I’ve waited a while to post this, hopeful that it might find another home elsewhere. Alas, that is not to be, and perhaps the truth is it belongs right here, on my blog.
I also want to acknowledge my privilege that as a tauiwi immigrant with a complex relationship with the country I was born in, I am a grateful guest in the beautiful country of Aotearoa, New Zealand, here only on my merits. While I feel at home here, it is not my land, nor will it ever be.
This piece describes my very personal relationship with the ocean, the journeys I have made both physically and spiritually, and where I am in the world.
There is a poster of a world map stuck with Blu-Tack in the entryway to the side of my front door. I put it there for my kids to marvel at. Mostly to make them realise just how far we have come, but also, perhaps, to instil in them the same passion and interest I have for cartography. The very same version had been pinned to the wall in our old semi-detached in England. Back then, we stuck coloured stars on all the places where our friends and family lived overseas. A purple one, my favourite colour, placed over Wellington, “the Coolest Little Capital” of Aotearoa, New Zealand. Despite the longing I had harboured for many years, seeing the city for myself seemed so desperately far away.
That map in England grew old. It was hung up for so long it got sun-bleached and torn at the edges. I’d been sad to remove it while packing to leave and I bought a replacement online on a whim. It travelled on a boat for almost three months rolled up in a cardboard tube before it reached its destination. A pristine, carbon copy of its predecessor; a stark reminder and a fresh start.
It is unusually quiet in our house this afternoon. I leave my laptop and head to the kitchen. The kids are in their bedroom playing Minecraft with their friends. My husband is still at work in the city. I’ve been working the best part of the day myself; planning, researching, trying to write. The words are being fickle and elusive today, no doubt I’ll delete more than I keep.
I pause on my way back to my desk, sipping from a mug of hot coffee. Most days, I forget the map is there, it feels part of the scenery now. No stars on this one, but a flurry of miniature Post-It notes from when the kids went through my old coin collection and identified where in the world they were all from. It’s funny, I did very much the same as a child. A numismatist since I was seven years old and received an errant French ten centime piece in my pocket money change. I was always less interested in the coins themselves and more where they had come from. Where they’d been. Who had held them? What of their lives?
A dull orange light from the afternoon sun streaks through the glass panes by the front door. It dapples the hallway carpet and throws tiny starbursts on the map. I put a finger on the bottom of Te Ika-a-Māui, approximately where I know Pōneke to be. I imagine my nail tip is the prow of a boat, and I “sail” counterclockwise across the vast, cerulean expanse of Te Moana nui a Kiwa. I skirt the edge of South America’s Cape Horn—known by sailors as “The End of the World”—and swing upwards through the full length of the Atlantic Ocean. I bear right past Iceland and the Faroe Islands where the waters grow colder and murkier in tone, then down, down, and around into the North Sea. There, I land in Whitby.
There are a lot of good things about growing up in a small town where pretty much everyone knows who you are, and everyone knows everybody else. That sense of safety, community, and local identity wraps around you like a comfortable blanket. But if you don’t feel like you fit, grow tired or want more, that blanket grows smothering and heavy. Soon, you start to notice how tatty it is. The dropped stitches and frayed edges that bind you. Those same threads pull together like a net. A trap. And so, you begin to look in earnest for a way to get out. An escape from the past, and Past You.
Sometimes, the worst of it is not that smothering, drowning, feeling of confinement, but knowing that everyone you grew up with has already decided who and what you are, and all that you’re capable of. There is a box in that community with your name on it, and don’t you dare forget it.
I was pulled and I was pushed, and I took a leap of faith. There were false starts and uncertainties, mistakes made along the way. But going back? That was never an option.
I am a water-baby. I’ve known that forever. As far back as I can remember, I have been drawn to the ocean. A wrenching, grasping, unignorable need to be near water. A quick Google tells me I am a thalassophile—a person who loves, and feels a strong attachment to, the ocean, sea, and other large bodies of water. The word derives from the Greek terms thalassa, meaning sea, and phile, a person who has a fondness for a specified thing. In Ancient Greek mythology, Thalassa was a goddess and primeval spirit of the sea. A thalassophile needs water like most people need air. They feel intimately linked to the ocean waves and are soothed by the sea breeze. They thrive when they are close to the water and suffer when they are not.
