Letters from Christchurch
Below is a compilation of emails from Christchurch resident Elizabeth Woods, whose character bungalow was condemned after the September earthquake. She started writing to us on Valentine's Day, just before the February quake, and her updates have become the voice of the quake for our readers, offering an insight into the situation facing Cantabrians.
Elizabeth has also sent some pictures of the progress of her home's rebuild. Click on 'photo gallery' above to see the images.
From: Elizabeth Jane Woods
Date: 11 April 2013
To: Sally Duggan
It all started with a very small thing (as treasure hunts often start) . A pile of ornate broken terracotta roof tiles with a bumblebee motif, dug up from the detritus in the foundations of my house.
Terracotta tiles with a bumblebee? Where on earth did they come from? There is nothing in my house even vaguely like that, and it was unearthed right at the back of the house, in a place that won't have seen the light of day for nearly 100 years. We were up there clearing out the now open air basement (the house is up on poles like a tree house) and it wasn't exactly a job I was relishing. Now that the bracing and stonework has been removed and the house is supported by massive steel beams, we can get in under the house to get all the stuff out. There was at least 90 years of accumulated junk under there and everything was covered in dust and cobwebs. The cobwebs came from some of the biggest spiders I have ever seen, and the builders have been cheerily referring to them as 'the bird eating spider colony living in the basement'.
Cleaning out the basement is a job I have been putting off since I bought the house and I expected to get dirty doing it, but I didn't expect to be fascinated or for it to send me off on a bit of a quest!
As I scratched around in the dirt, other little artefacts started appearing. Bits of broken plates and cups, tiny medicine bottles, small milky white cosmetic jars, and scraps of broken wrought iron verandah trim, like rusty lace. Mute, grubby and mostly broken, they were still startlingly eloquent about a history I had no idea about. These things were older than my house - where on earth had they come from and who had they belonged to?
The next clues were a pile of charred bricks and one of the large stones at the base of the foundations that was revealed when the bracing and ivy came off. My house was built in 1920, and the large corner stone was carved with the date 1905. I can remember hearing that there was originally a house on the site that burnt down, and I realised that what I was finding was the remains of the original house - it looks like my place may have been built on the foundations of the older home.
When I got back to my computer I Googled the maker's name on the tiles and found out that they were roof tiles made in Marseille around the turn of the 19th century and that the company stopped making them in 1904. They were from the original house! So, who was here before? I was digging my way down through the history of the people who originally lived here, and if it hadn't been for the quakes and subsequent repairs, all these things would have stayed hidden in the dark.
I am totally in my element owning a character house because I have always loved old things. Even as a child I was fascinated with antique objects because I could imagine the people that used them and even though those people are long gone, the everyday things they leave behind give me a sense of the life that they had, and I can see those people as very real. Someone in an Edwardian dress ate off those broken plates when they were shiny and new, and drank tea from those cups sitting in a dining room lit only with candlelight.
The cosmetic jars and medicine bottles I found were once full of useful potions and creams, sitting on the dressing table of another woman who lived here as I do, and whose presence reached out and touched me over the space of 110 years.
Hidden way at the back under a pile of old sacking was an old Singer sewing machine with its drawers full of wooden cotton reels, threads, bit of lace and silk and the original instruction book telling me it was the 1904 model. I pulled it out into the sun and as I inspected the contents of the drawers I came across a rhyming poem, written in a copper plate hand, talking about a nurse's experience in a 'Baby Home'. How marvellous; who were these people?
And then, leaning against one of the piles towards the back of the house, wrapped in dirty brown paper and tied up with old string I found an absolute treasure.
It was two old etchings, very simply framed, and it took me a minute or two to figure out what I was looking at. One of them was a very beautiful little etching of a horse, done by a Victorian artist called William Rawson, and the other was an etching of the cloisters and observatory tower in the Christchurch Arts Centre, drawn and signed by James Fitzgerald.
James Fitzgerald was born in Scotland in 1869, died in 1945 and was a well known Christchurch artist. There are several of his drawings and watercolours of iconic Christchurch buildings in the Christchurch Art Gallery, and to find, hidden in my basement, a drawing by him of the Arts Centre is astonishing! I have no idea how it got there, but it won't have seen the light of day for at least 70 years, and maybe longer. I think it
probably belonged to the original inhabitants of the earlier house, and had simply been wrapped up and forgotten down there all this time.
Life can hold so many strange coincidences. I spent so many years in the Arts Centre, performing in a theatre right beside the Great Hall, and some of my happiest days were spent sitting in the sun in the very spot in the drawing, watching buskers, hanging out with theatre friends, and drinking coffee from Le Cafe. To find a hidden drawing in the depths of the house that I love, of a place that meant memories of sunlight and friendship to me is the most astonishing coincidence.
It feels like another incredible gift from the house to me, and just reinforces how profoundly grateful I am that my house has been saved.
Now I was hunting in earnest for some hint of who was here before me, and amongst Jeanne's piles of photos and papers that I had stored in boxes I recalled seeing some copies of early photos of my part of the hill. Some hours later, I found what I was looking for, and there it was! A photo of the Cashmere Hills taken around 1910. Blurred, and tiny in the scale of the photo but definitely in the same position, was the original house on my section.
Back then, there were very few houses up on the hills, and the road was little more than a dirt track, but the contours of the hill are the same, and that long ago family will have looked at the same view of the mountains that I can see from my lounge windows.
As my house is rebuilt, I am planning on incorporating some of those found objects and artefacts into the fabric of my house, and creating some art works to somehow bring those things and those people back into the light. My mother is an inveterate mosaic artist, and she is using the bits of broken china to create some garden tables. Another artist friend has taken the original 1940's lino that we found hidden under the kitchen floor to create some mixed media paintings. I had already created a work with all the fascinating old keys I found around the property, and I am working on one using all the little bottles I found.
The etching will have a special place on my new walls, and I can hold it in my hands now, with its redolence and echoes of another Christchurch and another way of life.The past rises up, poignant and direct, bridging all those years, straight from the hands of those long gone people, to mine.
From: Elizabeth jane Woods
Date: 15 February 2013
Subject: A crisis of vanity....
To: "Sally Duggan
things are roaring along with the house, the huge metal beams are under it, and they start lifting it early next week. I have attached a couple of photos. My designer kitchen that was, my ex-fireplace and those lovely character stone steps..hmm....
I am very good at making decisions for other people.
I am one of those types that other people come to for help in solving problems. I am non-judgemental, level headed, fairly logical and extremely calm under pressure. I am able to help people navigate their way through an issue to come up with a satisfactory solution with a minimum of fuss.. My sons come to me with all their issues because they know that I will calmly find the best way out of any sticky situation, dealing with aplomb with anything that presents itself.
So why do I turn into a dithering mass of gibbering indecision when confronted with choosing things for the house?
Take the bathroom for example.
The whole thing is currently gutted, with not even a floor in evidence. Throughout the house, most of the the ceilings are gone, the floors in the kitchen and bathroom are gone, and I now have open plan living from the lounge to my bedroom after the removal of the two large fireplaces.. There is also a massive hole in my bedroom floor allowing access to the foundations, and Michael suggested that I could leave it there and install a firepole to the basement!
I have to choose all sorts of things. I need to make decisions on carpet, wallpaper, colours and curtains for the whole house. I have to start somewhere, so I thought I would start with the smallest room and choose bathroom fittings.
Easy, I hear everyone say, just head off to the bathroom showroom and choose what you want; 'how exciting that you get to start from scratch' say all my friends.The operative part of that sentence is 'what I want' but here is the problem - I don't know what that is! Some of my friends are envious, and there is nothing they like better than visiting design showrooms and co-ordinating colours, but I am finding it pretty tortuous.
The problem has been crystallised by my inability to choose between making the bathroom modern, or going for a character look. My house is full of Arts and Crafts features, and I found a very nice oak Arts and Crafts vanity with a marble top that I definitely have a penchant for. I was pretty convinced that this was the way to go, and then I made the mistake of stopping in at another bathroom showroom with a friend. Sinuously scalloped smooth white basins with ultra modern taps confronted me, lovely huge glass showers with hi-tec shower nozzles enviegled me - oh dear, my certainty about my character look choice evaporated when confronted with such glossy elegance! What to do?
Secretly I have never believed that I have a sense of style despite the fact that my friends loved my house and enjoyed the surroundings. I don't seem to have the knack or ability to throw colours together and group objects to make a pleasing composition, and if I do pull it off it is due to luck rather than good management or deliberate design!
So, do I go for the character vanity or do I go for the sleek modern look? Do I go for the plain subdued colour scheme in the lounge, or do I go for the marvellous Arts and Crafts landscape frieze from a wonderful US supplier, and on whose website I spend far too much time drooling over Morris designs? (see www.bradbury.com
I have asked other people's opinions and that just makes it worse! One friend will say that she likes things painted burnt orange, and another likes everything white. One thinks I should remove all the panelling, and another will counsel me to only use traditional fabrics. Richard the Lionheart is completely useless, and will run a mile, smirking, if I even so much as wave a fabric swatch or bathroom catalogue in his direction..
Everyone has a opinion, and I have had quite a few people telling me to do the house up as if I were going to sell it. However, I love my house, and I want to go back and live in it, and it is a wonderful opportunity to re-decorate it and bring it back to life.
And then my sister, bless her heart, reminded me of what I was trying to do, and stopped me in the middle of a laughing angst ridden moment of indecision.
"Try and stop thinking about what you are supposed to want, and try thinking about what you like" says she. "What was it that made you love the house before? Just follow your instinct, and do what you like rather than what you think you should do. It's your house, you have to live in it, so stop listening to other people and do what reflects you"
She is right of course (she nearly always is!), and changing my thinking has got me back on track. I guess that is an important part of making a home rather than just a house. As my house emerges from the ruins, I want it to be a testament to tenacity and luck and perserverance, and that means putting my own personality into the house.
I can't wait to see what the Arts and Crafts oak vanity looks like in the new bathroom.
From: Elizabeth jane Woods
Date: 29 January 2013
To: Sally Duggan
It must be one of the most emotionally evocative words in the English language, next to 'love'.
Home can mean a lot of things, and I am sure it has different meanings for everyone, but at the heart of it I think it is the place where people feel they belong. 'Home' can be the relaxing place you return to every evening, coming through the door and shrugging off the tangle of experiences that make up a busy working day. It can be somewhere that can live in your memories for years long after you have left it and that you long to return to, or maybe it is a temporary location, made into a home by the people that are there sharing it with you, and who you take with you from place to place.
Home is the place where the things that are important to you are kept; it can be a mansion or a cottage, a treehouse or a tent, a boat, a caravan or simply a place where someone who loves you is waiting for you.
There are innumerable songs about longing for home. Over the last 2 years, while I waited for the fate of my house to be decided, every song I heard about going home made me feel hurt, and at times the sense of loss and impatience were overwhelming. There wasn't a day when I didn't miss my house, miss my piano languishing in storage, and miss the peace and quiet of my hillside garden. I would hear a song about going home and it would painfully evoke for me the sense of dislocation I constantly felt at not being able to actually go home to the place where I felt I belonged.
Today I heard a song on the radio about going home, and for the first time in over two years, my heart sang instead of shrinking in my chest. The repairs on my house have actually started, and my journey home has finally begun.
I'm sure it's going to be a fun, tough, frustrating, enlightening and challenging journey, and the first step was the clearing of my garden!
A few days after the February 2011 quake my builder rang to make sure we were okay, and to find out how my house had handled it. Johno's bracing job after the September quake saved my house, and quite possibly my son's life, and he was delighted that the house was still standing. We had a discussion a few weeks later and Johno gently but firmly told me that whatever happened, whether the house was saved or demolished, the garden would have to go to allow access to the inevitable bulldozers and trucks.
So, six days ago, the chainsaws roared into life and the diggers and trucks rolled in, and by the end of yesterday my once lovely old established garden was completely gone. There is barely a tree, twig or a flower left, and the terraced rock walls are now a pile of rubble in the corner of the section. My character house is now sitting in the middle of a barren expanse of dirt!
