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Snapshots: New Zealand Lessons in the Making

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It’s hard to believe my expedition to New Zealand is almost over. I suppose you could argue that the “expedition” part of my journey is already history, now that I’ve returned my camper van, had a hot shower and a few real meals, and am settled on my cousins’s comfy couch with a cup of tea. I am now simply traveling.

Yesterday I got a National Geographic newsletter entitled “What Do You Learn While Traveling Female?” I’m looking forward to the stories they referenced and may submit something myself — after I figure out the answer to that question. One friend referred to my travel blogs as “field notes,” and I like that concept. They are snapshots. The lessons, meanings, and new perspectives will come over time as my brain sorts through and categorizes my experiences and my heart decides what to embrace.

The National Geo article stated that “Travel is about defining our place in the world.” I might re-phrase that to say, “Travel is about allowing the world to define our place.” It’s not a directive, intentional defining on our part. If you are open-minded and hearted, you don’t “do travel,” so much as travel does you. It’s very humbling. I don’t know if that makes any sense.

I have begun the meaning-making and processing in my journal, but it’s not ready for these pages, let alone National Geo!

Although I avoided cities and even avoided people much of the time, I think I’ve learned a lot about human nature here, and it’s encouraging and hopeful, particularly in the areas that cause me pain and passion: confronting racism and climate change. Many words yet to come.

For now, a few photos from a coastal town on the South Island called Kaikoura. By the time I arrived there, I was in the process of pushing north to get back to Auckland and return my van, so I only got a little taste of what the place offers. With its whaling history and diverse wildlife, I could have spent several days exploring. Instead, I had my Thanksgiving meal of spinach-potato soup, salad, and local honey mead at Hislops Wholefood Cafe, took a walk along the coast for a few hours, and then got back into the van and drove north. Next time.

Shoreline at Kaikoura

Close the hatch, Captain, they’re trying to get in!

Seaweed dons its Christmas colors

 

I think she wanted me to leave

Rock Art

One of my fave NZ critters, the friendly Silvereye

This fur seal gave a tremendous bark and sent me scurrying right after I took this photo

Merry Christmas from the Maori community in Kaikoura!

Hitting the Road in New Zealand

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I promised blog posts from New Zealand and pictured myself snuggled into my camper van each night, tapping away on my laptop. I mean, what else is there to do during those long, lonely evenings? Yet by the time I’ve found a campsite, made dinner, and tried to get a grip on the chaos in the back of my van, I have little energy for words. The crosswords, playing cards, and coloring book I packed against the solitude sit untouched at the bottom of my suitcase. By 8:30, I’ve put up my curtains and am searching for my toothpaste and floss.

Driving on the left takes it out of me, but even worse is having the driver’s seat on the right. I’m just not used to having all that car over on my left and have nearly side-swiped cars or lost the side mirror several times. Tunnels and one-lane bridges are especially nerve wracking. I’m also swerving off to the shoulder every few minutes because I just have to have one more picture of sheep.

Cute sheep

Sheep with landscape

 

Cutest sheep

These stops are a constant surprise to the drivers behind me because although I dutifully switch on the windshield wipers every time I pull over, a turn signal would no doubt be more helpful. But the wipers and signals are also reversed from U.S. cars, so other drivers will just have to watch for my wipers.

Plus my brain is exhausted from the constant input. Non-stop, with nary a “routine” moment when my brain can relax: the lush vegetation, the huge birds, the wild Maori place names like Whanganui, Whakarewarewa, and Waimamaku. And of course the occasional volcano or waterfall.

A volcano near Whakapapa

Huka Falls, Waikato River

In the States, I just switch on cruise control, lean my seat back, put my left foot up on the dashboard (which drove my dear brother to distraction), and cruise for an entire day without any fuss. Not so here in NZ. Two or three hours  on the narrow, curvy roads is plenty, and then I have to stop for a tea or a walk. Fortunately, there is an abundance of both here. Around every bend is a scenic area, an overlook, or a public garden. My Fitbit probably thinks it’s been stolen and is being worn by someone new. 

There’s just so much to tell you! But as I say, the evenings have been short, plus the wi-fi costs are nuts.

