29 August 2007

Another birthday

(Posted by Jennifer)

We’ve had another birthday in our new land—now everyone but Michael has gotten a year older in New Zealand (Aidan got older on the plane to New Zealand, but it still counts). It was a quiet birthday at home with the just us four and the traditional dinner of latkes followed by birthday cupcakes, most of which were popped in the freezer to be served at her soccer game on Saturday. (We still have Aidan's birthday cake left over and N's birthday party cake to come, so she went minimalist for her actually birthday.) E, who takes care of the kids after school on the days when I go into Wellington, dropped by to give Naomi a present, and stayed for cake.

To top off the celebration, we let the kids stay up late to celebrate Naomi’s birthday with a lunar eclipse. Cuddling together under the covers, we read from the book of letters I've been writing to Naomi since before she was born. We read entries from birthdays in Cambridge, birthdays in Washington, and we laughed at all the references to how hot it was. Long after they were in bed, I sat on my bedroom floor huddled in a blanket and looked out the window (too cold to watch from outside) and watched the moon glow red—us watching our own light reflected back on us. Here are pictures today from my evening commute—the sunset walk along the beach from the train station (life’s tough)—and from Naomi’s birthday. By the way, if any of you want to make a big girl happy, you might pop Naomi a happy birthday email (naomicgberger@yahoo.com). We’ve gotten two presents and three cards in the mail, but yesterday she was feeling quite far from home on her birthday—something we each feel on these celebrations. But mostly we’re forward-looking here—to the Big Party on the weekend, to planting our new lemon tree in our new back yard, to seeing whether the apple tree is in bloom. There are castle cakes to bake and potions to mix and charms to produce. And sunset and sunrise walks on the beach. Not a bad life.

26 August 2007

Harry Potter Party I

(Posted by Jennifer)

It's a show-must-go-on kind of world when it comes to kids' birthday parties, so whether I'm glum about the book or not, it was the last gasp of Aidan's birthday today, many weeks after his birthday itself, as we finally got ourselves together to throw him a NZ birthday party. It was a Harry Potter party, like Naomi's will be, although unlike hers this one was attended by group of people who actually don't, er, know anything about Harry Potter, so the jokes and clever touches were useless. The boys (one in wizarding clothes--with a Harry Potter scar drawn on, even) were sorted into two houses and the competition was begun.

We began with broomstick relay races on the hill overlooking the sea, and then came and cooled down with potions class on the front porch of the wee community hall we had rented for the occasion (stomaching the $20 rental fee with difficulty). The weather—which was supposed to be a little iffy—turned out to be lovely, and most of the activities could happen outside.

We had Potions class where we mixed cabbage juice with vinegar and then added baking soda and watched it fizz and foam. I called the potion “magic birthday punch” and told them I would transform it into the punch to drink with the cake. I took the nasty smelly glasses into the kitchen, poured the foaming ick down the drain and then created a punch—cranberry juice and Sprite—that looked almost exactly the same. We had one child who was convinced that everyone was drinking the cabbage/vinegar mixture. And even Aidan believed that I had added some ingredient to make the original mixture so delicious. Then we mixed corn starch with coloured water and made what we’ve always called “ooblich,” a substance that is a solid while it’s in motion and a liquid when it’s still. It’s the best potion in the world, and the kids laughed and played. Inside for handwashing and cake, with candles that would not go out (the picture today of Aidan laughing while blowing out the candles is because that one kept relighting).

Then, after every kid had tried the “magic birthday punch” (and were all convinced I had some sort of magic ability), we took them outside again to Care of Magical Creatures—in this case, rocket blast-ended snipes (sometimes called rocket balloons) which they shot up in the air with delicious glee (and the not-so-infrequent phallic joke necessary when six year old boys have hot-dog shaped balloons in their hands). It was a lovely success, and I was thrilled when the end arrived and we could finally finally put the lid on Aidan’s birthday for the year. In the car on the way home, Naomi said, “So, now that Aidan’s birthday party is over, can we talk about mine?” and so we did. One party down, one to go.

25 August 2007


(Posted by Jennifer)

Suddenly, against all the forecasted weather (which, ok, means very little here), the bright blue skies have darkened, the clouds have rolled in, and the winds have picked up. The warmer days which had people talking of spring are hard to even picture in the grey and bitter wind.

Oh, and my book got rejected from the press where it has been under consideration for these last 10 months. It had made it past every hurdle but one, but that last one proved too tough to get over. K and I have poured hundreds of hours into this project and were reasonably confident we had a good shot (the editor thought it was 75% likely to get through); the news this morning is a blow to the gut.

