My 40th year – March (month #11)

This is the penultimate post in this series, the second to last nurturing activity, and I’m trying to work out whether I think it’s gone quickly or not. And I don’t just mean trotting out the usual ‘ooh well I just don’t know where this year’s gone to’ phrase, I mean has it actually gone quickly? Because honestly, turning 40 seems fucking ages ago. It’s probably been one of the worst years of my life. Actually, there’s no probably about it. It was.

When I decided to try these things each month, it was more of a ‘I feel like I’ve neglected myself a little bit’, rather than ‘I need these’, but actually, that’s exactly what I’ve found as I navigated through a tough year. To even stand a chance at recovering from the awul burnout, I’ve had to put myself first and prioritise my wellbeing.

As I’ve got towards the end of the year I’ve been feeling a hell of a lot better. So, so, so much better. It’s not just these monthly things that have done it, but they’ve no doubt helped. This month’s activity – March – has been getting out running in the hills.

But wait! That’s nothing new! Don’t you do that already? I hear you cry.

Actually, I haven’t for some time. Last year my body went a bit on strike and for the first time ever I found myself physically unable to do much. The burnout and stress meant that everything seemed an incredible effort. I struggled to run or walk much uphill, and I could only run about 4 or 5km before I felt absolutely exhausted.

At one time I might have pushed through, kept forcing myself to do more, ignoring any signs. This time though, I listened to my body and dialled everything back. I did what I could, took it easy, ran gently around the park near home and didn’t beat myself up for not doing more.

This month, I’ve headed out to the hills to dip my toe in. I’ve done a few hikes recently, felt good, and now feel a pull to get back out on the trails. The motivation’s there, the want is there.

I’ve started gently, running trails I know and love, not committing to any distance or time, just running for fun and endorphins. I’ve ran with friends, making it social as well as on my own.

I’m loving it. It makes me feel so free, so alive, and a total badass. It’s different each time and puts a smile on my face 100% of the time.

I feel like I’m finally getting back to being me.

Covid Culture

‘I’ve got wine, is that OK?’ Katie asks me, holding a glass of red up to the screen.

I laugh. ‘Of course!’ She laughs too, and I think how different the start of this interview is to the previous one, where she started crying before she’d hardly said a word.

‘So I’m in a unique position because I haven’t been in the same place, nor country even, over the last 18 months,’ Katie says. ‘The pandemic for me has had three parts; that first lockdown in March 2020, the Covid experience in New Zealand with, well, zero Covid, and then coming back to North America right into Covidland.’

Katie moved back to Canada from New Zealand 7 months before, in April 2021. ‘I’ve had a very bizarre experience of arriving in Canada at the height of the third wave, the wave with the most cases across the country and before vaccinations. I remember getting here from New Zealand where it wasn’t a thing and thinking, ‘OK I have to sanitise everything, where’s the masks, where’s the backup masks, OK let’s switch masks every hour’, like, I was so, so, intense about it.’ She covers her face and laughs.

She said: ‘I had a friend visit a couple of weeks after I got back, and we were outside on the deck. He asked me what I was comfortable with, and I said ‘let’s wear masks, let’s stay at least ten feet apart’, things that were beyond the measures necessary, and he looked at me and said ‘OK, whatever makes you comfortable’, but was laughing about it. I thought, OK, maybe I need to learn more about the culture of Covid here.’

Katie asked her friends to explain how things worked, and was told there were the rules that had been imposed by the different provinces, and then there were (she makes air quotes with her fingers) “The Rules”. She said: ‘The cultural rules, if you will; what people actually did. From what I could gather, the official rules had been shifted around and changed so frequently that pretty much everybody was just doing their own thing and deciding what was best for them.’

She gasps. ‘Oh! I have a wild story about that. So the bubble rules around shared housing and flatmate situations weren’t ever really addressed. However, there were some suggestions for if people were single and wanted to connect, you know, sexually and romantically.’ she giggles and covers her face with her hands. ‘It’s embarrassing,’ emphasising the word, ‘that my provincial government talked about this, but they said to create <air quotes> “glory holes”.’ She paused and looked at me.

‘No!’ I exclaimed.

‘Yes,’ she nods.

‘They did not say that!’ I squeak in disbelief.

‘Oh they did. There were so many jokes on the internet about it. If that – that – is what’s being told to people, no wonder they’re making their own rules.’

Returning to Canada, Katie was looking forward to forging a stable life. ‘Here I have opportunities I didn’t have in New Zealand. I have a job that’s financially secure, and I can dream about things like having kids and buying a house. My goals here are very different, and so on arriving, I panicked. I thought what I really have to be prepared for is that I might never find a partner. At that point I didn’t even know whether people were allowed to meet or not. There was a lot of reconciling of having to give up my dreams; give up the partnership dreams, the kid dreams, the family dreams. I told myself to be grateful to have a job and just focus on that for however long this pandemic plays out for.’

I asked her how she felt about that.

‘Resigned. I felt resigned to a fate that I hadn’t chosen. But I had to accept it, because that’s what the world’s going through. Equally though, I think that was also a bit reflective of my personality rather than what was at play. I was really reminded of how removed I’d been in New Zealand from the struggles that everyone else went through. I was new to the mentality of ‘oh fuck, this can fuck up my life’ whereas everyone else had been dealing with that for a long time. The world was ending for me, but in reality, it wasn’t, I was just new to it.’

Katie says it was an awakening to people’s experiences in North America. ‘Hearing about it over the phone in New Zealand, and then seeing how people were living wasn’t something I knew how to expect. It’s very different. Like arriving in British Columbia and seeing how my friends socialised very differently. They were so nervous to merge friend groups. So nervous to socialise with more than one other person, like going on a hike together, even though we were outside. Although, maybe not nervous as such, they were just very aware of what that risk entailed. Some people had spent the best part of the last 12 months with either just their flatmates or themselves.’

Katie went out for dinner with a friend when restaurants opened back up not long after she’d got back. She said: ‘It was the first time my friend had been out since the pandemic began, and I thought to myself ‘holy fuck’, that’s insane. Over a year without going out to dinner. There was a nervousness to her taking off her mask when we sat down, and it made me think ‘oh my god, I get it’. I got what a massive concern it was for her, to be in a restaurant with multiple people that she doesn’t know. So for me it was a double pronged thing to learn how to be in Covid culture, as well as learning what my friends have gone through, so I can be with them as they then release that nervousness.’

One big positive for Katie to come out of Covid is that she’s been able to return to the government job she had before she moved to New Zealand, and was able to choose where she lives, as the team are now working remotely. She said: ‘I get to live in a city I love, with all of my friends and be on the [Vancouver] island which is a great match for me.’

I ask her what it’s been like returning home, Covid aside. She pauses. ‘Really, really, fucking hard.’

She pauses again, and I stay silent. For a moment I think she might cry, but she doesn’t. ‘Really, really hard. I felt so much belonging in Christchurch. But I chose to come back. I didn’t want the job and visa fight, I wanted stability so I could think about bigger things. I’ve battled with the stability of a paycheck for pretty much the last fifteen years, and I’m done with it. I’m over it.’

The transition’s been hard for her. ‘There’s been a fucktonne of grief. God, thinking back to the last interview, grief is the theme and I’m like, oh god it continues’, she laughs, putting her head in her hands. ‘Now I’ve spent eight months grieving my life in New Zealand, like anything that you love and are super grateful for. I don’t regret the move though, I’m full of hope, as I now see so much opportunity here in Canada because of my time in New Zealand. The two are intertwined forever.’

She apologises for not being specific, and I tell her no, it’s perfect. I remark that I’m just impressed she’s managed to talk about it without crying. ‘I KNOW!’ she cries, ‘me too! I’m like, ‘oh my god why haven’t I cried yet’. It’ll come T, it’ll come,’ she laughs.

I ask her how she feels now, compared to the last interview. ‘Back then, I remember feeling that this was going to shift the world. That there’d be this turning point where we all came out of Covid and it would all be different. Now, I don’t see it being such a sudden dramatic shift. I also don’t have the optimism around that anymore. Like, I do think we’re shifting, I just don’t think we’re all going to sit down and reconsider our values. I’m also a million times less scared. Not less scared of getting it – that, and the thought of how sick it can make a population, still scares me, but I was scared about things like what it might do to the world economy. Mainly though, I feel really fucking fortunate. And very, very grateful. I mean, I am still looking for that dude to bang, but, you know, on the upside we’re not in lockdown so it’s no sweat. ‘

Katie laughs and looks to her right, and notices the wine glass that’s sat untouched for the last 45 minutes. ‘I haven’t even had a sip of my wine!’ She holds it up to the screen, ‘this is still full, can you believe it. Oh god!’

She puts it back. Without taking a sip.

I laugh. ‘And you didn’t cry. Well done.’

She laughs. ‘HA! I didn’t!’

Project Ruth

‘Is this when you want a really horrible camera angle?’ Ruth laughs, looking down into the camera that shows her face and a beamed ceiling. She’s in the same kitchen as she was for our first interview, and yet again I picture her little country cottage nestled in a picture perfect Cotswold village, surrounded by rolling hills and endless green English countryside.

‘Are you wearing your pyjamas?’ she asked.

