minus a few days, since we met. You 19, me 17. Fueled by an insatiable energy of optimism, hope, and adventure, longing for a life of which we’d dreamed. But simultaneously deeply fearing and hurting, with only a fragile belief that we could create a life different from that which we dreaded. A two-sided coin. Maybe these kindred drives meeting at that time was how such a deep friendship could be laid so quickly. Maybe it was coming from two countries, meeting in a third, then living on a ship and traveling to 30 more that made this bond inescapable. Maybe it’s our dogged tenacity and this ongoing belief that beauty can always be created.

And here we are now, 20 years later, with plenty of battle scars along the way. If only something could record the intricacies and undulations of a marriage and friendship; the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. Now two little lives puff gently in their sleep at the other end of the camper trailer; here, in the middle of outback Queensland, yet right at the centre of where they should be.

39 years beautiful, and an honour to have been along for most of them with you. The future looks shaky and fearful, but it’s a privilege to face it with you. Again, this two-sided coin, of hope and love and enduring beauty, and fear and sadness and the feeling of powerlessness to change an outcome. The beauty’s excruciating, as is the pain, and it’s sometimes easier to keep both at bay. This traveling, this great unraveling, makes that more difficult to do. I’m glad we can unravel together.

Happy birthday to the best, the centre of our lives.

The Joy and the Sorrow

And that’s the thing. It’s like joy — sometimes I think there’s a conception of joy as meaning something like something easy. And to me, joy has nothing to do with ease. And joy has everything to do with the fact that we’re all going to die. That’s actually — when I’m thinking about joy, I’m thinking about that at the same time as something wonderful is happening, some connection is being made in my life, we are also in the process of dying. That is every moment. That is every moment.

Ross Gay, in interview with Krista Tippett, On Being

By accepting the truth of change, accepting that we don’t know how our life will unfold, we open ourselves to hope so that we can move forward with vitality and will…[M]uch of our driven pace and habitual controlling in daily life does not serve surviving, and certainly not thriving. It arises from a free-floating anxiety about something being wrong or not enough. Even when our fear arises in the face of actual failure, loss, or death, our instinctive tensing and striving are often ineffectual and unwise.

Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance

We’ve set off on a six-month road trip. It was a quick decision made after a camping trip at Easter, during which Eva felt the best she had done in some months. She is loathe to call it a bucket list event, but it was something we had always hoped to do as a family when the kids were older. It became clear, quickly, that if there was something we could do now, which added not only to Eva’s enjoyment of life but our quality of life as a family, we should do it now. It was a straightforward decision on an emotional level, but more tricky for me in regards to work; I had not long before started a new position in a capacity I was excited about which seemed to be a step in the direction of where I was starting to see my career going. This was exacerbated by my already disrupted medical career progression after a change of specialty and then Eva’s initial diagnosis of cancer. However, I’ve been wanting to practice an attitude of holding lightly to career goals or aspirations; partly because I know they can change, and mostly because I’ve always wanted to prioritise my own and my family’s wellbeing over the more traditional and visible markers of success and accomplishment. I was aware of this tension and I am still learning to sit with the discomfort.

Marmor, QLD

Our emergence into a 24/7 life together as a foursome in a camper trailer is taking shape. Already patterns and routines have emerged, all of which are underpinned by a simplicity which Eva and I were hopeful of. One of the most stressful aspects of her metastatic breast cancer on a day-to-day basis, is having to ‘manage’ it amongst all the usual trappings of life. Kids need to be tended to and brought to school or looked after at home. Jobs need to be done, long commutes need traversed, a home needs looked after. Whilst all these things are expected of all of us, I think we so often felt drained by having to conduct the ‘normal’ whilst simultaneously carrying this extra weight in our minds and hearts and, for Eva, her body. So often we have just wanted space and quiet to sit with the enormity of the thoughts and feelings that arise at times, but still to have the head space and energy to enjoy family life and to parent as we want. One thing we have both struggled with in various forms is the fear that our own experience of stress and worry is transferred onto our children in a way that is unhelpful to them. This is their life too, and their experience which they will have to go through, but we felt acutely aware of not wanting to add to that through manifesting our own tension. Which is obviously a potential spiral into self-perpetuating worry about worry which does no-one any good.

Brutus, our home for the next six months.

For us this family time together is about living fully in the present, and experiencing joy today. But Ross Gay’s quote above, about joy being possible only because of our awareness of death, feels wholly relevant. Eva said that if we had to go home now for whatever reason, she felt that this time had been worth it already. There is a constant brooding sense of the significance of this journey that causes some pain and discomfort whilst it simultaneously creates moments of love and joy. The joy and the sorrow are closely intertwined. We try to hold both lightly, knowing that predicting the future is a fool’s errand, but physical symptoms such as fatigue or bone pain can rather jolt us into the future. This continuum of the here and now with momentary excursions to months or years down the line is something we are becoming more used to, but it is tiresome nonetheless. There are hours and days where we are lulled into hopeful dreaming that this insidious disease will somehow burn itself out and fade into oblivion, and I think on some level we both do hope for some kind of weirdly good outcome. At our second camp, the owner, a special man in his 70s called Wazza, told us of his wife who died of breast cancer in in 1984 aged 36. Tanya, a full-time traveler whom we met at Wazza’s bush camp, told Eva of her mother’s death aged 51 from malignant melanoma, and her own experience of feeling uncertain of life when she reached the age of 52. There are constant reminders which are difficult to swallow.

Finch Hatton Gorge, QLD

Nevertheless, we hope that forest bathing and creek plunging and beach walking and sun worshiping and family immersion does wonders for Eva’s cellular pathways, boosts her immune system, and encourages an ongoing zest for life. It’s beautiful to be surrounded by all types of natural beauty and to feel like each one does something a little bit magical; soothing greens, cleansing crystal clear water, rich earth, majestic trees, soaking saltiness, and enlivening sun. It’s a reminder that whenever we do come back to normality and routine that this sense of vitality can always be present. We live in a coastal paradise with incredible beaches and verdant hinterlands, but still life becomes consumed with the confines of work and dates and speed and harried interactions. How can we automate this ingestion of and live fully in and aware of the slowness and steadiness of nature? Other things seem to fade in comparison, yet we are so addicted to being validated and affirmed and seen to be doing what is expected of us.

Eungella, QLD

Tara Brach talks a lot about pausing to become aware of the sensation in our bodies prior to reacting to something. I have plenty of opportunity to do this living in a camper with two small children, but usually I’ve crossed the finish line before even remembering to pause. It’s a scary but rewarding thing to do. What does it feel like in my body when I’m experiencing joy? Where does sorrow sit and how do I hold it? How does this anger arise and when can I become aware of it at the earliest opportunity? What is this sadness and how deep does it go? For some it feels like unhelpful navel gazing; but I wonder if this is because usually the pace of our lives doesn’t allow this degree of examination and interrogation of ourselves. How would our world – or even just our own personal relationships – be changed if we developed the habit of pausing and sitting with the most uncomfortable of feelings before they are expressed as words or actions? I think if we did, possibly we would see that our joy resides not so far from sorrow, and our anger not so far from love. They are separated by porous boundaries, and sometimes it takes quietness, or a great uprooting in life, to feel the movement between them, to acknowledge the depths of the fear of loss and the joy of having.

Booloumba Creek, QLD