We’re All Mad Here: On being a Mother and a Writer

I was a mother before I was a writer. Or rather, I was a mother whose nagging question of ‘who am I?’ eventually led me to the words on the page, the keys on the keyboard, the worlds in my head. I was a mother but what else was I?

I had left my career as a teacher behind before I had my son, and now I was home alone with a tiny, snuggling bundle of tiny nappies, midnight wakeups and a brand-new level of guilt and expectation. I didn’t have a career to go back to, and my hobbies were mainly television and food. As I began to question who I was outside of my relationship to this tiny human, I started to write. I honestly can’t remember what those first words were—they surely weren’t prophetic or inspiring, and probably didn’t even make sense—but  I was relieved to be creating something from nothing, pulling ideas out of the endless vastness of thoughts that swirled around in the dark ether.

As my infant hit the crawling stage, our family read book after book after book and I began to toy with the idea of writing a children’s book (something I’m sure has gone through many a sleep-addled parental mind). Having no idea where to start, I looked at local writing courses but they fell on weekend days when I worked. So I signed up to a part-time creative writing course through an online polytechnic. Thinking I would only enjoy the paper specifically about writing for children, I was surprised when I found my mojo writing short stories and poetry. Soon I had signed up to a full-time workload and wrote stories that I eventually felt confident enough sharing. The day I received an email accepting one of my stories into an anthology I was over the moon! I had never been validated in such a way before. Never had anyone said objectively, ‘This is good.’

So I continued, passing my course and being accepted into another. I began not knowing what I wanted to write but tried my best to stay away from the trope of ‘Mummy Blogger’ or ‘Parent-writer’ and set my sights on something that was completely out of my own writing experience: Fantasy. The first dozen or so acceptances I received were for speculative fiction stories, in both magazines and anthologies, and I now have a shelf filling up nicely with my words.

But the question for all mother writers —and indeed for most writers in general —is how? How do I become a writer while simultaneously being a mother, a wife, all the things that I need to be? It took a long while to get into a groove, working when my son is in preschool, or at night when my husband is squirreled away in his office. It’s messy and overwhelming but I know that I have found my ‘thing’. Only in the last few weeks would I consider myself a ‘writer’, however, and to this day I don’t think I’ve ever told someone else that I am a ‘writer’ when asked the inevitable question: “So, what do you do?”.

Many mother-writers struggle to fit their writing in around their children who, rightfully so, come first. Then the dinner needs to be made, the floors need to be vacuumed, the groceries need to be bought… but the writing doesn’t need to be done. As so many mothers before us have found out, motherhood is an all-encompassing, never-ending to-do list. And we put ourselves at the bottom. It wasn’t until my mental health took a severe decline that I figured out how to cover my ears and scream in the face of maternal guilt, and take some time for myself. I put my son into preschool an extra day or two a week and gave myself a full six hours twice a week in which to create my worlds.

It certainly took a while, but here are some of the things I’ve discovered on my journey towards being a mother-writer:

  • Find the space. Not just physically but mentally. Give yourself somewhere you can sit with a coffee and breakfast and allow the words to flow (or not, let’s be honest!). Add some books, some posters, photos, whatever you like. It doesn’t need to be big; mine is at the end of the dining room table but it has the books I like to flick through for inspiration, a bunch of pens and some notebooks that are too pretty to ever use.
  • Find the time. It’s so easy to put ourselves last, to do everything for anyone else, but we need to find our own time too. My husband was always supportive, giving me time to discover what I wanted to write, but it can be hard to find this in a big family. Remember, who gives a f**k if the dishes sit out until tomorrow, if dinner is chicken nuggets once a week. If you’re happy, the kids are happy.
  • Build confidence. Easier said than done for most people. But once you’ve written something, have some faith in it. Let others read it if you want to but PLEASE don’t automatically think it’s garbage and throw it in the digital bin never to see the light of day again.
  • Know the variety of markets. Okay, so this applies to writers in general, not just mothers, but when I started writing I wrongly thought that if I didn’t write a novel what was the point? I didn’t realise that there are markets for everything. Some of the writing I’ve published recently includes 100-word flash fiction about gruesome ways to die, short stories based on myths and legends, and fractured fairy tales. As a side benefit, writing has vastly expanded my reading shelves. I’ve discovered people write (and publish) poems and tweets and micro-poems, novellas, letters, diaries and even unsent text messages.

