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Reach Out of the Darkness - Mike Riddell

Reach Out of the Darkness - Mike Riddell

Chair, after van Gogh, by Pete Majendie, Christchurch, Aotearoa New Zealand

Chair, after van Gogh, by Pete Majendie, Christchurch, Aotearoa New Zealand

I’m driving down the Ida Valley where I now live. It’s a summer morning, and I’m heading into a town somewhat bigger than the tiny village I call home, in order to get supplies for a little celebration. Friday will be our 44th wedding anniversary. We were married in 1975, a couple of hippies. So the playlist I’m booming is called ‘Summer of Love’.

One of the tracks is ‘Reach Out of the Darkness’. I sing along, as you do, gloriously free in the confines of your car. “I think it’s so groovy now, that people are finally getting together” forms a repeated chorus. Ah, I remember that sentiment. We thought we’d invented love, and that it was the answer to all problems. So bloody obvious. The future was ours.

It didn’t work though, I reflected, as the song continued with its catchy repetition. People were finally getting together alright in those days, but mostly for sex, drugs, and oblivion. We might have thought we could ‘change the world, rearrange the world’ (Crosby, Stills & Nash), but what the hell did we achieve in the end? Many of us became wealthy exploiters of the environment, pathetic armchair rebels.

*   *   *

My wife and I got married at a Catholic church in Christchurch, New Zealand. It was the 15th of March, 3.30pm. Rosemary’s dress was sewn by a man who learned his skills in prison, doing time for manslaughter. I made her veil out of pipe cleaners and curtain material. I was wearing a brown suit and big hair. 

One of our guests gave us a pair of double sheets for a wedding present. When we opened them we discovered within the folds a bag of righteous homegrown weed. For our honeymoon we hitchhiked a few hundred miles south. We might have caught a train but our friends took the money we’d set aside to go and get more alcohol when it ran out at the party.

When we got back after a week away, we had ten dollars left to our name. We decided to buy a record player for nine dollars, and spent the remaining funds on fish and chips. It’s a choice neither of us have ever regretted, and set the pattern for our life together. We didn’t need much to keep us happy. Things seemed simple then, but they turned out not to be.

*   *   *

It’s 44 years to the day now, and here we are still together. That in itself is some kind of achievement in a fractured world. Our life has been replete with adventure, love, and heartache. We make a point of celebrating each anniversary, and have done from the beginning. I started a tradition of giving Rosemary one red rose for every year of our marriage. Now it makes a sizable bouquet.

This year we’re doing things slightly differently. Three months ago, we upped sticks from our comfortable life in the North Island, and moved south to a tiny village of just 30 people. It’s in Central Otago, a breathtakingly beautiful region. One of the reasons we moved here was because of the people who live in this town. They’re a mix of farmers, truck drivers, tradespeople, writers and artists.

The remarkable thing about them is the level of community they seem to have accidentally achieved. Every two months there’s a community meeting in the hall, and every week a community evening at the local bar. Doing the five minute walk to the general store can take half an hour as we stop and chat to people along the way. We are already so much at home here.

So this year for our anniversary we organize a house warming at our little cottage, and invite everyone to come help us celebrate. I spend the day preparing food with a spread that includes farmer fare next to vegan delights. Needless to say, there’s plenty of wine and beer stocked up in preparation. The house is cleaned to within an inch of its life, and we’re ready to rock and roll.

*   *   *

The last time we gathered with all these good people was five months ago, a bit up the road at Blackstone Cemetery. Our daughter Polly had died at the age of 40. We held her funeral in Dunedin, and then brought the coffin across the winding hills. When we got to the graveyard, we were astonished to find a large crowd of local people gathered to pay their respects and grieve with us.

Polly had planned to move here to the valley to live beside us in a house being built for her. In the meantime, she’d been camping out in a small studio at the back of the property we’d purchased. She became known to the residents of this wonderful village, whom she both loved and was loved by.

That might be unremarkable if it were not for the fact that Polly liked to wear tutus with bright leggings, and dyed her hair in rainbow colours. She was raped as a child, became a drug addict, and suffered through numerous overdoses and suicide attempts. The result was a hard-edged, stroppy  roller-derby girl who was as innocent as the pure snow that falls here in the winter.

She’d won the community over with her laugh, her outrageous opinions, her flashing colour and passion. Hardened farmers regarded her with affection. They looked forward to what she might contribute to their world. And here they were now, shocked and mourning, standing around her grave to celebrate her and to offer us support for the brutal loss.

*   *   *

Now we wanted these new friends to come and help us celebrate the good things of life – a kind of affirmation that existence is a blend of pain and hope. We advertised the occasion in the community newsletter, and were subsequently warned that it goes out to everyone up and down the Valley – 160 people. We smiled and said they were all welcome.

