30 August 2008

Slumber party

Long time readers will remember the kerfufle about Naomi’s birthday party last year. She drew up her invitation list, and missing from it was her friend J, who spends heaps of time at our house. Naomi’s perspective on this one was that J didn’t get along with some of the girls Naomi was inviting. My perspective on this one was that I didn’t care; we weren’t going to have a party that excluded someone who could easily believe she was one of Naomi’s best friends. And so the battle was joined. Finally we came to an odd kind of compromise: an enormous birthday party with enough girls to dilute the energy between the girls who didn’t get along, and a complicated juggling act for the mommy who had pushed this idea in the first place.

This year, once again J was not invited. Once again I argued for it, and N once again made the argument that they weren’t such good friends that it would make sense for her to be there. I pushed it some, and then let it go. It’s true that N spends only some time with J now, not as much as before. And it’s also true that N is getting bigger and there are consequences she can face on her own.

This choice was made rather awkward, however, when J came over to our house on Naomi’s actual birthday to play and to stay for dinner. The girls hung out, walked on the beach, and giggled in Naomi’s bedroom. And then, Naomi snuck out of her room as I was making dinner in the kitchen. She got close to me and whispered, “Mom, can J come to my birthday party?” I smiled. Of course she can.

And so it is that tonight, one of the seven girls sleeping (or, er, not sleeping) upstairs is J. They have watched their movies, eaten their cake, alternately welcomed and then excluded Aidan, who has been alternately delighted and in anguish over the whole thing. And now Michael and Rob and I are hanging out in front of the fire, listening to music we first heard together twenty years ago, and wondering what we’ve really learnt in the years since these songs were new in our lives. For Naomi’s eleventh birthday, I have learnt that sometimes a mom should push for what’s right, and sometimes she should just watch as the right thing emerges.

28 August 2008


Another month, another oddly-winter birthday. We have discovered that this year Aidan's birthday week and Naomi's birthday week were pretty terrible for the grown ups. So, here, at the end of a seriously awful week (workwise), we have had another sweet finish. Points to those who guess what Naomi got for her birthday this year. And here's Aidan enjoying one of his birthday presents (newly received in the international post). He is one happy reader.

This evening, though, was a joy. After a crystalline day of sun and blue skys and near-summer temperatures, we had birthday dinner with Naomi's friend J and then a celebratory birthday dessert--this year Naomi wanted pound cake with chocolate fondue. We laughed and ate and listened to Naomi's phone chime with text after text--the sound that heralds the arrival of her teenage years (the only reason 11 isn't teenager is a weird quirk of English). Oh boy...

22 August 2008


It is lambmonth. August is the month of lambs here who are, with daffodils, the first sign of spring. And each day this month as we have borne the cold and wet and grey, I have searched every passing hill for the first lamb sighting. Last week on the way home from work, Michael and I spotted our first labs on the hill—twins lying near their mother. They were early, those twins, and were the eldest of their kind because days and days passed with no new sign of them. We were practically lambless.

And then, on Tuesday, we drove to work (to trade in the minivan and get a sedan—we are not minivan types, it would seem), and there were lambs. I counted nine of them before Michael—in the irritation of the driver unable to catch a glimpse of the lovely views without crashing the car—told me to stop counting. Little dots of white on sparkling green hills surrounded by the larger, clearer forms of their mothers. Every day this week each ride to town is filled with lamb sightings.

Lambs and I go way back, sort of. We used to drive out into the country when the children were young to take them to petting zoos where there were sometimes lambs. It was on the first such jaunt, with a baby Naomi snuggled in her backpack, that I became a vegetarian. I looked at the face of the placid ewe and watched the adorable little white cottonball come up to nurse. I was captured by the twin sensations of familiarity—ah, she’s nursing her baby just like me!—and difference—ah, lamb is my favourite meat! I couldn’t hold the dissonance. Locking eyes with the sheep, mom to mom, I realized I couldn’t ever eat anything that had a fair chance that its mother had loved it (first I stopped eating mammals and then eventually stopped eating anything—like a chicken—that required maternal care, which is why fish seem still to be ok). So I have some kind of attraction to lambs.

