28 October 2008

Resigned to change

In a window seat on the train again, snaking along on the wall above the sea and into Wellington. This isn’t quite the red line on the metro. I have passed through the timelessness of 24 hours in airports and in flying metal tubes, and I have arrived into this dream reality where the plane lands next to water dotted with surfers and I spend my first day home with my friends and family, weeding, pruning and planting vegetables in a sunny and sheltered garden, the sea audible as a background thrum.

I am dis-oriented in an internal way not obvious until I sit down and have conversations with myself. In the US, I took the rather startling step of resigning from my job at George Mason, a place I haven’t worked in more than a year, but a place that weaves itself through me. After a sad and lovely talk with my dean, I came out into a hot October afternoon to sit with Michael at the student center to debrief. As I talked about the conversation and sat in the lovely open space, college students and faculty milling about with their lunch trays, I realized that I would begin to weep right there if I wasn’t careful. We left as I tried to contain myself, tears welling up in my eyes.

What are those tears about, I have wondered to myself and others have wondered along with me. I remember my first time in that student center six years ago, me dressed up in a smart blue suit bought for the occasion, anxious and watchful in my first academic job interview. I remember meeting these IET faculty for the first time, impressed by the intelligence, the passion, the creativity of these folks. On the plane the next day, I called Michael to tell him the news. If offered this job I couldn’t imagine not taking it, if only for the honor of hanging out with these people for the next 20 or 30 years.

I was back in the building several months after taking the position. I had planned and taught my first summer session by then, sold my Cambridge condo, moved into a DC apartment. My career was before me, and I realized that it could be a career held solely at this university, the first time I had ever imagined a job that would last my whole career. I looked at students and faculty carrying lunch trays, and saw middle-aged men and women chatting with twenty year olds, heard banter and cheerful greetings. I thought of my father teaching nearly his whole career at one place, and wondered whether that would be me someday, grey-haired and carrying my lunch tray, saying hi to whatever crop of students was around. I found the notion remarkable and attractive.

Over time, the building became less novel. I at cheep and delicious middle eastern food there during faculty meetings, emailed friends and students from the comfy chairs upstairs. I went to receptions to celebrate new faculty joining us, and others to honor faculty retirements. I wrestled seemingly-intractable academic politics, and celebrated the possibility of a new way of working together. I watched trees go down and new buildings go up. I felt anxious, sleepy, angry, delighted, exhausted, dispirited, proud, and loving in that space. The space became mine; it held me and my colleagues and our careers.

It is mine no longer. It is ex-mine. I think it is the loss of one particular image of how my life might go that I am mourning. There is a vision for my future that still lives in me, and I have to understand how to let that vision go. It is a death of a future I’ll never have, and I’m mourning the loss of me in that role as I mourn the loss of my colleagues and students in their roles in my life. Now I have to figure out who I am in the ex-GMU world. While in the US, as I was ending some connections, I was attempting to deepen others, to try and figure out how to hold on to who I used to be as well as who I am in NZ so that I can figure out who I am becoming in this bi-hemispheric life. The GMU thing is one piece of who I am now not.

Here today there is a bright blue sun in the sparkling air. The fields have become neon green with the constant spring rains in my absence, and they are dotted with plump and playful lambs. Spring wildflowers bloom, yellow, pink, purple, along the rail lines. The sea, hazy in the spray-filled northerly breeze, marks its steady rhythm. The voices I hear around me are unlike mine, the politics they talk about is unfamiliar, about an election next week about which I have few opinions and almost no knowledge (the NZ national elections are four days after the US ones). I am sleepy and disoriented in the familiarity of this train ride through fields and past towns. Now we’ll head trough the tunnel that drives through the mountains and comes out in Wellington on the other side. Where do I come out on the other side? Which way is home?

24 October 2008

several thousand words

we had our pictures taken this trip, and here are some of the results. i miss you, my family. i can't wait to see you again!

23 October 2008

All buttoned up

I am sorry for my silence; it has been a wave of constant work from way past my bedtime to way before I’m ready to wake up. I am exhausted and ready to sleep for hours on the plane home; and also wishing I lived closer to some of these wonderful people whom I’ve been lucky enough to spend time with. And I wish I could be here on election day.

When I got to Bethesda, we went out and bought election paraphernalia: buttons, window signs, bumper stickers. Obviously the windows and bumper stickers won’t motivate any voters, but we thought we could at least be the KiwiAmerican voice fighting the good fight in Paekakariki. The buttons, however, we could put on and wear from the beginning. I pinned a white Obama/Biden button on my navy blue coat, and walked into the world with it. I am expecting that if (when?) Obama wins, the world will change and, I believe, become better place. What I was not expecting was how the world would change just by virtue of the button.

