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Wrapping up 2023 back on the island after a year of adventures

This blog update is overdue by many months. In the time since I last posted, I’ve gone through a full pregnancy while managing two young kids with Isaac, finished (mostly) building our tiny house, and also moved to a new city (New Plymouth). And since September I’ve had my arms full, literally, with our brand new daughter. My life is too full of joy, chores, adventures, tantrums, love, and messes to write. But I wanted to post something here for two reasons: to share finished pictures of our tiny house, and to close out this blog for a little while. 

Our newest addition

When I started writing here three years ago, I called it “Here or There” because that’s how the concept of “home” felt to me – neither here nor there, both here and there. We were halfway between California and New Zealand at the time. I have always been attached to physical places as being homes in my life, especially houses. On our first caravan trip as a couple, Isaac helped me understand that home was not a place but a feeling, and it can move with you wherever you go. How freeing is that?! When we had children, I wanted nothing more than to instill that sense in them, especially since we didn’t know if we’d raise them in the US or New Zealand. On a six-week RV trip around the Southwest with our then one-year-old and a new baby, we took this concept with us. Our “RV Home,” as our son called it, felt like exactly that. 

In the past four years, we have moved more than a dozen times. Sometimes big moves, like leaving San Francisco to come to New Zealand. Sometimes small moves, like coming up to live in our unfinished tiny house for a month last Christmas so relatives would have space to visit for the holidays. Our two boys each have their own special blankets (aptly named “stripes” and “flowers”) and they can sleep anywhere as long as they have these to snuggle into. In all these moves, home has been as portable as a blanket for them, thankfully.

Mount Taranaki, as seen from outside New Plymouth

Shortly after moving up into the finished tiny house here on the island this past April, we flew off the island to visit a town called New Plymouth on the southwest side of New Zealand’s north island. I had read a lot about this small city of 60k people with a thriving arts and surfing scene, and I’d had a feeling it would be a good option for us as the kids start school in 2024 and we look for jobs and a less rural community. 

After a week in New Plymouth, despite awful winter weather, we knew we had found our place. As with most things in my life that have “felt right” to me, everything fell into place quickly. We found a house we loved and got it. I found a midwife I adored. We got the keys a few weeks before my due date and arrived with bags of clothes and our bikes. Two weeks later, our daughter was born at the hospital there. We couldn’t have birthed on the island, as there are no working midwives or facilities here, so it was all quite fortunate the way it worked out. It felt meant to be.

Moving into our home in New Plymouth

We’ve been spending the last few months of 2023 year back on the island in order to finish off some projects on the house, say goodbye to friends, and soak in the summer at our favorite beaches. School starts in New Plymouth at the end of January, and from then on we will only be coming back here 3-4 times a year for school holidays. But when we’re here, this will be home and will feel every bit like one. As I said, home for us is here and there. 

While the kids were at their preschool here one day, I managed to put all the toys and dishes away and snap a photo or two of the house in a rare tidied up state. I can’t believe we built it, but I also see all the things wrong with it and the bits we could have done better. But as with most flaws, they only endear the place to me. The uneven walls, the unfinished deck stairs, the wonky roof downspout – they’re our fingerprints on this place. I’m proud of it. 

The clouds floating above the horizon were pink with sunset the other night as Isaac and I sat on the deck finishing a bottle of prosecco left over from Christmas. The mosquitos hadn’t quite found us, and the birds were calling from the forest all around. Crickets chirped. A wood pigeon flapped past us above the trees, then swan dived in a free-fall down over the edge of the ridge. On these quiet nights, you can hear the ocean a mile away down the valley. “We did it,” Isaac said, about the house. I smiled. “You know, framing this house was the happiest time I can remember in my life,” I reflected. Up there, under the sky, with a cut list pinned under a block of wood beside the drop saw, I embodied everything I had ever wanted to be. I felt whole. I was, in myself, home.

Thank you for following along and being part of this journey. There are dozens of posts I wrote in my head and never got around to sharing – all about living off the grid and the joys and tribulations of moving to a new country. Thank you for reading what I did share, and for all your encouragement on this journey. Much love. 

Goodbye for now...

Reading books in the boys' new room

The week before Easter, we trundled the kids bunks and our boxes of clothes and kitchenware up the steep driveway from Isaac’s childhood home to the little 500-square-foot house we’ve been working on since August 2021. It was a momentous occasion, and one we felt was a bit overdue given that we moved here thinking we’d build a small house in six months or so.

But when I look back at photos from 2021 of what is now our driveway, it makes sense that it took this long. We cleared away forest, turned a trail into a driveway, and built literally everything that makes a home work, from a solar power system for electricity to a rain water collection plumbing system, complete with two water tanks (one of which is on top of a hill to give us necessary water pressure). We’ve done way more than simply build a house – we’ve made a homestead in the bush.

