During a recent trip home my town suffered a terrible loss when two young men and an instructor drowned after being washed out to sea during a coastal rock climbing exercise. I had been thinking all week about the landscape of my hometown and how it has shaped so much of my identity – and indeed my writing – so when the tragedy occurred I wrote a little piece as a tribute to both the land, and the notion of coming home …
It is what I look for when that little plane begins its descent. The mountain with its near-perfect peak, and the way the hills slope down to our black-sand coast. As other landmarks come into sight – the distinctive Sugar Loaf Islands, the jutting rise of Paritutu Rock, it is how I know I am home.
When I tell people where I come from I always start with our landscape. We have a mountain and the sea, you know. It is something special to have both at once. Like those rare mornings you catch the moon hanging out with the sun, I have always loved looking from our coast to the mountain and back again. It feels so elemental.
It is a world away from my crowded city life, with her stagnant bay and shiny high rises. A morning run at home is something of a cross-country compared to my well-tailored track around my adopted city’s Botanical Gardens. I arrive home from a Kiwi run muddy and exhilarated because here is the other thing about where I come from: it is just a little bit wild, this place. The landscape is both beautiful and unpolished; it can make you feel a little ancient. And a little brand new.
I often joke that I come home whenever I am wounded. I come home to heal from love affairs, from issues with career and finances. From love affairs. I get my strength back, breathe in the fresh air and then head back to the city for more of the same.
But on this trip it is my town that nurses an incomparable wound, suffering from the tragic loss of two of its own and one newly adopted son. Three members of our community who I imagine loved the landscape as much as I do. Three men doing what so many have done before them, honouring the adventurous Kiwi spirit and celebrating our natural environment, before something went terribly wrong.
It is hard to know what to do. This is not just life going a little off course. You can’t just breathe deep and keep going. Instead you have to stop and sit with the pain. You have to take your time. The helicopters flying above provide an incessant soundtrack. Like the young man with heavy shoulders etching the word “Hope” into the sand we all feel the weight of it; everyone looks out to sea now.
Grief can connect a community; it reminds us of how closely we are aligned. But as we stare at the horizon it is a lesson we would rather learn in other ways. I can only close my eyes when the sea washes the word “Hope” away.
We are all here for just a moment. If we are lucky this life extends into twilight. But nothing stays. This is perhaps the only thing we can be sure of. So on this trip I do something I haven’t done before, I extend my leave to spend just a few more days at home. I take my time. I look from the mountain to the sea every morning, and I make sure to look – really look – at my parents. From dad’s blue-grey eyes to mum’s gold and brown I memorise the human landscape that I love.
I believe that nothing is ever truly lost to us. That like our landscape, we are a people at once ancient and brand new – in this way we endure and we revive. And with both the mountain and sea as our lodestars, I have to believe that in time we all find our way home.
(The above piece was published in our local paper last week and I wanted to share it with my readers here. Thank you as ever for stopping by!)