My first indication was in Chicago. The tall, dark, and handsome doorman to the fancy hotel joked with me as I went for the cab. He teased that he would let me take the cab just in front, as a kind of a gift. “Do you want to know why I’ll let you take this cab?” he asked with a twinkle. No, why? “Because I like your button!” He winked at me and shut me safely in the cab. When I went to get my hair cut, the white guy at the front desk took my coat and then, glancing at the button, lowered his voice, “I don’t usually talk politics with the clients,” he said, “but since I know we’re on the same side…” and he and I chatted about our hopes for Virginia to turn blue.

It doesn’t stop there. One day I was walking down the street, and a middle-aged white woman in a business suit smiled at me. “Go Obama!” she said. The next day in the grocery store, as I was agonizing over which pita chips to buy, one of the store employees, a youngish African man, came over. “Can I help you with anything?” he asked. “No, thanks,” I told him. “Good luck with everything,” he told me. “Er, thanks,” I answered uncertainly. Then he noded at my button. “I mean good luck with everything!” he told me, smiling broadly. “Good luck to us all,” I answered to his pleasure. Another connection made.

When Mom and I were at a shopping mall the next day, an African-American woman sat feeding her little son bananas with kindness and love, and we struck up a vague conversation. She finished her dinner and walked away, only to return a moment later with the familiar, “I like your button!” We three struck up a conversation about politics and hope and our excitement over the campaign; she told us she was a lawyer and would be working to keep the votes safe. We told her we’d do our best too. Another connection.

And another and another. Clients, friends, workshop participants, taxi drivers. Men and women of every race and every class beam at me and say something supportive. When the connection gets made, it is more than the simple Democrat-to-Democrat connection I’ve had in other elections with other buttons. This is about an entire ideology, and it’s about a new vision of what’s possible, a new vision of what the future could be. We are not just excited about a person or a platform, but about a whole new sense of possibility, a new image of how the world could be. I believe that this man (“that one”) has the complexity and compassion to lead us into a new relationship with the world, with ourselves, and he has the intelligence and the nuance to know how to make vision become real. And those of us who wear the buttons or the t-shirts or the bumper sticker, we’re not just supporting the same candidate, we’re supporting the same vision of the future, the same hope for our children and our planet.

Every once in a while, I stop and think, not about Obama’s brilliance, not about his compassion, not about the way he has the potential to transform our country’s image in the world. Every once in a while I think, this is a black man running for the most powerful office in the world. Even typing that now on a crowded Metro makes my eyes fill with tears. I want to celebrate: how beautiful is it that this country—which has struggled so long, so painfully, so violently with the issue of race—can finally put a black man in the oval office. How magical is it that with one election day, we can forever more put the first-ness of this behind us and know that we are not so blinded by race—or our unquestioned ambivalence about race—so as to pass up this chance at a man who could be an extraordinary president. Barack Obama is an existence proof, not only for the possibility of a black man in the oval office, but for the people in majority to have a new relationship to those who are not part of the majority. He is a brilliant person in his own right, and he is a symbol of how far we have come.

And sometimes I get shaky with rage about it all. How could we be so backwards, here in the new millennium, so that this is the first time this has happened? How is it that we have cut out of our field such a significant portion of our population? And then I think about how women have not been in this position before, an even larger percentage of the capable population than African Americans, and I am disgusted. What is wrong with this place? How have we failed as a people? How far do we still have to go?

And of course we have farther to go in some places than others. Jamie noted that in some parts of the country, you can’t wear an Obama button and still feel safe, and that an Obama sign in front of your house will get your house egged or molested in some other way. I can’t imagine what it would be like to feel the kind of racial hatred that clearly overcomes some of my fellow Americans. I can’t imagine the fear and loathing that comes up for people who worry about the redistribution of money to those less fortunate, as though that were a crime rather than a promise. I lie awake at night worrying about his safety and feeling somehow responsible for his daughters, who will become all of our daughters when he is our president. I am distressed that this is still a possibility, that there are still people who can believe that their racist perspective is somehow a legitimate American way to be.

But it looks like those people are in an increasing minority. Obama is not just keeping up with the last couple of white guys who ran for president; he is changing the electoral map and igniting a generation—or two or three. And from the response to my button, he is doing it with all kinds of people all over the country. I will leave this country believing that it is a more exciting place than the nation I left last April, that it is filled with people—quite possibly a majority of people—who share my values and my hopes for the future. I have not thought that in a long time. I suppose I just had to push the right button to find out the truth.

