Day 187 in the time of coronavirus and I’ve been silent for over three weeks, ensnared in a busy distracting schedule, bobbing up and down in the flow of change and more change, trying to stay steady. But here I am back at the keyboard tapping.
There are times when the weight of many things; this confounding pandemic; the soaring of racial prejudice fuelled by divisive hate rhetoric from the most hateful person on the planet; continuing climate change falls heavily on the spirit. I've wondered whether the recent strong winds on the harbour bridge, so ferocious they tipped over a huge truck causing serious damage to a main support and major traffic disruption to our main city, are another sign of a warming planet So when an invitation arrived in my inbox to spend time on the sandbanks observing birds near the Miranda/Pukorokoro shorebird sanctuary, on the edge of the Firth of Thames, it felt like a gift falling from the sky.
The day dawned bright and still. We drove down the southern motorway, over the Bombay Hills, turned off at Pokeno and headed, briefly, towards the Hauraki Plains, before turning at Mangatangi and winding east and slightly north through brilliant fields of green towards our destination. The sky was a Delft blue, the day warm and gentle, not a breath of movement in the atmosphere. To the east the Coromandel Ranges were a beguiling shade of mauve while water in the middle ground, the Firth of Thames, provided a strip of gentle blue.
We were meeting at the home of one of my book club members. Keith Woodley is the author of the definitive book on the godwit, 'Godwits: Long Haul Champions' and he’s also the manager of the Pukorokoro Miranda Shorebird centre. On this day he would be on duty there but we knew he would be awaiting our return from the bird hide ready to supply us with all the information and stories, of which there are many, of his research discoveries and experiences plotting the flight path of the bar-tailed godwit, back and forth from Miranda to Alaska, twice a year. He has observed the birds in Alaska at the Yukon-Kuskokwim delta and on the Alaska Peninsula where they breed, and in North Korea too, one of the countries they alight in just once to refuel two thirds of the way into the northern journey. On the return to Aotearoa, the birds cover the distance in a single flight.
It’s an absolute wonder how they manage this. The mother birds have only recently hatched their eggs, and the finely sculpted baby birds are still very young when they make their first journey of over 30,000 kms from Alaska all the way to Pukororo. Truly miraculous. And here is an interesting fact, discovered in Keith’s Godwits book, the female bird is larger than the male her inbuilt design feature allowing her to produce a largeish egg and a largeish chick. Size is essential to the survival of the new bird as it makes its first perilous passage across planet Earth.
The route to the bird hide passed alongside a wetland where on this tranquil day black swans and one white heron had the water to themselves. It had the feeling of walking in a sheltered valley, located somewhere in a bible story with rising landforms on both sides— the hills to the west, the Coromandel ranges in the east. There must be times when this same idyllic place turns into something desolate, windswept and god-forsaken but today I had felt I had found paradise. We were heading, with three enormous telescopes, to the bird hide at the outermost end.
The telescopes were positioned on the shingly bank next to the hide, their lenses focussed on a sandbank, just across a muddy lagoon. Beyond, a slip of water and the deep lavender ranges formed a velvet backdrop. And there they were, the bar-tailed godwit recently returned from Alaska.
I think you have to know what you are looking at to experience the full magic. We are lucky in our book club to have in our group two experienced birders. On this day Will Perry, chairman of the Pukororo Shorebird Trust counted some three thousand godwits. There is a method he explained for counting. It involves grouping the birds in bunches of ten, then twenty, fifty, 100, 1000, 2000, 3000… The godwits stretched out in lines, ten, twenty birds deep along the bank. Mixed in amongst them were other shorebirds: Caspian tern; white faced heron; wrybill; pied stilt; variable oystercatcher and red knot. The air rippled. It was like a mirage, like footage in a David Attenborough movie. Yet it was real, this extraordinary natural phenomenon of birds on mass gathered together pecking at the sand, gorging on food, filling up the hungry void inside. I nearly fell down on my knees and gave thanks to all the Gods and to the intricate evolution process that has produced life on earth for creating this marvellous vision.
My eyesight could be better. I have the beginnings of cataracts. This means that objects in the far distance are always slightly hazy, features indistinct. Would I see the detail? I was desperate to. In breaks between viewing Will explained a diagram affixed to the wall inside the bird hide and its system of banding. Some of the birds carry up to six different coloured bands, including a white flag, on their fine legs. Do they mind? I wondered. Do the bands slow them down? They’re very light apparently. Thinking I couldn’t possibly discern any bands I put my eye to the lens. Not every bird is banded. The process by which this happens at Pukorokoro and at landing places throughout the world is dependent on humans and their volunteer efforts. It involves a clever process whereby a net is set. The birders then lie for hours in mud waiting for the tide to wash in and nudge the birds closer to shore, whereupon a canon fires the net over the birds and the birders rush forward to tag as many as they can. Lots of birds escape before the net descends.
