How to move house without losing yourself

I’ve just moved house for the tenth time in the last two-and-a-quarter years. Anyone would think I was running away from something. I’m not. I’m running towards a better place, each and every time; that’s what I tell myself anyway.

The last place I felt really settled was the house in Dunedin where I lived for three years. I’d returned from a stint overseas and all I wanted was a kitchen and a garden and to stop living out of a backpack. I loved that house, I fantasised about buying it and doing it up and living there forever.

I replaced the missing panes of glass in the glasshouse and grew tomatoes and cucumbers and basil and chillies in there. Outside I grew beetroot and red onions and peas and carrots and coriander. When I first started contemplating leaving Dunedin for Auckland it was the coriander patch that yanked the most firmly on my heart strings: the few plants I’d initially bought had multiplied into a miniature forest that burst through the soil of its own accord early each spring, proving that it had survived yet another gruelling Dunedin winter.

Interestingly, the spring that I left Dunedin the coriander never came up.

I remember lying in my bed looking around at all my possessions and wondering what the hell I would do with them all. The bed itself, a dresser, sets of drawers, couches, tables and chairs, a TV, none of it was worth shipping to Auckland so it all had to go. The memories that had been created within the parameters of that house and garden also had to be dismantled and stored away in little boxes in the recesses of my mind.

My friend and flatmate, Kate, and I had had some great times in that place; we were the hostesses with the mostess: we’d invite friends around for barbeques and everyone would always know that they could expect a mean spread to be laid on. Other times we’d get the fire blazing and play endless hours of cards or scrabble or poker, or do 1000 piece jigsaw puzzles, or watch episode after episode of Outrageous Fortune or Dexter.

The trick to moving house without your life completely coming apart at the seams is to pack up the stuff you use least first. Pictures can come off walls, books into boxes, linen and towels and other-season clothes can all be packed away. Leave out the things you use every day until the very last minute – you’ll need them again soon and you don’t want to be rummaging around in the bottom of a box searching for that elusive hairbrush/toothbrush/most comfortable pair of undies.

You’d think that with all this packing and moving and unpacking I’d have whittled down my possessions by now but I haven’t. I still have my jigsaw puzzle collection that I cart around with me – some of them I’ve had since I was little and they’re filled with memories of doing puzzles with Dad. I have Rupert the Bear books that Dad also used to read to me and I want to one day read to the children in my life. I have records and CDs and framed pictures and textbooks and clothes and exercise equipment and pots and pans and cups and bowls and teaspoons… And a great collection of cardboard boxes that I’ve learned to not throw away.

If I didn’t have all these material possessions I would still be me, but these things help me redefine myself whenever I move house. My coffee cup and frying pan and chopping board help me to feel at home in a new place. My memories and experiences and all the things that make me me are embedded in the nooks and crannies and creases of all these objects that I refuse to stop bringing with me.

I never moved house as a kid. I was born in the house where my mum still lives now and my roots run deep there. I think if I hadn’t had this foundation in life I would be finding all the moving around I’ve been doing over the last couple of years really hard. But moving around and trying different options has helped me to know who I am and where I come from, and, little by little, I’m figuring out where I want to be and what my purpose is. It’s kind of a process of elimination – each living arrangement that doesn’t work gives me a clearer idea of what my ideal is, I take the snippets that did work with me and I leave the rest behind.

One day (soon, I hope) I’ll be putting down a new coriander patch, and making much more permanent gestures too, like planting trees and arranging vegetable gardens and unrolling and framing that beautiful print I bought in Thailand 16 years ago. I might even get around to framing all my degrees and diplomas and certificates too and finally allowing myself to acknowledge how far I’ve come and what I’ve achieved, even if it has been in a very higgledy-piggledy, roundabout kind of way.

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Why do the goalposts keep moving?

When I was a kid I always wanted to be an architect. Well, once I realised that being a princess wasn’t an actual job anyway. I used to make Lego houses with flip-top roofs which revealed the layout of the rooms beneath. I took technical drawing as one of my optional classes at high school; I loved the precision of straight lines and perfect curves, of drawing in isometric view with vanishing points, perspective and foreshortening. Somewhere along the way technical drawing morphed into graphic design which I liked less – too much focus on the evolution of a design concept and not enough straight lines. Not clinical enough for me.

