staying put

Organ Pipes, 31 December 2019

I struggle with my limitations. I’m not sick like I was in 2019. I haven’t had trouble with the mechanics of walking since I last flew up to Auckland in February. I don’t have days and weeks of migraines every month like I did for most of last year. But I’m sick. Always tired, often in pain, with flares of allergic type symptoms. I’ve lost the feeling of being well, I can’t remember how long ago I had that feeling. I’ve lost the confidence of knowing how my body is going to respond to something. The confidence I completely took for granted – that I could put shoes on and go wherever I wanted.

I miss walking. I miss heading out the door with no particular destination in mind. I miss walking and keeping on walking. I miss ending up somewhere a long way away, and the satisfaction of aching feet at the end of it, of having got somewhere under my own steam. I miss the quiet of walking. The way I get lost in my own thoughts. The sky above me and how wide it feels. The thinking I do when I walk. How the steady rhythm of my feet on the ground unravels me. 

There are other things I miss too. I miss getting up at dawn. I miss the feeling of being able to get up before anybody else and steal some time in the dark quiet. We watched an old episode of Grey’s Anatomy last week and there was a scene where Meredith arrives to start a shift in the pink-grey dawn and I was suddenly gripped with longing. To be out at the first glimpse of morning. To have the whole day stretch out in front of me, all those minutes and hours to do things and go places. I can’t remember how that feels. Did I think that time was mine to eek out to the very last second? I did.

Time is different now. Deadlines come and go. I make dates and arrangements and hope I’ll be able to meet them. I’ve stopped making lists. There’s not much point in planning a day. If a migraine comes, there’s nothing to be done. I make an electrolyte drink, maybe eat something, go to bed. And then I lie there waiting. Hours pass. Days pass, sometimes. Doing nothing except lying. Watching the strange scribbles and blurred waterfalls which move down my eyelids. Maybe listening to a podcast on low and letting the words wash over without making sense. At least the time goes more quickly. That is, it inches.

I’ve ditched the diagnosis I was given when I first got sick. It took me a year but I finally stopped treating the rehab psychologist like a god in my head who must be obeyed or else. He spent one session listening to me and then the next three sessions telling me why I was wrong and how I should think in order to be right. He meant well. But for all my efforts to comply with his ideas about how I should be thinking, I didn’t get better. And when I didn’t get better, my first thought was, it’s my fault. The burden of responsibility for being sick was heavy. 

I finally found some hope by doing the opposite of what the psychologist told me to do. I researched. Thanks to that and a good GP I have answers now. Instead of a vague neurological diagnosis I have a diagnosis which fits what is actually going in my body. And a treatment plan that has nothing to do with “thinking right.” I do think, of course I do, and I think in the direction of wellness, because I’m not stupid. But it’s a gentle thinking now, kind thoughts towards the particular white blood cells which are set on overreacting. You’re doing ok, I tell them. We are doing ok

On New Year’s Eve last year, all those strange days and months ago, Ali and I walked up to the Organ Pipes – the basalt rock formation to the side of Mt Cargill. It was early evening and the sun was heading west. It was incredible to be up so high, to look out over green bush and pasture and hills, and the mountain ranges far off – grey and shadowy against the hazy sky. I looked down at the land as it lifted and fell and thought about how much there is to surmount on a journey by foot, as people once did, way back. And it occurred to me that when we travel by car we lose touch of that sense of actual travel, of our feet trekking up hills and down valleys, one foot after the other.

I had no idea then how this year was going to go, in any of the ways it ended up going. None of us did. At that point I thought 2020 had a promising ring to it! I so badly wanted 2020 to be different from 2019. If 2019 was a place I was trying to get away from I was standing in the airport at the airline counter desperately trying to buy a ticket out right now. I wanted to walk out onto the runway and climb up into a plane. I wanted to watch the door close and not open again until I was somewhere else. Somewhere completely different. Somewhere far away from 2019. Well we all know how that went.

We didn’t go anywhere at all. 2019 just reinvented itself into a year worse than nightmares. And now that we are heading into the final stretch towards December, we can’t help hoping – are we are over the worst? We’re abundantly lucky here in New Zealand, and we know it. We voted our thanks and our belief in science at the weekend. But without a vaccine there’s not much to hope for. And there’s work still to be done. The work of staying vigilant, of keeping things going. The work of supporting those who’ve lost jobs, of loving those who are grieving. The work of listening to those who got sick with COVID-19 and are still sick, months later. The work of supporting those for whom, owing to systemic injustice, the COVID fall-out is greatest.

