Getting Strangled as Gracefully As Possible, or A Year in the Belly of The Whale
I. SKY STUFF
I’ve never been much for following Sky Stuff, but I’ve always felt like I’d be a more admirable and wholesome person if I did. I feel like my friends who follow Sky Stuff are somehow one rung up the Adult Ladder from me, like the people who know how to play chess, or do their own taxes.
It was May 26th, 2021, the night of the big Blood Moon Eclipse that everyone was twittering on about. I figured I should do something, find something, go, you know… look at it.
I managed to make the effort when Ash was a tiny baby, in 2016, to fly on a few days’ notice — with a baby strapped to my back — from New York to Tennessee, to plant myself somewhere on the Path of Totality of the full solar eclipse. I still can’t believe Path of Totality isn’t the name of a New Age Nü-Metal Band. Then again, there are perhaps — fortunately? — not too many New Age Nü-Metal Bands.
I drove with some Tennessee people I barely knew to a field in the middle of nowhere and then wandered off with Baby Ash, standing in awe in some random southern summer cornfield as the light went strange and dim and the animals all quieted down.
The most remarkable memory of those few eclipse-minutes was the fact that Ash went down for a nap just as the light dimmed — like all the other mammals, he was fooled — and I lay him lovingly on a little patch of farm grass as I enjoyed the relative freedom of no crying baby. I stared up at the missing sun, tried to think profound thoughts, and did a few yoga sun salutations while listening to the far-off whoops and whoos from far-off neighboring farm fields, peering through my eclipse glasses from time to time at the strangeness in the sky.
When I picked Baby Ash up from the grass, he was covered in red spots.
I’d inadvertently allowed him — in my blissful moment of sun worship — to get bitten by a mob of chiggers, little practically-invisible members of the arachnid family that live in tall grass and bite the shit out of you if you don’t wear long pants in the south.
He looked like he had chicken pox. Poor fucking baby. The proud time-lapse footage that I had cleverly captured by setting my iPhone against the root of a nearby tree — a one minute film of the darkening and lightening sky, starring my noble-looking sun salutations and my sweet innocent child wrapped in swaddling clothing at my goddess-like feet — now felt more like CCTV evidence of child negligence.
Last month, a rare moment of Sky Stuff — the Blood Moon Eclipse — came the way of Aotearoa New Zealand. Some folks in America were getting a bit of a view, but New Zealand had the jackpot viewing location.
Neil had Ash for the night, which was a nice coincidence. The Sky Stuff was scheduled for about 10pm and Ash would likely be asleep anyway, but I was also pleased that I would avoid any stupid encore of accidentally injuring my child during the act of sky-gazing.
Ash is almost six now. He has not been in America since he was three.
He turns six in September, and he loves telling people his birthday date — September 16th. He also loves telling people about Greek Myths, particularly the fact that Hades has smoke coming out of his head, and did you know that Medusa’s hair is made out of SNAKES, and did you know that there is a river that divides Dead People and Alive People and that Dead People can’t go where Alive People are and Alive People can’t go where Dead People are, and he also loves telling people that he and his friend from kindergarten Aya HAD a wedding planned, but then they just decided to be best friends, but they are still going to have a wedding but that it is going to be a best-friend wedding, and about the habits of all the different carnivorous plants, listing the various ways such plants lure their prey.
“DID YOU KNOW….” he will begin many sentences, sounding remarkably like his father, whose propensity to begin most sentences with “DID YOU KNOW….” is so habitual that it’s entered the lexicon of Things Neil Says That I Make Fun Of But Hopefully Not To The Point Where His Feelings Are Hurt But Seriously He Says It So Often It’s Comical So I Have to Point It Out.
Ash is obsessed with Animals Killing Other Animals, Plants Who Kill Animals, Gods and Monsters and Trolls and Beasts who mangle and swallow things whole; he’s basically just really into murdering, killing, trapping, poisoning, and the destruction of life in general.
This seems natural and predictable to me. If we were living in our usual hunter-gatherer situation — unlike this mess of a modern world — he’d be following his parents around all day, watching us hunt, trap, gather and forage, instead of this confusing barrage of nonsensical images he’s exposed to: adults driving cars, adults sitting in chairs, adults getting very stressed about emails and texts, peering anxiously into little three-inch screens as if that’s where the food is coming from.
None of this is what his DNA has conditioned him for. He’s supposed to be learning from us how to find shelter, evade predators, hunt, get food. It’s futile, but I’m trying. Whenever possible, I take him to the local Countdown Supermarket and he gets to pick any vegetable he wants and we cook it for dinner. It is not like taking him hunting, but it’s better than nothing. We hunt the wild celery under the punishing fluorescent lights of modernity.