I talked to a family friend who’s an architect about what I needed to study to go down this career path. She informed me that maths and physics were integral components of architecture. But I wasn’t interested in maths or physics by then. In my last year at high school I studied English, P.E., graphics, painting, and photography – no maths or science to be seen. I had no intention of going to university after high school, I’d already been at school for 12 years and I wanted a break. When I was awarded runner-up to dux at the prize giving ceremony that I almost didn’t bother attending they announced I was taking a year off before I continued my studies. I never said that! I probably said that I couldn’t wait to be free from the institution of school and all I planned on doing was riding my bike and going to the beach, but that wouldn’t have sounded very good would it?

That’s pretty much what I did though. I relished my freedom and made the most of it. I was still living at home so I had pretty much no expenses, only my car (I learned to drive when I was 15, and have owned a vehicle ever since). In the year after I finished high school I completed a herbalism course, I did shows on the local community radio station, Fresh FM, I worked for my dad and saved enough money to go on a two month holiday to Thailand with a friend, and I attended an outdoor course at Whenua Iti – the local outdoor pursuits centre.

The next year I went to Australia with three friends and we worked and travelled our way around the eastern half of the country, it was great! Then I went back to Whenua Iti and completed a year-long outdoor course where we did almost every outdoor pursuit you could think of – sea kayaking, river kayaking, canoeing, rafting, rock climbing, caving, mountain biking, tramping… I came away from the course knowing that I wanted to work in the outdoors but not in tourism, so working for the Department of Conservation (DoC) seemed like a good avenue to go down. I started by volunteering with DoC to get some experience and to let them know I was keen. The voluntary work took me to some pretty cool places – helicopter rides to the tops of mountains to survey for threatened plant species, or into the remote wilderness of Fiordland to survey for the Fiordland crested penguin.

Eventually the volunteering paid off and I got some paid work, but it was a contract which eventually came to an end. It was around this time that it started to dawn on me that if I wanted to get anywhere in life I may need to get a better education. The people I was working with all had at least one degree, and I kept getting asked if I had one.

Within a few weeks of starting to look into it I was enrolled to study for a Bachelor of Science at the University of Otago in Dunedin. I’d been to Dunedin once before but I essentially knew no one. I chose Otago for its favourable reputation, especially in the sciences, and because I wanted to live in a university town rather than a town that also happened to have a university. I was 23 when I started uni and I’d been out of high school for five years, whereas most of my fellow first-years were fresh out of high school. I felt particularly old and out of place, but I was there to study and I was serious about it. Making friends wasn’t a priority, although I did make some really good friends, and also got my first boyfriend.

I completed my BSc in three years, took a year off, then came back for a Postgraduate Diploma in Science, took a couple of years off, then came back to write a thesis (on the topic of air pollution and climatology), and now have a Master of Science degree. During my studies I wrote two articles that have been published in academic journals, and I managed to make it all the way through university without getting a single C; As and Bs only. I should be more proud of this than I am. I’m almost embarrassed to write about it and I’m not even sure why. Maybe it’s because I don’t feel that I’ve used these qualifications to their full potential. Maybe it’s because I don’t have a 9-5 job with a salary. Maybe it’s because after five years of tertiary study where I worked bloody hard I did an about turn and decided I didn’t want to be chained to a desk for 40 hours a week and that I wanted to be a personal trainer instead.

I’m smart enough that I can do pretty much anything I put my mind to, but I’ve never committed to anything for long enough to really bring it into fruition. I can be so sure about something that I’m willing to devote all my time and energy to pursuing it, then when it’s just within my grasp I lose interest. Why am I like this? Why can’t I just choose one thing and stick with it? Is this the human condition or is it just me? Maybe it’s because I’m Pisces – a fish in water flitting from one interest to another without ever settling on anything. Maybe I’m just good at making excuses.

I’m at a stage in my life now where I’m really starting to wonder what my purpose is. I know it’s not to procreate. All I really want is just to be me. If there was a job titled ‘Being Amber’ I could do that better than anyone, but who would pay me? It’s a bit of a dilemma really; I’m not willing to do a job that’s not fulfilling just so I can have money in the bank. I do want to work, but only if I feel I’m contributing something of value and am able to really help people. Most of the time I just want to be a kept woman, a home maker. I love the idea of staying home most of the time, growing a garden, preparing delicious meals for the people I care about. But I know it won’t be enough on its own, I’ve got a brain that needs to be stimulated, I’ll be doing myself a disservice not to honour that.