My motivation struggles to make an appearance at times, my schedule is a mess—as is the house and often the writing—but I’m making it work.  And I’ve never felt better.

Bad Mother of the Century

I’ve never been much of a planner. Life is too full of opportunities for that. So education, marriage, a mortgage, a secure job and children were not on the agenda. But there I was, thirty-three, and somehow I had ticked off the first four because an opportunity for each had arisen. I had just had surgery for severe endometriosis, and the surgeon told me that if I wanted children I had limited opportunity before the endometriosis came back. Limited opportunity? Having been happily childless, my husband and I heard that marketing catchphrase and fell for it—hook, line and sinker.

After each child the same story. Limited opportunity for another. Before I knew it, I had the proverbial three under four and would have kept going if the last one hadn’t left me with a hernia the size of a tennis ball, and a piece of mesh even bigger across my abdomen. No stretching that tummy again.

By the time I was thirty-nine I was working from home—between nappies and breast-feeding—in our waste removal company, but somehow I just could not find the passion to solve the world’s rubbish woes. We were on call twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. I felt housebound. “Take the kids and go for coffee with a girlfriend,” my husband would say. But the reality of being an older mother is that most of your friends have been there, done that and returned to work. I would knock on door after door, only to give up and return home.

Lacking the energy to return to teaching with three of my own children to care for, I clearly needed a hobby of some sort. Scrapbooking was all the rage but didn’t appeal. It was a random encounter with a ‘For Sale’ sign for a ceramics studio that sealed my fate. Another opportunity. I had grown up in a pottery shed and it brought back happy memories—the earthy smell of wet clay, feeling the slip ooze between my fingers, seeing the pot I had lovingly made gingerly lifted out of the hot kiln with tongs and asbestos gloves (yes, you heard that right). I had visions of working part-time making beautiful pots, the children happily playing in the studio the way I had as a child.

Soon I was the proud owner of a ceramics studio, and the financial wellbeing of five staff—later to grow to twelve. My ideals were soon shattered. What’s worse than a bull in a china shop? Three pre-schoolers in a china shop. I had taken on a seven-day-a-week enterprise. A Bay of Islands tourism business, we only closed for Christmas Day, Good Friday and Anzac morning. The children soon moved from part-time to full-time day care and spent many a weekend in the shop. Try selling pots to tourists with three crazy children running around.

The staff at the day care were wonderful and I was fortunate it was only two doors down from the studio and I could pop in whenever I liked. The hardest times, though, were the Christmas breaks when the day care closed and we were at our busiest with both businesses.

My staff were great too. Supporting me as we grew the business to include fudge manufacturing and a patisserie/lolly shop. It was still tough. I had to be inventive to juggle the children and the business. I once hid from them behind the water tank in the rain to negotiate the lease for a new shop, only to slip and slide to the bottom of the bank and wind up coated in clay. I held business meetings in McDonalds because they had a playground and nappy-changing facilities.

There was a silver lining, though. I had more flexibility than if I had returned to teaching high school. When my oldest started primary school I was able to go on the roster for school lunches, and attend pet and sports days. I also met great girlfriends who helped with the children on sales trips and at home. I dropped each child with a bag of groceries—the last with an additional bag of nappies— at various houses on the way to my first gift fair in Auckland.

Sometimes I would beat myself up when I had to work through the school holidays and weekends.  The children, sensing my weakness, became adroit at piling on the guilt.  Bad mother of the century again and again; I considered having it tattooed on my forehead. Somehow they survived—quite well, in fact. They learnt to pack their lunches and prepare their own food, to become independent learners.

My children gained invaluable experience and excellent work ethics. When they were old enough, I paid them to pack lollies and work in the shop. I gave them responsibility for buying their own clothes and other items with the money they earned. They learnt from the inside how businesses work. The sugar consumption was taking its toll, however, and, sure that my children would all become diabetic and I wouldn’t be far behind them, I had the opportunity to sell the business and so I did.  

Would I do it again? No. Am I glad I did it? Yes. Soul destroying? Exhausting? Both. Character building? For all of us. But it paid off. My middle daughter gained an excellence in business studies, winning the Young Enterprise Scheme Managing Director of the Year for Northland and the National award for Best Māori Business. She is now studying commerce at university. My oldest is studying engineering and wants to work in food manufacturing. The youngest wants to save the polar bears—she was always going to go her own way.

I’ve learnt too. I’ve become more of a planner—until the next opportunity comes along!

