About Me

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California, New Zealand. Two passports, two homelands. And detours.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Summer so far..

Six weeks ago - which was beginning of summer for me - was Boxing Day. I was up with the sun and a box of birds, keys jangling in my hand, down on Oreti Beach before 7 am.

That morning, the beach was magic. The waves ran through my ankles; the sea to my left; sand, warm and firm under my feet, Fiordland just there in a haze, a swinging door of wild weather, closing and opening to a new year, new adventure. I dove into the water for my first swim of the summer. It was like washing off 2011. Christmas: good riddance.

It didn't even really matter that I had drawn the short straw for work shifts and that an hour later I was straightening my skirt, brushing sand off my shoulders and putting my salty hair up with a bank pen as I ran up the stairs to work to expose the injustices of the world (then settling for writing about Boxing Day sales) .

And can you hear the freedom in my voice?

Besides the sudden appearance of summer, it was my second day of being cut loose from a five-day special series that ran in the newspaper, called Home For the Holidays. Under the heading there were a few sentences about Southland Times reporters doing a series on people flying home to Invercargill the week leading up to Christmas, and how we were there to capture all that joy.

That week, if you came in on any 1.40 pm flight from Christchurch you would have seen me - or at least felt the darkness coming from my corner of the terminal - in a long black jacket, dark sunglasses, black tights and boots, sitting icily in the waiting area, looking like I might be the point person for a assasination. But no, actually, I was there to find happy people reuniting with the ones they love. (To interview them, not to kill them).

In winter, the holidays are easy and effortless for me. And if it is Christmas in the winter, it means I'm in California, staying with my parents, usually in between jobs and usually comfortably hopeful in my natural state of transience. Its painting by numbers. There are traditions to fall in line with. There are the cards and letters from around the world my mom has out on the table at breakfast every morning after Thanksgiving; there is the standing with my dad and brother at Christmas in Los Olivos, when all the shops stay open late, to serve roasted walnuts like my mom and dad have done, with or without us kids, every second Saturday in December in my hometown for 30 years.

There is the early twilight across the street over the alfalfa field. The calls on the message machine from old friends back in town who want to walk up to Mattei’s for coffee and mud pie then come back and sit in the jacuzzi under the walnut trees, our toes above the steam, with a glass of wine and talk about life and where we are in it, and are we living up to the expectations we set for ourselves at age 8 (I am not a cowgirl and I am not married to one of the brothers from Bonanza, so F for failure from 8-year-old self).

In New Zealand, the season is different. It is summer and this is the bottom of the world so there are these long days of light that I will crave in seven months when it's just bed to car to office and back to bed in darkness.

But along with all the light there is also this wide open space of time, Christmas eve to December 26, then to New Years, full of absences in my life I maybe don't feel as much in May or September.

That was six weeks ago.

The light that was lasting until 11 pm on the beach is gone by 9:30 now. I don't feel so much that resentment when there were hugs and tears and packages in the airport terminal last month that weren't for me. I am back to missing specific people when I need to miss them and when it is right to miss them.

On Boxing Day, after I walked around in the heat and interviewed flustered salespeople and sullen shoppers, I got to go back down to Oreti Beach for a story on the lifeguards down there. I had finished, and was walking back to the car, trailing behind the photographer, when I saw an elderly man in the driver's seat of a parked truck on the beach, facing out to sea.

He had his head down and he was reading. In a frame on the dashboard, on the passenger side, facing the ocean, was a picture of a woman. I only glanced at the picture as I walked past, but in that glance I knew it was that picture that captures everything about her that he loved. And that sitting on a beach in the car, reading, was something they used to do together.

So I write about absences and missing people I love, and being jealous of people who have all that obviousnes right there with them at the correct times of the year. And then I remember how rare that is, and there are years you have that warmth and years that you just remember it being there. And that I think I know so much about loss but I don't really, yet.

It is February now. I know the light in the sky is lessening, but it is still a light to do things under. More weekends to new places with new friends that I need to remember to stay open to; we have more roads to discover before the light fades.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Garden Party

Today is my father's birthday; I'm dedicating a song to him.

It's a song that was in my head last month, driving, then flying, then driving again, back from a wedding in a vineyard that I went by myself to, knowing only the bride. I had about six hours of travel time the day after to look out windows, forehead on glass, and think about how great it would be to have him turn this song up on the radio and sing it to me right about now.

The wedding was beautiful. The bride was beautiful. At the reception, the sun was coming down into the courtyard through the trees, and there was a fountain; it reminded me of being back home, I had these great new shoes that made me feel tall, yet still me, and everyone was wearing groovy frocks and and sunglasses and it felt like winter had been beaten back ; and at some point I was talking with someone, while holding a glass of champagne and a tartlet, when I was told I was strange.

The moment was surreal. There was the assessment of who had overheard this conversation and who, exactly, was doing the judging - because what kind of guy says that to a girl, who is clearly very much minus a plus one, at a wedding, because no matter what the context, all you hear is you don't belong here with us. I froze and tried not to let the warmth I could feel rising up in me get to my eyes, where it would show how that adjective killed my spirit a little, as someone who has a long history with public events that begin with feeling quite extraordinary and end with the realisation I'm a cautionary tale for some, or many, depending on the crowd.

For these illusions of being destined for greatness, I totally blame my dad.

Because for every parade, stage performance, and pony club show that I've arrived at like a conquistador, Dad has been my trusty sidekick, either in the background or taking the photograph as I stride off to be the heroine of whatever story I had created for myself that morning.

When I was eight Dad took of me at a Western show class I entered with my pony, Mishka near my hometown. Small, hairy $75 Shetland ponies don't belong next to glistening, sleek, $20,000 Quarter horses, but if I was oblivious to this, Dad chose to be too. So he borrowed a Los Olivos Olive Company van and we coaxed Mishka into the back of it and hauled her off to the show, pulling in beside six-horse trailers in a field next to the showring and unloaded her. I remember looking around and thinking yeah okay, so maybe we wouldn't get the blue ribbon, but I was pretty confident of a second or third place.

One thing dad insisted on always, no matter what I was up to: ''safety first''.

So the picture I have of Mishka and I is us in a lineup of horses and riders that are clearly bred to win. Shiny saddles, sparkling belt buckles, spurs and cowboy hats. In the middle is me on Mishka, coming up to the shoulder of the horses on either side of me, wearing a polo shirt, regular backyard jeans, a bandana tied around my neck and a big white astronaut crash helmet.

I remember at some point looking around and squinting up at the other riders, the astronaut helmet slipping down over my eyes, and then down at myself and Mishka and thinking we look kind of different.

There is a photo I have been trying to embed into this post all afternoon. I've scanned it wrong, so you will have to rely on word visuals here. The photo is of me and dad in a Day in the Country parade. This is age 7; about a year before Mishka. To tie me over in my horse craze, Dad had built me one in the back yard, then put wagon wheels and a halter on it. I named it Blaze. I dressed up in cowboy boots and a bonnet and Dad wheeled me down Grand Ave, waving. The great part about the photo which hangs by my bed, to remind me of my roots, is my expression. You can see the defensiveness building in my eyes as its dawning on me that I'm not on a real horse and that I'm not a real cowgirl. I'm starting to get that sullen look of a girl who's fantasy that she is the most beautiful girl in the world is starting to deflate. Dad, the wind beneath my wings, is looking 100 percent supportive as he pushes me along telling me to keep waving.

Story of my life, right there.