I am not going to lie and say that it doesn't hurt. Over the last 95 years the garden had developed into a gracious and lovely place. I spent many happy childhood years playing in that garden, helping Jeanne plant things and care for it, and it's wonderful trees, paths and hidden secrets were a constant source of delight for me. There were fruit trees, berry bushes and grape vines galore to help myself to at will, flowers to be picked and trees to be climbed, and to see it decimated is painful and disorientating.
However, removing all the garden has revealed the house, and although I am completely daunted at the prospect of designing a garden from scratch, the size and expanse of the large section is a visual revelation - the possibilities are dazzling and without the distraction of the trees and bushes the lines of the house have become clearer.
I begin to see visions of a water feature, a new smooth green croquet lawn, lots of space for new roses, espaliered fruit trees, brick walls made from the old chimney bricks, a sunny courtyard - the possibilites are endless, and freed from the constraints of considering an existing layout, it's a completely blank canvas.
Mind you, I don't know where to start and I have absolutely no experience in landscaping! I love gardening, and I know about plants, but I am used to gardening in an established garden where the layout is already in place, and all I have to worry about is where to fit a new amazing hosta or fragrant azalea. I know nothing about planning a garden and I am bound to make mistakes - all knowledgable suggestions will be gratefully accepted!
It's going to be a learning experience, and I am sure I will be tearing my hair out sometimes, but I will make sure I try to create a garden that speaks of my personality, and graces and complements the home that Jeanne gave me. Jeanne gave me the house, and I will now give the house a garden.
So after the grief and emotional turmoil of the last couple of years I am beginning my journey back to a place where I feel I belong. And, up on the hill I that I call home, my house that holds my heart is waiting for me, and even though the garden is gone, and there are no trees or flowers, there will still be sunlight and stars, the wide sweeping expanse of sky and the view of the city and the mountains. There is the hill under my feet holding me up and there is a song in my heart knowing that I am heading home.
From: Elizabeth jane Woods
Date: 17 December 2012
Subject: I'm dreaming of a white Christmas....
To: Sally Duggan
Just a gentle, upbeat comment on my Christmas this year. I hope you have a marvellous Christmas day and then get to have a relaxing break with your family! I am absolutely going to love the renovation process, despite my inability to choose and visualise things. I am meeting the builders on site this afternoon and will take a photo!
Christmas is just around the corner, and I know I should have been getting ready for it, but this year I am dreadfully disorganised! I haven't yet bought any cards, wrapping paper or even sellotape, and our Christmas tree is looking rather drab, with last years decorations thrown on in haste because I haven't had time to buy any new ones. My time has lately been spent trying to choose the first of many things for the house renovation.
The choices for everything are endless and overwhelming! Who knew there were so many types of bathroom vanities out there? What sort of shower would I like, and is the floor to be tiles, polished wood or lino? Roman blinds or curtains in the sunroom, and did you want those in a plain linen, a floral or a vibrant abstract? What colour would I like the exterior woodwork painted, and the new french doors, are they to be timber and if so how many panes of glass would you like in them...Aarghh...
I went tile shopping this morning, and I thought it was going to be easy. In a moment of whimsy I had decided that purple tiles might be interesting, so I went into a tile shop to discuss what was available. I described the house and the very charming young lady said that she had a perfect new colour range for a character house. She then showed me a range of tiles that to my untrained eye all looked exactly the same colour - white. "Oh no", she said pointing at them, " this one is 'cloud' and that one is 'iced vanilla', this one is 'icing sugar' , and this is a lovely colour called 'mountain vapour'.....
That's it, I have had enough for the moment, and I need to start thinking about Christmas. My pride will not allow me to do the thing half-heartedly, so it's time to get the Christmas spirit flowing.
I have been wondering what I think about Christmas this year. This time last year, I fully expected to be back in my own house by now. I wanted the ordeal to be over, and for the boys and me to be settled back into our old comfortable life. Given the scale of what needs to be done to my house, and the enormity of the task of rebuilding Christchurch, I think that may have been a little hopeful!
Nevertheless, the repair is just about to start, the construction site signs are going up outside my gate and it's really going to happen; I can feel the burden that I have been carrying for the last two years becoming just that little bit lighter . The repair is going to be a huge task, but I want to be fully involved in the process, I don't mind hard work and it's marvellous to finally be focusing on the final outcome.
As you can probably gather, I am a bit distracted from Christmas at the moment and it's going to be fairly casual. We will be having a BBQ lunch at my sister's and maybe going to the beach in the afternoon and I have promised the boys and my family a Christmas feast of gargantuan proportions and overwhelming frivolity back in our house next year.
So, what do I want this Christmas to mean to me and to those around me? Is there anything I particularly want apart from the entire contents of the Laura Ashley interiors department and a midnight blue Maserati?
I went for a walk up to my house last night and it always makes me feel happy to see it still waiting for me. As I walked up the drive, the smell of the honeysuckle that has been growing in the hedge since I was child made me grin with nostalgia and a sense of familiarity. Some of the happiest memories of my life are bound up in that house and it is a unique gift of immeasurable worth to be able to live with the very real reminders of those memories. I have lots of unpleasant memories in my life of course, especially over the last couple of years, but this year has brought me some of the most wonderful moments and they have been gifts of new happy memories.
There have been the gifts of laughter and love and new friends, the gifts of my sons� achievements, the gift of acceptance and support and the gift of acting and sharing something I love doing. There has been the gift of overwhelming kindness from complete strangers and jewelled moments of delight in unexpected things.
I was reminded by someone today that life is precious and needs to be celebrated and appreciated. It is very easy to get caught up in the stress and hype of the season and spend your time thinking about buying and receiving the perfect gifts. I love nice things and I like buying presents for people, but this year I am quite content to receive those not so tangible gifts. Next year, when I am back in my house and when I have finally decided on a colour scheme, it will be a different story - bring on those designer presents!
I have decided that I don't need material things this year (although chocolate is always gratefully accepted!) and when people have asked me what I would like as a gift, I have replied to simply give me a promise of help in the new garden (which will soon be a flattened wasteland) or some time helping to re-hang new curtains or unpacking when I shift back in.
So, here at the end of 2012, I wish everyone a very happy Christmas and happy memories. I give my heartfelt thanks to all those around me who have given me so much, sometimes not even realising that they have pulled me out of a unpleasant place with their kindness. I am going to celebrate being alive with all the gifts I have already received this year.
And then with Christmas out of the way, with all the Christmas cake eaten, and the left over trifle all gone, I shall be energised and rested and will once again be out hunting for those perfect bathroom fittings, exactly the right wallpaper, and those elusive purple tiles!
From: Elizabeth Jane Woods
Date: 16 October 2012
Subject: If this is a bad joke, I'm not laughing....
To: Sally Duggan
I have been feeling very upbeat lately, my latest play has finished, and I don't have the same mad panic every night trying to get everything sorted at home before I rush out the door to a performance or a rehearsal. I have time to sit back and relax. Acting is in my blood, but it is still a relief to have a few months ahead of me without the pressure.
So I should be sitting here at my keyboard feeling cheerful and garrulous, writing a newsy email, fiddling with the spreadsheets I created to track the house repairs or cruising Trademe for antiques I don't really need.
Instead, I am feeling unsafe, stricken, despondent and worn down. I took leave for the last two days of the school holidays and while my sons and I were lolling about in the hot pools at Hanmer for the day, burglars were smashing their way into my rental property and stealing our belongings.
The first I knew of it was when we came happily home from our lovely day and I unlocked the front door. "Where is the TV mum?..."
They had tried to force every window at the rear of the house before smashing the bathroom leadlight window to get in. Our TV, laptop, iPods, the boys' mobile phones, wallets, cameras, coin collection - all gone. They had emptied the drawers of my bedside cabinets, taken our passports and my jewellery, including two treasured rings. One of my most beloved possessions, a Victorian gold and sapphire ring that was given to my great grandmother on the birth of my grandmother, passed to my mother and which was given to me on my 21st birthday - gone.
Gutted doesn't begin to describe how I felt. I can replace appliances, even though the inconvenience of it makes my blood boil, but to again lose something so precious to me felt like the harshest of blows. I never met my grandmother, she died in a horse-riding accident when my mum was only 5 years old, but there is a strong physical family resemblance and everyone who knew her talked about her with love and admiration. Born with a club foot and contracting polio at a young age, she was a cripple everywhere except in the saddle, and her intrepid nature and lightness of spirit were legendary. Red-headed like my sons, I think we would have adored her if we had been given the chance.
The person who took that ring had no compunction, probably didn't even think of us as real people or, if they did, didn't care at all, merely seeing other people's belongings as a smorgasbord of objects to help themselves to at will. My ring will be long gone, pawned off quickly for a fraction of its real, intrinsic and personal value.
The other ring was a unique Marion McKellow piece, which I bought for myself just after my husband and I separated and as I was moving into my hill house. I was in a state of terror at the time, utterly daunted at what I was taking on and I bought the ring on a whim after spotting in the window of her shop. Chunky and square, there was nothing understated or subtle about it at all. It was enamelled with orange and gold flakes, it was cheeky and loud and said 'look at me, here I am'. It was a perfect gift for myself at that moment and it made me smile. I usually wear both rings every day, but decided to not wear them that day, as we were heading to the swimming pool.
Okay, they are gone, deep breath, they are only rings. So, I start to try to make myself deal with it. Come on, where is that strength that has got you through the last two years, Elizabeth? You coped with the earthquakes, the broken house, coped with all the damage and the broken belongings, chin up, silver lining, they are only things, plenty of people worse off than you, at least you have your health.....nope, I'm trying hard, but it's not working. I feel frantic and painted into a corner and the emergency box of courage that I thought was safely put aside is found to be completely empty.
One of the worst aspects of it is that I feel distressed, resigned and numbed and I feel horribly upset at the loss, but there is very little anger. I should be furious.
I don't feel furious because I have come to realise that after the last couple of years part of me expects to be kicked. I sometimes feel that loss has become an ever present factor of my life and that it is unrealistic of me to expect to be able to keep anything. I don't feel particularly self-pitying. I am still a happy person, but quite unconsciously I have come to expect to have things taken from me. How terrible! When did that happen? When did I change and can I turn it around?
I'm sure I can. I can already feel the first inklings of my tenacity exerting itself and I won't be beaten by that horrible creature who stole from us. I know that in a week or two I will be back laughing and taking pleasure in the spring weather and the approaching summer, but the healing is going to take a bit longer this time. Every bit of travail adds its own weight and you have to learn to carry it the best way you can.
I plan on spending a lot of time with my friends and loved ones over the next couple of weeks. I need to not let myself be overwhelmed with cynicism and I need to be reminded that there are good people in the world. I would like to finish on a positive note, but it's a bit of a struggle this time. I am going to need a bit of time to lick my wounds and come to terms with this one.
Walk in the sunshine, deep breaths, one step at a time, head up......
From: Elizabeth Jane Woods
Date: 11 September 2012
To: Sally Duggan
Deconstruction is a word that many people in Christchurch are familiar with. The purist would argue that it is not the same thing as demolition, as deconstruction implies a certain amount of care and saving of materials when taking a building apart. Demolition is a harsher word that smacks of destruction, and a rampant and rapid smashing down.
They can both mean the same thing - obliteration.
As the rebuild of Christchurch begins to gather momentum and as we start to see signs of new construction projects appearing, it is easy to be carried along with a growing sense of moving forward and also a growing relief that things seem to be happening at last. But we forget that moving forward can also be a leaving behind of something, and a moment of saying farewell to something familiar. Sometimes, and this is particularly true of Christchurch, we have to say goodbye to something that we never wanted to lose and our excitement is tempered with a deep sense of wistfulness for what we once had. It can be tough to leave a way of life or a familiar place, something you have always known, even though you know there may be something bright and new ahead of you, full of unknown promise.
Down the road from my home, they have just started the demolition of an old character home with a beautiful garden. I have walked past that house hundreds, probably thousands, of times in my life, and to see the speed with which it is being removed is sobering.
