Day 67 and the feeling when I saw the headline ‘America is burning’ was one of heaviness and despair. The present darkness shrouding America just seems to grow and grow and grow. Digesting today’s news of fresh protests and violent clashes across the country, of buildings set alight and parts of cities burning, of the National Guard deployed and increasing violence towards protesters as anger erupts over the suffocation and murder of George Floyd by a policeman, while his colleagues stood by and watched, a line from Hamlet came to mind, ‘Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.’ So much of what Shakespeare perceived all that long time ago in the 16th and early 17th centuries about the dark side of human nature, about the politics of corruption and the disastrous consequences of greed, envy, malice and of prejudice remains pertinent today.
This is life in Trump America where the same base and callous emotions are running the country and fuelling suffering everywhere. Trump’s sheer contempt for everyone is shocking to witness. He didn't come out of nowhere however. His brutality is mirrored in the faces of his ghastly cohort. Sometimes when I look at the hard faces of the men that prop him up, the middle-aged and old and self-interested white guys who represent the face of the Republican party, big business, the oil industry, the gun lobby, I shudder.
Yesterday evening I viewed a movie, 'Bombshell', at The Vic theatre in Devonport with friends from over the harbour. It was yet another film about the ways in which men who have been elevated to top positions abuse their power. In this fictionalised film of a true story about the sexist culture existing within Fox News we meet the bloated and overweight Roger Ailes, CEO of the news organisation, played by John Lithgow (with six protheses added to his face) and watch him sexually harassing and degrading his women news anchors. The scenes are repugnant.
What struck me as I viewed the film was that he could have been Trump, or any number of the president's misogynist cronies. We know of Trump's disdain for women. We remember his crass comments to a television host in 2005, a discussion that just happened to be recorded, where he bragged about groping a women who, he said, ‘had big phony tits’ and how he doesn’t even wait, if he’s attracted to beautiful women, he just starts kissing them. ‘When you’re a star, they let you do it… grab them by the pussy.’ In the finale of 'Bombshell' the slob at Fox News is fired, unceremoniously. He’s gone. Watching that scene I experienced a visceral delight rippling through my body and afterwards when asked what I thought of the movie, I said ‘It was satisfying!’ Yes, immensely satisfying because it was a true event and it did happen. The women rose up and revolted and brought him down. This needs to happen again and again and again until all the bastards are brought to account.
I said I wasn’t going to write about Trump because I detest him and don’t want to give him column space — if only the media would shut him down completely, turn him off — but I have to write something because his presidency is a disgrace and America is burning. So much is wrong where do you begin? To see how the Republicans have dismantled much of the good that was achieved under earlier governments, and are now attacking the core principles of democracy and free speech is alarming. I can hardly bear to add up the wrongs committed against humanity in the past four years — the racist politics, his outrageous wall at the border with Mexico where desperate people and children are housed in cages, mothers separated from their little ones and now in the midst of a pandemic there is his gross and inept handling of the crisis — he blames China, he should look at himself and his role in the deaths of more than 100,000 people. Then there is his denial of emergency unemployment assistance to couples where one member of the partnership is a migrant while paying out the oil barons to stop the collapse of their industry. It is shocking to see how he has been dismantling the Obama government’s healthcare reform and to contemplate the devastating consequences now for those dying of coronavirus. Again, over 100,000 dead, many of them black.
Here in New Zealand we are extraordinarily fortunate to have a free healthcare system. In America where it is the waged only who can afford health insurance — and the higher waged at that, not people on subsistence and minimum wages — there is no such safety net. For these people their path through ill-health is lined with human misery. In an earlier entry I wrote about a photojournalism article where a photographer was granted access to the University Hospital in Coventry, England and captured images of the treatment of patients with Covid-19. There dying people were receiving appropriate palliative treatment to ease them through the final stages. For those denied hospital care because they cannot afford it, they must endure the agony of gasping to death.
I’ve covered only a little of what is wrong. There are the actions of Trump and his Republican cabinet on the world stage that are deeply concerning as well: the break with the WHO and the freezing of their funding which will surely deplete the important reach of this world public health organisation; the loss of statesmanship and diplomacy and its replacement with a hectoring, mocking style where insults are directed at key countries is destabilising to world peace...
It is no surprise America is burning. The protests sparked by the death of George Floyd and police killings of black men and women in general are an expression of a greater despair over the inequities in treatment of black people, of migrants, of the first peoples of America and of the poor and disenfranchised. These clashes are an indication of people's desperation in the face of the endless damage perpetrated by a wrong-minded government. They relate to everything that has declined and gone so badly awry under Trump.
