Apr 8, 2015 etc
This article first appeared in the March 2015 issue of Metro.
Privately, I thought the Wanderlust organisers were batty when they talked about Taupo as the country’s heart chakra, a seat of powerful energy. Taupo? Taupo! Taupo was the one-street through-town on the way to somewhere else, where you stopped for an expensive pee in the Superloo and a Happy Meal at the McDonald’s with the aeroplane out front which you later threw up into an ice-cream container somewhere on the Desert Rd.
Later, after my parents split up, Taupo was the cold, grim shithole my dad moved to, a place of uncomfortable conversations, where the huge kauri chopping board that he had made as a young man was completely out of place; it belonged at home. I avoided Taupo, and him.
Taupo was not special. Taupo was Taupo. Wanderlust, this four-day American-born yoga and music festival that Doug and I were embarking upon, would be the first time I’d been back for years. I didn’t know why they were holding it there and not somewhere more exciting. Perhaps they’d gotten a good deal on local kombucha.
As we tool past Ruapehu — we’re driving up from Nelson — I go through the automated Wanderlust programme on my phone. We can study Blissology, learn about the delights of The Bhavana of Discernment, enjoy The Pleasurable Pastimes of Shiva and Shakti that Is YOU, or explore Power & Pleasure for Women: Embodying the Wild Feminine.
“What do you want to do?” I ask Doug. The organisers have kindly granted us both a four-day Sage pass, and he is being polite, but can’t hide his reluctance at spending Thursday to Sunday saturated in a glistering, blissful pool of what he delicately terms “bullshit”.
“Just choose for me,” he says.
I look for the most innocuous, skipping through sessions containing red flags such as “swami”, “yoga sutras”, “luminous”, “chakra”, “energy” and “sacred”. There is not much left. I sign him up for the Barefoot Hike and Soul Moves and Overcoming Fear to Be Powerful and Create Your Designed Life.
“Medicinal Native Plant Hike,” I say. “You’d like that. Ooh, look. Do you want to make your own moisturiser? Ooh. Partner Yoga. With a touch of tantra.”
“What’s tantra?” he says.
“You’ll like that too,” I say.
I can’t really blame him for being sceptical. A divorced, lapsed Christian recovering from depression, he’s spent his adult life thinking Eastern spirituality is evil and its Western devotees dippy. Bouts of anxiety still hit occasionally, like a ghost has doused him with ice water.
And here’s me, in that charming way girlfriends have of eternally trying to fix their bloke, thinking he could do with a tearful, earth-shattering psychological shift, and that maybe Wanderlust could deliver it.
Anyway, I thought I could do with one myself. I am an uptight atheist with a stiff upper lip who cries secretly at sappy TV commercials. I took up yoga because a healer I once visited for a story gave me a lymphatic drainage massage and then sat me down for a talking-to.
“How much time do you spend doing nothing?” she asked.
I considered. Tried a little joke. “Well. Reading? Folding the washing? Walking to work?”
“Those don’t count,” she said.
“Well, none, I suppose,” I said, getting worried. What devastation had she felt in my glands?
“Oh, honey,” she said, “you’re on the way to getting cancer.”
Medically dubious, but definitely motivational.
There are other things bugging me. Last year, I quit my job to freelance, a move that made most people purse their lips and say, “Ooh. You’re… brave.” I’m also of an age where my abundantly fertile friends are onto their second and third children, and I am not. There are so many babies, in fact, that I’ve started visiting the Saturday Market especially to buy bulk knitted finger-puppets to parcel out as presents.
Each time they hand me one of their babies, I grip the soft little thing under her squishy armpits, look at her gummy smile and searching eyes and think, “Why don’t I want one of you?”
We are staying offsite at the Taupo Top 10 Holiday Park, so we take the Wanderbus to Wairakei Resort — and I see, as it groans closer to the thermal valley, that I am actually dead wrong about Taupo not being a place of powerful energy.
The land smokes with wrath, great curls of steam winding into the air from bush-choked gorges, cut and drained by the boiling green Waikato River. White clouds billow from culverts and grates, and I think how audacious it is for us to seal up this steaming cauldron with a skin of concrete, to pipe its boiling water for our use. It is beautiful, but it could boil you alive. I can’t think how I have missed this before.
Our instructor for Partner Yoga is Israeli Hindu monk Gopala Yaffa, a tanned and smooth-skinned chap in a sleeveless army-green shirt, with a permanent smile of contentment. He sails up to us and puts his hand on my forearm.
“Welcome,” he says, and glides away to greet someone else.
“This is like being in church,” Doug says, a hunted look on his face.
“The earnest stare. The smile. The forearm touch.”
“This is as far from church as you can get,” I say. “It’s basically Satanic.”
To my horror, after a few seconds of gazing, my eyes begin to itch and swell with tears, and Doug’s eyes fill up too.
