An introduction to the mind of M. A. Phoenix.

This here is an Introduction to the mind of M. A. Phoenix. I wanted to write something funny, something witty and exciting that would have you rolling around the aisles and chortling with delight. Unfortunately there is no room in the aisles of my mind – it is far too cluttered and muddled.

For years I was led to believe my disorganisation, social miscommunication, and meltdowns, were indicators of an inherently wicked, undisciplined and lazy character. I became conditioned to assume my thoughts and desires were selfish unless they were endorsed by the authorities around me. I have since learned that my struggles were not from being born a bad person, but because I think differently. I am Autistic, I have ADHD, and because of trauma and many socially devastating experiences, I also have Social Anxiety Disorder.

Reading often changes my world from something frightening and scary, into a place I love. But more than being just an enjoyable experience, it unintentionally became a way for me to learn social skills. How to love or be loved, how to identify and try to modify behaviours that others are likely to view as odd, and – even more importantly for a person who views the world in a very black-and-white manner – how to understand and accept that people are never all good or all evil.

When I was a child my imagination knew no bounds and I would enact these imaginings as long and as far as I could while there was still light in the sky. Once the sun went down and I was confined to my room for the night I eagerly turned to my books.

As I grew older, I discovered with deep dismay that acting out my imaginings with others was no longer acceptable. Now it was only acceptable to delve into a dream world if the dream was about the hottest guy at school. Since I attended an all-girls school, this was somewhat difficult.

The most serious form of reading that was openly endorsed by my peers were Girlfriend and Dolly magazines. Oh, how little that extended my vocabulary. However, their purpose was not to extend the mind and enrich my life, but to provide endless opportunities to talk about boys, promote staying slim, offer tips on how to be popular and tell me what beauty products to buy. After years of trying to fit into this niche that I could never be part of, I returned to my first love. A love that had never abandoned me but had been waiting patiently.

That first time I lay on my bed and listened to the sigh of my fingers stroking the spine of my newest acquisition. I heard a soft creak as I slowly peeled back the cover and exposed the body of the book. Reading through the first few pages, I became enamoured.

Magic, sorcery, loyalty, and intrigue were thrust into my mind following the turmoil of a young lad’s unfolding tale. I identified with his awkwardness, frustration and insecurities, and was emboldened by his certainty that he would one day soar to great heights. On this memorable day I fell in love with the fantasies that had spilled out of the mind of Raymond E. Feist. His book, Magician, took me to places I had never been before, where I mastered spells, fought wars and spied on evil.

Licking my finger to turn the pages, I could taste the essence of the book ­– its ink-blood mingled with my flesh and the musty flavour of the pages. This was more than just reading a book; this was a full sensory experience. My mind was stimulated, my body tingled in anticipation, my breath caught in my chest awaiting the return home of loved ones, and tears caressed my flushed cheeks at both joyous and devastating news. Goosebumps appeared on my flesh as I wandered through snow drifts in stormy weather, and my eyes sparkled when I gazed into a black night littered with the jewels of the sky.

I was overcome, completely swept away by my raw and urgent need for more, and when the last page was turned I hoped against all hope that this would not be the end of my sweet love affair. With heavy heart, I trudged back to the library and tenderly returned my Magician home. I stroked his spine and whispered, “Farewell.”

And then my heart fluttered with excitement. There, right next to where my love resided, was the continuation of all I had just experienced. As I explored further, I discovered many more stories from my love. That night I slept, deeply satisfied and secure in the knowledge that my new pleasure did not have to end. This was no one-night stand; it was the beginning of a lifelong love affair with the written word.

When I was a child, I explored the world in a childish manner, including the words written for me to enjoy. As an adult initiated long ago into the joys of exploring the fantasies spilled from the minds of others, I have learned to savour each word and am therefore deeply dissatisfied by a limp and flaccid tale. The tones and hues of my life are made richer and more vibrant by the books I have been blessed to experience. Reading is not just a hobby for me, but a way to experience the world the way most neurotypicals do. And just as it does while I’m reading, when I’m back in the real world, living my own story, my mind tries to adapt the storyline while the real-life characters flex and flow around me.

I have yet to determine if I am the wicked protagonist or the lovable antagonist in my life story, but since the final chapter has yet to be written I shall continue to grow and learn from my experiences. I believe that is all any of us can do.

M. A. Phoenix

An Introduction to Nina’s mind

Photo by runnyrem on Unsplash

My mind isn’t anything spectacular—just a large hallway, the light dimmed, and little green and red flecks frolicking about. I take a deep breath before walking onwards. There’s lots to explore, but an image suddenly appears in front of me, bringing me to a halt. It’s a glow-in-the-dark image of the burger and fries I ate for lunch.

Hmm, I wonder how many calories that was?

Initially, the thought is inquisitive, not really a big deal. But as usual, more intense thoughts emerge…

I bloody made a promise that I would eat healthy: salads, smoothies, vegetarian nachos, avocado toast. A pork-belly burger and fries from The Burger Shack definitely doesn’t count as ‘healthy’. And I’ve eaten badly for the past week pretty much, so my skin’s probably looking crap and I bet I’ve gained weight. GOD, I haven’t seen my friends for a while—what will they think when they see me next?

I should really get to studying, though. This new voice is quiet and feeble, barely cutting through my drilling thoughts.

Maybe I could skip my next meal?

Now, that’s just ridiculous. I’d be miserable and wouldn’t be able to focus on anything. Hmm, maybe a small egg salad could hold me over?

Just ignore the food thing—it doesn’t matter; it was just one junky meal. The thought pretends to be sturdy and determined but it’s a fraud, still weak and quiet.

I’m holding my smartphone, so I put the torch on, shining it around the hallway. There are all sorts of doors: family memories, friend memories, school, TV, movies, music, politics, and in the distance I see a door labelled ‘Study’. I take a couple of steps in that direction, but the hallway begins to tighten, making it harder for me to move.