This was and is a country of great innovation and artistic brilliance, a place of serious and groundbreaking academic scholarship and of scientific advancement, it is the place where the European founded practice of psychotherapy really took root and entered the lexicon generally, it is the home of a contemporary form of Buddhism, founded in the East, with its practice of mindfulness and paying attention to this moment now reaching out across the world, it is the home of the Moosewood cookbook and the contemporary vegetarian food and health movements, of so many things that have enriched us culturally — the brilliance of many music genres across decades, the architecture first introduced by European emigres fleeing Nazi Germany, it is the home of mid-century design, the influences go on and on. For all American people who seek the light and the good the current miasma must represent a very great test to the spirit.
Day 65 in the time of coronavirus and something civilised and lovely, from the time before, was reinstated here. My very good hosts invited me to share lunch today with them and their invited guests. I was so excited I put on my raincoat, grabbed my scissors and raced out into the drizzle to gather flowers from the neighbourhood. I was quite brazen about it. I already had one flowering shrub in mind. I’d passed it on numerous occasions. I think it is the flowering red current ‘ribes sanguineum’, very twiggy but the dark pink flowers are marvellous. Snip, snip, snip, down the lovely streets leading to the golf course, passing the tiny colonial cottages and leaning in and cutting camellias, lavender, one bright yellow dandelion, why not, a lovely pale hibiscus with a pinkish tint for the centre piece, glossy green native foliage, autumn leaves and one velvety spire from my favourite salvia, the ‘leucantha.’ Rounding the corner, my bouquet increasing in size, I passed a woman on a bike. She looked at the floral cornucopia and smiled. Emboldened I gathered some more.
The table was laid with a white cloth and set with fine white china. There were wine glasses and a water jug, lemon wedges floating. Lunch was a pacific inspired soup and Ruth’s homemade wholemeal bread with sunflower seeds followed by freshly baked baklava made with honey and ground walnuts, an offering from the male guest. Oh the pleasure to be found in savouring good food while absorbing bright conversation. It is sweeter coming out of the time of lockdown. You don’t realise until it happens how much you have missed these social rituals.
I am moving closer towards finding a home here on this side of the harbour. It feels big somehow. For almost three years now I have tossed and turned over the dilemma of where to put down roots. Strangely I have become so accustomed to living with discomfort and uncertainty — never liking it though — that now that the possibility of having a stable base is within my grasp, I find it hard to assimilate.
Last night I climbed up the steep slopes of Takarunga to ponder the approaching change. As I wound around the cone lost in thought, feeling a little grief-stricken as I looked down through the trees at the historic graveyard below, a thought ripped through me. Am I betraying my parents by rejecting their south island, the place of my birth, the site of my mother’s grave in Ellesmere and my father and brother’s rose, the ‘peace’ rose at the Linwood Memorial Rose Garden, the place where my Scottish and Danish and English ancestors settled so long ago? High on the mountain above the silvery sea I felt so far away from my roots and wondered about the wisdom of my decision. I realise I am not alone. This must be something many displaced people ache over.
Winding further up the dormant volcano to the view of the city on the other side of the harbour more doubts flooded in. I’m leaving my friends over there while only beginning to meet people here. I stepped then onto the highest viewing point and saw directly in front a group of young people gathered around a sixteen year-old male and his red motorbike (I have no idea how he got it to the top of cone for it is closed to traffic). I knew him. He is the son of close friends. His face broke into a most glorious smile as I said hello and admired the beautiful shiny machine. He introduced me then to his friends who acknowledged me with a smile. And suddenly I felt okay about everything. 'Relax' said a voice. 'Trust in serendipity. Let it happen. All will be well.'
Day 63 in alert level 2 and I am sensing an easing and a level of comfort building as we begin to feel reassured that the virus has been successfully contained. My friend in public health said to me yesterday, as long as we keep the borders closed for a year we should be okay. This is good news. The relief that courses through the veins, if you let it, is very pleasant. And with this growing confidence the mind is set free to wander and roam and think of things beyond the pandemic. I’m aware this is a luxury when in some parts of the world, in Africa and some parts of South America in particular where health systems are often fragile, the virus still presents a very great threat to human life. When I stop to consider this I wonder if it is even okay to let my mind drift.
But it has moved on of its own accord. Writing about the monarch butterfly on day 59 set me thinking some more about butterflies and how the monarch seems to have accompanied me, or I have been alert to its presence since I developed a garden at my family home in a gully of native trees and ferns in the city suburb of Westmere. In that garden I grew the South American salvias. They were ideally suited to our sub-tropical climate and offered the colour and form, that in the south island would normally be provided by herbaceous perennials — penstemon, scabiosa, monardia, allium, euphorbia, the gentle geum. I had no idea when I first planted the purple salvia ‘Indigo Spires’, and next the lime and purple ‘Mexicana limelight’ and the velvety lilac leucantha with its silver leaves that monarch butterflies would be drawn to the purple spikes to sip on the nectar. In my mind’s eye I see them now hovering above the plants, rising and dipping, silent and ethereal, dancing.
