Blackberries – Part One

Photo above of local blackberry bushes, taken by the author

My commute has changed significantly since 2021. I was living within the Four Avenues of Christchurch, on a central city street, where I could go for ten days without getting in the car. Waking at 7:30am would still get me to my desk by 8:30am. What a privilege.

Now, it’s a 40-minute drive into town, or 80 minutes door to door, walking to the jetty to catch a ferry and then a bus. It would be pretty easy to jump in the car and nip down to the wharf, getting 15 minutes extra sleep, but I’ve tried to structure my day so that I can fit in the walk down.

My morning walk to the ferry

As I’ve done this over the last year in all kinds of weather, I’ve had a front row seat as the nature around me adapts to the seasons. Leaves of brown and orange and scarlet and gold, clogging gutters, making me skid in the dark. The smell of the air as the plants open up for the rain. Wild daisies sprouting where four months before, there had only been hard, bare patches of dirt. Getting whacked on the cheek by overgrown agapanthus, ignored by their owners so craving an audience who will delight in them. But nothing compares to the blackberries.

Overlooked for 50 weeks of the year, they become the pride and joy of our neighbourhood in late summer. Growing along the many walking tracks we have throughout the bay, their arrival in mid-February last year was the event that made me realise just how different this new suburb was from our place in the city. I would have driven 20ks and paid $17/kg for the experience of picking my own berries beforehand. Now, I couldn’t get to the jetty without clutching a double handful to take to work (if they even made it that far).

February 22nd, 2022. A warm, calm Tuesday evening. JCB and I did as the locals did, and went blackberry picking. I knew there’d be some groves out the back of the hills the day tourists didn’t get to, where we could truly gorge ourselves. Even with all their defensive spikes and tangled boughs, the harvest would be worth it. For us city folk, picking blackberries was what people in fairy tales or on Instagram did. But underneath the desire for delicious, free fruit, was a complicated miasma of motivations: the aesthetic of being someone who foraged. Uncovering the best spots for next year. Producing handpicked blackberries as a snack at work, hoping colleagues would notice.

And there was more underneath that. Being a couple who goes on dates. Spending a summer evening outdoors together. Keeping up the pretence of ‘normal’, when our marriage was disintegrating.

When I was younger, I decided that I wasn’t going to have sex with anyone until I had married them. I don’t remember making the decision consciously; it was just a part of growing up in church – everyone else was waiting or had waited (or so they said), so I would too. It was partly conviction, partly to keep myself safe, partly because it was what I’d been told to do by the church since I was 10, partly because I was naïve, partly because a hard line can make things easier, partly because it was a narrow filter for interested men, partly because it made me feel virtuous and partly because I thought it would get me into heaven.

So, when I started dating JCB, along with every other Christian couple we knew, we struggled to figure out where “the line” was – how could we express physical intimacy and desire for each other, without “sinning”? Purity culture might have kept me safe and sheltered, but it was also teaching me to fear sex while eroding my self-worth so much that I could no longer trust my own feelings.

You know that we got married. Within twelve months of saying ‘I do’, we were off to see a couple’s therapist. Our marriage was not easy. The weeds planted as we danced around “the line” for four years had dug their roots in deeply. There followed years of struggle with intimacy, sex, pleasure, and communication about desire. We knew things weren’t right and sought help in as many places as we could, trying our best to be vulnerable with those we trusted. I remember when a friend said to JCB, “Well, I certainly never thought that this would be a problem you two would be having”. Comments like that contributed to why I struggled to open up with even my closest friends – this issue had become about so much more than sex. It was about resentment between two people who loved each other. It was about despair, realising my learned behaviour meant I could no longer trust my emotions. It was about envy and deep-seated shame that sat in my body where no words could reach. It was about frustration and, when I dared to admit it to myself, regret.

Jesus has a parable about building your house on solid rock. The irony was crippling – we had tried our best to imbue our relationship with the biblical principles we were taught, only to find the sexual foundations we had chosen had become the opposing “sand” that Jesus spoke of – “When a storm rolled in and the waves came up, it collapsed like a house of cards.” Matthew 7:27 (The Message).

Back to the sunny Tuesday evening, present-day. You find the author and her husband: new home, new suburb, clambering over a creaking stile, getting caught on brambles, opening the backpack and hanging it on the fence, getting out two ice-cream containers, and silently, picking blackberries. Lost in our own thoughts. Knowing that it was bad this time. Really bad. We cared deeply for each other and were still trying to figure out what we could say that will make ourselves feel better, make the other person understand what we mean, make the other person do what we wanted.

As many couples will attest to, it can often feel like fights or misunderstandings have the same core, the same fertile, angst-ridden magma flowing fast and thick underneath the treble. Variations on a theme, the musicians call it. And as we lifted the prickly leaves, our backs to each other as we worked the bushes to find the ripe berries, I felt like we were coming to the edge of the unknown. This fight, this misunderstanding, had happened a hundred different ways over the last seven years. You see, in Summer last year, JCB and I had a series of conversations where we could not turn away from what was shared. Honesty forced us to turn a corner into ‘it’s now I say this, or I never will’ territory. We both shared I can’t ever unhear that-kind of words, and being that honest came at a deep, emotional cost.

We were quiet since we didn’t know what to say and we were scared to hurt a fellow hurting person and we were scared by the depth of the emotions we were each feeling. Pain at the lies we were told. Anger at believing what we had done was right, and the outcome was so wrong. Fear of the desolate wasteland our intimacy had become. Desperate that another session with the psychologist, or another position, or another book, or another conversation with a friend would solve this unfathomable grief shared between us. Shame that this dysfunction had leaked out into our common life, our way of interacting with each other as human beings. Utterly alone in our feelings.

And then JCB just said it. Fist full of blackberries, tips of his long fingers stained maroon with overripe juice, eyes squinting in the setting sun.

“Maybe we should take a break.”

And as soon as the words were out of his mouth, I knew they were the first right thing to be said for a long time. I had clung on for as long as I could. I white-knuckled the shit out of that marriage. But the foundations were crumbling, and having the honesty to call it like he saw it gave me the permission I needed to stop lying to myself.

I knew that this was not the kind of marriage I was promised, or what I saw anyone else living. As Nadia Bolz-Weber says in her book Shameless, the church had robbed us, and we were still paying the cost. We had to take responsibility for our part, and face up to the changes we wanted to see in ourselves, and each other.

JCB was heading overseas to see his family within the month, and naturally, I had booked to go with him. By mid-March, I realised that he needed to go alone. We decided that he wasn’t going to move back home after his holiday had finished.

We jointly decided to have a break and live apart.  

Part Two will land on Monday.

4 Replies to “Blackberries – Part One”

  1. Jemma – bravery comes in so many forms. Bravery to stay. Bravery to leave. Bravery to push on. Bravery to step back and stop the angst. Wisdom is to know which form of bravery to apply when!

    But one form of bravery that I always admire, is that of being open, honest, and vulnerable. Not being held captive by shame, but facing the truth, no matter the challenge that this present.

    Your vulnerability here is awesome. May it be something that encourages others to step into that place too.

    Looking forward to reading part two.

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