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.
Day 116 and a baby girl has been born and her name is Sage, wise one. And all is well in this small corner of the world in the time of coronavirus. Each day in the presence and knowledge of the cherub’s arrival in my life, I, her grandmother, feel blessed for the birth of a baby in challenging times does feel like a precious gift, something to be celebrated and attended to. During the week of her birth and the one that followed I went silent, letting my journal lapse. I needed time to process the momentous event, to sink deeper into its wake. I was exhausted too and needing early bedtimes, not sitting up late on wintery nights writing up my journal.
It was a busy time. There was the time before her arrival staying with the family and then caring for my grandson when his mother went, first into hospital, and then to the birthing unit nestled in the folds of the green hills of Warkworth. The following day I took my grandson to meet his sister. Straight onto the bed he went to hug his mama, and then to hold Sage in his lap, his voice lifting to a higher pitch as he repeated, ‘I love her. I love her,’ I watched him kiss her forehead and then give her skin a quick lick to see what she tasted like. Beautiful.
My cousin had sent gifts for them both and Remy clasped his present, a monkey wheat bag calling it Bravo, although the name keeps changing. He has a gift for naming. On arriving home Bravo was placed with care on a cushion to sleep and covered with table mats to keep her warm. At bedtime Bravo lay near him on a pillow under the duvet. As I was leaving the room he said, ‘I love this baby. It can talk!’ The inanimate object, unlike his sister obviously. He’s a character.
Meeting my grand-daughter for the first time, holding her, feeling her smallness, her softness, my heart melted. The feeling was one of wonder as I looked upon the dark, dark eyes of the newborn and marvelled at the miracle and mystery of nature and reproduction. I thought of how people sometimes say of a new baby he or she is an ‘old soul’ and I felt that. She arrives with many of her qualities already set in her DNA, she arrives bearing a fascinating mix of family resemblances, characteristics and quirks yet to be revealed, she arrives with her human potential intact within her and awaiting development. Where will she go? Who will she be?
Thinking upon this some more I am reminded of Margaret Mahy and her answer to my question on the birth of her first child Penny for my book 'Her Life’s Work'. Her thoughts were profound.
“It was one of the most astonishing moments of my life because you look at the baby and think, on the one hand you are meeting her for the first time and on the other you have lived very intimately with her inside you, and suddenly there she is. Implicit in this baby are quite a lot of the things she is going to be. Her appearance is established, you don’t know whether she is going to be academic or sporting, but somewhere in her those capacities are contained.
I think when you first see your baby there is that feeling of, ‘I knew it was you. I knew it was you all the time,’ even though we were meeting for the first time. It was just such a huge magical feeling of fulfilment and I remember that very clearly. And I remember that on the one hand they lie there with only their relatively brief pasts, but somehow or other the future is implicit in them as they lie there and all sorts of possibility, and of course you immediately love them. You did before they were born, but when you see the actual baby your love takes on a specific shape and form and there’s an oddity that I’m seeing this baby for the first time and yet I already know it.
And it was the same sense of wonder with the second baby, Bridget, too but there was more confidence because I’d done it before.”
This entry began on Day 109 in the time of coronavirus and then was interrupted. Here it is, with the up to date entry arriving next. I’ve been aware of the noise from our mainstream media detailing the latest breakouts from isolation facilities. To me existing in a quieter zone right now the hyperbole and agitation seems unnecessary and counterproductive in the time of a pandemic. I think again why is it necessary to focus on the negative, the dark, the grisly, the sensational and exaggerate their significance? Where does this code of practice and mode of being come from? It seems a mile away from a zen way of being in the world. For the fact remains we are in an enviable position globally. We’ve had no community transmission of the virus now for two months. We’re doing as well as Taiwan and Vietnam, indeed it’s because we followed the example of Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen, who went into lockdown swiftly back in January to stem the spread of the virus and eliminated it, that we’ve done so well. The real issue worth pondering here is the role of the media in the dissemination of information. For there is an imbalance in both national and international responses to these successes, whereby our story has been privileged over that of Taiwan and Vietnam who led the way. Why is that? The world is but one people. We are all the same under the skin, there is no distinction because of skin colour, we are unified, as my mother who was Baha'i, would say. And yet all is not equal. This is a race issue. In an article published in The Spinoff, ‘Amid all NZ’s Covid back-patting, let’s not forget the country that did it first,’ Ron Hanson, a kiwi journalist living in Taiwan challenges our racist stereotypes. I will post it for it is thought-provoking reading.