The image of the burger and fries appears again. I squint at the meal, deciphering every aspect of it.

First, there’s the brioche bun. Maybe around 200 calories, considering the melted butter. Then there’s the pork belly bites—probably around 500 calories, give or take. And there’s the coleslaw, avocado and sweet chilli, most probably 250 calories all up. So, 950 calories for the burger.

Not too bad.

But there’s also the large container of fries, which is probably around 400 calories.  So, 1350 calories for one meal.

Geez. I punch my arm in frustration, and the thoughts come in.

How the fuck can I ever burn that off. That’s just way too much of the wrong calories. For. Fuck. Sake. I hate this.

A reassuring notion comes to me: Just exercise—a home workout can sort this issue. I exhale in relief. Finally I can get rid of these compulsive thoughts.

My physical self starts a 60-minute Zumba class, but the hallway’s still too constricted. With each move I feel my limbs pressing against the walls, the pictures in the frames sneering at my efforts.

Do you really think one Zumba class will make a difference?

My body feels too big for the hallway, which fills with the upbeat Zumba music until I’m choking on it—walls tightening, breathing becoming harder.

I take another deep breath, ignoring the way it catches in my throat. I focus on the exercise and force the hallway to give me enough room. The walls reluctantly expand. My body has room to move. With the ache in my muscles proving that I’ve burned off at least some of my meal, the hallway finally opens. 

I need to study; I need to work on my project. If I fail that then I might as well drop out of the paper. The thought is blunt and sobering and I’m reminded of my goal.

The study room is once again in view and I start to head towards it.

But I’ve barely taken a step forward, and there it is. Perfect and wholesome as could be: A Dog Meme. Glorious and so out of nowhere, framed on the wall as if it were a Picasso.

I grab my smart phone and go onto Facebook. I want to share it with one of my closest friends from college who used to always share cute Dog memes with me. But then I notice that she has deleted me as a friend. What?

At first I choose to look on the bright side.

She could have done it by accident.

Nonetheless, I still get hit by a plethora of frantic thoughts.

How can someone ‘accidentally’ delete a friend? Maybe she doesn’t like my posts. ᴚBut I don’t think I’ve posted in ages. Or maybe it’s because we don’t stay in touch as much? Though I don’t detect any problem when we talk on Messenger. Maybe she found out I talked badly about her that one time in year thirteen? Or what if she doesn’t really like me, and has just been nice cos she feels sorry for me?

I’ve been down this type of route before, and I’d rather not go down it again.I push forward, but once again the hallway’s become smaller.

I want to get away from this, but I can’t. I must stay here and sort the problem out.

I look through my profile to see if there’s anything ‘annoying’ that I’ve posted. Nothing. Haven’t posted since February. Then I look at our messages, checking if I’ve sent something upsetting. From the first read I don’t notice anything, so I analyse the messages I’ve sent, line by line.  

Oh, damn. There is the fact that I forgot to message her back when she sent a Happy Birthday message in July. Maybe that’s it. But I messaged a couple of weeks later, saying sorry for the late response, and she didn’t seem to care.

There’s a familiar taste in my mouth – bitter, metallic. It’s the typical worry and self-punishment, as toxic as ever.

I DM my best friend, ranting about my problem. She responds with: Ohh don’t worry about it—she does stuff like that all the time. Pretty sure she’s doing one of those social media detox things. You’ve done nothing wrong, you’re always super nice. Just ignore it and live your best life—you’re over-thinking it.

She’s right. Just ignore it. I don’t need to get worked up.

I turn my phone off and let the taste in my mouth disappear.

The constricted hallway opens again, and I can finally move forward and focus on other things. I exhale deeply and jut my chin out, feeling determined and free.

I’m behind in my project schedule and if I don’t pass I’ll fail this paper.

The study door beckons me and I push myself to walk faster. Soon I can wrap my fingers around the golden handle, pull the door open. I’ve made it. I’m here. Finally, I can start what I came here for.

But… What does she mean by ‘live your best life’? Am I wasting my life?

Should I be doing more?

Am I behind in life?

The gust of self-doubt tugs the door out of my hand. It shuts with a click.

Locked.

Self-doubt’s biting wind then wraps me in a familiar hug. Like a friend.

Until even that disappears, and I’m left alone.

So, yeah. This is it; this is my mind. This is my hallway. The hallway that I struggle down, my goal at the end, all the way battling the trials that my own mind sets to trip me up. 

My Lockdown Adventures (Or Lack Thereof)

By Ayden Dugmore

 

It was the 23rd of March, at approximately 2pm when Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that New Zealand would be going into Alert Level 4 Lockdown at midnight on the 25th of March, just two days later. As an avid movie lover, I felt this was surreal. The scenario seemed to have been plucked right out of a Hollywood studio, only there was no Will Smith, and this wasn’t a movie.

Thoughts raced through my mind as I went to pick my son up from school for the last time in a while. I had some silver-lining thoughts like Maybe I won’t get behind on my homework for once, and Maybe I can catch up on all the movies I’ve wanted to see. But mostly I worried—not necessarily for myself but for my son and my at-risk nan and aunty.

My son got in the car and like most eleven-year-olds he seemed to not have a worry in the world. I figured he probably wouldn’t know what was going on, so I told him everything.

“I know,” he replied ever so nonchalantly.

I was taken aback. “Okay. Well let’s go home.” As I started to drive off, I received the inevitable text message.

We need some things from the supermarket.

I sighed heavily and changed course. On the way, I remember hoping that maybe people were already home, bracing for this new experience we would all be going through as a country.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. The supermarket was jam-packed, and people were acting as though COVID-19 wouldn’t affect them until lockdown was in effect. There was no social distancing to be seen. You might even call what was happening “social narrowing”. To be fair, this would be the most excitement any of us would see for the next month.

