12 December 2009

The end. And the beginning...

Ok, so it wasn’t the close I had in mind. In some ways, it was a most typical day here. A coaching call first thing, then an Action Learning Group call with Keith. Conversations about writing, about maybe turning this blog into a book (with lots and lots of editing—anyone know an interested publisher? An agent?). Kneading the challah for Hanukkah dinner. I had forgotten to invite S and A and their kids, and Melissa and Ayla wouldn’t be around. And Rob, just last night, had spent the first night in his new apartment in town. It was going to be an anti-climactic and small scale celebration.

Naomi was coming home, though, from a school trip of two days in Wellington, and there would be the new menorahs I bought on the ill-fated trip to Philly. Michael had seen his, but Aidan’s was still a surprise. And there was delight in the air because (drum roll, please) today we closed on the Ocean Road house and finally we didn’t own it anymore—and Carolyn did. A movie finish.

And the movie got better, because Melissa called. Was she still welcome for dinner? It was raining and so they decided not to go camping tonight. And Rob texted, he was on the 5.40 train. So the house filled up as I made latkes for dinner with a bean thing that Rob made delicious when he arrived. I had forgotten the apple sauce and the sour cream; Michael had bought birthday candles instead of Hanukkah candles, but it would fit in the end.

Latkes hot and sizzling on the platter, yummy beans and challah, fresh broccoli from the garden. We raised our glasses to drink our lovely New Zealand bubbly and toasted to Carolyn and Jim, to their owning the house and our not owning it anymore. We toasted to our current (and now only) house, to our fourth Hanukkah in New Zealand.

Hold that image, will you? The toasting adults, the cheerful children, the candles flickering in the gray late spring evening. A perfect close to this chapter in our lives, our best friend from the US, our best friend from NZ, our loving children, all gathered around as we sang the praises and delights of our dear friends in the US who have bought the extra house and may someday join us around the table.

And then, because it isn’t a movie, life begins again. Naomi discovers that it’s not a cell phone she’s gotten for Hanukkah and begins to cry at the table. Exhausted from her school trip, she stumbles off to bed without finishing her favourite dinner or finding out what the offending gift might be. Aidan, in lovely good spirits, dances excitedly about his gift. I give it to him, the best menorah I’ve ever seen, a dog, silly and very Aidan-like with a bobble head and wagging tail. He takes one look at it and bursts into tears—why would he want a menorah anyway? He gets horrified at his own reaction and cries louder—filled with self-recrimination and apologising for being so ungrateful. The adults hardly know what to do with this scene which is sweet and painful and terrible all at once. We move on to candle lighting. We struggle with the blessings, missing our old menorah with the Hebrew on the side, the one Rob and I bought for Michael 20 years ago in Rockville Maryland, the only item which broke in the move to New Zealand. Finally, between us, we get both blessings out, and by now Aidan has calmed down and is making friends with the dog menorah, wanting to light the candles and nodding at its bobble head. And so this is life, candles glowing, children sometimes crying, sometimes delighted. Sometimes you sell the house when you want; sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you get the present you want; sometimes you don’t.

Now the rain is lashing on the roof. Everyone is in bed—even Rob, who will take his time moving into the new flat in Wellington and whom, we hope hope hope, will still spend plenty of evenings here with us. Our children are shockingly older than they were when we first got here; our lives are settled and utterly different.

All of this means that I’m not sure I have much that’s interesting to say in this blog anymore to those of you who still come to follow our lives (except Dad, who would be interested in it all). My current hope is to take the story of these first years in New Zealand and see if I can edit them into a book with rising action, with a moving cast of characters, with a more polished presentation of words and ideas than I’ve been able to produce here, in the moment. Wish me luck with that one, with another book with no publisher. I’ll still sometimes post pictures or cool stories if they should happen, but this chapter, at least, this chapter of the move and the saga of the two houses and all the newness of a life in New Zealand, is over.

And of course, we don’t know what stories the next chapter holds. A book or two, finally published? A bat mitzvah without family, far from home? A 40th birthday and the accompanying grey hair? Perhaps I won’t do anything in my life as nutty as those things which have unfolded here. Perhaps this is the zenith of my attempts to shake up the past and move into a new future. All I know is that I woke up one morning three years and three days ago and I lived in my dream house in Washington DC. And I’ll wake up tomorrow in my dream house in New Zealand. There have been tears and traumas and delights that I’d never have imagined. People often told us that we were courageous to strike out in this direction, and we said that courage and stupidity often described the same action, with only the outcome pointing to the right word. Tonight, as the owner of a single house on the beach in New Zealand, it feels like it was courage—with enough stupidity to keep the plot moving along. May you too, wherever you’re reading this, have the courage to strike out after your dreams. You might wake up in paradise too.

ps Pictures today are somewhat random. Menorahs and walks on the beach--what could go together more clearly? Long time readers will see that we have found paradise in our Christmast tree for the first time. We've really made it now...

09 December 2009

Another year begun

November was ghastly. I knew that there would be some serious difficulties in the month, but who knew how many and where they'd come from? There's a song I love with a chorus that says, "I'm looking forward to looking back on this day." That was November.

