In-Between by Heather Taylor-Johnson
How do I talk about home? How do I communicate the distance between Adelaide and Sydney? It’s easy to calculate kilometres and round off to the half-hour how long it might take to drive the distance, but how do I measure the pull from one place to the other? I believe there was a beginning and there is a now (there can never be an end) and it’s the in-between we rip apart, trying to get at the bones of big things, like love and loss and home. How many minor poems begin and end like this:
Adelaide, I’ve seen the square of your heart pulsing in the heat,
your brown-veined river tapped-out and rank, your black fingers
touching the sea and pricked on the lovely vine – I have tasted
your blood and it tastes like wine. Once I considered getting lost
(an impossible fate) then decided to go home but the train
was late. I hear drums in the park and follow their beat,
discover giant fig trees at my feet. When I say your name Adelaide
my tongue is a snake sliding over your hills, all scales, no feet.
I pick late-night falafel from my teeth.
I’m in Sydney, on my way to the Blue Mountains, a writers’ residency, a yellow house. It once belonged to the writer Eleanor Dark and her husband, Eric, and they called it ‘Varuna’. There are stories of Eleanor’s ghost, how you can feel her beside you when walking down the stairs, how noisy she is when she climbs the ladder (it would seem she is always moving, a restless ghost). I’m going to Varuna to write about illness and art and live with ghosts for ten days: Eleanor’s, Vincent Van Gogh’s, the ghost of my healthy body. I have a beginning and I have a now, and in-between the beginning and now illness birthed a ghost that breathes in experience and exhales memory and I need to write the stories. I’m going to inhabit that ghost, make sense of its loves and losses, make sense of its homes.
There are five of us and a dog in Adelaide. I cannot write about myself without writing about ‘us’. To write about illness is to write about the body – the whole body – and they are each a part of mine. The boys are my limbs; without them I couldn’t jump or high-five. The girl is my core, giving me she-woman strength. When you roar, it comes from the core. Also when you sob. Also when you laugh. My husband is my heart and it’s his blood that fuels me. His blood which is mixed with the blood of so many others from the time he died, twice, then came back to life. He thinks he survived so that we could meet and my body make our babies. And let us not forget the dog. The dog is my bowel; I need him daily in a very basic and simple way. Like I need shitting, and I don’t mean it to sound cruel or crass – I always mean to sound like a poet. Without my family, my body breaks down, and I know from experience that the essential ‘I’ of me will follow. This then means: without my family, I cannot write.
And yet, and yet, it is near-impossible to write with them around me, touching me, demanding of me, taking from me. And yet, and yet, I find I want to write about them constantly when I’m away.
To write about my body, I must write about ‘us’. I must write about home.
Here is a short definition of home:
My agent, Jo, brought me to her home for the night, where her child slept in her bed and I slept in his. His stories hung on his walls and littered his floor; one was paused in the middle of the telling, lying patiently on his desk. Their dog snuffled about then left me to sleep, toddled into their room.
How nice it is to feel welcomed, to hear a person say, This is my home, all of this is me, and you are welcome. I think Jo likes my writing because I write about family.
In the morning she drove me to the ferry at Manly. ‘It’s much nicer than going through the traffic,’ she said, and what I didn’t say was ‘Travel by water makes me sick.’ But then so does traffic. Coming to the Blue Mountains will not only be good for my writing but for my illness, too. There are many complexities in trying to determine why this is but I think it has a lot to do with not driving. My peripheral vision is in overload whenever and wherever I drive and it tires me out. School pick-ups and drop-offs, the neverendingness of groceries, the children’s sports, their music – I’m looking forward to the speed of walking over the next two weeks, the heaviness of ghosts in the yellow house.
I’m sitting on the lower deck because any higher my stomach might fall overboard, scaring fish and scattering cigarette butts. What is it with smokers who don’t think their butts in the sea are as bad as an empty bottle? There is a man smoking on the upper deck and I wonder if it’s allowed. Where, these days, is smoking allowed? (Vincent with his pipe is my favourite self-portrait.)
Everyone has their phones out so they can take photos of the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge, but when we come to the blue gap between the land that is Manly and the land that is known as The Rocks – the place in the centre, where water expands unfathomably, where there is a certainty of far-away – I take a photo. It is nothing but an empty horizon. I call it longing.
How many waves between the country where I live and the country where I was born? How many breaths? Australia and America: both are my countries yet neither are, home being a multi-layered thing and liminal at the same time; inaccessible by travel alone; too many steps, or laps, or blind grasps. That water, between the gaps of raised rock and the thin outer soil, forms a line, a plane, a motionless expanse that I know to be false because life is moving, always. Life is shifting and sinking and flowing, as in the shallow water of this harbour and the deep water beyond, as in Van Gogh’s peasant fields and the paintings of them that won’t sit still, in the rumble of dirt beneath Adelaide’s streets, and in the sands that gather and pile and amalgamate with tiny bodyless spiders’ legs in the cracks of Adelaide’s sidewalks, where debris makes homes for Adelaide’s ants. What intricate scapes tunnel below our feet.
