Monday, 25 April 2016

Does ANZAC Day Need a Makeover?

Today I joined thousands of people at the traditional dawn ceremony of ANZAC Day. Unlike last year, and the pomp and circumstance of Wellington, this year my friend and I fell out of our tents and into Small Town NZ to stand with a community who lost many of its men to an ill conceived campaign.

This was a poignant year, the first with no surviving ANZAC soldier, and it made me think hard about the key message of ANZAC Day: Lest We Forget. 

It made me think, and it made me angry.

I'm angry that Billy had to see his older brother, Paddy, with both legs blown off, lying in mud and surrounded by hell on earth. That he had to kiss him goodbye, knowing he would be dead before he could return with help. I'm angry that the last time Paddy got to tell his mother he loved her, was on a mud splattered, blood smeared scrap of paper he had in his pocket as the life ebbed from his body. I'm angry at the pints he never got to enjoy with his mates, at the goals he never got to score, and that his rough, blacksmith's hands never earned him the reprobation of his sweetheart.

I'm angry that Mary, had her legs crushed by a lifeboat when her transport was hit by a torpedo. That knowing she couldn't survive her injuries, she took off her life jacket to give to another passenger. I'm angry at the lives she never had the opportunity to save, the lives she never grew inside her, and that she never again felt the burning in her lungs as she peddled her way to Waihao Forks on her day off.

I'm angry that Rose will never have the opportunity to hold her younger brother in her arms, or to dry the tears of her mother. I'm angry that she will never marry the man of her dreams, set the world on fire with a stellar career, and at the promise stolen by the will of powerful men around her.  

I'm angry that Alan ended his life face down on a beach, the air crushed from his lungs as he was swamped by the sea. I'm angry at the sunrises he will never see, for the family who will never again wrap him in a grateful hug, and that the world is a slightly darker place without the glory of a child's smile.

Those last two people were children, and their lives have been obliterated by the effects of war, not in 1915, but in the last few years.

With the passing of the last ANZAC, the day as we know it becomes dangerously close to a history lesson, framed in traditional morality and the glory of a righteous battle. With no direct connection to the fate of the ANZAC soldiers, they are a memory, a story told about a time that has long ago been replaced.  

New Zealand values it's Whakapapa, but how can we talk about remembering, when the current focus of ANZAC Day makes it so easy to forget that the fight goes on? If we consider ourselves to be global citizens, then surely ANZAC Day needs to focus on more than the fatalities of ANZAC cove? 

Those who served New Zealand have done so, not by beating back the enemy from its shores, but by venturing out to the furthest reaches of the globe. They have given up their lives in strange lands to protect the democracy and tolerance that we value so greatly.

Isn't it time we honoured that sacrifice by keeping the promise they made?

Lest we Forget by Zoe Shelton
Illustration by Zoe Shelton

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Here's to Strong Women ...

When I left for work this morning I did something I often do, namely to kiss and cuddle each of my children goodbye. With Olive, there is often an additional sentiment wherein I look into her inhumanly gorgeous eyes and say something to the effect of "don't ever change".

I say this in part because I'm in love with her sunny personality, but also because I am utterly terrified at the fast approach spectre of her third birthday.

Here's to strong women

While many parents go through the journey of sharing their homes with a Threenager, we are still reeling from the sucker punch that continues to be Esme's journey through those "troublesome" years. 

Please note everything in that last sentence was literal and not hyperbole, as in we are literally getting sucker punched on a daily basis.

Or as Keith so wisely responded to a meme about strong willed children changing the world "Esme will definitely change the world. Like physically. Until it is a cube spinning around the sun."

Which is only slight hyperbole.

Like any finely balanced ecosystem, we coped with the fact that one of our children delivers regular bouts of wanton violence, because it was balanced out by two children who seemed to skip through life on sunbeams and fairy song.

As of tonight, we are down to one child. The other dun fell off the sunbeam.

I came home tonight to see the children in various states of undress, covered in the foodstuffs and adventures of the day, and entertaining themselves with the electronic device of their choice. All of which is entirely normal for our household, and certainly nothing that would warn me of the catastrophic, soul destroying, moment that was about to hit me square in the face.

Once I had shed my biker's skin, I went into the kitchen to help Keith with the dinner, only to be stopped by a pouty version of the sunny little girl I had left behind that morning.

