I made a Little Red Pen cloud! Not procrastinating AT ALL. I’m also rewriting the website — what do you think? Work in progress…
The necessary context: It’s our 15th anniversary and I forgot for the first half hour of the day, then remembered only to realise that we have no money for presents, no babysitter for a date, no time to relax, and I was going to be parent help at Rabbit’s childcare all morning. I was unhelpfully Eeyore-ish about all this through most of the day, but rallied enough to buy flowers and tuna, sweep the kitchen floor, chill a bottle of white from the “fancy” collection, and get out the flash cutlery.
I made an old and sentimental favourite for dinner, poisson cru, a raw fish salad served on rice. I should tell you how to make it because it’s a happy and bonding meal, with little heat required and not too much fuss. You start by marinating chunks of tuna in lemon or lime juice, and when I say chunk, I mean something that you can pick up in your fingers and pop in your mouth without either dropping it or doing that embarrassing thing where you can’t chew effectively and look like a gerbil until you either spit or swallow. Because that is not the look you are going for on anniversary night, or indeed on any night involving loved ones and the fancy wine. So then you have your tuna marinating for about 20 minutes and in the meantime you can put on the rice and start preparing the vegetables. I’ll leave the rice to you; we have our method and it’s foolproof, but no doubt you have yours too. I do think jasmine is best for this — you want a little bit of sticky.
Next we come to the vegetables. The cucumber is fun. I use a whole cucumber if I’m feeling rich and generous, and the first step is to peel strips lengthwise to give a stripy effect. I don’t know if that makes sense, but you’ll probably know if you’ve got it right, and if you haven’t, you’ll have something anyway and I’m sure it will be useable. Then you need to cut the cucumber in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds. I find this easier in shorter lengths, but it might depend on your prowess with a fork. You really want to scoop with the fork rather than scraping; it’s a textural thing. Once you have your stripy, scooped cucumber, slice it into half circles, a couple of millimetres wide, again about the size you’d want to pick up with your fingers. The garlic is easy — just finely chop a couple of cloves. Tomatoes are also straightforward. Quarter them and cut out the stalky bits, then push out the seeds. I know no tidy way to do this; you’ll have to use your thumbs, so if you’re a bit on the hygiene-sensitive side like me, wash your hands first. Of course, you’ll have been washing your hands throughout this whole scenario anyway. You probably just did it, hey? Cut your quartered, de-seeded tomatoes into chunks — you know the drill. The last thing is spring onion. Slice it. Diagonally, for class.
So somewhere in the middle of all this vegetable finangling, you should have drained the tuna, tasting it first to make sure it’s “cooked” to your liking. And then you just mix the tuna and the vegetables with a can of coconut cream, decanted, aber natürlich, and then you serve the salad over the rice and pour the wine and have a jolly old time.
And that’s the context: poisson cru, fancy wine, a significant anniversary for which I am totally unprepared and under-resourced, plus (which I forgot to mention) two slightly cranky children, a not-very-pristine house, a strong desire for everyone under the age of ten to go to bed without any fuss, and actually, now that I think of it, the miracle of sharing my life from my early twenties to my nearly forties with the same long-legged, enthusiastic, kind, hilarious man. WITH TWO CHILDREN AND A CAT. Eight houses and as many gardens, hundreds of books, countless reeling conversations, walks and meals and nights and mornings and days, estuaries and mountains and beaches and cities, Paris and Melbourne and Tahiti and Dunedin, kisses and all the rest of it, collapsing laughter and tears and the occasional grump and stomp, all of those things that brought us together, that keep us together.
All of that, and at the bottom of the first glass of wine, Rabbit announces that he got himself a lolly this morning. I don’t understand; I question logistics and mechanics, get him to demonstrate his technique, express disbelief, incredulity. For the record, he pulled a chair over to the bench, climbed onto the bench, pulled down the lolly box, and extracted his prize. We watched him demonstrate; he was perfect. I still don’t know when this happened — he says this morning while I was in the shower, which seems incredible as Ian and the Cat were faffing around getting ready and the house isn’t that big and the chair takes a bit of shifting, so he must have been both quick and sneaky. Anyway, I’m trying to get my head around this small, determined, independent child, who — apparently — is mine, and so Ian tries to explain that the second-borns just are like that: they don’t need parental approval and they want to sort their own stuff out and they go ahead and do what they need to do to achieve the ends they want to achieve. And from the corner, the Cat lifts his head from his book. “Shite,” he says, “that’s so unfair.”