During my childhood the sea was always there, and I took it for granted in many ways. The village I grew up in, where I spent eighteen years of my life, was a scant two miles from the nearest beach. No distance at all to an adventurous child with a bicycle and a desire to escape. I spent many hours one summer in my early teens, tramping over the local fields with my neighbour’s rather portly dog in tow, walking to the coast and back. It was no longer overweight by the time autumn rolled around.
My adolescence was often spent hanging out on the beach with my friends; walking, chatting, jumping over the waves. Then later, older, but still not quite all of us legal, when we were turned out from the local pubs at last orders, we were made brave by too many vodka shots while our clothes reeked of cigarette smoke, and we dared each other to jump from the pier into ice-cold, grey, harbour water.
The older I got, the more I drifted away, leaving the sea behind me. University led me north up the coast and then west, inland surrounded by industry. My career kept me busy, no time to wander. I would visit my hometown as often as I could, but never as often as I would like. Until eventually, circumstances borne of new love and fresh starts, led me to Leicester, one of the oldest cities in England. The place where a council carpark marked the final resting place of the last Plantagenet, King Richard III of York. It was quite possibly the most landlocked place I could possibly be, and I felt it in my bones. Sometimes so strong it physically hurt. I grew sick, weak, and dreadfully unhappy.
When I needed comfort in my darkest times, I would lie on my bed with headphones on, a white noise app on my phone and the sound of the sea in my ears. I could close my eyes and fool myself for a moment I was where I wanted, no, needed to be.
My identity is linked to the sea. My Norse ancestors traversed the Northern oceans in longships to establish settlements in what was known as Streanæshealh, a place where Oswy, the Christian king of Northumberland founded the first abbey, guided by the abbess Hilda. Viking raiders destroyed the abbey in 876, with a new monastery founded in 1078. The Norse renamed the settlement to its current name, Whitby, from the Old Norse hvítr (white) and býr (village). Until the 18th century Whitby flourished primarily as a fishing village, when shipbuilding, whaling and the jet trade took over. It is a tourist town now, as the worlds needs have changed, with fishing providing only a fraction of its economy and employment.
For a tiny little town it has a lot to experience, in part thanks to its saturation in local myths and legends. The imposing, ruined gothic Whitby Abbey inspired Bram Stoker to write his vampire opus, ‘Dracula’. Saint Mary’s Church stands at the edge of the cliffs, 199 stone steps leading up to it. There is a memorial museum dedicated to Captain James Cook—explorer, navigator, cartographer. (I don’t like him much, but that’s another story.) A working steam train travels the moors and has featured in a number of Hollywood films. The Victorian museum is stuffed to the rafters with artifacts and curios from all around the world. One such highlight; a mummified, severed hand of a hanged man known as a Hand of Glory. Its fingertips were set alight and used by burglars to put their marks to sleep, and it terrified me to tears as a child. Along the cobbled streets of the Old Part of town and amongst the redstone buildings across the historic swing bridge, there are tea shops, fish ‘n’ chip shops and sweet shops galore! Whitby’s money is in people now, not in trade.
But it’s an old town for old people. It doesn’t offer much to the young. Or maybe I just haven’t thrown off that blanket of bad memories yet. I still feel the ties that bound me. I surprise myself sometimes, at how angry I feel, how small my life could have been.
I don’t need to go back to the Vikings to know my family has always been tied to the sea. They were fishermen. Lobster catchers. Net makers and menders. Boat builders and lifeboat crews. A long line of individuals living their lives on, by and in the water, knowing nothing else than the sharp tang of salt in the freezing air, the chill of the damp in their bones. A few years ago I traced my paternal ancestry as far back and wide as I could go. Eglon, Leadley, Peart and Mead. All names in the branches of my tree. I found certificates stating their births and deaths. Census entries detailing their jobs. I even found a sepia photograph of my great, great grandmother perched on seaweed-straddled rocks, at the edge of Whitby beach.