"Want cereal"

"I'm so..."

And that was all it took. I hadn't even finished the word "sorry", let alone tell her whether I was sorry that I couldn't instantly cough up Lucky Charms like a demented mama bird, or whether we had taken a moral decision never to let cereal pass our threshold. 

There was no context given, and apparently none needed. 

Literally the hint of me doing anything other than sprinting headlong towards the nearest cereal bowl was all that it took for Olive to drop to her knees, throw her head back and howl out the song of her people: The ancient lament of the Threenager.

An on some deep, primeval level, her father and I sung right along with her. Not in reality, because that would have looked stupid, but inside our hearts we wept the bitter tears of a parent who knows how this story goes.

This is the start of those "big feelings" that will grow exponentially depending on the number of people around us, and the quietness demanded by the location. We know the drill, we will be avoiding crowded libraries and the upcoming ANZAC dawn services until further notice. 

This is the point at which "no thank you" will be replaced by a well aimed punch to the groin, and "stop it, I don't like it" will become a shrill screech that will set off car alarms all the way to Auckland.

Right now is when we give silent thanks for the nearly-three-years we have spent on Easy Street and hunker down with a bottle of wine to console us. 

We know these things because we are, after all, the oil to her troubled water, the chill in her pills; dammit, we're the wind beneath her fucking wings

Or to put it another way; we are completely, and totally screwed.    

Sunday, 3 April 2016

The Great South Island Road Trip

The family and I returned from a road trip last night. One which took us, and our friends, over 1,200 miles around the South Island of New Zealand.

So here I sit, with a steaming mug of very artisan coffee, in my very comfortable slippers, at my very fine dining table, ready to write up the adventure before time rose tints my spectacles and I forget the finer detail of being battle weary and smelling like the great unwashed.

Moeraki boulders, south of Oamaru

Day 1 - Wellington to Momorangi Bay

Ah yes, the start of the adventure, when the car was neatly packed and everyone was filled with an entirely unfounded sense of optimism about the halcyon trip we were about to take. 

In keeping with my husband’s terror of schedules, we hadn't booked any accommodation past the first night, so in reality, the only things constraining us were a 2pm appointment with the ferry and a 13km trip to the campsite at Momorangi Bay.

Clearly even that was a big ask and we managed to set the tone for the rest of the week by turning a 20 minute journey into a 40 minute stress fest resulting in us only just making it to the boat. At this point our illogical good humour start to fade.

The campsite was pretty awesome: We made dinner in a very civilised kitchen block, ate at a real life table and posted the children into bed long before there was any danger of someone losing an eye. And because we are proper grown ups, we then decided to drink too much red wine and go in search of the gloworm grotto on site. I'm pretty sure we found it, although it is entirely possible that Department of Conservation had simply decided to string up some christmas lights in the depths of the forest for idiot (drunken) tourists to gaze at in awe.

Day 2 - Momorangi Bay to Oamaru

It being Easter Sunday, I decided to distract the children while we packed up camp by having our friend and travelling companion, Claire, hide a selection of Easter eggs while I took the children for a quick walk. Despite this being a foolproof plan in my head, the outcome was borderline farcical; Claire forgot where she had hidden the eggs, and the children, left with nothing but FOMO and the energy delivered by a good night’s sleep, turned the Easter Egg hunt into a blood sport.

The car, clearly also suffering from FOMO, made a spirited bid to ruin the holiday by popping on its engine management light; because nothing says “gonna end badly” more clearly than a car threatening to grenade itself during Easter weekend, at the start of the road trip … when you have absolutely no breakdown cover.

Driving a whole 13km into the South Island wasn’t quite the free spirited adventure we had all planned, so we made the decision that we would ignore the light and set off down the east coast towards adventure.

About 12 tear and complaint filled hours later, we reached Oamaru and decided to call it a night. 

We pulled into the only campsite we had seen signposted in the last 50 miles and set to putting up the tents in the pitch black and freezing drizzle before dragging our tired bones into bed. About 5 minutes later, I was woken by a scrambling and looked up to see the outline of four paws making their way across the roof on the tent. 

“Keeeeeeeeeiiiittttth!!” - I hissed - “there’s something on our teeeeeeeent!!!”

