Combating Seasonal Exhaustion

The days are long now, and our summer has officially begun. Weeds crowd crops in the garden, and the harvest of spring fruits and vegetables is in full swing.

End of the school year events crowd people’s schedules, and children are restive and eager for the upcoming summer holidays.

Retailers remind us there are only so many shopping days until Christmas. The house still lacks decorations.

The 2020 goals list dares me to get just a few more tasks ticked off, and everyone wants things done and dusted in the next two weeks.

There’s hardly a moment to sleep, and the long summer days encourage us to stay up late and get up early to accomplish our ever-lengthening to-do list.

Add the stress of a year of chaos, disruption and fear, and everyone is suffering from seasonal exhaustion.

I sit down to compose a blog post, and am distracted by an incoming e-mail with an urgent request. I write the day’s to-do list, and promptly lose it in the shuffle of random items cluttering my desk. I have to set alarms on my phone so I don’t forget meetings. I try to do a little editing, and can hardly keep my eyes open.

I see fatigue in the eyes of coworkers and students, of friends and family. I hear it in e-mails from colleagues. We’re all suffering from seasonal exhaustion compounded by a dumpster-fire of a year.

We all need kindness and understanding right now.

Which is why I’ve decided to go on a pay-it-forward spree until Christmas. I’m sure that in the next few weeks at work, I’m going to visit the cafe next door more frequently than usual for a pick-me-up coffee. I’ve decided that every time I get a coffee for myself, I’ll buy one for the next person in line. Hopefully, it will make them smile. Maybe it will inspire them to do the same. Maybe a whole string of exhausted coffee-drinkers will get more than a caffeine hit, but a lift to their spirits as well, as they both receive a gift from the person before them and give one in return. 

And with smiles on their faces, maybe they’ll say a kind word to someone, and that person will pass on the kindness to someone else, who will in turn pass it on to another person.

And maybe I’m being overly optimistic about the impact of giving a cup of coffee to a stranger.

But maybe I’m not.

I’m willing to take that risk and do my best to spread kindness. We could all use it right now.

Giving Thanks in 2020

Thankful for these glorious blue peas with their cheerful flowers.

Thanksgiving is this week in the US and, while we don’t celebrate Thanksgiving here, I do always still pause and reflect on what I’m grateful for. This year, it feels doubly important to focus on the good things. 

So here are just a few of the things on my Thanksgiving list:

  • Top of the list this year has to be all the Kiwis who have responded with maturity and community spirit to the challenges thrust upon us this year. I am truly proud to be a New Zealander this year, and I’m thankful to be here, where our collective action has allowed us freedom and safety much of the world doesn’t have. 
  • Friends and colleagues who have encouraged those around them to approach Covid-19 as a challenge to develop creative ways to continue to pursue dreams, rather than as a disaster to be lamented.
  • I know I’ve mentioned it before, but I’m still incredibly thankful for our new house. It still often feels like I’m living in someone else’s home, but it is a joy to cook in the new kitchen and to live in a well-insulated building.
  • This time of year, while not exactly traditional harvest time, is rich in early summer fruits and vegetables. Though our new garden is quite young, and the soil is truly terrible, we’re still harvesting good food, and I’m thankful for what we are able to produce.
  • I’m especially thankful this year for my husband and children, who have approached all of this year’s many stressors with good humour, fortitude, and a willingness to pitch in and do what needs to be done.
  • I am more than usually grateful this year for technology which has made the pandemic far less isolating than it would otherwise have been.
  • As always, I’m thankful for the proximity of beach, river and mountain. This year, even more than other years, the natural world has been a solace, and I’m thankful to have relatively wild areas within walking distance.
  • The luxury of time. There’s no question that being in lockdown in a cold shed was awful. I look back on those months and wonder how we survived with our good humour intact. At the same time, having that intense time to spend with close family was something wonderful. We invented stupid games to pass the time and stay warm, we went on looooooong walks together, we sat and talked over the state of the world. I am grateful to have had that time.

