Fixin’ to Write: An experiment in “found” writing

In July 2017 my writing group started a collective blog on the creative process called Fixin’ to Write. Each week one of us posts about our experiences of finding creativity in everyday life. Here’s my fourth post for the blog, an experiment in “found writing” inspired by Catherine Chidgey’s The Beat of the Pendulum. It was first published on 22 February 2018.

Due to a recent tweak in my insomniac four-year-old’s bedtime routine, I now spend hours each night sitting outside her room waiting for her to fall asleep while answering the questions that run through her head while she winds down: “Mum, what’s a fawn?” “How do you spell poison?”

It’s painful, but at least it affords me some reading time, and as a consequence I’m churning through the books at the moment. One of the latest is The Beat of the Pendulum by Catherine Chidgey.

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“Having it all” – my speech at the launch of The Whole Intimate Mess

On 22 June 2017 my publishers at Bridget Williams Books put on a delightful launch event for my book The Whole Intimate Mess at Vic Books Pipitea. The incomparable Emily Writes was the guest speaker. Emily spoke beautifully – you can see what she said here. And below is a rough approximation of what I said. It was wonderful to be so supported by family, friends, colleagues and readers. Thank you to everyone who came, and all those who bought a copy.

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Photo: Dave Crampton

Continue reading ““Having it all” – my speech at the launch of The Whole Intimate Mess”

Press coverage of The Whole Intimate Mess

My book The Whole Intimate Mess: Motherhood, Politics, and Women’s Writing was published by Bridget Williams Books in June 2017. You can find out more and order it here.

I’ve been fortunate to have had wide and generous press coverage of the book, and I’ve collected some of that here. I’m pleased that it has prompted some interesting conversations about women, work, parenthood and mental health.

The Whole Intimate Mess – Holly Walker‘, Up Again with James Dann, Interview on RDU FM, 28 July 2017.

Unacceptable Choices‘, Review by Alison McCulloch, Scoop Review of Books, 14 July 2017.

I am ok, and thanks for asking!‘, Interview with Susan Strongman, The Wireless, 6 July 2017.

Torn in two: Former Green MP Holly Walker discusses trading Parliament for motherhood‘, Michelle Duff, Sunday magazine, 2 July 2017.

A Private Face‘, Sunday TVNZ, 25 June 2017.

Holly Walker: The Whole Intimate Mess‘, Simon Sweetman, Off the Tracks, 21 June 2017.

Holly Walker – The Whole Intimate Mess‘, Interview with Kim Hill on RNZ, 17 June 2017.

Holly Walker – The Whole Intimate Mess‘, Interview with Ryan Bradley on Radio Live, 17 June 2017.

You can’t always get everything you want: Deborah Coddington reviews Holly Walker‘, Deborah Coddingham, The Spinoff, 15 June 2017.

A brief history of feminist literature in New Zealand: Tessa Duder on her classic novel Alex‘, Tessa Duder, The Spinoff, 14 June 2017.

Holly Walker and the books her kid is reading‘, The Sapling, 14 June 2017.

‘I really admire that you have been open about mental health as a candidate’: Chlöe Swarbrick in conversation with Holly Walker‘, Chlöe Swarbrick and Holly Walker, The Spinoff, 13 June 2017.

‘There is nothing normal about crawling up the hallway, screaming and hitting yourself in the head’: former Green MP Holly Walker shares her story‘, Holly Walker, The Spinoff, 12 June 2017.

Review: Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

This review was first published on The Spinoff on 5 December 2016.

It creeps up on you, this novel. It opens in 1964, at a christening party in suburban Los Angeles. Bert Cousins shows up uninvited with a big bottle of gin. The backyard is full of citrus trees groaning with oranges – the mixer. Everyone gets rather loose, and Bert unwisely kisses the hostess, Beverly Keating. Continue reading “Review: Commonwealth by Ann Patchett”

Dear Mamas Episode 4 transcript: Sleep

In February 2016, Emily Writes and I started a monthly parenting podcast called Dear Mamas. Our manifesto is no bullshit, no judgement, and we hope to build friendship, support and community. You can subscribe to the podcast in iTunes or Stitcher, or listen on Emily’s blog. I’ll be posting transcripts of each episode here for anyone who’s unable to listen.

