Sisters of Mercy

This place gave me:

– a best friend;

– countless get-out-of-PE passes to play the viola, signed off by a music teacher too keen to be our friend;

– an alto’s addiction to singing harmonies;

– a love for English words and Latin incantations;

– a single solitary term of te reo Māori taught by a Swedish teacher, lovely but ill-equipped to inspire that deep-time, re-worlding kind of love;

– a loyal group of friends that now either have children or talk about having children, which makes me feel both utterly warm and entirely alien;

– the shame of too-big second-hand blazers;

– the good girl’s quest to gather excellence credits like thousands of luminous spheres;

– the inability to name and ask for what I want;

– the third speaker’s way: rebut, rebut, rebut;

– a bemused appreciation for the dexterity of religious education teachers and their attempts to find tolerable loopholes for our intolerable parts of the Catechism;

– a drive for social justice and mercy;

– a denial of self-mercy;

– a disposition to be a dancing monkey for unimaginative ends;

– the training to speak like a public relations consultant instead of a messy, exuberant, whirligig thing;

– an abiding love for peach plaster and kitsch rituals;

– the loss that comes with being a ‘winner.’

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Retellings

Somewhere someone is sitting in a car outside a bar, the rug of their life pulled out beneath them just this morning. Somewhere someone is running out of battery. Somewhere someone is closing down a project with a winking promise to re-start it twenty five years from now. Somewhere someone is weeping into their bowl of barley soup, tears chalking their tastebuds. Somewhere someone is genuflecting at the trunk of a prolific ginkgo. Somewhere someone is selling clothes on a Saturday.  Somewhere someone is surfing with seals. Somewhere someone is removing an item from their carefully-calculated shopping basket. Somewhere someone is lying under the ground, roses still fragrant about them. Somewhere someone is climbing a mountain they shouldn’t be climbing. Somewhere someone is reckoning with unflattering feedback. Somewhere someone is finally stripping off that wood chip wallpaper. Somewhere someone is listening to a man’s ugly bellow, eyes glazing over in a contradiction of frozen flight. Somewhere someone is shivering on a concrete floor in unwashed clothes, skin raw with fungus and fear. Somewhere someone is browsing flights back home for Christmas on SkyScanner. Somewhere someone is attending a market research screening of a locally-produced film starring Daniel Radcliffe. Somewhere someone is sharing their coins. Somewhere someone is counting the number of different yellows in a winter valley. Somewhere someone is waking a child up from a nap and half-listening to their day’s retellings.

Juggling

Since I left my teaching job I have simultaneously stretched my mind and cramped my instincts. These two things should not be possible together. In some respects I have become crunchier and curlier but in others I have become more slick and straight. The slickness is exhausting – not unlike an oil slick, iridescent shine belying feather-gunking suffocation.

Every interaction feels like a test or assessment at the moment. I race ahead to predict how each possible phrase might land and carefully select the best one for the occasion. I pause, clasp my hands, avoid fillers, but also avoid anything like an exchange. I am on eternal trial, my choices either the making or the breaking of me.

When I was a teenager I won a prize for gaining the top mark in the national classical studies exam. At the Beehive, after accepting the award from the Governor General, my school principal approached me and said, “well done on the award but just imagine what more you could have achieved if you hadn’t been head girl.” Just imagine.

A Reader’s Digest/Digress

An incomplete scratch of a list of media digested back in February. I meant to flesh out these notes into a post but never did. I’ll never quite know how I would have articulated the digressive threads of my media diet but perhaps the list is enough as is. I want to be less spelly-outy, anyway. A strange thing about becoming a teacher is that you have to learn to be clear and direct, which paradoxically dilutes the mystery required of a reverent (or irreverent) supplicant to language – a trait you so desperately want to affirm in your students. Any opportunities for students to join the dots must be planned out and deliberately delivered as ‘discovery learning.’ It is kinder and more democratic to take everyone on the same journey (an essential edu-cliché) rather than leave curly allusions uninvestigated or cryptic lines hanging like indulgent dust motes in the fractious air between students. But that clarity and directness sounds dull and didactic outside of the classroom. Which makes me wonder if it even has a place in the classroom after all. It will be my life’s work to abandon and unlearn the knowing tone of a trumped up teacher. Didacticism and auto-didactisism would have to be the thread this list:

