Catching the plane out of Christchurch direct to San Francisco, I’m joined by a man, a large man, in the two-seat row next to the exit door. He’s a native of SFO and has been fly fishing in New Zealand, his first trip. Next to us is the baby, there is always a baby, which makes me realize, long-flighting is all about paying sardines in a can of humanity.
A book, a movie, a snooze in an upright position (comfort folded away)…later, we’re in. A shuttle and a budget hotel with Spanish speaking attendants, I head for the pool. Americans look at me perplexed as I dip and lap, it is mid-winter here of course, but after a run of very hot days and a brilliant summer in Christchurch, the pool is welcome and warmer in, than out.
Surrounded by cabbage trees rattled by a cool wind off San Francisco Bay, the pool is a typical 1970s construct, framed by 1 inch tiles, a wrap-around deck with upturned lip edging. It’s just the right length and width, and I have it all to myself, like something out of a fashionable Pall Mall seventies magazine. Across the Bay with the Golden Gate Bridge framed behind, gleaming in the sun, a working WWII Liberty ship is birthed, a reminder of that generation of sacrificial men and mateship, and how fortunate many of us are living in 2013 on the back end of their endeavour and courage.
Hooking up with my wonderful daughter and her several amazing, funny, quirky young female friends, we spend a delightful 24 hours in the city, Bubba Shrimping, tee-shirt shopping (three obligatory tees purchased for “My Three Sons” in NZ) and making awkward American-British period-drama cross-over videos. Daughter1 is one of the funniest, quirkiest people I know; we get each other, and she is a delight. My eldest, she gets nuance, subtlety, sarcasm and layered wit; we are the same person. In my bag is her gift, an oil portrait – something from my heart.
Her friend “K.Italy” (not her real name) actually has a middle name that is God’s unmentionable Hebrew name (her parents were SFO hippy cultists) and immortalized in the famous Colin McCahon IAM paintings. “Kathy IAM Italy.” So, I call her “Unmentionable” or “IAMNOT.” She is also a scream, as Italian Americans are. Daughter1 being diamond attracts gold, and I have a thoroughly warm, welcoming and laughter-filled time wrapped in the embrace of her exceptional friends and “IAMNOT’s” angelic five-year-old son. Where else could a late forties man from New Zealand feel so welcomed and loved amongst a group of American women in their twenties, than in the kingdom of God? transcending culture, age, gender, and personality. As Good As It Gets…suck on that Jack Nicholson!
Back to SFO and a shuttle off to Mt Hermon with several hundred men. There was a South African on the bus, so the usual rugby jostling and good-humored fun. We arrive at a 100- year-old wood and stone retreat of sprawling proportions in the mountains of northern California. It is gorgeous, a twin to Yosemite, with sprawling log cabins and wooden walkways over chasms and singing brooks, and sequestered deluxe and dormitory conference facilities. It accommodates several ‘camps’ as Americans call them, all at once; our own retreat is 550 strong. We all eat together; men from across the world. I’m rooming with Archie (not his real name) from London (put those dangerous ‘Brits’ together). We vow to “sort out Her Majesty’s rebels.” We’ll recruit the few South Africans, Canadians and Irish also here. Commonwealth ho!
I chat to Murray (not his real name) on the bus on the way in. He’s a tall native of San Diego, married with two kids. He’s an architect, but following a brain aneurism, and the downturn in the Californian economy, has been made bankrupt. It’s tough. He still cannot get a credit card; but as it goes inside the Christian church, some brother somewhere, probably someone he doesn’t now that well, paid for everything so Murray could attend this retreat. We get straight to it, Christian men on a Wild@Heart guided retreat, there is no chit chat, posturing, we’re straight in: marriages, divorce, terminal illnesses healed, time in Italy, how we met our spouses, kids, the economy, spiritual life, God. Another kingdom connection.
At the lodge, it’s all simply organized and entirely minimal. No busy-bodies, schedules, lists (love it). A couple of lines, grab a pack, here’s a key, your chalet is circled on the map. Dinner at 6pm. My roommate is from London, a single guy in his mid-forties, Archie (not his real name). He even has an Andy Cap hat, so I must remember not to call him “Andy.” But Arch and I are in to it almost immediately, like Murray from San Diego. A 90 minute heart-to-heart about women problems and uncertainties in life. Again, another kingdom moment and we both connect, perfect strangers, room-mates, Life of Pi (he the tiger me the boy from Delhi (well NZ may as well be India to many here; one guy says to me, “Oh yeah, my grandmother visited there, the polar bear museum.” Ah, no polar bears in NZ, that’s the arctic, other end of the world). Arch and I are adrift in an ocean of American masculine humanity. But that’s ok, most Kiwis don’t know where Washington DC is on the map, either.
A smorgasbord literally feeds 550, we’re interrupted by a casually dressed facilitator, “There’s no schedule guys. We hate that stuff. So, just turn up to meals and we’ll tell you when the next session is.” I love this organization already.
Related post: Missives from America