Every Friday we drive 15 minutes around the island to "town" where it's pizza night at the local cafe. They're still not allowed to serve food on premises, but we take a few boxes of their gourmet wood-fired pizza and sit in a grassy lot next door for a picnic. There are always other families there. The kids play while the parents chat. It feels utterly normal. It feels like a small town. On those nights it feels like we are part of this odd and beautiful place, and for this I am utterly grateful.

More and more, I know this is the life we were meant to live, though I never would have guessed that seven years ago when Isaac brought me here for the first time (also on Thanksgiving!) shortly after we fell in love. We flew up here at the end of a three week road trip in the South Island, bringing wth us a bag of groceries so we could cook a Thanksgiving dinner for his parents when we arrived. This year we cooked that same dinner in the same kitchen and ate it on the same table with our two little kids bouncing around. I felt so grateful for all we have and all that's happened in those seven years.

A lot has happened since I last wrote on this blog, too. I've been taking it easy since my head injury (and being way more careful!). Here's an update in photos and short captions.

We had some help pouring concrete for half the posts that will be the foundation for our tiny house, but the deck posts needed to be completed by us on our own. We handed the kids over to Nana and Grandpa for a few hours and worked as fast as we could, levelling the posts and mixing concrete to set them. It was the first afternoon that felt like what I always imagined building a house would be, working alongside Isaac in our dirty boots and overalls, completely in the "zone" of building together.

I also finished the garden beds that will sit on the hillside below the house. I've been procrastinating on filling them with topsoil because it's laborious and boring work, shovelling and wheel-barrowing load after load. I'll be so happy when that's done.

Though New Zealand's battle with Covid is really only just beginning, things are opening up and people are coming out. We've loved gathering each Monday with a few families at the beach to play and chat. These weekly get togethers have anchored me here in a way I really needed. Every family on the island is unique, with a different story about how they ended up here, and a different background and way of seeing the world. We've loved meeting them all.

Our toddler has mostly given up wearing shoes, and despite the odd splinter or two, you can go anywhere safely without them. We have also ditched diapers in favor of being naked at the beach, which led quickly to potty training – we didn't really have to do anything! It just happened. I'd been nervous about it for the past year, having no idea how to potty train a child. Turns out it's really easy, so long as you spend most of your time outside and your kid loves being bottomless!

Spring is a time of sunny days and misty rainstorms. I go a few times a week to my favorite hike on the island by myself, and had the pleasure of walking into the clouds this past week. The manuka (tea tree) trees are blossoming white all over the island, ushering in yet another wave of this long and lovely southern hemisphere spring.

And speaking of Spring, the rats are more active than ever. We're encouraged to trap them, since they are invasive to New Zealand and do a number on the native ground-dwelling birds. After seeing a few around our back porch, I started trapping. I catch one every night I set our trap, and always dread drowning them in the morning. "Sorry," I say as I drop the cage into the bucket of water. "You were never meant to be here to begin with."

We spent Thanksgiving here exploring a beach on the northern side of the island, one with towering pine trees that smelled to me like home and added to the homesickness I woke up with. There wasn't a soul on the beach, and we found all kinds of new shells and treasures, including a washed up puffer fish that the kids loved to play with. Who knew their spikes were so hard! Like teeth. I gathered all kinds of greenery and plants to decorate our house with for the holidays.

Thanksgiving dinner was, as I said, a repeat of the one we made on the first day I ever set foot on this island, seven years ago. We've aged, thanks mostly to having had children. Here we are in 2014 on Thanksgiving (left and center), and in 2021 (far right). I've always felt homesick during holidays if I'm far from my family, and this year was no exception. But as I age and form a family of my own, I know that home travels with me, and the lines that define family morph and grow and change over time. When I look at it this way, we spent Thanksgiving this year at home and with family – we couldn't really ask for anything more. ♥️

“Have you ever flown in a chopper?” the emergency responder asked me. We were walking from the back of the local medical centre to the airport’s helipad. Nope, I’ve never been in a helicopter. I was about to get my first ride, and I wasn’t that excited about it.

I’d been building our new garden beds alone a few days earlier with pieces of timber too large and heavy for me to lift when I’d whacked myself accidentally in the side of the head with one. I sat down, cursed my own stupidity, and felt thankful I hadn’t passed out. For days it hurt to wear my sunglasses or lie on that side of my head at night.

But I didn’t think anything of it until Saturday morning when I got a nosebleed, had spotty vision in one eye, and then got a pounding headache that didn’t go away with ibuprofen the way I would have expected. “Is this a migraine?” I wondered aloud to Isaac. "I’ve never had one." My sister called and urged me to go get myself checked out. So, that’s what we did.

Medical care on the island is great but basic. The tiny medical centre is a single story building next to the airport and across the street from the itty bitty pharmacy. The GPs who staff it are capable and thorough, but if anything requires imaging or testing, they send patients to Auckland City Hospital. And so the doctor encouraged me to jump on the chopper for a scan in town. Isaac zipped home to grab me pajamas and a tooth brush, and I was off with no idea when I’d be back.

Ever since we’ve gotten here, it’s been surprising to me how easy it is to get medical help. If you need a prescription, you get it. If you need to go to the doctor, you just go in. And, turns out, if you need to take a helicopter to the hospital, they call one for you. It’s more straightforward than I’d ever imagined healthcare could be, and costs way less per capita than the US system.