I drafted this blog on the ferry ride from Wellington to Picton, between the North and South islands. I camped outside Picton last night and am now at a place recommended by campers on my Campermate app — a must-have if you’re traveling in NZ. Lots of people gave a thumbs-up to Kina Beach Reserve, so I decided to give it a try. For the grand total of about $2.75 per night, here are my digs for a few days . . .

Kina Beach in Tasman, a little slice of heaven

Going Around the World to Escape America

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At long last, I have found a reason to thank Donald Trump. I’m not certain, but there’s a good chance that without his spectacular take-down of my country, I would not be here in Auckland, New Zealand at the start of a Grand Adventure. (I also want to thank the Accidental president for dictating that random capitalization is a Big and perfect Win.)

Pondering the Grand Adventure

I hadn’t realized that America’s Great Embarrassment had anything to do with my impulsive exit from the U.S. of A., but this morning as I pondered my maps, I realized for the first time that I have journeyed to the far side of the earth from my home near Washington, D.C.

As far away as I can get.

Note: In actuality, the antipodes of D.C. is a 15,912-foot-deep trench in the Indian Ocean called the Diamantina Fracture. These waters are known as some of the stormiest and loneliest in the world — could it be that the vicious D.C. vortex penetrates the earth’s core, ruptures rock, churns magma, and agitates the depths of the Indian Ocean on the other side of the planet? I’d believe it. At any rate, New Zealand is one of the nearest land masses to the trench, and this is where I have landed after seven hours of hanging about in three airports, eighteen hours of flying through the air, and the total loss of November 5th, 2019, which was left hanging somewhere over an ocean.

Blessed Space

I’ve written a bit about my motivations for coming here, but thus far they’ve been in the “life is short and I’m not getting any younger and you only live once” category. I feel I’m in a dynamic transition after long years of grieving family losses, leaving my pastoral role last year, and shedding thirty-plus pounds this year. Exploring the wilds of New Zealand in a camper van seems as good a way as any of spending a month while I try to open my spirit to sense what God has next for me.

I had not identified the need for escape as part of my motivation. Yet last night over spinach cannelloni and salad, as my Kiwi cousin implored me to explain what in bloody hell is going on in America and who ARE these trump voters anyway, and I struggled to articulate what I have spent three years trying in vain to grasp, I felt a familiar sense of heaviness descend, a physical sensation of added weight, as if I were carrying not just those lost thirty pounds, but another hundred as well.

In America, I walk around with this heaviness all the time, sometimes in the form of dread, sometimes despair, sometimes grief, sometimes horror, sometimes numbness. And it never entirely goes away because there is a Malignant Narcissist in the White House who is trying to destroy my beloved homeland. Here in New Zealand, the heaviness seems to be lifting. This morning when I saw on the news that there is a big rally in D.C. tomorrow calling for the impeachment of our Great Embarrassment, I thought, “Excellent, I hope a million people turn out.“ And then I thought, “I wonder what I’ll have for breakfast.”

I finally have some blessed distance from America’s crisis: 8,774 miles, to be exact. Or 12,742 miles if you go straight through the center of the earth. I have space to breathe. This morning I lounged in bed with my tea and gazed out the window, where I swear a bird was singing something very like, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” I scrolled past atrocity after atrocity on my newsfeed, but instead chose to read Mike Tidwell’s fun example of travel writing about his 1998 expedition to a place I will not be visiting: a big rock that juts out of the lower Indian Ocean and is the actual antipode of Washington, D.C. 

Morning view over the rooftops of Botany Downs, Auckland to the volcanic mountains beyond

Have I Mentioned I’m Going to New Zealand?

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One month from today, I should be somewhere over some ocean (my geography isn’t all that it could be), winging my way towards New Zealand. Yes! In case you missed the “big reveal” slipped in at the end of my recent post Courageous Middle Age, I am in the midst of planning a solo camper-van trip across the two islands known as “Land of the Long White Cloud,” or Aotearoa, in the indigenous Maori language.

Otago Peninsula (photo in public domain)

It’s All About Me!

Most people’s first response when they hear this is, “By yourself??” Why yes, by myself. It’s usually my favorite way to travel. Go where I want and do what I want when I want, be alone when I want, make friends if I want. See a theme here? It’s all about ME!

So yeah, solo. I wouldn’t go to Afghanistan or Yemen on my own, but this is New Zealand. They speak English, and it’s one of the safest places in the world. These people call themselves “Kiwis,” for heaven’s sake, how threatening can they be? I recently asked a Kiwi friend if there are dangerous animals I need to know about, like crocodiles or tree pythons or eight-inch spiders. He thought a minute and said, “Well, we have opossums.” 