I spied the bands on the left leg of one bird and was the first to do so. The expression of doubt on the faces of my friends was noted. ‘But I have seen a white flag, and a red and yellow band,’ I exclaimed. Will leapt forward, eye to the lens, asking at the same time, ‘Which leg?’ The left. ‘What position?’ Near its ankle. ‘What about the other leg, can you see any bands?’ A pied stilt was blocking my view. Will confirmed my sighting and then everyone jumped up to see. Of course later when I spoke to Keith he told me that, unfortunately, I’d only gained half the story of the bird's flight paths so it was invalid. I don’t care I had a fabulous time.
While we were taking turns to look through the view finder my friend Holly described the spectacle that sometimes occurs when the godwits rise up, as one flock, and fly over. Before we left it happened. Something disturbed them and up they went in a huge puff of feathers, and with a twittering and beating of wings, into the sky moving like a cloud over the water, over our heads. As they flew the sun caught on the pale underside of their bodies and turned them into gold. I wanted to scream and I did silently for it was a truly glorious sight and an epiphany. I have always been interested in birds but in that moment I became a lover of birds.
Day 158 and according to a study in Forbes magazine, New Zealand has been ranked the second safest country, just below Germany, in the time of coronavirus. There were 250 countries in the study, each ranked on efficiency of quarantine systems, health readiness, management and detection of the virus, regional resilience, emergency preparedness and how efficiently governments manage risks. You can’t argue with a study such as this although the nit-picking political rhetoric swirling as we count down to our election in October would suggest a very different picture. But the fact is that Angela Merkel and Jacinda Ardern, the women at the helm of these two top-ranked countries, are doing a very good job of limiting the danger, while other countries are faring badly, the UK ranked at 31, Sweden at 49 and the United States at 55.
This is good news at this point for in the past two days there have been two deaths from Covid -19. They were both men, one in his fifties, the other the former prime minister of the Cook Islands, doctor and health advocate Joe Williams. Their families will be grieving.
The last person to die before this latest outbreak was Eileen Hunter, aged 96, on 28 May which meant there was just over three months without a cloud of sadness, caused by Covid-19 deaths in Aotearoa, hanging over us. I have to admit to feeling shocked when I read of these latest deaths. I’d been lulled into a false sense of security thinking that although Covid-19 had returned to New Zealand, principally to Auckland, and although alert level 3 was an unnerving experience, people were not dying. And now they are and as well the statistics remind us, we are not free of the virus and not out of danger. There are currently 112 active cases in the country, of which 110 are in Auckland - 38 are imported and in quarantine facilities - and 74 arose in the community. I feel less secure tonight.
To counterbalance the anxiety however I have been sensing something encouraging. Throughout lockdown and through all the levels the prime minister has repeated the mantra, ‘stay safe, be kind.’ Then during level 3, there were even illuminated signs on the motorway with the words ‘safe’ and ‘kind’, white lights against a charcoal background, superimposed against a blue sky. I looked up and felt saved.
This approach to leading a country through a pandemic is in stark contrast to the techniques of the monster who leads the most troubled nation in the world, the United States. I think I would be sinking into total despair if I was a citizen of that country whereas here it seems that the repetition of these good human virtues is beginning to take root in our collective psyche. I am surprised constantly by the friendliness of complete strangers, on the street, in the pharmacy, at the supermarket, over the phone. These days people are much more likely to swing into serious conversation than before. Recently I was arranging a change of address for my household insurance for the sixth time in fifteen months and the young woman on the phone said, ‘I was homeless for two weeks and I didn’t cope. I don’t know how you have managed for so long.’ I was touched at that. Then she said, ‘Do you know our company offers free counselling over the phone. You can call anytime.’
I remember way back on day 2 of lockdown when I was walking in the locked volcanic crater and I encountered a man and his small daughter, one foot on the wide platform of her pink scooter and taking a wide berth around me, eyeing me solemnly as though I was a demon breathing the virus from my nostrils, when actually I was a shocked woman, worrying for my children and grandchildren, the little one in the womb, for my friends and family, for New Zealand, for the world, and the father said, ‘Are you doing okay?’ I was stunned. ‘Yes,’ I said breathlessly. ‘And you?’ I asked. 'We’re okay,' he said. It was unexpected. People didn’t ask such questions while walking in a park in the time before coronavirus. I remember Brian too, a week later, and the surprise and pleasure of finding a stranger on the path, with whom I could have a discussion about New Zealand literature. Just the mention of authors’ names settled me.