Once upon a time, it was a brand new house and somebody's pride and joy. The panelling would have been glossy with new varnish, there would have been no dents in the skirting boards from rowdy children, the doorknobs would have gleamed and the new art deco leadlight windows would have been all the rage. The new garden on the sunny hillside would have been a blank canvas, ready for the new trees that would mature over the decades into the gracious and lovely garden it became.
I wonder who those first owners were of that new house? I wonder if they spent a lot of time choosing the colours for their house, deciding on the shape of the rooms, delighting in the wonderful view from the hills. I wonder how they celebrated their first night in their new home? I wonder who decided where to plant the first trees and who decided to plant that wonderful flowering cherry that has graced that garden for as long as I can remember, and that each spring has delighted me with its flaunting display of joyful riotous pink blossom. Whose hands wielded a shovel all those years ago, placing a slim little sapling into the hole and pressing the soil in around it?
Yesterday, I watched as a large digger ripped that lovely tree out by the roots and wiped it from my sight in a matter of 30 seconds. The tree resisted; it had been growing in that soil for at least forty years, but even the deepest roots are no match for an inexorable force like that.
Then they started on the house. The noise is hard to describe; as the digger takes its first bite out of the house, there is a groaning and a cracking, a splintering of glass and a rumble as the house begins to fold beneath the onslaught. As the front of the house is removed, you can see into the rooms, see the panelling, the wallpaper, the plaster cornices. It is like a weird parody of a giant dolls-house and there is a sense of seeing something that you shouldn't - the house seems naked and defenceless and there is a sense of wrongness in seeing the rooms exposed to the open air.
After a couple of days there will be nothing left of what was once a lovely home. The land will once again be a blank canvas, ready for a new house to be built and a new garden to be planted. Most of the trees will be gone and, in years to come, the only reminder of what was once there will be the rock walls and the odd bit of broken glass or brick, or a piece of broken crockery dug up in the garden.
Our city has lost, and will continue to lose, a large number of houses, many of them historic homes that gave Christchurch its character. I don't feel any anger over that as it is an unavoidable consequence of what has happened and life always goes on. The city will grow back. New houses will go up, new gardens will be planted and the city will eventually be a wonderful vibrant place with a new character for my sons to inherit.
I am one of the lucky ones. I get to keep my old house and I get to keep the tangible reminder of those memories that are so important to me. If I had needed to build a new house, I could have done that with excitement and enthusiam, but in my heart I am profoundly grateful that I don't need to witness the terrible wrenching apart of my much loved home.
To all those people who have lost their homes, I would like to think that somewhere, in some way, the memories of those homes can live on and I wish that the echoes of what they once meant to someone could still be part of the new homes they will build, and part what Christchurch will become.
From: Elizabeth Jane Woods
Sent: Wednesday, 22 August
To: Sally Duggan
Subject: It's about Time
I hope you are well and enjoying the imminent arrival of spring - isn't it marvelous! I have just been out out of my office, and on the way back stopped and bought a bunch of narcissus for my desk. The wonderful smell reminds me of my garden, and I know that this time next year, I will back at home planning and planting a brand new renovated garden. It's only a matter of time now.
This time it's all about time!
I am deep in the throes of yet another couple of plays, just finishing performing one whilst starting rehearsal on another, and my time is at a bit of a premium. In the first play I was a downtrodden Irish Catholic housewife, and in the play I have just started rehearsing (which is set in ancient Greek times) I am Lysistrata, a feisty bossy feminist! I am busy charging about rehearsing, learning lines, trying to squeeze in my job, bringing up two teenage boys, throw myself into the house repairs and I am realising that there are not enough hours in the day for all the things I need to do - I don't have enough time.
I don't have enough time - it's a strange thing, the way we talk about time, as if it is something tangible that we could control if we only knew how. We talk about making or finding time. Make it out of what? Where can I find it? I could do with some more!
We can have too much of it on our hands, or not enough. We can be wasting it or taking advantage of having a lot of it. We can be running out of it, or it can be dragging slowly. You can be waiting for it to pass, or you can be wanting it stop to keep you in the moment.
And then sometimes, a small event or a brief second can remind you how quickly it has gone.
I was dropping off my oldest son at school a couple of days ago, and, as he walked away from the car he saw one of his friends and called out a greeting. In a single, brief, jewelled moment, something about the set of his head, the turn of his shoulder or the confidence in his stride made him look like a grown man. It pulled me up short - where on earth did all that time go?
I can't possibly be the mother of someone that grown up - am I really that old? I can vividly remember him as a baby and as a small boy, but the time since then has flashed past. Did I make the most of it? I'm not sure, it's all gone by in such a blur! One moment he seemed to be burbling on about Thomas the Tank Engine, and the next minute we are talking about him getting a driver's licence and discussing the subjects he is planning on studying at university!
Sometimes, it can feel as though time hasn't passed at all. I have recently renewed an old friendship with a woman whom I acted with 25 years ago and I hadn't seen since then, and we are taking great delight in each other's company. Despite the fact that we are both mothers of two teenage children, we feel just as silly as we did when we were 20. We laugh just as loudly, we have the same madcap irreverence, and it feels like time hasn't passed at all.
A couple of weeks ago went on a Saturday shopping trip to Lyttelton, stopping at several fabulous little boutique/antique stores on the way. In a whirl of giddiness and mutual encouragement we came home with a lace embellished vintage frock coat, several velvet scarves, some sparkly earrings, a large metal sculpture, a very colourful knitted hat festooned with large flowers, and some elbow length velvet embroidered arm warmers. Totally frivolous, quite probably totally useless, but also totally delightful - we had a marvellous time.
The years in which we didn't see each other have fallen away, and have made no difference to the way we feel about each other as friends. It might have been yesterday that we were 18 and acting together, sporting our hennaed hair and strange array of vintage attire. We were both quite mad university students back then, and there is still a trace of that happy-go- lucky, devil may care attitude in both of us. There is the same recognition of a kindred spirit and hopeful nature that the passage of time will never erase.
Time can also be forgotten, and it's hard to believe that I have been out of my house for nearly 2 years. The last 12 months have passed in such a whirl, full of new experiences and new people. By the end of September I will have performed in five plays in the last year, and it has definitely helped me cope with all the frustrations of dealing with post quake Christchurch. Theatre has been one of my escapes in the way my house used to be.
When I am on stage, I am not myself, and time is suspended and forgotten. For a blissful couple of hours I am lost in a world where nobody can touch me. There are no broken houses or insurance woes, nobody can belittle me, betray me or be mean to me, a place where I am not frightened or angry. It is a wonderful place, where time stands still and where I can reach out to the audience and bring them into my make believe world.
And then there is the right time, and I am starting to feel like that time has come. As I start to feel energised with the renovation of my house, I feel as though I am coming out into the light, into a time of excitement and activity, even though I am realistic enough to know there will be stumbling blocks along the way. I have no idea what the next few months will bring, but I have a hopeful spirit, and this time, I have a feeling that I am going to have a good time!
ElizabethJust for a giggle have attached a photo of myself in my latest theatrical incarnation - what a hoot! My son Michael says I look like something out of Star Wars!
From: Elizabeth Jane Woods
Sent: Friday, 6 July 2012
To: Sally Duggan
Subject: Hardest Word
The popular belief is that one of the hardest words to say is 'sorry'
Personally, I have never found that one difficult. I am very aware of my own failings, I make mistakes all the time and will cheerfully and honestly apologise for my transgressions. I have a tendency to say what I think and I have no difficulty admitting when I am wrong. I believe that an honest apology is better for me than holding stubbornly onto my opinion when I know in my heart that I am wrong.
So I don't see saying sorry as a weakness. The word I have trouble saying is 'help'.
I am one of those people whose job it is to fix things. That's the role I occupy in my family, and my friends also know if they are in a tight corner or they need some help or someone to vent to, they can come to me. I have a reputation for being capable, tenacious, direct and for 'sorting things out'.
This also means that I will drive myself into the ground and push myself to the brink before I will admit that
need help myself. I keep a brave face on all the time and will frantically aver that I am fine even when I am close to breaking point. I don't do myself any favours by being that way; it's an often lonely position to adopt, but for some reason I see asking for help as a personal failure.
But here's the thing, by denying those closest to me the opportunity to help me, I am not letting them do what they want to do and I am not letting them express their care for me. I used to turn down help because I thought it inconvenienced people or because I didn't want to feel indebted, but the last couple of years have taught me that I can't do it all by myself and I am not the iron clad warrior woman I made myself out to be.
I labour under the misapprehension that the people closest to me don't notice, but I have recently been reminded that there are a handful of people who see right through me and whom I can't fool for a second. Instead, they pityingly watch my pathetic attempts to convince them that I am fine and shake their heads as I begin to crumble round the edges and become a quivering jelly in the corner.
There are several in particular and one (let's call him Richard the Lionheart) who has me so well pegged, it's scary. I am completely unable to fool him and despite the fact that I am an experienced actress, he can spot my feeble attempts to hide trouble or upset within seconds of seeing my face. I can smile and be bright and chirpy and he, with a disturbing and disarming perspicacity, will tell me to stop being foolish and tell him what is really going on. He rang me recently while I was cleaning my rental property for an open home, it having been put on the market. I was feeling very glum as the prospect of shifting the boys again was a grim one and the repair of my house is dragging on in the gridlock that Christchurch has become. He must have heard something in my voice that I was trying to hide because he was at my door within 20 mins offering a hug and a smile and saying that he understood I felt displaced and that it would all be okay.
My mum can read me like a book too.
It's winter and the garden at my house is a complete jungle. Sir Richard has wielded his sword (a weed eater actually) and chopped back all the long grass, but it really is a wilderness. The bulldozers will be moving in soon and even though I will eventually get a newly landscaped garden, there are dozens of old roses and other lovely old plants that I had resigned myself to losing... It's only a little thing, but it still hurts and I couldn't afford to pay to have the garden transplanted to a nursery while the house is fixed. I was talking to my mum some weeks ago and she asked me about my garden.
My mum is a fanatical gardener and is never happier than when elbow deep in soil and plants, wearing a big straw hat and muttering unintelligble plant names to herself. She hurt her back a few years ago and her doctor has warned her against too much gardening; advice which she blithely ignores. She can be found out in the garden in all sorts of weather, like a small, middle-aged flower fairy carrying a trowel. Their garden, which started 25 years ago with a 150 year old cottage in the middle of 14 acres of bare paddocks, is now well over an acre of botanical splendour and it gets bigger every year.
Anyway, mum asked me about my garden and, with my usual aversion to displays of weakness, I shrugged my shoulders, wrinkled my nose and made a few flippant remarks designed to show my complete lack of concern about losing all the roses. She didn't say much at the time, but a few weeks later I realised just how little I had fooled her and how she had understood completely.
I visited their farmlet and there, in a beautiful, newly dug and groomed bed in their front paddock, were my
hostas, buckets of my bulbs and all my roses, transplanted and pruned, waiting safely to be transplanted back to my garden once the house is fixed. Mum had organised a gardening friend to visit my house, dig them up, put them in bags and transport them to the farm.
I stood there, tears welling and trying hard to swallow the lump in my throat and mum came out and tucked her arm into mine... We just stood there looking at the roses and she didn't need to say a word. She had seen right through me and given me the help I needed in the way that she knew best.
So, I am learning another lesson. I am going to try to ask for help more often and if people offer to help me, I will say yes with a grateful heart. I will let them help me as they want to and I will not put up the barriers that I usually present. Sometimes we can't do it all alone or be as strong as we would like to be and there is no shame in that.
And next summer, when my old roses are blooming in my new garden and I am sitting in my old gazebo on my new lawn, I shall raise a toast to mothers and knights!