And now, somehow, we have begun a new New Zealand year. Today is the first day of our fourth year in this beautiful country, and I am in an empty house on a rainy-day-turned-sunny to celebrate it. I was shaken by an earthquake this morning. Naomi is off on her school camp. Our magnificent French WWOOFers have headed south. Aidan is at school, Michael at work. And I'm here in this study, beginning the last chapter of the book with no publisher. What a surprise it all is, all of it, every day.

pictures today, mostly taken by Nathalie and Quentin are:
Aidan kayaking on the beautiful weekend, Perry, Nathalie and Quentin (the fantastic French WWOOFers) with the sculpture they made for the garden, and the adult table at our "New Zanksgiving" meal.

14 November 2009

Hairy beginning

It is the end of my first week in the US. I have spent much of the week in the office buildings and hotels and streets of New York City, which is probably the best and worst the US has to offer.

I have eaten sublime meals with my partners, and walked past dozens of people sleeping in doorways on the way back to the hotel. I have watched a Broadway show where the whole cast got naked and walked out to find people dressed in evening gowns and tuxedos. I have asked friendly policemen for directions, and watched street vendors flee in terror from the officer with his knee in the back of one of their colleagues, his illegal (?) wares strewn about the sidewalk. I have rubbed shoulders with the powerful in elevators and felt my body pressed against the unwashed on the subway.

Perhaps the story to tell is about Hair, though.

I decided on Tuesday night, after eating dinner in the city and then taking a late train back to Carolyn’s in NJ, that I really wanted to see a Broadway show if I could. So after a day with Carolyn in Princeton, I headed back on NJ Transit and pushed and shoved and schlepped my way to the hotel (why oh why do I not take taxis when I travel??). It was 5.30 by the time I checked in, and I was despairing of seeing a show, but I asked the friendly fellow at the hotel. “Plenty of time!” he told me, glancing at the clock. I go to TKTS and get discount tickets at 7. Always lots of tickets. No need to wait in line!”

Renewed in my hopes, I dropped my bags in my tiny room and headed to Broadway. Ah, New York is all about the tyranny of choices! Thousands of places to eat, hundreds of t-shirt shops, chocolate stores on every corner. Which show would I watch?? The well-reviewed Hamlet caught my eye. Maybe South Pacific, since now I lived in the South Pacific. Avenue Q had interested me for years. But I asked the helpful fellows offering advice outside the TKTS booth. Ah, hard decision they told me, increasing the aching misery I was feeling. “How many shows can you see?” I can only see shows this night. Only one show, I told them, desperately. “Then you should see Hair because it’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.”

Now, I had seen the movie Hair years ago, and I had loved the album as a child and could sing every word (although I didn’t know what the words mean, thank God). And I had read a hysterical piece in the New Yorker about the author of Hair, back for the revival, wandering through Central Park looking for hippies. Plus it was 50% off. I got one orchestra ticket and wandered around Times Square for 90 minutes, gawking like the foreign tourist I now am.

I suppose five or ten years ago, I’d have felt awkward going to a play alone. The “Just you?” asked incredulously by every ticket seller or taker might have put me off. But I’m practically 40 now (in 6.5 months), and I have to say, I didn’t feel awkward for a second. What I felt was delighted. As the curtain fell open (because they had a big scarf for a curtain, and they dropped it to the ground rather than pulling a curtain up), I found myself beaming at the hippies on stage, wondering at the double time warp that connected me to the time of my parents’ youth (by the setting) and the time of my own (by my strong connection to the music as a child).

Hair is hardly a play at all, but a 60s concert with snatches of dialogue. The singing was sublime, the costumes appropriately rumply, the staging creative. I had waves of delight about being there and waves of deep sadness too.

The audience was filled with people my parents age, watching their youth (or the stereotyped memories of it) writhe around on the stage. I was struck by the timeliness of the anti-war theme (what the hell are we going to do about Afghanistan?) and the archaic relationship to sex and drugs (don’t these people know about AIDS?). I was moved to tears by the scathing racial undertones, the (added?) lines about how someday a Black man will be president.

At the same time, as the play went on something struck me as so primitive about their self-centred concerns. It is so quaint to be worried about an organized war on the other side of the world when terrorism and extreme hate now threaten people in random pockets everywhere. It is so quaint to be worried about your own life, your own love, in a world where deadly climate change threatens all life on earth as we know it. And yet the panic in their voices as they sang for their friend Claude, about to be killed in the war, is the essential and timeless connection of one human to another. The shallow, drugged out hippies became charged with real fear and then real sadness as the snow began to fall. They left the theatre, sadly singing “Let the sun shine in” and leaving us alone with the corpse on the stage, spotlighted in the gentle snow, their voices echoing from outside the theatre.

Then, the snow and mourning over, they raced back onto the stage again, gyrating to the music, urging the audience up on stage with them until the actors and the observers were blended, dancing and singing together on the stage and in the seats. All of the lines dissolved and you couldn’t tell anymore who was what, what was real, as audience members from 2009 danced with hippies from 1962 and took pictures of it all with their i-phones. The dead Claude, gleaming-streaming-flaxen-waxen hair now shorn, boogied happily with the rest, handing out daises to all and sundry. The dazed and drugged-out Berger interrupted to ask the audience for donations for AIDS and breast cancer, and the acid-dropping heavily pregnant woman passed a red bucket around and sold CDs for the cause.

