3am and all seems well. Harvestbaby and I have slept from before midnight. #
We are all okay tho’ the dogs are pretty upset. Power on, cable out. #
In between those two tweets, a whole story. The first, my usual night-feed check-in, scanning the smartphone client for the other nursing mothers and late-night dwellers. The second, of course, after the quake.
In a preparatory course I taught in literary studies during 2008 and 2009, I used Terry Eagleton’s 2007 definition of ambivalence (from How to Read a Poem) as part of the introduction to literary terms. Eagleton discussed ambivalence as a way of distinguishing it from ambiguity, and described it as a condition in which two antonymous emotional states co-exist, simultaneously, within one phrase — or one subject.
Thus it was when the earthquake hit that I froze, while my husband dived for the baby and held her in the doorway. Belief and disbelief, both together, knowing exactly what was happening and not for a moment accepting it. The stories of mothers possessed of the strength of a lioness did not apply to me; I sat in the middle of our bed like a stone through the tremors, then the aftershocks, then much of the day that followed. Belief and disbelief. I held my baby, whose need to be fed, changed and attended seemed like a lifeline to material survival, and shook, as the bed, house and province shook, aftershock after aftershock. The room was flooded with magical thinking: I spent, I thought, so much time in the weeks before and after the baby’s birth worrying about climate change, I forgot to worry about earthquakes. Like Betty Draper, the emotions of a child, in which I had the power and opportunity to change reality by the focus of my worries.
After Hurricane Katrina I had a quiet and miniature breakdown in the Bay of Islands, where I was taking a holiday following the death of my grandmother. Kaiapohia, bodies piled high; the beloved animals evacuees were forced to abandon; the families on their roofs. Beneath the iwi/kiwi billboards with which the National Party anticipated the 2005 election I sat in Paihia, in Russell, at Waitangi and cried discreetly at the thought of all that was lost, of all that I might at another time be required to give up. Coming home, I filled the area beneath my kitchen sink with a survival kit: cans, water, toilet paper. In those days it was just me and two dogs, and I thought, should such a thing happen here, we could get through. Call it inflation: with a baby, seven dogs and a husband, I felt early on Saturday morning as if I had let my household expand beyond the realms of ready-to-flee. The señor and I discussed into which crate we would push the poor doggies if the first quake were succeeded by something bigger, and while I fed our daughter, bowing to her as if to Buddha, he went to the other end of the house and augmented that five-year-old survival kit.
What a lifeline in Twitter, what a parish pump in Facebook. Between the anxious phonecalls to and from friends and family locally and, through the first few days, from elsewhere in the country and abroad, the terse, swift exchange of messages and information, of fragments, of turns of phrase. There was a window of truth-telling before the rumours began to swarm and the projection of fear began to resemble the reporting of experience, and with it a clarity, a sense of community, that we rode as a surfer might ride the incoming wave. I thought of the posting of messages on billboards on a city street, or a university noticeboard, or anywhere really. It meant so much to ride with fellow-travellers, especially as the aftershocks continued and I got to taste the grownup version of fear.
(The major depression with which my adult life began was preceded for two or three years by generalised anxiety that disordered me fairly comprehensively. Once I became a medicated subject for the depression, the anxiety stopped too. The revisiting, in earthquake and in labour, situations of genuine fear, took me back in acute, unprocessed ways, to the teenage neuroses that did for me in the first place. Not just the fear, but the fear of fear, the feeling of wanting to do anything, abandon anything, to get away from it, the sense that I might climb the walls with literal aptitude. It was some thirty-six hours before I realised it might be reasonable to be frightened by an earthquake.)
I have done, it seems, well in my choice of husband, whose key recommending features were previously his enthusiasm for my dogs, cooking skills, and looking good at the bar. The survival plan was refined, the kits were prepared, the section secured. The baby experienced attachment parenting for the first time and the dogs something like it too. Up high on the shingle beds on which Sockburn and Hornby sit, our houses remain on their foundations, our boundaries palpable, definable. The clutter barely moves, the unfashionable Hardiplank bears the strain. What-might-have-been skirts at the tormentable edges of our thinking and what is, elsewhere, breaks our hearts. I’ve been in this town too long, I thought, as I watched the succession of images in which every destroyed building had some story, some history for me and my family. That, however, is how turangawaewae gets made for ordinary Pākehā, the sinking into routines that sustain us, better than the liquefacted earth, in extraordinary times.
Sincerely hoping this will be baby’s worst earthquake for life. #