For five years I have known this day was coming. From the time I first stepped on the plane in 2009 I knew my time in the UK was limited by visa restrictions. Time is a slippery slope. Suddenly, last week, there I was with the 75-page application for Indefinite Leave to Remain in front of me and the daunting task of being processed by UK Visas and Immigration ahead of me.
In my girlhood I lived in a camper van with my family and road tripped around North America calling some of the world’s most stunning national parks my home. As an adult I’ve lived remotely in parts of Australia where my street had no name (sorry, couldn’t resist – though it is true), where there were sometimes more planets visible in the night sky than people I saw in my day. I’m pretty used to being a geographically square peg. Though living between Australia and the UK over the last five years hasn’t been as extreme as other locations I’ve dwelled, the way I live is constantly under bureaucratic scrutiny. From the arrangements of my doctoral studies, to the visa I came to the UK on, to the first house I lived in here, to the life of words I’m creating – when it comes to administration and paper processing, I am left of centre.
If we want freedom…that journey begins with…owning our stories.
– Brené Brown, Daring Greatly, p. 131
Fronting up to Visas and Immigration on Monday was my greatest lesson in unfolding a camping chair and getting comfortable being outside of fitting in. Standing in front of a conference to give a keynote or taking the head of a classroom to teach and introducing myself is one thing. Squaring my shoulders before the Home Office of a foreign country, being asked what I do by someone holding my freedom of choice and fate in their hands and answering, I’m a writer, was another thing entirely. One I was determined to make the best of.
Having known this experience was coming, I had decided early: I would take a weekend off the grid prior to my immigration appointment in Scotland to create something magic from mandatory bureaucratic madness. I would live the experience as artistically and creatively as I could. I would live the process more, not less.
Thanks to the Commonwealth Games Glasgow was booked out in its entirety for the weekend, which forced our search for accommodation outside of the city. How grateful we were for what appeared at first to be ‘bad timing’ when we discovered a cabin by its own loch for rent. We booked it on a whim, packed our bags along with my file full of generational proof of my life, and off we went.
It was a gorgeous, watercolour kind of day for a road trip.
At the sight of this sign there were whoops and woeful Scottish accent attempts.
No phones, no Internet. Just our cameras, notebooks, pens, and wine.
The next morning the road called and we took to it with reckless abandon, without maps, on a trip to find magic on the periphery of looming mundane madness. We were in Scotland to be processed like a barcode, a serial number, a digit. I was determined to embrace it as an opportunity to own my story, and create more abundance in the life I would soon front up to prove I was living.
Loch Lomond and The Trossacks National Park is the kind of place that makes you wonder which came first, myth or landscape. We meandered through the gorgeous conservation village Luss where a settlement has stood since medieval times (there is a 13th century moss-covered Viking hogback grave in the cemetery), and later stopped at the loch for a wander along the pebbly shores. This is the place that inspired Scott to write his epic, Lady of the Lake, and even earlier, moved Wordsworth to pen, To A Highland Girl.
We drove with no place in mind, and found outfits of life around every bend in the road. With great glee we tried them on. If I lived here I would…
We stopped for a wee while in Killin to stretch our legs. Gazing over the bridge I saw that we were on MacNab burial ground.
Until that point Scottish clans had been things of novels and dreams from the treehouse hours of my seaside Aussie childhood. Local signage proudly reminds locals and informs visitors that one of the earliest records of the Macnab family is on a charter of 1124.
Gazing upon the cemetery a strangely familiar and impassioned feeling consumed me, which I wasn’t expecting. It’s been a while since I’ve been in a place that has thrummed so vibrantly with the life of its stories.
On the way home we turned up the volume.
It had been the kind of day that sets your insides on fire and drives you to sing loud, and unabashedly out-of-tune.
It was a quiet evening, our last in the cabin before we were due at the immigration processing centre the next morning. Hopefulness and beauty were everywhere.
Alongside our cabin was a hot water outdoor shower. It was irresistible. Bear Grylls would have been proud – though I’m not sure the cows coming home were impressed, judging by their mooing disapproval.
