The power of ritual

Last Saturday we had breakfast at a little café in the nearby town of Taree. This is noteworthy, because it was a break in a well-established pattern. Those of you who know us well will be saying, “What?! What happened to breakfast at the Waterbird?”

The Waterbird at Manning Point…Because Saturdays we have breakfast at the nearby Waterbird Restaurant, with several good friends. The previous Saturday we did that, and next Saturday the group will likely repeat the practice. The Waterbird has been in existence for seven years or so, and since it opened, we have shown up there almost every Saturday morning. Sometimes there are four or five of us, sometimes a dozen or more. There’s no decision to be made about it: if people aren’t away somewhere, they show up for Saturday breakfast.

I believe this getting together could be called a ritual.

Always some local entertainmentThe Waterbird is a modest restaurant right over the river at Manning Point (careful not to drop your keys). It used to be a bait and tackle shop, until Jim the Proprietor decided it was an even better location for a restaurant. So he renovated and expanded the little shop, donned an apron, tied back his long hair, hired a waitress and bought a coffee machine. The food is more than adequate and the ambiance is stunning. Dolphins, pelicans and cormorants abound. It’s quite a place.

There’s another layer to the ritual. Dozens of years ago back in The Big Smoke, after Eve’s early morning Saturday yoga class, everyone would go out for breakfast and do the quiz from the Good Weekend magazine. This practice transported itself to Mitchells Island, and now you’ll find the lot of us deeply engaged in the quiz while we wait for breakfast to arrive. There we are – a raucous group trying to sort out things like which two countries start with the letter Z, or who has the most ever Olympic medals, or who invented the lightning rod. We have a scorekeeper and an ethics judge; there is much head scratching and wrangling. I’m sure it’s health-promoting on many levels.

But like many rituals, breakfast and the quiz at the Waterbird took a little getting into. Before something becomes a ritual, you have to try it on, and things don’t fit perfectly at first. The jokes aren’t always funny, the food is not to everyone’s taste, sometimes it’s too sunny or too cold out there on the deck – but on balance it’s pretty good. So you do it again, and then again, and by the third or fourth time you’re hooked. This is the birth of a ritual.

When I look closely, my life is punctuated by many rituals. Rick and I have a coffee and work on a New York Times crossword most days. We celebrate a birthday with a movie and dinner out. We call our kids every Monday. A beer on the deck marks a satisfying conclusion to a few hours in the gardens or behind the lawnmower.

The Shedders also have their rituals. For example, we get together most evenings for a shared meal; that’s just how it works here. On a Friday morning more often than not we’re all engaged in housecleaning. Every year on 31 December we sit down together and review our year-just-gone, sharing the highs and lows and learnings; a day or two later we assemble again and share our dreams and aspirations for the coming year. Every January we pack up our cars and travel up to Camp Creative for a week of community, learning and creation. And if someone’s been away for a while, there’s automatically a cup of tea and some sharing in the lounge room. These are the rituals that lubricate our Shedders lives.

What IS it about rituals? As I sit here on a Saturday afternoon, after perhaps the 200th time laughing with good friends and doing the quiz, I find myself trying to tease out the nature of ritual, and its purpose.

Transitions

When the Shedders first moved to Mitchells Island, we left behind dozens of under-acknowledged rituals. They needed replacing. We softened the transition to this whole new life by the creation of such rituals as breakfast-and-the-quiz. The transition from living as an independent family unit to sharing a cooperative household was aided by rituals like shared evening meals and loud music while housecleaning. Change is good; perhaps we all have a deep need for it – and rituals give us stability in the face of these fresh starts.

Our personal stories

Rituals also allow us to tell a story that helps explain who we are – for others and for ourselves. Knowing I always enjoy doing the Saturday quiz with a group of friends tells you some key things about me – that I relish being with my friends, that I am stimulated by the challenge of the quiz and the interactions we have while we do it, that I cherish the beauty and serenity of the Waterbird’s location. When I tell you that I love attending our Wingsong community choir (not to mention going out for dinner at the pub afterward), it also tells you any number of things about me. That I get together with old school friends every year when I am back in Canada, that I never miss a Medd Family Annual Picnic – these rituals remind me how much I enjoy the power of family, friends, music in my life.