So today on my Dad's birthday I'm playing back a song that was always on when we did our Saturday chore drives together, the drives to get alfalfa bales for Mishka where I'd stare hard at the rearview mirror to decide if I liked my face. This song would come on and I'd snap out of it and look over at Dad and be like hey it's our song.

And it still is.

Even more so when you're standing in a courtyard with tartlets and Champagne, defending the way you live your life, which I'm still trying hard to be a good heroine of.

It's it's is a pretty good legacy to leave to a daughter, Dad.

You know why?

(Everybody, altogether)

Cause it's all right now
I learned my lesson well
You can't please everyone
So you got to please yourself

For me, Ricky's lip-synching adds to the overall authenticity of his message.

(On an endnote: I sort of threw this guy to the dogs at the beginning of the story with the comment about me being strange. He said he remembered that I had lived, happily, by choice, on my own in Clinton, South Otago, three years ago. Now I live in Invercargill. And he saved himself by saying strange like it was maybe a good survival skill to have handy if i was going to keep moving to wintry, towns at the bottom of the world that are interesting to me. Tonight I chased an astronomer down Oreti beach in 115 km winds - my bank card, pens, office key, two parking tickets flying out of my pockets, to be lost in the waves - for a picture of him watching his 54th solar eclipse. These are the places I like to make my home. Maybe that is odd. But this is me)

And the rest of the wedding reception was awesome. I danced all night with total strangers.

Us strange girls do that.

Happy Birthday Dad. Wish I was going with you guys to the Apple Farm, then Costco, then to the Christmas tree farm...miss you guys so...

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Operation Happiness: 9 things getting me through the winter


Not my finest season.

Happiness may only be a dog sunning itself on a rock. But I want it. And usually, and thankfully - very, very thankfully - nothing stands between me and unearned joy, peace, tenderness for the world, etc in spring, summer and autumn.

But winter. Winter, I'm a drooping flower. Anxious about everything. Restless, lonely, sun-starved. Overly navel-gazey, competitive. Sullen...

Augmenting the usual S.A.D. sack blast is a 360 life change for me in the last six weeks. Its a very wanted and positive change, but its a move from sun and wildernesses to a cold, light-less city and a job where I'm writing again, but it also requires me to act smarter then I am, and be a pain in the ass.

This is draining for a people-pleaser.

I spend a lot of time on the phone at a desk that is saturated in yellow post-it notes, on the fourth story of a grey building, which looks out to a clock on another grey building, and a grey sky above all of this, trying to compose hard-hitting questions on subjects I've had about 53 seconds to make myself all-knowing on (it's not always like that but on some days it feels that way).

This time last year, for a reference point, I was coming back from a cycling trip around Prince Edward Island with Angie Kelly, the wind and rain on our faces, sand in toes, blueberries and cheese for dinner, feeling lovely and alive and grateful...

Winter...ai, ai, ai....

My happy list so far: stormy walks on Oreti beach, weekend trips getting OUT of the city, Jo Seagar cooking school's apple cake, baked in the morning, so the whole house smells like cinnamon; late afternoon sunlight on the floor, my french press; waking up buried under duvets to see birthday flowers and sunglasses for when I need them, and I will, there will be light again; and Fleurs Place, my favourite restaurant in the world at Moeraki. Its like an old lighthouse with stained glass windows and fish that's come right off the boats and everything comes on these old plates, like something out of your nana's cupboard. As for the eharmony video: my flatmate downloaded for me after he came home one night to find me on the lawn, headlamp on, trying to coax a stray cat into our gargage with a chicken drumstick. I keep it as a cautionary tale.

And when all else fails to raise the spirits...

Bad boys in suits. It's my guilty pleasure winter thing.

So fun to watch them misbehave (from a distance)

Don Draper's best quote from clie on Vimeo.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

This one night? In Malaga?

Three weeks ago, I was emptying out my hiking pack on a lawn, in front of a hotel room in Manapouri, and I found something I thought I had lost.

It was dark and my pack smelled of garbage juice that had dripped down to the bottom. I ripped my sleeping bag out and spread it on a patio chair outside the sliding door and gave the pack a shake. Plastic mugs with dried coffee grounds stuck at the bottom, a headlamp, a soggy diary and a few other things I couldn't identify hit the ground then fell away into the dark.

I've been back in New Zealand a month now. When I shower I'll still look at my belly and see the sunburn I got that last week on the deck in Santa Ynez - the week that was so hot you just wanted to walk around in a t-shirt and flip flops, and sip gin and tonic with limes in a fold-out chair forever - I'd watch it fade a little bit, night after night.

In the morning I zip up a dirty red down jacket with a piece of duck tape over a rip on the right sleeve. It's dark by 5. What I do see in the landscape is as piercing as ever to me - a wintry overlay on the late summer/early autumn I left behind in April. But since I'd been back here, if I see any magazine covers at grocery store markets with any beach or sun or girls in sunglasses, I turn away and look at something else.

That night inManapouri I felt around on the ground, in the grass and my hands wandered around picking up pens and coins and a few gross, damp, garbage juiced wads of something, and then my fingers roamed across it, and I just sat back on my haunches for a second and thought of course I'd find this tonight. And I even wondered if I should just throw it quickly back in my pack.

But I did pick it up, and I wondered how it had gotten so lost, and I flicked it open, just like I did that one night at a cafe, in Malaga, on the beach, wearing my gold sandals, lip gloss and a silvery summer dress with little pieces of copper embedded in the neckline.

I remember taste of the sweet wine my cousin loved, and thinking how beautiful she looked with her fiance beside her. The warm night air, the bread baskets, the bacarones, more sweet wine that led to morning and me in a churreria, chin on hands, watching the slow delicious drip of espresso filling a tiny glass with gold through red blurry eyes.

There were the days leading up to the wedding - the arrival of guests from around the world, sitting in hotel lobbies with the sea just there, and a drink just here, expressing myself with lots of big hand gestures like I was still speaking another language. Washing out the same dress in the sink of the apartment above the streets and the ocean every night with pomegranite and tangerine shampoo and drying it on the balcony so I could wear it the next morning to sit in hotel lobbies again.

Then those go-to-hell black velvety heels that nearly split my feet as I tried to stride over coblestones to the church on that last evening, then gave up and just ran barefoot up the steps, then slipped them back on in the pews to look tall. And how hours later, my cousin's new sister-in-law danced flamenco in heels twice as high as mine and then my cousin pulled her long white dress over one arm and the two of them dragged everyone out onto the floor and the music changed and suddenly we were all doing the electric slide to Friends in Low Places.

And getting off a bus hours later: my aunt, mother of the bride, still stunning as she took my uncle's arm as the sky over the streetlamps exploded in streaks of pink as he took off his cowboy hat. My other cousin held the bouquet; her boyfriend loosened his bright pink bowtie and I walked in front of all of them down the street, walking backwards, looking at them and thinking this was just like Christmas dinner when we were kids, except better and in Spain, and I was carrying my heels in one hand and a fluttering red fan in the other hand...

I flicked the fan shut.

In Manapouri it was beautiful, starry winter night - you look at the sky here and you just think lonesome. I dropped the fan in the pack and drew it closed; put my gloves back on and pulled my hat down almost to my eyes. I headed towards the pub to check the weather report on the news even though I knew it was going to be gloomy.

But that fan. It was like a love letter you keep finding and stashing away somewhere weird to surprise yourself when you're lonely.
There is no comfort for the cold and endless darkness here now except hot water bottles.

