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

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.

4 comments:

  1. Great post, as the child of hippies turned yuppies I can identify with your description of traveling and your feelings of places lost to time. Im glad all of your friends are OK.

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  2. Such beautiful writing, Gwyneth! Loved reading this. - Emily

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