“Just whack it then, it’ll go away”

A logical suggestion, of course, but in my head I'm thinking that maybe this isn't a friendly animal. What if it's a possum, desperate for food? What if it bites me? Do possums have rabies? What if it attacks the tent and rips it?

“Keeeeeeeeeiiiittttth!! You hit it!!!”

Which of course he did, after shooting me a filthy look, only to find my rabid possum was just the local cat, and quite used to being ejected from tents judging by the good natured way in which it took this latest eviction.

Day 3 - Oamaru to Curio Bay

Mercifully, the drizzle had stopped by the morning giving us a chance to look around us at the campsite. Somehow we had managed to luck out and find another really amazing place with plenty to keep the children safely away from my sailor’s vocabulary when some misbegotten spawn of hell decided to sting my neck.

Despite taking an antihistamine, it wasn’t long before I looked like Quasimodo, and the dull ache in my neck joined forces with the stubborn UTI I had been battling for the previous 2 weeks to make me want to crawl back into the tent and sob quietly into the resident kitty’s fur.

Since the displaced cat had found another tent to occupy, plan B was to finish packing up and hit down-town Oamaru, which despite being a tiny dot on a map was absolutely frickin incredible. The whole town had been taken over by Victorian high architecture and Steampunk and I have to be honest, if the car had decided to stop working, I could happily have stayed right there for the rest of the week.

After a picnic lunch of quesadillas by the sea (because when you are on a road trip, picnic meals suddenly become works of art) we hit the road south heading for The Catlins.

If you were looking for a window back in time, you would do worse than to head down SH1 between Christchurch and Curio Bay. The weather was wild (as autumn weather often is over here) and the roads were named after the white men who had struck out in the 19C to make their fortunes. The hills were thick with their memories, and of their families; women eking out meals from meagre rations, children semi feral as they explored the caves and pools of the seashore.

None of this felt romantic in the slightest, and the communities that still exist around Curio Bay are serious, insular and (quite rightly) slightly disdainful of the visitors who go misty eyed over the resident wildlife.

We should have made the journey in good time to set up our tents, and relax in the fading evening light, but thanks to our stop at the Moeraki Boulders we once again rolled into the campsite in the dead of night, and under the cover of drizzle. Thankfully the cloud cover cleared to leave us with a breathtaking view of the night sky: Which I singularly failed to photograph.

Day 4 - Curio Bay

If I was hoping to wake up to another stunningly appointed campsite, this time, I was out of luck: The word “basic” was designed especially with the likes of the Curio Bay Camping Ground in mind. 

What I did wake up to, was a nearby sign declaring “DANGER: CLIFF FACE” and the slightly disconcerting sound of waves booming as they hit the bottom of the cliffs and spouted 50ft into the air. 

Oh yes, and then there was the rain; not drizzle this time, the real deal. At this point the team made the decision to visit some local sights and decamp to a local cafe, home of the best seafood chowder in the world, and no bloody WIFI, despite numerous promises to the contrary. 

Shortly afterwards, my body decided to embrace antihistamine oblivion and I napped in the car while the others went to see the ironically named Niagara Falls, and another more impressive local falls that was clearly named with a lesser degree of sarcasm.

Late in the afternoon, we went to visit the incredible petrified forest that lay at the bottom of our camp-site cliffs and I stood side by side with Keith, watching Hector’s Dolphins surfing the evening waves just off the main beach.

After enjoying an amazing camp fire curry - and a front row seat to a face off between the solitary local penguin and the bus load of tourists who were trying to get the perfect photograph - we hunkered down against the wind to tell stories and drink red wine. 

Later on, as I lay in our cliff top tent, listening to the loudenwavenboomen against the cliffs; my head was filled with the memory of stories told about tents cartwheeling across fields in high winds and I praised my foresight in topping up on antihistamines.

Day 5 - Curio Bay to Herbert Forest

It was time to head north, which basically equated to me wrestling a 6 man tent into its bag while Keith took the children to commune with the dolphins. 

By now, the car had taken on a slightly suspicious whiff that comes from small children secreting road snacks into secret cubblyholes, and was in desperate need of a repack. It was also about this time I also made the decision that we needed a roof box because I'm not overly keen on walling the children into a tomb of camping gear every day.

