Stella Peg Carruthers
I am told at every bus stop that I should go there. Move there. Be a student of The Garden City with its broken chapels and river running through it like a lascivious tongue. I’m told I can be a ‘Justice Warrior’ or a ‘Global Citizen.’ That my accommodation might even be paid for and that yes, it’s the next best thing to Ivy League in Aotearoa - the pictures say so, with their glistening images of brick and blossoms.
And I want it. Desperately. I do not need to be told of its attractions as a place of flowers and lazy river rides or that the campus is the most beautiful in the country. I want it already. I wanted it before the posters were put up and the t-shirts emblazoned with red words and curvilinear logos were donned.
This is a place I liken to a flat palm proffered to be read by a fortune teller. The lines of roads can be read with stories of break up and calamity, or, as I prefer, ones of great love and long life.
This is a city of spaces. There are wide skies and a stretched out plain of land which is light and golden in the summer, like a just woken up lover. But the spaces are also there in a less embracing and more confronting way. There are holes from the 2011 quakes that have left building gaps like broken teeth in a crying and gulping mouth.
There’s also the chance of a scholarship for grad school. The promise of fees paid makes this thing I really, really want have an almost practical allure. As a relatively low- paid, part-time worker and until a few years ago, beneficiary, the money thing is a worry. University study is expensive. Post graduate degrees even more so. I try to see it as an investment in Self. That it will secure learning to not only have a better future, but be a better me in that future, however right now I find that platitude one hard to believe in.
You see I was raised to think of education as a means to an end. While I was supported in my pursuit of a BA with a major in Art History (better that she be studying something than sitting at home feeling like shit.) It was always, I think in terms of parental value, seen as a stepping-stone to employment.
A degree equals an office job. And it did mean that for me. On graduation I easily got a job working as an office manager. No matter that it was temporary. It was a start. I practiced touch typing but never quite achieved mastery of muscle memory. I got very good at making tiered folder systems in Outlook.
I then went back to study. This time with more of a direct career path. I went to library school. And, three months after starting my studies (distance, part time) I got a job in a
library. This was a job I loved. I beeped books through the issue machine. Answered questions about pop artist’s and Maori models of health. I shelved heavy photography
tomes and ordered the stats textbooks in order of edition.
Library school was, as it was intended to be, a means to an end. It got me a job that I not only loved and that covered the costs of living, it also gave me a new peer group and the satisfaction for the first time in my whole life of earning my own living. Because along with the library job came a shift from government benefit to independent income.
Now I had a degree that signified a status as an Educated Woman. I also had a job that marked me as an independently earning adult. This acted as a real turning point in my sense of self. It was like how after a decade of letters from the doctor every year and call waiting for hours and social service stamped forms lost in the mail, I had finally not just grown up but also grown out.
I felt (finally) like I had grown out of a sense of myself as a weak, sick, dependent and into a larger idea of who I wanted to be. She worked. She wrote. She walked. She called friends to check they were doing okay just as they had done for her when Things were really bad. She was able to give a bit more rather than just receive. She cared for her body with plant foods and daily yoga. She got better at looking outside herself because she knew better who she wanted to be inside herself.
However, for two years it was a very self-conscious time. I was seeking a balance to discover the differences between ‘want to be’ and ‘who you actually are.’ I was exploring what I would like to have and what I needed to do and be and not to do and be, to stay well. I debated demands on time and energy. Also, what I was willing to give up or compromise on. And what I wasn’t.
I discovered I both wanted to be, and already was, a writer. I’d like to have more dollars for financial security and the ability to save for the Millennial dream (the house deposit) but at the same time I needed to not work full-time in order to manage my health. Well, not in a Job-job, writing is both work and passion, job and calling. I also needed enough sleep. Time to exercise. The space to sit quietly and journal my worries away. I had the demands of a part-time professional job, the ambition to be a published writer and amidst this the limitation on energy and activity that both a chronic pain condition and mental illness enforced on me.
I was willing, I discovered, to compromise on having less money. And by association this meant fewer hours worked and more time/ and freedom. I wasn’t willing to compromise on my hard-won writing hours. Equally I saw no movement on the lifestyle adjustments that kept me well. Yes, this often meant I missed out on things. Fun things. But I knew from experience I had to put my health first. And that meant eight hours sleep every other night. It meant pacing activities and sometimes giving myself whole days of rest when I overdid it. It meant limiting alcohol consumption, late nights and stress. It meant taking my meds every day. It also meant getting very good at an apologetic withdrawal from social situations.