We gather on our yoga mats, which Yaffa has arranged in a circle and which his partner, Angel, has rearranged so they will look more beautiful in the photos. We go through a few ice-breaking exercises of the type you do in high-school drama class, except in high-school drama class we never rubbed each other’s shoulders while orgasmically crying out the name of the stranger rubbing ours. (I will never forget you, Kelly.)
Next, Yaffa puts us in two circles, one inside the other, and we face our partners. He tells us to stare into each other’s eyes and do nothing else. Just look, for a good minute.
To my horror, after a few seconds of gazing, my eyes begin to itch and swell with tears, and Doug’s eyes fill up too. Next door, Kelly and her partner have also started crying.
“Okay,” Yaffa says, “move to your right.” I hear a panicked squeak and come face to face with Kelly’s partner, and it is so uncomfortable staring at her that we might as well be naked. I vow I will overcome the shame of crying by refusing to look away from her, but she cannot hold my gaze and keeps glancing away, sniffing and giggling in embarrassment.
It’s awful. But it goes on. We move to our right again, and a handsome lad in his 20s turns up and holds me in his eyes. He is tall and lean with broad shoulders, and I feel ripped open, all my shame, my pettiness on display — my insecurities, jealousies, lies, the coins I nicked from my mother’s purse, the time I stole my nana’s chocolate Easter bunny, the time I whacked my dog, that I think he is gorgeous, that I know he knows I think it.
My cheeks burn. He can see all this and I am stripped bare and can’t stand it, but the torture goes on and on with different people until Yaffa tells us to stop and hug the person in front of us, and he is kind enough to have carefully orchestrated it so we are in front of our partners.
I cling to Doug like someone drowning.
Next we have to close our eyes, walk among the group and gently feel for our partner’s face in the dark.
“I knew it was you,” Doug says when he finds me. “I knew straight away by the texture of your skin.” By the time we’ve done body-balancing poses and given each other a Thai massage and closed our eyes and opened our mouths like baby birds while Yaffa places a piece of organic vegan chocolate on our tongues, we have fallen into the weekend, and who we were before seems very far away.
We spend Thursday on separate schedules, moving between yoga, talks and meditation, and I meet Wanderlust’s target market in the flesh. From what I can see and hear, their ethnicity and place of origin vary, though I know the stats say they have an average age of 33 and are 85 per cent female.
They’ve got bored with the binge-drinking New Years and the summer rock festivals. They love the outdoors. They love to dance. Most of their clothes carry at least one small silver stamp of Lululemon on their lower backs or between their shoulder blades.
This describes me exactly, and I have the unsettling thought that I am not a special and unique flower but am instead absolutely ordinary, our pants from the same factory line, the little shards thrown at us by life all roughly interchangeable, though they haven’t derailed us so much that we can’t spend hundreds of dollars on yoga classes, accommodation, travel and a ticket.
I spy on a few classes, and watch some of the women arching through their poses. One has painted her nails to match her yoga pants, which are mottled like a swirly pastel ice cream. In the late afternoon, there’s a welcome event with drinks, and I notice that someone has already come up with my novelty yoga T-shirt idea, I’M HERE FOR THE SAVASANA, which is disappointing, but there is free sangria to drink.
One woman is wearing what amounts to a bikini and is dancing alone in front of the stage, tossing around a messy head of hair. She is smoking, which I think rather daring — and admirable — at a wellness festival, and she returns for cup after cup of sangria. A festival volunteer hovers as I pause at the rubbish bins to drop off my own drained vessel.
“Oh, that’s compostable!” she says, and takes it from me.
I keep seeing that guy from Partner Yoga around, and every time I do I feel naked again and filled with shame. I try to avoid him. That evening, after what must have been a particularly powerful lesson on self-limiting core beliefs from New Zealander Jase Te Patu, Doug requests space, and I circle about him warily, not sure what he is thinking and too afraid to ask.
The next day, I go alone to a 6.30am chakra cleanse with Aucklander Denise Ferguson. I had never before thought my chakras were particularly dirty, but for the sake of research I am willing to give them a good polish.
I join dozens of others at a blue-tented spot on the edge of the resort called The Quiet Place, and close my eyes. As Ferguson moves us through our bodies, I start to feel the air funnelling through my nose, and the persistent nudge of my heartbeat. Hey, it says, and I think of the push and flow of blood. Hey. Hey. Hey. Hey. You can breathe. You’re alive. Suddenly, I can’t believe my luck.
I am becoming a cliché. Worse. I am becoming Eat, Pray, Love.
Towards the end, Ferguson tells us to imagine the future, which is also now and also the past, or something, and I see a quiet, dark-green garden shed at home, which we don’t have, but it is like the one my grandparents had when they were alive, with seedlings potted in egg cartons on the white windowsill.
