Thursday, January 21, 2016

In which I gather up some random thoughts - and say goodbyes

Just two more sleeps until we fly home. I've just tucked my heartbroken youngest daughter into bed. "I have so many friends here," she wept, "and the teachers are all amazing." It says so much about the schools here that both my girls feel nurtured and loved, and that they have learnt so much. It is so hard to leave this place. 
 Everyone else is tucked up in bed as I sit here, waiting for the pavlovas Lizzy is taking to school tomorrow to cook. And I am thinking back over the richness of the last three months , thinking how much I have to be grateful for. Where do I start? Perhaps with the recent visit of my oldest friend.

I first met Julian when I was 10, but my most vivid memories of him date back to our high school days at Ecclesbourne Grammar, in Duffield. I was the girl with two neat plaits in the front row with my hand up, Hermione Granger style,  to answer the teacher's questions, while he was the boy with the red curls in the back row, inscribing rude messages/pictures about the teachers in the condensation on the classroom windows. The teachers couldn't quite fathom how we were friends. But we were, and our friendship stuck, even when both our families emigrated to different parts of the world.What we hold for each other - which no-one else shares - are the memories of two teenagers trying to find a footing in a new life and writing out the struggle for one another.

We have written to one another for almost 42 years - first airmail letters that took 6 weeks to arrive, and then emails that arrive in a matter of seconds. We have met only four times since 1974, the year our families both left England: once in the UK, once in Ottawa, when I flew from Michigan to meet his family, and last time we were in Vermont. A week ago he travelled here again for the weekend - a cold, wet weekend, when everyone was tired - but we started up the conversation just where we'd left off. We always will.

When I think about Julian, I marvel at the nature of friendship - the fact that two such different children could form a bond so strong that it lasts over 40 years, that it lasts over half a world of distance. It gives me hope for the bonds my children have formed here, so far from home. And for the friendships we have forged here in the beautiful Green Mountain State.

I'm so grateful for the many vivid memories I will take home with me. Memories of beautiful places - but, more importantly, of remarkable people.

"Writing Day Mondays" with Sharon at Coyote Ridge, eating soup and scones and watching the view.

Walking by the lake with Susanmarie as night fell, with Pearl on her lead, house lights sparkling on the icy ground, and snow falling all around us.

Ellen and Sofia laughing as the girls constructed a gingerbread whare.

Drinking maple lattes with Kathy at Henderson's cafe, and fun with Kathy's family.

Lunch at a Japanese restaurant with Peggy and Jim when we were exhausted with packing and endless lists and they restored us to some semblance of equanimity with hot sake, good food, and great company.
Wonderful Jim and Peggy, our friends from Trinity 

 A Hanukkah meal at Sue and Jeff's, where we learnt about this ancient tradition and were introduced to apple cider and rum.

The twins racing around the church, light reflected from the Tiffany windows, as Rick handed out communion.

a rare image of our miracle girls standing still!
Enriching conversations with Dee and Bill, our warm and generous landlords.

Cynthia or Rolf walking the spinones, Broli standing at our window waiting for a treat.


The girls roasting 'smores over a log fire....

 ....and hoola hooping  and playing in the snow.

Karen's "breakfast casserole" (delicious!!).

Squirrels and turtle doves in the garden - the flashing red of our occasional visiting cardinal.

The soft, light body of a tiny chickadee resting momentarily in my hand.

The ever changing light on the Adirondack Mountains and the shining lake. The setting sun lighting the lake houses on fire.

But I'm also hugely grateful for the valuable work we've done here.  The effortless way Susanmarie and I have worked together, building on one another's strengths. Great energy in the workshops with senior scientists striving to train the juniors in their labs to be writers in their discipline, and with emerging scientists trying to find a way forward. Rae's sudden vision for new possibilities: Sharon's energy and determination to see change through. So many good conversations, so many new ideas arising for us all.

Susanmarie, Sharon and Rae- three extraordinary women

Above all, I'm deeply grateful to the amazing women who made this possible. I feel the work here has been a true collaboration, that it has been motivated by values we've shared and that are very important to me.

