A clearing where we'll build the house

The first phase of building a tiny house is actually designing it, which we did back in San Francisco late at night when the kids were asleep. We went through multiple iterations and settled on a rectangular design with a living area, a master bedroom, and two tiny sleeping nooks for the kids. Isaac even made a virtual tour of it, and a framing plan and window schedule so we could order materials as soon as we arrived.

But there was one big thing we didn't know yet: where on the land would we put the house? The spot up the hill from my in-laws where we planned to build is thickly forested. Despite scrambling around it on previous visits to the island, we didn't really know exactly where we would place our imaginary rectangle.

We fired up the chainsaw our second day here, felling trees on an old trail to our imagined house site. Most of the forest is manuka (tea tree), which is spindly and sapless and comes down easily. Within a few hours we had a path up the hill. I spent a morning walking through the area with a ball of string, tying bows around trees I thought might mark the edges of our house site so Isaac could chop them down.

I have always hated cutting down a tree, even for Christmas like we always did as kids in Oregon. I'd sort the tree trunks into stacks and drag branches into brush piles along the edge of the site, all the while feeling a little bad we were taking down so much.

For the past three weeks, this has been the work we've done – chop, drag, clear. It's slow and tough, but I know the site inside and out now. I know where the water runs down the hillside in a heavy rain, and where shade falls in the late afternoon. After changing our minds three times about where to put the house, we finally decided to excavate into the hillside above the trail. We hammered posts of fallen manuka into the ground to outline the 3x10 meter space where our house will go, with strips ripped from an old pillowcase tied to the tops as markers. When I hike up the future driveway and stand where our deck might be, I sit on the ground and can imagine sitting there with tea in the morning. It feels right.

Until New Zealand ends the level 4 lockdown we are in right now, we won't be able to move forward on the project. Our next phase requires earth-moving with heavy machinery and professional help we'll have to hire, something we just can't do until business resumes here.

But there is plenty to do in the meantime. I bottled (and already drank) my first batch of kombucha and have a second one brewing. After three attempts I finally made a delicious loaf of perfect whole wheat bread last night. And Jude wants a treehouse. So, plenty to keep us busy!

I had only ever visited New Zealand in late spring or summer, usually around Christmas when the beaches are warming up and the days are long. So before we moved, Isaac warned me about the winter weather. “It rains. A lot,” he said. Being from Oregon I promised him I had seen plenty of rain in my life. I love the rain. Especially after a decade living in thirsty California.

After plenty of warm winter sunshine our first week here, the rains finally arrived last week. The kids stared out the window, having never seen such a downpour, and the sound of it on our corrugate roof outmatched the sound machines I always turn on during their naps and bedtimes. It was the kind of weather where everything indoors feels damp.

We wanted to start up the wood stove first thing in the morning and stoke it all day. Unfortunately we hadn’t thought ahead when the first few days of rain arrived – we had no dry kindling, so starting it up was a challenge and filled the house with smoke. That meant we had to open the windows, which defeated the whole purpose of the thing. My in-laws advised us to stash sticks and kindling under the house for days like today. We’re learning all the tricks as we go.

The uppermost window of the old house we’re living looks down on the valley below, where a creek winds through pastures to meet the sea not too far away. We watched from this perch all day as the creek swelled and water filled the fields. Floods aren’t unusual here, but I’d never seen one like this during all my summer visits. We got the kids in their rain suits and boots and went down the steep hill to check it out, only to find the bottom of our driveway submerged in knee-deep water. The road was covered too. Thankfully I’d headed in to the little store here to pick up groceries the day before. There was no way we were getting anywhere until the rain stopped and the flood drained out to sea with the tide.

One of our family’s values is “adventure”, and I’ve personally always loved when things go a little astray like this. What an adventure! We splashed in the water and sent leaves flowing into the flood like little boats. Not too far down the road a newborn calf was huddled on a mound of dirt just inches above the waterline, its mother standing in the water beside it. We checked on it later in the day to make sure it was alright.

With two kids, we couldn’t afford to put off our laundry for too long, even with the rain. During a break in the weather I hung a load out on the lines. We forgot about it and went to bed. When the wind picked up in the night, shaking the windows and whistling in the chimney above us, I remembered – the laundry! In the morning it was soaking wet, of course. We squeezed it out and strung it up above the wood stove, which lent our clothes a nice smokey smell. It’s the same smell my clothes and sleeping bag used to have after a camping trip as a kid. I’d breathe it in nostalgically when we unpacked back home at the end of a trip. I have never wanted a camping trip to end, even as an adult. So when Isaac pointed out that, “living out here is like camping,” I smiled. It’s an adventure, that’s for sure.

Some days the rain has matched my mood this past week, with bouts of homesickness. I tucked our toddler into bed one night and snuggled his blankets – all of which we brought on the plane with us from home – up around his face. “This is just like your bed back home,” I said. He buried his face in them and replied, “they smell like home.” I quickly realised I can’t say that anymore – this is our home now, though I don’t quite feel that way yet. I still remember where every item was kept in our kitchen back in San Francisco; which shelf to reach for to make my tea in the morning. I can picture the inner contents of my dresser drawers and the arrangement of the pillows on my bed as if it’s all right in front of me. But none of that exists anymore. Someone else lives in our apartment, and all our clothes and cups and bedding are packed into boxes in a container waiting to be shipped to us from Oakland. We won’t get our things until Christmas, due to these Covid-related delays.