I am not alone in my love of the monarch. I have a good friend who draws strength from the butterfly too. She lost her mother, sadly far too young, and for her the sightings of the monarch provide a link to the spirit of her mother. They flutter in front of her just exactly when she most needs them. When my mother died, my cousin noticed a dead monarch butterfly on the pavement outside the country school where the funeral was held. She too has always associated butterflies with her mother, my aunt.
On the day in May when I returned home from Christchurch at the end of the long week of my mother’s dying and burial, I was gazing through the window checking the garden to see what had flowered in my absence when I noticed a monarch hovering about the salvia leucantha near the kitchen door. The wings were a brilliant orange, its black markings were thick velvet seams. The brightness on that day in late May was dazzling. I had collected young Arlo from school and together we stood at the sliding door transfixed by the spectacle, while it lingered on the flower long enough for me to photograph it.
Three months later on the morning following the end of my marriage, I was driving through the streets of Auckland on a grey, showery, bitter day at the end of August, in a state of numbness, hardly knowing where I was, or what I was doing. At the lights waiting for them to turn I saw through the rain-smeared window the monarch hovering around the car. It was persistent. It flew towards my face and flapped at the window until I drove off.
Again on the first anniversary of my mother’s death when a crowd of her friends and family gathered around the grave and one by one selected a smooth stone collected from her favourite beach at Kaitorete Spit and placed it on the earth naming a virtue they saw in her, a monarch arrived to bless the ritual.
Seeing the monarch the other day alighting on the orange flower of the Cape Honeysuckle I had a feeling that something good was on the way…
Day 61 in the time of coronavirus and there is a definite feeling in the air of moving forward out of lockdown and into something that tastes and feels familiar only this is better, a lot better. There have been no new cases over the last three days and incredibly only three new cases over a fourteen day period. This is a remarkable achievement for the Labour government and their cohorts in public health. We really ought to get down on our knees and thank them.
This is what I am noticing in general on this side of lockdown: that people are appreciating the good things more. Living in isolation for nearly eight weeks has shown us ways of being in this world we didn’t know were possible. It’s given us an opportunity to recalibrate and consider what really matters. Many of us have longed for a simpler life but not known how to achieve it. Consider those people who sell up and move from the city to the country to lead a quieter, more sustainable and eco-friendly life, whether it involves moving to Provence, or Port Chalmers, there is a trend. And reflect on how often when we look back on childhood it is with a sense nostalgia for a life we perceive to have been uncomplicated, a time where people lived in closer connection to the land and their families and communities and how this had a civilising influence on people. In some ways Lockdown allowed us an experience of something a little similar, only with Netflix and zoom added in.
We learned about the virtues of simplicity and the benefits of spending less and budgeting better. We reduced our trips to the supermarket, we baked bread and in kitchens everywhere people were cooking up a storm. The social distancing requirements in supermarkets actually forced us to use our time there more efficiently. And so we made lists and this lead to more conscious decision-making about the food we consume. For me the challenge was to stretch out the days between food shops. In my old life before coronavirus I would pop in and out of the supermarket and the wholefood store far too often and unnecessarily. In lockdown I began stretching out the trips, seven days first and then it was every eight days, once it was nine days and it was easy. All that was needed was some forethought.
During the time in isolation we learned that we didn’t need so much of everything to get by on. We didn’t need to drive places for interest and stimulation instead we could attend more closely to the world at our doorstep. The increase in walking and cycling, rather than taking the car was liberating. And we began observing the natural world more keenly and having quiet moments of communion with its beauty. I don’t think I’m imagining this. It seems to me that people are more observant now, that strangers are making connections with one another, heads are up, not looking down and there is more smiling and courtesy on the streets.
I think we have learned a lot from the period in freeze frame. In the time before coronavirus there were so many things that were wrong in the world, in a very big and awful way. It was so bad it felt overwhelming. There was an avalanche of dreadful, unsolvable, intractable problems — global warming, over consumption of finite resources, terrible piles of waste, air and water pollution leading to habitats contaminated and species extinction, the widening gaps between the rich and the poor and a refugee crisis that is a humanitarian catastrophe — and we felt helpless. How can I, as a single human being do anything to avert the disaster, how can I make a difference? And then we’d slip into a place of despondency. These problems have not gone away but during lockdown we have begun to glimpse the possibilities for genuine change. Here in New Zealand we are fortunate. Jacinda and her government have been gesturing towards new ways of running the economy, of making society more equal. There was talk of introducing a universal wage. Today there was a promise of a significant increase in the unemployment payment for all those out of work and unable to earn a living. Overall the position we find ourselves in today is positive. We’ve come out of lockdown with a new resolve to drop old bad habits, to drive our cars less, to moderate our expenditure and not squander resources… We can do this.
