Full disclosure.

“How did you reconcile your sexuality with your Christian faith?”

This is a question I’ve been asked a lot this year, and it’s one I want to try to answer in this post. As you might imagine, this is a summary of a longer, more complex story.

It started with a lot of cognitive dissonance.
Traditionally, Christianity and homosexuality have been at odds. This means that when a person identifies with both, conflict usually results. Whether it’s internal conflict only or also conversations about belief and behaviour, this conflict is uncomfortable and it doesn’t go away. I can only speak authoritatively about my own experience, but chatting and reading have suggested to me that this is what it’s like for many people who identify as homosexual and Christian in various places and at various times.

When a person holds contradictory beliefs or behaves in a manner that contradicts a belief, we call this cognitive dissonance. It’s hard to live with the chaos and incongruity that result from cognitive dissonance, so we generally try to resolve it by bringing beliefs and behaviours into agreement with one another. For me, for many years, this meant blocking out my homosexuality because it was at odds with a firm commitment to conservative Christianity.

I’ve always thought deeply about things. Questions about the authority of the Bible, the plausibility of the resurrection and the way power operated in the Church dogged me for years from the time I was 12. Generally, however, I was (or was encouraged to be) satisfied with answers given by those who had the authority to teach God’s view on the matter — including on the topic of homosexuality.

So total was my self-deception (and I don’t think that’s too strong a term) that I repeatedly denounced homosexual activity as unchristian, and married a man. The whole time, I believed that I believed all I said and did.

A transformative encounter brought me to crisis point.
My whole life, even while I was married, I never stopped having crushes on women. (Unsurprising, really.) Normally I kept them a secret and they weren’t, to my knowledge, reciprocated. Then, at church one day, I met a woman who changed everything.

She too was married to a man — this despite her having been aware since her teens that she’s gay. At first we connected as friends, sharing our enjoyment of music and outdoor adventure. Before long, we shared our ‘struggles’ with same-sex attraction. For a while, this shared burden enabled us to compassionately urge one another towards faithfulness in our marriages. Finally, we admitted we’d fallen in love.

I will never cease to be amazed at the miracle of two hearts in the one place at the same time. To love someone and be loved by them in return is as mind-bending as any collapsed quantum probability. To experience no gap between head and heart gives life and health to body and brain. Loving this woman, letting her love me, was the truest thing I’d ever done. It also made me more sinful than I’d ever been, a liar and an adulteress. A ‘homosexual offender’.

And so it was that I found myself face to face with the cognitive dissonance I’d tried to bury under layers of obedient devotion.

The egg becomes the chicken; the chicken was once the egg.
Sure, I’d questioned things before I reached this crisis point, but that doesn’t change the fact that it was my love for a woman that catalysed my exploration of the academic literature about Christianity and homosexuality. I’m not ashamed of that fact.

Christians tend to disapprove of the influence emotions and experience have on belief, and they’ve been known to claim that there’s no good reason to change one’s mind other than conviction about what the Bible says.

I think studying the Bible can lead one further down the road to truth, but I think there are also other valid reasons to change your mind about something. In fact, I’d speculate that most of the time we don’t adopt new beliefs for purely biblical or academic reasons. One of the books I recommend below is written by a respected Christian ethicist who argues that true change of mind (literally, repentance) is sparked by transformative encounters with people. We humans are social and emotional, as well as logical, creatures.

My point is that it doesn’t matter what prompts the change — study, personal experience, a vision in a dream. The important thing is that we remain open to the questions and keep our assumptions from becoming clad in iron. Even the Bible is full of instances when life interrupts and sets a person’s thinking on a new and different course.

Sometimes the truth can set you free.
More than once, I’ve been on the receiving end of admonitions along the lines of, “You can’t change what the Bible says just because you want something to be true.” I agree: that lacks integrity.

In response, I offer this aphorism: “The fact that I’m thirsty doesn’t negate the existence of water.” It’s a line that’s stayed with me since I heard it in a sermon preached by Rev Dr John Dickson at the church I attended for 13 years. His point was different (because he does not endorse homosexual activity) but the idea applies here too: The fact that I want homosexuality and Christianity to gel doesn’t mean they don’t. Ask questions, seek answers, find out for yourself. Emboldened by my minister’s rhetoric, that’s what I set out to do.