We headed off with only vague plans to stop as soon as we reached somewhere big enough to sell prescription drugs because on Day 3 of looking borderline leprotic, I figured it was time to get an expert opinion. We stopped in a tiny town where the cheerful pharmacist told me I was the third person in as many weeks to come in after a nasty bug bite. I could be doing her a disservice, but I did sense rather too much glee to her tone; like she was hoping this was the start of an invasion of noxious stinging insects who would keep her busy with enough sales of ice packs and drugs to fund junior’s university education. 

While we were waiting for the drugs to kick in and for me to stop speaking in growls, we followed signs to a courtyard where we were promised wood fired pizza cooked in a re-purposed steam engine. This being small-town New Zealand, the idea was more inviting than the execution and not only was my pizza vaguely reminiscent of the Home Economics experiments of my childhood, it had also fallen foul to the Great Aioli Scourge or my adopted nation; something I didn’t not spot until too late, and which gave me bone chilling heartburn for the remainder of the afternoon.

Dear travelling companions, I apologise for my severe sense of humour failure at this point. Thank you for not leaving me by the side of the road.

Unusually, we arrived at a campsite while it was still daylight and - rarer still - we were able to pitch our tent right beside a playground, light a campfire, make dinner in a proper kitchen and shower with HOT WATER. 

It’s amazing how far you lower your bar when you are on the road; clothes are clean until they run away under their own power, facilities are luxurious when they let you charge your phone, and children are happy as long as they can cremate some (sh)marshmallows in a raging fire.

Day 6 - Herbert Forest to Goldsborough

As with every good stories, there are high points and low points: This was definitely a low point.

Keith threw a mantrum when I went on strike from tent packing, the children had been given a sniff of freedom from endless hours in the car and weren't willing to give it up, and me, well, I was fully over feeling like my body was on fire and fully ready to catch a train home.

As we drove in sullen silence, I spent some time thinking: Road trips are pretty full on family time, so how can us parents honour the space we need and our feelings? The children were apt to lose their minds on a daily basis, needing help from us to manage through their emotions. What about us? How were we supposed to stop ourselves becoming empty cups in the process? 

The answer came in the form of a timely tweet from Ashley Dean Wells which in a funny kind of way gave me the permission I needed to acknowledge that I was grumpy and fed up for both irrational and legitimate reasons. I needed some quiet time, some processing time, and I took it over the next few hours of driving.

By the time we reached Arthur’s Pass, I was feeling a lot more positive, and able to enjoy the awe coming from Alfie as the mountains closed around us. Somehow, it made all the effort worthwhile.

Unwilling to break our habit, we rolled into our next campsite in the pitch dark; long after the children had reached critical hunger levels and the adults had reached critical sobriety levels.

Added into the mix this time was the floor of the campground which was made of compacted dirt and gravel rendering it impassable to pegs. It is impossible for me to describe my levels of tent erecting frustration which were so obvious, the couple in the campervan opposite put out seats from which to sit and laugh at me. This in turn made me upgrade my frequent use of the F word to liberal use of the C word as I battled to stabilise our behemoth shelter, so it was probably for the best that the children were a safe distance away helping our friend Jody cook up the emergency rations of dirty noodles.

Day 7 - Goldsborough to Nelson

You know how every parent wants to wake up on a camping holiday? To the sound of water pooling on the groundsheet. No really, it’s very special to wake up in a tent with its own internal water feature.

The half knocked in pegs had completely failed to tension the tent enough to keep it waterproof, but that soon paled into insignificance beside the wandering cockerel who was very industriously walking up to each of the tents and bellowing a dawn chorus. How he had managed to survive very long pulling that kind of shit, I will never know.

There was no hope of putting the tent away dry, so we bundled it as best we could and set off up the west coast towards Greymouth. I say the west coast, but I am officially launching a bid to have it renamed The Jurassic Coast, because the foliage is so lush and ancient looking, I wouldn't have battered an eyelid if we’d glanced sideways to see a T Rex keeping pace with the car.

I’ll add to that a bid to rename the local rivers, which are all named x Mile Creek. To my mind not only does this demonstrate a distinct lack of imagination, but is also going to confuse the shit out of the metric generation who will have to work really hard figuring out how far the river flows in new money. 

In contrast to the prevailing local grumpiness of the east coast, we were blessed to stop at an amazing ‘mom and pop store” in Inangahua Junction where they bake a mean muffin served with some pretty mean wit. 

