07 February 2014


Not citizens yet...
I once upon a time had the urge to turn the first years of this blog (the kiwibergers years) into a book about the search for home and what that meant to me. Coming to a new country, uprooting our lives, re-piecing our identity as we gutted and rebuilt a house by the sea. It looked like a lovely book to me.  Alas, as with my fiction, the universe (here in the guise of literary agents) thought it didn’t look like a lovely book to it. But the notion of home—what it means, how to find it, where it exists (inside? Outside?) has been a really strong question for me.
These days I’m obviously blogging about something quite different. Here the questions are more about life and death than the search for home, though perhaps at their root they are the same basic quest: who am I and where do I belong? And here, in the messy middle (or really the terrifying beginning still) of the cancer story, the home question from the first part of the blog has come to what might be a satisfying close.
new citizens with the Governor General and his wife
Yesterday was Waitangi day here in New Zealand, our national day. (Note here that I say “our national day” which is materially different than the way I used to think about it.) It is the celebration of a treaty that was meant to unite a variety of Maori iwi (tribes) and the English state. It is the foundational document of this nation, and, like many foundational documents, has been argued over and betrayed and held up as a promise. I love the document for the promise it holds—that the English recognise that the Maori are the first people and that they have the rights to their land and culture and language and resources and that the English want to share and thus will deal fairly with the Maori and protect them and give them all the benefits of English citizenship. It is actually an amazing document. There have been disagreements about it from the time the ink was dry, and the colonisers have done what colonisers do and it has been abused like mad. But in the last decades, those abuses have been understood and justice has been slowly, slowly unfolding. It is a document that still underscores a promise: we will be fair with each other and we will be one people in this beautiful land. I am very moved by this promise and by the human and awkward and only somewhat-successful attempt to live into it.
On this Waitangi day, in a small ceremony at the house of the Governor General, my family became citizens of New Zealand. We have chosen this country for so many reasons, but one of the things I notice about it now—and maybe notice more today than yesterday—is that it feels like home to me.
The idea of home has gotten way more complex for me in the last years. There are so many ways I will always be foreign here, even with a passport with a silver fern on it. It’s still on the streets of Cambridge that I feel most familiar, like that place is part of me and I’m part of it. It’s in DC that I have my biggest packet of memories. It’s in the US generally where the accents sound like mine, the scents are familiar, and the history and geography are second nature. The seasons, too, happen at the right time of the year, and the weather is always continental. All that is a part of home, but there is something beyond familiarity has brought me to think of New Zealand as home.
From the Waka at Waitangi in January
There is a kind of admiration that comes from being an immigrant, maybe.  I’ve seen it always in the US immigrants. Now I feel it in my own belly. I picked this place and by God I will love it here.
There is the physical beauty of the place. I am more in nature here than I have ever been. Last night I looked at the moon and made a quick calculation about what it will look like when I next head out of town. I often go away from home and think, I’ll be back when the moon is just past full. I know I’ll watch it wax and wane as I count down the days until the end of chemo. I would never have judged time by the moon in the US. Ever.
 There is the culture. My eyes fill with tears when a meeting opens with a Maori blessing. My heart actually beats faster when I see the carvings of a Marae. Perhaps there is some deep craving I have to feel the modern world and the ancient world more fully joined. Here the violent divorce that happened in most places between the indigenous and the colonising has, for many reasons, created a better prognosis for the healthy relations of the children than in any other country I know. Perhaps it makes good sense that here in the first nation to give women the vote, fairness is a more universal value.
I am a citizen of the US. It is the place of my birth, my first 35 years. I went to school there, met my husband there, had my kids there. It is the place where a part of my heart will always live because my family and many of my best friends live there. It is the place that crafted who I am. It is a beautiful country, troubled in many ways, working always to find a better tomorrow. It is the country my grandparents and great grandparents picked as they moved from Ireland to craft a better life for themselves and their children.
Me after Aidan dodged out of the camera
I am now a citizen of New Zealand. It is my home, the place where my children have grown up. It is where I feel most at peace. It is the place I recrafted myself once and am recrafting myself again. It is the place in the world about which I am most patriotic. When we win a medal (any colour at all) in the Olympics, I cry. When we lost the America’s cup this year, I was gutted. When I see reference to my tiny country in a movie or book or the NY Times, I get excited. It is the flush of new love, perhaps, but it seems an enduring new love.
I have long wondered whether I was the granddaughter of Irish immigrants or the grandmother of New Zealand immigrants. Somehow as of yesterday, I get more fully that I am both. And I get more fully that we come from a home; it lives inside us and shapes who we are no matter how far we move from it. And we choose a home. We change as we let the new place weave into us, as we notice what new possibilities emerge in a new world.
All of this is made more poignant by the cancer. Michael and I took a deep breath before getting out of the car—we did not expect to become citizens while dealing with my mortality.  I note that most of the pictures show me from the left—my in-construction side (you won’t notice, but I sure do). I note that when the Governor General talks about planting trees here, I wonder how long I’ll be around to see them grow. We went out for dinner afterward at a place we had been to in December and I looked in the mirror and thought about how inconceivably different I am now, eight weeks later.
Life is a series of choices that we make, and a series of things that happen to us. It was beautiful, in this season where the focus is more on what happens to us, to be living into the choices we are making.  The Governor General yesterday, in his address to the thousands gathered on his lawn to celebrate the day of the treaty, concluded by saying:

