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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

“Hallelujah Anyway”

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Greetings, friends & readers! I’m still alive, I’m happy to say. Folks keep asking why I haven’t been blogging lately, and my answers are all over the map. I wish I could say I’ve been working on my memoir instead, but it’s more that I feel I *should* be working on my memoir if I’m going to write at all. How dysfunctional is that? I started a writing group last year specifically so that I would be motivated to work on the memoir, but so far I’ve only shared Chapter One and a bunch of older pieces. Little new writing.

In Search of Hope

Blogging is usually is a spiritual practice for me, one which entails at least reflection, if not prayer or meditation. Sometimes I’m just processing, but usually my writing takes me to a place of greater understanding or even hope. I trust that my erstwhile readers occasionally end up there as well. These days, though, it’s harder to find my way to hope. The practice of reflective writing can take me to some dark places. I mean, the planet . . .

I think that’s one reason my posts have been scarce lately. When you’re working with kids in cages, porn star pay-offs, climate collapse, and our democracy teetering on the edge, well — hope can be a stretch.

“Hallelujah Anyway” **

The good news is, I’m learning to live life despite the outrage, grief, and dread brought on by our national crisis gone global.

My life has been full and rich and fun. I’m working five mini-jobs right now (I know, kind of nuts) and each offers some level of meaning and purpose. I appreciate the yin/yang balance of teaching middle school kids and companioning an older man with Parkinson’s. I recently opened my sweet house in New Hampshire for the summer, attended a spiritual writing conference in New Jersey, and took a two-week road trip in New Mexico. Since stepping away from my pastoral position last fall, I’m able to be more present and attentive to all of this. Sometimes I am literally brought to tears of gratitude for my church, my friends, and my crazy-blessed life.

There’s plenty good and edifying to write about. My annual pilgrimage to the Wild Goose Festival of spirituality, art, and justice is only a week away, and of course there’s the Democratic primary circus — you know how I love waxing eloquent about politics! I fear that in the end, though, “progressives” won’t like what happens in the primary and will either vote third party or not at all, thereby returning trump’s rump to the Oval Office chair. But since I’m eschewing dread and aiming for hope, we won’t go there.

Happy Monday, Happy Fourth, and enjoy life! See you back here soon, I hope.

** Borrowed from author Anne Lamott

“I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” John 10:10

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

Memoir Madness

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MEMOIR MADNESS

The good news is, today I wrote almost 1,300 words. I know that’s not much compared to the over-achieving masses who will participate in National Novel Writing Month in November, dashing off 1,667 words every day for 30 days in pursuit of a 50,000-word novel. But it’s pretty good for me. Yesterday was only 500 words, and it was crap.

The bad news is, only about 350 of today’s words have the slightest chance of contributing to my final word count because I went on a 400-word digression that ended in a conundrum (about which I will tell you), and because I got mired in shame.

The downside of searching for patterns and themes in your life is that when you find them — or they find you — they may not be the lovely themes and patterns you had imagined were the narrative of your life. Alarmingly, my redemptive spiritual coming-of-age story seems to be all about shame and secrecy. Mind you, neither “shame” nor “secrecy” appear anywhere in my chapter outlines (such as they are), yet every scene leads me there.

I knew that the alcoholic father/enabling mother business would produce a few sentences on shame, but when your alcoholic father is also an undercover CIA agent in Miami during the Cuban missile crisis, the secrets can multiply quickly. Next thing you know, you’re writing about stealing your friend’s stuffed mouse, and your sister’s souvenir coin, and the shiny set of keys dangling from the door of the shiny new Dodge at the dealership, and you’re thinking, “This isn’t what my memoir is about.”

So then you take a break from your memoir and you draft a blog post about shame, which you start thinking is not half-bad, and so you begin revising and playing with words and researching outlets that might publish something like that, but while you are doing this, you remember that last spring you were working on a piece for the New York Time’s Modern Love column and so you find that and start revising it, and then you are googling your dead ex-boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend and so you stop.

At some point, I also searched “shame” in my blog archives and discovered that I’ve written 59 separate posts that at least mention it. This makes 60. I may soon have to acknowledge its existence.

Now about that 400-word digression that ended in a conundrum: As an ethical memoirist, if someone told you a story when you were a child and you have always believed it to be true but then you find out it’s not technically true, actually not even close, can you still use the story without fessing up that it’s not true after all? If everyone involved is long dead? I’m asking for a friend, of course.

