The house in Matapouri was a god-send, an amazing transition space, a place, a space, a beautiful spaceplacebase space. S p a c e . A time.
By most people’s standards it would be described as a compact two bedroom apartment. (The second bedroom was for two four-person families who were visiting during December.) For us, it was palatial. Excessive even. What do people do with all this space to knock around in? Briefly we turned on the TV and discovered the answer: they pump filler into it, expanding exactly to the room’s volume, with slight overflow.
Our first morning, while telling me a story over breakfast, Andy mentioned that I had a smudge of marmite on my cheek. Still listening, I wondered off to the bathroom to consult a mirror. In less than ten seconds he was beside me, tugging my arm: “where have you gone? What are you doing?” Dragging me back to the living room, placing me back on the backrest of the sofa, he explains, “don’t you know that you need to be right here, next to me, while I’m talking to you?” Attentive and present.
Several weeks later, in Australia, we were both baffled and goggled as my whirlwind cousin wondered off mid-conversation, answered her phone, sent texts, arranged her wedding, and listened to our story at the same time. I used to be like her, a queen of multi-tasking. When did I become a one-thing-gal?
There was always time. Never an acceptable excuse for not listening. Or waiting for a right time to do the telling.
On another occasion I came out of the bathroom and Andy was gone. Not in the living room. Not in the kitchen. Or bedroom. Or hallway. Or garden, that I could see. He walked back in as I was looking for him inside the spare bedroom cupboard. “Why would I be in there?” he enquired. Dead seriously, while also realising its ridiculousness, I replied that I thought we were maybe playing hide-and-seek. It was the only reasonable thing I could think of to explain his complete absence. (Unreasonable would be him falling off the boat, a very real fear until that week.)
M u s t g e t a g r i p .
In the late afternoon he announced that he was going to the loo. You know what?, I replied, I don’t need to know. We’re in a house, with a door on the loo, and a window from the loo that you can open, and I don’t need to know. I don’t need to know. I don’t need to leave the building to give you your privacy, or figure out which way is upwind. I don’t need to subtly and apparently coincidentally evacuate the living room to ‘enjoy the scenery’. I don’t even need to acknowledge your current actions.
I n d e p e n d e n c e ! F r e e d o m !
In eleven months, with the exception of a few rare escapes, we had never been more than a few metres apart. At maximum, ten metres, and that only in extreme sail-change situations. When indoors, rarely more than two. That’s close.
We had a special way of speaking to each other, as though speaking with toddlers. I’m not sure why: I’ve never been much of a fan of baby-talk with kids, let alone adults, but it was funny, and comforting, endearing, and somehow reduced ourselves to our lowest common denominator. In reality the things we concerned ourselves with most were the same as a toddler: eating, sleeping, getting dressed, being tired, being hungry, being hurt, being scared, getting better, being happy, taking responsibility, regularly finding things hard, and getting things wrong. And trying to avoid melt-downs.
I’ve spent a lot of time this last month with toddlers and young children and now see them in a whole new light. Last week we went climbing on Mount Araplies, Australia. In the morning I helped my six year old friend ascend a boulder. Two-thirds of the way up she lost faith in her abilities. “I can’t do it.” You can. I can’t. Try. Focus. Just think of your next move. Don’t panic. Stay calm. You can do it. I can’t. You can. And she did.
In the afternoon it was me on the cliff-face, a little higher, and steeper, but on a rope, and Andy up above. I had done really well so far but now couldn’t figure out what next. I tried, I really tried. But I couldn’t do it. You can. I can’t. Try. Focus. Just think of your next move. Don’t panic. Stay calm. You can do it. I can’t. You can. And I did.
At what point do we force our kids to keep trying stuff they find hard, impossible even, but allow ourselves to give up? Now that’s not fair.
With time we happily eased into our new space. The double bed with access from both sides and enough space that we could sleep next to each other, both at full breadth, and not have enforced contact. The hot, hot, fresh, not at all salty, endless running water. The oven and fridge and freezer. What an exquisite pleasure each was. And I haven’t even left describing the house yet: the best was outside!
The location was incredible. From our bed we could hear waves caressing the beach. The new sound of security: breaking waves are only comforting when you’re on land.
In less than a minute we could be in the sea, via a picture perfect sandy beach.
Every morning and evening we would swim in the sea and play in the waves. We went snorkelling, exploring, Andy went spear-fishing and fossicking (my new word of the month). One morning dolphins visited the bay and swam with us. Large, inquisitive, playful, beautiful, and close. What a treat. I was on a high all day.
During the daytimes we would return to town, Whangarei, to work on Zephyrus. We had lived on board, in the yard, for about ten days before our friends arrived. It was fine, but after the delight of the house there was no going back.
Andy went for a couple of runs. I did t’ai ch’i on the beach. I cooked my first ever Sunday Roast complete with Yorkshire pudding, gravy, peas, carrots, and stuffing. Twice. And a lasagne. And we had cold beer and ice-cream every day.