(Above: our driveway before and after)

These past two months have been a blur of tasks to get the place done before Easter. Isaac and a contractor we know finished the drywall inside, which showed us a few mistakes we had made in framing (novice mistakes like not including a top plate of wood around the ceiling to which we could nail the drywall sheets). Then we had an expert come in to plaster and sand the drywall (“gib-stopping” as they call it). Isaac’s best friend who moved back to the island recently is a painter and spent days painting the house top to bottom while Isaac nailed in trim and baseboards (scotia, architrave, and skirting as it’s called here).

Despite my enthusiasm for the project, I found out in January that I’m pregnant with a very-much-planned third kiddo, so I spent the first three months of this year in a fog of fatigue and nausea, unable to help with anything physical.

Sanding, everyone's favorite job.

Painting all done, ready for flooring. Check out that altocumulus out the windows!

Laying strips of wood flooring.

I perked up enough to finally get my work overalls on and lay the flooring. It was a glorious but frustrating job – we had purchased the flooring a year earlier, not knowing it would be so long before we would actually need to use it. The packets of click-together wood panels sat in a tool shed through a very wet year. As expected, they’d warped a bit and some were water damaged at the edges. Out here we have to make-do, and I did my best to hide the worst pieces in spots of our house that I knew would be under beds or furniture. I laid the last boards in the laundry room with only off-cuts to spare – we had measured well!

After three frustrating days of building flat-packed cabinets we’d brought over in our container from the States, we got the kitchen sink hooked up and were ready to call it home. The electrical outlets weren’t working yet, and we had no lights to speak of, but a few extension cords from the solar battery box provided the power we needed. Getting our electrician or plumber to give us a date for when they can finish the job is next to impossible here (it’s just the how things are done here on “island time”) so we decided to move in without those last bits of infrastructure. Our kitchen sink and outdoor shower worked, and we’re used to living in the evenings by headlamps, and during the day our house is flooded with light.

There was no looking back as we moved our things in. The kids had been waiting for their new bedroom to be done since the minute we tested things out camping in it over Christmas. Isaac and I had been dreaming about sleeping on our American king-sized mattress (which is bigger than king beds in New Zealand). It had been squished into the container for well over 18 months now and took a while to regain its shape once we unpacked it, but thankfully it wasn’t musty or mouldy.

Our beloved couch, on the other hand, didn’t fare so well. Underneath the plastic and cardboard, a mosaic of different moulds covered the cushions and backrest. Back in the States, we likely would have thrown it out and ordered a new, albeit cheaper, one. Not out here. “This is the couch we have,” I said, “It’s such a nice couch, let’s make it work.”

I doused the whole thing in vinegar, then showered it with baking soda and blasted it for two days in New Zealand sunlight. After a thorough vacuum, it was like new. “Make do and mend” has always been a slogan I try to live by, and this was no exception.

Moving day was stressful to say the least. We got a good autumn rain the day before, so our house was surrounded in mud. Our kids slipped and slid in it, then raced through the house to the deck and back. The reality of living with “indoor-outdoor flow” in the bush became clear. We would not, we decided, use any of our carpets or rugs in this house. Everything needs to be waterproof, wipeable, or washable. With a baby on the way, this will probably be a good idea for the next five years or so anyway.

The couch, mould-free finally

Unpacking the kitchen, We couldn't wait to use our new teeny tiny dishwasher.

Naked kids playing at the worksite as we moved things in.

Bath time for now looks like this. They love it.

I woke up after our first night in the house to a soft pink glow on the white walls around me. The sun rises over the hill to our east, and it bathed the house in colour. The high windows we designed are like television screens tuned constantly to an ever-changing sky. I have always loved clouds. It felt like I was waking up in them, then spending the day in them, then watching them turn to stars. “Shall we call this the Cloud House?” Isaac suggested later that day. Absolutely.

We still have a hundred things to do to officially “finish” the Cloud House. And even then, that’s just to get it in working order – our work on this spot of earth will be a lifetime’s worth. We have dreams of landscaping, planting, building out the container, maybe a treehouse. For now though, we’re enjoying having hit a milestone – we moved in – and we’re ready for a bit of a break.

A quiet evening down at the beach together.

A "summer" day at the beach here this January

January brought the worst weather-related disaster in New Zealand’s history to the North Island. Rain bucketed down for weeks, dropping multiple times the typical monthly rainfall in just a few days in some places. The storms flooded towns and homes and caused landslides and slips all over the country. Our little island wasn’t spared, though the natural landscape around us drained most of the water away with little damage to buildings. Crews were out clearing rocks and mud off the roads where slips had blocked things, and we were able to go eel fishing off the edge of our driveway when the creek swelled above its banks for a week.