The same was true of the pizza place we happened upon for dinner. I'm going to take a punt that the owner has children of his own because as soon as we walked through the door, he was off to cook up some chips with which to buy us some thinking time with the children. The pizza were amazing too, so much so, I was half tempted to buy an extra pie to post back to the Aioli Monsters to show them how it should be done.

We made our way over the last few miles into Nelson to the house of a dear friend from the UK. Well, I say from the UK; they are actually Kiwi and had somehow settled two miles up the road from FTC. They were an amazing help to us in moving over here and in fact came over themselves a month later. It was crazy to be meeting up again so far away from where we started.

Day 8 - Homeward Bound

If you remember back to our first day on the road, you may remember the dashboard light on the car.

A full week, and a ton of miles later, the light still shone merrily, but now it was joined by a progressively more pungent smell of burning rubber.

In our mad dash for the ferry, there was a very deliberate and very studied game being played between making up the time we had lost by our perpetual lateness, and pushing the engine over the edge of oblivion. 

My nerves were shot to hell by the time, 60km away from the ferry, we started ploughing our way past a cycle race on narrow roads trailing the stench of dying car behind us. By the time Keith and Jody decided to pull some kind of last dash overtaking heroics 20km from Picton, I was all out of fucks to give about decorum and threatened some amateur gender reassignment if the car blew up. To his credit, Keith took it in good humour.

We made it to the ferry, where I took a much needed sit down in the darkened room they call a cinema, with the girls for company, and one of the less entertaining Star Wars films on screen. It felt lovely to cuddle up with them after a week of speaking to them over my shoulder. Lovlier still when - at the point in the film where a very earnest Anni declared to Padme that he was so in love with her he couldn't breathe - Olive declared in her loudest voice “That’s OK mama, I can breathe” and the crowd - as they say - went wild. 

Needless to say, we made it home and even I can’t believe it, but less than 24 hours later I am even willing to consider another road trip in the future. 

The very distant future.

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

I Don't Care If You Judge

Something really curious has happened to me over the last year, and like a lot of incremental changes, I'm not quite sure when it happened, only that it has.

On Sunday we went to an incredible street festival in the centre of town and, as befits the law of averages, one of the three children was on the verge of melting down on a rolling basis throughout the day.

First to go was Alfie who, on discovering that his sister had eaten all the dumplings while he had been off watching a batucada band, flipped both his lid, and the remaining dumplings clean out of my hands.

While soy sauce dripped off my nose and pooled in my bra, I took a deep breath and refocused on what needed to happen.

“Alfie” I said gently, getting down to his level “look around you. This is my favourite top, and those were your sister’s dumplings. I know you feel sad, but now we feel sad too.”

And then we hugged, and he said sorry to me and to his sisters.

And then I said sorry because now he had soy sauce all over him too.

Throughout this little scene, I’m pretty sure – no scratch that, I KNOW – that there were people around us looking on in disgust. I could hear them, I could see them, and I could feel the waves of disapproval at my parenting approach.

You know how much I cared?

About as much as I care who wins the current series of the latest must watch “reality show”, which is to say, not even the slightest bit: It is actually impossible to quantify the lack of fucks I was able to give at that point, numbers do not go down that low. Minus fucks only extend so far, and I was way off the end of that scale.

Later on, Miss Olive reached the end of her day which, because she is only 2, was about 4 hours before the rest of the family reached the end of their days. I don’t think it is an over exaggeration to say that there was a hella ton of woes, with a generous side helping of doom expressed attached to the situation.

We were in a makeshift bar garden, where extremely cheerful adults were in the process of enjoying some extremely alcoholic drinks and some extremely pleasant music. None of them had planned to add an extremely loud toddler tantrum into the mix.

I wanted to share how I reacted to that one too, because for some reason, one of the other adults who was there with us grabbed my camera and took a photo:

This is what it looks like to finally get my parenting priorities right.

I was shocked when I downloaded my photos and found this; shocked enough to want to mark this as something important, both in my life and the children’s.

Right here, is me giving all of myself to my children, and none of myself to the judging of others. Right here is me being 200% present for the people who need me. Right here is me being able to do that without the knot of nausea I used to feel when my children “kicked off” in public.

I have no idea when it happened, I just know that it has.
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