19 November 2008

14 November 2008


Today was a teacher work day. Yesterday, the Council came and signed off on our house. They think it's finished now (they don't care about a couple of patches of paint that's needed etc). The combination of these two things meant it was loft day--the day that we could open up the lofts and move the kids upstairs. And so now they're tucked into their little beds upstairs, sweetly sleeping under their skylights as the sea thrums on. It's not a bad life.

08 November 2008

Miracle in a far away land

On my Wednesday I had a meeting in town. I woke up and thought, “people are voting now.” I walked the kids to school thinking, “people are voting.” I took the train into my meeting. People in lines, at voting machines, making phone calls. Voting voting voting. Who were they voting for??

We had arranged to watch the election results together at the pub in the village because a) I don’t have a TV and b) I wanted to be around other people. Melissa and the kids and I would be there, Rob would pop in from his job at the deli across the street, and Michael would join us when he got home from work. And so it was that I was there on my own, anxious, waiting for the kids to walk there from school and Melissa to show up from work. And there, at a table in an empty pub, I first saw Obama take Pennsylvania. I was surprised at the surge of emotion, at hot and unexpected tears. Here I was, alone in this bar, crying at the television.

The kids arrived, barefooted in the kiwi style, and Melissa blew in with Ohio. I ran across the street to update Rob, and realised that I didn’t want to be spending the most important election of my life as one of four people who cared about what was going on. When the TV news cut to pictures of Americans at the US Embassy election night party, I told Melissa and my kids that we were heading to Wellington. After some convincing, I scooted the rest of the group out the door. Melissa ran to get her daughter from a friend’s house; we headed to the train.

Little did we know that the train that leaves just after 4pm leaves at 4.04 rather than 4.08 (all the other trains leave at eight minutes after the hour). And so we raced for the train, and missed it by a breath. Until that minute, watching the train chug away and learning that the next one wouldn’t be there for 45 minutes, I hadn’t known how desperate I was to be near other people who cared as much as I did about the hoped-for election of the most exciting politician of my time. The weight of my loneliness in a country on the other side of the world from those voting pulled at me; I put my head in my hands and cried.

I wasn’t alone, though, and Melissa, who saw how important this was to me, piled us into her car and south we went, towards the embassy that would let me be with my people.

Or perhaps not. Michael called to tell us the news. Five minutes ahead of us, he had gone to the embassy party and been turned away. You had to have tickets. “Aren’t our accents tickets enough?” I asked. Nope. We met in the lobby outside the embassy party to regroup. A friendly New Zealander at the door smiled at my Obama button and asked us what we were doing.

”I’m wanting to be in a room filled with cheering Americans on this amazing night,” I told him.

“Well that room up there isn’t for you,” he said in hushed tones. “That’s a political event, lots of Kiwis and political folks. Not much cheering. What you want is the Democrats Abroad party at the Irish Pub on Cuba St. That’s where you’ll get your cheering Americans!”

We thanked him and headed up to Cuba St. where the red, white, and blue balloons marked the pub. Inside, it was bedlam. I stood inside the doorway, blinking to adjust my eyes to the dark and then, with a glimpse at the TV, to adjust my heart to the light. CNN had just projected an Obama win. I was in a room filled with Obama signs, with Kiwis and Americans eating and drinking and smiling at the TV. There were occasional yells as another state was called for Obama and then another. This is what I wanted, this communion of passionate people. This was my place.

The night is a blur punctuated by images I may well never forget. Watching McCain’s speech and hearing the cheers at his admission of his defeat and the silence in the room when he told us that America was the greatest country on the earth. This room full of people living in New Zealand had no interest in interacting with that statement, and there were low murmurs in response. There was the breathtaking moment when President-elect Obama (those, by the way, are currently my three favourite words to string together) took to the stage. There was Aidan, delighted with the Obama win, who really came to life with the promise of a puppy. “There’s going to be a puppy in the White House?” he asked There was the hugging afterward, everyone weeping, all of us overcome with the beauty of the moment and the magnificent possibility of the future.

