Recipe: vegetarian chilli (or as I like to call it, “bean whatevs”)

In my experiments making big batch cooking to freeze, I’ve tried a lot of variations on vegetarian chilli. This has become my favourite.

Ingredients

  • 2 tins of kidney beans
  • 2 tins of black beans
  • 3 tins of tomatoes
  • 2 onions, finely chopped
  • 1 – 2 packets of Farrah’s nacho spice mix
  • 1 medium sized orange or golden kumera, grated (should be about 1.5 cups grated)
  • 3 tsp molasses
  • 1/2 cups vegetable stock
  • 1 cup corn kernels (fresh in summer, frozen or tinned in winter)

Method

  • Drain the beans, and leave in a large bowl of cold water – this will help get rid of some of the briney taste
  • Fry the onion until soft, then add the spice mix and kumera and a slosh more oil, stir until coated.
  • Add the tinned tomatoes and stir some more until all the kumera is off the bottom of the pan and covered in tomatoes.
  • Drain the beans and add, together with vege stock and molasses.
  • Simmer for 15 minutes, then add the corn kernals and cook for a further five minutes.

Perfect nacho topping, or served with rice, or in burritos, etc.

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Recipe: easy, freezable coconut dahl

Ingredients

  • 4 cups red lentils
  • 2 onions
  • 2 – 4 tsp each of cumin, coriander, and turmeric
  • a small handful of curry leaves
  • 1 tin coconut cream
  • 1 cup chopped tomatoes, or one drained tin of tomatoes
  • Lemon juice to serve

Method

  • Rinse the red lentils until the water is no longer cloudy
  • Fry the onions, and add spices when onions are soft and translucent. Fry together so that the heat brings out the spice – but only briefly.
  • Add the lentils and curry leaves, stir, cover with water, and bring to a gentle boil
  • When the lentils are just soft, add the tomatoes and coconut cream and more water if needed to prevent sticking or to get the desired texture. Simmer until lentils are disintegrating and the whole thing is becoming a delicious comforting dahl.
  • Serve with lemon juice, salt and pepper,

My favourite go-to “non recipes”

1) Fritters with a hearty herby salad and dips

  • (any friable thing) + (any grain + any herb + any chopped vegetable) + (any sauce or dip)

2) Noodle bowl with tofu

  • (Any type of noodle) + (tofu fried in chunks) + (any fresh vegetables chopped or grated) + (herbs) + (dressing or broth) + (optional chopped nuts)

3) Roast vege salad with hummus

  • (Any starchy veges chopped and tossed with spice mix and roasted) + (green salad) + (boiled eggs) + (hummus or other dip) + (chopped boiled eggs) + (optional  nuts)

4) Delicious lunch table

  • (bread) + (dips) + (slow roast non-starchy veges, e.g. eggplant, tomatoes) + (any other sandwich things)

5) Vegetable soup with white beans and herbs

  • Chopped veges + stock + herbs + white beans

 

 

Writers retreat loose thoughts

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.

At a writers retreat

Two children, sprawled in the king-sized bed. The older one was hopped up on marshmallows from the bonfire and kept disturbing the exhausted baby, who dreamily and stoically tried to nurse himself to sleep despite the irritation of his brother.

“Is this your arm Mum or my little brother’s arm? Can I have more pillow? Actually, I don’t want a pillow. Can I be more under the blanket? Can you tell me a such such long story? Can I sing the lullaby? Can I have a story first and then you sing my brother his lullaby? Stop singing mum, just don’t even sing, it’s stories first! I’m going to wriggle some wriggles now so everybody watch out and move out of the way!! Mum, I’m not comfy, turn the light on!”

I curtly told him to lie still and be quiet.

“I miss daddy”

“Me too, because if daddy was here he could put you to bed and tell stories and I could give B his milk in peace, but he’s not here, so you need to be quiet and lie still!”

Back and forth, I told him to be very quiet while I sang B one lullaby and then he could have a long long story.

The go-go-go child was asleep before the lullaby finished. And as soon as the noise stopped, the baby’s limbs softened into me. It feels holy, that moment, a Renaissance painting, the maternal embrace of slumber.

I need to move them both to make more space for myself, but for now, I’ll lie here listening to the sound of their sleepy breathing, the tandem in-out, in-out. A peaceful rhythm to end the day.