I read a tall pile of books on Christianity, history, ethics, sex and so on, the most helpful of which are listed below. Somewhere along the way I came to the honest-to-God view that it’s OK to be Christian and gay. There’s no longer a gap between head and heart; the dissonance has reached a resolution.

And there it is: full disclosure about the process by which I reconciled my sexuality and my long-held faith. Several important postscripts will constitute the next instalments — but, for now, happy reading!

Recommended reading
Scripture, Ethics and the Possibility of Same-Sex Relationships (2018) by Karen Keen.

If you read only one book on the topic, let it be this one. Karen Keen is an American scholar whose writing strikes the perfect balance between academic rigour and readability. Her approach is clear-eyed without lacking human warmth, and she addresses head-on the issues right at the heart of the apparent rift between the Church and an affirming stance on LGBTQIA+ people and relationships.

A Place At His Table: A Biblical Exploration of Faith, Sexuality and the Kingdom of God (2019) by Joel Hollier.

Joel’s personable communication style makes this an enjoyable as well as informative read. Anecdotes and illustrations abound, giving an accessible overview of the topic — including historical, psychological and textual insights — within an Australian context. Especially recommended for those sympathetic to an evangelical Christian worldview.

Faith Without Fear: Risky Choices Facing Contemporary Christians (2016) by Keith Mascord.

I can’t believe this book isn’t more widely known and read. Keith Mascord used be a Sydney Anglican minister and even lectured at Moore Theological College — that’s to say, he was deeply embedded in Australian conservative Christianity. His adeptness at and love for philosophy combine with his pastoral experience to offer an incisive yet charitable critique of current approaches to authority, truth and inclusion/exclusion.

Walking the Bridgeless Canyon: Repairing the Breach Between the Church and the LGBT Community (2014) by Kathy Baldock.

A textbook-length work constituting the most comprehensive treatment of the history, politics and theology surrounding this topic that I’ve encountered to date (James V. Brownson’s paradigmatic theological text notwithstanding). I haven’t read the whole thing yet, but the chapters I’ve spent time in have been so incredibly helpful. This is important.

Changing Our Mind (2016) by David P. Gushee.

Gushee’s stature within the world of Christian theology and ethics is enough to commend this book to anyone who takes the Bible seriously. Having said that, I consider this book’s most valuable contribution to be the considered emphasis he places on personal encounters that can change one’s perspective. Gushee provides Bible lovers with sound reasons to give weight to people’s stories.

Leaving Christian Fundamentalism and the Reconstruction of Identity (2017) by Josie McSkimming.

Josie McSkimming was once a member of what she now calls Christian fundamentalism in Sydney. This book is an adaptation of her doctoral thesis about stories of deconversion from that brand of faith. It’s not a light read, but it’s thorough and synthesises a lot of relevant material about approaches to the Bible — truth, authority, interpretation — that are central to why homosexuality has historically been demonised.

I get it now.

Several years ago, a young woman in the Bible study group I led with my then husband posted a Facebook update professing her love for her girlfriend.

When I heard about this from another member of the group, I called our minister and asked for his advice about how to respond, then I wrote her a message saying she was always welcome in our group and at church, and that I would pray for her.

It’s not downright terrible, but neither is it a model reaction. Who was I to presume she needed an invitation to continue in a community of which she’d been a part for years? Who was I to offer to talk to God about her love life instead of asking considerate, kind questions following such a brave act of self-disclosure?

At the time, I didn’t know gay people — and certainly not gay Christians. In fact, I think I practically obscured the existence of ‘gay Christians’ with my belief that faith prohibited gayness. In any case, I was deep inside a circle that kept the stories of gay people out, except if they were stories about overcoming the temptation of homosexual sin or renouncing a gay identity in Jesus’ name. Christians who associated with members of the LGBTQIA+ community were regarded with suspicion, as though we on the inside intuited how proximity to gay folks and their stories could lead to sympathy and raise all sorts of uncomfortable questions. Best to avoid, stick instead to the Bible, and to our own kind.

The woman from my Bible study group didn’t return to church after she came out and she didn’t respond to my message. From where I stand today, looking back, I don’t blame her. In fact, I applaud the instinct for self-preservation that kept her away from us, people whose beliefs implicitly cast doubt over the inherent truth and goodness of who she is, because of who she loves.

