Finding Hope in Whakatū

I cross the last bridge and I can hear sound of water gently falling, over and above the sound of water roaring of rocks below me.

8 min read
Finding Hope in Whakatū

My friend Annie told me to ignore the signs, so I do. I pass the one that says “track to Whispering Falls closed due to landslide risk,” and then three more - two that say “it’s inadvisable for hikers to traverse the slip",” a washed out river crossing, and under a chain that reads “track closed due to multiple slips ahead”. I’m glad I do - if it wasn’t for Annie’s advice, I probably would have turned back at each one.

The last three months have been so busy, I haven’t been able to consciously think about this panel. My one job has turned into three as I step into a leadership position and start work on this big contract. In this six week period, I’m away from home five times - Ōtepoti, Whakatū, Narrm, Pōneke, Tāmaki. And then there was an election.

I’ve never been to Whakatū Nelson before, not that I can remember. I choose to drive rather than take the offer of a flight.

When I first started driving, I told my therapist I loved it because I felt like I had to be so present - that if I left my body at the wrong moment, it could be disastrous. My therapist is like if Suzy Cato left children’s TV and went into psychology - she’s the best. She said “that won’t last long - eventually, you’ll get used to it. I zone out when I drive.”

I have got used to it, but I still like driving. I find it meditative. I drive past the turnoff for Hamner Springs and into places I’ve never been before. Every scene out the window is new, every curve in the road unexpected. Hurunui is mountainous, dramatic. I had heard there was a 200km stretch of road with no shops, no chance for a pie, but I didn’t realise I had hit it already until I was well into Lewis Pass.

It feels like a loaded, complex time to be talking about hate and disinformation. I keep going to call the panel Fear and Loathing in Whakatū. Just this week I’ve been invited to another conference to talk about disinformation and what we do next. I didn’t intend this to be my gig.

At the bar, after the celebration of 50 years of the writing of Witi Ihimaera, we get talking about this, about how we’re invited to talk about things we maybe would rather not talk about. Would rather not be our niche, the things people call on us for. The last question of the panel is “what would you spend your time doing, if you didn’t have to do this?”

The trail takes me over the river where a family is swimming. It seems like it’s summer in Whakatū. Maybe it always is. I cross my first swing bridge, waiting for two teenagers to finish crossing before I do.

I’m working to do myself out of a job. The work continues, despite the atmosphere of disinformation. The phrase it’s just a very vocal minority becomes a mantra, reminding myself that of the 15,000 people I’ve talked to in the last three years, I’ve only ever had only one openly hostile guest in a workshop. I found out this week that a GP walked out of another - I hadn’t even realised, didn’t notice, probably assumed they needed to step out for work, or for lunch.

The thing about disinformation is it’s destabilising in so many ways. I wonder how many people have sat quietly in my sessions, not believing. How many took a sick day, chose not to come in the first place.

I turn a corner, pass a sign that warns “HIGH RISK OF LANDSLIDE IN THIS AREA - DO NOT STOP”. A slip has turned the path into a hill. Hikers have made their own path.

In the panel, we talk about Posie Parker. We have to - how could we not? The question is about whether protesting her tour was the right thing to do. Did turning up in the thousands not just draw attention? Is that not what she wanted?

So many people are struggling in isolation. When you have a limited amount of affirmation in your life - when you’re in the closet, or freshly out, or don’t have supportive friends or whānau - when it feels like the amount of people who understand you, see you for who you are, acknowledge you is the minority, everything is amplified. Everything affects you more.

Something like 60% of rainbow people in Aotearoa are seeing negative comments about them on social media on a weekly basis at the moment.

In Tusiata Avia’s Big Fat Brown Bitch (coming early Nov!), in the poem where she talks about her Cook poem and the vitriol she received, she talks about something someone said to her: “racism is like a scab. Leave it alone. If you pick at it, it might get infected.”

Who among us can sit in a room of people saying just the nastiest shit about us and not react? Who of us is a duck, able to let that slide off our feathers? Why did we all get so used to hand sanitiser, if not to disinfect?

In the end, what the Posie Parker protests actually did was show so many of us that we’re not alone. Thousands on thousands of people turning up in Tāmaki Makaurau, in Te Whanganui-a-Tāra, in Ōtautahi, in Ōtepoti, it was visible proof of the mantra. It’s just a very vocal minority - the vast majority of people understand the need to support, respect, affirm, stand with and for our rainbow whānau. For those feeling alone, for those seeing hateful comments on a daily basis, for those without support and affirmation around them, that visible turnout did so much more than chase a terf out of Aotearoa.

I wonder if how much I’m enjoying walking in the middle of nowhere is a reaction to this, too. I drive through Lewis Pass, taking in the drama of the maunga rising to the clouds, wanting to pull over and get out and just see where I could go. On the trail, I walk for myself. I can leave the weight of my mahi in the car. I have this great backpack now that basically hovers above my shoulders. My back doesn’t get sore at all.

