Of Beasts and Beauty

The Boulevard Phillip Island

Experiencing tragedy in a bizarre global bubble.

The Morning News

“Again, we still haven’t had confirmation that the gunman in this particular shooting has been caught, so you can understand police’s need for security here . . .”

Hm, the news is on.

Sitting at a barstool behind the expansive counter made of red gum timber in Naomi’s open, sunny kitchen, the frantic commentary of a news reporter is somewhere in the background of my mental awareness, behind the spread of sunny-side up eggs, smashed avocado, salmon, and fresh feta.

“Would you like a cup of tea?”

Why, yes, I would. As the kettle boils and Naomi and her partner, Glen, set down plates, fry tomatoes, and grab milk for the tea out of the fridge, I wander into the living room where a furrow-browed woman is providing updates in the center of our hosts’ massive wide-screen TV.


I have no other concrete thoughts, just a vague, uneasy feeling. The hair on my arms and the back of my neck prickles. My attention shifts from the TV to my own reaction, and I realize with surprise how long it’s been since a television last accosted me with news of a mass shooting—six months. Since arriving in Singapore, the only news updates I’ve seen have been about fires and global trade negotiations.

That’s too bad. I’m not sure if this is offered up with regard to the tragedy or my rude interruption from a gun-violence-free news cycle. Probably both. 

At about the same time, Naomi’s son, Anton, who’s been working at his laptop in the dining room nearby, also seems to tune in to the reporter’s words. “What?” he says, and I’m surprised by his reaction. “Mum, did you see there’s been a shooting in Christchurch?”

“What?” Naomi’s response is as shocked as Anton’s, and she and Glen flip off the stovetop. Everyone walks over to the TV. Naomi snatches the remote and raises the volume.

“. . . there were about five hundred people in the mosque at the time. Some people at first believed it was children with some sort of toy, until they realized the horror unfolding in front of them. Many of them tried to escape out the back of the mosque clambering over a back wall, and there are now dozens of people standing in Hagley park trying to find their relatives, waiting to find out what’s happened. There are other people still in the area around the mosque, and of course there are reports of people who have been killed and are in the mosque as well.”*

“Oh my gosh,” Naomi nearly whispers. The early morning vibrancy has gone dim, replaced by the sirens and cries and times and theories coming out of the television speakers. Naomi puts her hand over her mouth. Glen and Anton gape. I don’t know how near Christchurch is, but by now I’ve gathered it’s a city, not a church. Weird name. I’m sorry for the three of them. I know what it feels like to be shocked by news of a tragedy.

Naomi jumps into action. “I have to call Tarif,”** she says, pacing the room as she dials the number on her phone. I return to my barstool, and Glen and Anton come to the kitchen and finish serving breakfast. Someone hands me an English breakfast tea bag and pours hot water into my mug.

“Thanks.” I feel awkward. I’m not sure what to say. It seems unlikely that they are ready to move on.

Naomi makes another call and heads down the hallway, the echo of her clogs connecting with the wooden floors grows softer as she walks seemingly all the way to her bedroom. A couple minutes later, she returns to the kitchen and explains. “I have a team in Christchurch. My colleagues appear to be safe . . . I think Tarif was at a wedding, though I’m still not able to get through to him.”  

Shortly after, my jet-lagged mom emerges from her room, and together, we learn where Christchurch is (the South Island of New Zealand), that it’s a sort of “sister city” to Melbourne, and that things like this simply don’t happen there. “It’s really lovely,” Naomi says, distractedly. “A lovely city. Very peaceful. I always enjoy traveling there for work.” The news is still on, but our attention has shifted to idle chat over breakfast—mostly Mom and I complementing Naomi and Glen on the feast they have prepared. Anton moves with his laptop to the couch, his eyes still glued to screen. Glen disappears. Naomi smiles at our compliments, but is consumed with her phone—texting furiously and answering each call with urgency.

Eventually, it’s time to get going. We have a busy day planned adventuring around Phillip Island, where I’m told there’s lots of down under critters and beautiful sights to see. During our hourlong drive, Naomi receives another call from the head of the Christchurch team, who confirms that he believes all of their team members are safe. Together, they bemoan the lack of available information.