I grew up in a mobile family, my father accepting promotions and my mother organising moving vans. She was a nurse and my brother and I children, so the three of us slotted right into wherever we had to live (there is always need for a nurse; suburbs crave children). By the time I was twenty-two I had lived in eight different cities in seven different states, on both sides of the Mississippi, north and south of the Mason Dixon line, too. No landmark or smell connected me to home. What is home when the silverware drawer and the cupboard for cups elude me? Naturally I filled out an application to become an international student after I’d lost my first love and of course I was gone two months later: over-the-ocean, across-the-dateline, of-a-different-hemisphere gone. Home had always been a moveable feast and I was twenty-five, hungrier than ever. That was almost two decades ago. Since then: almost twenty years of the same city, the same local beach, the same land. Almost long enough to call Australia home.
Van Gogh shifted homes when he needed to run towards, traversing the Netherlands and Belgium for a connection to the people and the land and his family and God, London for work, Paris and Arels and Auvers for art. What was home to him but a string of failures that we see as steps to his martyrdom? How conspicuous he must’ve felt with his thick Dutch accent and strange surname. He hated how the French pronounced it ‘Van Gog’ so signed his paintings with ‘Vincent’ to avoid further frustration.
To talk about home we need to talk about language and accents, culture and history, family and, yes, the body. I’ll call Australia my eyes and America my mouth. Perhaps home is the space between the two and to the left: my ear, faulty and to blame for my disease. Is it coincidence I became sick with an imbalance disorder when I moved from one country to the next?
I come from six lane highways and bridges over creeks,
the kudzu vine, the ubiquitous pine, from toll roads
and squashed toads. I come from the North Star, Stone
Mountain, the crash of Big Sur’s waves. I am cactus poison
and acid rain; obesity and the tobacco leaf. I’m from humidity
and plastic Santas loud atop the silent snow, from lightning
bugs and those camp songs my children laugh at when I sing,
songs I sing to make them laugh.
When we dock in that iconic part of Sydney, when I step off the ferry and step onto land, I am nauseous, the waves too much for my travelling ambition. I am glad for the hour reprieve before I catch a train to the mountains. I am glad for my notebook, pen, these thoughts, this writing, though when I look up from all of this gratitude, I am even more unsteady. In need of a nap to set me straight. A Coca-Cola will do. Always does. Embarrassing to wear your country of birth not around your neck or on your sleeve but stuck to your mouth which sucks in the bubbles that settle your stomach because you suffer from nausea. Though I believe sometimes you have to give yourself a break. One needn’t be political about small vices when there are so many other things wrong in the world.
Right now, in America, there is Donald Trump raised higher than Trump Tower and having no fear of any aeroplane crashing into him and taking him down, no fear of a missile aimed at his gut. Does he comprehend an American implosion, an inside job where citizens fire away with all of those automatic guns? I’m rubbing my face now. Whenever I think about Trump or America’s gun problem, I obsessively rub my face.
I’m supposed to return home to see my parents and brother and his family soon. I won’t go home. But I will return to America.
It is possible, I suppose, to miss home terribly, not know what home really is anymore, and refuse to go home, all at once:
James Woods has described this other chronic condition as ‘homelooseness’, going on to say, ‘Such a tangle of feelings might then be a definition of luxurious freedom’. Because I’m not a forced exile. Because I’m not a refugee. I left the only home I’d ever known to make a new one. Because I wanted to. Because I could. And yes, I miss the rivers and lakes, miss the mountains of America, miss the roads that lead to anywhere and everywhere, miss my parents and brother, so yes I miss America. I’m tethered and the strings are taut. But is it home to me when I cannot fathom how a nation could support a man such as Donald Trump? Is it home now that my vowels, the lilt of my words and the jargon I use sound foreign even to my own ear let alone to those who ask me where I’m from? Can it be home if I no longer live there, know bus routes, have a favourite restaurant, favourite radio station? In the spirit of homelooseness, I will return to America only by refusing to return ‘home’. The two names have become such luxurious contradictions that it’s impossible to consider them one and the same.
Van Gogh went back to his family in the Netherlands again and again when he was sick, but it never worked. Feelings of failure. Angry words. His paintings of that homeland are dull in colour, so different from the yellows and teals of Arles, his haven-home, the one he chose, where he lived in his own yellow house and the people all thought him a madman. (How to communicate the lonely distance between his two homes? How to define his terms of condition and stamp it on a landscape?)
I can and will go back to America again and again because I know Adelaide, my own haven-home, will always be waiting for my return. It is why I will come to terms with the American population for voting in Trump, who is making the skin fall off of my face. It is why I can do this now: leave my husband and my children and my dog back home so that I can write about illness. So that I can write about them.