The air was different the next morning. Sharper. Harsher. It didn’t matter who I was or what my spirit is made of, or where I come from or who my family are, or who I love and grieve. It only mattered how I fit into algorithms and boxes on a page, and how I proved myself in numbers, letters, and statements. My stomach lining was constantly pummelled by a fist of nerves and dread. I felt guilty and illegitimate without reason. Most of all, I was utterly confused by the nature of the process and the boxes I had to contort myself to fit. Dr Ian Henderson wrote about it beautifully in his paper on this process, Life in the UK.
As someone who has long paid intellectual attention to what it is to belong in Australia, I’m wryly aware of now assisting Britain to become a ‘settler nation’. And as a lecturer in Australian literature, I appreciate the poetry of pursuing ‘indefinite leave to remain’. Strictly, the ‘indefiniteness’ of the leave refers to the fact there’ll be no predetermined end-date on my visa; but ‘indefinite’ also suggests ambivalence on the part of those who’ll grant me permission to stay. To the Home Office I might be just a layabout guest taking advantage of excessively polite hosts. And then there’s the paradox revealed by misreading ‘leave to remain’. I leave to remain, exactly how living in Britain sometimes feels for Australians: like we left our country only to find ourselves in an uncanny version of home.
– Dr Ian Henderson, Life in the UK, p. 3
As we drove away from the loch towards Glasgow, my head spun in a beautiful Tim Burton-esque nightmare. How glad I was to have created such serene experiences before such tumult. What necessary madness. Away from the highlands, nearing the visa processing centre in Glasgow, feathers on a street corner momentarily calmed my nerves.
They reminded me I am more than an application form.
They reminded me of the street art words I saw painted amongst butterflies on the corner wall of my neighbourhood when I was in Prague last year, fronting up to speak for my first time at a global storytelling conference:
remember who you are
The outcome of my application wasn’t a sure thing. There was no guarantee, and, not fitting all the right boxes at first glance, doubts were planted about the likelihood of my eligibility. However, sparing arduous detail, after a harrowing and demoralising three hour wait I was granted Indefinite Leave to Remain. I don’t know exactly what that means, other than that I’m now in a new box with slightly fewer limitations, complete with a new barcode and serial number. Walking out of the visa processing centre was a Dali kind of surrealism. Dr Henderson captured this crushing, demoralising, altering systematic human processing.
From the front seat of the upper [bus] deck, that spot where childhood dreams can best be realised, I looked out onto London in the low winter sunlight, streaming between the Barbican Towers, across Lincoln’s Inn Fields, and down by Chancery Lane. But suddenly I no longer saw the bricks, mortar, and gardens, or even this great city’s myriad stories. Instead I saw the metallic workings of the dullest of machines, a complex of steel cogs, wires, and vents, the umpteen dreary services on which there is always a bureau to advise. It struck me that the ‘Life in the UK’ exam had revealed to me a London I had never seen before in seven years’ residency. To hold it in place it is laced with desks to which, in the coming years, the people will turn again and again while their rights to residency are examined. And usually, our being there in the first place, we will be found wanting.
– Dr Ian Henderson, Life in the UK, p. 7
We drove home in a serene stupor of relief, emotional exhaustion, draining adrenalin. I clung to the wisps of beauty from our fleeting moments by the loch to keep my nose above water.
As hard as I may have found the experience, I know it is so much harder for others with less proof of life or box-fitting compatibility than I was able to provide on paper. I gratefully gulped down as much of the rolling, endless expanse of sky as I could as we drove into dusk, feeling like I belonged everywhere and nowhere all at once. It was a timely reminder of how it has become clear to me that as I progress along my doctoral journey, I am living a cycle of art imitating life, imitating art, imitating life. As I research, read, learn, and write, my life reflects my learnings, writing, findings and readings – experiences which I pursue further development of as I research, read, learn, and write. So the circle goes.
Your brain gets too comfortable in your everyday surroundings. You need to make it uncomfortable. You need to spend some time in another land, among people that do things differently than you. Travel makes the world look new, and when the world looks new, our brains work harder.
– Austin Kleon, Steal Like An Artist
My father asks me all the time, would you have it any other way?
My answer is no.
Geography doesn’t make me a writer. Humility and writing does.
Three months ago I promised my father-in-law before he died that I would carry the fire inside me, in my work, and creativity. Creating magic out of this mundane madness was another step in my aspiration to keep that promise every day.