I buckled our youngest into the infant carrier on my back, shouldered a massive tote bag filled with towels, spare clothes, snacks and shovels, and held my toddler’s hand as we made our way down the beach and around a rocky outcrop to our favourite little bay. We are almost always the only ones there. Not today. As the kids played, I counted the people on the beach and out in the surf, giving up when I got to 100. I could hardly believe it.

I’ve always thought of January as a fly-over month – a collection of damp, boring weeks after the excitement of Christmas. Not so in New Zealand. Christmas is summer’s kick-off. Offices close through mid-January and schools are shut until February, so everyone flocks to the beach. During this bustle, our local airline stopped bringing freight like groceries for us locals despite doubling their number of flights, packing their planes with tourists and holiday home owners instead. We were ready for it though, and shipped ourselves 12 boxes of groceries from Auckland before Christmas.

The change to the island during this time is remarkable. The tiny beach parking lots are filled with cars, there is a line at the cafe, and the roads buzz with rental cars and scooters. Spotting a familiar face at the gas pump or in the local shop felt reassuring among all the strangers, and our small talk always included something like, “it’s so busy!” or, “these tourists don’t know how to drive worth shit on these roads!” Isaac loves this crowded time of year. As a child growing up on the island, he recalls how all the new faces around summertime were an exciting change.

Summer is also the season of tents-on-the-lawn in New Zealand. I have always known Kiwis to have an incredible sense of hospitality. Every time Isaac and I have visited a city near someone we know in the past, they’ve offered to host us – even if that means giving us their master suite to fit our kids’ travel cots in, or moving their infant out of his room to give us somewhere to crash. And if there isn’t space indoors, Kiwis offer their yards. Right around Christmas, tents popped up beside many homes on the island, no doubt extra sleeping quarters for guests. Many of houses in New Zealand also have what they call a “sleep out”, which is a teeny shed with a bed or bunks in it for guests. One of our neighbors had 12 family members visiting for two weeks around Christmas, sleeping in a combination of sleep-outs and tents all around their house.

We’ve been no exception, gleefully sharing space with Isaac’s brothers’ families for weeks at a time during the past month by way of a massive two-room tent on the front lawn. Being married to Isaac has taught me how to embrace the chaos of visitors and bask in the kind of communal living that used to be so natural for human beings. Life is noisier with four kids, four adults, and a dog all living together for weeks on end, but it is also so much easier. We switched off cooking meals for each other, the kids always had a cousin to play with, and there were more hands to help out with childcare and all the rest. When our parade of visitors ended this week, so too did the busyness of the tourist season on the island. I miss it, a little.

But with the holidays over now, it’s time to get to work. We managed to bang together a wooden frame to mount our solar power system over Christmas and had eight gleaming panels installed a few weeks ago. By running a massive extension cord down to where we’re living, we have doubled our electric power overnight.

And just in time too – these months have been some of the hottest and driest on record here, and I had been dying to run an AC unit (or even just a fan) in the kids bedrooms to help them nap during the day. It was 86 degrees in our son’s room the other night as we tried to put him to bed. The A/C unit brought it down to a tolerable 75 F and we kissed him goodnight, praising the wonders of solar power.

Despite having solar panels installed and electricity to run power tools on the building site, we didn’t have any timber to build with until just this week. Shortages and supply chain disruptions globally have made it an incredibly hard year to build a house. But Isaac is a go-getter who believes anything is possible. After calling lumber yards all over Auckland, he finally located some joists and framing timber (probably not the technical terms but I'm learning!) for us and managed to get it delivered on the ferry. A huge truck backed up our driveway this week to dump the packets of timber on the cracked soil in front of our building site. It was the best (late) Christmas present ever.

Timber delivery!

And now we just have to put it all together.

To top it off, the container of items we shipped from our home in San Francisco finally made it into the country and will be delivered to the island this weekend. Living for 6 months out of what we could fit into suitcases when we moved here has been enlightening, and truth be told we are absolutely fine with what we have right now. But I can’t wait to get our bikes, the kids books, and some of our summer clothes and shoes. And oddly, I can’t wait to get our can opener (the ones I’ve bought here just don’t seem to work as well).

