We face life-changing events and challenges in our lives time and again. Those moments that shape us, and signpost directions on the map of life when we stumble upon crossroads with no bloody clue what way we should go. That’s being human and memories are our receipts, our proof of purchase – we’re doing it, flying blind, in a unique way to every other soul in the universe! How the hell are we really supposed to know how to do it until we just do?
There is one solitary day that, undoubtedly, changed who I was and set the scene for the rest of my life. A bittersweet, terrifyingly wonderful day I will never forget. I remember it with such clarity, it still blows my mind.
It never occurred to me until recently to write about these types of memories. But until recently, I was mostly a closeted writer. I have always been a writer, but I never stepped up and claimed the crown. What a fabulous crown it is that I refuse to discard ever again. I wrote hidden away, fearing people would judge me, think my work was terrible, or – the most important part – that it would expose too much about me I’d either kept on the privacy setting or had yet to truly understand myself.
The thing about writing is that it teaches you about who you are. You can go decades into your life and not realise some things about yourself that have always been there, just tucked away in an inaccessible file because you’re busy going through the expected motions. The more I write now, and the more I write to understand myself and the world around me, the more I learn about who I truly am and who I want to be. I’m understanding that some things that have just always been me, are for reasons I never considered before. The sorts of things you believe are in other people but fail to identify in yourself. And I adore that process of creativity. It is, perhaps, the most priceless thing, to be cherished and nurtured. No one else can do that part for you.
So, my life-changing day. I was barely a couple of months past my eighteenth birthday, having (just) survived the Higher School Certificate and graduating high school a few months earlier. I’d planned to go to university all along, but I truly didn’t know who or what I was meant to be. Actually, that’s a lie. I did know. I just stifled it and instead chose the path I thought was the ‘done thing to do’, not what was my true purpose and calling.
I went through a lot in my school years. Things few people knew and that I never let on about. Things I kept concealed for fear of ridicule, bullying and judgement. I don’t look back on my school years with fondness. I more remember them as trying to drag myself through the trenches of a battle with barely enough energy to get out of bed (that’s another story for another day). I didn’t have a shred of confidence in myself and wasn’t even sure I particularly liked myself. Like everyone, I had mental blocks and demons in the shadows trying to pull me under. Keeping my head above water was a good goal. When it was over, I nearly stepped right into a university course I wasn’t sure I belonged in, that I had selected because it was mere process. Get a degree, get a job that pays well, etc. etc.
Instead, I put the university dream on hold and chose to step on a plane and fly halfway across the globe on my own for a two-year Working Holidaymaker Visa through BUNAC. I was eighteen, scared, and naïve. I boarded a plane in Sydney filled with terror as I said goodbye to my family whom I’d never been away from for more than a couple of nights. Twenty-four long hours later, I landed in Edinburgh, Scotland where I would live and work for the next two years of my life. ‘Life-changing’ isn’t even a strong enough description of this decision. What was I thinking? I don’t know, but today, I’m sure glad I thought it. It changed me in every way possible and paved the way for the rest of my life.
Naivety proved to be an invaluable trait to have at the time. Without it, I would have let fear and insecurity stop me doing it, like it had many other things. Who on this earth never has moments like that? No one. We all do. Self-doubt is a miserable creature that lurks in the haunted crevices of our brains, ready to cloak our rainbows in shades of grey. It’s that proverbial monkey on our backs and I, like many others, have let it win many times in my life.
I didn’t know what to expect with this working holiday in another country. I signed two years of my life away and walking through that departures gate was like walking into the bright light at the end of the tunnel. I didn’t know what was on the other side. But I know I spent at least half of the 24 hour flight bawling my eyes out sitting next to two foreign passengers twice my age who smelled like garlic and couldn’t speak my language. Not only could I not change my mind and get off, but there was no one there to say it was going to be okay. I knew there was always a chance it really might not be okay. It was the most prominent fight-or-flight moment I’ve ever experienced, and I’m so glad I chose to flight. On that plane, I had to grow my own wings and learn how to fly. Damn, was it a difficult ride.