One of my recent stories for D

Once upon a time there was a little boy, and one day he turned into a dragon. And he stomped about the house doing dragon things, flapping his dragon wings and kicking his dragon feet and breathing dragon fire and being a generally destructive little rebel dragon.

His mummy said “STOP BEING A DRAGON, STOP BEING A DRAGON!” But he didn’t stop being a dragon – he flew up high and knocked a hole in the wall with his dragon wings, and he set the curtains on fire with his hot dragon breath.

His mummy said “STOP BEING A DRAGON, STOP BEING A DRAGON!”. But he didn’t stop being a dragon – he ran down the hallway and crashed into his little brother, and his little brother cried.

His mummy said “STOP BEING A DRAGON, STOP BEING A DRAGON”, but he didn’t stop being a dragon, instead he ROARED at his mummy and breathed dragon fire on her. When he did that, his mummy turned into a mummy dragon and she roared back at the little boy dragon, and it was a loud loud scary mummy dragon ROARRRRRRRRRRRRRRR.

The little boy dragon got scared and started to cry big dragon tears, he didn’t want his mummy to be a dragon too. When the mummy dragon saw the little boy dragon start to cry, she scooped him up for a hug, even though they were both still dragons, and they had a dragon hug with their dragon wings and nuzzled with their dragon heads. And, just like that – they weren’t dragons anymore!

Now, even though the magic cuddle made them stop being dragons, the little boy still had some dragon energy, so they all went to the playground where he ran around and around in dragon circles doing dragon roars until he used up all his left-over dragon energy. And they made a plan that next time he was being a dragon, that’s what they’d do – because they don’t want any dragons to burn their house down!

Some song refrains to use with kids, hopefully less grating than the ones in Daniel Tiger

  • For crossing the road “I wanna hold your hand” (Beatles)
  • For stupid tantrums when I say no to treats “You can’t always get what you want” (Rolling Stones)
  • For when they need to wait for something “All you need is just a little patience” (Guns n Roses)
  • For when they need to stop doing something “Stop right there, thank you very much” (Spice Girls)
  • For when they are doing the stuff that makes you want to shout “Welllllllllll you know you make me want to shout…” (Otis Day and the Knights)
  • Also for when they are doing destructive stuff “R.E.S.P.E.C.T” (Aretha Franklin)
  • When they’re upset about something “Sometimes in our lives, we all have pain, we all have trouble…” (Bill Withers)
  • For pretty much every occasion “It’s been a hard days night…” (The Beatles)
  • For when they’re dawdling “C’mon, c’mon” (The Von Bondies)
  • For when they’re being contrary about everything “He’s a rebel” (The Crystals)
  • For when they fall over “Tumbthumping” (Chumbawamba)
  • For when you’re struggling with negotiating something “We can Work it Out” (The Beatles)

The proportion of Beatles songs reflects my Nana’s undying love for the Beatles.

He taonga te reo

When I was seven, my kura made a decision to establish a te reo classroom within the school. It was a radical step. This was an ordinary state school, committing to a kaupapa Māori unit, with the vision that this would become the basis for a whole-school transformation into a bicultural learning environment. My brother and I were part of the foundation rōpū in the class.

As a child, I was taught that te reo Māori was a taonga, kua mau te reo! Kōrero mai tamariki ma, kōrero, kōrero, kōrero! My kaiako were learning themselves, building a revival of the language, and their goal above all others was for us tamariki to feel connected to the reo, and connected to te ao Māori. It was an amazing gift. I didn’t realise it then, it was part of the fabric of my childhood and I didn’t know how usual it was. I continued studying te reo at high school. I was the only Pākehā student in the class and I compared myself to the kids who spoke te reo at home and were fluent, and felt inadequate, and a bit of a poser because of my Pākehā whakapapa.

Years passed, much of my reo faded away, I studied other things at uni. Then I got my first job at a law firm, working in the resource management team. We had iwi clients – suddenly this subject that everyone thought was a strange choice turned into a bit of a career asset. Later, working in the public sector, consulting on a marae while heavily hapu with my first child, I felt blessed to understand the koro who said warmly to me “tēnā kōrua”. There are beautiful things about a culture you can only understand through the language. Learning another language connects you with another world and another way of seeing things. This man saw me as two people. In the proud flush of first pregnancy, in the third trimester and feeling the pēpi move a lot (kick kick kick while I did my mihi whakatau), it felt like the loveliest greeting I’d ever received.