Photograph by Kate Geraghty

Until very recently, I was the person doing and believing the things I now implore Christians to re-examine and abandon. And all the while, the knowledge of my own sexuality was tightly packed down under layers of theology and other ideals. My response to the dissonance of my experience and beliefs was classic and tragic. Exonerated by the disclaimer that we ought to ‘love the sinner, hate the sin’, I studiously promoted an anti-LGBTQIA+ stance.

There I was, hiding in plain sight behind well-articulated versions of the argument that the God who made us all approves only of the sexual acts between married, monogamous heterosexuals. (Like me, at the time!!)

To the young woman from our Bible study group: I’m sorry. I’m sorry for not loving you. I seek your forgiveness, just as I have had to do the hard work of forgiving myself. I get it now. I know what it’s like.


In August, The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald reported about my dismissal from a teaching position at a Christian school due to my (beliefs about) sexuality. Follow-up media included this segment on Channel 10’s The Project, this chat with Fran Kelly on Radio National Breakfast, a call with Triple J’s Hack, and my op-ed in The Age/SMH, among other coverage.

What I’ve learned lately about friendship

Last year I reconnected with an old friend via Instagram to ask about her experience of van life. We began chatting and, after I moved back from interstate, hung out a fair bit. She was in the process of reacclimatising to non-nomadic life. We had fun designing the interiors of her apartment, sourcing stuff on Gumtree, and seeing how it all came together.

Being out of work, I had time to traipse around Sydney collecting the bargains we’d snagged and ferrying them to her place up north. She showed me the progress she was making on building a small business as a woodworker, and I was delighted to front some cash for supplies for the first batch of a signature product she was working on.

We spent a couple of summer afternoons painting old pallets white so they’d look good as the base of a futon couch. I listened as she spoke at length of the relationship difficulties she’d encountered in the years since we were last in touch, and I shared a little of my own higgledy-piggledy story as we soaked our paint-splattered selves in the spa.

A new raft of troubles came my way early this year and I found myself in hospital for a few weeks. When I got out, I wasn’t prepared for the reaction she threw me one evening when we met up for a beer. Her anger towards me caught me totally off-guard.

She’d expected more openness and contact from me. She was cross about the impact my mental health troubles were having on others. She said she wasn’t surprised I was short on friends and couldn’t hold down a relationship if I treated people like I treated her. There’s more, but you get the picture… I drove home before we had time to order dinner, winded by a sickening slug of fury mixed with confusion. I’d been so good to this person!

In a deeply awkward turn of events, the products she gave me that evening, for which I’d paid up front a year earlier, were faulty and I had to return them in exchange for a refund. This incited a barrage of abusive texts with messages like, ‘Didn’t think you could sink any lower’, ‘Stay out of my life forever’, ‘You’re awful’, ‘You’re a problematic antagonistic person’, ‘You don’t have enough mates to keep being a dick to them mate’, ‘If you want good friends… be a better friend’.

Yeah.

You’re wondering, Why is she writing this? Is she really this hung up on some chick’s silly negativity? Is she letting someone unhealthy get to her? Don’t emotionally evolved people let this stuff just slide off, like water off a duck’s back?

Perhaps, but growth is hard-won. I’m writing this because it’s such a stark example of how much I have grown. I have changed for the better. I am healthier and more mature than I ever have been, and I’d like to celebrate that. Here. Like this.

I have had a tendency towards self-sacrifice in relationships. It’s a pattern I’ve observed through reflection on the past twenty years. Time and time again, I’ve ended up crying in a heap because people just don’t love me the way I love them. I’m beginning to see why! Here’s something I wrote in my journal a couple of weeks ago:

Why do I gravitate towards broken people, people who will hurt me? Why do I always want to fix other people’s problems? Because then I’ll matter more to them. It’s a value-add. So, if I fix my problems will I matter more to me?

It’s one marker of the new insight I’m reaping from the pain sown in years gone by. It’s evidence a deeper kindness towards myself. Kindness towards others has always come more easily to me than compassion for myself. So it’s quite astounding that in the past month people from various corners of life have said these words to me:

“You’re the most grounded person I know.”
“I so admire how you’re going about this chapter of your life.”
“You’re different than you were, in a good way.”
“You are so kind and so wise, Steph.”
“You’ve turned a corner in how you think about what you want, and I can tell you’re committed to continued growth.”
“I reckon you know yourself so much better now. You don’t put up with shit like you used to.”