But lambs and I don’t go as far back with me as they do with real New Zealanders. When I tell friends about my love for these beautiful creatures, New Zealanders will smile and agree that the lambs are cute. But if they listen, they’ll hear that I am actually excited about them, that it’s not just business as usual. They hear about my once-yearly trips to petting zoos and gape at me. You used to go out to visit the lambs? You would pay money to see lambs? They are often speechless at my deprivation. It is as if I walked into someone’s house and found them putting celery in display boxes with gallery lighting and fees for visits. Lambs are as much a part of the landscape as the mountains, as the emerald grass, as inseparable from New Zealanders as Christmas and the beach (and as foreign to my urban, Northern Hemispheric sensibilities).

No matter how ordinary lambs seem here, though, for me they are a joy. My heart leaps at the sight of those tiny white dots on the green hills. I feel secretly pleased that now I know that these brand new lambs spend lots of time lying down near their mothers but in a month they’ll be tearing around and doing the lambleap with all four feet off the ground. Last year we held a baby lamb in our arms; the children walked through fields of lambs leaping away from them. I hope this year holds similar lamb wonders! Lambmonth is back again and it is time for a quiet celebration of the growing dots on the hill.

(True confession is that this lamb picture today is from last September—but ah, timelessly cute to see lambs in sweaters! If it helps, the other picture—taken from our porch—is of the moon setting at dawn earlier this week)

18 August 2008

Lifestyle choices

A rainy night on the train home, late because of an interview I conducted for a seriously-interesting research project at work. I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror of train windows in the dark. How do we end up where we are? You, gentle reader, how is it you came to be reading this blog on this day—wherever you live, whomever you love, whatever you do? How do we put one foot in front of the other and end up in the space where we are?

Life seems like such an odd series of coincidences and accidents and yet they all take us to whatever we do next. Three years ago, if you had told me I would be commuting on one winter August night from my job as a researcher to my house on the beach in New Zealand, I’d have assured you you were insane. And yet, here I am, on a little train chugging along the coast on a dark winter’s evening. Last night I woke at 3am, disoriented because it was already dawn—how could it be so light in the middle of the night? But no, it was the full moon reflecting off the sea, bright enough through the uncurtained part of my windows to shine into my eyes and disorient me. It strikes me that somehow I live on the beach in New Zealand. No wonder I am disoriented.

I have been thinking about “lifestyle choices.” When people here ask me why we moved, I can come up with no better reason, really, than “it was for the lifestyle.” Others back home speak, sometimes reproachingly, sometimes admiringly, about the fact that we have made a lifestyle choice to move here. When we talk to other immigrants here—from taxi drivers to coworkers to friends—it’s always the same. We come here to this tiny jewel of a country because we want our lives to be different than they were in England or Kenya or Australia or the US. We come because this is a fantastic place to raise children, because it is clean and safe and still filled with opportunity.

So this was, I admit, a radical lifestyle choice, to move my family across the world and away from everyone we’ve ever known, everyone who shares our DNA. But really every choice we all make is a lifestyle choice. And yet many of our choices don’t have that flavor—we just do them, putting one foot in front of the other. Isn’t getting up each day a kind of lifestyle choice? Buying a townhouse in the suburbs? Going to grad school? Keeping a job you hate because your mortgage is too high to change jobs? Living in the same place for 20 years? These are the choices that make our lives.

So what is it that we’re doing when we make those lifestyle choices? It seems to me that we make the big ones with our eyes open and with care—shall I move across the country/quit my job/have a baby/get a divorce? But the other ones, the small, daily choices that actually create our lives, we don’t focus on much. Do I take one more consulting gig this month because we want a new car? What shall we do after school this week? How should we spend our weekends? Should I call my dad with my only open time on a Saturday morning or shall I just sit in the blissful silence of it all? Our lives are lived in these moments, and these little moments create the big ones.

