It is surprisingly hard to remember that there are 8 billion people in the world all with their own stories, in which they are the principal character. One’s own story is paramount in one’s own brain, with oneself at the centre and everyone else as players at various degrees of remove. To really listen to, and hear, other people’s stories takes time and time is often at a premium in the world of today. Lockdown caused a brief hiatus but the pace of life doesn’t seem to have slowed too much overall for most.
I was thinking about stories after sitting with an older man on the shuttle from Auckland airport the other day. From the moment he sat down it was clear that he was keen to talk and it wasn’t like I had a whole lot of other urgent things to do on an airport shuttle. I don’t even know his first name, though his last name was Fleming – he mentioned how he was a Scottish Fleming therefore has porridge every morning for breakfast. However, I can’t just say ‘him’ so I will call him Ian. I asked Ian whether he was coming to Auckland for a brief stay. Ian said he was coming to tidy up some business, and that he usually came to Auckland with his wife on the way to a cruise or to go to Noumea.
He proceeded to tell me about their cruise trips, how they loved the first one, liked the second one and, by the fifth, were smiling nicely at the people expounding about their marvellous first cruise, while deciding that five cruises was enough. I said that I guessed cruises would be off the agenda for the time being, and he said that yes, they were, and anyway his wife had recently died. I commiserated in the clumsy way that one does – is there ever a best thing to say to someone whose partner of 57 years has recently died?
Ian told me about how his wife died, shortly prior to lockdown (we then had the ‘normal’ exchange about how ‘lucky’ it was that she died prior to, rather than during lockdown). She went to hospital with an infection that was suspected to be necrotising fasciitis, but wasn’t. She was given morphine and heavy duty antibiotics, though they knew she had only one kidney and that kidney was a donor kidney she received 27 years ago. The combination of drugs resulted in her single kidney shutting down. I don’t know the medical ins and outs and Ian was not particularly laying blame on the medical system, but it was a pretty sad story. Gloria struggled on for 49 days, and Ian stayed with her in the hospital much of the time. However, dialysis wore her out and her organs shut down.
I ended the ride feeling so sad for Ian, amidst his descriptions of figuring out how to cook and get food to the table while still warm, because his wife had done all the cooking (he did the laundry). I imagined the empty house, in which he had been locked down. I imagined the sadness of reentering the world on his own, coming to Auckland on his own for the first time in many years, and knowing that his life was irreparably changed. Ian’s story is unique to him and uniquely tragic; many people have their own tragic stories and each is unique and important. I thought about how hard it is to listen properly because in the listening comes the sadness that one can only bear so much of.
I ended my day at the top of the Sky Tower, watching the Auckland scenery revolve around the University of Auckland Computer Science group to whom I gave a workshop on writing research grants. We told stories there too, particularly in the introduction style that I trialled. I used a derivation of a mihi approach asking people to describe three items that are of significance to them at this point in time. I have been trying to shift introductions to methods that emphasise relationships rather than positions, or hierarchies. Therefore I asked people to identify:
- a place,
- a landform or water body,
- a philosophy or idealogy
that are of importance to them at this point in time.
The resulting introduction session was fascinating as we heard 25 very different stories of the places and landscapes important to people and the philosophies that underpin their actions. Only 2 of the group were born in New Zealand, the rest coming from diverse parts of the world, missing only the Antarctic of all the continents. People’s philosophies ranged from being patient, to living for the day, to paying it forward. I think it contributed to the workshop then being an interesting exchange of ideas with active participation from many.
For those who are interested, my current summary for myself is:
- Otautāhi (Christchurch): I grew up in Christchurch and, though I have lived many other places, I can’t escape a strong sense of connection to the city and its surroundings.
- Te Tiritiri o Te Moana (the Southern Alps): a landform that I observed frequently because I lived in Otautāhi. I remember the mountains looking large because of the snow covering their tops, and I wanted to go there as a child and as a teenager I did.
- He Awa Whiria: braided rivers, both as a water body typical of Waitaha (Canterbury) and an idealogy. Embarrassingly for a geologist, I only discovered that braided river forms are relatively uncommon in the world when I went to Canada in my twenties; I had just assumed that what I saw was the norm! Braided rivers as a philosophy describes intertwining of streams of knowledge. It has been used specifically to describe intertwining of Māori and Pakeha knowledge systems, but is being broadened to refer to knowledge streams in general. I frequently sit at the border between different knowledge systems, with my role being to assist in their intertwining.
My feelings and thoughts of Otautāhi and Waitaha (Canterbury) will forever be shaped by the Canterbury Earthquakes – time separates into the before and the after, similar to COVID-19. Similar to COVID-19 too, was the telling of the story of ‘where one was’, immediately on meeting people after the major earthquakes. That telling could easily take one hour or two and was a period of time that seemed timeless in the experience. It also seemed to be an essential part of compiling one’s earthquake experience and moving on from it. However, even today, if I meet people from Otautāhi for the first time, I will tend to ask where they were on the days the world changed for us.
In the same way now in New Zealand one asks ‘how was your lockdown’? Then both parties tell their stories of their lockdown experiences, who was in their bubble, the stresses and the successes and the feelings. Both parties come out the richer for the sharing of their experiences.
We are our stories.