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.)