Not three years ago we got home from a lovely holiday in New Zealand, and we arrived very late to a chilly night and came home to a house without a dog (who was at the kennel). Michael and I struggled to get the kids to bed after 26 hours of travel and then lay down in our bed and tried to battle the jetlag to get our eyes to close. A short time after we finally drifted off, we were awakened by the throbbing sound of helicopters, low and circling above us. Searchlights glinted off our windows and disappeared. Sirens in the distance got louder and multiplied. And for 3 hours that night, the helicopters pounded, the lights flashed, the sirens screamed. Welcome home, they hollered. How’s your lifestyle now? We lay in bed in anxious and miserable half-sleep wondering if it was a dirty bomb exploding in front of the White House, an escaped convict, an enormous fire. (It was a crime spree, seven dead in two hours, with the hijacked car abandoned one block from our house. The guys were never caught.) I think it was in those moments that the idea of a major lifestyle change came to us, and that night was the clarion call when our spirits would flag. Still sometimes, listening to the pounding of the sea or seeing the daylight-reflection of the moon on water, Michael will tease that it’s the search copters looking for those criminals again.

So I have made a lifestyle choice to live in New Zealand. You are making lifestyle choices to live wherever you live. Each of us has a rationale for our choices, and each of us faces consequences that spread throughout our lives. Because there are no perfect choices, each of us lives out in a compromise that is more or less easy depending on the way the hour or day or week has gone. Each of us has filled some of our desires and each of us has pockets of longing that we have chosen to endure. Tonight, in front of my brand new fire, I am warm and content with my choices. I hope all of you gentle readers have the things that are most important to you, that the life you live is the one you have chosen.

15 August 2008

August hail

Here is evidence of a very unstable weather system and the delight it causes in kids. While the hail has scuttled our hopes of getting a woodburner AGAIN (no one wants to go up on the roof to cut in the chimney in this weather--cowards!), it brought delight to the kids who gathered the ice spheres in the dark and brought them in, dancing and singing.

08 August 2008

Wwonderful wworld of WWOOFers

This garden was one of the reasons I bought the house. It is sheltered and tropical, with a banana tree, fruit trees, and lovely native plants. From the sheltered warmth of it, I can hear the birds in the trees and the pulse of the sea, and I can see only one house—mine. It is near perfect. Two months ago, I went into this place of bliss and solace to take a good look --and I nearly burst into tears.

It was overgrown and out of control. The weeds were winning. The woodpile in the middle of the yard had killed the grass around it; the rest of the grass was knee high. I looked and saw endless hours of toil—hours that I do not have to give. I considered a bulldozer to simply begin again, but we no longer have money for large equipment. Instead, I went inside and filled out an application to be a WWOOFer host.

WWOOFer stands for Willing Workers On Organic Farms, and it is an international organisation. The deal is that if you’re a person with a garden or a farm and a guest room, you can sign up as a host. Travellers who are signed up as WWOOFers look up listings in the places they want to visit, and they contact the hosts and find a time to stay. WWOOFers get room and board from the hosts and in exchange they work for 4 or 5 hours a day. This seemed like the perfect solution to my problem.

So I filled out the form (answering questions like “What percentage of your food is organic?” and “What is your organic philosophy?”) and sent it in. Six weeks later, we got the news—we were in. Two days after that, the first email arrived: could Jean-Baptiste, a French law student, stay with us the first week in August. Yes he could.

And the time passed and JB arrived, a beautiful young French man with an ebullient smile. For this week, he is part of our family, eating meals with us, sleeping in our house, helping in the garden, playing with the dog. The first morning as I got the kids out the door to send them to school on my way to the train, I said to Naomi, “We have just left a stranger in our house with all of our things. We might come home to find everything gone!”

“He’s not a stranger, Mom. We had dinner with him last night!” she reminded me.

“We had dinner with a stranger last night,” I reminded her. And we turned to each other and said, “I guess that’s just the WWOOFer way!” When we came home, the only thing missing from our house was the woodpile in the middle of the yard. And the dog, who was getting a run on the beach.

In the days since his arrival, JB has stopped being a stranger. He has shown us his house on GoogleEarth and talked about his growing up. He is lovely and polite, never sitting at dinner until I sit. He is silly and playful, lugging big logs with the children to try to build a bridge across the impossibly-fast moving stream. He is doggedly determined, moving the woodpile and then chipping away at the enormous one that looks very much like the rubbish heap it is. He looks around wide-eyed at the constant and rapid chatter of the children as we have our dinnertime conversation. He is quick to smile along with the classic French shrug and pffff. When I ask about how things are doing—how was his walk, how is the work, how was dinner, he always says “Perfect.”