Thankfully the island is teaching me patience, with its life-halting rainstorms and all-around slowness. We’ve accepted that we won’t get any of our belongings from “home” for many months, and have adopted the contents of my in-laws’ old house as our own. I’ve accepted that the weather may cancel our plans at any moment, and that a flood might prevent us from going into town to get the mail or another packet of those cookies we just ran out of (something I wanted to do yesterday and couldn’t because of another driveway-blocking rainstorm).

And I’ve accepted that it might take some time to mourn the life I had back in San Francisco. Maybe a couple of months, maybe a year. I miss the playgrounds we knew like the back of our hands, and the cafe where we recognised all the baristas. I miss our bike rides, and people-watching. I miss my friends.

We traded it for adventure. At the end of my life, I know I won’t be sorry we did. The grass here is as green as I can imagine, and the daffodils are all coming up. The sky is broad and the stars are so bright. It’s all so different, so beautiful. But that doesn't remove the need I have for mourning what I gave up.

The rains stopped and the flood cleared just in time for our toddler’s third birthday. We made it to the post office, where a load of packages from family and things we had ordered for him awaited. All that was left in the fields were a few puddles. Nature is so resilient, after all. I’m hopeful that living so close to it will make me so too.

Enjoying the beach during a break in the rain

Updated: Sep 28, 2021

There’s a phenomenon on the island that locals call “Barrier Lethargy.” After a day or so of arriving here, newcomers are struck by an urge to slow way down, take long naps, or sit lazily around. I’ve experienced it myself in previous visits. The mind quiets and the body follows.

We all thought perhaps this was what we were feeling when, three days after arriving here we all hit a wall. Unfortunately it was a stomach flu that hit us – first our toddler, likely because he picked it up at a playground or the airport, and then the rest of us. As a family we have never been so sick together. One day I couldn’t get out of bed until 3pm. Our little one was up all night for two nights. We had started our time on the island with lots of momentum for projects and activity only to be stopped in our tracks by this. Perhaps it was the island (and our immune systems) telling us to take it easy. It’s so hard being sick far from a familiar home, not to mention being off the grid where everything requires a lot more work. In order to get enough hot water for baths and showers, we have to start up the wood stove (which heats the water system) around 3pm and keep it going until bedtime. My in-laws helped us through the flu by chopping our firewood and picking up medicines at the little pharmacy down the road, which is only open for a few hours three days a week.

In San Francisco we could just dial up the heat or languish in an instantly hot shower any time of day. We used to be able to order cozy takeout from hundreds of different restaurants at the click of a button if we were too tired to make dinner, or walk a block to a giant pharmacy to pick up whatever we desired. Out here if you want hot soup or Gatorade, you’d better have some in the pantry or be prepared to make it yourself.

Near the tail end of our family flu, I hit an emotional wall. Without my typical energy, and with sick and complaining kids, living out here just seemed too hard. “Do we really want to do this?” I wondered aloud to Isaac. He reminded me this has been the hardest month of our whole life as a family, and it will get easier. But yes, he acknowledged, it’s hard living out here.

The moon was full that night and I sat outside beneath it, listening to the lone sound of the wind rustling the trees all around. I felt incredibly homesick and alone. Our wifi has been inconsistent enough that we haven’t been able to call friends and family back in the states. And I was weighted down by the news as well, anguished by what I read about Afghanistan and the world.

After a good night of sleep, my excitement for our new life returned. I drove across the island to pick up a load of groceries for us at the little store here and soaked in the views of wild beaches and rugged mountains. New Zealand is in its second week of the highest level of lockdown for COVID, so the roads were quiet and the driving was unhurried. The twists and turns of the narrow road were their own kind of medicine, lulling me into the slow pace of this new life. The island also gives you permission to forget the woes of the world when you want to, and that’s exactly what I needed.

I began to realise all the little bits of extra work required to live here have their own reward; it literally takes longer to do everything here, and therefore forces you to move more slowly. We can’t fit as much into one day as we used to, which is a good thing. Every errand takes longer to run. We don’t have a dishwasher, so dishes take up a chunk of the day. Laundry without a dryer is slower too, since it requires hanging it out to dry (and remembering to bring it in if it’s going to rain!). Then there’s chopping firewood and loading the wood stove to heat our hot water tank and warm up the house. And the wifi is spotty and slow, partly because the whole island relies on the same single cell tower for all their wifi. We use it briefly in the morning when it works and then sign off for the rest of the day.

Accepting that we can’t be as “productive” or “busy” here is a freedom and a gift. Our kids love it, for one. I’ve never seen our toddler happier in his whole life. He wears his pyjamas all day and darts outside whenever he wants, always without shoes. We spend a lot less money; multiple days go by without opening our wallets. And my body loves it too. The knot of anxiety and stress I used to feel daily living in San Francisco just isn’t there anymore.

Perhaps that is what “Barrier Lethargy” really is – an acceptance that one simply can’t get as much done here. The days are simple and slow. There’re spaces for thoughts and daydreams. There’s room to breathe.

The pace will likely pick up a little when our lockdown ends. There’s a PlayCentre here where I want to take Jude twice a week and various other social and family events we want to start going to when they happen again. We’ve cleared land for our tiny house, and the end of lockdown means we can hire in a digger to speed up the project. We also get our Elon Musk satellite dish for Starlink wifi next week, which means we’ll have faster wifi here than we did in San Francisco. I can’t wait. Even if we live at a slower pace here, I’ll be quite happy to do so with lighting-fast internet access. :)

We cleared the site for our tiny house!

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