25 Aug “Lockdown II – The Resurgence” and Self-Care

“Lockdown II – The Resurgence” is, in many ways, a tougher watch than the debut series. I easily recognise the lead characters, Grief (for pre-Covid life) and Anxiety (about future life) but I feel like I’m not seeing enough of my favourite early players. Like, where is Teddy-Bear-In-The-Window? I liked her a lot. Plus, the first series finale tied up all the loose ends in a pretty satisfying way and I was keen to think that was the end of it.

 

Binge watching this second series is a new kind of exhausting, and I’m having to work harder to look after myself – no more Covid-19 Drinking Games at three in the afternoon for starters. In case it helps anyone else, this is the stuff I’m doing now to dial down my anxiety, and to make me feel safe. Lots of it will be specific to me, but it might resonate with you. Almost none of it costs money, and most of it can be done at Level 3 Lockdown.

 

Scroll down to the list of Small & Specific Things That Make Me Happy and Calm My Mind if you want, or you can stay here to see how I worked this stuff out.

 

I did a useful thing a couple of years ago. On holiday at the beginning of 2018 with no distractions, I sat on a beach and made a list of all the things that had made me happy in 2017. This was after I had spent the whole of the previous day writing down all the things that had made me unhappy that year. My father died in January 2017, and my grandson was born in December 2017, and in between those bookends it was a pretty eventful time.

 

So I ended up with two lists in a notebook: “Traumas 2017” and “Joys 2017”. Writing stuff down is one of the things that works for me – instead of feelings and vague ideas and worries floating around in my head, writing them down pins them to a page and makes them look and feel more manageable. Originally, I had planned to burn the pages of “Traumas” in a ceremonial way (“Burn it all down!”) but decided not to because, as time goes by, that list of things feels further away from me… And it reminds me that big and terrible things become smaller and less terrible eventually.

 

Also, because I spent a whole day writing down everything I could think of – big and small – some of the things that ended up on the “traumas” list sounded almost amusing when you read them side by side.

  • “Breast cyst – waiting for my biopsy results.”
  • “Satchmo catches a Tui.”

 

Writing down the list of traumas put some of them in their place and gave them perspective. It was also weirdly comforting that reading some of the others made it clear that it had, objectively, been a fucking year.

  • “Withdrawing medical intervention for Dad and feeling like we were killing him”
  • “The night my mother thought she was dying in her flat downstairs and she called an ambulance but not me. Paramedics arrived at our house. Woke up to hear a man’s voice coming from her bedroom, thought it was a home invasion.”
  • “Holly goes into labour too soon.”

 

Bloody hell. So after a day of recording that list, writing the List of Joys the next day was, in and of itself, an exercise in self-care. It made me remember and savour all the good things that had also happened in 2017 – Disneyland, New Orleans, dinners with friends, things I had been proud of writing, stuff I had achieved round the house (“New roof, fixed deck”), reconnecting with my high school English teacher, singing in the car with my three-year-old granddaughter, favourite gigs, things I’d learned… I got really specific with it, and made myself remember all the times I had been happy.

 

Then I looked for the patterns in the list of things that had brought me joy and came up with:

  • People
  • Places
  • Writing
  • Gigs
  • Moments of Stillness

 

And it felt like those are the places joy comes from for me, and that these are the things I should consciously think about putting into my life. Make appointments to see people, plan to visit the places where I feel the most like myself, write about the things that make a noise in my head, say yes to as many gigs as I can because some of them will be spectacular and you don’t know which ones until you have done them, and carve out some time just for me.

 

I put a post-it on my office wall with those 5 things to remind me. I also made another post-it of the filters I use to decide if I am going to do something, so that when an email arrives asking me to spend time on something, I can look up from my screen and check to see if it fits. My “is it worth my time” filter (in no particular order) is:

  • Mortgage
  • Creativity
  • Feed my soul
  • Whānau

 

I made a third post-it of the people I like to spend time with because they uplift me, people who make me feel light and happy, better after I’ve seen them than I did before. There are more than a dozen names on that post-it, and the goal is to make sure that, in any given week, I see at least one of them.

 

Covid-19 has temporarily fucked some of that – seeing people in real life, travel and gigs, and I lost my regular writing job even before this all happened. So that’s a problem now, an extra challenge, but I am trying to find work-arounds. I have set up a couple of group Messenger chats with people from the post-it so we can talk – every day if we want, about nothing or everything. And I am planning local travel, and beginning to write for no good reason and no money, just for the sake of writing…

 

Big Hot Tip: Whenever I feel happy, I write down what it is that has made me happy. Some of it is surprising – like, if I hadn’t written it down, I wouldn’t know that “tidying out a drawer” is a source of joy for me, and calming. Then when I am anxious or flat or filled with dread or lost or lonely, I have a look at this list and see if there is a thing on it that I can do to lift my spirits. So it becomes like a shopping list of things I can go and get when my cupboard feels empty.