The most recent gesture of kindness arrived in the form of a package at my door yesterday evening. It was from my friend who lives at Otaki, up the coast from Waikanae, and it was a freshly-made jar of Seville Orange marmalade. Accompanying the preserve was a card with an image of a painting ‘Portrait of a Lady in a Landscape’ - she's wearing a beautiful flushed peach, long skirt and is standing tall against a rocky outcrop. The painting, by Tasmanian artist Derwent Lees, (1885-1921) is from the collection of the Sarjeant Gallery in Whanganui. I'd phoned my friend when she was in the midst of stirring the slightly tart, sweet, dark oranges in her jam pot and she'd said, I will send you a jar. And she did and those two items in the package have given me great pleasure, the combination of melted butter and marmalade in a heated croissant from the French bakery, Chateaubriand, in Devonport, just delicious and life affirming.
Day 151 in the time of coronavirus and the things that are currently preoccupying me are: the media and its destructive reverberations; the media and the potential of journalism for healing and enlightenment; and acts of human kindness.
I admire journalists, some more than others, though. I respect their skilful handling of language and form, there is sometimes a loose free flowing feel, a soaring and easeful rhythm to a journalist’s writing that makes the reading experience so very pleasurable. I have total admiration for the quality of in-depth research and well-balanced synthesis of information in many an investigative article. I admire the speed with which a journalist can pull together an article covering a demanding set of ideas making them comprehensible and digestible. I admire too the ability of the journalist to cut to the chase, go straight to the expert, or the human beings at the centre of a subject for direct answers to relevant questions. I warm to the writers that operate with integrity and humanity. They are the classy ones and then there is a breed and a genre of reporting, perhaps that is the best term here, that can cause unnecessary trouble and pain, spreading alarm, squashing hope, stirring the pot pointlessly in an insatiable and oftentimes seemingly desperate quest to attract a reader.
I’m sick of this aspect of our news coverage. It is bad news in the time of a pandemic. Also I’ve detected recently, as others have also voiced their dismay, that in defending their own work, a certain arrogance has crept in - I'm talking about a few individuals here, not the entire community of writers. It goes along the lines of; it is our job, because we have the intelligence to do this, to point things out to the poor ignorant public. They need us to ask the questions they haven’t thought of yet, and might not ever. There is even a sense of righteousness, that some consider themselves the moral arbiters of the issues of today. It is never spoken but a feature of the reporting style seems to be to badger, harass and taunt those in public office, under the guise of ensuring they are made accountable, when sometimes what is really happening is a misguided witch hunt.
We are told we need this. And yet do we? Without news reporting there would be no Donald Trump, president of the United States. It wasn’t the people so much as the continued and unbalanced global exposure of the buffoon beamed into people’s living rooms or featured in print media from the beginning of his campaign that secured his ridiculous victory.
With that off my chest I can focus on a positive aspect of the journalist's craft and how it can be a force for good. That’s how it felt during this momentous week in New Zealand history when mosque killer, I don't want to say his name, was sentenced in the High Court and given the harshest sentence available, life imprisonment with no possibility of parole ever, for murdering 51 worshippers and attempting to murder a further 40 people, on 15 March, 2019, at two Christchurch mosques, Al Noor Mosque and the Linwood Islamic Centre.
Throughout the week I have been informed of the proceedings via Radio New Zealand whose focus has been on reporting verbatim the impact statements of victims injured in the attack and family members of the 51 worshippers who died on that terrible afternoon. Initially a total of 66 statements were expected but as people in the packed public gallery and seven additional court rooms listened, more came forward to give their testimony, leading to 93 statements in all. This was the darkest and worst mass killing in New Zealand history and it needed this level of exposure to honour the loss of life and its shattering impact on many, many, many lives. The massacre was pre-meditated. It was motivated by hateful, ideology, implemented by a cold-blooded murderer who showed no mercy at any point.
Through the efforts of Radio new Zealand I have been able to listen, through the week, to many of these courageous people presenting their experience, expressing their pain. The speakers were eloquent, passionate, angry, fearless and one beautiful woman, Janna Ezat whose son was murdered, was forgiving. “I decided to forgive you, Mr Tarrant because I don't have hate. I don't have revenge," she said directly to him. “In our Muslim faith we say . . . we are able to forgive, forgive. I forgive you. Damage was done and Hussein will never be here so I have only one choice to forgive you." Throughout the period since the massacre, seventeen months ago, the terrorist has shown no remorse, no insight, no comprehension of the shattering pain he has caused to so many people but at Janna Ezat’s words he nodded in acknowledgment and blinked profusely wiping at one of his eyes.
And yet who would not weep at her words and those of the other 92 who came forward. The stories that have flowed in the High Court these past days have been devastating to learn about. Aya Al Umari, who lost her beloved brother — their birthdays were always celebrated together, as they were only one day apart — described the “gut-wrenching feeling” of having to call her mother and say to her that “Hussein might be dead, prepare to grieve," she said. "I still have the urge to pick up the phone and talk to my brother tell him about my day and rant to him because he's the only one that would understand.”