There are dozens of other things I could put on my list—big things and little. It’s a year in which thankfulness has been a gift all of its own. I am thankful to be thankful for so much, in spite of the crazy year it’s been.

What are you thankful for?

Mount Somers Adventure

The Two Thumb Range with Aoraki peeking up from behind.

The family’s weekend hike took us to the summit of Mount Somers last week. 

We’ve hiked the Mount Somers Track more times than we can remember. Our first visit to the old coal mine along Woolshed Creek was with both children on our backs. Since then we’ve hiked the whole Mount Somers Track both directions and explored all its side tracks and variations. 

Except the summit track. By the time the kids were old enough to do it, we were all bored of Mount Somers. So it was good to tick the summit track off our list.

The summit track isn’t as popular as the other tracks on the mountain. We learned why when we hiked it. At 1688 metres, Mount Somers isn’t the tallest peak, though its volcanic origin is unusual on the South Island. Striking geometric rhyolite columns form cliffs that make finding a good route up or down a challenge and provide homes for an array of unique native wildlife.

The track rises steeply through beech forest from the Sharplin Falls carpark. The climb is unrelenting, taking you over 1200 metres in elevation into the alpine zone to the summit. We reached the summit in 3 1/2 hours, but it’s rated at 5 hours, and I wish we’d taken our time on the punishing ascent. On a hot early summer day, we’d all drunk most of our water by the time we reached the top. Luckily we were able to refill with snow. 

The view from the broad peak was stunning, with the Canterbury Plains spread out on one side, and the Two Thumbs Range jutting into the sky on the other. Aoraki / Mount Cook was visible, looming up behind the Two Thumbs Range.

To make a loop, we took an unofficial route down from the summit following widely spaced cairns to the Mount Somers track’s high point between Pinnacles Hut and Woolshed Creek Hut. It was steep, and involved a fair bit of scree sliding, but it was doable. And once you found the route, there was no getting lost, as you could see the track below.

On the track, we turned toward the Sharplin Falls carpark. An hour’s walking brought us to Pinnacles Hut where we had a welcome rest and chatted to the hut warden.

The track down from Pinnacles Hut follows and crosses numerous streams, and we enjoyed the cool water of the streams and waterfalls on the way. Aside from the relatively short climb over Duke Knob, it’s a gentler way down than the summit track.

All up, it was 8 1/2 hours of pretty steep up and down. Not for the faint of heart, but worth the effort for the views from the top.

Part-Time Ducks

Ordinarily, I’d be annoyed if the neighbour’s livestock made a habit of hanging out in my garden. At the old house, a mob of sheep would occasionally take a detour into the yard while being driven past. And I remember a bunch of cows grazing their way through the vegetable garden once when I was a kid. Those experiences were always destructive.

But one of the neighbours at our new place lets her livestock roam the neighbourhood, and I find it quite pleasing. They are a perfect pair of ducks—one all white, one all black (I’ve dubbed them Ebony and Ivory, of course). Watching them cruising the neighbourhood somehow makes me happy. Their owner occasionally comes out to the road to shoo them back home, but most of the time, they roam freely. 

For a long time, they avoided our place, waddling around next door, across the street, down the road … But this week, they discovered the wealth of slugs in our garden. They’ve been spending a few hours every day waddling up and down the rows of perennial crops, probing the mulch and quacking contentedly to one another.

I appreciate their gentle pest control operations in our garden, particularly since they come with no obligations on my part. I’ve seriously considered getting ducks in the past, primarily for slug control, but I never followed through. In the end they were always just more animals to have to care for. So part-time ducks are exactly my sort of livestock. They show up for work, put in a few hours, then head off to someone else’s yard. 

I hope they’re giving their owner lots of eggs.

The Beautiful Banks Peninsula

View from the top of Lavericks Peak Loop Track.