Just. Need. To get. To. The yellow. House.
And all around me at Central Station people are moving. I swear I can see the energy of the molecules between their busy bodies. It’s almost pixelated. A dance. Wrappers are moving on the concourse from the wind on the platform. Even the idling engines inside the trains are moving, their pollution sifting upward and mixing with that same wind. Everything is connected. The wind is my head. (It is always my head.) The fluid in my ear is moving in time with the lift and fall of bile in its intricate tunnel of intestines and sacs. What if the ferry ride has lasting effects and I’m sick for days or weeks? I’m on my way to the Blue Mountains without my family – who make up my body – to write about the body and illness, and I might be too sick to write. Who will I complain to? Who will I squeeze security from? I might find ‘home’ a difficult word to define but I know it’s partly a place where you are comfortable being sick. Anywhere else can be called ‘unfortunate’.
I’m anxious about the impending train ride, when the world will screech past my window – a stone wall blurred, stampeding trees. Even the sun will slam down its rays like a procession of gates trying to capture the forward-moving time. The tyres on the thing will roll as if trying to tame New South Wales, though it – the land – is unruly, uncompromising, will have its way through swells and swerves, through juggling ruptures. I know this already because I love to travel, just hate the travelling.
A long day, a wild journey for someone with the luxury of freedom, but it will be small in comparison to flying across the world to get back home. (See how I use the term fluidly? As if I was an underwater lava bridge connecting two lands.) My acupuncturist thinks a body isn’t meant to move from one magnetic pole to the other in a matter of hours and that a malfunctioning body will rebel. Why whenever I go to America she sticks on strips of tape holding tiny needles that quietly treat me for days. Why I see her within the first few days of my return to Adelaide for maintenance because travelling will always shake up my illness
But she thinks this is a good idea. Not the travelling but the travel, the space and the time on my own. A holiday away from home.
The house on Herbert Street, call it a rectangle. It’s got rooms on either side of the hallway. Most are bedrooms but one is the living room (the couch room, the fire room, the television room, the room of constant gathering), and that is the second most important room in the rectangle, the first being the kitchen. I could’ve said the most important room was the bathroom or the toilet but I’ll remind you: I am always trying to be a poet. And after all, the kitchen’s where the hallway leads, which is like the dot at the end of the exclamation point. A directive. A designation. A destination. The room revolves around food and, more than anything, bodies need food. So we are mostly there chopping and slicing in our bodies, perusing pantries and refrigerators in our bodies; eating, singing, hugging, screaming, dancing and talking in our bodies in the kitchen; the room is rarely bare of us. Outside is a backyard full of one-day-I’m-gonnas and scattered stinging nettle seeds. There’s a trampoline and a wooden cubby house with a rustic ladder that’s unattached to any tree, but because it sits among climbing vines we’ve always called it a treehouse. Green is good for the imagination just as it’s good for the lungs. And that’s really what I think about our backyard: it’s a place to breathe.
I board the train bound for Katoomba and sit near the front on the bottom level, where the least amount of perpetual motion occurs. I’ve been on this train before and sat on the upper level, threw up into my water bottle until it was full then asked someone close to me for their empty coffee cup. Two and a bit more hours of travel and I’ll put down my bags in my room at Varuna. I’ll lie on the bed and rest before the welcoming drinks, where I’ll try to appear happy-to-be-here when really I’ll be just-plain-tired. At night, I’ll lie down in bed, thinking about Van Gogh’s yellow house, how he wanted it to be an atelier for a host of painters in southern France and when it didn’t work out, he was devastated, hacked at his ear, got so sick he never really recovered. I’ll fall asleep, dizzy but exhausted, and if the ghost of Eleanor Dark wakes me, I’ll tell her thank you for welcoming me into her yellow house. Such a lovely home.
When the train starts to roll I’m looking out the window. Sydney spreading then thinning then suddenly gone. Then pockets of other ways of living: outer suburbs and mountain towns. In America, I trialled them all. I made a home in a desert city where front lawns traded boulders for grass and one in a suburb of contemporary houses, all angled and wooden and upper-middle class. One had a front porch overlooking a proud town preserving its Civil War façade. Women in bonnets swept the sidewalks on Saturdays. All of these, stepping stones to the rectangle which I call home, though naming it as such suggests that home is an object, when what I really want to say is that home is everything within and surrounding the rectangle, everything fragile about my upbringing, everything sacred about my connection or disconnection to America and to Australia. More than the beginning and the now, it’s the in-between.
 Woods, James. ‘On Not Going Home’. London Review of Books, vol. 36, no. 4, 20 February 2014, pp. 3-8, http://www.lrb.co.uk/v36/n04/james-wood/on-not-going-home