From: Elizabeth Jane Woods
Sent: Thursday, 3 May 2012
To: Sally Duggan
Subject: The colour of courage
Every day when I drive home from work, I can see up on the hill the church steeple that pinpoints the location of my house. We have a gate between our place and the churchyard, and the soaring steeple is an integral part of the landscape of my garden. Before the earthquakes, from any direction, I could see where my house was before I got there. I could be having a horrible day and on the drive home I could see it like a beacon - it always made me feel better, with the promise of getting home and being in the quiet and warmth of my lovely house. After the quakes, the sight of the hills and the steeple was still a beacon - even on my darkest days I could look up and see that I still had somewhere I belonged, even if it was broken and I couldn't live in it.
Tonight on the drive home to my rental, in a cold but lovely autumn twilight, I was rewarded with a beautiful sunset that lit up the hills, the houses and the steeple with a soft rosy magenta light - utterly magical. I was stuck in my car in nose to tail traffic, and all I had to do was lift my eyes to the hills to feel uplifted by that glorious wash of colour.
I am a bit obsessed with colour at the moment. I am starting to think about choosing new colours for my house, and I am ecstatically and hedonistically indulging myself in feasts of every hue; soft charcoal carpets, powdery sage greens and mauves, deep jewel-like roses, clear sky blues - oh the choices are endless! Pre-quake, when I was in the early stages of re-decorating my house, I had no courage when it came to colour - I was going to paint everything cream, but I know myself better now, and my spirit is revelling in the self expression of using colour.
I seem to be more aware of colour, as I am far more aware of lots of things. The wonderful lustrous teal of the handles of an old piece of majolica, the truly startling deep black crimson of a dahlia that appeared in the long grass of my garden, the joyful shouting golden yellow of the sunflowers bought on a whim for my office. I think of myself and my life in colour more than I used to, and that makes me thoughtful - does that mean I have changed, or was the colour always there blazing away, waiting to appear?
One of my dearest friends has just done something incredibly courageous. A mother of 3 teenage sons, with a busy life, she has just turned down a very lucrative and challenging job to pursue her dream of art and designing fabrics. She has had a full and successful life, but always felt that her love of colour and design was taking a back seat - time to do something about it! She is a fabulous person; energetic, determined, funny, outspoken, compassionate, fierce and all mixed with a fearsome intelligence and a wonderful sense of the ridiculous. She is also one of the most courageous people I know.
She makes me realise that you have to let people see your true colours, be who you really are, and follow your passion, whatever it may be. I spent a long time feeling like I had a rainbow of colours and ideas inside my head, and I couldn't understand why other people couldn't see them. That's easy to understand now, and it wasn't because the other people weren't looking - they couldn't see them because I never showed them to anyone. I spent a lot of my life being worried about what other people would think, and that reluctance kept me colourless.
I indulge myself more with colour and art now, in the same way that I show more of myself to people, and live my life in a brighter palette! I'm not afraid to cry, to laugh more loudly, to play more, to sing when I want to, and share what I feel with those around me. I will wear purple shoes and scarlet dresses, and if I love someone I will tell them - they need to hear and see those colours that make up the person that I am.
How different my world is now! My excitement in the planned redecoration of my house shows how much I have changed. I don't think I could have done it justice before, and I had planned a very safe colour scheme, but I now have more confidence in my own choices, and can't wait to transform my house. That's not to say I am going to decorate the house like a licorice allsort, I have been researching Arts and Crafts colours, gazing at sumptuous fabrics and wallpapers and relishing the chance to bring the house back to life.
Joyful colour is everywhere, and there is also pleasure to be taken even in the smallest of things and the smallest of moments; sometimes a tiny yet beautiful thing can become a focal point of colour and happiness. I have a tiny vintage Olive Stephens bud vase that Jeanne gave me when I was a girl, and it is a gorgeous thing, sitting glowing here on my desk. It fades from a deep rose pink to a soft french meringue, and it's glossy surface and curved shape is perfect in its smallness.
I will leave the final word to my sister, who is also redecorating her earthquake damaged character house. My sister is a solicitor, and a very practical and capable person, who makes considered decisions, weighing up all the angles. She was showing me the colours for their house in the weekend, and the kitchen was previously a warm cream colour. "Here" she said showing me a bright yellow card, "is the colour for the kitchen" and she looked at me sideways with a glint in her eye, as if daring me to demure - "it's called Juicy Mango". I just grinned at her - welcome to my new world!
From: Elizabeth jane Woods
Sent: Wednesday 11 April 2012
To: Sally Duggan
Subject: A bear hug from the builder
It seems ages since I have written, so on this rainy day (with a newly collected chai latte from the excellent coffee shop on the corner of my street to hand) I thought I would catch you up with what is happening down here!
My newly discovered passion for chai is probably keeping the coffee shop in business. I don't even need to tell them what I want now - they start making it when I walk through the door! There is something about the cinnamon and nutmeg smell and taste that is redolent of warm spiced buns and old fashioned kitchens, and I can't get enough of it.
I have been very busy over the last few weeks as I have been rehearsing for another play, which opens tonight. I play a grumpy English schoolmistress in her 60s who is trapped working in a school with a bunch of frumpy spinster misfits. I spend the whole play being relentlessly bitter, snobby and snarling � huge fun! Playing a grumpy, worn-out old woman is surprisingly easy and it may be that I am drawing on a wellspring of recent experience!
There has been a fair bit of speculation in recent weeks about the mental fatigue of the people of our city and how they are feeling burnt out, exhausted and worn down by the stress of battling with the ongoing after-effects of the quake. As we head into winter with houses still broken, streets still lumpy and cracked, and facing the insurance gridlock that has become the reality for many people, it is very easy to fall into a fit of glumness, irritation and general lack of altruistic feeling towards our fellow citizens. It gets difficult to stay nice.
I always try to be thoughtful and nice to people, but sometimes I come across other folk who are persistently unpleasant and it is a struggle to deal with that sort of thing with equanimity, particularly when you have your own unique battles and most of the time feel like smashing things and having a meltdown. I had a particular incident a couple of weekends ago, where my decision to be nice to someone who has been doggedly disdainful got me absolutely nowhere, and in fact rebounded on me, leaving me feeling lonely and chagrined.
I started thinking about why I keep trying to be nice - why should I bother? Why not just give in and be bitter and snarling and snippy? Why not grizzle at shop attendants, whine about the length of time I have to wait at the doctor's, shake my fist at incompetent drivers and moan about the weather, teenagers, the price of cheese and the lukewarm coffee I was served at lunchtime?
Why not be disdainful and rude and dismissive? It sometimes seems to be the way to get ahead and people these days seem to find it acceptable and make no protest when others behave like that. So why not barge through life being horrid to get what I want?
I don't really need to ask that question because I already know the answer. I wouldn't like myself, it diminishes me as a person and I am not going to use the earthquake as an excuse to behave badly. I need to spend some time counting my blessings.
My oldest son is currently in America attending a Space Camp and I miss him like crazy. I know it's not very fashionable to say that I miss a 16-year-old boy and there are probably a lot of mothers out there who would be glad of the chance to get rid of their teenage sons for a couple of weeks, but Jonathan is a fabulous kid with a wry sense of humour and a strong, altruistic personality. It's strange not having him around. Teenage moroseness notwithstanding, I'm so glad he is my son and the place is very quiet without him. I enjoy his silly jokes, his weird taste in music, his quirky outlook on life and the house full of his friends giving me a hard time and eating bags of two-minute noodles.
My builder is another bright spot. Hopefully my insurance company is going to let me use my own builder and I feel so good about handing the house repairs over to him. His superb bracing job following the September quake saved my house and quite probably saved Jonathan's life in February and he is champing at the bit to get started. He really likes my house and is completely enthused about saving it. He is constantly upbeat and enthusiastic, even in the face of what looks like overwhelming damage. When I had my initial meeting with him up at the "Ruin on the Hill", I arrived to find him and a contractor standing waist deep in the paddock that was the front lawn, looking sombre. The minute he saw me he grinned, gave me a big bear hug and said, "You poor bugger, don't worry, I will give you your house back". That's exactly what I need to hear!
And here's to the play! We have a cast of 10 women, and we are all dressed in varying shades of brown and beige, which is incredibly drab. In real life however, drab is not a word that applies to any of them - they are a bunch of articulate, clever, warm, funny people, and it's an absolute privilege to be acting with them. It feels great to be doing something I love surrounded by such talented people.
So, there we have it, even though things are a bit ragged round the edges, I don't need to succumb to the prevailing glumness. I don't need to shuffle around in a beige mood grumping and frumping. I shall just eschew the company of those people who choose to be horrid, hang out with the nice people and have another chai!
From: Elizabeth jane Woods
Sent: Wednesday, 22 February 2012
To: Sally Duggan (MAG)
Subject: 21st February 11.25pm
It's the 21st February, 11.25pm
I'm sitting at my computer, and it's very quiet. The boys have gone to bed, and this is the time of night when I know that I should also be in bed, but it's a time of stillness and winding down, and of taking stock of the day. There is no sound other than the vague hum of the computer, and the occassional car out on the street.
I am thinking about tomorrow - the 22nd February.
There will no doubt be pages and pages written about tomorrow, the public memorial service (which a friend and I are attending) the genuine outpourings of grief, and the recollections and reminders of Christchurch's darkest day. There will be lots of photos and footage of the community of our city coming together in remembrance.
That's the public face of it. But what am I feeling right now? What is in my heart in this moment of quietness, as I think about that dreadful day a year ago? The news footage and the newspaper coverage will show one side of it, but there is also a hidden human cost in the hearts of all of those who were touched by the events on that day.
On that day...let me start there, because that's in my mind. February 22nd - the words in themselves are innocuous, and once, before all this, wouldn't have meant anything unusual. Say them now, and a stillness and a watchfulness comes over people, it's a shared experience of terror and travail, and is like a club that we would rather not have to belong to. On that day...
I will never forget as long as I live, the way I felt that day. I can recall it with painful clarity, and I will never be the same person again because of it. The sense of utter terror as I tried to get home through gridlocked traffic, my fuel light showing, to my son who was alone in our already damaged house will haunt me forever. I could hear on the radio that it was centred in Lyttelton, and that the hills and city had been very hard hit, and he was home for a half day from school. I knew that people had been killed, and I was sobbing with total fear at the possibility that he had been hurt. When I finally made it home and came up the hill to see him standing at the foot of our drive unharmed, I was completely overwhelmed.. The rush of emotion which that memory invokes even now, brings tears to my eyes, and raises the hair on the back of my neck.
I hugged him so tightly and cried as though my heart would burst out of my chest - I couldn't believe he was alright. I will never forget the sense of gratitude and love I felt in that , moment, and even though it is painful even now, it continues to enrich my life and make me appreciate the people I love in a way I can't explain.
Jonathan wouldn't let me go into the house because everything was smashed, the devastation around us was unbelievable, and every few minutes powerful aftershocks would hit us. As we got to my younger son's school and found him in the crowd of anxious children, I saw in his face a relection of my own sense of terror and overwheming relief - he flung himself into my arms, clung to me, and kept saying "I thought you were dead, I thought you were dead". I am sure that is something he will carry with him for a long time, and even now he struggles to talk about the quake.
As we walked back down the hill, we could see the city, and the massive pall of dust over it, and both of the boys realised that their dad was down there, working in an old buildi, ng in Manchester St. We quickly set up a tent on the front lawn, and then began a most painful and agonising wait. I knew that if he was okay, he would get to us as quickly as he could, but as one hour passed and then two and three, both the boys began to fear the worst, despite my attempts to reassure them. When he finally got a text message through to us that he was okay, and then made it to us an hour later, the look of joy on both the boy's faces is also something I will carry with me always. We knew that others out there had lost their lives, and we all clung to each other - it is people that matter, and it is the people that you love that you will think about in your darkest moments.
People will mark the day in different ways tomorrow. I have a friend who is going to go to the beach if it is a nice day, and just watch the ocean for a while, Michael wants to go and eat doughnuts for afternoon tea in our house, with the promise that it's going to be fixed, and others may decide not to acknowledge it. We will all do the thing that feels right for us to do - whatever that may be.
