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Monthly Archives: May 2016

Losing Mater.

This is the text of a post I wrote just over a year ago, and never actively shared on social media. Maybe today’s the right time. It’s a year today since Adrienne Lillian Stephens died at the Bethesda Rest Home and Hospital. I will never forget being with her and my brothers as she took her final breath. She had gone by then. Nor will I forget the aroha and manaaki with which we were surrounded in the days after; the friends and whānau (especially her best mate Vana) who came from near and far to do her honour. Never will I forget the care and love the staff at Bethesda gave her and us in those weeks and days. After she died, they asked us to leave the room for just a few minutes do they could tidy her up. They plaited her hair. They put fresh flowers in the room. She was beautiful.

I’m not sure how to mark this kind of anniversary, and when I re-read the post below, I figured that sharing something I had written at 3am in the midst of the grief of that time would be OK. I hope so. So much has changed in the last year, so many tears shed, and yet life has carried on. E tōku Māmā, ka heke anō ngā roimata…

*****

Are there any such things as ghosts of those who still cling to life, I wonder? I feel my mother here in her house, the house where I grew up. I hear her, beyond the range of my real hearing, moving about the house, softly. Carrying her hot water bottle up to bed. Moving softly outside to feed the birds, the creak upstairs must be her on her way to the loo, probably clutching the ever-present transistor radio. I hear the oven door closing. I can smell her too, or at least, the tobacco smoke, that ever-present blue haze, accompanied by the hacking cough. I can sense her sitting at the dining room table ruminating over the crosswords, adding items to the shopping list, keeping up with the diary. Cackling quietly to herself over some absurdity in the paper. I hear the shuffle of the spindly wooden chair as she stands on tiptoe to peer over the top of the fence onto Papanui Road for the latest local outrage to get her juices flowing. She always watches The Road. The missing recycling bins; the occasional vandalised letterboxes; and the sniffy reproachfulness of Her Next Door, who (apparently) everybody round here loathes. The Road is a living stream of cars, people, dogs, bikes, news, and the rumbling buses belching their payload of gritty exhaust fumes, mimicking little earthquakes that nobody needs. And then there is her little green oasis nestled between the house and the fence. The place where the birds come to feed and talk. The broken birdbath, the dishes with honey water and the containers with breadscraps. I can hear her “took-took”ing to the birds. Not those bloody starlings though. No truck with those bloody bullies. Wax-eyes, sparrows, fantails…and before the earthquakes, the hedgehogs. We wonder where the little hedgehog family went to, four years ago. She misses them.

I am sitting here at 2am in the morning and I am waiting for the bang of the poker on the floor upstairs to let me know it’s time to Turn That Bloody TV Off. I’m waiting for the turn of the handle of the door into the hallway and for her to drift into the room on her way to put the kettle on. She’s going to be pretty mad. Never the tidiest of people, I have let the lounge in which I am camping turn into, well, a freedom camper’s paradise. Minus the poo, at least.

So I can hear all these things and see them all too, if I close my eyes and block out the Emmerdale marathon on TV. But she isn’t here, and she never will be again. At least, I don’t think so. Not until she lies here and we gather for her.

My mother is sleeping fitfully, no doubt, a few streets over, at the Bethesda Rest Home & Hospital. Her mind and body wander now, and she is waiting for the close of this chapter. I’ll go back tomorrow to sit with her. I’ll marvel anew at the kind of ethereal beauty that has come upon her recently as she slips just a little further away from us. She slips in and out of this world and then she’ll blindside me with her wit and knowingness. And then she’s off again into a world we can’t really enter. Her knees are enormous. That’s what happens when the flesh disappears from every other part of her body. Joints become bulbous.

