Major events create a sense of ‘before’ time and ‘after’ time. That’s happening right now.
Words like ambivalence, anger, apathy, anxiety and acceptance have bounced round my head like bingo balls in a cage over the last few weeks, as I have tried to name my feelings and make sense of the protests in Wellington.
Anger announced itself more ferociously than ever before on Wednesday at the sight of the slide at the playground on parliament grounds being set alight. I don’t know if I’ve ever really cared about that playground before, but the attempted destruction of something enjoyed by children by those who have claimed to be acting to protect them, elevated this playground into the realm of the symbolic.
As the fire burned on the once pristine lawns of our parliament, I thought about the wedding that had occurred there over the weekend between two of the protesters. It was reported in the same way a wedding might be reported in the New York Times. The bride wore a long white dress and a tiara. Their nuptial kiss was caught on video. Love was in the air, said one news site. I felt as if my brain was melting as I read this account. How do you reconcile the presentation of love and defiance against your disdain for these people without resorting to cruelty, or ogling as you would a freak show? How are you meant to feel about all the human colour bleeding into the reporting of an illegal and selfish occupation? How do you map out clear, straight lines amongst all this mess?
Throughout the pandemic, I have clung to a mantra about maintaining civility and finding empathy. I resolved that no matter what happened, I would always try to be civil in the public domain, on and offline, watching for moments when harsh words might slip off the tip of my tongue too easily. I have tried hard to look at things from all sides. Ambivalence, particularly in times of uncertainty, and as a writer, is a strength. The job of an essayist, said Andrew O’Hagan at a workshop I attended last year, is to “hold a contradiction up to the light and spin it”. I have attempted to call on the most basic commandments, undoubtedly a hangover from an upbringing in the Catholic church, but “Do unto others as you’d have done unto you” is not the worst relic I could’ve retained. I have not always succeeded but at times it has felt as important to monitor my capacity to behave with these things in mind as it might be to monitor the vital signs of a patient in hospital.
Toby Manhire described the protests as having taken on a “Rorschach quality” last week, as observers, experts and political opportunists have passed judgement on what has happened each day. We’ve been presented with a sliding scale of malevolence about the people involved. What we have been asked to reconcile is mind-melting stuff. To try and hold all of these perspectives in your head is to test your levels of comfort with ambivalence.
I have failed. The contradiction has not been fully illuminated.
My stumbling block, even in my most ambivalent state, is comparison. Almost everyone I know, and many I have observed, from all walks of life, have nursed the multitude of hurts quietly wrought by the pandemic. They have not resorted to violent protest or public expressions of the kind of hatred and anger that we risk becoming desensitised to. These people have lost livelihoods, their health, loved ones and the opportunities to step through their grief as we did before. And yet they have made an active decision, sometimes on a daily basis, to do their job, to elevate concern for others above concern for themselves, to speak with care and to cling to civility. They have bundled up their pandemic losses and graciously rationalised them away. At every possible juncture of justified complaint and real grief, my mother has always been able to say ‘“we still have our health”. You can argue that some of us are in positions which makes this easier, but many of the people who’ve been the most gracious and selfless, who’ve sacrificed and risked the most throughout the pandemic, are in no such position.
At my most apathetic, perhaps in a state of denial, too weary to contemplate what “this is not us” actually means in a connected society, I’ve had moments of thinking these protests were inevitable. You can only stretch a rubber band so far before it snaps.
But the actions on Wednesday afternoon went beyond a release and demonstrated a scale of malevolence that we’d been warned about but still seem unable to decide on how seriously it must be taken. Experts have been warning of the rise and rise of alt-right conspiracies and Trumpism, of radicalisation in real-time and the consumption of misinformation overtaking the consumption of news from mainstream media.
I doubt the mandates will cause a long-lasting rift. They will go at some stage. But talk of division in any form raises the question of long-lasting effect, of what we have lost and what we have learned to tolerate and what the shape of recovery will be. The careful choices and decisions we are being asked to make will not end when the risk of catching the virus subsides, but will endure as we all decide what comes next. If this pandemic grinds on and another variant arrives, what state are we in to maintain the sanctity of the values most of us have exhibited for the sake of our own safety and the safety of others? This makes me anxious. That the protests are somehow an early warning sign. Not the end of something but the beginning. Not a chasm caused by mandates but a crack caused by mounting pressure and a tolerance for freely expressing anger and hate in such public ways.
