Two weeks ago the weather turned northerly, bringing in a storm from the tropics. A cyclone, actually. I was excited for the rain – we needed it so badly after one of the driest Decembers on record. But had I known what was actually in store, I wouldn’t have wished for any of it.


A low white cloud of hot humidity descended on the island along with the rain. For a week everything was damp, including the sheets on our bed and the clothes in our drawers. Our laundry wouldn’t dry, and the items we hadn’t washed grew mildew. Every wooden peg on my washing line sprouted mould and needed to be thrown away. The humidity caused flies to besiege the island, swarming our house and garden.


I grew increasingly agitated as the humid fog continued through a whole week. One day I spent five hours down at the local laundromat waiting to use the dryer so we could have some fresh clothes, while outside a warm spitting rain continued to soak the world around us. Our kids developed rashes from sweat that simply wouldn't evaporate. None of us slept well. In the low-light humidity, the plants in the garden began to rot, and our huge fig tree grew fungus. When the winds finally picked up and threatened to blow the roof off our house, the fig tree gave up all its leaves.

Everything is damp

When the sun finally came out again I marvelled at the shadows slanting across the wood floor in the morning. We opened all the windows and hung everything in the breeze. I tenderly deadheaded the plants that had survived and ripped out the ones that hadn’t. But a fog continued inside me.


I haven’t wanted to write for a while. I’ve been in a bit of a funk since my last post. It seems ironic that I wrote a few weeks ago about all the progress we had made on the house, because lately I have felt like it’s a failure. We’re moving so slowly that we might never finish it. I am a serial underestimator, and often abandon projects because they end up being way more work that I imagined. This is no exception.


To top it off, our kids have been driving me insane – the youngest is a full-on toddler now, equipped with tantrums and demands for attention when he’s not getting it. Our oldest has come into his own as a three-year-old, with all the opinions and desires for power that come with the age. Isaac and I optimistically tried to bring both kids up to the worksite the other day to nail down a few sheets of plywood on our floor – a modest goal. The kids whined and fought the entire time, and when our youngest walked out onto an unsecured piece of insulation and fell through the floor onto the ground four feet below, we called it a failure and packed up.


The slow-moving floor

To this day we only have four of the twelve sheets of plywood down on the floor, despite working on it for two weeks. We keep running out of screws and have to stop while we wait for more to be shipped over. “Wouldn’t it be amazing to be doing this project with a Home Depot just down the road?” I said to Isaac yesterday. Oh, the things we took for granted back when we lived on the grid.


Morning fog on an early bike ride

I went on bike rides to try and clear my head. I sipped tea and read my book while the kids napped. I got good nights of sleep. When none of that worked to snap me out of the depression I saw looming, I remembered that physical labor always sets me right. When we first moved here, clearing the land was the best medicine for my homesick sadness. So without much to build due to a shortage of materials, I set my sights on the landscape around our house.


We’d been so desperate for building materials that Isaac ripped apart the garden beds I had put together in order to use the timber for bearers. A sad U-shaped pile of dirt sat drying out on the terrace where I’d planned our garden. The silver lining of it all was that we had used tanalised (treated) timber for the garden beds, which is allowed in New Zealand but banned elsewhere due to the heavy metals in the wood. Now I had a chance to re-think the garden completely.


I drew from concepts in a book I got for my birthday a few weeks ago called The Edible Backyard, about using permaculture principles to grow your own food, no matter the size of your land. The culture in New Zealand, and especially on the island, is all about using what you have to make do. It makes the country slow to adopt newer technologies (online shopping systems are years behind the US here), but it leads to quite a lot of creativity. With that mindset, I decided to use cardboard and logs to build the garden. We had tons of both, and they’d feed the harsh clay soil as they rotted down.


Re-working the garden beds with logs and cardboard

I quickly broke a sweat pulling logs off the huge pile at the edge of our property and laid them down the centre of the soil mounds to create a path. By the time I’d filled the path and began to lay cardboard on top, which I’d cover with mulch, the fog inside me was burning off. The work felt right for the garden and the soil in it that would grow our future food. It felt right for my soul.


While making our coffee and tea this morning in the kitchen, Isaac wrapped his arm around my shoulder and said, “You know, I had a thought.” We’d spent the previous evening discussing how difficult the kids are right now, how stressed we both feel about the house project moving so slowly, and how different this is than the reality we imagined. “In the future, we’ll probably look back at this time the same way we look back at life before kids, and wonder why we worried so much about everything,” he said. “We have healthy kids, bodies that work, and a project that might take forever but is really fun when we’re doing it.” I smiled and agreed, while our youngest came in for a nuzzle and our oldest sat quietly over his breakfast.


It’s really not so bad.



Updated: Feb 22


Isaac and I trade off childcare responsibilities 50/50, each of us taking half a day most days so the other can work on the tiny house. This morning I was off and had a list of things to do on the site. I poured my tea in my travel mug, loaded my laptop and some snacks into a tote bag, and headed up the hill to work.


