This evening after shutting the chooks in for the night, I spent about ten minutes just staring back at our house, feeling such huge gratefulness that we were both ok, that the people I love all seem to be ok, that our little house had carried us safely through (so far). That the clouds had cleared, and the air was so clean, and so sweet. The fairylights we’ve strung in the grapevine had just come on, and I stood and stared at them for a while. Took me a few minutes to realise that the reason they seemed to be twinkling was because I was crying. Because there are so many people who aren’t ok. People in my city – my city! – who are frightened and cold and despairing. People who are in shock, in pain, in distress that I can only vaguely imagine. It’s real: this disaster-movie setting is the place I chose to live in. Where I got married, where I’ve lived longer than anywhere else. Where I became a real poet. Where I made a garden, and painted walls, and had a life. My city. Beautiful, placid, gentle Christchurch. Frustrating, passionate, one-eyed Christchurch. Staunch, sod-this-we’ll-get-through-because-we’re-Cantabrians Christchurch. How could this be happening? Hadn’t we already been here? It must be some sort of mistake – we’ve had our huge earthquake, and we were getting over it. Life was going on. We’d done it. I keep seeing images on the television of piles of rubble where there used to be buildings that we knew. Hell, places we were shopping in, only a few days ago! I keep waiting to see Peter Jackson doing a cameo. How can this be happening?
But it is happening. The brutal truth is that these things really do happen, and today they’re happening to us.
We know it’s going to be hard. It’s almost unbearable already, for so many people. But it’s going to get worse. Because we’ll be living in the shadow of all of this. No amount of rebuilding will be able to block those views. No amount of washing will take the stains away, and would we really want to? These times bring out the best and the worst in all of us. And right now we’re living in the heart-pounding, suspended-animation limbo of shock. You can see it in faces, hear it in voices. And we’ve been here before – September was a dress-rehersal. We’ve already got stories of incredible heroism and altruism. And the other side: stories of utter callousness, of the sort of contempt for others’ suffering that is even harder to fathom than the earthquake itself. Welcome to the human race.
The thing is, this will wear off. The news crews will leave, the rescue crews will wind up their tasks and it will be the people of Canterbury who will have the biggest, most brutal task of all: living. Getting on with it. Rebuilding the city and our lives and trying to find a way to remember what it is that we mean to each other. Stress will get us a long way. The sheer adrenaline of the event. But it will wear off.
Which is a very long way of trying to explain why it is that this poem seemed so appropriate. Necessary, even.
The mower stalled, twice; kneeling, I found
A hedgehog jammed up against the blades,
Killed. It had been in the long grass.
I had seen it before, and even fed it, once.
Now I had mauled its unobtrusive world
Unmendably. Burial was no help:
Next morning I got up and it did not.
The first day after a death, the new absence
Is always the same; we should be careful
Of each other, we should be kind
While there is still time.
– Philip Larkin
(1922 – 1985)
4 Replies to “Larkin, lawnmowers, and longing”
What the Larkin poem has always reminded me of is the arbitrariness of it all. There is no grand plan, Destiny wasn’t in a bad mood that day, some bloke just decided to mow his lawn and that’s all it took. I live just outside Clydebank which is itself just outside Glasgow. I’ve just reviewed a book talking about the Clydebank Blitz the anniversary of which is about a fortnight off. Other cities were bombed over a longer period but no town in the UK had it worse. After the two nights bombing only seven homes were untouched and 4300 were completely destroyed out of 12,000 and yet in 2011 you would never know it had ever happened if it were not for the memorials to the dead. Mankind is nothing less than resilient. Oh you can knock him down – he knocks down dead easy – but keeping him down is another thing entirely. Dry your eyes.
I love the end of that poem so much: ‘we should be careful//Of each other, we should be kind/
While there is still time.’ It’s important.
I think the response of most people – a desire to help in some small way – is heartening. I also think that there is a lot to grieve for, and a lot to be thankful for.
Beautifully-written post, Joanna. Thank you. It says everything.
Thanks Jim, Helen and Mary, glad you approve of my choice! And thanks too – to everyone! – for all the messages of support. It means a lot.