I am equally apologetic about who, how and what I want to be, when people ask me why I don’t study here in Wellington? We’ve got the best writing school in the country, you know. Started by Manhire and now run by Perkins. Catton of Booker prize fame studied there. As did Bird. I know this. But I worry. Worry that I’m not good enough for the IIML. Worry that I wouldn’t cope with the full-time workload and its pressures. That it would send me running barefoot and Crazy across the city once again.
Canterbury has a part-time writing degree structure that, to me, signifies a better chance at maintaining my hard-won sanity. Canterbury also has distance from a past where I
ran crazy from one life of sky-scraper-high-mood-elevation into one of green halls, the cracking open of silver prescription tabs twice daily and a six-month bed-headed
Canterbury has a broken heart. Canterbury has a rebuilding center. Canterbury is a metaphor for myself. My part-time status life. In work. In study. Often in concentration also. There’s a sometimes unwieldy disassociation from things I’d rather had never happened but I can’t ever forget. This mad, bad, sad part of myself is clad in grey sweat pants. She wears faded flowers.
I convince myself that by moving to another city, I too can be other than sick and sad. Other than mad. I will go out more (within the limits of my illness set curfew.) I’ll cycle on a blue bicycle with only the barest grasp of the road rules. I will grow my hair out long again and wear it in a high-topped messy bun like an early twentieth century schoolteacher. I’ll become a runner to maintain my cardiovascular fitness on the flat plain of the city.
At home in Wellywood there were steep hills to climb home on a daily basis. In Christchurch the land reaches out, grasping for something far away and out of sight. I’ll
become a tangelo toned jogger pounding down the flat avenues of streets. I might take up racquet sports or martial arts. I’ll hit rubber balls in square boxes of rooms. I’ll punch out the pain. I will hit hard, the sort of punch that can jolt you back to life.
That Canterbury is a metaphor for myself is also why I don’t want to go. Or, why I hesitate, and paddle the water of the future like I am a drowning woman reaching for that last gasp of air. Because who wants a city torn apart by earthquakes to be their chosen metaphor of personhood? It’s a bit heart-wrenching to be honest. But not in a damsel in distress way where handsome heroes come along and pick up the pieces and kiss the pain away. No. It’s more the sort of pain that leaves you breathless because it’s really that big and your body is too small to contain it.
You see Christchurch is about polarities. Something I know far too much about as someone living with a mood disorder. Christchurch is flat. My born city’s topography is as wild and curved as a kid’s scribble. Christchurch is largely New Zealand European settler stock. There is more than one story of a dark underbelly of white supremacy. Meanwhile, Wellington is a melting pot of immigrants and cultures. Its diverse in pretty
much every way imaginable. We have rainbow painted street markings. Purely vegan coffee shops. Drag queen silhouetted signs mark when to step out and cross the street.
But in Wellington, with its bright colors and its sheer exuberance, I often feel I have to be small and quiet. Like my brand of bright won’t be loud enough or cool enough or that
it’ll say things I’m not yet ready to say. So, I go to work at the university where I work in the library’s Client Services team. I buy vegetables and actually eat them. I’m on a health kick. I walk alone with 90’s industrial rock playing in my headphones, I put the volume up loud, then louder. The sounds I crave are black.
In Christchurch it is not so much that I want to be literally brighter. I like black. Both in style and song. I’m more concerned with that quality called courage. You know, the
thing that means I’ll finally feel able to tell my mental health story honestly and get a tattoo and feel less like a fledgling in my heart. If, as Dickinson wrote, hope is a bird, then my hope is one that is young and needs protecting.
As my hope grows proper feathers and is fed poetry about fairytale lovers and retold Classical myths, I also hope to have better elucidated and informed opinions that make me cool because I know my own mind. It’s not just that I read more widely (news as well as novels) and practice dinner table talk in front of the mirror when I’m not wearing my glasses and my face is blurred by water. It’s because when I do these things it is easier to say what you mean when you can’t see yourself saying it.
Right now, I do not live presently. Even though it is what the self-help books and mindfulness manuals say I need to do. Buddhist monks would frown on my future focus. Yogi’s would prescribe more sun salutes and to breathe better. There has been loss in my life in recent years. Of family. Of friends. Of my darling fur babies. And of a certain way I see myself. And that kind of grief needs space.
Space to run ragged in. A wide sky to fall down under, where you can pick yourself up again in good time. Where you can yell, scream if you will, and your voice will disappear into The Blue. It will be swallowed by an expanse you think will be better able to deal with the pain. It knows sadness. It catches cries on a daily basis. Sometimes I think that is what the sky is here to do. To catch our cries and hold them safe for us.
Back in the Windy City where I was born and have lived my whole life, the hills mean there are few real horizon lines. And I want the delineation and distance of a horizon. Where the line that signifies the end of one thing also means the beginning of another.
Christchurch has this sense of linear space in its flat palmed avenues and sedate promenades. Driving out of The City there are also long roads that disappear into the purple haze of places so far away they smudge like artist’s charcoal on the fingertips of God. The Mountains are part of this thing called Far Away. They are shadowed to blue. They are peaked and craggy. These are Serious Mountains where men get lost and are sometimes never found.
But where I’ll be, within The City Limits, there is the open-hearted easiness of an immediate scale and the simplicity of a grid system and straight streets. Within the ease of all this space and air around me I hope I’ll feel able to fling away some of The Worry I carry. I can send it into the air and watch it disappear into the magic space that we call the distance.
My immediate connection to this idea of distance right now involves a journey and a view. A place where I can pause in place. A place to rest for a time from The Confusion that is my current world. I climb The Peak behind my mother’s house, sweating and panting, until I feel I can’t breathe properly. But at the same time I feel wonderfully alive because I’m breathing deep from my belly (the yoga teachers would approve.) Once I scale the last arc of steep-toothed path, I see in the distance the purple peaks of The Mainland and (imagining now) down the line, the Garden City with its red brick buildings and loops of river.
Under the signs signaling Seattle and San Francisco (directorates to faraway cities) I gaze out to vast oceans and wide seas. Huge waters that make us feel small in the face
of them. Right at this moment, on a hilltop at the edge of an island near the bottom of the world, I choose to rest my eyes a second. I seek refuge in darkness from the stark beauty of regimented pine plantations, the white wings of wind farms and the yellow kiss of gorse.
In the soft darkness behind my eyelids, I fall back into the wind. I love being held in the caress of something I can feel but cannot see, even with my eyes open. I am thankful that there is something there to help carry the weight, albeit momentarily. I love the feel of the gusts chopping chilled swirls onto my bare face and hands. I stand awhile with my eyes closed on a mountain top like a guru but really, really not. I’m no weather goddess, and I’m not pretending to be. I’m just a woman in blue jeans and a sweat stained t-shirt trying to feel the words the wind is writing on her skin.
The wind writes about beauty. It writes about wildness. It writes about sheer god-damn potential. It writes about women re-telling wind stories to the world. Wind stories are
usually tales where people find beauty again in wild things and people have the courage to tell the tales that matter to them.
Here is the crux of it. I want to better myself with words. Become the best writer I can be. That is, I want to be as skilled and learned as I can be about the craft of wordsmithing. It’s not comparative to other people or most societal values of status and achievement. It’s about me fucking loving learning. While I may worry about course fee costs and moving away from all I know for eighteen months, the cost not to do this thing is worse. Because there will always be The Doubt if I don’t go. The god-awful doubt.
There will be doubt in my future post grad-school life too. Poetry doesn’t pay much. At present I get paid in book vouchers for the reviews I write. But it’s so not about the
money - either that spent to study or that which I hope to earn. It is about following a dream, making a choice, and living with its consequences as an independent adult. Making up my own mind about big things has not been my strong suit in the past. I want this choice to be different. It will be different, I think, because I’ve started telling different kinds of stories about myself already. I write them in my journal. Then confide in close friends. It is when these stories are told to the world that I’ll walk the lifeline of another city while I follow the fork in mine.
Stella Peg Carruthers is an emerging writer from Aotearoa, New Zealand. Born and bred in the capital city of Wellington or Poneke, she still lives there and is employed as an office administrator and library assistant at a local university. She also runs her own freelance writing business. She is currently working on her debut novel, a cross-genre family saga about the power of literature to change lives.
She has found publishing success both internationally and within New Zealand. Her poems have been published in online and print publications and she has been long listed for a number of short story competitions. She has two mental health themed personal essays due for publication in anthologies to be released in 2021. You can find her Professional Facebook Page as a Creative Practitioner here.