And now I have to admit something. I forgot to keep my distance today. It was an involuntary response. I saw my good friend for the first time since going into isolation and the reaction was instinctive. We both sprang forward into a hug. I think this is okay. We are both well. I certainly don’t regret it for a minute, for the reconnection was sweet. It reminded me of the day exactly a year ago, on 24 May, when we met at St Pancras station to journey together by underground then train, two changes, a bus trip and finally a walk down a country road to view the home of British gardening guru Beth Chatto in Essex. It was an unforgettable day. There was the magic of springtime in a lovely garden, softy flouncy irises in muted shades, ponds reflecting the lime greens of trees overhead and the soft pinky-russet of new leaves on copper beeches. The effect of soft English light filtering through lacy tree canopies onto big rhododendrons, the pile up of flowerheads like icing on a tiered wedding cake, cast a spell on us and there was the added delight of having realised a dream and got ourselves to a beautiful place that we'd previously glimpsed in glossy photos in Gardens Illustrated. For me on that day there was a sense of sadness and gladness at having lost a family home but escaped a difficult life and now starting out on something new.
Day 59 in the time of coronavirus and I have languished inside today. This past week has been challenging at times. Then on Thursday I had the flu vaccine and unusually, because normally I sail through them, I have felt miserable ever since. At the time I said to the nurse, ‘Did the needle go in? I didn’t feel a thing.’ I knew by nightfall something had happened because my arm ached. A walk with my friend yesterday was marred by a splitting headache. I’d hoped the chilly air and our fast pace along the shaded pipeline to view the lower Waitakere dam would push it away but it got worse. Throughout there have been muscle aches. I can’t remember feeling this exhausted. I noticed on the phone this afternoon my voice was reedy and the man I was in conversation with could hear it too and it embarrassed me.
And so I have drooped and flopped about. There have been spurts of activity on the computer trying to keep abreast of the never-ending cascade of emails followed by periods spent reclining on the bed reading the biography by Sarah Gaitanos of Shirley Smith, the extraordinary feminist lawyer and human rights campaigner who represented gang members never able to pay for her services and the wife of left-wing economist Bill Sutch who was charged with espionage in 1974. I’m up to the gripping description of his clandestine meetings with a KGB agent and First Secretary at the Russian embassy in Wellington and the terrible shock to his wife when the police turned up late one night and raided their home. The search continued until morning, with her making them cups of tea, while her husband was held at the police station. Imagine her feelings. Years and years of living alongside a man, her husband, and not knowing his very big secret.
All through my reading, knowing this was a perfectly legitimate activity, part of my own research for the biography I am embarking on, I felt impatient with myself for being a layabout because I’d had a plan to begin cataloguing material for the biography today and hadn’t done a thing about that. Where did the term ‘layabout’ come from? (I’ve just looked it up. Coined in 1932. Another way of saying an ‘habitual loafer.’ Now ‘loafer’ where did that come from? I could go on here.)
Is it just me? Am I a peculiar person or do others suffer from something similar, this need to be constantly productive fighting the need to rest when the body is crying out ‘for goodness sake give me a break and let me lie down’? Is this the affliction of a freelancer, a problem that develops out of the boundaryless-ness of the work schedule. I remember when I was working to my publisher's tight deadline on the book 'The Writing Life' and how it necessitated a relentless work regime that spread into the weekend and late into every night. Did the bad habits start then?
It’s more likely this way of being was inculcated a long time ago in childhood. My mother was an exceptionally hard worker throughout her life until MS slowed her. Even before she returned to teaching I have memories of the long days she put in on the farm, working hard at keeping an immaculate home, windows shining, silver sparkling, surfaces dusted and polished, baking in the tins, she filled the preserving and jam jars with every kind of delicious fruit and froze peas in summer, she knitted, so neatly, her dressmaking skills were legendary, everything she did was finished to perfection. Sometimes though she looked terribly tired. I think I am like her.
When I did venture outside briefly to peg washing on the line something lovely happened. A monarch butterfly whisked past my cheek. I watched its flight path, upwards, twisting, pirouetting like a ballerina on one foot and settling finally on the orange flower of tecoma capensis, Cape Honeysuckle. I continued gazing at the spectacle. Wings opening and closing, like a very precious illustrated book, the hinge swinging wide to reveal the illuminated beauty of the interior until it whispered away, soaring out in an arc into the blue.