On the day that my nephew, the Squirrel, came home from the hospital, we came back together as a family. I’d spent a lot of time in the hospital, magical time, and we were glad to re-connect as a four.
The boys took some persuading to get out of the house, which is a polite way of describing it — actually we had to forklift the Cat off the sofa and break up innumerable squalls and squabbles and promise chocolate AND soccer — but we got there, out of the house and into the car and up the hill. Then we had a steep, calf-burning hike up a track, with the Rabbit on Ian’s shoulders and the Cat trailing behind, the city opening up behind us and the long dirt road in front.
I’ve done this walk several times before, but never with my family, and I thought I’d taken the wrong route most of the way — something about the angles and the gates and the views felt unfamiliar, so it was a surprise to get to the top and see the same electricity and phone towers, such a surprise that I thought they might be a double, a copy of the better-known set somewhere further along the hill. The track through the manuka seemed different too, more overgrown perhaps, with the shrubs forming a dense, woody tunnel for us to hurtle along. But then we got to the fence and the trees and this view, and it was all right there before us.
Some days this city is so beautiful it brings me to a standstill. It’s all just there, the hills, the water, the light. And we played then, around the sheep shit and the old stones and the long view. It felt like a blessing, that day, to be together and here. It felt like we knew our place.
In the past couple of weeks we’ve weathered death and the extended family, work changes and drama, the tip past solstice towards the Return of the Light, cold, flu, nits, money woes, boredom, and a dwindling supply of firewood. None of it unmanageable, but taken together, it’s got me and Ian in a state where we eye the coffee pot at dawn, the wine bottle at 5pm and bed at 9pm. The Rabbit has been joining us in said bed most nights, and while he’s usually small, warm and soothing as a night-time companion, in his current condition he’s wriggly, unsettled and coughy. We’re going away at the end of the week; we’ll be limping all the way to the airport gate, but dear lord is it going to be good to fly out of here. My to-do list never seems to get below 30 items, no matter how many times I sit on call waiting or write an email.
However, we are also making progress. We’ve weeded the whole garden and trimmed most of the hedge. We’ve booked flights and buses, we’ve chopped wood, we’ve planted bulbs. We’ve kept the children warm and fed, and we’ve done puzzles and watched a lot of soccer. We remember to hug each other often, to say thank you, to celebrate small achievements. The boys have been playing together, kicking a ball around, building carriages for the trike. They found a huhu grub, roasted it on the barbecue, and ate it. That felt like a milestone, but of what sort, I do not know. The toilet does not smell of boy pee more days than it does. I’m getting more exercise and reading more books. The little things and the big, carrying us through.
The Rabbit is having one more day at home today, getting over a virus and resting his wee self. He got out the Duplo and built this vehicle, and I don’t think it’s just motherly pride that makes me love it. The colours and the patterns make me happy, the punctuation of blocks with wheels. It has all the order and sweet calm that I love in him, that he seeks under the surface of his frustrations and stroppiness, that bend his arms around my neck in the night, that make him smile when he wakes and sees me — make him smile and kiss me good morning even after the most restless of nights.
I read an article the other day that talked about how parents are generally about as happy as non-parents (although way more worried, stressed, and angry), but experience higher highs and lower lows on a daily basis. Which seems pretty accurate to me. The emotional roller coaster of parenting often leaves me feeling wrung out and bewildered, and I can only imagine and dimly remember what it’s like to be a little person in the middle of that maelstrom. I guess the best I can do as a parent then is to be the steady base, the centre they can return to or hold onto when their feelings get too big for comfort.
Yesterday was a case in point, and I can tell you, the wine bottle came out pretty damn fast once dinner was in the oven and the fire was on. The Rabbit is generally a sweet and thoughtful child, but there’s some three-year-old thing going on that’s got me and Ian fully on the razzle. All of a sudden, he’s Very Particular about how he’d like to do things, what crockery, cutlery and glassware would suit him, which socks, undies, trousers, shirts and jerseys meet his aesthetic requirements for the day. Life has become a steady round of negotiation and boundary setting, letting go of our own preferences when his wishes are possible, explaining limits and the capacity of our clothes-washing system when they are not. I keep finding myself hard up against my own stubbornness, frantically searching for the chinks in a conflict where I can offer him a solution, a helping hand, a madcap plan, then step back long enough for him to tear down the walls of his own obstinacy.