The past decade of living in small spaces, both with and without kids, has helped me grow out of any materialistic tendencies I once had. I’m not attached to stuff. But I have always thought I’d have an emotional reaction when we open up our container and see the trappings of our old life piled inside. Will the towels still smell like our apartment? Will my old clothes remind me of how much I’ve changed? Who knows. There’s no way to tell what a moment will feel like until you’re in it.

Chubby, our first monarch caterpillar

I could not have predicted I’d fall in love with gardening the way I have here. Knowing very little when we got here, I ordered three times as many seedlings as we needed for our first planting and ended up ripping out half the arugula and beans because they went to flower before we could eat them all. But I’m now confident enough, thanks to the internet and tips from my in-laws, that I planted most of our recent crops from seed. Watching the carrots pop up in neat little rows, and marvelling at how gigantic the leaves of a zucchini plant can get, makes me feel like a child again, awed by the world’s cycles of birth and decay.

I was pulling cucumbers off our vine last week when the broad black and orange wings of a butterfly flapped open beside me. “The monarchs are here!” I shouted to Isaac across the yard. I’d been waiting for them to arrive. They come every year just after Christmas, drawn to the swan plants Isaac’s mom has planted all around the veggie garden. On previous visits, I had watched their striped caterpillars nibble on leaves inside my mother-in-law’s house, where she keeps them safe from the many predators in the yard (wasps, birds). Watching them morph into their future winged selves was something I couldn’t wait to do in our own kitchen this year. So far we have two – Chubby (the big one) and Tiny (the small one). But there are several more eggs on the branch we have in a vase inside. I told our 3-year-old he could name the next one.

The monarchs are just one of a thousand little critters we find ourselves existing alongside now that it’s summer. Having lived only in the Pacific Northwest and then San Francisco, I’m not used to sharing my space with so many other living things. By 8am each morning, the forest and garden are abuzz with the activity of summer’s helpers and pests. The first time a cicada started up on our deck one morning Isaac remarked, “It’s summer now!”

releasing a bird that flew into our kitchen today

Thank god for fly paper

With windows flung open all day to cool the house, there’s no keeping the flies out. Fly papers swing like streamers over our kitchen island, quickly coated with fruit flies, horse flies, and house flies. When we first arrived, I shooed away the spiders. But now I welcome their webs in every corner of the house, hoping each day they’ll help us out with the flies or the mosquitos, who seem to love our 3-year-old. We have slept better since I got us mosquito nets for all our beds, though sometimes our kiddo kicks them open. He has woken up several mornings with more than a dozen bites on his face alone, having been ravaged in the night by the one or two mozzies we failed to squash before bedtime. It was so bad last week that a friend asked if he had chicken pox.

Then there are the sand flies. These teeny, almost unnoticeable, black flies evolved in New Zealand to feed on the feet of the country’s only native animals – birds. Their bite is ferocious, leaving a bloody dot that itches to high heaven. I’d rather have ten mosquito bites than one sand fly bite, truly.

While we love the honeybees who buzz around the flowering lavender and hydrangeas, wasps are less welcome. “Another pest of summertime,” Isaac said as we pulled down two wasp nests from the side of our living room. Later, a mason wasp flew into the house and disappeared into a crack in the door jamb. I’d seen these black buzzers disappearing into teeny cracks in the wall or around windows, where they noisily build nests of mud, fill them with spiders they’ve caught and paralysed (a snack for their larvae), then lay eggs. They’ll nest in the folds of curtains, or as I learned, inside a jacket you haven’t worn for a few weeks. I pulled my winter coat off the hook and a collection of curled up spiders fell into a pile at my feet. I smooshed the barely-alive arachnids out of pity, and washed the jacket. We go to sleep listening to buzzing in the walls of our old house – the sound of mason wasps paralysing their prey and laying eggs.