Out into the evening, where it had never been snowing and where there had been no real hippies for decades, I passed well-coiffed middle aged couples humming “Sodomy,” and shuffling homeless people looking just as drugged out but far less amusing than the cast inside. This is New York, where it’s all an illusion and it’s all frighteningly real. This is our world right now, where we can be amused by the 60s, and long for them too, the lost youth of every generation, the lost past of our species. I power-walked to Madison and 52nd, the streets as frighteningly empty after the show as they were full before. Soon it’ll be the winter solstice in New York City. Let the sun shine in.

ps pics today are of Times Square, the New Year's ball, and a rather odd sculpture garden in the median strip of Park Avenue. Yep, a little bit of Kiwi in NYC, those are sheep sculptures...

09 November 2009

Jetting to Neutral

It is a quiet and grey morning. The house is still asleep: all eight of them—nine including Perry sleeping under the dining room table. The weekend’s perfect early summer weather has turned grey and brooding. It’s time for another trip around the world.

This past week has been so amazingly busy I have hardly been able to think straight. And before that, there was the planning and prep for last week. The conference (you can click here and read about it) was amazing. I am moved and amazed by how much I learnt, how deeply collaborative the space was, and how urgent our need to get education into a new place—now. The environmentalists I talked to are not kidding about the peril our world is in. I feel a renewed sense of an emotion that sometimes threatens to tip over into desperation. What kind of world are we leaving our children?

Then a Leadership Development Programme where we tried to help our programme participants think hard about systems and how to understand them and manage them and make powerful decisions inside them. We taught at Lake Okatina which must be one of the most beautiful spots in the world. I love that work at least as much as I've ever loved any work in my life.

And then the weekend. First the late Halloween party where we all dressed up and had American candy that Carolyn brought over. This was to mark the loss of actual Halloween which Caronlyn’s kids said goodbye to as they crossed the dateline on the way over. Then the Kapiti Coast Arts Trail where we wandered under cobalt blue skies through the village and into artists’ open workshops. I ran into people I knew from work, and the whole mob of us—my family and Carolyn and two of her kids and our lovely American WWOOFer—were dizzied by the magnificence of the place.

And now it is Monday morning, my 18th wedding anniversary. The conference is over. The Leadership Development Programme is over (until February). The Arts Trail is over. Carolyn’s visit is over. And another trip to the US is beginning for me, a packed-solid set of work and partner meeting and a new gig at the Kennedy School of Government (check this out: I'm the Growing Wisdom one). And I am melancholy like the weather.

It’s this whole split life thing of mine. I love the life I have here, and love the work I do. I find that my love for New Zealand gets more and more fierce all the time. But I also love the work I do across the world, love the opportunities I have there. And so my life here is punctuated by blank spaces where I disappear from here and pop up over there. My children complain. My husband gets sad. My work colleagues move on and make decisions without me. My chickens lay eggs I won’t eat, my garden grows, days pass that I’ll never get back. And I am changed by these trips in unanticipated ways.

So today I’ll walk on the beach in the rain. I’ll hold my children more tightly before they leave for school. I’ll try to figure out how to get from Philly to Boston next week. I’ll pack my hat and gloves—which I just stopped wearing here. I’ll turn to the issues I haven’t had time to face because I’ve been too busy (how will I organise my time? What will I do about the loss of my publisher now that the book is nearly done?). And I’ll know me in a different way next week and next week before a long trip back to summer and life on the beach.

Last week I taught about change and about the Neutral Zone, a powerful space of possibilities, but disorienting because you don’t know what’s next. Each of these trips across the Pacific is a movement into the Neutral Zone, the belly of the 777 neatly transporting me into the liminal space from which some unknown new will emerge. I’ll remember to fasten my seatbelt low and tightly around my hips and hope for as little turbulence as possible.

Pictures today are of Ryan in the garden, Michael's birthday and our silly Halloween party

01 November 2009

We've got them, Jim!

Once again, we have pieces of the Coughlin-Harris family--this time Carolyn, David, and Becky. The whole weather system was delighted to welcome them back and we had one of the most beautiful days possible. The boys even went swimming for the first time this season.

We'll keep them safe, Jim and Abby! We miss you and wish you two were here with the rest of the gang!

ps For those who are tracking, tomorrow is Michael's birthday. Emails appreciated!

25 October 2009


Last night, Michael and Aidan and I ate our first dinner of the season on our front deck (Naomi ate hers in bed—she’s had the stomach flu but she’s much much better now). In the slanting, late sunset, I ate a big salad with fresh eggs from my chickens, I watched the waves rolling in, and drank a fine New Zealand Sav Blanc. My life felt almost painfully unfair to me, as if my sitting there on my front deck was a hording of all manner of good things that now others couldn’t have because of my selfish life. Michael talked about how we had made many sacrifices to get here. Have we? What kind of sacrifices to we always make to get from here to there and how do we understand them in the moment? How do we understand them in the long run? And so I’ve been wondering about what it takes to get from where you are now to the next place.

