Double Vision

A while ago, in the refuge, I met a young woman with her mum.  She’s 16. and when I met her she was shut down. Closed face, hardened. Staunch.

Things happened, and her mum has disappeared, so she’s living, with her sister, with a caregiver – a wonderful older woman, with a large family who have taken the girls in, and made them their own. And I have also made her my own, with her permission.

I’ve been in her life now for a little over two months, and I wanted to tell you about a special day that we had a couple of days ago. After a big shopping day we had a few weeks ago, her caregiver alerted me to T’s need for glasses. I promised I’d organise it, and then got hectic busy. Her caregiver didn’t let me forget though, bless her, and so a few days ago I found a local optometrist and made an appointment.

I went to T’s school to pick her up, and waited a while for her. When she walked up, and saw me, her face immediately broke into a huge grin. And mine did too. She’s such a joy, and I am incredibly in awe of her, and her spirit.

As soon as we got in the car, she said: How have you BEEN? I’ve missed you! And I reciprocated, because I had missed seeing her lovely face. And it struck me that the question itself was an indicator of what a rate of knots she’s forging ahead at.

I took her to lunch, and we sat and ate and talked. We talked about her counselling and how that was going, we talked about her mum as T starts to process why her mum has done what she’s done. We talked about her spirit, her mauri. How powerful her’s is. How kickarse. How much I admire her.

And then we talked more about her sister, about what it means to look after people, be responsible when you’re not really ready.

We walked into the optometrist and sat down. T looked really unsure, as she always does with new people, and in new situations. But they put her completely at ease. All pālagi women, they fussed over her just enough, and not too much. They gave her agency – could see she was nervous and invited her to look at frames while she was waiting. She is still not confident in decisions she makes, but every time she makes another one, says the word NO she emboldens. Finally a pair was chosen – I don’t want to look too nerdy, she said – and they were lovely too. Makes you look like a very smart confident woman, I said. She grinned.

When it was time for the eye test, the optometrist immediately put her at ease. Chatting away, but not too much. Looking at her directly, speaking to her gently ( I had asked for someone who would be gentle with her). And I could see T visibly relaxing in the chair.  The whole time the testing was happening, all the fiddling around that happens, the optometrist constantly checked in with her – are you okay? You’re doing so well! – and it seemed to take a very short time indeed, compared to eye tests I’ve had in the past. She told her stories of not being able to see when she was a child, how glasses had made her life so much easier, what a great tool they were. She also asked her about her friends – were they going to accept her with glasses? Were there any other kids in her classes with glasses?  Made her aware that the glasses would have a blue tint to protect her young eyes from UV, and that some of the kids would find that a bit weird. T thought about it, decided her friends would be okay, that enough kids had glasses at her school for it not to be a problem – and she gave her a couple of lines to say if anyone gave her a hard time. This is what she told her to say, and I could cry just thinking about it: “My glasses mean I am more powerful than ever.”. T grinned so hard, I thought her face would crack. “They’ll understand that” she said.

The optometrist talked to her about what sort of sight she had, how easy it was to deal with, and how it presented no problem at all. By this time, T had completely relaxed with her, and we were done. We agreed that when the glasses were ready that they would text T, her caregiver, and me, and that I would be the one to bring her to collect them. The optometrist asked to see the frames and exclaimed at how great they were. ” I haven’t seen those ones yet! They’ve only just arrived.” And T said, so proudly “I chose them by myself”. Such a simple statement, with so much meaning to all of us.

I gave the optometrist a hug as thanks, and feedback, and she said to me very quietly: She’s a very very special young woman.

I had tears in my eyes when she said that. Because she’d seen. She knew what all of this meant. How smart T is, and how hard school has been for her. How not being able to see properly has impeded her schoolwork and the teacher’s understanding of her intelligence. What a difference these glasses are going to make to T’s confidence. She saw all of it in a very short time.