So, we head home. To summer. To beloved family and friends - my whole family together for the first time in four years. Rose is home - oh, Rose is home!! Picnics at the farm, the dogs running through the long grass, and the project of bringing our tiny house to life. A new puppy. Fresh cherries. Our church communities. And to work: a new office, a book in press, another to write in collaboration with my dream team, my band of superb tutors, two new research proposals to write, a new course to teach (gulp!).

And I'm taking home a new sense of the value of the work I do. That has been one of the true gifts of being here: seeing the results of my research come to life. I'm so grateful. Thank you to those who brought us here to a place we love - and to those who have enriched our family's lives in so many ways. Thank you to the communities of Long Point, and Trinity, and WID, thank you for the friends who have welcomed us in. Thank you to everyone who has been part of this ongoing story. E noho rā. Ka kite ano. Thank you.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

A Befuddled Day

One of the things I most enjoy about living here is the juxtaposition of the familiar and the strange. Driving in the countryside here, with its lakes and gentle hills, you could imagine that you were simply driving in a part of the South Island that you hadn't visited before - and then you turn a corner and there's a big red American barn, or a grain silo with "God Bless America" stencilled on it, or a road sign saying "Caution Moose Xing."
 It's the same with conversations: I was excited to hear that Sharon had also taken up beekeeping and we were settling into a discussion of how to set up a hive and then she says "but I had to give it up because a bear got into the honey and smashed up all the frames." In politics, even those who share most New Zealanders' views on social welfare, gun control, health care etc hold those views more defensively (well, they have to).

I hadn't realised, though, how different attitudes can start to influence your own thinking. Last night at 4am, I heard someone walk into our room. I sighed - Lizzy must have had a nightmare, and I waited for the small voice by my ear saying "Mummm." It didn't come. More movement. I sat bolt upright. No-one could be seen. Then I heard the noise again, and this time I knew for sure it was coming from the wardrobe. Someone was in the closet. Suddenly all the conversations I'd had with people about guns and self-defence came flooding back, and ....I really can't quite believe I'm writing this....for a split second I thought "This is America. He could be armed. They were right after all: I need a gun!"  What, in that moment of sleep-fuddled insanity, I thought I was going to do with a gun - given that I've never even held one before - I don't know. But there you go.

Anyway, I got over myself and switched on the light by the wardrobe. There was nothing on the wooden floor but a crumpled leaf. I got back into bed. More noise. So, I got up again and looked more closely at the crumpled leaf - and saw teeth. It was a little brown bat.

I hasten to add that I did not get this close!
I've never seen a bat before. I was so excited - and adding that excitement to the emotions and thoughts already ricocheting around in my head (looking forward to being home, sadness at leaving here, endless to-do lists...) meant there was no more sleep for me.

As the girls ate breakfast, I told them all about it. Lizzy was horrified: "They have TEETH!!" she said, "Stop freaking me out!" Bruce came down, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes....but also rubbing the side of his neck. "Something bit me in the night," he said sleepily. We looked at him dubiously. "Really," he said, "look here...." and leaned over Lizzy to show her two little red marks on his neck. There was a second's pause and then we all started yelling at him.

He's been grinning to himself all morning as we've been working our way through the lists and tasks. As the day has gone on, I've been in a state of increasing befuddlement on account of my lack of sleep. I've been taking regular walks by the lake in -11C (feels like -18, my weather app tells me helpfully) as a way of blasting some clarity into my mind. There is still much to do. But what I'm wondering now is - I've looked in the wardrobe and that bat is nowhere to be seen. Where is it??  I think I shall not let Lizzy know that it's disappeared.....

Saturday, January 16, 2016

The 76 Middlebury bus

Last time we were in Vermont, because I wasn't driving, Bruce drove me into work and back - a round trip of at least an hour. Life would have been easier for everyone if I'd known about the 76 Middlebury bus.

