Day 42 and I am going to write a little about ethics which was the subject of the journal session this evening although I’m not sure I want to. It is a huge subject, a minefield often and tricky to navigate in a practical sense. How, for instance do you write about the people who figure in your life — significant others, family, friends, colleagues, acquaintances — while protecting their right to privacy? How do you avoid hurting people if the portrait is not always flattering? The dilemma is how to balance your right to express your thoughts openly, honestly, insightfully if you can, with their entitlement to privacy and respect. And how do you stay safe yourself? How much to reveal, what to leave out and how to achieve something satisfying without annoying your audience, because a curious and perceptive reader will sniff out omissions and silences, these are all dilemmas the writer has to consider.
One of the challenges for the journal writer is how to navigate the pressure that arises from the common perception of the genre as a confessional mainly. This carries with it a weighty expectation that you will reveal all, leave nothing out, in short write an exposé of your life. But is it possible to provide access to your inner life, to supply the kind of detail that is expected — the hidden passions, secrets, dreams and yearnings, the fears and insecurities — without compromising your privacy? I don’t honestly know the answer. But this is why I have a deep respect for the writers who have plumbed the depths and in the process allowed us to learn from them. I’m thinking of Thomas Merton, Anais Nin, May Sarton, Kate Llewellyn… And yet I’m also aware of how they have been diminished and judged by their critics, for their efforts.
In our discussion today the journal writers considered other dimensions of the journal form as well, for there is so much more, there are the dazzling strands of nature writing woven through the journals of all the writers mentioned above that offer inspiration and delight to the reader. In an historical sense a journal provides a window onto how people lived at a daily level during a particular moment in time. Think of the seventeenth diaries of English writer Samuel Pepys, written over ten years and how this record of daily life is now prized for the glimpse it allowed into the life of an English naval administrator and politician and his wife, poor Elisabeth Pepys. On Wednesday 1 January 1661/62 Samuel wrote, “Waking this morning out of my sleep on a sudden, I did with my elbow hit my wife a great blow over her face and nose, which waked her with pain, at which I was sorry and to sleep again.”
One of the pleasures to be had in reading his journal 360 years on is the discovery that people all that time ago, weren’t vastly different from us. They were flawed, they fell down, they got angry, they loved, they yearned for more. In this context a journal, your journal hopefully, written in the time of coronavirus will offer insight into how lives were lived at a critical historic juncture in the early 21st century. It is this aspect of the journal that appeals to me. More than any other written form, apart from the personal letter, a journal offers a window onto people’s experience at a given moment in time, it brings history vividly and intimately to life in a way that an academic history can not.
It is late and I think I have strayed off the topic. Ethics. There are so many dimensions to consider it can tie you in knots trying to get it right.
My advice is to write. Write with feeling, write with urgency, express exactly what you need to now, as if you have been waiting all your life for this moment. And enjoy the process. Allow yourself to revel in the pleasure of releasing thoughts and feelings that may have been building inside for a long time possibly, and committing them to the page or the computer screen. That is the first task. Later in the edit you will have time to consider the implications of what you have written. This is where you can begin the process of sharing relevant passages, trialling them with a neutral reader first, then showing them to the person concerned. In my work as a biographer this is the part where it gets interesting. I think of it as negotiating the content. It involves trust and a deep engagement with the people concerned and ultimately leads to more writing, expansion and deepening of the content. In the case of my own personal pain journal the process that I embarked on with my mother, where I sent her the relevant passages of memoir and asked her to check and approve the content, there was learning and healing on both sides. (In the photo accompanying this entry my mother is seated on the right of Margaret Mahy who featured in my book 'Her Life's Work'. With both women there was a participatory process whereby we worked together on the text until we were satisfied. Then the books went to print.)
The other thing I will say is this. I think a journaller needs to be brave and a little bit tough. You have to create a carapace around yourself as you go, because for the journal to be worthwhile it ultimately does require you to open up and give of yourself and share something of your vulnerability.
