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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Year of the Ratbag

                  Year of the Ratbag

2014 is the Chinese Year of the Horse. But in our house, it feels more like the Year of the Ratbag. ‘Ratbag’ is Kiwi slang for mischievous child. The first time I recall hearing that term was in church, when our priest referred to kids (possibly his) as ‘ratbags.’ It sounded slanderous, but the longer I’ve lived in New Zealand, the more normal ‘ratbags’ seems – kind of like calling children ‘rugrats,’ in the States.

My eight-year-old son, Finley (or Finn-bo, or Finn, or whatever we're calling him these days), is the epitome of ratbag. With his number four clippered hair (courtesy of my husband, his stepdad, Pete), and a gap-toothed grin, he oozes ratbag sensibility. Or lack of sensibility. He’s still not a great sport – trying to make up rules to games that favor him: Finn swiped Pete in the face while they were playing handball in the driveway after Pete told Finley he’d lost the point. Finn cried. Ratbag.

Finley asked for another roll at dinner the other night (‘with lots of butter, please!’) after everyone else had finished eating. He slowly savored his bread while the rest of us cleaned up. Ratbag. He searched frantically the next morning for a ball to bring to school when he should’ve been doing something meaningful, like brush his teeth, or (for once) put on underwear. The kid is Constant Commando. Ratbag.

Finn loves parading naked in his wiry little bod. A couple weeks ago, just after he’d had a shower, I sat on Finley’s bed while he searched for pajamas. Suddenly, Finn turned and started a tiny hip buck that sent his Little Man flip-flopping like a trout in a bucket. “Zumba, Zumba, Zumba…” he sang. Resistance was futile. “Finley,” I laughed. “Get dressed.” “Zumba, Zumba, Zumba,” he replied.

I’m mindful that someday, both kids will leave us and start new lives with loves of their own. Finley has already started planning. “I want to have kids,” he’s told me. “Two or maybe four. How does that happen again?” I repeat what I’ve already explained several times, about the penis and the vagina, sperm and egg… Instead of snickering, Finley looks at me earnestly, asking, “How many times do I hafta put it in? Once? Twice? I wanna make sure I get kids….”

Oh, Ratbag.

Maybe Finn will woo his future bride by singing. Only recently have we started noticing Finley’s strong set of lungs is good for something other than yelling. His favorite song is a version of The Eurythmics, Sweet Dreams, which he belts with vibrato:

                These people are made a’ me…
                Made a’ me to disagree…

He asked me what the real words were, and when I sang them, he said, “I don’t get it. Why do they want to be abused?”

For many years, I wondered what atrocity I’d committed to deserve a Ratbag like Finley. He’d whine and cry, trying to convince me to buy him something, or give him another cookie, or whatever… He’d fight Fiona and snicker when I called him on it. He still does that stuff. But the incidents are either dwindling in number or duration, or I’m more tolerant because I have a supportive husband, or because Finley’s honing his charms. All of those. Finn bats his long fringe of eyelashes, blinks those baby blues like a character in a Pixar movie with saucer-sized eyes. I stare at them. At his freckled nose. You charmer. Now, go clean your room.

More and more, I marvel at his Finn-ness. Finn-bo's a smart cookie who learns quickly - when he wants to. I’m jealous. I was never an eight-year-old boy with oceans of confidence (“Why do I need to keep going to tennis club, anyway? I’m already good at playing,” Finley said when I asked him if he wanted to continue one of his many sports). Finn stood up on a surfboard the first time he tried; he made it onto a competitive soccer team this year; he’s starting to play simple songs on guitar after just a few lessons; he works above national standards in reading, writing and math. Excels at art. Ratbag.

While he’s probably not tops in his class, the best player on the soccer field or the first to cross the line in a race, he’s near the front of the pack. Finn-bo’s competitive streak has him running, red-faced, trying to top the other kids. Or me. On the beach, Finley says, “Let’s race.” We do, and the kid beats me in a short sprint. “I wasted you, Mom,” he says.


Monday, March 17, 2014


[I wrote this as a toast to Pete on our wedding day. St. Patrick's Day is the anniversary of when we met in 2011]


Thomas Merton’s famous prayer begins with, ‘My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me.’

Husband – I did not see this coming.

When I left Spokane on holiday to drag the kids around the world and live six months in New Zealand, I was sure this place was a happy diversion.

