There are some people that stay with me long after I've written about them. It's one of the best things about journalism; getting to truly hear another person's story and spending time retelling it on the page.
All of us have a story, and I believe all of them are worthy of sharing.
One of the people that has remained with me from the short time that I spent with her was someone I met outside the office of the Western Leader newspaper when I was 20 years old.
My boss said; "There's a homeless woman outside. Go and talk to her." We spent an hour or so in a cramped van, surrounded by all her worldly possessions, and she brewed me a tea as we spoke.
I trudged back up the steps of the office and wrote the story. A few months later I got a letter from her via the newspaper, telling me I had clarified something important for her when she read what I had written and this had altered the direction of her life.
Last year I spent time working on a book with a woman called Gwen Young-James. After interviewing her, I somehow became her mentor, editor, advisor, publicist and the person that arranged the publication of the memoir that followed our interview, A Life Well Lived.
She established the first bed and breakfast in the coastal NZ town of Whitianga near where I live, and later moved to America - blagging her way into work for some of the country’s wealthiest and most influential people.
This included Walter and Leonore Annenberg, who regularly hosted presidents and royalty on their sprawling 200-acre estate, and who hired Gwen as a cook. Gwen had no formal training and wrote her own references (with no formal letterheads of course: "I'm from New Zealand - we don't have letterheads in New Zealand," she told the doubters), but proved herself to be a hard-working and trustworthy member of staff and a willing and quick learner.
It was the 1980s and, under the guidance of a great Italian chef who had once cooked for the Queen Mother, she was “like a sponge soaking up the knowledge every day”, and would cook and serve food for Prince Charles and President Ronald Reagan among the guests at the estate.
Reagan, she says, was first and foremost an actor, with great charisma that helped endear him to the nation. But it was his wife Nancy who was the strength and the brains in the relationship, she told the audience at her book launch.
Reagan was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease in 1994 at the age of 83, but as has been speculated by others that knew him, Gwen says he did show signs of the illness long before that time. “He would say to me ‘Gwen, quick can you help me find this before Nancy comes’ because he didn’t want her to know he’d forgotten.”
After some time working for the Annenbergs, Gwen worked for Marvin and Barbara Davis who at the time owned 20th Century Fox. They were wealthy beyond comprehension to New Zealander Gwen. She writes of Barbara owning three necklaces worth $3 million each, and the couple had his and hers Rolls Royce golf carts for getting about the estate. But she never let them down and she never changed who she was. She would command Barbara to stand on a stool so she could fix the hem on a ball gown. She cleaned as well as cooked, never once muttering 'I don't do windows'.
Writing the book came easy to Gwen. I now know that if you want to write a book, you must always just start, and not give up. No book is ever written by the fearful person who lets doubt get in the way of filling the page.
Many people (including me) have a book they would like to write but it takes courage, determination and sheer force of will to keep it going.
There can often be a wide difference between the story that forms inside your head and the words that appear on the page, as any writer will tell you. Gwen says the writing bit was easy, but I know from experience that’s often not the case.
Gwen began with hand written pages, starting in chronological order from her earliest childhood memories. She found a supportive friend to type up her notes and would then email me her chapters.
Whilst her version of the book began at the beginning of her life, it was obvious to me that the book needed a hook for the reader, and I re-ordered the chapters so that the story begins with the arrival of President Reagan to the Annenberg estate where Gwen was working as a cook.
Gwen has printed 2000 copies of A Life Well Lived and is speaking with a large American book store chain about publishing her book in America, which will require huge print runs.
She has joined the New Zealand Author's Association and says her book will profile in their prestigious magazine in August. “They were amazed that I had achieved so much in such a short time, they said others had taken years.”
This was her first attempt at writing a book, my first attempt at editing one, and so we have both been challenged by the ups and downs of the process but I have personally been inspired by her tenacity.
Gwen does Zumba every day, she breeds bichon poodle puppies, and she goes on regular cruises with her sister and daughter. And with her 80th birthday coming up, it will be on a cruise ship that she will research her next book. There is nothing that holds her back from asking for advice and help, which she receives gratefully and then just gets on with it.
“Believe in yourself," says Gwen. "Eat healthily, exercise, and surround yourself with interesting, positive people.”
It's this philosophy that gave Gwen her story.
Working from home for the most part of a decade has proved to be productive in a creative sense, but has also taught me things over the years about observing the difference between being alone and being lonely.
There is a depth that can be accessed from quiet, familiar, homeliness. But it’s important sometimes to reach out and be with people.