Day 57 and a news item piqued my interest about a social media hit where people were posting their last ‘normal’ photos taken before lockdown. The original tweet had triggered a wave of nostalgia across social media platforms, as people scrolled back through their photo collections to discover what their lives had looked like before everything shut down. In one photo featured in the ‘Guardian’ a parent, photo editor Joe Plimmer, was holding a small child aloft on the open palm of one hand. The photo was crisply defined with the white cliffs of southern England and a perfect blue sky as backdrop. It was the swoop of the movement and the child lifted high knocking against the deep blue infinity of the sky and the feeling of light-hearted spontaneity conveyed in the gesture that summed up the spirit of the time before. This was a photo taken in a state of innocence when its photographer, Urszula Soltys, could not possibly have predicted the difficulties that lay ahead. Fast forward to lockdown and the uncertainty we have all been dealing with and how bittersweet that image seems.
My photo from 'the time before' was taken in February at the St Francis Retreat Centre in Auckland during a five day study retreat ‘Walking the Buddha’s Path to Freedom.’ The Franciscan friar in the image was real. He lives at the retreat centre. The first time I saw him, it was early morning and he was in the refectory. He passed through in his long mahogany coloured hemp cassock, with the heavy tie at the waist, roman sandals on his feet and I blinked and wondered if I had imagined him. Had I stepped into a different age, another place? The second time I saw him was during a walking meditation. He was in the garden attending to the grounds, his presence was deeply reassuring.
After a time when you sink more deeply into the silent world of a retreat your small room with its sash window looking into the arms of a big tree, your simple single bed on one wall and wash basin in another corner, rising early at dawn to meditate, meal times where food is eaten in silence, each day segmented into sitting and walking meditations and dharma talks, the final sit of the day in the gloom of the upstairs room with the last of the sun’s rays gleaming through stained glass windows coloured raspberry and green, you accept the way things are, exactly as they are. And as the days pass you not only accept the simplicity your heart slowly fills with gratitude for the very fact that you have food and shelter and warmth and all the teachings you could possibly want from three fine Buddhist women scholars. You have everything you need.
On that retreat I kept a journal as a way of consolidating the learning. There was so much to absorb, the quality of the teaching and the wisdom imparted, I wanted to try and put it into words wherever possible. And so my pen recorded the content of the talks, it described the beauty of the park that wrapped around the Franciscan priory, the weather, the light at different times of day, the very quality of the warm summer air.
During such a retreat there are opportunities to have a private audience with a scholar teacher. I was at a crossroads at that time, uncertain about where I would put down roots, on which island of Aotearoa, with which constellation of people. I remember the teacher saying ‘No matter which choice you make you cannot safety proof the outcome.’ At the time I found this hard because still I did not know. She also said, ‘You solve one conundrum and then others you hadn’t even considered appear as challenges.’ This was difficult too but she spoke calmly, without emotion, her voice coloured with empathy and I was receptive. Her next piece of advice, delivered as another challenge, offered something more I could warm to. ‘You need to learn how to live with unexpected and unpleasant consequences, and to sit with the uncertainty with equanimity.’ This is something Buddhism teaches, the practice of non-reactivity in all situations. To me it offers the best equipment for living, a practice to keep coming back to even and especially when I falter and get upset. I can still come back. I can aim to stay steady when the waves wash over, supported by mindfulness, and by the meditation practice of coming back again and again into this moment and to this body, breathing, quietly. And that seems to me to be all you need do through life's difficulties come back into the moment and simply be with what is here now.
Day 55 and life is feeling more normal although the moment I expressed that thought I stopped and reconsidered, ‘Wait a minute. Normal on this side of lockdown is entirely different from the everyday habits of life before coronavirus arrived and tipped the world upside down.’ A normal day for me, now, involves not driving anywhere in my car and doing lots of walking. Scaling the steep incline onto Takarunga this morning and walking under the oak trees on the northern side, past the graveyard with its sloping tombstones, then circling round to see the harbour bright and the city shimmering, the bridge a dull silver skeleton to the west, I thought this is now my new routine, this very special activity woven into the fabric of my working day. If I could continue in this way, the days filled with writing and research and interspersed between the work, the time for walking and thinking and quiet reverie, I would be happy. More than happy. Can it be this way? Has the time in pause opened up new possibilities, new ways of living, helped us reassess our priorities? Might we go forward in a slower and more thoughtful fashion, might we tread softly on this earth taking care of the planet and ourselves, living each moment more consciously? For me lockdown has highlighted what is necessary for living well and what is absolutely not. The consumerism and the chasing after false dreams these activities no longer seem like a good way for me to occupy my time. The trick will be finding a balance that works for each individual. I know I still want and need the sociable element. This past weekend filled as it was with reconnecting with friends and family has been good for the spirits. Tuning in to how a small child sees the world is manifestly important to me at this point. Having been denied this human contact for what feels so long accentuates all that is precious.
