little red jottings

when a little red pen wanders off the page

Things not to do in lockdown

At some point in these troubled times, an unholy blend of optimism, desperation and boredom will lead you to contemplate cutting your partner’s hair. Do not do it.* Here’s why.

  1. The videos won’t help. You’ll watch cheerful online tutorials about how easy it is. The clippers will move fast, the scissors will snip away and it will all look fine. It’s not. Those clippers are moving fast because the person wielding them knows what they’re doing. You do not.
  2. You need a proper clipper set and scissors. We had two broken clippers, one with a non-functioning length guide and the other totally underpowered. Turns out, this wasn’t quite good enough. We were a bit far in when we realised that.
  3. The kids will want to get involved. Probably the pets too. They will bring mirrors, smart-arsery, demands for hot chocolate, minor first aid emergencies and an extra level of volume you don’t need. That’s the kids, not the pets. The pets will just get under your feet.
  4. You’ll think you can watch telly while you clip. You’ll either miss your show or get mesmerised and make a terrible mistake. Your choice.
  5. At some point, you will realise you can’t go back, you don’t know how to go forward and your partner hasn’t yet looked in the mirror. This is when all the personalities in your family unit will come out to play.
  6. There are technical skills involved. When the people on the videos talk about blending and so forth, take note. You don’t know how to blend. You’ll realise that when you have long hair on top, very clipped on the bottom and no idea how to merge them elegantly. They also talk about things like the crown of the head, the hairline, the bit where the head starts to round out, all kinds of shit. None of this stuff is where you think it is.
  7. The clipper batteries will run out. When this happened, we should have put in a new pair. We did not. We said fuck it and went to bed. You’ll wake up in the morning and regret that.
  8. The hair goes everywhere. You’ll need to wash everything. By the time you’ve survived the haircut, you won’t want to face the clean up.
  9. There’s no fallback. You can’t go to the hairdresser if it goes horribly wrong because they’re all closed which is why you’re in this pickle in the first place, you can’t order a new clipper set online because non-essential purchases are banned although for a brief moment this will feel like the most essential thing there is, and you can’t put the hair back.
  10. It’s lockdown. You’re in a house with this person for the next month at least. You’ll be looking at your handiwork almost constantly. No-one needs that.

Okay from the front

Not okay from the back

* Obviously, if you’re a pro or you’ve done this before, it’s fine. But the novices should think carefully before picking up those scissors. You’ll do it anyway, I’m already trying to figure out the next cut, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Signals in the dark

It’s 8.15pm. We turn off the lights in the sitting room, switch off the lamps, close the doors to kitchen and hallway. Rabbit stands on a chair so he can see over the hedge to our friends’ house and holds a torch firm against the window. We stand with him, caught in the primal tap of light and dark. Click. Click. Click and hold. Click and hold. Click and hold. From across the valley comes an answering signal. Flash. Flash. Long flash. Long flash. Long flash. It’s night two of lockdown.

I can only find the Morse code for numbers one to ten when I search the internet. The rest will be there, but I wonder how many I will need. At least 28, we have been told, but I hear whispers of more. Maybe 100, maybe 400 – the truth is, we will need as many as it takes.

In the night, I lie awake, my thought tumbling like sheets in a dryer. They tangle and spool, going nowhere. When morning comes, I shake them out, fold them neatly, but the creases are still there. In the bathroom mirror, I see that the creases under my eyes are deeper too. My hair is longer than usual and my face looks both younger and older. In a pandemic, I am all ages, young girl, old woman and everything between. The ancestors are close and one day the descendants will rise.

We are all gentler with each other and hug often. We laugh too and our language is looser. We take turns to flare, the stress and boredom catching fire. The older boy, often a worrier, is the calmest. He carries his brother to bed and has long, rambling conversations with him. The little one, our social butterfly and weathervane, is trying to make sense of it all and starting to fear contamination. “I think we should keep doing some things when this is over, like washing our hands,” he says, and my heart sinks. Stay grubby, I want to whisper.