In the days that followed I took in all the news I could, whether by way of Jacinda’s daily press conferences or the internet. This Lockdown was unexplored ground for me—and nearly everybody else—so I wanted to be as informed as possible. But after a week it had become this juxtaposition of being both overwhelming and too much of the same. For something that was so different, it didn’t take long for it to feel a bit like Groundhog Day.

Around this time that I stopped taking daily notes too. There were only so many ways I could write, “Slept in. Went for a walk. Ate. Ate some more. Ate too much. Went to bed,” although I would spice up the odd day with a trip to the supermarket. In fact, I probably went to the supermarket more than the average person in Lockdown because we had a large bubble. For the first week there were eight of us, one being my twenty-year-old cousin who consumes the same amount of a food as a panda, except instead of eating bamboo, he eats everything in sight.

One interesting thing I did note from my frequent supermarket trips was the activity of other shoppers. The first couple of times I went there were very few gloves being worn and even fewer facemasks. After the first week though, you’d have been hard-pressed to find somebody not wearing them. Then just within the last week, with the end of Level-4 in sight, people seemed to be lowering their guard as I once again saw very few gloves and facemasks. Yet as the Lockdown rules changed with each different level, the one thing that didn’t change was people’s behaviour while shopping. Much like what I witnessed on the day the Lockdown was announced, shoppers inside the supermarket acted as though they were invincible. Social distancing? Gone. Common courtesy? Also gone. I witnessed a gloveless person handle a plethora of loose apples before deciding to buy pears instead. Needless to say, I did not buy any apples.

With no work obligations or school runs, the opportunity to complete plenty of writing was ripe … or so I thought. I hadn’t factored in the eleven-year-old boy. It turns out trying to normalise an unprecedented event like being on Lockdown due to a worldwide pandemic is time-consuming. Due to the lack of work I was getting done, I ended up getting pretty down in the dumps. But then I kept hearing people like parenting guru Nigel Latta and world-famous author Neil Gaiman say that our only obligation over this time was to get through it intact. Gaiman often talks about “walking towards your mountain”, meaning that your life journey should always be heading towards your main goal aka the “mountain”. In most situations, my mountain is becoming a full-time writer, but if I am to go by the words of Gaiman, Latta and other such experts then my “Lockdown mountain” would be making it to the other side. I made it to that mountain and I hope you did too.

Rats are bad!

by Kate Clark

I loathe rats, alive or dead. Especially after we had to take our kitten to the vet. She was bailed up by two rats twice her size and badly bitten. The kitten survived but the pain inflicted by those long fangs was distressing.

It seems the children of Mairtown Kindergarten agree with me. “Rats are bad,” they state. These proud rat trappers monitor two rat traps on Parihaka. They know every rat they catch and dispose of helps the native flora and fauna. Their traps are a small but vital step on the path to regaining native biodiversity in Whangārei city.

So, what facts support the young rat trappers’ statement. There are two species of rat in Whangārei; the ship rat and the Norway rat. Both came by ship. Like people, rats found Northland a great place to live.

Their dietary needs are well supplied with a nourishing selection including birds, chicks, eggs, flowers, fruit, seeds, snails, larvae, lizards, and wētā.  They also enjoy both quality produce and items considered rubbish throughout the city and suburbs.

2019 has been the best of years for rats. Food in the wild has been plentiful so they have grown rapidly in size and number. Our native birds and plants are under their biggest ever threat from rats.

Mairtown Kindergarten’s rat traps are part of Tiakina Whangārei’s rat trapping programme – a partnership between Northland Regional Council’s BioSecurity team and NorthTec’s Environmental Management team.

Dr Dai Morgan is a tutor within the Environmental Management team and is the highly qualified, hands-on experienced, go-to man. Full of energy and enthusiasm, he explained to me how urban areas can sustain native species. City dwellers know this to be true as many of us enjoy tūī and fantail in our gardens.

The drive behind Tiakina Whangārei is to connect and reconnect people with their local environment by having everyone mucking in. This can be from “not a lot” to big efforts. A community united through conservation, strong with kaitiakitanga, is the goal.

Each year our government sends a progress report on Biological Diversity in New Zealand to the United Nations. The latest one shows most New Zealanders love the natural environment because it makes their lives better. But only one in ten adults is actually out and about helping the environment.

The report also shows that rats are sitting in the top spot for criminals preying on native animals. “Rats are bad!”

To leave a fit for purpose environment to our mokopuna, we all must roll up our sleeves and work together on environmental projects.

“We are blessed with three significant forests that flank the city,” says Dai. “There are also fragments of forest throughout the suburbs. Everyone is literally a few minutes away from some great habitat. However, there are pests that need to be managed.”

Dai is championing the backyard trapping project. I can relate to this. Apart from the kitten attack I’ve also had them in the ceiling skittering around and chomping on the light cables. Some nights they’ve run ratty races along the fence tops driving the neighbour’s dogs barking mad. Their pre-dawn practice of sliding down our corrugated iron house roof has become annoying.

The website explains I can also expect them to raid my fruit trees (hell no!), camp out in my compost (aaargh!), or greet me in the morning munching on my cereal (moans with head in hands).

I’m on the website “signing up” when I pause. I don’t mind baiting and setting my two traps. I’ll be happy to check them, and even bust a few dance moves every time a rat is caught. But the thought of emptying the trap is freaking me out.

No matter how good my dance moves are, there’s no getting away from it. A dead rat is a dead rat. And if it is in my trap, it is my dead rat – and the job is not complete until I have taken care of its disposal. Oh, yuck!

Then the kitten, with mischief sparking in her eyes, brings me her latest kill – a screwed-up, pink post-it note – and I pull myself together.

The traps are designed for humane killing of the victim and quick removal of the body. Rubber gloves are provided in the kit that comes with the trap. If I check my traps daily, the smelly “yuck” factor will be small.

