How We Are in NZ: a timeline
I’ve always wanted to read Slaughterhouse 5 again. Of all the books we read in Form 5 & 6 with Mr McKenna: Animal Farm, 1984, Lord of the Flies; Slaughterhouse 5 is the one I want to re-read as a writer, having already re-read & re-watched 1984. Orwell and Vonnegut. It’s only now I realise what a good teacher Mr McKenna must have been, those books he set for us. And Shakespeare. Mr McKenna read to us, and talked to us, in a broad Scottish accent that made it all a little bit more interesting. I don’t remember listening as much as I should have though. I think he was probably quite passionate about his subject; he gave fairly lengthy lectures on it. And he was political, that much I gathered, and by political I guess I mean left-wing, because we don’t call right-leaning people political, in general, for some reason. I remember running out of his class once in tears because of something a family member had done. My best friend ran after me, consoling me in the girls’ toilets. I remember Mr McKenna’s look of concern as we left, his cool and distant concern for all of us. The way he asked, discreetly, if everything was okay when we returned. I wasn’t given to teenage dramas, at least not visible ones, but this was an actual Bad Thing that had happened. I was embarrassed, but I figured Mr McKenna would understand. He was the kind of teacher you could rely on that way. As I write this, it is 25 March 2020, and an actual Bad Thing has happened. It’s the first day of the lockdown. At home we prefer the word rāhui - an avoidance of something to keep us safe and well, a respectful distance. Slaughterhouse 5 is full of Bad Things that happened, but now I read it with a different eye. ‘Billy saw service with the infantry in Europe, and was taken prisoner by the Germans.’ writes Vonnegut. This is one of the least dramatic moments in the book, so matter of fact. Yet it’s easier, now, to see the boy Billy, for he would have been a kid, sent to war, shitting himself with fear, then taken into enemy hands. How does a person contend with the shitting horror of it? Words fail me, you see, so I’ve settled on ‘shitting’ as my adjective of choice. We are here, in our comfortable home, with our fridges and freezers and cupboards packed with food, with our family around us. The sun is shining. Yet each day I wake into a haze, a choking, a weight in my chest. As we used to say at high school, just quietly, we’re shitting ourselves.
What I don’t say to people, unless they’re close friends, is I kind of like it. I have a fantasy of life being this way. We’ve already been in rāhui a week now, the night that everyone else is experiencing it for the first time. After my daughter came home from Southern Africa, we immediately went into isolation. I’m still waiting for all the time I’m supposed to have on my hands. It hasn’t materialised yet. I’m still busy, and the virus has kept us busier, a different decision to make every hour, a different coping mechanism to install. This is another way I am lucky, and I don’t take it for granted: I can work from home. People are depending on me to keep working from home. A very small group of people, perhaps, but if we can continue what we started, then they can make something of this year, and I can earn my keep, and such things, suddenly now if they hadn’t been before, seem very precious.
But also I’ve been yearning for life to slow down for a long time. I have become a producer of things, a marketer of those things, a traveller, a talker. And yet, a few months at home, the cancellation of all events. That sounds okay. That sounds like some much needed space. That sounds like the holiday I keep promising myself, the one that doesn’t involve any public writer-ing of any kind. But also it sounds like the way life should be in general. We all need to just slow the fuck down, especially those of us who think that all our travelling and talking means something. Our planet, our children, need us just to stop. The way the world looks right now, on the first morning of the lockdown, no planes, no cars, a few trains and buses, t hat’s about the right pace for humanity to survive.
When I was a young single mum, I used to worry that something would happen to me in the night and my baby girl wouldn’t be able to get help. There were days, many days, when I wasn’t expected anywhere, and didn’t expect anyone to come to my door. I had few phone calls. It was before cellphones were common, before I even had a computer. We had a routine—kohanga (preschool) a few days a week, a little bit of socialising with friends—but you don’t know how little of your life is lived with people from outside the home until you’re a single mum. I went to the farmers’ market alone, the doctor alone, the library alone, the supermarket alone, I had my baby with me the whole time, but no other companions. And I didn’t want any. I lived in a different city, on a different island than any of my family that I knew. My origins were just dysfunctional enough to be alienating but not so dysfunctional that I lived in fear. Except I did. I was afraid of everyone and everything. I would have liked to have a partner, but the terror of bringing a man into our lives stopped me short of actually ever being open to it. I protected us, and in doing so I made us alone. Nights were long. I wondered when my daughter would be old enough for me to teach her to dial 111. I wondered how many nights she could survive if something happened to me, how many days it would take someone to find her. I stayed hypervigilant and wakeful, every sound the portent of invasion. To live harmoniously through this rāhui in a house of five adults, two of whom are my grown daughters, two of whom are our life partners, carries with it the force of a quiet and sure joy. We made it, somehow, all intact and alive and thriving, to this moment when we can face this other thing collectively. Most days I still manage to be astonished at our good fortune. Most days I also wonder about her, the young mother alone with her babies, for I know she’s out there still, many versions of her, in fact, and I know that even on regular days her life can be scary, and harder than most. I know we need to help her, if we can. I know that without her, we wouldn’t be who we are.
Nicole invited me to write for HowWeAre.org about a month ago. It was such a kind reaching out, and it sat in my inbox for weeks, which is where things sit when I want to do something but can’t, or when my response is too long to fit into a ten minute answer. It’s 26 May and we live in New Zealand where days go by now without more sickness or death. We’re dialling down the lockdown. We’re safe and healthy. In a recession, sure, but who isn’t, and we can go to work now without fear of harm. It feels somehow wrong to write about how we are to our American or British friends. It feels somehow wrong to comment. We think about you. We worry about you. In December we were going to meet-up and now who knows how long it will be or whether the world will even be capable of moving us around the way it once was. And maybe it shouldn’t be. I wanted to write friendly, cheerful things to you but I’ve never been good at that part! Thank you for asking! Thank you for still being there. We have watched you our whole lives - your filtered worlds filling our screens and hearts and minds. Sometimes it felt like we knew you better than we knew ourselves. And now there is such a schism between the real yous, the ones we know and love personally, and the crumbling monolith of the story we had been given, the story America still tells us about itself, on the screens. So many good people. Kia kaha Kia maia Kia manawanui. Be strong, be of great heart, have courage. We are ok, in Aotearoa. We hope you will be too.