Signposts

I can see another important quality of rituals. When I look back at the peaks and valleys of my life, I often think of the old rituals that marked its passage. My farmer-father making fudge in the kitchen on a rainy day. Camping at Christmas time with 3 or 4 other families when our children were young. Taking the kids out for Friday dinner at Manly Wharf when the business had met its targets. These events have meaning for even decades after their expiry.

As rituals connect us to ourselves, they also connect us to each other. The simplest way for my communities to prosper is to create rituals where we can put our opportunities to get together on auto-pilot. We don’t have to think, plan, phone around, negotiate. We just show up at the Waterbird, we go to choir and the pub, we pack up our suitcases for Camp Creative. In this way our communities thrive.

It’s a grand design.

Disclaimer. Whoops! My spell checker just alerted me to a typo – there is no such word as “rutual”. But wait, perhaps a rutual is a legitimate word that means a ritual needs to be abandoned or freshened up. Very few things last forever.

Calmful living

Calmful livingI was recently approached by Anna from an American website called Calmful Living, which focuses on “calm mind, calm body, calm living”. Anna had read about us, and felt that our lifestyle might be tranquility-inducing as people approach retirement. Following is a copy of her interview questions, and my response.

As you can see, life continues to go well for the Shedders.

When you first began contemplating retirement, what were your concerns?

My husband Rick and I had a nest-egg sufficient to support a careful retirement, but not a generous one. We knew we couldn’t afford to retire in Sydney, an expensive city – although that didn’t matter because we were keen to leave the Big Smoke anyway. A few acres in the country, not far from good services, appealed. But that raised questions of having to start all over again building community, of solitary hours after a lifetime with busy social lives – of loneliness. What about when you lose some of your health? What about when you lose a partner?

These were the issues that concerned us: enough money and a solid community.

How did the idea of co-housing with other seniors come about?

 We had friends, two other couples, that we often spent holiday time with. In our fifties, as retirement appeared on the horizon, we began discussing these issues with them. We really enjoyed – and profited from – our holiday time together and wondered about sharing our retirement. Was it conceivable that we could stretch our retirement dollars farther in a shared living situation? Could we avoid aloneness? Could we provide support for each other?

We voted “yes”. Over the next several years, we resolved the key issues, including a big one: where to live. We bought four acres in the country, four hours from Sydney, not far from the ocean, and near a medium-sized town with good facilities. Before moving onto it, we tested our resilience by finding a big house in the city and renting together for two years. That worked fine, so we set up a good exit agreement and went ahead with building on our land.

Our homeWe’ve ended up in what looks like a large modern home. It has three suites where each couple has a good-sized bedroom, sitting room/office, on-suite and deck. We share the kitchen, living room(s) and entertainment areas. We’re seven full years into the arrangement now.

How has this lifestyle reduced stress and improved quality of life for all of you? Feel free to give any examples of when living communally helped a tough situation resolve more easily. 

A few weeks ago, on December 31, the six of us sat down together in our lovely living room to review our year. We took turns talking through the highlights, low points and learnings of the year. As I listened to people speaking, I was overwhelmed with a sense of just how much our lifestyle has contributed to each of us. Someone said, “I feel that this year I’ve become who I always wanted to be, and that’s a result of this way of living.” Every single one of us expressed contentment about living in our cooperative household. It was an strong tribute to this unusual thing we’ve done.

As you can well imagine, we don’t live stress-free. There are differences of opinion to be worked through, minor grievances, differing priorities. We’ve had to learn to be good at communication and at give and take. But on the big things, the benefits really shine through. We’ve had injuries and surgeries, small and large (e.g. four hip replacements, one ankle fusion, one knee reconstruction). It’s been great to share the road to recovery with five other people rather than one overworked and frustrated partner.