One thing struck me like a slap to my cheek; not one of them ever left Whitby. Generation after generation laid down roots and stayed firmly in one spot. Despite living near a pathway to a million new places, a thousand chances for fresh ventures and grand exploration, they stayed put.
I left the United Kingdom behind me four years and three months ago on the 27th of July 2017. I’ve not been back since. My decision drew a solid black line under the life I once had, and heralded the start of something new. My journey began well before then, of course, that need to strike out and find adventure, but in the late spring, early summer of 2016 my husband and I became aware that after many, many years of saving and planning, hoping and dreaming, we finally had the means to make some serious choices and changes to our life. One of those saw my husband resign from his job of fourteen years and strike out independently.
It wasn’t an easy choice. There was still so much fear to get over, worries about what could go wrong. You become indoctrinated to the working world, even when you hate it and can see so much wrong in it. Taking that chance to escape seems like a hoax, a joke, a ploy to trip you up and laugh at you as you fall. It took courage and determination to cut the threads and create his own business, and I cannot fault his passion or drive. Yet I knew he still wasn’t truly happy, and when an offer of part-time work came up, he was hesitant but couldn’t fully explain to me why.
He didn’t need to explain, I already knew that a part of him saw his freedom being removed from him again. The job was good, the hours and pay fantastic, but he needed to be free for a while. He needed to let go and see more of life before it swallowed him up. Hell, we both did.
A chain of events beyond anyone’s control brought about situations and circumstances that none of us saw coming and never, ever dreamed would be possible. Some people say the universe works in strange ways, but I remain convinced it works in exactly the way it should. Serendipity or otherwise, opportunities pieced themselves together like sections of a jigsaw, pushing us along a path that we had sought to tread for many years but had lacked the means to follow. From a period of sadness and indecision, of frustration and resignation, a door was opened to us, and a means of following our dreams was presented.
I’m not sure what possessed me that night, sitting on our bed, talking and swapping ideas, but I knew it was the right decision. I told him we should travel, that we should go where he had always wanted, to see New Zealand. Absolutely nothing was stopping us now, except the excuses we gave ourselves. I think I scared him, scared myself, showing that our dreams of well over ten years were possible, attainable. That which we had been saving for, for so long was now within our reach.
Do you ever feel sometimes that you have promised yourself you are working towards a goal, but deep down you aren’t fully sure if that goal will ever be reached? That’s what New Zealand felt like to us. Every time we had saved enough for the flights, something would happen that would demand the use of those savings. The car broke down. The washing machine blew up. All those myriad, stupid domestic problems that life throws at you and leaves you with little choice but to attack them head on and deal with the fallout. Knowing that we could finally do what we wanted, it was the strangest feeling.
We all cried that night: myself, my husband, and our two kids, hugging each other tightly. We cried not out of sadness, but out of terrified anticipation and excitement.
The decision was made, and yet we still dragged our feet at first. I’m not sure why, I suppose there was still a reticence there, an uncertainty. It would be the first time any of us had ever flown, and the flights were long-haul—almost thirty hours of travelling, all told. We were understandably nervous. I joked about it with well-travelled friends who were appalled that my first experience on a plane was to the other side of the world. “Go big or go home,” I would say, with a shrug, because in retrospect it felt crazy, somewhat unreal. I had to laugh otherwise I might crumble.
In the end, the journey, even though it was the first for us all, ended up being quite uneventful. Once through the process of customs, boarding and finding our seats, it was merely a matter of settling in for the long haul. We were seated in economy, in a row of four seats in the middle of the plane and we could have been locked in a tin-can simulation for all we knew. We saw nothing of the world as we crossed it as we were so far from the windows. It was… boring.