The book is, in some ways, the main reason we moved to New Zealand in the first place. We came here to live in this village so that I could get this book done, and I had been slowly marching towards its success over these months, through ups and downs of great variety which surround the relocation to a new home on the other side of the world. The sense of the first real failure of that project plunged me into deep misery about the whole thing—what was all this about, anyway? Where do I go from here?

Where I went, as it turned out, was for a walk along the beach, as Michael and Perry and I do every morning. The last few days the walks have been magical—white clouds turning pink in the dawn and then back to white as the sun rose over the hills. Today the wind was bitter and, in the particularly exciting gusts, came with pelting rain. As a consolation prize, there was a lovely paua shell on the beach—the most revered of all the sea shells and often used in Maori carvings. I picked it up and slipped it into a bag and trudged on, only to discover, at the end of the walk, that while the bag had lots of holes, it had no shells in it anymore. I went home and couldn’t even bring myself to make it to both soccer games (made it to Naomi’s only—which, in perfect keeping with the day—she lost). Then off to do my very least favourite activity of late—errands (at a mall) and grocery shopping. The day unfolded in front of me with drizzley, windy dread.

Then, driving along the coast towards Porirua, the rocky shore of Pukerua Bay called out to me, and we detoured to the spot that I think of as the best family fun I’ve ever had (better even than picking blueberries outside JW’s house in Nantucket). We tumbled out of the car and into the wind, and picked our way over rocks and tidal pools. I’d find a perch and stare at the pool of water, watching the anemones wave in the water, the crabs scuttle. The sea offered amazing gifts. Naomi set off to replace the lost paua, and came back with a half dozen in different shapes and sizes. Aidan found a rock that was shaped like a whale. Michael turned over rocks and found hermit crabs in lovely periwinkle snail shells.

Did I come to New Zealand to write a book for a press that has finally decided, Thanks but no thanks? Or did I come to leap from rock to rock over tidal pools, the sea spray winter-cold in the grey August day? On this Saturday, my children roamed over rocks and splashed through saltwater puddles. They crunched dried pieces of kelp and then marvelled at the tiny shells underneath. I found myself lost, not in my own angst and misery, but in the universe inside each tiny pool, the ecosystem of plant and animal and sea and rock. There’s no way to hold this sense of sorrow and misery while holding a six-armed blue starfish.

And the deep watchfulness continued after the tidepools were behind us. Apparently this is the time when the lambs begin to be born (who knew?). And so, suddenly, the hills, always wonderfully sheep-studded, are punctuated by tiny lambs, generally moving much faster than I’ve ever seen a sheep move. Naomi left her book closed on the seat, and we had lamb-spotting contests all the way to and from Porirua. How unhappy can you be when you’re in the midst of a lamb-spotting contest?

Now we’re sitting in front of the fire, all of us in the lounge after a yummy dinner. Aidan’s birthday cake is cooling (his party is tomorrow—long after his birthday). Naomi is reading, Aidan is making cake designs (his birthday party is tomorrow) out of paper, Michael and I writing on laptops. Perhaps I didn’t come to New Zealand just to write a book, but to discover new ways of being in the world, to find new ways to play with my children, to wake up and go to sleep each day surrounded by beauty. So I’ll live in beauty here today, and figure out the book thing tomorrow.

ps the pictures today are worth clicking on so that you can get a bigger glimpse of the landscape. Can you find Naomi and Aidan in the last picture?

24 August 2007

For Carolyn

(This one is for Carolyn, because in the not-so-distant future, this will be a thing I’ll do with her. - Posted by Jennifer)

Thursday is yoga day. Michael works from home on Thursdays (and so do I) so that we can go to yoga together. We walk the kids to school, walk to the café in the village for a coffee, and then head a couple of doors up to St Peter’s Hall for yoga. I have never been to one of those magnificent yoga retreats where you do yoga on porches overlooking the sea or in rooms with glassed in views of snow-capped mountains. I have done yoga in big candlelit rooms in Arlington Virginia, in smaller, mirror-walled rooms in DC, in hotel rooms in Chicago and Dallas. And now I do yoga in what used to be a parish hall (but is now a little community centre) in Paekakariki. (Funny how writing that sentence still gives me pause.) I think I might like to try yoga on the sand or at the mountains, but none of it will ever compare with the full-on bliss of yoga in my own little magnificent village.