SheddersI’d say our mental health has benefited as well. There is always someone to talk things through, to pull you out of a funk, to provide a different perspective. There are demands on our flexibility that might be challenging short-term, but long-term are making stronger, more resilient people of us.

We enjoy a lovely home and gardens, with six of us sharing the work. Rick and I go to Canada, where we were both born, every summer – and the house is cared for in our absence.

Best of all, we have a large and vibrant community around us. We profit from each other’s networks. We’ve all gained friends from my housemate’s yoga classes, our community choir, the book club, the garden club, the men’s group, the palliative care community. I’ve never had a richer circle of friends.

I couldn’t leave this question without mentioning how good it is to routinely share our evening meals together. Of course there’s always lively conversation, but best of all is someone else doing the cooking two-thirds of the time. A tiny sense of competitiveness means our meals are excellent and varied. As with most things, it wouldn’t be the same with just Rick and me.

How do you handle the obstacles that arise?

We have monthly meetings that are intended to anticipate issues coming up – expenditures, repairs, activities, guests. Every issue is a potential obstacle, but we find that by staying committed to talking things through, we avert most crises. It’s not always easy. We have to be willing to both say and hear uncomfortable things, and to deal objectively with differing opinions. It can be messy in the middle, but with careful communication, so far we’re come through every time with relationships even stronger.

Do you think we will begin to see more of this type of retirement? 

Indeed I do.

The way we live together in the western world has shifted dramatically over the last couple of centuries. We’ve changed from village living to extended family living to independent living. The opportunities and constraints of modern lifestyles are leading us in new directions.

Architects are taking an interest; many councils and local governments are making it easier for people to create communal neighborhoods. There are intentional communities, cooperative houses, communes and ecovillages, all with the purpose of bringing people together in a synergistic fashion. Each has its own advantages.

Perhaps our own situation, where we have six people co-habiting the same dwelling and closely sharing many areas of the house, is unusual. It wasn’t easy to make happen, but so far the evidence is that we’re getting the results we wanted.

Crossing the Great Divide

I crossed the Great Divide between middle age and elderly this weekend. There is suddenly a barely-fathomable “7” at the front of my age-digits.

I decided several months ago that I might as well use this coming upheaval as a cause for celebration—after all, as they say, getting old is better than the alternative. So I thought through the things I love to do. Not big parties, particularly. Not ocean cruises. Definitely not climbing a mountain.

Suze Pratten

Suze Pratten

But SINGING! – now there’s something. And friends. What if I could find a weekend of joyous singing, and share it with people I love?

The perfect opportunity availed itself: “Singing at the Monastery”. The location was clearly going to be beautiful. The directors I knew well. Three full days of singing with them – could there be a more fitting opportunity to herald in a new decade?

So I put the word out to a number of close friends, most of whom were able to chisel a hole in busy lives and set aside four days for celebration. We rented a large and luxurious Airbnb not far from the Monastery, and packed up enough wine and bright clothing to get us through the weekend.

I then proceeded to surrender to the choice, and in the end slid over the Great Divide with joy and panache.

Monastery 5The Stroud Monastery turned out to be an enchanting environment. The hall in which we sang (Gunyah Chiara) had perfect acoustics. The chapel, where we sang one evening, carried echoes of thousands of years of music and ritual. There was a sing-along at the campfire, complete with candle-lit pathways, the glowing white trunks of gum trees, a full moon in the sky, and someone toasting the only perfect marshmallows I’ve seen south of the equator.

Our contingent from Wingsong

Our contingent from Wingsong

And most all there was singing! There were 67 of us (10 from our own Wingsong Choir) and we sang almost non-stop for a full three days. We learned seven songs, each more beautiful than the last. We danced, we held concerts, we juiced ourselves up with those happy hormones that come with choral singing. On The Day itself, I was fêted with a raucous cha-cha-cha rendering of Happy Birthday.

Birthday groovin'For all of that time, I dwelt completely in the present, at the same time building up enough memories to last the rest of a lifetime.