Day 41 and still I’m feeling invigorated by the collaborative writing exercise yesterday and all the enjoyment to be had in letting the imagination run, and by tuning in last night to hear the work of other writers engaged in chronicling covid-19. This was a vast improvement on the weekend when I had reached the end of my tether and was feeling lonely, bored, wistful at the thought of not being able to visit my grandson, wanting things to change. I wonder whether it is like this for other people? The pendulum swings evenly for a bit and then something or somebody knocks it off course and the steady momentum is lost.
There are days here where life feels manageable and even enjoyable and then next morning it all comes crashing down and the situation seems impossibly burdensome and just too hard. That is what I've been noticing in myself but also in conversation with others, they are finding it difficult too. My friend phoned this morning, aghast. The business next to hers had disappeared. She’d arrived at work to find everything in the adjacent building gone. These were her colleagues and friends. I could hear the dismay in her tone. Another friend had been caught up in a major dispute that had tilted the smooth functioning of the family home. I’m convinced the underground rumbling that is coronavirus and the heavy uncertainty it carries with it is undermining our sense of security and making us more labile. Our usual capacity for patience and forbearance is harder to maintain. It doesn’t take much to tip a person over.
The things that have kept me on an even keel these past two precious but possibly fragile days have been the increase in social connection — I’d noticed in the weekend that I’d lost touch with some people and there and then made a conscious decision to change that — mixed with spells of creativity. I’ve been hard at work on my business affairs too getting things done and completing a new budget that I now have to live within. And then there have been the chance happenings.
Yesterday I had the door open to the outside and I heard Professor Robert Beaglehole swish up the drive and turn into the car port in his wife’s cherry-coloured, silent electric car. He got out and I heard a voice from just beyond the door, I couldn’t see him, ‘I’ve been gathering kelp,’ he said. And so he had. Two huge black plastic buckets full of tan and mustard gifts from the sea. They were sitting on the driveway in the sun. The big storm over the weekend had deposited seaweed along the shoreline and he’d been down to the rocks at the northern end of Cheltenham to gather some in. ‘Where will it go?’ I asked. He was planning on putting some in the compost and the rest would be laid onto the raised vegetable beds to rot down. Then he would dig it in.
Tonight on my way back from an early evening walk around the park, I pushed through the hedge, opened the gate and smelt the sea. It was dark by now and the salty smell was so intense, the tide might as well have been at the end of the garden. The kelp is now laid out across the garden enriching the soil. Pausing at the next gate I looked up and saw the house alight with the glow of lamps. The two professors were at work in their separate studies, each of them focussed on their screens and this was the thing that I loved; they were working right through the dinner hour. Turning to secure the picket gate, I looked at the light pouring from the window nearby and right at that moment Robert looked out and saw me. He smiled. This had me grinning as I approached my own door. I had thought I was the only person who worked strange hours, through the dinner hour, on into the night… I’ve always been a night owl but the lockdown has loosened my schedule considerably.
There was something May Sarton wrote about the views she glimpsed sometimes while walking along the coastline at night. It was the beacons glowing in the dark —"there are lighthouse keepers on rocky islands along the coast” — that made her feel less alone. “Sometimes when I have been for a walk after dark and see my house lighted up, looking so alive, I feel that my presence here is worth all the Hell.”
Day 40 of lockdown and it has been a busy and fulfilling day. This evening I participated in a zoom meeting with a life writing group that formed three years ago, following one of my courses. I hadn’t seen a number of them since the summer of 2017. What a pleasure to be able to see their faces on screen and to listen to them reading aloud their prepared story, with its lockdown theme. I don’t always remember the names of writing participants but I remember their stories. There is always at least one standout piece that remains with me. Tonight it was a pleasure to connect through a virtual window and to discover that their writing is thriving.
I wrote in the morning as well. This was a collaborative writing exercise, something that sprang from the nature writing group that formed after my Karekare course last year. One of the members suggested the idea and began the story. Her nature allusions were beautiful and lyrical, and then the next member picked up and ran with her writing, extending the story a little further while continuing the gorgeous descriptive referencing of the natural world. The underlying theme was the coronavirus and its implications moving into the future.