The hall is not elegant in a classic sense, but it has a New Zealand elegance that is more quiet and more rough than the louder American polish. The lovely teacher unrolls rugs over the bare wooden floor, lies yoga mats on top of those, and has a stack of thick fleece blankets to keep out the chill. And it is chilly. The class is in the morning, and the unheated hall doesn’t stand a chance of warming up until the afternoon. So we bring our breath into our bodies and try to cultivate heat with our stretches and we catch glimpses of green, sheep-studded hills out the windows. When we have moved through the class, breathed deeply through each nostril, and felt the twinges of muscles that we don’t even notice for the rest of the week, Michael and I roll up the mats and head home. Yesterday, walking through sparkling sunshine on the beach, we laughed at the idea that no matter how good yoga was (and it was good), it would never be quite as relaxing or magical as the walk home from yoga. On this crisp and relatively warm winter’s day, the sun made gleaming jewels across each crest of wave, and the sea foam that swept the beach was neon white (if such a colour exists). The seagulls ran in the shallows, and the tiny jellyfish shone like diamonds scattered on the sand along the waterline. Our charge throughout the morning had been to pay attention to our exhalations, and on the broad beach we could watch the world exhale, watch the sea move, an alive creature on its own, watch the sheep on the hills, the gulls and oyster catchers in the water, the tuis in the trees. “I can’t believe we live here,” the siren call of the kiwibergers, is so quickly followed, “why would anyone ever live anywhere else?”

Carolyn, we’ll bring a yoga mat for you, and you should leave Thursday mornings free for coffee, yoga, and a walk on the beach, you going south to your house, me north to mine. Each of us breathing in slowly, and exhaling deeply the wonder of a life that feels like this.

Tui to you

There will be a longer email from me later tonight, but right now you get to see one of the most glorious native New Zealand birds--the tui--and to hear its range of song/sound. Enjoy!

20 August 2007

Magic weekend

Ah, what a weekend!

Yesterday was finding-my-people bliss. For breakfast we had R and R (R being my boss and R being my boss’s partner—don’t get them confused). For those of you who aren’t keeping up, I adore R, and having her and her partner come for breakfast was a joy. We had a long walk up the narrow, high-tide beach, and dodged the waves, laughing. The grownups sat and talked at the stream while the kids collected driftwood and played Poohsticks. We talked about children and art and beauty and education, and I got to admire R and R more and more. Then to the new house for a house tour and the great joy of showing the place off to someone whose aesthetic I admire. It was a beautiful morning.

Then the phone rang and GL called, to say that yes, he would like to come for dinner (I had invited him days ago) and could he bring B? Yes, they could both come, and that would be fantastic. With R and R gone, we made vegetarian chilli and Uncle Bill cookies, and heated up the house in the late winter sun. Then, when the cookie dough was done enough so that the children were chocolate smeared with the beaters, GL and B arrived out for a sunset walk on the beach. Up the wide, low-tide beach, kids on their bikes on the big stretch of sand, we made our way to the new house for sunset. GL was blissed out in the lovely sheltered garden, and B listened carefully to the various house ideas as he walked through the empty rooms. We stood on the front porch and watched the sun sink into the sea, and we wondered whether it would be possible to be unhappy while looking at this view (possible, yes, but harder than you might think). Then back to our current house to warm up in front of the fire, eat the chilli, listen to the chatter of children until bed time. Then, kids tucked in bed, grownups had glasses of wine and tea in front of the fire and beautiful conversation about the future of New Zealand and how we could shape it. Rich and mind-bending conversation punctuated by thoughtful silences or gentle laughter. Magnificent. It was, perhaps, the best Sunday I’ve spent these last 9 months. (And, as the next two weeks are kid birthday parties on the Sundays, it might be the best one for a while ahead, too…)

There was another bit of magic this weekend, too, that might surprise the regular blog reader. I wrote about raising my girl in a village, and needing a village to raise her, and many of you wrote to offer ideas, help, and love in general. I heard from people I didn’t know read the blog (hello Carole and Judith), and felt like I actually did live in a village with all of you. Then, on the Saturday walk up the beach, Naomi and I had a conversation about the non-sleepover, non-spa party—the party I was making her have. She hasn’t been paying much attention to that one. I suggested a Harry Potter theme for that, and we began playing with ideas. As the evening unfolded, the magic began. She got more and more excited about the various things a Harry Potter party could include. How would we ever put it all in the 2.5 hours of the daytime party? Then—poof—an idea. It would be so much better for her to have just one party, for her to have all of it be the Harry Potter party, all be the sleepover, Naomi explained earnestly. And thus, the idea of two parties was transfigured into one wizarding spectacular with the flick of a driftwood wand.

