Today has not been an ordinary day. But then neither was this day a year ago, nor many days in between.
I went to the earthquake Memorial Service in North Hagley Park with my wife and daughter. We left early to go to my wife’s grandmother’s funeral. She was 94.
It was a strange day. The contrast between marking 185 extraordinary deaths and one ‘ordinary’ death was stark yet all blurred together.
The day made me think of an expression that’s gained popularity around town this past year. It’s an attempt to try to capture this strange, non-ordinary experience – we speak of the ‘new normal‘.
But the phrase fails to describe the situation. It’s a euphemism for something that most people find too disturbing to contemplate: the very idea of ‘normal’ has passed its ‘use by’ date. I think that terrifies many people.
And not just those of us in Christchurch.
It might be living in a shattered city for a year that has warped my memory, but, to be honest, I felt this creeping sense of the ‘new normal’ long before 4 September 2010. I think others did too – and still do.
I imagine people felt the same prior to World War I and during the Great Depression and on into World War II. It’s the sense that things are changing, massively. The growing feeling that something – an entire world – very different from the realities we have known looms beyond the dust storms swirling around us.
I actively chose not to go to the memorial event last March but I was far more favourably disposed to this memorial day. In fact, I’ve wept.
I haven’t sobbed, as some have. (I lost no-one who was close to me.) Simply, tears have rolled down my cheeks, repeatedly.
I’ve sometimes felt the same way over the past year, whenever the reality of what people have gone through and what has happened to this city has briefly made itself plain, pushing itself through my attempts to ‘get back to normal’.
A year ago I spent three hours trying to get home while not knowing the fate of my (then) five year old daughter who was at school in the central city, right above the Bus Exchange in Lichfield Street. As I tried to make my way home I kept hearing the news, bit by bit, about the buildings coming down, the Cathedral’s spire collapsing, flattened buses in Colombo Street, people being covered with blankets in Cashel Street – all within a stone’s throw of my daughter’s school. It soon became clear that she and her classmates were right in the centre of the most destructive events.
I finally received texts from my wife that night at 9pm, when we were all together – close to eight hours after they were sent.
It is just as well that both of us only learnt the full story of what our daughter experienced (she’s fine) as it was inadvertently drip fed by the teachers, other parents and our daughter herself over the following eight months. It took us that long to be able to piece together the story and to realise how emotionally brave and self-disciplined she had been through it all.
Our house and street were largely untouched. We didn’t file a claim with EQC – though we had after September. Our old, wooden house shook creakily with each quake but then just stood there and carried on looking as it always had, like a dog after shaking its coat.
It seems to me that everyone’s experience has been different in detail, but has had the same ‘tone’. Part of that tone has been an inability to grasp how much things have changed but nevertheless to feel, ‘in the gut’, how different everything is. That leads to a peculiar feeling. It’s more than loss – its a deep disorientation.
Our bodies were used to one world, one built environment, one form of infrastructure, one way to live our daily lives. Then our bodies, our responses and our expectations started letting us down in what was an eerily similar yet markedly different environment.
It is in the experience of turning into a familiar street and confronting a ‘Road Closed’ sign; in the experience of stopping at a street corner and not knowing what used to be there; in the experience of talking about an event that happened – pre-quake – somewhere in town and realising that place no longer exists; in the experience of re-organising daily tasks like shopping then having to re-organise them yet again as another business moves, closes or has to leave their premises because of the earthquake risk.
It’s also in thinking about the future. The uncertainty of what that holds leaves a thick vaseline smudge over our attempts to picture, in our own lives, what we might be able to have done by this time next year, or five years from now.
It’s also driven like a bus through the world that really matters – the social world. For all of us here in Christchurch there are people we know – friends and family – who have left or are waiting to leave or are on the nervous brink of deciding to leave. School friends of our children, workmates and neighbours. Even in this most vital sphere we have no certainty about who will still be near us as the months, then years pass by.
It struck me as I thought about this feeling of strangeness, of uncertainty and of the ‘no longer ordinary’ life we face that it isn’t just about the earthquakes, or about Christchurch or even New Zealand.
It’s as if we here in Christchurch have been given a compressed lesson in what this world of ours is really like. Yes, buildings have gone, suburbs abandoned and left derelict, people have departed, jobs have dissolved. Yet, in our world all of these things are happening anyway, all the time, irrespective of geological disruptions. Not so fast, of course. But – maybe – at an increasing rate.