Plopping the container on site has been a game changer for us. I set up my old work-from-home desk inside and assembled an old storage rack for tools. Isaac wired the wifi up to the site so we can sit down and study the plans or order materials right next to the building project itself. Bets of all, we finally have a place to go for peace and quiet away from the kids, and I didn't realize I needed it so badly.




Getting all our our belongings two weeks ago lit a major fire under us to get the house done. Lockdowns and a shortage of materials had slowed us way down last year, but now that we have a stack of timber in the driveway and all our joinery (windows and doors) and flooring in the garage, we want to get this thing DONE. A neighbor came by for two days recently to help us move along, and last week I hired a babysitter to take the kids a few days a week to free us up to work together.


Despite feeling like we are moving slowly on this, a lot has happened. In fact, just six months ago this spot where I’m sitting was a dense forest of manuka and ferns. We’ve come pretty far. As someone who loves technical stories about how building projects come together, here’s how ours has come along.


August

September

October


We cleared all the trees – Isaac did the chopping and I dragged them away. Then we hired a digger to come open up the driveway and landscape the area so we had some flat areas for building. Next, we put gravel on the driveway, and drilled the holes for the foundation posts. We filled in a small man-made pond that was on the site, and cleared the space where our container now sits.


Isaac and his dad put the water tank into place after levelling the spot using sand and timber. I put in stairs down to the garden area, then did a very amateur job of building a frame for garden beds there. The rain and sun warped the boards I used – I didn’t anchor them down well – and so now it looks a bit crappy. But I learned a lot! I also planted grass over the whole area, which is now dead from over a month without rain in the scorching summer heat.


November

January

While waiting for timber, I dug holes for the foundation of our solar panel frame. Isaac and I then built the frame as well as a weatherproof box for the battery. I got comfortable with the nail gun for this work, and man do I love that thing! Despite being a dangerous power tool, I have actually hurt myself a lot more using a plain old hammer so far. My left middle finger is nursing a deep bruise from getting hammered by my right hand the other day. Ouch.


Laying out the frame for the solar

Our first four of eight solar panels

Nail gun, my best friend

Once the foundation post holes were drilled, we got some help to pour concrete and level the posts. I loved doing this work – the combination of precision and math with physical effort absorbed me. Once the posts were in, we levelled and cut them. Our neighbor helped lay the bearers and joists, making sure they were square so we have a nice foundation to work up from. Then I spent a whole day putting the nogs in (the pieces that run perpendicular to the joists to add bracing to the floor). Right now we’re waiting on insulation, which we’ll lay between the joists and then top with plywood. In the meantime, we’re working on the deck.


Foundation posts, ready to have concrete poured in

Joists are in, nice and square

There is a lot of talk these days about “flow state”, that elusive state of being completely tuned in to your work. It’s when time evaporates, and your mind and body are completely involved in the task at hand. Writing has always been the place I found this most easily in my life– until now. I’ve discovered building is another gateway to "flow" for me.


As I moved from joist to joist, hammering in braces and small supports for our insulation one after another, I found myself absorbed. My arm ached, but my desire to complete the job, and my joy in doing so, pushed me through it. That night I was so tired I couldn’t lift the kids up; I went to sleep with an aching shoulder and palm. But the next day my arm was stronger, and I headed up to use the electric plane to level off some posts for a few hours.


As a child I wanted to build houses, and would spend hours dreaming about them, drawing them, and mapping out the rooms. Then I ended up working on a compute all day. And that career I built for a decade in tech was lucrative, but it didn't make my heart sing the way this does. So I don’t know what I’ll do next for work, when the time comes financially to go back to it. I'll feel it out, just as we'll feel our way into deciding where we'll live after these few years on this island. But I do know that right now, this is the best job I’ve ever had. I’m thankful there is still quite a lot of it to do.


Look how nicely I lined up those nogs!




After six months and multiple delays, at noon on Isaac’s birthday a truck rumbled down our road to unload a rusty blue shipping container beside our driveway. Inside it were all the things we had decided to bring with us when we left San Francisco, including a ton of building materials for our tiny house. Isaac ran down the driveway to help while I waited for the kids to wake up from their naps, wondering what it would be like to crack open those big steel doors and see what was inside.

It's finally here!

Dragging the container up our hill

Our permanent spot for the container, where it will be an office for now.

The journey our stuff has taken to get here was pretty intense. We were told the day before our move that there wasn’t a shipping container available for us in the Bay Area, so our moving company was going to load our things into a truck and take it to a storage facility. We have an Apple “Airtag” tracker on our big electric bike, and checked regularly to see where it was once the moving truck drove off. Weeks went by and it was still in storage in San Jose. Then months passed. The date we expected to receive our stuff came and went in October, and still our things sat in storage.