I stumbled (metaphorically) over the bus service by accident this time round: Sharon happened to mention that she often took the bus to UVM from Hinesburg.  I was instantly alert: could there be a bus that ran down Route7? Yes there was. It ran only twice each day, with an early start of 6.50am or 7.50am, returning at 4.40pm or 5.20pm. Riding on the bus has become one of the chief pleasures of my working day.

Just one person gets on the bus at the same stop as I do, at the Jimmo motel, a long-abandoned building on Route 7 . He's always dashing to the stop (simultaneously blowing on his hands and stomping out his cigarette) just as the bus comes up. One day the bus was late and we got talking. Turns out he has a girlfriend who lives in New Zealand.....oh yes, the world is small, but I tell you, sometimes I think there is an invisible link between NZ and VT. On the morning bus, all is quiet: people snooze or listen to music with their earbuds in. On the earliest bus, the sky is only just beginning to lighten as I arrive at the university. On the later bus, the sky over the lake is watercoloured, pink and grey and soft, soft blue.

The bus lets me out just opposite the university and I walk to the Davis Center, collect a cup of tea from Henderson's cafe and sit by the window overlooking the view through town and out to the lake, taking a few minutes to think about my day.

But the 4.40pm evening bus is another proposition entirely. This bus is a community and the drive down Route 7 is a chance to catch up on news and discuss matters of concern, such as whether it is appropriate for the young bus driver to buy his girlfriend a heavy winter jacket as a Christmas present (this was discussed for several days, and you'll be pleased to hear that the consensus was Yes, because he bought her jewellery last year and she did, after all, need a heavy winter jacket).

There is a rigid hierarchy on the evening bus, and the undisputed Queen of the 76 Middlebury Bus is Leesa (not, as I heard her explain to someone else, spelled the way ordinary, boring people spell this name). Everyone, including the bus drivers, defers to Leesa.  She has the last word on every controversial topic, settles all disputes, and manages difficult situations which occur on the bus. For the first month she rendered me invisible and inaudible: as a newcomer who is clearly "from away", I needed to understand my place. But once that was established she has occasionally deigned to speak, even smile, at me. I understand the magnanimity of these gestures and remain obediently in the background.

Leesa defends her territory: I have heard her say "If K sits in my seat again tonight I will kill her." I was very careful  after that - who knows what other peccadilloes might invite dire punishment? But she's generous to her subjects: she brings in ointments for people's skin complaints and gave little Christmas gifts and organised cards for her favourite drivers. She directs the drivers to unscheduled stops when a 76 regular is visiting their auntie and needs to be picked up in an unusual place. She reserves her special scorn for the drivers who do not obey her instructions and has been known to organise boycotts of the bus on the days when her least favourite driver is rostered on.

Sometimes unexpected events upset the orderly ways of the bus. For example, there was the day a Drunk and Disoderly Passenger (DDP) got on the bus at Shelburne and started abusing driver and passengers alike. The young and inexperienced bus driver was unsure what to do. He rang Mission Control but they were no help, so the regulars worked together under Leesa's direction to solve the problem. This person could not be unceremoniously dumped off the bus since it was dark, below freezing, and in the middle of the countryside. So, the DDP was isolated at the back of the bus where he couldn't abuse the bus driver (all passengers moved forward, and four regulars were commissioned to form a seated boundary). Then another regular was commandeered to approach the DDP to find a contact who could be called on to pick him up from the side of the road - or, failing that, to acquire the DDP's mobile phone so that Leesa could ring through the contact list until she found someone to obey her instructions. Then the bus drew up at Charlotte, and we stopped and waited (much abuse from the back seat) until the embarrassed relative turned up and the now somewhat subdued DDP could be firmly frogmarched off the bus. As the bus drew away, we breathed a collective sigh of jubilation.

We talked about that for days.

