It matters not that I fly a lot that before I had babies, children grandchildren I had no fears None whatsoever but now, and even after deprogramming one lunch hour with a GP who promised it was just a phobia he had me sitting in a make believe cinema watching myself flying and pretending I was also the projectionist it worked for thirteen flights, the trick being to envisage arriving and I did into a snowstorm at Washington DC roll forward and I have family in Seoul and we visit as often as we can to catch those precious moments you never get back but I hate flying so I make peace with God (the one I don’t believe in) on take offs and landings I tell all the people who should know I love them And then I tell myself I’ve had a good life, It’s okay, if I die, although I worry a little about the other passengers (as you do, babies and all) As the plane veers, and the wheels descend there are noises that I can’t account for, I forgive myself and everyone as death is surely imminent but then of course, there’s always the brace position and I know where the exits are and of course, I’d let the woman with her baby go first and perhaps I’ll make the papers as the heroic elderly woman who sacrificed her spot on the escape chute for others, smiling, unafraid calming everyone bang, bump, and even as we hit the tarmac I still worry in case the engines which need to power down, don’t work and we roll forward into Shelley Bay I’m that passenger disembarking whose eyes are so wide open because they never shut for a single minute in case they missed the oxygen mask falling or a seat belt announcement turbulence is greeted with varying degrees of terror and feigned nonchalance… I have been known to grab another passenger to reassure them and they don’t seem to mind some people take drugs they drink and they drink some more, but me I prefer to do this cold turkey upright, terrified, visualising arriving Fear of flying… what me… nothing would keep me from my family
(Waving not Drowning) Have you seen the suited man from Gangnam sitting on the roof of his car in the recent floods? He looks relaxed, scrolling on his phone, even snaps a photo of himself and has become a meme But hey, this is Gangnam we know the car is probably insured fully likely easily replaced As for his clothing… he’ll have a wardrobe full back home way above the water line He’s nonchalant really knows he won’t drown relaxing on the bonnet of his car, a modern man He’s a far cry from the family in the basement in another suburb whose neighbours called for help 4 minutes it took for help to arrive but it was too late, they drowned all three of them No memes, no flash car headlines for sure, but nowhere near as much fun as Mr Gangnam who as it turns out, may be a journalist for Yonhap News… waving not drowning
Well, my first memories are the stucco house opposite the library and the war memorial Our GP had a moustache and the nurse was mother to the cute Burmese boy who was my very first kiss Rolling forward, there is the brute who fitted my first IUD, a Copper 7 he shoved it in I was on the bus before toxic shock set in my knees hammering faster than bus wheels Then there was my GP with the comb-over who was my obstetrician I fell in love with him I wasn’t the only one a girl in the flats two doors down had a baby three weeks earlier We swapped notes about our loves, that of our babies and our comb-over GP who delivered them I can still see the face Of the Matron at St Helens when I told my GP I had used a mirror and what… were those balloons, the bunch of grapes I’d found down there… I’d never heard of piles The matron’s smirk well, it out-smirked any smirk you or I have ever seen but the comb-over smiled The man with the comb-over told me he was the best IUD fitter in town and I believed him, knees up on the bed When he chatted away distracting me and then insisted I had a cup of tea before I got off the bed After my GP with the comb-over left, I inherited a flash-Harry kind of chap who crossed the line He drew me diagrams of how to wipe my bottom properly (I already knew) and remarked on my breasts The size of course, so small and had I breastfed, his eyes wide in amazement when I said yes… But the bit that finally did it, was when he had me almost naked touching my toes, both of us laughing I moved to a new clinic and years later at the same practice, I now have a woman doctor who I totally trust She’s calm, professional, matter of fact, and I think she expects me to take responsibility for my own health which I like So, that’s it really… nothing to see here just a wee summary.
