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

Monday, July 22, 2013

Summer promise

Walking through a heavily air-conditioned Walmart last week with my mom, looking for a plastic 6-dish rack that could be extended to a  12-dish rack,  stopping at one point to examine the back of a bottle of Coke Zero and ponder together for about four minutes, why Coke Zero was different from Diet Coke, was probably the equivalent of someone else’s ten-hour drive to see the sun setting over the Grand Canyon.

It was on aisle six, about five minutes before, looking at the swivel desk chair selection and pausing to inhale the scents of candles with names like Let Freedom Ring and Cosy Sweater, that I realised where I was, right there, near my mom, wandering aimlessly around Walmart, picking things up and then putting them back again, with afternoon plans to head to the state fair to look at goats and share a corn dog, beat out just about any other holiday spot in the world at that moment.

It's funny what you crave and where your mind finds rest when it leaves its routine - kind of like a dog let off its leash. My dad  wanted to know why my bedside light had been on until about 1am the last few nights.  I explained the light was on because I could not for the life of me remember if Christie from Wisconsin ended up with Todd the OC surfer or Escondido quarterback Brad (Thad? Chad?)  in Summer Promise, which still features in my childhood bookcase. But it turns out turns out the quarterback doesn't even come into the first book in the Christie series - and so it took several late nights of reading with the fan on, eating Trader Joe crackers, and speed-reading through heavy-handed life lessons (note the publisher) to a frustratingly ambiguous ending (‘’Never had one season held so much hope...or so much heartache!’’). The conclusion was that the only way I was going to get to the bottom of the Todd vs Brad/Chad/Thad question was to loiter around the church library on Sunday and check out the whole series, and in doing so, reacquaint myself with the author's footnotes to the extraordinary high school experiences my 12-year-old self had studied rigorously, and was heroically prepared to experience herself, just like Christie  had (my high school experience did not resemble in any way, the above cover of Summer Promise).

And that pretty much wraps up the last three weeks. In the final months before I left work - and especially on the really trying weather days; sleet but no snow, rain that came at you sideways, darkness at 5pm; all backdrop outside the window for the polite arguing and mad scribbling inside, followed by phone slamming and expletives, brimming tears, angry typing, and then somewhere in there, a story - I loved performing lengthy monologues for my colleagues on either side of me, about what I was looking forward to when I came back to my hometown, all based on previous holidays in Los Olivos that I have grown to love, as if we were hunkered down in trenches, under fire, clutching helmets and weapons, our backs to a muddy wall: I talked about waking up on July 4th morning and hearing my dad tinkering with his mini cooper, getting it ready for the parade; the sound and smell of the alfalfa being cut and baled across the street, lemon meringue pie after church, and watching old movies with my mom on the couch; sitting in the hot tub in the backyard and looking up at the walnut trees and the stars; eating chips and cowboy caviar, barefoot, in big Adirondack chairs with friends; going to the outdoor theatre with my mom for Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals; the smell of eucaplyptus trees in 90 degree heat as you walked past mansions that you will (likely) never have to pay a mortgage on, and down the steps to Butterfly Beach with a book and a towel.

I have an exceptionally sweet hometown and region that has been kind to me when I have needed to just come home and just be for a little while, just until the fog lifts.  

And I am doing that (and it is wonderful).

Thursday, July 11, 2013

This must be the place

A week and two days ago today I was dressed in gumboots and a blue onesie, flying through snow and mud on the backof a quad bike, squashed between two dogs, with one hand clenching fencing wire and the other holding the jacket of a woman I had been wanting to find for almost 20 years.

It was my last few days in New Zealand. There was a closet of hoarded paperwork to sort through, furniture to give away, a car to sell,  fines to settle with the Ministry of Justice and the Invercargill Public Library. But seeing Andrea again -  this woman I hitchhiked with for two days in Ireland in 1996 -  was something I would have abandoned pretty much everything else to do ever since the penny dropped, in a tent, in the middle of a field in Glenorchy last November, and I realised this is the hitchhiker and the mountains all around us that night were the same peaks in three photos that she carried around with her in her wallet when I first met her at age 18. Andrea was 35 that year- the age I am now.