Listening to conversations on the 76 bus, you learn a lot about what it means to be a Vermonter.  The Poop Conversation is a case in point. One of the regulars who lives out near New Haven was finding poop on her driveway each morning. "It's about the size of human poop, and it's full of apples," she told the others. Much discussion ensued: could it be a coyote - or possibly a bear? The diets and habits of both possibilities were discussed at length, along with what could be done to deter such visitations, depending on the size and cunning of the creature. I thought this was hilarious, and told my friends from UVM about it. They smiled at me, puzzled but polite, waiting for the punchline, and I was momentarily at a loss. Then I realised: this was in no way an extraordinary conversation for people who live in the countryside in Vermont. 

What I also learn, as I listen to the regulars on the 76 bus, is that they have - from my perspective - hard lives. Many of the women are elderly, still at work supporting husbands with disabilities or serious illnesses or helping out their children or extended family. They work long days, and they go home to be cooks and caregivers. When Theresa's sister died, she wasn't allowed a day off for the funeral and risked being fired if she took a day of unpaid leave. The only day they had off over Christmas was Christmas Day itself.  They always ring their husbands on the way home and end their brief conversation each night with "I love you." I try to visualise these husbands, hoping they deserve this tireless love.

I took my last trip on the 76 bus last night. I didn't say goodbye to anyone. I'm "from away", and while I have been tolerated - kindly - in their domain, I'm not part of it. So I'm just slipping away. But my life has been enriched by travelling on the 76 Middlebury Bus.

ps I'm sorry there are so few photos in this post but I suspect taking photos on the bus is not something Leesa would allow.

Friday, January 8, 2016


One of the things I notice about friendships is that they are, almost always, a matter of happenstance: they could so easily NOT have happened.

I attended my very first conference in the US in Ann Arbor, 2005. It was a somewhat conflicting experience: while I had fallen completely in love with Ann Arbor, I was finding some of the people at the conference intimidating. On the first day, I was walking to the conference venue when an elegantly-dressed woman carrying a conference bag walked up beside me. "God!" she said, "I cannot abide this place. No decent shopping, no theatre to speak of, no opera, and we're miles away from anywhere. How do people bear living here? Why do they hold conferences in backwaters  like this? Don't you hate it?" There were a few moments of silence while I tried to compose a reply to someone who defined Michigan as beyond the outer perimeter of civilisation. "Well," I said eventually, "I come from New Zealand". She looked me up and down swiftly, relegated me to a cultural desert far, far away, and stalked off without a response.

As an empirical researcher, I found some of the papers at the conference baffling too. Then, midway through one particularly puzzling presentation, a man I had noticed earlier sitting by himself in the lobby gave me a wry sideways smile and the smallest shrug.  Suddenly it felt perfectly acceptable to think that this was all folly. And that was how I met my friend Pat. Happenstance. 

Pat and his beautiful sweet-hearted wife, Jo, have been to stay with us during our subsequent visits to the US, first to Michigan and then to Vermont. This time, after Boxing Day, we took the drive to Rochester, in New York State, to visit them.

the drive to Rochester was picture perfect - no snow!!
We had a wonderful time. We visited a forest where deer roam, flocks of Canada geese fly overhead, and chickadees will eat  out of your hands.

We visited the Strong Toy Museum, which contained a magical butterfly house, and an historical toy display.

Who knew that Monopoly was invented in the US???

It finally snowed!

And we really enjoyed being in a household with dogs: Syd the Wild Puppy and small, delicate Chloe, were tons of fun. 


The weekend was the perfect combination of exploring new places, talking with old friends, and reading in front of the fire. Thank you, Pat and Jo, for a wonderful weekend - and we look forward to catching up next time!

We travelled home through the snowy countryside.

And the family indulged me by stopping at the battlefields of Saratoga, where a decisive battle was fought in the War of Independence.

the girls get into the spirit of things....
We watched an animated display about how the battle happened. "So really it was just luck," said Em thoughtfully, " they could easily have lost." This led to a spirited discussion about luck vs strategy, and the various factors on which a battle can be won or lost. For example, in the Battle of Saratoga, the fact that the British were running out of supplies which had been delayed may have had an (immeasurable) impact on the outcome.  But as we drove home in the growing darkness, my thoughts turned to luck, happenstance, serendipity, providence - call it what you will - and its invisible imprint on our lives.