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Through births, death, stumbles and first steps, Michele Powles and Renee Liang wrote.
And together these gifted writers – one an author, the other a paediatrician – achieved something remarkable: their conversation has fearlessly and charmingly laid bare the raw joy, beauty, discomfort and humour of modern motherhood. But beyond this, the exchange in When We Remember to Breathe is uplifting, positive testimony to what is important in life itself – what gives it meaning: the people we love, the challenges we face and the life we give.
Michele: Us crazies who write...
Us crazies who write because we just can’t help ourselves sneak it in however we can. Teachers write in the holidays and in their lunch breaks, unless they are on duty or have had too much of their life force sucked out of them that day. Others write before work, in the dark. Those of us with small children write when our cherished snuglets are sleeping. Mine are approaching school and kindy age. It seems like a magical light envelops that day on the calendar. A time when there will only be me in the house for more than an hour. A time when the words will be allowed to roam without pause or requests for sandwiches. A truly magical time.
Renee: My memory is variable at the best of times...
My memory is variable at the best of times, but these days, it’s positively moth-eaten. Patchy sleep and fading hormones aside, I think it’s because my attention is so fractured at the moment that my thoughts just fall through the cracks: cue misplaced house slippers (have backup pairs in wardrobe) and distracted driving (more concerning). But my greatest fear is forgetting the small moments of being a mother. I’m talking about your baby’s surprised lift of the eyebrows as the milk hits his taste buds. The crazy things your toddler tells you first thing in the morning. The way your nipples buzz with sudden soreness when the milk ‘lets down’, yet you feel elated because this is confirmation that everything’s still working and you’ll have something to feed your brood. ... I wish I could write more, record more of the memories swirling in my brain, a field of popping, rainbow-coloured bubbles. But someone is crying, and I need to go and pick them up.
Michele: Ask any parent of young children...
Ask any parent of young children and they will tell you that, no matter the outcome of the day – no matter the destruction of their carpet, lampshade, best dress and/or illicit bar of chocolate – when their children are sleeping, they can’t help but want to stand and watch them. I am the same. When I stand there, viewing them as any stranger might, they are tiny and vulnerable and full of the potential to elicit great explosions of joy – that feeling that your heart might actually explode and leave the wall pock-marked with shattered ribs and glittering blood. It might not last long, that second of pause when the night is wrapped around them and the sound of a tiny life breathing is all that exists. But with small, exhausting children, this is so often the time when wonderment is at its most vital and potent.
Renee: In the moments in between, I worried...
In the moments in between, I worried that I was not being enough of a mother. Of course I did. Mothers don’t get on a plane for work. Mothers don’t draw a blank when, on impulse, they go into a shop to buy their kids shoes and then realise they don’t know what shoe size they are up to. Mothers don’t have strangers coming up to them at a work conference asking, ‘Do you think your kids will look back on this period and feel abandoned?’ Would I have been asked these questions if I were a father instead of a mother?
Michele: My baby has the softest skin...
My baby has the softest skin in the universe. Yet softer, still, is my heart, as I gaze into his slow, blinking eyes. It may melt, my heart, as he pats my face and smiles, before he throws bunnybear at my head and cackles. Inside, then, I am made a pool – a place for my children to throw their toys and see how big they can make the splash. It may harden and crack again, but, when I stop a moment and let it, my heart-pool becomes fluid and reflects the sky – a perfect mirror. There is stillness and calm and silver light, despite the noise and clamour of the world around me. It is fleeting, like childhood. Like a long, slow blink.
Renee: A note to my baby...
A note to my baby: I’m doing my daily walk. Ten minutes to the shops, ten minutes back. The concrete path has a gentle roll to it. So do my hips. Inside, you loll in an amniotic sea, kicking a lazy foot out every now and then, to stroke across my abdomen. The scan lady said that your head was deep in my pelvis. So deep, we couldn’t see your face today. The only thing we caught was a wedge of nose: perky like your father’s, not snub like mine or your sister’s. Strange how I obsess about things like noses. Strange the things that become fixed beliefs, like the Liang nose is a dominant gene. Your nose could be a freak of nature. We’ll just have to see.
Michele: In our house lentils equal mentals...
In our house lentils equal mentals,
and cicadas, alligators.
Blueberries are bluebellies.
And hot water bottles? Hottiebotties.
If you’re not careful, you’ll get a Houchy, which, of course, means hot and ouchy.
And if you really mess things up, you’ll be in Hostible overnight.
Pisgetti is a standard, but is clearly quite well anchored
in imagination overload, confabulation soup.
Introducing our authors
Despite training in law (or perhaps because of it), Michele has been a dancer, producer and writer across the globe, from India to Bosnia, Brazil to Edinburgh. She is now the mother of two small, loud boys, who seem equally obsessed with creating new worlds (mostly under their beds). Her fiction and non-fiction has been published widely and broadcast for radio both in New Zealand and the United Kingdom. Michele was New Zealand’s 2010 Robert Burns Fellow. As an emerging screenwriter, she was one of eight film makers selected for New Zealand’s 2018 Film Up programme.
Renee Liang, a second-generation Chinese Kiwi, is a poet, playwright, paediatrician, medical researcher and fiction writer. She has collaborated on visual arts works, film, opera and music, produced and directed theatre works, worked as a dramaturge, taught creative writing and organized community-based arts initiatives. She organises community arts events such as NewKiwi Women Write, a writing workshop series for migrant women. She contributes to The Big Idea, which links New Zealand’s arts community. Renee has written, produced and toured seven plays. In 2018, she was appointed a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to the arts. Image of Renee Liang by Jeff McEwan
Why When We Remember to Breathe matters
When We Remember to Breathe is the first book in our Sisters, we got this! collection, celebrating and supporting strong women of action.
While it’s easy to become bogged down in the challenges of modern life, Magpie believes in focusing on that which uplifts and inspires; in articulating so beautifully the experience of motherhood and embodying the power of sisterhood, When We Remember to Breathe does just this.
Even better, as part of Magpie’s commitment to making beautiful pulp matter even more, a share of the publisher’s profits from When We Remember to Breathe is going to Good Bitches Baking, a network of people who want to show kindness, in the form of home baking to those in their communities having a tough time.