I wrote about how we first hitched together, lost touch, then re-connected here for the Southland Times in December - and I've probably told the story a hundred times in person to many of you in the last seven months because it made a really tumultuous season of my 20s make more sense.

Who knows what drives us to seek out certain places to be at war with ourselves in. Maybe that landscape - an ocean, a mountain range, a desert in New Mexico, a dusty, scrub-covered hill outside Bakersfield - simply resonates with something inside us some years. Meeting Andrea again in Glenorchy - which had only been a nameless mountain town she described to me as the backdrop for the worst kind of betrayal and the end of her marriage, as we stood by the side of the road thousands of miles away in County Cork with our thumbs out in '96 - made my time there seem less of a mistake. Maybe I was just fated to work myself out in that same place too, years later.

After we met below those peaks again in November, as visitors simultaneously returning to a favourite haunt - a meeting that spooked both of us I think - she invited me out to her farm in Canterbury whenever I had a spare weekend. Just as I was buying my one-way ticket back to the States, she wrote to remind me the offer was still there and said she had a pair of gumboots that would fit me.

So before flying to California, I made arrangements to get a car and head out to this farm that she had described on that November weekend as the next best thing to Woodbine Station in Glenorchy which she and her ex-husband had managed in the early 90s before everything unravelled.

The farmhouse, just off a gravel road that led to Mt Hutt helicopters was covered in snow - I couldn't even get the car entirely up the driveway. The doors were flung open and it was late afternoon. The sun was out; the peaks that framed her farm were so white you could hardly look at them without feeling your pupils blister.

We sat in these white, deep chairs, covered in soft blankets and looked out to the snow and the mountains. Andrea's husband, Wayne - who she met at a Herbert Community Hall birthday party after she came back from our hitching adventure in Ireland, and married the year I would have rolled into Glenorchy - brought us whiskey and ice with mint leaves in these goblets and left us there to sit like snow queens surveying our kingdom until it was nearly dark. Andrea got up and threw  me a Russian fur hat and we headed out on her quad bike to check on the cows. Flying through the night, I didn't care that my good office boots that I had worn to work nearly every day for the last 13 months were getting wrecked. I haven't been able to zip them up since that night, which kind of feels like one less decision I have to make right now.

Wayne had a roaring fire going and a glass of merlot for each of us when we got back. He made venison and potatoes, something I probably wouldn't eat for a long time - it was a perfect last winter meal. He kept refilling our glasses then retreated to watch the news on TV.

From a big chest in the living room, Andrea pulled out an album of her years at Woodbine. They were all valleys and mountains and rivers that I knew well. The children at picnics and barbecues in her pictures with 80s  haircuts would all grow up to be hellraisers riding their horses through the pub and hanging from the rafters in my photos years later.There were some of her on the back of trucks, working in the yards, riding her favourite horse in the Glenorchy Races, hiking up near Glacier Burn with her dog, and my favourite one of Andrea -  her laying in the tall grass, hair in braids, chin on hands, looking up to the Humboldt Range. Many of the photos had been torn in half but then at some point she had made peace with them and they had been taped back together and placed in this album.

After we came in from the farm the next morning she showed me her art/writing studio out back. On the walls were sketches, paintings, and pictures of all the places she had lived and worked in. Africa, islands in the South Pacific, the Snowy Mountains in Australia. Somewhere near one of portraits of Glenorchy, I saw she had this quote from Karen Blixen, who would have been writing about leaving her farm in Kenya after her divorce, then death of her lover, Denys in a plane crash, and then finally the financial collapse of her coffee plantation (I know all of this because I was obsessed with Blixen when I was 12).  Blixen went back to Denmark and never returned to Africa. I don't remember the first part of the quote or if it came from her book or her letters, but I remember peering into words Andrea had written the wall - “You must not think that I feel, in spite of it having ended in such defeat, that my life has been wasted here, or that I would exchange it with that of anyone I know” - and knowing what Blixen was trying to say and why almost 100 years after Blixen arrived in that spot that would haunt her forever, two women were looking at that quote and thinking ''yup''.


Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Calling Megan

This morning I called a friend I haven’t spoken to since we were both waitresses in a lobster house in Maine 11 years ago, when we were both single and in this healed-up, hopeful place in life, surrounded by a bunch of people (mostly Russian, Czech and Connecticut residents) who were also happily hanging out in dead-end jobs in a national park.

I called her an hour after she had left the scene of the explosions at the finish line at the Boston Marathon, and she pulled over to take my call. Her voice, in the car, was shaky but exactly as I remembered it, Southern warmth and all – I suddenly remembered how she used to say ‘’baby girl’’ to me - maybe when she wrapped her apron around her and tied it, or while we were counting tips, or when I was a passenger on trips through Acadia, down to Portland, and around through hills and oceans in between to hike up mountains and then go out for pancakes in Bar Harbour before our shifts. I was phoning because, according to Facebook, she was a block away from the explosions when they happened, and I needed to find someone to interview.

Like every journalist in every newsroom around the world that would likely have this event as a front page news story the next day, I was called by an editor just after the bombings happened and asked if there was anyone I knew who might be in Boston right now.

I pulled off on the side of the road and went through my newsfeed. Megan had posted hours before how proud she was of a friend who was competing, and I messaged her and asked if that friend would be comfortable talking to me.

Megan messaged me back: ‘’I was there.’’ And she sent her number for me to call.

The last time I saw Megan was when I was 25 and she was 29, and she was dropping me off at the bus station in Portland, Maine, so I could get to Boston, and then eventually get back to California for a job in San Diego. I remembered that week at her place before I left the East Coast, and it was early winter, and we went for walks around her new neighbourhood drinking chai lattes, our boots crunching on fallen leaves and the air smelled like rain. I’m sure we talked about boys and careers, and places we still wanted to live in, just like we had all through that late summer and early autumn. I remember that season in Maine as one of the most beautiful times in my life, and Megan as my older, wiser, cool sister/co-navigator who put an arm around my shoulder and pointed out that everything was probably going to work out just fine. In my mind, waitressing at the lobster house and living in Seal Harbour, and eating popovers slathered with blueberry jam was a whole chapter of my 20s, but it probably lasted less than three months.

The tragedy of social media is that you can know so much of someone’s life, without speaking to them. It only occurred to me how weird it was to be calling Megan now, more than a decade later, as the phone was ringing.

A normal conversation would have gone into how she met her husband and how old her daughter is and if she loves motherhood as much as she thought she would, when we talked about it over nachos at Applebees.

Maybe we’d talk about the guy who would come in for lunch, order a bottle of wine, declare everything was ‘’Fabu’’ and would always tip 100 percent.

Or that time that waiter Joe, an out-of-work pilot from Canada, spent three hours arranging furniture on the front lawn to say ‘’Happy Birthday’’ to that girl from Alabama (Lauren?) he had a massive crush on, then arranged for her to fly over the lawn in a private plane?

Would she remember that time we all fought over who was going to serve Stifler’s Mom (actress’s name? Does it matter?) at table 12, or that time the Secretary of the Interior came for dinner and John, the head waiter, wore his CIA shirt? Or the conversations we had sitting in the car, with gas station coffee and the radio on (it was the summer of No Doubt’s ‘’Underneath it All’’ and we all piled in a car to go see ‘’Sweet Home Alabama’’)

This morning she said everything you would expect someone to say after walking away from an area and then minutes later, feel it explode.

Her mom had just called to tell her there had been a third explosion. Her voice broke, and mine did too, ‘’hearing her heart’’ as she would have said, in that Carolina lilt, if we had been sitting on a park bench somewhere.