My anxiety about the protests is my anxiety about the pandemic. That is why attempting to make sense of them is so taxing and upsetting. It is an anxiety about a life, a country and a world, forever changed. Rationally, I have known this to be true for some time and that the only course through this is to become comfortable with uncertainty. It is what people whose job it is to forecast ahead have been saying and it is what people whose job it is to try and ease this cognitive load have been preparing us for. And yet, it wasn’t until someone with very real experience of adjusting to a life changed forever said it, that it hit home.
On the 11th anniversary of the February 22 quake, Moata Tamaira, a librarian and writer from Christchurch, said this on Twitter:
“It’s officially ‘earthquake day”‘in Christchurch and there’s something I’ve learned from over a decade of fallout from that event that I think is relevant to where we are now. The life that you knew before is over. The life that you have from this point will be forever changed. We will not be going back to the way things were and it will take a very long time for some people to come to grips with that. That doesn’t mean you’ll never have “normality” again but it does mean it will be a different kind of normality.”
Tamaira’s tweets made me wonder why we hadn’t thought to speak to the people in this country who know about sudden change, enormous loss and recovery better than many of us. Those who are still living with the aftermath of disaster, 11 years on, despite it fading out of the national view.
I called Tamaira under the guise of writing this piece. We talked for an hour, ending our chat only to deal with one escaped dog (her) and one puppy who’d pissed on the rug again (me). I realised I was actually seeking reassurance, and a restoration of faith in other people, and that we were both trying to make sense of the protests in the context of what they did or did not bode for a post-pandemic future.
A devastating earthquake that killed 185 people and a pandemic that’s crept, stealing life more slowly, are not exactly the same, but as Moata talked about the immediate aftermath and confronting her changed city and changed life, parallels emerged.
She talked about the visual reminders of the quake, more stark than those of the pandemic, and yet the lack of a sense of safety in public spaces was something we both identified as experiences common to the aftermath of a quake and living through a pandemic. She mentioned navigating her way through a city where roads were closed, cordons were in place and sinkholes had opened up. The exhaustion of never being able to go anywhere without first calculating the risk, landed us both on the loss of simple carefree experiences like going to the supermarket without first scanning in, masking up and angling our EFTPOS cards through the perspex slot.
I asked about cohesion after the quake and Tamaira talked about the galvanising effect of tragedy and solidarity within her community. That it was not, as she expected, a person in uniform who came to help you out, but your neighbour. I asked about division, which she pointed out was more literal in Christchurch, the Eastern suburbs far harder hit than others.
Tamaira said she made a point of confronting the quake damage. Of going and looking at the worst hit places. Of ripping the band-aid off multiple times, over and over, as a way of dealing with her grief instead of ignoring it. I sometimes wonder whether our preoccupation with laying blame for every decision made over the last two years, and the anger I have felt about the protestors, is in fact a distraction from sitting with the difficult truths. It might be uncomfortable to exist in a constant cycle of avoidance, exhaustion, anger, anxiety and apathy, but it also feels easier to simply be at sea, bobbing around with everyone else just absorbing it all, than it does to put any stakes in the ground or “dare to care”.
Strikingly Tamaira talked about discovering a deep sense of duty to her city after the quake, changing jobs to work at Christchurch City Libraries to be more involved. She wanted to be part of her community, to know what was going on and to be supportive of it.
This part of our conversation has stuck with me. She wasn’t instantaneously over her grief as a result, it still rears its head when she thinks about all the things her son will never see or experience in Christchurch, and she says it’s been a long road to accepting a new normal. But she has played an active part in constructing a new experience for him and the people who call Christchurch home.
Over the last few weeks, one of things we have been asked to believe is that the protesters were a community. A village of concerned citizens who cared for each other. Reports are now emerging that many of them that were there on Wednesday were left to wander the streets of Wellington with nowhere to go.
I wonder if instead of trying to make sense of what happened, I should instead accept a lack of understanding. Making sense of something born of uncertainty is impossible. There are questions to be asked about these protests but there are plenty of people to answer them, and perhaps the best thing most of us can do is focus on our own front lawn.
As I watched the livestream of protestors lifting pavers from the footpath to throw at police on Wednesday, our neighbours, themselves dealing with very real and hard things in their life, dropped off some tomatoes and a toy for the puppy who pissed on the rug. I will do some baking for them over the weekend.