Illustration: Giselle Clarkson

The Sunday Essay: Ka mua, ka muri – walking backwards into the future

Before trans-Tasman travel was suspended again, a New Zealander in Sydney came back to discover whether you can ever really go home again. 

Illustrations by Giselle Clarkson.

The light snaps shut

Your work, it can close around you like a venus fly trap: the light from outside, at first jovial and vibrant, narrows day-by-day to a sliver, and at some imperceptible point, snaps shut. So it was not just the prospect of returning home that sent me into an exhilarating head spin when Jacinda Ardern announced the opening of a travel bubble between Australia and New Zealand on 6 April 2021. It was, as I sat at my desk writing some inane reminder, the prospect of escape.

Within 48 hours of that announcement, I and every other Kiwi I knew living in Sydney had booked flights home. It had been nearly two years. Life had trudged on with comparative normalcy. But I had started innumerable conversations with four pregnant words: when the border opens. The phrase through repetition had assumed an emotional life of its own, a talismanic incantation when work was too hard or anxiety too much: when the border opens.  As important dates began to loom – the wedding of a good friend, the funerals of family members – the syntax pessimistically changed to if the border opens, from concrete to speculative.

Rachael’s wedding was upcoming on 8 May 2021, but the funerals of family members had now passed. My great uncle, a gentle man with a tinkering, technocratic spirit died in the USA. There is a very old photo of him holding me up like an aeroplane in the Milford Sound, calm blue water enclosed by mountains in the background. In another from the same trip, my great aunt points the way to the next checkpoint, while I, precocious tiny person holding a map upside down, point in the opposite direction with an outraged look on my face. She died too, six months earlier while they were in India. She had a way of saying my name that blew the tension out of me like a long exhale. Some of my earliest memories are of playing in their house in India. But they were gone, the lights snapped shut, thousands of kilometres away where I could not register the final flickers, see the bodies, or accept this as anything more than speculative.

I found the Milford Sound photos in my parents’ new house in Melbourne, just before leaving for New Zealand. We had an unusually normal weekend: watched television, went to the shops, looked at old photos. Commiseration flowers addressed to my mother sat on the dining table. My brother had recently departed after coming to comfort my mother too. Our aeroplanes between Sydney and Melbourne had probably passed each other in the night sky between Victoria and New South Wales on Friday, 23 April 2021. In fiction, the reason for our visit would be regarded as overkill, but death is not tidy or measured. After a long battle with cancer my mother’s sister died in India while my mother was stuck in Melbourne under Australia’s India-travel-ban. And what did we do on my visit? Watched television, went to the shops, looked at old photos.

On Monday, 26 April 2021, I left for New Zealand.

Illustration: Giselle Clarkson

Descending on Auckland Airport

I had expected some swell of emotion hurtling through the air towards Auckland Airport, but life has a way of quietly subverting your expectations, especially those you have greedily dined out on. I felt clenched.

I turned to my neighbour, a middle-aged woman with antipodean demeanour, kind eyes, and an aura of over-politeness. “You going home?” she asked.

I replied, “Yeah,” instantly unsure if that was true. My parents sold their house in Hamilton last year and moved to Melbourne. I lived in Sydney. Was I going home?

“What about you?” I asked.

“No, I’m from Sydney, but going to visit my best friend…” she said, choking up near the end, blinking swiftly and wiping her eyes, “sorry.”

“Not at all.”

Why do people apologise when they feel? Is our culture so opposed to frank, uncontrolled emotion…

“I haven’t seen her in over two years,” she said, still crying. This was true for me too. I hadn’t hugged my closest friends in two years. And it was that absence – physical contact, body language, the ability to sit around not saying much but doing it together – that incrementally bankrupts your emotional reserves.

My in-flight neighbour and I drifted from that moment of intimacy as the plane continued its descent. I may have even left without saying goodbye.

Domino’s

Don’t ask why: the first thing I did in New Zealand was go to Domino’s Pizza.

Mitch picked me up from the airport. Kayla rushed home from work and bounced through the front door of their Bond Street flat like a roving tumble-dryer. Uncontrollable excitement is reassuring. It’s a reminder that these things matter.

Two minutes up the road, at Domino’s:

“Does that mean the guy who runs the place is named Domino?” said Mitch.

“It could be referring to the concept of dominoes,” I said.

“But then it would be plural,” he said.

“What if the pizza belongs to the concept of a single domino,” I said.

Kayla gave me a look that said both “I’ve missed you,” and “you’re an idiot”.

“I can’t believe you’re actually here,” she said, “this is wild.”

The Waikato Expressway

At the end of a chapter in Speak, Memory, Nabokov says, “Everything is as it should be, nothing will ever change, nobody will ever die.” The sentence to me aches and sobs and bursts at its punctuation. Clause one, a panacea of nostalgia and childhood, gives way to the inevitable expressed as denial in clauses two and three. Nabokov knows, and he knows you know he knows, that everything will change, everyone will die. It is not a case of magical thinking but of cold, black irony.