Once upon a time I would have had a very difficult time living with so much insect life in my midst. But having children reminds me that all our fears and aversions are learned. My kids love to watch a flurry of ants devouring a watermelon rind they left on the deck or spiders tickling webs into existence in the corner of their rooms. I’ve taught them to leave bees alone, and not to pick up slugs (but worms are okay!), and slowly we’re all learning how to live together in this place.

Our toddler with a worm he befriended

Can you spot the bee?

But I’ll never be able to live peacefully with the rats, who chewed through the engine of our car this week, destroying electrical wiring and biting their way into the car. It’s a never-ending battle to try and fight off any of these creatures who outnumber us here on this patch of land, but sometimes it’s worth waging it. We’ve caught three rats since the car incident, and I’m hoping for more tonight. I feel bad each time I drop one into the bucket we drown them in. It’s hard for me to kill a mammal. But it’s even harder to find a car mechanic on the island who can re-wire the automatic windows in our car.

And plus, if there is one thing I’ve learned from spending so much time in the garden, it’s that nearly every living thing is both nurturer and murderer. Including me, it seems.

As a parent, one of the joys of the holidays is recreating for my own children the traditions I enjoyed as a kid. Especially when it comes to Christmas. A cozy decorated tree, a month of playing Christmas music in the kitchen, oodles of cookies like my mom used to make, and cozy evenings spent reading Christmas picture books. It took half of December for me to realise I was going to have to throw a lot of those traditions out in favour of things that make more sense for, well, summertime. Wild rice and ham soup (a family tradition on Christmas Eve) just doesn’t sound that great when it’s 85 degrees with 100% humidity.

Add to this the fact that we don’t have any of our Christmas decorations with us – they’re still en route from California with the rest of our stuff. I decided to make do with what we had around, get crafty, and be creative. We decorated a driftwood tree with branches from around the property, pompoms, and spinifex on top as a star. My mother-in-law helped me find old fabric and coffee sacks to sew stockings for the kids (I used a wool sock for myself). A plant in the yard that had berries on it and doesn’t wilt easily became a makeshift mistletoe in the kitchen. We hung bunting and wreaths made from plants in the garden.

Makeshift mistletoe

I had dreamt of cutting a pine tree at the beginning of December, but when we realised it wouldn’t last more than a week indoors in the heat, we waited until just before Christmas to find one. Pine trees aren’t native here and it’s helpful to remove them. We pulled off the side of the road and chopped a spindly Monterey Pine for ourselves. It was warm despite the summer rain, and the kids splashed (one of them naked) in mud puddles while we loaded the tree on the car. It was nothing like cutting a tree in the snowy Oregon mountains when I was a kid, but we’re making our own traditions. Naked puddle splashing just might have to become one of them.

The food we made was also nothing like what I am used to. It was too hot to bake cookies, though I did manage some delicious brioche cinnamon buns for Christmas brunch and tried my hand at fruit cake. We had ham and potatoes planned for Christmas dinner, but at the last minute decided we couldn’t stand turning on the oven so we made quesadillas and guacamole for dinner.

It’s the season for stone fruit, watermelon, corn, and all those scrumptious summertime things, and our garden was bursting with beans, zucchini, and cucumbers. In the end we embraced these things and it all felt more like a Fourth of July BBQ to me than Christmas. But the warmth of family and good food never fails to elicit that holiday spirit, no matter what the season.

Garden treasures

Our garden is bursting this time of year

After presents and the usual Christmas morning excitement, we headed down to the beach for an afternoon at our favourite little bay. Another family was heading out for a surf together, and others picnicked and swam. The kids ran and splashed while Isaac and I took turns going for swims out in the clear water. The weather was splendid, the sea was warm, and we had slices of cold watermelon to snack on. It was all quite perfect in the end. As I tucked our toddler into bed that night he said, “Mama, I had a wonderful Christmas.” Which is all I really wanted for Christmas anyway.

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