I’m at Auckland airport, waiting for a plane to Christchurch. On my way to the departure gate I’ve walked past people in jackets saying things like Red Cross and Australian Civil Defence; I try not to stare as I walk past a small desk with a large sign saying American Consulate, with two men in suits sombrely wedged behind it. Every few minutes an announcement asks people arriving from Christchurch to contact police or emergency staff in the foyer if they need assistance. It’s clear that this is not a normal day. Outside is normality, the world getting on with itself; here I am at a portal, a place where people with the label Survivor emerge to be whisked to safety.
At the gate, I scan the faces of new arrivals. There’s an elderly gentleman holding his grandchild like she’s the most precious thing he’s ever seen. My eyes fix on the small bandage just by his left ear. Did he get grazed by falling bricks, or is it just one of the legion of small injuries the elderly get on a daily basis? Is it just my imagination or is there hope, fear and impatience etched on the faces of my fellow departing passengers?
Once before in my life, I’ve taken planes with sorrow as my luggage. That time I travelled alone. No one noticed my transparency or commented on how I floated because I didn’t belong to the earth any more. The world turned on without me, everyone laughed and made noise and I watched from the other side of a wall that I thought would be permanent. I know what it’s like to take a plane knowing that I’ll only find unimaginable pain at the other end, the loss of a loved one, and how I’m impatient for the plane to land anyway.
This time it’s different. I am merely an observer. Everyone sees the sorrow – how could we not, when it’s our own world which has suddenly been cracked open - and we’re talking openly about it. The digital stratosphere is full of messages of love, of relief, of people telling the world they’re ok, to only worry about those less fortunate. Everyone tells everyone else to hug loved ones. But soon the messages of loss will start coming through. There’s a sense that we’re standing on the edge of a black hole that has opened up. And true to being Kiwi, we feel slightly guilty that we’re ok while someone else is suffering.
And then my little artist brain pipes up, the little cruel artist brain that knows how suffering wrings you out and then pushes you on, harder than before. Maybe it’s good for us to feel this way, once in a while. It’s not at all good that this has happened, but a disaster on this scale reconnects Godzone to the harsh, real world. Despite the images and people coming from outside, and the national obsession with travel, there’s still sometimes a feeling that this is the last safe place on earth, a place that’s clean and green and wrapped in cotton wool. A disaster on this scale shows us that safety can turn to danger in an instant. A crack has opened up on these islands of ours and suddenly we know what it’s like to be without communication, without security, fearing for our very lives. We’re no longer distant from what we see on our screens.
Christchurch is being compared to a war zone: transport, water, power and communication are down or unreliable, there are still bodies lying on the streets and buildings burning. Yet despite this people can still get on a plane and escape. Their family can text them to make sure they’re fine, and their friends gather pledges on the internet. We’re still at heart a civilised nation which has not lost its humanity enough to help others, and to deeply feel for others. And for that we can be grateful, not guilty.