There are routines from the old life that I hold dear. I felt this last night when I took dinner to my friend who lives near the Manukau harbour and we re-established a routine developed over the summer where we dine together on a week night and then, quite often, watch an independent movie together. Last night as I stood in her kitchen chopping up a pear and spinach and fennel and capsicum salad, shaking up a dressing with vinegar and mustard in the yellow brilliance of her splash-back that shines with the brightness of sunflowers and the Mondrian blue door bright against the white of her walls, I felt happy. At one end of the bench sat the completed jigsaw of Georgia O’Keefe’s famous 'Poppy' painting, its glorious red petals, the smoky black of the flower's interior glowing in the space. The bench at that point drops down to a lower level. It was made that way to accommodate her grandson when he was small. He could stand on it and do science experiments with his Oma.
My friend is from the Netherlands. She was a potter earlier in her life. Pieces of her work are scattered through the house; they sit on the floor, hang on walls, there is a very beautiful clay bust of her daughter’s young face that I love that sits in a niche in her bookcase, in her garden there are urns and bowls filled with water for the birds. Out her back door she has filled a large area with hundreds of grey river stones. Here and there amongst the small dry riverbed she has placed a pot. This friend has a wonderful aesthetic sense. Every surface of her home holds interesting objects, books, and assemblages. Last night I sat at a low table peering through a magnifying glass she’d placed near the opened page of a giant book, looking at the individual forms of hundreds of red ibises packed in close together in Venezuela. She bought the book by aerial photographer Yann Arthus-Bertrand as a treat. A double page will remain open for long periods for her to enjoy at her leisure.
My friend is also a poet and a researcher and completed her PhD on a group of revolutionary Dutch poets, when she was in her seventies. We became acquainted through our love of writing. It was a writing school with the dynamic Cathie Dunsford, held in the School of Fine Arts building at Auckland University in the summer of 1992, that brought us together. Over the years we’ve shared many experiences. For a long time her home was the meeting place for our writing group. I remember one summer evening with the French doors open onto her courtyard garden the five of us sat and watched, in the fading light of dusk, the pale yellow flowers of the evening primrose opening. The bud advanced slowly and silently. Its movement was delicate, shy almost. We sat quite still, it was so quiet I could almost hear the plant breathing, entranced by the wonder.
Day 53 and I have spent the entire weekend walking and talking, probably like many others, because there are weeks-worth of conversations to catch up on and people are making up for lost time. The mood on the streets, when I tuned in, seemed to be one of quiet jubilation, of people feeling a blissful sense of release from the abnormal conditions of these past eight weeks. And, I don’t think I am imagining this, there seems to be a subtle change in habit on the streets? There is a lot more exercise happening for one thing but more importantly there seems to be a new code of behaviour. I have been noticing an upswell in kindness and courtesy, that’s my observation.
I have walked on Cheltenham beach three times these past two days. I’ve been up Maungauika, North Head. I’ve walked to the pier at Torpedo Bay and out into the harbour for the pan shot from one end to the other. I’ve been up and down the streets of Devonport, through the village, past The Vic cinema and down towards the waterfront, the cafes open along the way, people spilling onto the street. I’ve walked along narrow lanes; colonial houses clinging to the hilly topography. I’ve admired sudden blazes of autumn colour, the cherry trees shedding their scarlet and camel coloured leaves in blankets over the footpath, the Virginia creepers clamped onto rock walls turning all the shades at the red end of the spectrum — scarlet, grape, burnt plum. I’ve seen water in flashes from the corner of my eye, like film rushes, blurry, while in deep discussion with a walking friend. I’ve stopped and marvelled at the pale blue liquid that wraps around Rangitoto and follows the coastline north in and out of bays. I’ve noted the ruffled water surface out from King Edward Parade a deeper shade of mesmerising blue-green.
I’ve returned to the park beyond this house as well, and today it was with newfound knowledge gleaned from a friend I saw only this morning, a local. She told me that the place where I have sought solace these past nine weeks is not the lower slopes of Takarunga, ‘the hill standing above’, it is a volcanic cone in its own right and its name is Takararo which means, I think, little Takarunga. Sadly the scooped out area in the middle that I had thought of as a crater is not that either, rather it is the remains of colonial plundering turning the cone into a quarry site to extract volcanic rock for road construction and garden walls.
Over the period of my writing in this lockdown journal I have often described my walks around Takararo but what I failed to mention was that the park was locked. Initially I thought I was the only law-breaker creeping in through the hole in the hedge. As the weeks passed however very occasionally I would meet one more person out there and finally there was the joyful conversation with the writer, carrying his shopping bag to fill with kindling for his fire, about New Zealand literature. His writing is featured now in the new repository of lockdown stories. This is how he described what had been going on: “The gates are locked, the park is closed except for those lucky residents of The Independent Republic of Cambria who have direct access; we took possession over lockdown.”
