Don’t Look Before You Leap

I am in the final countdown; I have 6 days until I join John in New Zealand and I think I’m handling packing effectively. I have almost everything from John’s extensive “bring it with you” list, including AAAA batteries, which I did not know existed. Car charger, reflective bike vest, extra sweaters and jeans, his gray gym shoes in the closet. I’m knocking off his requests and sorting my clothes for the next three months like a pro.

The New Zealand decision, which began back in February, has been a roller coaster ride. Despite submitting loads of paperwork and jumping through numerous hoops to appease the NZ government, the final decision to hire John for a rural health position came through July 25th. His start date was August 15th, and could he please show up a week ahead of that date for a final legal interview? So we scrambled, and packed, and figured it out, and he is there safe.

I was feeling rather zen about leaving the States again and changing locations. I had an image of myself in my mind, doing a Yoga pose and throwing things cavalierly into the suitcase.

And then I went shopping at Kohl’s. I had limited time to find what I needed, and that’s never good. I foolishly thought I could find some tops, checkout, and be on my merry way within 8 minutes because I was squeezing shopping in before a 1 pm appointment.  Well, the timeline in my mind would have worked except for the cashiers at Kohl’s that have obviously taken their customer service training to heart. As the minutes ticked by, and the one cashier was just chatting away about the traffic with her new BFF, I started having a melt down. Suddenly, I realized time is running out not just now, but in terms of getting ready. Primarily, the melt down was all internal- no yelling or screaming, no hitting was involved, not even evil looks,  but I did fantasize for a minute about throwing a hanger at the one cashier. What saved me was the Caramel M & Ms for sale on display. I knew that I would cope so much better with the delay if I had that blue bag of candy. So I did.

I get asked daily by friends and family if I am excited- and I am, although initially the excitement felt a little close to dread. Not the kind of dread you feel when you are scared, or when there might be some impending evil. More, I questioned if this was the right thing to be doing. Great opportunity, maybe a once in a lifetime chance, but saying yes to one thing almost always means you are saying no to something else. That’s life, because we can’t do everything or have everything. The trick is accepting the choice you have to make.

So, in saying yes to New Zealand, I have to accept I am saying no to finding a job in Detroit, to getting involved with a college Promise program, to finding a house, and I am delaying creating my social  circle here. I will miss my niece’s wedding and family time.

But saying yes to New Zealand means I am embracing time with my husband and daughter, and I  get to explore an awesome country and culture. But, most importantly, I am saying yes to writing. I am finally picking this path.


Farewell, 2017!

In the movie The Hobbit: An Unexpected Adventure, Bilbo Baggins is asked by Gandalf to go on an adventure, a very dangerous adventure. Bilbo asks Gandalf if his safe return to his home can be guaranteed.

Gandalf replies honestly- “No, and if you do, you will not be the same.”

2017 has been a year like no other in my life. John and I have experienced great change- the very things we all use to ground ourselves (job, home, and community) have all been altered in some significant way. We sold a house with 32 years of stuff- I still am not sure how we accomplished that feat. We travelled to countries we had never seen, and had some amazing adventures. And then we came home- briefly. We didn’t face a fire breathing dragon like Bilbo, but the Lucifer heat wave this past summer was a force to be reckoned with.

We also didn’t go looking for a treasure, but we were searching for a new direction. Now, after 5 wonderful weeks in New Zealand, we are starting to feel some certainty about what the future might look like. I am very happy that neither of us felt the need to buy a home right away and set down roots and re-nest. Not that owning a home is a bad thing, but walking away from material possessions and living a down-scaled life helped to highlight what really matters most to both of us.

The most significant change for me was internal- I feel more centered than when I left for Europe in July. I worry less, and try more things. Schedules seem less important, unless the boat will leave without me, but, then again, there will be another boat. Changes in the daily plan are just par for the course. I am slowly learning to be more patient with the unknown future.

During October we moved back and forth between Illinois, Michigan, Washington DC and Wisconsin. A few days after Thanksgiving, we were travelling internationally again, headed for New Zealand and some quality time with our middle child. The past 5 weeks have gone by too fast- we kayaked, rode mountain bikes, hiked mountains, swam in the Tasman Sea, and spent numerous nights playing cards and just talking. I am so grateful to have had this precious month with Carrie.

