In June 2013, on my way home from Wellington to the Hutt on a crowded bus-replacing-train, I overheard a suited man on his cellphone. The night before, the wind had blown a recycling skip along the road as I ran home from the Petone train station. In the morning, I had hoped, naively, that we would get the day off work, but my public service workplace was already developing remote working techniques for all staff – following their experience in the Christchurch earthquakes – and those who didn’t have their dongle yet were expected to come in anyway.
The train home was of course a bus – the tracks and the shared path beside it were covered with driftwood and other debris. It was a carpeted bus, not a commuter bus, and reminded me of high school trips. I had a seat, but the aisle was crammed with standing commuters.
Probably the whole bus heard him; he was standing a few rows ahead of me. His conversation went something like this:
‘I’m just on the train home now … No, I only got to work at 10 am, I couldn’t just leave! … Chill out … You were supposed to have a nap when they were both asleep, that was the plan … I’ve already told you … Oh for God’s sake.’ His voice was rising throughout, until he hung up without saying goodbye.
I was horrified. I hated the way he was talking to her, but hated that he had to be at work despite the storm the night before, did only get there at 10am, was expected to stay despite a baby and another kid at home; hated that this crammed carpeted bus where everyone had heard his whole conversation was his only way home. I thought, they just need someone to go over and make them dinner; it’s such a small thing and they don’t have it. Instead the weight of the world is on their shoulders and comes out in this anger from him to her, this unheard desperation from her to him. This small violence of his anger at her need.
Yet, how many of us parent like this, regularly?
Many years ago, when I was a teenaged anti-coal activist in Christchurch, my other mum Leigh said, ‘Climate change should have been fought in all the struggles. It’s too late now. But back in the eighties, it should have been added to all the existing fights, like the unions, anti-globalisation, feminism, migrant rights, fights against colonisation, fights against poverty. It never should have been fought as a single-issue campaign.’
‘These are the days that we’ll pine for,’ sings Mel Parsons in her 2023 song, ‘Tiny Days.’¹ I worry this will be the case. Not just for our babies and small children – mine are 6 and 3 years old now – but that in a few decades, or perhaps even years, these days will still look simple and homely (though they are anything but for many), because of the coming extreme weather events and shifting climatic zones.
I have spent the summer listening to Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate; eight years after I pretended to have read it to give a speech about it for Oil Free Wellington’s Change Everything conference and on-water demonstration at the end of 2015. At the start of this summer, I listened to it quietly, embarrassed; others might not want this darkness radiating out across their quiet Newtown back gardens as I hung our daily washing. They might not want to know the realities of climate change, or they might be Tongan, like our neighbours are, and know them too well already. They might be denialists or just not really into listening. I didn’t think to get a headset. That odd sense of feeling like a conspiracy theorist because you know something everyone should know and why don’t they see it and they really don’t want to know.
But then we had the Auckland floods and Cyclone Gabrielle, and further flooding since. Climate change has arrived on these shores, and I wouldn’t feel embarrassed listening to This Changes Everything anymore. I’m listening to Angela Davis’s Freedom is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine and the Foundations of a Movement now as I hang the washing or make the beds.
But there are still questions; organising and life questions that I don’t know the answers to yet. Perhaps contradictions is a better term. I remember that slow separation over the long summer of 2021-2022; the separation of people into two camps. The Linwood family, who always waved to Hamish when he was biking past to collect the kids from me after swimming each Saturday morning and they were loading their toddler into their car, until one day they shouted, ‘Freedom!’ No doubt they were on their way to the anti-vax demo that morning in Cranmer Square.
That camp of anti-vaxxers went further and further to the right; even if it wasn’t the politics at the start or the politics of the membership, it’s also the case that they didn’t deny the antisemitic, racist, fascist overtones, and by the end were happy to give National Front members a speaking platform. This was in a community I didn’t know yet: central and East Christchurch, Linwood. By the time I came home to Newtown in winter 2022, I still felt that people must be in these two camps.
‘I love and hate this place,’ our new/old neighbour said, when we bumped into him near the main lights at the corner of Riddiford and Constable Streets. ‘Everyone’s on top of each other.’ He had just warned me of someone homeless / underhoused who was getting violent, who he had seen violent the other day. ‘He’s just up the road. Be careful with the kids.’