There are seven of us in the group, one writer lives in Australia. Round the group, we went, each writer referring back to the stories that went before and building on them. And in this way the story grew and grew like magic, blooming into something extraordinary as each writer’s imagination was ignited. Very soon it was evident we were one year into the pandemic, one year on from the start of lockdown and life had not got easier, instead it had morphed into something grim and totalitarian and awful, here in New Zealand! Just this weekend my walking friend said to me, 'If you had written the experience of the last six weeks as a short story, and delivered it to a competition a year ago, the judges would have dismissed it as thoroughly unlikely and farfetched, a piece of nonsense'.
As our tale has developed the darkness has continued and yet there is a story of female friendship here, of old and young and a faithful dog, there is kindness and warmth, and passages that made me grin, when I read them, and this is what is carrying them through. The talents of the women that people the story are inspiring. The places they’d been before lockdown, the things they’d seen, their resilience and self-agency. It made me wonder how a psychotherapist might analyse what is happening here and how this kind of writing might be used as a practice to empower.
I was the last to contribute to the story. Initially when I heard about it I noticed some resistance. Nonfiction is my genre was my first thought. It’s what I know and where I’ve focussed my energies for many years now. People sometimes say to me, ‘Would you write a novel?’ And I respond slightly sharply with another question, ‘Would you ask a watercolourist if they had considered being a sculptor?’ I was pretty sure that leaping into fiction was going to take me out of my comfort zone. And yet why not try it, especially in the time of coronavirus, why not give things a go.
The writing exercise turned out to be absorbing and fun. Only two days ago I’d been complaining about being unable to access my knitting needles, my colouring in book, my piano from storage, when actually there was a new and novel project awaiting my attention. The other thing that intrigued me, as I got into the writing, was how connected I felt to the other writers. Somebody had already commented on how much she appreciated the work that had gone into each of the passages that went before hers. It was something about the act of paying attention to the writing of each individual, their content and style and finding ways to reference it in the continuing story that I enjoyed, the sense of cooperation and collaboration which felt special because the writing life is for the main a solitary occupation.
I have finished on an open ended note hoping we might continue.
Day 39 of lockdown. Rain. Drenching the landscape, filling the sea. Down at the harbour’s edge it was driving hard on the vertical stirring the grey water, pushing white flecked waves from left to right in dynamic motion. Close to the surface a swirling haze spun, distorting the view of the shoreline, the hills, the causeway on the other side, muting colours and blurring landforms into mysterious shapes. And the wind. Roaring. Shrieking. Whistling round the eaves. Blowing under the doorframe into the kitchen when I was cooking tonight. It’s been like this for two days and two nights now. A mighty tempest shaking the house, bending the trees. It surprises me how the physics of nature continues to provide the weather patterns and seasons — tropical storms in the north, crisp temperatures and frost in the southern regions, mushrooms appearing in the grass in the park next door, leaves turning golden, scarlet, maroon, telling us it is autumn in New Zealand while elsewhere on the revolving planet gentle spring has arrived bringing warm sunshine, coaxing trees into tender leaf, flowers into bud— during the time of coronavirus. An odd statement but then so is the situation we find ourselves in shut in our homes, separated from those we love, unable to venture far. This is not normal. Everything feels strange and unnerving. It surprises me that the natural world carries on the same as usual, oblivious, it seems, to our plight.
I got absolutely drenched on my walk today but wouldn’t have missed it for anything. My shoes were sodden at the end and I limped the last section with a blister on my heel. I should have worn my socks. But none of that mattered. It was such a relief to escape the confines of the dwelling and to be out in the wild weather. Wind buffeted my body, water poured down my rain jacket and I felt alive. And even better I was not alone because I have to say I am growing heartily sick of my own tedious company. Today I thought it would be good to swap my life with somebody else’s and try inhabiting a different reality. Anything to relieve the monotony of the current unlikeable situation.
Being with a blessed walking friend, —that’s how I think of her, as a blessing — catching up on an entire week of living in the time of the coronavirus gave me the diversion I craved. I was hungry for news, curious to know about her week on the front line in public health, dealing with the twisting path of this unreasonable virus. Together we talked about the six new cases as we went down to the beach and took shelter under a dripping Moreton Bay Fig. And there our attention was diverted away from the worries to a glorious spectacle directly in front of our eyes. Surfers wrangling their kites in the choppy sea while further out in the channel two champions were whipping along, tousling with their kites, play fighting it seemed with the elements. It looked so good.
