Tuesday 17th March 2020. The day New Zealand Government announced a 12.1 billion dollar support package. And I didn’t understand most of it. I’m still unravelling the threads and counting how many hoops I may have to jump through to access it.
I am a small business owner. An Early Childhood Centre owner… and I’m beginning to feel the burden of taking care of my employees, the whānau who entrust their precious children into our care, and of course my own family. We had a three hour staff meeting last night and it mostly focussed on how best to manage what we know is coming. It’s going to hit us hard.
I’m addressing my work life first because that for me, is the easiest part to write about. For those of you who have read my guest blogs before, you will be familiar with my writing style. However, for those of you who don’t please let me clarify as I always do. I am not a political commentator. I don’t do facts and figures – there’s always enough (sometimes totally unqualified) experts to spout off those kinds of things. I leave them to do what they are good at and trust the amazing analysts with whom I am familiar and whose mahi I absolutely respect. I can’t do what they do. I am a writer. A creative. A sometimes poet, a sometimes storyteller, and every now and then I’m moved enough by a situation to put my “sometimes blogger” pōtae on. My words are simple despite my thoughts being complicated, and rightly or wrongly I always try to be forthright and honest when I share my opinions. Please take this paragraph as a disclaimer of sorts. This is just one small offering.
My whole life investment in a career I love is in dire jeopardy and I’m scared. I am seriously anxious. My business may very well crash and burn. Yet I’m not so fussed about the “business”. I know how to (re)build a business – my attitude is if I’ve done it once I can do it again. I can hustle with the best of them. I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth. My work life anxiety is directly related to ensuring “our team” has all the tautoko that I am able to give them to get through this. My anxiety is directly related to finding both practical and creative awhi for the children and whānau with whom I have forged such deeply trusting relationships with.
When I hear a parent say “I went to Pak n Save today, and there wasn’t a single loaf of bread, haha”! What I actually hear is “I couldn’t even find a loaf of bread to make my kid a sandwich for school tomorrow”. They don’t name their fear out loud, and they don’t have to. I know them. I hear them. I see and understand them. More importantly I stretch myself to support them. That’s just what we do in ECE – much like our overworked, underpaid nurses, we have always been “extra”.
My fear of being forced one way or another into closing our centre for a period of time isn’t about the business. It’s because me, my business partner (and friend), our team, whānau, and the centre itself is heart shaped.
Literally; shaped with heart. This is the arguably easier to deal with affect that C19 has put on me.
Most everyone I know is, or has someone close to them who falls into the “most vulnerable” category. The people who potentially are most at risk of becoming severely impacted if they contract COVID19. As always, these people are grouped into tidy little categories: the very old, sick, differently abled, the impoverished, the homeless, beneficiaries, te mea, te mea. And across the board people may identify with more than one of these descriptions. Even as I typed that last sentence, names and faces of people materialized in my already crowded noggin. My Aunt turned 100 yrs old last year. ONE HUNDRED YEARS OLD. You can bet your ass that I will be checking on her, even if she doesn’t let me past her letterbox. I have made a mental list of those around me who are vulnerable, and the ways in which I can lean in, be present, keep them safe. Emotional support and whānau commitment is exhausting. But really, who the heck am I and what is my purpose without whānau ora? – the real, messy, aroha filled, compassionate, kind, drive-me-crazy-but-I-love-my-family kind of whānau ora. (Not the stupidly named government funded initiative “Farnow Orah” which is dirt bag messy, ruthless, toxic and cruel… and yes I am aware that there are some good hardworking individuals doing the best they can with what they’ve got working under that umbrella – they are sadly the exception to the rule. Anyway, I digress.