But there was this one time? In Malaga?...

A traveller's blessing: From a bleak, cold place, I wish everyone a hot-blooded, wild red Spanish fan falling out of your garbage-juiced, half-frozen hiking pack this winter.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Chocolate milk. Buttermilk donuts. R Country Store

Every time I come back to my hometown I bring a list.

I'm a geek, lists relax me, so when I come back to Los Olivos, California there is a scrap of paper I've written on feverishly while sitting in an airport terminal.

Next to each bullet points are direct orders to myself about favourite roads to run on at dusk, pieces of outdoor furniture I plan to sit all day in with Lompoc tortilla chips and Cowboy Caviar from El Rancho; there are Midland School fencelines with No Tresspassing signs I need to squirrel through, highways up the coast that Cristi Silva and I will be driving in her husband's pickup truck, and MP3 playlists for jumping on the trampoline at night in my parents' backyard under walnut trees.

The list is amended and re-prioritized every few years; new strategies are sometimes called for (i.e. Fess Parker's Wine Country Inn & Spa has put a door-sized board across it's gated pool entrance. Lame. But not impossible.) and as Los Olivos has grown wealthier and lost some its grime and soul, there are now winecountry restaurants to spend a whole paycheck at and vineyards to explore and sometimes I'll read or hear about these places and add them in.

But there one item on the hometown list that is always at the top, unmoved, and marked in stars.

Chocolate milk. Buttermilk donuts. R Country Store.

I used to love running errands with Dad on Saturday mornings. It was my first experience of having 'time to yourself' with someone else and it was where I got my love of jumping into a car and driving away with the radio on. Morning errands were an escape, a reward for completed yardwork (if you rake enough leaves, they fill up the back of a truck, and then that truck has to be taken to the landfill). Easy logic. The quicker you get it done, the quicker you can hit the road, roll down the windows, pass a Capri Sun juice back and forth and tune into the Padres game.

Some Saturday mornings we'd cross the highway and drive down Foxen Canyon Road, past the dusty corrals and oak trees on the hillsides, the mist rising off them as the heat of the day began to burn through; past the cattle on the bare, brown hills and up the winding road to the landfill entrance.

Some years it was weekend softball games and I would ride shotgun with the glove in my lap down Refugio Road to Santa Ynez, then be really scared to get out of the car and be a team player. I wanted to stay in the car with Dad and his John Fogerty cassette tapes.

When I had horses we'd take the blue tarp in the backyard by the walnuts, and cover the floor of the minivan and drive down to the end of Baseline and pick up bales of alfalfa then take the long road back to Los Olivos. I remember rolling down the window and resting my chin on my arms, pushing the flyaway hair from my ponytail out of my nose and eyes and looking hard at the rearview mirror, trying to figure out if I liked my face.

Then I got older and got a license and inherited a car and pretty soon I had my own errands to run, and places of my own I would drive to listening to my favourite mixed tapes.

At some point in my early years as an errand sidekick, Dad and I would stop at R Country Store on a corner of Grand Ave. He'd grab a chocolate milk and the weekend paper and I'd get a buttermilk donut.

Dad would hold open the door and I'd walk under his arm and there was a great feeling of a Saturday morning just beginning, with the Lone Ranger on at noon on channel 32 and then my horse to ride all afternoon and then maybe a sleepover at Jenny Anderson's (Jenny had the best sleepovers) and Xanadu to watch and a lot of interpretive dancing on rollerskates in her driveway until it got dark and her mom called us in.

Whenever I come back, Dad is always ready to take a car out and get his chocolate milk and the Saturday paper. And in all of my wanderings I have just never found a better place to get a buttermilk donut. We'll drive up in his Austin Mini Cooper and get the mail. You can't really talk because the engine is so loud. So he and I will just shake our head and mouth 'tourists' when we can't get a park in town.

We'll pull in at R Country and the tri tip will be smoking on the grill outside and all the neighbors will be sitting outside in plastic chairs with coffee in to go cups and Jim with his baseball hat pulled low will always say 'well I always know your daughter's home when I hear the trampoline at night'. And I'll head for the donuts and dad, the chocolate milk and we'll meet at the counter with the weekend paper and fight over who's paying.

Driving with my father somewhere really normal and familiar is one of my favourite things about coming home. I feel young and taken care of and loved for who I am no matter what I do because I'm his kid.

And when Dad opens the door of R Country and I duck under his arm with my buttermilk donut I feel like life is one long Saturday morning that's just beginning.

I will miss these small, simple drives down the road, for nothing in particular, more than anything.

Love you so much Dad. Happy Father's Day.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Camino de Santiago: Goodnight for Life

Three Friday nights ago I was rolling out a bedroll by the glow of a Coke vending machine and planning out how I could crawl into my sleeping bag, put on my freshly charged MP3 player and read more of the James Patterson novel I had found that morning in a public restroom, without having to get into some big, profound conversation about life and the universe with the guy who had already claimed the spot under the lights of a Fanta bottle.

If sleeping in the vending machine shelter sounds strange, that´s because it was. This wasn't a place I would usually wander around looking for somewhere to stay the night, especially on my own, in this open, square, doorless shack somewhere outside of Sarria, in a cluster of houses and barns, one Alburgue and no bar. As an apology maybe, this had been built to house about ten vending machines - Coke, Fanta, Milka bars, coffee, chips, first aid kits and batteries - and maybe now and then a couple of pilgrims who didn't get to the Alburgue before 23 Spanish cyclists.

Just to set the scene, if I was writing a stage play about big conversations about life and the universe and was trying to come up with a backdrop for two opposing characters where conflict and angst could unfold over one night, a vending machine shelter in Spain wasn't bad.

And as characters, again, almost too filmic. A 19-year-old art history student from Paris, drinks water out of a crushed plastic container for dinner, while watching a Californian carefully take out gold sandals, a makeup bag and three different dress options for a wedding in the south of Spain the next week, and laying them all folded on a metal table, before yes, finally finding what she was looking for, that leopard-print eye mask she had bought in the Barcelona train station for two Euros.

His name was Franz and he had this tall, polished wooden staff by his bedroll. Everyone seemed to buying or making one along the route. I refolded my dresses and put them back in a plastic bag in my pack. I know it was how original pilgrims travelled, and they were handy for protection 300 years ago, but now, to me, wooden staffs were stupid.

So we chose our corners, made it clear in body language that neither of us felt like talking, and went to sleep.

It was dark when I woke up to a sound. Across the room I heard Franz stir. I pulled up my Audrey Hepburn eye mask. In the reflection of the Coke machine I could see the half moon above the trees. I could hear the cows moving around in the barn next door. And then I heard what had woken me again.

I turned my head slowly, telling myself it was only a nightmare, just enough to see Franz and he was looking at me, eyes like wall clocks, as the low, velvet growl in the doorway grew in intensity. His hand moved to his side. He brought the staff up to his chest, the sound of it dragging across the cement floor and gripped it with both hands, warrior-style.

The dog was stunning, wolf-like. I couldn´t have sketched a more beautiful non-animated dog to battle over my life with; I watched him come fully into the reflection on the Coke machine, joining the moon and the trees. He was turned away from us. Across the courtyard a stray dog slinked away from the barn and the cows. The dog in the doorway watched him leave, his head low, showing teeth, the silver hair along his back still up like razors. Then he circled a spot in one direction, then the other, and then went back to sleep in our doorway where he had probably been for hours. In the morning he was gone.