The other reason for feeling removed from the chatter is that it pales into insignificance in the midst of awaiting the birth of a grandchild. For now my own reality has slowed down to child-time as I stay with my grandson and his parents. This is a refreshingly simple and heart-warming place to be. As I type on my laptop in my grandson’s bedroom— I’m sharing his room — occasionally I hear a small sigh reminding me he is here. Sleeping peacefully.
In the time of waiting we went down to the beach this afternoon, his happy place, and I watched him play. He was content to sit for a while on the tartan rug and contemplate the wind surfers, their bright purple and turquoise sails, like wings in a lego set, cutting across the sea and then to explore and dream and imagine on his own without input from me. This seemed a perfect way for a child to pass time as he faces into a major change in the life of his family, the arrival of a sibling. We lost count, today, of how many times he said to his mother, ‘Mama I love you.’ And she replied steadily,’ Yes I know that and I love you.’ Silence. ‘Mama I will always be part of your family.’ Yes, she said, 'you will.
Up and down the small dune he went chatting to himself. Up and down, up and down. He found a stick and then another and poked them in the sand. Poke, poke, poke. And what do you know he flicked up a grub. I’d never seen such a creature in the sand before, it was fat and pale like a huhu grub, with many tiny feelers wriggling. I really don’t know what it was. We examined it for a moment and then decided to help it back into its hole. Then we made our way home.
Day 105 and as I wait in the time of coronavirus, on a bitterly cold winter’s night in early July, to welcome a new member to the family, I have been reflecting on what an extraordinary time it is to be giving birth. For every woman pregnant on the planet now the very act of delivering new life seems to me to call on extreme courage and fortitude and hope, for there must be hope propelling the desire to bring a baby into the world in a time of crisis. Or anytime for that matter as childbirth calls upon a woman’s deepest reserves of strength to sustain her through the powerful contractions, the splitting pain as her body opens and stretches and as the new life intent on being born pushes down. The process is like nothing else on earth. It is an experience that is both utterly shattering and absolutely astonishing.
I remember the feeling after my firstborn, a daughter, arrived. The shock and amazement as, cradling her in my arms, I looked into her cherub upturned face for the first time. And it was the same again when my son floated up through the water of the birthing pool into my arms and I laughed to see this chubby boy and his big hands folded, he was here at last. The feeling both times was one of elation. If I could grow new life in my body and then live through the pain of labour to deliver my newborn then I could do anything. This was the act of creation, and it was the most empowering thing I had ever done. There has never been another experience to come close.
And soon my daughter will begin this same ancient, primal function of life replicating itself. My mother loved 'The Prophet' by Kahlil Gibran and would quote the lines ‘Your children are not your children, they are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.’ Such beautiful words, ‘life’s longing for itself’ to describe reproduction and the life force.
Currently there is a movement among some younger women in response to the problem of overpopulation and the depletion of finite resources from a planet already in crisis. They are choosing not to bring another child into the world and further exacerbate the situation. I respect their position and admire it. In a similar vein, I have concerns for this next generation wondering what kind of future the children will have? Please may humankind move forward in the right direction, not backwards into more mayhem. Please may there be more kindness and compassion in every sphere of society, more peace, not war and greed and corruption, more collaboration and unification to save the planet and live more sustainably. But then on a personal level and in opposition it seems to these philosophical and desperately pressing practical concerns is my own experience of my three year old grandson, the light of my life, the baby who brought great joy and enrichment into my life at a difficult time and now another grandchild very near, and all the delight this new life will bring and I can't help rejoicing.
Last weekend on a brisk grey day we took the three year old to a playground on the isthmus, aware of it being just the three of us, one child, mother and grandmother together before the arrival of a sibling. How precious it was. That afternoon he wanted to stay on the swing and he wanted his mother, only, pushing him. I watched his face and saw his mouth creasing into a smile at the simple sensation of movement, and then his features smoothed into an expression of what looked like rapture as the repetitive, rhythmic action lulled him. On and on she pushed him. On and on he sailed back and forth. And it seemed he knew this was it and he wanted to hold the moment forever.