Then, I got Sidetracked. At the cafe called Sidetrack, where I met a handsome, smiley guy in a red surfy t-shirt with thick brown hair who asked good questions and gave good conversation.

Listening is sexy.

So are sand dunes, walks around the Mount, pouring rain, text messages and a first getaway in the Coromandel.

I knew you were special when you and Finley played at being warriors with monkey tails the first time you met. When Fiona climbed into your lap.

I loved you way back at La Barca, though all I could say at the time was, ‘I really, really LIKE you.’

I was hooked. Decided to stay here a little longer. Sidetracked – again.

Life is what happens when you say, ‘I’ll never apply for another visa,’ ‘I’m not staying,’ and ‘I could never marry another mortal because mortals invite disaster.’

Love and laughter, coffees and walks, dinners and movies, chemistry and attraction… conspired to sidetrack me. I zigged when I thought I would zag.  Flew South when I could’ve stayed North.  

We’re here today because we’re more than diversion or whim. Though our location, vocation, health or fortunes may change, what remains is love – the love we share for each other, for Fiona and Finley and for this new thing we’ve created called our family.  The glue that binds us is commitment called marriage.

When I arrived in New Zealand three years ago, I didn’t have this community, these friends or your love. But then, I got Sidetracked – and for that, I’m happy, because I want to walk and dance and zig and zag and roam the world – with you.

Here’s to getting sidetracked, here’s to those who’ve aided and abetted our adventure – to our friends, family – especially Pete’s mum and stepdad, for your influence on this fine human, my husband.  To Dad and Kathe for traveling from the States – and to all of you for helping us along the way.

We are no one without our families, and we are nowhere without our friends. Cheers to you.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Wedding Day, Part Two - I do

                      Wedding Day – Part Two 

                              I do         

Guests start arriving at the beach house around 9:45. My friends have spirited me upstairs to wait until 10:00, when the ceremony is due to start. Any notion we might still host an outdoor wedding has been blown away like a trampoline in a hurricane – rain and wind batter our friends as they plod muddy grass to reach the side door.
I asked Fiona to wrap ribbon around the staircase, which is the only place for a bridal entrance. I hope to avoid tripping over my large bridal feet and tumble, end over end, like a white chiffon slinky, on the wooden stairs.  Jac snaps pictures of the kids and I together – Fiona in her spiral curls and bright pink taffeta dress, Finley in spiked hair and tuxedo. The kids and Pete have chosen to wear canvas sneakers.

Someone tells us the crowd is ready. Josh, our 22-year-old musician, strums the first notes on his guitar. I’d looked through his playlist of dozens of songs and chosen Louis Armstrong’s, “Wonderful World” as our prelude. Fiona starts down the stairs with a gift bag full of rose petals. I powder my nose one more time, pick up my bouquet of flowers consisting of pink roses called ‘Bonjour,’ white roses called ‘Avalanche,’ purple hydrangea, white Snowberries, pink Alstroemeria, plus green grass and ferns.  I start very carefully, very slowly, down the stairs.

Nearly 60 of our family and friends are sardined into the living room. I focus on not tripping over the long dress which my dad has helped zip me into. At the bottom of the stairs, I look up to see Pete. I’m stunned and overcome. I told myself I would not cry and I’m good at not crying, having held back tears at Sean’s memorial. Almost exactly four years ago, I had steeled myself against crying. 

Today, I’ve forgotten my shield. Defenseless. Seeing my handsome groom in his black suit, lilac shirt and shiny gray tie makes me feel like I did during the lake swim of my first and only sprint triathlon: surprised by breathlessness and nerves, struggling to inhale and exhale in rhythm. I’m going to marry this man. It’s happening.

I gasp. Start crying. Shit. I’m stuffed. What about my makeup?

Even Pete has tears in his eyes. My stoic Scotsman. Until this moment, I’d suspected he was an alien without tear ducts. Later, on our honeymoon, during dinner at the Thai restaurant overlooking Ohiwa Harbour, Pete tells me, “I had, ‘What a Wonderful World,’ on a mix tape my father made of all his favorite songs. I used to play it over and over after he died, but then, it got lost.” I hadn’t known that when I chose the song.

