The Essential Struggle (Opening night Verb Festival 2019)

Lois groaned. What did that even mean? She’d agreed to participate in the event in August thinking the premise sounded interesting but now it was November and the premise sounded positively impenetrable. How was she meant to distill all her struggles into one, big, all-encompassing struggle?  And in only four minutes! Did the organisers know she was an essayist? The essential struggle for Lois was to be brief!

She lowered her forehead onto the keyboard and began to bang it softly up and down, making a soothing, clacking sound.

“What’s wrong with you?” her 17 year old son said, coming into the kitchen.

“I have to give a talk on Wednesday about the Essential Struggle,” she wailed.

“What’s that?”

“I have no idea!”

He grabbed a packet of chips. “Why’d they ask you then?”

It was a fair question. All the other writers were published authors. People with actual books, not a manuscript spread out in bits across the dinner table and pinned to every surface of the house.

She looked up desperately. “What do you think the Essential Struggle is?”

He put a chip in his mouth and began to crunch. “Obesity? No, no wait! I know the answer. It’s climate change. Definitely pick climate change. Not as interesting but bound to win.”

“It’s not a competition!” she said. “It’s not like there’s a right or wrong answer.”

Her boy looked skeptical. “When did you find out about this event, anyway?”

“In August.”

He leaned over her computer screen. “And you haven’t even started yet? Foo Mum you’re screwed!”

She laughed then and so did he and it made her think about the last time they hugged, really hugged, it was after midnight in the hallway and it felt like she hadn’t seen him in weeks, rushing between Reo classes and work and whatever else it was she managed to fill her days with and he’d stepped into her arms without a word and stayed there for ages and when he finally pulled away he said “why is that I’m taller than you now but whenever I hug you I still feel like a little boy?”

And the purity of this thought, and his ability to feel his 17 year old feelings and articulate them, made one of those hairline cracks on the surface of her heart. She wanted to pull him back into her and apologise for the separation two years earlier that had stopped up the voice inside his chest but he was already back in his room and she was standing alone in the hallway in the dark, thinking: the struggle to parent is essential. How to let go without pulling away? It is a riddle you have to work out sooner or later.

Then again, thought Lois, placing her fingers on the keyboard, how could she talk about struggle with any authority when she lived in a house without mould? When she lived in a house?! When she could meet the basic needs of her children, put food on the table, take them to the doctor when they got sick and not only that, do it all with the able-bodied privilege embedded in the pigment of her skin. Only people who don’t have to struggle for the essentials have the luxury  of philosophising about them.

Lois wondered if her tīpuna ever thought about the Essential Struggle while being rapped over the knuckles in the classroom for speaking their own language? While burying babies dead from disease? While marching to Parliament from the tale of the fish to the head in protest against the theft of taonga by the stroke of a pen. For people who know struggle intimately it is not a question of choice but a lived reality, ka whawhai tōnu, ake, ake, ake.

In truth, Lois suspected that all her daily struggles were just decoy struggles.

The struggle to let her hair down.

The struggle to finish one knitting project before starting another.

The struggle to stop writing about herself in the third person as if no-one knew who she was talking about.

The struggle to be free from struggle

To know the difference between a struggle and a mild inconvenience

To reclaim ancestral language

To look her daughter in the eye every morning and make time to see her

To forgive her mother while she was still alive

To return her father’s phone calls

To plant a garden.

Return hands to the whenua as a form of medication

Hokia ki tō kainga…

And to breathe, Hā ki roto

The most basic things to our existence, Lois typed, should not be a struggle at all

Why do we talk about healing papatūānuku as if looking after her is a crisis or an emergency, something we have to take action on now as though indigenous peoples have not already been killed and prosecuted for centuries for trying to protect her, as if she is the one who is sick and not us, as if we are separate from her, above her, as if she is not our mother who we would meet in the hallway in the dark and hold, and be held, and remember that we are the child and no matter how tall we get we will always be the child

The struggle is to wake up

To unsee ourselves through the coloniser’s eyes

To read ourselves differently.

Speak our own stories and…

Behind her, her son rustled his bag of chips.  “No, no,” he said, reading over her shoulder. “Go back to the bit about crisis. And see if you can get sea-level rise in there. Trust me. It’s a winner.”