I’m standing with my back firmly against the fridge holding a 1,500 won weight moving it up and down with my elbow as a hinge Along with this exercise I’m having Korean traditional therapy which includes cupping and acupuncture some little brown pilloules Through the grey filter of a striped blind, I notice red lights on tall buildings warnings for all those jets heading to Incheon Here I am, alone on the 6th Floor but I rush to check those red shining lights and notice everyone has put their rubbish out I’m dressed for bed, my teeth brushed and hopeful face cream massaged in but I whip off my night clothes and dress again I’m in the lift pushing door close holding three bags, two purple and one yellow (that’s for the food scraps) Out I dash, across the crossing, a lonely figure as a green bus hurtles towards me, they don’t usually give way But I make it in the glare of sulphur yellow and some sad neon and the loneliness of a traveller in the big smoke earlier in the day I made vegetarian lasagne for my boy, whose lived away from home forever that’s what mothers do I’m sharing this caring with his wife’s mother the two of us devoted halmoni, bathing those babies, feeding them hugging each other she’s so nimble and young looking and we don’t speak the same language but of course we do …
(after reading 'Small Things like these' by Claire Keegan). We've hit Gentle Annie passed the pub at Okaramio and on the left, at Wakapuaka there’s Sunnybank where parents left their children An oddly named orphanage manned (ha) by Nuns childless women in black habits, scapula, cowls and easy access to rosary beads A cross they could finger as they scowled at the babies, whose parents had either died, got sick or perhaps were ashamed but should we judge the nuns, in retrospect or forgive them… their sometimes cruelty this question was raised at book group recently reading ‘Small Things Like These' by Claire Keegan I thought of my siblings not even orphans, just babies really, under five years of age one washing their own shitty pants in a locked room where they found a drum to bang and they banged and banged and banged the drum
I was challenged by the local branch of NZSA to write a six word short story with an accompanying image of somewhere in Wellington. So here it is.
(I wrote this last year, when my publisher The Cuba Press invited me to a poetry reading at a bookshop in Newtown... she suggested this theme... this wee thing hasn't had an airing, so I've let it out for air.) In Wellington, it’s really an old town a throughway to the zoo, home to our hospital, multi-cultural food and fond memories of my first-born at St Helen’s Hospital, purpose built for mothers and babies, like a hotel for breast-feeders high on maternity spilling our milk and love and tears and then there was the night, after La Leche, a meeting for feeding mums when I drove home in the darkness baby in a woven wicker basket on the back seat, forgetting headlights and the traffic cop stopped me on Riddiford and when he saw my baby snug under a cellular wool blanket he waved me on with a warning, my lights on full now, homeward bound past the hospital where, as a young woman in the early seventies, I moonlighted as a nurse aide, on the orthopaedic ward collecting false teeth and cleaning them only to find I’d forgotten from whose mouth the teeth came and I cannot recall how I found the owners but I do remember the anguish of an old woman with broken hips when I didn’t warm her bedpan and sometimes we were sent down to the new-born’s nursery to turn them like clockwork, from one side to the other, I wonder when I walk down Lambton Quay, and see someone who might have been a baby then, did I once turn you over in Newtown?
This essay was written while I was teaching Workplace English in Lower Hutt three or four years ago. I thought it suited a post Easter blog. I’m including photos of food I made over Easter.
I trained to be an ESOL teacher. It wasn’t even a firm commitment. It was an action taken to avoid having to seriously consider working again. I did a course that is very expensive, very pressured if you’ve never taught before, and I almost abandoned it mid-way through. Thankfully, with the support of my classmates, I hung in there. With my CELTA qualification, I have entered another world of words. The translation of one set of words from one language to another – not that I’m translating, but I’m working with adult students who are managing to bridge their thoughts from the language of their hearts and home, to a new language which will help them settle in a new home. Here is a way to be cloaked in a new golden coat. It is unwarranted, and unexpected. Simply because I can speak English, I can influence, impact and touch on other lives with words, in ways that a novel never could. This experience is entirely two-way. Each day I learn something new from my students as they do from me. We’re not on social media or tweeting, we are in the classroom, sharing words, precious, interesting, mercurial, evasive, inclusive, endangered, evocative, difficult… words, from one language to another. In both the classes I teach, there can be up to 15 different languages we straddle in a day, pulling all these threads together, weaving words and meaning. I teach, therefore I am.
