Action plus Bravenness

It’s nearly 30 degrees Celsius, the sky is as blue as it can get and it’s one of the first hot summer days in New Zealand. So, with togs on, chilli bin filled and two director chairs in the back of the car we head for the beach.

Map Te Ngaere Bay

Te Ngaere Bay is one of our preferred beaches and within half an hour we sit under the Pohutukawa tree we consider ours and watch the surf roll in.

The Pohutukawa tree has great significance in New Zealand. It flowers around Christmas with bright red, spikey flowers and is therefore considered by many a replacement for the good old Christmas tree. There’s no chopping required, no need to keep it moist and adorning it with tinsel and stars would be an offence. It stays where it belongs and, at the height of summer, beautifies many a beach around the country.

Pohutukawa Tree

Sitting under that flowering tree watching life go by, I was taken back to my parents who, more than fifty years ago, would frequently go on a Sunday drive and, after arriving at their destination, unload the car, spread out the picnic blanket and relax. It wouldn’t take long before my father would get up, unfold one of the metal chairs with faded blue canvas and from a place in the shade observe our doings. He was a serious man who’d had a very strict upbringing, he also had a heart problem and was often tired. Just sitting and watching the world go by was a pleasure he fully enjoyed, if only his four children plus cousins, nieces, and taggers-on would behave.

My mother, on the other hand, often claimed she hadn’t had any upbringing as her mother died when she was seven and her father too busy with keeping his children fed. Her older sisters took care of her but because they were in their late teens and much more interested in their fiancés than my mother, she could often do as she pleased. Over the years they all married and welcomed her into their homes but she quickly got tired of their interference and frequently moved house to go and live with another sister. Rotating amongst her siblings she skipped rules and regulations.

Watching the deep blue sea, my thoughts went back to the days of my own childhood in The Netherlands and how amazing it was that I was sitting here on a New Zealand beach so beautiful I couldn’t have conjured it up. If anybody had told me as a kid that one day I would be living on a Pacific Island and frequently swim at one of the most beautiful beaches on earth, I wouldn’t have believed it.

With the December holiday started hardly anybody is around

Getting up and walking along the shoreline, I thought of my mother and how she loved to swim. Born under the star sign Aquarius, she really felt like a fish in the water. Cold or warm, she would dive in without much ado and while we were still putting our toes in the water, gauging the temperature, she would wave and urge us to hurry up because it was so beautiful.

Each of us learnt to swim at an early age. Though we didn’t live near the sea, there were plenty of streams we could go to and occasionally she would take us to the large canal where she knew a few hidden spots from where we could ‘safely’ access the water.

My mother’s ‘safe’ was not everybody’s ‘safe’ but any comments on her brazenness or putting her children in danger were wiped aside as too much molly coddling. ‘Kids need experience,’ she would reply, ‘they need to learn their boundaries and how will they learn if they can’t try them out?’ In the process we learnt to quickly scramble on to the steep sides of the canal making sure we were away from the wall before the large waves from the wake of passing barges could sweep us away and we navigated a zillion other life’s lessons. She surely had us practicing.

We learnt at an early age that making mistakes prepares you for not being afraid of failure. Unashamedly we dived, not only in the water but in all the things life has to offer and failed many a time, but so what? We learnt a lot of lessons and besides, there’s always another opportunity. After a few weeks of cringing and wanting to crawl under the carpet we got up and headed for a new challenge.

My father not always agreed, or more correctly often disagreed with my mother’s way of bringing up their offspring. He would bark: ‘those kids of yours have/are/did…, ‘(fill in the offence) if we’d crossed the line, but on those Sunday afternoons he watched us with a gentle smile as we horsed around the playing ground.

Why do I write all this? To me, it all comes back to action and braveness. Walking along the beach, I remembered my mother teaching us to swim. Not in the water- that came later – but on an old, raggedy kitchen chair. After ordering us to put our bellies on the seat with our limbs sticking out on both sides, she would instruct us on how to move our arms and legs in synchronicity while she ironed Monday’s washing or cooked dinner. ‘Heels together,’ she would call if we got sloppy or chant in a steady rhythm: ‘IN… AND OUT…,’ regulating our movements. We had great fun and readily complied.