I felt cheated hanging up and then writing Megan’s words up to be absorbed with 100 more testimonies in a news article. I wonder if journalists have gone through exactly this, today, mining friends they’ve lost touch with, for disaster stories.

But I thought about this too, with three televisions in the newsroom playing CNN coverage of the bombings continuously, in front of me, behind me, and to the left of me since I arrived at work 10 hours ago: maybe its cliché to say that people come together in these times and so forth.
But, you know, all day I’ve been thinking about blueberry pancakes and orange juice in plastic cups, American Pie quotes, and train trips, and lights glowing from houses in Seal Harbour, and remember sitting on a wooden bench in an outdoor church and singing It is Well with My Soul alongside Megan under the pine trees, and terror and fear of the world, isn't what I feel.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Whalers crescent

I went to my first wake on Monday night, and it was not how I thought it would be.

I had already spent two evenings in a foldable canvas chair on my deck, looking at David’s house and the cars outside on the grass, coming and going, telling myself that I didn’t want to go across the street to pay my respects because I didn’t want my last memory of David to be David without life. But this was a lie really, I didn’t want to walk across the street because I didn’t understand how the ceremony worked – a memorial service I get, I have experience with, with photos and music, and a schedule of who is speaking next and what prayers to recite – but not a wake. I didn’t know who it was for, and why. I didn’t know what I was supposed to feel, other than the fear that a 4-year-old has of a dark hallway. So I stayed on my side of the driveway.

I listened to the radio, and ate a bowl of ice cream, made myself a gin and tonic, had another bowl of ice cream, then a wine, and watched the lights go on and off in the top room of his A-frame house that had been empty for two weeks while he had been in hospital. I had passed the hearse on the gravel road coming into Omaui on Sunday at noon as I left for work; I knew he was being brought home for two days, for viewing, but I didn’t know what time, and I was ashamed and relieved to have missed this part, and I pulled over to let the hearse pass. I thought that was sort of right and fine and appropriate to our dynamic while he was alive, that we would pass on this piece of road this way, this last stretch that came down into Whalers Crescent, me going to work, sunburned, with sand in my ears, and him coming back here for the last time so that the town could say goodbye.

I moved to this town because of David. In November I drove out with a photographer to do a story on him for his first exhibition opening. We drove down this long gravel road that turned off the main road to Bluff and headed for cliffs and bush and then you turn the corner and there is the sea and a handful of cribs. It was an old whaling community and it felt like, feels like, the edge of the world, and very, very far away from the third story of a building in the middle of the city I that I work out of.

David lived on the end of one of two streets in Omaui, and he came out to meet us as we pulled off the gravel and onto the grass. He had just gotten back from a trip through Belize, Guatemala, Mexico and had done a series of 36 photographs of his trip in August and September. But it was his diagnosis with an aggressive cancer in January that gave every photograph its urgency. You walked through chronologically. The first was taken about two hours after he had been told at the hospital he probably had less than 12 months to live, which meant that he wouldn’t see the next summer. He had been given a camera for his 49th birthday and it was in the passenger seat when he saw a storm coming in over the mountains and pulled over and watched it come towards him and then he got the camera to capture the obvious metaphor. He got better with the camera as the year went on, as his health worsened, as he went through chemo, and got up early, because the sleeplessness then, to get sunrises on the Omaui beach and the way the light caught the barb wire of a fence, and a bird coming out of the water during the winter, with snow on the sand dunes – it had the feel of someone trying frame every nuanced piece of the world’s beauty before he left it.