Today was back to the work-a-day world, although, as I’ve mentioned previously, I love my boss and thus being at work is a joy. The big problem today was the weather. It was one thing for it to be chilly; I’m used to that. And yes, the rain was coming down hard—and soon turned to hail before turning back to the sun as we walked up the hill. But none of that interfered with my work in any way. The major interference, for which I was unprepared, was the plethora of rainbows. After kissing us goodbye this morning so we could go to the train, Naomi called after us to show us the rainbow in the clouds over the train station. On the train, we saw rainbow after rainbow, one standing out like neon in the grey sky, its mirror rainbow hovering brightly above it, its edges trailing into house windows and lighting up the spaces inside. Then, at work, more rainbows, making it impossible for me to get anything done. I mean, who can focus with all of these rainbows about? While R and I were talking (and having a seriously interesting conversation about leadership), a rainbow appeared out the window behind her, distracting me, and playing peek-a-boo in the changing sun. As I edited a paper, rainbows over Mt. Victoria made my computer difficult to watch. And, on my way out the door, a rainbow heading straight to the harbour made it impossible for me to leave on time. What is a girl to do with all these colours everywhere? And no place was safe—the rainbows were out every window. The working conditions I have to put up with are indeed problematic (I've attached a picture to gain your sympathy)! We’ll hope tomorrow is an uglier day.

So, a weekend filled with friends, touched by magic, and tied up with a rain bow. I hope this portends a good week.

17 August 2007

Finding my people

August is a month for doing what I call, “Finding my people.” (Note American use of punctuation marks, which I’ve taught too long to change.) I begin this blog sitting on the train platform, waiting for Michael (which means missing my train, I fear—yep, there it goes), after a day of meetings in a quest to find my people. I have had three meetings on this rainy winter’s day, where I’ve met with folks to talk about leadership, about consulting, about educational research. In these meetings, I have to answer the question, “What are you looking for? What do you want?”

Do any of you know the answers to those questions? I’m getting closer, but I’m not there yet. But I suppose the thing to watch out for is that I am getting closer. I can say that I want to do leadership development and that I want to teach people things and I want to help make the world a better place. Any educational research I do I want to do in my home institutions of GMU and NZCER (one of the things I got to watch today was my sense of loyalty). And I want to do those things with people I really like. Mostly what I’m looking for are my people.

Today I felt like that little chick in the “Are you my mother?” book. I wandered from appointment to appointment, wondering whether this person might be the one I’d want to work with, whether this one would want me to do leadership development programs with her, whether the birds would sing and the earth would move (earthquake yesterday, I’m told, but that’s not the same). And it’s a good beginning, really. I met with interesting and smart people, and those folks may put me in touch with other folks. Who will put me in touch with other folks. And some of them must be my people, don’t you think?

Until then, this is a Friday night on Ocean Road. The weather has been magnificent here this week—freezing in the mornings, but indescribably perfect in the afternoons. Michael and I walk on the beach each morning, peering at the new house, marveling at the variations of beauty in a sunrise. Today the weather turned, and I spent the day walking up and down the hill in Wellington, grateful for a city that designs its buildings with such big overhangs to keep me dry. Tonight it’s a drizzly, chilly night. I’m sitting in front of a roaring fire, curly dog at my feet. Naomi and her friend (friend X, for the record) have dressed Aidan up like a little girl and they are all in hysterics about it. I am grateful for laughing children, loving dogs, DVDs, a fantastic boss, a sliver of moon. I’m grateful for Judith and her superb party advice, to Patsy for her friendship and her unending support, to JR and her new life, to all of you who put dots on the blog map and keep me connected. You are my people.


Pictures today are of Naomi's girl guides party and Aidan's little dress up experience tonight.

15 August 2007

Needing a village

On the off chance that things might be feeling too smooth and easy here (which, by the way, they aren’t), we have moved, this last week, into some tricky territory with Naomi. I know I know I know that this is neither the first nor the last week of such difficulty, but we have now entered uncharted parenting space.

Naomi will be a decade old this month, and she (and I) think that’s a big deal. She wants to have a lovely party, and on Sunday she decided on the theme: a luxurious spa-themed slumber party. A cake like a princess, facials, pedicures (all my responsibility to provide, alas) and a marathon watching of the Princess Diary movies. So far, it’s a little over the top (no, we’re not hiring a masseuse, no matter how cool she thinks that would be), but mostly ok. But then comes the conversation about the guest list. It would seem that she isn’t inviting friend X because Naomi's bestfriend Y doesn’t like X which means she can’t invite friend Z because Z and X are best friends. Hmm. This starts to ring my bells for isolation, for cliquishness, for general nastiness. Each of these girls had Naomi to her birthday party. Each is a regular guest in our house. “But X is a desperation friend!” Naomi tells me, wailing, I don’t have to have her at my birthday!