Day 102 in the time of coronavirus and tonight it is blowing a gale, the wind gusts so wild and brutal it feels as though the world is ending. The mournful sound of the air whistling under the eaves sets my heart aching. As it seeps through cracks in window frames, curling round me, clutching at my chest I find myself shivering. Outside, through a blur of running water the night is pitch black. At least we still have power and I can put a heater on to warm the room and there is the glow of the lamp softening the table where I work but still it is a harsh night.
I’ve been having trouble sleeping these past nights, waking with a sudden jolt and then staying awake with a torrent of thoughts occupying my mind. I know what is happening here. Recently my timetable has cranked up and in the rush and hurtle I’ve lost my equilibrium. While I know it would be unbearable to be forced back into lockdown I do almost miss the slow, slow, slow creep of time in lockdown when my car was out of action and the day was punctuated only by a walk around the volcanic cone, sinking into the beauty of the hour. I will not romanticise about that period but there is a feeling of nostalgia when I remember the solitary rambles and the gentler pace.
The other night when I woke at 3am I simply could not slide back into slumber. Round and round in my head went a pile of silly things, and the more I thrashed at them trying to solve the quandaries, speak to them, comfort them, the bigger they got. It seemed my brain simply wasn’t interested in being soothed. No it was off on its own powerful and seductive and increasingly mad narrative train. Money. That was one. Am I going to be able to change my spending habits, meaning curb them, or am I going to squander my precious settlement? Can I trust myself? The apartment. Am I going to overspend on renovations and find myself poverty stricken in older age? The financial trainer, I am working with, has estimated my budget for the rest of my life and told me if I adhere to it I won’t run out of funds until I am 100. But I DON’T WANT TO LIVE TO ONE HUNDRED. I’m not even sure about heading into the nineties. Yes, if you have wonderful form — a body that is strong and fit and not prone to illness or general health issues and yes, if you have a mind as sharp as a tack until the very end, then of course it would be fun and interesting but more often than not, it seems to me, the decade of the nineties is instead a time of loss; loss of faculties and functions and liberties and comfort. I’d rather take a pill. The writing life. That was another worry and though deep down I know I am going to be fine with plenty on the go and plenty to look forward to, still I feel like an animal licking my wounds while I adjust to the loss of an important project. Then pain. Back pain. The same as usual only worse, feeling as though a bus had run over my frame. And next, my son in Sydney. I really do need to rein in my worrying in this regard because he seems fine and when I speak aloud my anxiety he finds me annoying and undermining. I think this is me in the time of coronavirus wanting him near, wanting to keep a protective eye on him, wanting the world for him, wondering if the creative life isn’t just too, too hard and whether he’d be better off coming home and finding a job in essential services. I’m not the only mother in this position, with a child overseas, also longing to see him and hug him and finding the difficulty of visits between the two countries an unexpected challenge.
There is something else rumbling below, like a sound with a sharp edge playing continuously and it this troubling sense of disquiet. It’s with us now, felt across the world, in a solid way, every day. I don’t think there is a person on the planet who is not affected by the consequences of the pandemic. Every person I have listened to recently has expressed it, this feeling of having been pushed into a place that is uncomfortable. Waiting for something. Someone said, ‘We’re in the eye of a storm, waiting for it to break.’
How do we carry on then? For me it is adhering to simple routines, keeping them going, while trying to stay present in each moment. After the night of bad insomnia the book I reached for was 'The Miracle of Mindfulness' by Thich Nhat Hanh. There is a simple message in the opening pages of this book and it is this. When you turn your consciousness to the present moment and sink into it, the world stills, your heart beats steadily, your breathing relaxes, your mind slows. He also says this, ‘When you are doing the dishes, you are doing the dishes.’ He says, ‘When you are walking in a green park. You are walking in a green park.’ Paying attention to this step and the next step and the path beneath you and the trees and foliage beside you absorbing them, being in harmony with your immediate surrounds, keeping to this simple principle of being present, your life is just right.
Today while walking along the beach at Cheltenham with friends, my eye on the sea, observing the antics of the wind surfers out on the dark channel daring and playing with the powerful air currents I saw a surfer lifted high, a black figure whipped from a dark sea, pausing in mid-air above the churning water in a moment of exhiliration. Next time I wake in the night, I'm going to try and do the same.