So what is in my heart right now, as I sit here in the quietness? Anger? - yes, there is still anger, at something mindless and violent and unbidden that has fragmented the life we had, and caused me grief and loss. There is sadness and deep compassion for those who lost loved ones, and for whom tomorrow is going to be terribly painful. There is fear of another big quake, which I keep hidden from my sons with a smiling face.
And there is a sense in my heart of a new knowledge that will stay with me always. The knowledge that life is a gift not to be taken lightly, and that I need to live it fully, with all the enthusiasm and joie de vivre I can manage. The knowledge that anything or anyone can be taken away in a blink of an eye, so you have to hold them and enjoy it all while you can..
I will find tomorrow hard, with its reminder that I have been out of my house for a year, all the memories and the awareness of a collective grief, and I will no doubt cry - but at the end of the day I will hug my children in gratitude, eat some doughnuts in my saved house, ring my lovely sister for a gossip - and be glad.
From: Elizabeth jane Woods
Sent: Thursday, 9 February 2012
To: Sally Duggan
Subject: The walking chintz curtain....
It seems like an age since I have written to you, and with Christmas out of the way, and the kids back at school, I thought I would send you an update!
I started 2012 feeling really grumpy. The mood in Christchurch at the moment seems to be one of irritation, as we wait for the promised rebuild and people see another year of battling bureacracy stretching out ahead of them.
After the initial euphoria about the saving and repairing of my house had settled down to a quiet satisfaction, the enormity of the task started to set in. The place is a ruin, broken bricks and rocks litter the ground and paths, some of the windows are broken, and the once beautiful garden is now so overgrown I won't be surprised if I find a lost and hitherto unknown species of animal living in it. Before the quakes I was happily restoring the house, but I hadn't expected to have to start from absolute scratch again!
It's a huge task, and in some ways, it would have been easier to simply build a new house. My poor twisted home presents real engineering challenges - how to hold it up to safely work on it? As it's lifted and realigned all the walls and windows and floors will crack and break, and it's going to need a new roof. How do we get the panelling off in one piece, and can we find a stonemason to re-create those marvellous Arts and Crafts flared buttresses?
And so many decisions! Did I want the original floors or am I willing to compromise on that? Do I want the panelling replaced in the bedrooms or are we gibbing it? What about the carpet, bathroom fittings etc etc- terrifying! I find it hard to make up my mind at the best of times, and I don't have much faith in my own taste. Today I am wearing a floating floral chiffon top, that looked great in holiday mode in a shop in Queenstown, but actually makes me look like a chintz curtain. Enough said!
So there I was in mid January, facing a year of hard work, drudgery and tough decisions, driving everyone around me mad with my moaning, when a series of things gave me a shake and a slap, and dragged me out of my wilderness of whining, and made me see that I can either give in and be an annoying grizzle, or I can see it as an adventure.
The first thing was my son's results from his first year of NCEA. The past year has been a hard one for Jonathan. Being in the house by himself while it smashed around him on Feb 22nd had left its mark. We had shifted house three times, and he had missed a fair amount of school with closures and school sharing. Throughout it all he was strong, focused and hard working and even though I tried to keep my grief away from him, he knew that the loss of our home was coming close to breaking me. When his NCEA results arrived I was utterly humbled, and realised how self indulgent I was being. He passed all 7 subjects with a mixture of merit and excellence passes, and he deserves every accolade. If he can do that under such trying circumstances I can certainly rebuild my house!
The next thing was a visit to the Waitaki Valley for a few days to meet and stay with some clients of mine at Sublime Lodge, and I fell in love with it - I was completely awestruck. Never was a place more aptly named - Steve and Fenella are both a delight and an inspiration, and I came back wanting to chuck it all in, move to the glorious Waitaki Valley and start a vineyard.
Steve and Fenella have created a unique home and environment, decorated with unbelievable flair and ingenuity - they create the most beautiful things out of the most commonplace everyday objects. Gorgeous character mirrors out of old doors, light fittings out of old copper jelly moulds and a wonderful kitchen wall out of old car iron that Fenella hit with sledge hammers and shot with a shotgun to get the desired texture - fabulous! Again I felt humbled. I have a house and boxes full of things that I saw as a nuisance, but that I now see with a fresh eye!
(Steve & Fenella's home featured in the April 2010 issue of NZ House & Garden
- view an extract here
And finally it took my youngest son to add his own unique perspective. Michael is a philosopher in a 12 year old's body, and at the end of each day we usually have a conversation about what he is thinking about. A few nights ago he asked me to explain the notion of whether the glass is half empty or half full. What, he wanted to know, did that mean? I tried to explain the idea that everyone looks at things differently, and that what to one person may seem like a bad situation, to another person it may look like an opportunity, or something to be grateful for. "Alright" he said, grasping the concept, "Is your glass half empty or half full?" I started to grin, and I replied that it was half full, and wasn't that great? "Me too mum, me too" said Mike, and started to laugh.
Trust Michael to hit it on the head, and teach me a lesson. What I should have said was that with the adventure of fixing our house , ahead of m, e, and two great sons to keep me grounded and remind me from time to time of what matters, my glass is actually overflowing.
From: Elizabeth jane Woods
Sent: Wednesday, 23 November 2011 2:25 p.m.
To: Sally Duggan
Subject: The best Christmas present ever
As I sit writing tonight, I am in a state of glorious disbelief. My insurance claims officer rang at lunchtime today to tell me that against all the odds, all my expectations, and against all their previous advice, my house is going to be saved and repaired.
We had gone so far down the track with the certainty that it was to be demolished, that when she told me that the repair was the final official decision, I was incredulous and made her repeat it several times. She then apologised and said she hoped I was happy, as most people with old houses were quite excited to have a new one. Was I happy? I was shaking and inarticulate in my joy, and tried to tell her how utterly overwhelmed I was that I got to keep my home, when I had steeled myself to saying goodbye to it. I got off the phone, got in my car and drove to my house. I then stood in the lounge with my hands on the panelling, cried and told the house out loud that it was safe, and that I was coming home.
I am not sure why they changed their minds. It may have been the heritage features of the house, or it may simply have come down to the cost of a rebuild, but I will never be able to adequately express how much it means to me to keep that house.
Am I wrong to love a house that much? Possibly, but sometimes we don't get to choose who or what we love, we just do, and you can either try to fight it, or just accept that it enriches your life, and be grateful for it. That makes me think about what the house means and represents to me, and I wanted to explain it.
My ownership of the house began towards the end of Jeanne's life, and her allowing me to buy it was a gift to me of unconditional love. She knew that I loved it as she did, and that to me it meant a return to something that I had lost. She knew with a certainty born of the bond between us, that long after she was gone, I would sit on the verandah under that wide sweep of sky, looking at the sunset and the lights of the city below, and think of her.
As a small child, the house was a delightful place to visit, full of interesting and curious things. Jeanne was an inveterate traveller and collector, and had been all over the world, so when I visited, fascinating things would come out of cupboards and draws, little handmade puppets from South America, jars of Victorian shell buttons, old maps and some of the most wonderful dress up clothes. She would let me rabbit on about anything and everything, and would never tell me off for talking too much. She treated me as an equal, and she made me feel as if everything I said was interesting and new.
When she was in hospital for the last time, slipping in and out of conciousness, the doctors told me that there was nothing left they could do, and that she had 6 days left at most. The wonderful nurses told me that the last thing to go is hearing, and that even though it may not look like she was aware, there was every possibility that she could hear me. So for a week I sat with her, and held her hand and talked. I talked about every memory I had of our time together, beginning with me appearing in a gap in her hedge at age 3. I reminisced about the fun we had had, and what having her in my life had meant to me. I said that I loved her, and that it was all okay and I was right beside her, even though I felt like laying my head in her hands and begging her not to leave me.
And I talked about the house and my delight in it. I told her about my plans for the garden, about the new curtains, about polishing the copper fire surround, and how the jasmine was out. I talked about the little hidden delights of finding tiny white fuschias growing amongst the hostas, and how the boys had found skinks in the rockery. I wanted her to be able to see the house and have her know that something that was precious to her, was also precious to me.
In an odd way, the earthquake did me a favour. In pushing me to the brink, and making me accept that things are not always permanent, it makes me appreciate my life more. I had accepted that the house was going, and even though it was heartbreaking, I learnt that I was perfectly capable of moving forward and letting go of things. Now that my sons and I get to keep the house, I will care for it in the knowledge that it is here for now, but that it, like everything else, can be taken away, so I will enjoy it while I can.
Where to from here? My head is buzzing with ideas! As the house will be completely rebuilt, I will have to repaint it and redecorate, and I will do say paying tribute to it's Arts and Crafts heritage. Bring on those back copies of House and Garden! The garden will still be destroyed by diggers as the house is lifted, so Jonathan is busy having a go at designing a fantastical new garden. It is probably going to take longer to fix than it would take to build a new house, and I am sure at times it will be frustrating, but what a labour of pleasure it will be.
Sally, I feel like an enormous weight has lifted from my shoulders, and I am so looking forward to the day when I can once again welcome people into my house, , surrounded by the legacy of friendship and survival.
From: Elizabeth Jane Woods
Sent: Thursday, 17 November 2011
To: Sally Duggan
Subject: Yipee, I have no control, and I don't have the answers either!
I usually write my updates to Sally, but right now I am going to go off track a little, and talk to everyone about Sally.
When I first started out on this journey of writing (and it has been a journey) I had no idea where it was going to lead. I wrote my very first letter to Sally in January on impulse, and back then it was a cry from the heart, and an expression of bewilderment at the circumstances I found myself in. The ghastly situation that a lot of Christchurch residents had found themselves in had thrown me completely off balance, and I was floundering around in a mass of shock and indecision.
When I wrote that first letter, I had no idea that I was starting down a path of self expression and catharsis through writing, and beginning something that is now giving me so much pleasure. I thank Sally from the bottom of my heart for seeing in my ramblings a story that she felt was worth letting me tell. I have met Sally several times now, and was lucky enough to spend the day at the Christchurch Cup Day with her recently. Sally has an irresistible warmth about her, and a megawatt personality that is a delight to be around, and this is my opportunity to say my hearfelt thanks to her for encouraging me the way that she has.
She has encouraged me to keep talking and writing and sharing my thoughts, and sometimes when I have started our rather incoherently, the very act of writing it all down has clarified my thinking and given me a positive direction.
I couldn't have managed this year without the outlet of writing about my experiences, and it has been a year of discovery. I have discovered that my sense of humour is still intact, that I am allowed to show my 'inner gypsy' and wear scarlet or green or purple instead of always wearing grey or black, and I have discovered that I love to write. It has been the most amazing thing to be able to share how I feel, and it has sent me in directions I wouldn't have considered possible, and introduced me to some of the most wonderful people. To be able to write about my grief, sorrow, hope and aspirations has changed me, and along the way has made me far more open to change.
I confess that I used to be a bit of a control freak. I am (or was!) one of those 'fixit' people, who was totally convinced that I had far more control than I actually had, and that I had all the answers. Boy, was I about to be taught a lesson! The earthquakes and ensuing chaos threw me kicking and screaming out of my comfort zone, and even though it was horrendous at the time, I now have no desire at all to return to it - bring on the unpredictability in all its glory!
Of course I still have control over most things; how much money I spend on unnecessary bits of Art Deco china, making sure the boys empty the dishwasher, and how many Tim-Tams I eat, but I also now recognise that there are things way beyond my control, and I am comfortable with that. Nor do I have all the answers, and it is actually a huge freedom to be able to honestly say "I don't know" - I would have struggled with that before.
In my house, with a 12 year old obssessed with history, there are always things I can't answer. A typical breakfast conversation would go something like, "Can we talk about parallell universes and by the way, what did Tolstoy die of?" "Umm, I don't know - and, err, he stopped breathing?" This past year, there have been lots of things I haven't had the answers for and, all joking aside, it has been a good lesson for us to learn. I have adopted an attitude of trying my hardest to find answers to the tough questions, but being willing to accept that I can't find them, and being honest about that.