Smoking, the one thing that gave her The Passenger, as she calls her tumour, the one thing that put her in hospital last month and into 24 hour end-of-life care this month, is also the thing that gives her days rhythm, her movements purpose. The crosswords and diary sit unfilled, except by us, her children, as we try to fill in the gaps, perhaps to hold out to the world that there is still continuity with that old life. Twice a day comes the pilgrimage, the slow wander with the walker, or lately, the wheelchair, to the scruffy green patch, with the tables and plastic chairs, where she lights her cigarette, breathes deeply, and sighs in contentment. The smoke floats around her like a deadly nimbus; but the irony still pinches. That one thing that puts her here, is the one thing that gives her any remnant of her owned life now. She picked up her first cigarette at the age of 15 in Eastbourne, about the time she left school and her parents divorced, around 1951. She thinks she pinched one of her dad’s. Well, they all smoked. And now, she revels in the camaraderie of the shunned. She smokes out here with the staff and with a couple of the residents. She’ll smoke alone if you let her, and the cigarette perches weakly between her fingers with the ash always threatening to drop onto her lap. The smoke wreathes me too, and I breathe it in.

The other day one of the new nurses joined us; a lovely young lady in her twenties. As my brother said later, she knows, surely, that my mother may be her future. If so, she gives no sign, just her kind smile.

So much kindness at that place. When she had a terrible pain break through the slow-release morphine fug yesterday, our mother wept, and her eyes were wide with fear. I pressed the call-button willing my own tears to stay inside, and within seconds the nurses were there, bustling, stroking, soothing, administering, watching. “Don’t scare me like that!’ said one, not because the situation was beyond her ken, but because she just didn’t want my mum to be in that terrible pain. Neither do we.

Well. Perhaps time to try and sleep again, before the tears burst out again and the sounds of my mother’s not-yet ghost once again inhabit these quiet hours.

MaterGoodbye.jpg

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Banning Karakia in schools? A cultural can o’ worms, or beat-up?

My eye was drawn to a catchy headline thrown to me by my Facebook feed the other week. The headline read:

Karakia could fall foul of ban on Bible teaching in state schools

Upon clicking, I discovered AUT Professor Paul Moon had asserted  that: “Banning religious practices in schools, may inevitably extend to removing karakia from schools as well”. This piece was followed up by a report on Te Karere.

My first response to these reports was a swift stab of, “Oh, no you bloody don’t!” Many, many Māori would have had their hackles raised at the mere prospect of State interference in what many consider to be primarily a cultural, rather than a religious, practice. I can’t think of a serious endeavour, or hui, in everyday Māori cultural life, where karakia don’t have some kind of presence, even if a muted one. The most irreligious of Māori will often still take part in karakia. Would kids and teachers in kura kaupapa Māori, for example, really be faced with a ban on saying karakia? I wondered.

So why has this issue been raising its head (and not for the first time)? You may have missed it, but an important case was due to be heard in the High Court last month. Jeff McClintock had filed a claim against Red Beach school in Auckland for alleged failures of its duties under the Education Act 1989 in regards to the allegedly discriminatory treatment his daughter received after she opted out of Bible classes. The matter morphed into a national issue and by early April this year, the big guns were lined up to be joined as parties to either side of the action; including the Human Rights Commission, the Secular Education Network, and the Churches Education Commission.

Interest had been building over the past 18 months or so, tensions were rising…and then; nothing. Mr McLintock failed to get some papers into the court on time, and the case was thrown out, its central claims left un-argued. Despite this damp squib anti-climax, there may yet be some progress on this front, as an appeal has been lodged against the court’s decision.

So what is the connection between McClintock’s issue and karakia? The article I read did not identify exactly how karakia might qualify as ‘a religious practice’ or how it could be controlled or banned, let alone if , or how, such a path could even be implemented. There are a few building blocks that need to be put in place before we can agree with the Secular Education Network’s confident assertion that McClintock’s case (if it does get heard) would not result in the banning of Maori cultural practices.

First of all; just what are we allowed to do, in our public education system? Some of the answer is in s77 of the Education Act 1964:

every State primary school shall be kept open 5 days in each week for at least 4 hours each day, of which hours 2 in the morning and 2 in the afternoon shall be; and the teaching shall be entirely of a secular character.

