About Me

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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''.