Those of you who have been reading here long enough (or trolling back far enough), will see that my landing in New Zealand was not smooth or effortless. It is a hard thing to come around the world from a life you love to a new country, and it is a hard thing to build a new life, brick by brick. We made some terrible mistakes that first, impulsive year, mistakes which cost us in dollars and heartache. And then we bought this house, which I often thought of as my folly, and we poured everything into it. I was without a road map for the first time in a long long time, and I was lost.

Now, at the end of that part of the journey, we simply live here. We no longer struggle about where to live or how to live, but we just live. We work here. Aidan and Naomi race around the village on the weekends, checking in with us every couple of hours before disappearing with a pack of their friends into the park or down to someone’s house. We garden. The chickens make funny noises and lay eggs. Our house is constantly filled with people, our family, our friends, the lovely WWOOFERs who come and stay, the sometimes-mostly-unknown acquaintances who find themselves in our guest room, pondering the Tasman sea from their air bed.

I wonder how readers out there think about the sacrifices they’ve made to get to where they are, and how you even think about “sacrifice” on your way from here to there, or whether it’s all just called “life” and the choices we make. Today I’m watching perfect sky, brilliant waves, sparkling green hills. I’m inside, working hard on the billions of deadlines coming my way (you can check out a big part of my work at shiftingthinking.org). Is this a sacrifice? A joy? Or just one lucky woman, living life as hard as she can?

Pictures today are of last night, and of the “spring show” (these are mostly posted for John and Sheena who were as mystified about what that would be as I was. And also to John and Sheena—sorry about the beautiful sunset pictures 30 hours after your departure. Come back and next time there will be beautiful sunsets while you’re actually here!)

18 October 2009

Down the garden path

I am a city girl. For 6 years in Cambridge, my “garden” was a trio of windowboxes which grew in the deep shade. Struggling herbs, trailing lamium, colourful begonias and impatiens. For five more years in DC, my garden was a plot, steeply sloping toward the house, 20 feet by 40 feet. When we bought that house, there was a parking pad on a third of the lawn and a deck over the other two thirds. We ripped out the deck, jack-hammered up the pad, and had a postage stamp of grass under the enormous maple tree for the children and the puppy to play on. When we first came to New Zealand and lived on Ocean Road, my garden was a stunning mixture of tropical plants and perennials and succulents—but I never touched it. The combination of the foreignness of the plants and the root shock of my own transplant kept me looking at the garden but not engaging with it at all.

And then there is the garden here. Eighteen months ago, after we moved into this house, I went down to the wild and beautiful garden, and I wept. I would never, ever be able to handle the size and scope of this mysterious thing. I couldn’t even tell which of the overgrown green bits were weeds, which green bits were for keeping. Then Keith came over and when I asked about which plants I should plant where, he talked about changing the slope of the terraces. Changing the slope? I wasn’t even sure how to handle the slope I had. Changing the slope seemed impossible to me. I wept again. I would never ever figure this thing out and we were totally out of money to pay people to figure it out for us. My garden was destined to be a disaster, and I hated that.

I got my head around the first slope change and Michael and I spent days digging and wheelbarrowing and moving dirt, well, sand really. But the thing which had been slightly clear in my head became clearer, and I began to build up some levels and take out others. We have endlessly been moving dirt and sand, bringing in compost, building up some levels and taking off other levels. And bits of it take shape.

I have never understood why it was people loved to garden so much. My tiny spaces, which required almost no effort on my part, were just right. A large garden seemed time consuming and unpleasant, dirty and tiring. I figured a city girl like me wasn’t much meant for making gardens work. Except it turns out it is a joy to build new walls and move plants and cut down trees. Who knew this was for me? I’m an adult develomentalist. I do leadership development and organisational change. I’m used to slight shifts in sensemaking over long periods of time which I measure with careful and sensitive metrics because the shifts will be so small.

But in my garden three or four people can transform a path or move a tree or plant all the veggies in just a couple of hours. In an afternoon, I can build stone walls which change the way everything looks. I can move enough dirt to change the slope of a hill and then, if I don’t like it, I can move it back. Mistakes are fixable, seeds bear fruit, and when things die, you just go and get something else to put in its place.

In my regular work, I have worked for years to get competent, to think many steps ahead, to be able to picture what 200 people might find most interesting to talk about four hours into the conference. In my garden, I am blissfully, beautifully, delightedly incompetent. I can hardly think through the single step I’m on, much less the thing I might do next. I move piles of dirt from this place into another and then decide it was better where it was. I plant trees too close together and then have to dig them up and start again. I uproot the good flowers and tend the weeds. During the week, it is all about my brain and my words—can I think my way around this issue, communicate well about that plan, write carefully about this idea. On the weekend, it is my body and my eyes. Can I lift that piece of concrete over there to stack for a wall, can I feel the slope of the path under my fingers, can I get the plants far enough apart to be healthy, close enough together to be lovely.

Last weekend I woke up at 6am, butterflies in my stomach, thrilled about moving a hill and adding a path. I gardened until I was sore and filthy and could almost not move. On Monday I hobbled to work and left the garden alone. This weekend, I was at it again in the rain and the sun, the wind and the birdsong. Now the path curves down the way I like it, the tree ferns glow in dappled sun, and I feel like a sculptor of the land and the greens. I do not understand my love of this garden, and I feel delighted with my not understanding. I move my fingers along, half a step at a time, and feel my way into a greener future.

pictures today:
Michael hanging laundry about a year ago, pre-garden work; post deck/pre lawn; today, new path; Julie and Julia and their grand accomplishment--the major hydrangea removal; the path where the hydrangea used to be; the veggie patch as of today

16 October 2009

Another reason I love living in this village

From the "notices" section in the school newsletter today:
• Missing – a goose from Ames Street. Any sightings please call _________

While it has been raining steadily--and often with a passion--for what seems like forever, it's still hard not to be in love with this life....

30 September 2009


For all of you who might be worried about us here on the beach in New Zealand after the massive earthquake in Samoa, the quick news is that all of us are fine. There was excitement this morning as the tsunami alert went out, and we watched with some concern as coastal areas on both sides of the country were evacuated in anticipation of a possibly damaging wave. We made rules about staying close to the house and not walking on the beach until the warning was over. I was distracted enough to leave the oil out of the pumpkin muffins, creating extra snacks for the chickens, and Rob stayed out of the water even though J was surfing all morning.

The real anguish and misery, of course, is for our South Pacific neighbours in Samoa, where one hundred are feared dead and thousands will be displaced. In tiny countries, death and disorder on this scale will affect everyone, and our thoughts and wishes (and our donations) go out to everyone affected by this. This is another night to hug your children harder, tell people you love them, and know that each moment we live on this planet is a gift.

27 September 2009

The world’s a stage

This week has been all about performances. As always, I’ve been both living the life here, and also watching some of the differences between what life feels like in this little country at the bottom of the world, and what it might have felt like in the enormous country from which I’ve come.

First, the Paekakariki school performance. It was film festival week. In term 3 (the one that moves from winter into spring and lands us with a gasp now at spring break, here in this first day off of daylight savings time), all the kids make movies at school. They write scripts, film, do voice-overs. And at the end of it all, there’s a film festival where parents and kids crowd into the school hall to watch and admire. The parents are shoulder-to-shoulder in the room, sitting in folding chairs stacked on homemade risers, standing by the wall and in the hall way, busy behind the counter selling things at the make-shift concessions stand. They hold glasses of red wine and, as the evening wears on and the room heats up, the bodies like a furnace and the driving rain outside foreclosing on the idea of letting the winter back in, eat ice creams. The kids are squashed into a mass on the floor, children ranging from 5 or 6 (the tiny kids are mostly in parents’ laps) to the giants of the room, the 12 and 13 year olds. Of course I notice that when we arrived, my kids were in the middle and low end, Aidan remarkable for his white blonde hair in the front row with the youngest kids and Naomi lost in the belly of the middle. Now Aidan is a middle kid, and Naomi is one of the giants, the wispy, grown up creatures who look out of place huddled on the floor with the little kids. And at the same time, I love having those big ones and the little ones together on the floor, together in the school. I love the way Naomi knows the names of all the 5-year-olds who have started school this year, that the family trees of their classmates branch out in all directions on the floor and in the seats.

The videos themselves range from the adorable to the slightly offensive. I flash back to my teacher-days and remember the times student work got out in a form I didn’t feel good about. There are adorable movies made by the littlest kids, wandering around and filming important places in the village. I imagine kids in DC heading out by Metro to do such a movie: here’s the White House, the Capitol, the Lincoln Memorial, the Pentagon. This week it was 6-year-olds heading out on foot with their own colour commentary. Here’s Campbell Park (with the fun slide), the tennis courts (“But it’s locked and we don’t have a key, but look at that cute cat stretching in the sun!”), the Dairy (“It’s my favourite place in the village because it sells lollies and milk”). There were interviews with important community members, like the man who owns the Dairy and the woman who helps the kids plant seeds and trees at the school. There was a video of the whale who came a month or so ago, interspersed with on-the-scene-interviews with eye-witnesses (Q: What was your favourite part of seeing the whale? A: I liked it when all the kids yelled, “It’s a whale! It’s a whale” every time we saw the whale.”)

Then there’s was Aidan’s class’s video, lovingly produced by his teacher, the beautiful Miss Flighty who looks as though she’s stepped out of a Roald Dahl book. It was a complex piece of work, beginning with two children finding a time machine in an unused school closet, progressing through to their conversation with the principal (played by their principal) in which he entrusts them to care for his “lucky undies,” a pair of enormous tighty-whities with “I love unicorns” painted on them in the finest 8-year-old print. The undies are thrown into the time machine and students are enlisted to go and retrieve them. They head backwards in time to the cave people, wearing rags and swinging in the trees: no undies. They head forwards in time to a robot wedding, all the guests with metallic hair and silvery clothes: no undies. Then they stumble into WWII, where two English officers (one of them a blonde boy with a rather Americanised English accent) are having tea and noticing vaguely that they’re about the lose the war. Then—miracle—the undies fall on Hitler’s head, killing him. The English officers say “hurrah, hurrah,” very calmly and properly, and pour themselves another cup of tea. The undies are retrieved and end up over the head of the mean and nasty teacher (NOT played by the beautiful Miss Flighty). Forgive the plot synopsis for a movie written and performed by 8 and 9-year olds, but seriously, this thing would NEVER have happened in DC. The combination of the worldly nature of the settings, the willingness of a silly and supportive principal to be part of the fun, the clever cultural comedy written in by the children themselves—ah, it was a delightful and funny piece of film.