We head back to Michigan, ultimately with new challenges and decisions to be made, and a wedding in June. I had a friend express concern back in November that we must be exhausted from all the moving around, and we were, but in a good sort of way. Standing in the bookstore in LAX, I realized I am still looking forward with hope- I am searching for more books to read, I have made up my 2018 goal sheet, and I am excited to find out what’s around the next corner.

The Bucket List just got shorter

In New Zealand, there are numerous tracks that visitors from all over the world come to enjoy. Eight of them are designated “Great Walks” and the goal for some avid hikers is to do all of the tracks. Last time we visited Carrie in 2015, we walked part of the Kepler Track and part of the Routeburn Track, but both were day hiking trips with no camping involved. This visit we decided to try three days of true backpacking on the Abel Tasman Track, hiking 12+ kilometers each day and staking a tent at night to sleep.

Abel Tasman is considered one of the easier hikes, although it has a fair share of steep climbs and tough descents. The track climbs up repeatedly into a rain forest-type terrain, wanders onto rock outcrops overlooking the blue waters of Cook’s Strait, and then descends back through rain forest, over waterfall creek bridges, and down to sandy beaches. And then it repeats. The views are breathtaking, and this track is often named the most beautiful of the eight tracks. On our third day, we stumbled upon a covey of quails- a male quail had part of the brood and alerted his partner around the bend of the “intruders”. The 15 baby quails were smaller then baby chickens, and yet sported the same head dress as their parents. Our drama was that one chick got separated from its parents and we were unable to hang around to see if the family reunited. In general, the bird song in the rainforest was impressive- we hoped to see a kiwi bird, but settled for a scary, divebombing encounter with an oyster catcher on the beach protecting its nest. When Captain Cook arrived on the island there were so many birds, he and his crew could hear the birds two miles offshore.

At night, we were surrounded by other hikers from all over the world- Germany, France, Italy, Australia. For a brief time, we were part of a make-shift global community with a similar mindset, sharing repair tape and bandages and stories. Young and old alike were on this track, and very inspiring to see women older than myself hiking in the heat and sleeping under the stars. All three of us got blisters and sore shoulders, but I loved it. We fell asleep exhausted from the hike of the day, after playing cards and devouring a backpacker foilpack dinner. Our favorite was Thai Chicken Curry with Rice. Our tent was not the super lightweight backpacking kind, so pretty miserable to carry, but it kept out the sandflies and super mosquitos. Thankfully, Carrie thought to bring a bite stick and heavy duty bug spray. The Department of Conservation in New Zealand does a great job maintaining the campsites, and every site we camped in had treated water, although no showers.

In 2012 I walked a small part of the Appalachian Trail, suffering through a June heat wave, a variety of unforeseen problems and out of control anxiety, which definitely complicated the experience for both me and my hiking partner. Despite all that, I realized I love hiking a trail and camping, and then getting up and doing it again. The deprivation from our lifestyle comforts resets priorities and adjusts any bad life attitude. And the challenge is outside my everyday life box.

I wanted to retry the hiking experience again, but I have also had a second foot surgery, plantar fasciitis and a discectomy since the AT. When we travelled this past summer, my back reacted badly to carrying a backpack, so I thought my hiking days were done. Initially, we thought about “glamping” because of my back, but the expense was more than we cared to spend. We decided to chance my carrying a pack, and it was a good bet. I made it through all three days without my sciatic nerve going crazy, and managed to sleep on the ground pad without much discomfort.

The first night in Anchorage Bay we camped near the glamping tents, and shared a nearby picnic area. I was feeling pretty empowered completing the first day successfully. And then I looked over, and the glamping host had a tablecloth with real plates, salmon with a side salad, and some white wine all ready for the tired hikers who had carried NOTHING! I decided they had to be jealous of us- we had playing cards!

The Wild West Coast

We took the train, crossing the South Island from Christchurch to Greymouth. A couple of easy days are planned, and we had time on the train to catch up on email, reading, sleeping and writing. Being with Carrie highlights how much I miss my children. All three are scattered, one in DC, another outside of Detroit, and this poet of ours in this magical place Down Under. I am trying to relish each moment with her.