So to Sally I offer my heartfelt thanks for showing me a side to myself I didn't even know existed, and that is sending me off in fascinating and uncharted directions. As I rebuild, I am going to have to come up with a lot of answers in the next year, and even though I have no idea what the answers will be, or what's going to happen, I know that some of them will be exciting ones - how marvellous!
From: Elizabeth Jane Woods
Sent: Monday, 3 October 2011 1:44 p.m.
To: Sally Duggan
Subject: Thank God for Chopin
I was reading your latest newsletter about having a place to escape or reflect or gather your thoughts, and in light of the events of the last few days, I realise that music is one of mine.
As I write tonight, I have my earphones plugged into the laptop listening to Chopin's piano concerto number 1, and the music is soothing what feels like a fairly 'savage heart'. It's been a weekend of ups and downs, with moments of happiness and disillusionment.
On Thursday, I bought myself an old upright piano. I have resisted as long as I possibly could, but if I don't get a piano into my house and under my hands, I shall go mad, and I can't stand it another single second.. I am so used to being able to pour my spirit out through the keys, that it has felt like a peculiar kind of prison, and I didn't realise ho, w much I needed it until I tried to live without it.
Having made the decision to buy another piano to keep me company until I have built another house big enough to take my concert grand, I started looking for one, and it hurt a little; my own piano has the voice of an angel, and I really didn't think I would find something that would make me happy, but actually, treasure can be found in the oddest and smallest places. I don't have a lot of money to spend on one, and I had looked at a few when I came across an old Brinsmead that fairly smiled at me with the first notes I played, as if to say "Oh, here you are at last, I've been waiting for you". It's out of tune, and has a few chipped keys, but underneath I can hear a mesmerising voice trying to get out, a sort of dark liquid honeyed tone, and I'm so excited that I will be able to discover what it has to say. It is being delivered this coming week.
So, on Friday morning I was feeling very cheerful, and rang a close friend of mine to arrange lunch. He and I are in a play together in Nov/Dec in the Celebration Theatre in Hagley Park. (Shameless plug - it's called The Sorcerer's Appendix, is written by another good friend of mine, and is a comic romp of clownish and epic proportions!)
When I rang him, full of happiness about my new purchase, he was in a complete state of shock. He and his partner had a very large and beautiful old house in Avonside that was badly damaged on Feb 22nd, and was going to be demolished. Although they couldn't live in it, all of their things were still in the house waiting to try and find a safe way to remove them, and in the early hours of Friday morning, someone deliberately set fire to it, and burnt it to the ground. As a publisher, he had literally thousands of books, his mother's antiques, her piano and a lifetime of precious belongings. They are all gone.
I was choked with rage and sorrow for him, what sort of person would do such a heinous thing? The thought that someone would deliberately do something so awful, when so many people have lost so much, sickened me. I called past the house on Saturday, and it was a charred and gutted ruin, being devoured and finished off by a couple of large diggers. As I sat there looking at the remains of their much loved and beautiful family home, I had a rush of weariness and disillusionment- I am so tired of grief, and I know now why I need a piano so badly.
When I am playing, I can let it all go, and lose myself in a place where there is no anger, or annoyance or sadness, there is just me and the music, whole, solitary and content. At that moment I am the person I would be if nothing had ever hurt me, or no-one had ever disappointed me or lied to me, and it all just falls away for a while.
One thing the earthquake has done for me, has made me aware of my human frailties, and my need for escape to quiet and solace, whereever it can be found, and I am also more forgiving with other people's flaws than I was. I used to charge through life, unrealistically expecting others to always have strength and conviction, and never really giving a moments thought, or making allowances for people that were not as strong as I am. I know now that even the strongest can falter, and to find a way to put down the burden for a moment, even if it is just a walk in a garden, half an hour with a book, a bike ride, or playing the piano, it is as necessary as breathing.
So, even as the utter beauty of Chopin's notes fill my head, and I am deeply grateful for the pleasure I can take in that, I know that there can be real ugliness in the world. My heart goes out to my friends for their lost home, and for all those in Christchurch who are still suffering grief, and as soon as my new piano arrives, I shall play with all my heart and hope that they too are finding places to escape to as well.
From: Elizabeth jane Woods
Sent: Wednesday, 24 August 2011 12.47 am
To: Sally Duggan
Subject: snow, swords, and two fabulous blokes.
I really enjoy getting the NZ House and Garden newsletters, and the latest photo of you with a daffodil is a lovely one! It made me realise that spring is just around the corner, and it's so hard to believe it's been a year since my life was changed so irrevocably in literally seconds.
I am sitting at my computer in a nice rental property, having just come home from performing in a play in which I have the lead role, and my hand is a bit stiff and sore from waving a sword around, exacerbated by having to shovel snow last week.
A year ago, the previous sentence would have been completely unthinkable, and yet life has changed so much, in a whirl of things coming at me from all angles, and I have had to get used to change in a way I couldn't have imagined. It's been a year of some of the hardest moments of my life, a year of grief, fear, loss and anguish, but it has also been a year of revelation, of determination, of decision and of realisation of my own strength and the strength of the people around me.
I didn't want to be tested. I wanted to stay living in my lovely old house with my sons, pottering away restoring the house and mucking about in my garden, playing my piano, having my friends over, and generally moving happily forward in a fairly predictable pattern. I should have known better! I now tell my sons that the only certainty in life is that things will change, and we have got to learn to roll with it. So we do.
I say yes to things now that I probably wouldn't have before, things that I didn't do out of reticence, or caution or lack of certainty, and now I am travelling blithely through life (albeit with a bit of madness) taking things on, and embracing new experiences far more hungrily than I did before. The last year had made realise that it can all be so fleeting, and even though that sounds like a cliche, it's utterly true; grab it while you can... Say yes.
So, I said yes to playing a lead role in a tragedy with the Classics Department at the university, and performing in the Elmwood Theatre. I play a mad, bitter, insane queen, who gets to wave a sword around, scream, yell, cry and generally behave very badly., , It's exhausting, fun, cathartic, and I am loving every second of it.<, , BR>
Both my sons are very proud of me, and very supportive, putting up with my rehearsals, listening to me mumbling random lines all hours of the day, and not laughing loudly when I showed them my costume. They have both rolled with the adversities of the last year, and I am immensely proud of them, and just want to tell them what a pair of fabulous blokes they are. I can hear my 15 year old's voice in my head groaning and saying "Don't say that mum!", but they deserve all my praise.
I have had glowing reports from both of their teachers telling me how hard they are working, how nice they are and how great they are to teach, and that would be wonderful to hear in even normal circumstances, but to hear it when they have had to cope with so much loss and so much upheaval, really brings a lump to my throat. They aren't unscathed, I don't think any of us here will ever be completely again, but they have both shown a courage and resilience that they didn't realise they had, and I will remember that all my life.
And the snow? I had a moment of clarity and of a strange and silent peace last week. When it snowed, we couldn't get out of the driveway, as our rental has a very steep cobbled drive, and I donned my flowered gumboots, and walked up by myself to my old house to get a shovel to clear the snow. It was very quiet, there was no traffic, and I walked up my old drive to see my house and garden covered under a pristine, forgiving, concealing blanket of pure white. Sally, it was like a wonderful gift. I couldn't see the ruined garden, or the piles of rubble, all I could see was my house, surrounded by trees, with all the awfulness smoothed over and hidden. It was as if I was allowed to see it one last time, the way that it was, and it felt like a very gentle goodbye. I stood there for ages, being silently thankful for the snow that was giving me that moment.
I can carry that image with me now in my heart, as I move into the next phase of my life, and the next year of change and upheaval building a new house. Who knows what the year will be bring, but bring it on (she says, waving her sword) I'm ready!
From: Elizabeth jane Woods
Sent: Tuesday, 5 July 2011 1.26am.
To: Sally Duggan
Subject: Scarecrow, Tinman or cowardly lion? Musings on the nature of courage.
Lately I have been thinking a lot about courage, and the meaning of bravery, and I have been suffering a few "cowardly lion" moments in recent days.
I have heard the people of Christchurch described as staunch, brave and tenacious and that makes me proud of our city, and yet there are times when my own personal courage is nothing more than simply having no choice - you have to do what you have to do, and you have run out of alternatives. There are moments when I feel anything but brave, when I feel like I just can't make another difficult decision, I can't handle the aftershocks and moments when I feel like I can't paste another smile on my face and tell my sons that everything is going to be fine.
The demolition of my house is drawing ever closer, and this afternoon I talked on the phone to a very nice man from my insurance company, who asked me to talk him through my house and give him an idea of the things in each room that are special or worthy of note, so that he can write to the re-build team to start giving them an idea of what they are replacing.
So I talked. I talked him up the stone steps, through the front door, in to the lounge with its rimu panelling, built-in curved bookcases, leadlight windows, copper doorknobs and extravagantly and sinuously curved wrought iron window catches. I talked him through the panelled hall in to my bedroom with its high ceiling, rimu fireplace and fire red tiles and the window seat looking on to the garden. I talked him through my brand new kitchen.
He was very understanding, but what he didn't know was that the whole time I was talking in a calm and measured way, I was sitting with my eyes closed and my fists clenched, struggling not to cry, because every inch of that house is as familiar to me as my own face, and to be having to describe its soon-to-be-gone beauty is like squeezing my heart in a vice.
Am I courageous, or am I that cowardly lion?
Is it courage that makes me stay positive for my sons, encouraging them to look forward to the new house whilst grieving for the old one, even though sometimes the words feel like ashes in my mouth, or is it just the necessity of making sure they are moving forward and not holding on to something that is more my grief than theirs?
Is it courage or necessity that keeps us living our lives in as normal a way as possible, when sometimes all you feel like doing is running away and hiding because you can't face another broken building or the threat of more quakes? I would love to pretend that I am strong all the time, but the reality is that I am not. We stay strong because we have no choice.
Sometimes, what looks to other people like courage can be a terrified and quivering bravado. My boys believe in me implicitly and believe in my ability to solve and handle anything, so there are days when, despite feeling like a frightened rabbit, I will make myself pretend that I am in fact an avenging goddess than can handle anything. I will solve the problem, and then go away quietly and have my own private meltdown.
So, is it courage or necessity that makes us carry on? In the end, it doesn't matter. We will endure and rebuild because we have to, and along the way I am going to carry on laughing and loving, and making mistakes, and getting sad and angry, and falling over and getting up again, and just doing the best I can out of, , necessit, y. Just like the cowardly lion, I am on a journey thinking that I have no courage, and I think that one day , I may well get to the end of the journey, look back, and realise that it was with me all along.
From: Elizabeth jane Woods
Sent: Tuesday, 14 June 2011 12:50 p.m.
To: Sally Duggan
Subject: Cos every little thing is going to be alright...
Just a quick update on what is starting to feel like Christchurch's modus operandi - as the famous baseball player Yogi Berra said: "It's like deja vu all over again".
I had started to write to you last night about what a great time I had on Saturday night and as I write now yet another aftershock is rolling through following on from today's 5.5 and 6 quakes. We have had enough. I am sure there are people all over Christchurch tonight who have had enough of being brave, had enough of being strong for their traumatised children, had enough of telling themselves that surely this is the last big one and had enough of being told to hang in there. I gave a ride home today to an office colleague who is originally from England and halfway home she said with real distress that she couldn't stand it any longer and she just wanted to get out of Christchurch for good. She has a lovely home and a great job, but like so many others, it is all just too much to comprehend or cope with.
I want to stay in Christchurch and see the reincarnation of my city, but I can see that for some people the constant threat of quakes and the day to day experience of living with apprehension and being confronted by damaged buildings, damaged streets and traumatised, nervous people is just too hard to cope with.
I was lucky today, my little wooden 1920s rental cottage is like a staunch little terrier, it just flexes and shakes a bit; both the boys were fine and nothing was broken. The house is little, but cosy, and although we have a heat pump, we also have a log burner that heats the whole house. While I sit here in comparative comfort in front of the fire, I am so very aware that there are many people in the city tonight without power and water and that makes me feel lucky and guilty and sad that it is happening for them all over again.