Phillip Island

The main town in Phillip Island is serene—a conglomerate of mom-and-pop shops perched on sloping roads that seem to encourage tourists to turn their attention toward the glittering, foamy waves crashing off Cowes beach. Given the lazy summertime vibes, I’m surprised by how the crisp fall air bites my now-used-to-tropical-weather skin.

Naomi, Mom, and I settle on lunch at an Italian restaurant at the end of Thompson Avenue with the best view of the water below. I order soup and a deep-fried veggie appetizer, a combination that causes our waitress to arch an eyebrow at me and ask, “Really?” Yes, really. “Alright, no worries . . .” she replies in a tone that leads me to believe she is, actually, deeply worried.

Mom and Naomi giggle like the high schoolers they were when they last saw one another and indulge in chicken parmigiana.

Naomi places her phone faceup on the table, checking it periodically for updates. Over a second overpriced bottle of Perrier, we learn that this morning’s atrocity was committed by an Australian. This feels significant, but not in a way any of us can voice. I gaze out the restaurant’s pristine glass windows and watch a flock of seagulls nosedive into a group of tourists attempting to picnic on the beach.

After our meal, we drive five minutes up the road to the Koala Reserve, where Naomi promises I’ll actually get to see koalas. Her description of them as “nasty, piddly little creatures,” doesn’t dampen my enthusiasm.

We’re all impressed by the careful construction of the conservation center. After we pay our admission in the visitor center, we exit out into an expansive, natural Australian bushland. There are no cages or traditional fences—just a short, smooth curved barrier that prevents the koalas, with their long, sharp claws, from scaling their way out to the busy road nearby. In addition to the koalas, we spot a kookaburra bird, which prompts my mom to start singing. “Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree, merry merry king of the bush is he . . .”

Unsurprisingly, the koalas are mostly all sleeping. We learn that they spend an average of eighteen to twenty-two hours a day asleep—partly because their diet requires a lot of energy to digest and partly because eucalyptus plants drug them into a constant sleepy high. They are the original stoners. I find this endearing and coo over the various precarious sleeping positions they’ve chosen: some are curled up in the crook between tree branch and trunk, so close we could touch them (though we’re warned not to); some doze practically upright; others perch on the tips of branches, which bend and sway under their weight.

Whitney at Koala Reserve on Phillip Island

Naomi answers a phone call and learns that her friend Tarif is, indeed, safe, though worried for his close friend, who he knows was at the mosque that morning. “His friend has four small children,” Naomi tells us. I’m not sure why she’s fixating on such details. It seems unhelpful to me. For days and weeks and months, I know Naomi will be hearing about many people who lost their lives—parents, small children, whole families, people who survived previous tragedies only to be taken out by this one. They’ll be profiled, their images and names and headlines blasted around the TV and internet and into her heart and soul and memory, if she lets them permeate that deep. I’m not so callous that I share any of these thoughts with her. 

Naomi gets another call. This time, it’s from Anton. “Ohmygosh,” she says for possibly the hundredth time today. “He . . . he’s filmed it. The shooter, he . . . he live streamed the video of him shooting all those people. It’s all over the internet. Anton’s just watched it by accident. He thought it was news coverage. Anton’s quite upset. He said, ‘Mum, I can never unsee that.’” I can imagine. The thought makes me feel nauseated. That is exactly the kind of thing to avoid.

“Apparently, you can see how he just shot everyone down. Everyone. If Tarif’s friend was in there, he’s almost certainly dead.” Naomi looks on the verge of tears. For a moment, I wonder if I might cry too. None of us do. We walk in silence until a koala in a low-hanging branch catches our eye. It’s chowing down on a eucalyptus leaf. 

“Look!” Mom and I exclaim. “This one is doing something!” The three of us laugh over our disproportionately delighted reaction to the small movement.

After much deliberation (could I make use of an adorable stuffed koala from the gift shop? Is there room in my small suitcase?) we leave the Koala Reserve and head to the Nobbies Centre, where, supposedly, we’ll see seals sunbathing on the sea cliff rocks. But none are out today, apparently deterred by the strong brisk wind. I shiver as we try and fail to hold down our hair and snap photos that commemorate the brief stop.

Inside the centre we buy drinks and gluten-free brownies. Naomi tells us again how shocking today’s news has been before our conversation drifts to other life updates—jobs, family members, our plans over the next couple of days. We’re worn out.