We want to pass down to our children three languages: English, one of my reo tūpuna, the language we are both most fluent in, the one spoken all around us; Hebrew, their father’s first language, and one that connects them to their religion and culture and their family history stretching back millennia; and te reo Māori, connecting them to the place we live, their place of belonging in this world, their tūrangawaewae.

There are so many languages that their ancestors spoke, but that have slipped away – I don’t speak Gaelic, my husband doesn’t speak German or Yiddish or Russian or Czech. It makes it feel more important to me that we nurture the language of the place we live, and the language that my husband brought with him when he arrived here as a child. At the kids creche, several of the staff have first languages other than English, and D has developed a keen interest in asking them to translate things into their languages. He tells me in the car “Lanu samusamu is yellow in Samoan, I know because my teacher told me. Atama is head in Japanese. I can teach you how to sing Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes in three different languages!” He likes Te Haere ki te Rapu Pea better than Going on a Bear Hunt, he says it sounds more like a story song. We’ve not taught him as much reo or Hebrew yet as we’d hoped, but he’s absorbed the idea that multilingualism is the norm, so that’s a good start!

When I think of my childhood education in Te Whanau Whakarongo Rua, I am stunned at what they managed to achieve at that school. It must have been quite a whirlwind for the kaiako and the parents, but wow. They were building an amazing waka for us. Mixed aged classrooms, project-based learning, a restorative justice approach to discipline, planting out the school to create an urban ngahere, yearly trips to marae for a full week – it gave me an overly optimistic view of what the world was like, that’s for sure! At high school and intermediate it became a quirky side-note, oh yeah I can speak te reo Māori but we didn’t rote learn our times tables so I take ages to fill in one of those stupid times tables grids we now have to do. Now, looking back with more understanding of what a conventional primary school would have entailed, it seems like for the the chaos of riding a waka that was still being built, it was the most incredible kaupapa to have been part of.

Even among people sympathetic to the cause of language revival, learning te reo is often seen as a worthy but boring task, like attending a training session on some new office software. I don’t see it like that. Despite over two centuries of colonisation, I see the tangata whenua continuing to extend a generous invitation to all people living here to learn the language of this place, and take up our position as ngā tangata ō te Tiriti. Ko Papatūānuku ō tātau whaea, ko te Moana nui a Kiwa ō tātau moana, ko te reo Māori ō tātau reo, ko Aotearoa ō tātau kāinga.

Sorry new followers, this one is a bit… niche

I got heaps of new followers from the Metiria post, cool! Hi!

Um, so now I’m a bit self-conscious that this blog is some alternative lyrics to “It’s not Fair” by Lily Allen because we had a really really bad night last night with just so so much vomit, so much vomit, just, all the vomit all night. I think maybe it was because he ate some sand from the sandpit at the zoo, which is probably contaminated with emu poo, tbh.

Anyway.

Oh he’s just a little bub, 
He likes to snuggle all the time, 
I check him when he goes to bed,
I like to make sure that he’s fine

You know I’ve never met a bub
Who’s so delicious in all ways
He’s such a funny little sweetheart
And we really love to play

There’s just one thing
That’s getting in the way
When we go up to bed
You don’t want to sleep
It’s such a shame

I look into your eyes
I want them to be closing
And then you make this noise
And it’s apparent it’s all over

Fuck.

Vomit.

It’s not fair
And I know you’re just a bub
I know you’re just a bub
I know you’re just a bub

Oh, you know I really care
But I also want to scream
There’s vomit on the sheets

Oh, it’s not fair
And it’s really not our day
It’s really not our day
It’s really not our day

Oh, you know I really care
But it’s 1am for heavensake
…it’s 2am for heavensake

Oh I lie here in the wet patch
In the middle of the bed
I’m feeling pretty damn hard done by
I smell the vomit on your head

Then I remember all the nice things
About being your mummy
Maybe I’m just overreacting
You’re usually nice and cuddly

There’s just one thing
That’s getting in the way
You’re brother’s in the bed
He just climbed in, 
It’s such a shame

I try to fall asleep
I’m huddled in a corner
And then you make this noise
And it’s apparent it’s all over

More vomit.

Fuck.