As we walked out, all staff waving to us and telling us what a pleasure it had been, T’s smile remained on her face. “Well, that went VERY well” she said.  I agreed, and as we walked out of the building, and saw a chemist, I said to her “I wonder if they have earrings in here”, and they did. She chose a very smart pair – subtly hanging little squares of glass. She didn’t put them in – her ear piercings are still relatively new and she wants to do the right thing – but she told me that with the glasses and the earrings, she reckoned she’d be unbeatable. I think she’s right.

You know, I talk to so many women in a day’s work. I hear their pain, and often see it too. I empathise and relate. But I don’t carry their sadness. I seem to have heard most of it before, and am able to let it go, not my pain.

But this child, and others like her. This child, so smart and wise. So kind, and thoughtful. This child who isn’t a child. This young woman. She is imprinted in my heart now. Anyone who meets her sees her light immediately, and that makes their world better. What a privilege to get to know her. She gives me so much hope, and makes my eyes bright with love. I see so much clearer when I’m in her company.  That she’s so open with her feelings, and so wanting to express them. I asked her if she believed everything I’d told her about who she was: smart, kind, powerful, affecting. She turned to me immediately, and said yes. We could all learn from her.

Electoral rolls, and women.

Aunty is quite angry this morning. Angry because once again the MSM is using an indiscretion – which actually may or may not be – committed in her early twenties to beat up on Metiria Turei. In my personal opinion, what’s being done is racist, sexist, and completely cynical. They’re using her honesty to bludgeon her over the head because, quite frankly, it’s ‘GOOD NEWS’ .

Except it’s not. They’re creating headlines because a) they’re scurrilous b) they’re scurrilous c) you can see where I’m going with this.

Once again, as with her talking about her own benefit “fraud”, she exposes weaknesses in the system. And allows other people, who have done exactly the same thing, to open up about that. And why our system fails so many people.

I get to hear people’s stories every day. Emails, messages, texts. Today was no different. I recieved a message that highlights a problem particular to people in violent relationships, but more pertinently, the exigencies of being poor. The person who told me their story has asked me to share it with you.

Our writer says:

“I used a separate address from where I was living to remain anonymous to my abusive ex, because it was faster and cheaper and less stress than going of getting on the unpublished roll. (And getting a restraining order)
I also kept as many accounts as possible there. (And because I had moved in such a rush / moving around a bit due to rental shortages etc and found out suddenly I was out of zone for school my child was growing up in /community i was in) I applied under that address with enrolment too.
As soon as I was capable and safe I updated including with the school.
If the system had allowed me to be honest privately I would have.
I’m now all out in open as it safe to do so but it was a temporary measure.

Also yes, democracy was that important to me and my ability to vote that I did it that way over and above not being on the roll.

And yes he would have looked.”

You may posit that Metiria wasn’t escaping from a violent relationship. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that people do what they do at the time they do it for the reasons they do it. And unless they’re hurting us, their reasons for doing what they do aren’t our concern. I’m not a lawyer, nor an electoral specialist. But I know a bit of stuff. And one of the things I know is this: that if you can look into your heart and say that all the lies politicians tell while they’re in power are lesser than minor indiscretions committed many years before they become a politician? You’re being judgemental and, in this case, more than a little sexist and racist.

If you need to go on the unpublished roll, you can find out more here.

Choices.

Every time I hear someone talk about choice and poverty/benefits in the same breath,  my heart stops. Because it means yet another person is light years removed from what’s happening in their own country right now.

I hear that word all the time – choice – and I don’t know that people who live in some privilege have really any understanding about how complex nor how inculcated in privilege that concept of choice is.

Today has really been, for me, all about this word. First, a conversation with someone in the morning, then several hours spent in the company of someone living in poverty, and then this most excellent interactive “game”  devised by Jess Berentson Shaw and illustrated by Joshua Drummond, around choices, or the lack of them.