When the photographer and I first came up to the house, there was tiny place with a carport and a deck across the street, half hidden by a wild garden growing around it. It had a For Rent sign in the front, a bathtub in the back, a place to gut fish, if I ever got into that, a veggie garden, an apple tree, and the pounding sound of the ocean, and after some deliberation, and some emailed prodding from David, this is where I am now. The last time I saw David while he was still well, was when he pounded on my glass door, while I was scrambling eggs without having opened the curtains to the morning yet, to tell me there was a beached whale down below and the whole town was down there trying to refloat it. The next time I saw him was in hospital, for a followup interview for his exhibition. The last time I saw him was at the exhibition a week ago, in a wheelchair, and he was so tired he could hardly keep his eyes open. When I kissed his cheek and said I’d see him when he got home, I knew I probably wouldn’t. He told me he had big exhibition planned with a new project that was going to blow my mind. I asked if he could say a little bit about at least. He said he couldn't. It was going to be a big surprise and it was going to blow everybody's minds. On Friday, I got a text saying that David had died. I called his sister, and she said they were going to bring David back to Omaui, that there wasn’t a day in hospital that he didn’t ask to be brought home.

When I did go to see David, finally, it was in the early evening, when I got home from work on Monday. I parked my car, got out, and marched over, ready to get this over with, so I could go out for a run on the beach without feeling like I was being silly and childish. There was only one car in the driveway, and the door was open to the kitchen and I stepped inside, knocking, seeing figures on the porch. Two guys came through the house, and I remembered them as students from around Invercargill and I said who I was and said I was David’s neighbour and then I just started to cry. One of the students put an arm around me and wiped his own eyes, and said they had been neighbours too for awhile, last year and we talked about how David looked after all of us, bringing us muffins and making sure we were happy here and how he told us we shouldn’t swim past the waves or we’d get dragged out to sea, and then pointed to the small room around the corner from the kitchen counter, where people had put loaves of bread and cards and baked goods, and I went in. David was in an open coffin on the bed. The curtains were open and the sun had just set.

It wasn’t how I thought it would be. The sky was red, the sea had pulled back and the lagoon was full of new sea water. There was even a full moon. I stood there for a few minutes and it was how they say, that it seems like that person could just open their eyes, or move a hand. It was more unbelievable that he wouldn’t do those things. Just outside his room, you could see that first photograph of the storm coming over the mountains. There were books, and CDs and music posters still up. I had thought I would want to walk in and walk out, but it was the opposite. I wanted to stay. I wanted to talk to him. If there had been a seat in the bedroom, I would have sat, and stayed for a long time. It was like standing in a very small cathedral. Afterwards, I went for a run, and then for my first night swim in Omaui. The moon rippled on the water of the lagoon as I slid through it, then turned on my back, and realised then that the aching in my upper body that had frightened me all week, was less likely to be a tumour lurking somewhere in me, and more likely that I hadn’t been doing backstrokes properly, and I should probably take swimming lessons if I wanted to get better and that I also need to stop being so ready to die all the time.

Yesterday, I had the day off, and I went back to being the socially awkward neighbour who watches people from her deck in her pajamas, well into the afternoon. I watched people I didn’t know move the furniture out of David’s house but I didn’t see his sister, who was the only one in the family who would recognise me. It was the last official day of summer. In the early evening I went for a run and a swim again and on the way back up to the house I picked blackberries and later that night I ate them with vanilla bean ice cream and crumbled Oreo cookies and read the last chapter of Mrs Dalloway (advice for readers who haven't gotten around to torturing themselves with Virginia Woolf: don’t read Mrs Dalloway, if you are feeling like your world is already rocking, it will tip you over ) and I left the window open because it was warm.

I woke up to the house shuddering with wind and rain and it was cold in the room and a huge, wild, bottomless sadness filled me, the kind of sadness you have in the middle of the night when you’ve woken up from a dream you can’t remember. David’s death made me feel alone and un-buffered, and other things made me lousy too, and all of it seemed to involve the storm. It seemed to be taking something away and I thought, well, that was it, that was summer.

Which is just a depressing final sentence.