The courage to stand up and speak publicly about their suffering has been humbling to witness. Many of the speakers looked him, ‘the devil’ one person called him, in the eye as they spoke. There was the heart-breaking account of Nathan Smith, who converted to Islam about nine years ago, speaking directly to the killer saying "After you left Mosque Al Noor I was surrounded by the injured, the dying and the dead. I held a three-year-old boy in my arms praying he was alive - he was not. You took him away. He was three."
And providing context, Mazharuddin Syed Ahmed explained, "We all come from countries where these things happen," and then amazingly he continued, "We came to New Zealand because it is safe, but after the shooting when we saw how people respected us and treated us all well that made us feel good about New Zealand."
It was expressed more than once, that the terrorist had failed in his mission to spread racial and religious hatred and xenophobia. Instead he had united the community and New Zealanders in general. Wasseim Sati Ali Daragmih said, "You think your actions have destroyed our community and shaken our faith, but you have not succeeded. You have made us come together with more determination and strength.”
"So you have failed completely. So you have failed completely."
In this instance the media, and in particular RNZ through its thorough reporting and transcribing of statements have achieved something important. It has provided an opportunity for the rest of New Zealand to listen and to learn. We might all pause to consider the words of Nathan Smith, to the killer, ‘When you get a free minute… maybe you should try to read the Quran – it’s beautiful.’
And then there was Justice Cameron Mander. Family members and victims spoke highly of him saying he had made the court a safe space for people to express their pain and the rippling impact on families, so many parents, siblings, children, friends still grieving and traumatised. In his closing words Justice Cameron read out all the names of the murder victims, mentioning details of their lives, and referring to the shattered families left in the wake of the killer's actions. He said to the terrorist that he had been motivated by a "base hatred of people perceived to be different from yourself". And added the murderer's "hateful ideology was anathema to the values of New Zealand's society."
"It has no place here. It has no place anywhere."
The flowers in the accompanying photo are for the brave worshippers at the two Christchurch mosques, defenders of their loved ones and their faith. The posy was originally a gift to me, on a bright morning in early spring, from a friend who had seen my photo and read my earlier post on the tussie mussie. She phoned and said, ‘I’m delivering some flowers from my garden to your door.’ Acts of human kindness in harsh times. They count.
Day 144 in the time of coronavirus and Auckland remains in level three and I have let this journal lapse because I haven’t felt like writing. Each night I say to myself, ‘come on do something’ and then decide to watch an episode of Netflix instead — only one episode, mind you, for I have read that binge watching dulls the mind and ultimately lowers the mood. My problem is that there is too much to write about — there is the disappointment and shock at lunging again into another coronavirus meltdown after 102 days with no community transmission, there is the political turmoil, the election deferred a month and an escalation of hostilities from other parties, the implementation of the depressingly familiar blame game strategy showcasing the viperish tendencies of people hellbent on gaining power not on motivating the population to stand together to eliminate the virus and save lives. All of this has lead to a climate of distrust and restlessness in Auckland and a lower tolerance and commitment, this time round, to applying ourselves to the team effort.
I am genuinely concerned that many Aucklanders seem disinclined to wear face masks in public. According to epidemiologist Professor Rod Jackson Covid-19 is many times more severe than the flu. And why aren’t people motivated to download the Covid-19 tracer app and swipe their phone across the barcode when entering public premises? It’s easier and quicker than taking a photo on the iphone. Are we waiting for the government to implement Sam Morgan's bluetooth cards at a cost of $100 million. Money doesn't grow on trees. We have an app and could use it.
The other problem is that there is also very little to write about, for level three is really lockdown for most of us where each day feels the same, same, same and very boring and pallid and grey, even on sunny days. I write this even though I’m in the midst of a busy work programme, one that I find sustaining and interesting and also, as a member of a family bubble, I am involved in their lives offering support as they try and deal with the impact of the restrictions on their newly created family of four, the little one will be just five weeks old on Monday. Observing this situation in close up I realise how hard lockdown is for families confined to home without their normal social outlets to break up long days, even harder when a parent is working in their midst requiring a level of quiet to be productive. Actually both parents are always working. In this instance, one is full-time parenting, the other is the main income provider.
When the bad news first broke my daughter asked me what to do about the three year old. Should she tell him we were in lockdown again? My advice, was 'No, keep it from him for as long as possible.' It took him seven days to work it out by a process of deduction, we think, for not a word had been breathed, apart from once when he asked his father if he could play on the swing down near the beach. ‘No,’ said his father. ‘The playground isn’t available for ten days.’
The following day on my arrival I was called upstairs for ‘a show’. There we were seated on chairs, baby tucked into a soft cotton wrap, wound around her mother’s body, facing the bed, Remy in the bed with all his soft toys under the duvet preparing them for their moment of stardom, when he got up suddenly and shut the bedroom door. ‘We have to lock the door because the coronavirus is back in Auckland,’ he said, very firmly. ‘Everyone has to stay inside, and Mormor has to stay the night, and we can’t go out because there are snapping creatures out there.’