Now, several mornings later, I still have the sumptuous chords that 67 voices can make filtering through my brain. I open my mouth to talk, and a riff falls out. I sing in the shower, and can hear faintly the other 66 voices behind me. The event is a miracle that keeps on giving.

But in spite of all this, I confess to feeling a bit forlorn.

People neglect to tell you the downside of a choral weekend. You might guess that leaving behind excellent new friends is a negative, and that’s bad enough. But the true loss comes from having to leave the songs behind, along with the 67 voices and the wonderful directors who arranged them and led us so passionately. That can’t be replicated. The new friends I can find again if I want to, but it feels like the songs are gone forever.

It’s left me somewhat bereft.

Maybe it’s just that loss becomes more poignant when you reach 70. Unmistakably, it’s all finite. When a friend or partner dies, they’re gone. When a song is left behind, it’s gone.

But didn’t you love them while you had them! – And that’s the joy that lurks behind all loss.

Waterways

We gathered last week for the interment of a dream.

Here’s the story:

Some years ago housemate Daniel and I started kicking around the idea of jointly buying a 6-foot tinny for puttering around the local waterways. The Manning Valley has some 150 kilometres of river, and we felt we should be spending the occasional Sunday exploring them. However, word got out and somehow the 6-foot tinny became a 16-foot demon with a 140 hp motor, co-owned by ten of us.

Waterways - Bayliner 2We called ourselves The Boat Club. Membership was no small commitment. We organised insurance, we fixed up the rusted trailer, we purchased a big tarp and hosing-down equipment. We got boat licenses, and learned the rules of the waterways. You know those mysterious sign posts you see on the rivers? Black, white, yellow, red, green symbols; arrows, circles and triangles?—We learned how to interpret them all.

We learned how to do the 101 actions required to prepare for launch and the 112 actions required for retrieval and return. We concreted in a robust winch. We created a 3-page checklist so that we wouldn’t forget to put in the bung plug, check the spare fuel, attach the trailer’s safety chain—or succumb to any of the lurking dangers that could have us in serious trouble. For a group who were mostly non-mariners, each outing was a major adventure—before we even hit the water.

We developed skill at trimming the motor and getting the boat to plane, and practiced endlessly at docking. We learned how to line the boat up with the trailer and retrieve it—though on a windy day with a strong current it might take a half dozen nerve-wracking attempts to achieve lift-out. We spent many dollars in petrol, repairs and routine maintenance. You know the old expression? “A boat is a hole in the water into which you pour money”. We began to have direct evidence of that.

So in the end, we didn’t use the boat as successfully as we’d hoped. Over the four years we’ve owned it, we may have had it out only a handful of times each year. We never got to the point where it was a simple process. Our dream of dropping the boat in the water, flying across the waves with the wind in our hair, and then whistling back into dry dock never quite materialised.

Happy yoyagerYou’ll be getting a picture of the dark side of owning a speed boat, and nodding in sympathy about our decision to sell it (although I hope I haven’t put you off making an offer). But let me assure you, there were many good times. Managing the launch wasn’t really something a couple could do, so anytime the boat went out, it was a social occasion. Often the destination was a café or pub in Taree, Wingham or Harrington. Sometimes there were picnics. Many an hour was whiled away under the trees at the Art House Café in Ghinni Ghinni Creek. There were times we dawdled, times we fought fierce whitecaps, times we just revelled in the exhilaration of a high-speed water race across the water. Grandchildren bounced behind on tubes. We got to know quite a stretch of the amazing 150 kilometres of Manning Valley waterway.

I also loved the learning experience. It was exciting to get my head around this alien new machine in its alien environment. I’m more confident on the water now, and more adept at separating the real dangers from the imaginary.

Perhaps best of all, our friendships deepened. We’ve had fun together on the boat, fun having meals and meetings together, fun on the working bees, fun on our voyages. It was smart to buy and support the boat as a consortium. We all got to scratch an itch without spending an enormous amount of money.

I can say I’ve owned a 140 hp speedboat and it was a fine experience.

