In building, the first phase should literally be called “getting off the ground.” It’s slow and muddy, from my limited experience. But once the foundation has been dug and slopped full of concrete, and the tedious work of squaring and attaching bearers and joists is done, the real fun starts. And that’s where we have arrived with our project. With a solid (and square!) foundation beneath us, we insulated, glued, and screwed down a plywood floor, and everything is up from here.
I’ve found joy in many parts of the project so far, but nothing is as enjoyable as framing. The math of putting together a frame is gloriously precise, and the thrill at seeing a wall stood up in its place when we’re done is addictive. I can understand now why owner-builders (people who build their own homes) find themselves working dawn til dusk once a project gets going. I’d do the same if I could. But just as our building project has picked up momentum, so has our life here.
When we first arrived, I frequently forgot what day of the week it was. With everything shut because of Covid restrictions, and without the routine of an office job, the days all ran together for us. If it was sunny, I’d take the kids to the beach; if it wasn’t, we’d get creative indoors. But as things opened back up, our schedule filled with play groups and commitments, and now we’re as busy as we ever want to be. It’s ironic (but typical of the pandemic) that schools, cafes, and even playgrounds were closed for months while there wasn’t a single case of Covid on the island and only a handful in all of New Zealand. Now that there are tens of thousands of cases in the country, things are all open again. And as expected, Covid finally made its way to the island, spreading slowly from family to family. After a week of shock, islanders seem to be going about life as normal for the most part, dropping away from social events for a week or so as they get it, then re-emerging once well. Isaac and I made a decision long ago that we wouldn’t live our lives in fear of Covid – we are vaccinated and are carrying on, crossing our fingers that our children don’t get it but believing that the effect of sheltering them from social interaction is likely to be worse long term. (I know families have varying perspectives on this and I respect all of them.)
There isn’t a preschool or even a daycare on the island, though many families would love there to be and a project has been in the works for two years to launch an early childhood program for 3 - 5 year-olds. In the meantime, most families have a parent who either doesn’t work or does odd hours to juggle care. There are 3 or 4 main babysitters on the island who make nice money via jam-packed schedules looking after the various island kids whose parents need a break. We managed to book some hours into our week with two of them, giving Isaac and I more time to work on the house.
In lieu of professionally managed childcare centres, life for kids here is a mix of parent-assisted activities throughout the week. There’s a nature-based playgroup on Monday mornings, where we play games and run amok in a different outdoor setting each week. There’s a weekly music group in the park, led by one of the babysitters, where kids can bonk drums and rattle instruments for an hour together. And three days a week, the local “Playcentre” opens for families and kids under 5. And all if this is free.
Playcentre is ubiquitous in New Zealand. It’s based on the Kiwi belief that families and the community ought to be involved in a young child’s learning (maternity leaves here are long, and it’s widely accepted for a parent of young kids to take a career break to be with them). This government-sponsored centre on the island looks like a preschool, albeit a quite liberal one. In addition to the typical bookshelves, art supplies, and dress up area, there is a sprawling play structure with a track for riding scooters and bikes around (usually without helmets or shoes). There is a wood shop filled with drills, saws, screw drivers, hammers, and nails (yes, real ones!) where kids can bang away. There is a garden filled with strawberries and weeds, and water spigots where kids can get as muddy or wet as desired. From 9am to 1pm on “Playcentre days”, kids explore and run wild while parents chat and help set up activities. When kids are hungry, they can head to the “kai”(Maori word for food) table where their lunchboxes are laid out. At the end of the session we all clean up.
The free and unstructured nature of Playcentre was odd to me at first, having been used to more rigid daycare systems back in the US. But once I realized that Playcentre isn’t school, but rather the equivalent of a really cool playdate at an amazing spot filled with toys and activities we don’t have at home, I dug it. And the kids do too. They run to the gate each time we pull up there.
On top of all this, Tuesdays is a volunteer-run surf school for kids down at the most central beach on the island. Isaac volunteers as one of the main teachers there, and even families with kids too young to surf show up. It’s an unofficial beach party for everyone, and our boys dig in the sand or venture out for a splash with me. While our youngest bobbed in his inner tube beside me in water so clear I could see the sand below us, I imagined my own boys paddling out on foam surfboards someday, standing up and falling into the waves like the bigger kids.
With all these activities to keep track of, we’ve mounted a whiteboard on the wall at home to write up the schedule for the week. Any opening of free time means building and, to be honest, they’re the most looked-forward-to parts of my week.
This morning the rain cleared for a few hours, and I ran to the work site to set up the drop saw. I’d almost finished our first full-height frame, and couldn’t wait to stand it up. As I popped nails into place with the nail gun, then effortlessly cut pieces of framing timber to size, I realized how thrilling it is to have mastered all these new skills. At previous jobs, I loved working out systems for how to do things efficiently and precisely, and building is no different. Only instead of sitting at a desk with tight shoulders and restless legs, I’m moving around and fitting things into place with my hands. It is hundreds of times more enjoyable to me at this stage of my life (even when I make mistakes and have to de-nail a board or rip something apart!).
Because autumn and winter rains are on their way already, our goal is to have the framing done by end of the month, which is in a week. Then it’s rafters, roofing, and cladding (the stuff on the outside of the house). There’s a six month wait on drywall here (jib board as they call it in NZ), so it’s likely the project will stall again once we start working on the interior. But with such a busy life now, who knows – maybe it’ll be nice to have a little break for a while.