I wondered what to do for eclipse night.
I heard through our local babysitter, Bee, that there was a cacao ceremony somewhere on the island, hidden in the bush (that’s what they call the woods here in New Zealand. I know, it’s sort of funny) on the other side of our tiny village, in some private house that apparently gets used for little yoga events and other hippie undertakings. This isn’t unusual on Waiheke. A lot of things just happen in people’s houses, it’s a tiny island, and there aren’t a ton of venues. Massage therapists work out of their living rooms and rely on word of mouth, people teach yoga out of their converted garages, and people run craft beer and ping-pong speakeasies out of their basements.
I was intrigued by the idea of going to hang with the hippies for Sky Stuff night. I didn’t have any other invitations, and the idea of just going to the beach by myself felt kinda lonely. I’ve been lonely enough this year. Like many people displaced or locked down because of COVID and forced into monastic celibacy for a variety of reasons, my thirst for any sort of human contact has been raging.
To further entice me, I’d also just taken part in my first cacao ceremony a few weeks before, while on a hiking retreat in the freezing South Island mountains. It was, from the outside, basically just a group of people in a circle, doing a little meditation and drinking some super-nice unsweetened hot chocolate.
But it was also a ritual. We were asked to consider our paths, our families. I hadn’t eaten anything for a while, and I was therefore full of feelings, so when I drank the cacao I got immediately weepy. I then wrote a long letter to the part of myself who talks too fucking much. It was relieving.
So I decided to go to the island cacao ceremony and maybe see if I didn’t have another enlightening insight about something, anything.
Like many traditional sacred gatherings, the cacao ceremony was being organized solely through Facebook. I never message through Facebook, but I grumbly submitted, sending the guy in charge of the cacao ceremony a little message reserving my place with a promise that I’d pay him the $27 in cash since I didn’t have a Kiwi bank account to do a bank transfer as requested. The person running the sacred ceremony sent me back a thumbs-up emoji.
Who are these people? I thought.
The ceremony was scheduled — according to the Facebook event page — to start at 8pm, and planned to leave my island rental house at around 7:45pm on my bicycle (my heavy-duty electric bike that I bought in Hawkes Bay, my beautiful bike that has a kid-seat on the back, my bike that I speed down to Ash’s school on to pick him up with a banana or an apple in my pocket, my beloved bike that was very expensive and tarnished-silvery-gray and heavy with thick tires, my lovely bike that is the pride of my loins, and oh my blue bicycle helmet) in order to arrive at the Hippie House at eight o’clock on the dot.
But at around 7:30, as I finished up eating a tiny salad in my quiet kitchen, the clouds parted and moon — in which I had taken a sudden new interest this evening — started to look really alluring. I could see it rising up over the low, rugged mountains to the east from my front porch, an astoundingly round and bright sight, this blood moon that was about to be partially swallowed up by the shadow of the earth.
Somehow the knowledge that the moon was about to be partly erased gave it a different appearance, a kind of thrilling sheen.
I was excited, and lonely, and done with my day’s work, and for the first time in days, I had no child with me. So, feeling giddy, I decided to flip on the internet and do a quick little piano-stream webcast thing for my patrons.
I hadn’t done one of these spontaneous patron-only streams in ages. Even though I knew I couldn’t show the bright, bright moon through my camera phone on a web-stream, I figured I could at least put on some goth make-up and share the excitement. With parts of the whole earth being excited by the moon and New Zealand being in the first time zone to see the Blood Moon, I felt somehow privileged. I am in a remote place in the world where there is Sky Stuff happening! And I am PARTICIPATING!
I never really get dressed up anymore. There’s kinda no reason to. Not that I have many dress-up clothes here. I came to New Zealand in March of 2020 with a single suitcase, expecting to go home to New York a week later. Then Covid and the ensuing collapses and disasters happened. Nightlife and dress-up life are a distant memory. Even though I could theoretically swing it, I haven’t been performing much, I am too exhausted. And I never really go to parties, as there aren’t many parties to go to, and I’m also too exhausted, and anyway the kinds of parties I would go to are the kinds of parties where I wear jeans and flip-flops. It’s an island.
So I put on my one Nice Dress, the only one I’ve bought since getting here: it’s a long, flowing two-layered rainy-grey tunic that I spotted in an Old Lady and Tourist shop back in Hawkes Bay, the first town we lived in after lockdown. We lived there for ten months before we came to Waiheke, in time for Ash to start Kindergarten.
The Nice Dress makes me look a little like a Greek-goddess statue, and a little like a clothesline.
It’s floaty and expansive, with no waist; if you spread your arms out, it’s just a giant square and you’re almost as big as an ordinary twin-size bedsheet. The material is scarfy; thin enough to feel soft and delicious, but thick enough that you can wear it without immediate nipple offense.
