On Sea Changes and Souls at Sea

We recently made a sea-change. Sounds exciting doesn’t it, the stuff of reality TV and life adventures. Actually, it was more like a series of hiccupy jumps, gulping for air, rather than a seemless transition. Together with our three children under eight, we moved from the deep inner-city surrounds of Sydney and the bustling communal environment of Bible college, to Toowong, a Queensland suburb close to the bush, where it was rumoured a giant python regularly sunned himself on the street,  and finally to the very outer-edges of Brisbane, where land bumps up against water, and every sunset demands a camera. And if you think that sentence was long to read, imagine travelling all that distance.

Our kids call this place we have landed ‘the island,’ this space of swaying-headed palm trees and ever-shifting tones of blue-green water, of sunsets that ripple over waves that do little more than lap gently at the shore. We eat ice cream all the year round here, and sweaters are only for the early ‘winter’ mornings, or after dark, when you stand by the edge of the water and let the breeze whip through your hair and anything else it is able to take with it. 

It’s no secret that I have always had a bit of a thing for sea changes. Maybe it comes from an inbuilt romanticism (which surfaced early in my love of Anne of Green Gables, and Prince Edward Island, or any other windswept, faraway landscape). As young as eighteen I skipped off to Europe and spent six months immersed in my exotic long-lost relatives’ lives, eating cheese and bread and clicking my heels as I walked along cobblestone village streets when until then all I had known was asphalt. When we were first married, Dr M and I attempted our first ever official sea-change together, moving up the coast from Sydney, and bunking down in our friend’s small house by the bay. But we weren’t yet ready for the grittier side of this more natural lifestyle, especially the spiders that thought our outdoor laundry was an arachnid B & B. We spent most of the time commuting back and forth to Sydney and all it still held magnetically tight for us, and found ourselves returning ten months later to the familiar suburbs. But that didn’t mean we forgot the charm of the rainbow of evening lights bouncing off the water, of our boat-loving elderly neighbours, or the way a weekend local walk felt like a holiday.

Fast forward almost fifteen years and you find us here, with three more squirmy travelling companions, living in Queensland on the island. Really, it’s a peninsula, reached by a very long bridge. Sometimes the water beneath the bridge is wind-tossed and full, whipped into a moody frenzy, other times it is so still and low-tidal that people venture out onto the sand plains like miniature miracles walking on water. We watch from our car windows as they stand with buckets, or hands free, feet planted in moist softness, under the vast sky. It really is a little magical here. So, I like to call this place our almost-island.

In terms of the criteria for sea-changing, which seem to be a desire to live a simpler, slower, more affordable life, our new dwelling place meets expectations. I love the quirky smallness of it all, the fact that when you buy noodles from the shop in the one-street village strip you have to follow the shopkeeper to the doorway, sometimes outside, to hold the eftpos machine in the air like a radar to search for signal. I love that the same noodle shop tells you it is closing down for a few weeks because the chef is going away for holidays, and everyone is content to patiently wait for his return and cook at home. I love that you can get your hair cut, buy selected groceries, and go to the doctor all on foot, and that you can always observe the water in its various moods as you do. I love the evening walkers that come out to catch the breeze, and that you are always likely to see one of the families from the kids’ school outdoors. I love that there is a whole park of trees to climb in summer, like a shady enclave, a forest free of the searing sun.

I love that the waterscape brings with it a sense both of magnitude—it’s impossible to forget how small you are standing before it — and also of comfort.  No matter what the day brings you can be sure that the water will still touch the shore gently as night falls.

While I can sense that my introverted, easily-anxious disposition, and that of my family, benefits from being here, while I believe God brought us here in a way we could never have designed on our own, while I love the gentle colour, the air and the fairylights that line the forshore all year around, and the annual Christmas parade that yells small-town charm at the top of its banner-flying lungs, what I know for certain is that no sea change can be a total soul change.

It’s possible, even while living in the equivalent of a tourist brochure, to still feel restless, anxious, and at sea.