When I started this blog, I would not have handled the dysfunction in the friendship described above like I handled it recently. Which was, with kindness, integrity and LIKE A BOSS. I am grateful, proud and relieved to have made this progress.

She’s wrong, that girl: I am one of the best friends a person can have. And I get to choose who I let into my life in this season. I’ve already found some treasures and I’ll be holding on to them — but applications remain open, folks!

Travelogue: Me, myself and I

I’ve spent a lot of time on my own in the past year. More alone time than I’ve ever had before. More than a lot of people have had. And I’ve been thinking a lot about being alone: on the Jatbula trail last July, I read A Philosophy of Loneliness; in the Whitsundays, I meditated on May Sarton’s praise of solitude. And then there’s the comment Blaise Pascal made, which often comes to mind, that “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Perhaps it’s too strongly put, but the point is valid.

It was during my eight-day solo jaunt in lutruwita / Tasmania that several lessons from the past twelve months crystallised, as though — to switch the metaphor — my brain had been panning for the gold in the handful of soil it scooped up over the past year of my life. All of a sudden there were some gold specks to show for it.

After dropping off my passenger at Launceston airport I continued east to the Bay of Fires, spending a night in one of the many popular free campgrounds near Binalong Bay. (Lesson #1 is that while female solo travellers should absolutely get out there, we’ve gotta keep our wits about us. The world’s a sadly confused little place. That’s all I’ll say about that for now.) I don’t regret the promise I made to myself some years ago that I will always, always, unless completely impractical, swim in the ocean when I am there.

Bay of Fires – Binalong Bay

Back in Lonny, I left my car parked by the river and caught a bus to Hobart. After a night in the fanciest backpackers’ I ever did see, I rose early to meet with a few other hiking enthusiasts for three days of east coast walks. We began with Fortescue Bay to Cape Hauy, ascending and descending 9000 stairs and thereby addressing the more cardio-intensive leg of the acclaimed Three Capes Track.

Cape Hauy, Tasman Peninsula

The energiser bunny of the group, I often pushed ahead on the trail. In these stretches of solo walking I enjoyed reflecting on the recent past and continued something like a dialogue with myself about the things I learned in 2020. Lesson #2 is that being a good friend to me is like any relationship – it takes time, both in the sense that I need to invest in the thing, and I need to be patient for the growth to happen naturally. You can’t hurry love.

In the same vein, Lesson #3 is that bad habits die… badly. I’m learning to treat myself with more respect, and I’m definitely more in tune to whether or not I’m being a caring friend to myself. But I also see and forgive myself for the times when I still treat myself recklessly, like other people’s doormat / punching bag / spew bucket, and when I treat my body like it’s some piece of non-biodegradable garbage. Nobody wins when I do that. I’m thankful that these days I’m more aware of how good it feels to treat myself kindly.

Maria Island

Lesson #4 is that I never regret speaking up against injustice and other forms of dickheadishness. One fellow hiker furnished me with ample opportunity to do so and, while I champion the proverb that says Even a fool is thought wise if she keeps silent and discerning if she holds her tongue, I also like the one that says DISMANTLE OPPRESSIVE POWER STRUCTURES BITCHES!!!!!!!!! It’s all in the timing, I guess.

Hiking, car camping, backpacker bunking, eating on a shoe string and spending my budget sampling local liquor — there are some things it’s only possible to get away with because nobody else is being forced to live the way you are, the way you’re choosing to do life at that time. I’ve come to enjoy my own idiosyncrasies when I’m in my own company. I no longer think of these times as a ‘default’ state, something to survive with minimal upheaval or expenditure until I’m back in my ‘real life’. Living well on my own is another string I’d like to add to the bow of my creative ability.

The Spirit of Tasmania carried me back to the mainland and my adorable RAV4 carried me the 900km from Melbourne to Sydney. Last time I got home from a solo travelling stint, I was in quite a state for reasons related to Lesson #1 (eek!). This time, I arrived feeling calm, grateful, strong — and already dreaming of a new adventure!

Planted in 1893 at Cataract Gorge

Because you know what’s funny? Sitting here, writing this now, while the seconds tick away until I need to zip off to work, I realise I can’t remember some of the things that solitude gave me in those moments. To be alone with oneself is really to be in the company of another, one whose voice is gentle but authoritative — the kind you need to lean in to hear. Right now, it’s too faint. I think the rest of the things I’ve learned lately are waiting for my next solitary sojourn to show their pretty faces.

