Vanishing Acts

peninsula sky

peninsula sky

We performed a vanishing act a few weeks ago, leaving the house and the cat, packing the car and driving all day under a Simpsons-esque sky until we arrived, finally, at my Dad’s house.

His place sits on a peninsula of land stretching out into the Bass Strait. It feels a million miles from our life in Sydney. In this house there are no check shirts hanging in the wardrobe with sleeves still rolled, no half-read books waiting on the other side of the bed, no clippers lying redundant in the bathroom drawer, no scrawls on the calendar in my husband’s distinctive handwriting. Instead there is a big sky overhead and grass to lie on. There are cows in the field at the end of the garden and swallows nesting in the eaves of the house. There is an ocean to paddle in and a clock that ticks beside the bed – the same clock that stood beside my grandmother’s bed in a different house – in a different country. In this home we are with loved ones and connected to our family story, stretching wider and further than just the three of us. There is comfort in that.

On Christmas Eve, I check on the kids before going to bed with a sleeping pill. My grandmother’s clock ticks beside me – too fast, like my heartbeat. Time is passing. Life is passing. I turn the light back on, frightened by the darkness and the questions that occupy my mind. How does someone just vanish? How do you wake beside them in the morning, drink coffee with them in the sunshine, talk to them on the telephone at lunchtime, then … nothing. How does someone just disappear? One moment alive. The next, gone. How do we bear this life if the people we love the most can be ripped from us at any moment? One wave … one car accident … one heart attack … one bullet. How do we bear the fragile impermanence of it all?

Sometimes it feels as though Matt wasn’t the only one to vanish. Sometimes I wonder if I vanished with him that day. Sometimes I feel invisible even to myself. Who am I? It’s a question that haunts me now, along with another often repeated refrain: Where are you?

Boxing Day arrives with a strange, fiery glow. It’s the sort of light that promises something special for those fitful enough to greet it. I slip out of the house and run down to meet the tide, the sky torn in two by storm clouds and shards of dazzling light. Half-way up the beach I am stopped in my tracks by a beam so bright it holds me captive. Back at the house I move down to the fence and let the air dry my skin. The wind moves the long grass in the fields beyond like a mother combing her fingers through a child’s hair. The swallows dart and swoop from swaying trees. When I turn back, three fat galahs breakfasting on the lawn take to the sky with indignant squawks. All around is movement. All around is chaos.

In these quiet days of contemplation, hiding from the violence rotating on the news, it’s hard not to feel adrift. Chaos is confronting. I’m learning to seek out the smallest anchors. Simple moments in the day to cling to, to counter the fragile impermanence: watching a boy in his pyjamas throw paper planes across a lawn still damp with early morning dew; sitting on a bench looking out over a perfect break; hurling a tennis ball over and over for an enthusiastic dog; lying in bed next to my children listening to them breathe; turning my face to the sun; watching clouds drift across an endless sky; listening to the high electric whine of a cicada; laughing with my sister in the way only she can make me laugh – with my belly aching and tears squeezing from my eyes. I find each anchor and cast it out, allowing it to tether me to this moment – to this life. Allowing the weight of it to hold me here when the alternative sometimes feels preferable.

This morning I read these words by Anne Lamott in her book, Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair:

There is meaning in focus, concentration, attention. I now notice almost every single bird that flies by, as well as every single butterfly. I pay attention to most plain old butterflies, not just the ones in tiaras or argyle socks. Butterflies and birds are like one perfect teaspoon of creation.

I find my meaning now in small moments of concentration and awareness, in trying to ensure I am really present. Those early days of numb shock have faded and somehow I find my senses heightened. Close proximity to death has made me feel more alive. Odd, I know.

And yes, I also know how lucky we are. To be here in this house. To have family to nurture us. To have the option to vanish like this over the summer holidays. And it’s been good to be somewhere else – necessary even – but soon we will pack the car and drive back to Sydney. Soon I will put the key in the front door and step inside our house with all its familiar scents and furniture and books and clothes and sadness. Soon I will step back onto the streets of my old life. And soon, I hope, I might just remember the answer to that question: who am I?

Soon, I hope I might start to reappear.

peninsula sky

peninsula sky

31 thoughts on “Vanishing Acts

  1. Louise Allan says:

    Your writing about your pain is like listening to the long, soft note at the end of a violin sonata—so exquisite it stays with you long after you’ve left the concert hall. You’ve lost a big part of you: the person who made you whole. Finding who you are again will take time, but you will come back—changed but recognisable. The sadness will always be there, and the if-only’s, and ‘its-not-fair’s, but all of those will help make those butterflies lovelier and the belly laughs deeper.

    • Hannah Richell says:

      Thank you, Louise. That’s a really generous description of my writing. Very kind of you to comment. I’m looking forward to the lovelier butterflies and the deeper belly laughs in time. I hope your own life is full of them.

  2. Steven says:

    You mention the calendar. I couldn’t wait to get rid of the one from the kitchen for just the same reason. I stuck tape over some days because the words written by my wife – especially on what would have been our 30th anniversary – were just too painful to have to look at for a month. All these little daggers to the heart – like the shirts in the wardrobe – will disappear with time I suppose. Time; I keep hearing it and saying it myself, but at the moment I really don’t know if it’s going to be a friend or a fallacy.