‘Yes! It’s late!’ I laugh, asking her how the last 18 months have been.

‘Do you know what? It’s been alright.There are some definite silver linings. When that first lockdown in March 2020 was called I was absolutely burnt out. Driving all over, working 80 odd hours a week, laundry mounting up and I remember thinking ‘I can’t keep going at this speed, I just can’t’ and then suddenly everyone was at home.’

Ruth decided to launch ‘Project Me’. She said: ‘When I turned 40 in 2019 there was a photograph taken of me and OK it was at a funny angle, but I looked six foot wide, it was horrible. I saw it and thought, you need to do fucking do something about that. I started running a bit during the first lockdown, and started weightlifting and boxing at the gym. I’m going to start with a food nutrition coach in January to get me into a habit.’

Working from home has taken some of the pressure off too. She said: ‘I’m quite good at closing my laptop at six o’clock now. I’m just trying to not get burnt out again and enjoying my little slice of heaven in the village.’

Although things are starting to get a bit more normal for her as a Project Manager for a software company. ‘I went to my first team meeting in nearly two years last week. Only three of us were part of the original lot before the pandemic started, everyone else was new.’

‘I’m incredibly lucky to have lots of friends throughout all this, whether I speak to them or not, I know they’re there, and I’m a big user of social media. I’ve also been dating a local chap which does help.’

A smile starts to form, and I can tell she’s dying to tell me about it. Is this the chap you’d started seeing at the end of the last interview, I ask? She giggles. ‘Oh no, there’s been about eight in the middle I’ve not told you about.’

I laugh. ‘Go on, tell me about it.’

‘So I met the new chap online just over a year ago in November 2020, and I had him round for dinner within two weeks. We laugh about it now, as he jokes about me being in such a rush, and I was like, yeah, because you meet dickheads. You have to screen fast. Chatting to someone for six weeks and really liking them only to meet and finding out they’re a bellend is disappointing.’

He lives a couple of villages away from Ruth, breaking her ‘no local’ rule. ‘If you said make a recipe for a man, that’s my recipe,’ she says smiling. ‘Six foot four, dark, bearded, 20-stone rugby player, very very direct. He makes me look like I should have a career in the peace corps. He’s what I’d say is an absolute diamond.’

Ruth says they’re very casual, and it takes him ages to make his mind up about anything. ‘We had dinner in November, and I never heard from him again until the January. I joked about him ghosting me but he just said he was busy. So we had a couple more dates but he was never particularly flirty and in the end I thought ‘this guy just wants a friend’. It was February and I’d just about given up, when he stayed round one time. I’d put him in the spare room but in the morning he came and got into bed with me, and as they say, the rest is history.’

She mocks him about it now, and still doesn’t really know whether she’s his girlfriend or not. ‘He knows I have no intention of ever marrying, or moving in with anyone ever again. As I told him the other day, I’m not going to buy the pig for a bit of sausage, no offence.’

‘He’s just a nice bloke. Everyone at work is laughing at me, saying ‘you’ve normally got two or three in back up’, and I tell them’ you know what, I like this one’. I’m not interested in looking at anyone else. We get on, it’s nice. I have noticed now that any lockdowns are coming to an end and it’s become,’ she uses air quotes, “cuffing season”, lots of exes are suddenly randomly dropping into my DMs. I’m like nope, off you pop.’

She met some of his friends last month. ‘I thought, this is my test. He’s ready to let his two best mates meet me. I think I passed,’ she laughs.

‘I’m under no illusions, it’s not like any sort of romantic love, it’s not thunderbolts, it’s not perfect, there will be problems but it’s nice having someone local who I can cook for and share a bottle of red with. He’s part of my life. If my life is a pie chart, he’s a chunk of it. We both agree that our lives are better with each other in them.’

Greenpeace and gourmet takeaways

‘My gosh, that is such an interesting question,’ Abi says, when I ask her how the last 18 months has been. ‘Weird. My life has never been how I planned but this, well, this is super weird.’

It’s November 2021, and Abi’s in a prolonged lockdown in Auckland. ‘It started just after my 40th birthday, at the start of a really busy period I had planned, I was going to go away every single weekend. Instead, I’ve just been sitting at home for three months. It makes your world very small. I’ve actually done quite a lot of stuff in the last 18 months, but right now it feels like all I do in my entire life is either sit at my desk in my bedroom, or lay on my bed.’

Abi changed jobs during lockdown. She says: ‘I spent a year working with Greenpeace which I loved. I got to be involved with a lot of the strategic campaign stuff, as well as basically begging for money for them which went really well. Then I got offered a new job which I started last month. I’m still getting my head around starting a job in lockdown, which is pretty crazy.’