It’s not fair
And I think it’s really mean
That parenting’s unseen 
When babies have so many needs

Oh, you know I really care, 
But I also want to scream
That I’m out of sick leave

Oh, it’s not fair
And it’s really not ok
That our society 
Is set up this way

Oh, you know I really care, 
But all you do is take
Your mum and dad need a break

 

Kia kaha Metiria

A minor infraction

Metiria Turei, what an exceptional 23 year old she must have been, deciding to go to law school without having finished high school, a solo mum on a benefit, Māori in a decidedly Eurocentric academic career path, surrounded by indistinguishable smoothly moneyed Pākehā plonkers in polo shirts. For her to have been there at all is damned amazing.

So, being a smart go-getter type, she figured out a way to get something she wasn’t strictly entitled to – a tiny bit more accommodation supplement, enough to make ends meet. It’s a bit like the many law students who take advantage of loopholes to get a student allowance because their parents’ income is lower on paper than it is in practice, thanks to some crafty accounting and the peculiarities of our trust law.

Who gives a shit about the extra accommodation supplement. Getting more accommodation supplement than you’re meant to because you don’t declare your flatmates and you’re trying to feed a child while studying to get a career that will allow you to be financially independent, it’s about the tamest lie of omission imaginable. An extra $20 a week that meant her kid could have a full puku, how could anyone be bothered by that?

But open a newspaper or a news website (don’t turn on the tv, it’s too much), and instead of everyone agreeing that we need to fix the social safety net, instead I see:

Fraud! Liar! Cheat! SEND IN THE HOUNDS!!! Don’t have kids if you can’t afford them!!

Like, wow, guys (it’s mostly guys), how’d you get so fucking mean? What happened to you, to make you feel so threatened by someone who is trying to make the world a kinder gentler place for our tamariki?

And then, an extra pebble of a problem, it was uncovered by the media that in 1993 Metiria was enrolled to vote at an address different to where she lived. Which by itself is also a nothing. It was 23 years ago. At the time, we had a FPP system – and there was a big push to change it because it was so undemocratic. We also only had only four Māori electorates (they were not yet indexed to population) so unlike the current system, they acted as a way to reduce the influence of Māori voters and keep Māori politicians on the periphery. I’m not sure that enrolling in the wrong electorate on purpose counts as morally blameworthy when the electoral system itself was very unrepresentative. Silly, yes, sure, if you knew you were going to be judged on it in 25 years time. But not a big deal. Not a major stain on someone’s character.

Watching the press conference yesterday, Metiria’s mana in fronting up to the political consequences was extraordinary. She has accepted an enormous personal cost as the price for starting a conversation that centres the experience of people living on benefits, that stakes a claim for their dignity and right to a decent life in the face of a political culture that often seems to forget these are real people.

Exploring some reasons for the vitriol

There’s a double standard and it’s obvious. No other politician in the past twenty years has gotten this level of flak and outright media vitriol. Not MPs who did majorly wrong things wrong while in office, and definitely not MPs who did something wrong twenty years ago. Bill English and the housing allowance is the most obvious comparitor – and he is now the Prime Minister!

There are other factors at play in this issue and they are ugly.

Sexism

In every step of challenging the patriarchy, many men have pushed back and sought to keep women financially dependent. We’ve come a long way, but mothers of small children remain the most financially vulnerable group of adults in our society and the least likely to have an independent source of income. The financially dependent wife and mother is in a subordinate position in a relationship, and this is how a lot of influential men prefer things to be. Government financial support for single mothers would be a huge threat to their personal lives, though they’d never admit it.

While some men value the unpaid contribution to household and children, and role differentiation can be a mutually supportive situation, too often that’s not the case. The power differential might manifest in small ways: she’s expected to clean up after her husband’s mess, and not complain that he goes on skiing holidays with his friends while she’s at home with the kids, and sympathise when he grumbles about his long day at the office while he never wants to hear about her equally long day. Or, the power differential might mean she is generally expected to keep quiet and tow the line – she ignores his repeated affairs, she moves overseas for his work despite this ripping her away from her support networks. At the worst end of this continuum is relationship abuse (including emotional abuse), which spans all income levels, and which is compounded by difficulties becoming financially independent after leaving a relationship. The scale of this problem in our society is shocking. Police investigated over a 100,000 incidents of family violence last year.

More sexism

Who benefits from the narrative that says earning money is more important for kids than day-to-day caregiving? The answer is easy: people who support their kids financially but don’t provide hands-on parenting! These people are mostly men. If the state can step in to provide the money, their role is suddenly shrunken down. So single parents are expected to be in paid work and outsource the childcare, despite this being extraordinarily difficult for women on low incomes (have you SEEN THE COST OF CHILDCARE?!), and despite this being exactly the opposite of what children need.