 

Caveat: Everyone’s experience of lockdown is different – we are a team of five million, but the field we play on isn’t level. I don’t have small children in my bubble to educate and entertain, so finding time to myself is easier. I also don’t have a job that I am trying to do from home. While my income has almost entirely disappeared, I have been able to access the Government Wage Subsidy, plus pre-Covid I earned a decent living and wasn’t living from pay-day-to-pay-day, so there has been a buffer. My stressors are that I can’t see my daughter and grandchildren at Level 3, and I don’t have enough work and I don’t know when or if that will change. Like I say, grief for my old life, and anxiety about where I might fit in a post-Covid world. But even though your stressors may be different, there might be some things on this list that work for you.

 

Here is my crazy random list of:

Small & Specific Things That Make Me Happy and Calm My Mind:

 

  • “Tidy” something like a drawer (go through my socks and undies, or the pantry, throw out old shit) because even though I can’t manage the world, I can manage one tiny piece of it and make it make sense
  • “Clean” – anything that can offer the opportunity to stand back and notice the difference like floors and windows, or makeup brushes, or the bathroom mirror. Not necessarily the whole house, just a small bit of it if that is all I can manage. The world might be a filthy pile of shit but a corner of my house is fresh and new.
  • “Sort” through and “organise” my clothes or jewellery, put away stuff I don’t want to wear, keep out just a few things so I can look forward to wearing something lovely, and just gaze at pretty things. The world is a dumpster fire and heading in the wrong direction and I cannot understand it, and everything is ugly, but if I ever go anywhere again I have a pretty thing to wear, and how lucky am I?
  • Do something nice for someone else. Send a card or a letter or a text, telling someone else they are wonderful, that you are thinking of them, that you admire what they do.
  • Video record bedtime stories to send to my daughter so she can sit the kids down with the iPad while I read to them, and she can get five minutes’ peace.
  • Walk on the beach, listen to the waves, picture what is over the horizon, imagine what it might be like to live in one of those houses right there, watch the dogs chasing balls and imagine for a few minutes what it is like to only have to think about chasing a ball…
  • Watch a Tui fly, and imagine what it is like to only have to flap some of the time, and be able to glide effortlessly for short moments.
  • I use Headspace and do a 10 minute guided meditation whenever I feel like it, sometimes on the beach, or I drive somewhere and do it in my car. One of the best things I’ve learned from meditation is to be interested and curious about my mental state, but not judge it. “I’m really anxious today. That’s interesting. It feels like a buzzing sound, or a clamp, and look how fast my heart is, and it appears to be in my throat… Fascinating.”
  • Stare at my cat. Watching Satchmo sleep and seeing him breathe rhythmically with his little tummy going up and down makes my own breathing settle. Holding eye contact with him also, according to the scientists, releases oxytocin (the feel good hormone) in both of us. This also works with humans if you have one handy.
  • Ride the stationary bike in my office (but I have to approach it as a gentle ride, not a workout because I hate “exercise”) usually while I listen to a podcast (because my mind wants a distraction from its own noise or to feel like it is being “useful” by learning something, and I know I will stay there until the audio has finished).
  • Write a long email to a trusted friend, and experiment in the email with giving my life a narrative. Find the story I am living right now – the “what is happening” and the “how I feel about it”. This is my friend Lesley in Canada. I have known her for 50 years. She doesn’t judge me and I can tell her secrets, and I write to her to find out what I think because somewhere in my storytelling I find the truth. Or at least, begin to make sense of things.
  • Books: find the ones that either lift me out of my real life, or tell me something about my real life, or both. I read memoir and fiction right now – I immerse myself in other lives as an escape from my own, but also in the hope I can bring some wisdom back.
  • Music: Loud and fierce women are working for me just now. Give me Lizzo and Beth Hart. Turn off the news (it is very fucking repetitive) and put on Judy Garland.
  • At the end of each day: wash my face with cheap and safe face wash from the supermarket, and use organic face oils bought from a local supplier online which are relatively cheap (like $12 each) which feel great, and make me feel good. Plus aromatherapy oils in the morning and at night as a ritual. It feels like an ancient practice that women have been doing for thousands of years and makes me feel connected to them all.
  • Designate whole days for not washing or getting dressed, giving myself permission to be a sloth. Then have a day of fixing that – shave my legs if I feel like it, wash my hair, wear real clothes. Give myself permission to be a princess now and then. The contrast between sloth and princess is satisfying, and I let myself enjoy both.
  • Make a plan for something to look forward to. I am finding this challenging now because plans keep being shat on from a great height (our big overseas trip for 2020 was cancelled, our weekend getaway this month was derailed) but I am trying to accept that I should still make plans – change them if I have to, but keep making them anyway. Let the gods laugh.
  • Pick a thing to fight for. Have a campaign I believe in. Work out what I can contribute to it (often for me it is writing or speaking out loud) and do that. One fight at a time.
  • Don’t fight with people I haven’t met. On Twitter, or on Facebook. I am easily tempted into this and fuck it up all the time. But I try to only engage with people I would also let into my house. Otherwise, they don’t deserve to be invited into my head.
  • Make meatloaf: I found a recipe for meatloaf in Renée’s memoir, “These Two Hands”. Renee is a 90 year old New Zealand lesbian socialist writer. Her memoir is filled with stories about people and places that are familiar to me, and it has been the best Lockdown book. The recipe is from her mother-in-law, Ruby, so this meatloaf has been made for at least 100 years. You put everything in a bowl (mince, vegetables, spices, an egg) and smoosh it with your bare hands, and it is like a combination of playing with playdough and finger-painting – a treat of tactile goodness. And then you get to bake it and eat it. On the night I make it, I serve it with mashed potatoes, and make sandwiches with the leftovers for a couple of days. A literary meatloaf, if you will, handed down through many generations of women who got shit done, both in and out of the kitchen.
  • Love someone. Be one person’s best and most loyal friend. Make sure they feel loved every day.

