I returned to the Convent
It has almost been a year since that last happened. I remember packing to visit a friend in Memphis, looking in my closet and realizing I didn't have any sandals. They all got left behind.
In the months following the earthquake I grieved the loss of irreplaceable things- gifts from college friends, childhood friends, New Zealand friends, and family. Things that represented every season of my life were left behind: a sweater from a Dexter House roommate, my apartment mates' art show invitations, an Adventure Camp singlet (tank top), a cat ring holder from my hometown best friend, a Zuni ring from my sister-in-law, and mementos from my time in New Zealand as both a student and staff.
I replaced the necessary items over time, but every once in awhile I can't find something, and remember it got left behind. It's an eerie feeling. It's not lost. It's not thrown away. I know exactly where it is. I just can't get it anymore.
When I returned to New Zealand I was most worried about going to see the convent. My old home. The place I almost felt like I haunted, as in my grieving moments I would walk around the building through my memories, looking one last time into the rooms of the place I never got a chance to say goodbye. Because they are memories, everything is still okay in them. The sun is coming through the library windows, lighting up the tables and warming the outside blue patio. The blankets and mugs and guitars lie scattered around the lounge, with the side doors flung open towards the back deck. There's fly tape and hot water heaters and the sound of the kitchen door closing. There's whistling on the stairs (every semester had at least one whistler), the feel of the red carpet on my feet, the wooden deck and thick grass. Gravel sticks to the bottom of my feet as I gingerly hop over to the staff house. Sitting under the heap of blankets on my bed, I journal in a bit of alone time before turning the light out. I look up at the Wonder Woman poster on my wall, think to myself, "Wow, I'm currently living in New Zealand. I won't always be, someday this present moment will just be a fond memory. But right now, it is the present."
It wasn't a perfect life or job by far. But it was my home, with all its flaws and quirks and swarms of flies.
In the days leading up to my return, my home-coming of a sorts, I tried to mentally prepare myself for what I could expect. Friends who had already returned several times over the last sixteen months described beer cans on the floor, the wear and tear from the elements coming in through the holes in the roof, the massive weeds and overgrowth. They told me it was all boarded up, and that there would be no going inside. At that point, I think I finally came to a place of peace for the things that I had been left behind. For the longest time I held onto a futile hope that I could go up to my room in the convent and grab a few things: the decorative whale sign that I bought as a Christmas gift for a local kiwi friend, a Shel Silverstein book of spoonerisms I considered passing on to local kids, and a paua shell I'd hoped to bring home as a souvenir. But I finally let it go. It had been too long. The moment to reclaim those items had passed. In a way, it is like they are not even mine anymore. Like they belong in a museum, or carry too much symbolism to simply rejoin the rest of my material possessions.
Of all the aspects of the earthquake, the relationship I feel towards these last remaining possessions in the convent is the hardest for me to describe. A part of me felt that if I could just rescue that one ring or that one shirt or one memento, then I'd be okay. Or, if I could just take those dozen photos of me with my friends off the walls, even if only to throw them away, then that would fix the strange unsettled feeling I have of unfinished business. I've never lived somewhere and not packed up before I moved on. Somehow, this unfulfilled act felt essential.
When I realized that a side door was propped wide open, my heart sank. Now I faced a decision. I continued wandering around the property, but made my way back to that doorway, staring inside the threshold, feeling dread. It felt like a trap. I had already evaded death once before by escaping this building, do I really want to try my luck? But like any good horror movie stereotype, I couldn't resist the pull to step inside, the morbid curiosity.
Each step, each creak of the warped wooden floorboards, felt like I might fall through. I watched for the exits; I planned my escape. And I realized that I could never again feel at home or at peace in this building. All I felt was the terror I had felt that night of the earthquake, a darkness and fear like staring down into an abyss. I stood at the foot of the staircase, my bedroom nearly eight feet above me, and couldn't rationalize going upstairs. I faced my choice, and decided to finally let go all that had been left behind.
A friend who had come with me didn't though, at least initially. She went through her room on the first floor and grabbed a stack of dusty books. But we didn't get ten feet outside of the building before she stopped, uncertain. Finally, she said, "I'm putting them back." She returned empty-handed.
Watching my friend make that choice reassured me in mine. You can't say you have let go of the past, and then carry literal baggage around with you. You have to let it go, or else repurpose it and build it into your future. Later, another friend who did venture upstairs into the convent described the graffiti, and the critters that had taken residence. I'm glad I did not see that. I fear that even if I had gone upstairs and looked for something in my room, because of one of the unknown number of people who had gone into the convent after the earthquake I may have found it was missing, taken. It is a pain, a knowing, with which I do not need to burden myself.
I may never walk in or around that building again. In fact, I should hope not. It is not the place I remember, a place full of life, a place where I could be myself, a home. It is a death trap. It will fall or it will be torn down. The only thing I hope is that in its absence the native plants we planted will take over, the earth will reclaim the land, and the pukeko and fantails will be the last residents of what was once the Old Convent.