Travelogue: Western Wilds (Part 4)

Mooching around. Napping. Reading for hours. Strolling. Flipping through a coffee table book about modern rustic design. Thinking. Making another cup of tea. Journaling. Watching a movie.

All of these restful activities are things I could do at home. So, when it comes to holidays, why do I find it so much easier, so much more enjoyable, to rest somewhere else? There are answers, but the main thing is that my mum and I have learned this about ourselves: for us resting means doing relaxing things in a space other than the one we normally occupy. Hence the last two nights of our holiday at the Blythe River Boathouse.

The little weatherboard house has a peaceful outlook — and it was so generously stocked that we hardly needed to go out for anything. Somebody with great taste has created a space full of light, warmth and beautiful things. It was the perfect place to rest.

I read my book in the bath, and fed the ducks with the same earnestness and glee as my six-year-old self used to do. We kept the fire burning the whole time, snacked on cheese and chocolate biscuits whenever we felt like it, and devoured about seven episodes in a row of a favourite comedy.

On the last night, we had another meal of local seafood. We talked about the week and about life. I’m so grateful to have shared adventures in Tasmania’s Western Wilds with my kind, wise, beautiful mama.

One of so many stunning old church buildings on this island. This one’s in Penguin, a beachy town en route to the airport, that’s every bit as cute and friendly as its name suggests.

I’ll post one more instalment about my travels, in which you’ll read of adventures I’ve been having on my own since my mum flew home. It’ll need a different name, though, because the next part of the story takes place on Tasmania’s east coast…

Travelogue: Western Wilds (Part 3)

My mum saw The Nut on our first day in Tasmania. She picked it in the distance as we trundled along the north coast. I didn’t see it until we rounded a corner on the Stanley Highway and beheld the sweetest seaside town, ripped straight out of a Victorian novel.

The Nut is a huge landform at the end of the spit that takes you out to Stanley. Think of it as a mountain with the top cut off, leaving a flattish surface covered in scrub and grasses. The Nut shelters a crescent of beach as blue as you’ll ever see, and nestled on its slopes are cottages, shops, a pub and plenty of fishing paraphernalia.

A very eccentric young man from a shop selling cardigans and whiskey pointed us towards our accommodation: a semi-detached historic cottage with a bright red door, with which my mum promptly fell in love. We went for a stroll, flopped for a bit, then braved the elements in search of dinner.

You can imagine this is a very popular holiday spot for Tasmanians. As Avoca is to Sydney, so Stanley is to Launceston. I think. Which is why we considered ourselves fortunate to snag a booking at Hursey’s, a well-reviewed seafood bistro serving local fruits de mer. By the end of dinner, I was up to my elbows in lobster and lemon juice, and grinning from ear to ear. My mum too.

The wind and rain whipped the roof all night, but in the morning there was enough sunshine (in fifteen-minute bouts, alternating with drizzle) for me to consider climbing The Nut and taking a look around. The short ascent is one of the steepest I’ve seen and the wind wasn’t with me – but it was worth it for the view of blue-green offshore waves against the background of historic weatherboard churches and a dairy farm.

As the rain set in, I was on my way back down to rejoin my mum and continue the journey. Having heard about Marrawah, a famed surf spot and home to The Marrawah Tavern (a must-see according to Kerrie from Strahan), we headed west again. Cows, milking sheds, lots of twists and turns, we ventured over the hills and far away, eventually arriving at yet another sublime coastal vista.

The publican was in a real flap on account of a group of 14 motorcyclists who’d all turned up and ordered steaks, so we skipped lunch and just had a bev before adjourning to our final overnight destination: the Blythe River Boathouse at Heybridge. Read all about it in the next (and final) instalment of our adventures in the Western Wilds!

Travelogue: Western Wilds (Part 2)

Road trips need slow days to offset big drives. Moseying around Strahan has been one of the highlights of this trip so far. Thanks to my friend Cath, whose recommendations never fail, we had excellent coffee at The Coffee Shack run by two local sisters. Following the path along the bay brought us to the railway station for an old steam train that takes tourists through the conservation – formerly pining – areas between Strahan and Queenstown.

We saw a shipwright putting a fresh coat on a lobster-fishing boat, and were tailed by a cheeky blue fairy wren all the way to the track head to Hogarth Falls. This, another of Cath’s suggestions, was predictably amazing – a stroll through rainforest, guided by info signs written and illustrated by the children of Strahan Primary School.