Day 98 and we are living in a state of continuous flux and terrible unknowing as the virus storms through communities causing endless havoc and devastation. 10.5 million reported cases worldwide and 511,000 deaths to date. And as the numbers continue to rise we witness, in stark relief, the light and dark sides of human behaviour, acts of shining selflessness particularly those medical professionals who are risking their own lives to care for the sick and the appalling rapaciousness of politicians. Today I learned that the US have purchased all the supplies, that is all the stocks in the world —if we are to believe the Guardian source —of the one steroid drug that is offering a treatment that can save lives. How incredibly selfish and inconsiderate. What is wrong with the Republican government and its idiot fake president whose stupid, inept management of the pandemic has caused endless suffering, death and hardship. When will this end? And what will be left at the conclusion?
We are so very fortunate to be living in New Zealand at this time led by a brilliant Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern who took decisive action so early in the pandemic, when there were very few cases and then managed to contain the spread of the virus and stop community transmission. Still I think to myself. Amazing. Good woman. We must never forget that the sense of freedom we are enjoying now is a direct result of those actions. I believe we are the only country in the world to currently be in such an enviable position. But though the relief is sweet we can not escape the wider economic and social consequences of this catastrophe. Nobody is immune to the trail of disaster. Here in New Zealand, in order to ensure our continued safety we must cut ourselves off from the rest of the world and float adrift. This means a halt in tourism and brings with it an eerie sense of being alone.
When I travelled to Christchurch a week ago the thing that troubled me was the silence in the departure halls, the emptiness of spaces that normally pulsed with life. It was only kiwis travelling and while it is essential that people support the economy in this way our domestic spending is a drop in the ocean and will surely be insufficient to ensure the continuing viability of airlines and businesses built around tourism. Only a month ago we hoped we might have an open trans-Tasman bubble very soon and that a steady flow or travellers back and forth would sustain the tourism industry, but the brief breach in our own border, when two infected people raced through the country carrying Covid-19 with them, and then the recent alarming rise of cases in Melbourne have shattered that possibility for the time being. Soon after our lapse Scott Morrison squelched the idea of opening the bubble anytime soon. And now the feeling is mutual on this side of the Tasman as we read with dismay and concern about the fate of Victorians living in the identified suburb hotspots who must now return to a state of lockdown. This is serious for businesses just getting back on their feet and harsh on public morale as well. Journeying back into lockdown must feel like a backward step bringing with it dreaded restrictions on movement and more anxiety.
These are challenging times. For myself, although I have finally found a home and there is joy and relief in the new situation this does not insulate me from the repercussions of the coronavirus. I am separated from my son in Sydney and this makes me anxious. He has been gone four years now and I had adjusted to his absence but the recent restrictions on movement mean I can’t up and visit him should he need to see me, nor he me. There had been plans for him to come home soon to greet the new baby.
There is a saying ‘when one door closes another opens.’ In my case it has happened the other way round, the door had opened and provided a new home in a wonderful setting but I have had a terrible disappointment in my writing life, with a big project falling over and a door slammed shut. The project grew in lockdown and seemed to be on firm ground only to halt very recently. Ah. At least I am better equipped to deal with disappointment these days. The experiences of the past three years have been so hard I have been forced to grow a carapace that inures me to shock and difficulty. I can pause and halt the spiral down before it begins, can catch the old outmoded thought patterns before they warm up and speak to them. In Buddhist philosophy it is the concept of equanimity that saves us.
I want to finish this entry on something simple and enjoyable. Last Saturday I met my friend at the storage unit in the city, feeling doubtful we would be able to extract anything useful from the tightly packed space for my new apartment but determination is a good driver. We cleared a space and she climbed onto the metal filing cabinet and picked out a strange collection of items: one solid rimu stool that had seen better days, one dining chair, one occasional chair with a floral patterned cover, tawny autumn leaves on cream, and we rolled out the desk chair from near the front. One box of possessions was easily accessed. Later I would find inside six black tea cannisters, one pale green eggshell ceramic mug, one place mat, my mother's lace-edged afternoon tea cloth, a small saucepan and one small fry pan. It was like opening parcels in a lucky dip. Each item was greeted with cries of love. And then there was a Rick Rudd black ceramic stupa, with a gold cap, sitting at the front of the storage container. Once it was a focal point in a dry stream bed in my garden, juxtaposed against a row of weeping salvia uglinosa that produced pale blue flowers in summer and the native carex with its flowing strappy form, some balls of pruned coprosma and in the foreground the Persimmon tree its leaves flame-coloured in autumn and the Mutabilis rose with its delicate apricot and pink flower-heads.
