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Off-Grid Newsletter


November 19, 2017

Me and the Tiffany ceiling once gazed at by Frida and Diego.

Building Lives, from the gentle on off-grid Barrier, to the exotic in Mexico

How did we get to our age in a country like NZ without ever having built a house from scratch? (Not, of course, built it ourselves, but commissioned others to build it for us…) Since becoming a couple a long time ago we have owned and lived in seven houses or apartments. Our current off-grid Great Barrier Island home we have had for 29 years, first as a ‘bach’ (holiday house). As the years went by and we fell ever more in love with the island, our bay, and our house, we built on to it, taking great care not to change its rustic character, bought, one by one, the three adjacent sections and extended the house across one of them, added water systems, solar systems, two wood burners, new generators, rural broad band (yeah!), hundreds more trees, added windows and skylights, a large library, a wine cellar, a garage, a mudroom, another bathroom, two more bedrooms, changed the floor, the doors, the patio, the deck, the cute brick steps down from the road. Three years ago my seat with Jenni’s Lookout carved into the back was planted deep in the ground on the rise above our house looking over the beach, and only a couple of months ago we finally turned the long driveway across land belonging to someone else into a legal easement, including having it metaled so that we no longer have to negotiate it with a 4WD.

We don’t want to leave it, we don’t want to sell it, but sadly we have decided it is sensible to move to another beach 30 minutes drive away, also very beautiful, although not as wild as Awana, because as sensible people, we know that every day we live is one day closer to not being able to cut wood, take the tops off trees growing too fast and taking away the sun, paint the massive very steep roof (all of those jobs 100% belonging to John!), keep running up and down the steep stairs without perhaps breaking one’s ancient hips or frail skull, easily negotiating the narrow, winding road to the health centre, nearest store, and airport. Then there is that vision of us, in our mid-nineties, living in an enormous house that is so festooned with cobwebs and books that we can’t be found; a house where the trees have grown so big and wild the house can no longer be reached without a chainsaw… So moving is called age-proofing. If one’s aim is to die here happy, with one’s children also happy because they are reasonably sure their oldies have a close community keeping an eye on them and the house they live in is a one-level, low maintenance, relatively small abode with the latest off-grid water, sewage and solar sytems, then this is the right thing to do. Now, when we have the energy and a few working neurons, not when we’re already doo-lally, as certain offspring might comment.

We have our beautiful acre of almost flat land, mature native trees forming the perimeter and separating us from the small number of other houses now being built or in the future will be built on the adjoining sections. The subdivision is unusual on rugged Great Barrier, park-like grass and trees with access to a stunning white-sand beach. Inhabited by lovely folk who love the Barrier (and wine) as we do. We already know three of the seven couples/families who have or will be building there; one a youngish family who we have known for 25 years, and two couples nearer our age, who have lived or holidayed on the Barrier for many years already and never want to leave. A community. At Awana, our community is mostly a summer one; most of the year we and the birds are pretty much the only ones here.

Making this move while we still feel relatively healthy is already proving wise. Building from scratch on a remote off-grid island has added issues over the already massive ones that anyone building in NZ has. The build won’t even be able to begin until November, 2018. That should give us time to sift though the latest solar panel/solar water/fuel pellet rather than wood-burning fires that will allow a wetback to be installed (to heat the water when the sun isn’t shining), sewage sysytems (bio this or composting that), how to get the building materials across the big ocean when they are required and where to store them when they arrive, how to find subcontractors willing and able to do the various jobs at the right time on an island where tradespeople are few and in high demand, where we’ll live if our curent house gets bought too soon, how we’ll afford the new build if our house gets bought too late, and most difficult of all, where will we put our thousands of books???

If the house gets sold, where will we store them (and our furniture)? Once we’re in the new house, how will we fit in the table if we keep even a quarter of our books? (So thank goodness for my post-library Kindle which has 500 novels on it, all in one tiny device I can hold in my hand). But we can’t leave the others behind. Some of them belonged to my father, some were given to my mother by her mother when she was little (Freckles, and A Girl of the Limberlost for example, written by American writer and naturalist Gene Stratton- Porter in the early 1900s, and which made me yearn to live in a wilderness). Some were even texts from our first years at university, or even from school —which bring back bitter-sweet memories in my case (Halliday and Resnick’s Fundamentals of Physics, 2nd edition!...It is now in its 10th edition. I wonder if anything much has changed?) and in John’s case ancient texts he still consults on a regular basis. (Note: my bitter memories re the Physics text were actually having to read it, and the sweet ones I suspect are something to do with the Physics teacher on whom I may have had a crush.) My one quite large section of neurology, neuopsychology and psychology books which I kept when I left the university—although I gave away or sadly had to dump a thousand others then (the first four editions of the standard Abnormal Psychology text for example)—can’t be further culled. Another extensive section holds books signed to me from the author.