Educated, Tara Westover (autodidactism, not knowing, thirst, binary family split of PhDs and zero formal education – all or nothing: eduction is addictive, worlding, re-worlding, un-worlding; climbing a perilous roof with abandon because you have the same two feet as you do on the ground),

Not Working, Josh Cohen (idleness is necessary; keep hobbies as hobbies, not hustles),

Perfectionism meditation podcast, Tara Brach (making me think of misplaced ‘vulnerability’ at work, where presenting one’s faults is less like a liberation and more like the biosecurity line at customs – I will declare this so that I can’t be punished for it),

Not Your Negro film (ugliness and lyricism forever twinned, squirming through the decades and pulsing through the screen in colonised New Zealand),

Free Solo film (climbing with privilege and oblivion; the universal void of fatherly disapproval yawns not far below),

Email Newsletters: Austin Kleon, Anne Peterson, Warren Ellis, Victoria Hannan (the treat of delivery; regularity like a metronome of hyperlinks to other worlds; freedom from the linkless land of Instgram, where the arrogant totality of the sealed square reigns supreme),

Deconstructions, Michael Frayn (discovered recently in the Red Cross op shop but recommended many years ago by Michael Hutching (not Hutchings) – a teacher, a friend, a chronic vacationer and sharer of holiday snaps in class (what else is school for?)),

Never Enough: The Neuroscience and Experience of AddictionJudith Grisel (frightening and familiar and another grimacing corkscrew through the decades);

Ariel, Sylvia Plath (thinking about the gifts of neurodiversity but also the life-truncating peril of pathology – what is real? Both?).

 

 

Waitangi Day 2019

I am scared of the Treaty. I am scared of Waitangi Day. Not because it threatens my place here in Aotearoa as a European settler. No, precisely the opposite. I am scared of Waitangi Day because it secures my place here in Aotearoa as a European settler.

The Treaty principles (1975) speak of partnership and imply biculturalism. In the past my problem with these terms is that they were under-realised, under-honoured, or even under attack by the dominant Pākehā culture. But this year my misgivings have migrated to the level of the concepts themselves. Many seem to take this as an ongoing fact: if iwi and the British crown first signed the Treaty then that makeup (European/Pākehā and Māori) is what counts today as far as biculturalism and ‘power-sharing’ is concerned. This is what I mean when I say I am scared of the Treaty. Not only does the Treaty seem to edify and entitle European settlers and their descendants to a greedy share of the power pie at all, but the Treaty also reifies one relationship and enshrines it. What about the whakapapa and manaakitanga that tangata whenua share across the mighty Pacific? What about the incredible non-Indigenous but non-European communities that have been in these islands of Aotearoa since the 19th Century? Or more recently, for that matter – what about newer migrants and refugees? The Treaty makes Euro descendants too comfortable here. Too comfortable with our assumed version of governance and culture, too comfortable with seizing a quasi-Indigenous status, too comfortable forgetting about our own wilful transplantation across the earth. There is nothing wrong with being a traveler, a relocator, or a migrant. Migration is often one of the highest acts of hope, courage, and grace. But it is graceless to arrive, transform a place to your image, and do your darnedest to erase the rich language and systems by which this land was already occupied and accounted for, not to mention the bodies and minds that did that accounting. This lack of grace is not an act of evil but a failure of imagination; an unchallenged, incurious obliviousness to worlds other than your own. Iwi, hapū, and whānau survivance is at once miraculous and obvious: of course they fought and keep fighting to secure the ways of being and knowing that best serve and make sense of this place. Not a blind fight for the sake of power, but a carefully-imagined line of knowledge. Since these ways of being and knowing have been actively suppressed, they have had to be actively imagined and reimagined. If evil is banal then imagination is the opposite. Imagination is grace.