In the days, we try to make a pattern out of the jumble. We created a schedule and lesson plan, which felt reassuring, exciting even. By the second day, they were a joke. We ordered groceries last weekend and they will be delivered on Monday, a full week later. We have all the privileges of money and resources. Our pantry and freezer are well-stocked and we have enough in the garden to fill in the gaps. I play at being a country goddess, coaxing meals out of what we have, stretching the odd ends of things. I know it’s a game not everyone can play. I know it’s a game that will grow old and get harder. The cooking and dishes never stop. I wonder how many forks and bowls four people really need to use.

On social media, we are all in the dark trying to find the light. We post a poem, share the news, show each other our houses, gardens, families, bring our classes and communities online, push a joke to see how far it will hold. They’re faulty signals, they flicker and pulse. We read under them for the hidden messages. I’m scared. I’m tired. I have hope. I don’t know what to do anymore. We’ve got this. I don’t know if we can survive four weeks together. I’m glad to stop, to slow down. We’re winnowing, finding the things we want to keep. There’s so much to do. I’m going under, overwhelmed. I like my kids, my partner – it’s good to be together. What will we find, here at home, with nothing but ourselves to fall back on? I see you, I hear you. You’re not alone. The absent ones send signals too. I haven’t posted in days. I’ve gone quiet, gone to ground. I’m not coping. It’s all too much. I’m keeping myself safe, drawing a protective cloak tight. Not everyone has these lifelines and I fear for their isolation.

* * * * * * * *

Signals are everywhere in nature. In the flowers, deep in the soil. Through tree roots and forest crowns, in fungi and birds and fish. We’ve disrupted too many of these signals, or put them out, snuffed candles in the chapel. With all of us made still, out of our cars, grounded, there is hope that Papatūānuku can rest and heal, recharge. But we will need to remake ourselves if that is to happen, take this time to learn how to do everything differently, perhaps the way we once did, perhaps in ways we’ve never done before. Faith and doubt lose meaning against those odds – we are down to dumb luck.

I call my Dad most days. His memory slips but he knows there’s a virus on the loose. He’s been grumpy about being in a rest home but now he feels safe, happy to have the world at bay and regular meals and care. The staff take the residents outside as often as possible and he likes the sun on his face. He would rather climb a mountain with a pack on his back and his brother by his side, but for now the courtyard will do. He thinks his father planted the garden, and the pride lifts his shoulders.

My greatest fear is that the virus will sneak its way in and he will die alone, in hospital with a tube down his throat. Wrapped in plastic, with plastic-wrapped doctors and nurses. No-one to hold his hand, sing him out. I fear this for myself and for everyone I love. Tangihanga and funerals are cancelled, weddings too. When this is over, the trauma will linger for generations. I don’t know if we have the strength or the tools to turn it around.

Going out is a challenge. I scope the hazards, set down the rules for how we will stay safe. “You’re very good at this,” Ian says. “Like a soldier.” The affirmation worries me. My anxiety is not an asset in peacetime. When we get home, we take our shoes off at the door and leave them outside. We walk carefully through the house and strip in the laundry. The clothes go straight in the machine. We take a shower, wash it all off. The water pressure is pathetic and we stand in a tub too narrow for the two of us, but we hold each other and turn slowly so we both get turns under the water. My body, then his. My body, then his.

This day, too, will end. Dot. Dot. Dot. Dash. Dash.

Dot. Dot. Dot. Dash. Dash.

Dot. Dot. Dot. Dash. Dash.

Dot. Dot. Dot. Dash. Dash.


Animals in the wild

A French artist Sophie Photographe has plastered images of animals around the city, so of course we went out to find them. The first is a giraffe called Jeffrey and we also have a giraffe called Jeffrey so it was a no-brainer to start there. Clues for the rest are in a video.

With two slightly cranky parents, a grandfather, a nine-year-old boy, a much-smaller-than-the-wall-Jeffrey-but-still-quite-bulky-to-carry-around giraffe, and a break for afternoon tea, we managed to find them all in about three hours.

They make the city better, the animals. They’re strange, other-worldly creatures that look surprisingly at home in dark lanes and on scraggy walls. And looking for them, you realise how many great alleyways and backs of buildings and gates and doors Dunedin has.

It’s a wild world out there. Get into it.

Quince and cabbage

I didn’t think cabbage would be the thing to break a year-long blogging drought, but there you go. I made dinner, it was good, I want to share it.

