Ghosts of Christmas Past

Christmas day dinner–no cooking required.

Much of the world has entered the holiday season under the threat of Covid. Holiday gatherings, a highlight for many, are necessarily smaller or cancelled altogether.

For some, a Christmas without parties and large family gatherings will seem … well, not like Christmas at all. 

I’ve been thinking about this as I talk to my family about their holiday plans, and there’s a lot of similarity in what they are going through to what my husband and I have gone through as expats. We’re used to holidays far from parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins. We know how the ghosts of family-filled Christmases past haunt the table set for two on Christmas eve. We’ve learned how to fill the holidays with meaning even if we can’t fill them with loved ones. I imagine most other expats have done the same.

It occurred to me that the lessons we’ve learnt are applicable to those stuck at home due to Covid. So here are some musings on how we’ve navigated (and come to love) solo holidays.

  • Treat yourself the way you’d treat guests. Do you usually make a special dinner Christmas Day? Cook it for your household, even if that’s only two people. Do you stay up late partying to ring in the new year? Well, put on the stereo and dance, no matter how few you are.
  • If the previous idea raises too many ghosts for you, create new ‘traditions’ instead. Throw out the holiday rulebook. Instead of a party, go for a hike with your household. Instead of buying a live tree, get creative and make one with your immediate family out of whatever’s lying around the house. Instead of a formal meal in the dining room, have pizza and popcorn while watching a movie on the couch. The more different the new tradition, the less likely those Christmas ghosts will show up. Just make the new plan as much of a treat as the old (not simply your usual routine). 
  • Dress up. Staying home? Put your party clothes on anyway. It will make the day feel special, even if all you do is lie around reading books.
  • Share with family and friends far away. This is so much easier today than it was 27 years ago when my husband and I had our first Christmas overseas. Then, I wrote letters describing our Christmas punch and mailed photos of our tiny Christmas tree. These days, we share via telephone, Skype, Zoom and FaceTime. It’s not the same as being there, I know, but I am thankful for the opportunities we have to be ‘together’ for the holidays.
  • Focus on what you can gain, not what you’re losing. Quiet time with your partner and/or children. Time alone to do what you want, not what the whole gang wants. Freedom from the intense cooking, cleaning and planning that go into hosting holiday events. A chance to re-think your holiday traditions. A reprieve from that loud uncle who always drinks too much and starts talking politics … I’m sure there are plenty of things you’ll happily miss out on this year.

No question about it, this year’s holiday is going to be different from normal for most people. But that doesn’t mean it has to be bad. Make the most of the opportunities to try something different this year. Who knows? Maybe something you do this year will become part of your holiday traditions for years to come.

Welcome Spring!

It’s the first day of spring.

So, naturally, it’s snowing.

But the daffodils are flowering, the willows are greening up, and pine pollen billows from the neighbour’s trees. Regardless of what the sky is dropping on us, spring is here.

And not a moment too soon. Like most people around the world, we feel like the past six or seven months have dragged on for decades. Can I even remember the TBC (Time Before Covid)?

For us, lockdown began during a glorious Indian summer. Warm sunny days begged for last-chance trips to the beach. Trips we couldn’t take, trapped in our bubbles and stuck on foot.

By the time we were released from lockdown, summer had given way to chill autumn rain and frosty days.

Living in our shed through lockdown, then beyond and well into winter, we felt the season’s bite early and hard. We lived in the cold shed forever, and we would live there always … at least that’s how it felt. Every icy day was a year long.

Finally, we moved into our new house. It was (and still is) glorious—a warm dry refuge from the weather.

But winter was still grinding away outside. With landscaping only partly finished, the yard was a mire of wet clay and puddles. We were still trapped indoors. Even the novelty of a warm dry house wasn’t enough to speed the days along. Time dragged its feet. Winter moved at a toddler’s pace. I couldn’t go yet—it had to get its coat and shoes. Then it lost a glove and spent a month looking for it among a drift of discarded outdoor gear.

So it was a spectacular feeling to boot winter out the door—gloveless still—when I planted the season’s first vegetable seeds last weekend. It was an act of defiance to turn garden beds, and ready the greenhouse for newly-sprouted seedlings.

I look forward to the growing season ahead. Welcome spring!

Alpine Therapy

Last week was a difficult one for all of New Zealand. On Tuesday, four cases of Covid-19 cropped up outside of managed isolation facilities at the border. The virus was circulating in the community again.

Auckland, where the cases occurred, was placed into alert level 3, with schools closed, and movement and business activity restricted. The rest of the country moved to alert level 2—not as strict, but in some ways more stressful, because we weren’t confined to the safety of our home and personal ‘bubble’. Once again, we navigated work and the rest of daily life knowing the virus could be lurking among us. Once again, we looked on every sniffle and cough with suspicion.

I’m proud to report that New Zealanders once again have stepped up to the challenge and are doing their part to stamp this new outbreak out so we can all return as quickly as possible to alert level 1. Still, stress levels were high in our household all week. So Saturday we took in some alpine therapy.