At the Memorial Service, as well as remembering we were also enjoined to look forward and to have faith in the potential renewal of a Christchurch City that would be different from, but as prosperous and beautiful as, the one that has been lost. ‘Resilience’, ‘vision’ and a new Christchurch built on the unshakeable foundation of our ‘community spirit’ were the constant themes.
There was mention of the Pheonix myth and – though my family missed it because we had to leave early – the Service included the release of 185 monarch butterflies. As the Governor General explained, the butterflies were, in part, to symbolise the new, beautiful Christchurch that was to emerge from this cast off cocoon. It was the reiterated promise of a new dawn.
In short, we were promised that out of this destruction a creative process would emerge. The demolitions, in all their absolutist effects, were clearing the way for new creations.
I couldn’t help thinking, as my mind swam in the sea of this repeated rhetoric, that ‘creative destruction’ was not a new idea, and certainly not in the context of the current economic and political world.
It seemed oddly appropriate, then, when one of the biblical readings – read by Sam Johnson, Young New Zealander of the Year – was from Ecclesiastes.
The famous text (Ch. 3 Vs. 1-8) was made even more famous by The Byrds but, in summary, it was about there being a time for everything: A time to break down and a time to build up, etc.. Indeed. But I don’t think those verses meant that change should be constant – that is, quickly build up then quickly tear down, then quickly build up again …
Yet, isn’t this the mantra of our time? Haven’t we valorised change, even rapid change, as something we should all embrace, or at least not complain about? Isn’t it only the fearful, the tired, the fainthearted and the pessimistic who burden us with their cautions?
Today, ‘clinging to the past’ is a criticism; ‘Moving on’ and ‘focusing on the future’ has become the quintessential, admirable quality. Is it any coincidence that, in this kind of world, Buddhism – with its continual acceptance of change and its message of ‘holding on lightly’ – is the spiritual philosophy of choice for the thoroughly modern man and woman?
In a revealing article in the Australian journal ‘Family Matters‘, Richard Eckersley discussed the apparently conflicting findings about the state of young people in modern societies:
Research based on self-reported health, happiness and life satisfaction suggests most young people – around 90 per cent – are thriving; that based on studies of mental health indicates many are struggling.
Some studies report that young people are, themselves, incredibly upbeat and optimistic about their own future prospects. They appear to have embraced a rapidly changing world in which flexibility, adaptability, personal resilience and autonomy are primary requirements.
And yet participants in one study reported that …
by 2002 they themselves had concerns about their health; less than 60 per cent regarded themselves as physically healthy, and a similar proportion as mentally healthy. They admitted the need for constant reflection, reinvention and flexibility required a lot of effort, toughness and self-confidence. There is sense of constant movement, ‘almost like treading water’. Maintaining the right balance in life remains a real challenge; life is still a struggle with uncertainty.
To get by, let alone ‘succeed’, in such a world of change and uncertainty young people operate ‘separate selves’ that are focused on the personal development of the skills required to ‘go it alone’. At the same time, though, they make sure they are heavily networked to large peer groups through ‘tribal ties’.
Being aware of the unreliability of our world “the post-1970s generation has made a realistic adjustment to an unstable world” and Eckersley reports that sociologist Johanna Wyn believes that “‘This generation is showing the rest of us how adult lives will be lived in the future.’”
But working out that ‘going with the unpredictable flow’ is the only way to survive does not necessarily make for a happy life. Eckersley cites Zygmunt Bauman in noting that;
the modern preference for transience and impermanence – for connections over relationships, networks rather than partnerships – doesn’t solve the problem posed by freedom. ‘Being on the move, once a privilege and an achievement, becomes a must. Keeping up speed, once an exhilarating adventure, turns into an exhausting chore.’ Most importantly, the nasty uncertainty and vexing confusion refuse to go, he says. ‘The age of disengagement does not reduce the risks; it only distributes them differently.’
At the funeral of my wife’s grandmother, the point was made that not only had she lived for a long time, but also had lived through many changes, from horse and carriage to the internet; and most of those changes came later rather than earlier.
It’s not an original observation. But today has driven it home to me.
After a day of remembering, reflecting and trying my best to make sense of the experiences of those around me over the past year it seems that there’s a lesson about our ‘ordinary’ world in the devastating and disorienting effects of the earthquakes.
There are now no more ordinary days – for any of us.