There is an entire long and ceiling-high wall of novels, the opposite entire wall is filled with biology and geology and archaeology books, and a smaller wall contains biographies and anthropology and Maori books. Another section holds atlases, dictionaries, music and travel books. Another of classics and three different editions of all the Pooh books. A section of kids’ picture books and novels (like Anne of Green Gablesthe entire series) that I bought for the grandkids and other kids to read when they come here, but which mostly they turn their noses up at (Anne of Green Gables.) (My own precious childhood copies had disappeared somehow when I left NZ for a few years.) Thirteen original edition hardback Noddy books, all rather tattered and with notations in the front to me from my mother— “To Jennifer, happy fifth birthday, from Mummy.” They didn’t thank goodness, get thrown out. They have the original wicked gollywogs in them. The Noddy books, it has to be said, along with the Famous Five, were loved by some of the grandkids when they were also five. By the time they were seven they were reading The Game of Thrones.

Perhaps the new house will have to grow a little to incorporate a library? As I have always said when asked why I keep this large and rather motley—in terms of genre and literary merit—collection of aged, mostly paperback novels, one of these days I will have forgotten I had ever read them and will be able to read them again and again as if they are fresh every time.

A bit back-burnerish as I nursed my recent international e-book sale (meaning constantly checking numbers, changing ads etc), and we mulled over new house plans and will we or won’t we.

My latest Psychology Today blog post
Wean Your Kids and Yourself Off Fear: Keeping our children and teens too safe feeds their anxiety.

Book Review, oh no, a film review instead!

After such a rave about my life with books, I should admit that John and I spend a fair number of evenings watching Netflix TV series and the occasional movie. No-one’s perfect. Mostly we become addicted to series, recently (and years beghind everyoine else) we watched the first five series of what we called “Carrie”, otherwise titled Homeland. By the end of it I had to force myself to watch it as I have to say I was pretty sick of Carrie. I’m relieved Series 6 is not yet on Netflix. Hopefully it never will be. So now, for light relief, we have watched a couple of movies, and the other night it was Frida, the movie about the life of Frida Kahlo, the feisty, dramatic Mexican artist and her lover, the equally famous and philandering Diego Rivera. Last year we spent three weeks in Mexico, and one week of that in Mexico City where we went to the Frida Kahlo house/museum, La Casa Azul—The Blue House (on a very rainy day) and of course gazed in wonder at Rivera’s incredible murals in the Palacio Nacional. So we were the perfect recipients of the movie, our memories being colourfuly fresh. Practically every location used in the movie we had been to: at Chapultepec we sat on our colourful boat and moved at a snail’s pace through the hundreds of other boats on a sunny Sunday, and it looked exactly the same when Frida and Diego were doing likewise (well it would I suppose as it was the movie re-enactment we were watching, not the scene in the actual 1930s! ) It was not as romantic for us as it was for them as I stupidly ate some of the disgusting corn we were hassled to buy, smeared with mayonaise. I stopped eating it after one mouthful but that was enough. I was as sick as a dog by evening. To make things even more memorable, one of the friends we were with received a minor head injury when the iron bar holding up the roof of our boat fell down on her.

The next day we went to the Teotihuacán Pyramids, also a scene in Frida. Again my memories were not so romantic as hers, as she dragged her crippled leg up the steep narrow steps with an exiled elderly Trotsky with whom she soon began a passionate affair. An affair which ended in tears—and his graphic assasination when he decided he must leave the protection of Frida and Rivera’s house after his affair was discovered by his wife. My experience of Teotihuacán was more mundane. Halfway up I had to say to our guide, “Point out the nearest toilet” which was about a kilometre away, but I made it just in time. John continued to the top with the guide. And then in Frida there was the scene in the Gran Hotel Ciudad de Mexico overlooking the Zocalo; a hotel considered rightly to be one of the most glorious on earth with its turn-of-the-century Art Noveau décor and its stunning Tiffany stained glass ceiling—which from the door of our room we could touch (see photo!). Now staying there was every bit as wonderful for us as it might have been for Frida and Diego, not necessarily in exactly the same ways of course!

Even if you haven’t had the pleasure of visiting Mexico City, Frida is still a marvelous film, because her’s is such an incredible story. The terrible accident she had as a young woman on top of the polio she had as a child which left her in agonising pain for the rest of her life never stopped her living life to the brim. The film follows her from the 1920s when she first met the Communist bear of a genius, Diego, and their tumultuous off-and-on relationship began, and finishes with her death (which she painted in advance) in 1954. But her greatest passion remained her art, including many self portraits of her and her despair, painted as she lay, corseted in iron, in her bed.

Salma Hayek stars as Frida and is also the producer. She looks uncannily like the real Frida, especially those marvellous eyebrows. Rivera is played by Alfred Molina, and the Miramax film was directed by Julie Taymor, whose Broadway production of The Lion King won her international acclaim.

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