‘Covid has made me a bit frantic to do things; to experience things and get out and about and achieve, but I haven’t really taken much time since I moved to New Zealand to actually think about what I’m doing. Although saying that, I haven’t really ever done that in my life.’

I ask Abi how she thinks the pandemic has impacted her move to New Zealand. She says: ‘Covid added a lot of smugness to my move to start with. I was like, you know what, it was shit of me to uproot my children and drag them halfway across the world but look – look how amazing life is, and we were going to concerts and having a great time while my friends in the UK and France were locked down.’ We laugh about the irony of Auckland now being in lockdown while Europe experiences relative freedom.

‘It’s probably made it quite unsettled for my children, because all of the problems of things like moving and puberty, have become the fault of New Zealand and Covid. It’s exacerbated those things massively. So my kids have really struggled, and as I have the kids 100%, when they struggle, I struggle.’ Her eyes flick down, and then back up. ‘Yeah. It’s pretty intense.’

I ask how this lockdown compares to the first. Abi says: ‘So fast, and yet so slow. The days drag out, yet all this time has just disappeared. It’s also tied up with turning 40. You’ve got to have a mid life crisis, right, otherwise have you even turned 40? So I got Botox and fillers, got really fit and planned all this stuff to do, and then I just haven’t done anything for the last three months. It’s been this really weird period of frantic doing stuff, while not really doing anything. It feels like such a waste of my life. Turning 40 feels like the end of my youth and I need to make the most of it while I can. Life’s passing me by.’

Abi doesn’t live with her partner, so bubbling up with him means she’s at least been able to leave the house. ‘It’s been really fucking boring though.’ She means the lockdown, not bubbling with her partner, ‘and depressing.’ I tell her I feel a bit guilty about being in the South Island who haven’t had the same restrictions. ‘You should,’ she laughs.

She does love a fancy takeaway though. ‘Some of my favourite restaurants have been doing meal kits, or gourmet takeaways, and I LOVE it. I’m in my pyjamas and I’m eating really good food. I really hope they continue it. I mean, they probably won’t, but still.’

Abi’s found lockdown a great example of how elastic people’s minds can be. She says: ‘People are good at accepting a new normal, while also changing their world view to fit that new normal. In Auckland, we’ve gone from ‘don’t leave your house, it’s so dangerous’, to ‘oh yeah, it’s not that bad, maybe I’ll go to the shops because I’m bored’. It just becomes this choice between a shit, really shit and hugely shit situation. I think a lot of us are going through a lot of cognitive dissonance at the moment, because there’s this reality staring us in the face, but we don’t like it.’

‘We’re just all treading water, and sometimes you’ve got to find some fins so that treading water’s a little bit more comfortable, and maybe a snorkel mask so you can at least look under the water at the pretty fish.’

Introspective action

‘WOW. So.’ Martin looks thoughtful, a small smile creeping onto his face. ‘Yeah. A lot’s changed.’ He pauses. ‘When we spoke last time, in May 2020, I was still living in my house, I was still married, I was working from home, it was sunny, and everything Covid related was a novelty.’

Fast forward to December 2021. ‘I’m now in the process of getting divorced, I’ve put in my papers to leave the RAF, I’m living in an RAF house with my dog, I’m about to go out of area in January and Covid has started to cause a division, like an extension of Brexit.’

Martin found the second UK lockdown in late 2020 really isolating. He says: ‘Just before Christmas, I wasn’t able to see anyone, and I was living by myself. Twitter became a really big thing for me. When I first joined I didn’t get it, didn’t really understand it, but once I’d got the hang of it, it soon became a social hub. I couldn’t go and see people but all of a sudden, I could have conversations with real people in real time.’

He explains something called Square Eyes. ‘During a week someone would be nominated to pick a film, and at 8pm on a Friday a group would all press play at the same time and we’d have a tweet thread with banter and comments while we all watched the film. It actually became huge for me, because it was the only time I was really talking to people outside of work. I’ve built up some amazing relationships with people on there.’

Pre-Covid, Martin had a big social network. He worked in an open plan office every day with over 20 other people, had a big group of friends at the local pub and through football, and his family. These were friends and people he’d grown up with and had known for years. He says: ‘Then we went into that first lockdown and I was restricted to just me and my family, then last year I was living by myself in a strange house in a different town, only seeing my daughter every couple of weeks. The only reason I left the house was Winston [the dog]. I felt like at times I was just by myself in a wild wood, in the middle of a bleak, bleak winter, cut off from the rest of the world. I literally just had Twitter. It was bizarre.’

‘It definitely impacted my mental health. I wasn’t enjoying work at all and made a decision to leave the RAF. I was on the cusp of promotion but I just wanted to do something else, get a job I’m passionate about.’