Learning to swim on a kitchen seat seems an unlikely way of doing things but it worked. Once in the water, we knew exactly what to do. Holding her hand under our belly, as if it were the seat, we would swim away thinking we had it all under control. And within a short time, we had. We knew what to do, we’d practised the movements and knew the drill. It was confidence that made us kick harder and stretch out our arms further to conquer the water. Without us knowing it she would take away her hand and step back. And man…, did those first independent swims make us proud.

 Wading with my feet in the still chilly water, I suddenly became aware of the similarity between swimming and writing. Nobody is born as a swimmer and nobody is born as a writer. If you want to swim you need to practice. You have to dry-swim before you get into the water, imagining the movements and carrying them out. It’s no different from writing. You need to practice, practice, practice. Imagining the story and practising the actions you’ll learn that there is a rhythm to the movements of your thoughts and that eventually, they will carry forth your ideas. Your muscle memory influences your brain. If you write and write and write, your writing-muscle will translate your emotions and your writing becomes second nature. Your words are carrying your ideas and feelings and, without notice, you and your medium have become one.

I didn’t swim today as the water was still a bit too cold for my taste. As clearly as if she were there, I saw my mother, scolding me for ignoring the call of the sea. But then again, in my defence, I had other things to do: getting out my mobile, recording my thoughts and feelings and later, back home, writing them down. If she could read them, I’m sure my impressions would make her smile.

The bus, a forgotten treasure.

After focusing on the house, the bus became a forgotten treasure. But now, more than ten years later, I’ve started using it as my office. In summer, the metal of the bus soaks up the heat. In winter it’s freezing cold as the doors don’t close properly, the rubbers around the windows show signs of wear and tear and the rain occasionally permeates the skylights when it’s too persistent, but the view is spectacular and it’s far enough from the cottage to feel isolated.

Bus covered by tarpaulins

Huge tarpaulins cover the roof to keep it dry inside. It means I have to lift them up every time I want to write and that’s nearly daily. If I leave them rigged up, it’s guaranteed that the wind will pick up and change to a northeasterly. The tarpaulins become giant umbrellas, ripping away the ropes that hold them to the poles in front of the deck. I’ve experienced that more often then I care to remember so my routine is to tie them all down when I’m finished and haul them up again when I arrive in the morning. It’s a tedious job, to say the least, especially when it rains.

My desk inside the bus
Ava’s writing desk in the half-dark because of the tarpaulins

There have been times that I sat at my desk in the near dark with only one tip of the tarpaulin rigged up, a rug over my shoulders and the heater at my feet, writing my masterpiece while trying to ignore the cold, the occasional mouse, and the pelting of the rain on the roof. At other times, especially in summer, I open up all the coverings and let in the sun. It still makes me breathless, looking up from my script and watching the harriers as they soar through the sky, or seeing the shimmer of water on the horizon with the occasional tip of a sail moving way beyond the green of the pasture. 

As much as I’ve loved the bus, and still do when the conditions are right, I’m looking forward to replacing it with something more convenient, a little cabin, completely finished and trucked to the site as we’re tired of renovating these days. But, if that’s too complicated or too costly then I’ll continue to keep writing there, sun or rain, as I refuse to let the weather spoil my fun.

Interior bus with pink couch and writing desk

Because I love writing. I love conjuring up characters and situations that are remarkable and authentic. Making them alive and believable is a beautiful puzzle that keeps me awake at night and makes me get up in the early hours of the morning wanting to write down what I just dreamt up.

In summer, the bus is still one of my favorite locations and most of the Rules of Enchantment has been written there. There is a lot of that bus and me in my book, not literally but figuratively. The troubles and tribulations Grace experiences during her journey. The doubt, the grief, the depressive feelings. The beautiful moments and highlights she encounters are mostly created in that old Bristol Hess bus.

After working on the book for three years, during weekends and holidays and even daily when I retired, I’ve finished it and I’m keen to start the second one in the series. I’ve actually started already but editing the Rules of Enchantment and making it ready for publication takes up all my time so the sequel is temporarily on hold.

View from Ava’s desk

I’m visualizing writing the next one in our new cabin. The large windows will be looking out at the same vista but I’m surrounded by a different enclosure. Wood instead of aluminium. Warm and dry instead of damp and draughty. Crisp instead of weather-beaten.

In a sense, the new environment reminds me of the setting where the next book will take place. A totally different environment. Because book two is all about Bear and his twin brother Leo, Grace’s ex-lover, and uncovers why the brothers distanced themselves from Grace and let her make that life-changing journey on her own.

Do writing and renovating have anything in common?