Grace is missing in the way that those signing moments of the Treaty are overblown and allowed to disproportionately govern the way Pākehā then and now expect power – especially seeing as some iwi chose not to sign, and those that did sign never ceded sovereignty. Rather than Māori and Pākehā, biculturalism really means iwi and tauiwi: those with Indigenous ancestry here and those with ancestry from other lands. The language and the (as yet unfulfilled) practises of biculturalism and partnership might be insufficient but perhaps they are necessary – not as a positivist politics or desired end point, but as a way of being now. Waitangi Day is good for something: it forces me to be a creator rather than a consumer of meaning. To read, puzzle, question, and synthesise. And to write. I cannot passively soak up the narratives of the day. Waitangi Day is, therefore, a heuristic or learning device that pushes me off the tarmac of sealed surety. No bitumen here; no optimal way to encounter Waitangi Day. Colonisation is a structure and not just an event. This one event and this one anachronistic, poor faith, breached treaty (at least on the crown side of things) is insufficient as a way to grapple with the structure of settler-colonialism, but is necessary all the same. Waitangi Day is not the answer, but it at least gives me some hope that there may be an answer ahead: some way out of the inequities and topsy-turvy power arrangements that we Pākehā enact or, more to the point, reenact today.

My hope here and now on Waitangi Day 2019 is that I can keep that small heuristic hope as a motivator and not let the lack of an answer be a de-motivator. I want to remember that tension creates amplitude and space for possibility. So I hope for less surety, less reenactment of consumed narratives, and words that can start tiny revolutions of the imagination.

Here are my previous Waitangi Day thoughts – reading back on them I can see the tiny shifts and expansion in how and what I’ve been able to think and do:

Waitangi 2016

Waitangi 2017

Waitangi 2018

A Reader’s Digest/Digress

A reader’s digest, complete with digressions.

Everyone knows the link between reading and writing. As Nora Ephron says, “reading is grist, reading is bliss.” If you want to be a writer you have to be a reader; it’s reciprocally enriching – you are what you eat. But sometimes I have a case of the more I know, the more I know I don’t know. The more I read and listen and watch, the more the paralysis sets in. Everyone has said it; everything has been made so knowable, and in such an elegant or ironical or lyrical way. I can’t possibly contribute – all I feel is fog.

Something has to change. Because when it comes to reading I no longer believe that you are are what you eat. All eating has done is usher in moments of recognition followed fast by fogginess and bloating. Instead I now commit to this: you are what you digest. So here is my reader’s digest, complete with digressions. I am chronically distracted; I cannot adhere to a straight line or a straight review. But let’s see what lines emerge from my tumble of media consumption. I don’t place books above other forms of media. Books are beautiful but articles, lectures, interviews, films, tv, poems, and podcasts are fair game for digestion, too. Of course part of me knows that this insistence on the quality of media sources other than books is a self-soothing kind of permission slip. Academic or investigative articles may be brilliant but often come to me via Twitter accounts or email newsletters: excellent selections or plugs from people that I trust and admire, but such curation comes to me most often via distraction and addiction and the abandonment of the little life of my own work. Even when I’m not at a screen trying to get work done I don’t always let myself stretch my legs and get off the media train. Podcasts keep me company a little too often when I am cooking or walking. I need to get back to enjoying just hanging out with my own mind. It is my tentative hope that future instalments of this Digest/Digress may contain less internet-based media. Not because such media possess inferior quality, but because I yearn for a different, if not superior, quality of life.

It has been a big week in Aotearoa New Zealand for sexual assault stories. Perhaps even more traumatic than the trauma inflicted (impossible, utterly impossible, but almost) is the poor apportioning of consequences to the perpetrators. I am not for prison as a solution, but I am for responsibility and acknowledgement and apology and transformation. To witness remorse is a healing thing. To know that the harm will not transmit, transmute, mutate into the next iteration of pain is an even greater peace. But we’re not doing well on any of these fronts. This week I’ve read excellently reported stories of the Roastbusters and terribly reported stories of (hastily retired) Massey University Head of Journalism Grant Hannis. My skin roils with an infestation of dis-ease: the kind of disgust that telegraphs us back to our own moments of violation. I tell myself it’s good to be informed; that reading these stories is almost an act of solidarity with the survivors and victims: if they can’t opt out of their nightmare then why should I have that luxury? But that almost is important – it is not solidarity. Information is not action. Can words count as action? I know, for sure, that the absence of words can signal inaction, as in the terribly bleak case of Lyn Dawson. Missing, most likely murdered, but not spoken for. No one agitated for her. No one spoke aloud their misgivings. Maxine Beneba Clarke has just become the poet laureate for The Saturday Paper in Melbourne. Her brief is to write a poem in response to the world at her feet each week. Her first contribution makes me feel that words might matter. Melbourne has seen its own fresh hell of violent rapes and murders of femmes, and Clarke makes the point that so many of us suffer at home, in the dark, without spotlight or mourning. But Clarke’s words came on the same day that I learned of the public vigil for Xi Wang. Finally named; finally remembered. Naming is powerful. But there have been other times this week where, despite reading powerful testimony to the contrary, I lost my faith in the potency of calling things by their true names.

