Orama volunteer: 26th December 2000—25th March 2001
It was always in my mind to write a novel. The idea of the thing had been bubbling away in my head for seven years already, but it was at Orama that I first set down its title and began to write. Little did I know it would take seven more years to finish. During my three-month volunteer stint I made beds, cooked lunches, scrubbed toilets—and wrote. My university days were over and my career not yet begun: it was a crossroads in many ways.
Each day as I worked and went my way among the valley’s buildings, the hills would call to me. Come away, they said, taste our air and be changed. As often as I could, I climbed up through the almost-vertical northern cow paddocks and toiled along the steep ridge with the manuka to one side, skinny branches clattering above me in the ever-blowing wind. At the crest, instead of continuing down the track to the next bay, I turned right into the wilderness and clambered a little farther amongst thinning bush and encroaching gorse. A couple more minutes brought me to an outcropping of rock that rests on the apex between the two valleys. There I would sit with my big notebook and sometimes my Saturday sandwiches, my back against the sun-warmed stone, my face towards the west and the scattering of islands where the rabid city hides just beyond the horizon.
The first time I opened the cover of my book, I wrote its title in capitals at the top of the page: FAITH AWAKENED. Before ever another word existed, I knew that would be its name. It isn’t entirely what it seems—Faith is a main character, and Awakened is what a group of future believers call themselves. There’s more to it than that, but I won’t spoil the story for you!
I did my daily rounds of cleaning—main building and flats and communal areas, Pines and Shady Heights and Seaside and Hillside. For a time I was put in charge of rosters and sent others to do various things. The story was always growing within me, whatever I did—epic jam sessions, legendary sunsets, night swims, phosphorescent tides, and preparing for the more or less constant stream of visitors. Once an entire film crew came to stay, and we dollied up all the old cabins with our best bedding for them, on both sides of the valley.
Inevitably, the spirit of Orama found its way into the story I was penning in between all this—disguised, yes, and transplanted into another part of the globe. But those who know her will recognise her if they realise what they are reading. Although my time there coincided with the absence of Orama’s leading lights, I was gladdened on later return visits to see they knew me anyway, from my application papers no doubt. I have a notoriously terrible memory for names, but I can still see the faces of the folks I worked with, here in my mind’s eye.
I’ve written several other books since then, but Orama is where the first was born. As I set out on that journey, the “Orama effect” took hold in my writing: an intense, active, almost forced stopping to listen to the wind, the sea, the heartbeat of community, and the whispers of mystic inspiration. It is my hope to do justice to its expression as I continue to set words one after another, end to end in a calling that came to me early, but sprouted in a place that will always be precious to my soul.
More pictures and info about Orama Christian Community, Aotea (Great Barrier Island), New Zealand: