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.
Day 48 and as commercial activity resumes and everybody begins the process of trying to inject warmth into a seriously battered and diminished economy some strange things are appearing out of the woodwork. Ages ago I consulted with a 'new age' dietician about my inner health. At the last visit, and it really was my last, I left the consulting room with a huge thorny wand of aloe in my hands that was to be steeped in boiling water and consumed for the purpose of 'healing your gut', and a feeling of disquiet. I had mentioned the intractable stresses in my life at that time and she said ‘you could always slip something into the person’s tea.’
Yesterday, because I’m still on the database, I received an email about a ‘longevity fasting diet,’ set to start when we transfer into level 2. I’ve never seen anything so silly, or so punitive. Day 1 was the generous starting day, you got a breakfast muffin, detox green soup for lunch, 10 olives as an afternoon snack and cauliflower with chumichumi sauce and an avocado pot mousse for dessert. It rapidly deteriorated from there. The olive snacks disappeared, there was only one more dessert, the avocado pot mousse on day 3. The meals were the same horrid soups swapped about and one pasta dish which seemed odd, pasta being heavy on calories. Am I being unkind? Of course it is well-intentioned, aimed at making you very thin and extending your life span, if that is really what you want, but now I’m remembering something more. I had to do a saliva test for this clinic, I can't remember why, and it had to be achieved first thing in the morning, before food and water had been consumed whilst in a state of dehydration. I had to spit and spit and spit into a plastic vial up to a certain level and in the midst of this a courier arrived and was waiting at the front door, for me to finish so he could despatch the sample to the Hawkes Bay whacky testing centre. I never got a result because the sample was insufficient!
Aue. The time of silence, when we tapped the pause button on consumer spending and stayed at home and the birds got louder and the fish returned to shallow waters, this precious time is coming to an end and the realisation is bittersweet. Emerging from this gentle vacuum of peace and quiet, this cocoon where in some respects I would like to huddle away for longer, into the madding world of buying and trading feels vexatious to the spirit. The words of Desiderata reverberate, ‘ Go placidly amid the noise and haste and remember what peace there may be silence.’ It feels a bit like that. We will remember, won't we?
I have a hope that the time in freeze frame has changed the way many of us think and operate going forward. Alongside this statement goes an awareness that such a position is a luxury. There are people around the world at this moment, who are sick with the virus and any number of other illnesses, there are people dying and people who have died from covid-19, there are those made homeless and jobless by the economic meltdown and they are all suffering. We owe it to those who have lost so much during this unprecedented time and to those who will continue struggling into the future, to be more determined than ever to resist the light and trivial. I hope we will put our energies into reaching out and helping others more. That we will be more conscious of the irrationality and oddness of many modern day trends — the diet industry, the plastic cosmetic fantastic industry, the dominance and supersaturation of sporting activities to the exclusion of other ways of being (do we really need so much of this?) and another thing, though I recognise that our national airline has suffered and there has been a terrible loss of jobs and people are hurting, I am glad the planet has been spared its regular dousing of toxic fumes for almost eight weeks now. It is my hope going forward that the national carrier in an attempt to rein in expenditure will decide not to waste money on any further puerile safety videos and that refreshingly, like the old days, we will return to a far simpler and probably more effective method of communication whereby airline crew will stand in the aisles, legs firmly planted on the floor, as they demonstrate with seat belts and oxygen masks what to do in an emergency. That we will choose simplicity over fads.
Many will be glad to resume some of the old routines, hairdressers will be busy. A famous elder author I know said she longs for a massage. There is much I could do without and will have to if I want to continue the writing life. To live modestly that is the intention. Yesterday I gave myself a hard time because I overspent my food budget by $10, this was eight days after the last shop so maybe the extra spend was legitimate but the fact that I gave myself a talking to was a good sign I thought. How long does it take to shift old habits I wonder and was eight weeks in lockdown sufficient?
A moment ago I looked up from my desk and saw a kite soaring over the channel. The lime green sail caught my attention through the openings in the wooden venetian blinds. It moved gracefully, pulled along by the action of the wind and the surfer tugging on the lines down below. I couldn’t see the person creating the joy, it was too, too far away. If it was a line of music the swaying of this kite would be the soaring, lyrical line of the second movement of Dvorak’s New World Symphony. If it drew shapes, it would be cursive handwriting, like my grandmother’s rising and falling fluid script. Soon the floating fabric was joined by another, this one turquoise and together they performed the dance of scarves over the dull metal sea. Watching them play I found myself thinking how out there the wind would be hollering in the surfer’s ears and a mighty battle with the elements would be underway that would be both exhausting and exhilarating all at once, whereas in here it was blissfully silent.
Day 47 and the big announcement and explanation this afternoon about alert level 2 and how it will play out from this Thursday. No more than ten people in any one space is a key principle. Maintain social distancing, two metres apart at all times with people outside your bubble. Do shop but limit your contact with others. Act fast and report to your doctor, or Healthline if you detect even the slightest sniffle. Work from home if you can and stay safe. Jacinda was wearing a bold metal neck plate for the media conference. It glinted between the two curtains of her long dark tresses. The adornment looked Egyptian. I thought how appropriate. In some respects Jacinda, with her pale skin and chiselled features, the black long hair has the look and stance of an Egyptian Goddess. She would be Maat, or Mayet the goddess of Truth, Morality, Justice and Balance, daughter of the sun deity Ra and the moon god Toth. Mayet kept the stars in motion and the seasons changing. She maintained order in the cosmos and stability in the universe. And that, to me, is Jacinda our prime minister and what she has achieved for New Zealanders over the past nearly eight weeks. She acted decisively and came in early with lockdown. She averted catastrophe. And now she is opening the country again to rebuild the economy, earlier than her counterparts. She has done an amazing job along with her team. The words of my friend in public health continue to resonate. She said, ‘This has been a dream government to work with.’
While those thoughts were running I was observing Jacinda’s stance as she delivered the weighty speech, long and dense with information as it was. Occasionally I saw her swaying, a small motion, from foot to foot — I’m sure Helen Clark did something similar — as she gripped the lectern. Perhaps the movement is designed to pump blood through the system and help the orator stay focussed. I’m not really sure but it had me thinking about the colossal juggling act she has been performing, this woman who is by turn prime minister and strong leader, Egyptian goddess and ethereal creature, young mother and partner, somebody who clearly loves children, a family person and I was thinking about her youth and the extraordinary burden placed on her shoulders. I wonder sometimes how she stays standing.
This last weekend I saw a post from Jacinda on Instagram. It was a photograph of a very short wooden stool placed before a low bench. On the bench there was a chopping board with one onion and one head of broccoli. Jacinda said she’d been wondering about the very low bench and it’s function. Finally she had worked out a use for it. A place to sit to peel and chop vegetables. In that action you have her humility. She is someone we can relate to. When you consider how many leaders fall into the trap of believing they are mightier than the people they govern Jacinda’s lack of vanity gleams even brighter.
I enjoyed that. Writing my tribute to a fine human being.
And to finish on the flowers, featured here. They were picked yesterday for my mother. Back in February I had pruned the Beaglehole’s climbing roses. They ramble along two fences near the back garden. It was a scorching hot Saturday when I went to work. I saw this as something to do while my stomach was churning over the approaching mediation. There is something about working in a garden in times of stress that can be a great salve to the spirit. Yesterday I happened to notice that the rose nearest to where I park my car had one pale pink bloom, just the one. I took it as a thank you from the plant and picked it.
Day 46 and it was mother’s day and it came with a hard decision. I had to decline an invitation to accompany the family on a picnic. I didn’t want to stretch the conditions of alert level 3. It would have involved a drive north and we knew my grandson would want a cuddle. ‘I can wait,’ I said, ‘until we have clarity on level 2.’ But oh I felt wistful. I missed the three of them and the baby bump. I missed my son in Sydney just as much. I missed my mother. The third anniversary of her death is looming in just a few days. It was on this day, in 2017, that I rang Silverdale Hospital in Christchurch — the place my mother lived when MS robbed her of her mobility — to wish her a happy mother’s day. We’d been on the phone the day before. I’d described the view across the exposed sand at Cox’s Bay, the tide was well out — the children stepping over the squelchy sand, two women walking, and in deep discussion, one wearing a pink hoodie, beautiful in the distance against the wet grey ground the pale white sky. ‘It sounds good, Deborah,’ she said. She loved this, me in the car taking her places around Auckland and describing the scene via the Bluetooth connection to my phone. Mum only had a small crackle in her chest. I remember thinking, please not pneumonia again. She’d nearly died two years earlier.
The next day I rang her again. The nurse answered and said, ‘Your mother’s condition deteriorated overnight. The doctor is here, would you like to speak to him?’ The following conversation had touched on the surreal. He said ‘What do you want me to do? Send her to hospital or keep her here. If she stays here she will die.’ My answer, said with a gulp, ‘I rang to wish my mother a happy mother’s day. Please may I talk to her.’ My mother, very crackly, came on the phone. She said, ‘Deb they’re asking me about my end of life care plan. This is unreal.’ The ambulance took her to hospital and a two and half days later she died. Looking back I feel lucky. With my brother and sister we companioned her throughout that precious time and were sitting alongside the bed, in the field of her vision, when she died. I say we were lucky because I know of people who have lost a parent in the time of coronavirus. They were separated by hundreds of miles and were unable to follow their instincts and travel to be there at the end. Thinking about them now makes me tearful.
My mother’s day. Knowing I would be alone I prepared for the day. Yesterday I’d bought a croissant, through the window of the local French patisserie, Chateaubriant on Vauxhall Road. How do you heat a croissant without an oven? I had discussed my dilemma with my Dutch friend Fredrika. The question was posed in the context of me describing how I like to demarcate the advent of the weekend. I have Friday night drinks with myself. I buy a small bottle of cherry plum kombucha specifically for this purpose. And for the weekend I have a croissant on Saturday morning. This is something from my old life; croissants and a leisurely read of the weekend paper, sharing the sections, whilst sitting in a patch of sunshine luxuriating … and she said, ‘Oh that’s easy. You cook it in a frypan.’ What? ‘You slice the croissant apart and put a little butter and your favourite jam inside, and then you butter the outsides and fry on each side until golden brown.’ I tried this with my favourite marmalade, the Anatoth brand with its juicy chunks of peel. The best way to eat the lightly browned, buttery, dripping morsel is with a knife and fork. Enjoy with a cup of organic English Breakfast tea, just the very best.
This morning over croissant and tea I read the Devonport Flagstaff from cover to cover. There I learned about the sightings of dolphins performing acrobatics in the Rangitoto channel. There was a photo of one sleek dolphin leaping on page fourteen. Apparently they’ve been feeding in the shallow waters off the beaches at Narrow Neck and Cheltenham. They’ve been attracted here by the silence. According to research, marine life, 'from oysters to mammals, are sensitive to the noise of loud motors.' Even before lockdown, on the coastline of France, some bays were closed to boat traffic, or the speed strictly limited and this has brought the fish close to shore to feed. The writers of the article Alan and Wendy Pettersen wondered whether ‘maybe we could also be as considerate here and reap the rewards’. On finishing the read I thought this is another reason why I would like to put down roots in Devonport, to read these kinds of thoughtful nature observations by local writers.
In the late afternoon a great blessing was bestowed in the form of a family video chat with a lively three year-old, who, without prompting placed a series of affectionate kisses on the screen, in the place he judged my mouth to be. Then my son, sitting on his sofa in his Sydney apartment, turned his camera on a snuggly cream house made of felt, it looked like an igloo. There in the recess, at the back, was an eight week old Scottish Fold kitten. ‘This is Sylvie,’ he said. There were cries of delight all round, ‘the cutest thing, the little darling…’ And my heart swelled to be sharing the joy with my family; my son and grandson, and daughter, and bump, and baby cat.
When I said goodbye to my son, wishing him a good first night with a new kitten in his life, he said, ‘it feels good to have two beating hearts in this apartment.’
Day 45 and the whole world appeared to be out on Narrow Neck beach today. We’d been gifted a day from the heavens. A smooth cerulean canvas stretching to the horizon, sun shining bright from the blue expanse and throwing a warm light over land and sea. On the sand it was jam-packed with people and dogs. There were toddlers sitting in their shorts and overalls in the lapping water at the tide’s edge, picking up clumps of wet sand and looking at it, and there was a woman in a bikini with a long cardigan thrown over the wet garments, because after all it is May and although the sun was lighting up the world, turning the water into sparkling diamonds, the air temperature was definitely cooler. This reminded me of another day in early February at Home Bay on the other side of the harbour. We were having a heat wave then and the small sliver of sand between the pohutukawas on the cliff and the tideline was so jammed with people we had to walk in the sea first and then make a beeline to a patch smaller than a bathing towel in size, among a seething mass of sunscreen covered humanity. On the way I remember lifting my feet high as I stepped over prone bodies, saying, excuse me, excuse me until I reached the folded picnic rug. Even in the luke-warm, grey-green water you had to steer around bodies floating feet up, faces turned to the light. I remember feeling overwhelmed by the heat and the dazzling light and the press of bodies and thinking this is awful. It’s not New Zealand the way I remember it. Get me out of here.
I think I am right about this. There seems to be a rising trend amongst parts of the population to get out and exercise. Perhaps the period in lockdown has made us tighten up our intentions, firm our resolve to make exercise an integral element in the daily routine. But some are overly intense and spoil it for others. These people assume that just because they are jogging and have worked up a sweat, and just because they are dressed in fancy slinky gear and are wearing fit bits and apple wrist watches, telling the world that a serious programme is in progress, they can career past the rest of us and almost collide. There seems to be no attempt to observe the two metre social distancing rule that will keep us safe. I get quite cross about this.
The tide was way out today. You could virtually walk all the way to Rangitoto. Around the rocks, at the southern end of the bay, the departing sea had revealed crevices and shallow basins brimming with fresh sea water. Here the surface was still, like glass and seeming to heighten the colours in dusky purple seaweed and ochre sediment. When my eye notices these things I want to stop talking and have the rocks all to myself. I want to kneel down with my hands together, bowing slightly and say thank you.
Back home I read in a-Sunday-afternoon-with-the-papers-fashion, although this was on a screen, jumping from article to article, only reading three-quarters of the way down, even less, to discover what was going on in the world. Of the 3.7 million recorded and reported cases of coronavirus (it is likely the numbers are far higher than this) there have been 264,000 deaths. The highest numbers are in the US with the UK, Spain and Italy not far behind. Next there was a study of people’s compliance in lockdown and the reasons for this. Unfortunately I failed to absorb the discussion. My attention was diverted by an unsettling online advertisement at the top right of the screen — a photo of two rats, their faces peering out of a small hole in a wall. They each had a dark pink rim, that looked like blood, around the edge of each eye. Utterly disgusting, yet frustratingly when I scrolled back up hoping they would disappear or be replaced by something better, they stayed put. I tried putting a piece of paper over the image but it showed through. It was as though the internet knew that today when I emptied my food scraps in the black compost bin beside the garden gate, I had disturbed a rat. The creature made quite a noise as it dived under the rotting kelp and out through a hole in the side. I saw the body and tail disappearing through the gap, and a flicker of movement as it sped under the fence into the neighbour’s back garden. I stayed quite calm. My heart did not jump.
Then this evening on a phone call to my son, in Sydney, we discussed the big event of tomorrow. He is collecting an eight-week old Scottish Fold kitten from its breeder. This winsome creature, a female, has a cuddly round face, black with a white nose and tummy. Its two front paws are white as well, eyes pale grey-blue. We went through a hundred French names for girl cats. Enchanting, a delightful diversion and a very happy way to round out and finish day 45 in alert level 3 in the time of coronavirus.
Day 44 and more chance meetings in the green reserve, filling up the well of emptiness that sometimes oppresses me. It is not depression exactly, it’s more a vacuum, a hole that opened inside me in childhood when first my brother died and next my father and the losses that cut our family in half, sent my dear beautiful mother into a deep grief that lasted for some years. Thank goodness there was family — grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins and family friends — who through all that time, still even now, gathered in close. I see them in a ring, holding hands around us, their shadows long on the grass, keeping us safe.
Most of the time this vacuum stays sealed but losses in the present, big changes, uncertainty, loneliness, any of those forces can trigger the feeling. Given that the condition of being human makes us vulnerable to pretty much all of those things, I fully expect the void will accompany me to the end. I’ve accepted that because there are riches too, all the creative pursuits which were nurtured by my mother for one thing and her love of the natural world and teaching me nature appreciation, her friendliness and warmth they have eased the path. I’m making it sound simple and it isn’t.
The park is getting busier. I had reached the bottom of the circular walk yesterday, when I saw a man across the grass, near the start of the rock-lined path that winds through the trees. He was standing very still eyes trained on something. I crossed the park quietly and a little uncertainly for he was dressed in rather unusual gear — old white overalls, clean but dull from lots of washing. They were tucked into dark grey gumboots. The frames of his glasses were dark and rectangular, the kind that a scientist might wear, or a professor and he had on a hat, made from soft cotton, the dark blue colour had faded to a washed out blue-grey. And this was interesting, he was holding about fifteen bright green beans in one hand. I wasn’t sure what to do so I asked him what he was looking at. ‘A partridge,’ he said, ‘over there.’ I looked but I couldn’t see it, anywhere. I wondered if it was real. There was a shade structure with a roof blocking my view though. By the time I reached him it had gone. ‘It was over there where that sparrow is now,’ he said, smiling at me.
I didn’t used to be this curious, or is it nosy, I’m unsure. Neither did I strike up conversations with strangers but it seems that in the time of coronavirus I throw caution to the wind and open my mouth and the questions fall out. I learned that he lives in the house beyond the karo trees on the corner of the park. a very pleasant man, a retired scientist from the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Auckland. He didn’t tell me this at the time, but I googled him later and discovered that some years ago he received funding to trace the origins of human influenza by studying traces of the virus in Adelie penguin dung samples in Antarctica.
‘You’ve been picking beans,’ I said. And that’s when I discovered he is one of four gardeners who tend the community gardens on the edge of the park. I’ve often looked through the mesh fence and admired the musky mauve flowers of the cosmos, the scarlet geraniums in their raised beds, the salad greens and herbs and I’ve wondered about the good people who grow things for the benefit of a community. Apparently I’m welcome to join. They need new members. I also learned he is a beekeeper. That’s why he was dressed in overalls and why they were tucked into his boots.
Later at home I opened my inbox and there was an email from the scientist. It had come via the contact page on my website. He’d sent me links to three writers, a Swedish journalist and a couple, both of whom write, who live further down the street from the park. Four writers in two days.
Day 43. What I really wanted to write about yesterday was a chance encounter in the park. The day began with washing, this time in a proper machine, not by hand. I will admit to having grown tired of wringing clothes with my bare hands and hoisting them soggy and heavy onto the line. It's an activity better suited to summertime. The weather these past few days had been rainy, squally, cold. Finally this morning it dawned bright and blue, a perfect day for drying clothes. When I’d pegged the last towel on the line I decided to go directly into the park. Normally I arrive there later in the day.
Over the weeks since lockdown began this beautiful reserve has been largely deserted. Shortly before we went into level three I came upon the gathering of dope smoking teenagers in the shadowy glade. There was Jude collecting mushrooms from the soggy ground that same day. Then the day before yesterday I saw a woman with a tall white dog with black spots on its coat, she was swaying and the dog was cavorting gracefully in the long green grass, the pair of them performing a slow dance.
This morning, as I was almost through my second swift walk around the perimeter and on my way up through the thicket of native trees along the path bordered by low rock walls, I happened upon a man on his way down. ‘Hello,’ we both said at once. And then I turned back and said, ‘I haven’t see you here before. Do you live nearby?’ He turned around and pointed further up the hill to the huge old Victorian house I’ve often considered from my seat in the rocky nook. There is one large, square bay window on the end of this building that receives the last of the afternoon sun. A kitchen is just discernible on the far wall and perhaps a table and seats nearer the glass. I like to imagine what it might be like sitting in the snug sunporch gazing at the view over the park and up the volcanic cone. Once or twice I’ve seen a figure, female I think, insubstantial and shadowy in the deep recess, but mostly the room stands empty.
The man I met, lives with his wife and two sons in a flat on the other side of the rambling two-storeyed house. I learned a lot in a very short space of time. I think this is an unexpected consequence of lockdown. Our enforced isolation has made us yearn for actual connection with other human beings. You forget, until you start a spontaneous conversation, how easy and pleasant is the process, with just air around you and lovely native trees, very different from staring at a screen and getting eye strain.
I discovered that the man on the path is from California, and oh joy is another writer, self-employed like me. He has a doctorate in philosophy and has taught critical thinking skills and Early Modern Philosophy at Auckland University. He also has a background in information technology and a past career as a computer programmer. Now he works as a copywriter, he’s written parenting articles too, and there is a big novel on the go. He runs a bicycle repair shop. I’ve noticed this about writers. They’re often highly skilled in several areas because the writing life doesn’t pay the bills.
The conversation roamed over different subjects mostly to do with writing. There was his reading of New Zealand literature and the enjoyment of comparing it with American literature. He’d just finished Janet Frame's 'Faces in the Water' the novel she based on her experience of life in a psychiatric unit. He commented on the ending, ’it was gripping. Just stunning writing.' We discussed Frank Sargeson as well, the bleakness of his stories. I can’t see beyond that. Pointing towards the Rangitoto channel I asked him whether he’d read the story about the two men who row out into the middle at low tide and one leaves the other stranded on a shallow bank, unable to swim, and rows away fast. Sargeson’s stories often end like that on a sinister twist.
We discussed the appeal of Devonport. His family loves it here. The children attend Devonport Primary School. ‘It's fantastic,’ he said. ‘What makes it fantastic?’ I asked. ‘It is on a volcano!’ And the teaching is very good too apparently.
We could have talked all morning but his wife was at home juggling her work with minding the children. He was carrying a hemp grocery bag. He considered it now and said, ‘I just hopped out to collect some kindling for the fire. I’m predicting a chilly night.’