I do still think, in spite of everything that I have lost, that I am lucky. Lucky to have a chance to rebuild, lucky to have people that I love around me and lucky that I can still see a future for myself and my sons in Christchurch. For a lot of people facing the despair of not knowing whether they can rebuild their houses and their lives, or whether they can handle the uncertainty, lucky is probably not something they are feeling right now.
The people of Christchurch are all in this together; we are all hurting and it feels like a cruel and endless nightmare, but if we can make our way through this I believe with all my heart that we will have the opportunity to create a unique strong community, with the bond of a shared experience. Now I'm going to tell you about my Saturday night!
I am 45 years old and on Saturday night I danced like a maniac for the first time in years. My brother is a drummer in an iconic Irish band, The Black Velvet Band, and on Saturday night they played at Living Springs in Governors Bay. Their regular and long time venue was destroyed and Saturday night was a chance for people to gather, have some fun and forget about the reality of how tough life is right now. There was a great mix of people there, of all ages, and the spirit of solidarity and determination to enjoy ourselves was completely uplifting.
I haven't heard my brother play for ages, the band is fantastic, and I haven't danced like that for a long, long time (too long in fact) and it was joyful to see everyone jumping about with huge smiles on their faces, singing along with the band, and just being there together. At one point, the band played a Bob Marley song and the whole crowd was singing "Baby don't worry, about a thing, cos every little thing's going to be all right" and the sense of camaraderie was tremendous.
That is what will get us through this. It is very easy to look at the footage of the new appalling damage and see the trauma on people's faces. I could write just about the misery of it all, but I choose not to. I have met some amazing people since September that I may not have met otherwise, and I have faith in the people around me, and faith in the people of Christchurch. If we can hang together, keep helping each other, keep caring about each other, noticing when people are not coping and doing something about it, then even though things are black and incredibly difficult, we will get through it.
Cos every little thing is going to be all right - eventually!
From: Elizabeth jane Woods
Sent: Monday, 25 April 2011 8:49 p.m.
To: Sally Duggan
I know that it's important to keep your eyes on the future, rather than looking back, and I made the observation to a friend the other day that hopefully the loss of something you loved can eventually become a warm m, emory, a nostalgia and a thankfulness for what you had, but right now, grief has me in it's grip a little.
I played my grand , piano in my beautiful house this afternoon, for what will probably be the last time.
The house has mostly been emptied of all the furniture, and the piano will be going into storage this coming week. The piano is sitting in the empty lounge, covered in dust sheets, beside the collapsed fireplace, and it looks and feels like the end of a life. It has been particularly tough being without it, as I usually play for at least an hour every day, and for me playing music is a solace and an escape from what life throws at me from time to time. I have been up to the house and played a few times, once at night, by the light of a camping lantern, at the end of a particularly rough week (there is no electricity there now).
The piano has a wonderful voice, a deep, rich singing sound, and the high ceilings and panelled walls all help to make it a joy to play.
Today was the very last time that I played for the house that was my dream, and was Jeanne's gift to me, and actually my heart is still breaking. To begin with, I sat there in silence for ages, still in disbelief that I can't keep my house, and full of an impotent rage at how unfair it all feels. And then I played to the empty rooms with everything I had in me, and I filled the house with Beethoven and Chopin and Bach, just like Jeanne always wanted me to. I shut my eyes and played and imagined the rooms furnished, the garden blooming, and Jeanne sitting in the sun, looking out the window, listening to MY gift to her.
I have had quite a few people say to me that I am lucky that I will get a new house with all it's double glazing, low maintenance, new carpets etc, and yet that really is no comfort when you are losing a home. Some people just see a house as a place to sleep, and can't understand how it's possible to be attached to a place. However, for a lot of people their home is the place that defines them, the repository of their particular treasures, a place to feel at your safest, to express yourself in the things you have around you, and a place to welcome people and share who you are. This house was Jeanne's and mine, she loved me so much, and even though she is gone, living in her house always gave me a sense of still having her arms around me.
Although we are incredibly lucky not to have lost any people close to us in the quake, losing things that you love hurts, whether it is a small irreplaceable precious ornament, or a whole house..
Some people would caution me against building us a new place that we will be attached to, and think that it is safer to just see a house as a place to be when you aren't at work, but I will always choose to create a real home, a new place that reflect me and my life, just as much as the old one did. I will choose to express myself in my home, and the pain of the loss of our home is worth it, to have experienced every second of the joy that I found in owning it for the time that I did.
I am determined to create a really special home for my boys, for myself, and to have a place to welcome all the people that I love and that love me. Jeanne's house was always filled with laughter and warmth, and I owe it to her to never ever let that go..
From: Elizabeth jane Woods
Sent: Monday, 18 April 2011 9:48 p.m.
To: Sally Duggan
Subject: Fleas, Michael Buble and synchronicity!
Thought I would send you a quick update on what's happening down here- I hope you are well!
I have managed to find the boys and I a nice little rental property, a small character house in the same neighbourhood, and we are settling in and snuggling down for the winter. It's so much smaller than my own house, the lounge is about the same size as my old bedroom, and I didn't realise quite how accustomed I had become to large rooms and high ceilings!
The seach for a rental was a learning experience, I haven't looked for somewhere to rent since I was 18, and it illustrated how things can go from tragedy to roaring farce in the blink of an eye; and reinforced for me how important it is to keep my sense of humour, even if it's in a slightly hysterical, mad woman kind of way.
The first place I looked at sounded promising, 4 bedrooms, large lounge and dining, nice city views from the kitchen, 2 bathrooms and close to my youngest son's school. I made an appointment to meet the agent there, and the minute I got there, it took all my strength and sense of politeness not to run out the door! It had the 3D factor - dirty, dingy, dated, and you would want to be looking out the kitchen window at the views, because you certainly wouldn't be wanting to look at the actual kitchen. It was a really disheartening experience, and I came away feeling sad and angry that I was leaving my lovely house, and potentially living in something like that.
I went and climbed in my car, turned on the radio, and Michael Buble started singing 'Home' - total emotional overload and I sat in my car at the side of the road and cried and cried.
I thought I would take the boys to look at the next place, and at first glance it looked okay, a nicely decorated smaller character house, and we wandered around for a few minutes, until Michael said "my legs are all tickly", and I looked down and he was covered in dozens of fleas! Quick exit, with the boys frantically jumping around on the footpath, ripping their jackets and shoes off, and at that point I lost it again, and laughed my head off! Needless to say, they weren't very keen on that place!
We have now found a nice little house through a family friend, and although it's small, it feels nice. I have made sure that I have created some pretty spaces for myself, and some cool funky spaces for the boys, and I total,, , ly 'girlied' up my bedroom with new cushions, throws, and lamps. I had my friends around on Sunday afternoon, and my best friend made the point that it looks like my house, and feels welcoming - because I'm in it! Thank god for best friends!
And finally, the synchronicity. Sometimes, when you think something is a disaster, and you think you are going backwards, it can turn out that you are not going backwards at all, you are just changing direction. In the process of starting to think about a new house, I have met some amazing new people, and although there is still an undercurrent of grief running though my life, I am starting to get interested in building a new house. I have made a great new friendship with an interior designer that I started randomly talking to in our local cafe, we just clicked, and the prospect of working with her on a new house is exciting. I started talking to an architect at a local school event, and before I told him I needed to build a new house, he started telling me about his interest in Arts and Craft architecture - click! He then started telling me about an interior designer who was a close friend of his, and with whom he worked a lot, and yep- double click- it was my new friend!
We are all meeting up at my old house next week to have a talk about where to from here, the architect really wants to see what I am losing, so that we can move forward and create a new dream, whilst paying tribute to the old one. I'm starting to feel lucky again, lucky to still have my family, and lucky to have my friends -old and new- around me!
I hope everything is well with you Sally, and I hope you don't mind me rabbiting on to you!
From: Elizabeth Jane Woods
Sent: Wednesday, 30 March 2011 11:15 a.m.
To: Sally Duggan
Subject: Re: Resolution! (thanks for the word - it's great!)
I'm so sorry, I thought I had replied to your email below! Thank you so much for your praise, it really makes me feel great, and please do feel free to put anything in the magazine - that's fabulous!
I just have to tell you about an experience I had yesterday. I have been trying to decide what to do about some long-term accommodation for the boys and myself, and trying to think about how to give them the stability they need. They are both back at school, but the younger one particularly is struggling with not being in our own home and is finding staying with friends and living out of suitcases enormously stressful. He gets very tearful and asks all the time when our house is going to be ready. He can't understand why they can't just fix it, and it's really hard as a mother not to be able to solve this for him. All he wants most in the world is to go home.
I have been looking at rental properties in my area and then yesterday, on a whim, started looking at houses for sale, as my family have been talking about buying a rental that I could rent while my new house was being built. There was a house up the hill for sale and when I rang the agent to have a chat she was really nice and so helpful. We were chatting away about things when she gasped and said, "Good lord, you are Elizabeth from House & Garden!" She then went on to say how much she has enjoyed reading what I have been saying and how connected and moved she felt reading about my feelings and thoughts - it made my day!
I am going to meet up with her in the next few days to have a coffee (and invite her to our Resolution Dinner!) It's yet another example of one of the major effects of the earthquake on our community; the stripping away of reticence. There seems to be a far greater sense of unity among people now that I really hope continues. I find myself having great conversations with complete strangers, as we all have a shared experience and a common need to reach out to other people. I walked out of my office about 20 minutes ago to get a coffee - it's a sunny day here. As I walked across the car park, a lovely breeze caught my hair and as I smiled in pleasure a man coming out of the cafe grinned at me and said, "It's a great day to be alive." Yes, yes it is.
My sister and I were talking last night about how people are also getting more irritated at little things as the stress of living in our injured city starts to take its toll. We decided that the converse is also true - we are taking more pleasure out of the little things than we did before and not caring so much about things that we once thought were important. My usual cynicism is being replaced with a determination to be hopeful and to spend more time connecting with people and celebrating the little things: the white anemones in my garden that I thought the builders had trampled have flowered; my son has successfully just figured out how to tie his shoelaces (yay); I am riding my bike more because of the awful traffic; my 15-year-old has very proudly figured out how to make fabulous home-made pizzas because our regular takeaway place has closed down..
It's all hard, but it's also a great opportunity to head off in different directions and do different things that we wouldn't have considered before.
To this end, and in the spirit of "I don't care about that stuff", I am today wearing a purple velvet coat that I bought some months ago, but that I haven't been brave enough to wear yet. My sister says it makes me look like a teacher from Hogwarts, but I am wearing it today with great aplomb.
Hope your week is going well, Sally.
From: Elizabeth Jane Woods
Sent: Tuesday, 22 March 2011 2:03 p.m.
To: Sally Duggan
Subject: Resolution! (thanks for the word - it's great!)
I'm writing this from Owen River, Lo, dge, an absolutely beautiful five-star lodge on the Owen River near Murchison. I am lucky enough to have driven up here for a couple of days for a bit of a retreat and it's incredibly peaceful and incredibly beautiful. I have done some work for the owner, Felix Borenstein, over the last couple of years and Felix offered to have me here for a couple of nights as a Christchurch refugee!
Sitting here in the sun in this incredible setting, I have been thinking about your use of the word resolute, and resolution is something that is being discussed among my friends and family a fair bit at the moment!
In the first few days after February 22, I really felt like leaving Christchurch for a couple of years and coming back when it felt safe to do so. I have changed my mind.
After a few days spent away, I began to realise that Christchurch is where I want to be and that being part of the rebuild is something I want to experience, and that's where my personal resolve comes in. It was prompted by a conversation with my oldest son, Jonathan, coming home from his first day back at high school. He and his classmates and friends had been playing Truth, Dare or Promise at lunchtime and they had all made a pact and promised not to leave Christchurch - I love that! We then had a conversation about hardship - something that my sons (and probably a number of the other teenagers) have never really experienced. I am beginning to see that to have to fight for something may very well turn out to be a character-building experience for my sons and, though that sounds a bit harsh, it may very well make them stronger.