He started to notice the impact it was having on Maggie, his daughter. He says: ‘On Christmas Day, on the way home I asked her if she’d had a good time, and she said ‘I did Daddy, I loved it. The best bit was playing with little people.’ I suddenly got a taste for how she’d felt. As isolated as I’d felt, as an only child Maggie’s only social interactions were adults. That must have been really isolating for her as a kid. She couldn’t wait to go back to school, she loves it – it’s her only time with little people. I don’t know what the long-term affects will be. Kids are resilient, but things do leave little imprints on our make up.’

I ask Martin whether, or how, Covid contributed to these life events. He says: ‘I think they would all have happened anyway. More importantly, they needed to happen. What Covid did was make things a bit more extreme, highlighting the not-so-great things in life, like unhealthy relationships.’

Since his marriage break up, he’s done a lot of self work. He says: ‘I’ve had a lot of counselling, done a lot of meditating and read all the books. Isolation gives an opportunity to learn a lot about yourself, and I’ve certainly done that over the last 18 months. I’ve had unhealthy patterns from quite a young age and I’ve really been able to look at instances in my life where things have happened and work out my behaviour and how I was reacting to situations. I’ve learnt so much.’

Martin’s social network is much smaller now. He says: ‘I’ve looked at friendships I’ve formed and realised I put a lot of energy into the wrong friendships. I’ve learnt about attachment styles. I’ve gone from thousands of Facebook “friends” to a couple of hundred. I’ve gone from seeing friends down the pub to not going to the pub anymore. I’ve detached myself completely from my old life. Turning 40, Covid, leaving the RAF, my marriage breakdown and everything that’s happened in the last 18 months has given me the chance to strip everything right back down to me, my daughter, dog and immediate family.’

Martin sees this as a chance to start again, a blank canvas. He says: ‘The point I’m starting from has everything that’s good. I have the people who are going to stick by me, I’ve got much healthier boundaries and I’m getting a lot less triggered by people not being in alignment with me. I’ve got a better grasp of my hierarchy of needs, and have improved relationship boundaries – both mine and other peoples. It’s like I had this mess of a painting that I’ve put a load of paint thinner on, cleaned it all off and was left with a fine outline of something that now made a lot of sense to me. I’ve slowly started to expand on it and I feel like I’m getting towards building up the picture and colouring it in.’

I ask what’s next for his career, and he says: ‘I’ve booked myself onto a course to potentially become a professional coach one day. That’s my passion. The best part of the RAF was being able to mentor and help people, and it’s so rewarding to feel like you’ve had a positive impact on someone. I want more of that, and I’m in such a better position to listen to people now.’

Straight after our conversation he’s going to an Open Day to find out more about going into teaching. ‘My approach at the moment is to keep following my gut, my interests, trying things, speaking to people and seeing where it leads. It doesn’t necessarily mean I’m going to become a teacher, or a coach, but if I follow the things I’m interested in and passionate about, it might lead to something else. I’ll be surrounded by like-minded people, putting myself into areas that are aligned to me, and the more I do that, the more I might see opportunities.’

Martin says he’s in a fortunate position that he’ll have a pension from his time in the RAF. ‘I have some sort of financial security there, and that’s important to me. It’s hard for kids to get that nowadays, it’s hard for people to buy houses now.’

‘I feel like I’m taking baby steps into a new life. I’ve always looked from the inside out, for as long as I can remember, but now I’ve been looking at myself from the outside in, I have so much less baggage. I’m in such a privileged position where losing a lot over the last 18 months has provided me with the opportunity to gain so much more, and I’m happier now than I’ve ever been.’

Loss, life and muddy shoes

How’s the last 18 months been for you Dylan?


He laughs, then I laugh, but it tails off.

‘Yeah, it has been a bit crap.’ he says. ‘My best mate went into hospital with a surprise liver transplant. So that was November all through to about March, with her recuperation, and in February my Dad passed away.’

Dylan’s parents moved to New Zealand some years ago. “I always knew, one day, I’d get that call, but I was hoping it wasn’t going to be this soon. It feels too soon to have happened. That was really difficult. Well, it’s still difficult now. I can’t get out there. I get why the borders shut, and I applaud it, but at the same time it’s frustrating, because there’s no way for me to get there. I can’t see my Mum, who’s on her own. It’s my Dad, and I couldn’t even be at his funeral.’

Dylan did apply to get a special exemption to get to New Zealand from the UK, but was turned down. “Because he had already passed, they decided there was no reason for me to go over. He wasn’t dying.’ His Dad was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease at the beginning of the pandemic, which was a huge shock to them all. ‘He was such a healthy guy, had survived a baseball bat to the head in Australia, but this is what took him out, and that was the harshest thing. It was something that took away his independence, and he hated it.’