 

And of course there’s a bright future in store.

Hobie kayakThe thing is, we bought the boat because we all love the water. So we won’t be leaving the waterways. Rick and I have had a Hobie-drive kayak for several years, and have an undiminished enjoyment of those regular outings. Ken and Sal bought a Hobie themselves recently, and Eve and Daniel are planning to do the same. Kerry and Gordon own two canoes and live right on the river. Stella and Ian are boat-lovers from forever, with riverfront to enjoy. So the dismantled boat club will build on its experience and morph into something new.

The wisdom of Wingsong

Singing togetherMy intention is not to make you jealous, but beware, it could happen—I’m about to describe our community choir.

I joined this choir some six or seven years ago. We meet weekly in a country town about a half hour’s drive from here. The town is Wingham and the choir is called Wingsong. You wouldn’t want to expect too much from a choir located in such a setting, but in this case you’d have underestimated the situation. Our choir is a winner, a fully satisfying experience.

Let me fill you in.

First, about a community choir: you don’t audition, you don’t have to have experience or be “a good singer”, you don’t commit to anything. There may or may not be concerts and gigs. You go just because you like to sing and you thrive on getting involved in the harmonies. As with most such choirs, we show up once a week, pay a small fee to cover the costs of the hall and photocopying of the music, and then sing for an hour and a half.

So what’s special about Wingsong? For one thing, we’ve become a good-sized choir. Last week there were over 45 people attending. You can get a truly full-bodied sound with 45 voices, in an almost equal distribution of basses, tenors, altos and sopranos. But to really understand Wingsong’s success, you start by looking at the top. Wingsong is blessed with not one but three choir directors, all highly experienced. One is a natural singer/musician and has led this choir for some 20 years. One, with a significant knowledge of voice, was a director of a Sweet Adeline’s choir for several years. One has an MA in music, near perfect pitch, and can arrange beautifully for four parts. They’re teachers and natural leaders, with a big-hearted commitment. They’ve all ended up in the Manning Valley (as you would, but that’s another story) and they co-lead this choir out of the sheer joy of the music and the contribution.

Another secret of success: Wingsong chooses thoroughly good songs, across a variety of genres. Last week we worked on two or three pulsing African numbers, a rocking gospel tune, a couple of pieces of Australiana that are heart-breakingly beautiful (including one that ought to be the Australian national anthem), and a complex, haunting song written and brilliantly arranged by a well-known NSW musician. There’s something for everyone—well, really, there’s everything for everyone.

One more thing that Wingsong does well is manage the dilemma of social versus musical priorities, which all choirs must face. You tend to relish many of the people you sing with, and the resulting conversational need has to be balanced with everyone’s desire to sing and learn songs in a disciplined fashion. We don’t have a lot of rules, but nonetheless, the work gets done without friction.

We help to resolve this dilemma with another ritual: going out for dinner at the pub afterward.

***

In writing this post, I wanted to build a case for choirs, so I googled “health benefits of choral singing”. Accustomed though I am to marveling at what’s out there in the known universe, I was nonetheless stunned at the amount and depth of research that has been done about singing in a choir. I could have read all week and never got this post written.

One of my favourite posts was an article in Time magazine, called Singing Changes Your Brain: Here’s how the article opens:

When you sing, musical vibrations move through you, altering your physical and emotional landscape. Group singing, for those who have done it, is the most exhilarating and transformative of all. It takes something incredibly intimate, a sound that begins inside you, shares it with a roomful of people and it comes back as something even more thrilling: harmony.

Hundreds of studies show provable benefits of choral singing physically. Oxygen in the bloodstream is increased, and exercise is provided for the heart and lungs. The accompanying movement of the body provides light exercise. Singing turns out to be a good upper body workout.

Choir 2A study reported by The Telegraph (UK) speaks about the benefits of working in a “cohesive social group”. Remarkably, people’s heartbeats become synchonised during choral singing. I’m not sure how that translates to a health benefit, but it points to the social aspects, also claimed to be important.