Meanwhile, ships backed up into the hundreds outside California ports. As New Zealand welcomed Covid and went into lockdown, every shipment from the bay area to New Zealand was cancelled. Finally, our movers decided to re-pack our stuff into a truck and drive it down to Long Beach, where we hoped to get a spot on an outgoing ship. The cost of shipping containers had gone up four-fold by this point in the pandemic, and we footed the bill for some of the additional cost, eager to just get our things and move on.


A few weeks after arriving in Long Beach, our stuff was loaded into a container and onto a ship. We watched as the tracker on our bike went off the grid. When it reappeared in early December, it was in Auckland. But that wasn’t the end of the road.


Our stuff had to get unpacked again to go through customs, which included a thorough inspection and biosafety decontamination. Then, it got packed up again and sent to a warehouse where, finally, it was reloaded for the last time into a secondhand container we had purchased here in Auckland. That was ferried over to the island and hauled by truck across the narrow island road to our driveway, where we would have a digger haul it up the hill to its permanent home.


It would be a miracle, I reasoned, if everything was in tact after all that.



When the kids woke up, I grabbed some snacks and their shoes and we ran down the driveway together. The huge doors creaked as Isaac cut the bolt on the container and opened it up. “Our bike!” yelled our 3-year-old, followed closely with “Where’s my crane truck?! And the legos?!” We spent the afternoon sifting through things, unloading bikes and surf boards (our priorities!), and digging out the four boxes of toys we had brought with us, much to the kids’ delight.


Everything was there. And all I could think was that everything was so clean. The clothes I pulled from our boxes were so soft they felt brand new. The towels too. The kids’ toys were shiny and bright. “Wow,” I said to Isaac, “this makes me realise how hard life here is on things.” The clothes we have had with us since we got here are by now faded from the harsh UV sunlight, and stained from days of playing in the dirt or the mud. Even the toys and books brought on the plane with us have aged in the living conditions, turning rusty or rumpled. “Yep, the island takes a toll on your stuff,” Isaac replied.


Stepping into the container of our old life was akin to walking into our old apartment. Or slipping on an old skin. As I pulled a pair of Birkenstock’s from a box and put them on, I noticed how calloused and rough my feet have gotten from going barefoot so often. I unwrapped our old full length mirror, and my face in it looked different – new freckles on my nose, un-plucked eyebrows, and sun spots on my chest. I hardly look in the mirror here, so it was like seeing myself for the first time. Turns out when you live outside, you begin to look as if you do.


I picked up furniture with ease, my arms and back stronger now that I’m on my feet all day instead of sitting at a desk. I felt physically transformed from my old self. And in the end, I left most of my things in their boxes. A swimsuit, my tarot cards, a pair of pajamas, and a sun dress were all I brought inside for myself. Everything else seemed too nice, too pristine, to be useful to me in this environment. I re-sealed the tape on the boxes and stacked them back in the container for storage.


Part of the roughness of living here is also having two young kids. They track mud and sand into the house, reach for hugs with berries squashed on their hands, or dribble popsicle juice on my lap. Case in point: we brought the full length mirror inside and propped it against the bedroom wall where we wanted to mount it. I went downstairs to find a nail and heard a BANG. I ran back to see the mirror smashed on the ground, knocked over by our youngest, who cowered in the doorway unharmed. Our stuff survived the massive journey across the Pacific, but couldn’t hold up against our toddlers.



That evening Isaac’s parents came down to put the kids in bed, gifting him an evening out with me for his birthday. We hiked a picnic up the central ridge of the island to a spot where you can see the whole thing. The endless edge of the pacific expanded to the east and the shadows of the mainland rose up from the west. “What do you think of living here, now that it’s been half a year?” Isaac asked. It had been a day of reckoning, and these things were on our minds.

As is so often the case, there is no simple answer. Just a feeling. It feels right, I said, but nothing like I expected. Building a tiny house with kids in the mix is so much harder than I imagined. The pandemic is worse here culturally than I could have predicted, with people’s feelings around vaccination and mandates revealing political divides akin to those back in the states. But the island is more welcoming than I pictured, and we have friends here that we really like. Everything is more beautiful to me than it ever was on vacations here in the past, now that we are a part of it. We’ve all changed since we got here – I like who I’m becoming, and there’s not much more you can ask for than that.



A few days after the container arrived, we charged up the electric bike and inflated the tires. The kids climbed in front and we took off. They giggled the whole way down the valley, pointing at the cows and shrieking into the wind. This bike was the reason we shipped our things to New Zealand – we loved it too much we didn’t want to part with it. So before we moved here, I had pictured myself riding across this island on it – with the kids in front and the wind in my hair, confidently settled here in this new life and in this new skin. As we rounded the bend and the ocean popped into view, it felt just like that.



I haven't written in a while about the progress on our tiny house, and so much has happened. I can't wait to post this week about that – it's so exciting for those who, like me, love the geeky side of building projects.

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