Tiakina Whangārei are linked into the nationwide TRAP.NZ project. This project totals the trapping statistics for the country. At the time of writing, 1,861 active groups have trapped 60,802 rats.

Nearly 900 were caught throughout New Zealand last week.

My mind shrieks. Well over 60,000 rats caught with so few New Zealanders involved. The problem is huge. But wait, how many could be caught in Whangārei if, like Dai hopes, every street had backyard traps? Dai’s positivity and enthusiasm builds inside me again.

Let’s connect with Tiakina Whangārei and their backyard rat trapping project. Then we can all look forward to slamming the bin lid on our rat fatalities because “Rats are Bad!”

Do it for Nature

By Marino-Moana Begman

I love our country and Northland is my home. The picturesque coastline, the trees, waterways, colours of native flora and fauna, and the birdsong heard on the breeze, is what makes Northland the best place to be.

As a kid it didn’t occur to me that New Zealand’s native trees and abundance of birdlife would one day be under threat. Things like ‘guardianship of the environment’ and ‘native biodiversity’ were not openly discussed, or if they were I wasn’t paying attention.

Rats, possums and stoats are now public enemy number one. They’ve overrun our backyards and forests. This migration and their reproduction patterns have caused a decline in the natural regeneration of forest growth and birdlife breeding.

Community-led projects such as Tiakina Whangārei aim to engage residents in making a predator-free urban environment. The goal is to protect the wildlife and bring them back into our yards.  

Many will say, ‘But what can I do?’ or ‘I’m only one person.’

Phill Boswell is ‘one person’ doing amazing things. Boswell, a regular hardworking Whangārei resident, approached Dr Dai Morgan and the Tiakina Whangārei project, enthusiastic to do his part. Phill started with a couple of traps in his backyard and the surrounding forest near his home.

With his neighbours, they have laid 27 traps down by Macksey Road. In 7 months, 22 possums and 160 rats have been caught.

“What makes you do it? What’s the reward?” I ask.

“I’ve always loved nature. I love the birdlife. Hearing tūī in the morning, coming home to fantails. Since I’ve started trapping there’s more birdlife. That’s the reward. People see what I’m doing and stop to ask questions. I show them how to set the traps and log the catches via the app.”

“There’s an app?” I ask.

“Oh, yes,” Phill says, opening his phone to Trap NZ to show me.

“One of my neighbours, who is retired, leaves a notebook on his porch. He records the catches in there, and I update the app for him.”

“Is the app just to record data or is there more to it?”

“I suppose Dr Dai Morgan could answer that better than me, but the app shows how many traps have been set, where they are, and how many rats, possums and stoats have been caught in our area.”

“How much time do you spend clearing and rebaiting the traps?”

“It takes me about an hour, and I clear them once a week.”

“Where do you dispose of the rats?”

Phill says “When it comes to rats you have to be careful. Even the dead ones spread diseases. I bury them but never close to a waterway or in a wash off area. That’s important.”

“If I were clearing my own rat trap, would I have to touch a dead rat?”

Phill takes out his tablet and shows me a picture of his kit.

There are tongs, a fold-out spade, gloves and a jar of peanut butter. I ask what the peanut butter is for. It’s the bait. Apparently, rats love it.

Seeing the tongs and gloves make the thought of clearing my own trap seem less daunting. But I’m still cautious because a dead rat is still a dead rat.

I open the next question with, “I smell a rat.” My poor attempt at a joke. Then, “Phill, is it smelly?”

“Yes, it can be a bit smelly if the rat has been trapped earlier in the week and you’re clearing it at the end of the week–especially in the warmer months.”

There you have it. I just know I couldn’t handle that. A dead and smelly rat? Phill sees the look on my face.

“Do it for nature,” he says, and smiles.

“Is that why you do it?” I ask. “For nature?”

“I guess it’s a connection to my surroundings, the land and nature that makes me do it. As you get a bit older, a bit wiser you see things differently and appreciate nature and the environment more than ever before, so you want to do what you can.”  

Phill Boswell has inspired me to do more–to do my part too. He is a remarkable example of what one person can do. Before we part ways, I thank him and ask, “What would you like to see if we all did our part?”

He says, “I want to see and hear what it used to be like, before the pests. I would love to hear what Joseph Banks, Captain Cook’s botanist, described in 1770.”

This morn I awakd by the singing of the birds ashore…the numbers of them were certainly very great…their voices were certainly the most melodious wild musick I have ever heard, almost imitating small bells but with the most tuneable silver sound imagineable.

Mia Bella Nonna

When I think of good relationships I have had in my life, one of the first people who always comes to mind is my Nonna, Antonetta.

Although she’s no longer in the same world, her life and love has made a clear mark over my own adult life now. Sometimes when I catch myself singing in the kitchen I’m reminded of my Nonno telling me how he had first fallen in love with my Nonna. He had been repairing the stairs at her home before the war in Zara, Croatia and had instantly fallen in love with the voice singing from the kitchen above. He just had to meet her. So when she had to come down to collect water he seized his chance.  He told me that over the next few days whenever she walked up the stairs he would flick small pieces of concrete into the water, forcing her to come back down again for another chat.  It was from these conversations that they eventually fell in love, starting a relationship that lasted over sixty years.

And it was this love that carried them over the ocean, from a secret wedding at the refugee camps in Italy to a new life they chose in a little-known country named New Zealand. Nonna told me once that she had been so sick from the movement of the ship she couldn’t do any of the chores they were required to do. Instead my Nonno took Nonna’s share of the work, leaving her to sleep and get through the trip in relative ease. They were only 19 and 22 at the time and had already lived through the horrors of war.  And had known hardships I can only imagine.

