Milestones

dsc_0018We recently celebrated my youngest’s 21st birthday.  I’ve already written about 21st birthdays in New Zealand, about how they’re meant to be a time of affirmation for the past and a “we believe in you” moment for the future.  Meg’s birthday was all that and more.

For weeks leading up to the party I was trying to organise in my head what I would say when it came time for speeches. There were plenty of stories to tell but in the end I wanted to share how thankful I am.  That her birth coincided with our move to New Zealand.  That our completed family has been blessed with 21 years of love, laughter and so many happy memories with the family and friends who came to celebrate with us on the night.  I looked at my strong, loving and confident daughter and saw reflected in her the love and support provided to us all.

Milestones offer an opportunity to reflect on our past, and it’s essential we do it with kind eyes.  No-one’s life is perfect and it’s important to acknowledge the challenges as well as the successes.  Our memories provide the foundation for hope in the future.

Happy 21st birthday to my darling daughter and happy 21st anniversary to our family life in New Zealand.

US Democracy 2016

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Over the last 21 years that I’ve lived in New Zealand I’m always asked my opinion about the current US election.  I try to explain how vast the US is, by land mass and population. The range of ethnic and religious groups living in different geographies of topography and climate with their unique beliefs and customs creates huge challenges when assembling an inclusive central government. The best US government will be one that celebrates that diversity as the main principle of a strong democracy.  That principle has been lacking in US politics for decades.

I know I’m an idealist but I’d like to think I’m also realistic when looking at issues.  One of the reasons I became a social studies teacher is because I believe so passionately in informed choice for those of us lucky enough to live in democracies.  But in 2016 I am struggling to find realistic optimism in the current US elections.

In New Zealand we have a system of democracy called MMP which stands for Mixed Member Proportional.  On Election Day we have two votes, one for a Member of Parliament (MP) to represent our district, and one for a party that we support to lead the government. For example:  I may vote for a Maori Party candidate here in Northland because s/he best represents our area but my party vote may be for the larger and older Labour Party to lead the government.  It’s a very effective way of balancing local choice with national interests.

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Most democracies practice what is called First Past the Post (FPP), essentially whoever gains the most votes leads the government.  Time and history have proven that this leads to a predominantly two party system.  You need numbers to win and smaller parties won’t be able to have a say unless they’re a part of a larger machine.

What’s wrong with this?

For me, the biggest concern is that each of the two major parties have a broad range of values and beliefs in their party members.  A liberal party can have members with extreme Green leanings and a conservative party can have members with extreme religious beliefs. I may support either parties for their more centrist policies but I have to accept their more extreme members as part of the deal.

With MMP coalitions are formed where the larger parties have to negotiate with smaller parties to form the government.  Political negotiations are more transparent and I can see quite clearly what the ruling party is willing to compromise on, or not.  I can vote for a major party if I’m happy with everything they represent or I can vote for a smaller party in the hopes they become part of a coalition with the ruling party.

A few elections ago I was concerned about indigenous Maori rights being compromised. The Maori party had not yet been part of any coalition and the current co-leaders were people I respected.  It was the perfect time to see how they would act as part of the government so I cast my party vote for them.  I have been more than happy with their measured and proactive work as part of the last two governments.

It is not a perfect system.  There are parties with only 1 or a small handful of members who become part of the coalition and behave as though they represent more than a single digit percentage of the general electorate.   Their power expands or contracts depending on the leading party.

Imagine if New Zealand’s system were applied to the current US election.

Instead of Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz having to give way to Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, each would represent parties with clear agendas who would have to negotiate to share power through a coalition.  The American public would be able to vote for the party who fully represented their values.  A government would be formed where those parties would have to learn to work together to represent the broad–and diverse–beliefs  of a country noted for its diversity.

In 2016 I see a country I love at its most divided.  Family and friends talk of voting against a candidate rather than for one.  Racism, bigotry, sexism and mono-culture are embraced and exalted.  And the only way to be considered for the Presidency is through entrenched connections and deep financial pockets.

I wish you all the best.

NZ 2016 Rio Olympians

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New Zealand performed its best Olympic medal outcome at the 2016 Rio Games. It was an exceptional event for us with 18 medals won; 4 gold, 9 silver and 5 bronze.  The maths nerd in me worked out the stats compared to the top three medal earners of the USA, China and Great Britain.  The US has a population of roughly 320 million people and won 120 medals, or 1 medal per 2.7 million people.  China’s population of 1.4 billion will always challenge the stats as their 70 medals equated to 1 per 20 million people.  Great Britain has 64 million people and won 67 medals, or 1 per 955 000.

The population of New Zealand is just under 2.5 million so our 18 medals gives us an admirable 1 per 250 000 proud Kiwis.  What many people won’t realise is how those statistics reflect the challenge athletes face in gaining funding to participate in Olympic games.  The smaller the ratio of medals to population, the greater the financial burden per head.  As well, many of our participants were members of teams, not individual events; men and women’s hockey and rugby sevens, equestrian and sculls.