My daughter and I sat there mouths open, looking at one another. How did he know? Creche and the fact that he wasn’t going anymore hadn’t been mentioned, but of course he must have sensed his weekly rhythm, three days at daycare, was out and odd. Then his teachers launched their regular videos again, of them performing dance routines, reading stories, doing puppet shows. That must have felt familiar from lockdown. But how he knew it is only Auckland in lockdown is a puzzle.
I think, reflecting on these family interactions that I am in a good position really, yet it doesn’t stop me being disturbed. It’s the feeling in the atmosphere that corrodes. This time I do not find peace in the stillness. I do not embrace the rhythm of walking on my own around the park. I do not feel greatly uplifted when I spy a lone cargo ship, coloured cream and orange, moving slowly across a sheet of gunmetal grey water towards the container terminal, even though the colours and textures seen in abstraction are gorgeous, no my heart does not leap for joy for I am losing hope that we will ever rise again and be free of this wretched virus. Also I miss being with my friends, seeing the light in their eyes as they talk, their features animated. Sometimes I even miss the smell of my friend’s home, of her.
There are days when I feel like a boat grounded in the mangroves, without the promise of a returning tide to float me back into the swim of life.
Day 136 and a critical one as we awaited news at 5.30pm of the plan going forward. Through the day my thoughts went crashing about. Will we stay in level 3? I could bear that but please may we not move into level 4. When I heard the decision, twelve more days in level 3, my heart sang though I never expected to write that. Also I discovered I can trust Grant Robertson and that made me happy, for in the morning I’d read on my Radio New Zealand app that he’d declared he would not allow the Auckland region to go into level 4. Still I worried that at the cabinet meeting before the announcement, they might change their minds. Incidentally, about the media and following it, I am becoming extremely reactive around bad news. I cannot cope with the avalanche of woe and doom, thus I’ve made a decision to limit exposure and follow just one news source, Radio NZ. I find there is more balance there. Recently I heard a presenter on the concert programme saying, ‘I’m going to play you something light and delightful now. We need a break from the all gloom and misery’ (or something like that). Even the people who make the media can’t stomach their own pill anymore. This means however, that the Guardian and its fabulous journalism is off-limits for now, even the cultural articles. I can’t risk the possibility of spying bad headlines as I scroll down to the arts section.
Today as I awaited the announcement I found myself needing to re-establish a routine. Fortunately I had kept my schedule from the first lockdown. Reading the content I was reminded how to do this. The principle is to divide the day into small, achievable segments being careful not to be overly ambitious and then experience failure. Mine is divided into the following: work, house cleaning, clothes washing, exercise, play if possible, I’m still working on this, and for a person in a bubble of one the crucial online contact with family and friends.
I wrote out the new plan this morning and mostly kept to it finding in the process a sense of security and of purpose. The work I’d hoped for, making a start on the first three chapters of a manuscript assessment got done, and I relished the experience. There was housework that satisfied me and more arranging of flowers to beautify the table where I work.
The day had begun with meditation. I can’t do long stretches at the moment. With my jangled nerves, thoughts galloping and leaping over one other, it has become a battleground. But to manage just a little time of sitting quietly, slowing my breathing, settling like a hen on her eggs, feathers floating, fluffing, gently closing in on the body, simply being here, that felt good. Then breakfast which was oat porridge cooked with banana, raisins and cinnamon. I still had some apricot halves from the tin I’d bought at the dairy the other day, and added yoghurt and the smallest drizzle of cream. I’m not worried about extra calories at the moment as I’ve lost weight. It went up in lockdown and then dropped away. I’m sure these changes are happening for everyone in the time of anxiety and loss of hope. And anyway self-improvement programmes that were important before coronavirus have shrivelled into irrelevancy in this fiendishly difficult environment. I've decided, ‘What the hell, I’m going to drink more fizzy ginger ale now.’
My friend said to me this morning, ‘I’m glad I’m old.’ I knew what she meant. I feel something similar. But oh, my darling baby Sage and her brother Remy, what lies ahead for them? It saddens me to see them growing up in the time of a pandemic and to hear that my daughter has ordered my grandson a mask with dinosaurs on it. Children wearing masks to protect them from a virus? This is not normal. Thank goodness the beach is her happy place and his happy place too. They go there every day.
Day 134 in the time of this confounding virus and Auckland is in level three again, while the rest of the country is in level two. I think we all knew this was inevitable, for how do you keep the virus out when the borders have to remain partially open to facilitate trade to assist the functioning of the economy and to welcome home those New Zealanders wanting to return.