I wanted it. My friend frowned but very patiently she helped me wiggle it onto a blanket and then down onto our trolley. Lovingly we lifted it, like a body into the boot of her big car taking care not to dislodge the pale green lichen on its surface. It took years for that plant matter to collect. At the apartment we carried the precious artefact into the lift and placed it on a small balcony against a black column. It sits there now without its garden foliage but with Takarunga behind instead and the gray-blue sea washing in below.
Day 95 and tonight’s entry is more a culmination of a personal journey than a record of living in the time of coronavirus, although the process by which I got here was most definitely shaped by the pandemic. In August 2017 the life I knew, or thought I knew, ended. In May 2019, I lost my home. Nine months later, at the end of February 2020, I arrived in Devonport to shelter with my friends Ruth and Robert until mediation in mid-March. Then along came lockdown and I was here to stay, indefinitely. I spent those strange, quiet weeks walking the streets, climbing the volcanic cones and becoming more acquainted with the immediate environs. Slowly, slowly I was falling in love with the beauty of a place of extraordinary natural beauty, situated at the end of a long isthmus across the water from a major city.
When I was finally able to begin the house-hunting in earnest, I think it was level two, things happened fast. I was in the midst of viewing a different house when I spied my future home, towering above me. ‘What about that, I said to my lovely real estate agent?’ pointing up into the sky. Very soon she had arranged a viewing and I knew immediately that this was where I would put down roots — in the sky. Since then I’ve been speeding like a bullet train through the acquisition process up to last Friday, 26 June, when I became the owner of a fifth floor apartment in a twelve storey tower on the end of Stanley Point, Devonport. It was opened in 1966, seven years after the Auckland Harbour bridge, which can be seen from the northern end of my new living room. The first apartment block ever built in Auckland, the only tower block to be built in Devonport, it was designed by Neville Price, originally a boat builder, who went on to design the elegant and sculptural West Plaza in downtown, a structure that was voted Auckland’s best building for many a year. Bill Mackay, architectural critic said of it ‘West Plaza helped turn Auckland from big town to international city.’ Neville Price eventually moved to San Francisco and to a long architectural career there.
I love this new/heritage building its clean lines and functional simplicity, even the concrete stairs with their refined steel balustrades painted chestnut brown appeal. My apartment is small, 110 square metres, and will require a Japanese approach to storage solutions for tight spaces. In a way I am relieved to be impelled into diminishing my footprint. And anyway the nomadic passage has shown me that it is entirely possible to live with a smaller collection of belongings and still thrive. The shedding of things — there will be more when I finally bring everything out of storage — and the smaller floor area brings with it a feeling of lightness. I can lock up and leave this home, head off on research trips, or travel south to visit family and friends and when I return home I will be safe and snug in my writer’s eyrie with its all day sun and expansive views as far as the eye can see — east to Takarunga and Rangitoto and south over the harbour to the city side and all the way along the bays to St Heliers and beyond to the Tamaki River, and further still to Chamberlin Island and the Coromandel. From the far end of the living room and the bedrooms I can see north over the bays and inlets towards my daughter’s home on the Whangaparaoa, and round to the west to the harbour bridge, as well.
When I am in this space there is a feeling of hanging suspended above the land, its waterways, parks and bays, the heritage buildings and trees. Over this past weekend I have been watching the weather, a constantly moving and ever-changing pageant passing through. I've seen bright sun and brilliant cloudbursts followed by mysterious mist so dense it swirled around the building and obliterated the far view. When friends arrived on Saturday afternoon the weather had pulled in like a curtain around the windows and I had to say ‘But Rangitoto really is out there’. Today rain fell on the diagonal in sun showers, the light picking out the rain drops turning them into paper darts. On both days there have been rainbows appearing through the day and this afternoon I saw one gracefully falling through the fog and touching on two 19th century churches on the lower slopes of Takarunga.