It was also performance week at Naomi’s ballet school, and for that we piled in the car and headed up the coast to the Southwards Car Museum, which has an auditorium in addition to the historic cars, and watched endless girls in endless sparkly costumes race around the stage, their hands held gracefully aloft. This too, was classically Kiwi. The tired museum made a fitting back drop: carpet nearly as antique as the cars, spaces quirky and somewhat grim (not worn enough to do-over, you might imagine someone saying, but the orange and browns anchoring the last decoration at right around the day of my birth). The dancers were what you’d expect in any common place dance recital—a mix of talent levels and body shapes—only more so, as befits this tiny country. Like the school, these dancers had a huge age range—probably 3 to 18—and so one act would be tiny girls in purple tutus wandering, bewildered, around the stage, and the next act would be teenagers in silver hot pants doing a pulsing, sexualised hip-hop song. It was both lovely and occasionally disconcerting (and, above all, it was long long long). The little girls in garish stage make up and buns plastered tightly on their heads reminded me of my time in ballet a thousand years ago, racing around backstage at the Kennedy Center as I waited for my bit parts in the Nutcracker. What a different life this is for my children! What a strange and foreign world theirs is—or mine was.

And after each performance, we come home to the sound of the sea roaring. We are blinded by the sun on affrontingly-green hills. We gather chicken eggs from our back yard each morning (now two a day!). Today we’ll say goodbye to our current Dutch WOOFer and welcome the newcomers—two friends, one German, one Danish, travelling together. Ally and Jane will come for dinner. This life has shades of what our DC life might have—film festivals and ballet recitals, spring break and sleepovers. But each of those elements—like the seasons themselves—are topsy turvy here. We have passed the equinox now, so that the sun is spending its time warming my part of the world rather than the northern part. And while most of me knows that the chilly September gives way to the warming October and often-swimmable November, there is still at least a part of me which believes I will wake up on one wintery December day, lying in my bed in DC and hearing the sirens in the distance—almost as rhythmic as waves—and I will roll over with that bleary sorrow I sometimes get on waking. “Hey Michael, I just had the wildest dream! I dreamt that we bought a house on the beach in New Zealand…”

04 September 2009

seal of delight

The seal pup was nearly as surprised to see us as we were to see her. Michael and I were walking Perry down the beach—we can do that again, now that the mornings are lighter with the lengthening of the day—and then suddenly Perry was barking, and there, racing for the sea, was a tiny seal pup. We yelled and yelled for Perry to come back, to leave this potential playmate alone, and he did, reluctantly heading back to us. The pup, now nearly in the sea, looked at us, eyes wide and alarmed. She stood up on her front and back flippers, lightly balancing, ready to race into the sea and away from us. She seemed so improbable, front flippers so big and unwieldy, back flippers oddly small, the whole body out of balance. I knew that she would be graceful and sleek in the water, but on land she was awkward and misshapen somehow, and undeniably not of my world.

Michael, running late for the train, took Perry home as I stayed and watched the seal on the empty beach. The dog gone, she ventured away from the water, slowly making her way up the narrow, high-tide beach. It felt to me like she was walking right up to me to check me out, and I had this odd burst of wanting to please her, wanting to do something that would make her feel welcome and happy here on the sand. She walked right up to me, and we stood and watched each other. Her fur was damp and matted, her ears looked like they were designed more for style than substance. And her eyes! Her eyes took up most of her head, huge dark orbs. They looked sad or curious or thoughtful or any of a thousand other emotions I might pretend to have seen. Filled with expression, mysterious, impenetrable with no discernable pupils. I was breathless as she started to walk again, nearly brushing against me as she made her way back up to the sea wall to rest her chin on the wall, and close her eyes. Every maternal instinct pulled me to pick her up, cradle her in my arms, dry her fur and feed her some tuna, and at the same time she was so wildly foreign. I remembered the slogan on the back of a DoC truck at the last workshop: “Seals need rest, not rescuing.” And I watched her closer her eyes and sigh against her wooden pillow.

I walked home and googled it to see what I should do, and learnt that I did just what I was supposed to do, that no one needed to be notified, that no intervention needed to be planned. Seals are wild creatures, beautiful, fascinating, the websites said, and this is weaning time when the pups are making it out on their own.

I came home to the first egg from my chickens, a day of writing in my garden, and phone calls with interesting people from around the world. Sometimes I almost feel like I’m living in paradise. And then there are the days when I’m sure of it.

03 September 2009

What i saw on my dog walk this morning

This morning, as Michael and I were walking the dog on the beach, we saw a funny movement. This is the fellow we saw, scooting down the beach after taking a snooze. Keith says that the seal pups are weaning and that they're alone and tired. These storms the past few days must be hard on them. I sat and watched this one a long time, as she decided not to go back in to the water afterwards, as she walked up the sand next to me, stopping three or four inches away from me and looking at me for a long time, and then heading to the edge of the beach where she could rest her head on the sea wall. I am the luckiest woman in the entire world.