I remember the feeling on the first day of lockdown when I walked down Church Street and saw the gates to Takararo locked. The shock — park gates locked in our country. What?’ — it pulsed through me. Then when a writer, from an earlier course, described gates locked at Cornwall Park a similar sensation thumped through my body. Not in New Zealand surely. Did this mean we were living in a state of emergency?
The first time I broke through the hedge the sense of trepidation and guilt was running high. I remember hurrying for the cover of trees. In my mind I imagined police helicopters circling above and spotting the one offender, me, skirting the edges of the reserve. Would they shoot? Then in the weeks when people started reporting on their fellow citizens I became uneasy about sitting in the rocky nook quietly taking in the view of harbour and mountain. Somebody might blow the whistle on me. (I’m mighty glad that stage is over and that it didn’t escalate to the point of neighbours and acquaintances turning on one another.) I had no idea until I began meeting the occasional person that other residents living on the perimeter of the nature reserve were doing the exact same thing, that there were more ghosts darting round the edges taking cover under tree canopies, stepping in first thing in the morning before others were awake, or later in darkness with only the light of a torch to guide them.
Day 51 and I achieved a lot yesterday with no journal to write. I responded to emails from writers and attended to the backlog of early entries for the recently established repository on my website forum where new stories written in the time of coronavirus are being collected. I’m proud of the writing already published there. I admire the pragmatism and courage and appreciate the honesty. You feel the writers are talking to you and revealing something about themselves in the time of lockdown. This is what I value about life writing as a form of creative expression — its directness of delivery, the straightforward tone, the way the best of life writing resists frills and whistles, it is what it is. Anybody can write the story of their life, or just a vignette like opening the curtain on a small slice of life, or focussing on the events of a day, an hour, a minute if you choose, telling the reader exactly what happened. You don’t have to try too hard. You just tell it like it is, as though you are telling the story to a friend. I hope that more readers of this facebook journal will put pen to paper and write a page, or even two about their experience of living in the time of coronavirus, so there is more than just my voice writing on and on for the historical record.
Last night I didn’t miss staying up late to write but I did notice the gap. It occurred to me I wouldn’t be able to find out what I thought of day 50 in the time of coronavirus. Because in the act of writing at the end of each day there is an opportunity to process events and make meaning of them. The early night though was a big help because the following morning I drove north, for the first time, up to a sandy bay on the Whangaparaoa Peninsula to visit my family.
Remy had woken in the dark an hour earlier than usual with the words, ‘Mormor is coming today.’ And what excitement for all of us. Immediately on arrival I was taken on a tour of the whole of their small house, shown the silver balloon in the shape of a three for the birthday I missed because of the virus, and taken upstairs to see the new bed, and the new duvet with a pattern of black and grey sleeping sloths hanging upside down. I was re-introduced to all the soft toys. I was given a ‘show.’ And I sat on the floor and clapped and called ‘Bravo, bravo,’ as he brought out one beloved ‘friend’ after another; the little pink flamingo, called Flora, the beloved teddy bears, Winnie and Bernie, from Bern, the Steiner doll called Flynn, the pukeko that squeaks, the soft hedgehog, the “oh, oh, o, oh o,” never referred to as penguin because that was the sound that came out of the button the eighteen month-old Remy repeatedly pushed by the penguin enclosure at Kelly Tarltons. The sound has stuck. There was also the rabbit with the pink dress and pale gold socks knitted by a ninety year-old writer, Dawn, from one of my early writing courses, and an ibex, a gift from the family in Switzerland.
My grandson talked non-stop throughout the day, he recounted the weeks since I’d last seen him, he talked about his creche , the birthday that I missed, and then he said, ‘And then it was coronavirus,’ with a big exhaling of breath and we all laughed. And he laughed too and the day felt like that. Happy. Joyful. A reunion of loved ones and a relief. When it was time to go, of course he didn’t want that. He wanted me to stay the night. But we promised another get together, this time at my small home on the side of Takarunga, very soon.
After I’d gone his mother was barraged with questions, ‘Are you sure Mormor lives in Devonport? Why doesn’t she live at the big house with the piano? Where is her cat? Will she get him back from Holly? Who lives in the piano house? Who is Ruth?’ It is hard for him. It is now exactly a year since I lost my home and in that time I’ve lived a nomadic existence. I’ve been to London and interviewed poet Fleur Adcock, to Estonia with my friend the author Miriam Frank, to Switzerland to stay with family. I’ve lived in Mt Eden and had a writer’s residency at Karekare. I spent a month in Christchurch in the summer and returned to live in Epsom and now Devonport. He finds it confusing. I feel like I’m on a merry-go-round only it isn’t the fairground and it isn’t fun and I still don’t know when I will get off and step into the security and stability of my own home.