The music stops, and Richard, the vicar (who’s also my boss at the Anglican church), starts: “We have come together in the presence of all who have gathered… “  I clutch my bouquet in one hand and Pete’s arm in the other, trying to sniff without snorting. From the front row, my friend, Andrea (one of the first people I met in New Zealand), reaches into her bag and pulls out a tissue. I pass Pete my flowers so I can dab my eyes and maybe blow my nose. 

My friend, Donna, reads from Robert Fulgham’s ‘Union’

            …Look at one another and remember this moment in time.
            Before this moment you have been many things to one                     another-
           acquaintance, friend, companion, lover, dancing partner,                and even teacher…

Paula reads the ‘love’ passage from 1st Corinthians (“Love is kind and patient…”). My friends. These same women spent hours decorating the reception hall last night after returning from a 22-mile marathon training run. I am so thankful for my friends.

I lean into Pete and smile. He smiles back. He’s the first to read his vows. After a month of procrastinating, he wrote them within an hour. They’re beautiful. And funny.

             Dawn, I love and adore you with all my heart.
              You make me feel like the only guy in the room
              and to me you are the only girl in the room.
             You have brought light and love into my life and given me
             a family of my own...

             I promise to give you space when you need it and support
            when you need it.
            To respect your beliefs and opinions and listen when your
            heart speaks to me (even when there's a good action movie
            on TV...

            I love you, and today I'm proud to call you my partna,
           my Dawn, my wife, your Petey!

I stop sniffing to read my vows to Pete. I’d revised them four or five times, with a final edit and critique from my friend, Lee. I nearly included something about Sean giving me courage and strength to love again. Lee was on target (as always) when she told me in an e-mail what I already knew – this ceremony was about me and Pete, and our friends and families understood our history.

I look up from the program Richard has tucked into a folder to gaze at my groom. 

Pete, I love you. With you, I can just be me. Your good looks           caught my eye;
your listening skills flattered my ego; your conversation                 captured my heart.
You’re kind, generous, smart and funny. For this, I can                   forgive your addiction to action movies...

I pause because our friends and family are laughing.  I don’t let my eyes linger long, because some of them are also teary, and wedding tears are infectious.

I finish without blubbering. Pete quips, “20 years of broadcast experience really shows…It’s like getting in the ring with Tyson.” The group laughs. Richard asks if we have the rings. Rings. Finley, our ring bearer, has been showering rose petals on our guests (with help from Fiona) from the second floor loft. We send Finley for the rings, which he’s left in a bedroom. He emerges, following an eternal pause, with a small black box. I wriggle a nearly too-small silver band onto Pete’s hand – the first wedding ring he’s ever worn. He, in turn, slides a white gold band onto my finger – the second wedding ring I’ve ever worn.

Richard pronounces us husband and wife:

Dawn and Pete you have declared the love you have for each other and your hopes for
the future. You have made promises to each other, and have symbolized them by the
joining of hands and giving of rings. You are now husband and wife.

We kiss. Maybe one more for my handsome groom…

Richard ends with:

            We call upon the moon and the stars and the sun, who                     govern the rhythms and seasons of our lives and remind us             that we are part of a great and wondrous
            universe, and we ask them to bless this marriage…

The ceremony itself was only about 15 minutes long.  And yet, we’d concentrated more than two years of loving each other into the space of 900 seconds (give or take a few). Hundreds of seconds of intensity, emotion and a love as big as the swelling sea outside the house. It’s as if we’d pressed the pause button on my GPS watch during a run. We’ve stopped the clock to stand together, look at each other, to honor the love we share.

After the planning, arranging, calling, organizing, seating charts, food orders, dress alterations, hair sessions, a combined bachelor/bachelorette party, what was most touching, tender and real about this wedding was the ceremony.

I hear champagne corks pop and smell warm sausage rolls. Servers have laid large trays of savories, salmon, carrots, hummus, baguette, pear, grapes and brie on the wooden table in the kitchen area. 

This is where Pete and I, plus witnesses Lee and Elton, sign our marriage certificate.  Our scribbles on paper show we’re married not only in the eyes of the church, but also in the eyes of government.

Josh plays Jack Johnson’s “Better Together” on guitar while we nibble and mingle. Jac grabs Pete and me for more pictures. This time, we’ll brave the drizzle to take photos on the boardwalk overlooking the beach. So much for the hair. So much for the beach wedding. Crikey, my one shot as a beach bride, and I’ve blown it. At least I have purple canvas sneakers in which to shuffle through wet grass and blowing sand.