Day 38 and I began the day feeling flat. The confinement is getting to me, the never-ending nature of lockdown, one day following another, all of them blurring and tending to look much the same. I try to create variety in my structure and different activities for each day but don’t have much to work with. Reading through my collection of books is out because they are locked away in storage. Knitting is out, same issue. Colouring in, my one book of mindfulness colouring same issue again. Baking can’t happen. I don’t have an oven. Playing the piano, I long to do that. I would start at the beginning of the Bach preludes and fugues and work my way through, playing very slowly, sight reading and learning as I go and have a sense of gratitude.
The term bubble is beginning to grate. Bubble implies fun. It suggests floating inside a wobbling, diaphanous shape, the sun tinting it purple and pink and having a sense of lazily hovering above things gazing at the wonder. Bubble suggests luxurious baths. It suggests champagne and corks popping and gatherings of people and loud laughter. But this is not how it is in lockdown for many of us. Today, for me, felt more like living in a cell of one, it wasn’t solitary confinement obviously but on a dark, damp, gusty day in late autumn, looking through windows onto greyness, it felt close.
Briefly my spirits rose during a mentoring session on Skype. This was the meeting I missed earlier in the week because I had no idea what day it was. It was a pleasure to spend an hour fully absorbed in another writer’s project. This one has a solid structure and structure is everything in writing. Without it you are flailing about and getting stuck. The project is built around a collection of softly coloured Kodachrome slides. The writer’s father began photographing on arrival in New Zealand in the late 1950s, using his camera to document rural life in the Franklin district where he, his wife and young family had settled. The story is told by the son in ‘vignettes’ each one written in response to a selected photo. The writer is a secondary school history teacher and brings his interest in history to the interpretation of the photos. The experience of the migrant, of being an outsider in New Zealand society informs both the father’s and now son’s interest in the indigenous and multicultural history of the area around Pukekohe, the Maori communities, the Indian and Chinese market gardeners, the predominantly pakeha and conservative farming community. The trick is to provide the historical background, supply the appropriate detail but not too much, or the text will sag and the reader’s interest will be lost.
Later in the afternoon, my day got better. Inspired by an article in this morning’s Guardian, I went through the hole in the hedge looking for cracks and crevices in the paths around the park. I was searching for botanical plants. The article had described a phenomenon sweeping through Paris and London and further afield where people with a knowledge of botany are busy identifying the wildflowers and herbs that spring out of breaks and ruptures in the city pavements. Referred to as ‘rebel botanists’ they write the plant names in chalk next to each specimen. Unbelievably it is a criminal offence to write in chalk on the footpath. Children are forbidden to draw a hopscotch, even. It was good to read however that in Hackney the council has lifted their draconian regulation and are welcoming the intervention of botanist Sophie Leguil ,the instigator of the More than Weeds campaign and are allowing her to create chalk trails to highlight ‘the forgotten flora at our feet’.
These projects remind me of the botanical gap filler project that emerged along the High Street in central Christchurch after the earthquakes. Entitled the Botanical Preservation Project it was the inspiration of Liv Wokshop and her response to the startling and welcome appearance of wildflowers and herbs scrambling over derelict sites where city buildings had once stood. Making use of the mesh fences that surrounded those ‘vacant’ sites, she attached black and white illustrations of the flowering plants: Trifolium repens (white clover), Echium vulgare (Viper’s Bugloss), Rumix crispus (curly dock), Lapsana communis (Nipplewort), Ulex europacus (gorse.) I remember how my heart lifted encountering this display and how the inclusion of their Latin names seemed to endow plants once considered common weeds with greater significance.
Out in the park this afternoon I found a pink flowering ‘polygonum orientale’ commonly known as ‘Kiss me over the garden gate.’ It was growing in the top of a rock wall in my nook. The leaf growth was healthy and, remarkably for this time of year, there was one precious flower. I photographed it for this entry and also tried to write its name on the rock wall, with a piece of chalk, but the roughness of surface and the slippery stone insets obstructed my effort. But I tried. Tomorrow on my walk I will be on the lookout for more precious specimens on the Devonport streets. In preparation I have downloaded a plant identifier app to assist the identification.