All I can think about is “my whānau, my whānau, my whānau”. What does/will my whānau need in a time of crisis? I asked this question of my Mum. She simply answered “each other”. So far I have managed to temper my worries about what is termed “panic shopping”. Mostly because I’m too pōhara to even think about stock piling and hoarding. I’m not financially poor by any stretch of the imagination. But I’m also not in the position to be able to just go and fill a shopping trolley without thinking about it. I guess you could say I’m comfortably broke – I manage to stay on top of my bills, but don’t have a lot of wriggle room for emergencies. I have no choice but to wait it out until payday before I can go and buy groceries. But I am privileged. So much more than others. Because I actually have a payday. I know people who don’t. I know people who are in debt before they even see a cent in their hands. Never have my senses been so alert to how much “more” I have than some people, and also how much “less” I have compared to others as well. But I’m still privileged. You see, my cupboards have the basic necessities for my whānau to get through a period of self isolation. Just. It would be tight, but I think that with careful planning we could do it. This “privilege” was highlighted for me when I went to write “cashew milk” on my shopping list. Fucking cashew milk. And quinoa. Don’t worry, I actually scoffed at my own “oh no, I’ve run out of gluten free hummus” self. I totally see it for what it is. If you can even write a shopping list that you get slightly annoyed over because you forget to take it to the supermarket and have to wing it – you are privileged. Mine is on the door of my fridge held there by some stupid magnet that has an inspirational quote written on it. Fucking privileged I tell you. I haven’t always been privileged though, and when you’ve been financially poor, you never forget that feeling. Food insecurity, job insecurity, housing insecurity. Been there. Grateful for all I have. Fearful of losing all that I have. Acting like I haven’t got it. Weird huh. I still have to fight the urge to stock up on what I can in order to give others who really need kai a chance to buy supplies. If you are like me – an almond butter, maple syrup, basil pesto card carrier – step back and wait. Choose a basket over a trolley. If we treat the supermarket in the same manner as we should treat our natural environment and only take what we need, I can pretty much guarantee that there will be enough to go around. And those who genuinely need food will NOT be buying cashew milk and bloody almond butter, so calm the fuck down (mostly berating myself here). But don’t forget to buy even just one extra item to drop into the Food Bank donation trolley. Giving a koha of food, time and/or money for those who can’t afford to eat will literally save lives during this uncertain time. Also, be patient with our elderly folk. If they are reaching to the back of a shelf for something, please help them. Talk to them – ask them for tips about how to ration kai. Remember, many of them have lived experience of this. Supermarkets are loud, strange, impersonal places. Close the gap and help our seniors feel less overwhelmed by this environment. You may be paid back tenfold with the nuggets of wisdom and advice they have. Lived experience. Can’t beat it.
Never have I been more envious of my green fingered friends and family. More than once today I have debated whether or not I should forgo the supermarket in favour of a garden centre. Or whether I should go to a Farmers market and buy seeds and seedlings, and beautiful cold pressed olive oil, and honey. Lots of thick, deep caramel coloured honey (because there goes my privilege again, urgh). I wish I was that person – with the ability to put seeds in the ground and magically harvest an abundance of vegetables right outside my own back door. I love gardening, but I’m crap at it. Now more than ever I think we (I) should take growing our own kai and sharing amongst ourselves a heap more seriously. I mean I can grow tomatoes, and silverbeet. You know, the easy stuff. Anything more than that is beyond me. But for as long as I’m breathing and upright I know there is always a chance to learn. That excites me – being open to learning, whether for pleasure or out of necessity. Learning how to be more self sufficient, as an individual and within our communities/collectives is something that is not lost on me during this time. I’m talking next level appreciation for our planet kind of stuff, and I already thought my awareness wasn’t too bad. We can all do more, and right now we are facing the grim reality that if we don’t take care of our land, our air, and our water – well, basically we all get sick and die. Or taken out by a natural disaster. The end. A stronger, healthier planet means stronger, healthier people. Even a toddler can connect the dots. So yeah, gardening is one way to start. No room? Community gardens are everywhere. Eco rant over. I wasn’t even going to go there but now I have so let’s just laugh awkwardly and move along to my next thought.
Don’t stop giving. I really do believe that generosity, compassion, patience, and a sprinkle of laughter will do wonders to uplift people. There is a certain kind of resilience that breeds when we offer hope and positivity. I don’t give a shit if I sound a bit hippy-dippy. It’s true. If we can make kindness go viral against a virus, we have half a chance of coming out the other side of this pandemic with all of our loved ones beside us, and having made a few more friends along the way. Like “we survived a pandemic” lifetime kind of friends. We need friends like that.
I could preach on about hand washing, sanitising, social distancing, self isolating, and all of the other key phrases that have been brainwashed into us, but I don’t feel I need to. The message has been received. I have shown so many children how to cough into their arm that I think I have tennis elbow. Sneeze and cough into your elbow. Wash your hands. Got it. Public awareness is out there. So much so that I have actually seen online arguments about soap. Geezus give me strength. Soap! Just let it go, people. Online bickering, sarcasm, and the intense need to “be right” is a waste of your energy. We need you. The positive, uplifting, witty-without-being-mean, ray of sunshine side of you. Just keep scrolling past that shit, okay? Okay.
