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Giving Thanks for Things Growing in New Zealand

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This evening I’m camped next to a Horse Chestnut tree, a being I’m not sure I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting before. Very solid vibes.

The Horse Chestnut is the little round fellow to the right of my camper

New Zealand knows how to do trees, no doubt about that! It’s easy to see why people might see trees as objects of worship. I’ve fallen for any number of the lovelies and made more than a few u-turns to capture photos.

Tree with friends

 

The vegetation here is remarkably diverse, from cactus to moss to eucalyptus, from temperate rainforests to tiny alpine daisies to towering tree ferns, one of which — the Silver Fern — is the national symbol that graces their rugby uniforms and their airplanes. The Silver Fern gives off a majestic but humble vibe, if you can imagine. Strong and formidable, yet with growing centers that are vulnerable and gentle. Much the way I imagine the person of Jesus to have been. 

 

Silver Fern Fiddleheads

I think my favorite plant is the Red Tussock grass, and its proper name is almost as cute as it is: Chionochloa rubra. I can’t decide if these little guys belong more to the Star Trek genre or to Dr. Seuss, but I love how they just march up hillsides and take over entire landscapes. They wave enthusiastically in the wind, and the sun brings out the red in them. They are native to New Zealand and the country has created a preserve for them on the South Island — one of the few places I did not see sheep or cows!

 

One of the more ubiquitous plants is flax, which you see along the roadsides and also growing as an ornamental in many gardens. It’s not at all like what we call flax in the northern hemisphere, the plant that produces seeds for our backyard finches. The Maori traditionally used fibers from the sword-like leaves of the flax plant to make everything from coats and sandals to river rafts and eel traps. Our Maori tour guide at New Zealand’s national Te Papa museum spoke about working with flax the way African American elders in the southern U.S. speak about braiding sweetgrass. It’s as if the flax fibers are woven into their very beings.

Since I’m in New Zealand, there will be no Thanksgiving for me this year. However, I am in a constant state of thankfulness as I “live and move and have my being” among the green beings of this glorious landscape. Have yourself a blessed Thanksgiving stateside!

Scenes from New Zealand

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If you’re as old as I am, you’ll remember a time when you had to limit the number of photos you took. There was this stuff called “film,” and there were only so many images you could capture on a roll of it. Then you had to send the rolls away and wait a week or more for a magician to turn the film into pictures, for which you paid him or her handsomely.

Now, of course, a person can go on a trip to New Zealand and have hundreds of pictures in a day or two. There are no longer any limiting factors to picture taking. You don’t have to put much thought into a picture, because you can just take another. And another. As a result, I’ve taken a mind-numbing number of pics in the past twelve days, and I have no idea how to categorize them or find themes from which to write a blog post. So how about I’ll just share a few more?

A quick update: I’ve spent the past two nights at a lovely campsite on the edge of a turquoise bay and will hit the road again in the morning. This campsite has a merciful check-out time of 11:30, so tonight I can take my time doing laundry and sharing a bottle of local wine with a frenchwoman I met today — it’s her first night in a camper van, and I’ve enjoyed playing the role of experienced sage.

Tonight – sunset in Duvauchelle

Today I went to a little town settled by the French many moons ago, but before their government could send more of them, the British arrived and history happened. But the town has retained its heritage, if somewhat pretentiously, and I had a decent crepe for brunch and bought some cheese. I also went to one of the most incredible places I’ve ever been, called “The Giant’s House.” You will hear more about this, it’s worth a separate blog and besides my phone and computer haven’t done whatever magic they do together in the mysterious cloud, so the Giant’s House pics haven’t yet downloaded. At least I don’t have to wait for the film!

Anyway, some random photos:

The view from here . . .

Beach detritus, Kina Beach

Some of these Maori images are frankly just a little unsettling. Te PaPa museum, Wellington

A Kea, I think. Otari-Wilson Bush near Wellington

A Weka

“Moving Along” in New Zealand

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I’m one of those travelers who likes to move along. As much as I’m a proponent of slowing down, reflecting, and “living in the present moment,” when I’m on the road, I always want to see as much as I can. I want to know what comes next. I’ve had to adjust my expectations here in New Zealand because everything takes twice as long as I think it’s going to. I can’t drive the speed limit for the life of me (literally), partly because of the death-defying narrow, windy roads next to precipitous drop-offs, and partly because I am always looking at the scenery or pulling over to take a photo or look at at a map. 

When I take a “one hour” hike, it always takes me two. At least. There’s an interesting bird call I have to investigate or a bumblebee in a flower I have to watch or a mysterious rustling in the bushes I have to wait out. There are rock cairns to be built, side paths to be followed, bark and leaves to sniff — something around here smells intoxicating and I haven’t discovered what it is yet.

So while I’m “moving along” in spirit, in practice I’m not covering as much ground as I’d imagined. Which is fine, except I was starting to feel rushed. So rather than reduce my aspirations, I’ve asked the camper van company for a few extra days, because life is short and what if I don’t get to come back? My new mantra is “Why not?”

Tonight I decided to stay in a little villa on the west coast of the South Island; after nine days of sleeping in the van and a day of driving in torrential rains, I thought it was time for some heat and a comfy bed. Maybe even a bath. And a blog — because WiFi!

Most of the places I’ve visited have quickly become “my favorite place so far.” Here are a few highlights from several of my evolving favorite places:

My first night after staying with my cousin in Auckland, I stayed at a camp in Rotorua, a town known for its geothermal activity and strong Maori presence. I visited a Maori village and experienced a high-energy dance and musical performance and walked through a natural geothermal reserve. That night I soaked in hot mineral springs for way longer than the recommended twenty minutes.

