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The Sunday EssayAugust 27, 2023

The Sunday Essay: Between the sand and stars


You will recognise the songs of the birds, my son. You will know the textures of the leaves, the shadows of the trees, the arrangement of Matariki in the sky.

The Sunday Essay is made possible thanks to the support of Creative New Zealand.

Illustrations by Gary Venn.

This essay discusses wartime conflict, poverty and briefly mentions suicide. Please take care.

My mother feared the natural world. She preferred the protection of walls. She wanted shelter from the monsoons and dark days. There was no time for nature, no place for it to occupy in her worried mind. Nature was a luxury when her pockets were empty. She could not hear the songs of the bitterns over the sounds of the bombs.

She lived a childhood of death and destruction. Starvation. Poverty and desperation. She dreamed of having a full belly. Of shelter and stability. She met a man who she would marry, who was raised where rivers followed coastal waters. He knew of how they could change their fortunes and which tides would carry them to safety. They took their two babies and set sail. Not knowing if they would ever return home. Not knowing if they would ever see their loved ones again. Not knowing if the reward would ever be worth the risk they were taking.  

The sea and sky were vast blue blankets of danger. It was all that surrounded them for days and nights. They feared the waves would envelop their overloaded fishing boat out of existence. And leave the tiger and whitetip sharks to take them in the dark. All this risk for an uncertainty as immense as the oceans. Yet reaching solid ground was just the start of their journey.

At the camps she met young wives who had become widows at sea. They had witnessed merciless pirates dismember their husbands’ bodies. They helplessly watched rolling heads fall into turbulent waters. What little they had brought with them had been taken. They had nothing and no-one left to accompany them on this journey into the night. 

In this unfamiliar land, familiar eyes told harrowing stories of more starvation. More desperation, desolation, and displacement. Little to no hope. People waiting days, months, years; in limbo for salvation. To be chosen. To resettle and resume life again. Everybody waiting so desperately to resume their lives again. Some found comfort in their shared experiences. For others, the only solace was a noose around the neck. They could find no other peace to calm this ocean of torment. Nothing is guaranteed no matter how much you are willing to give.

The risk was finally rewarded once resettlement came. But the place that she came to would never feel like home. It was hard to feel connected to a place she knew nothing about. She had difficulty assimilating to this foreign world: there was the language she could not master, the people she could not relate to, the values that she could not understand. But she knew she had to struggle on, because on her shoulders lie many hungry mouths across many seas.

She lives as a stranger in a strange land, working every day without rest until her body is broken. She has no time to appreciate the beauty of this place; she needs to make the risk worth the reward. She could not name the tūī who sang in the pōhutukawa tree, or describe how forcefully the roots of this tree intertwined with the earth. Instead, she said, “We may have broken hearts, but we have full stomachs.” And so we will survive.  

I had a sense of shame that I could not tell the pīwakawaka or korimako from their songs. I felt emptiness from not knowing where I’m from, but also not knowing where I am.

How does a kauri grow without roots to anchor it? Without earth to nourish it? What happens to this tree with no roots? It drifts with the wind, with no path and no guide. I had nobody to help me navigate this land. I could not stand still for long enough to feel the changing of the seasons. I was always moving to distill the sinking feeling of not belonging. With each step I take, my feet balance my mind and heart between two different worlds. I am caught between both but never belonging to either.  I am unsure of which way to orient my feet to pull myself forward. 

I tried my best to blend into my surroundings, but always felt like a weed amongst the flowers. An imposter. Always painfully aware that I was different to those around me. I was too wary to open up under the scrutiny of the sun. And so I moved through the world quietly, careful not to disturb. Keeping those closest to me at a distance.

There is so much to learn about the stars and the sky it can feel overwhelming. There was only time to focus on food, warmth, shelter. Fulfilling the basics for survival. Nature does not feature on the hierarchy of needs. There were always other priorities; always so much to learn. I was behind and always trying to catch up. Always following because I didn’t know where I was going. Always moving because I have never known permanence. Always looking for the home that I had never known. Always trying to keep busy to forget. I was trying so hard to make the reward worth the risk. There were so many expectations of what I needed to become, there was no time for me to belong. 

One day, when I needed it most, I met the person who I would marry. They made sure I had shelter, warmth, and safety, so that I could take care of the rest of me. They gave us a house that we made a home — a place where I felt safe and belonged. I had time to stop and rest my feet; to slow down, listen, and breathe. I needed time and space to observe the world without feeling ashamed and alone. I needed time and space to let go of the past to make room for the present.

Finally, I see how shadows slowly lengthen and retract with the position of the sun in the sky. How the shade of the water subtly changes each hour of the day. How the shoreline drifts with the shifting of the sands. How spring gently brings golden flowers to kōwhai trees. Finally, I can hear the birds more clearly and feel connected to this world. I am grateful to have had this time to build up knowledge of the place around me. So I am able to pass along what I had not received. 

You will recognise the songs of the birds, my son. Their colours. Their shapes.

You will know the textures of the leaves, the shadows of the trees, the arrangement of Matariki in the sky. You will know the shape of each bay, crescent moons snaking along the coastline home. Your presence is as natural as the sea that hugs the shore. You belong here, between the sand and the stars. May you not question who you are and where you’re from.

Your journey will be different. Peaceful. Your life will be free of conflict, despair, and upheaval. You will not worry about empty stomachs nor empty pockets. There will be less uncertainties occupying your mind and fewer forces dictating your choices. No desperation etched into your eyes. The risks and rewards you balance will not weigh so heavily on your head and heart. You will feel whole and not torn by two worlds; as complete as one can be. You are exactly where you are meant to be. 

You will have time and space to grow at your own pace, to learn about the stars and sky. To explore the treasures of this earth and to connect with the beauty offered by the natural world. You will bask under the warmth of the sun, staring at the sky above. Feel the weightlessness of an open heart floating on salty waters, content in that moment, drifting where the sea takes you. You will have a lifetime of standing still until you are ready to move; a chance to grow roots to anchor you home. 

With each passing day, you become more aware of your surroundings. All your senses are awakening to absorb the richness of the world. For you, the world is full of so much wonder and magic. You are captivated by the noise of the wind, as it rushes through leaves in its path. You are transfixed by the might of the ocean, crashing before your feet. You love to feel the infinite grains of sand run between your tiny fingers. You hold on tightly to smooth rocks shaped by rough waters over time. The pink hues of sunset finish off your day. The Southerly is in every breath you take. 

Nature is mysterious, majestic, magic. From the force of the moon on the tides, to the power of the sun and water on seeds. You will have time to understand and appreciate it all. You will recognise the songs of the birds and know you are right where you belong. We have journeyed this far for you to belong here, between the sand and the stars. 

Keep going!