I thought about this moment the next Monday, when I saw Franz again in a crowd, his staff leaning against a wall in the cathedral, and how I was all about pilgrim staffs now. In fact, get two; be double fisted on the Camino. We did a funny wave across the room - the kind of awkward movement you make when you've shared a moment in a vending machine recepticle with someone, and this moment will become one of many tales you will tell of this time of walking through Spain in search of something that is unique and real to each person and in need of finding.

Then Franz nodded and I nodded and we put our hands down and our eyes roamed over the pews of the cathedral in Santiago, searching for more people with whom we've shared something with in the last month.

I had sworn to myself that I wasn't going to start sobbing, or lie prostrate or do something weird and emotional when I got to the final destination, the noon mass at Santiago. But sitting on the cool tiles, my back against marble, and seeing people across the room, scattered everywhere, people I had had these strange moments with - moments where you take shelter from a hailstorm in a bar and go halves on a pitcher of sangria that leaves you breathless and laughing and declaring you could never be with a guy who was passionate about golf or Braveheart; hours when you walk together in silence along a highway, trucks blowing past you; or late afternoons when you lay stretched out in the sun, each of you with one earphone plugged into one ipod in the grass, eyes closed behind sunglasses, both of you nodding to the beat of a favourite song the other person has to hear because it is all about what you have spent the whole morning talking about - its hard not to feel something gathering up in your chest.

Some of these people have names, and get friended as soon as you get to a computer - like Eva who only knew me for hours before she marched into the bunkroom and dragged me out of my bed and into the bar at Rabonal del Camino (You can't lie here and READ, they are serving BAILEYS in the BIG GLASSES for TWO EUROS) - and others who you tell to go on, you'll catch up with them at the alburgue in the next town, and there end up being six alburgues in the next town, and all you know is their first name and that they had a baby when they were 15 and that they're not talking to their sister.

At some point I started taking pictures of signs that people had left for someone - Nadine Where are you? Send me your number and I'll call. Oliver. March 26, 2006 - and wondered if Nadine saw the sign, if she sent Oliver her number. Did Oliver call Nadine, or did he decide that maybe wasn't such a good idea after all.

That Monday at noon in the cathedral we all did different gestures of intimacy to each other - hand clasps, bear hugs, the cupping of faces and kisses on both cheeks - saying stupidly, over and over, congratulations. We left the cathedral in small packs of people, our little mishmashed cliches, and stood in the sun of the square. We took pictures of each other and ourselves, our arms outstretched, the cathedral behind us, making jokes about finally securing salvation. I didn't want it to end. We wandered back into the city, climbing the steps, past tourists who snapped pictures of us with our packs and dangling sea shells and worn out boots, past the accordian player with his drum and bass machine who seemed to be everywhere we were, past the woman in the same down vest I had in my closet at home, kneeling, her hands out before her with a bowl of change, head bowed. I felt like I was being dragged past all of this, stumbling, trying to inhale it. In four hours I was taking a night bus to Madrid to get to the wedding in Malaga, to put to use the dresses and scarves and gold sandals that I had unloaded every night for a month to get to my sleeping bag and blister kit at the bottom.

The will to keep saying goodbye to people - and say it like it was the last time, not like we might bump into each other in Leon or Samos sometime before next Tuesday - was emptying out of me. I saw a beautiful girl in sneakers, massive headphones on her tiny head, writing in a journal on the steps of the church and I stopped to take a picture while she was absorbed. When I looked up, my friends had disappeared into the crowds.

I realised that's what I had intended to happen, so easily and completely and without any emotional effort. I put my camera in my bag and took a breath. This was the right way. I will send out a group email explain I stopped to take a picture and lost them. But no, there was Eva on the steps, face flushed, a hand on her hip, really annoyed I had made her run back to find me. And suddenly I was really really happy she had. And I realised that I am almost 34 and I need to grow up and stop being such a brat about saying goodbye to people.

The thing is, I need a line.

Walking behind Eva, absorbed with my boots, I heard my name. I looked up and there was Antonio and Leah, a couple I met in a backpackers' kitchen the week before. Antonio was learning English and while we had been waiting in line to use the one pot and sieve available, he practiced on me. Everything he had on me was answers to phrasebook questions. I was 33. I was from Los Olivos, California. I had one brother, no children, unmarried. They grasped my hand and kissed my cheek. It was more congratulations and talking about what was waiting for us in our homes then Antonio asked if I wanted to join them for dinner.

'I wish I could,' I said, placing my hand over my heart, my new gesture I had pulled from some Spanish soap opera maybe, to indicate regret, sympathy or a deep feeling about something. My eyes darted up the street to where everyone was lingering.

He put is hands up like whataya do? then grasped my hand one more time.

'Goodnight'... he said, and he lifted his eyes up to the sky, searching for the correct wording in English that he needed... 'for life.'

I started laughing a little. Harsh.

But I said it back to him. Then we continued on in different directions, and I was walking and laughing still and thinking, I've got to get a pen to write that down, because I think I've found my line.

So Camino de Santiago - time of solitude, sangria, long afternoon naps, warm crossiants in the morning, crippling blisters, nights spent in vending machine shelters, and the companions who hang out with you as you sort yourself out... it's been grand.

Goodnight for life.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Camino de Santiago: Tapas with mom

Three weeks ago, a conversation with my mom about the California education system - a conversation that began in the kitchen I grew up in a week before - continued in a tapas bar in Pamplona.

Dad was trying to find a parking space; it was a Sunday night, busy in a way that was fresh and kind of wild for all three of us, and while he searched the streets for somewhere to wedge the rental, Mom sat on a barstool next to me, a glass of wine and a plate of jamon and bread, olives, marinated mushrooms between us, and she continued talking like we were still sitting at the kitchen counter in bathrobes, our hands around coffee mugs, the morning news on mute above the refridgerator, and the cat at our feet.

In the bar, Mom talked with passion about her work, but for a moment I just watched her face, her hand, beside my hand by the wine glass, crazy noise around us and outside on the streets that was just warming up for the night, and I´m thinking, I´m sitting here with my mom, talking about education, in a bar, in Spain.

My mom, by the way, came to Spain on just about two week´s notice. When it became unavoidable that she wouldn´t be able to make it to my cousin´s wedding this next week because it clashed with finals and graduation, I mentioned, extremely casually at the end of an email, that she should think about coming over and walking a piece of the Camino with me on her Easter break.

My mother is a such a sucker for adventure.

When I was young, Mom used to take me to Hendry´s Beach during the summer and on weekends; sometimes in a minivan carload of my friends and our boogy boards, sometimes just her and I. In the morning, or if it was June, it would be completely fogged out. She grew up in a house on the Mesa and Hendry´s was where she grew up swimming with her sisters. The fog didn´t bother either of us. She would get a cup of coffee from the restaurant, wrap herself in jackets and a hat and sit at a picnic table with her journal and write.

I would be leaping and diving - my first taste of feeling beautiful and powerful at something - I would yell out to her and wave, and she would wave back and I would feel appreciated and then find someone else to show off for and she would go back to writing and staring at the ocean.

Whenever I am back in California, I try to get to Hendry´s. I´ll usually do it on a day when I have something I need clarity on. I bring blankets or a down jacket in case its foggy. I´ll bring my journal and a coffee and I´ll go sit at Mom´s picnic table and write. There have been years when I have stared at the waves from there and remembered myself in them, and then picturing mom, probably younger than I am now, sitting in the same place, writing about her own life.