I donned the Nice Dress, I did the salad dishes, I lit some candles, I put on some eyeliner for the first time in ages, and then I did about thirty minutes of frolicking in front of my patrons as the moon begged to be described. I chatted with strangers through little text bubbles, played the piano a little, and then looked at the time. Again, I hadn’t eaten much that day, possibly in a subconscious bid to re-enact my enlightening cacao experience #1, but on that note, it probably wasn’t wise to drink two glasses of red wine on a tiny salad in any scenario.
I left the house in my flowing grey tunic with my wallet, phone and keys tucked safely in a cross-body bag. I felt electric. I had made it through the day, I had made it though the fucking year, I had managed to do something on the internet for my patrons, which is always a thing that makes me feel fulfilled and less guilty, and I was on my way to a cacao ceremony on a tiny island in New Zealand on my electric bike. IN A NICE DRESS. I put my blue helmet on. It was dark. I switched on the little headlight in the front of my bike. I pushed back the kickstand and started rolling down the steep driveway.
We live atop a hill. The whole island of Waiheke is a hill. Volcanic, dramatically squished in on itself, there are practically no flat areas, no broad streets, no expansive flat fields like our last town, Hawkes Bay, where everything was endless sheep and apple fields as far as the eye could see: the Kansas of New Zealand.
Our volcanic driveway is short and sharp, I keep banging the undercarriage of my car on it, and the actual street itself is also mildly perilous. I checked my phone before tucking it away, one final time, into my cross-body bag. It was 8:15, but the cacao ceremony certainly wouldn’t start exactly at eight o’clock. I had a few minutes, and the Hippie House was only a ten-minute bike ride away. The salty ocean air started to rush past my face as I floated out into the night, feeling like a beautiful apparition in a beautiful dress, having just done something magical, about to embark on something even more magical. I felt so… I dunno… proud of myself.
At the bottom of the driveway, I began to pick up speed. I turned right onto our steep street. I was flying now, the moon directly in front of me, beckoning me onwards, rising, rising, shimmering between massive cumulus clouds. I felt invited. I felt inspiring, like a Good Witch on a Bike, a kind sorceress, going past Dorothy’s window in a black-and-white dream sequence.
And then I felt something around my neck, strangling me.
I knew immediately what had happened.
My flowing tunic had gotten caught in the back wheel, and was pulling me off the bike.
I was careening down a hill in the dark, going fifteen miles an hour, being strangled by my own fucking dress.
. . . . . . . . . . .
I called my mother the other day.
She and John, my lifelong step-dad, have been on Cape Cod for most of the pandemic, living near the sea in their little summer house.
She asked me if I had heard the Story of the Whale.
I had not. What was the Story of the Whale?
I haven’t been on social media much lately, and speaking as an addict, I am increasingly grateful for that, and proud of myself.
Even after Trump lost the election, the doom-scrolling still kept a tight grip on me. The January 6th attack on the Capitol happened, and things still felt urgent. I could not stop scrolling.
But by around mid-March, with Covid still surging and moaning but with no news from the States blaring daily emergency warnings about the immediate safety of my friends and family, I decided to detox. I stopped reading the New York Times every few hours. Then, for a few days here and there, I stopped reading it at all. For a week, I stopped scrolling through Facebook, and Twitter, and Instagram. Then another week. I stopped even listening to RNZ (the Kiwi equivalent of NPR, which I’ve found very comforting to listen to since arriving in this foreign country).
I started taking pleasure in just reading the kind and thoughtful comments on my Patreon. I started hiking more.
And then these things happen, like the Story of the Whale, and, like the old days, I don’t know unless someone tells me.
And as it turns out, it was my mother who told me the Story of the Whale, and I think, had my mother not told me, nobody else would have told me.
After she told me the Story of the Whale, I went on to share it with many locals over the course of my day. Ash’s babysitter (she’d seen the story on The Internet). The woman at the grocery store, where I go almost daily to get fruits and vegetables (she’d also heard about the whale). The optometrist, as she administered my eye exam and had to kill some time while my pupil re-dilated. We sat there, making small talk, and I said: have you heard the Story of the Whale?
She had not. I got to be the one who told her the Story of the Whale.
After my eye exam, as we walked out of the examination room, she told her husband behind the counter (he’s also an optometrist, it’s the cutest thing, they’re both optometrists, and they run the little island glasses store as a couple).
Anyway, he HAD heard the Story of the Whale. Maybe he saw it on the internet. I don’t know. Maybe he heard it on the radio news. Maybe it made international headlines. I’ll never know. I just know my mother told me and by the time I left the house that day, most of New Zealand knew the story.