On Mondays, after a long weekend, we have the two-minute circle. I am by nature a gregarious person. I knew as a teacher, this would be my weak point. Especially, if I am trying to elicit language from others. I heard about the silent teacher at a professional development course one mid term break. I loved the idea of each student being given two minutes to talk without interruption. Time to gather their thoughts from their own language and reframe them into their version (frequently limited version) of English. We sit in a friendly circle, so we are informal, relaxed and we listen, all of us intently to one person talking about their weekend. Some are natural born storytellers and regale us with long and interesting digressions – it’s amazing how long two minutes can be. Others, struggle to find the words and long silences ensue, which I have learned not to fill. Too, some students repeat, with confidence, word for word, almost the same tale they told last Monday. But it will be, the first time, since Friday, they have spoken English. It’s an amazing achievement, and I marvel at it, as I am more, or less mono-lingual. In a bar, with enough champagne, I can fake fluent Norwegian for at least a sentence or two. I lived in Norway in the seventies, three winters and one summer at a ski resort and sadly spoke far too much English with my Danish friends and work colleagues. I regret, and indeed, I rue the fact that I wasn’t taught Te Reo at school in the 50’s.
What I have learned as an ESOL teacher is that no matter race, religion, ethnicity or age, family is the essence of identity. Connection to or estrangement from family, is the impetus for our art, and shapes our identity.
Every two-minute circle I have borne witness to, is a story, retold of food, and family. The food is the window dressing to the tale of family. Over and over, I’ve heard of routines, of school drop offs and pickups, of visits to A and E, or grandmothers setting fire to backyards and front yards, of burnt pots and floods in housing New Zealand accommodation, of drunken neighbours, the police, bikes being stolen, school uniforms vanishing from clotheslines, driving lessons, driving without the right license, ending up on the road to the Wairarapa while trying to find Wellington, opening your small housing NZ flat to ten visitors from Auckland (and I no longer enquire where they sleep), fishing off the Petone wharf, buying Chinese cabbage front the Riverbank market. Food and Family and then God comes up a lot too. God in all his or her guises. Recently, a student left class at 11.45, drove to Hamilton to pick up a Pastor from his church, returned to Lower Hutt at 3.00 am and arrived in class to help me set up the desks at 8.45. I don’t believe in God, but I believe in this devotion.
For a child of the 50’s raised Catholic and working as a shorthand typist for the post office, it is a strange and wondrous thing to find myself in my late 60’s in a classroom with up to 13 students at any one time, almost all from different countries, discussing for example Easter. Standing trying to convey the resurrection (I try to reconcile the devout young girl I was who knelt for three hours or more on a Good Friday, enduring the pageantry of the Stations of the Cross)… and now if not flippantly, and trying not to be irreverent, explaining to people who have no idea, just what happened over Easter in the Christian story. When it comes to the resurrection, I struggle to find the words. Metaphors are tricky things to convey in simple English. Although conversely, many of my students convey meaning through beautiful metaphors. There are times when it is impossible to correct a piece of written work, and sometimes glaring grammatical errors, for to do so, would be to ruin a magical metaphor, the delight that comes when two languages intersect.
What I’ve learned listening to stilted, unformed, halting and careful English, is that stories are how we become who we are, and in the moment, when we tell our story, no matter how small, sad or funny, trivial or important, grave or wildly funny, it is the words that connect us.
My first poetry collection. A baby boomer memoir, to be launched March 10!
