Before I left Papamoa to spend the holidays in Fiji, my friend Paula jokingly reminded me what happens in the movies when people try to escape Christmas - disaster.
One example: Christmas with the Kranks. My favourite scene is when Tim Allen's character, Luther, tries to prepare himself for a Christmas cruise with his wife, played by Jamie Lee Curtis. Face frozen with Botox and shellacked orange by spray tanner, Luther explains his procedure while fruit cocktail dribbles from his mouth.
"...And then, all your wrinkles are gone..."
Visiting the tropics during Cyclone Sarai provided its own set of wrinkles. The category two storm-battered parts of Fiji just after Christmas for three days, demolishing homes, downing trees, causing flooding and cutting power and water to some areas while winds gusted up to 170km/h. At one point, more than 1600 people were evacuated. Two people died. We watched local news coverage to learn how bad the situation might get. My teens asked, "Why did you bring us here during cyclone season?"
Because my theme for Christmas 2019 was escape. Though you can't escape weather, misfortune or yourself.
Even during Sarai's worst, we were lucky - ensconced at a resort in the Coral Coast equipped to handle Mother Nature's mayhem. We always had running water. Power cut out for 10 minutes before returning. The only visible damage was downed palm fronds. Pools were closed at least part of the day during Sarai and the beachfront restaurant was shuttered for two days. Housekeeping service paused. Poor us. We were safe, well-fed and still had WiFi. I spent afternoons curled on a lounge chair in a covered area near the pool, listening to rain while finishing my second book of the trip. Had we stayed on an outer island, this story could've been quite different.
We live a series of "choose your own adventures" with a generous dollop of chaos whisked in. If you zig one way, Situation A happens. Zag the other, you get Situation B.
"Life changes in the instant," wrote Joan Didion.
Take this trip and disaster happens. Or not. Book that flight and skies are clear. Or not. Even choosing not to spin the roulette wheel helps determine your path. Just when you think you've sussed out a particular person or event, they change, it changes, you change.
Embracing change is easy when you're spinning the wheel. It can feel monstrously tough when fate rips the wheel from the board and throws it into the void.
My prognostication skills are crap, but I will predict this for 2020: things will change: your work, relationships, living arrangements, whether you travel and how you land; your health, the political landscape.
What I do know is 2020 doesn't have to be "your year". That's a lot of pressure on the next 11 and-a-half months. Maybe you'll land a better job. Maybe not. Maybe you'll find or rekindle love. Maybe not. Maybe you'll get into the best shape of your life. Maybe not. Maybe your children will appreciate you more. Probably not. Not yet, anyways.
The past year brought us face-to-face with wrong place/wrong time morbidity and mortality. Christchurch. White Island. Earlier this week near my hometown, two skiers were killed and five rescued at a resort in North Idaho, USA, after an avalanche trapped people skiing in-bounds.
It's a place my children and I have skied and loved. Wrong place, wrong time happens everywhere. It doesn't mean we stop shushing down the slopes or walking backcountry trails. We don't stop driving or riding in cars, which is the most dangerous thing any of us do each day.
A year feels like a large expanse of time, as broad and vast as the Sahara. It's also like a drip in the ocean, absorbed into the ebb and flow of the Pacific so quickly that months or years later, many of life's details will have eroded like sand cliffs.
I set off in late 2010 from Spokane, Washington, to circle the globe with my then 4 and 6-year-old children.
"Are you sure you can handle a year of travel with them?" asked friends and family. I told them no, I wasn't sure. But I was pretty certain I could plan one week at a time, knowing we could always boomerang back.
Our trio was gone for about 18 months before we returned, temporarily, to our former home. We had not swallowed time whole like a python devouring prey, but nibbled change incrementally, like a mouse - week by week; lesson by lesson; form by form that would eventually allow us to stay in our new place, New Zealand. I didn't know what 2010 and subsequent years would bring.
My friend, Martin recently wrote me, "If, when we were young, someone showed us the book that contained the complete story of our lives, we'd never believe that it was telling us the truth. They are amazing, wonderful, and grief-filled, the places that life takes us."
For most people, 2020 will be neither smashing success nor abject failure, but something in-between. Some days, we'll bask in sunshine and stillness. Others, we'll huddle inside while a downpour rat-a-tats the roof, moods as muddled as the weather. Some of us will shake it off to walk, run and dance in the rain.
My teens and I visited a Fijian village along the Sigatoka River on our holiday trip - a town of 200 people where children and skinny dogs roamed free and beds were cushions placed on cement floors. We saw a single toilet and learned electricity had arrived 15 years ago, but WiFi was still an hour's drive away. Lack of the last utility is something my kids shudder to think about, saying they don't know how anyone lives without constant connection. We ate cassava, eggplant and chicken sitting cross-legged on the floor and danced with villagers after lunch as men strummed guitars and ukuleles.
Whether fate has dealt those villagers or any of us a bad hand is a matter of perspective. Will we be happy and healthy in 2020? No idea. But I'll try to marinate in both states of being for the next week. That's about as much as I can swallow this instant.