Afterwards I realised who I was missing the very most, even in this room so perfectly filled with celebrating people. I called my dear friend Mark, with whom I had taught about race again and again, with whom I had talked through issues around this election and the new possibility of the world. He answered the phone from a crowd.

”Mark, this is your congratulations call from New Zealand!” I said into the phone.

“I can’t hear you!” he shouted

“MARK, this is a celebration on the other side of the world, in New Zealand!”

“Sorry! It’s too loud here and I can’t hear anything.”

“MARK!” I said, yelling into the phone, “IT’S JENNIFER IN NEW ZEALAND!”

“JEEENNNIFEEER!” he howled. “Oh Jennifer! BABY IT’S A MIRACLE!”

And I wept again to hear his joy, and to hear joyful yelling on the streets of Washington DC, where my dear friend and thousands of other celebrating people had wandered to the White House to mark the change.

Four years ago, I found myself nearly constantly in tears after the last election. I would be sitting at dinner and suddenly realise my cheeks were wet. Michael thought I was frightening the children, which was probably true. I had it bad.

This week, I find myself bursting into smiles without knowing that I’m thinking about President-elect Obama. And when I think about that beautiful family moving into the White House, when I think of those girls—my kids’ ages—and their fantastic mother and their new puppy, my eyes fill with tears again. These are not Bush tears, though. These are the tears that are about pride in my country, hope about what might come next, joy over a barrier that was knocked down decisively.

Here in New Zealand, we’ve just had an election today. Here my party didn’t win. Tomorrow I’ll deal with what that means. Tonight though again I’ll go to bed smiling. President-elect Obama. Welcome to the rekindling of the American dream.

05 November 2008

Dangerous liaisons

[I have been working on this entry for several days in snatched time between the many writing projects which are now nearly blissfully behind me. Really the thing that’s most important here is obviously the election—voting going on as I type—but here’s a diversion from earlier in the week.]

My partner Mark says that one of the most risky behaviours one can engage in while traveling is to speak to the person in the seat next to you on an airplane. If ever I mentioned any in-air conversation, Mark would tsk-tsk at me and remind me that a conversation gone bad was bad, without escape, for hours. He’d advise me to plug in ear phones, avoid eye contact, and, if worse came to worse, feign sleep in order to escape from the dreaded conversation of the seat mate.

So it was with Mark’s warning fully in mind that I took my aisle seat on the five hour flight from Dulles to LA last week. My seatmate kept to himself, reading a guide book, and I kept to myself, editing a journal article. But, because I am not Mark Ledden, I couldn’t help noticing that the book opened next to me was a NZ guidebook, an unusual reading choice on a flight to LA unless there’s a longer flight directly following. And so I engaged in that most worrisome of airplane behaviours: I talked first.

Duane (as his named turned out to be), answered. He was meeting his wife in LA and together they were flying (not on an Air NZ plane like me) to New Zealand for 10 days. No, he had made no plans so far and had only a reservation in Auckland for his first night in the country (he is my kind of tourist!). Yes, he was delighted to be sitting next to an American who lived in NZ.

We talked maps and travel plans. He had never been to NZ, but had lived overseas when his son (now 20) was small, in the Caribbean doing work for the Peace Corps. He was on the right side in the upcoming election and had already voted in the swing state of Virginia. He was lovely, with interesting things to say, a gentle presence, the ability to be alternately talking and quiet over the course of our hours strapped next to one another. Duane and I had heaps in common. We seemed drawn to roughly the same tourism activities (not surprising—someone going to NZ is not usually the bright lights and big city kind of person). We even did the same basic work; he was the head of leadership development for a US agency. We talked about a wide range of subjects—and, perhaps more importantly for this introvert pressed by writing deadlines—were often silent together—over the course of our 5 hours of forced-communion.