Racism

Metiria Turei is Māori. It was a brown baby going hungry, and that’s just not as important to our society. The racism is full frontal obvious, and with it a Pākehā narrative that sees Māori as a nuisance in the way of a shiny society of self-made individuals springing afresh from a newly discovered land. But – this is not our land! All Pākehā benefited from a masssive transfer of wealth from the indigenous population to the colonisers, and it’s not just historical, it’s ongoing. (Who is more likely to be paying rent and who is more likely to own rental properties? Why is capital gains on rental property not taxed while GST is charged on everything we buy?)

Classism

Metiria Turei was the first in her family to go to university. Is there an interest served by keeping some people out of the halls of the secure professions? Of course there is! Someone needs to clean the law firms late at night. The worse it is to live on a benefit, the more willing people are to accept crap employment conditions.

Discrimination against children

You can’t justify unlivable benefits unless you’re willing to sacrifice children’s wellbeing at the alter of parental responsibility. Which is extremely fucked up. If you see children as the responsibility of the parents, not as society in general, what does that say about the status of children as people in their own right? Imagine the reverse – imagine if your wellbeing in your retirement depended on your children being able to financially support you. Seem absurd? Well it’s even more absurd that we do it for kids, who have no ability to plan for the vulnerable phase of being children and no ability to help their parents to obtain financial security so that they can have a comfortable infancy.

Metiria is really damn awesome. Really.

Auckland Law School is not a welcoming environment for people outside the mould. When I was there, I was following in the footsteps of my mum, who graduated from her BA/LLB with a big pregnant belly full of me. And even as a second generation law student, even from a life of solidly middle class privilege, I felt a bit on the outer: my parents were left-wing, I was not an alumnus of Dio or St Cuths.

Many of the lecturers had a strong social conscience, and in tutorials we discussed cases of social interest – like the one where an abusive relationship was considered to be a relationship in the nature of marriage and the beneficiary who failed to declare the relationship was found guilty of fraud. There was a solid group of us who saw the law as a potential tool of oppression, or at least an interesting part of our social framework, and some papers gave scope to explore this angle; but it’s safe to say that the overall vibe was “get a job in a big firm, and make money by helping people with money make more money”.

Metiria Turei got through law school, and got a job in one of the top firms, and she did it all by herself while raising a kid. The scale of that achievement is extraordinary. And she’s gone on to raise that child and has achieved a stellar political career, growing the Greens into an integral part of our political scene and leading their social policy development. And yet, having made it to leader of her party, as secure as she has ever been in her political career, an honest discussion of the difficult times when she was young and just starting out has generated an attack machinery we’ve not seen before in any political scandal in my lifetime. The New Zealand Herald is calling for her resignation. They’re holding her to the pinnacle of a standard that many other politicians have fallen short of in worse ways. There’s no benefit of the doubt being given for something that happened two decades ago, no acknowledgement of what has happened since. No compassion for human imperfection and trying to get ahead in a harsh world.

It fucks me off.

Yesterday a colleague who I respect a lot said “yeah, but would you have committed fraud when you were 23?”, and I was a bit flummoxed and didn’t think of a response quickly enough. It’s not a fair comparison; I was 23 seven years ago not twenty years ago; I was already a practising lawyer at 23; I’d had 23 years of being primed for a professional career and being told what the expectations were of society’s leaders; I was not financially independent at 23 – my parents were shortly about to pay for my wedding; I didn’t have a child yet at 23; and most important, nothing really hard had happened in my life yet at 23.

But when I was 22, in my final year of law school, I was living away from home and my parents were paying my rent and I decided to borrow living costs from Studylink so I didn’t have to do as much paid work and could focus on getting good grades. That’s completely legal. And I got an interest-free loan for that money. Pretty easy to see who the system is designed for.

The policy issue and the enormous social deficit of focusing on paid work

After Metiria’s initial speech in which the new welfare policy was released, Paula Bennett said “If you can work you should be, and if you are on a benefit and you can be looking for work then I think most New Zealanders expect there to be a mutual obligation that you’re doing that.”

But…

We’ve never ever ever had a society where everybody is expected to do paid work for 30+ hours a week.

That society could not function.

We’ve always had lots of people who contribute through unpaid work – caring for children, keeping our community infrastructure running smoothly through volunteer work. This work is hard, and creative and innovative and essential.