Recently my friend in public health had said, while walking along the inlet at Ngataringa Bay on a silvery Saturday morning, ‘you need to be prepared, Deborah, for a return of Covid’. And I had responded ‘Please stop. I don’t want to hear. My anxiety is running high. I want to get into my apartment.’ I saw her again today and she said, ‘I knew nothing about this until it happened.’ She had however been focussed, with her team, for some weeks now on the final details of the resurgence response plan. When they pushed the button recently they thought it might either be needed soon or they might just be putting it away in the cupboard and bringing it out at a later date.
My friend was also the person who said, way back, ‘this government is a dream to work alongside.’ And I remember being struck by that. Then last night, when we learned about the return to level three, along with thinking, ‘I can’t bear it,’ followed sometime later with ‘we have done this before. We can do it again,’ lastly I felt a sense of gratitude for Jacinda’s decisive response. They are a dream government and really we are fortunate.
Speaking of last night, oh what a night. It was book club and during the evening, in the time of innocence before the media announcement, we had frightened ourselves thoroughly with talk of the virus. One reader had reviewed Michael Moseley’s new book 'Covid' and as happens in this lively group of thinkers, two of whom are medical laboratory scientists, one of whom is a journalist and another a writer the discussion roamed and stretched out. In the process the tenor dropped and we sat there feeling helpless and disturbed. Then another reader reviewed, quite brilliantly, a terrible, terrible, extraordinary book. 'The Second Sleep' by Richard Harris. It is set in 1468 but not looking back, looking forwards from the year 2025 when there is a breakdown of technical, digital communication leading to an apocalyptic fall into chaos, into social fragmentation and collapse. I will not elaborate on the plot, it felt uncannily close to what is happening now,. We were all wide-eyed. Then ping, a message to a reader, 'turn on the news'. And there was Jacinda looking tired, extremely serious and very thin, wearing the same lovely grey dress from her election campaign launch where she had been smiling, especially following Clarke Gayford's speech, and now she was not. She was delivering the bad news.
This morning when I awoke I tried to plan my morning in a way that wouldn’t be too stressful. I had attempted to visit the supermarket on my way home last night but they closed the doors on me. This morning my friend said don’t queue there go to the dairy instead. When I did, I bought the strangest things. I needed milk but then I saw a tin of Watties asparagus spears and put them on the counter and then wanting more comfort I purchased one small bag of kettle chips. I associate asparagus rolls with my mother's tender care when recovering from stomach ailments. When I was through the sickness she would appear in my bedroom bearing a tray which held a glass of ginger ale with 'Andrews Liver Salts’ stirred in. I have no idea why she did this — the salts made an already fizzy drink even more so — but it doesn't matter I loved it. And on one of her Susie Cooper bread and butter plates, these plates were cream with sage green spots and fluted ornamentation round the rim, there would be two asparagus rolls made with soft white, or wholemeal bread. I still hanker after precisely this when I am recovering from something.
After the dairy I went to the village pharmacy and bought some more face masks and then drifted further up the street to the optometrist to purchase contact lens solution. On the way I stopped at the flower shop and spent $12 on a brilliant blue-red cyclamen plant. So many times this winter I have said, ‘No you don’t need one.’ Today I thought, 'I do.' Also I bought a thin slab of Devonport Chocolate with whole pieces of hokey pokey. Across the street I noted people buying gelato from the stall that is part of The Vic, cinema. Good on them.
Then it was one last look at the world from my apartment with the sliding doors open, breathing in the salty air, gulping in the glorious views, absorbing on my retina the vivid blue-green of the seawater, at high tide lapping at the stone crescent on the edge of Stanley Bay. Construction can continue in level three but if we head into level four my project to create a study nook will be put on hold. More patience is required.
Day 131 in the time of coronavirus and the situation in Beirut remains dire. The death toll has risen to 154 and the number of injuries is up by a thousand to 5000. There is rioting in the streets too for people are angry at governmental negligence. They doubt there will be any meaningful attempt to address the weaknesses in the system that allowed the disaster to occur. I fervently hope that amongst the citizens who are suffering there is a sense of community and family to bind them, hold them, otherwise how do they go on.
These are difficult times. The pandemic runs like a low, deep rumble below the surface, putting people on edge. Where once we might have sailed through blips, small things can sometimes sideswipe us. Feeling uneasy myself I headed out to Karekare on Saturday to collect a small set of bookshelves and a collection of books on nature writing that I’d left behind following my residency last year. I’d fully intended collecting them on my return from a summer holiday in the south but it didn’t happen and then we went into lockdown. This past week though I have felt a deep urgency to gather in my treasures and regain more of my life.
It was like being reunited with old friends. I was mightily glad to see Sara Maitland and her "A Book of Silence" and Anne Morrow Lindbergh and her "Gift from the Sea" too. Now I long to place them on shelves in my new home. The waiting has stretched out and still I am living adrift without my belongings. But soon, soon… Just a little more patience.