Yesterday, I took Rabbit to the supermarket while the Cat was at soccer practice. He’d agreed to the plan earlier in the day and we desperately needed a stock up after the pre-payday scrimp, so I foolishly ignored the signs of his mounting tired-and-crossness (refusing to get in the car and running away from me down the hill really should have tipped me off) and sallied forth. We had five minutes of him crying in my arms on the bench outside the supermarket, then a relatively good run round the first aisle where all I had to do was carry him, push the trolley, remember the grocery list, and choose fruit. By aisle two, he was in the swing of it, putting things in the trolley for me and consulting over whether to buy the olives with or without pips. By aisle four, he was choosing crackers and getting excited about having yoghurt in the house again. By aisle five, he was wanting to push the trolley and his pants were drifting down around his nethers. By the turn into aisle six, I was encouraging him to pull his pants up, while a helpful lady shopper counselled me about the advisability of braces. At the same time, Rabbit couldn’t push the trolley, but he yelled at me every time I pulled it back into line. By checkout, I was alternating between 1). holding Rabbit while he yelled and whacked me as I loaded groceries onto the counter and 2). letting him down only for him to stand in front of all the checkout counters with his pants around his ankles as he surveyed the world with grim, exhausted fury. Bizarrely, in the middle of all this, the checkout operator asked me how my day was going, and all I could do was laugh with a kind of hysterical edge. I’m sure she thought I was mad, but one of the other operators asked me if I needed help getting out to the car, which made me feel both grateful and deeply embarrassed. Anyway, we survived, although I fear this may be the beginning of a protracted Pants War.
Soccer got us back on the upswing, fresh air and a bit of a kickaround, a cuddle in the falling dusk while the Cat got in his final run. By 5.30pm, we were home — cold and tired, but with the kind of solidarity that holds a mother-son team together after they’ve weathered meltdowns and mayhem and scored a few goals and lugged groceries inside. Then I threw dinner in the oven (an unexpectedly successful combination of leftover rice, chicken, tuna, roasted fennel, carrots, olives, and peas, drizzled with olive oil and baked until it was crispy and hot), set the fire, and poured wine, while Rabbit methodically unpacked all the grocery bags in the hall and one by one carried items into the kitchen, asked me where they belonged, and put them away.
Situation: A conversation with the Rabbit
Context: After watching The Muppets
Me: So, are you a man or a muppet?
Rabbit: (pause for thought) A muppet.
Tom/Daddy: What about me?
Rabbit: You’re a man.
Me: What about me, then?
Rabbit: (longer pause for thought) You’re a woppet.
Which reminds me of the time I was wandering the streets of Foxton, heavily pregnant, mid-30ish, tired, cold, and unsure of my place in the world. I passed a kid in his late teens, braced for his critical gaze.
“Hey, poppet,” he said. “How’s things?”
The ground was white yesterday, thick with hail and treacherous. School was cancelled, because we don’t cope well with adverse weather here — winters are cold, but it only snows a couple of times a year, so we’re not set up for it as those in more consistently wintry climates are.
Every time, there’s a scramble to find gloves, hats, boots and scarves, a mild panic as we realise that some vital cold-weather gear has been outgrown or lost since last year, a dreadful slowness as we try to remember how to put all those layers on and walk on icy ground and throw a snowball. Obviously, the children are more intuitive about all this, the snowball throwing at least. It takes a great deal of effort to stay warm and fed. No-one knows which radio station plays the cancellation notices, and we all text each other frantically, trying to organise the day.
Then, after a while, we’re in the zone. The fire is on, maybe some soup cooking on it, we’re drinking hot chocolate, we’ve tromped and slid and stomped and slipped. We’re snug in our little bunker, watching the sky and the gradual shift of the roads on the hill opposite from white to grey. We do puzzles, play cards, get a little ratty with each other, then burst outside for fresh air. We return, take off the layers, settle by the fire again. We accept, as we didn’t last week, that we’re in winter now, and that each day the sun shines is a blessing.
I’ve been here before, rain on the roof, a muddle of thoughts in my head. I should put the fire on, the lamps, the music too. Soon I will, but I’ll write a bit first, stir the muddle, sift for one clear thought or two.
Yesterday was such a good day. We all gave the best of ourselves, me, my partner, the children. It was Mothers’ Day*, and it was a happy one. Last Mothers’ Day we were in Paris (yelp!) and it started well, but deteriorated when we took the kids to the Musée d’Orsay: one of them was grumpy, bored, and got lost; the other one wanted to spend an hour looking at a (very attractive) stone owl and nothing else. But, still, we were in Paris, which is so mind-blowing in itself that a bit of kid-drama is just fine. Particularly in retrospect.