 

 

 

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01 Jul End of Life Choice – Why I Am Voting “Yes” in this year’s referendum

In her final months, my mother would say that she wasn’t afraid of dying, but that she was afraid of pain. She had been traumatised – we all were – by my father’s death two years earlier. That had been long and slow, excruciating for him and almost unbearable to witness. We had all done everything we could back then – for him and for her – but there were frustrations and regrets, and wishes that things could have been gentler. Grief is a messy beast, and harder to live alongside when it comes with what-ifs and why-couldn’t-we and how-could-we-have-done-better.

 

So after her own terminal diagnosis, Donna was clear about what she most wanted for herself. It wasn’t more time – she was philosophical about reaching the end of her life even when we weren’t. What she wanted was as little pain and as much dignity as could be managed. Her life had been about graciousness and elegance, and she wanted her final chapter to match the ones that had gone before.

 

She got that, I think. I am certain if I could ask her now, my mother would use that phrase, “a good death”. We were lucky – privileged – to arrange hospital level care in a rest home, staffed with extraordinarily kind nurses and caregivers. Donna’s body was frail, but she remained sharp as a tack until her last day. I was lucky – privileged – to be able to stay right beside her to be her voice when she could no longer use her own. I channelled my mother’s assertiveness to argue, insist, make calls, seek help, call for back-up. Not everyone is able to arrange their lives to do that.

 

I felt there was a tension at times between what health professionals need to be seen to do in terms of protocols and medications, and what the patient might choose in terms of being – as my mother said – “floating through it”. The scales are tipped towards keeping someone on the planet rather than helping to ease them off it. You need a loud voice to find the balance. Not everyone can find a loud voice when they need it.

 

Death (and I know my mother would agree with this, because we talked about it many times) is one of life’s bookends. We work hard to make the other bookend – birth – as safe, as free of pain and trauma, and as welcomed as we can. That’s what the End of Life Choice Bill aims to achieve for terminal patients – an acknowledgment that when death comes, we can allow people to leave with the least pain and trauma, and the most dignity. To let them continue to have a voice, even in their final moments.

 

We have just marked one year since Donna died. You never go back to being the person you were before, but you learn to wrap the grief more gently into the person you are now. You find ways to honour them. Which is why I will be voting Yes for Compassion in this September’s referendum.

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11 May Mother’s Day In Lockdown

First broadcast on Mother’s Day – 10 May 2020 on RNZ National. Listen to it here:

https://www.rnz.co.nz/national/programmes/sunday/audio/2018745866/3mm-michele-a-court-on-mother-s-day

Or you can read it here…

 

My great-grandmother, Edith Rogers, famously disapproved of Mother’s Day. Born in 1873, she was a Captain in the Salvation Army and – by all accounts – a feminist-socialist with a warm heart and firm principles. Great-Grandma said that if you needed to set aside one day a year to celebrate your mother, you weren’t doing it right.

 

Mothers were for treasuring every day, she said – and indeed she was much adored. In her later years, before she moved in with her eldest daughter Ruth, her son-in-law Frank would drive to her house each evening with Great-Grandma’s share of their dinner, carefully plated and placed in a basket, on top of a hot water bottle to keep it warm.

 

But although we were discouraged from buying into the Hallmark consumerism, it has been our family tradition to turn the dial up a little to celebrate motherhood on mother’s day – homemade cards, breakfast in bed, maybe something a bit daft from the $2 Shop. And all of us gathering together – at least three, and more recently four generations of us under one roof.

