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ĀteaApril 17, 2020

On the wait, and the weight

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

Ātea editor Leonie Hayden is one of the lucky ones, she says, so why does it feel like there’s a weight inside her chest?

Yesterday was my first happy day in lockdown.

I made fresh pasta. I folded washing and watched Moana. Am I the only one who hasn’t caught up on their washing?

Two days before lockdown began, it stopped feeling like a project I needed to manage and instead became a weight inside my chest. The weight hasn’t gone away. On that day, the prime minister said the words “the deaths of tens of thousands of New Zealanders” on TV and I choked on the air in my lungs. She was talking about how we were preventing those deaths by going into lockdown but it still hurt to hear them, filled with dread and potential. Maybe it’s the spectre of those what-if deaths that’s taken up residency in the walls of my ribcage.

They will, I hope, only have a tenancy of four weeks. I’m one of the luckier ones. I have my health and my job. I thought I would learn more here inside my bubble: Instagram is a sea of messages about how to do it right, Twitter is full of people saying they’re wrong. My neighbour across the way is attached to the exercycle in her garage like it’s her new full-time job. I hope she hasn’t lost her real one.

I thought I would read more and watch classic films, but all I do is look at memes and work, and think about work, and worry about not doing enough work. I take pictures of food. Everything I’ve produced at this time has felt unremarkable while many of my colleagues have produced the best work of their careers. The weight is distracting; it’s that bubble of light in the corner of your eye. Except every so often it’s blinding.

I take endless photos of food.

My day revolves around the 1pm media update, but most days my workmates don’t need my help to cover it, so I watch and my stomach does flips and I hold my breath until I find out there still hasn’t been an outbreak in a Māori community. I wonder why there isn’t more data about Māori communities and why the tangihanga restrictions haven’t changed. I open 10 browser windows while I research who is protecting and advocating for us. I’ve cried for every death. I don’t have enough room to grieve for the thousands who have died overseas. That makes me feel guilty too. Maybe I’m not good in a crisis. I always thought I was.

I have a small, weird park behind my apartment hidden from the main roads by a fortress of medium-density housing. Someone planted nīkau palms in a grid up the steep northern hillside opposite my deck, two or three metres apart from one another. Gold star for social distancing. Nīkau prefer damp and shade and the company of other plants so they never grew past a couple of feet. On sunny days they only cast enough shade for one person and the sight of a dozen people with each their own small tropical sunshade is a perfect, stupid metaphor for modern life. Nīkau means “no coconuts”, an observation made by our distant, disappointed ocean-voyaging ancestors. I’m glad they’re not here to see these ones.

It used to be empty most days, now the contents of an inner-city Les Mills has emptied into it, filled with people doing squats all day. Burpies, planks, crab-like contortions. One day the weight got so heavy I tried to outrun it. I’ve never been a runner but I thought I was going to explode so I ran past the squatters and up a hill, onto the deserted main road. A bus drove by carrying no one. My chest hurt and I turned around and walked home. When I got to the top of my driveway I wrote a poem on my phone:

My feet have each other
For company
But don’t know
Which direction to go
There are no other feet
To meet

It’s not a very good poem. 

I feel the weight of privilege. I’ve started to think of it as survivor’s guilt. Not survival of the virus but survival of the worst aspects of being contained. I volunteered to do shopping and deliveries for The Aunties, who walk alongside families that have escaped from violence. One asshole showed up to his ex-partner’s house on the first day of lockdown and wouldn’t leave. Then he took the money he’d been given to buy nappies and disappeared. What a cunt. When I went to buy nappies for her they were sorted into weights rather than ages. I don’t know how much a six-month-old, or a two-year-old, or a three-year-old weighs. I hope I didn’t ruin her day even more with ill-fitting nappies.

The city is silent except for the occasional siren. When we first moved here I objected to hearing human voices all the time, following me from room to room. I’d only lived in flats in outer-fringe suburbs, always a quarter-acre away from the hum of other people. In the city, other people are an ever-present sound and smell and I had finally gotten used to it. I miss the loud engines driving too fast down Newton Road, about to begin their commute on the western motorway.

There have been moments of peace. Slow dancing to The Ronettes. A freshly baked scone on the doorstep from the neighbours. Watching a ropey rom-com online with my friends that inexplicably starred a 90s R&B singer and some former Shortland Street actors. Sending each other messages that made us cry with laughter. My boyfriend and I have become more gentle towards one another. In week two we started to become cruel. Things were getting under our skin. The sound of him eating made me want to hurl a chair across the room. But now we say nice things to each other and bite our tongues. One night we lay on the bed and listened to Bob Dylan. I never got Dylan. There’s no trace of my life in a Dylan song. But I loved doing that.

He’s started listening to a lot of Sly & The Family Stone.

The days feel wrong, they’re in the wrong order. Each day is longer than the months and years that contain it. I sense we all feel that way and I tell myself there’s no right way to do something that’s never been done before. Yesterday was my first happy day because the weight felt a bit lighter. Maybe it’s tied to those daily numbers we wait with bated breath to hear: 89, 50, 44, 29, 18. 

There’s so much storm left to weather. My neighbour on her exercycle might ride to Fiji and back. Will we emerge to a new normal? Or snap back into old habits like millions of little rubber bands, forgetting the shape we were during these long months. I couldn’t say. Papatūānuku needed a rest so I’m happy for her. Many of my friends have lost their jobs. Assholes will continue to steal the nappy money. I’m hoping I can be strong for them when gravity returns to normal. 

Keep going!