But mostly I don´t think about that. It´s my picnic table now, my beach, my life.

One of the most precious things about my mom is the way she has been able to leave beautiful pieces of herself - a picnic table, a beach, a need for adventure - and leave it behind her in a way that I have been able to pick them up and make these things all my own.

This morning, on Mother´s Day, I know my mom will be looking up where I am on the map (Melide) from her bed, where Dad will have brought her a cup of tea. Dad will have printed this out for her and placed it on the tea tray. She will have Michener´s Iberria beside her for historical reference, so she´ll know more about the place I am in than I do.

Then I bet you anything, she and Dad are going to the beach this afternoon and she´ll get a coffee and bring her journal and write her heart out.

Happy Mother´s Day mom...I am a very, very blessed daughter. It was so, so wonderful to see you and Dad in Spain...

The next vino is on me.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Camino de Santiago: Tranquilo

´Middle age´ on the Camino ended on Monday.

The verdent but monotonous farmland, roads that stretched straight out along a highway for hours; stark suburbia, with nothing rising up to break the boredom, was moving slowly, painfully behind me, giving way to Galacia.

In the distance was this landscape reminiscent of my first week, the Camino´s ´youth´- the first sighting of Spain from the French Pyrenees, the first tiny dark coffee at a counter, surrounded by weird, intimidating pastries meant to commemorate a communion; the first sip of real sangria, the first taste of cheese and strawberries together, the mustard seed and lavender blanketing the hillsides, the fear of saying anything in Spanish at all, then the desperate need to say absolutely everything in Spanish.

This previous week was as bad as I had heard it could be sometimes. My Spanish was crap. I was falling out of love with my mind, winged in the beginning, free to fly from one pleasant concept of myself to another, inhaling its sweetness; now clawed and vicious, digging up the carpet to get to the source of the stench. My feet, young and true, overnight suddenly went disfigured. My heels looked like small animals had been gnawing at them. I was disheartened. I was slowing down. So this was really it. This was the Camino. Woohoo.

I watched a cyclist park his bike outside the cafe. Already I was unbuckling my pack. I had become a follower of ´signs´- signs of wear to stop for the night, which supermercado to buy at, who to sit next to at communal meals in the Albergues. A cyclist in the rain was sort of a sign.

A woman was bringing out fresh loaves of a new bread I hadn´t seen. It was round, full of raisins and walnuts, √≠ntegral´, not white, and the smell filled the tiny shop. I don´t know where the Italian went. I bought a loaf, then stood in the alley outside the shop, my pack leaning against the bricks, just barely out of the rain. I tore a chunk off and the steam rose . I bit through the crust to a still doughy centre. It stayed warm in my hands as I tore and chewed. I made that bread last for 20 minutes in the alleyway, thinking that I will remember this bread, on this rainy day in an alley for many, many years.

It rained and it rained and it rained. I shouldered my way through a fiesta, the tents, the octopus lifted out of boiling water, snipped up, piled on a bread board and doused with olive oil, sea salt and paprika. I walked in mud through vineyards, with creepy, beautiful old homes that had stood there for centuries on the hills, watching over their bounty. The rain paused. I was soaked. The rest of my bread I was saving for dinner was soaked. I hadn´t seen anyone on the trail for hours.

The first sight of a town cathedral appeared as the sun was going down. I was so late, and I was getting terrified that I was going to get stuck without a bed for the night - it had happened in Formista - and I didn´t even know what town I was entering and the clouds were gathering again.

I saw the Albergue ´Felix´ as I heard the thunder. My hood was up still, protecting me from wind and cold, as I entered, my big pack barely fitting through the door. I pulled off my hood, then froze. Wasn´t this the reception?

I had walked into the kitchen maybe? No, a man, looking a little like Charles Manson, was lifting off my pack and saying a word I have come to love here, repeatedly, as I stared at the huge bowl of Paella, filled with saffroned rice, prawns, fish, capsicum in front of me.

Beyond the bowl, which took up the whole entryway, was a table full of people holding up water glasses of red wine and greeting me like I was their prodigal daughter.

Having put my pack just inside, out of the rain, Charles Manson began shovelling paella onto a plate and motioning me to sit down, repeating that word and making the up and down motion with his hands in case I didn´t understand.

´Tranquilo, mi amiga, tranquilo.´

I looked up the word for ´soul´that night. Alma.

Mi alma es tranquilo.

There is a next part to that quote by Rilke to the young poet, after he tells him to love the questions themselves:

¨Do not now seek answers which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer...¨

Buen Camino.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Camino de Santiago: from a bus station bar in Astorga

There is something about walking into a bar in another part of the world and everyone is looking up at a television on the wall. There is a rush of adrenaline and then you brace yourself. I heard someone say they were waiting for Carlos.

It had just cut to a commercial and all the men, spitting out peanut shells and tossing napkins on the floor, went back to their gambling machines and murmurings and I was left in the dark with my Seseme Street Spanish - what kind of catastrophe now. What more could really happen to the earth right now.

Another man said that he was only going to wait for Carlos as well and I am thinking, so who is Carlos? And then yes, there was an agreement, that after Carlos arrived they would have seen enough. Enough of what, I am thinking. And por favor, who is Carlos?

Carlos. You know. Carlos y Camilla.

I had to laugh.

So even though I was only in Astorga and not Rabanal del Camino, which meant I had about five hours of walking ahead of me and it was already noon, I put my pack under the bar, ordered a cafe con leche, and wedged myself into the crowd and looked up at the television on the wall and watched representatives from around the world gathering, smiling, and looking ridiculous in hats and pink ties, for an event that required no decision to be made about an invasion, a bomb, a tsunami, or an earthquake, or a dictator gone crazy.

I stayed for another hour in the bar, until Kate emerged from her car, waving, and I put my bag on my back, tightened the straps, paid for my three coffees and a wine and headed for the highways underpass.

The morning before I watched two little boys kick the top of tennis ball cannister from one end of the plaza in Leon to the other. I was sitting on a bench, after being ushered gently out of bed by Benedictine nuns at 6:30, and was waiting for Cafe Europa to open. I pulled my raincoat around me and watched the sun heat up the stones of the cathedral. I sat for two hours and watched these boys play.

I have a destination. And I have a time I have to be there by. But I´m finding that this journey so far has been more memorable because of its interruptions. I´ve gotten quite brilliant at sitting and staring for long periods of time at something like a plastic bag caught on a fence.

The thing is, I´m on a journey where there are a lot of people also staring at plastic bags on fences. We gather at the one cafe in small villages in the morning and order cafe con leche and tostadas and spread maps on the tables. We walk in clusters of the recently divorced, seperated, redundant, widowed and stir-crazy. We spend some time on the trails and under trees, sharing strawberries, strange sharp cheeses and olives, talking about these cross roads we are all at. Do we make the move, wait for our husbands to love us again, try for another child, not be a lawyer like the rest of the men in the family, fall in love, let love go, throw it all in and move to Africa.

In all of this, my mind is like a still pool of water in some days, and a class 4 rapid on others, destroying the hours. I´m in love with this time on my hands, I´m in love with limonada in the afternoons, the people, the words I am trying to place in correct order. But my mind, the beast, the wolf, the bandit. So very many hours to wrestle with it.

There are probably easier ways to explore a landscape. I understand why for hundreds of years, this pilgrimage to Santiago was something criminals were sentenced to.