This is typically the time of year when water tanks are running low. In January last year we had run out of water and were pumping up regularly from the creek at the bottom of the hill. But now, our backup tank is full and our main rain-water collection tank is overflowing. To take advantage of the weather, and in an attempt to prevent erosion on our clay banks, we spent the beginning of January spreading topsoil and grass seed across a patch of our site. Within a week, the hillside was bright green, and we dreamed of a time in the future when the grass would spread to the rest of our muddy lot. In the places where we hadn’t planted grass, the clay soil grew a slick of algae like a creek. It’s been that wet.

Our driveway

Eel fishing with a stick and a hook beside our driveway

Our kids were elated to catch one!

Besides the full tanks and green grass, there’s nothing to love about the weather we have had all summer. “We haven’t gotten a summer yet,” someone said to me at the local cafe the other day, to which I agreed. Our visitors over Christmas and New Years spent most of their holiday indoors playing card games and stoking up the wood stove to get hot water. We were thankful to have our own space, camping up in the unfinished house, especially when two different flus made their way through the crew who was visiting. We eventually got both bugs, with the kids sick back to back, and myself sick with a fever and then a stomach flu for a week. And that’s how I found myself curled up on the kids’ old crib mattress on the floor of our unfinished house clutching an empty paint bucket in the middle of the night, wondering why on earth we’ve chosen to live this way.

Bucket baths in the rain beside our muddy patch of grass

It was a low moment, and when you’re sick and living without an indoor bathroom those are easy to end up in. As I lay there, I heard a scrabbling sound in the box where we kept dry goods in our makeshift kitchen, just a few feet from where I lay. A rat, I thought. Too sick to do anything, I called to Isaac, who was sleeping on the floor of the kids’ room nearby. “Isaac, wake up, a rat!” I called. He roused himself and stumbled into the kitchen where the commotion was. He kicked the box of dry goods and the rat bee-lined for the back door beside where I lay. It must have come in there earlier in the evening when I had the door open to cool the house off. Finding his escape-route blocked, the rat turned and zipped into the other side of the house, to the master bedroom which was filled with building materials and tools and a million places to hide. Crap.

“Get the trap,” I said to isaac, “it’s outside by the compost pile.” Within a few minutes, Isaac was setting the trap with peanut butter beside the door to the tools room. We went back to bed. Fifteen minutes later, an unmistakable “snap!” woke us up. “Got it,” Isaac announced as he carried the trap and victim out to the back deck. I tossed and turned in a sleepless haze of sickness for the rest of the night, and heard scratching and banging on the other side of the wall where Isaac had put the trap outside.

In the morning I sent the kids out to check the rat trap, and Jude came in to tell me the rat we’d caught was still moving. The trap hadn’t killed it, and I'd been hearing his struggles all night. Isaac picked up the sledgehammer and headed out to the garden to finish the job. When I heard a bang and a shriek later, I asked what had happened. “The brains splattered all over my leg,” Isaac said. I covered my eyes with my hands and mumbled, “I can’t believe this is our life right now.” I was over it.

When I’d turned the corner on the stomach flu, I sat out on the deck and told Isaac the truth – I had run out of energy for this house project. It felt never-ending and we still have so much to do. I wanted to live somewhere else. Somewhere with places to go and things for the kids to go do when the weather was foul. I was desperately wanting modern conveniences like a dishwasher and a flushing toilet. And most of all, I was lonely and needed a community, which is something I haven’t quite found yet here. The grass seemed greener somewhere more populated, and I dreamed longingly of that place.

But the truth is, the grass is green where you water it. And for now, this is our spot. Isaac and I made a plan to move down to the old house now that the holiday visitors had all trickled back to their lives on the mainland or overseas, and we would plow some more savings into the tiny house to get help with finishing it.

And so we trundled the kids bunks and our few boxes of clothes back down to Isaac’s childhood home, our camping adventure in the tiny house now over. Sleeping on a real king-sized bed again after a month on mats and crib mattresses on the floor felt divine. A crew came last week and finished the drywall up in our tiny house. This week, someone is up doing the sanding and plastering, and next week Isaac’s best childhood friend is going to paint the interior for us. We’ve got to get the wood flooring down and finish the electrical, and then we’re pretty much there. Our kitchen cabinets came flat-packed in our container from the US, so those just need to be assembled and put in place for us to have a kitchen. We figured we’ll chip away at the bathroom and the endless outdoor projects over time, given that our outside toilet and shower will suffice until winter.

Drywall is done!

Looking out on another rainy day

All said and done, we hope to be living in the place, with furniture and real beds, by end of February. When we moved here, we thought we’d knock the project out in six months. A year and a half later, here we are. That's life!

Today the sun came out and the winds switched direction for the first time in a month. The flooded creeks are back to normal, and it feels, finally, like summer. The vitamin D has lifted my mood and whisked away the smell of mildew that permeated everything. The beach is calling, and we plan to go camping in a few days at our favourite spot with a few families we love here – turns our we do have a little community after all. We know someday we’ll move from here, likely to a small city with all the bells and whistles I miss. But for now, we’ll keep watering our green green grass and marvelling as it grows.

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