My grandmother is 97, still lives on her own, and has taken all the upheaval with a stoicism and insouciance born from experiencing World War II as an army nurse. Though the earthquakes and aftershocks have been an awful experience for her, she sails through it without flinching and has dealt calmly and cheerfully with every issue, such as lack of power and water, in a way that I both envy and admire. Having seen some of the things she has seen in her lifetime, she says that it is just another thing to deal with, and in her words refuses to "cower in a corner" - she is (also in her own words) "one tough old cookie".
So my friends and I (several of whom have also lost their homes) are organising a Resolution Dinner to get together, reaffirm our friendship, support each in our resolve to rebuild and probably drink far too much wine! The whole earthquake experience has made me much less cynical. I have a great group of friends and now, more than ever, we are going to join forces, cover each others' backs, and help each other rebuild our homes and lives.
Ladies and gentlemen, raise your glasses to the new-look Christchurch (hic!)
From: Elizabeth Jane Woods
Sent: Tuesday, 15 March 2011 1:46 p.m.
To: Sally Duggan
Subject: Re: How's it going?
How are you, I was just thinking about writing to you!
I'm okay, I am in Christchurch, although still living in Ohoka for the moment. It has been a very strange and hard few weeks and, as the dust settles (literally), we are all beginning to work around what everyone here is calling the "new normal".
It had been such a huge upheaval for everyone - that things that we would have found unbearably inconvenient in normal circumstances have become part of the way we all live. My office building is full of business refugees unable to get to their CBD offices, so we have people working in the hallways and the conference room and there is a bizarre but strangely comforting camaraderie in the air.
It takes three times as long to drive anywhere, so the traffic flow is appalling. We all drive around with bottles of water in our cars, have our mobiles fully charged at all times, jump at the sound of buses and trucks, and the sound of helicopters overhead has become commonplace. My sister has taught my two-year-old nephew to do a funny little boogie dance every time there is an aftershock and sing "rumble rumble in my tumble".
I went to Dunedin for a few days to escape the whole thing and before I went I was seriously considering moving down there, but the strange thing was, after I had been away for a day or two I began to realise that I do want to stay in Christchurch and that, even though it's going to be a hard place to be for the foreseeable future, it's going to be an interesting place in a couple of years. It confirmed to me that this is my hometown and I want to be around for the resurrection! I know that may sound mawkishy sentimental, but I think we have an opportunity to rebuild it and I would like to see it. Both my sons have also stressed that they want to stay in Christchurch and are determined to live on our section again one day.
It's almost as if the greater loss this time has pushed us beyond our grief at losing the house. It has brought home even more that things are just things and given us a more tangible determination to stay here and rebuild. It makes you realise that change is actually the only constant thing.
Things have changed so much. On the way down to Dunedin there was a hold-up at Rakaia with a road accident. There were an awful lot of cars getting out of Ch,, ristchurch and we all had to stop and turn off our cars for about an hou, , r while they cleared the road. Once upon a time we would have all sat in our cars and just waited, but it was the strangest thing - everyone got out of their cars and sat on the grass or wandered up and down talking to complete strangers. My boys and I sat on the grass and talked with a very nice older English couple and a couple of heavily tattooed truck drivers and drank ginger beer and ate jaffas.
We are also all only several degrees removed from the grief of losing people. A friend of my sister was killed as she was shopping in Manchester Street: 43 years old, two young children. My poor sister was very quiet for a few days, as they had met for a coffee in town only a couple of days before. Unfortunately for a lot of people here, attending regular funerals for the next few weeks is becoming a terrible reality.
My insurance company has been really great and, as I have no land damage issues, I may be one of the first places to be rebuilt, even though it will be months before they can start. We are going to be moving into a three-bedroom townhouse not far from my old house in the next couple of weeks and I can begin planning in earnest.
It's so nice to hear that people are enquiring about me and I would love you to pass on all my heartfelt thanks to them. In the wake of all of this, it is so encouraging to know that they are thinking of us and do let them know we are all still smiling, albeit with gritted teeth, dark shadows under our eyes and slightly hunted looks on our faces!
From: Sally Duggan
To: Elizabeth Jane Woods
Sent: Tue, 15 March, 2011 10:03:57 AM
Subject: How's it going?
Had heaps of queries about your welfare. Are you still in Christchurch? Guess with the schools going back you will have had to make a decision about settling somewhere. Love an update if you have time.
From: Elizabeth Jane Woods
Sent: Tuesday, 1 March 2011 11:17 p.m.
To: Sally Duggan
Subject: Re: how are things?
How lovely to hear that people have rung to find out how I am doing and please do let them know that we are all okay. Thank you so much for the offer of your bach, that is incredibly kind of you and I may indeed take you up on that offer in a few weeks time.
I am still in Christchurch, but staying in a friend's new, empty house in Ohoka (they are in Perth for two months), about 15km out of town, where you hardly feel the aftershocks. We were very lucky to be able to stay there, as accommodation in Christchurch is going to be increasingly hard to find. It is incredible how quickly life can be turned completely upside down and I will have to make decisions in the next few weeks about whether I stay in Christchurch or move away until I can r-build. I have spent the last week getting things out of my house. Trying to keep positive and reassuring for the boys, while dealing with the keenest grief, is really difficult. I am, however, a naturally upbeat person and in time I know I can deal with this!
There is a completely different mood here in Christchurch now - very different from after the previous quake. There is a sombreness and bleakness and a heaviness of spirit in people that wasn't there before. I was in a local cafe today when the two-minute silence was observed and it was so terrible to see people so grieving and beaten. It was, however, a moment of solidarity and testament to the human spirit to see a room full of total strangers holding hands and hugging each other afterwards. I hope that that feeling prevails for a long time to come.
It also puts all those petty little things that people get uptight about into perspective. I went to the supermarket for the first time in a week and, when the checkout girl asked me if I wanted my meat in a separate bag, I smiled and said it didn't matter at all. She said that everyone is so laid-back now, as everyone is realising that some things really don't matter. Once upon a time, just over a week ago, in another life, I was worried about whether my shoes matched my jacket, or whether that chunky necklace was a little bit much, and now those feelings feel like a lifetime ago.
Thanks, Sally, and please do pass on my deepest gratitude to all those people who have been so caring. It means so much to know they are all out there thinking of us all.
From: Elizabeth Jane Woods
Sent: Wednesday, 23 February 2011 12:20 p.m.
To: Sally Duggan
Subject: Re: Emails
Quick email from Christchurch. Horrific. My family and I are all okay, my house now completely destroyed and everything in it smashed to pieces. Twenty years of collected antique china smashed all throughout the house; it's like a giant hand has lifted my house and tossed it like a salad. Lots of houses in Cashmere ruined, Lyttelton flattened, Sumner, Redcliffs, so much devastation. Centre of town is a war zone an, d all those poor , poor people dead. At least we are alive. It kind of makes my earlier grief about my house now seem trivial. This is a terrible tragedy for our beautiful city.
My son was home by himself when it hit, and luckily dived for a doorway as a massive bookcase flew across the room and landed just where he had been sitting seconds before. It took me nearly two hours to make a drive home that usually takes me 15 minutes, thinking every second that I would find him buried in rubble. Seeing him alive and standing in our driveway was an indescribable feeling of relief. I grabbed him so tightly and we just stood there with our arms wrapped around each in silence for about 10 minutes. I have kept both my sons close to me and there are people waiting outside collapsed buildings in town waiting for sons that they will never get to hold again.
From: Elizabeth Jane Woods
Sent: Tuesday, 22 February 2011 10:29 a.m.
To: Sally Duggan
Thanks so much for forwarding through all the emails. I'm overwhelmed at how kind people are and I will definitely reply personally to some of them if that's okay.
It's interesting to see how many people identify with the theme of loss and grief and moving on. It's a universal human condition, I guess, and reminds me yet again that, if you strip away the social constructs and surface differences, we are all human; capable of feeling grief and sadness and empathising with other people.
Some of the letters actually did move me to tears, (not an easy thing to do; I am a fairly strong woman) and it made me feel so much better - there are people like me out there every day dealing with setbacks and obstacles and loss far greater than mine, which is also a timely reminder to me to count my blessings.
Some of the ideas that people came up with were great and I really am going to try to incorporate some of the features of the old house into the new one and talk to my insurance company about being allowed to keep some of the fittings and leadlight windows etc. I think an extravagant and whimsical stone folly and fountain in the new garden made out of the rock from the house would be a great idea!
Thanks again, Sally. I feel so much more positive and I will be avidly reading your magazine, garnering ideas for my new house. Onwards and upwards!
From: Elizabeth Jane Woods
Sent: Monday, 14 February 2011 1:35 p.m.
To: Sally Duggan
Subject: Christchurch Houses
I buy NZ House and Garden regularly and I was sitting here in my lunch break, reading it and drinking coffee, feeling terribly frustrated, and I thought I would get in touch with your magazine!
I live in Christchurch and my 1920s arts and crafts bungalow up on the Cashmere Hills, which I have been lovingly restoring, has been so damaged in the earthquake that it is going to be demolished.
Needless to say, this is breaking my heart. I grew up in the house next door to the one I now own and the elderly lady who used to own it (her name was Jeanne) loved me and was my friend my whole life. She never married and never had any children and I became like a daughter to her. When she became too elderly and ill to stay in the house, she asked me if I would buy it, which I did, and now live there with my two sons. I visited her nearly every day in the house as a child and to own it for my own family was an absolute dream come true for me. Jeanne passed away three years ago and lived just long enough to see me living there and loving it, which made her very happy.
It is a stone and weatherboard, possibly Hurst Seager house on a large rambling old-fashioned garden, with a fabulous city view, and to lose it is going to be so hard.
When my insurance company first gave me the bad news, I was overwhelmed with a feeling of disbelief, quickly followed by a huge sense of loss, followed by the sinking feeling of knowing I was going to have to build a new house - something I have never wanted to do. I have just spent a huge wad of money on a brand new kitchen and building that was bad enough - a brand new house is a horrible prospect.
I initially had a very nice architect up to see me to discuss what we could do and I could see him growing more and more perplexed as his buoyant enthusiasm for my fantastic section was met with increasingly pained expressions on my part. He finally stopped and said gently, "You don't really want to do this do you?" He has since come across about a dozen people, all of whom have character houses that are going to be demolished, and all of whom are only going to build because they have to.
He is used to dealing with people who are excited about building their dream home, not a group of people who are glum at the prospect. It's like going into a restaurant, starving, and being told that the only thing on the menu is fried cockroach. It's something you have to do, but it's going to be very hard to swallow!
Where do you start? The houses that my insurance company has steered me towards are concrete monstrosities, like instant McMansions, and even though I want to stay on my section, the thought of figuring out how to build a quirky, stylish, individual home that replaces a character home that I adored is very lowering. I don't have buckets of cash that I can throw into a new house, so will have to work to a large extent within the insurance company's budget. I have a house full of antiques a, nd art and a very large grand piano, all of which look fabulous in my panelled lounge, but which I am afraid will look completely ridiculous in a new house.
I have absolutely no sense of cohesive style (I tell myself my style is eclectic, but actually it's just because I haven't a clue) and the thought of choosing colours, doorknobs, carpets etc is terrifying. I am more than likely to tell them to paint everything white because I won't know what else to do.
There has got to be an article for you somewhere in the experiences of the people of Christchurch. I can't be the only one in this situation and it's a unique one for our city. I would love to see you write about where to start with building a new house: how to track down people who can help you recreate what you are losing; how to come to terms with what you are losing and move forward with enthusiasm.
My 11-year-old son saw me standing on the verandah, watching the sunset with tears rolling down my face just the other day, and our conversation went like this:
Mike: The first house on this site burnt down in 1918, didn't it, Mum?
Me: Yes, darling
Mike: And then there was this house. Nana Jeanne's house wasn't there?
Me: Yes, that's right.
Mike: Well, now it's time for us to build a house that's ours, isn't it? And the view will always be the same, Mum.
From out of the mouths of babes!
Story: Elizabeth Woods, Sally Duggan
Issue: Online Only