The activity raised my spirits as did a comment from an 'anonymous London chalker' in the Guardian article. She had been describing her tree labelling walks, saying that naming trees gives people a quick blast of nature connection by encouraging them to look up into the sky through the leaves of plane, sycamore, oak, chestnut, beech and notice them. And then she remarked, “this is good for mental health when none of us can manage that much — living through a global pandemic is quite enough to be getting on with. But it’s brought me a great amount of joy.”
Day 37 and tonight I am thinking about our great leader Jacinda Ardern and how she has negotiated a path through a devilish maze of challenges these past weeks, balancing the safety of her people and the protection of our economy, as best she can dealt an impossible situation, with deftness and grace. I am in awe of her. Where global leaders and politicians, some of them almost double her age and with all the privilege and advantage that membership of an exclusive, white male hegemony bestows upon them, have stumbled and side-stepped and delayed, letting their egos get in the way of making sound decision-making and in the process watched death rates soar higher and higher while Jacinda, on the other hand, only in her fortieth year on the planet, has guided us swiftly through a crisis and brought us almost to safety. She is being hailed around the world for her astute leadership, her actions being described as ‘a triumph of science and leadership.’
What is it that makes this woman so seriously good, the new type of leader humanity desperately needs? There are the star qualities; she combines a highly tuned intelligence with an abundance of empathy; there’s her straightforward honest style — people trust her — and superb communication skills which speak to people across socioeconomic groups and prove irresistible. I’m thinking of her daily press conferences which many of us leaned on through alert level 4, and her style. There she spoke with feeling, her message was clear, she encouraged each of us to take responsibility and to work collectively to achieve the goal of virus containment. In photos on the cover of Time magazine, in the Guardian, on Al Jazeera, the pages of Vogue and Mindfood —she’s everywhere — it’s there in her face, a radiance and goodness that shines forth. She is authentic. She is principled and ethical and she walks the talk. Recently, in acknowledgement of the economic pain many New Zealanders are experiencing, the prime minister and her cabinet took a 20% pay cut. Where else in the world would or does that happen?
The other important element in Jacinda’s success is that she hasn’t done this alone. Her ability to work constructively with her own tight cabinet and to listen to, synthesise and act on the advice of a wider task force of advisors and public health officials, has been her strength. In combination with Dr Ashley Bloomfield, director general of health they have made a powerful duo. And also with Grant Robertson, our minister of finance. I remember watching Grant Robertson at the historic television press conference on 24 March when Jacinda announced the plan that would take us into lockdown. As she talked of the hard and uncertain road that lay ahead, of the sacrifices we would all have to make, and of the impact on our economy I saw Grant Robertson gulp and his eyes moisten. He stood staunchly by as she outlined unprecedented plans for freezing New Zealand businesses and it was obvious this economy that had enjoyed healthy surpluses was surely going to take a knock. There was no way we would escape unscathed. Robertson’s expression at that time, of genuine emotion entirely appropriate to the magnitude of what the course of action would trigger was the human response I needed in that moment, watching alone, cut off from my family, feeling afraid. I remember phoning my daughter directly after the screening and that we cried together. I treasure that memory now, not the distress we were feeling but that it was shared and in that way eased a little.
What amazes me though is that still there are the cynics, the misanthropes and the naysayers. Most of them, unsurprisingly, are the white and powerful men in opposition and their female counterparts who, unthinkingly, accept the values of the elite. Others are just mad, bad misogynists who cannot accept that a woman can govern so supremely well. I’ve heard that two men are suing Jacinda for imposing a lockdown, claiming there was no threat, she made up her numbers. It’s more likely they have issues with her being female. In Gerard Otto’s recent post on Facebook ‘Jacinda’s critics need to get real’ he shone a spotlight on the miserly critics who cry she has ‘no substance’. This, even after her ethical and humane handling of the Christchurch mosque massacres, even after her exemplary management of coronavirus, even after she bailed their businesses out, still they cry ‘no substance’ and stoop to pathetic comments about her appearance, her hairstyle, her teeth. There is nothing new in this phenomenon it’s how many a female leader around the world is regularly treated by her critics, who repeatedly demean, discredit and devalue her achievements. I remember meeting a person who did the exact same thing with Helen Clark. Everything was wrong with her because she was a woman — it was her teeth, it was her deep voice insinuating she was lesbian, as though that was a slur against her character, and this from a man with questionable morals and who was, to use his own words, ‘no oil painting.’
