There are many different reasons to follow your dreams. This week’s post comes from a heartwarming story that Nikki, my American niece-to-be, told me a few weeks ago.
Sometimes your dreams and passions can sustain you through devastating times. It helps, during a period of illness, depression or heartache, to throw yourself headlong into something you’re passionate about.
This was the reason that Ray, an eighty-plus gentleman from West Virginia, turned to art to help him fight Alzheimer’s and the onset of dementia. Ray’s passion was making paper models, and his heart particularly lay with cathedrals.
Abbey, a travelling nurse, regularly called in to care for Ray during these tough times. And during one memorable visit, she told him about her daughter Nikki and the big decision she had recently made.
“My daughter has left the States,” she told Ray. “She’s moved all the way to New Zealand!”
Many Americans have never even heard of New Zealand, but Ray knew where she meant and wanted to know more.
“She’s gone to live in Christchurch,” Abbey told him.
Ray was shocked. He knew about Christchurch and its devastating earthquakes and was particularly moved by the plight of the city’s lovely cathedral. In his own way, Ray had wanted to commemorate the beautiful building.
He led Abbey over to his collection of beautiful models — and there it was. A stunningly, intricate paper model of the Christchurch Cathedral in all its former glory.
Now it was Abbey’s turn to be shocked as Ray presented her with the lovely model. When she protested, he insisted that he wanted her to have it. Ray passed away shortly after, but Abbey now has his special gift to remember him by.
Abbey’s little cathedral is so much more than an intricate model; it’s a symbol of empathy and connection. Dementia did not rob Ray of empathy. He understood the grief associated with the loss of Christchurch’s precious cathedral and chose to honour it in his own, special way. With his gift, Ray also gave Abbey a second connection with Nikki’s new home.
When she comes to visit her beautiful new grandson, there’ll be more connections; a new extended family to meet. Perhaps Abbey and Nikki will visit the real Cathedral with them.
American and Kiwi, beginning to understand each other just a little more, and to treasure new friendships formed.
Building connections between people young and old — between countries, cultures and religions — is vital. It’s the way that we will move the people of our world towards peaceful acceptance of each other. It’s the way to build trust.
Everything starts with one person connecting with another; it continues with empathy and hope. Connecting begins with me and with you. I hope this becomes a passion that we all can share.
Thank you, Ray.
Thanks also to Nikki and Abbey for allowing me to tell their special story.
Images of Christchurch Cathedral after the 2011 earthquake are courtesy of Karyn Druce.
Winter is an interesting season on the farm. It gets cold down here in the South. Not frigid like Siberia, or Alaska of course, but chilly by New Zealand standards. The grass doesn’t grow much in winter and feeding out takes up a big part of the farmer’s day. Of course, it wasn’t always as easy as it is today.
These days Terry can handle the feeding out by himself. The tractor. a feed-out machine and our new, automated grain bin are all he needs to be a one-man-band. But it hasn’t always been that way.
The Bales Were Smaller Back Then
When I first came to the farm, feeding out was a two-person job. Instead of the mammoth-sized round bales of today, we used to make the hay in rectangular bales tied with twine. These were small enough for one person to lift by hand.
We kept the hay dry in big barns which were dotted around the farm. There was an art to stacking it — the bales had to be interlocked so that the whole stack felt solid and wasn’t in danger of falling apart while you climbed on it.
Loading The Hay
Every day we would drive the red Land Rover truck up to a hay barn and load the hay onto its flat deck. Once again, we had to carefully interlock the bales as we stacked them — often higher than the cab. It was quite easy to lose your footing and fall off the back as the truck bounced along. Having a heap of bales tumble on top of you made the fall much worse.
I learned that the hard way one day when the hay, two kids and I all came off the deck. Fortunately, it happened in slow motion and no one was hurt. I was much more careful with my hay-stacking-technique after that.
Once the bales were loaded, we would set off to feed a mob of sheep. One of us drove, while the other balanced precariously on top of the hay bales ready to feed the sheep. The job wasn’t too difficult.
First, you cut the string of the hindmost bale with a sharp pocket knife then tossed wads of hay out to the milling sheep below. Usually, it easily separated into sections and wasn’t hard to throw down.
As soon as the first bale was gone, you cut the strings of the second one, stuck the open knife in the bale behind so it didn’t get lost, and started throwing hay again.
There was an art to it of course:
Cut the strings just after the knot and hold the knotted ends in your left hand.
Feed out with your right hand.
When all the bales are gone, knot the strings together in a tidy loop as you nonchalantly balance on the empty deck, while the truck heads for the gate.
Freezing Fingers and Toes
Once out of the paddock, we jumped off the deck and shut the gate with freezing fingers. It was a relief to hop into the warm cab while the truck returned to the shed to pick up the next load.