We stay at the house until around one o’clock, when we drive up the street to the reception hall. Donna and Paula’s efforts have transformed the place: the tables are decorated with ivy (collected from another Jogger friend’s garden), sea shells, pussy willows, candles, sand and white hydrangeas.

The lamb, for which we rented a barbeque large enough to roast a wildebeast, is tender and delicious. We have more than enough meat, salads, beer and wine… more than enough wedding cake (a gift from my friend, Lee), more than enough chocolate chili raspberry gelato (a gift from our friend Matthias and Bettina)… more than enough. 

What we don’t have in infinite quantity is time: Our musician must leave at three o’clock.

I’d asked the Joggers’ Running Captain, Jackie, to emcee. She leads us gracefully from the meal, to awards (we presented faux trophy cups to couples who’d been married the longest and shortest amounts of time), to toasts. Jackie had coached Fiona and Finley to stand together and speak into the microphone, saying, “Cheers to Dawn and Petey.”

My Dad, who’d arrived three weeks earlier with his wife, Kathe, stood and said, “After Sean died, Dawn took the kids on a trip around the world. We met her in Paris; then, she travelled Europe,  South Africa, Australia and finally New Zealand. When she told me she’d met someone and wanted to live here, I said, ‘Why do you want to live so far away?’ But when I met Pete, I knew – this is where she needed to come to meet exactly the right person for her…’”

I want to cry with gratitude, love, relief. He gets it.

Another Mount Jogger friend, Mary, stands with nine other women from my running group. Mary gives a short speech revealing two not-so-secrets about me she and others have gleaned from girls’ weekends away: I don’t sleep well and I eat a lot. I pause from my plate full of lamb and salad to look up and laugh. Mary says, “Dawn, we’re glad you’re here with us in all your American-ness. Please don’t ever lose that quality.”

I toast my husband, starting with the Thomas Merton quote I'd found at two that morning, "My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me."

The rest of the reception is a kaleidoscope of smiles, music and laughter. The weather outside grows increasingly warm and humid, making my hair droop.  I sit next to Pete’s wee Scottish mum at the head table, who says, “It’s about time” her 47-year-old son got married.

My groom and I dance to the song I recall hearing consistently when we first met: Lionel Richie’s, “Easy.” We pull in parents and kids for the next song. One moment I’m swaying with Dad, and the next, I’m clasping Finley’s hands, bouncing up and down. Not many people dance, since it’s the middle of the day, but I can always count on my running friends to shake a leg or two.

It’s five o’clock by the time we’re helping our servers clean up. There’s no grand exit in a fancy car – just last minute instructions to our hired help and requests to a few friends to please return our rented items (champagne flutes, BBQ…) to the party store.  It’s not the almost-fairy tale wedding of my twenties, with fancy hall, five-piece band, catered banquet… It’s down-home, DIY, Kiwi-style. Still gorgeous in its own way. And I’m just as married today, at 43, as I was back then, at 29.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Wedding Day - Prelude

            Wedding Day - Prelude
Fiona and Maggie playing ball before the wedding

It’s 1:30 am, and I can’t sleep. I’ve been a relapsing/remitting insomniac since college. I didn’t expect to sleep much the night before my wedding, anyway. My bladder awakens me. After tiptoeing to the bathroom, I pad to the kitchen to fix a cup of tea and bowl of cereal. That’ll quell the rumbly tummy. Afterwards, I creep upstairs where Pete is sleeping.

“How come you’re up here, Hon?” I ask. “I didn’t want to wake you by coming into bed late,” he responds.

I curl into him, feeling his warm, bare torso. I wonder if he’s being traditional by sleeping away from the bride-to-be the night before his wedding. It’s okay. We have a lifetime to sleep (or, in my case, sleep and wake…) together. We cuddle ten minutes before I return downstairs. My alarm is set for 6 a.m.; the wedding’s at 10.

I finish reading Anne’s Lamott’s ‘Thanks, Help, Wow’ on my Kindle. I love her quote from Thomas Merton: “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me… “  Maybe I can use that as part of my reception toast to Pete. That’s reason enough to read at 2:00 a.m.