I have a book written by Henri J.M. Nouwen, a Catholic priest who lives and works with people with mental disabilities at the L´Arche Daybreak Community in Toronto. I´m carrying it because I read a quote in the introduction, and it sets the theme for this book. It´s Rainer Maria Rilke responding to a young man who asks if he should pursue poetry: ¨I want to beg you as much as I can...to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try and love the questions themselves...¨

So I am learning to love the questions.


Buen Camino for now

Saturday, March 26, 2011


In October, when the weather was cooling and the trees below Tioga Pass were goldening, and my season of flipping French toast in the Sierra was over, Kelli Ramsay and I packed up her Subaru with duvets, Trader Joe’s cloth grocery bags, Beach Body workout DVDs, her massage table, and a box of her dad’s favourite Louis L’Amour paperbacks and headed to east San Diego county to go apple picking.

Knowing we were broke, Wolf and Meryl had set us up with work near their home where they were two of five people who lived in community on an orchard in the mountains outside the town of Julian, in a big house with a library and a record player with a vinyl collection and a wrap-around veranda.

Every fall their neighbours and friends from all over California would come to this house for Applepalooza, and sleep in spare rooms, or their campervans, under the stars and the apple trees in the backyard for the 48hours of bonfires, music, firewood chopping, apple pie eating, and cider and homemade wine drinking on the porch steps with the fruit pickers, firemen, weekend nudists, jewellers, cattle ranchers, beer brewers, landscape artists and science teachers; people with both feet planted in this mountain town wedged between the coast and the desert; people who would rather lose their homes for a second or third time rather than pack up and leave.

Eight years before, when I was living in an apartment in Ocean Beach, I woke up, well past 9 in the morning, to a dark bedroom. When I went to the windows and pulled back the curtains to the pier and the ocean, the ash was falling like snow, blanketing the cars in the supermarket parking lot across the street; the sun behind the sky of dark was a giant blood blister and houses and barns and entire lives eaten up by the wildfires to the east just kept falling all over the beaches, turning the water to waves of black silt washing up on the sand.

Last October, all of that destruction felt buried below young trees and new homes on the hillsides. Kelli and I stayed in a bunk room with a loft on the second floor of the house; I would tiptoe down the staircase at 5:30 and start a pot of coffee and read a hardback book of Steinbeck’s stories from the house library, and try and write a little bit, before my mind woke up and I started censoring myself. At 6:30 I would throw on jeans and a baseball cap and drive out to the orchards as the sun was coming up. If I had time, I’d stop for a last coffee at Julian Coffee Company and wait behind the fire crews, all hovering around the cash register with the Don’t Blame Me, I voted Willie Nelson bumper sticker and passing around the sports section.

I had my own quad bike that I would putt-putt around on behind two other orchard workers, Carlos and Ricardo. Our English and Spanish was about on the same level, so we picked more than we talked, but when we did, lying in the shade of trees, baseball caps over our faces, swatting away bees, we were reaching deep into our memories for words and phrasing like missing, and to leave and not come back. Both men were younger than me and supporting families here and in Mexico, and when I explained that I didn’t have any children, Ricardo sat up and looked at me like I had just pulled up my jeans to show him a fake leg and exclaimed, hands out, wide-eyed, with great tenderness, ‘ What ‘HAPPENED?!!’

The orchard we worked on was owned by Rodger, who raised Arabian horses there for 20 years, until one fell over on him and broke his back, so now he raised and nurtured things that couldn’t break his body - apples, pears, blackberries, honey bees and apricots – which went to people in the city who paid to have boxes of organic fruit and honey with low food miles delivered to their doorsteps.

The week I began, fire crews and engines and helicopters were coming and going for training in the canyon behind Rodger’s orchards where two firemen had been trapped and killed in the fires eight years before. Rodger said this training – and the re-enactment of what had happened - was the first time many of the crew had been back to that canyon. When he mentioned, days later, and in a totally different context, the post-it note one of the fire crew had left on his refrigerator in 2003 (we’ve done all we can, hope this place is still standing), he paused and dropped his sunglasses over his eyes.

At night, I’d come home with bags of apples and peel off my shoes and jeans stiff with dirt and a sweatshirt covered in burrs by the door. I’d shower and put on a robe, and Kelli would be finishing up with massage clients and both of us would start dinner and talk about the people we had met during the day, and the stories, and we would pause a lot, pushing food around the plate, trying to articulate everything we were seeing and hearing here, as travellers passing through a town.

So when I spotted the I LIVED van cruising around town, looking like something out of the A-Team, I attached it to another survival story from the fires. But Chris – tall, blonde, statuesque; driver of the van, and the queen of Rodger’s apple sorters - long fingers running over the apples, eyes scanning the skins for water marks - took a whole morning to tell me about it, when I got stuck in the sheds on a rainy day.

Two years before, at noon, on a Saturday, driving home from a dress rehearsal for a belly dancing performance, Chris was hit by a drunk driver and in one moment’s collision, crushing and distorting her body, belly dancing became - like riding her horses in the hills, running, cycling; picking up her children and getting up and out of a chair without pain – something in her past.

How she managed to make this tragedy into a stand-up routine while manning the apple polisher was hard to explain, and in no way could I do it justice when I tried retelling it that night to Kelli – you had to have Chris’s height, the wingspan of her arms, the tan San Diegan babe hands on hips when she described the confusion as the ambulance driver on duty that day – who happened to be her ex-husband – suddenly took off running in the direction of the guy in the car behind Chris’s – who happened to be the guy she left her ex-husband for - screaming I’m going to kill him. He was wrestled to the ground but then let back up when it was clarified he was - more reasonably – only trying to beat his rival to the drunk driver further down the road, who was slouched in his seat telling the cops and rescue crew over and over just tell her I’m really sorry until the ex reached his destination and this time everyone stepped aside to let him knock the driver back into unconsciousness.

Chris’s choice of attire on her smoking hot body as she was extracted from the car by the men who loved her had since solidified the reference to that accident in the last two years around Julian – in the bar, crew locker rooms, and in parenthesis on local police reports - as the bellydancing fiasco.

The other details that I had to ask to get answers to – how long was the guy sentenced to, what happened to your job, how will the hospital bills get paid, how do you manage chronic pain and then the depression that shadows chronic pain, will it be like this for you forever – wasn’t part of her comedy routine.

I LIVED – written in bold, black all caps across the hood of a van that would now surely be the crumpler, not the crumpled, if life were to deal her another highway face-off - were the two words she roped herself to during the day, keeping her from being pulled into the ocean of pissed-off despair that was always beautiful and inviting, lapping at her fingers, waiting for her. And if she forgot, and began to slip out to sea, there was a whole town of people who had also been through hell, to remind her of what was written on her hood.

On our last weekend, Kelli and I were taken to the desert. Words were surfacing every hour we hiked through mountains with two friends - both naturalists and lovers of the hardened sand and fossils of the Anza Borrego; words like cruel, breathtaking, ironic – most of the deaths that do happen in the desert are by drowning – and fearful; death in some form here – by flash floods, dehydration, or crazy people - felt very sure and inevitable.

Seven hours later I was captivated by the darkness in this place. By the solitude of the back seat of a forerunner, when everyone else was riding in the front; by the sundown on the red canyons around us that were growing monstrous as the night took hold and the stars began appearing; captivated by the heat and one deadly margarita that had left me like this, head back on the seat, the windows down, hair blowing everywhere, the desert wind drying the salt on the skin, thinking that the Black Keys - see the moon; see the stars; from your lonely seat, in your lonely car - were just about the greatest thing to ever come out of a radio.

