brisbane: an early retirement

My “brief trip to Australia for the holidays” turned into a month-long visit. I managed to spend an entire month in Brisbane. “Brisbane is shit,” my friend from Sydney says. Even Dorothy, who lives in Brisbane, asked what in the world am I going to do here for a month? Don’t I want to do some traveling and go see other parts of Australia? Nope, I’m fine right here, thanks, doing absolute nothing. (By the way, there is a child bearing a spear screaming “I AM GOING TO KILL YOU BOTH” as I write this.)

I’m not sure why I was satisfied to spend a month in a city that I have already visited twice without doing side trips or exploration or cultural immersion or ANY ACTIVITY WHATSOEVER. I essentially transformed into a grandmother for a month of my life and had a premature glimpse of retirement. I would wake up, make some tea, read my book for a few hours, take a nap, maybe bake something with my 70-year-old roommate, socialize for a bit with some young people until I became too weary, take another nap, go for a walk, eat dinner at a restaurant alone, and then slowly climb into bed for some more reading until the stress of the day lulled me to sleep. Except for the nights on which I reverted to a 19-year-old and became best friends forever with people from Tinder and drank boxed wine and forgot who I was entirely. Other than that, I was a genuine, bonafide grandma, through-and-through. I had unlimited amounts of time for reflection, and although I was often confused (as grandmas are wont to be), I was also happy.

With such a lifestyle, naturally I have been thinking about my fellow retirees. Such a beautiful, underappreciated group of society. I began to develop a fascination. I would sit at the bus stop and an old man would sit down next to me and I would turn to look at him and just stare in wonder. What have you seen, old man? What has touched you in this world? What has been your most devastating hurt? Who have you loved? Sometimes I would engage them in conversation; other times, they would scramble away in fear. Some people just don’t like being stared at while waiting for the bus, I have learned. (Now, the aforementioned child is wielding a kitchen knife.)

This fascination stems from several factors. One, old people actually listen. They care. They aren’t thinking about what they are going to say next. They have no agenda. They search your face when you are speaking and seem to understand every word and every feeling behind each word. Two, they are by far some of the most interesting and memorable people that I’ve met in the past four months. Their stories have meaning. Their stories have depth. A friend was asking me how I’d like to spend my time in Brisbane. It took me a long time to answer. He offered plenty of suggestions: beaches, museums, road trips, everything that this city and surrounding areas have to offer. The only idea that came to mind was that I would like to go to a local retirement home and sit with people and hold their hands and listen to their stories and wisdom. “But you could do that anywhere! Also, seriously? What’s wrong with you?” I don’t know! I just know that I don’t want to get in a car and drive to a lookout point and take a picture that I upload to my computer and upload on social media and wait for people to comment on it and then that’s it. I want to be changed. I want to be moved.

On one of my wild solo nights out, I went to a dumplings restaurant. I sat across the communal table from an older Chinese woman. She seemed to know what she was doing, so I asked her what I should order. I suggested the dish that a friend had recommended. “No no, this one I can make at home! Ha! You come over and I show you. Too easy!” She redirected me towards another item and explained how her grandmother would spend hours rolling out the dough and how vividly she remembered the flour all over her kitchen. She showed me photos of her son’s wedding and of her daughter, who is a “party girl ha ha,” and of her house and of her daughter’s boyfriend and of her dog and of her cousin’s daughter’s boyfriend and of her best friend’s son. “You seem like nice girl—you have a boyfriend?” I began to cry. I cried shamelessly in front of this stranger for several minutes. At a restaurant. A small, quiet one. She sat patiently. Eventually she reached across the table and placed her hand on top of mine. Without any further explanation from me, she said, “This is GOOD. This is LIFE.” I nodded, and we continued to eat our dumplings in silence. She paid for my meal and gave me a hug and too quickly dissolved into the busy night. We never exchanged contact information. I may never see her again. She may never know the part of me that she was able to wrench with six words.

The truth is, I am afraid. I am afraid of a lot of things. I am afraid that I may not be able to digest what I am experiencing in this life. It took me over a month to write this because I am afraid even to put words on a page, to eternalize some of the thoughts that I have. I am afraid I’ll realize that maybe I’m not finding all of the answers. I am afraid that all of the connections I’ve made are fleeting. I feel them slipping from me each time I leave. I know, I know, cheer up, chum, you’ll meet people at the next place! But at what point do I say, enough is enough? I’ve met enough people. I’ve seen enough places. I’ve been to enough beaches, enough mountains, enough lakes, enough museums, enough sites. What if it is never enough? What if I never wake up one morning and think, “Okay, Anna, it’s time to go home.”

Luckily, I don’t have to wait for that morning to come because I am officially going home for a visit in October. And I am, as you might have guessed, terrified. There will be no large welcome crew waiting for me at the airport, no party, no at-long-last happy reunions. There will be my small, lone mother, waiting anxiously for me at baggage claim, probably crying, and me, definitely crying. I don’t know if my world back home will feel as upside down as it seems from 8,000 miles across the Pacific, but I have a heartbreaking feeling that it will.

Until then, I have nine months in New Zealand. I accidentally managed to get myself a year-long work visa (after an in-depth investigation and potential deportation), so my three-month plan to work in New Zealand has suddenly tripled. Surprise! For the past week, I have been living and working in this gorgeous, open home in Glenorchy and will stay here for three months, as planned (a word that makes me wince these days). And, despite all of my dark introspection and doubts and questions, I am so happy. How fulfilling it is to have a purpose after a month of retirement. And the family, this family. I want to gather the four of them together as one unit and pour all of my heart into them. They are so real and vulnerable and beautiful and perfect. I am so content with the family, the work, the mountains, my books, and my alone time, that I don’t see the need for anything else at the moment—no boxed wine, no Tinder. (FYI, the kids have finally laid down their weapons and settled into a nice game of who-can-strangle-the-other-first.)

These two boys are actually my best friends right now, and I don’t really think that’s weird. I’m starting to see that I can learn from them as much as I learn from my beloved centenarians. Today, the 12-year-old told me to go look in my room. I peeked inside my door with apprehension, noticed my bed looked different, and before I could say “Aw, you turned my sheets down for me,” I was suddenly overtaken with the most violent, pungent odor that I stumbled out of the room with my hands covering my whole face and nearly passed out from choking or laughing or dying. “YOU FARTED, YOU MONSTER?!” “Nope!” “You POOPED in my BED?” (I genuinely considered this as a possibility). “Nope!” And he pulled out a piece of what is evidently called STINKWOOD from inside my PILLOWCASE and held up this culpable plant to my nose. While stinkwood is described as having an “unpleasant odor” on Wikipedia, I can assure you that this is a scandalous lie. Skunks, compost, sewers, and wet dogs have unpleasant odors. Stinkwood’s odor is LETHAL. Tears-streaming-down-your-face, fingers-clawing-at-the-ground, cries-pleading-for-mercy LETHAL. The 8-year-old found all of this to be very high-quality entertainment for a Wednesday afternoon. My pillows, on the other hand, may never be whole again, and I will most certainly be recovering from this trauma for a large percentage of my life. Like I said, I have a lot to learn. In the meantime, when I’m not secretly plotting the most brilliant revenge of all time (it will be swift, and it will be fierce), I think I’ll be alright.

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