I drift off and wake up at 6:30 after hitting snooze once. I brush my teeth and return to the master bedroom in my friend, Piper’s, family beach house. I’ve never stayed in this room during the three or four times I’ve come here for writer’s retreats. I sit cross-legged on the queen-sized bed and stare at the ocean, just 100 feet from the house. A storm has been roiling the sea all night; sideways rain streaks the window. February in our part of New Zealand normally features sunny, pleasant weather. Not today. This will not be the beach wedding we’d planned.

Little is going to plan: the lamb we’d ordered was missing in action at the supermarket for about half an hour; we were denied custody of pre-cooked chickens for the wedding day after the deli manager told us it would be dangerous to keep them warm all morning (she required us to get the chooks the night before and cool them); seven-foot-long tables in the reception hall initially refused to budge from inside a tightly-framed hot water closet; a server cancelled on us two days before the wedding, necessitating a last-minute replacement; eight-year-old Finley forgot to pack underwear and would stand commando in his tuxedo. Also, I have two zits on my chin.

Despite this, I strain to plod the path of no resistance. To do what Anne Lamott suggests, which is surrender, to release myself from the madness of trying to be my own – or anyone else’s – higher power.   I remember what my friend, Jackie, the upbeat running captain at Mount Joggers told me about her wedding day, “I felt like a child on Christmas morning, I was so excited.”  

Maybe instead of allowing project managing to ensare my mind in a spider web of details, I can focus on love. Focus on excitement about marrying my best friend, my children’s stepfather, the guy with kind eyes and bulging biceps (Dear God, Thank you for Pete’s arms. I love them. Amen.) and chah-ming accent. My Petey.

So, at 6:40 on the morning of my wedding, I close my eyes while perched on the bed, listen to wind and rain and think about Petey. Think about the fact I get to host a wedding (much like Jackie says, “I don’t HAVE to run up the Mount; I GET to run up the Mount.”) I allow myself to ignore, for ten minutes, lists and fears and more lists and even the fact I’m hungry again. Just be. Listen to the waves, because the ocean always has something to say. Today it says I am enough. Enough to host a wedding; enough to marry a second time; enough for my family, my friends, my community…

Fiona and I eat breakfast together before starting to get ready. One of my Joggers friends, Paula, arrives around 8:00 to style my hair. I haven’t made up my face yet, so I ask her to curl Fiona’s hair while I try to cover two small welts (zits, dammit) on my chin and spackle the rest of my face with makeup in the dim light of the beach house's only bathroom. I finish at 8:30, and Paula starts twisting my hair into loose spirals using a slim ceramic rod. 
Paula, my rock star stylist

My friend, Louise, has brought my bridal bouquet and Fiona’s rose petals, plus the corsage for Pete’s mum and Pete’s boutonniere. She asks what she can do to help and I tell her since we’ll have to hold the ceremony inside to please start pushing aside furniture so our guests have room to stand. Shortly after that, my friend Deb, (a doctor from Spokane who’s living at the Mount with her three kids for a year), comes with her nanny, Jamey, who’s agreed to replace our missing third server. Deb carries two bags of potatoes we forgot. I ask her to bring them to the reception hall two miles away. She’s so chipper, it’s like I’ve just offered her a hundred dollars, “You betcha, anything you need…” She does this all day.
Louise brought the flowers I'd ordered

For the first time in weeks, I’m hands-off. Bridal paralysis affixes me to my chair like seagull crap adheres to my van’s windscreen. It’s time to delegate. My friend, Jacinda (Jac, with a hard ‘c,’ for short) arrives to take pictures. She used to own a photography business and obviously knows what she’s doing as she checks the light and asks me to drop my shoulders. Oh, right. I’m supposed to look relaxed….

I’m nervous. Not nervous about marrying Pete. I’m about as sure about Pete as you can be about another person. Which is to say, mostly sure in a we’re-flawed-and-human kinda way. I’m sure we’ll face hardship. I’m sure we’ll compromise. I’m sure Pete will order steak 80% of the time when we eat at a restaurant. I’m not nervous about the relationship, which we’ve built over two years of living together and nearly three years of knowing each other; no, I’m twitchy about details: is my hair gonna fall flat in this weather? (probably) Will I be able to see the two zits on my chin in all the wedding photos? (probably not). Will Finley do something silly or infuriating during the wedding  or reception? (most definitely).  I can’t control those things. So, I focus instead on what I can control, such as careful application of makeup, practicing of vows, inhalating and exhalation of breaths.  Let go and breathe...