 

This Mother’s Day in Lockdown looks very different. It will be the first one since my mother died, and while I know she would heartily disapprove of me getting maudlin, I also know that grief by-passes rational thought so I expect to be bowled over by a wave of it at some point during the day.

 

Like lots of us, my daughter and grandchildren’s Bubble is too far away for us to be with each other, so I won’t get to sniff their heads. Instead, of course, we will Zoom – which can be tremendous fun, especially when my six-year-old granddaughter, Ariana, grabs the iPad and runs with it out into the garden, giggling at her own wickedness; or when my two-year-old grandson, Nukutawhiti, smothers the screen in wet kisses.

 

The madness of Lockdown also means that I’ve tidied out some drawers and rediscovered old handmade Mother’s Day cards my daughter created over the years. I’ve taken pictures of them to send to her, to remind her of her lifetime of fabulous handcraft skills.

 

This is a shout-out to everyone who might find Mother’s Day a little tricky this year. People who can’t be with their mothers, for whatever reason. People who aren’t mothers, but wish they were. People for whom a day like this might remind them of what is missing, rather than what is there.

 

I hope that, instead, we can celebrate the mothering we all do – looking out for each other, making each other feel loved and safe, checking in, staying in touch, doing the metaphorical equivalent of plating up a share of our dinner and delivering it in basket with a hot water bottle to keep it warm. And then remembering that, like Great-Grandma Edith said, we do that every day, not just once a year.

 

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14 Apr Funny As. The Story of New Zealand Comedy – Foreword

In 2019, TVNZ screened a remarkable series on the history of New Zealand comedy. Paul Horan (the genius behind the documentary) and writer & journalist Philip Matthews produced a beautiful and comprehensive book as a companion to the series, and I was invited to write the Foreword. 

 

 

 

It’s February 2019, and we’ve just pulled into Reefton. The nice woman at the motel gives us our keys and says, hang on, she almost forgot, Daisy left this for you. There’s a plate of whitebait fritters – still warm – nestled between slices of white bread, and another plate with ginger crunch, caramel slice and banana cake. These are the signs that tell you tonight is going to be a good show. Because all you ever need is for someone to be pleased that you turned up.

 

This was show number twelve of our stand-up comedy tour of twenty-seven towns – most of them small like Reefton (population 1,206 at last count), with a few cities like Whāngārei and Whanganui thrown in. Jeremy Elwood and I had taken to the road with Arts On Tour because, even though we’ve been living together for nineteen years, our jobs as comedians and writers mean we barely get to see each other in the normal run of things. So touring can be our way of hanging out together – just us, in a car, with our manager and friend Richard Carrington, and some of the best scenery you can find anywhere in the world, plus – in the South Island at least – daily access to cheese rolls.

 

We play tiny theatres, school and community halls, the odd pub and – in this instance – the Reefton Club, where, if you want an alcoholic beverage, you have to sign in. Our audiences range in age from high school student to superannuitant. In Geraldine, the organisers were the local kindergarten committee, and in Ōpōtiki it was the community’s librarians. In Putaruru, the town’s fire siren went off and I stopped the show to make sure the local volunteer fire brigade chief sitting down the front wasn’t holding the keys to the truck.

 

The first time I played Putaruru, it was 1992 and I was heavily pregnant with my daughter. I’m a grandmother now. I still tour like this for the company, and because I love whitebait fritter sandwiches and being in a room where someone might have the keys to the fire truck, and for the joy of playing tiny theatres lovingly cared for by their people.

 

Daisy has been bringing shows like ours to Reefton for more years than anyone can remember. But she remembers I was here with other comedians in 2009 – Justine Smith and Irene Pink. Now she mentions it, I recall we’d been anxious that night because the front row was largely made up of women who looked like our nanas, and we weren’t sure how warmly they would embrace the kind of comedy we’d usually do at a Queen Street comedy club. I suggested we imagine that, rather than being someone’s nana, they were actually retired West Coast sex workers and therefore likely to be up for any kind of nonsense. Reaching back, I seem to recall that at least one of them was so delighted with us, instead of applauding at the end, she banged her walking stick up and down with tremendous vigour. Pretty sure she was sitting at Daisy’s table on this return visit.

 

It is an extraordinary thing if you let yourself think about it. Not just the madness of walking into a room full of people you’ve never met and hoping to find the things that will make them laugh. But also that on this tour, here were two city people telling their stories about gun control, pay equity, gender equality and whale strandings to a bunch of complete strangers living quite different lives in very different places, and making them laugh together, at the same time, for the same reasons. And knowing at every single second of the forty-five minutes you are standing on stage in front of them if it is working, if that joke has landed, if the idea you have in your head has made it all the way to theirs, and how it makes them feel.

 

Comedy is, I think, the most direct relationship between performer and audience. There is no one standing between you and them – no scriptwriter, no director, no prop, no costume, no gatekeeper . . . Every time they laugh, it’s like you just shared a secret with each other. And then it’s gone, and you look for the next secret you can share.

 

Live comedy mostly exists in a single moment in time – in that split second between punchline and laughter. Ask a happy punter the day after a live show which gag they liked best, or what the show was ‘about’, and it’s a rare person who can re-create any moments, unless they were taking notes. Which would be weird. Each morning when you drive out of one town and head to the next, you understand you’re not leaving anything tangible behind (apart from the odd phone charger or some cheese past its best). There’s nothing anyone can point to and say, ‘See that? There was a comedy show there just before.’

 

Which is why I am so pleased you are holding this book in your hands. Not because it has jokes in it (there are probably some jokes in it) but because it maps where comedy has been in New Zealand. My own road started with theatre, then children’s TV, then sketch and character comedy, stand-up and storytelling. Other people’s roads wind their way through music, radio, cartoons and plays. Regardless of the route any of us have taken, this book records the moments when an idea has made the journey from one mind to another at the speed of laughter. ‘See there? That’s where comedy has been, and look where it might be going next.’

 

The week after we finished our tour of twenty-seven towns, I headed to WOMAD in New Plymouth. New Zealand’s version of the World of Music and Dance festival now includes a ‘World of Words’ – novelists, non-fiction writers, poets and comedians talking about or performing their work. My plane landed on Friday 15 March at noon, a hundred minutes before the massacre at two Christchurch mosques. The Prime Minister was on our flight. She held an extraordinary press conference at our hotel, then left for Wellington and then Christchurch.

 

You have to be somewhere when the worst thing happens, and WOMAD was a good and kind place to be – its kaupapa of inclusion and its celebration of diversity is the opposite of what that atrocity represents. My show was on Sunday night, one of the last performances in the programme. You wonder if you can do it, or should do it. And then you remember that that’s exactly your job – to bring levity in a time of gravity. Hundreds of people pack themselves tightly onto the lawn in front the stage, and you talk about the thing, and how you are feeling, and then you find the stories that make them laugh.

 

Just before the show starts, someone drops by backstage and brings fresh peaches and whole walnuts, and kind words. That’s how you know it’s going to be a great show. Because all you ever need is for someone to be pleased you turned up.

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14 Apr An Unforgettable Summer – Paihia 1979

This piece was commissioned by Stuff and published 30 December 2019

 

It is the early days of 1979 and my mother and I are in Paihia. We are on the deck of a rented holiday house, a bucket of shucked oysters sitting between us, fetching them out with forks and squirting them with lemons. The oysters taste of sea and sunshine, and we are curious to know how many we can eat before we don’t want any more. Eventually, decorum makes us put the plastic tub – the size of a large paint tin – back in the fridge for a bit. Good manners always won out over greed with my mother – I would have hoovered the lot. It still occurs to me on a daily basis that I should be more like her.

 

As we sit slurping oysters in the hot, hot sun I am thinking, in that dramatic way 17-year-olds think, that I am between two lives. High school is done, and when this holiday is over I will leave the home I was born in and move to Wellington to study – a soft landing with my older brother already there, but still.

 

Now, of course, I realise that my mother was also between two lives – her nest is about to be emptied, and twenty years of dedicated mothering are reaching an end. Decades later, she would tell me that after she and my father dropped me off at my student hostel, she cried all the way home to Levin. But there’s not a whiff of that during these glorious days up north. Just us (my Dad has sailed off on a fishing trip) and our books, and wandering down to the sea where she sits or paddles a bit and watches me swim.

 

We’d bought the oysters down there on the beach from a local fisher. We’d also stopped by the bottle store for a cask of something that proclaimed itself “Dry White Wine” and didn’t bother with further details, which is how wine worked in 1970s New Zealand. Sitting in the sun with my mother, drinking wine, was evidence of the adult life I was heading towards. That I was sitting in the sun with my mother rather than on a road trip with a bunch of wild teenagers up to all kinds of nonsense was evidence of the childhood I hadn’t quite let go.

 

Paihia was new to us. Every summer, our little family would pile into the car and drive to a rented house somewhere, but this was the furthest north we’d ever been. These beaches were a revelation – I didn’t know you were allowed to have so many colours in one place, right by the water. At home, Waitārere was iron sand and tussock, shades of brown and grey. A grand spot for digging up toheroa, certainly, and for gliding on skimming boards and crashing head first into roiling dark waves – but this “up north” aesthetic of grassy lawns down to the shoreline and magnificent Pohutukawa trees leaning over the water – green, gold, red, blue – seemed to me … Exotic.