Dylan’s wife’s Grandma also passed away. ‘She had a stroke and went into a home. All through lockdown no one could really visit her, which was really hard. Kerry was going to visit her when lockdown restrictions eased, waiting the whole year, but she passed away before that could happen, so she didn’t get to see her at all.’

‘It’s just been a combo of things, and to be fair, those are the horrific parts, losing people we’re really close to, but the rest of the time’s been alright. You know, getting to finally see people again, and going away. We went to France for a mates wedding. I’ve never been to France, and it was sunny in November so I was happy! Peaks and troughs.’

Dylan turned 40 in January 2021, when the UK was in lockdown. ‘So I turned 40, which is horrible, as you know.’ I laugh. ‘I couldn’t do anything. Had all these great plans for me and my mates to go to Disneyworld in Florida, which had been planned for 10 years, but nope, that went out the window.’

Kerry asked Dylan what he wanted to do instead. ‘I told her, just want to go outside.’ He laughed. ‘It had just rained, and me and Kerry went out for a walk, and I lost my shoe in the mud.’ I asked him what he was thinking at that point. ‘Fuck my life.’ He laughed. ‘Nah, we couldn’t stop laughing. It just summed everything up. We went home and ate a whole salted caramel cake. Despite all that, it was a great day.’

Dylan’s still enjoying working from home, although he doesn’t mention whether they’re still doing the yoga he talked about in his original post which he and Kerry started doing together in place of the daily commute.

He’s also loving meeting up with friends. ‘Hugging is nice. When you haven’t hugged other people for a while, it’s really nice. ‘Oh, and going to the cinema. I’m loving that.’

I ask Dylan what he thanks he’s learnt over the last 18 months. ‘Ooh that’s tough,’ he says, staring off into the distance. There’s a pause. ‘I don’t know. Hmm.’ He looks at me. ‘Can I say I don’t know? I genuinely don’t know.’

I’m not letting him get away so easily. ‘Is there anything about yourself that you think you’ve learnt?’ I ask.

‘Yeah. I guess..I don’t deal with loss very well. I knew that, but I don’t like to dwell on it. But I guess also I’m a bit stronger than I thought I was. I’m quite an emotional person, I always have been, but I know I can just about cope. I learnt things will affect me in ways I don’t expect. Like, I haven’t felt a drive or motivation sometimes to do the things I normally would. It was like my mental state said nope, you’re not going to do anything that’s too strenuous right now, just do the basics. My brain and my body will tell me what to do.’

My 40th year – February (month #10)

February was all about time with the girls; I spent a lot of time with my friends this month. Not particularly planned, per se, it’s just how it ended up and it’s done wonders for me.

Last winter me, Emma, B and Sarah booked our spots for the Kepler Track over Waitangi weekend and promptly forgot all about it until this January. We decided to make a holiday of it and spent just over a week down South hiking, exploring, eating, drinking, dancing and laughing. And OH MY WORD it was so much fun.

Good friends are really important to me. They’re my cheerleaders, my different perspectives, my support, my positivity, and my chosen family when my actual family are in a different country.

Me and the Poet aren’t together any more, and spending a week around people who are supportive when I was feeling quite sad was super helpful. Everyone knows that shitty time after a break up, regardless of what happened, when you feel a bit crap and low and need people around who hold space for you.

Reinforcing those connections and being reminded that I’m not alone was just what I needed.

Residence Relief

Holy shit. Holy shit. Holy shit.

I stared at the email. Your application for a 2021 Resident Visa has been approved.

Holy shit.

ARRRRGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHH. My insides flipped. I looked again, just to be sure. Really? I’d been waiting so long for this I wasn’t quite sure it was real.

Oh but it was. I’m now a fricking New Zealand resident, I thought to myself.

I’m secure. The relief enveloped me.

I can go home. I cried.

I’m not tied to anything. I was elated.

I was surprised.

This application was a relatively new one, only put in two weeks before so I hadn’t been expecting to hear so soon. My original application had been in since last August, and really, it was that one that I wanted to be processed. But COVID lockdowns and changes in immigration processes had put those applications on hold with no idea of when they would be starting them up again, so I applied for a new category that had opened up for a couple of months.

I was disappointed though.

This wasn’t what I’d worked towards for the last 2 years, and it didn’t give me Permanent Residency straight away like the other one would have. Now, I still have to apply for that in another two years time, making sure I spend at least 6 months of each year in New Zealand. It’s not quite how I’d hoped, it’s not the visa or route I wanted. There’s still some hoops to jump through, and I’m tired of jumping. There’s that tinge of disappointment that, if I’m not careful, could permeate this good news and taint it. No, this is a time for celebration and looking forward. I’m a resident, it means pretty much the same thing, and at least I can get on with living life on my own terms.