This week I figure I’d better move beyond dreaming to serious planning. I am surrounded by travel books, maps, and random notes from conversations with Kiwis. My Chrome tabs are open to articles like The Best Secret Beaches in New Zealand; November in New Zealand: What to Pack and What to See; and A Guide to the Wellington/Picton Ferry. Even my leisure reading is all New Zealand, all the time: Janet Frame, Katherine Mansfield, Owen Marshall.

What Could Happen?

Until recently, I’ve been feeling confident and excited about my trip, except the part about driving on the left-hand side of the road. But as I wrote last week, anxiety has been worming its way into my brain. My misadventure with my financial planner has shaken my confidence, and things I thought were certain are not, like American Democracy.

I need to give myself a good talking to: I will not be governed by fear. I am a capable, experienced traveler, and what could happen? I mean, well, yes, I was robbed and lost everything including my passport in Costa Rica. And I sprained my ankle and could barely walk most of the time I was in Uganda. (Ice is hard to come by there.) I got lost hiking in a fog bank in the wilderness of Yosemite and was pretty sure I was going to have to spend the night with only bears and mountain lions to keep me warm.

Flying Solo

OK, so maybe asking “What could happen?” isn’t helpful. Instead I will envision myself tootling along an ocean-side cliff, Maori music on the radio, the turquoise waters of the South Pacific stretching out to infinity on my left, the Southern Alps looming on my right. 

One of the things I love most about traveling solo is the feeling that not a soul in the world knows where I am. I don’t know why that’s so compelling, but it gives me the same arms-outstretched feeling of unbearable freedom that I get from flying dreams. How I wish I still had flying dreams!!

Still, I guess it might be a good idea to inform someone about my whereabouts, once I plan my (very) flexible itinerary. I suppose if I drove off a cliff while gazing at Fiordland penguins or searching for blue whales, my camper-van company (aptly named Mad Campers) would eventually come looking for me.

OK, back to my maps. Thanks for reading today’s ruminations on my upcoming New Zealand adventure!

These aren’t Fiordland Penguins, but I love that New Zealand advertises a same-sex penguin couple (Thelma and Louise) on their tourism site.

 

Official Fiordland Crested Penguins (Photo: TravelWayOfLife)

Precariousness Happens: Autumn, Impeachment, and Anxiety

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This happens sometimes, usually in the Autumn when I’ve been cloistered away at my New Hampshire retreat for a time. It starts as a vague feeling of perhaps needing someone to talk to, progresses through the sense that your skin doesn’t fit and you might need to get out of it, and ends with lying awake at dawn wondering what terrible fate is about to befall you. Sometimes cancer, sometimes bankruptcy, sometimes North Korean missiles. You get the picture.

I blame it on the shortening days, the darker nights, and the mood of these northerners who are dreading another long winter of shivering and shoveling. Today I had lunch with a friend at the Badger Balm factory where she works, surrounded by hillsides bursting with near-peak color. As I walked out of the building and into the beauty, the woman following me sighed heavily and said, “It really smells like fall, I guess it had to happen.”

Had to happen??? I just drove ten hours to see this happen! But if you live here, autumn heaviness is apparently part of life. And it might be contagious, even if you don’t live here year-round.

I guess it had to happen

Happenstance

This year the depression/anxiety engulfed me on my first day. It probably had something to do with the fact that our president is quite clearly out of his cotton-pickin’ mind, as my father would say, and also with the fact that my financial planner just really, really screwed up, resulting in a massive tax bill and the possibility of losing my health care.

These two realities staged a fierce competition to see which could wreak more havoc with my brain chemistry during the two-day drive up from Maryland. Although I was listening to an outstanding audiobook (Lab Girl, by geobiologist Hope Jahren), every time I stopped the car, trump was still president and my financial world was still rocking. I had way too much time to cogitate and fret. I watched late-night news in my hotel room, diving ever deeper into the details of impeachment.

Yesterday I spoke to my financial planner over the phone and finally lost it — which I never, ever, do — when she kept telling me how complicated taxes were and how she wouldn’t exactly call this a mistake, more of a “learning experience.” It felt good to yell in the moment, but not so good afterwards. To comfort and numb myself, I spent the day on Twitter. I repeat: to make myself feel BETTER, I spent the day on Twitter. ‘Nuff said.

