Sometimes I need solitude, sometimes a village

For many, keeping on top of our mental health is a daily battle. To mark Mental Health Awareness Week, Dani Deluka shares a pilgrimage to reconnect with her roots in order to stand strong.

Image: Dani Deluka

Recently I took a trip to a motel up north. My studio room was compact and sweet but with a huge retro pink bath. For me, the smaller the abode the better. I have always loved little spaces, tiny houses, caravans, gypsy wagons. I feel safe in small enclosures. 

I took a pilgrimage from Paekākāriki to Paihia, from one home to another. I understand this in itself is a privilege. There have been many times when I have had to bloom where I am planted, unable to do such a whimsical thing. This winter has been plagued with self doubt and a longing for my overseas son, who as an unaccompanied minor can’t fly alone. And even as an adult I’m not allowed to fly out to accompany him. Anne Lamott says My mind is a bad neighborhood that I try not to go into alone. This sums it up. But she also said Hope begins in the dark.

So. I needed to return to where I grew up. To memory. To myself. I needed to reflect and remember, reminisce and find some stable ground. 

The first morning, I went back to my old school that was empty apart from the caretaker, but as I entered the gates, music lit up my neural pathways like fairy lights. Mr Everitt always started class with a Good morning, whānau and a waiata on his acoustic guitar, which was gold dust for a sensitive girl like me. Then we went around the room and said one thing we were grateful for. It was such a special way to start the day, that I adored. Singing was a big part of our curriculum, as was exploring. We went on lots of excursions, with our teacher’s gentle voices guiding us in kōrero about the land, and the tangata whenua. 

Each day of my break away I walked along the golden beach to Waitangi. As a child, we stood on the Treaty grounds many times; as a family, as a school, as a community. 

I was reminded how at peace I always felt there, even woven amongst the chaos of our national day. On one school trip, I noticed some of the paua pieces missing on the waka, and so asked if we could replace them. We returned the following week, our pockets stuffed with tiny crushed shells.

Whilst holding hands and bowing our heads to say a karakia, I could feel pride rushing through me. I was a little kid, who had the power to change things. We all were. If something was broken our teachers taught us to tend to it, look after it. They also taught us to fend for ourselves by spear gunning a flounder (do no harm unless you’re hungry), how to build shelter in the bush and how to dig a hole big enough to cook a feast in so everyone could eat.

On school camps they showed us how to be guided by the stars, how to make rewena bread and create fire for warmth. I went on to Bay of Islands College to keep gathering this important knowledge, little did I know how significant it would be in the future. Now I only have to smell the firepit of a hangi, or to hear a familiar song or prayer, and I am reminded of my mana. My wild. I am forever beholden for such a good education in spirit and strength. 

In the afternoons I took the boat over to the quaint town of Russell and was reminded of bombing off the wharf full force all summer, forever being a stowaway on the old ferry (we had no money) and swimming sports in the sea. On Friday night I went to Ti-Bay takeaways and brought a scoop of hot chips with chutney sauce, and sat on the sand under a tree I had climbed many times. I licked my salty lips and smiled, just like the good old days where we all put in 20 cents, and many hands unwrapped the oily newspaper and shared kai. I missed the laughter of all my cinnamon-skinned friends. We were a happy lot.

Another day I walked the rugged track to the waterfalls in Haruru, where we lived. And saw clear as day, all of us kids diving into the fresh white water five metres below, like fish. Now there is a ‘no diving’ sign. I so badly wanted to jump in. For fun. And if it wasn’t for the tourists, I would have.

On Sunday I walked into the old stone church in which I first felt grief for a popular childhood friend who had died suddenly. Again our teachers enfolded us with music. We all sang Whaakaria Mai with tears streaming down our cheeks, but something lifted, as our voices rose up to the rafters in simultaneous chorus. 

The very special woman who runs the motel asked me how the writing was going, and when I said slowly, she took the time to show me the maramataka calendar and pointed out the high and low energy days. When there is more light, we do more. Other days we need rest. I was reminded how closer I have always felt toward her culture than mine. 