Blackwoods from below.

The waterfall itself was loud and messy. Lots of organic matter had infused the streams, swollen by recent rainfall, making the water look like a high-speed, high-volume tea spill. Mountains of foam bobbed below and, even though I know it’s caused by natural things like ‘surfactants’ and ‘evaporation’, I still think it’s unsightly.

(But I’m glad nature does its thing regardless. I have such an airbrushed, sanitised perspective!)

After getting caught in the rain, a Tassie scallop pie warmed me up. That afternoon I spent about four hours wandering around the mill and woodworking spaces in the harbour precinct. I watched the demonstration of an old reciprocating saw chewing through a Huon pine log bigger than my arm-span in diameter, and walked away with some off cuts of Huon pine, Tasmanian sassafras and Myrtle beech from which to carve spoons. After some more chats and local booze with Kerrie and Kelly, I strolled back to the cottage to safely deposit my timber bounty.

I learned that the phrases ‘top-dog’, ‘underdog’ and ‘the pits’ derive from the process, used by convicts on Sarah Island, of manually cutting Huon pine logs with a vertical saw.

My mum and I chased the sunset out to Ocean Beach, a blustery expanse of coast from which the next landfall is the shores of South America. Then, another locally-caught fish dinner. (Winner winner.)

Continuing the tour of Tasmania’s windiest roads was the leg from Strahan to Queenstown the following morning. For some reason, I believed this would be another beautiful, historic town. In fact, it has approximately two nice buildings and one passable cafe. Oops. Oh well, it also has a petrol station.

One of the nice buildings in Queenstown… My mum remembers coming here as a child with her parents in 1972 and being struck by the starkness of the mining landscape. The mountains surrounding Queenstown have become a lot greener since the decline of mining in these parts.

Via the serpentine road through Hellyer Gorge, we found our way back north to an apiary where we procured a selection of local honey for my beekeeper brother. Their mead and ice cream were both delicious! (Also: I learnt the origin of the word ‘honeymoon’. Fascinating!)

Our final destination was Stanley, another tiny fishing town at the end of a finger of land that juts out into the Bass Strait from the western corner of Tasmania’s north coast. More on this scrumptious place next time!

Travelogue: Western Wilds (Part 1)

It’s that time of year again, when my mother needs a break from the ordinary routines of work and home, and needs to be somewhere else to rest. I get it; I’m the same. Busy as she is, somebody needed to organise her holiday. Having nothing but time, it was my pleasure to oblige – and it has been my pleasure to accompany her into the Tasmanian wilderness!

The nine-hour drive from Sydney to Melbourne consumed Day 1. Brief stops in Goulburn (for breakfast), Tarcutta (for fuel and a bag of Batlow apples) and Wangaratta (for lunch and a stroll) were all we permitted ourselves to take given the unknowns involved in getting the car onto the Spirit of Tasmania. This is something we’ve both wanted to do for ages. (If you can, take advantage of the current government offer of free passage for your car!)

But take snacks. Lots of snacks. And a podcast. And a playlist. Because there will be waiting involved. We joined the queue at Melbourne ports at 6:25pm and actually drove onto the ship at about 8:50pm. Inexperienced voyagers of the Bass Strait, we did not have enough snacks – but we won’t make the same mistake again.

Overnight, the ship was lashed by wind and jostled with six-metre waves. This made for an interesting night’s sleep, but come morning we sallied forth into the sunshine of a Sunday in Devonport. Fortified by an excellent breakfast from Laneway (featuring very generous dollops of Tasmanian butter), we headed west along the north coast to the turnoff for the Tarkine Drive.

Callidendrous is a new favourite word, derived from the Greek for ‘beautiful’ and ‘tree’. The Tarkine is full of callidendrous rainforest.

The takayna (or anglicised to Tarkine) is an area of protected wilderness in the northwestern corner of the island. Deep in this green mess we found the kinds of wonders you only see in cool temperate rainforests: skins of velvet moss on fifty-metre myrtle beech trees, ancient Huon pines and mushroom species in the dozens.

Cenote (underwater cave filled with water) at the Trowutta Arch.