What I love about the Olympics is how athletes represent so much about the culture of their home countries.  For New Zealand, water sports such as sailing and rowing reflect our ties to the waters that flow through and around our island nation.  Hockey, rugby and equestrian events reflect strong participation in team sports and the outdoors.

Perhaps our proudest moment and one that touched the world was the behaviour of runners Nikki Hamblin (NZ) and Abbey D’Agostino (US). Both tumbled to the ground after colliding in the Women’s 5000 meter race. D’Agostino encouraged Hamblin to get up with her and finish the race.  While both continued running, Hamblin regularly stopped and supported an injured D’Agostino to finish the race even though it meant neither would qualify for the final.  She has been presented with the International Fair Play Committee Award for Rio 2016 and is being considered for the Pierre de Coubertin award for sportsmanship, awarded only 17 times in the whole of Olympic history.

The hashtag for these Olympic Games is #betheinspiration and I can think of no athlete who deserves it more than Nikki Hamblin.  And I have no doubt that she and our other athletes will inspire the fair but competitive next generation of New Zealand Olympians.

 

Mowing Fun

I thought briefly about posting my mowing outfit but then realised many of you wouldn’t recognise me outside of my usual glamorous apparel.  It has been nearly two months since the ground has dried out enough to mow the lawns.  Winters may be mild here in the Far North, but they are wet and with clay soil it gets very squishy underfoot.

Starting with the push mower I tackled inside the pool fence.  It became very apparent that the ground was still soft enough to register my footprints and the tyre tracks from the mower.  I couldn’t do anything about the boot prints but made a point of trying to keep the tyre tracks even since we’ll probably be looking at them for another month.

I have to admit I love the ride-on mower.  It is just so fast and I was embarrassingly happy watching the fountain of grass clippings shoot out from underneath the blades as I tackled the larger yard.  The grass yesterday was so long and wet underneath that I had to think carefully about how to throw the clippings so they didn’t wind up in soggy piles around the place.  While the chickens love scratching through them, there are only so many piles 16 chickens can get through on 5 acres of lawn.

Today I’m hoping the last two sections around the citrus trees and front driveway are suitably dry.  A friend came by last month to add to our burn pile (note photo #1 between the palms) and got stuck, even with his 4-wheel drive.

However, it is mid-August and spring is definitely here.  The days are getting longer and I put my first washing on the outside line to dry. It won’t be long before having to mow the lawns twice a week takes the edge of the fun of using the ride-on.  At least over summer the pool provides a welcome reward when the job is done.

Winter Beauty

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I had just slipped my feet into my gumboots after looking through old photos with my father-in-law when I caught sight of his magnolia tree.  I stood, stunned, as the dark grey backdrop of clouds drifted away to reveal a bright blue winter’s sky framing the masses of pink flowers.

After two decades in New Zealand you’d think I’d get used to plants flowering year round. In the depths of winter in Northland each month continues to bring on splashes of colour. Port Wine magnolias are particularly stunning in that the flowers appear before the leaves and are varying degrees of fuchsia, white or a combination of the two.

Daffodils and jonquils are also in flower.  I consider it a gift that my favourite flower blooms in time for my birthday.  As an August baby, my birthdays normally involved pool parties to combat the heat and humidity that defined peak northern hemisphere summers.  Even in the ‘Winterless North’ of Kerikeri swimming is not an option unless it’s in the spa pool set at a steaming 38C.

It might be winter but we have blood oranges just finishing their season and navels and tangerines are keeping us dosed up in vitamin C.  Kereru, or NZ wood pigeons, and tui are everywhere, gorging themselves on winter blooms and berries.

Friends here ask if I miss anything about living in Alaska and I do.  I miss the northern lights, moose walking through town, spotting bears (from a distance!), and ravens and eagles soaring overhead.  While the flora and fauna might be different there is one thing both places have in common:  a shared joy in noticing these seasonal gifts of nature.  In Alaska when you stepped outside wrapped in a blanket to watch the northern lights you were joining neighbours doing the same.  Phones would ring and the local radio station would announce a moose and calf strolling along 4th Avenue.

Here we notice and comment on the proliferation of flowers and fruit at work, on our daily walks, over the supermarket trolley or in gifts of bagged citrus from trees too laden for one family to use.  I love having a garden, orchard and free range chickens that provide for us year round.  We have seasonal changes but it’s hard to beat five months of summer and very short winters.

Now if only we could sort out the mosquitoes…

 

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Life in a Small Town

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I live in a town that is small enough to always run into someone you know but not so small you know everyone you run into.  It’s a handy way to catch up with friends I used to see regularly at school events. Nowadays I rely on chats over a shopping trolley at the grocery store.

