13 Mar Unprecedented

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly – cover date 6.3.23


There is a very good chance that you, like me, have had it up to here with “unprecedented events”. That you would like many days in a row where nothing notable happened, where you only experienced things that are familiar, ordinary, banal.

Never have I been quite so keen to be bored. I’d like someone in a shop to say casually, “How’ve you been?” and I’d like to answer truthfully, “Oh, you know… Same old same-old.” And we’d grin at each other and float comfortably on.

Instead, up at our mall, we’ve been asking each other if flood waters have been lapping at doors, and sharing tales of downed trees, drowned houses and power cuts, a little unburdening that is always tagged with, “But really we’ve been lucky, I know plenty who’ve had it worse.”

And that’s just this year. For many years in a row, our casual chat has been about big events – domestic terrorism, eruptions, a virus, lockdowns, an occupation at Parliament – that were not part of our conversations before. Regular use of the word “unprecedented” is no longer unprecedented.

When a National State of Emergency was declared on Valentine’s Day, it was noted this was only the third time in our country’s history that this had been done. The Canterbury earthquakes, a pandemic, and now Cyclone Gabrielle. It’s a big deal. It’s new.

It’s so new, some people didn’t get it. “But why? I’m fine over here!” could be heard on social media, people not understanding that a national state of emergency doesn’t mean the whole country is in trouble, but that the whole country will help those who are.

So many things we have never done before – at least, not in my lifetime, and I’m old. And not the fun new experiences you might put on a bucket list. Hot air ballooning, having a conversation in te reo, learning to swing dance… This is about diving into situations and looking for solutions to things that feel alien and unexpected.

It goes some way to explain our slightly odd and irrational responses, like racing to the supermarket each time a lockdown was called or a cyclone is imminent to buy unfeasibly large quantities of toilet paper or eggs or whatever the imagined “scarce item du jour” might be. We’re not entirely sure how to prepare for this threat, but squirreling away acorns feels a little bit right? Hardwired to equate “safety” with “supplies”.

Friends overseas tell me we are making the news over there – we always have, with our books and comedians and films and sports – but with unprecedented weather events now, as well as the other things.

Over a decade ago, when I was on the other side of the world, I remember my eye catching the N and Z of New Zealand in a news story, as it does, and the headline read: “Sheep Runs Wild In Wellington Streets”.

Turns out a mystery sheep had been seen bolting down Ghuznee Street shortly before midnight and was apprehended by local police after being cornered in the Briscoes car park.

Officers had bundled the sheep into the back of their vehicle and taken it the police station. “There was nothing else we could do with it,” they’d said. “It could have caused mayhem if it got into Courtenay Place.” I had never missed my country more.

It felt like a story I’d heard before, and now hanker to hear again. Familiar. Ordinary. Baa-nal.