On Monday he’ll be off, flying home to France in the middle of the week. And the world will seem just a little bit smaller and a little bit friendlier with a friend in France. And the paths are covered with new shells and woodpile is moved. My garden might return to a place of bliss and solace after all. Vive la difference!

07 August 2008

Sunny winter

Lovely things to tell about, but here are some pictures to celebrate incredibly beautiful midwinter days.

05 August 2008

Commuting blues…and greys and greens

This morning, as I was waiting for the train, two rambunctious ladies across the street started scrabbling over their desire to stand in just the same space. First it was a little nudge, then what looked like a bigger push and then a shove—and then one of them kicked the other. This kind of scene was rare but possible in DC, and everyone’s attention would be purposefully fixed on the combatants—or people would most assiduously look away from the action, trying to display their lack of responsibility for anything that might happen. Here on my train platform this morning I saw neither thoughtful looking nor purposeful not-looking. I seemed to be the only one really drawn to the drama across the way. And when one kicked the other a second time—right in the leg—I thought it was a bummer that the kicker won her spot and the kickee just bleated and moved on to a less delicious patch of gorse. Survival of the fittest and all that.

My commute is filled with all manner of new bits that superimpose against the old. The weather has been wretched lately, and that messes with the trains (this was also true in Washington and Boston, where the trains are mostly located underground. Go figure). And, in the upheaval, I have been watching the Kiwi reserve at work and looking for the times when it breaks down.

Take last week, for example, The train, stopping and starting, was limping along until we got to the mid point between Muri and Paekakariki. Almost home. Unfortunately, the train stopped at that point, and didn’t start again. The 40 or so people on my car were silent, speaking neither to one another nor to the conductor. This is pretty typical. As the time ticked on, though, it seemed more and more strange that no one asked for more information—and none was offered. The conductor and the train diver chatted quietly in front of us, and no one interrupted to ask what was going on or how long we might be there. The conductor then took the rather unusual step of opening the front door and getting off the train. All of us on the train leaned towards the centre of the car to watch him go and leaned back upright once he was gone. We sat for a few minutes this way and then the door opened again. Again we all leaned and listened, again we all silently leaned back away. I, who in normal circumstances would have marched up to the conductor and asked what was up, just watched us all being curious, all being silent. It was like a satire of proper polite society—only it was real. Finally Michael called my cell phone from the train behind (he had missed the 5pm train). He had heard that my train was stuck with signal crossings that were broken. Good to have people in the right place to give you information!

It is not always this way, although information travelling does seem to be somewhat of a challenge in the public transport system. Later last week I sat in the pouring rain waiting for my train to take me to a meeting in the middle of the day. I was all alone on the platform and shivering in the cold and wet. The train was late, and then later. Finally a woman—a conductor—popped her head out from a room I didn’t know existed at the station (the station seems to be a place where the train personnel wait inside and the passengers wait outside). “Are you wanting to go to Wellington?” she asked. I nodded, damply. “The train is out. You’ll have to catch a bus,” she told me, nodding in the direction of the “Train Replacement” bus stop.

“When does that arrive?” I asked.

“Now,” she told me. “You’d better get going.” And so I rushed into the rain as the bus pulled up and took my seat amongst the utterly silent crowd. The bus let us off at the Plimmerton stop, where there was a train waiting at the station, presumably for us. Just as we got on to the platform, though, the train took off, leaving the 25 of us from the bus standing in the rain, bewildered. I had tried my wait-and-see experiment earlier in the week; this was time for action.

“Why did that train leave without us?” I asked. The conductor shrugged and explained that the busses were all dropping people off in Porirua. I pointed out that we had all just emerged from a bus and that we had been dropped off in Plimmerton. He allowed that that seemed to be true.

“How do we get that train to come back and get us” I asked, looking at it right there, 30 metres from the platform. The conductor shrugged, it was impossible. “When is the next train?” He consulted the schedule, thirty minutes. “How could we get there to be one sooner?” Another shrug, no way for that to happen. “How can we get our bus back to pick us up and take us to Porirua?” No way for that to happen. I realised that I was in the middle of a circle of my fellow passengers, trying to watch what would happen with the pushy American and the clueless train operator. I took a step back, defeated and slightly embarrassed about all those Kiwi eyes on me. But a man near me stepped into the fray.