So I will tag this on: apples are falling from the tree in the backyard and there are more blackberries to be picked, which make for great pies, and pies need people on decks to eat them. And I have weekly additions to my growing collection of scratched up $5records.  The Doobie Brothers just sound better on vinyl, trust me. Or just come over.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Your table is waiting

I had set out to describe – kind of vavoom destination style - a long weekend I spent in Waiheke Island just before Christmas, but instead I keep coming back to this string in my head linking a honey and vineyard-saturated island off of Auckland to Antarctic-battered Invercargill, a place that couldn’t be less vavoom, and now l can’t pull the two apart.

I got to Waiheke on a Friday, still wearing my work coat with unreturned second keys, scone crumbs, gum wrappers and work receipts in the pockets; I walked from the boat to the place I had booked, sticking to the grassy verge of a road that went in and out of afternoon light through the bush. I shifted my carry-on bag from one shoulder to the other, looking at the free folded map I’d taken from the ferry terminal and holding it up. The sun hit the sides of my sunglasses, making me squint, and I kept charging down the wrong roads, thinking they connected until some kids on bikes pointed me down the path that cut through the bush and led to the road I was looking for. I was limping a little, and annoyed, by the time I saw the tops of tents on the lawn first, through the trees, then a roof, a porthole window, and steps leading down to bean bags scattered around the deck of the main house where my boots echoed off the wood. Reggae music mix was coming from a stereo in the kitchen. I watched as a guy below with long dark dreads did a cannonball into a rock pool and then backstroked his way to the side. A leap up and out, a tugging up of soggy shorts, and he walked a few feet away to a Jacuzzi, where he slowly lowered himself in, arranging his dreads over the side, just behind him, as the steam rose around his face. On an upper deck covered in drying board shorts and bikini tops, a girl was trading beer space in the outdoor fridge covered in Jaigermeister stickers for a bottle of vodka.

I assessed this all woodenly –sunglasses still on - at the reception desk. I felt like an alien creature sent to destroy mankind by first blending in, pretending to be a relaxed and fun person.

That morning at the airport bookstore I had bought Gone Girl, and had read a few chapters on the ferry trip to the island as Auckland’s skyline disappeared and the wind whipped at the jackets and dresses of the passengers standing all around where I was sitting. It was a novel about a woman who suspects her new husband wants to kill her and every so often I would look up and watch the people from the wedding parties travelling over with department store bags of wrapped gifts hooked on their arms – the woman who cut my hair the next day said 20 per cent of New Zealand weddings happened in Waiheke – and I wondered if I should put the book away, to restore equilibrium to the boat, but then I’d pick it up again because the heroine talked like I do and I wanted to know how the me in an alternate life gets into that kind of situation and then how she gets out of it.

Later, checked into the hippie homestead with folded linen on my lap, I sat on my tiny bed, hungry, but torn. I had food with me, but I didn’t want to make dinner in the communal kitchen, because it would mean I would probably have to speak to people. I thought about this dilemma for awhile, staring at the wall, hands settled politely. Then I took off my work jacket and my boots and took out my sandals and a sundress. I put the linen on the bed and my book in a satchel, put my earphones on, pulled my iphone out and turned on music, and walked into town, down through Little Oneroa reserve and Pohutukawa trees in full Christmas bloom, a bright, punk red. People were still in the waves, even though the sun had gone down.

I hated that I had every opportunity for rest all around me, but I couldn’t flip that switch to let it in. I used to dive right into beautiful, free places and absorb them and not fear long, blank spaces of time, but now there open sesame process with an access code that mysteriously alters, leading me away from feeling pressured to frantically produce something, anything, and just hide out and be still for a little while.

There’s breathing exercises to do this, or the visualising of a still pool of water, or a sunset. Or, for natural-born loners who have to fake extrovertism during the work week, there are nice dinners, alone, with wine, wearing a favourite lip gloss and nail polish and a new bracelet, in a town on an island where no one knows you.