The base recipe is Nigel-ish, with a bit of Jamie perhaps.

We had this with fish braised with lemon and white wine, a green leaves and apple salad, hasselback potatoes and a carrot and orange salad.

1 quince, quartered, cored and sliced
¼ cabbage, finely shredded
mix of fennel, cumin and cardamon seeds
1-2T grapeseed or other plain oil
1-2T white wine vinegar

Boil the quince in water until it is just on the edge of tenderness.

Drain and combine with the shredded cabbage.

Toast the spices in a dry pan.

Heat the oil in a deep frying pan, then add the quince and cabbage until the cabbage is softened but still has a little bite.

Add the spices, white wine vinegar and salt. Cook a little longer, then serve.

A very bookish sort of Mothers’ Day

I don’t know why I do a Mothers’ Day post every year, but I do. Although this one is so late, it’s sort of morphing into the birthday post and really, it’s just about books.

The Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival was on in mid-May. It was exhausting and wonderful. I went to a creative writing workshop with Glenn Colquhoun and if you ever get the chance to go to any sort of anything with him, do not even blink, just go. It was scary as all get out and then it was affirming and then it gave me what I needed. Dirty up your writing, he said. I ask you, how could you not love a man like that? I heard the lovely Emma Neale and Barbara Brookes read from their new books, discovered Ian Rankin, Victor Rodger, John Lanchester and Stella Duffy, rediscovered Bill Manhire and remembered The Magic Faraway Tree, took Rabbit to hear Selina Tusitala Marsh deliver the keynote address and then learn about making books about bees and monsters, lost it at the circle of laureates when Rob Tuwhare sang his Dad’s poetry, cried again with my sister listening to the marvellous and compassionate Emily Writes, thought about family and memory with Ashleigh Young and Adam Dudding and then crawled home and tried, not very successfully, to reintegrate myself into family and work. I was so happy, thinking and listening, angling towards the light, towards words laid together just so, towards ideas and wairua and the song of it all. I couldn’t be there all the time, attuned like that, but for a few days it fed me.



A little bit more of this

I read an Enid Blyton story to Rabbit last night — a morally saturated tale about a girl who missed a trip to the seaside because she stopped to help a boy who fell off his bike while her friend ran on to get the bus and didn’t tell the teacher to wait, but it all worked out because the boy’s mother was both grateful and had a sports car so she took the girl and the boy to the beach anyway and they got there at the same time as the bus even though they had to stop and clean up the boy’s knee because sports car and morals and then the boy and the girl became friends and played happily together every week because they were both kind.

So, cheers for all that instruction, Enid, but it did lead to a conversation with Rabbit about kindness. First, he declared that he would definitely stop to help the boy and take him to his (the boy’s) house and if they didn’t have any bandaids there, he would bring the boy to our house and one of the adults would fix up his knee. And then he told me about how his friend was riding his bike and the front wheel hit a rock and the friend fell off and got a cut on his knee and Rabbit took him to the sick bay. “How did it work?” I asked. “Could he walk or did you have to help him?” “Oh, we held hands and walked together,” said Rabbit.

And it’s sappy, but I actually think that would be great, if everyone took the time to hold their friend’s hand and walk with them to the sick bay when they fall off their bike.

Slow on the uptake

So, I’m halfway through my week of holiday and I’m not fully there yet with the relaxing because work and kids and lists, but I’m more relaxed, which is progress. And the kids are cool.

But the most amazing thing happened last night, which is that I discovered that you can order and pay for pizza online and set a time for when you want to pick it up. So when you’ve spent an hour at the sports stadium watching the 11-year-olds play futsal and the 6 and 7-year-olds roll around on the floor being animals (I mean, not like badly behaved, but like beavers or hedgehogs or puppies or something) and it’s been a long, hot day and no-one is listening and there’s still bedtime to deal with, you can just swing in by the pizza shop and let the 6-year-old run into the shop and emerge a couple of minutes later carrying one box of pizza with the shop man in tow carrying the other one. And then you can sprint down to them and take the shop man’s box and apologise and it’s all cool because he’s a nice person and it’s a warm night and you haven’t had to stand in the shop for twenty minutes negotiating with the kids about toppings and bases and sauces and yes, the dairy-free one needs corn on it, but no, not quorn because that shit is weird and yes, he’s dairy-free but also he would like fifteen kinds of meat and yes, the other one can have dairy but he’s vegetarian but also very fond of seafood so calamari would be awesome and trying to read the menu and decipher the combo options and price everything up and then wait agonised while the kids whine about being hungry and where’s my pizza and I’m so BORED because you did all of that already without the waiting. In fact, so genius is this system that the order you gritted your teeth through a month ago is recorded on the website, so all you had to do was find your password, delete your pizza because are you kidding, why would I eat pizza when I could have homemade minestrone instead and exactly the way I like it because everyone else is eating pizza and find your credit card because you can never remember the little three-digit number thing from the back and calculate a pick-up time based on the duration of two soccer matches and getting two children in the car and driving back through town. Which, comparatively, felt really fucking simple.