17 October 2008


What is it about these trips home that make me feel like a time traveler, that have me spinning through life cycles and making my way, dizzy, from one event to the next?

Last week we drove up the Thruway to my grandparents’ house. We sat at their kitchen island—as I have been doing since I was Naomi’s age—and ate tuna fish sandwiches on white bread. I heard stories about my grandma’s childhood in Ireland; Naomi and Grandpa talked about math. We looked at our house in New Zealand on Google Earth. Two uncles, an aunt, and a cousin stopped by (low yield for a family with literally dozens of people in it but we gave them little notice). I can remember evenings filled with people at Thanksgiving, with barely enough room to reach for vats of mashed potatoes or platters towering with turkey. Now the house, twice expanded, contains thousands of hours of memories—not just mine (not mostly mine) but of the dozen children and 30+ grandchildren and now the great grand children who eat tunafish at the counter and swim in the pool (new since I was an adult) in the summer. The refrigerator holds pictures of babies I didn’t know were even a twinkle in their parents’ eyes, of families grown enough to be unrecognizable. This is a big family, and I live far away. Still, when my grandmother tells stories about her glass-cutting relatives in Ireland, I feel a kind of childlike delight. When my grandfather twinkles with a smile saying, “Come on, Jenny, let me show you something,” and walks down the hall to his study, I follow him with the kind of anticipation I had when I was Naomi’s age. And when I leave them I wonder—as I do when I leave anyone, but harder—when we’ll see these lovely people again.

A few days later I sat around a big table at my Aunt Patty’s house. Here, on the other, smaller side of the family (Dad has only 6 siblings), I know all the cousins and their children, and there are no grandparents left to tell me stories or show me mysterious gadgets. On Saturday there was a little gathering for us Kiwibergers—medium yield for this family with three sets of aunts and uncles, four first cousins (and partners) and three first cousins once removed. Aunt Patty was the one I spent the most time with as a kid because she was the mom of Tara, my favorite cousin. When I was a kid, I lived farther away than nearly any of my cousins, and I lived with my mom. This meant that I wasn’t at the regular family events and didn’t see this closely-knit family as much as they saw one another. When I was there it was a major party time, and livingrooms would be filled with adults talking and dandling babies on knees or at breast, kitchens with (mostly women) chopping, mixing, cleaning, and family rooms or bedrooms filled with cousins making up games or plays or just zooming around the house. I loved these gatherings, loved racing through the living rooms to catch a glimpse of beloved aunts and uncles. I loved slowing down through kitchens to see whether I could spy the plastic-wrapped chocolate chip cookies someone had brought, hiding until everyone had had enough dinner. And beyond it all I loved the time with my cousins, the stories we told, events we organized, silly games we played. Tara and I, as the eldest, kept the little ones under control, half babysitters and half queens of the domain.

Since the last time I was in the US with my kids, there has been a distinct shift. I’ve had three more cousins in my generation head to college, one more get engaged and another married. There are two more babies on the way. Only two of my aunts and uncles have kids home at all anymore; the rest are talking about their grandchildren. Of the 19 cousins in my generation, only three are still at home, only one a kid.

This means that my aunts and uncles aren’t the generation who produces the children and checks up on the cousins racing the house; that’s now my generation. The cousins that make up stories and play games? Those are my kids’ generation, with Naomi the eldest of the bunch, leading her smaller cousins around, keeping the peace, being the tattletale. The aunts and uncles sit in the living room and tell stories about their kids in college, pass albums of weddings, wax lovingly about grandchildren, and are beginning to look rather like my grandmother as I remember her most strongly.

In some ways, this is just part of the family cycle, right? It is the uncanny way that two best cousins produce children who love one another and pal around at the next generation’s family event. It is the echo of the mother in the voice of the daughter, the taste of a meal we have had at family gatherings for my whole life, the rhythms of family patterns and habits held steady over time.

But I keep hearing my father’s voice, deep with melancholy, after Naomi told him she couldn’t wait until she had silver hair like his. He looked at her, golden hair shining in the Grand Canyon sun, and said he thought she’d be beautiful that way. And in his mind he was thinking, “but I’ll never see it.”

This is a one way cycle, the patterns of the generations repeat in a beautiful and encouraging way, but we only get one ride around. My aunts and uncles are taking my grandmother’s place, but Grandma left that place more than three years ago. The last time I looked up, I was amazed that I was joining the generation of my aunts and uncles and producing children. Now, more than a decade later, I realize that I was actually replacing that generation, stepping into the major childbearing role into my large and growing family. At Aunt Patty’s, I realized that I have stepped out of that role. No more will new baby announcements come from us. We are moving on into the comfortable and beautiful time of raising these lovely children of ours rather than producing more of them. We are crossing thresholds we cannot cross back over. This is not going to be news to anyone, and at the same time, each time I get a real sense of it, it is a punch in the stomach. On this trip, I am getting a lot of punches.

