Busytown by Jolisa Gracewood


Sons for the Return Home

Over the years, you have all been so good to me. The last time I asked here for wisdom about moving house, it was on behalf of a two-year-old. Now I’m asking for myself, because this time, the Berenstain Bears just aren’t going to cut it. (Although if you do happen to know of a fixer-upper in Auckland that is shaped like a real tree, in a neighbourhood of friendly squirrels and bunnies, please send me the address.)

For those who haven’t caught up with the news: we’re coming home.

Now, let me be clear (as our current President is given to saying): this is really exciting news. We are all elated about it. It’s great!

But it’s mind-bending, too. I set off mumbleteen years ago with a couple of suitcases and a loyal trailing boyfriend, and am going back with a shipping container’s worth of STUFF, a legal spouse, and a pair of galumphing sons for the return home. That’s a lot of baggage.

And we’ll be leaving so much behind.

Oh, if only I could chop our house into careful quarters and stuff it into the container too, I would. But alas, we must leave it here, in the hands of its next owner – who will, as is proper and right, paint over our grubby fingerprints, the boys’ height markings on the bathroom doorframe, and the paint job my dad did on his last visit here. She’ll make the house her own, as we did, and as did all the inhabitants did before us, going back a century and a half to Hezekiah and Mary Jane, who built it.

Likewise, we’ll leave the garden, and all of the literal roots we have put down over the past eight years – the fruit trees, the perennials, the mad pink rose that clambers over the front porch, the placenta under the dogwood tree. The totoro who live in the tiny “forest” of evergreens at the back of the garden; the praying mantises who descend from a noble line established decades ago by long-gone neighbours; the birds who visit so often they’ve been given names. They will all become creatures of someone else’s domain.

And that’s fine. We’re all only ever temporary tenants of a given patch of ground, as Papatuanuku has recently made irrevocably clear. Ours is a voluntary removal -- a fortunate, planned departure --and that we know where we’re going. Which helps, while I’m carefully dismantling, winnowing, and packing into boxes the only space the children have ever really known as home.

In some ways it feels like we just got here. The happy caravanserai of student years and post-doc-hood, in the course of which we traveled light and shifted every couple of years, somehow led to this temporary medium-term settling down. A house was bought, real furniture acquired; a garden was sown, a second child was born. Slowly I’ve gotten the measure of this town, and thrived in the neighbourly ecosystem of our little street. We’ve all nurtured marvelous friendships, within the occasionally frustrating limits of a transient college town. Good friends left, and others arrived, but for eight fine years, we were among the ones who stayed put. It was novel, and wonderful.

And then just when it seemed we’d be exiles for life -- if not in New Haven, then in other places in the northern hemisphere -- came an offer too good to refuse. An exciting job. An opportunity to bring our family back into the orbit of the larger whanau, to bond with their cuzzies and bask in the glow of grandparental affection and exasperation that is every child’s birthright. An end to the endless winters; a return to food that tastes like food. A chance to give the boys, before it’s too late, a New Zealand childhood.


Step into the Tardis, children. We’re going home.


Well, sort of. “Moving back to New Zealand” is not exactly the same thing as “going home,” is it?

There’s a half-remembered quote I carry around, without ever quite being able to source it properly (Julia Kristeva?), about how an exile is always an exile in time as well as space. It’s not just that you never cross the same river twice, it’s that sometimes you can’t even find the river any more because some bastard has tunnelised it, so how will you remember where to cross it, and how will the poor eels ever find their way back to the breeding place now?

Or you’re driving along a motorway that didn’t used to be there, across a field that isn’t there any more, and you literally don’t know which way to turn. Or you’re dreaming of a sprawling green quarter-acre, perhaps even an eighth, while the city you’re moving to is calculating that it needs to to jam another 800,000 people into its borders over the next 30 years.

Or you’re indoctrinating your children in the ways of the old country (Kiwi kids don’t mind the rain, they all bike to school, they go barefoot to the shops) while wondering if that’s still true in the new old country. Or you’re fleeing a school system that has prioritized standards-based testing to demonstrably no good end, only to find that – oh dear.