To reach our first overnight stop, we negotiated the Western Explorer: seventy kilometres of unsealed road through an imposing landscape of mountains and grassy scrub. Like the weather, the scenery can change in an instant here: emerald pastures (and sunshine) one minute, mountains covered in gigantic grey trees (with horizontal rain) the next. I don’t think my mum’s ever felt so intrepid! After crossing at Corinna on the river punt we passed through Zeehan, a mining town in decline just crying out for second life as a film set.

While the effects of being on a boat in rough seas might’ve subsided, by this point I’d driven so many miles of windy roads I was seeing pot-holes or white double lines wherever I looked.

On the punt across the river at Corinna.

Neither of us expected to be quite so charmed by Strahan, a handsome town with stunning natural surrounds and beautifully-preserved nineteenth-century architecture. We took a stroll and, in one of those serendipitous moments one comes to treasure most about past travels, met a local couple who gave us a private tour of the town wood-turner’s workshop (knee-high piles of Huon pine shavings!) and served us local beer and spirits to taste. Happily weary, we smashed some local salmon for dinner and called it a night.

A section of the Western Explorer.

Knot for prophet

There’s a stubborn tightness behind my right scapula: when I fill my lungs the tendons shift with a crackle around the knot. One day, while Bonnie the massage therapist tamed my tension, she talked about her life – migration, marriage, motherhood, mishaps.

Then she asked about my life. Earlier I’d mentioned how disappointed I was to cancel my travel plans. She’d raised her eyebrows, said: “We’re all affected by this pandemic, you know…” There was reproach in her tone. Kneading my gluteals, she asked me where I’d planned to go.

Two months in Indonesia, climbing mountains in Bali and surfing reef breaks in Java, cycling from the north to the south of Vietnam and seeing Angkor Wat, visiting my sister in London, three months thinking and writing at a retreat in the Swiss Alps, finding bar work on the Riviera in the European summer before working the harvest in French wine country for my uncle’s friend, concentrating on my writing again during a month-long residency in a chateau in the Champagne region.

“Oh,” said Bonnie.

“Yeah,” said I.

That’s how we got onto my year off work, my failed marriage and my wanting to get lost for a while. She was quiet. No reproach.

Many people are divorced. My mum is divorced. I am divorced. Bonnie, it turns out, is also divorced. Divorce. The ‘v’ sound drives the second syllable out of my mouth like a runaway train. Divorce is like sickness. So many people get it, lots of people die from it, but statistics feel like a betrayal of each person’s particular pain. So many kids’ parents split up, but citing the high divorce rate is a tone deaf attempt at consolation.

Pain reconfigures people. Many of us know this first hand; my guess is that all of us know it second- or third-hand. Pain is the fulcrum in so many narratives: an elderly couple finally fulfils their dream of moving to France following a tragic terminal diagnosis; a teenage girl falls in with the wrong crowd because her dad is violent and maybe they can protect her from him; a returned soldier, formerly the life of the party, becomes erratic and withdrawn because of his war trauma.

Pain can harden and embitter, or it can tenderise and sweeten. I’ve seen it do both. Pain turned up the brightness on the light in which I examine my assumptions about life. Pain rearranged the way I reflect on the past and redirected the way I dream about the future. I don’t want to become tough; I’m copping the blows in the hope they’ll tenderise…

I let Bonnie’s healing hands work the carnage in my scapulae. After a little while she spoke again. “What do you want in life?”

“Dunno.”

“You have to know.”

“What do you mean? So much is out of my control.”

“You have to picture the life you want. If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.”

Hmm.

She continued, “Experience it all. Figure out what you like. Choose what kind of person you want to be. Consider the kind of person you want to be with. And, above all else, look after yourself. Nobody else will. That’s not their job; it’s yours.”

“Is that how you got where you are?”

“Eventually. I worked very hard. It took years to finalise my divorce. I built my business. I bought this house. I got my son through school. I quit believing in love, then I met a man who is exactly the kind of person I want to be with, and now I believe again. I just didn’t know it until I saw it.”

“You created the life you pictured years ago?”

“I did. I’m very happy.”

“This isn’t easy for me to hear. Because of my worldview, what I want has never really mattered.”

“But if you don’t know yourself – if you don’t know what you want – who else will? If you can’t rely on yourself, how do you expect others to rely on you? I don’t need to tell you after what you’ve been through that relying on anybody else is not an option. Your responsibility is to know and care for yourself. Love yourself into the strength you need to build the future you want. Live and give from a place of fullness. Anyone who says otherwise is full of shit.”