Gateway to Imagination

Just a short step away from the centre of Kerikeri is a walk that has the ability to transport me to another world. It follows the flow of the river, and once you’re on the track, the town and all its industry melt away.  

If it happens to be at the right time of year, you’ll walk past a natural pond carpeted in hundreds of pink waterlilies, their rubbery green leaves shiny and round. Venturing closer here, you can peer down through the water and see the thick, graceful lily-stems anchored deep into the mud below. You may feel, as you look downwards, past the muted and rippling reflections of the surrounding trees, that a kind of magic is about to take place.

Venturing further, you’ll reach an incline in the pathway where jasmine cascades like Rapunzel’s locks—heavy, flower-laden skeins of it hanging down over the river below. If the river is full, this section can be a white, raging froth running powerfully over dark rocks that create an appealing contrast.

The songs of birds now start to increase. This bushland is full of them. Kererū wings whistle past high above, pūkeko strut, and tūī cackle and gurgle their tunes. It’s a sweet and lyrical cacophony.

You’ll reach a place soon after that I have dubbed the Emerald Forest. A friend of mine calls this stretch Jurassic Land, so it obviously evokes feeling in others too that make them want to give it a name. The terrain changes as soon as you enter this forest, and you are greeted by a large, bobbly-covered tree that seems like a sentinel. It’s dark, damp and sensory in this stretch. Thick green mosses cover huge, ancient-looking rocks. If you are willing to walk here while it rains, this turns into a breathtaking experience. Rivulets of water will create what feels like a billion mini waterfalls around you. It’s all twisted trees and vines with dark-green foliage—and a dense canopy above that lets only a little daylight squeeze through.

Coming through to the other side you’ll see the two Dancing Trees (another name of mine). They reach together as if in a twirling, eternal, ecstatic embrace. High above, where their branches meet, a giant natural beehive sits in the crevice they create, buzzing with its industrious inhabitants as they rush around collecting and depositing pollen.

Supplejack grows up, through and around the many other trees in this part. You can look out for the tender, supple end-shoots and snap them off cleanly to eat. They taste like green beans. A fallen trunk to the right, seasonally dependent, delivers a banquet of brown, velvety fungi that is both edible and nutritious. Its layman’s name is Wood Ear or Jelly Ear, and I was interested to learn that in the fifties it was cultivated in New Zealand for export to China.

Soon after the Dancing Trees you’ll hear the sound of water beating down, and rounding a corner you’ll see the Wharepuke Falls. This is a wide, not particularly high waterfall that spills over a lip of flat rocks.

The water lands in a rounded section of pooled river water—a good place to swim. Swallows nest here, generation after generation. They dart and swoop around the place territorially. Sometimes you will see a regal grey heron standing above the falls in statuesque stillness, waiting to catch a fish wriggling by.

And yes, there are many small fish and eels in this river. 

If you choose to veer off track a little on a summer’s day, dipping your toes in to cool off, you might just see an eel slowly make its presence known, thinking your feet are dinner. This is both thrilling and terrifying.

Next place of note is the Fairy Pools (their true designated name, not my own invention). These swirling eddies are like a natural spa. It’s another place to bathe, if you dare, though their true beauty can really only be experienced from the other side of the river. Then it becomes a world of wildflowers and long grasses that tumble downwards to the water’s edge.

Further we go, and we will likely see a family of black swans gliding about. I remember when there were only three fully grown swans; then a terrible thunderstorm arrived, shaking everything up, taking tree branches down as if an angry giant had stomped through the land, and flooding the river. Only two swans remained after that, and I presumed the third to be a casualty. However the next year I was delighted to see several fuzzy grey cygnets following the pair that had remained unscathed.

The Rainbow Falls are close now as you continue to wind through tall, straight trees. You’ll start to hear in the distance the thrumming of water cascading down. Turning a corner, you’ll see mists funnelling towards you, the effervescent spray coating your face. 

The mists curl up, veiling the large, impressive falls. Finally you are there, and if the sun and mist are just right there will indeed be shimmering rainbows suspended in the air. You have reached your destination, and a simple wooden bench allows you to sit and take time to gaze into the falls, and perhaps contemplate for a while the walk you just had.

From a personal perspective this walk has provided an endless scope of inspiration. I’ve written poetry and vignettes using the terrain as backdrop. In my mind it lends itself to mythical and magical creatures—it’s very easy to imagine it being a portal to a phantasmagorical world of dryads, nymphs and sprites, of oracles and talking trees, with perhaps a taniwha buried deep in a watery cavern alongside the eels.

