The mighty Waikato River near Huka Falls.
The mighty Waikato River near Huka Falls. (Photo: Getty Images)

The river runs through it: How to live between cultures and catastrophes

Playwright Alex Lodge on being in love with someone who’s from a different world than you.

Have you read anything by Kurt Vonnegut Jr? I’m not here to judge you if you haven’t. He’s one of those writers who all the white boys in university say you “have to read” as they spend three years talking about Kerouac, Moore and (if they are hard-outs) maybe one book by Adichie (which they didn’t actually enjoy and found the women in it too angry). You know the guys. They’re vegetarian because of Jonathan Safran Foer. Now they’re in their 30s and don’t read fiction any more, but will still neg you about liking Margaret Atwood. I bring Vonnegut up for a reason, but just hang on first. 

If you are a person like me, everything looks like a pattern all the time. It’s exhausting. The natural world especially is a mirror, and when you filter its reflection through your subconscious, it can guide you through your problems. In a capitalist and Pākehā-centric world, this is pretty much only helpful if you are a writer. When I write these things down, it’s smart and thoughtful. When I say it in the lunchroom at my office job, it’s weird and uncomfortable. It is wild, but I bet people will even be offended at the term “Pākehā-centric”. Guys, it’s OK! I too am a white lady! Acknowledging that we have the upper hand in society because of systemic injustices doesn’t mean I hate myself or you any more than a healthy amount! 

My partner and I have a running joke: that he doesn’t trust white people and I don’t trust men, but somehow we make it work. We’ve both been trampled down and held tight by anger, and we’ve both been guilty of being shitty to each other. About a decade ago, when we first started living together, we would fight constantly about the laundry. He would get furious at me for washing tea towels and clothing together, which I thought was persnickety and controlling. I thought he was just being a dick about housework, because he was a man. Then I happened to learn about the concept of tapu and noa, and how the two shouldn’t mix, especially when it comes to food-related things. And I had the first of many revelations that it was I, dear reader, who was being the dick. 

Because my partner’s sense that smashing these things together was inherently wrong was so deeply ingrained in him that he didn’t even realise he had to articulate it. He didn’t know that I didn’t know that te ao Māori was even an option of how to look at the world. 

There’s something to be said for the small moments, like doing laundry. Or telling friends that you love them over Facebook messenger before bed. Or floating in cold water on a hot day, listening to the cicadas. At the end of Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut writes about an alien species, the Tralfamadorians, who think it is very silly to cry at funerals, because all moments of a person’s life always exist. The moments bubble and spread out into space, like stars. “It is just an illusion we have here on Earth,” he writes, “that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.” 

I really like this idea, and it has always stuck with me. When you think about life and relationships in this way, both a big public celebration day and a boring private errand-running day spent with someone you love are basically the same size. And when we look at ourselves as mechanical parts of the overwhelming, burning and chaotic world we are living through, it’s comforting to know that we can at least control the small moments, which will exist forever alongside whatever may come next. This is as close to an equation for hope as I can get. So let’s just put that to the side for now and talk about bridges. 

Fairfield Bridge over the Waikato River (Photo: Getty Images)

I live in Kirikiriroa, where we are lucky enough to have te awa o Waikato running through us, churning and babbling and never resting. I live on the east side of the river, and cross the bridges pretty much daily. Every now and then I walk across one, and stop midway, and look down. I’m up here, on this suspended concrete path, hurrying because I’m running late to meet my friend for a coffee. Then there’s this long, empty-but-not gap of space below me. Then, below that, the river, who will outlive me. The river which made Tainui such a prosperous rohe for so long, and which is at the centre of the history of so many of our place names. Also the river where, in 1863, Grey’s invasion of the Waikato began in earnest: a three-year bloodbath culminating in the British imperial troops sending a gun boat up this very river to Maungatautari, in a final push against the united iwi of the area. Anyway, I’m late for coffee. 

I am also, at the time of this writing, eight months’ pregnant with my second baby. This is another kind of bridge to be standing on. I am up in the present, trying to keep hustling as a freelance writer and find clothes that fit my ever-expanding mass and not punch everyone in the face for the most minor slight. Then there is this unknown gap between now and when baby arrives. Will she be OK? How will I cope going back to that sleep deprivation life? Will she live in a world where travelling overseas is a thing of the past? Will this pandemic ever end? Do we speak enough reo in the house? 

Then, beyond that, is the deeper future. The future is down there, look at it, just out of reach, churning and babbling and never resting. Gravity pulls us into it. It will go on without us. 

I’ve written this play called Sing to Me, which is about being in love with someone who is from a different world to you. It’s an old story, because as long as humans have travelled, we’ve been into each other and we’ve been cross-pollinating. Which I’m obviously in favour of. And it’s about all the little moments of that cross-pollination – because, to paraphrase Ranginui Walker, the cultural tensions of Pākehā and Māori will ultimately be settled not in parliament, but in our marriage beds. It’s an old saying for a reason: the personal is political. 

At the moment especially, it’s easy to get what my therapist calls “scope creep” from the personal into the political into the brutally existential. So I might begin with normal worries about the impending second child and the scope of my worries quickly creeps out to the pandemic at large, the ethics of having children at all, before spilling into what happens to my children when I die, visions of a The Road-style survival for my babies, how will I cope when my parents die, what right do I have to be in this country, why didn’t my ancestors leave Aotearoa when they realised they had been promised sections of stolen land in exchange for forestry work, how do I make up for that in my lifetime, why can’t I just be happy, my lifestyle now would be considered absolute luxury even just two generations ago, and death is coming, why do I waste all my time frozen with panic? And on and on. 

I think, for our health, we have to tell ourselves that there is betterness out there. Not in some unreal utopian way (I certainly don’t want the world to stop being complex and confusing – what would I write about?), but in a Tralfamadorian way. I hope that each of us can build a billion little good moments of love and contentment and revelation, and that those moments will ping off into space and take over the larger makeup of things. We can learn from the trees and breathe in all the fear-mongering crap and put out ever more moments where we laugh and shrug and move on. We are on the bridge, looking down into the churning future. And that unknown, empty-but-not gap in between is ours to fill up with history as we choose. 

Sing to Me begins its New Zealand tour on February 27 in Wellington. You can find tickets for the tour here, and for its Auckland season here.

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