Our five-week holiday after? Never boring in the slightest. What we did and what we saw is of little consequence now, but how we felt, that was the kicker. When it ended, when we had to go “home”, it felt like our hearts were being ripped from our chests and everything we loved taken from us. Because we knew right then that while a great many places can feel like home, only one of those places is where you truly live. And I knew for certain it wasn’t England.
That Christmas I gave my husband a present that I’d made him. A piece of paua shell I’d picked up from the beach at Moa Point, that I’d carved with a Dremel into a hei matau hook. I wasn’t as well-versed in the real meanings of things then, still stuck in tourist-like obliviousness. I didn’t always see the lines between appreciation and appropriation. The importance of symbols and intention. Despite all this, I made that pendant for him and infused it with much love. “For good luck and safe travel across water,” I told him. He knew exactly what it meant.
Seven months later, we were back on a plane. Serendipity intervened again, guided us with open palms. Little things that to write about now seem like they couldn’t possibly be real. Details seen only in wholesome, family movies, not things that actually occurred. They were real, of course. As real as that hand I could feel on my back, pushing me to take every step. Two days before leaving we sold our car. The dealer gave us cash that paid for the taxi that took us and our four cases to the airport. We almost missed the shuttlebus, but the driver let us ride for free. Once at the airport, we bought snacks in WHSmith, that amounted to the exact pennies in our pockets. Our seats this time were by the window, and we could see the land fall away as we rose. I watched the ocean spread out beneath us, a blanket of a thousand shades of blue.
We landed in Wellington just before dawn, the sun barely grazing the horizon. My husband put his hand to the hollow of his neck and made a little noise of surprise.
“What’s wrong?” I asked him, and he showed me his palm. His delicate paua pendant, had snapped neatly in two.
Our friends greeted us at the airport with a massive, hand-painted, rainbow-coloured sign. “Welcome home!” it said, and my stomach fluttered. Welcome home, indeed.
The sea I live beside now is not the sea I grew up with. I am displaced twelve thousand miles from the place I once called home. Despite this, I still feel the connection. The water is warm and clear here, stark contrast to the murky grey and forever cold North Sea. Water that I swam in until my skin turned blue and my teeth chattered so hard they might crumble in my mouth. Water I stayed in far too long and swallowed far too much, until I could barely find the energy to get back to shore, and on doing so, threw up bitter stomach-fuls of disgusting, briny liquid. Water, that as a child I was strangely jealous of for it could go anywhere it wanted. It was always moving. Never stuck in one place.
As all water leads to the ocean, all oceans are connected in one way or another, their relationships like long-lost cousins, mutual links that lead them all into one. Any religion or mythology or magic aside, this is what I’ve always known and felt. I’ll never let anyone tear me away from the waves again. When my time comes to leave this world forever, I want the sea to take me. Scatter my ashes over water, let my soul go where the ocean roars.
Sometimes, while walking by the ocean, I gather wave-tumbled beach glass. Once sharp and cruel and dangerous, now smooth and made safe to touch. I feel like the sea does that to me; it takes off all my hard edges and gives me a more rounded view. The sea reminds me: you can be strong without needing defences. It’s okay to let yourself be tumbled in the waves. You won’t break, you’ll just change shape. Trust the journey. Lose yourself to the sea.
Generation after generation of my family laid down roots and stayed firmly in one spot. They ignored what the ocean could offer them.
The kids laugh loudly from the other end of the house, pulling me back to the present. My fingernail stays poised on the place I was born. The place I couldn’t wait to run away from.
I trace up, up around the North Sea, past the Faroe Islands and the bottom of Iceland. I swoop down the full length of the Atlantic Ocean, skirt Cape Horn into Te Moana nui a Kiwa. I go onwards to the bottom of Te Ika-a-Māui, and curl through Te Whanganui-a-Tara. I stop at the tiniest dot on the map, where I know Pōneke to be. Plenty of places feel like home. Only one of them is where you really, truly live.
I am a water baby. I’ve known that forever. How easy it can be to leave land behind, but the sea? No.
That will always come with me.
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