I spend alot of time with women who are living in poverty. Most of them are on the DPB, some are working. But they all struggle to thrive. They have all left intimate partner or family violence, and the only choice they have at that stage is whether to stay gone or to return to their homes, their partners, and the violence. Many of them choose to return. Because the thing about choice when you’re living in poverty, and you’re under resourced, is that it’s a bit shit. Do I return to a person who treats me like crap? Or do I stay away, get some peace and the kids and I live on the bones of our arses?  Shit choice.

Say you decide to stay gone. You’re the sole income earner now. You have a choice. Do you live alone, with the kids, and try to survive? Or do you live with family?  Overcrowded house or loneliness? Help to pay bills or struggling to eat? Shit choice.

So I’m going to tell you about my friend P.

Because some people believe that living on a benefit is a choice that people make. Except it’s not a choice that the people judging it have ever had to make, so they don’t know it’s a really shit one. They don’t know that nobody wants to live on a benefit, because it’s humiliating, the state is all up in your business and you constantly feel like a failure. You feel like a failure for so long, that you think you really are one, and then what’s the point of trying, and they just keep offering you jobs that are minimum wage and wouldn’t change your situation. Shit choice.

So P and I spent the morning together. She’s a delightful and extraordinary human being. And she’s given me permission to tell you about her. TELL THEM she said. So I am.

P is about my age. She’s worked for years in the drug/alcohol rehab field, she’s doing a doctorate, she’s helping her friends set up a drug rehab facility for Māori women…and she’s on the DPB. Four years ago she left a very violent relationship, with her 6 children, and they moved constantly to keep three steps ahead of him. She had been working, but moving around meant she couldn’t do that, and she wanted to be there for her kids anyway.  And then she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She’s just finished treatment recently. But her ill health meant she couldn’t work, and she had to stay on that benefit. All the while she was studying, and working voluntarily, keeping busy, trying to do the best she could do. As she said to me today: “being a half decent parent requires energy and resources”. A bit like making “good choices”. You need to be on it, or, you know, shit happens.

So she’s on the benefit. She’s been trying so hard to get off it, because it isn’t enough to live on. It isn’t. Hasn’t been for a while. Which is another reason I wonder if people who says “it’s a choice” have any idea, and I know they don’t. Some days, she doesn’t eat. Some days, neither her nor the older kids eat. Because there just isn’t enough. So she made the choice to carry on with her education, and to get this rehab up and running, have all the meetings, do all the running around, all unpaid, so that she and her kids have a better future. She’s making enormous sacrifices.

But. WINZ don’t like it. She was being investigated for fraud, she told me. “In the interests of full disclosure” she said. You know what someone did? Saw her running around, looking all smart, and made a choice. A shit choice. To tell WINZ  – THAT WOMAN IS WORKING. So they haul her in, and she’s honest with them. I defrauded you, she said, because I used the money to print business cards for our new venture. And she had to undergo an interrogation and prove to them that she wasn’t working for money. And here’s what they knew about her, so they should have known she wasn’t working for money.

Her car has been impounded because her daughter was a silly bugger, and she’s made the choice to teach her daughter about consequence. And she doesn’t have the money to get it out of the pound anyway. So when she has a WINZ appointment, she walks. And because she’s just had breast reconstruction surgery, she took 1 hour and 15 minutes to walk there.

She normally has a case worker who understands that she’s doing all this running around, meeting government agencies etc, because she’s not looking for a job, she’s creating one for herself. But not every case worker is happy with that, and the one the other day certainly wasn’t.

So here we are with the choices she’s made, whilst living in poverty, not eating properly, recovering from cancer. She’s fighting hard to get off the benefit, and they keep pulling her back. But she doesn’t want to be reliant on them.

Nobody wants to be reliant on anyone else, let alone a government agency who treats you with scorn, and doesn’t really know who you are, because nowadays you don’t have just one person who deals with you.

And nobody wants to live in a violent relationship. But it’s harder, and more dangerous, to leave.

And nobody wants to live in a crowded damp house. But that’s all there is available.