It was difficult to find the best gloves for the job. Certainly, thick, sturdy ones were no good. I couldn’t handle the knife if the gloves were too thick. However, woollen gloves quickly wore out, and I went through several pairs each winter. Even the holey ones were better than nothing, but they did get soaked when you fed out in the rain.
Oh yes, this wasn’t a fine-weather job. Just like the postman, we were out in all weather. It didn’t matter if it was raining, snowing or just a hard frost, the sheep had to be fed.
Adding In The Grain
In July we added grain to the feeding out routine.
The grain bin was a huge, heavy affair, with two compartments. The grain poured into it through a tricky-to-start augur in the grain silo. Fortunately, it held enough barley or oats to feed several mobs of sheep before having to be refilled, so you only had to do that once a day.
One person could manage on his own, but it was a precarious and dangerous task. It was much safer to feed the grain with two people on the job.
Terry usually drove the truck, slowly towing the bin around the paddock at exactly the right speed. He had to be especially careful only to drive on firm ground. Parts of the paddocks got very wet over winter, and it paid to know which bits were safe to drive on, and which parts would get you bogged.
And She Who Ran Behind
My job was to open the slot at the bottom of the bin so that the grain fell onto the ground. I would pull a handle sticking out from the bottom end of the bin, and the whole slot would open. Then I either trotted behind the truck and bin or leapt up onto the towbar and rode until it was time to close things down.
This was easier said than done. Sheep love grain even more than hay, and they mobbed the bin well before we even started feeding it out. I had to carefully check the flow of grain too. There had to be consistent flow so that each sheep got the right amount to eat.
That depended on how fast the truck was moving and how far I had managed to open the slot. Sometimes the grain was sticky and I had to climb on top of the bin (while it was still moving) and poke it down the hole.
The Hardest Part Came Last
When enough grain had been fed, it was time to shut off the flow. The opening was easy enough because I just grabbed the hooked handle and let the truck’s momentum pull it open. However, closing the slot was more difficult.
The truck couldn’t stop when the bin was open because the grain would pile out. So I had to run behind on the slippery ground, bend down low and push the stiff handle back in. I usually carried a heavy spanner with me because it was much easier to give the lever a hearty whack and close it that way.
I Get To Drive…
Sometimes I was allocated the driving role. This was tricky too. The sheep mobbed front of the truck too and were in grave danger of being run over. I wasn’t allowed to drive too fast, but too slow was just as bad. If I misjudged the speed the farmer would yell!
Then there was the problem of knowing exactly where in the paddock it was safe to drive the truck. Sometimes the ground looked firm enough, but in reality, a bog lay underneath just waiting for me to fall into its trap.
…But Not For Long
Etched forever in my mind, is the day I got the bin stuck not once, not twice, but three times in the same paddock, right outside my brother-in-law’s house. Terry had to pull the truck and bin out each time with the tractor, much to the delight of my audience of three little boys. I learned a few unrepeatable words that day, and exactly where the wet spots were in that particular paddock.
Big Round Bales
Eventually, modern times caught up with us on the farm. We bought a new baler which made big round bales (actually cylindrical in shape.) However we didn’t buy a feed-out machine for another two years, so to feed out we had to unwind the bales by hand.
Loading the round bales was much quicker — the tractor did all the work. But feeding out the hay required a whole new technique.
The bale fitted exactly onto the Land Rover’s deck, which left a toe-hold in each corner for me. I clambered round and round, peeling off swathes of hay, clinging spider-like to the ever-decreasing bale. It’s a wonder I didn’t fall off every single day, but my balance must have improved because I stayed on most of the time.
Moving With The Times
Feeding out changed forever when we bought a brand-new feed-out machine. Now one farmer could handle the whole job alone.
Feeding out was tougher 35 years ago, but for a new-to-the-job farmer’s wife, it was a lot of fun too. I was sad, in a way, to see my role go, but there’s no denying that the whole process is much easier now.
Art is one of my students’ favourite subjects at Garston School. Mine, too, because I love to experiment right alongside them.
However, even the 6-year-old children often produce paintings better than mine. It’s sad, but I’m afraid I don’t have even one artistic bone in my body.
But according to Denver and Kingston artist Michelle Goggans, that’s not necessarily the problem. The desire to succeed is far more important than talent.
What’s more, you have to be willing to work!
If It Was Easy, Everyone Would Be An Artist
“I certainly wasn’t the best artist at school,” she says. “I had friends who were amazing — theirs were the paintings that decorated the walls on parents night. Mine were never chosen.”
“But in the end, art wasn’t really their thing and they drifted away from it.”
Those students could have gone on to produce some stunning paintings as adults, but they just weren’t interested enough to put in the years of work and study that it takes to be a top artist.
“I wanted art with a passion,” Michelle says, “I wasn’t born with heaps of talent: it’s practice. I’ve worked at this my whole life.”
And work she certainly does. I was amazed, when I met up with Michelle at her home in Kingston, just how much work it takes to create her beautiful watercolours.
Preparation is Key
When I think of watercolour paintings, I tend to think small, delicate landscapes and pastel colours. But Michelle’s largest painting to date is Catharsis (above, bottom right) and it measures 32.5 x 25 inches. That’s close to a metre across — and the special commission took a LOT of work to create.
Many of Michelle’s paintings are done on paper. If you ever painted with watercolours as a kid, you’ll immediately understand the first problem. Paper buckles as it dries. To fix that, Michelle will completely saturate a sheet of 140lb watercolour paper and stretch it out on a strong wooden board. She tapes the paper to the board, then staples it all the way around for extra security.
For “Catharsis” Michelle had a large, extra-thick board especially made. Wet paper is strong and shrinks as it dries. Believe it or not, shrinking paper nearly 1m long could easily snap an ordinary plywood board in half. Even then it took several attempts and a few ruined sheets of expensive paper before it was finally secured to the board and painting could begin.
How Do You Model A Fantasy?
Michelle’s inspirations come from myriad sources. Initial glimpses of nature, photographs, people or animals are then coloured and transformed in her mind’s eye. It’s Whimsical Art she says and is a style she’s been developing over the years.
Even the greatest artists of the past used models and views from real life to paint form and perspective, but there are no real-life models for the pictures forming in Michelle’s mind. Fortunately, she has two modern tools that past generations lacked: her trusty iPad and the innovative art app “Procreate”.
It takes hours and hours of research on the internet, but eventually, Michelle finds forms and details in photos which capture the shapes she needs for her painting. Procreate lets her take those shapes and place them together as a mockup for the picture in her mind’s eye. Now she has a model for sketching and outlining onto paper.
The work doesn’t stop there. Michelle showed me pages and pages of experiments in her art book, as she worked out every tiny detail. Skin tones… colours… hands… faces… the way a dress should flow. Finally, the right ideas and skills have married up and the painting can begin. I see fire behind a dragonfly… flames surging from a lions mane… a Yogi at one with a rainbow universe. These are just some of the diverse whimsies that are now beautiful paintings thanks to Michelle.
Working in Other Media
Michelle’s favourite reaction to her paintings is the amazed question, “That’s WATERCOLOUR?”
Back in Denver, when she wasn’t painting, Michelle worked in interior design and project management, so she has plenty of the skills needed to fit into the current Queenstown work environment when her partnership visa comes through.
But of course, her dream is to paint fulltime. So it’s a blessing in disguise that the visa process takes so long. For this precious time, Michelle has the luxury to concentrate on painting.
Want to see more of Michelle’s beautiful art? You can find her at:
What does it take to build your own house and home?
I’d guess at vision, perseverance and a whole lot of determination to get you through the many, many challenges that lie ahead.
Fortunately, Debbie Grace and Gerry Pearse have grit and determination in bucket loads. And that’s just as well because they certainly needed it to build their unique B&B home in Athol.
The vision came years ago in Melbourne, born in the lab where Debbie worked in medical research. Big-city living was taking its toll and a simpler, more connected life became the dream.
They had the skills. Gerry is a builder — Debbie was willing to learn. The land wasn’t a problem; it was waiting for them in Athol, next to Gerry’s father, Jem.
Time was the issue. It took years. Flying back and forth from Melbourne, snatching weeks here and there. Slowly the house took shape — every piece of it carefully crafted by Gerry and Debbie into their forever home. Finally, at last, they quit the city rat race and came permanently to live in Athol.
The Graceland B&B Vision
Debbie and Gerry wanted something out of the ordinary for their country dream. Their vision was clear: a house full of character, built by themselves with sustainable, locally sourced materials.
And that’s exactly what they’ve achieved. Graceland is simply infused with charm and personality. Every piece of the house, inside and out, tells a story.
Grit and Grind
This is one solid house, and everything was done by hand.
“Digging the foundations was one of the hardest things,” says Debbie, remembering just how difficult she found making the reinforcing for the 16 concrete pillars supporting the steel-framed building.
Gerry and Debbie did it all, learning lots of new skills in the process. Tiling, plastering, painting were just a few they needed to master. And sitting with them in the cosy living room, you can tell it’s all been worth the effort.
Moya Moves In
Back in Melbourne, Moya Flancman was also tired of the big city life. A scientist, originally from Toronto, she too was ready for a move to the country. In her mind, a seed took root planted by conversations with Debbie about their shared dreams.
“You might as well come and join us,” said Debbie one day.
So Moya did just that.