Oh, and, this morning my chickens gave me my first egg. The world is springing with life and love and gifts abundantly. What a beautiful life.

(PS she looks sleepy in the pictures because she was falling asleep while we went and got the camera--and Aidan.)

21 August 2009

Spouting with joy

I know it has been rather bloggy lately with all these entries after something of a drought, but this needed to be talked about. Keith and I were in my little garden study this morning, growly with each other because we have at least four days of content we’re trying to fit into a three-day programme next week. Suddenly, a knock on the door: Rob, telling us that there was a whale in the sea. Now, Rob is notorious for saying, excitedly, “Look! Right now! Look! No whales again!” And you find yourself looking out the window, to see the no-whales. So I was doubtful. “A real whale?” I asked. “Swimming between us and Kapiti,” he told us. “Everyone’s lined up on the beach to watch.”

And so we rushed out of the writing room, not growly anymore. There, on a perfectly flat azure sea, was what looked for all the world like quite a big log. I admit that I wondered whether Rob was pulling our leg again. But no, there were dozens of people on the shore, watching the log excitedly. And then the log blew, plumes of sea water spraying into the air.

We stood there, the three of us with a wandering Perry, on my front porch in the dazzling warm sunlight, sharing the binoculars and the camera. Everyone was perfectly him or herself: Rob paged through a cooking magazine and glanced up to see a tail or head; Keith struggled to figure out what kind of whale it was, muttering under his breath (“yes, it’s a Southern Right Whale, look at its head. But no, do they have a dorsil fin? Too big to be an orca.”); I stood there feeling delighted, eyes glued to the whale, and tried to think of the words and pictures to tell you all about it here. Then, onto the sea, a surfer began to paddle; our friend John was heading out to the whale to get a close up view. And then the delighted laughter of children as the kids’ school rushed down onto the field next to our house. Now the whale had a sound track; whenever she blew or pushed head or fin or tail into the air, there were delighted sounds of children. People pulled their cars over and got out to watch, came out and stood on porches and roofs, stopped walking their dogs or jogging or talking with friends and all turned and faced the sea, eyes fixed on a mother and her baby slowly moving down the coast.

Very often, you read about tragedy bringing neighbours together. You hear about people striking up conversations after a terrorist attack, after an earthquake, after a fire. Here, though, the village stopped to watch something so beautiful and noble and, in some ways, so ordinary. From my perch on a hill over the village, I looked out over friends and neighbours and school children and felt a surge of connection with them all. “We are the luckiest people in the world!” I wanted to yell. “Do you know how lucky we are, to be here in the sunshine with each other? Do you know how lucky we are, to be living on the edge of the sea, on the edge of the world? Do you know how lucky we are, to be graced with the presence of a mammal so large, so beautiful, so much like us and so wildly different?”

I did not say those things. I stood and held myself tightly, worried just a little that in the sun and the sea and the whales and all the love around me, I might melt into the golden air and drift off over the water.

Click here for a little newspaper piece about the whales.

20 August 2009

The pleasures and trials of life at the bottom of the world

This morning, my second day back, I am vibrating with the tiny joys and sorrows of being here and not waking in the US summer this morning.
The sorrows:

That I cannot walk over and read aloud to my father, whose hurt eye was more hurt than we thought and who is now supposed to rest and heal for more than a month

That I have to schedule calls with my mother weeks in advance to be sure that we’ll get time together;

That I didn’t buy regular Cheerios and now the kids are Cheerio-free for another four months;

That I didn’t see all the folks I didn’t see—and that I won’t see them, either, not any time soon.

The joys:

The sounds of my chickens, the blooming of my new camellia, the shoots of spring bulbs;

Stepping back into my work life here with a workshop yesterday and hearing about the impact of the leadership development programme Keith and I are running and how it is rippling through the organisation in powerful and beautiful ways;

Waking in the middle of the night (just a little jetlagged) and finding that my room had turned into a planetarium and that my walls were made of stars;

Walking home from throwing the ball for the dog and surprising a flock of gold finches who rose into the sky, yellow breasts sparkling in the sun;

Seeing the South Island emerge from the morning mist slowly, slowly, until it was so hulking and solid that I could hardly believe it was ever missing at all;

The promise of dinner with Melissa on the weekend;

Holding hot tea in one hand and Naomi’s hand in the other as I walked the kids to school this morning, our conversation punctuated by the rhythm of the sea, the music of their laughter, the song of the tuis in the trees.

18 August 2009

Where we've been and where we're going

Quickly, from the koru club in the airport. I'm not sure why the US airlines can't manage clubs like this one. Zowie. and I'm looking out at a lovely dawn, over harbour to hills in the distance. Yesterday it was summer and we ate fresh berries with our cereal. Today it is winter, and while this is a lovely club, canned peaches were our only fruit.

Yesterday we took pictures of our past (this house pictured here, our first house, now on the market again in Augusta), our present (my dad and Jamie's house where we stayed this last week) and our future (?) the house we're going back to and the sign which greeted us upon our arrival in the Auckland airport. Naomi said, "They put up a sign to welcome us!" and so they did.