On Saturday, in a perpendicular fold at the waist, I half-stood-half-lay at the bed as a familiar dull throb of something like depression sat in my throat. Ryan entered the room and sat near me on the floor, saying nothing. He waited long enough that my numb little thrum turned to pins and needles. Like a tentative blood supply returning to pressed nerves I started pricking and picking out threads from the knot of nothing. Not nothing, after all, but something. Isn’t depression a reasonable response to witnessing pain and suffering and creeping environmental oblivion and systemic racism, I asked? Isn’t it rational to become numb after feeling so much? After feeling and trying and failing and feeling and trying and failing and feeling and try-. I listened to Robin Diangelo’s lecture on the Wheeler Centre podcast last night in the bathroom as I combed oil through my hair. Everything she said sounded familiar, except the part where she (a white lady – a white, progressive lady) said out loud and with full, personal pronoun-filled, active voice: “I am racist.” Not because she feels superior or performs aggressions or cruelties or personal slurs, but because she benefits from systemic racism. I suppose that utterance is what must have pressed down onto my sensory nerves. Not a fragile, knee-reflexive denial but a whole-hearted, open-palmed YES – me too, that’s me. I am the nice, informed, empathetic, well-worded, service-minded, yet inexorably racist person, too.

The pressure of that hypocrisy – the knowledge and inchoate acceptance of it – must have started to press on my nerve endings (fragile, after all). I live in a borrowed house on a heavily white-populated island in a gulf that was peacefully and productively and meaningfully occupied for centuries before I came to be here. In conversation with Toni via Instagram’s DM backchannel I realised that each day I visit the little promontory near our house and look out at the bay in order to swap my personal wavelets of worry for those soft sea swells. How dare I critique settler-colonialism when my own heart and health rests upon the knowledge of the sea; when my own shelter and residence rests upon the title of the stolen land. I’ve felt like making myself small and dialling down my voice – my loud, privileged, racism-enabled voice – and started questioning the merits of language. In another Instagram DM backchannel Betty talked about words as acts: that using words to unsettle fellow settlers is a legitimate contribution, increasing understanding and awareness and rippling outwards. I was sceptical but when forced to think about my own ways in to colonial consciousness I had to admit that they had all come from reading the writing of settler-colonial theorists and poets.

My next concern, though, is why that consciousness matters – what can we do with it; how can we mobilise our understanding and shame and horror and curiosity toward liberation? Even though my privilege (my racism) allows me day-to-day freedom, I am not truly free until all are free. The is not what matters, anyhow. Any priority placed upon an I not only centres me and my privileged experience, but it centres human beings – all those beings that occupy an I as they traverse their tiny speck of time on earth. We (all of the I‘s) should not be the units which matter most. Decolonisation is nothing more and nothing less than a new-old (past, present, future) world order for the overthrow of anthropocentrism. Last year my thesis supervisors listened to some of these themes and commented that I seemed to have let myself get caught up in an ethical tangle. One of my weaknesses is that my first reaction to appraisal is often one of incense. But their words have stuck with me and my first reaction abides: isn’t is necessary to be in an ethical tangle? Is there any other way to be? I am scared of people who do not sit with tangles and tension – scared of those who attempt to extricate themselves from their necessary ensnarement in nets of ethical concerns. The trick, of course, is to avoid becoming so tangled as to become unable to move or act or think or give. But that disavowal of I, the simple demotion of people from the podium of importance might be the way. If am not important, then my shame and horror and guilt are not important. I can act and contribute because the I-on-a-pedastal has died. The heart-head knowledge of the sea and the safety-shelter of the land have to work for everyone. We can’t transcend a people-first mentality if we’re still not recognising the personhood of all people. We need to take up as little space as possible – and by that I mean in the sense of domination. Expression is different: there is space, enough, for expression and words and earnest (yet ever-tangled) acts. Infinite space. So perhaps we need words to chip away at domination over our fellow I’s and over this earth, in this small corner of space. Infinite space.