She told me one day of her terror as her family were escaping the war on a yacht when a huge submarine came out of the water in the darkness. They were petrified. The officer in charge of the submarine shone spotlights directly onto the fearful family and asked them where they were travelling to. Luckily he took pity on them and let them pass. She was only a child at the time and I cannot imagine the fear they would have felt. I still have images of that submarine bursting out of the night sea.

On arrival to New Zealand they settled in the North Island. Nonno would often recall those days, laughing to himself about what the local Maori boys thought of their skinny refugee colleague on the end of a giant kauri saw. But he worked hard and was soon respected, making many good friends along the way. He slowly worked his way up the country, earning more money and gaining better housing over time. Nonna did her share by helping to run the households they were boarding at or by creating a home for them wherever they had their own place, even if that was just a small, leaking shed.

Nonno and Nonna went on to have four children, initially raising them to speak only Italian since my Nonna could not speak much English at the time.  She eventually did learn to speak quiet well, although to her last days she kept her beautiful accent. A friend once described her voice as musical and I think she was right.

My Nonna was the epitome of love. Her most common saying – one we all still say today – was: “What I have I give.”  This simple motto would just about sum her up in one. She loved children. When the Girl Guides came to her door selling treats she would always invite them in and never let them leave without taking homeat least some lollies. At Halloween she would keep her gate open, excitedly waiting for the children to come. And any of my friends who came to visit would have to call her Nonna as well. Her face shone with love and kindness and people were drawn to this – she made friends everywhere and asked for nothing. Her love was giving, and if you ever came over for a visit you were guaranteed to leave with food.  To refuse wasn’t even an option – something my husband quickly learned.

My childhood memories are filled with her. Pancakes for breakfast and walking to the milk bar, where we’d buy lollies for me and a cheeky scratchy for her. She would take us to the beach and she taught me to swim, and also how to cook her signature dishes. She taught us her family prayer – one she’d learned from her own grandmother and that had been used by generations beforehand. This prayer was taught to us in her sing song tune and I’ve passed it on to my own children; their little voices repeating this prayer always brought such pride to her eyes. She would thoughtfully say, “At least I have taught you something.” Nonna, you taught me so much.

She showed me how to love. She showed me how to have fun and enjoy the simple things. Her life had been dedicated to her children and then to us, her grandchildren. She would spend countless hours cooking, playing and just spending time with us.

One tradition she carried for many years was catching the bus into Auckland’s CBD, having chips at McDonalds and spending hours in the stores downtown, particularly Rendell’s and the old Farmers building. She loved to shop and she loved handbags. When we cleaned out her hallway cupboard we couldn’t believe the number of handbags, glasses cases and purses she’d collected over the years. We have since passed many of her precious belongings around, all of us keeping her memories and special things in the family and in our homes.

One thing I am super grateful I did while she was still alive and healthy was write her a poem about what she had done for me so far – about the love I had for her. She read this with me and kept it framed in her lounge. I am so glad she knew what she meant to us and so grateful for each of those moments we spent together.

My own home now has things from her home. They keep me connected with her spirit and her love, and remind me to be a better person and to love others as she loved me. I have a shrine of birds tattooed down my right leg, each one representing her in different ways. She loved birds. Even in her last days we still had to feed the sparrows some of her lunch. She would never let a soul go hungry.

And now each morning when I look out my kitchen window I smile at the groups of birds waiting for me to feed them. It gives me hope that one day I’ll have my own grandchildren, and if I can even be half of the grandmother my Nonna was, I’ll know I’d have succeeded.

Mother does know best

Growing up, I was always aware that my grandmother and my mum both married at 19 and gave birth to their eldest children at the age of 20. I expected my life would take the same path. When, at the age of 19, I was still single I began panicking.

Mum told me not to be silly, that love would find me when the time was right. I didn’t believe this, and when my younger sister got married and I was still very single, I really thought something was wrong with me.

I was 23 when I gave birth to my first child. My relationship had ended not long after I found out I was pregnant, so right from the start I was a single mum.

Comparing my life to my mum’s, I felt like a failure. She and Dad have always been so madly in love, and in my eyes their relationship was perfect. It was the type of love I wanted for myself – the type of situation I wanted to raise my child in.

At 26 I gave birth to my second child, but again it was as a single parent. My sister was in the room with me when I had my caesarean, and she was the first person to have a cuddle with my baby girl. When my parents – and the new big sister – visited us everyone doted over the newest addition to our family, but there was still that element of missing out for me. I didn’t have the new dad who was over the moon with his baby girl, ringing all of his friends and family to share the news.

I knew that, unlike my mum and her mum, I was destined to life as a single parent.

This life wasn’t terrible. I loved having my kids to myself, being the one who got all the hugs first thing in the morning and last thing at night. I was the one who was there for the first words, the first time crawling, the first steps, the first everything.

But there were times when I felt incredibly alone and as if I was the only one who really cared about my girls. When they were sick, teething, tired, grumpy or just being two-year-olds I noticed the lack of support. Worst was when I was sick – because no matter how horrid I felt, I had to get up and go about life as usual. There was no one to take the slack, to tell me to go back to bed and sleep, and when I needed to cry it was into my pillow.

One day in August 2010 I joined an online forum for single parents. There were a few members on the forum and it was lovely to know I wasn’t alone in my loneliness, or in the gripes that are part and parcel of single parenthood.

There was one woman I became especially close with. Her name was Lauriel. We sent private messages to each other, and then added one another on MSN messenger and Skype. I lived in Christchurch, and after the February 2011 earthquake hit, when I was finally able to get back online, I had a message from her with her cell phone number, telling me to text her if I wanted to talk. We kept talking online and sent text messages during the day.

In June there was another sizeable quake and I decided I’d had enough, so packed up myself and my girls and we went down to Wanaka to stay with my grandma for a week. During that time Lauriel and I texted a lot, to the point where we both ran out of texts on our text plans.