On Monday Naomi got in trouble for passing a note. The note, written by Naomi, is signed by friend Z and written to friend X about how X shouldn’t come to Naomi’s birthday party, even though she’s invited (if you can't follow, it hardly matters--it took several conversations and a couple of phone calls to make sense of it all). Z gets mad, gives the letter to X (explaining that it’s written by Naomi), and X tells the teacher. Phones ring all over the village with parents trying to figure out what happened and why. And, in our kitchen, Naomi is in tears because I’m ruining her birthday party. I chop onions and she wails at me. I slice carrots and she storms off. I stir fry tofu and she’s back again, trying again, tearing up again. And so it goes, all through the preparations for dinner. We are at an impasse.

Sometimes I feel crystal clear in my views. I cannot condone meanness. I cannot support Naomi’s move which will hurt other girls in this very small village. But how much of my firm-line drawing is about my own sense of isolation here, my own worry about how few people I know here and how hard it is to build friendships? How much of this is projection to those times when I am the “desperation friend” myself? How much is it appropriate for me to pick the guest list? Naomi rails that I am trying to micromanage her life (no, she doesn't use the world "micromanage"), that this isn’t kindergarten where your mom makes you invite everyone in the whole class so no one will be left out. She’s got point, and still I don’t bend. I suggest a weekend birthday trip where she can bring a friend. She hates that idea. I suggest inviting them all and having games and activities be so constant that the girls don’t have time to fight. We both hate that idea.

Naomi and I dance around each other, each of us trying to figure out where to give in, where to hold firm. I tell her, “I have no idea how this will work out. I just know you can’t have a party that is based in being mean.” She tells me (in different words) that it’s kind to be cruel in this circumstance, that inviting the wrong crowd will ruin everything for everyone. We both know she’s right. I'm the only one who knows that I am right, too. Neither of us knows what to do next.

One of the times when Naomi storms out of the room in tears, I turn to Michael for a rushed conversation. “Am I holding the right line?” I ask. Shrugging, he admits he doesn’t know either. For the first time since she was out of diapers, I crave a parenting book. I want to know The Right Answer to this one. I even google it. (From google I learn that it’s not a good idea to invite boys and girls to the same sleepover party, and that I mustn’t molest the party guests. Helpful advice.)

Finally one of my lousy ideas sparks a decent one in her and we build and merge until we’ve got something good. Two parties in one day: first a daytime party where everyone is invited and all are kept busy and then all leave. Two hours later a small subset are picked up to have the sleepover portion of the party. There is a robust tradition of parties like this, two guest lists, two functions, same celebration. This allows both inclusion and also choice. This meets my requirements and hers. No parenting book needed. (Well, perhaps this statement should wait until after the parties are over.)

Still, this feels like the first round of a new dance, and I don’t know the steps. Put this into a small village and a cultural context that is still foreign to me, and I can’t even hear the rhythm of the music. Things which themselves would feel foreign to me because of Naomi's life stage feel impossible because of her life-stage plus our life-context. It takes a village to raise a child, but how do I go about raising my American children in this New Zealand village?


Pictures today are to celebrate the lovely weather this afternoon when it warmed up enough to go for a walk on the beach in the slanting evening sun. These are of our walk on the beach after dropping Naomi off at soccer practice. And the last is of a tiny sliver of new moon. Here the tiny sliver is the bottom left corner of the moon. What does your sliver of moon look like where you are?

10 August 2007


It’s a grey Friday afternoon here. As my friends and family in the US endure a heat wave strange enough to break records and spark a tornado in Brooklyn, I work on my fire-building skills and see how much second-hand cashmere I can get on my body at any one time. Today I’m wearing a turtleneck, woolen long johns, and a wool sweater I bought in high school. It has moth holes by now, but then, don’t we all?. Aidan, more warm-blooded than I, sits at the dining room table in a t-shirt making paper airplanes and singing the New Zealand anthem in Māori. How weird is my life?

Today was the “Paekakariki Idol” at the kids’ school. They begged me to come even though neither of them would be performing. And so, from 9 until 10 this morning, I sat with a handful of other parents and the entire student body of the school watching 5 to 13 year-olds sing and dance to win the hearts of the two judges. It was what you’d expect from an event like this: children nervously mumbling into microphones, sometimes—and sometimes not—raising their voices to be heard over the backup music (which was just the particular pop song, played softly enough so that the kid would be at least minimally audible). Some of the children moved their bodies comfortably to the music, born performers. Some of them stood stiff as boards and looked, terrified, at the audience, red blotches on their cheeks standing out like the apple-red blush of a raggedy-anne doll. Some straddled a combination of these: swaying in terrified time to the music and bringing in rehearsed hand motions half a beat too late.

In many ways, it was exactly like what I’ve seen at events like it half a world away: utterly familiar were the forgotten words, the struggle with the microphone, the recurring thought (was I the only one having it?) that pop-songs are vapid—and endless.