I thought about how coming to Julian was a last minute back up plan. How we just rolled into town three weeks before with the tumbleweeds, and now we were leaving – not just with enough money to get us to the next place, but with jacket pockets full of fossilised seashells, mixed CDs of John Prine, David Gilmour, the Black Keys, Gus Van Sant; of Chris’s answer, when I asked how you just going around forgiving things like that - I just decided early on, how this whole thing needed to be for me; and with this kernel of a thought that someday there would be a house in a town that I would open up to tumbleweed people and be their last-minute back-up plan.

And maybe most valuably, I left with a question: what would I would I have written across the hood?

Monday, February 28, 2011

a fig tree, a porch, a plastic chair

I have made my home – sometimes for a night, sometimes for a month - in a lot of spare spaces, probably yours, if you’re reading this.

Floors, caravans in the back yard, couches, sometimes hammocks; last winter I got to stay in a huge bed in a master suite overlooking Bass Lake in the winter with snow clinging to the pines, a hot tub three floors down and Christmas music playing and the smell of Brittney’s sugar cookies and the fire being stoked in the morning when I opened my eyes.

Whitney Chebegia had the best apartment in the world. She used to pick me up from the airport, me wearing some kind of hippie concoction, her in sunglasses and a suit, and she’d take me and my dirty pack directly to the nearest Mexican restaurant to L.A.X. , then drop me back at her place in Long Beach that had wooden floors and a red two-seater couch. I’d lay under her ceiling fan, eating frozen M&Ms, flipping through 58 channels and read the same ear-marked copy of The Road Less Travelled. Whit was the first of all my friends to have her own one-bedroom apartment with true grown up furniture. At night the neighbours in her complex would hang out in the courtyard around an outdoor fireplace under palm trees, and say hey to couples walking past holding a Peets Coffee in one hand and a golden retriever on a leash in the other and I would feel like I was making a guest appearance on a sitcom.

Anna Smith gave me freshly washed floral sheets, folded fluffy towels and ginger crunch slices and let me watch all of season one of Northern Exposure in Invercargill last May. Paula in Spreydon never lets me step off her porch without handing me my mail and making me a full cooked breakfast; Lisa in Kaka Point lets me stare out the window of her kitchen to the sea and the lighthouse and stir my coffee like a zombie and just generally come and go as I like and pull vegetables out of her garden and leave things like wooden salt and pepper shakers, guitar cases, hair dryers and small cars in her garage just to orientate myself.

These are just a few of the resting places that have been given to me.

For me, resting places are usually places where there is some reworking going on, a few hours, a night, maybe a month of just following the sunlight around a house. It can be one long slow exhalation before moving on to a new place – sometimes physically, sometimes its just a closing down of one season, and an opening up and airing out of a season that is just coming to life again – and it can also be a place where you collapse in exhaustion and have a good cry into a beanbag.

In December, when I came back to New Zealand, I spent my first night back here in a house outside of Sumner, a beach suburb of Christchurch. I had been warned beforehand about the steps, which are in the hundreds, and eventually opened up to this stone and wood palace on the cliffs with a garden you could spend a summer living off of and an outdoor tub at the top of the world. Sea and sky everywhere. I was disoriented and weirded out by being back here and went to bed before it was even dark, without changing my clothes.

I woke up around 6 and fumbled around the kitchen for a cup, a tea bag and milk. I waited for the jug to boil and stared stonily at the counter, then eventually organised myself and found the door to the patio, with a pillow under my arm, tea in hand, and sat in a plastic chair on the porch and stared stonily at the sea.

It’s hard to stare stonily at the sea and stay stony. The waves crashed, the sun rose, and a breeze came and the morning light caught the fig tree and the wind caught the cloth hammock and I watched it sway a little, just lightly, like a dreamy child on a swing, and I probed my disorientation and figured out it was probably just how things were going to be for that week, that coming back here wasn’t a right or wrong move. And the sun rose higher, and the waves kept crashing, and I breathed in and out, and the light crept across the porch, up my arms, and warmed my eyelids and then it was just a full blown morning and I was in a plastic chair on a porch, under a fig tree watching a new day in the world get moving.

That morning on the porch, under the fig tree, are the only claims I have on that place. I kept reminding myself to take a picture of it, but it always seemed too far of a walk, to go back down to the car and search for my camera.

This guy I work with described being out in the waves at Sumner last Tuesday just before 1, and his board rising and falling and how something about it didn’t feel right. People on the beach had gotten up suddenly – three guys who were coming in on waves, got to the beach and just dropped their boards and ran - and he turned and watched the cliffs over the ocean come down, taking houses, including his own, and also including the stone and wood palace with the porch and the hammock and the plastic chair and the fig tree.

No one was in the house when the earthquake hit. My friend and her flatmates are alive. I don’t know anyone on the list of the dead or the missing in Christchurch.

My friend and a flatmate that had lived there for nine years went up there to see if anything could be gotten, without killing themselves, and she took pictures of what was left and it looked like a war zone. She took pictures of the living room, a bedroom, the kitchen. What was left of the crumbled porch and the fig tree was rubble. On facebook the porch and kitchen were tagged with a list of names of people who had lived there and sat on that porch and probably sorted out their own minds and made decisions, and took breaths and thought, just like I did, that the world may not be against them after all.

Like war zones and places hit by hurricanes and fires and floods, it was a place with a lot of memory and peace that was there and now it isn’t.

And I wish I had gone down to my car for my camera that morning and climbed the five billion steps back up again to take a picture. Maybe I’m writing this because I want to capture that place in words, because I missed that moment.

It was the palace of resting places and it will be remembered.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

the suitcase

This morning I am seated at a wooden table. I have a cup of tea and a piece of dry, crumbling leftover Christmas cake on a white plate, next to my laptop. I have just washed all the breakfast dishes and wiped the counters; opened the cotton curtains with little ducks on them so I can watch the rain beat down on the lawns. Last night I left one window in my bedroom open so I could hear the waves on the rocks. But before I did this, I took out all the summer dresses I had, and put them on wooden hangers and hung them on a hook on the bedroom door. I arranged gold nail polish, my sunglasses, a bathing suit and a seafood cookbook on the brown dresser in front of my bed. If I open the other window, ferns and flax plunge through; at night, if there is wind, they run their fingers across the glass. Anything cast off, or dropped on the wooden floors or the bed this morning - I have put it there deliberately. If the ferns really disturbed me, I would go and get a kitchen knife, and hack them back. But their urgency goes with waves and the doors and floorboards (a kitchen knife: maniacal, but there are no hedge clippers or even scissors).

This is my room for four days; I am treating it like it is a set for a play that one of us here should be writing (we are on a writing retreat). Last night I watched one of the five of us, from inside as I reclined on the couch with a gin and tonic. In the middle of gales and rain and groaning trees he sat there, writing on a porch that seemed like it might get blown away. He wrote like he was going to die in an hour. He barely lifted his face up. I had just discovered Mad Men that afternoon and was on my fifth episode of Season One. I drove the lemon and ice cubes around in my glass and marvelled at 1952 dialogue and Don Draper - " What you call love is what guys like me invented to sell you nylons" - and slammed the door on the thought of the suitcase I'd brought with me, from New Zealand to California, then back to New Zealand again, full of all the unfinished projects from last year in Wellington and this was going to be the week I would be up at 7, polishing off each one. I would see each project through. This morning I woke up at 10, and dangled my feet above the floorboards, my blanket wrapped around me, watching the problem suitcase. Then, with the heels of both feet I dragged it towards me. It caught on a rug and Idragged that too. I rolled my feet until it was my toes, pulling, then pushing the suitcase under my perch, then finally, under the bed, as far in as my feet could get it.