And this is why, at the grand age of 41, I still believe in trying new things and being open to change and finding out stuff that I really should know already. Because some of us just take a bit longer, is all.

Harvest and lists

20170219_122613You probably won’t be startled to learn that I’m a list maker. Some lists bring me joy (condiments, books, Christmas shopping), some give me a sense of order (chores, morning and evening tasks, cheap family meals), others either stem or generate a rising sense of panic depending on how long they are, their timeframe and my general state of mind (things to do, people to get in touch with, jobs to be done in the house or garden, groceries).

20170219_210119I usually list vertically, then scatter extra items around the page as I run out of room, but sometimes I mind map. I did that for parenting tricks, and it’s the list I like best on a fridge covered in the damn things. I used Wunderlist when I was running a business and I keep a task list at work, although it’s out of date within minutes and so long I have no hope of ever completing it. I usually cross things out as I complete them, but the other day I tried a line of Twink (the ribbon sort that runs out in a smooth white line), and that was more satisfying than I expected.

I’ve got a week of leave (well, with a day of work in the middle and an edit that has to be done in the first couple of days) starting tomorrow, and I thought a list might save me from the scurry of things in my head. I thought I could have a short, elegant list of things to do each day — exercise, eat something from the garden, read, write — but then it grew (see people, garden, do chores, prep for dinner) and then I added on random household chores I haven’t done for a year and for some reason thought I would enjoy packing into four short days of leave (wash the windows, organise the pantry) and then it didn’t really feel like a holiday any more.

20170219_210137So, I stuck that list on the fridge and wrote a short one for tomorrow, cleaned out the chook house, did the washing, wrote a grocery list, mended some clothes, lost my nut a few times, watered the glasshouse and drank too much coffee.

But another thread ran through the day, and I’m trying desperately to hang on to it because it felt calmer, more life-giving, better for body and soul. The Cat and I spent a happy hour this morning harvesting. We picked tomatoes, mint and broad beans, kale, zucchini and lettuce, and an armful of sweetpeas and roses — a gorgeous heap of colour and potential. The Cat was enthusiastic and excited, I was quietly smug, the kitchen smelled delicious.

I stuck the flowers in a jar and cooked the vegetables through the day. Lunch was tomato salad with mint and the last crumbs of a taut sheep’s feta, a lettuce salad* softened with pear and apple cider vinegar dressing, broad beans blanched and double-podded, then fried with bacon, some scraps of bread, a little leftover chicken. For dinner, I made a gratin with slices of zucchini in stock and a layer of oiled breadcrumbs on top. In a bowl with rice, it was a garden-storecupboard marriage of surprising grace and charm.

So, the lists did their thing, but the harvest helped more. Spontaneity within bounds, and all that.

  • One of the lettuces was a Venetian heirloom number, curiously strong-leaved, verging on tough, and with a slightly bitter edge. The other was some leafy thing I let go in the glasshouse.

Heat, and other things, Part II

So, today had coffee, sand, water, shags, albatross, terns, dolphins, sun, chickens, walking, hugs, Thai street food, a date, wine and whisky. Not bad for a small city.

Heat, and other things

20170128_101618Ian’s birthday, and a warm, still morning after too many weeks of damp and grey. Breakfast in bed, puppy-dog boys, a potter through the vege patch and our first zucchinis, already on the way to marrowhood.

We’ll go out in search of birds and water soon — no better way to celebrate another year.

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