I would like to think that the denigrators are in the minority and belong to an outmoded and crumbling edifice that is surely on the way out. Surely. Please. I think the world is ready for the new leadership, one that listens to and connects with the people, one that draws on the skills of professionals and advisors, a warm kind of leadership that is being demonstrated by Jacinda Ardern along with several other female leaders currently guiding their countries through the pandemic — Angela Merkel in Germany, Erna Solberg in Norway, Katrín Jakobsdóttir in Iceland and Silveria Jacobs in the Caribbean nation of Sint Maarten.
Day 35 and I’ve been noticing all the writers who are busy in the time of coronavirus. Some are writing journals, some are writing letters and still more are writing thought provoking essays. Novelist Deborah Levy from London, notes in her diary of lockdown that the water has cleared in the canals of Venice and ‘swans and cormorants are diving for fish.’ I love hearing that. She has also been writing about her mother who died five years ago. ‘I have written extensively about her and continue do so. I wish I had thanked her for holding our family together when she was alive.’
Margaret Atwood the author of novels that have eerily anticipated the time of the coronavirus, or the plague as she calls it although the lockdown measures enforced in our societies are not yet as bleak as the scenarios in 'The Handmaid’s Tale.' At least I don’t think they are. The news of Trump denying Coronavirus relief payments to people married to immigrants without social security numbers is shocking. In her lockdown diary Margaret Atwood strikes a different tone which is interesting. She shares light tips for a national emergency including instructions on how to make firelighters from dryer lint, candle wax and the individual cavities of egg cartons. Perhaps she feels now is not the time for bleak.
Here in New Zealand, the Spinoff has commissioned five of our writers, Renee, Morgan Godfery, Fiona Farrell, Glenn Colquhoun, and Ashleigh Young, to produce a series of lockdown letters. At random I found the following selections.
Renee, in lockdown letter 23 notes how in an ever-changing world, the one thing that remains constant for her is the writing. I warm to her stoical stance, the honest account of her physical vulnerability. “Writing has kept me sane through two bouts of cancer and a diagnosis of macular degeneration which means that eventually I’ll only be able to see ghostly shapes. Sitting down at the computer is my normal.
But then she considers the word ‘normal’ and what it means and her perspective is sobering. “Everyone’s normal is different. The woman who heads a large finance company and is taking a 20% wage cut will have a different normal from the woman who exists on the benefit, doesn’t know if she’ll have enough for food plus electricity and doesn’t want to tell anyone in case the state comes and takes her kids away.”
Morgan Godfery in Lockdown Letter 7 addresses the inequality in our society as well, commenting that some New Zealanders are lucky to have wealth and family support to fall back on. But. “What about the people who lack it? For essential services workers and for the poor the lockdown isn’t a lovely four-week holiday in a warm, dry mansion.”
Fiona Farrell in Lockdown Letter 25 remembers back to the Christchurch quakes and the lessons learned. “That was one lesson taught by the Christchurch quakes, along with humility before the power of natural forces, patience, adaptability. The quakes made some allowance for escape… And they allowed for sociability. The backyard winter meal with friends, the jazz concert in the one occupied house on a dark deserted hillside suburb.” She reflects that a pandemic in contrast is a quieter, more isolated place.
Glenn Colquhoun in lockdown Letter 4 adopts the epistolary form and cleverly addresses poet Hone Tuwhare in his inimical style. It has the feeling of Hone speaking through Glenn.
“It’s all a bit of a shitstorm here. We’re locked up tight. The whole world. A bug so small you can’t see it, barking like a dog at the front gate. Yappity-yap-yap. But what a bite brother. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. What can I say? I’m sentenced to a landscape e hoa. Doing time in the big sky. I love it you know. I can’t be contained. I’ve got the Tasman in front of me. The Tararuas out the back. This creamy driftwood edge between them to walk on. And all you buggers shuffling past. The silence is teeming. Things have never been so social. I write. I cook. I talk to my patients on the phone. I love my daughter. Ruapehu to the North. Taranaki to the East. Mountains and men all blur together. Somewhere inside of us is the same iron, the same magnet. Who could argue with that?