I reach the river crossing, a section of track with no bridge. It’s my first time (intentionally) getting my feet wet on a hike. It’s a breeze. I clamber up the other side, turn a corner, cross another bridge. I’m grateful for Annie’s advice: “you just have the ignore the signs”.

The irony isn’t lost on me. Byron C Clark talks about the meta-conspiracy that drives a lot of these disinformation groups - the idea that there’s a global elite shaping the world to suit them. People caught in this rabbithole distrust authority. Many of them have valid historical reasons for that distrust. Bad-faith actors are playing on people’s genuine fears for their own gain. I ignore the signs and keep walking.

I think we all knew that disinformation was going to play a role in this election - disinformation about the rainbow community in particular. I’m forever an optimist. I didn’t expect it to happen so soon and in such a big way - both NZ First and Act turning gender identity into a policy platform. Bathrooms. Sport. The hot-button issues. Capturing the fringe vote - and more likely, dissuading the queer vote. Convincing one person who would have voted against you to not vote at all is just as good as winning someone over.

I remain an optimist - the work will continue, as it always has, it just gets a little harder. Necessitates different approaches. But, I’ll admit - in hindsight, because I don’t think even I was conscious of it - I was feeling more than a little despondent. Exhausted.

Dr Emma Wehipeihana talks about someone coming into the emergency department saying they’ve been feeling exhausted for six months. Everyone’s feeling the post-covid fatigue, in more ways than one. So many of us working in service of others are feeling it, are burning out. The election result added to the load.

I needed to feel hopeful. I needed to feel joy. I found it in Whakatū, driving down the motorway and catching a glimpse of the ocean. Reaching Tāhunanui Beach, with its bright blue waters, the gold-yellow sand. A walkable city. A great gallery. And people - the people. Māori writers - ones I’ve admired, and ones that are new to me who I find myself admiring already. I’ve come home with seven more books than I intended to. But how could I not?

Walking by yourself and walking with company are two totally different things. I love both - the space you feel on your own, in the middle of nowhere. The rambling conversations you have with walking partners, big and small.

I didn’t realise how much I needed the people. I love people. The thing is, I see so many people every day for work that it feels overwhelming.

I needed to switch contexts, to be at a writers festival, in another town, to be there as myself and not my organisation. To sit with and talk with people working in service to others, creating in service to others. To talk about what a wildly crazy, fucking terrible time we’re all having - and to talk with hope about what comes next.

Talking about hate and disinformation in a way that doesn’t generate despair is easier than you might think. Despite the unknowns, despite the complexity, despite how insiduous it all is, despite, despite, despite. I think because so often the answer lies in community, in relationships, in friendships, in talking, it all feels more possible than we might imagine. We all know how to talk to each other, even when it feels like we don’t. Talking is something we can all do.

I cross the last bridge and I can hear sound of water gently falling, over and above the sound of water roaring of rocks below me. I climb a clay hill, water streaming underneath my feet, reaching and ducking under that chain, and I’m so glad I listened to Annie. Whispering Falls is one of those places that feels out of time, suddenly quiet and still except for the quiet, delicate streams of water through the trees. All of a sudden the worry that a rock will fall on my head is gone, at least temporarily.

Whispering Falls, Te Tai-o-Aorere

What would I do, if I didn’t have to deal with the impacts of disinformation? What will do I, when I work myself out of a job and get to retire early?

I think I’ll always be working in service to other people. I think I always have. Even my arts jobs have been in service - some in very practical ways, helping artists make their works the best they can be. Others more indirect - but I think art itself is, more often than not, in service to people.

When I work myself out of a job, I will hike more. I will write more. I will be with people more - and get to enjoy it without the veneer of burnout.

But then, these are all things I’m doing now. Just as the work continues, so does the joy. So does the hope. So do the possibilities.

Thank you so much to everyone who I was blessed to spend time with this weekend. To Audrey - what a joy to get to hang out away from Ōtautahi again. To Annie - thanks again for the excellent hikoi recommendation. Thanks to Madeleine Chapman for suggesting me for the panel, and for the great chairing - I don’t think there are many who could make an audience laugh so hard in a session about hate. To Liv and Emma and Arihia - what a joy to connect! And to the team at the Nelson Arts Festival - thank you, and great work.

Catch me in Narrm in a few weeks for the AusPATH & PATHA conference - I’m presenting a session on the Thursday about the mahi we’ve done in Waitaha, developing a gender-affirming care system from the ground up, and chairing the Aotearoa symposium on the Friday morning.

And please - hit me up with your Melbourne recommendations! I want to know about the best eats and (no surprises here) any cute walks easily accessible without a car.