“Look, we can’t be expected to wait 30 minutes,” he said firmly. And, with a fellow Kiwi stepping up to argue, the crowd got restless.

“Couldn’t you tell the bus to come back?” one lady asked.

“Couldn’t you send a train here sooner?” another man interjected.

“Why did they leave us behind anyway?” someone else wondered plaintively.

The Kiwis were talking—even demanding! One man was going to miss his plane, and a handful of people in the group started chatting about planes and what might or might not be flying that day. And then—miraculously—the bus driver called to us from the other end of the platform; he had seen us waving to him to stop. We piled on the bus and he made a couple of phone calls to let people know where we were going. Someone asked him why the conductor hadn’t been able to do all of that. “Who knows,” he shrugged. “Some people never ask for anything.”

This is a new day, though, and I burst through the tunnel on a working train and a brightly sunny day. It’s cold and crisp, and the mountains on the far side of the harbour are powder-sugar dusted with snow. I walked along the Harbour to work, marvelling at the many-armed starfish on the rocks, the lovely hills in the distance. This is the end of my commute. I crane my neck to see new angles of mountains, stare hard at the rocks in the hopes of a seal or a penguin (both of which I’ve seen in these waters) or even a whale (which others have seen but I haven’t). I live on the edge of the world, it’s true, but the commute—even with the squabbling native (merinos) and the broken trains—is the world class.

02 August 2008

Ode to heat

I know that this will seem an inappropriate post for those of you who read this from a warm summer day with windows open, or huddled inside the chill of the air conditioning to escape the blasting heat outside. But here there is none of that. Here there are howling winds and long chains of days with no hope of sunshine. And while it never gets to the misery of a Boston January day here, whipping wind and horizontal rain can make me long for the hiss and clang of my Cambridge radiators.

Here, of course, they don’t understand heat. It is as if the entire country, hearing that it was a South Pacific Island nation, decided we must be warm here. We look at the palm trees waving in the winds, and at lush beaches, and we assume that this means we need no heat. The fact that people have been shivering here for five or more months a year for the last 150 years just leads to a put-on-another-jumper mentality. And me, I put on another layer, and another, and another. And I feel vaguely embarrassed that dinner guests come in the house, take off their winter jackets, and then, half-way through dinner, get up from the table to put them back on. Ah, southern hospitality (only perhaps just a little two southern…).

The other night, I got home from work, smiled at the family and rushed to change out of damp work clothes and into the layers of at-home clothes it takes to sustain my body temperature in this weather. Long johns followed by a cotton layer followed by one layer of wool and another and another—as many as I can get on my body. I headed out, Michelin-man-like, to the dining room table and sat down to eat dinner.

And then the full impact of the day’s change came upon me. It was Heat Pump Day, the day when our house was transformed by a little plastic box which breathed out blissfully warm air. At the table, I shed layer after layer until I ate my clothes in what might be considered “inside-clothes,” and I didn’t even have the urge to put on a coat.

To say the heat pump has transformed our lives sounds hysterical or overwrought somehow, and yet it is realistically my experience of the change. For two months I have gone around wearing as many clothes as I could at once, having fingers too chilly to type accurately, praying for sun—the only heat source we had. I dreaded the grey days, the coming of evening. My shoulders hunched up against my ears and my muscles tightened in response to the constant chill. (On the plus side, I did work out every single day—exercise being my only door into feeling warm, even sweating!)

Now, after we put the kids to bed, Michael and I sit on our couch rather than retreating into a small and heatable room. People walk into the house and say, “Ah, it feels good in here!” as though the inside actually offers shelter from the outside. Naomi takes off her down coat during dinner. And we’re just generally nicer to each other. Warmer, even.

The woodstove was supposed to come this week too, and it didn’t. Did I fly into icy rage, though? No. I smiled (warmly) and said that it would be ok if they came next week. And I cuddled up to the heatpump and knew that all would be right with the world.

(pictures today have nothing to do with heat. The first two are of the mobile Dad and Jamie gave me my first Christmas in New Zealand. Now it blows kisses to the sea. The other shot is of Aidan playing soccer in the field at his school this morning. Of course looking at the sea is magnificent and takes my breath away, but more surprising is that turning my back to the sea is nearly as beautiful. Amazing.)