I still remember my first trip to the Banks Peninsula. It was probably less than 48 hours after we’d arrived in New Zealand and the only part of the country I’d seen was Hagley Park in central Christchurch.

The bush at Otepatotu Reserve

When we rounded the bend and the road sidled up to Wairewa/Lake Forsyth, my face split in a grin. I craned my neck to look up the steep slopes on the left while black swans cruised the sparkling lake on the right.

We stopped in Little River for a toilet break (we had toddlers then—we stopped at every toilet), and I fell in love with the Little River Cafe and the attached Little River Art Gallery.

Carrying on toward Akaroa, we crested Hilltop, and Akaroa Harbour glittered tropical blue down below. Onawe Peninsula jutted like a bead pendant into the harbour and the road wound down through a patchwork of forest and paddock toward the sea.

Native clematis in bloom.

I have made that drive countless times in the nearly sixteen years since the first trip. I still get that silly grin on my face. Every. Single. Time. Since that first visit I’ve scaled taller mountains, seen glaciers, stood at the base of Tane Mahuta, cruised Milford Sound … By comparison, the Banks Peninsula is positively dull.

But for me it defines summer in New Zealand. Even in winter, I feel like I’m on summer holiday when I’m out on the Banks Peninsula. I forget the to-do list. I turn off the cell phone. the daily stresses vanish.

Cushion star in a tidepool at Okains Bay

We hadn’t been to the Banks Peninsula since March, before lockdown confined us to home. But last Sunday we ventured out to sample everything we’ve been missing: morning tea in Little River, a lovely little hike through old totara and tree fuchsia in Otepatotu Scenic Reserve, a very chilly dip in the sea at Okains Bay and rock hopping along the coast to Little Okains Bay, and finally beer and chips in Akaroa and a stroll through the Garden of Tane.

We arrived home tired, crusted with salt and sand, and thoroughly satisfied with the day.

This weekend is supposed to be warm and sunny … we might just go and do it all again.

Childhood Literary Inspirations

In the lead up to the Tamariki Book Fest, I’ll be posting a series of blogs about the importance of books from my perspective as a reader, parent, teacher, and author.

I grew up with books, which should come as no surprise to anyone. Because I write fantasy for children, people often expect my childhood literary inspirations were books like The Hobbit, The Earthsea Cycle, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe or other classic fantasy stories.

I read these books as a child, but the ones I really remember are quite different.

Heidi: The natural world has always been my comfort zone, so I immediately connected with a character who prefers a life running around the mountains with a herd of goats over one learning proper manners in the city. Some of the scenes in the book were so vivid to me as a child, I can still see, feel, smell and taste them.

Little House on the Prairie: Another book whose main character is a tomboy—I sense a theme here. Little House on the Prairie appealed to my sense of adventure and love of the natural world. I even learned some gardening tips from it that I still use today. 

Doctor Goat: I can still recite this silly rhyming picture book in its entirety. It taught me about rhyme, meter, and being silly. Yes, Dr. Seuss books did too, but Doctor Goat is what sticks in my mind decades later.

Time Life books: My father had a near-complete set of these non-fiction books. They fed my insatiable desire to understand the natural world for many years. They were written for adults, but I read them over and over again until I understood.

Grimm’s Fairy Tales: Something about these stories sticks with me long past the point where I can accurately recount them. Perhaps it’s the way they hone in on our most fundamental wishes and fears and turn them back on the characters who express them. Perhaps it’s just because they’re freaky and often horrifying.

So, what books inspired my own children’s books? None of them individually, and all of them collectively. My own stories are crazy-quilt patchworks of everything I have ever read, stitched together with my own personal experiences (some of which can blow any fantasy adventure out of the water). My rich reading life, coupled with a ‘real’ life lived to the fullest, has furnished me with an overflowing font of story ideas.