Traveling these past few months has helped me define what I want my life to look like when this moving around is all done. Strange, I know, to be reconfiguring everything at the age of 62, but I guess I finally am tired of waiting. My friend Donna has a an adage: “If not now, when?” And I find myself asking that question every time I try to be practical, and feel the pull of delayed gratification. If I wait until later, at this point, I could easily run out of time. This was a lesson from my brother Jim’s death. At age 49, Jim passed away from cancer and time disappeared in a heartbeat. Much of my sadness when I think of him is the loss of what could have been.

So on this trip I have tried to embrace the opportunities, to see the beauty in everything- we came at the most amazing time, the beginning of summer for New Zealand. The lupin wildflowers only bloom in this month, and the Christmas tree of New Zealand, the pohutokawa, with its bright red flowers, looks like scarlet explosions on the green hillsides. Yesterday, we kayaked the Pororari River outside Punakaike, battling the river upstream for an hour and a half, and screaming with delight on the small rapids on the ride back. Both sides of the river were covered with rain forest vegetation, and it felt like the film set for Jurassic Park.

The sunsets near Punakaike have been amazing- easily some of the best I have ever seen. The clouds and colors were like a painting. I had the impulse to run down the beach, and buy the ocean front property that was for sale. I know now I have to live somewhere I can walk a dog on a deserted beach at sunset. Even better, however, was walking arm in arm with my daughter, talking about life.

Good Morning, New Zealand

We have been on the road now for three days and nights, freedom camping* on the South Island. After leaving Rotarua, we headed back to Auckland, before boarding a plane for Queenstown. After we picked up our camper van, we headed into Q-town for lunch and stopped at Devil Burger to try their version of a hamburger. Heading north to Lake Hawea, a sister lake to Lake Wanaka, we found a lakeside spot with decent toilets. The weather has been hotter than Carrie anticipated, but the van is till very comfortable at night with the cool lake breeze blowing away the sand flies and lulling us to sleep.

Every day in our Jucy camper has been an adventure, and we have worn our selves out hiking, chasing the amazing views and incredible wild lupin flowers. We mountain biked the Pukaiki Flats, hiked in a national park, and bathed in hot pools to soak sore muscles. Our second night we camped near Mt. Cook, the highest point in New Zealand and part of a national park that is home to most of the peaks in New Zealand higher than 2000 meters. Sir Edmund Hillary cut his teeth on this mountain before attempting Mount Everest. It is a place of great beauty and tragedy. Over 200 hikers have died trying to conquer the mountain, most because of the unstable glacial ice. We were content, however, to just hike the 3.5 mile Hooker trek to the glacial Hooker Lake, complete with floating mini ice bergs.

The most amazing night so far was our stargazing in Lake Tekapo, a dark sky reserve. After biking about 30km earlier in the day, we pulled into Lake Tekapo and loaded up on some supplies, and then went for a soak in the hot pools. We booked our midnight star tour, and headed out of town to find a freedom camping spot, eat dinner and watch the sun set on the mountains.. We found the most amazing site near MacGregor Lake. All of us decided to crash after dinner for an hour or so nap until 11:30 pm- mostly so I could stay awake during the stargazing.

On time at 11:30 we tried to pull out of our spot, and the camper got stuck in deep gravel- much worse than snow. We spent 20 frantic minutes, attempting to free our little home and make it to the tour by midnight. Carrie heroically dug out the wheels, John pushed and somehow we maneuvered the van out onto the road. We made it to the stargazing with moments to spare before the shuttle left- the craziness was well worth it. The Milky Way was breathtaking- most of the world’s population can no longer view the Milky Way due to light pollution. I could have stared at it all night. Orion was so brilliant, and the Southern Cross was easily spotted. The hour and a half tour seemed like 15 minutes.

We drove back to the same road we had parked on earlier but pulled off at a roadside spot that was much safer and did not have a gravel pit waiting to swallow our van. Before turning in at 3 am, we spent another 20 minutes enjoying the night sky. We decided not to set an alarm, and sleep in. The road was deserted and the night mostly silent as I fell asleep.