It was good to walk on the beach at Karekare with my friend, to take a route I’d walked almost every day for three months while on the residency and to feel again the natural world working its magic. As I emerged from the pohutukawa glade and took the path above the watery ponds I remembered the frogs last November and the tremendous din they had made, a sound so strange and unfamiliar it sounded like the speedway. Further along I remember coming upon a father and three teenagers also entranced by the performance. I didn’t know them but we stood quite still listening, mouths creased into smiles.
Always there is a lift when, at a turn on the path, the sea comes into view washing around the small island named Paratahi, the same as before and different. And then to draw near and hear the clash and sound of cymbals and to breathe in the ozone. I’m convinced the powerful force of huge waves breaking on the shore at Karekare creates a denser kind of ozone, one that goes straight to the brain and sharpens focus. The sea today was the purest white fondant, the wave tops fluffy.
This was the brilliance after the storm for the previous night had been a wild one according to my friend. By the time I wound down the ravine, passing under the vast pohutukawa that spans above the road, and emerged from the tunnel of native foliage into the green valley all was washed clean and glistening, leaves shining in the sunlight, bulbous trunks of the nikau projected in vivid lime. Beautiful.
When I got home I looked up my Karekare journal and found this excerpt. It began with a reference to John, the photographer who had also been in residence.
“I have to confess to a wish that sneaked into my head today, in response to John’s encounter with the gannet. Coming out to the beach I had wanted to find something for myself but Anne Morrow Lindberg writes in her small volume "A Gift from the Sea" that ocean treasures ‘must not by sought for.’ It doesn’t work that way, she writes. ‘The sea does not reward those who are too anxious, too greedy, or too impatient.’ Rather we must practice patience.
'Patience, patience, patience, is what the sea teaches. Patience and faith. One should lie empty, open, choiceless as a beach —waiting for a gift from the sea.'
Day 127 and I am just home, walking through the dark again, smelling the citrus scent of daphne on the night air, and I have hit a wall and am weary and wish to fall into bed but I cannot yet because tonight my thoughts are with the people of Beirut and Lebanon and the agonies they are enduring at this time and I must write and acknowledge the catastrophe.
Only very recently I had read of the collapse of their economy and the dire situation for all, with hyperinflation diminishing the value of their currency, reducing people’s incomes drastically and leading to job losses and nationwide poverty. And now this, two massive explosions in the Port of Beirut. Vast mushroom clouds and flames— some thought it was a nuclear explosion — hung in the air for nearly thirty minutes. Speculation is running high about the true causes of the disaster. The official explanation is an accidental detonation of ammonium nitrate left unsecured for some years in a warehouse near the port. Somebody, or some people ignited those chemicals. 100 dead, 4000 injured, a hospital destroyed, houses, whole streets gone, shattered glass on the ground, people missing… it is too terrible. Medical facilities are already stretched as doctors deal with the impact of coronavirus, how will they manage the flood of injured? ‘We’re cursed,’ said one young man, blood streaming from his arm. Power out. Lights off. The city in darkness. People leaving their crushed homes but where will they go? People searching through the smoking ruins and debris for family. A mother down at the port calling out the name of her son and saying ‘His eyes are green.’
A humanitarian catastrophe of horrifying proportions. This is too much for people to bear. The explosions have destroyed silos containing around 85% of the country’s grain when bread was already scarce. A warehouse containing medical supplies was lost as well. People are being turned away from hospitals, the injured are being treated in the streets. There are not enough words in the English language to express the awfulness of this absolute tragedy. Suffering heaped upon suffering — physical, emotional, psychological, financial. We can donate. We can meditate, or pray. We can continue to follow the plight of the people of Lebanon and care. My heart is heavy tonight.
Day 124 in the time of coronavirus and it was an exciting and healing day bringing with it a brief return to an experience that has always been a highlight of winter, something that brightened the bleakness of the season - the Auckland International Film Festival. This year the event has slipped by almost unnoticed without its usual weighty, informative and easy to follow booklet and mostly lacking a venue. In the main we have to watch online on a computer or apple tv. In the weekends though there are a just a few screenings at random cinemas, but not the beloved Auckland Civic.
I know. I know. I know. We are lucky to be able to engage in even the most minimal form of crowd activity in the time of lockdown. (Am I fully appreciating my good fortune, I wonder, or am I too focussed on how eerily quiet the city seems, apocalyptic almost on a Sunday in the viaduct, all the brand new apartment blocks standing empty?) But for today anyway it was a tonic to view a rare and precious feminist film set in Saudi Arabia, intelligently scripted, powerful, heart-warming, dismaying - oh the gender divide - and intensely thought-provoking. Then for the visual narrative to be amplified with a musical score featuring the exotic, and sometimes lonely, wandering sound of the oud, just stunning.