In this Mother’s Day special we tackle one of the classic parenting topics: sleep! We don’t have an expert guest, because we’re just not ready to hear any more sleep advice! Instead we talk frankly about our own experiences with kids who don’t sleep, and offer our own gentle suggestions (never advice!) about how to support mums who are in this situation.

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Dear Mamas Episode 3 transcript: Fussy Eating

In February 2016, Emily Writes and I started a monthly parenting podcast called Dear Mamas. Our manifesto is no bullshit, no judgement, and we hope to build friendship, support and community. You can subscribe to the podcast in iTunes or Stitcher, or listen on Emily’s blog. I’ll be posting transcripts of each episode here for anyone who’s unable to listen. Huge thanks to @mamamuriel  for this transcript.

This month we talk to nutritionist Saya Hashimoto of The Kid’s Fed Up about dealing with fussy eaters. Saya is AWESOME and she calmly and generously answers all our terrified questions, like CAN OUR CHILDREN SURVIVE ON CUCUMBER ALONE?

If, like us, you’ve ever worried about what you kid is eating, but you don’t want any bullshit or judgement about it, this is the episode for you.

Continue reading “Dear Mamas Episode 3 transcript: Fussy Eating”

You never regret a swim

This essay first appeared on The Wireless on 12 February 2016.

You never regret a swim. It was our mantra, a code for the way we would live our lives and define our relationship. We preached it to others. I used to imagine giving interviews and being asked, “What’s one piece of advice you would give to a young person starting out today?”

“You never regret a swim,” I would say. “That’s something to live by.”

Practicing what we preached, we swam everywhere. Midwinter in the Marlborough Sounds, breath steaming as we ran down the hill to the pontoon. In Cook Strait at the bottom of our street when we lived in Island Bay, chests seizing up from the cold. In a park in Switzerland, floating down the river with naked Europeans before clambering out to do it again. I nearly lost my engagement ring this way (back when I still took it off); Dave did lose his greenstone. But we didn’t regret the swim.

We made others come too. When my brother stayed with us for a week before starting an Outward Bound course, Dave dragged him down to Petone wharf every morning and heaved him over the side, calling it “training.” We took part in the “polar plunge” in the midwinter carnival, joining a hundred or so others to run shouting and costumed into the harbour in a howling southerly.

After Dave’s 30th birthday party at Waikawa Beach, we led the late night stragglers through the dunes to go skinny dipping. After my 30th birthday party three years later we did the same at Petone beach. We added arbitrary rules along the way: three times under or it’s not a swim.

You never regret a swim. But what if you can’t even get onto the beach?

Last summer was hot. We live less than a minute from the beach. But I didn’t go once.

I had been excited about last summer. The year before, we’d had a newborn. The invisible cord between me and her was short. One night we walked down to the beach after dinner and Dave took her in the front-pack so I could have a swim. I dashed in, dipped my head under quickly three times, and ran back, imagining I could hear her screaming on the beach. I almost regretted the swim – a first. It will be easier next year, I thought.

In late spring I attended a La Leche League meeting where the icebreaker topic was what we were looking forward to that summer. “More time at the beach,” I said confidently. “Now that Esther is bigger and I can actually enjoy it.”

***

Miraculously, having a baby and breastfeeding had helped me shed years of unfounded self-consciousness about my body. I was proud of my curves, the belly that had borne my daughter, the breasts that sustained her. I bought my first bikini. I couldn’t wait to wear it.

But I couldn’t seem to get onto the beach.

Dave was sick. Six months earlier his previously benign neuromuscular condition had developed into chronic back and shoulder pain, probably as a result of hefting Esther around at home while I tried to keep up my duties as an MP. We spent our savings on a nanny while we waited for it to go away, but it didn’t. Eventually, we reached breaking point – not just financially – and I announced that I would step down from Parliament at the election.

By the time summer was in full swing, I had left my high profile job, but in many ways I was under even more strain. Dave was either in pain, exhausted, or sick from his painkillers most of the time. He barely got up off the couch. If I wanted to go to the beach, it was on me. I felt crushed by the weight of it. The idea of taking a toddler to the beach by myself, without another adult pair of hands to lift, chase, catch, change, wipe, spread sunscreen, make sandcastles and fend off overfriendly dogs terrified me.