And in other ways, I felt totally alone and foreign in this talent show on the other side of the world. There were no parents I knew by name in the dozen or so gathered to clap for their children. I sometimes thought that I couldn’t quite pick out the language the kids were singing in—was that te reo Māori? Was it Japanese? And then I’d recognise with a start that it was, er, English, with the mumbling in a kiwi accent rather than a US one.

And, as I felt aloneness and melancholy sweep through me, I realized that school assemblies are the most familiar and foreign places in the world, timeless and also markers of how time is spinning out of control. Naomi sang at the first talent show at Oyster as a 5 year old. She and her best friend Amanda held hands and sang the little song they made up together with perfect 5-year-old logic: “When best friends are fighting with each other/the only thing to say is ‘I don’t care.’” (I never could figure out whether that was some Buddhist release of attachment to the fight or a pre-pubescent form of mocking.) Now Naomi’s contemporaries are singing “You’re the one that I want,” from Grease, a song which looked fine on Olivia Newton John, but which horrifies me when accompanied by the gyrations of an 11-year-old who should still be playing with dolls and not telling 150 little kids that she needs a man. These children are teasing their hair and matching their clothes to the ragged rock stars\ look, and they’re racing to be big. And I’m settling into wrinkle cream and a regular exercise program and wondering where all that time went.

I know that this is part of the human condition and not a function of living in New Zealand. But somehow living across the world from my family and friends magnifies this for me. My uncertainty and off-centredness ratchets up the emotions I’d feel about having a daughter big enough to go to sleep away camp—and I get caught in the doubleness of 1) that she’s going away for 10 days over the summer and 2) that the summer happens in JANUARY. It’s foreign on foreign.

Now I’ll light a fire to stave off the coming evening chill, and I’ll walk Perry in the sunset before cooking dinner for MH and her daughter, coming for a now-weekly catch up. We’ll talk about her impending move (to another house in the village), about my struggles with the house this week. And then it’s the weekend. Saturday is about soccer games and grocery shopping—the Saturday itinerary no matter what the country, it would seem. On Sunday I’ll have the spa day Michael bought me for Mother’s day. I’ll try to open myself to the hands kneading my back and let the tension of my foreign-self slip away. I’ll breathe in the sea air and hear the drumming of the surf. I’ll pull hot bread out of the oven and roll on the floor with the children. I may be foreign, but I’ll work at feeling more at home.

07 August 2007


I’m beginning this on the train home from work, Michael’s massive laptop covering my lap (and a seatmate’s, if I had one). My laptop didn’t make it this morning but I can’t resist the chance to sit and think here, so Michael generously donated his to the cause (he’s in town late tonight).

It’s a magnificent day here in Wellington. I’m slightly warm in my merino long johns and pants, and the sky is bright blue with rolling huge white clouds. I’ve rearranged my office at work (for the sixth time, I think) and now it’s perfect. I can sit at my computer and gaze out the window as I type and see a small strip of harbour framed by hills from one window, and a lovely white city climbing up a green hill out the other. In that space I do work I enjoy surrounded by people I like and I think, this is not such a bad way to spend my time! (Here, leaving the city on the train past blue sea and green hills catching white cloud—that’s not a bad way to leave work, either.)

And, content as that sounds, I’m struck that in the last three days I’ve woken up from dreams that have made me melancholy, dreams of being here and being far away from everything. Three nights ago, it was a dream that Rob came back to live with us again. There was a surge of delight at the coming of an old and dear friend, and the overwhelming sense that now we’d be less lonely since he was around. When I woke up, I believed for a minute that we had spent the previous night rearranging the furniture and getting his room the way he wanted it, and then a flood of recollection that he was still on the other side of the world with all of our family and old friends. (Aidan, on hearing the dream said, “That’s the best dream ever! What’s the opposite of a nightmare? A goodmare?”) Two nights ago I had a dream that my uncle Tom got married (only my family will realise how odd this dream really is) and that I was helping out at his wedding. At the end of the wedding I found something I had been searching for, and I realised with a start that there was no time for me to buy it New York City—for I was about to get on the plane—and there was no way there would be one in New Zealand. I had this moment of anguish thinking that I had moved to the edge of the universe—and then I woke up. And last night, the third in the series, was of my phone ringing and it was Dad and Jamie on a video call showing the graduation party of Christopher, an old family friend. Others in his family—who have been deeply important to me over the years—moved in and out of the tiny frame on the phone, and I felt both welcomed into the scene by virtue of our virtual connection and also a million miles away. Or 8600. Or whatever. I woke up crying.