The ER at Auckland’s busiest hospital was no exception. Kind doctors and nurses got me a scan within a few hours, which showed no head injuries. To be extra careful, the doctor recommended a lumbar puncture to test spinal fluid to see if I’d had an aneurism. The whole thing took about 8 hours and at 1am I was deemed healthy and free to go – I must have had a migraine, they reasoned. Before I left the doctors made sure I had a safe place to go for the night, and then I simply walked out, an even bigger fan of single-payer healthcare than I had been before.

It was a treat to be in Auckland, given that islanders aren’t allowed regional travel right now due to COVID restrictions. The smell of concrete and the glare of city lights felt oddly familiar, like I’d stepped back in time to our old fast-paced life. I stayed in the city an extra night to rest up, run errands (Christmas shopping!), and get a little alone time before flying back to the island.

I did all the city things I would have normal done back in San Francisco on a day off. I loved waking up and walking to my choice of multiple cafes. I slurped up yummy ramen and savoured vegan ice cream on a park bench. I hopped on a LIME bike and zipped through traffic to the bank. I lingered in the book store.

But I also noticed the smell of exhaust from all the cars, and the din of traffic. Auckland is impeccably clean, but I passed several homeless and mentally ill people on the streets and remembered how bad it had been in SF. And as the city gobbled up my money, I remembered how expensive urban life can be. After a day, I was ready to come home to the island.

Not a soul in the Auckland airport

My ride home

Waiting for me on the tarmac <3

And that’s really what my little medical-emergency-weekend-away taught me: that this island is home now. All the oddities of our off-the-grid life here were familiar when I got back to them.My own barefoot and dirty kids waving me off the tarmac brought me so much joy. The old house we’re living in smelled like home, with its creaky stairs, the missing upstairs window that we cover with cardboard when it rains, the way you have to turn the tap in the bathroom just so, the noisy parrots in the big tree out back. We’re so far from our old city life now, in so many ways, and our roots are here now.

Our toddler asked at dinner tonight, “Why did we move here?” I told him what I have said before when we asks this question – we came to play outside more, live by the beach, and be close to Nana and Grandpa. He didn’t look satisfied, so I asked him what he likes about the city. “The toy store, and ice cream,” he said. Fair enough. I promised him we’d go to the secondhand shop (the “tip shop” it’s called) here on the island to find some new toys soon, and that I’d buy him an ice cream bar next time we go by the store down the road. He seemed satisfied. And so was I.

Back home, watering our grass next to our new garden beds.

Beach bum.

Whenever we’re in the car together, Isaac and I make a joke of criticising each other’s driving. Each hairpin turn is a chance to prove to the other how careful and skilled we are at navigating these narrow roads. And lately they have been busier than ever. Lockdown rules have eased up and the summer sun arrived this week. Everyone is OUT.

This is something we’d hoped for since moving here. People! Families at the beach! People at the cafe! With COVID restrictions, none of the typical tourists or vacation home owners have been allowed to come to the island (nor can residents leave), so everyone we bump into is a local.

Because the 900 permanent residents on the island are spread far and wide, people are almost always happy to chat or say hello when you bump into them. In fact, most of the time they know someone you know or grew up here with Isaac and his brothers. The place is small enough that once you’ve met someone once, you inevitably see them again – at the tiny post office where we all go to collect our packages, at the cafe, at the only gas station on our side of the island.

Knowing the names of our neighbours and the local shop owners has been enough to help us feel settled here. It’s always been like that for me wherever I have lived – once I know my neighbours and am recognised at my local coffee shop and grocery store, it feels like I really live there. Like I’m part of the place. We’re finally getting that here. It’s so nice.

A rural off-the-grid island like this attracts all kinds of people, but the common thread is that everyone is a bit strange in their own way (including us). After all, living here full time means devising some creative way of generating enough power, water, and waste disposal to survive on your own. The majority of locals aren’t rich, at least in the monetary sense. In fact, some are just getting by. But New Zealand does a fairly good job looking after its population with support and health care for everyone, so it’s possible to live on the island without a huge income. People grow their own food, make do, and help each other out. It’s a world away from the wealthy San Francisco tech scene we came from.

Everyone living here develops an island “look” after a while, it’s a hardy, weathered, relaxed one. A lot of adults and most kids – including ours – go without shoes except in the worst weather. One’s clothes get a bit muddied up and worn out living here after a while, there’s simply no way around it. Few homes have enough power to run a hairdryer, and there aren’t salons on the island. My own hair gets so tangled and messy from the beach and the wind that I wear it up every single day, combing it just twice a week.

Each person we meet has a unique story about how they ended up here. It’s my favourite question to ask when we meet someone new. Plenty of people grew up here and could never find it in their hearts to leave. Others left and came back as soon as they had kids. Some have vacationed here enough times that they finally decided to put down roots. One person arrived on a sailboat, came ashore in his dinghy to find the local real estate agent, bought a house right then and there, and hasn’t left since.

And here we are, characters in our own sense, with our own strange story. It’s taken coming here to make me realise how unconventional Isaac and I are, willing to give up the comforts of city life and the status of careers in order to live simply and cheaply in this odd part of the world. But right now there’s nowhere I’d rather be. Twisting up and down the roads here on our way to one beach or another, I can’t help but feel like I’m on vacation. The air is warm and humid, and we can go everywhere barefoot. Parrots live in our yard. Every beach or trail or creek is uncrowded and free.

While talking to another local the other day, she said people sometimes ask her what she does here on the island. Her reply is always, "What do you mean? I live." Living here, off the grid and with kids, is a full time job. But it opens something in my heart to be here, doing this. It really feels like living.

Hiking to a rocky beach not far from our house.

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