Unfortunately, at about 9 am we awoke to the sound of Chinese, opened the window shades and realized we had parked in a popular lupin wildflower tourist spot (that was amazing!) and were surrounded by tourist groups taking pictures. Nothing like waking up in a public space and realizing the world went ahead and woke up on time without you. That moment pretty much summed up the freedom camping experience- awesome!

* freedom camping- camping outside of designated campgrounds, on public/private property

Feel the Fear, and do it anyway

We are in Rotorua, on the North Island, about 3 hours south of Auckland. While this city is not quite the extreme adventure destination of Queenstown on the South Island, Rotorua is still a major tourist attraction. A geothermal wonder, the city has great activities and food to keep every variety of tourist busy for a few days. The smell of hydrogen sulphide (i.e., rottten eggs) permeates the air and natural steam rises from sewer vents, mud pools, and rock crevices. Several geothermal parks are scattered throughout the area and Maori culture is evident everywhere, with a living village and historical sites.

Yesterday, we decided to visit the Redwood Forest walk- a series of board walkways suspended up in the trees between the redwoods. Redwood trees grow very fast in the New Zealand climate, and are magnificent. We went twice, once in the late afternoon when we caught the natural light show, and then came back to see the lantern light show after dark, which was magical. At 10 pm at night we were suspended in the dark in a forest, walking between lantern sculptures that light up parts of the forest floor.

However, before all that we decided to do a typical New Zealand adventure-tourist-activity, namely mountain biking.

I really love biking, and have enjoyed renting bikes in a number of places we have visited. My husband and I can easily bike 30 miles in a day, and love the freedom of setting our own pace, viewing a destination outside a car, and getting exercise all at the same time. “Normal” biking feels wonderful- mountain biking, however, feels very much like downhill skiing, i.e. a near-death experience. Doing a high ropes course in Montreal had a similar feel to it. It looks like fun, you pay a lot of money to do it ( so dammit- you should be enjoying yourself), and everyone seems to think it’s awesome. Meanwhile, I have to be honest, I am terrified half of the time, although I think that’s part of the reason people like doing the edgier sports- the sports where there is a reasonable chance you will get hurt. Some people like being scared.

Just as I was convincing myself that I wasn’t doing too bad- slow, yes, but I was able to stay on the track- two people in their late sixties went zooming by me. Keep in mind that New Zealand is a country where small children laughingly play in freezing lake water. Everyone seems to own a wet suit so they can go in the icy ocean, even though there is a good chance they know someone who was eaten by a great white. Our kayak tour guides the other night were barefoot, standing on course gravel and rocks, and really just t-shirts in the cold evening air. It’s a country where people say “Harden the f*** up” and mean it.

We have done a trail in northern Wisconsin that has a rather steep hill on it, and I don’t think I have ever rode down that hill- all I can see is the loose gravel at the bottom of the incline, and I dismount and walk it. So I will admit I am a total lightweight when it comes to any possibility of falling. My husband and daughter assured me we were only doing a grade two course- it will be easy. No big hills (lie #1) and totally safe (lie #2). Only 2.7 km. While they biked ahead, screaming with delight, I had visions of falling off the bike and breaking my neck. A medical school friend of my husband was literally blown off of a mountain while biking- and he was supposedly an expert. Probably not the thing to be thinking about while on the course. At any rate, I survived mountain biking (obviously) and I was very proud of myself- I did almost all the hills, except that one real steep one with the curve at the bottom. And I enjoyed myself despite all the terror I initially felt. If we go again, I hope to graduate from doing the kid’s circuit!

Perpetual Motion

We left Dublin October 2nd, and flew back to Chicago, exhausted but happy to be going home. Coming back was both wonderful and, at the same time, disconcerting. At first glance, nothing seemed changed. On the other hand, everything I use to know seemed different. Returning to the States seemed surreal, made even more strange by coinciding with the Vegas shooting.

The past two months have been a “break” of sorts from writing the blog. We have travelled between Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan and Washington, D.C. Our children and friends have been most gracious, tolerating our perpetual nomadic state, in exchange for just a bottle of wine and night of conversation. We were able to catch up with the people we love and missed while on the trip. I was relieved to have the chance to say a final goodbye to my Aunt Shirley, and to see extended family that gathered to celebrate her life.