Sunset, Sunrise

Fueled by a temporary sugar high, we pile back into Naomi’s SUV and begin the ten-minute drive to our final destination: the Penguin Parade, an event where the little penguins (formerly known as fairy penguins) make their daring return from fishing in the sea to their burrows off the beach just after sunset. Under the cover of nightfall, they’re better protected against predators that can swoop down and snatch them during the slow waddle inland.

We drive along the sea for a few minutes before Naomi taps the breaks. “Oh, look! Look at the wallaby!”

It’s only a couple of feet away from us, planted confidently in the sprawling field next to the Boulevard. A second wallaby catches our attention nearby, and we coo over the pair. Looking around, we notice they aren’t alone—pairs of wallabies dot Southpoint Lookout to our right and the fields to our left, their brown fur turned auburn in the blaze of the sunset. The car rolls a little further, and the wallaby pairs are no longer distinguishable. We glimpse hundreds of hopping, munching, lounging majestic marsupials through the windshield. I feel the weight of everything that has transpired today acutely, and, in the same instant, awe etches itself into my memory.

Later, we regret not having thought to snap a photo. But the feeling is fleeting—among the things that could never be captured in a photograph, this moment tops my personal list.

The penguin parade is very much the culmination of an eventful day. We munch on popcorn as the sun drops deeper and the temperature dips further still into the low fifties. I layer Naomi’s spare jacket over my own but am still visibly shaking. I wonder how I’ll ever handle my eventual reckoning with the subzero temperatures of a Minnesota winter.

Moments before the little penguins are expected to make their appearance, a seal begins diving among the shallow waves, darting furiously back and forth. We’re all horrified—is there any chance the seal is simply playing with the penguins? Our optimism is dashed moments later when one of the little penguins that has emerged begins darting along the sand between its comrades, in and out of the water, as if searching for its mate.

After most of the little penguins have made their grand entrance, we follow a dimly lit path and watch them return—usually in pairs—to their penguin holes. Some stay standing outside of their homes like they’re posing just for us—a “penguin party,” helpful guides explain. They snuggle on one another, their heads curled in toward each other in a way I’ve only ever seen depicted in The Pebble and the Penguin and Happy Feet. Naomi, Mom, and I assert that, surely, the penguin on the beach has found its mate and is happily cuddling like the rest.

The following morning, Naomi learns that Tarif’s friend was, indeed, killed in the shooting. She hurts for her friend, but the news seems to conclude the proceedings of the previous day. She makes plans to fly to Christchurch as soon as the city allows travel again (probably in a week, she says) so she can be there to offer support and love and comfort to her team. We don’t mention it again.

 I’ve cited the Penguin Parade as one of the highlights from my trip to Australia with Mom. The wallabies, however, still haunt me—that moment of beauty in the midst of all that was happening in the world felt like a betrayal of sorts. It shed light on my own distance—both physically and emotionally—from a tragedy I was aware of and the uncrossable chasm I’d built between myself and those tragedies that occur blissfully outside of my awareness. It made me hurt for the world and my country in particular, which has produced many of the killers and hate crimes that the shooter would later cite as inspiration for his horrific actions.

Sometimes, the sense of life going on feels grim and unfair, and this overall fun and joyful day on vacation juxtaposed that feeling with the way I’d benefited from, relished in, and even relied on this cliché moto. Life does, indeed, go on. We can choose to focus only on the beauty or we can choose to hurt with humanity across the physical and emotional spaces that separate us. Someday, I hope to figure out how to do both.

I hope to appreciate the liveliness and luxury afforded to me in the south of Thailand while also maintaining an awareness of the water shortage that’s creating hardship for the locals. To ride horses along a beach in Bali while also acknowledging that the trash littering the beautiful black sand is just one indication of the country’s economic reality. To coo at a wallaby while understanding that the friends around me are shocked and hurting as a result of a tragedy they themselves are removed from by a few degrees of separation.  

As Ian McEwan wrote in his haunting book Atonement:

Beauty, she had discovered, occupied a narrow band. Ugliness, on the other hand, had infinite variation.

Extensive travel with a dash of lament plus a sprinkle of empathy is the recipe I follow as I attempt to reconcile the two.


*News sample taken from 7NEWS Melbourne’s breaking news.

**Not his real name.

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