Love in MIQ
There’s a sunlit square reflected at us through the new Christchurch Convention Centre windows. It’s usually the hotel car park, but now it’s the MIQ exercise yard. We’re on the third floor, unlike some other lucky punters who have scored views from floors higher up. The online brochure depicts snow-capped mountains, a painted blue sky and that strange flatness that is the Canterbury Plains. Instead, we see the reflected shadows of people marching in a monotonous kind of circle.
It’s kind of flat in here too. We arrived at 10 last Saturday morning in Auckland, fresh from Seoul via Singapore. I’d been following a spreadsheet created on a thread on an MIQ Facebook page that I’d joined. It gave me very high odds of the Grand Mercure in Auckland for our stayover. So, it was a shock when a fresh-faced army chap jumped on board our plane minutes after we’d landed to say we were heading to Christchurch
So here we are – my husband, John, and me – at the Crowne Plaza, Christchurch, on the third floor, with a view of the new Convention Centre. We have two King single beds bedecked in fresh white linen, each single bed almost as big as my mum and dad’s double bed in the 50s. We’d requested single beds, realising 14 days in isolation might require moments of separation.
Arriving home to be greeted by the NZ Army took us back to travelling in the 70s. That moment when you landed and were told to stay seated, while one of the crew walked up and down the aisle fumigating the plane. And then there was the ordeal with officious men at customs, mostly in shorts and long socks, who quizzed you as if you were part of an international crime spree and, hey, you’ve been caught.
We learned the trick of over-declaring … acting like ingenue’s, so they rolled their eyes and ticked us through, while the extra alcohol or undeclared electronics stayed secreted in our bags.
So, it was a blast from the past when we disembarked from our flight at Christchurch airport and some kind woman from the Army, spotting John’s duty-free whisky purchased in Singapore, suggested he stop right there, open his bag and shove it in … or else, she warned, the hotel will take it off you.
We are allowed one bottle of wine each a day in MIQ. This to me sounds like a lot of wine. John is finding it a perfect ration … you must leave the empty wine bottles outside your bedroom door before they replenish. Currently, there are two empty bottles outside our room looking lonely on a dark and deserted hotel floor.
Well, Friday I started drinking at lunchtime. There’s a very sound reason for this. It was John’s birthday, and we had completed our 35 laps of the car park at 10am.
One of our exercise call-ups was at 5am. We set the alarm, then promptly rolled over and went back to sleep. We were punished for this. The scheduled walkathon that evening at 10pm was cancelled. Most of us are treading the well-worn rectangle, eyes down, sometimes overtaking slow walkers. There’s a certain courteous pattern to it all. If someone is an extra slow walker, you take a wide berth and kind of overtake them without looking pushy.
A newbie turns up, to enliven the sunlit square. She appears in golden sandals, shorts and a glowing tan, her long curling hair softly falling. She ambles, she wanders, she stops and reads the poems and artwork that decorate the enclosure. I mumble good morning through my mask and then wish I’d said, ‘Ata Mārie,’ or something more magical than good morning sounds. She beams back at me the way you do when your mouth is hidden and your eyes need to do all the work.
The nurses call at the door to do our nasal swab and they are delightful. Not the swabs, the nurses. One nurse asks John if he still loves his wife. We are both standing masks on, in the doorway. All four of us, both nurses, John and I laughed so loudly, I can’t recall if he said yes.
While I am here in MIQ, I am working on the edits for my very first poetry collection, Formica. It will open with a poem that featured in the Friday Poem collection published by Luncheon Sausage Books and edited by er … the man the woman from Narrative Muse (the ones who got half a million) had to Google. Ah yes, Steve
Later it occurs to me that the nurse’s question was a secret code for a husband to say … no, help, help, or of course, vice versa. The same nurse sang ‘Happy birthday to you’ to John through her surgical and Perspex masks. We sang along. She must have alerted the kitchen staff, because a birthday dessert treat arrived for John, iced with birthday wishes, plus a card signed by some of the staff.
