Hayley Katzen migrated from South Africa to Sydney in 1989. In 1994 she moved to the North Coast of NSW, and some years later quit legal academia, studied acting and wrote a play about asylum seekers before moving to live on her girlfriend’s off-the-grid cattle farm in the bush. Her writing has been published in Australia and overseas. Untethered is her debut memoir, out this month from Ventura Press. Star Observer invited Hayley to write a piece for us.
It was after five when I left alone. The sun was bright, the streets eerily quiet and the odd milk crate the only evidence of the Parade. Unashamedly I marched down the road in leather jacket and borrowed fishnet bodysuit; I was high on the tribal feeling of the party, high on the freedom that comes with belonging.
That was twenty-seven years ago. Nowadays there’s no way I’d wear that bodysuit, and five am is when I wake, not go to bed. But from the off-the-grid cattle farm in northern NSW where I live, that’s how I imagine Anzac Parade during lockdown. Peace after a riot of sound, colour and movement.
Farm life is little changed. My days begin with butcher bird calls and a chat with my partner Jen before the rest of the orchestra chimes in: Fran on Radio National, a dog’s bark, a cow’s bellow. Some days I hear the grumble of Jen’s tractor down the paddock or a neighbour’s generator. If I’m lucky, the landline rings — still no mobile reception. I walk in the middle of the road, and on the rare occasion a car appears I call in the dogs and delight in a wave of acknowledgment or through-the-car-window conversation.
When I fell in love with Jen twenty-two years ago, I was adamant I’d never live here. I knew myself as ridiculously urban and middle class, preoccupied with the cerebral whereas in this area, the physical always seemed more relevant. So too this very heterosexual environment with a high proportion of single men was vastly different from the safety and freedom I knew in the queer community.
When I finally moved here fifteen years ago, I struggled to find my place and purpose. Friday night hall night, fire brigade and visits to our elderly neighbour didn’t satisfy my appetite for conversation. Every 2-3 weeks I drove the two hours to town to gorge on conversations with friends, sometimes to go to a Tropical Fruits dance. I felt like a visitor to the communities where I’d once felt belonging.
I railed against the farm’s isolation, fantasised about an interaction with a barista or bus driver. I craved the stimulation of ‘that big world out there’. Day after day there was just Jen and me, the labyrinth of my mind, the words I scribbled. I blamed my personality’s limitations; I shamed myself.
And during lockdown? I want to be nowhere else. I no longer fear silence and aloneness, or that I’m wasting my one precious life. Lockdown will end at some point, everything changes — eventually. And because my memoir Untethered — about displacement and belonging — has just come out, I am busier and more connected than I’ve been for years.
With everyone now living as we do, I feel accompanied and connected, content. Sure, that could be because there’s no pumping ‘big world out there’, no FOMO to be had. But it’s also the creativity and opportunities that seem to mushroom from these constraints. Now I needn’t drive two hours to sit with others to listen to writers and thinkers. Zoom style ‘live events’ give me a sense of active engagement and togetherness with speakers and audience members in real-time. They have too the ‘one-off grand premiere’ preciousness and thrill of theatre – a quality and nuance similar to that of spontaneous and incidental in-person interactions. And as I read how ‘iso’ affects others, I’m reassured: my struggles with it were not my personality failure. We all need connection; we all need reminders we belong.