My visa journey has been pretty stressful. I came over on a tourist visa, to see how my relationship with Mike went. I then applied for a partnership visa to be able to stay and work, having to evidence our short relationship with copies of messages, phone records, documents, cards, letters from witnesses, and photos, hoping to hell INZ accepted it as genuine and stable. We knew it was, but did the evidence show it?

It did.

When Mike ended the relationship, I had two choices: get another visa or leave the country. Luckily I was already working by then, but it was a stressful time to tell my (fairly new) employer I’d need another visa and could they provide pages of evidence that they hired me fairly, over and above a kiwi, as well as proving that I was doing a skilled job that met all the criteria of a particular job classification code. Then it was a tense wait to see if it was accepted.

It was.

That visa had no path to residency (unlike the partnership visa) so I had to accept the reality that I’d never be able to stay in New Zealand long term, which was something I’d just started to think about. I didn’t have enough points for the usual skilled migrant residency pathway, and there were no other visa categories that I could apply for. It felt like something had been offered on a plate, and then cruelly snatched away. I’d started to build a life which I knew wouldn’t last that long. Nevertheless, I decided to embrace the adventure and see what happened.

So I did.

There was a visa category that granted work to residence visas for people working in skilled jobs like mine for employers who were ‘accredited’, but my employer wasn’t on the list. I kept asking if they would consider it, but the answer was always no. After about a year our new parent company said they wanted the company to be accredited, and so it was game on. I was so excited I could’ve burst, and completed the company’s application for them to push it through as quickly as I could. Again, a nail biting wait followed to see if all the evidence was enough.

It was.

As soon as it was accepted, I changed my visa and began the two year wait, as I had to hold that visa for two years before I could apply for residency, which was then normally granted within a few months. About a year into being on that visa they changed the rules, and all of a sudden the wait times for residency being granted were getting on for two years instead of a few months. An additional two years. My heart sank. Two years of having to stay on the same visa and therefore the same conditions, the same type of job, with no ability to change or be spontaneous. It was killing me.

You see, work visas are tied to your employer and job, so you can’t just decide to work in another job (or even change role within the same company) unless you request a variation – effectively applying for a new visa each time. You can’t be unemployed, you can’t work for anyone else on the side, you can’t study and with the accredited employer visa, you can’t work for any employers who aren’t accredited. You also have to earn above a certain salary range and work full time (after working 4 days a week part time in the UK this was difficult to go back to!). You also can’t buy property, get an employer-contributed pension and a heap of other stuff. You’re just temporary.

The only way to speed up that two year backlog was to earn $ over a higher salary threshold, which at that point I wasn’t. I had 8 months to find a new job and a pay rise otherwise I was still stuck with restrictions for another two years. I also needed to change my job because it was slowly destroying my mental health. Not being able to take any extended time off or quit a toxic environment to have a break because you’d have to leave the country if you do is an incredible pressure. It was also the time when New Zealand had closed it’s borders to anyone who wasn’t a NZ citizen or resident, so I was pretty much trapped here – if I left, I couldn’t get back in.

I got the new job.

A great company, over that salary threshold and all I had to do was wait until August to apply. To get through those months while incredibly burnt out and fragile, my main thought was that when I was a resident, perhaps I could take a break and have some time off to recover, because I was hanging on by a thread at this point. Only August came and Delta shut down Auckland, and with it, the immigration team that dealt with my type of visa applications. That priority I worked so hard to get by getting the new job was pretty redundant, as they weren’t processing any applications.

I broke down at that point.

It’s OK, I thought, they’ll just start again when out of lockdown, and it’ll just be a few weeks. But lockdown kept going. Immigration NZ didn’t have any business continuity plans for these applications to continue, so the backlog kept growing and there was no end in sight. Again, something had been offered to me on a plate and then cruelly snatched away.

To add, every visa needs a medical check. Nervous waits while getting blood taken, being prodded and poked, and x-rayed. Oh god what if they find some terrible disease I don’t know I have? Police checks from all the countries you’ve lived in. Oh god, what if I have some terrible crime on my record I don’t know about?

A new resident visa category was announced. ‘Everyone should apply for this one! It will be quicker!’

But it costs more, and we don’t get Permanent Residency (a perk of the accredited employer visa), surely that’s unfair? we said.

‘You should apply for the new one! It will be quicker!’

When will the old ones be processed? So we can make an informed decision? we asked.

‘No idea! Everyone should apply for the new one! It will be quicker!’

