I want a word.
Back in the good old days, when we all thought you were in charge and we could blame you for everything that was wrong with life, my world felt quite secure. There was an order to things: there was you, then emperors, followed by kings, queens and popes. Tyrants and dictators came next if they weren’t already in the previous roles and it all sort of cascaded down from there. In our part of the world, we’ve made significant changes to the way we determine who gets to be in charge but I feel we’ve always kept a certain fondness for your role: Master of the Universe. Personally, I have always rather fancied the idea that you were calling the shots. Unfortunately recent circumstances force me to admit that no one in particular is in charge and that it is all just happening.
Now that you have been discharged of all responsibility for floods, famines, volcanic eruption, earthquakes and Qaddafi, I can be at peace with you in my heart and tell you how I feel about my home town, Christchurch – New Zealand *. I am not very skilled at telling you how I feel because I am so well trained to focus on what I “know”. I know, for example, that my mother, who will be 81 next week, decided to go to a café in town with two friends after her club meeting instead of going to the cinema. This decision also prevented her from going into the cathedral in the centre of the city to light a candle, as she is wont to do on her way home. She has a flat down town and my brother was staying with her, working upstairs alone. My sister’s husband was off work, sick, so my sister had decided to drive home to have lunch with him. This decision prevented her from being in her studio in the historical centre of Christchurch. When the earth swayed with such violence that houses and office blocks fell down, my mother dived under the coffee table with her two friends, my brother slung himself around the doorway whilst the innards of the house crashed to the floor; my sister was driving away from the epicenter and thought her car was in serious need of servicing until she saw everyone in the street and the gash in the road. A thousand years later, when the shaking had stopped, my brother dashed downstairs and onto the road just in time to meet my mother who was racing up the middle of the same road. She had made her way from the café, through the devastated central square where the unwounded were holding up those with bloody faces and offering to escort them to “somewhere”. They dived into my brother’s truck and spent two hours doing a 15 minutes journey across town to my sister’s place, which happened to be on the right side of town for this particular earthquake. A few hours later, my mother waded barefoot through the yellow slime oozing out of the roads back to her apartment to collect her toothbrush and nightgown. She, my brother and his mother-in-law left town in the evening and drove south. She had time to notice, before she left, that objects that she had treasured over a lifetime lay in smithereens on the floor. John and Jenny’s house is trashed. They were on the hill. Angela and Ian, on the other side of the hill have a house to sleep in but are drinking water from their swimming pool. Marion and Todd also have walls and they don’t care that their front door won’t close. Their neighbors weren’t so lucky. I guess they are all peeing in the garden.
I know all of this.
However, the cells of my body do not know what it feels like to lose a fundamental reference point: the solidity and dependability of the earth’s surface. My mind is registering the loss of all the landmarks that populated the first 22 years of my life. The myth of safe haven far from the madding crowds of Europe that I have cultivated and coveted for 30 years has been shattered.
So, my dearest God, how do I feel about all of this? Well, I cry for loss and give thanks for life. I feel overwhelmed and helpless. I marvel at the magnificence of our capacity to help one another in an hour of need. I see you in us all when we reach out to each other. I see our strength as human beings comes when we relinquish personal myths and can recognize we are a part of the same stuff as the stars. I am glad you are not masterminding all this chaos but you will accept that we have to turn somewhere when we feel how very small we are in the universe. I like to feel your presence and I am so glad you are listening. Thank you.
Wishing you well during the month of March,
PS: Sincere thanks for all the very kind messages sent to me following the event. I truly appreciated them.
Christchurch was severely damaged September 4th 2010 by a 7.2 earthquake. It occurred at 4h35 on a Saturday morning. No one was killed but the damage to the city left many people either homeless or facing the demolition of their unsafe houses. The infrastructure of all the city’s historical landmarks was significantly weakened. A decision was made to preserve these buildings and scaffolding had been put in place to begin renovation. The earthquake that struck the city again on Tuesday, February 22nd at 12h50 was closer to the surface and registered a 6.3 magnitude. This time the city was at work or on holiday. At the time of writing this, 113 people are dead and over 200 are still unaccounted for. One assumes that those still trapped inside collapsed buildings have little hope of survival despite around the clock rescue efforts from teams flown in especially for that purpose. The historical buildings have been returned to their “natural” state – on the ground. Those who are able to have left town and don’t know when it will be safe to return. The inner city has been cordoned off. New Zealand lies on an international fault line but Christchurch was never considered to be on it. The people of Christchurch have experienced earthquakes every day since September 4th. They no longer notice anything registering 2 or 3 on the Richter scale. On February 22nd, a piece of the Tasman glacier weighing 30 million tons fell into Lake Tasman causing 3 meter waves. An earthquake lasts approximately 10 seconds.