I’m glad I had practice bringing the kids away before this retreat. It’s so much easier to enjoy things freely when you know the constraints beforehand.
Best intentions of kids being looked after by others (at an on-site childcare programme) might rub against the toddler’s absolutely hysterical screaming on the third morning when he realises I’m dropping him off – and that’s ok, new plan, he can sit on my knee for the novel-writing workshop. The older one will possibly reject all of the catered meals and live mostly off bananas and muesli bars for a few days. Sleep will be more broken than home and they’ll both want to be in the big bed with me and bedtime will be all over the place. The toddler will nap best in a pushchair, and it might take a bit of a walk to get him asleep.
I look back on previous times we’ve taken them away, and the stress points where my expectations were too high – thinking they’d nap and go to bed much the same as home, they’d be happy to be looked after by others. I could have enjoyed those holidays more if I’d had a realistic idea of how kids respond to being in an unfamiliar environment. Kinda don’t know until you try, and slowly realise, oh yeah – this is how it is.
I went for a long walk on Waikanae beach on Tuesday morning. Something I used to do regularly. This was maybe the second time since I’ve done it since the kids. It was lovely – space to think, a wonderful uninterrupted solitude.
Almost four years ago my husband and I walked along the same stretch of coast, while I was pregnant with D, full of anticipation for the next chapter. I can’t believe how long ago it seems.
It’s been a busy four years, but really, it’s been a busy life. The difference is the last four years we’ve been less able to use our established techniques for creating space amid the rush. A long walk under a wide sky, a half hour sitting under a tree with a book, a morning to potter aimlessly with no pressure to get stuff done. All helps fill the tank for the day-to-day pressure of the week.
Previous holidays, I’ve been desperate for those recuperation pockets and disappointed that they’d been so hard to get – or they’ve been discoloured by feeling anxious about leaving the kids, or they’ve been outweighed by the extra stress of travel.
It was amazing being in a space with only other mothers, and our crew of kids. Everyone got it. There was no background stress of worrying about how other people would react to your kids, of feeling socially awkward for leaving a conversation half-finished because the toddler tripped over and was crying, or the older one was disturbing the peace and needed some redirection. Perhaps surprisingly, given part of the point was to make connections with other writers, it felt like there was no pressure to socialise, which was very freeing. The company was enjoyable, but we were all there for solitude as well. There were no “shoulds”. It was an instantly comfortable community.
These early years, I’ve felt like there’s been a lot of rough edges around my sense of myself as a mother. The mother I was at first didn’t feel as competent or as relaxed at parenting as I had expected to feel (which looking back is inevitable!!). I didn’t know how to handle the unexpected things, didn’t have a good grip on how to balance my needs with the demands of parenting. At the retreat, I saw myself as the mother I am becoming – the mother who takes two kids to a writing retreat, and makes it work, sort of.
The venue had a classic New Zealand outdoor hillside water slide. I saw it on the website and really hoped it’d be open already for summer, because that’s totally the sort of thing I love doing. Yup, the people at the office said we could use it, just had to turn on the tap and wait five minutes. D scampered up the hill to the top of the slide, with his new friend, very excited, and as I went up the hill I felt the muscle-memory kick in – I know how to climb a hill in bare feet, I know that feeling of mud and roots under my toes, I know how to help D climb without overbalancing. In that moment, I felt a bringing together of my parent self, my younger adult self, and my childhood memories.
D went down the slide on my knee – I thought this would be awesome and he’d love it – but as we got to the bottom of the slide, the splashback got him squarely in the face. He was not keen, but we dried him off and jollied him out of the upset, and he went back to the childcare programme to make a picture of a waterslide. I went down a few more times. Later he asked me to tell him a story about a magic water slide that when you go down it, it turns you into a fish and then a bird.
And I told him this story:
The water slide is called Wairere, and it’s a magic waterslide, because it is actually a taniwha.
People think it’s just a smooth hollowed out tree that happens to be lying on a hill, in such a way that water runs down when it rains, but that’s because people don’t look closely. If they looked closely they’d notice two of the knots in the wood might actually be eyes, and they’d notice it moves sometimes, as if trying to get more comfortable. If you were to go down that waterslide, you’d get quite a surprise – because Wairere likes to tease people who bother her, and her favourite way to tease people is to turn them into something else.
One day, ētahi ra, a little boy was walking past and he saw the waterslide set into the hill. He didn’t look closely, because no-one ever does – he just checked to make sure the waterhole at the bottom was deep enough, and it was, so he climbed to the top of the slide and zoomed down. Wairere smiled to herself, here was someone to play with! He was going down so so fast that he made a very big splash when he got to the bottom, and the water sprung up into his eyes. But something was strange. The water didn’t sting his eyes. Not even a little bit. And his skin felt silvery and shimmery and he tried moving his tail and it flicked. Wait. Little boys don’t have tails. He must be… he must be – a fish! He ika ia! Āe, he was a fish! He swam around in circles in the water hole for a while, e kaukau ana ia, then he tried to jump out of the waterhole to see if he could do that – and to his great surprise, he jumped so high that he started flying.
His skin didn’t feel silvery and shimmery anymore, and his flippers felt like they needed to stretch out and flap, and he felt the wind skim over his feathers, and it was thrilling. But wait. Fish don’t have feathers! He must be… he must be… a bird! He manu ia! Āe, he was a bird! And he flew round and higher and higher, kei te rere ia, all the way to the top of the water slide. When he got to the top, so high, he looked down. With his bird eyes he could see clearly that this was no ordinary hollowed log.
He tilted his head and said “tēnā koe, Taniwha”, and Wairere the Taniwha looked back at him and said “e tama, tena koe”. They smiled at each other. Then Wairere the Taniwha and the little boy who was a bird talked and talked, e kōrero ana rātau. Wairere told the boy that she was mokemoke, she was lonely, she wanted a friend – all her old friends had gone so long ago, and she was all alone now. That’s why she turned the boy into an ika and then a manu, so that the boy could recognise her and talk to her. She asked the little boy to stay with her and be a manu forever and ever so that she could have a friend, but the little boy said no – he had to go home to his whānau.
“Auē”, said Wairere, “kei te tino pōuri au, I am very sad that you won’t stay with me.” She started to cry.
“Kaua e tangi”, said the little boy, don’t cry. “I need to go back to my family, but I still want to be your friend. I have a plan, whakarongo, listen to me. I need to go back to my family, but I’ll come back – ka hoki mai ahau. I just need to be able to turn myself into a bird again so I can fly up and talk to you! Then I could come and visit!”
The taniwha stopped crying sad tears and started crying happy tears.
First, she turned the bird back into a little boy. Second, she taught him how to whistle in a special magic way that would turn him back into a bird again, the same kind of whistling the taniwha remembered learning from the patupaiarehe who used to live near her in days gone by, i ngā rā o mua. The boy practised and practised until he could do the whistle just right, and then he flew all the way home, only turning himself back into a boy when he arrived at his bedroom window.
Now, whenever the boy wants to hear one of Wairere’s stories or has something he wants to tell her, he turns into a bird and flies straight back to the ngahere to visit his friend. There, he sits on a branch of a tree right next to Wairere, and they tell each other stories all night.
When the little boy grew up, he taught his daughter the magic whistle, and she taught her daughter, and so on and so on, so that Wairere would always have a friend who could visit, forever and ever.