It was a shivery -3 degrees when we started up the Bealey Spur Track. We’d hiked the track many times when the kids were young, but never got far. On Saturday, we set a rapid, stress-relieving pace, reaching the Bealey Spur Hut (and the official end of the track) in just two hours. The peaks above called, so we carried on past the hut along Hut Spur, enjoying stunning views of the Waimakariri River below, and Mount Rolleston and Crow Glacier above. 

We relived memories of past hikes, tracing their routes along the ridges and through the valleys around us. We watched cars snake across the wide bed of the Waimakariri River, noting how easily the river could wipe out the road. We examined plants and fungi and slime moulds. We contemplated the uncertain future of Crow Glacier. 

And, yes, occasionally we discussed Covid-19, particularly as we descended, meeting dozens of people heading upward for their own alpine therapy. But somehow it was all easier to manage with tired legs and lungs filled with icy alpine air. 

Coronavirus-free New Zealand

Level One Lemon Cake. A delicious celebration of our Covid-free status.

I was coming out of the grocery store when two women meeting on the street hugged. One said, “Midnight tonight!” and I knew.

New Zealand had eliminated coronavirus.

At midnight we moved to alert level 1. The country’s border remains closed, but on our Covid-free islands, life returns to normal. I baked a Level 1 Lemon Cake to celebrate.

In many ways, New Zealand was lucky. We didn’t have our first case until 28 February, so we were able to observe and learn from other nations. We have a culture that is fundamentally law-abiding, so we were predisposed to obey restrictions. We have a prime minister with exceptional crisis management, communication and leadership skills.

But the people of New Zealand elected that prime minister. The people of New Zealand nurtured that culture. And when push came to shove, the people of New Zealand overwhelmingly agreed to restrict movement, change behaviours, and stay home in order to protect one another. We did this. Working together by staying apart.

And as restrictions have been eased over the past weeks, Kiwis have continued to care for one another. The number of websites promoting local businesses has blossomed as people seek to support a struggling economy. In the week after lockdown was lifted, Kiwis consumed five weeks worth of takeaways—a heroic effort to save our local fish and chips shops. Under alert level 2, the cafes I’ve visited have been hopping. Everyone is doing what they can to help.

That isn’t luck. That’s teamwork. It’s aroha. It’s whānaungatanga. It’s kaitiakitanga. It’s rangatiratanga.

I am once again proud and humbled by this nation. To be sure, all the -isms, violence, and other troubles are alive and well here—we have our fair share of society’s ills. But when the chips are down, New Zealand never seems to forget: He aha te mea nui o te ao? He tāngata, he tāngata, he tāngata. What is the most important thing in the world? The people, the people, the people.

Reap What You Sow

I started my pandemic poems—written with a Sharpie on scraps of building wrap and posted on the fence out front—to keep myself sane and connect with the new neighbours I’ve never met while we were in lockdown. Forty-nine days, forty-nine poems.

I wanted all the poems to be positive—a more difficult challenge than I’d hoped. Some days I wrote half a dozen poems, only to reject every one because they were grim and dark reflections of my mood. I would write until I found the light of good thoughts … sometimes I thought the positive poems would never come.

But they did. And by forcing myself to focus on the positive, I began to feel it.

And the neighbours must have felt it too. They stopped and read them silently to themselves. They read them aloud to their children. They laughed. They came by every day specifically to read the next instalment.

And I listened to them from the shed and smiled.

On Saturday I took them all down—symbolically freeing us from lockdown.

On Sunday I found this lovely note pinned to the gate. I’m still smiling.

They say you reap what you sow. Well, I’ve harvested two months of smiles from those silly poems. Almost makes me want to go back into lockdown and do it all again …

Or maybe not …

Pandemic Poetry: Poem of the Day, May 12-13 2020

Again, I was so busy yesterday between work and painting, I didn’t get the poem up. So here are two at once.

The last two.

Tomorrow, we will shift to Level 2, in which most of us will go back to work and school. We’ll be able to meet with friends (in small numbers and with appropriate social distancing), and buy things in shops rather than online. Our classrooms and workplaces will look different, feel different. We will be nervous, excited, relieved, frightened …

But right now I have to say I’m damned proud of this nation and the heroic team effort that has gotten us to this point. There’s a long way to go before the virus is beaten, but the amazing leadership (and followers-ship) we’ve seen in New Zealand has saved lives and jobs–we only have to look abroad to see what we might have experienced without the swift and dramatic response we took.

Ka pai, Aotearoa! Go out there tomorrow and enjoy yourselves. Be safe, keep your distance, and wash your hands! Kia kaha!

Pandemic Poetry: Poem of the Day 9-11 May 2020


I’ve been so busy painting the new house, I haven’t gotten the weekend’s poems posted here, so here are three days’ worth.

Today, we’ll learn whether we’re moving to Level 2, in which most everyone will go back to work and school. It will be a big, and somewhat nerve-wracking move if we do. But it’s been amazing what Kiwis have done the past six weeks–the amount of teamwork, dedication and aroha they’ve shown has been inspiring. Ka pai!