Anyway, this Mothers’ Day was at home. Ian and the Cat got up to make me breakfast, and the little Rabbit burrowed his way under the covers for a cuddle. He’s a very good cuddler; he wraps his whole body around you, squeezes, then sort of holds you in an emphatically relaxed way that says “I love you and I want you to feel that and let’s just hang out here and breathe together.” And then he pats the back of your neck. Adorable, so I let go of sleeping in.
Breakfast in bed often worries me — the crumbs, the wriggles — but I think we nailed it on this one. If you need to know, I think the vital ingredients are: trays and small tables, settled children, one adult being willing to sit on rather than in the bed and handle the pouring, spreading and passing, croissants, coffee and hot milk in jugs, orange juice, and a willingness to get up before it all turns to the bad.
And in the afternoon we went to Purakaunui, which must be one of the loveliest places in the world. It’s an inlet over the hill from Port Chalmers, all dinghies, boat sheds and cribs, mud flats and cockles, hills and bush, birds and warm afternoon sun. It has that simple little combination of sounds, too, that makes me so happy: the splash of an oar dipping into water, a child’s voice, bellbirds and oyster catchers, footsteps on a leaf floor.
We walked along the track to the playground, kicked the Cat’s soccer ball, played in the swings, sat on the rocks, took off our shoes to feel the mud and the water. I took some time to myself, thought about my mum, missed her. I thought about other griefs that sharpen on Mothers’ Day, about those for whom the day ramps up feelings of loss or fear or exhaustion. I held my children and my partner, let myself be warm and loved and grateful.
When I got back to the car carrying the Rabbit, Ian said that the Cat was being a Yellow-Eyed Penguin. Sure enough, he was nesting in a flax bush. The Rabbit wanted in too, of course, and there they were, my boys, wedged in together, squawking, protecting their patch.
* We had some discussion on Facebook about the position of that apostrophe, and my preferred style lost the day, but I’ll make a place for it here. I like Mothering Day better anyway; could we switch to that?
I’ve been skimming Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace today, remembering that first intoxicating year at university when I learnt about activism and philosophy and logic; friendships, crushes and politics; literature and organic compounds; Greek tragedies and how to write. They were all important lessons, but the last was perhaps the most important and one of my favourites, and at the heart of it was that quirky, empathetic, no-punches-pulled book. I’m still learning, of course. We all are.
Anyway, what it’s brought to the surface is that desire we have as readers for a map, a guide to how we might navigate a text. We want to know what we’re getting into when we start a text, what we might expect to find within. Some surprises will be lovely, thank you and yes, please, but we don’t — most of the time — want to wander in the dark.
This is with non-fiction, you understand. Fiction’s a whole other thing, and we’re usually happier there to see structure emerging slowly, perhaps in retrospect. We’re often even okay with a rhizomic path through the world, with snaking roots that offer us a way, one way among many, through dark and muddy ground. And literary or creative non-fiction can be more reflective too, more essayistic, with all that word implies of attempts and trials, and trails too.
But back to non-fiction, of the business, organised, information-laden sort. There the holy grail is structure: a logical and clearly defined order, with signposts that tell us where we are and what we’ll find — headings, introductions, formatting all working together to orient us and keep our footing sure, even if the content of the document is new or difficult. One day I’ll write a post or two about how to give your reader those maps and signposts, but for today, I just want to think about what I like in a text, and what our duties are to our readers.
Because of course, there are those of us whose taste runs more to the forensic or the archaeological. We’re called editors when your document needs some work. Literary analysts when it’s a masterpiece. (I’ve been both, but today I’m an editor.) We like to dig, to fossick, to piece together a whole picture from fragments, traces, and buried clues. And when we’re being editors, we don’t want your final text to look like an archaeological dig or a crime scene, but we do want to work with you to create order out of chaos, to draw a map from the ruins. My language is extreme, but we’re talking hard-core editing here, the sort that applies to badly written business documents. We want to figure out what you were trying to say, and we want to fit those thoughts into elegant, shapely prose your readers can grasp, and enjoy. We want to give you the map, the signposts, the key to the kingdom.
Or if your work is a masterpiece and we’re a literary analyst, we want to see how you did it, then step back, unfurl the banner, say, “there, that’s the magic, right there.” And then watch from the corner of our eye as the magic slips, evades our schema, our forensic tools, our detective mind. We want to solve the puzzle, even as we know that there are many solutions and none of them makes the whole.