There’s an art to this. You have to choose the right kind of table in the right kind of eating establishment to do the fork-winding and drinking and staring at nothing and reading, especially when it’s a Friday night at the beginning of summer. Outside that night it was warm and people were on decks and laughing, touching each other’s elbows as they made their points and running fingers through their hair and looking over their shoulder at the boats in the water and the stars coming out.

I did find an Italian restaurant for this, one with spaghetti to be wound around a fork, and four hours, nine chapters and about a hundred horrified facial expressions later, I left the place with a deep, deep hatred of the heroine, but with an unshakable love of the Marsala-drenched Tiramisu I had just finished, remembering just in time that I was not at home, watching back episodes of Offspring on my laptop in bed, and it was not cool to delicately run a finger along the bottom of the bowl and lick it. At some point between the tomato and basil bruschetta and the scallops the waitress had come by and had switched on the lamp above my table for me as I read. All night she had felt like a guardian of this zone I was happily building dream sandcastles in; I almost expected her to check my temperature and smooth away the hair from my forehead as she left with the wine bottle. I had had two glasses and I’m a lightweight so even the stars looked delicious as I walked carefully down the steps, hand on railing. I had marked my place in the book with a serviette, and couldn’t wait to keep reading. There was a trail above the ocean that went back to Little Oneroa and as I walked it, thinking about how the story had changed on me so fast and then thinking how I wanted to be able to do that, to hold someone captive in a restaurant for four hours with a strong storyline; and then I just thought how very fine it felt to be on an island, at night, just looking up at the stars, and down at the sea, and how I had three more days of this place all before me – I had already planned to read all night, then soak in the spa in the morning and nap until my facial and maybe book a pedicure for the afternoon. I heard myself say out loud Your table is waiting. And I had to think about why I said that at that moment. Then I remembered and it made me grin a bit, at how I’d pulled that one out of my head.

On a Saturday in Invercargill, during March, which was a difficult month for me, I woke up and decided I needed to put on a dress, and get my hair cut then go out to breakfast. I needed a plan. I needed lists, fresh goals. I had bills to pay, all the stupid mundane bills that you put off doing all month but bills like parking tickets can be that one thing you can take control of, when another part of you feels like everything is just a downward spiralling mess and you just wants to stay in bed until it all solves itself.

I ordered eggs and a coffee and went to bar table by the window which had chairs tucked underneath. I like the deep-seated booths, but of course those are for two people or more on busy Saturday mornings. I didn’t really mind the barstools. My coffee came. I stared off and drank it. A few chairs away, there was a guy on his laptop, and he started talking. I thought he was on his phone, but realised he was talking to me. I turned to him and answered back because I’m a nice person and it’s Invercargill, not New York City, and even if he was a psycho killer I probably work with his cousin, and he moved down to the seat next time mine, to show me what he was working on on his laptop, and I resigned myself to eating my eggs, when they came, while he talked. If he was interested, really, in anything I had to say, this would have been bearable. But it was evident pretty quickly that it didn’t matter what I thought about anything, he just wanted to talk and have someone, anyone, respond. I understand that this usually comes from loneliness, and I hate people being lonely. But it made me really sad that the spiritual revival bill writing morning I had planned, would now be spent trying to arrange my face into appropriate facial expressions.

The waitress came over with my breakfast. She swooped in really. She looked at me and at him. Then in this slightly affected five-star dining establishment voice and said to me pointedly, ‘your table is waiting.’

She stood there awkwardly with the eggs and a giant pepper grinder like I was an idiot. I didn’t understand.

‘Your table,’ she said again, in the voice, with new urgency. ‘It’s waiting for you.’

Then she left with my eggs and started walking towards one of the booths. I picked up my coffee and my papers, apologised to the guy with the laptop, and followed the waitress to the table I hadn’t asked for.