I know this because it is my daily reality. I can be standing ankle deep in the sand, witnessing the most beautiful pastel sunset, the material of a hallmark movie all around me, and can still be focussed on the landscape inside. My whirring worry-wheel, it seems, doesn’t shy away from performing in serene outward conditions, any less than it does in chaotic urban ones. It’s easy to feel guilty for this (adding another gritty layer to the internal quagmire). But as Dr M’s sage of a nan once pointed out to us, Wherever you go you still take your self with you.

So while I’d like somehow, in moving here, to have morphed into a much lower-key version of myself, a classic Queensland Nikki, picture long-flowing blond hair, floaty dress (basically lots of floating/flowing imagery ) barefoot on the beach smiling serenely at all around me, perhaps now with an uncanny ability to stand up on a paddleboard and not topple off immediately] I am still me. The same city girl with wary eyes, and a heart that always beats a little too fast, with muscles a little too stiff and a terrible tendency to overanalysis, with a bent to catastrophizing, she  is still here. Put her on a beach and blonden her hair more, and you can’t change what’s inside. And I’m guessing, even the surfy/hippy/overly tattooed/nose-ringed/super smiley, serenely standing paddle-boarding types, are not entirely at peace either.

Because no matter if we live in a skyrise apartment in the city, or in a bespoke cottage by the sea, we are all still at sea, susceptible to the tides and waves and hiccups of life.

And even on the almost-Island, the seasons are not always kind.

Sadly, not even the  almost-island can make the realities of life float away.

Recently, we’ve experienced a  period of what feels like never-ending family sickness that has left us housebound shut-ins, weathering wave after wave of fevers, colds, upset stomachs, coughs, and the accompanying low moods that seem to attach themselves like velcro to times like this. While this on its own, we realise, is not life-threatening, it has made our ordinary life stressors, like family anxiety levels, parenting a child with high needs, and managing all the still fresh change of our new life – new schools, new jobs, new doctors, new! new! new! much harder. At times like this I’m inclined to do the very opposite of what I know will help me. Even reading my Bible can feel too hard, like I don’t know where to start, or how to pray. My prayers are small, bitsy things, sometimes little more than exclamations. It’s at times like this I’m so thankful for the book of psalms. A favourite of both myself and Dr M, the psalms have a way of saying the words we cannot yet find. Of forming our inner chaos into sentences that simultaneously cry out at and honour our God.

In these last few weeks we’ve been reading Psalm’s 55 -57. I love all the psalms, but these have been a recent revelation. Read as a sequence they explore both the depths of isolation and panic of the human condition and the comfort found in our heavenly father. In Psalm 55 the psalmist, David, describes what sounds like a classic panic attack. This is escapism, in full-throttle:

Oh, that I had wings like a dove;
    then I would fly away and rest!
I would fly far away
    to the quiet of the wilderness. 
How quickly I would escape—
    far from this wild storm of hatred. (NLT)

Even though the picture painted is a desperate one, the inner state being reflected one full of pain and turmoil, I find it comforting that it is here, written into the text of the Bible, the undeniable reality of our earthly bodies. We are not always at home. And yet, this does deny the possibility of a very real security, so long as we are willing to look beyond our selves and our circumstance, and consider a comfort more all consuming and close than any shifting tide.

In Psalm 56:8 David notes how not one of our moments of terror or despair is unseen, forgotten, or unattended: ‘You keep track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears in your bottle. You have recorded each one in your book.’ Other versions translate ‘sorrows’ here as ‘wanderings.’

No matter how far we wander, to an island, an almost-island, or somewhere inland, across the sea and back again, He knows our journeys. He draws us close. This is the sort of sea change I know I need. The permanence of perfect presence, in the person of Jesus.

Sometimes even in the sun you can feel cold and alone, but I am thankful always for the words of Psalm 57: ‘I will seek refuge in the shadow of Your wings until danger passes.’ This is the message in a bottle I send myself daily, that I send to you from my almost-island.

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