I encountered much research focusing on neural activity: what the brain is doing while you are singing. For example, for those of you interested in arcuate fasciculus, modularity and use-dependent neuroplasticity (!), here’s just the article for you.  It’s exhaustive, and you may find it a touch exhausting.

The psychological benefits are strongly documented. Choir singing is known to stimulate two of the “happy hormones”, oxytocin and endorphins, which results in a lowering of stress levels and blood pressure. Also from the Time article:

As the popularity of group singing grows, science has been hard at work trying to explain why it has such a calming yet energizing effect on people. What researchers are beginning to discover is that singing is like an infusion of the perfect tranquilizer, the kind that both soothes your nerves and elevates your spirits.

One researcher spoke about choral singing being “an outlet for the emotions people are carrying”. Other studies claim that singing lessens feelings of depression. And there’s no need to be a good singer, according to the studies. Just show up and let the music wash you clean. For several years now Rick and I have made our annual trek home from Canada the day after Labor Day. We fly for innumerable hours, navigate airports, get in a car, drive several more hours to get to Mitchells Island, unpack—and head off for choir. Jet-lagged, severely over-tired and displaced, this is how we find our way home.

I particularly relish this quote, which takes us straight to the tangled roots of our existence:

A very recent study even attempts to make the case that “music evolved as a tool of social living,” and that the pleasure that comes from singing together is our evolutionary reward for coming together cooperatively, instead of hiding alone, every cave-dweller for him or herself. (Enthusiastic emphasis is mine.)

As I stand in choir, surrounded by the harmonies and the intense focus of everyone there, I can believe this is an evolutionary reward. It’s one of the finest things I experience about being human.

***

I made a passing remark earlier about a song we sing which “should be our national anthem”. It’s a song about Australia—and a song about singing.

Choir 3I will sing you up, my country
I will sing you up, my land
I will walk across this island,
I will sing you, I will sing to you

 

You are old and you are drying
Murray River down and dying
I will sing you up, my country
I will sing you, I will sing to you
Of a love that pulses in me
Of a love you can take with you
I will sing you up my country
I will sing you up, I’ll sing you up, I’ll sing you up
I’ll sing.

Rachel Hore, choir leader/songwriter/singer

….Well, all right, maybe not quite national anthem material—but an anthem to the healing and joy-making powers of singing.

Longing to belong

Belonging 2This week housemates Eve and Daniel were visited for three days by good friends of theirs, and as is usually the case the guests wove their way in and out of our lives throughout their time here. Afterward, Eve said, “Thank you for including our friends and making them feel so welcome.” The comment, about something that I would take for granted, had me stop for a moment as I was struck by how important feeling included is—to Eve, and to all of us.

Eve is a master at inclusivity. She often invites the rest of us when she and her guests are going out to dinner. She carefully informs us when she knows a tradesman is coming, or when some event is happening that might interest us. There’s no doubt that Eve’s sense of inclusion, of drawing people together and making them feel a part of things, was a big factor in the setting up of our Shedders household.

Team Australia

Would that the broader world had a glimmer of her wisdom! My mind can’t help leaping immediately to the refugees in detention camps who don’t belong anywhere, to the homeless, to the disenfranchised. It makes me think of a time a few months ago when Rick and I were overseas enjoying the Canadian summer. One morning, in bed with my tablet, I encountered a series of articles about a new concept in anti-terrorism: join Team Australia. Then-Prime-Minister Tony Abbott had discovered that a good many people who come to Australia from war-torn countries harbour terrorist notions, and that “everyone has got to be on Team Australia and…you don’t migrate to this country unless you want to join our team.” This table-thumping induced in me a strong and unpleasant emotion, which I can only describe as feeling excluded. After all, like these other non-team players, I was born far away, have an accent, host some cultural oddities, and express dissident opinions from time to time. I had the sullen thought—well, if that’s Team Australia, I don’t want to be on it. It was enough to have me toss my tablet onto the bedside table and pull the covers back over my head.