Instead of being a source of joy and relaxation, the thought of the beach made my heart race and my palms sweaty.

I spent many hours walking parallel to the beach with Esther asleep in her buggy, protected by the shade cover. It was beautiful. Families played together in the shallows, shared picnics and fish-and-chips. Couples snuggled on blankets, beers in hand. I so desperately wanted to join them, to be them, but I couldn’t cross from the concrete path beside the sea wall onto the sand. I could actually see a force field stopping me, shimmering like a wall of heat between the path and the sea. Behind it, my peers enjoyed the record-breaking summer. On the other side, I trudged on, waiting for my baby to fall asleep so I could put on another podcast, sweat trickling down my back.

I did make it to the beach once. Between Christmas and New Year I took Esther to Nelson overnight to visit family and catch up with some friends. The friends had a baby six months younger, and they were already in the habit of taking her to the beach for early evening swims. I was insanely jealous, but intoxicated with the idea that maybe if I went with them, I could break through the force field.

I could actually see a force field stopping me, shimmering like a wall of heat between the path and the sea.

We drove to the beach. Outside the car, I became paralysed with indecision, trying to figure out which bags to carry, where Esther’s hat was, and whether to bring my togs, or change into them later. My friend gently suggested that while it might be reassuring to have everything with me, we weren’t going far and perhaps I didn’t need to bring it all. Flustered and embarrassed, I left the lot in the car.

By the time we had walked several hundred metres and chosen a place to swim, the idea of walking back, getting the gear, and changing myself and Esther, only to end up in wet togs with a sandy baby, had become insurmountable. I demurred at my friends’ offers to keep an eye on Esther and watched them play in the shallows with their daughter, hovering nervously over my own child as she toddled on the sand in her singlet and nappy. I wanted to cry.

You never regret a swim. But there’s plenty else to regret.

As the summer went on, I thought the force field might recede. It didn’t. My mum came to pick Esther up one Sunday morning. “I thought I might take her to the beach,” she said. “Your sister can come too. It’s easier for me to take her out when I’ve got another pair of hands.”

“Great. She’ll love it,” I said, though it felt like salt in a wound.

Dave’s mum was looking after Esther when I came home from work one hot Friday afternoon. “You two should go for a swim,” she said. “I can stay a bit longer.”

Dave and I looked at each other. “It’s ok,” I said. “It’s not that hot anymore.”

One Saturday morning in March as the summer was drawing to an end, we went out for breakfast first thing. We often do this when Dave wakes up sore. It’s a distraction for him, and means I don’t have to try to entertain a toddler and prepare a meal by myself. Afterwards, we drove to the park by the beach. “I’d like to see what she can do at the playground,” Dave said. “I think I’m up to it.”

We got out of the car. Esther charged off, overjoyed. She went down the slide a few times, crawled through the tunnel. Dave was amazed with how much more she could do than last time he’d seen her at a playground. Then she took off towards the steps that led up the sand dunes and down to the beach. We followed. She climbed to the top of the steps. The beach unfolded in front of us.

“Wowowowow!” She ran onto the sand. The wind caught her curly hair, whipped it around her face. She laughed and squealed with glee. She ran towards the water, stopping to pick up shells and sticks, poke fat fingers into grey sand. We followed.

I winced. She was so close to the force field. But she didn’t see it. She ran right through it.

Becoming a grown up

[First published on The Ruminator on 26 June 2015].

I used to think that no-one ever really grows up. There are all these milestones that are supposed to signify maturity, but as I passed each one – turning eighteen, leaving school, turning twenty one, graduating a few times, getting married, turning thirty, having a kid –I didn’t really feel any different. I concluded that everyone must feel like this, and the grown-ups are the ones who figure it out and get on with faking it.

I was wrong. Maybe it doesn’t happen to everyone, but suddenly, at 32, I do feel like a grown-up. I’m pretty sure there’s no going back, but that’s okay. It’s nice over here. Bittersweet.

It happened on a Friday night. I was at a Don McGlashan gig with my partner Dave and his best friend from high school. It was our second night out in 20 months (not coincidentally, also the age of our toddler).

