Mostly I am disoriented, navigating a mix of fury, gratitude and guilt. I am currently in New Zealand, so I’m in what is very likely the safest place in the world at the moment. Like so many other things in my life, that was mostly the result of dumb luck. Meanwhile, it seems that everything good and bad unravels 8,000 miles away. It is a strange helplessness, watching this moment from afar.
I moved across the world to write about a riot. This had not fully registered until I see the images of the protests in Salt Lake City. Like so many other American cities, Salt Lake's protests erupt in fires and violence and police brutality. All day I try to talk myself into finishing the proposal I have due that evening on the riot project. Its completion and approval allows me to fully matriculate into my doctoral program. It is almost finished, but I've no idea what to say anymore. I pace my tiny home office, swearing and shifting my eyes between screens. I send the incomplete proposal to my supervisors and shut things down.
An hour later, my brother joins us for dinner and my wife asks how his day was. "I've been pacing," he says.
The riot I'm researching happened a long time ago. It took place in Wellington and lasted half a day. It began on a street called Manners Street. No one died and it took place in the midst of a world war in which millions died. Perhaps that contributed to the riot. Perhaps not. It seems to have been started, at least in part, by Marines who believed they could treat Māori soldiers with the same derision and hatred that they did African Americans back home. Soon, it enveloped servicemen from both sides, as well as civilians, local police and American Military Police. As the sun set, the wartime blackout began, but the brawling went on, though no one could tell who was who anymore.
Some part of me understands the impulse of those flailing at others in the dark, especially the Kiwis. As things deteriorate back home over the past days/months/years, I have become meaner, I think. I lash out when I don’t intend to. I lose focus. Even as the lockdown in New Zealand comes to an end, I feel confined by distance and time zones.
My wife September is in many ways my opposite. In the face of things uncontrollable, she grows focused, more present. She creates, be it dance or jewelry. The day after I give up on the proposal, she sees my mind racing and we go for a walk. Winter is setting in. Insects are slowing down or dying off. As always on these walks, she stops to move praying mantises or the bodies of honeybees off the sidewalk, away from my clumsy feet. It is a kind of gentleness and reverence I envy. It is cold when we get back. Like many homes here, ours is not insulated and has no central heating. It hovers around fifty degrees inside. We make do, though our cats are more direct. They pace in front of the wood burning stove. They know how this works. They curl up on the nearby chairs and she leaves me to build them a fire. She knows it is the one thing in that moment I can give.