So clearly my subconscious is working to make sense of a world where I can be happy here and also missing people there. My children are working on it too. Yesterday Aidan said something about wishing and moving, and I bent down to hear him better, assuming I’d hear something about his wish to move back to the US—a theme that shows up rarely since our return but was prevalent in our last days in the US in July. “I wish that all our family would move to New Zealand,” he told me. “You’re wanting them to move here? You don’t so much want us to move back?” I asked him. “Why would we move back there?” he asked. “This is the most beautiful place in the world! They should come here!”

(And here I am in Porirua harbour the late afternoon sun slanting and making me squint and a Maori longboat with six paddlers streaking through the water. Ahhhh.)

These two days at work have been fantastic. My return to New Zealand has been picture perfect. People at work seem glad to see me; I get to have coffees and lunches with people I enjoy. I get to feel like I add value to important work and that I’m helping make the world a slightly nicer place for wonderful people. I love my new house with an aching longing generally reserved for vacation spots that I get to visit—and I get to renovate it and then move into it and wake there every morning and go to sleep there every night. I am right now sitting on my commute home and peering out at the snow-capped mountains of the South Island of New Zealand. Who ever thought this would be possible?? AND it’s unlikely that all the family and friends I love will move here too; it’s inconceivable that the job I loved at GMU will suddenly appear on a new campus in Wellington. To live here is to be torn in a conscious or subconscious way. And right now, if I get to see my family and friends while I sleep and see these sheep-covered green hills while I wake, that might be as well-rounded as it gets.


I finish this in front of the fire, Michael finally home, kids tucked into bed. I came home, threw the ball for the dog while I watched the sun go down and turn the spray on the crest of the waves pink with delight. I talked with Dave, the chippy who will work on our house, and got the typical, “No worries,” response. Then the kids were delivered home, screaming at each other, and throughout dinner they told me stories of woe of how much they wanted to move back to the US. Then, after dinner, Naomi got excited about going to a NZ sleep away camp, and Aidan got read me his book from school and talked about an art contest he was entering. Misery passed, contentment entered in. And so it seems we all live in a house with a view of the joys and difficulties of living on the other side of the world.

05 August 2007

House dreaming in a foreign land

It has been a weekend of trying to renovate our new house—even if only in our minds. After the frustration with the architects, we got clear that the thing for us to do was settle in our minds exactly what we want the layout to be. This task, as it turns out, is WAY easier said than done. Michael and the kids and I have spent hours at the new house this weekend, weighing options, pacing and measuring rooms, building and knocking down walls and windows in our minds. Yesterday we brought Naomi’s friend J along; this afternoon our friends J and P. Still I don’t seem to have the flash of lightning that I keep expecting that I’ll have when the right idea comes along. Where’s the flash?

We are coming up with ideas about where the rooms go, what it’ll be like to head upstairs and develop the second floor, what on earth to do about an entry. I have been back and forth on the question of how much we should try to recover the bungalow, 1920s sense of the house or how much we should take it as a box and make it a modern box of an open-plan house.

I am struck by several things as I puzzle this through. I realise that this underscores my foreignness in a bunch of different ways. One is a matter of taste: What is the New Zealand bungalow aesthetic? How important is it that it be rescued? In the US, the bungalow is a key—and cherished—architectural form. Here, it’s another US import (much like, er, myself). So the fact that the house has lost all of its bungalow charm over the years, is that a shame, or is that a US form becoming more native? Do I attempt to restore bungalow-esque pieces of it or do I scrub them off and make the house more Paekakariki? (And what on earth would that be?)

I’m also struck by how far away we are from people whose opinions we have valued over the long haul. It was a delight to have J and P at the house today because they’re just about the only ones we know who have even seen the place. We tend to talk this through with one another, running in endless cycles of drawing boxes on post-its as we try to come up with a different layout—the one that will make things look perfect. My mother would have Serious Opinions about this. Dad would shrug his shoulders and suggest that we run the less expensive plan (but even that would be a help!). MH would suggest moving a wall or window and things would begin to fall into place. And ah, how we miss living in the same country as BI, who would use his years of experience renovating old houses to help us with this old house.

And there’s the way that I also don’t really understand the real estate market here enough to make good decisions about how much to invest in the house. Things go on the market without prices and they sell and I never know how much things sold for. And there is no such thing as a comparable house in a village that is all hills and valleys with beach shacks and lovely renovated villas in the same block, with a house with sea views worth so much more than its next door neighbour without them. Who knows what is a safe investment in this house?