Hence, my 3 a.m. musings on North Korea’s latest missile launch — from a submarine, mind you, which can cross oceans — which took place while the so-called president was tweeting about his impeachment being BULLSHIT, in all caps in case we missed it. (This was all before he stood before a bank of cameras on the White House lawn this morning and encouraged Communist China to investigate his political opponent.)

Precariousness

Today I have been thinking about the nature of the word “precarious.” It just popped into my head as I was journaling and meditating this morning.

It’s a good word, even better than an onomatopoeia, which merely sounds like the action the word implies, like buzz or hiss. Precarious is more clever than that, kind of sneakily apt. As if you might unwittingly step onto the platform of “pre” and totter at the top of that brief, crisp “c” before tumbling headlong into the “AAAaaaaar-eee-ooouuus” abyss.

It doesn’t sound it, but precarious was a legal term in the 1600s — “held through the favor of another” — from the Latin, meaning “obtained by asking or praying.” This notion of being “dependent on another” led to the broader meaning of risky or dangerous.

So here I sit seeking comfort in language and writing, gazing out the window at the flaming leaves precariously clinging to their branches until the will of a breeze or a rainfall decides otherwise, and feeling grateful for my health, my financial security, and the democracy in which we live. And praying for the favor of God’s protection on all of it.

“All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

– Lady Julian of Norwich, 1342 – circa 1416

Courageous Middle Age

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I never call myself “middle-aged,” I hate the term. I don’t like getting older, even if I am getting wiser (here’s hoping). But let’s face it, unless I’m going to live to be well past the century mark, I am there. In middle age and a teensy bit more.

Change is Afoot

Recently, though, something has clicked, or is in the process of clicking. I am rather suddenly learning to appreciate middle age! I’ve always loved those transition periods in life when you know you’re  evolving, but you aren’t sure what’s happening or where you’re going to end up. I’ve noted periods of passage in my journals since I was sixteen, and today was jotting about my latest one while soaking up the late summer sun at my place in New Hampshire, sipping tea on my deck and feeling entirely retired and entirely blessed.

In contrast to my past inner transitions, I can see this one has a direct cause, and it’s my recent weight loss. Not the actual shedding of pounds, but more the Noom weight loss program itself. It’s a whole mind, body, spirit thing and I’ve never come across anything like it. It’s put together by psychologists and while it’s relatively “simple” (ha!), it’s having a profound effect on the way I think and consequently behave. It seems my ability to lose weight after years of telling myself I’d never have the power to do so has allowed me to see myself and my life journey in a whole new light. I have been examining my past beliefs and behaviors with a curious but not overly critical eye, challenging the age-old pesky negative voices in my head, and allowing myself to dream a little.

Growing Up is Hard to Do

One of Noom’s “psych lessons” talks about goal orientations and how they can be either performance-based or mastery-based. As we get older, our less-ego-driven selves generally shift from an orientation of performance (What do others think? How do I compare? ) to mastery (What am I learning? Is this helping me grow, making me a better person?). This has been a hard transition for me. For most of my life, I’ve cared way too much what others think of me and have craved recognition and affirmation. That’s a draining and frustrating way to live because it gives others control over your well-being and serenity.

This idea — I’ll call it ego versus spirit — isn’t new for me; it’s not some epiphany. I was in therapy for eight years, have done related twelve-step work around growing up with an alcoholic parent, and have read several books on the topic. (Two good ones, if you’re interested, are Father Richard Rohr’s “Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life” and “Living an Examined Life: Wisdom for the Second Half of the Journey” by James Hollis.) Well, through Noom I’m finally getting it, and it’s changing everything. You know how sometimes it’s just time?

Fear No More!

I’m banishing ingrained habits of thinking and feeling, like powerlessness and fearfulness. I learned to be risk-averse and overly cautious from my mother, and the river of fear runs deep. New things are dangerous, period. Laying low is always safest.

