94: First Sheep!

94: First Sheep!

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Time to Thrive

First Sheep!

Rejoice with your family in the beautiful land of life!

~Albert Einstein

It was early morning, still pitch-black outside. Despite being exhausted and hoping to sleep in, we had already been awake for a while. Jetlag can be brutal, especially on a long winter night.

Jonah, our ten-year-old, sat bundled up in fleece pajamas and warm wool blankets. His nose was pressed right up against the inside of the large, cold, damp window — eyes wide open, trying not to even blink. He was waiting patiently, resolutely, for the first sign of sunrise — straining to see the first sheep.

We knew they were out there. Even if we hadn’t seen the flock yesterday morning, it would have been a safe bet that there were some nearby. New Zealand boasts a sheep population of about forty million.

“That’s more sheep than people!” my husband Geno reminded our boys daily.

This two-night rental cottage was surrounded by rolling green hills and vast quantities of lush farmland. We’d arrived after dark on the first night so Geno, the first one out of bed the following morning, had caught us all off guard when he exclaimed, “First sheep!” as the sun’s rays woke us, presenting the sheep grazing in the idyllic countryside.

Jonah had been flustered, proclaiming in adamant frustration, “That’s not fair!” So on the second morning he was determined to get first-sheep for the day.

I’m not exactly sure how the first-sheep game started, but we’d been playing it since we’d arrived in New Zealand. Traveling via car each day, staying somewhere new almost every night, searching for and calling out “first sheep” had become a favorite pastime.

Each first-sheep was rewarded with a point. Points were cumulative for the trip and Geno was currently in the lead, with Jonah a close second. I was third, though to be fair I’d had much more success in the first-cow game — which, to my chagrin, nobody else seemed to want to play.

Joshua, our thirteen-year-old and fourth participant, claimed disinterest in the game as soon as it became clear that he wasn’t going to win. He was the only one of us still sound asleep in bed.

It was cold, cold, cold. The house was heated by a mere three space heaters — one for each bedroom and one for the living area. Geno had already turned on the toaster oven, leaving its little door open in a last-ditch attempt to heat up the kitchen.

In a couple of hours, we’d be on the road again — on our way to see the glaciers farther south. We’d also see plenty of sheep today, of course, but the first of those would be right here from the windows of this cottage.

Jonah eventually got that day’s first-sheep and we all enjoyed another spectacular rural sunrise.

The first-sheep game grew even sillier as our trip went on. It evolved, as new games are prone to do, particularly in the hands of competitive people. Many other animals were added. First-sheep, then first-cow, first-horse, first-bison, first-chicken, first-deer, first-goose, first-dog and even first-penguin. No animal escaped our attention.

We laughed as each new animal was spotted — arguing over whether that particular animal officially “counted.” Typically, whoever spotted the new animal argued that it did. Everyone else was firmly opposed to that animal’s inclusion in the game. There were usually protests and an attitude of forced outrage.

We drove hundreds of miles over the course of two weeks. We saw many, many sheep, along with plenty of other breathtaking slices of nature — the stunning lakes, the rivers, the mountains, the countryside, the coastlines. We visited national parks, hiked, took photos, went for boating excursions, built snowmen, ate fish and chips, and skied. We spent some amazing family time together.

No stress, no pressure, just fun. Just love. Just us.

This was a pretty drastic change from our lives in the Northern Hemisphere. We’d left home on the first day of summer vacation, traveling directly away from the pressures of work and school overload, sports schedules, housework, errands and never enough time for the four of us to simply enjoy being together.

After a couple of long flights, we arrived in New Zealand’s winter with suitcases full of fleece, down, and wool. We rented a car and began following our vague notion of an itinerary that would — hopefully — place us back in Auckland on time for our flights back home.

As the first-sheep game attests, we like to “win” in our family. I was raised with an anything-that-is-worth-doing-is-worth-doing-well ethic, and my husband is one of life’s overachievers. I suppose it isn’t shocking that our kids have learned our competitive behaviors. We generally expect them to perform to the best of their abilities — and, because they are capable, bright kids, our expectations are high. When they were little, we never, ever let them beat us at board games unless it was legit, nor are we fans of youth sports teams with an everyone-gets-a-trophy mentality. I want my kids to work hard, to compete, and to earn their achievements.

Reflecting back on our time in New Zealand, what strikes me most is the realization of how soon our kids will be grown, that life is insanely short, that it is all happening right now — this minute. It is so easy to get sucked into the day-to-day of work, school, sports, errands, housework, family obligations, and a million other tasks. Sometimes, we need to step outside of our daily circumstances to experience life’s deeper meanings.

I wonder if my boys will enjoy traveling with us in the future? Will we all be healthy enough to hike through gorgeous national parks? Will we maintain the financial resources to take these extended, exotic vacations? Will we always love each other, and enjoy being together, the way we do now?

Sometimes, you need to make time for randomness. On the last day of vacation, as we were driving toward the airport, Geno shouted out with absolute jubilation, “Llama! First llama!”

I didn’t actually see the llama, which seemed like the most unlikely animal possible. Jonah vaguely agreed that he saw “something,” and Joshua was laughing too hard to give his opinion. Although I honestly don’t think Geno could have made that up, that doesn’t stop me from giving him a hard time every time he mentions this particular victory — which is more often than you’d expect.

So I usually say something like, “Whatever. I won first-cow!”

“That doesn’t count,” he’ll respond.

“It counts more than first-llama!”

“No, it doesn’t. There’s only first-sheep and first-llama.”

“I don’t think you even saw a llama!”

If the kids are around, they’ll light up and jump into the conversation. In the end, we are all laughing.

Although New Zealand may have done nothing for my competitive nature, I do know that the thousands of miles (and thousands of sheep!) of our adventures certainly offered a new perspective on the importance of enjoying my family every day, not just on vacation days.

Nonetheless, I’m still looking forward to our next big trip. Ireland? Brazil? Alaska? Wherever we go, I’m totally claiming first-unicorn. I can already hear my family’s lively laughter.

~Lisa Pawlak

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