And nobody wants to move several times, and unsettle their kids, but sometimes you have to, to stay alive.

And nobody wants to have cancer. But shit happens.

I would prefer that people who have plenty of resources don’t make judgements about what choices people make when they’re under the gun. And I would put it to you that choices are not really choices when either one is absolutely crap.

Choice is a loaded word.

Please use it sparingly, and knowledgeably, if you want to talk to me about poverty in New Zealand.

 

 

 

 

What the Aunties Did – July 2017

July was all about trips for the kids, meeting extraordinary humans and shopping.

 

Let’s start with the shopping – it happens in two ways. Auntie Jackie took nine women to the Aunties storage unit which we use like a shop, except that no-one pays for anything. People get to choose what they want from our donated clothing and linen and other supplies for themselves and their children. This month that included a mother choosing clothes for a little boy about to be born.

 

The other way it happens is that sometimes Jackie takes people to actual shops for brand new things. We used the “Geoff Fund” (you remember Geoff from Twitter, right? Geoff was accidentally very helpful) to take a teenage girl shopping for clothes that would make her feel good about herself. She and her sister have been through some dark times and, though she is in a safe environment now, you carry that with you for a long time. Jackie took Auntie Sonia and her daughter along on the trip to make it even more fun.

 

There is more to life than shopping, of course. There are also adventures. The Aunties took a whole bunch of kids and their mothers to Butterfly Creek which was amazing (they especially loved riding the train, and chowing down in the café) and there was also a trip to Stardome. Plus Jackie took two girls to the Auckland Art Gallery where they had THE BEST DAY EVER. Which has inspired them hugely, and also inspired us to approach National Art Supplies for lots of lovely arty stuff to keep at the refuges. There’s nothing like expressing yourself visually, and at least one of the girls is determined to be artist when she grows up so we’re thrilled to nurture this.

 

We have also paid for dance classes for one of the children, bought some baby clothes, and a new tyre, and paid for someone to sit her driver’s licence (she failed the first time, but passed the second!) and we will do that for another woman soon. We are going to pay for passports to make it possible for a couple of girls to go visit their uncle in Australia at Christmas, and we’re getting eye tests and glasses for a couple of people. And Auntie Jackie took one of the women to lunch at the Botanic Gardens.

 

Then there were the extraordinary people who gifted things to the Aunties. All of you who donate are special but here are three remarkable stories:

 

A couple whose 3-year-old son had died got in touch because they wanted to donate all his stuff – clothes and toys – to the Aunties. Jackie met with the couple, and took the woman who would receive all his things with her so they could meet. I think you can imagine the kind of courage and generosity involved in both gifting and receiving a little boy’s things after he has gone. We are incredibly grateful to these lovely people, and honoured to find a home where they will be loved and appreciated.

 

We’d also like to say a very public thank you to Rose Jackson of “Glory Days” magazine who held an exhibition of Vintage Wedding Dresses at Highwic House and then donated the proceeds from auctioning off the dresses to the Aunties. Rose also organised a public event with “On The Rag” podcasters Alex Casey, Leonie Hayden and me called “What’s Love Got To Do With It” where we talked about weddings and feminism. With proceeds from that, plus the dresses, and a personal donation from Rose, the Aunties received $1500 which is magnificent.

 

And then there was the woman who intended to donate $70 to our givealittle page but accidentally over-donated – $670. That’s a big difference, right? But while we were trying to work out how to get the money back to her (givealittle donations don’t reach us until the month following) we got a message from her saying that it turned out her family were managing without that $600 and they would like us to keep it. Which is an amazing sacrifice and quite blew us away.

 

August now – more warm clothes needed, especially in bigger sizes. And reminding you all that we are holding a public SGM (in theory a Special General Meeting but we’re thinking of it as a Seriously Good Melonfarmers gathering) at the Fickling Centre, 546 Mt Albert Rd on Tuesday 8 August at 6pm. Expect asparagus rolls. And an explanation of “melonfarmers”.