Standing up at the Organ Pipes at the end of 2019, I thought I had a metaphor. I thought travel by foot was my metaphor for 2020, my metaphor for getting through life. I knew I couldn’t fly out of 2019, I knew there was no escaping anything that quickly. I thought what was needed was a simple process of moving slowly and steadily in the direction of somewhere else, one foot after another. But I never imagined I wouldn’t be able to go anywhere. I had no idea I needed a metaphor for staying put.  Yet here I am.

getting ready


Of all the places I’ll miss when we leave, this is the one I’ll miss the most. This is the spot I come to, walking down towards the beach and then veering left before I get there. Down to the estuary and along the stream that meets it, splashing through the shallows and then walking up the path through the bush above. At the top is a hidden playground, a surprising open space on a small promontory with a bench seat out at the point , and this view. It’s beauty doesn’t depend on the tide. When it’s out the wily mangrove roots are exposed, reaching down into the fertile mud, and the water becomes a green ribbon winding its way down from the dam. The beauty is in its wildness, in the way, if you position the camera lens just so, you can’t see the raw earth of a new subdivision on the left, or the glinting glass windows of the houses high up on the ridge. The low line of trees in the background deftly hides the main road that takes us all back and forth from the city.  I watch the sea birds swoop and soar down towards the water, and it takes my breath away.

Everything went through last week. This house sold, the one we are moving to bought. We are tenants now, living here on someone else’s kindness. We have time to say good-bye to the place we once thought we’d never leave. It’s a bittersweet time, and there’s plenty of sweet with the bitter. It’s not our job to fix anything anymore, or improve anything, or deal to the weeds we know are waiting under the wet bush for summer warmth. The plans we conjured up for this place in naïve hopefulness have been laid to rest. We leave them here in the soil, like dreams or seeds or whispers from the past. They were here before we arrived, and they’ll remain long after we’ve left.

There are other plans to make now, practical ones. Our sprawling house-lot of belongings won’t be contained in the three bedroom house we are moving to, and so the process of culling and sorting must begin. This is a first world problem, of course. One that has spawned an entire industry of plastic storage bins and wardrobe organisers and self-help books. What do we do with all our stuff?  The religious men and women who’ve taken vows of poverty have it right. They know that there is an inverse relationship between peace of mind and material possessions. Our “stuff” costs us in more ways that we are aware of. It creeps its way into our subconscious, piling up in the corners of our minds, taking on a life of its own.

Some people deal with this by maintaining tight control over their possessions. Furniture positioned just so, boxes in storage meticulously labelled, strict rules regarding the approved territory for certain objects. And then there are the rest of us. The creatives, the easily-distracted, the absent-minded ones. We can’t exert that kind of control, no matter how hard we try. And so we learn to live with it, more or less. We tidy when we can, but the piles of books and papers and mail and school notices and children’s artwork are reliably regenerative. It’s a sign of life.

Moving day is three months away. Pat and I are slowly getting ourselves mentally prepared for the day when everything we own will be undone, unmade, packed up and transported down to the other end of New Zealand. We have been mapping out the rooms in our new house, deciding what will come with us and what will not. Writing lists, thinking through the options, talking out the pros and cons of keeping one piece of furniture over another.  It is a process of reduction. We are jettisoning, cutting back, giving up. Letting go.

I’m finding my focus steadily narrowing. Like a runner prepares for a race, or a woman in late-pregnancy readies herself for labour, my world is shrinking to the things I must absolutely give full attention to. Anything else is slowly fading off my radar. It feels strange, as if I’ve suddenly walked into a sound-proofed room and the noise of the world outside has reduced to a faraway hum. I can hear the blood thumping in my ears, the air rushing out my nostrils.

And then before I know it we’ll be driving. Us in front, kids in the back. Bags of snacks and books and activities piled up.  Our eyes taking it all in, fixed on the road ahead. The way it pulls us ever south, the way it winds and turns and opens out along the unbroken coast. Leading us towards the mountains that wait, green and strong.