Still to this day, no one at Immigration NZ has acknowledged the loss of the PR perk for a group of people.

It’s surreal. When you’ve been waiting for something for so long, you wonder whether it’ll ever happen because it seems so out of reach. You daren’t dream, because it might jinx it, or you get frustrated. And then – boom – it happens and it’s like ‘oh! I can do all that now.’ And then you freeze. ‘Oh, no, I’m not sure I’m quite ready yet thanks.’

I acknowledge I’m incredibly privileged to have even been able to take this path in the first place. I come from an English-speaking country, one that already has ties to New Zealand (colonisation is a different topic however), working in a professional job. I don’t come from a country where it’d be dangerous or horrific to be sent back. I’m not supporting a family who are relying on me to get a better life. I’m one of the ‘easy’ ones. Please spare a thought for the millions of people across the world in those positions and try to imagine how difficult it must be for them.

I’m so determined to make the most of this opportunity. Within hours I’d set the ball rolling for Kiwisaver (NZ employer pension scheme that I hadn’t been able to join, missing out on all those $ contributions from my employers), even though the actual visa hadn’t been issued at that point. I’ve emailed a couple of contacts about some potential freelance writing work. I’ve spoken to my boss about some potential small changes at work.

I’m not stepping onto a completely different path; last year I thought I would, but I was chronically burnt out. I’m well on the way to recovery from that, and right now I’m doing really well, so I’m staying put for a bit. I’m just enjoying having freedom and choice. I can live life how I really want to.

Holy SHIT it feels so good.

My 40th year – January (month #9)

January was pretty hectic, and given I was away for half of it, I was wondering what activity I could do to nurture and support myself this month. Time ran away with me in the end, and I didn’t really do anything specific. But, I did move house which turned out to have way more of a positive impact than I expected.

Since getting divorced ten years ago I’ve not lived in a house that I’ve owned, and haven’t stayed in the same place for that long. I’ve rented houses or flats, lived or stayed with family/friends and rented rooms. I’ve loved the temporary nature of it, and relish the change in scenery and environment. But I also LOVE living by myself, and being surrounded by my own stuff.

I moved into my last flat in July 2019, after months of flatting with strangers or in furnished places. I’d decided I’d be in New Zealand for a while as I was committed to a work visa that’d give me residency after a couple of years, and so wanted my own place with my own furniture to feel a bit more settled, and more at home. After living out in the hills, I chose the city centre for a change, and to feel a bit more connected and able to walk to places rather than get in my car.

I LOVED that flat, it was a one bedroom, upside down quirky little place. Not very big but full of character with a great view over the river and huge windows; ideal for people-watching. Living alone, it was great to feel surrounded by people but still have my own space. It was there I started to build my life properly, like I was used to in the UK; living life on my own terms, by myself, surrounded with things I’d chosen, making friends and just making the most of being where I was.

But after 2.5 years, as my lease was coming to an end, I’d got itchy feet. I was ready for a change. The flat was pretty noisy facing out onto the street in the city centre, and didn’t get any sun, which I’d come to realise was a big thing for me (and in NZ, where sun is a primary source of heating for much of the year). It was feeling small even though I don’t have a lot of stuff, and I’ve felt a shift in my life over the last 6 months to step away from being in the middle of everything. Giant windows facing out to the outside world and opposite other flats that once felt comforting now felt intrusive, and I longed for some privacy.

But I love the location. Right in the centre of the city, surrounded by trees and close to the park. Walking distance to work. I didn’t want to move too far, and decent flats in the area just don’t come up that often. Luckily for me another flat in the same building (there’s 5 units) was being renovated. Being at the other end of the building, it’s north facing and so would get all the sun, all day, as well as being quieter, as it’s away from the road. Two bedrooms and no garage meant more space.

I made friends with Terry the builder and got him to give me some sneak peeks while it was being renovated, and before it was finished I got in touch with the letting agent to ask them if I could switch flats when it was ready. After a lot of email wrangling, lengthy discussions about rent and lease dates, inconvenient Christmas holidays and my impatience, I finally moved in the week I got back from holiday. It’s the easiest house move I’ve done; carrying my stuff 20 metres down an alleyway.

From the moment I got my keys I’ve been in love with it. I can’t really explain it, or put my finger on any specific thing of why that is, I just feel so content there. It’s bigger, full of sun and feels like home. I went out and bought a big yellow chair which makes me smile every time I see it. I feel so much joy every time I open the door.

It’s the start of a new chapter, one where I don’t know how the story will unfold, but I know my mindset has shifted. I feel an inner calm I’ve not felt for a long time, and a real desire to just stop and nest for a little while, and this new flat is the perfect place for me to do it.