We’ve always had lots of people who cannot do regular paid work day in, day out, especially with a survival of the fittest attitude towards employability that’s so beloved of capitalism these days; but who can do a lot of productive stuff at their own pace, and who would be worthy of dignity and social support and a good standard of living even if they couldn’t.

It’s always been complex to match the work that needs to be done with the skills of the people available to do it and the physical materials available to support them. Jobs don’t just materialise because people are available to work. The unemployed used to be considered unlucky, not blamed for their own predicament.

My great-grandmother was widowed, left with eight children, during a fucking war, in a city that was being bombed all the time. I mean holy hell, right! That’s INTENSE. She was in paid work when her youngest children were small, she had to be, because with a sick husband who else was going to support the family? Working class women have always been expected to work. And after my great-grandfather died, she had the widow’s benefit, but it wasn’t enough to live on, not even close.

My grandmother entered the middle class in the post-war boom, and part of that was an expectation that women would not do paid work. When she and my grandfather divorced, she was left with no employable skills to support herself and my aunt.

My mother went through university absolutely determined that she would get a job that provided a reliable income, so she would never be in that position herself. In one of fate’s twists, when my brother was a tiny baby, my dad got very sick, and mum had to go back to paid work sooner than she planned. It was a really tough time for them – they could have used more financial support from the state, because they weren’t able to draw on any from their families, and it was a pinch keeping things together.

I don’t remember that period. My memories of my childhood are of my parents having more spare money than spare time, because they were both in paid work. My grandmother filled an important childcare role. She was on a sickness benefit by then, so she was around during the day. She didn’t have to work. But she did have a constant anxiety about continued eligibility that only eased when she became old enough for superannuation. She was always very concerned that WINZ would chase her up if mum bought her some groceries or gave her a bit of cash for looking after us. She picked us up after school fairly often, came on school trips with us, and was always available at short notice when we were sick. It’s only as a parent myself that I realise how important this really was. How valuable this contribution was. Not just to my parents, but to me. My taxes could be raised to Scandinavian levels and they still wouldn’t come close to repaying what I received as the recipient of my grandmother’s tax-payer funded caregiving availability.

Within the tangle of vitriol against Metiria, I’m interested in the undercurrent of resentment of having to be in paid work, this idea that beneficiaries shouldn’t be able to make a “lifestyle choice” to stay out of paid work indefinitely. If you hate work so much and want to be able to chill out and do other stuff, shouldn’t that be channelled at trying to get better working conditions, more annual leave, that sort of thing? Core values of the left.

At the same time, there’s the idea that work is the only valid contribution to society. Imagine if we took Paula Bennett’s words and replaced the word “work” with something else, like caring for others. Those who can care for others should. Those who can pay more taxes to fund desperately needed increases in social spending should.

Those who can play with small children, enjoying them and bonding with them and creating lifelong connections, should.

My brother was out of work briefly two years ago, he’d returned from overseas and had a permanent job lined up but there was a gap of a few months. We had some lovely lovely afternoons, him and me and the little dude. I’d leave my office at 3pm and get the little dude from creche, and my brother would meet us at the beach. I was pregnant and slow-moving, so the little dude was delighted to have a bouncier adult to play with. In those months, my brother also volunteered teaching refugees to speak English. His time wasn’t as full as it might have been otherwise, but it wasn’t wasted. I don’t think the beneficiary-bashers would be too worried about my brother, they’d probably think, eh he’s young, let him have his fun, he’ll be shackled to a desk soon enough.

But they’re definitely worked up about Metiria. Surface level, you have some sort of moralising claptrap about playing by the rules and working hard. Next level down you have distaste towards people who are women, poor, mothers, Māori, left-wing, and outspoken.

Life throws curve balls. One strand of animosity towards beneficiaries might be people trying to distance themselves from that reality. If financial upsets could happen to any of us, we need to change the system. If we’re vulnerable, we should be worried that the system set up to catch us is not working. But if we make it clear that beneficiaries are in that position through some fault of their own, we’re safe. And we don’t have to do anything to fix it for others.

This backlash has been fierce, but it’s harder and harder to hold the view that beneficiaries deserve their fate the more we talk about these issues and listen to people like Metiria who bravely put themselves forward to share their stories. I’m inspired by the words of that press conference “change is coming”.

Kia kaha Metiria. Ko koe he rangatira toa. Ko koe te tino kaiwhakaohooho o tenei pāremete.