Fear of flying

It matters not that
I fly a lot
that before I had
babies, children
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

Fear of flying… what me…
nothing would keep me
from my family

Gangnam Style

(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

waving not drowning

Doctor, doctor


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.

6th Floor, Guro

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





do …

Bang a drum

(after reading 'Small Things like these' by Claire

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



St Helen’s Hospital – Image from National Library website…
(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?

Teaching English


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.

Greek Walnut Cake



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.