Rainbow Falls

Serenity in the Garden City

No photo description available.
Botanical Gardens – Autumn 2020

There is always that one place that you hold near and dear to you. The place you go to when all else fails, the place you go to because it makes you happy. There could be many places that spark the joy within you, that give you your best ideas and allow you to seek the freedom you desire. The Christchurch Botanic Gardens is my place. Whatever day, whichever season, it’s the one place that is guaranteed to make me happy. 

Every time I go for a wander down the stone-covered paths I am entrapped by the beauty surrounding it. Each step provides a different motive to keep going forward, and even when you think you have seen it all, a new path will pop up, one that you haven’t explored yet. While most of the tracks are pretty straightforward, there are some that cross over and leave you slightly lost. Though that is half the beauty of the place. 

The best thing about this area is that it’s a stone’s throw away from some of the city’s biggest attractions, so even if it’s not in the itinerary of visitors, it can still be appreciated by them. The tram and the Christchurch City Cathedral are only a 7-minute walk away, the museum is located at the fountain entrance, the art gallery is across the road and some of the more historic features and buildings that Christchurch has to offer are conveniently located on the surrounding streets. 

My favourite entrance is ironically through the noisiest one—by the playground—because this gives me the longest route of walking to get to the best destination. The walk starts off at the beginning of the street; if you drive in, it’ll start at the car park, but then you’ll miss half the beauty. The street entrance takes you down a man-made path along the Avon River. Big trees encase you onto the track, and if you’re lucky enough to go in autumn, the colours are an outstanding shade of orange and rust, helping to make the river look so delicate under the sun’s lighting. As you crunch your way to the park’s official entrance there is nothing but silence, punctuated by the occasional runner, transporting you from the hustle and bustle of the CBD to the makeshift forest’s quiet, where it seems sound has been forbidden. It’s a welcome change that allows even city dwellers to enjoy peace.

The maze of the garden trails is a juxtaposition of the straight, flat roads that make up the city. The park is very open, almost as if it was designed for fresh air and foot traffic. While the entrances provide most of the population of the park, during your stay, it’s almost as if you could have the whole park to yourself. The locals are extremely friendly, which makes the place feel even more spectacular. With every passing person, a simple smile or a cheerful ‘good morning’ will be experienced, nothing more than that needs to be said in order for you to feel like the place is homely. 

The rose garden sits in the centre of the park and is host to many a rose bush, but the unique thing about this particular part of the botanics is that it’s closed off to the rest of the greenery. The wooden arches create an almost door-like entry to the bushes. A garden inside a garden, with the only difference being the colours it has to offer. Walking through the middle of the rose garden is as symbolic as releasing doves at a wedding, the colours of pink, red, yellow and orange pushing the serenity of the peaceful place. There are four entrances into this area of the gardens, and right in the centre lies a beautiful fountain. Which brings comfort to both the foreigners and the locals.  

The one focus point that brings me back time and time again lives past the duckpond, right at the beginning of the car park entrance. Its flowers attract the attention of many, and there is no way that if you were to visit the gardens, you would miss it. The spring season is when it is in its prime. This cherry blossom tree is a single reminder of the beautiful world we live in. It is beautiful from any angle so everyone can appreciate it without the need to wait until other people move out of the way. With the changing seasons, the beauty of this tree changes, and at each visit you will be treated to this difference. Autumn is one of the better seasons, when the leaves are dying and falling, but the tree always remains ever so elegant.

The paths are made up of different terrain, with each step being a welcome reminder that you are no longer in the city, almost as if you have been transported to another world entirely. The water fountain that sits at the museum entrance is the only indication that time is still moving. 

There are many secret spots in the gardens where you can fully isolate yourself from the outside world. I have enjoyed many summer and autumn days sitting in this garden, reflecting on life and writing some of my best poetry. Something about the open freshness of the place inspires me to get into my artistic groove. If art isn’t your thing, there are so many other things that you can be inspired to do. People watching is an excellent example. Since the garden is a main tourist attraction, you come across a variety of different people, making scenarios is never a dull moment with the international scene that is offered. 

While the pathways symbolise freedom and difference, it is also a great place for downtime, exploring, and having some fresh air, and above all it provides an amazing opportunity to get fit and be in touch with nature—something we often took for granted pre-COVID times but now cherish. 

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.