Then my eye shifts to the right, to the north, where the sun is coming in the doorway, and I see a blonde girl of about five standing there, silhouetted against the light. The girl is me and yet is not me, because she is wearing a dress that my mother could never have gotten me into without a fistfight.
She is looking at me with her right hand on the doorframe, and her left toe lifts to scratch her calf, and I remember I have seen her before, visiting my head, years ago, though I don’t recall when, and had forgotten about her until right now in this valley of steam and eucalypts. It is such a powerful jolt that tears spring forth again, which is really annoying.
Because: a child. Really fucking subtle, subconscious. And, oh, she’s asking to come in! To enter a place we have yet to build, but that I have paced out on our hillside and sat in its square with my dog and looked out across the valley at the seagulls wheeling in the summer evening thermals! That’s so fucking deep!
And, oh — wait. She was standing in the north door. And what is Wanderlust’s slogan, which I’ve been reading on email after email for six months? Find your true north. Oh, shit. I am getting old. I am becoming a cliché. Worse. I am becoming Eat, Pray, Love.
I don’t know where you start and finish with stuff like this. When do these visions or wants or heartfelt desires become something you need to pay attention to and act upon, and when are you just being a self-indulgent dickhead? I have to open my eyes to see how the others are coping — maybe they’re all gathered in a circle laughing, and I am the butt of a huge joke, with my thoughts playing out on a screen strung across the front of the tent.
I sneak a peek. All is calm. Everyone is cocooned in their private realm like astronauts in sleep pods, crossing the universe in ageless slumber. In fact, I am quite pleased to see the girl next to me has fresh wet cheeks. Good.
Because I know the biochemistry of meditation. I know there is a rational biological explanation for the visions visited upon you during it, as well as just before you fall asleep, and when you dream, and in the last images before death.
And after my day at Wanderlust yesterday, I know I should be only witnessing my thoughts and letting them ripple across my mind, not dragging them under the surface to fight them. I know all this, but still. I am undone. I have seen that little girl before.
Friday afternoon. Doug and I haven’t seen each other all day, and when we do, he is being especially weird. Throughout his depression, I have gotten used to him acting oddly, but he’s always sought me out.
We are used to telling each other everything, but here I am lying on my back on the seat of a picnic table in the holiday park, my foot bouncing the concrete, my right hand up to block the glare of the setting summer sun, and I am waiting for him to break up with me.
He is in the kitchen. He’s been sitting there for half an hour; in fact, after our quite intense start at Partner Yoga, he has been avoiding me for most of the time we’ve been here, looking guilty.
If he isn’t working up the courage to shatter our three years together, he’s playing his friend Glen at Scrabble on his phone.
I am meant to be cooking dinner out on the barbecue, but I’m too full for that now, because instead of charring the lamb and warm vegetable salad I thought we’d eat happily for dinner, I have slotted Weet-Bix after Weet-Bix into an aluminium mug, poured milk over them and eaten them, glowering at the happy couples walking past. I binge on Weet-Bix. I get to seven before I groan and flop over on the seat.
I lie here and obsess over the awkward conversation to come, the lists, the spreadsheets. I will leave the country, I think. I could go to Dubai and work. I never did sort out who put how much money into the house. Guess I won’t be seeing his kids again. Oh my god — who gets the dog?
I don’t know how we went from reasonably happy to this in just two days, and why I am feeling like such a moody teenager, but I lay the blame squarely on Wanderlust. I had thought he would question some of his assumptions about the shape he’s made of the world and his place in it, but I did not think he would start questioning us.
He emerges, looking guilty again, and starts to slice an avocado. I put the lamb on the barbecue. I have vowed to say nothing, but will wait until he comes out with whatever is bugging him, like a supportive girlfriend. I point out the cute little kitten that is winding its way around the ankles of the happy campers.
“It looks like a stray,” he says. “Look at its flanks. It’s starving.”
I will say nothing.
That night, he is in a tangle over all the crud Wanderlust is bringing up — about his past, what he thinks of himself, his future, his god, his family hurts, his childhood pain, his revelation that what happens to these devotees is just like what happens at church: the tears, the endorphins, the community, the healing — all of which somehow reinforces religion and yet undermines it, too.
“This is all familiar,” he says. “People carrying around their yoga mats like Bibles.”
“Like prayer mats,” I say, but he hasn’t mentioned us, and I am saying nothing, so I start a meditation app that one of the speakers has recommended, and it quickly drops us into sleep.
Once, when I was a child, my father and I paddled a kayak out onto Lake Taupo. He was not given to coddling children; as a horse-mad 11-year-old, I had seen in the paper that a girl with leukaemia had gotten a pony from the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Damn, I thought. Lucky her.
“Dad,” I said. “If I got leukaemia, would you get me a pony?”
“No,” he said.