This is the Story of the Whale.
Off the shores of Provincetown, a veteran local fisherman named Michael Packard was underwater, pulling up lobster pots when his co-fishing friend Josiah noticed a burst of white bubbles emerging from Michael’s diving gear. Then Josiah saw an explosion of white water. Michael Packard had been literally swallowed by a humpback whale — a young one, they think.
He was inside the whale for almost a minute, and then he got spit out.
I was inside it. I was inside its mouth, he said.
It tried to eat me….I could sense I was moving, and I could feel the whale squeezing with the muscles in his mouth.
From the Washington Post:
At about 8 a.m., Packard plunged about 45 feet deep, and almost reached the ocean floor when he “felt this truck hit me and everything just went dark,” he said in an interview with WBTS.
“And I could feel just … hard stuff all around me,” Packard said. “And I just thought, ‘Did I just get eaten by a white shark?’ And then I said, ‘No, I don’t feel any teeth.’ And I said, ‘Oh my God, I’m in the mouth of a whale. With his mouth shut.’ ”
Packard felt the whale swimming and shoved his breathing regulator back into his mouth.
“I’m like, ‘This is how you’re gonna go, Michael. This is how you’re going to die. In the mouth of a whale,’ ” he recalled thinking.
For about 30 to 40 seconds, Packard twisted, turned and coped with an agonizing pressure on his legs. He could feel the whale’s forceful head shakes.
. . . . . . . . . . .
I’ve never been into scuba-diving, but I don’t really fear it, either. I’ve been once or twice.
Statistically, it’s like anything else.
Your chances of slipping in the shower, falling down the stairs, or, say, getting into an automobile accident are far higher than the chances of your diving gear leaving you stranded underwater, umbilicus torn, unable to breathe.
But why do you think everybody loves the Story of the Whale?
What were the chances?
The Story of the Whale has a happy ending: Michael survived, he was discharged from the hospital that night with only a dislocated knee.
According to the interviews, he’s probably back to fishing now, with a little extra fame to brighten his day and put a spring in his step. He was interviewed on Jimmy Kimmel’s late night TV show a few days later. He said:
I just want to apologize to the whale for getting in its way.
Would that all human beings were so compassionately in tune with nature.
(What would he say to the lobsters, however?)
. . . . . . . . . . .
I was truly frightened. I knew that if I jumped off my bike, I’d be attached to the material of the dress, which was attached to the bike, and who knows what that would mean, physics-wise.
The dress wouldn’t easily rip, and if I fell the wrong way, I might break a leg or an arm. Or make the situation worse by fully strangling myself.
I don’t want to die this way.
My brain scrambled the options; I had to make some kind of choice.
I slammed on the handbrakes, fast enough to stop the bike but slowly enough that I wouldn’t flip over. I shifted all my weight to the right, trying to fall onto the ground before the tunic got even more tangled, before it could strangle me further, and I fell, choking, with the material from the dress still yanking my throat shut. It hurt.
Now I was on the ground.
Still unable to breathe.
I need to pause here and say that, big-picture-wise, I have grown increasingly proud of my ability to literally find the humor of these stupid situations in the actual moment they happen to happen.
Something mentally shifted during the “There Will Be No Intermission” tour, and became cemented during lockdown.
I’ve never felt happier. Despite everything. Despite everyone. Despite the insanity. I can laugh at ALL of it, and easily.
Perhaps it was the sheer rock-bottom of my situation last year, plus the sudden (and frightening) re-emergence of the sorts of panic attacks that I hadn’t experienced since I was a teenager, which forced me to tap into a recently-discovered wisdom and patience that I’ve managed to harness since going through — and making a show about — three abortions, a twenty-four hour natural childbirth, and a hardcore miscarriage of a three-month old fetus all alone in a hotel room on a cold Christmas night.
Or to put it more simply: I thought I had the tools to deal with the dark, but it was only the beginning. It turns out that what I thought was pure darkness was just rehearsal for a level of absolute blackness I could not have anticipated. But rock bottom can be incredibly liberating.
And perhaps it’s being forty-five. But I now find everything hilarious: even in the very moment that the full bottle of wine is falling from the grocery bag onto the tile floor, even as the car handbrake starts screeching as I realize I’ve been driving with it on for two minutes, even as I search, slightly panicked, for my glasses (I have glasses now, for the first time in my life), my wallet, my phone, my purpose in life. Even when the occasional text comes though from someone saying YOU ARE A FUCKING TERRIBLE PERSON.
And those do occasionally come through.