It wasn’t just that our big night out was a seated gig that started at 8.30pm, nor that my first reaction to seeing the audience assembled in the foyer of the Paramount Theatre was “wait, these aren’t our peers are they?”. It definitely wasn’t anything as predictable as the fact that we’re now those parents with nothing to talk about at social events but whether our kid sleeps through the night (she doesn’t). That’s just par for the course when you do nothing but work, manage a chronic illness, and parent a toddler.

No, it was something else.

Don McGlashan is currently touring his latest album, Lucky Stars. At the gigs, he plays the new album in its entirety in the first half, and peppers the pick of his other solo albums with some Mutton Birds and Front Lawn classics in the second half. It’s really good.

My epiphany started during the title track, in which McGlashan describes having an epiphany of his own after dropping his daughter off to her acting job on Shortland Street. It’s a simple song about realising how lucky you are to be standing on the forecourt of a petrol station in Henderson at five in the morning. You know. Oh, you don’t?

I’ve had to spend a lot of time in the last year learning how to find joy in the small things. Walking on a stony beach with a small child. Spreading a hot packet of fish and chips on the floor on a Friday night. The view of Wellingon Harbour from a commuter train window. I’ve never filled up in Henderson, but I know what Don means, and that knowledge was not easily won.

At half time, we stood in line for an ice-cream. We chatted to a few people we haven’t seen for 20 months. It occurred to me that we were all carrying around some heavy shit. My family is still recovering from a tragic event three years ago. A friend lost his brother last year to suicide. Another lost his partner. Someone else lost a family member in the February 2011 earthquake. And those were just the ones I knew about.

And us. It’s not just because we have a small child that we haven’t been out for so long. It’s mostly because the combination of Dave’s illness and my anxiety means that in our new reality, it’s not something we’d usually attempt (in our household a Don McGlashan gig warrants special effort). In the recent past, I’ve thought this makes us exceptional, more than usually unlucky. I’ll be honest; I’ve spent a lot of time feeling sorry for myself.

But I started to think, licking my ice-cream back in the darkened theatre, that rather than set me apart, these experiences are my passport to life as a grown-up. The older we get, the more experiences we accumulate. After thirty years, it’s not surprising that they start to include the tragic, heartbreaking, and incredibly difficult to bear. To bear them anyway, and go on finding the joy in small things – that’s what grown-ups do.

I know that it took me until my thirties to figure this out makes me one of the lucky ones. You’ve probably known this for ages. Like Dave, who lost his dad at fifteen.

I was thinking about that when McGlashan played “Andy”, perhaps the best-loved Front Lawn song, a letter to his dead brother. I’ve heard it many times, but this was the first time it made me cry, big fat tears smudging the mascara I’d dug out especially from the back of the bathroom cupboard. Does his heart, I wondered, still break for his brother every time he plays it? Was that what I heard that made me cry? Or was I just thinking about my own family, our friend’s brother, Dave’s dad?

Dave’s dad was also called Andy. Long before I met Dave, he learned the chords and changed the words to sing “Andy” at his sister’s twenty first:

She turned twenty-one tonight. If you were still alive you’d be just short of fifty-eight. Oh Andy, don’t keep your distance from me…

There’s a framed letter and CD cover in our sleepout: Songs from the Front Lawn, signed by Don for Dave, after Dave’s friend wrote to Don to tell him about it.

What a gift. Not just the letter and signed CD, but the song itself. To sing about something so personal, put it out into the world, and respond with grace and humanity when others take it and use it to make sense of their own lives.

They say the most personal is the most universal. I’m sure without the universal resonance of Don McGlashan’s personal songs, I would have eventually come to appreciate that the difficult events of the last few years have made me a more fully formed human, but I’m so glad I made it out of the house to figure it out in the Paramount Theatre on that Friday.

I watched my apparently middle-aged peers file out after the second standing ovation. I thought of them going home to relieve babysitters, worry about the whereabouts of teenagers, set the alarm early for Saturday morning sport, or climb into bed next to warm bodies. I thought about those who were going home instead to holes where those things should be. I held on tight to Dave’s hand as we walked to the car.

Much later, our daughter woke, distressed, in the middle of the night. I fed her in my arms, and waited until she rested, heavy limbed, completely at ease. Then I carried her to her bed, like a boat across the water.