When I was a young adult, nervous about leaving my home (my house, my town, my friends) and moving to university, my mum said, ‘You can always come back.’ She spoke the words to me, but it wasn’t me she was really talking to. There was never any doubt that I would leave. I was heartbroken at leaving my boyfriend. But my parents wanted me to go. I wanted to go. It had never even been a conversation, it was a known. I would leave
(Quick aside: I would have stayed if I’d been able to get a hairdressing apprenticeship. I had a deep and secret wish to be a hairdresser, to join that glamorous world, to be introduced to the mysteries of face shapes and hair types. To stand behind someone, catch her eye in the mirror as I held her hair in the tips of my fingers and say, ‘And who did your hair last time?’ All of these things and more. I know it doesn’t fit with who I am, but I would deeply, dearly love to be a hairdresser.)
But no, it wasn’t me my mum was talking to. When my mum said, ‘You can always come back,’ she was talking about my friends, the ones who had decided not to leave. They made those decisions for many reasons. They didn’t get the grades for the courses they wanted, they didn’t have the money, they didn’t have their parents’ support. Of course for some of them, it wasn’t a decision. They didn’t want to go, didn’t think about it, it didn’t cross their minds. A woman who had found her place in the world but always wondered what else she might have been, what else she might have seen, I think she wanted everyone to leave and find the things she hadn’t found. Here’s a thing I think my mum had never considered: they were happy where they were.
That stayed with me all my life. You can always come back. I used it as a line in my first novel*. And on the night we decided that we would make the move to Abu Dhabi I said it with a conviction that, at the time, was real. If it doesn’t work, I said to the mister, We can always come back. When I said that, I didn’t think it wouldn’t work. I had always seen myself as adventurous. I had always wanted to live more places. I had always wanted to show my children the expanses of the world.
Two mistakes. I didn’t know it wouldn’t work. I didn’t know my mum was wrong.
My mum said lots of wonderful things, gave lots of great advice. But she was wrong about this. I mean, she was right, of course. You can pack up your stuff, get back in the car and go back. You can find out a place doesn’t work for you and you can turn around, go back to the place that works better for you (even if better is really only less worse). But Heraclitus said it better, You can’t jump in the same river twice.
I know you can’t compare my mother’s pragmatism with Heraclitus’ philosophy, but he’s more right than she is. My mother’s solution will help you to solve the immediate physical disharmony. When you go back, you will once again be able to find your place from A to B. The colour of the sky in that patch of afternoon between ‘anything is possible’ and ‘it’s too late’ will be the right shade of blue. The moisture in the air (or lack of) will prick your skin. The songs the birds sing will be the perfect pitch.
But all the things that you bring back will be changed.
When I left Adelaide I was a mother of young children who couldn’t tie their shoes. I had ambitions, and although I had not articulated them, they were, as we say, realistic and achievable. I took the strength of my marriage for granted. I lived a life that was true to myself and the things I believed in. I knew who I was, what I wanted, what I was doing next. I knew the kind of mother I wanted to be, the wife, the daughter, the friend. Then I moved to Abu Dhabi and none of those things were true. Or at least they changed, shifted, became less true.
I didn’t go back. I stayed. Bit by bit, piece by piece, put myself together again. And here I am. Mended. Happy. Here.
And now, it’s time to change again. There are many reasons, but mainly it’s because the Floppy Adolescent can tie his shoes and needs something beyond the world we live in. What opened up his younger world is now restricting. To help him get to where he needs to be, I need to go back. Perhaps not physically, but mentally.
That’s why I’m standing here on the bank. Looking in at the river. It is crystal clear, but even without dipping in my toes, I know that it is cold. The rocks on the bottom are smooth and round, but they will be hard beneath my feet. It looks calm, but I will need to swim hard only to stay still. My skin will prick.
The birdsong, when I hear it, will be pitch perfect.
*Yes, I’m totally calling it my first novel now to distinguish it from second, but now I’ve decided that manuscript I’ve just finished is going to become a novel and sometime soon. I’m going to get that done. But I’m not sure where the full top should go there.