As a parent, I have tried to provide the same rich book life to my own children, and I’m passionate about getting kids reading. Come join me and and a fabulous line-up of local authors at the Tamariki Book Festival (Nov 22 at Tūranga), and let’s celebrate the wonderful stories written right here in Christchurch!

Books and Children—Beyond Academics

In the lead up to the Tamariki Book Fest, I’ll be posting a series of blogs about the importance of books from my perspective as a reader, parent, teacher, and author.

The research on books and academic achievement is clear—children who experience books from a young age have better literacy on entering school and carry that advantage all the way through to university and beyond. 

But what of the other, less tangible benefits of reading to children and encouraging a love of books? Research indicates reading can improve mental health, empathy, social skills, cultural understanding and imagination—all of which I can attest to in watching my own children and my students interact with books. 

My husband and I read to our children nightly for a long time. We only stopped when the eldest went off to university. Reading was family time at the end of each day. No one missed unless they absolutely had to. Not only did we read stories, but we discussed them after each night’s instalment—what did we think of the plot, the characters, the vocabulary the author used? What did we think would happen next? If the book was fiction, how did it reflect the real world? Our discussions took on history, writing, storytelling, race relations, sexism, relationships … if it showed up in a book, we talked about it afterwards.

We did all this, not so much for the literacy benefit to the children, but because we genuinely enjoy books and wanted to share that love.

The intangible benefits I’ve seen in my own children are huge:

Introspection: Most children’s books carry a message, either overt or hidden. Characters’ actions provide opportunities for parents and children to discuss behaviour in a non-confrontational way, and give children a safe way to evaluate their own behaviour. 

Love: The greatest thing we can give our children is time. I know in our family we were all busy. But by taking time every day to read together we said, “This is more important than [insert household chore here]. You are more important than [insert work obligation here].” It was a powerful way for all of us to daily reaffirm our family.

Imagination: We read some crazy books with the kids. The authors’ creativity was often reflected in the children’s subsequent play. Books fuelled their creativity by showing them ‘out of the box’ ideas and encouraging them to imagine ‘what if …’

Knowledge: Once kids realise they can learn stuff from books, they’re away, reading up on their favourite animals, looking up weird facts to impress their friends, or exploring their heritage through historical fiction. Books can both inspire and satisfy their curiosity.

Cultural understanding: Books are a window to unfamiliar cultures and alternate ways of thinking. Through books, children can walk the streets of foreign countries, experience different family structures, eat strange foods, and engage in daily life around the globe.

Mental health: Books can be a valuable part of a mental health toolkit. Bored? A book can take you somewhere exciting. Lonely? Book characters can become friends. Sad? Books can offer humour or positive stories to cheer us up. Overwhelmed? Books can give us a respite from our worries and responsibilities. Finding yourself? Books can provide role models for life.

The Tamariki Book Festival celebrates all the benefits reading provides for children—the tangible academic boost, and the intangible quality of life benefits. We hope to see you all there (22 November at Christchurch’s central library, Tūranga) to help us enjoy and celebrate the power of books.

Rock the Local Resources

A few of the rocks we’ve collected …

I’ve been struggling with what to do with my tender seedlings here at the new house. I hesitate to keep them in the house, knowing the amount of moisture they produce. It wouldn’t do to turn the new house into a humid greenhouse.

What I really need is a heated greenhouse, but that’s a luxury I don’t expect to ever have.

At the old house, I lined the perimeter of the greenhouse with water bottles to trap solar energy during the day and release it at night. I recycled all those bottles before the move, so I have nothing to keep the greenhouse warm at night now.

Except the other day I picked up a paperweight from my desk—a rock I’d collected from the beach. It had been in the sun and was positively hot to touch.

Of course! Store solar energy in rocks. It’s a technique that was used by Māori for hundreds of years in Canterbury to grow semi-tropical crops in this cool climate.

Perhaps I hadn’t thought of it before, because the previous vegetable garden was nearly rock free. But we’ve already picked tonnes (literally) of rock from the soil here. I can practically pave the greenhouse with sunlight-absorbing rock that will warm the plants all night.