Border Force

That May-to-September period in Australia was rich in intolerance. As Rick and I were leaving Australia, in late May, Parliament was busily passing a new bill called the Australian Border Force Act, formed with the intention of militarising the functions of customs and immigration. Negative media focused on a few key aspects about how the Act was designed: to make a more threatening presence as one attempts to enter Australia, to make it easy to withdraw citizenship from undesirable folk, and to muzzle dissent about what happens in refugee detention centres.

Belonging 3By the time we returned to Australia in early September, the stamp of Border Force was imposingly in evidence. New and impressive insignia decorated the uniforms of security people. Guns rode on hips. Large BORDER FORCE signs reminded us in two simple words of strong boundaries and the fierceness with which those boundaries would be maintained. I sensed echoes of the same paranoia that abounded when we flew via the United States at a time when Homeland Security was first making its intimidating presence felt with fingerprinting, interrogation and big announcement screens.

Belonging 4You might remember the incident in Melbourne in September, where the city was to be flooded with Border Force officers performing random checks in public areas for people’s visas. Public outcry stopped that operation as the general population Belonging 5woke up to what it feels like to be threatened off Team Australia. That side of the Border Force legislation seems to be hiding its tail between its legs (where the tail will hopefully atrophy—or may only be biding its time for another big wag).

Zero tolerance

There’s a concept that I think is at the heart of much of this exclusionary behavior. It’s become fashionable to have zero tolerance for bad things. We regularly hear about someone having zero tolerance for illegal boat arrivals, for the abuse of women, for sexual interference with children, for the abuse of animals, for terrorism. Our schools have zero tolerance for bullying, I read just this morning.

In this way, we display our moral rectitude. I’m sure I’ve used the slogan myself on occasion, as there’s a certain swashbuckling quality to this pounding of righteous fists upon the table.

But in the end, zero tolerance is just sloganism, and a slogan doesn’t require us to bring thoughtfulness to an issue. Please rest assured that I am not in favour of bullying or abuse—but I do recognise that every case of wrongdoing has to be looked at on its own merits. We can’t afford to execute (and what is zero tolerance but a form of execution?) without deeply understanding the greater context.

Such concepts as zero tolerance, Border Force and Team Australia allow us to speak in empty concepts. We can identify and judge quickly. If it’s not white, it’s black—whereas in truth, every issue is its own shade of grey.

Our former Prime Minister had zero tolerance for a lot of things. We seem to have been at war with everyone, which is what happens when you have zero tolerance running amok. It’s quieter in the Australian world at the moment. Our new PM seems less inclined to strident opinions and catchphrases, and I find that most restful. It’s something to emulate.

 

Here’s a thought: maybe we should put Eve in charge of things for a while. She understands our deep human need to belong, and what happens when that need is denied.

Life under the long white cloud

I’ve just been engaging in one of those post-New-Year’s projects: sorting through holiday photos. It’s put me in the mood to tell you about our five days in New Zealand, as those November memories still sit very pleasantly with me. You might remember my recent post NZ 3about our week in the Cook Islands—well, after that adventure, Rick and I and our four travelling companions headed off from Rarotonga for the four hour flight to Auckland.

Speaking of the flight, let’s start with the issue of airport safety and security. Please note the hen and chickens, photographed in silhouette in the Rarotonga airport. I found them an attractive new breed of airport security. But even more I loved the Air New Zealand flight safety video, which whole-heartedly introduces the Kiwi experience. If you haven’t travelled Air New NZ 1Zealand recenty, you MUST play this YouTube video. For the first time in my years of travel, I listened closely to a flight video. I have certainly never experienced a plane-full of several hundred people unable to take their eyes from their screens, laughing broadly all the while. The video has a certain irreverence that alerts you to the New Zealand spirit before you have to deal with it in person. Kiwis seem to have missed out on the serum of Sober Correctness that has immunised pretty much every other airline I’ve flown on. Perhaps the most expensive safety video ever produced, it steals heartily from the movie Men in Black, while paying mischievous tribute to the mighty All Blacks. It’s an altogether superior way to contemplate a crash landing.