A friend asked online the other day if there was a better term to use other than “social distancing”. I thought the term could be referred to as a “Community Health Unified Response” – “CHUR” for short. Well, I thought it was funny! Another friend asked how people felt about the possibility of opening Marae for groups who need to isolate themselves away from the general public. This had some really interesting and varied answers. I love how people I know are bold enough to wonder out loud. I learn so much from thoughtful debate and alternative solutions. The information out in cyber space can be overwhelming at times, but stick to those whom you know are sensible, intelligent, articulate, and funny. Funny people are the best in times of stress. You know, the friend who can just look at you and make you laugh out loud at the most inappropriate times. Yeah, draw them near because laughter can be healing.
I guess in my own long winded way, I want to say that this is a serious situation. But we can and should stay in control of the narratives being offered. What we feed our minds will make the difference between people getting seriously hurt through fear – fear of starving, of dying, of losing someone they love, …or people being seriously loved – by sharing, caring, and generosity of spirit. I think it was Alice Walker who wrote “hard times require furious dancing”. Well if we have to toe tap instead of high fiving, we may as well get our dancing shoes on, right?
Speaking of not high fiving, not hugging, no kissing, handshaking or hongi. These acts of physical connections which we are forced to eliminate and restrict has really got me thinking. When we are told it’s just for now I really, REALLY hope that people remember that it’s just for now. As soon as we can, please hug me. Please feel free to take my hand and give it a squeeze.
Physical touch is an essential part of connecting with each other. I know, I know, we can show respect and aroha for each other by respecting their personal bubble and all that jazz. I get it. I really do. It’s just that in the back of my mind I am dearly hoping that when all this passes, we begin to hongi again – as quickly as we are safely able, and as often as we can. Why? Because if we don’t, I fear that this special piece of who we are and what we do, particularly as Māori, will be lost. I fear that in 50 years time we will be trying to grasp onto the resurgence of a practise that is common amongst us in the here and now. My heart would tear if this small but significant practise is lost, and when we try to revive it, we are met with resistance and claims that it was “stopped” because it’s “unhygienic”. Because we know all too well how stories get twisted and inaccurately recalled and incorrectly recorded as time goes on. As soon as we can, and even if you have never done it before – please hongi again. I’m not worried that we have to postpone hongi. Not at all. I’m worried that it may never come back. The acknowledgement of shared breath, air, time, space. Such a special way to ground ourselves and be on equal footing with each other – we are each made of and inhale the same stardust after all. Let’s not lose sight of that.
Finally, check in, check in, check in. With yourself first and foremost. You need to feel strong within yourself before you can reach out to anyone else. If you’re doing okay, check in with others. Remember that self isolation isn’t going to be a walk in the park for everyone. Try to imagine the difficulty of self isolation when you are struggling with depression, anxiety, psychosis. The danger is that being alone may be equally appealing AND terrifying. It’s really important to have experienced support systems for people who desperately need encouragement in order to manage their mental health. If this is you, I urge you to reach out. If you know someone in this position, I urge you to reach out.
Parents, family and caregivers of differently abled people. I see you. I do. Knowing you have support in place for your dependent loved ones should you become unwell is probably at the forefront of your mind at the moment. Access to medication, specialist equipment and resources, doctors visits and just life in general can be stressful on a normal day. Kia kaha. Take care of you too.
I’m really not sure what is in place for people in places which are unsafe to self isolate. I don’t want to call these places “homes”, because homes should be safe and free from fear, abuse, violence. I am yet to check out if there are safety plans in place for women and children who live with domestic violence, and in other types of harmful environments. My heart holds you. I am sure the incredible people in places such as Women’s Refuge, and Rape Crisis Centres around Aotearoa are working tirelessly behind the scenes (because they ALWAYS do) to support you. Lean in to them, run to them, take shelter in a space that is safe. I don’t mean that you should take your COVID infected self into a refuge and spread the virus around. No. I mean, let them help you. Seek Advice. They know their shit. C19 is probably less dangerous than the situation I hope you escape from. Do it for you, your babies, and for your future. We need you.
So, this is my one small offering: Kindness, gratitude and a fierce determination to remain connected. Hearts don’t beat in isolation.
Vanessa Kururangi is a State House Tenant Advocate, a mother and a writer.