Floating on the surface of the lake, he told me that beneath the lapping blue, the ducks and the tangling weeds that gave you shivers when they brushed your legs, there was the secret heart of a volcano and rivers of hot magma that once built to the biggest eruption the world had ever seen, which blew out the centre of the country.
Enormous scales of rock were still now sliding across each other, forming an immense chain of burp and murmur that crossed landscapes too vast for me to comprehend — from Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe to the blasted top of Tarawera, Rotorua, and out into the Pacific.
“Rivers of boiling rock,” he said, as we bobbed. “Right down beneath this kayak. So hot they would melt your foot right off if you stepped in them.”
“What would happen if it erupted now?” I asked him.
“We’d live for about five seconds,” he said, with relish. “Probably less. We’d burn alive, and nothing would be left.”
That kind of thing leaves an impression on a kid. I was transfixed, staring down into the deep blue. I worried about our cats, Sooty and Pumpkin, who I imagined would survive the eruption but would be left alone to prowl the ash pan left behind, and would probably have to tear the last remnants of flesh from our scorched bones to survive. At least, Sooty would, the shithead.
“Couldn’t we run anywhere?”
“No time!” he said, describing Ruapehu’s acidic crater lake, the lahars.
“Is it going to happen when we are alive?” I asked.
“Well, it’s overdue,” he said.
The next morning is better. Doug seems more relaxed and I am convinced the meditation is helping.
“Look what Forbes says. It’s just as powerful as medication,” I say, bringing up articles and studies on my phone. “And no side effects.” He just nods.
I go to a healing circle, and later, when we meet for a lunch of raw falafel wraps and dairy-free coconut ice-blocks, the gorgeous man from Partner Yoga comes up to say hi. It turns out that Doug has befriended him. I stand there blushing furiously as they exchange chat about acro-yoga. His name is Josh and he is a visitor from Hawke’s Bay.
I want to shout “I’M IN LOVE WITH YOU!” but he goes off to his next class. As we start to leave the lawn, a woman comes up to me and says, “Naomi?”
It is a girl from my school. She is a year younger than me and has three kids, all of whom are cartwheeling around the grass right now. She can’t be old enough to have three children. We chat for a bit about the festival. I explain that I have been crying a lot because of these damn classes. She says she has come just for the day. Soon it becomes obvious I have no idea who she is.
“You don’t remember me, do you?” she says. “I’ve changed a lot since then. But you look exactly the same.”
It’s my damn ponytail, and my clothes. It’s really time I got a hairstyle and some sort of fashion sense. But look, I whisper to Doug after she leaves. She is a year younger than me, and she has three children. Aren’t they gorgeous?
He puts his arm around me. “Do you want kids?” he asks, for what must be the hundredth time.
“I don’t know,” I say, for what must be the thousandth.
That evening, we have some time to kill before the concert — Xavier Rudd and Nightmares on Wax — and I haven’t managed to go on any of the bushwalk tours, so we set off down a lane of eucalypts towards the Waikato River, where there is a hot spring on the shore.
Along the way, Doug tells me about his Medicinal Native Plant Hike, and picks off the young shoots of the hangihangi and gives them to me to eat. They taste like peas. He points out the native fuchsia, telling me that the healer said it was used to cure female ills, and the totara, for male troubles.
At the hot spring, we strip off and sit in the thermal bath, the stones burning our feet. Light rain falls, dappling the surface of the river, already pockmarked from where geothermal bubbles are breaking the surface. I sweep more hot water from the next pool into ours. It burns; it must be close to 60 degrees.
It is a magical spot, and I realise I haven’t really been fair to Taupo, and the whole place is beautiful and my parents’ divorce and my dad’s pain and the kauri chopping board in the wrong house have poisoned it in my mind, like the faint scent of sulphur that occasionally wreathes the breath of the wind.
I recall that I now have that chopping board at home. Maybe I should have brought it here, and burned it, or something.
I confess to Doug that I have a crush on the young man in Partner Yoga.
“I knew it,” he says.
I confess that I thought he was going to break up with me.
“That’s the last thing I want,” he says. “Who else would put up with me?”
“No one,” I say.
“And who else would put up with you?”
He says he just wants to work things out by himself. That Wanderlust has given him time to think. That the talks and classes have unlocked something that has been stuck for a long time. That I should shut up sometimes. That he prayed again, and it wasn’t really Eastern or Western but he did it, for the first time in ages.
I begin to hope the ice-water ghost has buggered off. It’s not the first time I’ve hoped that, and it won’t be the last, but it is nice to sit in the hot pool for a bit and think what that would be like, anyway. Time to go home, and get him to build that shed. Oh right. I should shut up sometimes.
“What were you doing in the kitchen the other night?” I ask.
“Playing Scrabble,” he says.
Above the pool, where the underground heat warms the air, wild blackberries are ripening more quickly than those around them. Some of them are ripe already.
I pick off a few, and eat them.