Two decades later, it’s surreal to look back upon because those days. I have a vivid memory of the day I left Australia and arrived in the UK. I remember what I was thinking, how I was feeling, what was going on around me. I remember the songs that played on the radio on the two-hour drive to the airport, stopping at McDonalds for breakfast, how the airport looked when we got there, what colour my bags were. I remember what they tried to feed me on the plane. I remember hating the loud sound of the plane toilet flushing and wondering if it could suck me out. I remember being at Milan Airport in Italy for my stopover and being delayed because of a problem with the aircraft. I remember the twisting of my gut being terrified I’d miss my connection to London and being lost, alone, in the vortex of some foreign country where I didn’t know their language and didn’t belong. I remember finding a quiet corner to again burst into tears when I didn’t know how to exchange Australian Dollars into Italian currency to call my mum back in Australia to let her know what was happening. I remember feeling the most alone I had ever felt in transit from one stage of my life to the next.
And all that’s before I even arrived in the UK. That trip changed my life. It was the first time I’d travelled anywhere out of Australia and I had to fight like hell to make it work for two years. Two years. 24 months. 104 weeks. 730 days. 17,520 hours…
Some days, it felt like a lifetime. Others, it felt like I was barrelling through time on fast-forward and I didn’t really know what way was up. They say Australia and the UK are similar, but for me, not similar enough. Trying to establish myself in Scotland was a culture shock. The accent made them sound like they were speaking in another language and I was a girl who had never even seen one scrap of snow in my life! Kilts and bagpipes… well, that was the easy bit. I was in shocked-awe at first, disbelieving that I’d made it (spoiler alert: I didn’t end up stranded in Milan Airport for the rest of my days ala Tom Hanks). Scotland was wonderful. It was a love affair and I fell head-over-heels at first sight, and all those other romantic clichés.
But it was hard. So very hard, and so crushingly painful at times. When I look back, I’m not quite sure how I survived it. It was also some of the most incredible days of my existence. I cherish the good and the bad, because it all created who I am today.
I’m not going to write about all that here. Not yet. It’s too big for a solitary blog post. It’s a long, ongoing story that I will need to work through in time. One day, I might write a biographical memoir of all my first-hand Aussie Adventures in Scotland (I have some superb tales to tell about my wedding day).
My life wouldn’t be as wonderful as it is today without those two years where I was forced to grow up very quickly and learn how to staple those big girl panties firmly to my butt and just deal. Some of it, I will probably never talk about again. Despite being an avid writer, I don’t believe everything in life is meant to be documented and recorded. I think we’re supposed to learn from some of it, then lock it away in an envelope and post it away to a galaxy far, far away that we label ‘the past – return to sender’. Parts of our journeys are supposed to be personal and private, much of which shapes who we are. I have a lot of those moments, many I still don’t understand and may never want to. Who knows?
What I can say is that I use my time in Scotland and my love affair with the country in many ways within my writing now. Scotland is a theme that visits many of my stories, in either glaringly obvious ways or simply whispers of reminiscence. I have a research plan documented for a novel I’m writing where along with other themes dear to my heart, I explore my travel experiences, Scotland, living in a foreign place, coming-of-age, and self-exploration. It may one day form part of my PhD thesis, but now isn’t the right time for me to throw caution to the wind and step into the foray of Higher Degree Research.
My health has prevented a lot, as has my confidence in myself and my work. I was taught from a young age to trust my gut, it will never steer me wrong. My gut is telling me to nurture the process of the journey and make sure I don’t do it all too quickly. But rather, do it right, do it well, do it when it’s ready to be told. I won’t let my memories die. They’re wrapped up securely, waiting to be brought back out and resuscitated into a worthy record of a piece of my life that I know won’t settle for never being re-told. I have a main character waiting in the wings robed in my team colours ready to catch the ball when I toss it at him. He’ll run that damn bitch up to the goal post and score way better than I could. He’s just going to have to be patient.
Life is a process and so is the documenting of it for a writer. I’m on the stepping stones there.
And one step at a time, I’ll just keep swimming…