So, our primary public education system is a secular one, and has been since the inception of free, compulsory education in 1877; separation of church and state, and all that.Except..when it may not be.

(And interestingly, secondary education need not be secular, and Boards of Trustees have discretion to allow non-discriminatory religious instruction under the Education Act 1989; arguably a hangover from the days when education was not compulsory beyond the age of 13)

s78 of the 1964 Act says that primary schools can close for short periods of time during the day:

for the purposes of religious instruction given by voluntary instructors approved by the school’s board and of religious observances conducted in a manner approved by the school’s board or for either of those purposes; and the school buildings may be used for those purposes or for either of them.

So. religious instruction and religious observation can be carried out at secular primary schools during periods of agreed closure. As an example, during lunchtimes, schools are ‘closed’ for instruction, so available for Bible classes as matters of religious instruction (teaching children what to believe, not teaching about religions). This is when the children who opt out might be set aside to read a book, or even wash dishes, or some other alternative activity.

Yes, opt out. Under s79(1) children may opt out of any such instruction, as long as their parents or guardians request this, in writing, of the school. Not opt-in, whereby parents or guardians request in writing that children ‘sign up’ for such instruction.

Ah. You see; this system also applies to religious observation, not just instruction. And that is where we have to look more closely at what karakia may, or may not, be. Because if karakia count as religious observation under s78 then schools need to ‘close’ during the day in order to facilitate such observation, and parents have to notify their schools in writing if they wish their children not to participate in karakia. And if a case such as McClintock’s succeeds in prompting law change, for example changing opt out to opt in, then religious observation would be included, and parents and guardians would need to write in for their children to be able to participate in religious observation; IF karakia can indeed be called that. To say that such a change would threaten a chilling effect on cultural practices at the very least would not , to my mind, be scaremongering. A ban would not be technically correct, but it wouldn’t have to be.

So we have to grapple with this question: what the heck are karakia anyway? There is no doubt that sometimes prayers occur in New Zealand primary schools that are Christian in nature, but that called karakia (and sometimes called īnoi). As alluded to above, we have been down this track before. Three years ago, some staff at a Christchurch primary school were unhappy about prayer being used during school hours.

Children from the Avondale primary school’s Maori bilingual unit lead pupils and staff in daily prayer, a tradition stretching back two decades in a school that is a melting pot of race and creed.

Principal Heather Bell says beginning the day this way brings a sense of grounding to the school and creates a sense of belonging.

Translated, the brief Maori prayer penned by the school’s kaiarahi reo or Maori language assistant, says: “Lord look after us, guide us with your work today, in your holy name.”

Some, perhaps many Māori will say such prayers are not, in fact, karakia at all. Ngaire McCarthy is a keen proponent of the view that karakia have been co-opted by Christianity, and that at their traditional core, karakia are in no way religious:

The traditional karakia that is used to open and close ceremonies is not a Christian prayer, it is a ritual chant, a set form of words to state or make effective a ritual activity. Karakia are recited rapidly using traditional language, symbols and structures.

The early missionaries saw Maori traditions through a Biblical framework and believed that karakia was always a prayer, so they took the word and reinterpreted it to mean Christian prayer. The word karakia then became just another tool of colonization.

If the few kaumatua (elderly Maori) who articulate the karakia, are Christian, they will continue to misrepresent our customary karakia. This puts them into direct conflict with our pre-colonization customary traditions.

According to 19th century sources; karakia were used to ensure correctness of process, to mark transitions, to ensure safety (among many other things). Te Mātāpunenga defines karakia in the following way:

Karakia. A set form of words to state, confirm or make effective the intent of a ritual activity, and the reciting of these words, thus often translated by terms such as “incantation”, “charm”, or “spell”. In modern usage the term has been extended to include Christian and other religious services (for example, a church is often referred to as a whare karakia). In traditional ritual activity strict adherence to the proper the form of the karakia was essential; hesitation, mispronunciation or omissions in its recitation could negate or reverse its intended effects and bring harm to those involved. The word is Proto-Tahitic in origin, with similar meanings in Tuamotuan, Rarotongan and Mäori.