In December 2011 Lauriel came to stay with me and my girls while her kids were with their father. She arrived, and it was like we’d known each other forever. There was none of the awkwardness I expected, and I found myself feeling sad that she’d be leaving so soon.

After she’d been staying for a week something magical happened. Just like mum had told me would happen, love found me.

I can’t explain how it happened, or why, but Lauriel and I suddenly found ourselves madly in love.

The idea of a relationship hadn’t crossed my mind because I knew Lauriel was straight, and I was … well, I wasn’t sure how to define myself, but regardless, our friendship blossomed into something much more than we could have ever anticipated.

When she left Christchurch and went back to Whanganui we were both devastated, but we also knew we wanted to be together, and that if we wanted it enough nothing would stop us.

After almost a year of Lauriel and me being in a long-distance relationship, my girls and I said goodbye to Christchurch and made the 500km move to Whanganui, to begin a new life with Lauriel and her two children.

It’s been seven years now and I still pinch myself and wonder how I got so lucky.

I like to think we serve as proof that, when you least expect it, love really does have a way of finding you.

Homecoming -A short scene following on from Heartbeat

The start of Jeff and Evelyn’s story is available now on Amazon

Heat from the late afternoon sun scorched Jeff as he and his father emerged from the thick canopy shade into the little clearing around the cabin he’d grown up in. Native bush stretched for hundreds of acres, and birdsong floated on the warm breeze that tugged his hair. His eyes drifted closed and he breathed deep. Home.

Then bone-deep coldness splintered the joy. His lungs constricted as if a vine choked his body. Mum was gone. Where he expected her laughter he heard only silence.

Long exhale, bracing inhale. His fault.

Resuming progress, he felt feet sink into crusty mud tracks from the abandoned motorbikes, left by those who’d wished his family harm. He’d remove them, then begin the regeneration effort.

His first daylight view of the damage the Wilsons had inflicted revealed its extent. They’d used the bush as their personal BMX track with total disregard for plant or animal life.

“Help me fix this door,” Dad said. He hadn’t rested once since Evelyn dropped them at the roadside an hour ago – in fact they’d almost run home rather than walked.

“Later. We need to sleep first.”

“No time.”

Dad lifted the broken door off the remaining hinge, as strong and healthy as ever. His bare arms displayed a multitude of bruises; he’d been a pliant punching bag for his enemy last night. Not once in his life had David Jae lifted a hand to harm another or defend himself, and that was how he’d raised Jeff. His every action aimed at preserving life.

His dad hunted animals only for food and clothing, and then limited himself to those that threatened his conservation efforts – introduced species that decimated New Zealand native flora and fauna. The kill always involved one accurate spear or knife throw that resulted in immediate death. Jeff had learned the same precision with knives and homemade weapons from his father.

Now he laid a hand on the door his father had placed across two logs.

“Stop. You need to rest.”

“Can’t. Too much to do.”

“Dad!” Jeff gripped his dad’s wrist and forced him to stop. When he left four years ago, aged sixteen, his father had stood a foot taller than him at six feet; now Jeff shadowed him by an inch. Yet though his father was thirty years older, he was still broad-shouldered and muscular. “You must. Mum wouldn’t want you working yourself to death.”

“So that’s the way it’s to be, is it? You’re going to use her against me?”

Before him, Dad hunched into himself, and Jeff could only imagine the depth of pain Mum’s passing had created. She hadn’t been raised to live off the land but had chosen this life. As a young woman she’d passed the time hiking the pine plantations while her father, who owned a similar operation north of Christchurch, talked business with the owner. She’d become lost in thick fog and ended up falling down a cliff face and badly breaking her leg. Dad found her unconscious and suffering from hypothermia, so he carried her to his cabin. There he nursed her back to health, and during their time together she fell for her gentle-giant rescuer.

Jeff said calmly, “No; I’m reminding you of her love for us. She never let us work beyond our limits.”

“They used her knife.” Dad stared him in the eye, his body trembling, the tremors traveling through the wrist Jeff still held.

“I know.” His throat constricted and he pulled his dad in for a tight hug. “It’s why they can’t charge you – your prints couldn’t be found anywhere on it. Whoever planted it back here didn’t consider that. We will find out who hurt her, I promise.”

“That knife is too small for my hand. Anyway, she goes mad if I misplace her tools.”

Jeff stepped back, keeping a hand on his dad. “Why didn’t she tell me what was happening?”

Dad pulled away from him and shuffled toward the cabin. Jeff followed, the question burning for an answer. His stomach twisted violently – he could have saved them. Maybe kept Mum alive.

He tried again. “She wrote me letters – every week. Why didn’t she mention the trouble brewing?”

A bowl of water sat beside the door; Jeff waited while his dad cleaned his feet and dried them before he did the same, placing a hand on the rough clay external wall for balance. Blood from Evelyn’s bullet wound smeared the entrance floors and he sidestepped it as he entered. Inside the timber featured no treatment so removing the blood would be hard work. Another job in a daunting list.

Going from bright light to dim took adjustment. The window shutters were still closed. Dad straightened a chair and Jeff automatically fixed another, the smooth wood beneath his hand calming and familiar. He recalled carving it with the help of his parents.

Jeff hadn’t entered the cabin last night. Apart from a few items of furniture and belongings that had been knocked over, everything remained unchanged. A new board or two on the walls, but Mum and Dad’s rocking chairs still sat near the fireplace near the pile of furs he preferred to stretch out on. One shelf-lined wall held the familiar stack of wooden bowls, plus several rows of carved containers that held seeds and crushed powders. The smell of woodsmoke and herbs permeated the air and he breathed deeply, tense muscles loosening. He could still feel Mum’s presence here. She had helped Dad extend the cabin, creating the two bedrooms, so a part of her would always live in this place. That vine cinched tight again as he struggled for control.