I’m able to laugh, quickly, deeply. I’m somehow able to step outside of the panicked mammal, grin, shake my head with sympathy at me, at them, at us all…. and sometimes I even allow myself an audible, full-throated belly-laugh before I even realize I’m doing it.
This wasn’t, for the record, one of those moments where I belly-laughed.
I couldn’t laugh.
I was choking.
. . . . . . . . . . .
II. THE BELLY OF THE WHALE
Yesterday was the winter solstice here, for me, down under. It’s disorienting. It’s weirder than the fact that it’s “summer” where all my friends are and “winter” down here. Night here, day there. That feels sort of… general. A solstice — something this specific — is almost like a step too far, like someone telling you your birthday is actually in July, not January. It’s just all wrong.
The summer solstice for my old self, my old calendar, my old emotional map, is the day Anthony, my best friend who helped make me who I am, died of cancer. He died in the summer. He did not die in the winter. Perhaps, if I stay in New Zealand, it means he will not have died at all.
He’d been sick for four years. His illness changed my life, my career, my marriage. He died on June 21st, 2015, eleven minutes after 11:11pm.
I was with him when he died. So was Neil. And little Ash was there, safe in my belly, two months away from being born. Squished in his womb-home, breathing though a long fleshy tube attached to his little fetal stomach. The umbilical cord that Neil would cut a few minutes after he emerged, with scissors provided by our midwife, Joanne Santana.
I wrote about Anthony dying, the day after it happened.
We were in America, then, in Lexington, my hometown. Anthony died in his living room, next to the house I grew up in. It was the longest day of the year. Now it’s the shortest. For me, at least. For us, down here. The darkest.
It was exactly six years ago. But it was summer. It wasn’t winter.
Maybe… I can fix this.
Ash’s in utero name was Anthony. I whispered in his ear, before he died: we’re naming him Anthony. But we nicknamed the baby Ash. Ash, the leftover material from all the cremated bodies, all our dead beloved, Neil’s Dad, my brother Karl, Ash, the world tree from Norse mythology, Ash, from Evil Dead.
Ash, who turned to me and Neil four days ago while skipping down High Street in Auckland on the way to Unity Bookstore, and said, giggling, You can call me Anthony, you know.
Sometimes he just says that, out of the blue. He knows that Anthony is his Big Name.
Sometimes I wonder if, like the breeze through which I sometimes feel his ongoing presence, it’s Dead Anthony himself speaking through my little boy’s lips, just paying us a visit from across the river Styx.
I don’t believe in such things.
Except that, in a roundabout way, I do.
. . . . . . . . . . .
A passage, from bible study tools (dot) com….
God called to Jonah one day and told him to go preach to Nineveh because the people were very wicked. Jonah hated this idea because Nineveh was one of Israel’s greatest enemies and Jonah wanted nothing to do with preaching to them.
Jonah tried to run away from God in the opposite direction of Nineveh and headed by boat to Tarshish. God sent a great storm upon the ship and the men decided Jonah was to blame so they threw him overboard. As soon as they tossed Jonah in the water, the storm stopped.
God sent a whale to swallow Jonah and to save him from drowning. While in the belly of the whale, Jonah prayed to God for help, repented, and praised God.
For three days … Jonah sat in the belly of the whale.
Then, God had the whale throw up Jonah onto the shores of Nineveh.
. . . . . . . . . . .
Between tight little gulps of air, I tried not to panic. I felt the sting of gravel and blood in my hands, and I quickly examined — by the light of the moon, remember? — the wads of dress material caught in the gears.
My only hope of being able to breathe again was to quickly untangle the material from the back wheel and free my neck, so I desperately started to spin the back wheel of the bicycle in reverse, hoping that the material would give and that I could undo the damage, the giant mouthfuls of material that my electric bike had gobbled into its greasy mouth.
Thank fuck. It worked. The material unwound; I could breathe again. The metal fender that protects the back chain of the bike was all banged up and twisted out of shape. I felt a deep ache in my right hip. I wiped my slightly bloody hands off on my overcoat.
I want to think that if anybody had caught this moment on film, I would have been the picture of sophisticated grace, being slowly, dramatically and cinematically strangled by my own dress on my own noble electric bike, like some eco-warrior Isadora Duncan.
Years of yoga and mindfulness practice coming to full fruition. Deliriously unattached to the outcome. As if you could see the beautiful fluid script in the thought bubble above my peaceful head: Yes, if I die this way, strangled to death by my own dress on my bicycle, this is a fine way to go. I did well, I did well.
Right, then. Whatever. Now I was actually fucking late for the party. I was wounded, but not fatally. I could still go to the cacao ceremony and maybe have another Enlightening Experience.
Since I could breathe, I could now laugh at myself. I wondered if I would have gotten trapped in the maw of my own clothing if I hadn’t had two glasses of wine on a stomach filled with only a tiny salad.