On one view then, karakia are cultural ritual without religion, and ought to be entirely safe for use within the primary school environment. On this view culturally bastardised prayers are masquerading as karakia, and fall foul of the law.

I really question this dualistic approach to understanding karakia. For one thing, the moment any traditional karakia envisages, propitiates, or acknowledges any power or entity outside of the human experience; that karakia takes on a spiritual dimension, and it becomes a matter of definitional point-scoring in determining when matters spiritual shade into matters religious.

Further, the presumption that Māori traditionally had no religion sometimes stemmed from ethnologists and writers of the 19th and 20th centuries (a great collection of such attitudes are listed and traversed in detail in Elsdon Best’s Māori Religion and Mythology) who assumed that Māori practices lacking temples, and in most cases, reference to a supreme being, could not comprise “true religion”. This attitude smacks of a similar insistence that Māori law could not comprise “true law” because there were no courts or Parliament. The extent to which Māori religion remains in modern New Zealand, as with law, is an open and fascinating question.

The courts in New Zealand, and Canada have all had to consider what counts as ‘religion’ as Fiona Wright identified in 2007:

Australian and New Zealand courts have said that religion involves belief in a supernatural being, thing or principle as well as canons of conduct that give effect to that belief…Canadian courts have described religion as a “particular and comprehensive system of faith and worship” combined with “belief in a divine, superhuman or controlling power” [..] In essence, religion is about freely and deeply held personal convictions or beliefs connected to an individual’s spiritual faith and integrally linked to one’s self-definition and spiritual fulfilment, the practices of which allow individuals to foster a connection with the divine or with the subject or object of that spiritual faith.

So depending on your definition of religion karakia can be defined as religious observations for the purposes of the Education Act 1964.  Or depending on your definition of religion, karakia are not religious and won’t count for the purposes of the Act.

On either reading, karakia are still cultural practices. This is arguably the line skated in Te Aho Matua (the curriculum followed by Kura Kaupapa)  which ascribes a special place to karakia:

5.2 Ko te tino painga o te karakia he mea whakatau i te wairua, whakawatea i te whatumanawa me te hinengaro, whakarata i te ngakau, whakataka i ngā raru, kia ngawari ai te whakauru atu ki te mahi kua whakaritea hei mahi.

[Kura kaupapa Māori] practise karakia as a means of settling the spirit, clearing the mind and releasing tension so that concentration on the task at hand is facilitated.

 

But there will be times when merely ‘settling the spirit’ involves invocation of a deity or deities, and the cultural thus arguably includes the religious.

So if the McClintock case ever does get argued, and if restrictions do end up being  placed on religious instruction in primary schools, in order to protect secular education, and to uphold the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion (in NZBORA, s13), Māori cultural rights (protected under s20 of the BORA) will most definitely be under threat.

And I wonder (with my tongue in my cheek..but only just) about implementation. Who will put their hand up for the job of karakia police, patrolling schools and kura, watching and listening for karakia and those code words in Māori that sound suspiciously religious (depending which official is defining ‘religion’ that day), and must face strict control, rather than those that sound merely ‘cultural’, that can be left alone. How would any kind of regulation not involve cultural interference?

After all that, I think I’m back to my old gut instinct with which I started this piece: “Oh no, you bloody don’t!”

 

[Please note: this post is an updated version of the original posted on E-Tangata http://e-tangata.co.nz/news/if-we-ban-the-bible-from-schools-will-karakia-be-next]

 

 

 

“A most unfortunate incident.” The death of a child and the monsters among us.

It was one of those distressingly familiar moments, watching TV3 news tonight. The people who [man]slaughtered three year old Moko Rangitoheriri appeared on the screen, blank faces and hunched shoulders. Outside the court one of the defence lawyers identified that the death of the wee boy was a ‘most unfortunate incident’. I know he was trying to keep his language careful and neutral. Nevertheless I cringed to hear this lexicographical sleight-of-hand. His clients killed a little boy in an orgy of violent self-indulgence. Just because they did not intend his death has not absolved them in the eyes of the law, and of the public.

