“I want an old house with lots of windows,” I said when I agreed to move to New Zealand for three years. I was in the bargaining stage of grief—excited at the prospect but sad to leave the life I loved for such a long time.
“It’s going to be great,” my youngest of three, then eight-year-old daughter Emily, exclaimed. “Mommy, did you know there are no snakes in New Zealand?”
Right, I thought. No extended family, no job that I love, no friends, but here’s a plus: no snakes. No wonder. Any further south, and they would have slithered to Antarctica. I was being a supportive partner. Coming off a successful Stars and Stripes campaign, the children’s father had been offered the job of a lifetime designing New Zealand’s America’s Cup entry. There was only one answer to the question: how would you feel about living 12,000 miles away from home for the next 3 years?
And it wasn’t “not great.”
The next day, I stood in the shed contemplating what gardening tools I might need to ship to Auckland. What grows in New Zealand, I wondered. Not the white lilacs I planted by the kitchen window 15 years ago. Not the pink hollyhocks that grace the white picket fence in the backyard. “What’s the time difference?” friends asked. “Count eight hours backwards and make it tomorrow,” I said, but no one wrote that down. “You cross the international dateline,” I added for interest. “Coming back, you can travel for 24 hours, but you arrive the day you left.” I looked around brightly. You’re as good as dead, I thought.
“As long as you have each other,” my mother kept saying. “That’s all that really matters.” I thought about missing autumn mornings in Maryland and eyed my family with a new sense of detachment.
The house we found was what New Zealanders call an “old villa.” A turn-of-the-century, two-story Victorian built into a hillside that overlooked Rangitoto, a dormant volcano rising from endless miles of the Hauraki Gulf and Pacific beyond. There was a patio where we could have barbeques (barbies) without being too bothered by the mosquitoes (mozzies.) Everything in that tiny country was somehow referred to in the diminutive. It made me feel American in a kind of grand and aggressive way—like I should have been wearing a cowgirl hat coming through immigration—emblematic of wide open plains, massive selections at the grocery store, supersized dinner portions, and a tendency to share intimacies at the local coffee shop with a total lack of discretion. But also emblematic of big, warm, gregarious hearts—quick to befriend strangers with a smile, to instinctively extend a hand to shake.
Agapanthus flourished in the garden, purple and white flowers seemed to glow at dusk, and Emily’s treehouse overlooked the Gulf. She could play outside almost year-round due to the temperate climate, but at night, when we gathered on the porch and listened to the cicadas, it was not the North Star overhead but the Southern Cross, and it did not point our way home.
One day, as I was writing at my desk and Emily was constructing a lily pond in the lettuce crisper for a salamander, I noticed a cloud of bees swarming in huge gusts up and down behind the agapanthus. I called Mr. Oliver to come and see.
“Those look like German wasps,” he said. “They can be dangerous. You better call someone.”
The next afternoon, the bee man arrived. He donned a white suit complete with a hood that reached down to his shoulders, pants, and a top with Velcro closures at the wrists. I went up onto the high verandah to watch as he disappeared behind the bushes with his apparatus. Only an occasional flailing branch told me he was still there, but the bees began breaking formation, and a few began flying about the yard in crazy orbits, dive-bombing me on the porch where I’d yelp and duck involuntarily.
I felt sad for them for a moment. Their sense of community and continuity disrupted. Their sense of safety displaced. After a few more minutes, the bee man emerged and joined me on the porch.
“Will they die?’ I asked, “Or will they simply move to a new home?”
“Well, now, nothing stays the same forever,” the bee man said apropos of nothing. His words were softened by the beautiful lilting accent with which all New Zealanders speak. Every sentence is a musical phrase that goes up a few notes at the end. It makes even a simple declaration of fact sound like a question. Nothing stays the same forever?
Take off that hood. Are you the bee man or a messenger? That’s the thing about feelings, I’d been reminded. Like circumstances, they don’t stay the same forever.
Would I spontaneously hug him with unseemly gratitude when he left? Yep. American to the core.
I turned this story in to my instructor, Alice Mattison, at Bennington’s MFA program. I was flying up from New Zealand every six months for several weeks on the Vermont campus with the other MFA candidates. Manuscript in hand, she frowned at me from beneath her ball cap and through huge, picture-window glasses. I gazed at my copy, jet-lagged and stressed out.
“Oh, wait,” she looked back down and studied the manuscript an excruciating moment longer. This was a woman who not only had several critically acclaimed novels, she also wrote regularly for The New Yorker. “I get it,” she exclaimed. “You’re the bee!”
I squirmed a bit. Now that she had put it that way, it sounded stupid. I was most certainly not the bee. (I’d rather die than be the bee now!) I’d been going for subtle symbolism. Turning fact into fiction was proving difficult in this program, but yes, my hive had been disrupted.
And yes, I was homesick, but I think I’ve always been. I think we’re all a little homesick. I sometimes think our lives are all about assuaging the feeling that we are on temporary visas here. We fall in love, make children and homes, find our callings, love the best we can, and it is enough until sometimes it isn’t, and it all feels like sightseeing.
The world is a fascinating place to visit, but aren’t there times when you sense your spiritual passport doesn’t state your country of origin? That when you eventually arrive back home, you’ll discover it’s the day you left? The bee man was right, of course. Nothing stays the same.
That’s why joy must come from the inside out. An energy powered by love that is impervious to circumstances because circumstances are just the setting for your life. For a time, mine was New Zealand.
But the story of your life is what you make of it. And the brilliance of life’s design is that you never go backward. You never leave a time, a place, or a person with less. With every change, you take something good with you into the next unknown. Even when the distance between then and now is so great, you must count eight hours backward and make it tomorrow.