About Me

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

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.