Dressed and beginning the walk home, I looked back and waved at Bonnie. She stood on her porch in a patch of sunshine, barefoot and wrapped in a light blanket like some ancient sage or medicine woman. Or a prophet.

‘Grown-ups’ aren’t real

More people than I expected have admitted to me that their twenties slurped them down, chewed them up and spat them out. Like me, they don’t remember being warned about how painful adulting can be, how dangerous is the fall from the brink of teenagehood into ‘real life’. Suddenly, you come to, on the floor of the abyss, bruised and battered by a decade that promised independence without responsibility, seduced us with all the benefits of greater maturity minus the embitterment of age. What happened?

One’s twenties are an understudied period of life, but talented writers of my generation are addressing this issue. Powerful novels like Sally Rooney’s Normal People, Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous and Jessie Tu’s A Lonely Girl Is A Dangerous Thing are among the stories I’ve recently appreciated for their unvarnished portrayals of growing up after high school. And that’s just it – if you read no further, here’s the message: growing up doesn’t stop.

‘Grown-ups’ haven’t grown up; it’s just that their bodies have stopped expanding vertically. ‘Grown-ups’ are still growing up, acquiring the final touches on their frontal lobes, learning how to handle conflict, developing the ability to communicate, refining a sense of who they are. There’s no due date on this sort of thing, so why does the language we use about adulthood apply so much unnecessary pressure? ‘Grown-ups’ is a misnomer doing us all a disservice – because aren’t we all ‘growing-ups’ whether we’re 15 or 50? Can I have an amen!?

I remember where I was when I read When Your Twenties Are Darker Than You Expected, a self-help manual written by an American theology PhD, Paul Maxwell. My dim flat was still full of unemptied moving cartons; my husband was in Queensland by himself on a trip I’d planned for our fifth wedding anniversary.

As Maxwell dissected his own quarter-life crisis – “The human body starts dying at age 25” – I found myself nodding along to descriptions of disappointment, despair, doubt, dissatisfaction and depression. (Being a good evangelical, all his chapter titles and subheadings follow some sort of alliterative pattern.)

But to my surprise, his suggested ‘solutions’ to the capriciousness of the twenty-something years really irritated me! Maxwell’s watertight Reformed faith logic kicked in and suddenly all the soul drained out of the words on the page. Whereas the first half of each chapter attested to the struggle, making me feel not quite so crazy or alone in the universe, the back half of his chapters seemed to me like undercooked rehashings on the quip ‘Jesus is always the answer, doesn’t matter what the question is’. I too had grown into my Reformed, evangelical Christian faith from the age of 12, and so his worldview made sense to me. I recognised his vocabulary and his faithful adherence to what we’re told makes everything better. But I found that I craved something realer, truer – and that I wouldn’t be satisfied with Christian platitudes anymore.

If Paul Maxwell was going to convince me that my Christian faith was the salve for the disillusioning (illuminating?) experiences my twenties were serving up, he was going to have to work a lot harder to make his case. Closing the book on the sententious concluding chapter, I remember thinking that at least Jesus gave interesting answers when people asked him tough questions about life.

Maxwell’s book soon found its way into one of the local library boxes down the street. And I, age 27 and already two years into the dying process, was left empty handed on my quest to survive my late twenties. Yikes!

So what’s my point? Simply this: I think we need to read more and talk more and write more about the hopes we have for our twenties and the disappointments that blindside us. Life after high school is an exciting frontier, so one’s twenties will always be a time of high expectation and high vulnerability. This is why I put it to you – and to myself – that time is better spent on well-crafted stories about the messy human experiences of twenty-somethings than contrived analysis, promising to solve for x and shine a light on the one, true path to the only life worth living.

Maxwell might be right about the slow and steady deterioration of our faculties that begins in the mid-twenties, but with this (very depressing!) emphasis on our decline he shows his hand: We’re running out of time so better get this life thing right ASAP! *Cue pithy evangelical one-liners*

But pat answers don’t work because life’s more complicated than that. So as I leave my twenties behind, I’m giving up on ‘grown-ups’. I’m unlearning the schema of curriculum, assessment and due date, and instead claiming the cliched epithet ‘life-long learner’. My twenties were difficult, but that doesn’t mean I failed and it doesn’t mean life let me down. When I talk about my experience honestly, mine is a story that rings true because it is messy, ironic, contradictory and, ‘til the day I die, incomplete.