I tucked the material of my tunic (which was now covered in black grease) into the back of my leggings, making another catastrophe less likely, and made it to the cacao ceremony at around 8:35. Battered, winded, greasy, internally humiliated, but also still thrilled, and… sort of on time?
Oh dude. No. I was so very wrong about the casual start time. I could see the inevitability of my extreme lateness through the large glass door and windows as I made my way towards the Hippie House hidden in the bush. Forty sweet local hippies were crammed into the broad living room, in silent ceremony. A few of them had their backs up against the glass front door. They were meditating.
I was really late.
Bad dream late.
I considered my options.
I could leave. Or I could just linger by the door and see if anybody noticed me and took pity on me. Or I could just slowly creak the door open and walk in, hoping not to make too much of a disturbance.
. . . . . . . . . . .
For three days … Jonah sat in the belly of the whale.
What the fuck kind of story has a person finding safety — thanks to an interventionist deity — in a place that can actually obviously kill you in a matter of minutes? Bible stories that get mangled and passed down with incorrect metaphors, probably.
I considered why it was so exciting to tell everybody the Story of the Whale. I told it to the optometrist, to my barista, to the babysitter, to my friend in LA, to Regina Spektor, a fellow songwriter, in a text message (She’s back in New York; I suggested she write the song, because I’m too tired to write songs right now, and then she said she was too tired too, and then we both agreed that just sending messages back and forth with little whale emojis was about the best poetic effort we could summon at the moment), to the parents I saw when I biked to pick Ash up from school that day.
But I didn’t tell Ash.
I didn’t think he was ready for it. Not quite yet.
There’s something important and fragile about his obsession with monsters, but they live in books. True death and danger have stayed thankfully at bay, far from his safe little New Zealand world… for now at least. The mythical creatures that haunt him are just that, mythical; they can stay safely in his imagination. The true horror will come later, Ash. You’ve got lots of time.
And for days, I chewed on the mental image of Michael in the Whale, and couldn’t spit it out. I found myself — at odd moments of the day, while making Ash’s toast, while looking for the key to my P.O. Box, while cleaning up the lego from under the couch — contemplating Michael’s moments inside the whale, about how that forty seconds passed, about the succession of thoughts that went through his head, as utter whale-dark squished his body.
About this whole year feeling, to me, to many, like being in the dark belly of the whale. Alive, not dead, not dead YET, but in terrifying pressurized darkness, with no predictability about when, or whether, we might get spit back onto dry land.
But I also found myself thinking about Michael’s day the next day. About the reality of an “unbelievable” lived experience.
What were the chances?
Here’s the thing. This man, having emerged from the mouth of the whale (say that again, really think about it, okay let’s continue) then went back to his “normal life”. Immediately.
Or… did he?
There he’d be, waking up the next morning on Cape Cod, in his own bed, ready to go downstairs and put a pot of coffee on and maybe read the Cape Cod Times and take a poo, and then… the thought rushes in like a freight train, toppling back into his brain as he feels the sudden swelling pound from his dislocated knee: Holy fuck. I was inside a whale yesterday. I WAS INSIDE A WHALE.
And I could say that I cannot imagine that, except that I can, because it feels very close to how I feel every day when I wake up here in New Zealand.
This actually… happened.
Every morning, for fifteen months, I have woken up and shaken off a kind of disbelief. That this is happening on earth. To me. To my family. To my friends. To billions of strangers. The virus. The dead. The ongoing lockdowns. The impossible.
What were the chances?
That I was here in New Zealand for four shows. That my 80-date tour dropped me off, in its final week, in the one country on earth that managed to spare itself from a global plague.
That had my shows in New Zealand been scheduled for one week earlier, or a few days later, I would not be here. (I’d have locked down in Australia, but more likely, I would have gone home to New York.)
I haven’t told Ash this story, either.
Not really. He knows we are here because of Covid. But I cannot explain the 600,000 dead in our country. I cannot explain why we had to stay. I cannot explain the difference between New Zealand, where he has never encountered another child in a mask, and New York, where some of his old friends haven’t touched another child in over a year. I don’t want to tell him about that the way I don’t want to tell him about the man getting swallowed by the whale.
Even if there’s a happy ending.
For fifteen months… Mama and Ash sat in the belly of the whale.
Waiting to either get spit out, or to go home, or to be reborn into Whale Poop, to get eaten by the other sea creatures. Nobody was ever quite sure.
DID YOU KNOW that some creatures in the sea eat poop, and that’s their job?
. . . . . . . . . . .
I decided to just open the glass door and walk — respectfully, apologetically — into the cacao ceremony. On tiptoe, to show my reverence for the sacred space.