 

“It’s so exotic here,” I say to my mother between sips of cask wine and stabs at oysters and she doesn’t correct me because she knows that by “exotic” I mean “sophisticated” and “different and more glamorous than you get at home”. The wrong word entirely to describe native trees and coastline, but she decides – for both our sakes, I guess – that this holiday is not an English lesson. She smiles and agrees it is just lovely, darling.

 

A year ago she said, “They tell me I might have one last good summer”. We did our best to make it so. Picnics outdoors at the nursing home. One day, a friend from her book club brought oysters. My brother and I took her for ice creams on the beach we loved for its Pohutukawa and stretches of lawn. She left us in June, before the winter got too hard.

 

I don’t remember how many days we had in Paihia in 1979 (when each day is similarly perfect, they are hard to count) and I also don’t remember making any kind of effort to imprint an image in my memory of my mother that summer, but it is there. A yellow sun lounger, a classic bathing suit (when my mother wore them, they weren’t “togs”), her Lady Tea Planter’s Hat (a straw version of a pith helmet which would have looked ridiculous on anyone except her, though even so it was a close run thing), a book on her lap (always), and a long, thin cigar-coloured cigarette in an elegant hand (a brand which other people kept for special occasions but favoured by my mother then for everyday use). That same hand would reach out – not too often – for the white wine on the table between us, and she would sigh, and stretch, and settle back in. Long days with nothing to do, just be. This was my mother, between two lives, happy.

 

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14 Apr On Storming Out of a Florist Shop

First published in Your Weekend 6.7.19

 

I stormed out of a florist shop last week. That’s a weird place to storm out of – all those soft fragrances and cheerful colours, and me turning on my angry heels and stomping out the door. I wouldn’t recommend it. It feels about as ineffectual as ending a call on a mobile phone with a vicious stab of one finger.

 

I had explained I was looking for table decorations for the cocktail party we’re holding for my mother’s end-of-life celebration.

 

Here’s the thing with me right now. Almost all of the time I function really well – host shows, get the washing on, and fill out forms for notifications of death with a level of sang froid  that makes me wonder if I’m doing grief wrong. I’ll even set aside time for a good cry and… nothing happens.

 

And then at other times, like on the phone to WINZ to cancel her Super, my voice strangles and my face screws up. Grief is a wet stray dog who turns up uninvited and shakes itself all over your neat composure.

 

Which was the state I was heading into with the two florists when grief turned to rage. Picture The Simpsons’ Patty and Selma (honestly, they were  dead ringers) ticking off a list of the many reasons my request was ridiculous, offering half-hearted solutions, quoting a price that wouldn’t have looked out of place on an invoice for a royal wedding, and ultimately suggesting I buy some of their jars and shove some flowers in myself.

 

To be fair, my dial is set to eleven most days. I’ve been told I’m less fun than usual. Voices have been raised and someone has been slamming doors. It’s all a bit messy and bears little relation to the sentiments on sympathy cards.

 

When I’m out in the world I feel like there’s a sign over my head saying, “Grieving”. A friend sent me a message saying they’d seen me at an airport and I looked like I needed a hug. Though anyone who didn’t know me might think I just look terse. Maybe that’s what Patty and Selma read.

 

I appreciate none of this makes me special. People die every day – 151,600 in fact. I googled it. That’s the kind of thing I do now. It’s like the whole population of Tauranga disappearing on a daily basis. Which makes my experience both unremarkable, but also worth a mention. There are a lot of people like me at airports and in florist shops.

 

I found another florist. They’re going to find my mother’s favourite mauve roses and arrange them prettily in bottles and deliver them to the party so I don’t need to think about that detail on the day. I suspect someone in that shop knows what this is like.

 

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14 Apr Donna A’Court – 23 April 1934 to 11 June 2019

This column was published in “Your Weekend” on 22.6.19

 

More than almost anything else, my mother loved words. Reading them, saying them, using them correctly. Donna kept The Oxford Guide to English Usage beside her armchair like a theologian might keep a Bible Concordance in easy reach.

 

She would have made a fierce subeditor for any publication. Countless times over the years, I have printed a piece of writing and walked it round to her place – her flat is downstairs from us – and made green tea while she looked it over. “That’s lovely, darling, but if you’re going to use the Oxford comma here, you will need to use it there, too. Otherwise, very good.”

 

Donna made the occasional appearance in these columns. “Don’t write about me too often,” she’d say, “or they’ll think you are short of ideas.” It was an elegant modesty typical of her. As is the neat file she kept of those particular pieces.