I can see I will get no work done in this setting. Today I found myself stopping mid-task. The dishes were underway but the scene beyond the far windows, light illuminating watery bands making them shine silver whie softly shading the narrow strips of land dusky pink and tawny brown. I simply had to stop what I was doing and gasp.
There is more but very soon the word count will be exceeded. I will pick up again soon...
Day 91 and the photo that accompanies this journal entry, snapped from a moving car, as we sped back into the city following our time at the Ellesmere Cemetery, reflects how I feel now after my short sojourn in Canterbury. The smoky blur of hedges and roadside grasses, like the scumbling effect on an oil canvas, depict exactly what happened. It was there and gone, the astonishing beauty of the landscape, those illuminated clouds, that verdant growth, those feathery outlines of poplars against a Dutch sky, the muted colour palette —greys, pale blue, charcoal, cocoa, green, the faintest hint of peach in the clouds — glimmering in the field of my vision momentarily and disappearing too quickly. And yet all is well. I know that road like the back of my hand, I know it even in darkness, going back all the years to when we would return from the city in the dead of night and I would lie on the back seat under a woollen rug and feel the movements and vibrations of the car on every straight, every bend from the city outwards, the bridge over the Selwyn River, the swooping curve over the millstream at Irwell… I used to know the names of the families and their farm names lining the road from Springston to Leeston. I still know them although some properties have changed hands since. I hope I will be travelling that road from now until the end. It is my turangawaewae. But if not I will relive it in my imagination, write it even. That is one advantage of choosing writing as a way of life, I suppose.
But I feel discombobulated. This trip was strikingly different from the earlier summertime journey, when I drove, with my son, down both islands in time for Christmas in the city, spending the rest of December and part of January in the company of friends, making trips to Diamond Harbour and the bays, enjoying the sunshine, carefree almost — I was still in the midst of a divorce and wasn't yet sure how it would culminate. Yes, I was aware of a situation developing in China, a new virus that seemed so distant and irrelevant, initially I was sceptical. I thought it was just the media desperate for a sensational story to shake up the quiet time when the country goes into holiday mode and people read good books instead of the news. I was wrong. The virus was the beginning of something big, a pandemic that would drastically re-shape the rest of our lives going forward, at least until we find a vaccine.
Such a lot has happened since then and as a nation we are reeling. We’ve built whole industries and livelihoods around tourism. What do we do now that visitor numbers have all but dried up? Yes, I know kiwis are being encouraged to take more holidays here but this won’t be enough to save some city businesses. I met a friend at the baggage carousel back in Auckland and she was returning from a holiday break in Christchurch however her focus had been on Akaroa, a boating excursion on the harbour to see Hector’s dolphins and Hanmer Springs to soak in the hot pools. She’d missed the city itself. In the centre it was very quiet. It felt like the time after the earthquakes. I looked at the great volume of brand new retail shops, constructed post-quakes, peered through their windows and found them almost empty. On the news on my last evening I heard an item about the plight of the Christchurch Arts Centre, the beautiful neo-Gothic blue stone building with its cloisters and quadrangles that was the original Canterbury University College that had only recently been painstakingly restored following the damage caused by the seismic jolts. The drastic decline in tourist numbers is hitting the thirty businesses that now trade there, and rapidly eroding the Centre’s financial viability. There was talk of it closing. No, no, no not after the huge effort to resurrect the historic buildings. This is too awful.
Last night, my first, home from holiday I had one of my vivid dreams. It was long and involved and I lost most of it on waking but what remained was chaotic. I was riding a bicycle, an old jalopy with wide rubber tyres when suddenly a big blue bird alighted on my shoulder. It was a pukeko, at least that’s the name that appeared in my mind in the dream. Its wings were indigo blue and shone with iridescence as they spread wide and large across my back like a feathered cape. The claws on the bird’s red webbed feet pinched my left shoulder but not too hard. I continued riding with the triumphant creature clamped on. And then this big bird peed on me, a thin spurt of hot liquid across the front of my shoulder, swiping my neck and hitting the other arm. It was the warmth that interested me. I wasn’t at all perturbed although when I reached a bay on the edge of road I saw a gathering of people and stopped and asked them to take the bird from me. Lighter now, I rode onwards down the road which was actually the Auckland motorway near Ellerslie. I travelled on into the countryside heading for a cottage to see my friend, desperate to tell him my story of the bird. When he heard I had been biking down the motorway he was incredulous.