Of course, there are some wonders about the foreignness of this experience that make me smile with delight, too. Pulling on a loose piece of wallpaper yesterday, we discovered layer of wallpaper on layer of wallpaper—nothing unusual there. Only under the wallpaper layers was a layer of burlap. That’s odd. And under the burlap, where in any circa 1920s house I’ve ever been in would have plaster over lathe walls, here the walls are made of…wood. Just wooden boards, roughly-hewn 1 by 4s that march up the walls over the studs. Who has ever heard of this?? Other delightful oddities? This is a house with lovely views on 100% of the sides. For three sides of the house, the view of the sea is the main attraction—today a wild and wintery surging silver. For the back of the house, it’s the hidden garden and the hill/mountain in the distance with its scattering of sheep. This protecting of the view is as foreign to me as the wooden walls.

I realise that this unsettled feeling about this decision is mirrored in other unsettled parts of my life—the work life and social life aspects. And that I want it all settled, want it all to be crystal clear with some lovely poof of insight. I can hear Patsy (once back from her holiday) counselling me to enjoy the view and not rush so fast to make decisions. But if we can’t trust the architect who’s on the job, we either need to give clear instructions or else begin the process of finding a new architect. And each setback costs us months of owning two houses rather than one, months of double mortgages. So making the decision sounds important.

Here, just for the record, are our choices:

We either go upstairs or not.

If we go upstairs, we’ll have oodles of common living space on the first floor and three wee bedrooms on the second floor—each with lovely views. We’ll have views in the lounge area from the south island to Kapiti, and get sun every second it’s in the sky. We can find some (heretofore undetermined) brilliant way to deal with the entrance issues. We can find a way to have closets. We can put the books somewhere. Pros: open sweeping views from the lounge, sun all day, lots of areas for us to work and play in. Cons: most expensive, most intrusive, and do we trust ourselves enough as designers to use a plan I first drew on the back of a used post-it?

If we don’t go upstairs, we’ll have a house just barely the right size—no extra (other than a small guest bedroom, which feels like a necessity rather than an option). Other than the lounge/dining room/kitchen at the heart of the house, the bedrooms will be smallish, and the views will be segmented—this piece of the view in this room, another piece of the view in another room. Storage is an issue (because the rooms are small) but because there are lots of divisions, bookshelf space is readily available. Pros: less expensive, less intrusive, simpler to begin and complete. Cons: for years living in Cambridge I dreamt of finding new rooms because the condo was too small—this one makes me worry that I’ll begin those dreams again.

So, as I fall asleep at the keyboard and the children call for me to tuck them in, those are the big decisions on our plate. I neither know what to do nor have a plan for beginning to know what to do. One assumes that I will come to a decision at some point. One wonders that that might be. If any of you have ideas, I’m delighted to hear them.

03 August 2007

Beginning again

I seem to be out of the blogging habit, eh? I’m sitting in front of a fire on a spectacular early August evening—grey sky turned blue, early evening sunset just dying off in the distance (it’s 5:40, late dusk). Thus ends my first week back in New Zealand, and I suppose it’s time to begin to process all of this.

Top of mind is what’s going on at the house. Yesterday we had an insanely frustrating experience with the architects at the new house. They were convinced that their plan was the right one; I wanted them to listen to the rationale for my plan. Not meaning to disparage an entire profession, but what is it about architects that makes them not want to listen to clients?? We have had this experience on multiple occasions, and it’s not that fun. In this case, we’re on a tight timeline, and I come off as the stupid little woman who needs to be convinced about the error of my ways. What a pain!

So today I went back and spent several hours in the house. Sitting, pacing, living out dinner parties and sleepovers in a variety of configurations. I sat in the sunshine on the floor in the lounge and heard the rhythmic crashing of the waves. I stood at the kitchen sink and watched the sheep move on the steep hills on the far side of the village—the hills which somehow form the incredibly wooded and private backdrop for a house right in the centre of the village. And in the house, trying on these different layouts, living in the space, feeling seasons pass and children’s birthday parties come and go, watching friends gather around tables that weren’t there yet and celebrating occasions that I haven’t dreamt about yet, I got this amazing surge of happiness. This house—layout currently under negotiation—is so beautiful, so profoundly a part of this shockingly-beautiful landscape. It is a strange and magical gift that it has come into my life at all, and I nearly wept with pleasure at the idea that we could be the stewards of the house for the next period. What an honour.

(And I still like my original layout best.)

Overall it’s been a lovely week. It was fantastic to be back at NZCER, to see my friends there, to begin to plunge back into that work. Suddenly there’s more work than time, and I feel like I might even make a contribution to that place. And, to add to the delight, it seems like people actually missed me. And non-work friends seem to have missed me, too. It’s a small bunch, but much more vital and present than last time I came back, so I can almost imagine that some of these people will care about the layout of this magnificent new house of ours. There’s still the misery of putting together the tenure portfolio to shadow the wintery August evenings, but with a fire and a glass of New Zealand pinot noir, all things seem possible. It’s good to be home, wherever home might be just at the moment.