[music|The Shirelles – Will You Love Me Tomorrow]

On my very first night back in New Zealand I was approached, at a bar, by a bull of a man. He was a boisterous Maori bloke and asked, for no particular reason, if he could buy me a drink. I was there with friends and declined the kind offer but neither him nor I had piqued the bar tender’s attentions yet so we continued standing there, next to each other, while we waited to place our order.

He didn’t even ask about my accent; he knew I was a foreigner, and he immediately began welcoming me to the country. ‘Do you know about the breath of life?’ he said.

I had seen it performed but never knew its name: the Hongi, the traditional Maori greeting, constituting of the touching of noses and foreheads. Western culture writes it off as akin to a handshake, but its meaning goes much deeper than the sly contest of strength that seals a deal or asserts a first impression of dominance.

The greeters are meant to share a close space to experience something together. Each inhales simultaneously, drawing nourishment from the same air, and breathes back into it their own life force, replenishing one another and refreshing the ancient energies that make up the very universe and always have. We Are All One, the Hongi says, and I cherish you as I cherish myself because you are me and I am you.

We performed the breath of life then, the Maori man and I, and the calamity of the bar around us fell away for a moment to a smaller, quieter plane of existence.

‘Welcome to New Zealand,’ he said. ‘We’re happy to have you here.’

…And just like that, I’m preparing to leave once again. Sweet New Zealand, my second home and safe harbor, where, ten years ago, I first found myself, and, two months ago, I began to heal myself.

It never gets easier to leave this place, and each time I do, a larger part of my heart gets left behind. But in its place, I carry a larger part of the special energy here, and it flows more deeply within me, my small peace to keep.

I exhale what once was myself and breathe in the beauty of Aotearoa. I am New Zealand and New Zealand is me.