 

Donna died last week, and she is the only idea in my head. She died exactly as she wanted to – peacefully, with me sitting beside her. I moved into her room in the nursing home for her last five days. She had often said she wasn’t afraid of dying, but she was afraid of pain, and it was my job to keep things smooth for her. The sentence I am most proud of creating, ever, was in the wee small hours of her last day when I called for the nurse and told him, “This is the shape her body makes when she is in pain – Midazolam, please.”

 

The great gift that death brings those left behind is other people’s kindness. Donna was admired and respected and adored – her book club, the libraries committee, her yoga pals, school friends who have known her since she was six – so they tell my brother and me wonderful things about her. That she was elegant, and gracious, and wickedly funny. Our friends who knew her less, or not at all, also find kind words to say. Everyone gets the chance to be their best selves.

 

She has planned a cocktail party to celebrate her life – Donna’s Launch, she calls it – and I am writing her eulogy for someone else to read. Together, my mother and I made a list of the things she is proud of, the things that have brought her joy, and the people she has loved. The lists are long. I am already heartbroken that I won’t be able to print it and take it round to her door so she can check if infinitives have been unnecessarily split.

 

We had a long time to prepare for this, and all the words were said and heard but, even so, “bereft” is the word that floats untethered in my head.

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25 Jul On Being An Aucklander At Large

A long time ago (December 2010) I wrote this little thing for Metro about being an Aucklander who spends a lot of time travelling outside of Auckland. Eight years later, I’m still an Aucklander on the move, and I feel like saying it all again. Enjoy.

 

If you’re heading south of the Bombays or north of Orewa this summer, gird your loins, brothers and sisters. They hate us out there. We are vegetarians at a butchers’ barbecue; we are Muslims entering Ground Zero; we are single and childless at a Plunket morning tea.

To non-Aucklanders, Aucklanders are to be pitied and/or despised for wilfully making a bad life-choice. We live in a city that is responsible for everything that is wrong with the nation. We steal their best lamb, their electricity and their tax dollars, and still can’t organise a piss up on a waterfront.

I didn’t really think of myself as an Aucklander until I started dealing with this kind of crap. I moved here 18 years ago for work opportunities and because, as a pregnant woman living in Queenstown, I didn’t fancy driving to Invercargill during labour because the hospital round the corner didn’t allow first-time-mothers. I had visions of giving birth on the side of the road, assisted by a Lumsden farmer (or a vet if he had time to call one) who figured he knew what he was doing because it couldn’t be that different from delivering a breached calf.

But I’ve come to think of myself as “an Aucklander” in the same way people learn to identify as “feminist” – I can’t stand the casual bigotry anymore so I’ve picked a corner.

Here’s the conversation I have every time I go out of town. Sometimes the name is different but the sentiment is always the same.

 

Non-Aucklander:     Where are you from?

Aucklander:              Auckland.

N-A:                            Poor you.

A:                                Why?

N-A:                            It’s shit.

A:                                Have you been there?

N-A:                            Nah, but my mate Kevin has and he says it’s shit.

 

So here is an open letter to Kevin. Feel free to quote from it if you’re out of Auckland this summer.

 

Dear Kevin,

I am sorry that you think Auckland is shit. You must have gone to the wrong part. It is quite big but I guess it is possible that you managed to miss all the good stuff if you were teleported to an industrial estate and stood very still for your whole visit.

You do make some valid points about its shit-ness. It is true that our traffic system is a disaster. However, after a bit of a wait you end up somewhere interesting with something going on. It’s pretty rare for the whole place to be closed. It is certainly no more frustrating than trying to get from Alexandra to Riverton in the snow.

Also, please note that I don’t actually live in the traffic. I live on the edge of a bush reserve. There are tui and kereru in my garden. Sometimes I catch a boat to work. If I’m driving home, I often stop at the beach and sit under a pohutukawa tree and stare at a volcano. I find this peaceful.

It is also true that we lock our doors here. I don’t find this difficult – just a quarter turn, anti-clockwise. And you’re right, I don’t leave my car keys in the ignition – I put them in my handbag. With a bit of practice, this becomes pretty automatic. It doesn’t ruin my day.

Yes, we have some Asians. And Muslims. And it’s a “bit dark” in South Auckland as you so quaintly put it. We find all this interesting because it reminds us of the places we have visited overseas. No, okay, not the Gold Coast. Other places.

When I visit my butcher, he doesn’t tell me I’ve already had lamb twice this week and I should have chicken. Also, if I’m out doing things after 9.30pm (imagine it, Kev) and I get hungry, I can buy something to eat.

I’m sure that (insert name of Kevin’s town/city here) is a great place to bring up kids. You can tell because they end up so curious about the world and all its possibilities, they move to Auckland first chance they get.