13 August 2009

Summer rain

The rain falls straight down from the sky here, in grey, pattering drops. We’re in the middle of a southern summer storm, after having the rolling thunder threaten for the last 18 hours or so. The sandy soil will pull in the rain, the red clay will bleed it off, and we will have some relief from the heavy hot air which has been pregnant with this possibility since we arrived in Augusta on Saturday night.

If it has been a long time since I’ve written here, it’s because my mind is so full the words won’t unfurl themselves from the others swirling around—and sometimes my mind is so empty there are no words to find. This trip home, to DC and then to Augusta, has been alternately fast and furious and slow and spacious. I have slept in many beds, seen many (but not enough) friends and family, and now am in the slow and gracious south (what Keith rejects as the south and calls the “upper-middle” believing that Kiwis know something about being in the real south).

In each of these places, we are not simply reconnecting with family and old friends, but we are finding bits of ourselves—real and imagined. Here in Augusta there are many people who were at our wedding 18 years ago, who have been in my life since I was Naomi’s age. Hearing our story come out of their mouths sounds absurd. When someone drawls slowly, “So are y’all still living in New Zealand?” I want to laugh at the absurdity of it. “Are y’all still living on Saturn?” would sound just as unlikely.

My father is discovering a new life. Whenever Jamie or Michael or I have that kind of sharp intake of breath that comes with an unexpected email or a forgotten to-do item, he smiles serenely. “That feeling you’re having right now, with the tight belly?” he says, “I don’t have that anymore.” On this, his official twelfth day of retirement, he is loving his new spaciousness and thinking only vaguely of the future.

I am discovering, uncovering, imagining a new life too, although mine comes with a tension in the belly. I hear stories of vague acquaintances from long ago and hear their stories tangentially. My friend from high school is moving to Central America for a year to give her kids an international experience. Someone has cancer. There are divorces, adopted children, little kids who are suddenly teenagers and driving. If you stay in a place for a long time, it weaves through you and becomes a part of who you are—and you become a part of who it is. Dad, who has lived in this house for almost 30 years now, is so woven into the fabric of this place that we can’t drive out of the grocery store parking lot without hearing, “Congratulations!” or “We’ll miss you so much, Dr. Garvey!” People look at me earnestly when he’s out of earshot and say in hushed tones, “Well, I probably don’t need to tell you how deeply sad we are that your dad is going. This place won’t be the same without him.” And it won’t, couldn’t be.

So the tightness in my belly comes from having an exciting and beautiful life that I love and wondering about what we’ve lost by not staying in our house on McDowell Street, two blocks from here, and having babies and teaching at Davidson for the last 20 years. The tightness comes from wondering about whether I’ve been woven enough into the fabric of anything or whether I’m a patchwork, leaving behind patchy memories in a mostly-unbroken pattern of life before and after me.

And none of this is the tight belly of real regret. I have a life so good that it makes me want to weep, and a kaleidoscope of experiences and delights which I couldn’t possibly regret. I know, though, watching these old friends now, a little greyer, a little heavier, watching my vibrant and wonderful father pack his office, pull his awards down from his wall, and give away his books—this life is all we’ve got. This one time is time enough only to stay planted for a life time OR to wander around and end up in paradise. There is time only to live a lifetime in Georgia, a lifetime in Maryland OR a lifetime finding your joy at the end of an airplane ride. I admire the choices my father has made and the choices I have made. But I cannot make them all.

And so this week I celebrate my Dad and his stability, his deep, woven contribution to the community and the college. And at the end of that celebration, I’ll get on a plane and soar home to my house on the sea in another season, another hemisphere, another south. I can feel good about my choices and regret them at the same time, just as I feel good about this rain and wish we could be out picking peaches. Life is overflowing with beauty and joy and sadness. The one moment we can be sure about is this one, the murmuring of my kids in the next room, the sound of my father’s clock ticking, the sound of rain on the roof. All of our choices arise and fall away, sinking into the sandy soil or running off the red clay, leaving rivers like blood over time.

11 August 2009

back in the USA

We're more than a week in to our US trip. The Maryland time was a whirlwind--staying with Michael's sister and her family, then to my mother's place and time with her (and a slick new haircut for Naomi). There was a fast trip for me to NYC to do a piece of work I really liked with people I really liked, and then an airplane down to Georgia to spend time with my father and stepmom.

We have been surrounded by people we love and we have missed we have seen cousins growing up--and even seen animals at the zoo who are growing up. We are connecting with the lives we used to have--driving through our old neighbourhood in DC, past our old house in Georgia, re-living old lives, re-hugging old friends, re-telling stories of our life in New Zealand.

All of this both brings back memories of what we used to have--and also brings up memories of imagined futures we never had. Once I thought I'd spend my life in Augusta; once I thought I'd spend my life in DC. Now I'm not sure where I'll spend my life, but neither DC nor Augusta seem to be all that likely. And so we give long hugs, listen urgently, try to soak in as much of this life as we can. We soak in and in and in, basking in the hot summer sun here, so that we can be full of these people and these places in our lovely, wintery home.

12 July 2009

Seal of approval

We spent the weekend over the Rimutaka range in the Wairapa, and visited the southern-most tip of the North Island, where there is a huge seal colony. We sang happy birthday to Aidan over a chocolate croissant at a French bakery this morning, and jiggled over a swing bridge in the pouring rain this afternoon. Delight beyond measure.