I cracked the glass door open. Forty people were crammed into the candle-lit living room, seated on the floor, lining the walls, silently passing around cups of cacao. My entrance interrupted.
There were some giggles from the collective. I was late, and it was obvious, and it was apparently funny. I murmured a wordless, giggling apology that I hoped fit the mood of the moment, and slipped my shoes off, sitting by the door in between two long-haired people seated contemplatively on throw pillows. My hip hurt. My hands stung. I was passed a cup of cacao.
I knew a few of the people there, I could make their faces out in the dim light. Vic, who watches Ash sometimes, a fellow Covid-waylaid from South Africa. And some faces that I knew through her.
And then, a sea of strangers. Strangers of Waiheke Island, who, an hour later, would entwine their bodies with mine, wordless, in a giant human cuddle pile, before going outside to bay at the disappearing moon. So this is what a cacao ceremony on Waiheke Island is like: a wordless gathering of communion cuddles.
Where have these people been all my life? I mean, I know. They’ve been at Burning Man and stuff and in the towns and places I never go to anymore because I’m too busy being a Mother and being on the Internet.
I needed it badly, this medicine. I needed to cuddle strangers. (I’ve missed touring. A lot. That part, especially.)
As we sat in a huddle, after imbibing the chocolate but before the silence, the leader of the ceremony — a gender-neutral Scandinavian with a fur vest, earrings, a beautiful smile and a shaved head and who, in my mind, has come to represent the solar side of the shadow self of the nitwit in the Viking-Hat-and-furs-get-up at the Capitol Riots, whose likeness is irritatingly burned into my mind’s eye forever — laid out some guidelines. We were asked if we wanted to share anything with the group, to speak aloud before descending into silence.
I raised my hand. And I offered up my story — by way of apology, but hopefully also spiritual entertainment — about trying to fall as gracefully as possible from my bicycle as my dress strangled me.
People laughed. I felt included, forgiven. We bowed our heads — sightless, wordless, identity-less, together — and our genderless leader invited us to fall as gracefully as possible into the belly of the whale, into the night, into one another’s arms. To join the moon in being swallowed whole.
. . . . . . . . . . .
It looks like we may be heading back to America, after living in this foreign country by accident for about a year and a half. We’ll be coming back sometime in the late summer, American-season-wise.
I will have not left this country, this whale, this pressure on my legs, for about seventeen months at that point.
For seventeen months… Mama and Ash sat in the belly of the whale.
I wake up every morning in a state of disbelief… that is slowly wearing away.
With every telling of the story, it becomes a little more believable. But also, with every passing month away from home, it becomes a little less believable.
For about a year — from lockdown until a few months ago — I was unable to walk into a coffeeshop, a theater, a restaurant, a movie, a party without feeling a profound sense of awe. I get to be here, where it is normal. While the world is locked down.
Then, one day, I noticed that my awe had worn away. That I was thinking like a Kiwi. That my awe had been replaced by a kind of mundane regularity. I was just going to a restaurant. I was just worried about getting my car to the mechanic. I was just planning Ash’s school vacation to Queenstown.
What were the chances?
Since starting my touring career in my mid-twenties, this is the longest stretch of time I have spent in any given country at one go — including my home country. I am always leaving somewhere, and always going somewhere else, and for the last fifteen months, I have moved between two towns, but I have mostly stayed put. It has changed me. I know the people at the grocery store, at the butcher, at the library, at the movie theater, at the clothing shop downtown, at the souvenir store, at the little art gallery, at the musical museum, at the post office, at the bank, at the rare rock shop, at the bike shop, at the coffee shop, and at the statioeary store. By name. That has never been true, anywhere, in my life.
I was on tour with “There Will Be No Intermission” — cue rimshot — for nine months before getting waylaid here. Come August, I will have been away from my home, my house, my everything, for two solid years.
This actually… happened.
When I left, it was going to be for a long nine months. Seven months away in the UK, and touring Europe, and then a two-month tour planned for Australia, child and husband in tow, and then a final week in adorable little New Zealand, poor little New Zealand, which always gets tacked on last to every global tour, because they’re at the ass-end of the earth. (Even Australians make fun of the Kiwis for being remote. And Australia is already the ass-end of the earth from a colonialist, UK-centric point of view.)
But right now, for me, the center of the universe is here, in my bed, which is in a rental house atop a little hill a short walk from the beach. Ash calls it the Ice Cream House. We moved here from Kansas-of-New-Zealand Hawkes Bay in February, almost a year after getting waylaid here, so that Ash could start Kindergarten in a little Steiner school where they had a lucky and rare place for a kid his age.