We are now in New Zealand, visiting our middle child, Carrie. This is our second trip to New Zealand, and it is sizing up to be amazing. Our first day at Carrie’s house in Auckland we took a trip out towards the Waitakere Ranges, to Te Henga. We hiked a three mile trail through pasture and nature preserve, petting horses along the way, until we reached the black sand beach known as Bethels Beach. (You know you are in New Zealand when you write sentences like that! ) A jumping picture was necessary. (See above)

Yesterday, we travelled to Katkati and our first airbnb. After our afternoon naps, we drove down past the town of Tauranga to McClaren Falls to go night kayaking and view the glow worms. In certain parts of New Zealand, colonies of glow worms, tiny larvae that glow in the dark, can be viewed after dusk. Usually found near water, the worms form various patterns on the rocks above the lake’s water line. Our tour group of 12 paddled quietly through the lake to a river gorge to view the magical light show- almost like tiny Christmas lights suspended in the dark.

When we glided back out on the lake, a full moon was out, something the guides indicated was unusual. Despite the bright light of the moon outlining a few clouds, Orion’s Belt and the Big Dipper were visible. I didn’t want the tour to end. I took a deep breath and I imagined that Aunt Shirley, and everyone in my life that has passed on, was right there with me, enjoying the immense beauty. I felt wrapped in complete peace.

And just like that…

The last few days in Ireland proved to add even more questions about my grandmother’s life before she came to the United States. Once we were in Dublin, Michael Glynn’s Aunt Evelyn and I connected over the phone. She is convinced that my great grandfather and her grandfather were siblings. In my heart, I want that to be true. In my head, I have experienced so many twists and turns on this family search, I know that the puzzle will keep unfolding. And that’s okay. I now have people in Ireland who are so gracious in their willingness to help in my search, and I have been re-inspired to keep looking for the pieces. 

It rained for two days while we were in Cong. The weather made the two of us just want to hide out with a cup of tea, or a pint of Guinness. We had been rather lax about planning the next part of the journey, although we had a vague determination to go to Portugal. Yet, the planning just seemed beyond reach for John. Every conversation about moving on seemed to dead end. Sitting in the cozy attic sitting room of the B & B sipping tea, John looked at me and said, “I am ready to go home. I think I have figured out what I needed to figure out. And I am good with leaving. ” 

I had more difficulty switching gears, and wrapping my brain around the end of this trip. But, after several online searches for air fares out of various destinations, and a somewhat crazy foray into a possible 13-day cheap cruise to Miami, we both agreed flying out of Dublin made the most sense. It means we return sooner than we thought, but, then again, the dollar is not doing as well as when we left. And, we purposely left our trip open for this decision.

Europe isn’t going to disappear, and either is my desire to travel. I learned so much on this trip- about myself, about my husband, about my family from Ireland, and about what really matters to me. As I was stepping off the airport bus in Dublin, I thanked the bus driver, and he responded, “ Not at all. You are so welcome, my love.”  Oh, how I am going to miss those moments!

Finding home

Ireland has proven to be a place of grand coincidence. At times, I have almost felt as if a force from above was placing me in the right place with the right person. As a result, I stumbled upon pieces of information about my great- grandparents and my grandmother. When we were on the Dingle Peninsula, I was able to find several records- some fit, others conflicted. There was a family census record that listed a Michael and Bridget Glynn, and they had at least 8 children, but my grandmother is not listed. I find a Michael Glynn from Cong, but he died at the age of 37 in 1890, which would not match up with my Grandmother’s supposed birthdate or many of the siblings I think she had. When I express my frustration to a native, they just laugh and say that everyone searching their past in Ireland faces the same troubles.

My husband wanted to see the town of Cong, the place where the John Wayne movie “The Quiet Man” was filmed, so we had booked a reasonable B & B just outside of Cong, called Nymphsfield House. We had booked the place while in Croatia. While doing a birth record search, I decided to search 5 years either side of 1890, and there she was! Julia Agnes Glynn, born to Michael and Bridget Nalty Glynn, 1888, in Cong in the parish of Nymphsfield. But I am still not sure until I find Julia’s Naturalization record in the U.S. She lists Cong as her birthplace. And, she lists May 14, 1908 as her arrival date in the U.S. On the ship’s record, she is listed as 21, a slight discrepancy, but the Irish say age is like weight- approximate at best.