Dad turned to face him across the table. “We knew why you left. The townspeople hurt you because of me.” Pain shrouded his father’s face. Regret too. “You needed to find yourself, and we trusted that when you were ready you would come back. We didn’t want a homecoming due to obligation.”

“You were angry when I left.”

“I was hurt, but Mum always understood more than I did, she explained that you required time, and when you did come back you’d be better for the time away. She was right. Always was.”

“No, she should have told me about the Wilsons harassment, trespassing and destruction.”

“We made our decision. But I didn’t know what to do after -” Dad’s weathered hands gripped the back of his chair so tightly they turned white. Silence conveyed the unsaid. “I started a letter to you. I never finished it.”

Dad released the seatback and moved to the small writing desk in the corner, where; he collected a piece of paper from the floor nearby and brushed it. “He stood on it last night. Wore dirty boots in here. Guess it doesn’t matter – you’re here now.”

Jeff accepted the offering as if it were a fragile new seedling. The handmade paper had been made from wood shavings turned into a pulp of fibers that Dad pressed, dried, and tied into bundles with flax. Mum loved to write and record the day’s events; their bedroom shelves held homemade leather pockets they stored her recordings in. He ran his thumb up and down the textured paper’s edge. Mum had taught him to read and write using feathers and naturally made inks on such paper. He remembered her smile every time he showed her his work. There was no doubt her family was her world.

Dad’s writing was shakier than Mum’s. At the top of the page was a date – the day after Mum’s death when police had allowed Dad to return home. Beneath that this address and then Jeff’s address. All written in the correct layout before Dad wrote the words: Dear Son, Your Mum passed away yesterday. They’ve taken her away. Bill from the hotel is helping to make the arrangements. I.  Several dots suggested he tried to continue and stopped. Jeff wiped tears from his cheeks as he imagined his dad sitting there, trying to word an impossible letter.

He told his father, “Someone wrote to me but never signed it. I came straight away.”

“I don’t know who that would have been. Bill planned to post that for me when I’d finished, but I couldn’t write down feelings the way she did.”

“No one could – that was her gift. Bill didn’t say anything when I called ahead to book in. Just told me to ask for his best room.”

“Bill is okay. Mum trusted him with the letters each week.”

“I was supposed to fix his sign for him that weekend I left.”

Dad grunted. “I offered to do it but he refused – said you’d promised to do the job, so it could wait until you came back.”

Jeff raised shocked eyes. Dad didn’t leave the bush. Ever. Last night had been a fight.

His father shrugged. “You made a promise, then left before carrying it out.”

Honour. That made sense – Dad strongly believed in being a man of his word.

Jeff nodded. “I’ll fix it. But first we need some sleep.”

Dad took a seat in his rocker and pulled a possum fur blanket across himself. “Go on. Your room’s ready – always has been.”

If you would like to read more visit my website, sign up to my newsletter or connect with me on Facebook or Instagram, while Jeff and Evelyn’s story is still evolving, my first trilogy focuses on their children 35 years later.
Carol Tate

What is Love?

A little girl with twinkling blue eyes stared upwards at the orange and yellow streaked sky in wonder. The sun was beginning to set, and a cool breeze brushed past the girl’s pink checks and nose.

“Mum!”

“I’m coming. Just getting the blanket and biscuits.”

The girl pulled herself up onto a wooden deck chair. From there she could see beyond their house and garden, down the steep hill to a large valley, the perfect view. Watching the sunset with her mother was her favourite time of day. So much so that earlier that day they decided to make chocolate chip biscuits to munch on while they waited for nightfall.

A few moments later her mother stepped through the doorway, holding a plate of biscuits with a blanket tucked under her armpit. After placing the plate of treats onto a stool, her mother sat down next to her and wrapped both of them up in the big woolly blanket. She passed her a biscuit. With a grin, the girl bit into the biscuit and tasted the lovely sweetness of the chocolate. Her mother leaned forward to get herself one too.

As they ate the biscuits the girl thought of a question. “Mum?”

“Yes, honey?”

“What is love?”

There was silence and the girl became impatient as her mother continued looking at the sunset. Tiny stars had begun to shine in the wave of dark blue that was slowly sweeping onwards. Pulling her hand from warmness of the blanket, she playfully poked her mother in her cheek.

“What is love, Mummy?”

“Hmm. What do you think?”

The girl pouted. “I don’t know, that’s why I’m asking you.” Her mother let out a small giggle and looked down at her with her soft olive eyes.

“Love is a feeling.”

“What type of feeling?”

“It’s a feeling that can fill you with immense joy, or great pain.”

“Pain?”

“Yes, pain.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Love is a tricky little thing. The more open our hearts are, the more love we feel, but it can also open to hurt. Sometimes if something bad happens to someone, they become sad and heartbroken.”

“That’s so sad. I don’t want to be heartbroken, Mummy.”

“Don’t worry, I will always be there for you.”

“Promise?”

“Promise.”

“What else is love?”

“Love is a special bond. It’s what connects people. Like us, I’ll love you forever. I would do anything to make sure you were happy and safe, and so would your father.

“How much do you love me?”

“This much.”

The girl’s eyes widened as her mother spread her arms out as far as they could go. “Wow that’s a lot.”

Her mother nodded and gave the girl a big hug.

The little girl pulled the soft blanket up over her shoulders. “Can love feel like spring?”

“It can. It bursts through you just as a seedling bursts through the ground.”

“Does Michael love me?”

Her mother smiled. “Of course, he does. He’s your big brother why wouldn’t he?”

“He takes my toys.”

“Brothers do that.”

“They need to stop doing that,” the girl said, frowning a little.

“My brothers used to take my things too. They would hide them from me and I’d have to go looking for them.”

The girl’s mouth gaped open. “Did you find them?”

“Eventually, but the ones I couldn’t find my brothers would give back.”