Offices are wonderful places for filling the water bottle or dunking the teabag and putting the world to rights. I use my local library for this as the librarians are kin to me. I also get the bonus of departing with a book under my arm - one that will speak to me and keep me company when I need it later.
This morning I chose to have a slow start with human company, and got chatting to our two local librarians about Britain’s split from the European Union.
One of the librarians – a volunteer – was from England. We talked about Government assistance, handouts, and the feeling of resentment among folk who’d worked continuously and fed their tax into the system while others seemed to collect it like an unquestionable birth right (or EU perk).
As a writer and lowly-paid journalist seeking flexibility over money, I’ve had tough times (cue the scarcity comparisons: ‘That’s nothing! We were so poor we boiled a leather belt to make soup’). But when irregular work flow felt like a pinch, I have always shied away from collecting a benefit.
I cannot say this isn’t a judgement on those who do. Apart from anything it would invite criticism because there will be a time that I’ve forgotten about. We receive working for family tax credits, which is a euphemism for a benefit, but one that I feel comfortable admitting to (because you work to get it, right?).
But I do not intend to imply that people who receive benefits are less than me. I am no hero. I probably wouldn’t be entitled to it anyway. My version of going without is laughable. I am probably in the top five percent of the world because I can still afford to buy a bag of organic coffee, and whenever I haven’t been able to prioritise this and outwardly lamented it, a friend has bought me a bag.
As a woman, it’s likely that when I worked for corporations, I wasn’t paid what I would have been had I been born a male. But apart from this, you could say my playing field has always been level.
My reluctance to even know if I could claim any benefit has more to do with how I feel when I’m in the building that you have to enter to find out. I would rather accept hand-me-downs from friends than risk believing I cannot make enough money from doing what I do.
To admit that it’s tough to feed my family as a self-employed wordsmith might knock my confidence, and when you work at the edge of alone and lonely, confidence can make all the difference.
When I realised some time during my early 20s that my fate was very much in my own hands, I began writing lists.
The list provides order from a turbulent storm cloud of decisions. When choices seem overwhelming, when that dreaded sense of urgency looms – the one that nags about life direction and fulfilling your purpose before it’s too late – the list really comes into its own.
These days I still rely on the list. Most mornings after a wasted hour of digital distraction, I draw one up. I like to mix them up a little, and yesterdays was a doozy.
It had ‘get purchase order for graphic designer’ above ‘write up plot’. I imagine the former task may not carry the same level of effort as the one below it, which was to attempt writing the complex romantic storyline to my first-ever novel. But there it was, a simple few words on a very practical To Do list. Just putting it out there!
Unfortunately, I didn’t get the satisfaction of crossing it off at the end of the day. With exactly five minutes to go before the start of a fitness class I wanted to attend, I was up to my armpits in the online copy of the Shropshire Parish Register (because another thing on my To Do list was ‘discover ancestry’).
In the past 15 years of being a parent, lists have become complicated, meaningless, unrealistic records of big dreams that never get crossed off. Somewhat like the past lives in that ancient register of births, deaths and marriages, those dreams have arrived, shone bright and gone.
Some of the names on the parish registry may have been ancestors of mine, but all of them I’m certain, had intriguing, painful and at other times joyous hours and years of living. It mattered not if they were a bastard child, a travelling woman, a pauper or esquire.
Scrolling through the lists of names, occupations and records of christenings, marriages and burials on that parish registry was sobering for the realisation that all of these people’s experiences - their very existence - had been reduced to a list.
On one page I noticed the date of the christening of an infant child, and the next day, the same child’s name followed by a ‘b’, indicating she had been buried. The same parents of this child had christened and buried another infant just 10 months prior.
Maybe for us too, the list is all that we’ll have left to tell our story when we’re gone?
I lament that my list no longer compares the pros and cons of ‘a new life in London’ vs ‘new life in Hong Kong’ , as it did when I was a single woman with an ambitious sense of boundless possibility.
But the complexity of my current lists also hint at the richness of my life as a mother.
It can be overwhelming that I’m expected to factor the happiness of three offspring, a husband with lost and found dreams of his own and a co-dependant Jack Russell into my list. But when I think about it, the lists I wrote when I was 20-something also contained dreams that were never pursued, even though I had very few people to whom I needed to be accountable.
Perhaps the function of the list is as a record of inward contemplation, and the value is in the process of imagining a future of wide open possibilities, as frightening as they may be.
My 10-year-old and I had an argument on the way to school this morning over a Nike hat that he was wearing. He lost his sister’s Nike hat and this one had been left behind by his cousin. I didn’t want him to lose it too and doubted he could be trusted. He threw the Nike hat on the car floor, called me a dick and slammed the door, stalking off to join a selected cluster of children at creative writing in the library. I put the handbrake on and stormed after him, stooped to grasp his narrow boyish shoulders and search his eyes to place some love into them. ‘Don’t call me a dick, I’m your mother, you don’t call your mother a dick.’