The speech, far in the distance
Earlier today, we hosted a citizenship ceremony in which 17 new New Zealanders took the oath or affirmation of allegiance….This is the fourth time we have hosted a citizenship ceremony at Government House, and each time I have been impressed by the diversity of cultures, ethnicities, ages, knowledge and experiences they bring to our wonderful country.

While all new citizens swear the oath or affirmation individually, some were joined by other members of their family; husbands, wives, partners and children who also became citizens at the same time.    This, in my view, is in the spirit of those who signed the Treaty of Waitangi and everyone who has settled before and since that time.

Whether you or your ancestors came to New Zealand by waka a thousand years ago, by a sailing ship 200 years ago, by steamer 100 years ago, or by aeroplane 10 years ago, they came seeking a land of opportunity where they and their families could live in peace.

As the last habitable place on the planet to be discovered by humanity, New Zealand is a land of immigrants.  As New Zealand historian, the late Dr Michael King, once said: “In a country inhabited for a mere one thousand years, everybody is an immigrant or a descendent of an immigrant.”
And on that note, as we celebrate Waitangi Day—our national day—we celebrate all of the things that are right with our country, and welcome into the fold our newest New Zealand citizens.  Also, we recall the contribution of all those New Zealanders, who have made our country good and great.  Kia ora, kia kaha, kia manawanui, huihui tātou katoa.

I am moved by those immigrants who came here 1000 years ago in double hulled waka. I am moved by my grandmother who came on a ship to the US as a kid. I moved by those who are forced out of their countries by war or poverty. And I am moved by all of us who quest for where we belong, where we want to raise our children, where we want to plant trees that might outlive us. On the stillness of this grey February summers day, I am grateful to be home.

You can read the rest of the Governor General's speech (and learn more about Waitangi day) here.
 You can see two different articles about the citizenship ceremony here:

And if you watch carefully, you can see a glimpse of me on TV here:

1 comment:

Marcie New said...

Jennifer, You don't know me - but I have heard of you from my dear friend, Barbara Sanderson. She emailed me with great empathy for what you're going through. Eight years ago, I was diagnosed with Inflammatory Breast Cancer, a rather dire diagnosis. I found the tangerine sized lump the day we buried my 32 year old son. I was convinced that it couldn't possibly be cancer because we had just buried Joshua that day. Josh was born multiply handicapped - his birth was an agent of transformation in my life. His death was as well. That phase of my transformation came in the form of cancer. I went through the experience of chemotherapy, mastectomy and radiation therapy, and one year of hormone blocking therapy, complemented with acupuncture, herbs, specific nutritional supports, diet, homeopathy, and spiritual healing. It all worked so beautifully. As an alternative healing kind of gal, my major challenge was to change my mind about chemotherapy and find a way to receive it as a healing ally rather than a noxious poison. I took that on with some rigor - and after the second chemotherapy session, the tangerine sized tumor was gone. I know that at a time like this, many people come forward with suggestions - and I don't want to burden you with more information than you're wishing to receive. This is such a personal journey - no two are the same - as individual as fingerprints. However, any friend of Barbara's has my ear - any woman facing breast cancer tugs at my heartstrings. If I can offer moral support, or share what inspired and healed me, it would be a sacred honor. Wishing you many blessings along the path, Marcie New - marcienew@gmail.com