When we arrived in Cong, we stopped at the tourist center, and across the road is the Abbey cemetary. We had no luck finding Michael’s grave, but when we checked into our room, our host listened to my story of searching and promptly advised us to go to Ballinrobe, the next town over. There was a family genealogy center in Ballinrobe and maybe Jerry (the local expert) could help. Jerry verified that Michael Glynn, married to Bridget Nalty, died in 1890, after fathering 6 children, and Julia was born in 1888. He was certain Michael is buried in the Abbey cemetery.

Living next door to the Nymphsfield House was a farmer named (believe it or not) Michael Glynn. I met with him before I left Cong, and he connected me with his aunt in Cork, who may have information on my family. The living Michael Glynn remembers a Glynn family, from the other side of the village, and they were all “large men, huge men.” And we are a tall family. This is all starting to feel too surreal.

 Finally, our last night in Cong, we are eating dinner at the Crow’s Nest Pub in town and the owner gets talking to us, and in the end, asks for my email so he can pass it on to a “man in the village who is an expert on finding these things out”. I had not expected when we booked Ireland, to be able to find out much about Julia and her parents, but now I  feel as if a divine presence was leading me through my family’s past. Maybe this was the hidden purpose of this trip. 

Grandma and the blarney

We are in Ireland, and I am hoping we will be stranded here permanently. I think I could easily live in a stone cottage, drink tea all day, staring at my emerald green yard full of sheep and to the sea beyond. We have had a wonderful time, exploring castles, ancient sites, the local pub with traditional music, and hiking the amazing countryside. I feel so at home here. The people are wonderful, and remind me of my Grandma Julie who emigrated to the US over 100 years ago.

We arrived in Dublin and took the advice to not linger, but to head out and see the rest of Ireland. Our first stop was Kilkenny Castle and the Medieval Mile; Kilkenny has a quaint downtown with a narrow cobblestone street called the Butterslip, where butter was sold. We braved the rain to listen to great Irish music in a town pub and had lamb stew for the first time. 

When we arrived in Cobh (pronounced Cove) the next day, the weather had cleared to everyone’s surprise and we enjoyed a great hike around the town that bid the last farewell to the Titanic. In our explorations we found information on Irish emigration- Cobh was the major departure point for most Irish to the United States and before the Easter Rising of 1916 it was called Queenstown. My Dad claimed his mother was from Galway, but left from Cork. And, Cork is less than 10 kilometers away from Cobh. The information got me thinking about the passenger list I saw on, listing both Julia and her mother, Bridget, as passengers, arriving at Ellis Island. I started looking at online passenger lists out of Queenstown. Could she have left from the very dock I was standing on?

Our third day, we arrived in Cork, and grabbed a lunch at the English Market. Over lunch, we decided to ignore the discouraging comments about Blarney Castle and kissing the stone, and hopped a local bus out to the castle. (Traffic was terrible in town and John was done driving.) The weather was beautiful (which even the locals kept remarking about) and we spent a full two hours exploring the castle and its gardens. Going later in the day, we managed to avoid the crowds (no lines for the stone) and had a great time talking with a Czech immigrant on the bus, studying and working in Ireland. 

By the end of the day, I had found some sites online that made me think I might have success finding Julia’s past- my late father had tried in vain to get a written record of her birth. My third cousin Melissa Grein, who has the same great-grandparents, has listed Juia’s birth as 1890, but there are no records that year for her. There is a Julia Agnes Glynn, born to Michael and Bridget Nalty Glynn, in 1888, but we all thought her birthdate was 1896. This is discrepancy #1. And there are several discrepancies. According to my B and B host Barbara, from Milestone House in Dingle, lying about one’s age is, well, very Irish. 

My trip around Ireland is proving to be an ancestral discovery tour. I am now determined to find out what blarney my Grandmother told about her age. God bless her- she survived travel most of us wouldn’t want to do, even today.