When I was 22 I painted “the tranquillity of solitude” on the side of a Leyland Sherpa van. I was travelling around Europe with a trio of blokes at the time. I think I was trying to be profound or perhaps I just really needed some alone time after being squished in a camper for months with three smelly men.
In reality, I had stolen the lyric from the Jam’s classic song, That’s Entertainment, which was on high rotation in my head at the time, but just hadn’t attributed it. Looking back, given the van also had a multi-coloured version of Huey, Duey and Louie smoking a big bong painted on it, my pseudo-profundity was probably slightly out of the place.
In hindsight, nearly two decades later, it seems even then I was searching for some space. Searching for some time to work out who I was and where I should call home. The strange thing is it is only in the last few weeks that I think I have finally answered that question. One can’t rush these things I guess.
From that moment to now, I have lived in more than a dozen places, had a number of longish-term relationships and at least 20 different jobs. I’ve lived on a kibbutz and in the outback. I’ve sanded down grave-stones in the Israeli desert, pumped out blocked-up loos, and picked all manner of tropical fruits to make a crust. I’ve driven around Europe and Australia, and finally nearly seven years ago called time on my adventures when I landed here in Brisbane.
But I am not from here. I am from New Zealand. In fact, my birthplace is now a location almost synonymous with disaster and despair – Christchurch. This might seem over the top, but I say this with some wry experience. Until two and a bit years ago, whenever I mentioned where I was from, people would smile and mention the Southern Alps or maybe the Avon River. Now, they look away, and then quietly ask if my family are okay. The answer is yes – to a degree.
I have been back to Christchurch three times since 22 February 2011 – the last just a few weeks ago – and it was on this most recent trip that I finally accepted this broken city of my birth was no longer my home. But this sense of separation wasn’t because the earthquakes have decimated the places and spaces that I remember from my youth. It was because I finally recognised that I don’t belong there anymore. And it is solitude that has taught me this.
You see, the last three years, I have mainly spent alone. A relationship breakdown meant I finally attained the solitude I pre-empted all those years ago. It’s been inspiring and magical, but sometimes lonely and left me prone to some of my more ridiculous neuroses. But it has also allowed me time to think and to feel and to recognise, finally, that my home is not over the ditch, but here in my wondrous, alternative community near the river where I can wear my flares with pride and even with a smidgeon of dignity.
If I was honest with myself I probably understood that Christchurch was not my home long before the earthquakes. But it was on this most recent trip that I witnessed my birthplace courageously getting on with it, rebuilding for the future, and moving on from the shackles of its past. And I knew without a shadow of a doubt that it was time for me to do the same.
You have to admit that’s a very valuable lesson and one, it appears, I am finally ready to learn now I truly understand where I belong. In fact, sometimes you just need some time alone to appreciate what is right in front of you.