None of us can escape pain. Most days I start from that place. But I know it gets better as I get up, and get moving, and I have things that help. Books, friends, nature, words. 

The depression and anxiety I suffer is no doubt hereditary and in my case, the two go hand in hand. They walk alongside my happy-go-lucky nature, but several traumas along the path have not helped. I used to try and run away from the Black Dog. Now I try to turn around, and greet it, as Simon and Garfunkel sang: Hello darkness my old friend, I’ve come to talk with you again.  On bad days I raise my head and force myself out of bed. I’ve had this long enough now to know I can dance from here, from this place of despair. (View the final scenes of Jojo Rabbit, or Silver Linings Playbook.)

I am always only a breath away from the edge.  Fight, flight or freeze flows fast through my nervous system, always on full alert. It is intertwined in my veins like a blood-red vine. (Sorry low-flying tui, I thought you were a tiger.) 

But, in the melancholy, there are good things. My mind tends to want to create. My pen scrawls across the page. I photograph things. I’m inspired by Patti Smith interviews, I sit quietly with Reb Fountain. I light candles. A tealight in an old jar is often sufficient to entice a small shift in heartbeat. This is my treatment, my medicine. Through fear, we can find the light if we walk toward it. 

Struggle can carve a place for comfort. It can find a corner in which to read or write or draw or breathe, or sit and watch the breeze blow through the trees. We can lean into it. Give it communion, invite it in. Sometimes without intention, I blossom in the ghetto. My childhood self was told not to dwell in the past, get over it, stop being so sensitive. But I am sensitive and I like to dwell.  Often I feel like I am writing with the strings of a violin dipped in ink. I used to drown in the deep water of substances. I now try to splash in the shallows of self-care. I notice it as an invitation to walk, or get warm. It’s the chance to ask questions, put up my hand, ask for help.

I ask my two uncles who found themselves with only one option, what they might have done differently. They are my diamonds in the sky. I am Lucy. I kneel down at the altar of my roots, and listen to the ancestors. They answer stay, don’t run, feel it.

I read it only takes twenty seconds of being brave to achieve big things. For me that means putting my boots on to get to the ocean. Getting in the shower. Calling someone. Putting the kettle on. Playing a song.

So alone in the motel I gave myself to the pain. Surrendered. Let it in. I sipped black coffee in a little pottery mug. I curled up like a fern and cried for a child far away. I slept. I handed my heart over to nature, and delved into the beautiful dirt and earth of my past. One of my favourite māori sayings is Ka mua, ka muri which means sometimes we have to walk backwards into the future. I embraced all the sadness of this year, let it sink in and then released it to the sea to take care of for me. My little hometown held out its arms in welcome, hāere mai, like it always did. People and place, together, embraced me. 

Pilgrimage is often a way to be humbled by home. My first morning back I woke to the billow of grey smoke outside my window and the sound of the steam engine. It warmed my soul. I felt truly grateful to return to a place that always holds space for me, my community. In a taxi home recently our Indian driver said Paekākāriki-city is a good place for growing children. And we laughed and said yes, indeed. 

I was lucky enough to have a garden tour of our local school grounds recently, where both my children went to school. Whaea Raima, spoke about planting harakeke for our anxious tamariki to hide and feel safe under, rongoā medicinal plants that they can find themselves, to teach self-compassion, and healing. She showed us flower patches to remind them of their mothers, and herbs and vegetables they grow and pick to make soup for lunch, for everyone. Little oranges for small hands to grab and peel and bite. This. Is my heart. Sacred knowledge of the seasons and the land they walk and play on, is everything. They will remember these anchors when they are older. Like I do. We are so lucky to have such precious educators in our midst.

I don’t always have the opportunity to up-sticks and go on a journey, but I can put my bare feet on the ground, where I live, and exhale. 

Sometimes I need solitude, sometimes a village. 

(And you know, Spring.)

Are you or someone you know struggling? Please reach out; there is help available. You can find local resources on our page here and other emergency support here.

Find out more about Mental Health Awareness Week 2020 here.

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