  3. Michelle Hill says:

    Such beautiful and heartbreaking words… Those obvious reminders that you write of – the calendar, clothes, books – will eventually be put away. What can’t be put away are the reminders of those precious moments you had together, often prompted by such insignificant events like walking a familiar path or visiting a favourite place. While time has made a difference, I still look forward to a future when those reminders are a little less painful. I do know however that with the love and support of your friends and family, and especially the love of your children, you will reappear.

  4. sscottyy says:

    Thank you Hannah.
    Your tender words push me to reflect on the paradox of how we humans experience pain and at the same time, a deeper appreciation of life. The way you express your feelings and describe the joyful and sad things in your day makes it so easy for me to be with you in spirit and I’m sure I am not alone here.
    You are affirming your love and destiny with every word you write.
    Thank you!

    • Hannah Richell says:

      Thank you. It is a strange paradox. Some moments I feel myself on the cusp of gratitude for having my eyes opened so rudely to the truth of this life and what is important, but I’m not quite there yet. Still, if you told me years ago that I could have the love, but only with this pain, I know I’d still take the love. Every time. That’s something, right?

  5. Meri says:

    I’m scared of how easily people can disappear, like you say. I have a partner of three years and not too long ago I seemed to cross into the territory where you’re not just speeding along, carefree and in love, but suddenly deathly afraid that something is going to happen to one of you. I’m treating it with ‘carpe diem’ mentality. Anyway, thanks for keeping the blogging up. It makes wonderful reading and food for thought.

  6. Saranne says:

    Hannah, you write so beautifully, and manage always to encapsulate exactly my own feelings, which I can only struggle to articulate – I do so hope you will find yourself again – I think of you often and wish you the possibility of happiness

  7. Patrickc says:

    Hannah, you paint a beautiful picture of a place of contemplation. As I read your words some music I heard this week on Margaret Throsbys interview program on Classic FM came to mind. The first piece is a piece selected by Nic Carrol who used to be a surfer, it is a piece by the composer Arvo Part, called “Cantos in Memoriam – Benjamin Britten” performed the Stuttgart State Orchestra conducted by Dennis Russell Davis, He said it reminded him of the sound of water under waves. The second piece was Ravel, Piano Concerto number 6.

    From your description I am assuming that your father’s home is along the South West Coast of Victoria, possibly a town along the Great Ocean Road or beyond. I have a place of quiet down the South West that I go to when things get too much. Its Port Fairy. To me this little seaside village is paradise. I want to move there to write and to take my photographs and to perhaps open a little gallery and studio.

    I’m glad you made the journey and spent that time in your fathers house spent the time in a bit of contemplation but above all for a bit of time created an alternative real environment..

    Again thank you for courageously sharing with us.


    • Hannah Richell says:

      Hi Patrick – thank you for the music. I am now the newest member of the Arvo Parte fan club thanks to you. ‘Cantos in Memoriam’ moved me to tears and I have downloaded a whole album now, to listen and write to. Thank you. I’m glad you have your own place of quiet to hide away and dream in. Thanks for commenting here. H.

      • Patrickc says:

        Hannah music has been my salvation, closely followed by literature and photography.

        I am so glad you enjoyed Arvo Parte.

        If I may be so bold as to recommend two other pieces for you. They are both by the Australian composer Nigel Westlake. The first one is called Missa Solis: Requiem for Eli. Performed by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. It is available on ABC Classics, serial number 476 5057. It is written in grief and was Nigels salvation after the murder of his son on a Sydney street several years ago. It is outstanding. The second piece is called Compassion and was composed in collaboration with Lior. It is performed by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. It is a song cycle for voice and orchestra based on a collection of ancient Hebrew and Arabic texts. It too is available on ABC Classics. Serial number 481 0678

        Please don’t stop sharing your journey. It helps all of us that are navigating our own.



  8. Maree Evans says:

    Of course you will reappear, it will just take a lot of time. For me, three years and I am just starting to come back.

  9. sallyannejames says:

    Dear Hannah
    I’ve been thinking about you. I’m glad you have a sister who knows how to make you laugh. So important to be reminded that we still can (laugh). Warmest wishes et Bon courage
    Sally (who vanished to France)

  10. lolshelley says:

    Another eloquent and heart-felt post Hannah. I really liked how you said you are living more in the present moment and how you actually feel more alive in some ways. That is what happens when we learn to embrace the present moment. There is more clarity, things just seem to flow without you seemingly needing to make a decision as to what path you will take. The Tibetans call it Ordinary Magic. I hope you find much Ordinary Magic in your life Hannah. x🌺

  11. tjordan2473 says:

    Thanks for writing this Hannah. My wife passed away suddenly in September, it was only last week that with the help of a friend and her mum we packed up all her clothes. I have this strange sense now that I’m somehow inevitably contributing to her disappearance. The evidence of her life slowly fading. Perhaps that’s why I can’t bring myself to hit the re-record button on our home phone message bank. Her voice still warmly greets people. It still warmly greets me.

  12. Writer's Blog says:

    ‘Who r u?’ Thats a question.the answer lies within us.think hard about what makes you unique and different then others,what makes you special in times of grief and happiness,what’s your special charm thats makes you who you are.if u feel them,if u understand them,u got the answer already.

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