‘You didn’t need that this morning,’ she said, putting down my plate and serviette and silverware and then showering the eggs with the cracked pepper. I realised then how haggard I probably looked, which was depressing. I sat down obediently, thinking okay so you and I are terrible terrible people. We’re going to get in big trouble for not being nice girls; that poor guy... Then: So I can I just do that?The whole morning began to gain this whole new sense of liberation. I was giving off the vibe of someone wounded, weakened, vulnerable to predators who had moved in to pounce on the last of my energy at the watering hole. But that morning I had this protectoress who had just given me permission to be a mess. And now I had the booth.

I sat there for hours, triumphant. I spread Home and Garden magazines and bills all over the place and ordered more coffee, called my brother, texted friends, made plans to run a marathon and go to surf camp in Bali. I took a magazine quiz and didn’t like the result so I took it again, lying a little bit, and got the answer I wanted. I increased the amount going into my long term savings account by $25. I paid all my parking tickets. I ordered the lemon cake for lunch.

It didn’t solve anything massive in my life that Saturday morning; but I got traction, and I got a little bit of myself back. I go back to that cafe most Saturdays now, even for a takeaway coffee, out of loyalty.

In Waiheke, after that walk home from the restaurant, I came back and met the grandson of a Mayan revolutionary on the deck above the rock pool and Jacuzzi eating olives and pita bread with humus under Christmas lights. When I am exhausted the first thing to disappear is my curiosity of other people, but I came back from dinner full wonder for everything, and when I rounded the corner and everyone was there – the guy with dark dreads, the girl loading the beer fridge, plus ten other people around a big, long wooden table covered in wine bottles – and it seemed rude and silly to go to bed, so I grabbed a wine glass from the kitchen and came back out. Some of my best friends in life I have found at backpackers on nights like this, and I love that this underworld of jobless, wandering adventurers has always existed, around long tables illuminated by Christmas lights, with stories to tell, and all night to tell them, which is a whole other kind of table that was waiting for me.

The grandson of the Mayan revolutionary didn’t introduce himself that way, but as a painter on his way back from Nepal to Mexico for Christmas. He was a Buddhist, but his family was Catholic. He had been named after a patron saint. Christmas would be spent on his ranch on the coast. It was a ranch he had inherited from his father who had died a few years ago. Everything he told me about the family land, surrounded by the cartel, on the ocean and his father were responses to questions I asked, and I know, I know, I know it makes complete sense that everything would be fabricated. That his grandfather had been given the coastal land, as part of a grant from the Mexican government to the Mayans, and the Mexican president, in turn had been given the son of the Mayan leader to be raised in Mexico City. How that son though, was handed over to the president’s Italian bodyguard to be raised by the bodyguard’s family, a man the painter still thought of as a second, maybe even truer grandfather. Then how is own father had grown up strong, brilliant and had taken his education in Mexico City and had become a doctor, had fallen in love with the daughter of the patriarch of the hacienda he was a doctor in and married her, and then became a politician; the painter had been pressured to also go into medicine or politics but he went to art school in Ashland, Oregon instead and now has a studio there, as well as in Nepal and Mexico. He only paints five portraits a year and they are always commissioned, usually by wealthy fiancĂ©es who believe they are marrying the most beautiful woman in the world. But the painter is the one to decide that. Part of the arrangement is that the couple is flown to one of the studios and her beauty is assessed by him. He only paints the most beautiful, because he only does five portraits and he is in demand. But he is a Buddhist and of course, true beauty is elusive.

It was better than a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel. It was like Arabian Nights.The whole table has been invited to the painter’s ranch, to ride horses and hunt for jaguars in the jungle next Christmas. I googled the painter and his family and the Mayans later and it adds up; but even if it didn’t, it was better than Gone Girl, which I finished the next morning and then abandoned to the shelf in the backpacker’s lounge, before walking barefoot across the hot, hot deck, togs already on, even before coffee, pulling my sundress over my head and taking a big leap into the rock pool.

My point, maybe, is that sometimes you need the quiet corner tables, just for one night or Saturday morning, before you can really come back to the big long tables on decks, and ask people how they are, and really have capacity to let them tell you all about it.
And tip your waitress. They are guardians.