And so it was, as we prepared for final descent and tucked up our tray tables, I did something far more dangerous than beginning a conversation; I invited him to come and stay with us during his travels. I gave him my name and phone number, and off we went, our separate ways in LA.

As I left the United terminal to cross over to the AirNZ terminal, I was surprised to see Duane waiting for me with his wife, Janet. We chatted about some of the wonderful things she might look forward to, I reiterated my invitation to them both. My gut reaction about Janet was that she was open and lovely, warm and gracious. I plunged out into the warm autumn evening in southern California figuring that I’d never see them again but pleased that I had shared this tiny moment with them.

Five days later, I opened my door in a magnificent spring evening in Paekakariki and welcomed Duane and Janet in for, as it turned out, more moments together. They came bearing thoughtful presents—a bottle of wine, a bag of chocolate chip cookies, a purple flowering plant to grace the garden of our purple house. The kids, when they got home from trick-or-treating, were offered armfuls of art supplies and the gentle guidance of Janet, an artist and art teacher. Over dinner we talked about leadership and travelling, about bringing your children to new places to live, about US politics. They were model guests, playful and interested in the children, warm and grateful (even about a dinner that lost some zing as Naomi and Aidan got carried away by their trick or treating). They talked about the trip so far, and we poured over maps for the trip to come. We walked on the beach at sunset and watched the sliver of a moon sink towards the sea. They were overcome with the beauty of the place. It was hard to believe that these people, total strangers to us, fit so easily into our house.

Duane and Janet had intended to go on to the South Island the next day, but I warned them about an approaching gale. They revised their plans to spend a rainy Saturday in Wellington and a Saturday night cozy in front of our fire before heading off to the ferry in the morning on a sparkling Sunday. And so a second night in our living room, drinking excellent NZ wine, we were feeling grateful for hot fires and double-glazed windows, and for strangers come together to be friends. In the morning it was with real regret that we said goodbye to them, watched friends who were just yesterday strangers go off into a big world where we’ll probably never see them again.

The lessons of this story are subtle and not generalisable. The truth is that I rarely even share a sentence with the person sitting next to me on a plane, because planes are for working and not for chatting. It also could have gone very badly. They could have been difficult under longer circumstances, or Janet could have been justifiably wary over the invitation her husband received from a woman to spend the night at her house (ditto with Michael, by the way). But in that moment and with those people and with me at the exhausting end of a long and often-difficult trip, it was the perfect thing to do. I love being in the world in this way and meeting others who live in that same world. I love that just as I was feeling so far away from the familiar conversations and sounds and relationships of the US, I imported US reminders into my very own NZ living room as a bridge between my lives. I love that this afternoon, there will be other Americans I know—on the South Island—huddled in front of TVs in some bar or hotel lounge rooting for a man who will (I hope) win the presidency in the same week he so sadly lost his grandmother.

Sunday Michael and I went out to breakfast with some friends in town and came home and sat on the cool sand with Melissa to watch the kids in their first week of surf club. We walked home along the beach where I finished Michael’s birthday cake while Melissa and Rob cooked dinner. Here were longer-standing relationships, deep and better aged. Here were four Americans making their way in a new country, celebrating Michael’s 42 year on the planet. Our house, our lives, our hearts, contain space for old and new friends, for quick connections and lifelong ones. The world is vast, and it is also connected. Relationships are the most difficult thing we have, and they are also as natural as breathing. Love is a natural resource without any constraining factors.

Happy birthday Michael.

Happy one-year-in-New-Zealand anniversary, Rob.

Go Obama—let this be the start of a better world order.

02 November 2008

writing, swimming, celebrating

It has been a week of reports due, chapters due, journal articles due. I have been writing like mad (but I bet you're not interested in what I've been writing!). It has also been a week of Halloween costumes, birthday cakes, and strangers who have come to be friends. More on that tomorrow. Tonight, my belly full of birthday cake, I'll just offer pictures of the week...