These feelings were jostling in my head today at the lawyer’s as I signed my will, finally, plus the memorandum of wishes, and then as we deliberated over the endless implications of the enduring power of attorney for personal care and property. Towards the end of this discussion my brain stopped working and I couldn't think clearly. I had no idea anymore what I wanted. The questions and the morbid nature of them were knocking on my brain and I’d had enough, ‘If you were to die on leaving the premises, if you were die in the next year, if you were to lose the capacity to make decisions about your wellbeing and welfare would you like the first attorney or the second to make decisions on your behalf? Would you like them to take over your bank accounts? And if I was to go down the same track as my mother and succumb to MS and need hospital level care how would I divest of my money and who would act on my behalf, on and on like this… I drove back in a daze over roads I had not seen and in traffic I had not experienced for fifty days. On arrival at my small refuge I got into bed, something I don’t do in the daytime, and turned to a book to escape.
Later in the evening I went on a brisk walk through the darkened streets, lights spilling through hedgerows onto the path and illuminating the way, the colder air hitting my face and waking me up. Here and there I stopped to pick flowers and foliage in the dim light, feeling for the stems and the point where they branched off and snapping them. It was when I began arranging them in vases, making something lovely from a random collection that I began to feel restored again.
Day 49 and there is a sense of an ending of some sort as I write here tonight for we are on the cusp of moving from the containment of lockdown into something different. Initially we strained against the restrictiveness of our lives at level 4 but over the weeks we adjusted to the straitjacket, recognising that it was pivotal to our success in arresting the spread of the virus. Then as the weeks passed and case numbers dropped we began to accept the situation. Now we are losing the safety harness and moving into level two, uncertain of how our lives will be under the loosening of conditions but knowing things will be different. It is confusing for the human brain trying to process this amount of change and drama over a very short and intense time period. One thing is certain though. It will be noisier out there and the roads will be busier. But we don’t really know what lies ahead.
Tonight is the seventh session, the penultimate, of the journal course, ‘In Extremis: Writing a Journal in the Time of Coronavirus’ and I feel a small grief acknowledging that the camaraderie that has been forged in difficult circumstances will be broken next week. It won’t be the end. The writers will form their own journalling group and continue to meet monthly in the virtual realm but my teaching will be done. I am amazed at what has been achieved over the past seven weeks. Tonight one of the writers spoke of the ‘audacity’ implicit in the expectation that we would work creatively in the Zoom forum and build connections, as eight disembodied heads each in our small rectangular box on the screen. Yet something did blossom out of adversity, a generous sharing of experience on the page made possible through the genuine warmth and support of each individual. This group was fortunate to have two psychotherapists on board who were able to shed light on the stages of our response to lockdown from the initial shock and numbness — they described being in a state of suspension — and then as our government and public health professionals took command and began to contain the virus, there was a gradual easing of our fears. People need to feel a degree of safety before they can articulate their experience. Then the feelings will out and the words will flow.
Over the weeks we’ve listened to a range of emotions— pain, anger, rage even, ecstasy, sadness, nostalgia, joy, confusion, appreciation. This group has laughed together and sighed. More than once tears have sprung to my eyes. We’ve enjoyed actress Elizabeth McRae reading some of the selected excerpts from the greats of the literary journal pantheon. Tonight her reading of Australian journal writer Kate Llewellyn’s The Waterlily: A Blue Mountains Journal, the actress giving voice to the writer’s joyful, free-wheeling stream of consciousness flow, was an absolute delight. We’ve waded into the realm of ethics and grappled with the big issues and written eloquently about ‘the things that are closest to my heart.’ We’ve witnessed one writer, a proficient journaller from way back, reading a portrait of a partner and been touched and enriched by the expression of tenderness. The writers have stepped outside and penned their observations of nature at the end of day, the magenta flowers of an amaranth in a potted garden on a deck, flowerheads bowing in the fading light… I will miss all this.
A part of me wants to cling to the fellowship of the group and also to the safety of lockdown. We are moving into new territory and the way forward is unclear. Even the politicians and the policy makers seem unsure of the rules. Some conditions change by the day and through the day. We’ve jumped from a maximum of ten at any gathering to fifty permitted at a tangi. It does feel a little like we are embarking on an experiment. The Waitakere Hospital infection might be a time bomb ticking. I really hope this next stage succeeds.
All this brings me to a decision as we move into alert level two and an easing of the conditions of lockdown. I will write this journal every second day. My commitment to chronicling life in the time of coronavirus remains but I have a sense that my life is going to get busier in other directions. Only today in a video chat my grandson raised one finger and said, ‘One more sleep, Mormor until I see you.’ My isolation began before level four because I’d been in contact with people who had returned from overseas with a sore throat. It is nine weeks since I last saw him.