There’s always the possibility that this bigger-than-human logic is just another self-soothing free pass.

But I digress.

 

2018: Best-Ofs Pt. 2

“The past is beautiful because one never realises an emotion at the time. It expands later, & thus we don’t have complete emotions about the present, only about the past.”
—Virginia Woolf

I think the inverse could be true for books. Books are so immediate – I need to be reading them right then and there to feel it all. The precise emotions disappear too soon after reading, leaving a memory of a feeling so maddeningly indistinct and impressionistic that all articulation becomes trite and balkingly incomplete. I find most book reviews painful to read. Reviewers can be more concerned with their own flourishes than paying tribute to those of their subjects. Or sometimes their attempts to pay tribute are so sycophantic that they accidentally embark upon an embarrassing errand of imitation. This year I read a review of Hera Lindsay Bird’s chapbook written in a style so strivingly similar to the poet’s own – so much so that I felt physically sick. At the same time I live for reviews. I have to read about a work after I’ve experienced it. Even to read a plot summary is strangely soothing. Ah, yes, that’s how it unfolded, and someone else has witnessed it, too. So a poorly written review is a wretched thing, but even the bad ones help ease my prickly passage through a curly work. All that said, these are not reviews. Just a list of favourite reads from the past year. And not even an exhaustive list at that.

Teju Cole – Blind Spot. I was so bowled over by Cole’s live photography criticism at the Auckland Writers Festival last year but it took me a while to follow up. This work contains 150 of his photographs, each paired with a precise paragraph. Sometimes it’s obvious but other times the connection between image and text is like a Where’s Wally experience. Like your favourite not-instagrammy instagram account turned into pages and bound in delicious green. No blind spot here – Cole can see, really see.

Olivia Laing – Crudo. I know, I know, the biggest Trump-Brexit-shitshow-era novel we’ve all been waiting for. I first heard about this novel via a tweet from Max Harris, of ‘politics of love’ fame. I love his work and the fact that anything that this academic visionary touches can’t help but take on some of his earnest aura. But there was nothing earnest about this book. Apocalypse NOW. This book is filled with queasy, despairing observations borrowed from all of our selfish, squirming minds. Laing mocks the comfort of the blind spot and the long-expired legitimacy of ignorance:
“Ten years ago, maybe even five, it was possible to ignore atrocities, to believe that these things happened somewhere else, in a different order of reality from your own. Now, perhaps because of the internet, it was like the blind spot had got very small, and motional like a marble. You couldn’t rely on it. You could go on holiday but you knew corpses washed up there, if not now then then, or later.”

Elif Batuman – The Idiot. I read this one on the train from London to Glasgow. Something was unfurling and waking up in me after a numb, numb time. Perfect timing, this was yet another favourite from my 2018 stack that featured an anxious writer writing about writing (or not writing): “Even though I had a deep conviction that I was good at writing, and that in some way I already was a writer, this conviction was completely independent of my having ever written anything, or being able to imagine ever writing anything, that I thought anyone would like to read.” HA.

Sheila Heti – Motherhood. The best book I read this year. A novel that made me love novels again. Even great fiction-writers fall into cringey behaviour and pull too heavily on the privilege of suspended disbelief. But this novel didn’t feel like a novel. It felt like a personal essay. Three years, three coins, and one question. But it’s not really one question, is it. “What am I – not my behaviour or my roles, but this burning light inside me that is laughing all the time.” Heti tells us it’s about hope, purpose, futurity, and care. With or without children.

Sally Rooney – Normal People. It wouldn’t be a 2018 reading list without this title. Even Kim Hill weighed in and named it the best. Well CWF was better, sorry. But I read this one in a day when we returned from the UK and it helped distract me from my thesis woes. Had many tense talks with Grace over Marianne and Connell:
H: If they were so smart (as the narrator irritatingly insisted) then why couldn’t they communicate with each other?
G: That’s what it’s like to be young, Hannah. You’ve forgotten already.