My youngest will be celebrating her 21st birthday in January.  We’re already organising invites as the summer weekends will fill quickly with other 21st celebrations.  When my son turned 21 there were eight other parties within weeks of each other.

In New Zealand your 21st birthday is a big deal.  Not because you can drink like in the US (the drinking age here is 18), but as an opportunity to recognise an important transition point in young people’s lives.

Growing up in a small town is filled with mixed blessings.  Kids are surrounded by adults who love and care about them like second parents.  Birthdays, school assemblies, performances, camping at the beach and sports days, we’re there, cheering them on. We’re also there as they navigate their way to adulthood; from temper tantrums and negotiating friendships to first loves, alcohol and possibly drugs.  While it’s a supportive environment it can also feel like a fishbowl where everyone knows your business.

By the time many kids reach 21 the balance on these feelings shifts. Many have moved away for work or to attend university in one of our larger cities.  They quickly learn that looking after yourself is harder on your own.  Coming home for a regular dose of cuddles, meals that take longer than 2 minutes to cook and long chats over a hot drink become a priority.  They are also welcomed around town with delighted hugs and questions about how life is going for them away from home.

There is an old saying, ‘It takes a village to raise a child.’ A 21st birthday celebration is a chance for a young person to recognise the village that has helped raise them.  A slideshow of photos makes visible those moments of joy and laughter shared with others in the room.  Speeches are given by family and friends, many with humour but all with love.  The birthday girl/boy gets to bask in and be grateful for the love and support that has nurtured them and will continue to do so for the rest of their lives.

It’s an important and I would argue critical step for young people. We live in a world that offers endless opportunities alongside many challenges.  At 21, what greater gift can we give young people than a reminder of all that they have in their lives, the qualities they hold personally and faith that with both they will succeed in their dreams?

Happy Birthday! With love.

 

The Immortal Way

On the final day of the Auckland Writer’s Festival Meg came with me to two talks.  The first was Jean Christophe Rufin (above), doctor and co-founder of Medicins Sans Frontiers who spoke about his experiences on El Camino de Santiago. Hundreds of thousands of people walk old pilgrimage trails from a range of starting points that all end at the tomb of St. James in Santiago de Compostela.  For many it is still a pilgrimage, an opportunity to honour a loved one who has died, celebrate overcoming a life-threatening disease, or simply to allow an opportunity to reflect on life.

El Camino de Santiago

Dr. Rufin used it as a transition from his appointment as French Ambassador to Senegal to resettling into normal life.  He was a charming speaker; self-effacing and thoughtful with a touch of humour when sharing his experiences.  Life as an ambassador had been busy with many social events and he was used to being looked after by staff who catered to his every need.  Once home he had to organise his own entertainment as well as meals, clothing and even driving his own car.  The austerity and physical challenges of El Camino appealed as a way of facilitating a return to life away from the embassy.

He didn’t consider himself a pilgrim when he started.  Very quickly he realised that life on the walk revolved around two points:  your feet and la mochila (your backpack).  Blisters, callouses, aches and pains determined how far you could walk on any given day.  He couldn’t stress enough how all consuming the care of your feet absorbs you at the beginning of the walk.

La mochila for him became symbolic of the weight of his fears. As the journey progressed decisions were made on a regular basis about what was most important to still carry.  For some, having plenty of wet weather gear reflected their fear of being wet.  For others, water (thirst), books (boredom), journals (remembering) and other items reflected their priorities and these changed as time passed.  It became a way of quickly getting to know others on the track by what they carried and how large or small their bag was.

What resonated with Meg and me was the time the walk allowed you to learn about yourself. Our lives are so busy that we seldom have the luxury of quiet time to reflect on where we are and how we feel about our lives.  The art of mindfulness is popular at the moment. Concentrating on what we are doing without distraction is important but for many today those moments can only be measured in minutes, perhaps an hour if you’re lucky.  El Camino allows a different opportunity of mindfulness by stepping away from all that is familiar in our lives; routines, people, places and things. But the time frame for this is in days, weeks and months, not minutes.

It is a journey that is intensely personal and Dr. Rufin explained that he felt in the end that he had become a pilgrim, it was impossible not to.  There are connections with others along the way but in the end it is about you.  He shared a sweet story about seeing the end of the trail in the distance.  There was a big Spaniard almost 100 metres ahead of him, and while they were aware of each other throughout the day, they walked a matching pace so their distance apart remained constant. The Spaniard stopped just before the line marking the end of the walk, waited for him, and together they held hands and jumped across together.  It was an intimate moment of shared joy, an acknowledgement of an experience that was similar but unique to each.

Not many people can afford the time and expense of walking for two months.  But we can try to push opportunities for mindfulness into hours and days rather than minutes.  I wish Dr. Rufin had had more time to talk about his transition into ‘normal’ life.  Often the greatest challenge is moving forward with insights we gain from reflective time.

It may be cliche but his story was apt:  it’s about the journey, not the destination.

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life in New Zealand is never boring