A mid-trip, mid-life crisis? I finish this blog more than a week after leaving Patty’s, in a swank hotel in Chicago where I’ll do work I enjoy with people I enjoy. I have a beautiful life, and it would have been unimaginable to me as one of those cousins racing around my Aunt Patty’s house 25 years ago. I love my life, which makes my increasing awareness of its temporality all the more bittersweet. Would I like to be a kid again, with all this in front of me? Absolutely not. I guess my central question is about how to maintain the knowledge that each day is a gift—a gift we will never get again—and live my limited time on earth fully. All of these are clich├ęs. I remember thinking in college that nearly every poem is about love or death. Or both. In college, this death obsession seemed macabre, a constant restatement of the obvious, a focusing on the dark rather than turning toward the light. Now I feel it differently. It once seemed to me that Andrew Marvell’s famous poem was a pick up line, a clever, if cheap, come-on at a party. Now it strikes me (perhaps additionally) as the truth:

But at my back I always hear
Time's winged chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.

Remembering about my one way ticket helps me focus on what I want from this short ride. In the eyeblink of parenting my children, what do I want them to take with them? In the flash of a career, what do I want to accomplish? In the ringing notes of my friendships and loves, what do I want to experience and to give? I don’t want to notice my mortality constantly, but neither to I ever again want to forget it. The end of playboy Marvell’s poem is a call, not just to lust, but to life:

Let us roll all our strength, and all
Our sweetness, up into one ball;
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Thorough the iron gates of life.
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.

15 October 2008


This trip has been rather full on, thus the silence. Here's one thing we've done while we're here--can you guess the game? Note that in the metro at the end of the game, there are probably more people waiting for the train than live in our village.

This trip has been so dense that I can hardly even find words for it--layered like the Grand Canyon in self-discovery, Major Decisions, Financial Misery, Family Events, and on and on and on.

I am dizzy--sometimes literally--with the depths of the emotions, with the layers of time, love, loss. I'm working on unpiecing it.

03 October 2008


“Sometimes a place lives up to the hype,” Dad said as we boarded the shuttle bus at the Grand Canyon, “and sometimes it exceeds it.”

Rob had told us that no matter what picture we had in our heads for the grand Canyon, it was wrong. Before we left, he had us think about what we were expecting and told us that whatever it was that we were expecting, we were not expecting what we’d see. And so it was Monday, when we got off the train at the Grand Canyon depot and climbed the stairs to the rim. We looked over the vastness of the Canyon and the only thing I could think was that Rob was right.

There is no picture that can capture the vastness of this place, the subtlety of the changing light, the ribbons of color that stripe through it. Similarly, there are no words I can write here that will approximate, with vocabulary or metaphor, the scope and scale and splendor of it. Everything we take or draw or write is as insignificant as we ourselves are when faced with the age and beauty and sheer size of this place.

Still, there are moments to capture. There is the brilliance of the ranger talks and the way they were able to captivate Aidan (and the rest of us) with the story of the perhaps-reviving California Condor. There is the gregarious Aidan, maybe even more outgoing on his home soil, who puts his hand up for everything, asks questions (even of the ranger, even in a big crowd) constantly, who was such a presence in the Condor presentation that a woman in front of me turned at one point and said, “I wonder what he’s like to live with!”

There is Tuesday night, Naomi’s head in my lap as we lay down on a plateau of rock to hear the second ranger talk—on the night sky—and Naomi finally got what a light year is in the vastness and insignificance of our lives, our canyon, our financial crisis, our global warming in a universe where we are not even a grain of sand. I lay on my back and felt tears slip down my face, having these people I love with all of my being within an arm’s reach, having people I love scattered around the planet, and also knowing that all my love—and all the love of all the mothers and daughters all throughout the earth—is a minuscule force in the enormity of the galaxy, of the universe.

And, more than anything, there is the hike we took down the Kaibab trail. 1.5 miles down steep and (it seemed to me) almost unbearably dangerous terrain, the canyon dropping off thousands of feet on at least one (and sometimes two) sides. Down down, 1000 feet over the 1.5 miles, the white limestone dust turning to pink to red as we moved through layers of time in the rock beside us. I have no words for what it means to have every moment filled with the cloudless lapis sky, the vast beauty that actually makes me ache, the constant thrum of terror that Aidan would slip in the loose rocks and tumble over the edge.