‘That’s what I love about this place,’ I said, ‘everyone on top of each other.’ My heart was still singing with the return to Newtown, with all its dense housing and tight streets and so many known community members and old men who would lean over and pull Noi’s pant cuffs down to cover her ankles on a cold windy day when they were worried she would be chilled.
But also, within a month of returning, we were on the streets, to counterprotest Brian Tamaki in August 2022, to show our opposition to their views and to them occupying Parliament again. Something I was pleased to do, somewhere I stood calmly, even while being shouted at, pushed up against the brickwork standing in the garden on the Parliament side of the Cenotaph. I am so happy to be here, I am so happy to be here, I kept reminding myself, a calming mantra; happy to be back in Wellington, happy to be standing on the street with friends and even my aunty and uncle rather than the loneliness of organising mid-Omicron in Christchurch. It’s also true that yelling about racism at a largely Māori crowd is uncomfortable.
And so even my beloved Newtown was divided in my head into those who were sliding to the right and those who weren’t. That meanness in some social interactions, that anticipation of judgement. I grew up feeling an anticipation of judgement on the streets of south Christchurch, learnt young not to flinch if someone shouts at you as you bike past, but by god it had seemed steeper in the months and years since the first lockdown, since the first imposition of all those rules that different people could follow differently. It’s harder to not use the footpath outside your house in the fifth week of lockdown when you have no garden and no outside at all and two kids and a partner who needs to teach and 41 square metres than if you have a lovely big garden and a three-bedroom house.
After the Cyclone, my other mum pointed out that communities which have been so heatedly divided over Three Waters (broadly, Pākehā farmers vs mana whenua) were literally rescuing each other and feeding each other. Rebecca Solnit reminded us on her Facebook page that in severe weather, it is your neighbours and other kind locals who will rescue you, not the authorities.
That change seeped through me like the scent of lavender oil. Suddenly everyone in our community, those who live here – the rich, the poor, those who just pass by on the roads – they all are potentially people who will rescue us or who we will rescue in severe weather, and then bond with at the Community Emergency Hub at Newtown School.
And yet, and yet. Angela Davis writes in Freedom is a Constant Struggle that with the big swings and gains in Black emancipation came opposition, violent opposition like the KKK.² Moana Jackson said something similar: ‘whenever Māori seem to be questioning the power that is vested in Pākehā power structures, then the racism which underpins those structures tends to be more overt and people feel less inhibited about making racist comments and being quite openly discriminatory against Māori.’³ And that it’s necessary to oppose those of course, and to continue the organising.
My friend had her bike nicked on another street in Newtown over the summer, and someone else up the road from her had their work tools taken last weekend. Their response is to get CCTV that films public space as well as private. And, hopefully, to get together as a community; something they seem to do rarely. But I believe in a different kind of security: a human security – the same one we push for in peace work for the Pacific – a security that is the opposite of militarisation. So I continue to let my kid play out the front when I’m in the back garden, and to leave the front door open; continue to chat to locals and – when they are not rushing past wearing headphones – hospital workers as they stop to pet our cat before collecting their car. My biggest fear on our street is somebody stopping and questioning Noi, ‘Where’s Mum?’ or ringing Oranga Tamariki, rather than the actual danger of the passer-by. That’s telling. I can’t see her from the washing line and so I just pop my head around every so often, check she is still using the hose or pottering around with flowers. But also, I am largely safe from Oranga Tamariki, by being Pākehā.
I love this suburb, this hāpori, where I can bike home from the May 2023 Queer Endurance / Defiance trans rights demo at Parliament, park the bike beside the library, where Noi and I can use the toilet, the playground, go to the bakery; bump into a Newtown elder and try to convince her to pay heed when she says that her lawyer is warning her that they – Restore Passenger Rail – might be risking imprisonment; walk to school past many people known or familiar; chat to a neighbour from a past house who works on transport issues in the public service; chat to Storm’s friend’s mum, though they are not available for a playdate and the kid is crying and hitting and the mum is complaining about parenting and kids in 2023; pass the local Green MP who works on transport, who’s out with her toddler and a friend; bump into a union friend and her two kids who tell us excitedly that the eldest is starting school soon and that they have requested equal pay for ECE teachers.
So, the question is something like this: How do we organise in and strengthen community, while still standing against hate?
And: How do we parent while fighting for climate justice, and how do we fight for climate justice while parenting?