Life

They were workmates who became friends through their shared love of exercise. When coronavirus struck their relationship grew even closer. By Cassandra Steeth and Yumi Stynes.

Together in lockdown

Yumi Stynes (left) and Cassandra Steeth.
Credit: SUPPLIED

Cass: The first time I met Yumi, she was munching on a bag of celery, wearing fuchsia lipstick and a black hat. I was shitting myself. I’d seen her on TV, and there was a bit of pressure to make this relationship work. I’d moved to Sydney to produce the second season of the podcast she fronted, Ladies, We Need To Talk, which would mean us spending a lot of time together.

After that initial meeting, I handed Yumi a piece of paper with the title “Before an interview”. Inspired by Jessica Abel’s Out on the Wire, it was colour coded with six brilliant things to “keep in mind” before an interview.

Yumi’s face upon receiving it said it all. I’ve got this. And I… well, I had a bit to learn.

Two years on, we’ve made almost 50 episodes, recorded live shows and sat through almost 200 interviews together. Still, I never considered the idea that I’d move in with Yumi. But then a global pandemic hit, and I found myself living in her granny flat.

Most mornings start with a visit from her children who smother my face with pillows. Last weekend we painted rainbows on my surfboard and made puppets from melaleuca bark and iceblock sticks.

We play Twister in the backyard, catch lizards darting across the hot cinder blocks and in the evenings I use Windex to rub off tiny lipstick footprints smudged across the floor.

This is Yumi’s life.

Amid the madness, she cooks. Crumbed flathead, tomato and prawn risoni, lamb and potatoes, kale salads, tangy vinaigrettes and plum jam. She cooks and cooks and cooks.

It’s a labour of love, because the kids aren’t great eaters, but every day the family sits down for a moment of forced civility. Cushions are thrown, books are flung, sometimes someone doesn’t have clothes on. But a head is always patted, a tummy tickled and a kind feeling sparked. There is always love.

I was living in a share house in Bondi before Yumi’s. My three housemates and I would eat separately, socialise separately and brush shoulders only occasionally for a cuppa in the kitchen. The set-up was functional, but not a home.

Before coronavirus, I had a decent insight into Yumi’s work ethic. She’s a committed writer and a powerful feminist who isn’t afraid to call out inequality.

She’s been a champion for women of colour and has taught me a lot about intersectional feminism. By osmosis, I’ve become a little more woke.

She is an incredible listener and always holds space for people. I remember once sitting through 47 seconds of absolute silence waiting for a guest to speak.

We’ve covered some tough episodes on the podcast – we’ve seen one another triggered and watched each other fall. Yumi once broke down crying while recording a script about sexual assault. You’d never know it, though. Five minutes later she wiped her tears and nailed the read like a pro.

Among the trauma, it’s exercise that’s saved us. It’s become a huge part of our friendship.

Yumi’s always the coach and I’m always suffering from a boring ailment like asthma or a sore calf. It’s a dynamic I’ve come to expect and (very occasionally) subvert.

Now, during lockdown, we meet at dawn to run seven kilometres. Each night at 6pm we sweat through high-intensity strength training, led by a dorky male avatar on a screen. We call him Tobias.

The in-between hours are coloured by me sitting at a desk editing audio, writing scripts and patting a child who occasionally comes in to say hello.

And Yumi, she’s always wrangling someone. When she has peace, she writes.

I’ve not lived with a family since I left home in my early 20s. I hadn’t realised how much I’d missed the noise and commotion.

There’s something strangely reassuring about a sandy pair of children’s goggles flung across the backyard – something curiously comforting about a pair of tiny trousers hanging from the clothesline.

I don’t have kids yet, but if I do, I now know what’s coming. If lockdown has taught me anything, it’s the relentlessness of parenting.

Living with a family feels like a silver lining in a terrible world. Without Yumi, her precious kids and kind husband, I’d feel adrift.

I often think about life post-lockdown and how I’ll emulate all this. At the moment I’m not sure, but while most of my friends nurse a feeling of despair for the loss of our former lives, mostly what I feel is tremendous gratitude.

 

Yumi: Cass is one of those people who is easy to like, right from the get-go. Having a producer is kind of like having an instant friend. You share so much, and spend so much time together, that it’s important to like each other.

I don’t know why, but there’s something magic about being with Cass. We laugh all the time. Being around her makes the world brighter, and more optimistic.

Cass says I was scary the day we first met, but I don’t remember. She says this is evidence of me being a shithead! At most planning meetings, my main goal is to stay awake. I have to eat to stay awake. This is true.

Back when people actually went to an office to work, Cass and I used to meet at the ABC to record a bunch of interviews for our podcast.

At lunch, we’d go to a boxing class or dash off for a run and then we’d grab a coffee. Our workdays were always busy, but we’d find time to debrief about our personal lives. It was during one of those sessions that I realised she was extra stressed out. There was a bunch of stuff going on in her life – not least of all job insecurity and an ex-boyfriend who broke her heart – but another big one was she needed a place to stay.

So, I picked up my phone and said, “What day do you finish up at your current place?” Before she’d finished her answer I’d typed out a calendar invitation telling my husband that Cass was coming to live with us for a few months.

She moved in when coronavirus was just starting to loom. She’d been with us only a week or two when we realised that we probably wouldn’t be going into the office anymore, that we couldn’t socialise with friends and life as we knew it was about to drastically change.

For many people, a lot of work options dried up – but as we’re living together and sharing a home, we’ve been able to keep making Ladies, We Need to Talk. It means we can react to what’s happening in the world and make content that reflects the new reality.

The podcast is into its fourth season and, in my books, Cass is the boss of it. Her job is to oversee the guests, the content, the edit, the mix – the whole thing, really. She’s calm and fair and kick-ass.

Creatively, making this podcast is quite exposing. We both feel a tremendous responsibility to get things right. We talk about subjects that are very raw for people, like women’s alcoholism, the myths and realities around abortion, or choosing to be childless.

Every night my husband listens to Cass and I laugh our asses off while we do a yoga app on the deck. He says, “I’m so glad you’ve got Cass”, and I say, “So am I.”

It’s tempting to give Cass advice because she’s younger than me. I have three daughters and a son and always say to my teenage daughters, “Don’t have kids!” I frequently fantasise about the life I might have, if it weren’t filled with children.

I confess that I felt gloriously seen the other day when Cass said, “Yeah, I’ve always wanted kids but now I’ve seen the real work involved, I think I might wait.”

I’m a bit mind blown when I compare what I was doing when I was Cass’s age.

I went to her 30th birthday party in February and felt such surges of love and pride for this accomplished young woman. She has a decency and steadiness that she will never shake.

At 30, I was a mum of two, my relationship was falling apart, I drank too much and spiritually I was a mess.

I’ve had to fight to bring myself to a state where I feel proud and morally staunch. Cass has no such fight ahead of her. She has only good things ahead.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 9, 2020 as "In the family way".

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Cassandra Steeth
is an award-winning ABC journalist and supervising producer of the podcast Ladies, We Need To Talk.


Yumi Stynes
is a broadcaster and author whose most recent book, Welcome to Your Period, is nominated for an ABIA.