Then, at the resting place where we would turn around, a plateau jutting out over oblivion, we walked out over boulders to a point, where we came across yet another Kiwi in the small but constant stream of them here in this park. Those of us from this little green island, visiting here in this vast red chasm, find one another by necklace or hat inscription or bag embroidery. We chat about what it is to be in the desert, in the US, what it is for us to see beauty that is on the New Zealand scale but as foreign from New Zealand beauty as Vega, 25 light years away.

I sat on this plateau with Dad and Jamie—who live half a world away from me now—and thought about family and friends and what it means to be an American, what it means to be a New Zealander, and what it means to be neither, like me. The Grand Canyon makes a person feel good about being from the US; this week is not a proud time to be from the US. I have been pleased to be recognized and claimed by New Zealanders; I am clearly not a New Zealander myself. There is no shortage of material for identity crises.

First, though, there was the potential for so many other kinds of crises. All of the signs around the Canyon rim, adorned with pictures and stories of people who have died walking these paths, remind us that what goes down must come up. This is, of course, the other thing to be anxious about when you take your 11- and 7–year old kids 1000 feet down into the Canyon. We finished our lunch (the most delicious cheese—or ham and cheese, depending on your preference—sandwiches that have ever been made) and turned to climb back up up up to the rim. Aidan, 17 seconds into the return journey, wanted to sit down. His legs wouldn’t do this, he told me. Could I please carry him?

The figures of Naomi, Jamie, and my father disappeared up the trail as I felt the combination of annoyance, frustration, and panic. What do I do with a kid who won’t climb the two hours straight up? How do I prevent my anger from welling up and over us both? I breathed in and out and tried to be cheerfully insistent, telling Aidan of course he was a strong boy, think how proud he would be when it was finished. And so Michael and I formed a cheering squad, and Aidan found his legs with less than three minutes of misery. He hiked up up up, stopping when we got to shade for a drink of water and a handful of trail mix before getting on to his little strong legs and climbing again.

With Aidan underway and safely headed up hill in front of me (why is it that uphill feels so much less dangerous than downhill), I could look around more easily and admire the view in a different way. For most of the climb, one side of us was rock climbing up in layers that changed shape and texture and color, the solidification of time. The other side of us was a cliff that opened onto vistas so immense as to be unimaginable, unphotographable, walls carved by a river so far below us that we would only catch a glimpse of it once. As Aidan trudged, I gaped and felt small and brief, a pinprick of a creature, a fruitfly, an ant. Each turn brought us a different view, each view spectacular, each moment like a jewel. Aidan developed a coping mantra and would murmur to himself about how great it would be at the top of the climb, how wonderful ice cream would taste, how lovely it would be to stop. I didn’t want to discourage anything he was dong to make himself happy, but I also wanted him to not wish this beautiful climb away. “Be here now,” I told him. “Breathe in and out in the difficulty of it, be inside the view. Remember that this is your day to be here with Papa and Jamie and Naomi and Daddy and me. This is your time at the Grand Canyon. This is your achievement.” And I tried to follow the advice I was giving to him, tried to be in the pounding of my heart, the aching of my thighs, the sweat trickling down the small of my back. I can’t remember a time I was happier to be alive.

Finally we reached the final set of switchbacks that would bring us up up a cliff face and to the trailhead. Aidan, smiling, noticed that he didn’t have to conserve his energy anymore, and that he could feel the fitness coming into his legs and making him stronger than he had ever been before. Naomi had powered her way to the top ahead of us (by eleven minutes, she told us when we got there) and Jamie had stopped to wait for Dad and Michael. I told Aidan he would be the second one in our party to finish the hike and he said, “No Mom, we’ll be second together,” and held out his hand. And so we sat in the shade at the top, me bursting with pride over the two children—years younger than any other walker on this trail—who had made this hard hike with (almost) no complaint. Soon the rest of the family joined us, and we sat joyfully together sharing the last of the water. Some moments can’t be improved.

Now we are on a flight from west coast to east. We have left behind the open trails of the Canyon and will head into city streets. Behind us, too, are the open spaces of the few holiday days of this trip, and ahead of us are over-committed, over-scheduled days with not a lot of fun in sight. Anyone would be awestruck at the Grand Canyon. I’ll see whether I can see the grandeur in the everyday life of suburbs and traffic and workshop days to pay off the tickets. I’ll try to breathe and be in the moment and feel the connection and insignificance and brilliance of each moment. We’ll see how the Grand Canyon travels in a carry-on bag.