After four weeks in the house, we left. I believed we had successfully re-integrated, re-socialised, re-normalised. It’s not a better or worse way of being, just a different tempo. The metronome will tick to whatever speed you set it to so explore them all and see which one resonates best.
We went to Australia for a fortnight. My cousin was having a wedding ceremony in Coff’s Harbour, followed by a celebration in Brisbane. Between and beyond these two events we visited friends around those parts of the country. I am loving seeing friends, in their own environment, just mooching on the sofa drinking tea and talking shit. That’s what I do with my friends. Andy and his friends, they go climbing and camping and skiing and adventuring. So we did a bit of that too. Except for skiing.
Along the way we both lost our passports, separately and independently. And spent a lot of effort trying to get them both back, or replace them. And we both got sick: fluey stuff most probably collected in airports and planes and air-conditioned rooms. We managed to get overdrawn on two different bank accounts despite the money being theoretically available. And returned to New Zealand to two speeding tickets from a month ago. I phoned my UK bank to arrange a transfer to New Zealand, on a special plan which means I pay only $2 for an hour talking overseas, and after the bank computer crashed three times I got cut off. My freshly topped-up $30 credit had run out. I phoned the phone company who checked the number- it’s a local rate in the UK but not a landline so I was paying through the nose to wait for computers in Lancashire to crash. And I still hadn’t arranged the transfer. Then my friend lost her phone and we spent an afternoon trying to find it again. (She eventually found it in the place I had looked twice.)
I spend a lot of time chasing my own tail, or so it seems. That’s the hard work of this easy life.
In the last two months I have been lucky to spend really valuable time with people spanning every stage of my life. So much so that arrival in the antipodes feels more like a homecoming than a journey to the distant beyond. We met up with a family friend who was a teenager with my dad, and who with her husband knew my parents before I did. My cousin who I grew up competing with, and her new husband with whom Andy crossed some treacherous ice two years ago . The first boy I flirted with at school, to whose daughter I am now godmother. House-mates and really close allies from every place I have lived since leaving home including Leeds, London, Toronto, Antarctica, and Cambridge. All I have known for at least ten years, and many for longer. Talking with them, they reflect back at me the person I was, and remind me of who I am.
The things they pick up on aren’t documented in the blogs. The fact that I never slept well (all ex-housemates can vouch for my amazing sleeping ability), or now can function in mornings (a worrying sign indeed) or, most confusingly, seem to have lost my ambition and focus completely. My new found empathy for women who throw their lives into cooking and children, because as much as anything it gives them a sense of purpose; or children who have temper-tantrums, because sometimes that’s the only thing you can think of to do. The fact that I was scared, a lot of the time, as well as bored or overwhelmed, and even dabbled in baking and crocheting socks! That I didn’t rise to the occasion, that I still don’t know how to sail, and often don’t really want to.
The journey brought out a lot of aspects of me that I don’t particularly like, and that are certainly not part of my sense of self. But they are part of me. For a month mid-Pacific I stopped making any decisions at all. I stopped even trying. I wouldn’t even choose between tea and coffee, rice or pasta. I became entirely subservient, and unhappy. How did it change? What did you do, I asked Andy. Ah yes, he gave me choice. Power. Complete control of our itinerary and activities with the only condition being that he wanted to visit Suvarow. That’s when we turned around and sailed into crashing seas to witness an eclipse. It’s when I woke up and started taking responsibility again.
It’s a relief to rediscover myself. Gradually I re-assemble my character, both the parts I have missed and new aspects that I would like to keep, discarding those I don’t wish to define me any more. And so we grow.
These are all changes and characteristics that we see in each other, in our friends, and in ourselves, but buried and hidden and easily deniable in this busy multi-tasking world. The sailing journey, that I truly thought was quite pointless before leaving, was in many ways an amazing metaphor for life. It contained a multitude of lessons and experiences in a very physical and real manner. We both learnt a lot about ourselves, and each other, that we could have hidden for years.
Now we need to decide what to do next. I’m balancing on a pin-head, looking down across the paths and options of my life. It’s feels wobbly. Five years from now I’ll know what I chose, and probably have an opinion about the wisdom of that choice. But right now I can’t hear the guidance of my future self. I know we can’t stay here, on the wobbly pin-head. The last bit is over and the next bit yet to start. Options on some days bewilder in number; on other days they are absent entirely and eerily silent.
Critically the choice is this. Do we reintegrate further, get jobs, become this-life savvy, go climbing and sailing in scheduled “time-off”, live what might look like an alternative life but in a mainstream world… or do we return to the alternative world with all its discomforts and risks and oceans and cliffs, and longings for the comfort and ease of mainstream society?
How much do I love crisp clean sheets, fresh running water, phones, the ability to see friends, and the security of others taking responsibility for me? Will I be happier if I feel safer? Or does it all just start feeling normal, and thereby go unappreciated?