Where do these dreams come from? What is going on? Yes the world has tipped upside down and the country is now being run by public health officials. Yes there are disconcerting new rules in public places — physical distancing, signs, sanitisers, face masks on, off, the risk when people sneeze, as somebody did today in the supermarket and then carried on brazenly splurting over the products. I would have frozen her with my stare if she had chosen to look but she didn’t. And yes we resist because we are used to living in a democracy and we might even break a rule yet we also comply because we are afraid.
Day 88 and the thing I thought might not happen for a very long time has occurred. I have returned to the island of my birth to visit loved ones, and to absorb the beauty of a very special landscape and thus replenish my spirit. I know I am very, very fortunate. Many people around the globe are still in lockdown and unable to cross borders and make their way home while still more cannot risk current job security in their country of residence to fly home for a visit as the exercise would entail spending two weeks in quarantine in the home country and then two weeks more in quarantine in the city of employment upon their return. My own son falls into this category living across the Tasman in Sydney. Unfortunately, because of recent lapses at our border, the Australian government is now reconsidering their plan to open up a trans-Tasman bubble soon.
Separation from offspring is something many parents across time have had to learn to accommodate but since the rise of globalisation it is an even more prevalent feature of family life — sometimes I wish we could return to a simpler age where we didn't travel and instead lived in closer proximity to our immediate family and wider community. Something critical has changed since the arrival of coronavirus. We’ve lost some of the civil liberties we took for granted and with this a sense of our own personal autonomy.
But I am here. My feet are on the ground in Canterbury for five blessed days. Once again I can enjoy the chill of its sharp winter air on my face, waking me up as it always does and sharpening my focus. I love this sensation, it’s something I yearn for when my brain turns sluggish on the sultry, sticky, humid days of late summer in Auckland. Yesterday I walked through the gardens of Mona Vale, along the river, admiring the impact of crisp temperatures on flowers and shrubs and trees, feasting on visual delights, on towering bushes of rhododendrons, the blood red flowers nestling amongst dark green foliage beneath the wintery tracery of a copper beech decorating a silver sky. The lily pond had disappeared in a carpet of nutmeg coloured oak leaves. Silver birches stripped of their leaves trailed fine, feather light branches downwards against a pale sky. Hellebores the ‘winter roses’ in two colour variations, antique cream speckled with green and a deeper pinky mauve plum nestled in a thick bed of autumn leaves. And what was that scent? I smelt it before I spotted it. 'Winter sweet' its glorious penetrating perfume a sensual delight like no other. Picking a twig I carried my scented perfume stick with me through the city.
It occurred to me today, on visiting my mother’s grave in Ellesmere, with my brother and my sixteen year old niece, that there couldn't be a finer way to spend a Saturday afternoon than this, communing with the dead in the company of the living. I took them to see the grave of our great-grandparents as well. ‘Have you seen the porcelain roses?’ They hadn't. My brother leant down and removed the coppery rusted wire covers so we could gain a better view of the porcelain shapes under the glass. Soft olive-grey lichen spores flecked the glass. Below were roses and a weeping angel, preserved like coral on an underwater reef. Miraculous. Pausing to consider the writing on our great-grandparents’ grave stone, my brother reflected on the young age of our great-grandfather when he died, 58 years, and then our grandfather, in the grave next to my mother, who died at 52. ‘I had the benefit of a stent and modern medication,' he remarked ruefully. Lucky, we all think.
The day was gentle. It had the feeling of my mother and her mother accompanying us, along with the fantails, the piwakawaka, softly looping round and round, as we meandered through the graveyard stopping to read names on weathered stones. Although cryptic often you find a brief, poignant passage of memoir encapsulated there. Everywhere we saw names we recognised. Speaking a thought aloud I said, ‘As I grow older, I find visiting this graveyard more and more enjoyable.’ My lovely niece looked surprised. What did I mean? The names reawaken memories of childhood, of people long forgotten who once belonged to families who lived down the road from you, or travelled alongside you on the country bus to school, or sat in church pews nearby, or were the pillars above you as you grew. They remind me we were part of something once, connected as a living organism, while living quite different lives of course, but living alongside one another nonetheless in a beautiful landscape with the Southern Alps, coated in pure white snow on one horizon, as they were today, and the soft mounds of the Port Hills, smudged mauve and grey on the other, and looking out for each other.