I walk defiantly back to the car and drive my other son to school. We walk calmly to class, a brief meeting with his teacher, and I leave. On the way to the carpark I see a Room One boy whose name I don’t know. He is fighting back boy tears, the string of his book bag twisting around his little wrist as he wrestles with carrying two bags full of stuff for a whole day at school.
‘Are you ok darling?’ He wants his mum. She isn’t here, she has probably had to drop and drive. I don’t know his name but I know there are littler ones in his family. He’s a big boy now in Room One. His chin begins to wobble, I know my kindness has brought it on. It’s time for distraction so his grownup-ness can stop the tears. I ask him inquisitively to show me what Room One is like now…I know the teacher, she’s kind, I like her, but I haven’t seen what Room One is like for a while. Where does he put his bag? His name is written neatly on a little sticker above the silver bag hook. This is Angus’ place. This is where Angus puts his bag. What does he do now, can he show me?
I have a little lump in my throat now, as we walk into the classroom and he instantly relaxes at the sight of not one but two kind teachers. All the other kids are busy in different clusters, no-one has yet made it to the mat, no overwhelming pairs of huge eyes searching up to see who is late to class. Angus sees it is going to be ok now. As I leave, the play areas are deserted, and my 10-year-old’s class is in full swing without him. Where is my boy who wasn’t old enough to be trusted with a borrowed Nike hat? I’d left him sad and angry on the roadside by the library. The library wasn’t even open yet and he may have been stranded there on the shaded, cold concrete. The building was dark, there was no one inside, just travellers with more interest in their devices than the melodic resonance of tui birds in the trees across the road.
The travellers would have ignored the skinny brown boy who needs a haircut. He’d be feeling like a stranger in his own town. He would think about how his dick-mum didn’t let him wear the Nike hat. His day was planned around wearing that Nike hat and now his thick brown hair with no grooming product would be everywhere he went, in plain sight.
I drive past the library, the lights are on in the building, and I pull over on yellow lines to jog back to where the small group of creative writer kids are. He is walking around the desks looking at something on the walls, his tutor glances at me and smiles reassuringly, without pausing as she talks to the group. I make eye contact quickly with my boy and blow him a kiss. His face softens but he doesn’t smile. I can leave now.
My boy spent his morning writing and when I saw him after school, he had happily forgotten about the morning drama. Later, I got an email from his tutor to excitedly share with me my son's lively and imaginative story from that morning.
I love how writing is a street that you can walk down when you're feeling rattled. When you walk this street, there is so much to observe and ponder. Below is my son's story, a picture that he brought to life with his words.
Charlie the Peacock
The colours fade from lush green to a deep sea blue and then a dark night-black. A colourful peacock shows off his powerful coloured feathers. Why does it have the rainbow green to blue? The eyes glare at the top of the peacock, with the navy turquoise blue. The lime green and yellow fade through to blue…
Here he lives in the Tairua Library, jumping off the blank white frame getting ready to hypnotise all night and morning. He likes having a great big play, he is very cheeky I shall say. He reads lots of books you know, hoping to one day go to the snow. He loves Wednesday when the kids from creative writing come, and there he stays, still and proud, waiting to get to the end of the day.
My fellow writer friend Claire recently put me onto canva.com, a fun and useful tool for creating visual elements that bring your writing to life. Similar to picmonkey, which I find especially useful for quick photo editing functions, it has already come in handy for a marketing campaign I'm developing, and was filled with delicious photos, fonts and design layouts that helped bring my words to life.
These days we are so used to being marketed to that we expect to see good design incorporated into just about everything, so it's wonderful to come across easy to use, free tools for when the visual side of a writer's brain wants to be let loose on the mouse pad.
A big part of my writing work is helping clients with the big picture thinking required to best capture their end goals. It requires 'big' imagination and free thoughts that connect and group ideas, but also a narrowing down of the messages.
Perhaps what I love most about working early on in marketing campaigns is how similar they are to the thought process of writing poetry.
A short diversion here; I just had to reluctantly let go of the library's only copy of Natalie Goldberg's inspiring book Writing Down the Bones, freeing the writer within. I had received a courteous 'overdue' email along the lines of 'Did you forget?' but Emma our Librarian kindly watched on as I perched on the edge of a library chair, pausing only to glance annoyingly at a noisy I-Pad tapper, as I clung to the final few short chapters in order to finish the book. It was as though I was in a cave with a guru in some far flung corner of the globe that I thought I would never get the chance to return to in my lifetime. Of course I just need to go online and buy a copy...