Since March I have written: A 50-minute radio play in my car, looking out to Nugget Point and the lighthouse, my pillow behind me, crushed up against the glass. A five-minute short film while washing dishes at a wedding reception in the Kaka Point town hall (Wash tea cups. Peel off gloves and write. Shove fingers back into wet gloves. Keep washing tea cups while listening for more dialogue from the swinging kitchen door). An essay about a lightning storm on Mount Shasta and how it felt to see a friend in front of me drop to the ground, hands over his head, as I stood there, my hands shaking too much to even rip the crampons (metal) off my boots, unclip the caribiner (metal) at my waist, from an ice axe ( metal) I had just plunged - quite expertly for a baby mountaineer, I thought - into the snow. All of that got written about by headlamp in a bottom bunk.

Do I need things to be difficult? Do I need difficult towns, difficult jobs, difficult chairs and bottom bunks to rise to my best self?

I went back to Kaka Point last week to sleep and read and eat toast and go for long runs after a month on the road (I'm a cook this summer for a tour company) and I went swimming with a friend on my last afternoon. When I was a kid, I loved waves. I loved them coming at me. I loved the choices you had to get through and over them: you could swim hard at them, leap up to catch them as they crested, lifting you up with them; you could dive under and through them, just missing their punch, rippling over you; but if you fear them, they will crush you.

I thought about that while leaping and diving, how leaping and diving to get to the calm, so that you can lay on your back and look at the sky and the cliffs and do frog strokes and feel the sea under you is at times, anti-climatic. There is something to the leaping and diving and getting crushed.

I am finishing this in the afternoon, and I have given up. It has stopped raining and the sun is spreading out all over the porch I am on, eating watermelon and spitting the seeds onto the still-wet grass. I am on the Kina Peninsula for 24 more hours and this place - Harry's Place; you can find it on bookabach.co.nz - is too perfect to waste on writer's block. The suitcase is going back into the boot of my car. I will pull it out when I get to some place that frightens me or tries my patience, like Blackball.

I am going to make myself another gin and tonic and play lawn tennis now. Thank you, and good afternoon.

Sunday, January 2, 2011


I have a friend - I'm calling her K - who I had coffee with before I left New Zealand in June. It was morning; it had been raining hard all night and we were in a cafe in a city down south. People were shaking off their coats and talking about snow down to 300 metres, and which roads were closed; all the windows were fogging up and everyone was reading out weather forecasts. We ordered coffee, then hunched over th table and got straight to it. I had been briefed beforehand in text : There was a man and there was heart turmoil.

I had to lean in closely because K wouldn't talk above a hushed voice so she used a lot of hand movements to describe how and where she met this guy (one long, pointed finger circling the air - code for 'Rotary ball'; a cupped hand hovering over the bicep had to suffice for 'water wing'). It's a good story - and I'm an obsessive, scissors-to-newspaper collector of good stories - and it got retold a lot when I was back in California in the hot, dry summer and flipping French toast and staring out the window over the garden, trying not to panic that my life was not looking how I thought it should be looking. K's email updates from the bottom of the world were read early in the mornings as the coffee brewed and light cut through the pines beyond the kitchen window, before I would start cooking breakfast for hungry wilderness instructors. At night, when the instructors were comatose on hammocks and the couches, and the floors were mopped, and the light sunk behind the baking pines and the kitchen was dark, I would sit cross-legged on the counter and put the fan on my face full-force. While eating frozen Cool Whip from the container, I would try and respond.

In July she wrote one exhilerated email, followe by a second not so exhilerated email, followed by three paragraphs of quiet, controlled rage. I sat there, the glow of my laptop before me, trying to think of something to say, especially since I knew, especially then, about heart turmoil and anger dripping onto paper. Then, before I could type three words, a final email floated into my inbox.

Forget it, she said, in essence, a verbal flicking off of this guy's power over her. I'm fine. Going to see the fam and spend time in my stomping ground, my Turangawaewae, the place where I stand. She signed off.

I thought about this for a moment. Then I googled Turangawaewae and confirmed the Maori definition as she worded it.

Turangawaewae. The place where I stand. I Wikipedied it. The place where my ancestors stood. The place that gives me power. I Te Aro onlined it. The place - a tangible place - where my energy comes up through my feet and my heart and my head can come away from this place with clarity, vision, and newness. My footstool.

This is K's Turangawaewae: Fiordland, the wildest, maybe most untamed part of New Zealand, cupping some of the world's most mind-scattering panoramas; a place where people die all the time trying to penetrate, breeding chisel-jawed legends (the most legendary chisel jaw famously stitched up his own testicles after being gored by a bull, and at some point after this, rode a horse for 30 hours to report a plane crash). Both K and her sister were named after peaks, which tower over a place, that when you stand there, makes you feel like you're at the bottom of a giant black cauldron with five facets turned on (one time K was introduced to this guy at a party, also from a Fiordland family, who was named after a mountain directly in front of hers, prompting speculation, even though this guy may have been a bit of a schmuck, of their matching possibly being fated).

Growing up, there was the Los Padres National Forest behind my parents' home in Los Olivos, California. It has always been beautiful and strange to me, especially when I was very young and obsessed with what was on the other side of anything that I could only see in pieces.

I remember my mom stopping the car one morning when I was about six, so I good get a real long look on the way to school. I asked what was on the other side of those mountains. She said if you hiked for hours and hours straight through, you'd eventually hit a place called Bakersfield. I see myself in braids and cowboy boots knocking together, looking at the mountains, whispering te name of this place (Bakersfield!) where all the mystery and wildness unravelled in my mind; obviously the place where She-Rah, and unicorns, Moses, Laura Ingalls Wilder and the Black Stallion died and went to.

Two months ago, just after Thanksgiving, I took a long walk through the creek canyons filled with the scent of damp sage and walked the paths that my dad once carried me up in a backpack. It had been raining and the mist still clung to the mountains that stretched before me. Behind me was my home, where I had lived until I was 18. It was early winter again and this was a farewell hike through this place that has never lost its wealth and strangeness, the brown, moisture-hungry mountains, the oaks that I have always put a hand on, unconsciously, as I've walked by (I've just heard that it's not good for the trees for me to be doing that) and there was a funny, un-normal desire for me to just keep going, just five more minutes up this mountain, down this next canyon, and then I'd turn back and face up to all the increasingly robotic goodbyes that needed to get said, the digging up of the passports, the confirmation of flights, the checking that I still had a warranted Toyota Starlet and a job waiting for me in New Zealand. I passed a long slab of smooth rock near a stream where my mother, beautiful and sleek and very 1978 in a bikini, the age I would be now, her hair covered with a bandana, was holding me up high above her, in a picture that hung in the hallway when I was a kid. What if, I thought, I did just hike for hours and hours straight through to Bakersfield? It was like I was filling up bottles and bottles of springwater, more strength, more clarity, steadiness; more vision, more remembering of where I have come from, before slinging a pack on, filled with this water, and heading into what could very well be a desert season.

It is shrubby and it is humble, but this is my Turangawaewae.