Noom to the rescue. They urged me to create a morning affirmation, and I’ve done so (don’t laugh, it’s working): “I have the ability to do whatever I choose because I am strong, determined, courageous, and wise.” At first I used “smart,” but smart is for younger people trying to impress others. By affirming my “wisdom” instead, I give myself permission to embrace what comes with middle age. I’ve been through a boatload of painful crap and I’ve learned some stuff! I’m owning it, along with the lines in my face and the sunspots on my arms. (Well, sort of.)

COURAGE
Courage is armor
A blind man wears;
That calloused scar
Of outlived despairs;
Courage is Fear
That has said its prayers.
— KARLE WILSON BAKER

So guess what? I’M GOING TO NEW ZEALAND!! Just like that. By myself. In a camper van. Don’t care what anyone thinks. So there, fear! I bought my (first) NZ travel book this week, read, researched, and emailed camper van companies and travel bloggers late into the night, and I’ve decided! Am I scared? Sure. But I’m also tingly excited. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt like this. Time to get over the idea that middle-aged women can’t get tingly excited!

Milford Sound, New Zealand (Photo by my cousin, Richard Boyter)

 

I’ve Missed You!

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I miss you. It’s been months since I’ve written here, by far the longest silent stretch since I started Writing with Spirit six-plus years ago. I can’t explain it, it just is what it is. For a few weeks, I’ve been trying to figure out how to get back in, but I haven’t found an obvious doorway.

It’s Lent, I always write during Lent. And there have been lots of mass shootings — I always rage and offer prayers after one of those. The person in the White House continues to be an embarrassment, a danger, and an outrage. What’s new? Why waste the ink on him? Why contribute to the negativity? America made a huge mistake and it may take us down; take the planet down. We all know that.

At last count there were approximately 323 Democrats or sort-of Democrats vowing to take on the monster in 2020. In the past, I would have had plenty to say about all of them.

And yesterday the Mueller report came out – now there’s something to write about! But no. No words for any of that.

Am I a Pastor or Am I a Lap?

One reason I think I have not written is that I had news to share but I did not know how to share it. I stepped down from my pastoral role at church in the fall. It was a difficult decision that played out over the summer, during which time I lost both my cats. (I think I told you that part.) I don’t know quite why that was relevant, but it was. Perspective, I guess. Life is short, live in the moment.

I remember at one point thinking, “The most important role I have in life right now is to sit in this chair with this sweet dying cat in my lap.” That’s it. I realized I was just a lap. A loving lap.

Mostly it had to do with space. I was supposed to be the Pastor of Prayer and Healing, leading people into silence and contemplative practices, preaching about making space for God in your life. And there was no space in my life. I wasn’t practicing what I preached. And as long as there was no space, I could not sense God nudging me into different paths, or whispering to me about who I am meant to become. It’s always uncomfortable to step away from one thing before you know exactly (or even vaguely) where you are headed next, but sometimes it’s wise.

Anyway, I’m still leading retreats and groups and occasionally helping with worship and so on, but the burden is less. It was a good choice. Maybe I’ll write more about it in the future, but I just wanted to get it out there, because I felt a big part of my identity had shifted and it seemed disingenuous not to share that. Maybe now I can move on and write more regularly.

Entering the Desert for Lent

Most years, Lent is a busy season for me, while at the same time being reflective. This year I simply skipped town. I went into the desert for Lent, which is appropriate, since the season is meant to reflect the forty days Jesus spent in the desert wilderness before he began his ministry.

But I didn’t spend much time in self-examination and repentance. No ashes on my forehead for Ash Wednesday. Instead, I flew out to Albuquerque with a girlfriend and spent two weeks cruising around the New Mexican desert in a rental car. We collected cool desert rocks, visited museums, parks, and wildlife refuges, wandered through the ruins of Spanish missions and Pueblo Indian villages, drank margueritas, bought turquoise and silver, and soaked in the same hot springs that Geronimo is said to have frequented.

We gazed at distant horizons instead of computer screens. I read only books about New Mexico: no politics, spiritual growth, or fiction. Living in the moment. We drove for what seemed hours without seeing another car. At night the starfields left us speechless, which is perfectly comfortable when you’ve known someone for sixty years, as E and I have.

In short, I’m practicing “living life to the full,” as Jesus recommended.

There — now I’ve slipped back into the blogosphere. More pictures and stories from New Mexico to come.

Yucca at White Sands National Monument

E wandering in the desert

Native American petroglyph of the Easter Bunny (Petroglyphs National Monument)

Bee in Apricot Blossom

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