But in this wonderful book Natalie talks about how lines in poetry are the lines that contain the most energy and vitality out of all the lines in your stories. If only one line in your notebook jumps out at you - that is the line to use in your poem.
Marketing campaigns are a bit like this. And although it may go unnoticed by most of the population, I dream one day of a poetic line on a billboard, beautifully designed, loaded with meaning, telling a story.
With a satisfying surge of empowerment not felt since that first day at the office, the words released; “I resign.”
Colleagues wrote their well wishes in a glib card. In hushed tones over an after work wine, office allies expressed their admiration and envy at the courage of my step into the unknown. For some reason the single women thought it was easier for a bread-winning mother of three to leave the security of a Government job, glumly commenting to the air how lucky I was to be able to follow my passion.
Only after the initial exhilaration had worn off did I pause to reflect on the difficulty of a life without the oppressive hierarchy, the wakeful nights, the incessant routine and the timed-to-the-minute morning tea breaks. It would take discipline, self-motivation and confidence to go it alone again. And it had only been eight months of regular paycheques. Perhaps a super hero costume would help…
These words were written after quitting a job that did not allow space for writing.
Throughout my life, writing has always been there with me, a quiet and loyal friend that sifts the compost and empties the garbage, picking out the recycling and occasionally revealing a treasure worth sharing with others.
Hand in hand with the discipline of writing work was the need for time in nature to inspire (breathe in) and unclutter the mind – bringing space for the incessant inner dialogue to find its form and be released.
Inspired by nature, it seemed plausible that I could find a new path of happiness in work as a protector of the environment.
In the first week, I was driven to an outdoor clothing shop to pick out an array of protective attire including solid hiking boots (which I’ve never luxuriated on before), a bright orange ill-fitting vest, bottles of hand steriliser and wet weather gear that swamped my size 8 body. My first week was great...
The job was cutting and pasting, editing, reading and summarising. Nature had been burdened by all manner of clichés and big words. Actually getting outdoors had to be meticulously planned and booked with a string of busy experts, and health and safety protocol had to be detailed at every turn.
Although fit to take on the harshest extremes that the Coromandel could sleet at me, I spent almost every day sitting at a grey desk, momentarily staring out to space then tapping away at the keyboard with the familiar sound associated with productivity.
A co-worker would tap tap behind me, sometimes faster, longer bursts that brought out the competitor in me. I would speed up, pulling out sections of another report and tap, tap them into my own rather than pause to control-A and control-P them into position. There’d be the familiar sound of a cursor, pulling back on the mis-typed words, and with that it was obvious I’d lost the race.
What had happened to the joy?
My workplace was so quiet. When in flow, I can shut out the noise of co-workers, children or gentle radio music. This was the kind of quiet that I dreaded when I walked into the office. Stepping in everyday, the papery smell was not an inviting library smell – the scent of creative endeavour and freedom to pause and relax – but that of printed documents, maps and reports that would likely only be read by those of us within these walls, probably not even our replacements.
Diligent scientific thinkers and project management title-holders had tapped away at these reports, and they sat on shelves and in cabinets, perfectly-formatted summaries of the declining state of the world outside. Was that all there was to it?
The titles sounded important because they were not easily understood by most people. Ecosystem goods and services, benthic fauna, coastal vegetation sequences. Phrases I could cut and paste easily to alienate most of the population, but which seemed to do nothing for the mauri of the natural world.
With a job title and a salary that was too low to give me any influence, I was charged with providing the solutions to environmental impact caused by human greed, ignorance, fear, laziness, habit and the need to feed the family. Like an Erin Brokovich or Xena Warrior Princess with a keyboard for a sword, I felt sure my journalistic past would make clear the hidden answer to deteriorating water quality and depleting shellfish stocks.
It could not.
It was just as difficult to ask the questions, as it was to work out the answers. Scientists were of little help. Their brains, so unlike my own, only saw more questions. “We can’t know this until we get a better understanding of that…”, they would explain in attempts-to-help-this-poor-girl emails.
Even with the aid of an emptied wine glass on Fridays, I found myself unable to explain what I’d just spent the last 40 hours summarising all week.
Must there be joy in the process in order for writing to be meaningful and to have impact? Science is not precise enough to give us what we need to make change for the good of our environment.
For over 40 hours a week, across eight months of a year, I summarised thousands of hours of scientific reports, poured over ugly spreadsheets, cajoled co-workers to invest some time explaining the dots on graphs and meaning of maps.
