Heartjolts and gap-toothed smiles

Each time I hear a rumble-rattle-creak my heart jolts.  It might be the middle of the night, middle of the day or middle of my shower – these aftershocks are unpredictable and startling.  Yesterday’s 5.1 aftershock at 7:50 or so was a definite heartjolt – halfway through my shower!  With each one, that ‘living on the edge’ feeling comes back – do I need to drop, grab and hold?  Then ‘relax, breathe, calm’ as it passes.

Other heartjolts last longer.  Each time I drive past another building tilting on a crazy angle, with terrible cracks and fallen bricks.  Another red ‘condemned’ sign.  Demolition gangs in high-viz vests tearing away at the remaining skeletons of buildings that were hand-made, in an era when each wall was hand-crafted, each ornamental element had a function. Like rotting teeth, the stumps of our heritage appear between more modern constructions, waiting to be cleared away and refilled.

I’ve always had a sense of belonging in Christchurch.  I’m not native to the South Island, but an import from North Island.  Worse than that, I came direct from Auckland – not known to respect elder status in architecture.  Christchurch has had a profoundly peaceful and centering effect on my spirit.  It hasn’t the traffic plagues, nor the sprawl across the landscape that Auckland has.  It lacks height, with the exception of the Port Hills and, in the distance, the Southern Alps.  I used to get lost – no landmarks and a peculiar (to me anyway!) use of compass points to aid navigation. ‘If you go east, you’ll hit the sea, if you go west, you’ll hit the mountains’ I was told!  I preferred to use buildings as my anchors.

What I think I loved about Christchurch, and perhaps the aspect that caught my heart the most was a sense of respect for history.  I don’t mean the ‘first four ships’ history, but the way the elderly buildings had been retained and reused.  Take the Arts Centre – a gothic-style ex-university campus, vibrant and pulsing with artists living and creating within its grey stone walls.  The old stone church remodelled into a restaurant.  More recently the energising of back alleys and lanes into bars and clubs and specialty stores – even a brewery.  The humanising effect of brickwork, arches, facades and enormous timber beams on an otherwise concrete and glass environment.

Since Saturday my heart is heavy.  To see my heritage obliterated so quickly, so quickly.  Heartjolts each time I look at another gap.

At the same time – what is overwhelmingly clear is the transcendence of people.  He tangata.  It is people that live in this place, not buildings.  Buildings are artifacts.  While they represent parts of the people we are, they are not us.

And what gives my heart a real heartjolt is the collective resilience of people in my city.  First the workers who have, despite their personal challenges (homes lost, family distressed, even relocation for some) worked so hard to clear roads, restore power, water, sewage, check buildings for integrity, demolish buildings that are unsafe, document the events as they unfold and comfort people who are fearful.  Then the volunteers who have swooped and contributed muscle, sweat and brain to help those in most need.  And finally, those who have picked up the pieces of their ruined homes and, while still awed by the destructive power of Rauamoko, Maori god of the underworld, have been caring for family, friends and self.

What emerges from such shaking and turmoil is often a new sense of resilience.  If we can make it through this, we can make it through anything.  Kids seem to show us this first – time off school is for revelry and sport, great splits in the road are new playgrounds, sand volcanoes are for shovelling and moulding.  A gap-toothed smile from a 6 year old as she pushes her 4 year old brother around on his trike, both covered head to foot in silt and sand gives me a heartjolt.

Today as I look around the cityscape, I want to see those empty ruined spaces as a gap-toothed smile of a city becoming more in tune with people and the land in which we live.

Hutia te rito o te harakeke,
Kei whea te kōmako e kō?
Kī mai ki ahau;
He aha te mea nui o te Ao?
Māku e kī atu,
he tāngata, he tāngata, he tāngata

If the heart of the flax bush is removed, where will the bellbird sing?
If I am asked, what is the most important thing in the world;
I would reply,

It is people,

it is people,

it is people.


  1. Noting your comment ,”while still awed by the destructive power of Rauamoko, Maori god of the underworld”….wasn’t it movement of the tectonic plates? Julian

  2. Beautiful description of an unsettling experience. The resiliency of children is amazing! I think many times it teaches us that it is okay to move on.

    1. Thank you so much! Writing has been one of my ‘ways of processing’ events, as you’ve probably noticed, and those kids caught my eye as such a contrast to the emotions of so many of the adults. Of course, the kids haven’t got the concerns of adults, but maybe we could learn to live more in the moment as one way to capture the way kids cope in those situations!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.