And – BAM! Another 482 words, done.

 

Memoir Misery

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I keep reminding myself, I did this on purpose. I am sequestered at my solitary little house in New Hampshire for a month; whole days pass with no human contact except an occasional text message that’s somehow made its way over the rivers and through the woods to my grandmother’s house.

I am here to write, or at least to think about writing. I also had dreams of repairing broken windowpanes and painting mildew-pocked walls, but once I got here I realized that a month isn’t that long after all. I do need to find a way to keep the chipmunks from bringing all their belongings through the broken attic window and settling in for the winter, but otherwise, writing is enough.

More than enough, it seems. I’ve been messing about with this memoir for years and have now promised myself that by the end of this month, I will either have found the themes, patterns, and connections that give my life meaning, or I will stop pretending that I’m writing a memoir. Grandiose, right? Perhaps I need to narrow my scope a bit. (I’ve always loved an existential crisis.)

The Grand Endeavor

I’ve been reading books about writing memoir and I’ve been reading memoirs and I’ve been reflecting on memories. I’m not certain what type of memoir this is trying to be, but it has elements of coming-of-age and of a spiritual journey — and it’s hard to ignore my struggle with addiction. All of which require mining the past for often-painful memories.

This is why I’ve been here five days and only yesterday put pen to paper.

As Sven Birkerts says in his brilliant book, The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again, “The memoirist writes, above all else, to redeem experience, to reawaken the past, and to find its pattern; better yet {s}he writes to discover behind bygone events a dramatic explanatory narrative.”

Think about that. It’s kind of overwhelming!

Especially when you consider Virginia Woolf’s theory that what makes certain memories stand out is that they have in some way shocked our systems. So when you write memoir, you are nudging long-buried “shocks” back to the fore. Woolf, though, saw great value in this. “The shock-receiving capacity is what makes me a writer. I hazard the explanation that a shock is at once in my case followed by the desire to explain it . . . it is or will become a revelation of some order.”

Her philosophy, she says, is that behind everything “is hidden a pattern; that we — I mean all human beings — are connected with this; that the world is a work of art.” (This is a fine example of the universality that writers seek: Woolf called herself an atheist, yet this Jesus follower completely tracks with her philosophy of life.)

The Challenge Ahead

So here I sit, swinging from Virginia Woolf’s soaring philosophy to the more practical considerations of “Chapter One.” In their user-friendly book, Breaking Ground on Your Memoir: Craft, Inspiration, and Motivation for Memoir Writers, authors Myers and Warner lay out a step-by-step process of building a memoir. The first step is to identify turning points in your life, important “moments of change” that provide the hooks for your story. They may seem clearly significant, or they may not. You start by brainstorming freely.

The first turning point that came to my mind? The day I discovered my tiny toad Sally’s pale legs sticking out of my big toad Fred’s mouth and I chose to extricate her despite my poor mother standing behind me shrieking, “Melanie don’t, Melanie don’t!”

So you see what I’m working with here.

(To learn Sally’s fate, you have to buy the book. It should be out in about a decade.)

Preparing for Mueller’s Firing

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Hello, my fellow Americans! I am packing for my trip to the biennial Festival of Faith & Writing at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Two years ago, I made it a point to blog every night from the Festival because there was so much amazing material, I had to capture it each evening. That was back in the halcyon days before we had a narcissistic reality TV star trying to play the part of the President of the United States.

Now, absurdly enough, before I travel I must check to make sure I know where the nearest emergency rally will be held should the TV star try to fire Special Counsel Mueller for investigating Russia’s hacking of our elections.

Today the reality TV star called the Mueller investigation “an attack on our country,” so it’s not unreasonable to assume that he may boil over, ignore all his aides, and try to get rid of Mueller very soon. (The fellow who usually makes trump’s unpleasantries go away, lawyer Michael Cohen, is reportedly otherwise occupied right now.)

So before I leave town, I want to make sure you have this link. Millions are set to rush into the streets should trump try to further obstruct the investigations by firing Mueller or Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. The website will help you find a rally near you. There are hundreds to choose from! And check back here at Writing with Spirit for news from the Festival later in the week.

It will be good to tune out our democracy’s distress for a few days and focus on something else. But if worse comes to worse, I will be in the streets.

Peace out.

Here are a few shots from the last FFW.

under tree

lawn2

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