A loud crash sounded, and the girl saw Midnight dart between the deck chairs, chasing a mouse. Every time the mouse did a sharp turn the cat knocked into a chair leg. One chair was already overturned.

“I think our cat loves to get mice.”

“I think so too,” her mother replied.

The girl pointed to an owl flying overhead. “Owls love flying, right?”

“Sure do.”

Standing up, her mother pulled the blanket off her. “Hey, what are you doing?”

“It’s time for bed.”

“Aww,” the little girl complained, “I still want to look at the stars.”

“There’s always tomorrow.” The mother held out her hand. “Come on.”

The girl huffed. “Fine.” She took her mother’s hand and stood up.

The mother grabbed the plate with her other hand and together they walked back inside.

“Can you say the words now?” the girl asked, snuggling into the warm side of her mother’s body.

“Okay, honey. How much do I love you?”

“Too much to measure.”

“And how long will I love you?”

“For ever and ever your baby I’ll be.”

Goodbye

Amber sat cross-legged on the bonnet of her truck, looking out over the ocean. The moonlit waves roared, crashing into the jagged rocks below the cliff. The air was cold, but Amber was shielded from it by the woolen jumper and sweatpants she’d thrown on. Where is he?

Biting her thin bottom lip, she pulled her phone from her pants pocket and turned it on. The screen flicked into life, blinding her for a moment. 11:07 p.m. He mustn’t be coming. The screen died and she shoved the phone back into her pocket. “Well, I guess there’s no need for me to be waiting out here then.” Amber slid off the truck. The gravel crunched as she walked round to the door. She hopped into the front seat, and was about to slam the door shut when she saw from the corner of her eye a torch light bobbing up and down. She turned her head and watched it come racing towards her.

“Amber is that you?” a voice called out.

“Jonathan?”

“I’m so glad you’re still here,” Jonathan gasped, jogging up the last bit of hill.

Amber shielded her face with a hand. “Don’t shine that thing straight into my eyes, idiot.”

“Shoot you’re mad.” Jonathan directed the torch to the ground.

“And why wouldn’t I be? I dragged my butt out of bed just so I could sit here for hours waiting for you.”

“Look, I’m really, really sorry.” Jonathan collapsed against the side of the truck, breathing heavily.

“Uh-huh.”

“I truly am.”

Amber grimaced as a bead of sweat landed onto her cheek. Wiping it away, she waited for him to give his excuse. Jonathan said nothing, just continued to pant. He wiped his forehead with the back of his hand, sending down another bead of sweat onto her face.

She snapped, “Use your shirt to wipe your forehead. I don’t want your stinking sweat on my face.”

“Sorry.”

“You gonna tell me why you’re so late?”

“Of course. Sorry.”

Amber glared at him, but she doubted he would have seen her displeasure clearly.

“The car broke down on my way here.”

“That’s it?”

“What do you expect me to say?”

Amber avoided the question. “Still can’t believe you bought that hunk of junk.”

“Yeah. Guess I should have listened to ya when I went to buy it, huh?”

“Yes.” Amber looked away from him, back out to the ocean. The waves were less visible now as the moon began to move behind the curtain of dark clouds sweeping across the sky.

After a while Jonathan knocked Amber’s arm playfully. “Remember when I first brought you here? You were too scared to walk to the edge and burst into tears when I got too close.”

“I was a lot younger then.”

“Five years isn’t that long ago,” Jonathan joked.

Amber’s lips twitched. “At least my pants didn’t hang off my ass back then.”

“I’ll have you know I was following the trend.”

“Right. Because you’re so ‘with it’. How could I forget?”

“I will miss you, you know,” Jonathan whispered.

“Geez. Is that why you brought me out here so you could bore me with a sappy conversation?”

“I thought it was a great reason.”

“Don’t you know me at all? I hate sadness, I hate goodbyes, and right now I hate you.”

“You do not.”

“Wanna bet?”

“Stop being you for a moment and shut up.”

Amber planted her elbow into Jonathan’s side.

Jonathan hunched over, grabbing the side of his stomach. “Arrgh!”

A giggle slipped from Amber’s lips. “Stop being a drama queen.”

Jonathan straightened and lifted his head, giving Amber a sad smile. “I’m serious. I’m really going to miss you.”

“I’ll call.”

“It will be weird without you here.”

“I’ll come and visit.”

“It’s not as easy as that. You’re not just going to be across town – you’ll be in another country entirely.”

“So save up. Then we’ll take turns visiting each other and we’ll be able to see each other more.”

“Amber –”

“Look, Jonathan, I don’t know what you want me to say. I’m leaving tomorrow and that’s that.”

“You don’t have to.”

“Yes, I do. I can’t just let my dad go off without me. I’m all he has left.”

“I’m sure if you tell him you want to stay he’ll understand.”

“God, Jonathan,” Amber shoved her hand through her long, wavy hair. “He can’t even remember to pay the power bill. He needs me.”

Jonathan kicked the ground, sending a spray of stones into the air. “I need you.”

Amber was shocked. “What?”

“I like you, okay? And it sucks that I never had the balls to tell you that when I fell for you.” Jonathan, waited for Amber’s response, the torch light reflecting off his sad face.

“You’re right. You should have told me.” Building up courage, she stepped down from the truck. “For what it’s worth… I like you too.”

A large smile spread across Jonathan’s face and he walked up to Amber.  “Does that mean you’ll stay?”

“I can’t. But maybe you could come with me.”

Jonathan pressed his forehead against Amber’s. “I can’t either. You know how tied up I am here.”

“Guess we should have opened up to our feelings a lot sooner.”

“Yeah, I guess we should have. But I don’t wanna let you go.”

Amber wrapped her arms around him and buried her face into his chest. “I’ll come back one day.”

Jonathan wrapped his own arms around her. “You’d better,” he mumbled. There was a pause, and then he asked with laughter in his voice. “Do you think you could jump start my car?”