Besides, after all these years I could now probably find a life vest on the plane if I needed one.

NZ 2At any rate, we landed without so much as a runway thump in Auckland, where we rented a van and drove a few hours south to Rotorua. The red line gives you a highly approximate idea of the small part of the North Island we explored.

Cultural centre

On our first evening, in Rotorua (itself a charming town no doubt full of surprises we didn’t get to explore), we went to the Tamaki Maori Village. As cultural introductions go, this one was warm and engaging, with an authentic feel. We experienced elements of the marae (a traditional religious political ceremony) and were treated to excellent demonstrations of some half dozen other long-time Maori practices. You’ll have heard Performing the hakaof the haka, but have you seen it enacted live? This amazingly aggressive war dance is no doubt what keeps the All Blacks at the top of the rugby scrum. Our tour guide tells us that the dance was developed to terrify and deter the enemy, but that in practice it probably had the effect of enraging and inciting them into battle. (There’s a message in that for all of us.) Check out the haka’s modern day application here. Stand well back from your monitor.

The acting and dancing was superb, the food (much of it cooked in the “hangi” pit) was excellent, and the hundred fifty or so of us on the tour were happily sated at the end.

But there’s no accounting for what sticks in your memory. A part of the evening I remember very fondly was driving back to our rendezvous in a large coach, where our Maori driver, in a deep, smooth baritone, led us in round-the-world-old-familiar songs the whole way. And in a demonstration of Kiwi-style anarchy, he drove his big bus and 40 startled passengers around a small round-about several times to the tune of “The wheels on the bus go round and round”… … … Perhaps you had to be there.

Volcano Country

NZ 5Our second day gave us a glimpse of one of the area’s three active volcanoes, a reminder for me that we live on a rather thin crust of earth—and that active volcanoes have a habit of surprising people.

Our first stop was to visit the 10:15 am display of Lady Knox, New Zealand’s very own tame geyser. No spoilers, but those sceptics among you who are wondering how a geyser can go off at 10:15 am every single day of the year will get your answer—a reasonably satisfying one.

NZ 6Then we walked through the most dramatic visual experience of the trip—the Wai-O-Tapu park. The crust must be uncomfortably shallow here because the NZ 7extraordinary pools (all brightly coloured by different minerals, and all untamed) were at 100C, as were the bubbling mud pools, as was the magnificent Champagne Pool. The whole area was exquisite and unsettling at the same time.

What’s in a name?

The three dramatic peaks of the area are Ruapehu, Tongariro, and Ngarahoe. I tell you this because I loved the mountains, and I loved their names. I spent all day alternately NZ 8photographing them and trying to get my tongue around the unfamiliar words. Almost every name in the countryside we travelled was Maori, and it was a wonder how much difficulty I had learning and remembering them. I’m still working on Aotearoa, which is the increasingly-popular Maori name for New Zealand. (My ear hears it as “Ow-tea-a-roa”.) I’ve never been big on changing place-names, but there’s something about the Kiwis and their naming conventions that has me wondering.

A typical hillsideWe spent a day travelling the Forgotten Highway. It apparently stays forgotten—through the whole of its steep, winding way, with sheep-strewn hillsides and a small fortune in fencing, we saw almost no vehicles. Statuesque Lombardi poplar windbreaks are everywhere. They were planted by Europeans to mark boundaries and river fords, and by disciples of the Maori prophet Te Kooti, to symbolise a new pathway away from war and towards peace. Everywhere the two cultures seem to merge rather than wrangle.

Lunch at the pub in the Independent Republic of Whangamomona is not to be missed, representing as it does another example of Kiwi humour cheerfully overcoming political correctness and deference. Be sure to read about its long line of Presidents.

Our final day was spent cruising through the scenic villages on the west coast; I wish we’d had a week for this.

Rick and I have often been known to say quietly to each other, “We could live here.” The towns and countryside of New Zealand were no exception.