There has been discussion recently about the Netflix series ‘Unorthodox’ and its insight into Jewish Hasidic culture. This film, ‘A Perfect Candidate’ provided a similar fascinating frame by frame slice of contemporary life within a Middle Eastern Islamic culture, one I know little about. That is what I love about the medium of cinema, its facility to lift me from the mundane reality of everyday life in little New Zealand into other worlds, other cultures, other geographies, offering a chance to learn more and ponder more about the wonderful and perplexing wider world in which I live. This seems more important in the time of coronavirus because living here I do have a feeling of being stuck. We’ve pulled up the drawbridge and are living in quiet isolation, far from the madding world.
Tonight I took the ferry home from the city, a first, the boat slicing swiftly through the inky water away from a brilliantly lit city skyline diminishing as we moved further into the harbour towards Devonport. Sitting outside, slightly under the cover of a jutting overhead deck, feeling the chilly, slightly damp, salty air, a mist on my face, I felt a rush of adrenalin, felt energised. I could see the apartment tower, with its lights on as we crossed over. I'm not in residence yet but it lifted me to see it. And then I wended my way home through the village, along the side of Takarunga, pausing to look up through the ornamental branches of a flowering magnolia, and absorb its flushed petals softly drooping against a brushed dark grey sky. Again I knew I had made the right decision, to live here.
Day 120 in the time of coronavirus and my thoughts tonight drift over the Tasman to Melbourne and the wider state of Victoria, where people are suffering. In the last twenty four hours there have been 384 new cases and six deaths and still the numbers are rising and there seems to be no end in sight. Unbelievably Melbourne is now in a second lockdown and this time it is police-enforced, they patrol the state border, and on the northern boundary the state of New South Wales has restricted people from Victoria entering for the first time since the 1919 flu pandemic. The premier of Victoria, Daniel Andrews says, ‘I’m scared of this. We all should be.’
It is alarming how rapidly the situation has deteriorated for in mid-June, Melbourne, like New Zealand was doing well. Life was returning to normal, or as normal as it might be in the time of coronavirus. Restaurants, gyms, the beaches were open again. There was talk of a trans-Tasman bubble opening anytime soon. Instead the case numbers in Victoria are now almost as high as in the UK.
Supposedly it all began at a city hotel when there was contact between security guards and seven returning travellers in quarantine, who then later tested covid-19 positive. They say the transmission could have been the result of something as seemingly innocuous as the sharing of a cigarette lighter, although that is an unfortunate analogy as cigarettes are not innocuous. Then it spread like lightening through public housing towers and aged care facilities and into the community stretching hospital and medical resources so thin that specialist medical teams from around the country are now being brought in.
It makes me sad. Melbourne is one of my favourite cities. For many years I travelled there annually and indulged, for that is how it feels now in what was another life with its overseas travel to soak up culture, moving freely following individualistic whims and, in Melbourne, steeping in the vast array of cultural activities on offer. I was happy wandering the streets under the leafy plane trees, threading my way down tiny lanes amongst some of the most splendid examples of Victorian Gothic architecture anywhere, big and solid and monumental, smaller, detailed, glorious. Always I would visit Butterfield’s church opposite the railway station, with its constructional polychromy and if I was lucky find a pew and listen to a choir rehearsing. And of course the art galleries, I feasted on the exhibitions.
My last trip was in 2017, six months before my marriage ended, when I was fortunate to see a retrospective of the work of Australian artist John Olsen, his paintings, panels, sketches, ceramics, tapestries, his workbooks and journal entries — oh he was a writer as well, such descriptive, lyrical prose. His work is featured in the photograph here. To think that those galleries are now closed. Streets are silent. The people are indoors.
I was considering all this when I sent a text message to my cousin who lives there. We hadn’t been in contact for some time but reading her reply I felt instantly close. Her words illustrated the hardship people are facing better than any news item. She said they’d had a scare last week. Her husband had been in contact with somebody who had tested positive with Covid-19. Everyone was then tested. So far all the associates of this surgeon were negative. Then she wrote that she has her good days and bad days. ‘It’s really hard to keep the spirits up on the cold grey days when the news is bad and there is no end to the stories of the selfish types who believe it’s a conspiracy, refuse to wear masks, continue to hold parties and large family gatherings, don’t isolate when they are Covid-19 positive etc etc. This time has been an insight into human nature.’ Then she said something that surprised me. She wrote I had been her saviour. What could she mean? It was my book, the pain journal I wrote almost nine years ago, ‘Giving Yourself to Life’ which was about a confounding neurological pain I suffered, and still suffer, and finding a way to live with the raspy, snapping sensations that then grew into a kind of treatise on all the pain that afflicts the human spirit over the course of a life. At that time, in my life there was earthquake pain watching a beloved city fall down, for I was writing in 2011 — 2012, there was the pain of past losses, there was the pain of witnessing my mother living valiantly with MS. My cousin said she turns to this book for inspiration ‘when I am down. It resides permanently by my bed now.’ Her revelation is moving. I had no idea when I was writing that book all that time ago that it might one day help someone during the pandemic.