And yet. There I was back at the flat on Bond Street in Grey Lynn in Auckland – a home to me whenever I had needed it – the back deck from its raised vantage point looking out over a gully of houses and trees and State Highway 16 – Kayla and Mitch seeing me off as my wife Aseka came to pick me up to drive to Hamilton.

Nostalgia, however, is a bittersweet comfort, and I appeared to be living out in this trip the visions of my nostalgic Sydney self. The poet and critic Susan Stewart described nostalgia this way in On Longing: “the past it seeks has never existed except as narrative, and hence, always absent, that past continually threatens to reproduce itself as a felt lack.” In the early days of living in Sydney, the comfort represented by the Bond Street flat had reproduced itself as a felt lack, in every eventless weekend or challenge faced without friends, in the gnawing sense that life had imperceptibly narrowed. The acuteness of that lack faded as months drifted by and Aseka and I grew a new sense of independence, but the idea of home continued to exist as some imagined narrative of absence.

We left Auckland – up New North Road, down Khyber Pass Road, onto State Highway 1. The journey to Hamilton was so familiar it was like a mental groove down which water naturally flowed. We passed the Autobahn with its hashbrowns and Wild Bean coffee, we passed Pokeno with its bacon and quadruple-decker ice creams, then, later, we breezed passed Meremere and Rangiriri, modestly marked sites of national significance, decisive blows on the way to Ōrākau where the cry of ka whawhai tonu mātau (the struggle will go on forever) would famously ring out. A struggle still being fought, I should add, in courtrooms, tribunals, parliamentary chambers, and, as it always has, on plots and parcels and lots of land.

The little te reo Māori and tikanga Māori I have (gratefully) learnt have always made me feel closer to Aotearoa. It is the lot of first generation immigrants to hunt for a sense of cultural rootedness, or maybe it is just my lot. India is so very far away. I do not believe it is the job of Māori culture to make me of all people feel at home here. But it does. Historical injustice and self-determination and the litany of other good and right reasons to support social, political and economic reparations aside – this feeling of rootedness has always twinkled in the background.

The road into Hamilton felt different that day. The Waikato Expressway had bypassed the great smoking chimneys of the Huntly Power Station and the gravestones on the side of Taupiri Maunga.

It dawned on me that I was going home but didn’t have a house to return to. All this while the late afternoon light charmed the rolling green hills, making postcards or Grahame Sydney paintings of the remote farmers’ cottages and banged up utes. Beautiful but faintly gothic.

Kāwhia

We stayed with Aseka’s parents in Hamilton, where, during the weekdays, downstairs is an early childcare centre that her mother runs. Kids peer out at you as you park your car on the lawn, sometimes happy, sometimes bewildered.

One afternoon, we drove to the hot water beach in Kāwhia. The sun was setting when we arrived, making its way down in deep yellow to the horizon. The colours fanned out to hills on either side that cradled the beach like soft, hazy arms.

Sydney, for all its nature and its beaches, lacks this simple thing: a west coast. You will never get to sit on the beach as that pulsating yellow orb descends into glorious oblivion, shooting off beams of orange, red and purple.

As the light grew thin, we sat silhouetted in pre-dug holes of geothermally heated water. The air was cold so each of us smoked like djinn in a dream.

Illustration: Giselle Clarkson

Tamahere

Birthing centres in Hamilton resemble vaguely spiritual summer camps. Aseka and I toured them all, gathering intelligence. They were softly lit. One had a circular room with a circular bath in the centre. Midwives had to be booked “well in advance” (our baby was only due in December). But, even navigating completely new territory, we were comfortably on home soil. So much so that we were genuinely considering returning here for the birth.

Driving around Hamilton was like stuffing the strange into the familiar: part of me was doing the days’ tasks and activities, while another was flying above watching, cataloguing old routes, registering subtle changes, auditing the city’s rhythms. Cobham Drive had been streamlined to complete State Highway 1, roaring past Hamilton’s only reputable tourist attraction (the Hamilton Gardens). There was a new village of shops in Tamahere, and the way there from Aseka’s parents’ house had been upgraded with jumbo roundabouts, Hamilton’s favourite solution to every infrastructural problem (high crash area? Roundabout. School zone? Roundabout. Homelessness?).

Some new family was sitting in my old house in Tamahere. The house we built. It didn’t bother me, I didn’t linger long enough to let it. We drove by swiftly so as not to look like we were casing the place for a robbery. We stopped for a coffee at Punnett Cafe inside the strawberry farm, which had grown over the years from, well, just a strawberry farm to a fully-fledged cafe and delicatessen. It was late afternoon on a weekday, maternity hour. Prams, toddlers and louche mayhem. From a location firmly in my past, we stared into our future.

Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei

In 2018, the Supreme Court delivered a landmark judgment on access to justice for settled iwi and hapū in Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei Trust v Attorney-General [2018] NZSC 84. I was there, an eager junior lawyer floored to even be working on the case, let alone sitting at the back of New Zealand’s highest court with its beautiful wooded interior as Chief Justice Sian Elias fired pointed questions at the barristers.