Day 84 and some good news and a development that was inevitable, now that we have opened up the borders, two new cases brought in from the UK. I don’t want to write about that here. It would only whip up further agitation and the news channels are doing a good job of that, along with Todd Mueller, when actually the damage is done and I think we have learned from it. Maybe we’re even safer because the new measures in response are stringent with more checks and balances in place. The good news is that doctors in the UK have discovered that a low-cost steroid drug, dexamethasone, is helping prevent the deaths of some of the sickest coronavirus patients. The finding, was made in the ‘Recovery trial’, the biggest randomised, controlled trial of coronavirus treatments in the world and it has shown that the drug eases inflammation in the lungs and has reduced deaths among patients on ventilators by up to one-third and those on oxygen support by one-fifth. It is the one drug, at this moment, that reduces the risk of dying in the sickest patients and as such is being hailed as a breakthrough. This is really the news of the day, I think.
Increasingly in these troubled times I have found myself searching more consciously for soothing and uplifting activities that counteract the stresses. I’ve figured that if I can glide through problems and perplexities rather than get snagged on stuff then I think I will do better. My mother often talked about the Waimakariri river in Canterbury with its braided streams and tributaries seeing it as a metaphor for how to live one’s life. She used to say ‘life is like this braided river.’ She loved the big river that flowed down from the Southern Alps bringing the blue alpine waters with it. She loved its striations, the way tributaries break off again and again into streams of veins highlighted bright aqua against greywacke river stones. She would say look at the places where the water knocks up against huge trees that have hurtled downstream in storms, and see how the flotsam and jetsam collects around them. If you can imagine yourself in that moving current and see yourself flowing round the obstacle, not getting caught but staying mid-stream, gently turning and tilting and moving on through, that's the way.
I like this parable for living and have been thinking about the things that help me in the time of coronavirus to glide on through. In my day I like to make time for walking in nature and tuning in to its rhythms and beauties; meditating in the quiet of morning is a good way to begin; sharing a meal and watching a film with a friend warms the night; and then there is the joy and solace of being in the presence of a child, seeing the world through their eyes, moving at their pace which is often slow and thoughtful and attentive. My three year old grandson is the beam of lightness in the shadow of this virus.
Recently we spent part of a day together. We went to the library first in his mama’s car while my car was being fitted with a new front facing car seat. Her car is keyless. At the park I closed the car door and then my grandson touched a rubber button on the door handle and the car locked. Very satisfying. We went to the lift well. He pushed the button to open the door. Inside he pushed the next button to take us to the first floor. In the library he posted the books into the return slot. On the way out he climbed the child-size wooden steps placed beside the checking station. Very confidently he held the card with its barcode up under the laser light and then swiped the books across and we were done. Back at the car he touched the door handle and the car unlocked. I followed all of this with fascination and awe that someone so young could be this competent. When the door unlocked, I commented ‘You are magic. You push on the door handle and the car opens!’ He looked at me and considered my flattery. ‘No,’ he replied. ‘Mama would say it’s a button not magic.’ I love him.
Then we went down to the sea and he sat at a picnic table scooping out his elaborate morning tea from the compartments in his metal lunch box. We observed two seagulls in loud argumentative conversation and he commented, ‘Those seagulls are squawking.’ The language. On the swing he chortled as I pushed him higher and higher. Propelling him, I sang ‘You are my sunshine, my only sunshine. You make me happy when skies are grey…’ The lyrics rolled out automatically, the song ringing on the air while my attention was on the giggling child and keeping him high, on this glorious bright green, bright blue day. ‘Why does the sunshine go away?’ he asked. I hadn’t thought about the lyrics as I sang, ‘… Please don’t take my sunshine away,’ How strange are grown up sentiments to a child who is paying attention and trying to make sense of it all. Again I love him and treasure these moments in the time of coronavirus.
Back at the car I had great difficulty plugging him into the car seat. His bright green raincoat was bulky. ‘Oh, darn.’ I exclaimed. ‘We’re going to have to take off your coat and start again.’ To which he sighed ‘Oh this ridiculous coat!’