There’s a rhythmic sound from the room next door each day at exactly the same time. At first we cheer them on, but we come to realise, disappointingly, that it’s probably not the people next door at all but just a quirk of the building, a kind of tap-tap-tapping, but that’s how desperate things get in MIQ. You look for signs of life everywhere.
I recall tut-tutting, early on in the first lockdowns, possibly in Australia, when lonely travellers forged relationships with the security guards. We were a wee bit outraged. How dare they! But look, I’m officially elderly, and after seven days in a four-star hotel with fresh white linen, if I didn’t have a companion I can see now how a nice man in uniform might go well with dessert.
John and I live for the phone calls (they are automated) that advise us that food is at the door. We sit with our headphones on watching separate Netflix series but always with one ear open for that telephone call.
The food is good. We were given a barcode that took us to an online form so we could complete our menu requests. Impressive. The meals have become tedious though. I’m not much of a salad girl, so the little pottles of salad are piling up on a shelf by the TV.
Today, our exercise slot is 6.30am. We’re up for it. At first there are only three bubbles walking and this is doable. When it gets crowded with families, it becomes more challenging. There are a number of people here with young children and toddlers have no understanding of two metres distance.
Watching a young couple early this morning trying to corral their two lively toddlers made me think with great sadness about the recent tragedy in Tīmaru, and the tragic loss of three young lives.. It’s not difficult to imagine the stress that family must have endured relocating to a new country through lockdowns and isolation in MIQ. It’s both incomprehensible and yet not difficult to imagine the at times intolerable stresses.
It’s okay, we’re not seeking sympathy. We chose this.
We had a brand-new grandson born in Seoul in May. He was rushed from the maternity hospital he was born in to ICU on the same day, due to a few breathing issues. This meant he was separated from both his mum and dad for the first ten days of his life. We watched videos of him being caressed by nurses wearing plastic gloves. So, you can imagine it was not something we dithered over when the South Korean government offered double-jabbed Kiwi parents or grandparents with family in Seoul a special three-month, quarantine-free ‘family sojourn’ visa.
We did not wait to see if we could get a spot in MIQ. It was an adventure. We knew we could sit at home in our own wee bubble safely or grab the moment, so we grabbed it.
On arrival in Seoul, we had to download an app that would track us. Then we were whisked in a pre-booked taxi to our Airbnb via a Covid testing station. We had to remain in our Airbnb until we got our test results the next morning by text … negative. We had to report our daily temperature for a week via the app and have one more Covid test, and then we were able to delete the app and go free.
The highlight of that arrival, was standing on the sixth floor, looking out over a small balcony to the road below where our Seoul family stood waving to us. John swears that Oli, just four months at the time, raised his arm in a wave. Such is the joy of seeing loved ones in the time of Covid.
We left New Zealand early August without a spot in MIQ, telling ourselves that surely by November double-jabbed people like ourselves would be allowed to self-isolate on return. And then Delta broke out in Auckland, and we saw our chances fading, day by day. Still, we consoled ourselves, here we are in Seoul with family. We are safe. We’ll get home eventually. Our visa was a one-off, three-month visa, perhaps South Korea would kick us out – making us stateless and therefore NZ would have to let us in. Turns out South Korea were happy to extend …
None of this came to pass, just the first MIQ Lottery. And we were successful. I should leave a space here for the howls of outrage from those who missed out. I started reading them on Twitter and on FB and had to abandon that, as some of the cases are just so blatantly unfair
Here in MIQ, we’ve nearly made it. We’ve had our third negative nasal swab result and will have one more (day 12) before we are released. Right now with the hotel at full capacity with 194 residents, it feels like leaving our room permanently could be the riskiest moment for us in terms of being exposed to Covid.
But, we know we are in safe hands. Today we got fresh linen and we danced to Jerusalema as we remade our own beds. We are grateful Kiwis… and we’ll be home soon.
Maggie Rainey-Smith’s poetry collection Formica (The Cuba Press) will be released in March 2022.