That decision sent the parties back to the High Court for the real fight, involving over 10 weeks of trial, countless experts, and a detailed investigation of the history of the Tāmaki isthmus in light of tikanga Māori. But by that time I had moved to Sydney.

I was fortunate in those early years at Chapman Tripp to work on a case that I felt truly mattered. I have not replicated the feeling since.

As luck would have it, my return to Aotearoa and to Auckland coincided with the last day of trial. On Friday, 30 April 2021, I strode up to the Auckland High Court with its unique bureaucratic elegance. Kayla was inside the Court, working on the case I left behind. She ushered me into a corridor outside the courtroom brimming with the people of Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei. A kaumatua spoke to me as if she’d known me her whole life, not for a second questioning my undoubtedly awkward and misplaced presence. A young woman connected her laptop to a stream of proceedings inside the courtroom and we all huddled to hear Jack Hodder QC’s final comments in closing. As we strained to catch the dying breaths of the trial, guitars materialised. People lined the corridors in preparation.

This was not the abstract, academic justice rehearsed in empty courtrooms we civil lawyers so often practice. Justice Palmer closed the trial by acknowledging the calibre and diligence of all involved, saying it was probably the most enjoyable of his career. I smiled at Kayla and imagined the faces of my friends in the courtroom – especially Rachael, who had poured her heart and soul into this case from the very beginning (and, in my earliest graduate days, taught me how to be a lawyer). Trials are forged in the sweat and blood of legal teams churning out herculean feats of stamina, intellect and document management. The team absorbed this praise.

And then the waiata started, loud and harmonious. Kaumatua and iwi members filed out of the courtroom. The legal team followed and I clocked the looks of pleasant surprise on their faces as they caught my eye on the way out. I joined the relaxed procession out to the courtyard where a large circle was forming. Waiata kept flowing, as did whaikōrero to the team. The emotion in the air was palpable.

I thought to myself again, this is a case that really matters.

Toi Tū Toi Ora

A white elephant faced the wall (Te Ao Hurihuri, Michael Parekōwhai).

We did a lot of staring, Ned and I, floating through Auckland Art Gallery on Saturday afternoon. He came up from Whakatāne, so we could stare together. We started in Te Kore, the great nothingness: a sparse black room featuring Peter Robinson, Robert Jahnke and Ralph Hotere. We stared down a neon-lit tunnel evaporating into void (Whenua Kore, Robert Jahnke), up at the stationary yet mercurial drops of black anti-matter hanging from the ceiling (Universe, Peter Robinson), along a wall of angel-hair blue, orange and indigo lines demarcating space and time out of impassive blackness (Black painting, Ralph Hotere).

High concept art can sometimes alienate, and not always intentionally. It is easy to miss the precise relationship between a work and its art historical context, without which the sculpted plastic bauble can look like badly designed kitsch. It is also easy to look in shorthand – oh, it’s a painting of a frog, or it’s a sculpture of a lumpy thing – and ignore the texture of the particular piece in front of you. I went into the Toi Tū Toi Ora exhibition with this trepidation, that I wouldn’t see properly.

Ned absorbed art as if it was mainlined directly into his bloodstream. Luckily, intensity is contagious (think movie audience, jump scare). Somewhere in the alchemy of Ned’s staring, these carefully constructed works and my staring, a meditative focus was created. The works, ordinary objects made from plastic, or neon tubes, or paint on board, transcended their paltry materials in our eyes. And it was with that intensity that we entered the second room, Te Pō (the perpetual night), where, hung on the wall to our left, was what looked like the shimmering piupiu of some halfway materialised or recently evaporated goddess (Wai o te Marama, Maureen Lander). The shape was boldly feminine. The light was cast to mimic moonlight on the water. I stared and lost all perception of time. The work was one of powerful implication, behind it was some gaping God-shaped hole. This stationary, artificially-lit, hand-woven object, shone with undeniable mauri. It made one want to kneel. That grand yet intimate exchange was the single most transcendent moment I have had in any gallery anywhere, period; not at the Tate, not at MoMA, but at Toi Tū Toi Ora at Auckland Art Gallery.

A white elephant faced the floor (Te Ao Hurihuri, Michael Parekōwhai).

A wedding

Rachael’s wedding was on the last day of my trip home, at the French Bay Yacht Club, overlooking Otitori Bay and a peach and tangerine sky. The clouds threatened to send us indoors but deemed the occasion worthy, parting for the ceremony.

His nominated reading was from Shane Warne’s No Spin. Hers was from Patricia Grace’s Potiki. Need I say any more?

There is a quote from St Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People that was once paraphrased to me, late at night, by a friend’s father over a dining table in Wellington: “I’ve always been an atheist, and I think about life like that quote about the sparrow flying through a winter’s night. The sparrow flies through blackness and suddenly it enters a great hall where there is light and warmth and drinks and food, a party. It flies through this hall only briefly, as if for only a moment, and then reaches the back window and returns to endless black night.” My friend’s father curates art exhibitions, so this came with the territory.

I now have the perfect mental image for that great hall and it is the French Bay Yacht Club on the evening of 8 May 2021, full of light and warmth and drinks and food, a party.




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