We’d been so busy preparing during the day that we didn’t pay much attention to what was happening in the world around us. We didn’t know that our anniversary of love was about to be transformed into a completely different kind of memorial.

In the city I’d grown up in, the city where we’d been married, a young man was fitting himself with a flak jacket and a helmet that bore a camera. He was checking his weapons. Aided by others, at 1.40pm he entered a mosque in the middle of Christchurch, where people were at prayer, and began systematically slaughtering them. By the time the shooting finished, there were fifty people dead.

When we heard the first incomplete account, we were already surrounded by our friends. We were talking and drinking and eating. Rosemary and I made speeches, and a poet welcomed us to our new place of belonging. I now feel stupidly ashamed at my pretence of normality.

*   *   *

On the day of our wedding anniversary, everything the nation of New Zealand stands for was violated. These good praying people, these people of faith, these sacred newcomers to our country – cut down in their worship. I listened to a Muslim man telling how at their Friday prayers they sought to shut out the world around, and so would not at first have had any inkling of what was happening.

Everyone who comes to New Zealand (we prefer Aotearoa) has come from somewhere else. The first residents, Māori, hold guests (manuhiri) to be sacred. Despite many violations of this belief, we as a people have tried to hold the principle as vital to our identity – welcoming strangers rather than despising them.

Our Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern spoke on behalf of us all with words that are worthy of quoting at length:

“Our thoughts and our prayers are with those who have been impacted today. Christchurch was the home of these victims. For many, New Zealand was not the place they were born, in fact for many, New Zealand was their choice. It was the place they committed themselves to, where they were raising their families, where they were part of communities that they loved and who loved them. It was a place that many came to for its safety, a place where they were free to practice their culture and their religion.

"For those of you who are watching at home tonight and questioning how this could have happened here, we, New Zealand, we are not a target because we are a safe harbour for those who hate, we were not chosen for this violence because we condone racism, because we are an enclave for extremism; we were chosen for the fact we represent none of these things. Because we represent diversity, kindness, compassion, a home for those who share our values, refuge for those who need it.”

*   *   *

The coincidence of events – our wedding anniversary among friends and the slaughter of ‘strangers’ – has been roiling within me. History is of course replete with violence and hatred, acted out on a regular basis. Most of us are just trying to get on with the business of making the most of this life that has been given to us, and to find what meaning and joy we can in our everyday existence.

There is an ancient tension, sometimes framed as that between love and hate. It’s not that. It’s the dance between love and fear. Fear is what drives us to characterise others as strangers and enemies who must be eliminated. We fear difference, imagining it as a threat that will erode our certainties and result in the loss of all that is familiar to us. This fear leads to hatred, prejudice, and eventually death.

Love on the other hand is so very vulnerable. Easily crushed, open to ridicule, tender in all its elements. Some characterise it as weakness. It is never that. It takes courage and resilience to open ourselves to the possibilities of hurt and disappointment, steadfast in the belief that love and goodness are viable options. We risk all to gain all, and sometimes we lose all. It’s what makes us human.

*   *   *

A strange thing happens in Aotearoa following the shootings. There are vigil gatherings in all main centres, where thousands flock to stand with the victims and mourn their passing. A fund set up for the families of those shot quickly rises into the millions. The nation is hurt and grieving, searching for understanding. The people of Islam are treated with a new respect and love.

A friend from the Valley writes to me: “Amidst the horror of Friday’s events in Christchurch, being at your place amongst our wonderful friends served to remind us that there is more love than hate in this old world of ours, and it’s just such a pity that it’s the hate that gets the most media attention and makes us think this world is a worse place than it is.” Another friend composes a lament to allow people to frame their pain into words.

These are good things and demonstrate the resilience of love in being able to withstand assaults against it. It gives me faith in the slow and certain triumph of love over fear. Our small acts of inclusion and acceptance are ultimately stronger than all efforts to divide and exploit. The wedding anniversary Rosemary and I celebrated among friends is a tiny sign in the face of a tsunami of hatred, but no less important for all that.

*   *   *

“I think it’s so groovy now, that people are finally getting together.” It may be a facile and premature claim from the 1960s, but it stands as a legitimate desire. To overcome walls and barriers of every kind that divide, in order to celebrate the essential fact that we’re all in this together. We are part of each other, part of our physical environment, part of the quest for love and acceptance.

Our Prime Minister covered her head with a scarf, and went to a Christchurch mosque to offer her support to the grieving. She’s younger than our daughter who lies buried up the road, but is a leader in every sense of the word.

She reminds me of another line in the same song that I sang along with in the car – “Reach out in the darkness, and you may find a friend”. It seems so hippy-dippy and impossibly trite, and yet what else can we do in the face of fear and division? Our small acts of love gather importance when we refuse to take the easy option of giving in to insecurities.

Mary Magdalene - Gareth Higgins

Mary Magdalene - Gareth Higgins

O TANNENDUDE - David Lynch