People keep saying “stuck”. I didn’t get “stuck” here. I chose to stay here. I could have gone home. Any day. I have the Ruby Slippers. Like Dorothy. Click click click. Whenever.
I just…. haven’t.
For obvious reasons. Covid. More Covid. We stay in the belly, under pressure. In Aotearoa, Land of the Long White Cloud, the land that, according to Māori legend, is actually a stingray that the demigod Maui hauled up from the bottom of the ocean.
Ash loves that story.
“DID YOU KNOW….”
. . . . . . . . . . .
Ash is afraid of Rangitoto.
Rangitoto is the volcanic island we pass by every time we take the ferry to or from the city.
It’s not inhabited, but you can visit.
We have never visited.
I’ve suggested the idea to Ash, but he’s not a fan. It’s not just a volcanic island, it’s SHAPED like a volcano. Like a cartoon volcano. When we are on the ferry, and we see the island in the distance, he dramatically shrieks RANGITOTO! QUICK! HIDE! VOLCAAAANOOOO!!
Rangitoto literally means “Sky Blood”. Early white settlers speculated that the name was evidence of an eyewitness account of its eruption. But the name has nothing to do with the volcano; Rangitoto’s full name is Te Rangi i totongia te ihu a Tama-te-kapua: “the day the blood of Tama-te-kapua’s nose flowed”, in memory of an ancient battle on the island between the Tainui people and their rivals, Te Arawa.
I have never googled to see how active the volcano is, and whether Ash’s fears are even remotely justified. My guess is that the Auckland-Waiheke ferry would not be displaying looping TV ads for family walks on Rangitoto Island if there was an immediate threat of death.
Then again, I’ve visited some active volcanoes, and isn’t it just sort of — again — an ongoing death-risk assessment? The way we know we are living on tectonic plates, with immediate earthquake possibility under our feet at all moments? And we just get on with it?
I’m not going to google. I could, and I won’t. I’m just going to assume that the volcano is not a Threat.
This is the story I will tell Ash.
We are safe.
Ash said to me, from the back of the car the other day:
I want to move.
I said: Where do you want to move? Back to Havelock North? Back to Woodstock?
He said: To the moon.
I said: Why do you want to move to the moon, Ash? It’s really dark and lonely up there.
He Said: Because on the moon, there is no thunder and lightning and no volcanoes.
I said: Ah.
He said: Where is there on earth where there is no thunder and no lightning and no volcanoes?
I scanned my brain. Is there such a place? The Arctic? The Sahara? I think those places must get thunder and lightning, at least occasionally… I couldn’t come up with a good answer.
I said: I mean, there are lots of places with no volcanoes, but I think thunder and lightning is kind of everywhere. I don’t think there is a place you can go where there’s really none at all. I think thunder and lightning is just part of life.
He said: I want to move to the moon. I want to move to where there is no thunder and lightning and no volcanoes.
I thought: And I want to move to where there is no suffering, no cruelty, no pain, no war, and no Facebook.
And I thought: Good fucking luck, kid.
. . . . . . . . . . .
I’m scared of going home.
And I’m not at all scared of going home.
And I’m scared of not going home.
I’m worried about the pressure change; the bends, the sea legs.
I’m worried about traveling from this country, down here, with our total lack of Covid Culture, to the country up there, with the masks, the ricochet of trauma, the social architecture all kinked and changed.
I miss my community, I miss my country, I miss my old life and everything that was familiar to me more deeply than I have ever experienced.
I’m not ready. I want to move to where there is no thunder and lightning and no volcanoes.
If I go home, I have a feeling I’d wake up most mornings, like Michael of the Whale, and look out the window, wondering if it could have possibly really happened.
What were the chances?
Then again, perhaps this is the way we all manage to come around to the ultimate realization. The final, master-level understanding of the sheer unlikelihood that is the miracle of existence.
For about nine months… you sat in the belly of the whale.
Then she spat you out.
Maybe you’re still not ready.
But here you are, my child, my sister, my brother. My friend.
Welcome to the rest of your life… however unlikely.
. . . . . . . . . . .
All photographs taken (and post-edited) by Duncan Innes on Waiheke Island, Friday, April 9th, 2021. Additional photograph of Rangitoto Island also care of Duncan, from his archives.
The story of the Blood Moon was in May. So it’s all just a lovely coincidence that I had shots of The Dress to pair with this essay.
What were the chances?
Styling at the photoshoot was by Carla Torrance.
The essay was content-edited and copy-edited by several people. In order of eyeballs and edits: Neil Gaiman, Kelly Welles and Alex Knight. Many thanks to all three of them. And special thanks to Victoria Simpson for reading an early draft, fixing a few typos and making a couple recommendations.
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