It will take some thought—I really don’t want to add rocks to areas I’ll be tilling and planting each year, but I like the idea of using the materials available on site to solve a problem.

Now we have to figure out how to use all the rest of the rocks …

The Lap of Luxury

Late last week, our exile in the shed ended and we took possession of our new house. Heat, insulation, indoor plumbing … the luxuries we’re now enjoying are amazing. 

In fact, looking back over our 28-year marriage, I can confidently say we’ve never had it so good.

Our first joint living adventures were in staff housing at nature centres in Ohio and Michigan. Cold and drafty, those conditions were decidedly rustic (though they came with some excellent wildlife spotting, including sandhill cranes out the bathroom window).

During our Peace Corps service, our one room mud home in Panama had a leaky roof and harboured rats, snakes, lizards, and the most astonishing array of arthropods I’ve ever co-habitated with. It wasn’t so much a house as it was a full ecosystem.

Married student housing at Penn State University had less diverse wildlife—German cockroaches filled all the ecological niches there—and involved periodic flooding from the upstairs neighbour’s bathtub.

The 1960s duplex we moved to next had a bad mould problem, but at least we had fewer six-legged housemates.

In Minnesota, our 150-year-old house needed a new roof, piles and insulation. It was never particularly warm in winter, even after the extra insulation we added.

The 125-year-old cottage we recently moved out of was shocking when we moved in, with a leaking roof and rotting weatherboards. The only insulation was a century of accumulated bird nests in the attic. We fixed it up, but it was always drafty.

In hindsight, the shed we were living in for the past three months wasn’t so different from our previous homes.

I’m thankful, and a bit overwhelmed, to be living in a modern, warm, dry house for the first time in my adult life. Even if I live here for the rest of my life, it will never be as old as many other houses I’ve lived in. I intend to enjoy it.

Fixing Mistakes

Last week I started making a new pair of trousers. Because I used a tried and true pattern, I didn’t test the fit until near the end.

That was a mistake.

I couldn’t zip them up, they were so small around the hips. 

That can’t be, I thought. I’m still wearing the last two pairs of trousers I made with that pattern. What have I done wrong? They needed extra fabric in the side seams. But I’d installed a welt pocket over one of the seams, and I’d trimmed all the seam allowances—there wasn’t enough fabric there to let out the seams.

I thought about all the hours I’d put into them—how carefully I’d set the fly zip, how beautifully the welt pocket had gone in, how I’d only bought just enough fabric, how much I really needed a new pair of pants.

Thoroughly discouraged, I nearly chucked the garment into the bin. 

But I didn’t.

I put everything away and made myself a t-shirt instead. Then I made a lovely button-down tunic with slightly quirky buttons. Then I sewed a new laundry bag. 

Finally, I was ready to face the trousers again. There had to be a way to salvage them, if only I was creative enough.

I remembered my first pair of zip-off pants, in which I didn’t allow enough ease for energetic hiking. They’d had pockets over the side seams too. I’d split the legs right up the front and back from waist to knee and put in long triangular gussets that ended up looking quite sporty.

Maybe I could do something similar with these trousers. I drafted several inserts of various shapes. I didn’t like any of them, because they all destroyed the look I wanted. But the alternative was to throw the garment away.

With nothing to lose, I carefully sliced my beautiful trousers into pieces. I tried not to worry about why I’d made such a bad mistake in the first place, but to focus on making the fix as perfect as possible.

To my relief, the adjusted trousers fit. To my surprise, the inserts don’t look bad at all. 

It reminds me of how far I have come since my youth—an easily frustrated 20-year-old me would probably have tossed those trousers in anger (in fact, I can recall doing just that to more than one garment). But I’ve learned that most mistakes can be fixed once I let go of the frustration and move on to the problem-solving. It’s probably a good lesson for the rest of life too.