Yours sincerely…

 

 

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18 Jun In Memory of Eurydice Dixon

Last week Eurydice Dixon, a young Melbourne woman, was raped and murdered while walking home from work at a comedy club. Part of the police response has been to advise women to make sure they have “situational awareness” and “be aware of their own personal security”.  They are talking to the wrong people. Women are already constantly vigilant. The people who need to change their behaviour are the men who rape and murder.

 

Here’s a piece I wrote for the Christchurch Press in August 2014:

For the last two weeks I’ve been banging on a bit about a woman’s right to be safe in our neighbourhoods, and the madness of blaming victims of sexual assault. It’s something I care about, what with being a lady and knowing lots of other lady-people and so forth.

 

In fact, I’d suggest all women think about this at a conscious or unconscious level every day. So just in case anyone thinks, in this current discussion we’re having on rape culture, that women are running around half-dressed and half-cut with nary a thought to their personal safety, let’s take a moment to think about what all women do every day to keep themselves safe.

 

Here’s a tiny story. Last Thursday I spent part of a sunny afternoon looking for an appropriate car park. There were several spaces tucked down an Auckland side street in walking distance from where I needed to be. But I knew without thinking about it hard that this wasn’t a road I could confidently walk down seven hours later when my gig finished. Too quiet, too dark, too isolated.

 

Instead, I spent a long time searching for a space on the main thoroughfare under a streetlight, outside something that would be still be open at 10pm.

 

It is a small thing, but it is daily, this constant vigilance. It becomes automatic and unconscious but, if you press us, then yes, all women can think of places we don’t go, bus stops we don’t wait at, trips we don’t take, events and opportunities we miss, jobs we don’t do and careers we don’t pursue.

 

We lock our cars when we get in them as well as when we get out, and walk with keys between our fingers. We dress, not just for style and comfort, but at times also for the ability to run. Second nature. It becomes part of who we are.

 

This is daily, tangible evidence of what people refer to as “rape culture” – the idea that sexual violence is linked to the culture of a society in which the prevailing attitudes and practices normalise, excuse and tolerate violence against women.

 

Not all men are comfortable with that phrase. Innocent people don’t like to be labelled or blamed. We get that. And of course, not all men are rapists. Though it is a woman’s job to assume that all men are, until proven otherwise. “What do you mean you were on that street? In that park? In that bar? Did you not assume that every man there would be a rapist?”

 

And yes, men must be vigilant, too. There are bad places where they might be robbed or punched. But these are perhaps not as ubiquitous as the places where bad things happen to women. And a man is not encouraged to think of every stranger as brutal thief.

 

But women are required to imagine that all men might do them harm and take the appropriate measures. And none of this is doing any of us any good.

 

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25 May 50 Years On from the Wahine Disaster

First published in “Your Weekend” 14 April 2018

It is remarkable how deeply some memories are etched. Maybe it’s the first ones that leave the strongest mark. This week, I was in my car listening to old radio reports from the Wahine Disaster, and had to stop to find a paper bag to breathe into.

 

Everything sounded entirely familiar, though I don’t think I’d heard those voices in the fifty years since. Broadcasters’ professionalism barely masking the horror of what was unfolding, urgency seeping through the commentary. “The Wahine is rolling frightfully in the heavy swell in the harbour. Its list increases and then it goes back, but it never reaches perpendicular again.” It might have been the first time I’d heard grown men sound afraid.

 

I was six years old, nearly seven, and kept home from school, sick. Our family doctor made a house call (there’s a measure of time) with his hat and his leather bag. “That doesn’t sound good,” he said, tilting his head towards the radiogram where I lay listening under an eiderdown. My favourite spot – usually “Listen With Mother” or the Sunday Request Session or Danny Kaye records. Now it was bringing a different kind of story into our house.

 

Sixty miles from Wellington, the same storm was at our windows which was scary enough. You could imagine being in the harbour with no eiderdown and no mother, and no doctor come to make you better.

 

It might have been the first time I learned to make personal connections to a news story. One of the women on the boat was travelling to visit my aunt in Wellington. For many hours, they couldn’t find her little boy and thought him lost. Imagine the joy when they found him. My mother says she could never make sense of it when he died just a few years later from something else. Did he escape death then only to be caught again? Or were those extra years a special gift?

 

Everyone knew someone, felt something. It would happen again – Erebus, Cave Creek, Pike River, the Christchurch quake – but that was my first experience of the world listing, and never quite reaching perpendicular again.

 

But also, it’s when I fell in love with real life storytelling – with radio first; then photography (that picture of the Wahine lying on its side in the newspaper delivered to our letterbox the next day – even bigger and sadder than I had made it in my head). And when I also fell in love with stories of real life heroes, and the way disasters – even near misses – make us feel connected, less alone.

 

Which is what this last week has been – a celebration not only of courage, but of doing things for each other even when you’re afraid.

 

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