With the Horizon of the Pacific in the Distance: Scenes from my morning hikes

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Facts about my daily morning hikes to Te Mata Peak:

I see far more sheep than people

I step on lots of sheep turds

It is quiet except for the whorl and gurgle of New Zealand’s native Tui

It takes me about an hour and forty-five minutes, round trip to complete (I hike up and jog down)

Sometimes the hillside is so steep the fence is sideways

I often find fossils of shells embedded into the rock which serve as reminders that where I’m walking, high above the shoreline, was actually once underwater.

A view like that feels otherworldly, like something happened and you’re in heaven or on another planet (called New Zealand).

Each day the colors slightly change–brown is becoming green and green is becoming brown.  The dry land from the drought is slowly becoming greener, the green leaves of the trees are taking on a yellow-brown tinge.

When I look out at the Pacific in the distance, it’s hard to conceive that the next closest country is Chile.

If I could bottle these hikes up, I would.  I would send them to everyone I know as a Christmas card.


A Fantail in Your House

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While putting books into boxes, a fantail flew into the house through my open sliding glass door. She swooped in and nearly flew into my face when I rounded the corner.

Fantails are notoriously cheeky little birds–they are clever and chatty–never too shy to fly close to your head.  I can’t tell if they are aggressive and territorial or if they are flirty and friendly.  Either way, I’ve always found them delightful.   Until today.

She flew around the room, above the bed, above my desk and then fluttered into the den.  She perched on the light fixture, tilting her head every which way as she sized me up.  I asked her what she thought she was doing in here and opened the kitchen door for her but she seemed to be on a mission.  Ignoring the open door, she flew back into the bedroom, perched one more time on the doorway before flying back outside again.

I followed her and she chirped at me from the tree.  I laughed at her boldness then went back to packing my books, thinking nothing much of it.

Stack by stack, I removed my books from the shelf and placed them into the boxes.  I only stopped once to notice how stupid and careless I’d been to make notes in my signed first edition hardback copy of Mary Karr’s Lit.  (I could clobber myself for doing that.)

I was arranging the books, configuring them carefully inside the boxes, when I accidentally dropped one.  It was a small paperback in Italian, a book given to me by my ex-husband long before we were married.  I cracked open the first page to see what he had inscribed to me, “Con tutto l’amore possibile!!!”  With all the love possible.  So him.

The book, “There’s No Such Place as Faraway,” is a beautifully illustrated story, written by Richard Bach about a hummingbird, an owl and an eagle all on their way to a little girl’s birthday party.  It’s a touching story about distance and love, beginnings and endings–how none of us are ever without another, even if it might feel that we are.  He gave me this book when I was finishing my last year of college–when I was in Texas and he was in Italy.

Today was the first day I opened up that book in ages.  I flipped through it quickly, surprised at how nice it was to relive those emotions that used to pour over me as I turned each page, a whole decade after I first experienced them.  While the story itself doesn’t conjure such feelings, the illustrations sparked memories of my longing, all the suspenseful uncertainty of my early twenties, reminding me of the concerns that used to consume me.


When we could finally be together as adults, not students, would we still feel the same?  Would he love me like this — the way he does at such a distance — even when I am there?

I was so eager for my future to begin with him I could hardly be bothered with the present, full of classes and exams and final projects.  Everything I did was rushed and hastened–my days were designed so I might expedite my life as I knew it.  It was all a big strategy to get back to Italy.  I lived at home to save money.  When I wasn’t attending class, I was waiting tables at a steakhouse, saving every last cent I earned in tips so I would be able to afford a trip back across the pond.  Daily, I ran mile after mile–in the park, on the treadmill, in my parents’ neighborhood.  I equated movement with the passing of time, refusing to sit around and be lovelorn.  The way I saw it was, if I ran, at least I could measure the time in something other than just the months that separated us.  If I just kept moving, I thought, I would arrive at the end of each day a little bit closer to Italy.  A little bit closer to him.

As I took more books from their place on the shelf, it suddenly it occurred to me how strange it was that the fantail had come into my house just before I came across this particular book.  Out of curiosity, I looked up the meaning of a fantail entering your house.  As soon as I saw what it meant, I regretted looking it up.  According to Maori tribal legend, a fantail flying into your house means death.  Even as I write this, that little bird is in the tree outside, squeaking and chirping with urgency.

Unconvinced that a harmless fantail could be such a bearer of bad news, I scoured the Internet further in the hopes of disproving this information.  Unfortunately, other sites only confirmed this.  A fantail, apparently, is New Zealand’s grim reaper.  Only on one site did it say that it can also be interpreted as a sign of good fortune.  I went with it.  (I am really not that superstitious.  Unless, of course, it behooves me to be so.)

I taped more boxes together and loaded them up with more books.  Then I went back to that little book in Italian, still sitting outside the box.  I sat down on the carpet in a sunny spot and read the whole thing cover to cover, again, for the hundredth time.  But today, the book read differently.  Its message of transcending time and distance is just as powerful, just as enduring, if not more now that my ex-husband and I are no longer together.  The end, I remembered when I got there, is my favorite part.  Except when I read it now, I see that it’s not a book about distance and longing.  It’s about growing and learning and giving your gifts to the fullest.  It’s about learning to live without the ones you love; something we all must do at some point in our lives, whether it comes to you through death or divorce or distance.

Vola libera e felice,

al di la’ dei compleanni,

in un tempo senza fine, nel persempre.

Di tanto in tanto noi c’incontreremo

–quando ci piacera’–

nel bel mezzo dell’unica festa

che non puo mai finire.