Or, on a more personal level, you stepped out of the room as a bright young thing, and will emerge from the blue police box a little wiser, marginally wider, definitely older. People you were at university with are running the country, or trying to, and how did that happen, and who is that middle-aged person in the mirror, and how come my younger siblings have children, and why are some people just not here any more? Will they come back, if I go back? No? Then where have they gone and why am I crying?

For a long time I’ve been vaguely homesick, like a low-grade fever. Now I think I’m feeling a little timesick. Time comes for us all, but sometimes it feels like, if you just keep moving, you can stay one step ahead of it.  So, we’re moving. Right into the teeth of it. Heading forwards, not backwards – or forwards and sideways, in a knight’s move: one step forward, diagonal dodge. Let’s see how this goes.


It’ll be all right. Because time and space wibble and wobble in good ways, too. Many of the things we left in search of turn out to have been back home all along; others have magically popped into existence while we’ve been gone. It’s a brave new world. And what we can’t find, we will make. We will have making-our-own-fun-shaped eyes by the end of this, I tell you.

Flying home from the successful job interview, the astrophysicist in the family says he felt as if he’d landed the biggest fish in the world. There it was, flapping impressively around in the bottom of the boat – well, on the floor of Flight NZ6. Triumph! And then he realized we were going to have to scale this thing, gut it, fillet it into manageable strips, and put it in the freezer. It’s a big job.

Thus the to-do list, a handy way of blunting the psychological trauma of moving by concentrating on the logistics. This is just a tiny slice of the stupidly first-worldy things currently keeping me up at night:

Sort household gear, toys, books, reduce massive stockpile of baby clothes to one box of precious items (sob). Give surplus of everything to local resettlement agency for incoming refugees because, whoah, America has been ridiculously kind to us.

Bring garden tools or best not? Give away house plants.

Start gradual process of moving Huckle down the street to live with his cat boyfriend and sweet family (hard for us, but much kinder to him than putting him on a plane).

Contact lenses. Medical records. Teeth-cleaning. IKEA.

Sell snow gear. WAIT! Global weirding! Keep snow gear!

Groovy lamps: easily rewired at NZ end, or not?

Figure out what to do with boxes of photocopied articles currently lurking in the wardrobe like the giant empty cicada husk of my dissertation. Bonfire of the vanities?

Figure out how to hang onto the ridiculously cheap New Yorker subscription I’ve had since I got here, and have it forwarded to New Zealand (yes, I could read it on the iPad, but you can’t read the iPad in the loo. Well, you shouldn’t). Figure out what to do with enormous pile of paper copies of the New Yorker acquired since I’ve been here (teleport them straight to future bach?).

Figure out how to survive without magical online delivery systems of books, shoes, TV. Remember that I used to survive without magical online delivery systems of books, shoes, TV.

Figure out whether to buy or rent in Auckland. Check bank balance. Check USD-NZD exchange rate. Check myself before I wreck myself. OK. Narrow down where to rent in Auckland (related: find out which schools are resisting the introduction of National Standards, send fan mail to principals).

Remember all those things we always meant to do while still living here. Try to imagine what it will feel like not to just be able to jump on the train and go to New York. Remind self how often one actually does this. Vow to do it as many times as possible in next two months.

And most importantly, amongst all of this, spend time with people before we go, because: he tangata, he tangata, he tangata


My dad was a huge fan of to-do lists, both for himself, and for other people. Last thing at night, he’d leave his carefully calligraphed list on the kitchen bench for the next day. When we grew older and bolder, we used to surreptitiously edit them. “Buy trampoline.” “Trim nose hair.” “Swing by pound, pick up puppy.” We did it for a giggle, but there was a subtext: Have fun. Please remember to have fun! Yeah, there’s always stuff to do, but remember to stop and have a laugh.

Note to self: put that on own list.


Hey, so. Given that we aren’t the only ones in our position – indeed, it seems a wave of godwits is heading south, as if our collective homing beacons have all suddenly gone off -- I welcome your collective wisdom and experience. Logistical, spiritual, frivolous, serious. What would you add to the to-do list of a homeward-bound family that’s counting down the weeks? How have you packed up, moved on, settled back in? Any tricks for the phase transition, especially for children? And, if not a cure for timesickness itself, perhaps a happy spell or two to calm the mind?

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