I’ve happily occupied the old neglected Bristol Hess school bus on our property as my writer’s den. Dilapidated from the outside, it has a very cozy feel on the inside, at least in my opinion, but I can imagine that more conservative people are shaking their head at the thought of spending so much time in there. No tap water, no toilet and a lot of fresh air that wafts through the gaps around the windows and doors.

Our bus with newly built deck

We bought the bus years ago after we purchased a piece of land nearly 4 hours’ drive north from where we lived. We quickly discovered that a tent was not our thing, and a house was not within our budget so the bus arrived. It is 12 meters long and 2.4 meters wide.  A great improvement, we thought, from an airbed surrounded by canvas that, at every turn, rubbed our shoulders.  The bus created heaps of space for a couple in their fifties who dreamt of living in the Bay of Islands.

A bit of a mess

We planned to do it up but, in the meantime, occupied it after we took out all the seats, created a makeshift kitchen and bought a proper bed at the local secondhand shop.

But, a year later, we very unexpectedly got ourselves a little cottage from one of those house hauling companies who have dozens of do-up houses, and we had it trucked to the site. We called the rectangle box with sloping roof a cottage, which was a very nice name for a 30 square meter empty shell with a large deck on two sides but no railings. We dramatically improved the house over the years, and the name stuck so it’s still our cottage.

In those early days, if you stood on the unfenced deck, we had a most spectacular view over undulating paddocks and a strip of ocean on the horizon, but we didn’t dare step too close to the edge, afraid of diving down 2 meters onto the hard-baked clay. A proper path was not yet carved and the area around the house looked like Mars, all rubble and dark earth.

Our glasses were rose-tinted twice over, and we had no idea how much hard work is involved in creating a beautiful home from nearly nothing. We had absolutely no clue, and because of that, we’re now living in a lovely house. If we’d known, we wouldn’t have started. Not in a million years, as it would’ve been too daunting, too time consuming and too laborious.

A truck traveling down a dirt road

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After we paid the bill, drank the champagne and celebrated our good luck for buying such a lovely house, an oversized truck moved it to our section, and the site preparation and installing of the house began. Big diggers had to widen the track along the fence line and down the hill.

Like a spider, wheel by wheel, the huge truck navigated backwards over the ditch and the fence, lifting and lowering each wheel as required, and centimeter by centimeter reversed the fifty meters of widened track between the row of huge conifers and the steep drop, so it could take the u-bend at the end and drive nose first down the freshly carved S-shaped path that leads to the spot.  

Heavy equipment rolled, pushed and butted the house up against the slope and onto the poles, and we became the official owners of a house. At the end of the day we climbed, by lack of steps, onto a heap of dirt, scrambled up a large rock and stepped from there onto the deck in front of the 5 x 6-meter wooden structure we called home.

We danced and sat on our beach chairs with a glass of wine and felt like the king and queen of the castle. We carted all our stuff from the bus down to the cottage and dreamt up designs about how to make the best of this tiny space with the small budget available.

An empty shell, with only the floor, walls, ceiling and sliding doors in place, needs a lot of work before it’s anywhere near to cozy, but those first months, we felt like royalty. It was our house and we could clearly see its potential. That potential took over ten years to manifest itself and a thousand trips to and from our apartment in the big city.

Every third or fourth weekend, every holiday and every long weekend consisted of greasing our elbows and getting on with the job. We added two smaller buildings and a deck in between, one building is our ensuite with bathroom the other is our utility room, which is a nice word for the pantry, laundry and shed.

The whole operation reminds me of writing a novel. When you start you have no idea what you’re getting yourself into. You add characters and situations and along the way you have to make it work. ‘Rules of Enchantment’ started that way. Sometimes I had a lack of ideas while at other times I had an overabundance but the characters or happenings didn’t fit so I needed to review and discard.

With just a vague idea of what was involved in writing a book and no clue what to do when I’d finished it, I just started and I’m so glad I did.  Because now I’ve written a fantastic book. It was a beautiful journey with pitfalls and setbacks but mainly with highlights and moments of great elevation.

As with having the cottage trucked to the site, over time I learnt to navigate the bends and corners of writing. As with renovating our house, I dreamt up designs and plans and frequently revised them but, eventually – as I did with the house – I created a fantastic place I call mine. A place that makes me think, laugh and cry. I’m now in the process of re-reading and revising my book, going over the content with a fine comb, and it makes me incredibly proud that I created something so beautiful.