(This is my own, rough, English translation:)

Fly free and happily

beyond birthdays,

without end, into forever.

Every so often we’ll find one another

–when we want to–

in that beautiful middle of the only party

that can never ever end. 

That beautiful middle of the party that can never end?  I suppose that’s life.  And I don’t think it means the life we live on Earth.  I think it’s meant to encompass everything–from way back when until forever and ever on distance stars far out in remote galaxies.

I look around and notice, once again, my usual state of transition.  This time, though, I am not in a hurry.   That wee little fantail?  I don’t think she was here to announce a literal death.  It seems to me she came to mark things more figuratively, the end of my time here in New Zealand.  I am grateful to her.

Afterall, had she not come in to flutter and dip and twirl, I might not have noticed.*


*Just as I finished writing this, the most extraordinary thing happened.  As if she could hear me writing this, I kid you not, the fantail returned!  This time, she came in through an open window in another room, flew into the room where I’m now writing, perched on the light fixture above my desk and chirped.  Too stunned to speak, I got up and followed her as she flew down the hall.  When she entered the empty room at the end of the hallway I closed the door behind me.  She flew in circles, chatting at me, while I opened a window for her.  After a few more circles, she flew out, libera e felice.

One Girl’s Great New Zealand Grape-picking Adventure

March is New Zealand’s September.  Days become noticeably shorter, light begins to shift and the mornings take on a new found crispness.  For the first time in five months you jump out of bed and straight into your fuzzy warm robe and slippers.  You wrap up and immediately get the hot water kettle going, anxious for the sun to work its incubating magic.

This is what the end of summer feels like, in March.  I don’t get it, really.  My whole being is off kilter, my Norths and Souths flip flopped.  Here, South is cold, North is warm.  Christmas is in summer and Easter is in autumn.  A few weeks ago it was back to school for local kids.  I can hardly keep up.  My mind continues to reset itself to a new calendar while my body picks up on the subtleties of change.  That air of promise and newness that September holds?  It’s palpable and very real.  I always equated it to the nostalgia of sharpened number two pencils or the beat of a snare drum at a football game.  I thought the feeling was synonymous with September, less about the actual season.  But it isn’t.  That settled feeling fall has, the atmosphere full of promising change, it’s real.  It happens.  Even in March.  Even without football.

Like September in the Northern hemisphere, March in the Southern hemisphere means harvesting, in this region especially.  “Sunny” Hawke’s Bay, is known for its Northern California-like temperate climate.  Citrus plants produce year-round and everything grows like mad thanks to the perfect blend of super-intense sunshine and just the right amount of rain. Apples, pears, peaches, corn, bell peppers, nearly everything is ripe and ready.  Especially the grapes.  They dangle like gems, row after glorious row of leafy vines, striating the surrounding valleys and hillsides.

And just like California, they make excellent wines here.


It’s ironic to me that in all my ten years in Italy I never once picked a grape but the first time I’m in New Zealand, I get myself a grape-picking gig.  I’ll be picking for a winery called Te Mata (pictured above), working alongside local pensioners (how hard can it be?!) as well as traveling tourists looking to make a buck on their holiday.  The locals do it for extra pocket change, seeing it as a chance to socialize, not because they actually need the money.  And because “the money” is no more than a pittance, I have my suspicions that the tourists do the work for the same reason I will be, purely for the experience.  (There certainly won’t be any free wine out of it!)

If the weather continues as is, we will start March 11th.  This means a seven o’clock start and a six o’clock finish (I think).  This means I’ll wear my oldest clothes with holes in them, freeze my bum off for a few hours in the morning, sweat in the midday sun, scarf down a quick sandwich during our half-hour lunch break before counting down the hours to quitting time.  All this, every day, for SIX weeks; rain or shine.  (Weekends too!)

Needless to say, I’m a bit concerned.  I’ve never done anything like this before and I’ve certainly never done “hard labor” before.  (Unless you consider waiting tables at a steak house while in college “hard labor.”)  I’ll be wearing gloves, for Pete’s sake.  My hands are probably going to go into cramp spasms.

When I told my mother I’d be picking grapes for six weeks her response was dry.  There was no hint of excitement in her voice, no admiration for my sense of adventure.  It was just a flat,  Let me know how that goes, Regina.  This response is such a classic mother-daughter technique.  I muster some courage to do something probably pretty stupid and not at all a valuable use of my time and my all she has to do is sigh to remind me who I am.  One huff made by my mother and I’m immediately reminded of how ridiculous an endeavor this might prove to be.  She knows it and I know it: I have no business going out there and picking grapes.  It might sound romantic, but really, we all know the truth: I’m going to hate it.  Still.  I’m doing it.  For reasons mostly unknown, even to me.

For some reason, my mother’s comment reminds me of my youngest sister Jenny on her first day of kindergarten.  She was so excited to be heading off on the bus, her first full day of school.  In the afternoon when she got off the bus and my mother asked her, “So, how was it?”  My sister snarled back, “We didn’t even get a snack.”  Luckily, we have all this on video.  Jenny stomps down our street, literally dragging her purple backpack behind her while my mother follows slowly, chuckling on tape.

So let me just say, for the record (and especially if you’re taping this, Mom), I’m not going into grape-picking with the naivete of an excited kindergartener on her first day of school.  I don’t expect to get any snacks (besides all the grapes I can eat) and I don’t expect I’ll really even like it.  What I do expect, is to come home with a lot of red stains, tired hands and perhaps a little perspective.  I might even be fortunate enough to come home with a lot of good stories which I plan on posting right here for your reading enjoyment.  Wish me luck.  (And please Lord, no rain.)