Uprooted herself from the pharmaceutical world and transplanted her life across “the ditch,” to the half-completed house where she threw herself into the build and the business.
Part of the dream — and the challenge — was to build the house using sustainable materials. Debbie, in particular, spent hundreds of hours sourcing and collecting the right ones for the job. The locality was a prime consideration: they wanted as many home-grown materials as possible.
Debbie says she felt like a detective going on a treasure hunt as she pored over clues and followed leads to unearth forgotten gems from all over Southland.
They were very lucky with their wood supply. Much of it came from trees felled by Gerry’s father, which they then had milled.
Local rivers proved to be both a source of inspiration and materials, with stones and driftwood collected and used to form integral features of the house.
Barns, backyards, junk shops and more all yielded forlorn-looking treasures that needed a bit of love. Now each rests happily in just the right spot at Graceland.
Some came from further up the South Island. The reclamation centre set up after the earthquakes in Christchurch to store usable materials from damaged hotels in the city proved to be a treasure trove for high-end fixtures and fittings.
The guest bathroom is Debbie’s especial pride and never fails to elicit a gasp from first-time viewers.
Debbie built it out of river stones which she painstakingly cemented into place. She and Moya then spent hours sanding the cement back to reveal the subtle colours and textures of the stones. Lastly, they sealed all the surfaces to create a waterproof floor and walls.
A heater keeps everything toasty warm in winter, so it looks like you’re showering in a river bed, but without the accompanying chill.
There are tender touches dotted throughout the house, reminiscent of meaningful people, places and times in its owners’ lives. Among the most precious in the guest bedroom are treasured paintings by Jem Pearse, who was such a talented potter and painter.
If you need a book to while away an hour, the full-size bookshelf has plenty to choose from. Maybe it’s Inspiration you seek? If so, you’ll enjoy reading the banners and quotes all around. At the other end of the scale, car enthusiasts will probably love all the rego plates dotting the fireplace wall.
Many city folk have dreams of a “simpler life” in the country but few are prepared for the reality. It’s definitely been an eye-opener and a challenge for these two ladies.
“We certainly have a new appreciation for water and warmth now,” they tell me as Debbie pops another log from their hard-won woodpile into the large wood burner in the lounge.
Getting water into the house was not just a simple matter of connecting pipes to a town supply. Like all Athol houses they were faced with two choices: a rainwater tank or dig a deep bore down to an underwater source and pump it up. Given the recent summer drought, the latter seemed the sensible choice.
Embracing the Self Sufficient Life
Both Debbie and Moya have thrown themselves into country living with gusto and this is reflected in their Bed and Breakfast hospitality.
Food is a high priority. It was a shock, at first, to realise that country living means you can’t just “pop down to the supermarket every day.” A pantry is essential, and they’ve set about filling theirs with glee.
Reflecting their “self-sufficiency whenever possible” philosophy, the pantry is filled with preserves and juice, with most of the fruit gathered from trees around the local district. Their guests benefit from a choice of beautiful bottled fruits and jams for breakfast.
I can highly recommend a glass of Moya’s apple juice; it’s divine!
Outside, the ladies have established vegetable gardens and a tunnel house. Their lucky free-range hens have the run of the garden and a spacious henhouse which brought the phrase “hen hotel” into my mind. Lucky guests get to eat fresh eggs for breakfast and homegrown vegetables at night.
Undoubtedly the star of the show is Gizmo, who is so popular with guests that he has his own Facebook page. And of course, he like his owners is thriving in Athol.
“This is the best playground in the world for Gizmo,” Moya told me.
It turns out that swimming is Gizmo’s favourite pastime and after his guest-greeting duties are done he gets a well-earned stroll down to the river. Even snow won’t deter Gizmo from his daily dip.
Gizmo is part of the connection that guests love about Graceland B&B. Debbie, Moya, and Gerry love spending time with their guests. Their evenings are often spent chatting in the cosy lounge and connecting with people from all over the globe.
Sometimes guests have their own building projects underway and are fascinated with the details of Graceland’s construction. They’ve been known to sit far into the night, swapping stories and tips.
I had such a great time meeting Debbie and Moya for this article. Their enthusiasm and love for the house and business is infectious. The kitchen-living area alone is fascinating and there are myriad details to enjoy.
There’s the tale of the stunning photographs which immediately catch the eye (taken in Thailand). And the tale of how the window frame beside the fireplace came to be. Debbie’s latest art projects… Moya’s delicious recipes… fruit harvest stories… garden plans… joining the local volunteer fire brigade… there are so many stories to tell.
I could have spent many more hours in Athol’s Graceland, sipping apple juice and swapping tales, but all good things must come to an end.
If you want to connect with Debbie, Moya, and Gerry at Graceland Spa B&B you can find them on: