How do we measure our lives?
The thought strikes like the lash of a whip to my back. I stand upright, in the middle of Stone Room 6, looking over the double bed I am supposed to be making. It is during this mundane moment when I realise my year of travelling is passing in a whirlwind: wild exhiliration and intense emotion sweeping me up into a sandstorm of my own making. The experiences bid no warning, swirling me up into a great dance before dropping my life down the narrow throat of the inevitable hourglass. But I feel my life is existing in a dimension separate to my mind, where time does not cooperate with my reality. Six months have passed already. A half year and I still have so much to see! I could continue this way for years on end and it would never be enough. I would never see enough of this life.
In this revelatory moment in Stone Room 6, I am only twenty three and a quarter years old. I am travelling Australia, having settled in an equal measure of comfort and misery in the Western Australian outback. I am committed to working three months on a cattle station, enduring grueling dayshifts as a cleaner, cook and stationhand until my feet swell and my hands stiffen in lethargy. Here I am faced with a deep introspection and reflection – the kind that can only come from unwanted solitude and forced isolation. The loneliness carves a hollow inside of me which is vacant of human company but fertile with the inalienable truth of my own mortality and withering womb.
I gave myself one year to pursue pure, unadulterated frivolity. The goal was simple: seek the wildest passion as I followed the yearning, burning souls of real adventurers; uphold a false bravado as I attempted to keep up with intrepid explorers who felt no fear; hold on to that featherweight feeling of carelessness and fun even when I know better. I would strive to live as fully as I could, exploiting my freedom for this one bold year before eventually returning home to settle with a ‘real’ job and, hopefully, a partner.
By thirty I imagined myself as a different species of sorts: mature, career-established, stationary (but not necessarily idle) and likely to be in a long-term relationship. Against my better judgement, this eventual me may even be married. Suddenly the nurse’s corners of this double bed had a new meaning. Even ardent feminists like myself can want families. One day I wanted a baby, didn’t I? If this hypothetical, drifting half-thought formed in the middle of nowhere turned out to be true then that meant only one thing. The constraint of time formed tight fingers around my throat..I only had seven years left!
I once heard someone say impermanence is the soul of the universe. I know this to be true. The sand sifts silently down the hourglass while a brief collapse of time can unfold another life. A university degree, weight loss, weight gain, six different jobs, lost friends, gone friends, still friends. An extended period of humiliating heartbreak. Betrayal. Three holidays. New hobbies, old hobbies. A career which threatened to shatter my soul. Abandonment. A punctured ego. A sort-of sadness and unease. Stuck in a cage of frustration as I wrestled with this great big sad world and the uncertainty of my place in it.
Of course, I might have a baby at 40. Or 25. After all, I alone have tracked this timeline for myself. I’ve constructed a fence which marks of the end of my youth and it is me who decided it erects firmly at beginning of my third decade on this earth. The ticking of the ominous biological clock reverberates in my head with the resound of clashing cymbols. A shattered sky, a time’s up, a call home. The feminist in me attempts to quell these thoughts with knowledge of my bodily autonomy. Rise against the masses; defy the odds; thwart the system; crush the patriarchy. Don’t listen to the voices of convention, even if they seem to be my own.
A few days prior to this, I discover my brother and his wife are having their second child. I think of my three year old niece with her beautiful blue eyes, utterly innocent and filled with curiosity. In my loneliness – which is spurned by a peculiar mix of homesickness and seclusion – I want nothing more than to envelope her in my childless arms. When she was born I witnessed my oldest brother flourish in fatherhood, radiating an unguarded happiness unlike I had seen before. Whenever I looked at him I saw an instinct I wasn’t sure I was capable of.
Who am I to think one day I could be a mother? My own mother is a steely cage in which she contains her children; protecting them and remaining constant in our lives long after she opens the cage door allowing us to flee. On the other side of this world, I miss her terribly but I know it will never be as much as she misses me. Could I be as steadfast and uncompromising in my love as a mother? Here I am, having embarked on a trip out of pure unashamed selfishness and privilege; seeking truth where there is only disguise; treading solo amidst masses of youth whose conflict is struggling to be free in a world beckoning them to system surrender. Am I the cage or have I been caught in someone else’s?
My mother prides herself on her children. Even though she is intuitive and creative and socially perceptive, her greatest strength is her ability to mother. That is what she is, she says. You won’t know until you’re a mother yourself. I am like my mother in many ways. Physically, we look much the same. Mentally, we fluctuate onto each other’s wavelengths, varying between our compatibility as separate human beings and mother-daughter. Mother and daughter. A daughter can live a life but a mother lives in a world that clashes with her individuality. She is not one but a collective of her creations. A mother is a single figure and yet she is multitudinous. She is perhaps the most fluid, enigmatic and diverse of them all.
This year I gained 9lbs. The result on the scale was confirmed by my travel photos where instead of the stunning backdrops of tropical beaches and cobalt oceans, all I could see was the dumpling I had become. My belly protruded like a perfect football beneath my tops, my much thicker thighs rippling out of shorts I could see now were two sizes too small. I hated how shallow I was feeling towards my weight gain but what if I had to share my body with another human being? What if a foetus grew within me; literally pushing me from the inside out? It would be more than a football beneath my clothing. My breasts would swell and become tender and the baby would press down unbearably on my bowels. I imagine a heartbeat beneath my belly. Would I be able to move the same? Eat the same? Feel the same?
It seems I have a lot more to fear than time if I am to make room in my solitary cage. We no longer fear death through childbirth but would the opening of my sex become torn? Would I shit myself in the labour room? Would I get even more stretch marks? I’ve had them since adolescence, thin pink and white kaleidoscopic groves in the skin around my thighs. Signs of trauma. Do we talk about this brutality or do we hold up baby bibs in awe and think of the little dribbling delights we swaddle to sleep? Why am I even thinking of this.
Do we measure our lives by seasons? By years? By our failures or successes? By our ability to understand all we have done and why? By all of these things. By childhood, adulthood, fatherhood, motherhood.
When I think of my brief life I see the sandstorm swirling and settling; sinking and slipping down the narrow passage of time. We measure our lives by our experiences and endurance, by our storm’s potential and not its limits. We navigate through open doors by knocking on those which appear closed to us. We nest, build cages, erect walls and then shatter these structures before we soar, fly, dance over thresholds which no longer threaten to contain us. But time draws a line down the broad path of human existence and waits for no one. Despite my pursuit of freedom, it doesn’t wait for me either. Maybe Robert Frost was right about those diverging paths leading to the same place. Maybe my incredible good fortune won’t stretch to see those 7 years. Maybe we make choices but these choices route their way to an already formed destiny. I don’t always like to believe that.
I stand alone in this room on the station and glance out the window, reeling in shock at how time is escaping me. How I am escaping myself by troubling myself with this mythical timeline and fictional pregnancy which may or may not ever happen. Outside, the early morning light dapples the red dust of the outback. Black crows call out and the cascading branches of the peppercorn trees hang low in the desert wind. It is unseasonably cold today. Climate change, political instability, world wars, social injustice. I live in a small world. I live in my world. Time diminishes before me like the wispy smoke of a snuffed flame, gone before I even notice it was there. I finish making the bed of Stone Room 6 and gently close the door behind me. The morning is not yet over but I am half a world – half a lifetime – away. Time does not stop even if I do.