And then I arrived back to my heart.
The answers were not as complicated as policy makers may think, and now, after my writing hiatus, I’ve been able to reflect on how we can take care of ourselves and the fellow inhabitants of the part of our earth that we feel most connected to. I have been able to summarise eight months of cutting and pasting from scientific reports and data, here, in the last paragraph.
It is the people, it is the people, it is the people. It is the joy and the connectedness that people feel with a place and the creatures and plants that they share it with. It arises from treasured memories of time spent in your turangawaewae – your place to stand - with the people we’ve loved and the new people we’re going to meet. This is how we will come to love a place enough to make personal sacrifices for it.
writing has always been there with me, a quiet and loyal friend that sifts the compost and empties the garbage
l find more moments of inspiration and clarity from a regular dose of nature, but something else important happens.
It’s a habit for me to swing toward the pointed edge of the land on which we live, and check the beach like it’s at risk of going somewhere without me. Best be sure.
This turn to nowhere, a comma separating pressing responsibilities. It is only 30 seconds and besides, how neglectful to drive past when it is the ocean that keeps me in this little town.
Usually I allow myself just the pause here, never turning the engine off and not feeling bad about taking the carpark reserved for the disabled (I won’t stay long, I have much too much to do, and besides, I think selfishly, why would they put the disabled car park at the best vantage for surfers?).
Light is silver here at nine in the morning after I drop the kids to school. It softens into a copper gold where the sand takes over. It is a canvas that changes daily but always welcomes me with its familiar beauty.
I’ll scrutinise the form of the waves as if we are on a speed date. They must prove themselves worthy or I’m off, rounding the corners of the carpark and forcing my gaze away so as not to crash into a cheap campervan or the truck of a Council worker on a pie break.
The lines of ocean energy don’t keep that sort of time. I know it, but I do it because there are more pressing commitments in my day, or so the inner dialogue rants at me. I have more productive, less guilty ways to spend the middle of the week. I should work. I should get things done. I should work.
I watch as a black shape paddles a trail through the silver sea. From his position lying on the board and the first smooth duck dive, I know he can adequately test the waves out there for me. My focus zooms and the distraction of work begins to fade.
If I try now, I’ll find piles of washing or dishes beckoning; the long blades of grass in the lawn will glare at me, a disorderly cupboard will demand to be sorted, I will stop to smell the salt on the air and check the tips of trees for wind strength. It is no good. I need to surf.
People often say they need the regularity of an office because they could never be disciplined enough to work from home. This works for them so that’s fine. It doesn’t work for me, but I am guilty of guilt talk too. When checking the surf during office hours, I label it a distraction, which really isn’t fair.
l find more moments of inspiration and clarity from a regular dose of nature, but something else important happens. It is only because of a sense that I have spent valuable time surfing that I maximise the time that remains; I can commit to work afterward, inspired.
Mirror-like with a transparency through which the light moves from morning to midday, the waves are calling now. Already the sea beyond has goose bumps from a slow rising sea breeze. I may have blown it.
Few moments are as urgent as the race home to grab a wetsuit and board when the onshore is rising. Once out, I must make up for lost time. After 10 waves, calmness descends and then clarity. Ideas are formed, small problems fade, solutions crystalize, the light around me has a different effect.
I wonder what revelations Einstein would have had, had he been fortunate enough to be a surfer?
What are the guiding principles that you have discovered in your life? If you need a little coaxing to think about it, take a look at the list of 10 that sprung to mind for me, as I considered such things as relationships, work and maintaining balance...
Keep a pair of jandals outside all main entrances to your home
Make time for your partner and insist that you both continue to do the things that make you feel sexy
It’s positive to get lost in your work but negative to hide in it
There is always a sun-filled day of glassy peeling waves ahead
Love is a good thing
Continually work on your skills of listening
Always try to eat something with your coffee
Smiling is a free gift that rewards yourself and others
We are made of energy, as are all things around us
Self-publishing is feeling like a strange and uncomfortable thing as I sit down to write this, my first ever blog post. Wow. What a milestone.
Nervous, narcissistic even, a bit of a ninkampoop?
My byline has appeared in magazines and newspapers for a quarter of a Century, but here I am actually blogging live and direct with no sub-editors or shareholders to decide what's appropriate. Ooooh it's a bit scary!
So let's just see where this goes...
Please share with me any musings of your own, suggestions of things you'd like to read. Photos? Videos? Links? We can go on this journey together, me and my virtual friends, into the creative world of the mind.
If you're spending a lot of your day in bare feet, then chances are you have found the kind of balance that Hook & Arrow writer Alison Smith has found in life.