[and here I am about to call on an earlier post I wrote some time ago on a similar topic, forgive me.]

So here we have yet another Māori child killed in a case that will have the families and the public searching for meaning and explanation for the terrible crimes that have been committed.  The internet may well brim again with discussions about culture, disadvantage and dispossession. There is a growing body of academic and government research that explore linkages between the Māori experience of colonisation and child abuse rates (see an example here), some of which will be pored over again and debated.

But in some ways this kind of analysis feels incomplete… Rather than Victor Frankenstein as the creator of the monster, the creator is colonisation and its absolute plundering of Māori social structures and cohesiveness.

We crave explanation. We need motive, we need cause, we need rationale as if human monsters are the product of some fiendishly screwed up recipe that went horribly wrong. If only we could just find the gene, or the step-father or the poverty-stricken background that could enable us to see the perfect formation of the causal chain. Of course, mental illness, racism, violence culture, misogyny, alienation, social and cultural disenfranchisement, lost moral compasses, can all explain in some part why people do bad things. But at the end of the day sociological or psychiatric explanations can only take us so far. This is because at the heart of all these kinds of events something evil has happened. In New Zealand’s secular society the notion of evil is unfashionable and a sign of a bygone and more credulous age. Evil, as an explanation for bad things, is now only really permissible in movies and books. Respectable commentators and analysts rarely speak of evil. But every so often the narrative of human experience of evil breaks through the strictures with which we have attempted to eradicate it.

I remember something one of the witnesses said at Mauha Fawcett’s trial for the murder of Mellory Manning:

“I could hear the crackling of tarpaulin or plastic,” he told the jury. “It was made to be done really slowly, you know what I mean, it wasn’t rushed, or hurried.”

A splash followed and was “pretty loud”, the witness said.

“I said it ‘aint Canadian geese or ducks or anything like that,” he told the court. “I couldn’t hear anyone talking, I couldn’t see anyone.

 “I actually ducked under a canopy, some trees, to see if I could see any silhouettes moved.”

But before the man could see anyone he was stopped “dead cold” in his tracks by a feeling he described as horrible and cold.

“It was quite freaky, it was a lot of fear; I knew something was not right, I retreated rather rapidly to where [my partner] was.” 

I don’t think what that witness felt would be unusual in such circumstances, and those feelings are what has kept Stephen King in clover all these years.

I wonder if anyone connected to the the house in those days before Moko Rangitoheriri’s death, felt such a wrongness but pushed it aside. Or had the frequency of the abuse meted out and the ‘culture of violence’ made the abuse so banal that wrongness was no longer a factor? I don’t know.

At any rate, it’s tempting to think that David Haerewa  and his co-offender Tania Shaile are true monsters, or ‘mad’ or any other label that separates them out from us. In truth though, they are extraordinary only in the degree of harm they have caused. True, these perpetrators had, between them, created something evil, something greater than the sum of its parts. But in order to do so, they probably felt entitled to follow the only yardstick that mattered to them (for whatever reason): their feelings at that time. David believed he was entitled to do what he did because  as Haerewa told police, ‘he “didn’t like [Moko’s] ways” and that he was “angry at him for taking us for granted”. Nothing, no moral strictures, no societal restraints, no physical restraints seemed to have stood in the way between these perpetrators and what they felt they needed or wanted to do. Above all people, they alone were entitled to do what they saw fit to this little boy who had annoyed them.

That willingness to ignore from what is right to instead give in to our desires, (‘sin’ as some of us might see it) was not externally imposed, not purely the result of external factors such as poverty, or abuse, or loneliness. Of course our willingness to, in the words of Depeche Mode ‘give in to sin’ can be informed by all those things and other factors that make up our complicated selves. But the capacity to commit evil simply by being unrestrained in doing what we feel like is within us all.

And in this nothing really separates us from the more obvious human monsters that make the news and create such “unfortunate incidents”

Āhua mōhio

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