Once the conference began, I was surrounded by like-minded professionals, everyone eager to learn and share. In order to earn my keep, I was slotted to present three times on three topics, the first a workshop on play techniques to use with angry or withdrawn children. The audience was receptive and participants volunteered readily to assist me in demonstrating several activities. They shared what made them angry, hurled wet toilet paper at a paper target, and erupted a play dough volcano with glee.
The second workshop brought together a smaller group of about 20 to discuss the pros and cons of the use of technology in play with hospitalized children. We confessed our vulnerability to the seduction of iPads, as we explored the benefits of going back to the basics, the use of self in play. My last presentation was the closing keynote of the 4-day conference. Using a formal PowerPoint format, I gave an adapted version of the talk I’d given in Denver almost a year before. I lay out my theory about the use of loose parts in helping children make meaning out of their medical experiences. Loose parts are open-ended found objects in nature and in the home, anything from discarded toilet paper rolls to string to cotton balls. When a child can represent his treatment or diagnosis in three-dimensional form using loose parts, with the caring support of an adult, the emotional healing that occurs can be profound.
Teaching wasn’t my only role at the conference. I was an avid learner, soaking up the expertise of those around me. The other presenters taught me some valuable lessons. I learned the art of connecting to a wide audience by sharing personal context. In New Zealand, every presentation begins with photos representing “my land, my water, and my people.” I think that is why at the end of the keynote, I risked going off script to share how I had created meaning for myself in the past year of cancer treatment. Not only did I receive a standing ovation, but the audience broke into a spontaneous verse of Katy Perry’s “Roar” in my honor.
Every morning session began with a prayer sung in the native New Zealand tongue of Maori. And the conference coordinator presented each speaker with a thank you gift at the end of their presentation. A feeling of warmth and generosity pervaded the entire weekend. I thought about how the Kiwi hospitality demonstrated that professionalism and kindness need not be mutually exclusive.
In between workshops, I toured play programs in two hospitals. I met with play specialists to discuss their challenges in building an academic and certification program in New Zealand. There are many routes to becoming a trained professional in our field, and more than one title to describe what we do. Whether we call ourselves child life specialists or hospital play specialists, whether we have undergraduate training in education or a Masters in Child Life, we are all helping children live better lives through mitigating medical trauma. I recognized that the way we do things in the United States might not be the best way for other countries to operate. We do not know everything.
True to my parents’ predictions, I did enjoy myself. I wrote in my journal, slept deeply, and eagerly took in the new sights, people, accents, and food. But despite enjoying these aspects of Auckland and the conference, I still fought fatigue, severe separation anxiety, and homesickness. It was the first thing I thought of as I awoke in the morning or entered my hotel room at the end of the day. I wrestled with fears about driving alone to Lang’s Beach and getting into a car accident on unfamiliar left side driving roads. I obsessed over the unknown of what I would do to occupy my time during the third week on the South Island. I imagined that I would feel profoundly and painfully alone.
Just as I’d feared, I found myself tearful, my emotions riding precariously close to the surface during many of my conversations with colleagues. Horrendous shame besieged me. I cared so much about what everyone thought of me. I didn’t want any of them to see me cry. I wanted them to see me as competent, not as a sniveling baby. And there was that saboteur voice again, attributing disgrace to what Leah had told me were very normal emotions for a newly hatched cancer survivor. I would tell any student or friend that crying is often a sign of health and strength, rather than weakness. But here I was, unable to follow my own advice. I feared that my peers would see me as unstable and unprofessional. I tried to hide my feelings and put on a brave face.
The fact that I didn’t have Wi-Fi in my hotel room exacerbated the whole situation. I could only Skype with Mark in the hotel lobby. I spent most of our conversations fighting back tears, not wanting to cry in public. But this took its toll on me. The more I shoved down my feelings, the more anxious and unregulated I became. The 5th day in, I finally thought, “Damn the cost!” and called Mark on the phone from my room, sobbing deeply.
“I don’t think I can make it through these three weeks alone,” I said. “I want to change my plane ticket and come home now.”
He listened until my tears and ragged breathing slowed. He told me that of course, he could help me change my ticket.
“But you are so upset right now,” he said. “I don’t think you should make this decision until you calm down. Why don’t you wait until you get to the next leg of your trip and make your mind up then?”
I planned to spend the upcoming week alone at Marianne’s beach house. I followed Mark’s sage advice and the next afternoon, with Marianne guiding the way, I drove the two hours of winding roads—on the left-hand side of the road—to the house on Lang’s Beach. I did not crash the car.
One look at the view from the house and I knew that I could not toss aside this gift by running back home. The building was a modern, cement, glass and steel two-story structure, a deck running along the entire second floor. The living room, kitchen and bedrooms all had floor to ceiling glass doors and windows, creating a glorious sensation of expansion and light. Their approach to decorating was minimalist, and the home had a clean and open feel. I stepped out onto the deck and looked out on the ocean.
The house stood at the base of a hill just across the street from a beach cove. Sea birds swam in a tidal pool close to the road. White sand led from the tidal pool down to glistening turquoise water, gentle waves lapping the shoreline. In the distance, small volcanic islands dotted the seascape. There was one thing missing from the view – people. The beach was largely empty, with the New Zealand summer on the wane and autumn approaching. Even though the air was a pleasant 75 degrees, summer beachgoers were already back in the city getting ready for work and school. I had hit the jackpot. I would stay for the duration of the week, the lure of the beach outweighing my trepidation about being alone.