Candy floss carpets the sky fields outside my window. The sun has ducked beneath the horizon and the last of it’s rays candy the tops of the clouds with stripes of toffee. A spun sugar skyline. I’m flying home from an important weekend away. And it’s fitting that the sky displays such sweetness right before the darkness. It echoes the word that describes my time away: bittersweet. Because, this time, we’ve been in Christchurch. A city close to the heart of my inner child.
The last time I was there was 32 years ago, and I feel so fortunate to have been back. Since then the city has endured a natural disaster none of us expected. It was sad to see the city crumbled; even five years after the earthquakes brought down the buildings, Christchurch is still in ruins. I saw new buildings, yes. Some hotels and the theatre have been rebuilt. There is construction happening. But far more compelling was the yawning chasm of the the cathedral ruin. The heart of the city, shredded and shaken. Taken.
Cordons and construction fences, traffic cones and danger signs. There are plans to garden the rubble. To build inner city orchards and green spaces. But I surveyed a scene so different from the Christchurch of my early memories… I felt disoriented. Standing there in Cathedral square, trying to retrace the skyline of my mind’s eye, I could not find my bearings. Time and tectonics have taken the town I knew and replaced it with something apocalyptically new. 70,000 homes have been demolished in the wake of the quake. All of that displacement. Can you imagine what that does to a community? My heart understood that for the first time as I stood there in the places of my childhood. Until this visit, the story of the quakes were just news headlines; bad news best forgotten.
Our speakers over the weekend were people working right in amongst the community, people with vision for a more connected, more responsive city. A place of togetherness and possibility. There was much talk about the opportunities created by the disaster. About Christchurch becoming the most accessible city in the country. But among all the positivity, my mind kept turning to the people who have endured more than 20,000 aftershocks. Every time the ground shudders, they’re taken back to the days when trauma shook their bones, broke their homes. Changed their geography and mapped new territories of terror. I keep thinking about how hard the last five years must have been for them all. Five years of hard slog, trying to redress the damage, move on, make do, push forward. It’s so difficult living in the aftermath of all that. I salute them all; those resilient Cantabrians. I feel sorry that I didn’t understand until now. It’s not over for them. It’s a generational trauma. Long after the papers have stopped reporting, after the sensationalism has ceased to make their stories headlines, it goes on. They must be beyond exhausted. Their grief must seep into the mortar of the rebuild. Into the future they create. How can it not?
I visited my old street. My old home. My old schools. I went across to Lyttleton, remembering the lazy Sunday drives through the tunnel for fish and chips on the wharf. I saw the southern skies, and felt the beating heart of that beaten city. Bruised, battered. Beautiful brave hearts.
A bittersweet collection of moments for me, a relentless march of time for them.
I gaze out the aeroplane window at the dark of night. Below me, in inky anonymity, the long white clouds of my country carpet the way home. I am flying back to my harbour city, safe harbour, my home. My family will meet me and I will slip back into my role as wife, mum and aunty. It’s school holiday time. A breather in the usual routine. There will be pyjama days, horses and horsing around. Playdates and dvds, dry-cleaning and the small ordinary somethings of a simple life. Home. I will relish every minute of all of it. My life.
Perched on the edge of the Pacific rim, our tiny country tucks itself into bed for the night. For most of us, there is a childlike faith in the stability of our island home. We like to forget what Christchurch tried to teach us. Tonight I will go home and be grateful for the temporal solidity of my life. For the present state of wellness. Of safety. I won’t take it for granted. I will tuck my temerity in my pocket and use it wisely. We are all at any time, a moment away from our world being shaken into something we do not recognise.