Interesting mix of Christian and Maori traditions at St. Faith’s Church in Ohinemutu in Rotorua. “It was easy for us to accept Jesus,” one Maori woman told me. “He was all about peace and kindness, like our God.” The carving was done by local Maori and is inset with paua shell.

 

 

My new friend on the left is exhibiting the Maori warrior stance. I think we’ve all had a bit too much excitement.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pukeko – a very sociable swamphen that’s common around these parts

Maori wharenui, a tribal communal house where they hold meetings, funerals, weddings, and celebrations. In the Whakarewarewa village.

Thermal pool

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Maori sentinel watches over boiling lake

Black swans on Lake Rotorua – my first morning on the road

 

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

Listen to Greta, Please

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Please take five minutes to watch Greta speaking to the UN Climate gathering this morning. This is history in the making and, I pray, the future in the making. As world leaders gather to talk about how they are trying to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, sixteen-year-old Greta Thunberg asks, “How dare you?”

Meanwhile, the American so-called “President” and his profile-in-courage Vice-President staged a walkout after making sour pouty faces for about ten minutes. And no, I’m not kidding.

 

 

 

What September 11th Means To This American

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September 11th: we call it the “National Day of Service and Remembrance.” Honestly, I’d rather not remember that soul-shattering day in 2001, except for the surreal sense of oneness and belonging — the connection, concern for others, grief for the state of the world — dare I say universal love? I do want to remember that. There were beautiful tributes at American embassies worldwide, thousands of flowers and flags and candles and cards. And of course we remember those first responders, many of whom are still paying the cost of their sacrifice. No wonder this date is dedicated to unity and charitable service.

The world loved America that day, warts and all. Even this old hippie drove around with an American flag tied to her car antennae for months afterward. Remembering the unity and big-hearted patriotism that surrounded us in the weeks after 9/11 makes me feel homesick, wondering how we could have fallen so far so fast. The seeds of division and nationalism that plague us today were already planted and well-rooted in 2001, but they were easy to ignore if you were a privileged white person such as myself. I was busy.

Now, though, there’s no denying it.

America is desperately ill, and the seeds of evil have grown into gnarled trees of corruption and greed and white nationalism. Our president and his cronies are intentionally feeding and watering those trees. Evil is flourishing right out in the open: we have a mentally unbalanced, strongman authoritarian seeking dictatorial power with the complete compliance of the once “Grand Old Party.” There may be violence if he loses, he warns, as he stokes the fires of anger and fear at his hate-fueled rallies.

I barely recognize America anymore. She never really was “one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all,” but at least we all wanted her to be. Now the strongman tells elected officials of color to “go back where you came from.”

But here’s the thing: I still love America, even more than I did when I tied that flag to my antennae on September 12, 2001. Her founding ideals may have become a mockery, corporate money may have damaged democracy beyond repair, and greed-driven climate denial may spell the beginning of the end for our species. But that “liberty and justice for all” thing? That’s still worth pursuing and defending with all we’ve got. Good-hearted women and men have fought for those ideals for hundreds of years, some in uniform, some in courtrooms, some protesting in the streets, some being martyred. Their spirits live on.

So on this “Day of Remembrance and Service,” let’s remember what this country stands for. Let’s commit to speaking up when we see racism and injustice in our daily lives. Let’s commit to educating ourselves fully, to admitting and learning from our mistakes, to voting, and to teaching our children to vote. Let’s march in the streets to protect one another, and let’s get involved in the upcoming election.

“Don’t mourn, organize!”

Joe Hill, songwriter and union organizer executed by the state of Utah in 1815.

In Remembrance

 

 

I Don’t Want to Dwell on the Sharpie Thing, But . . .

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Of all the bizarre, twisted, scary, unfathomable actions and statements from the man we all wish we could ignore, this latest “Sharpie-gate” thing has thrown me into the deep end. I can’t reach reality with my feet or find a safe flotation device to cling to. It’s as if one tiny scrawl on a map means more than the entire Mueller report. I don’t know if it’s just me, but I have a hunch I’m not the only one who feels this way. My mind is on strike and refuses to process any more of this.

I can’t even . . .

The person sitting in the Oval Office has the emotional maturity of a nine or ten-year-old, so his lying to cover a mistake isn’t a surprise, even a mistake that could have been deadly: Thank God that the man-child’s magical forecast did not accidentally omit a state targeted by the hurricane, rather than add one. He undoubtedly would have spent the week insisting there was no danger in South Carolina, no flooding or destruction happening; he would denied federal aid and raged at fake media outlets for showing victims on TV.

But there’s no need for speculative craziness, what we have is more than enough. The president if undeniably unwell and unfit.

What I can’t fathom is the White House staff and agency personnel who coddle and enable him. Do they all have Stockholm syndrome – has every one of them completely lost all sense of shame, responsibility, decency, duty, reality? The latest reports are that the man-child himself literally took his Sharpie in hand and altered an official weather map (a crime punishable by fine and/or imprisonment, but criminal activity doesn’t seem to hinder this White House). He faked the map to continue his fantasy falsehood that Alabama was in deep doo-doo due to Dorian.

He did this in front of staff – lots of them. During an official briefing leading up to a press conference, he decided at the last minute to change the map being presented. How on earth could not one person in the room say no? “You can’t do that, Mr. President, that’s our official map and lives depend on its accuracy.” Sure, he/she would have been fired, but how, how, how could they not speak up? There is some deep psychological distortion emanating from this president, and it seems to engulf everyone around him. Smart people. Experts. Public servants.

Most of all, why has the Vice President not invoked the 25th Amendment? And is it possible that Mitch McConnell is every bit as sick as the president? If Sharpie-gate isn’t enough to see what a clear and present danger trump presents to all humanity and what a completely broken psyche he has, what is?

“How long will you defend the unjust and show partiality to the wicked?” Psalm 82:2

 

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