Ashleigh Young by letter number reveals she is suffering writer’s block. And there is that challenge in keeping up a commentary day after day after day. It exercises the mind.
“I’m afraid that soon I’m going to write about bread. I can’t hold it much longer. This is a lockdown diary, I’m running out of thoughts, and the bread is coming – I feel it. Each of the fragments below can be read as a desperate parrying motion as the loaves slowly but surely make their way towards us. I told a friend I was struggling to think of anything new, and that I was at the bottom of the barrel, and he suggested I write from the perspective of both the barrel and the barrel-maker. So maybe that’s what this is.”
Finally I crossed again to London and to Penguin and their commissioned series of Covid-19 essays. There I came upon this absolutely breath-taking roar from Philip Pullman:
“It’s all got to change. If we come out of this crisis with all the rickety, fly-blown, worm-eaten old structures still intact, the same vain and indolent public schoolboys in charge, the same hedge fund managers stuffing their overloaded pockets with greasy fingers, our descendants will not forgive us. Nor should they. We must burn out the old corruption and establish a better way of living together.”
Day 34 of life in lockdown and our first in level 3. There is cause for celebration although perhaps the mood is one of cautious, quiet optimism. After all there have been secondary surges in countries like China. The question arises: Are we out in front, globally, with just 1472 confirmed cases, of which only three more were added today, and of that 1472, a reassuring 1214 people have recovered? There have been nineteen deaths in total and most of those from the same rest home clusters in West Auckland and Christchurch. It does feel like we have a containment.
Just now I googled these key words ‘NZ-leading -world-containment-covid-19’ and up popped a headline from the Washington Post, dated 7 April, ‘New Zealand isn’t just flattening the curve. It’s squashing it.’ How search engines process algorithms is a mystery to me. The article directly below the Washington Post was even older, from RNZ’s morning report on 9 March, well before we went into lockdown. Interesting nonetheless. On that day Professor Michael Baker, epidemiologist, from the Department of Public Health at the University of Otago said the world had lost the fight to contain the virus. But, he said, New Zealand still had time to contain the virus if it seriously ramped up efforts. If not, he warned, more than 40 percent of New Zealanders risked being infected, as there is potential everywhere for ‘silent transmission.’
I have written before about the value of keeping a journal as an historic chronicle of life as it unfolds, and how these records can provide useful comparisons with a current situation. The morning report item from March is a beautiful representation of that. Thanks to the quick action of our leader and her government and, critically, their ability to get out of the way of their egos and listen to health professionals and follow their advice, we haven’t had a 40% infection rate. And now we are in level three.
It felt like a good day to be alive knowing that many businesses and industries can begin operating again. Coffee can now be purchased from your favourite cafe, dispensed through open windows by the staff inside. I saw that today when I was out, people receiving their goblets of dark liquid, still more sitting on benches, coffee in hand, faces upturned to the sun. It looked so indulgent and novel as though Paris had come to Devonport main street. Parliament is sitting again and that allows for a semblance of normality, the hard core swimmers, dressed in their wetsuits and bonnets, are back in the sea and potential home buyers — that is me — can view property, providing they adhere to the guidelines, the strangest of which is the stipulation to wear ‘socks only’ when viewing.
I was almost at the property when I remembered them. In the rush of returning to the flat I grabbed a pair of bright sunflower yellow socks. Yet they felt celebratory too as I glided on my golden footwear over the wooden floors of the lovely cottage. I spent ages there, taking photographs, while the agent’s bright blue gloved fingers pulled open drawers and cupboards, opened doors, even, obligingly, pulled up the sash windows for me. I tried to imagine what it would feel like to sit on the window seat because you can’t touch any surfaces, and what it would be like curled up on the sofa in the sitting room with the view of the sea out in front… Possibly this home is out of my league but it was the first house I have seen in two and a half years, of not looking actually, just driving about in my car thinking I can’t live there because I couldn’t back then relinquish my attachment to my beloved home, that spoke to me and made me think 'yes I could live there.' And so a process has begun. Later this week I will view another home.
It was a novelty to be out and about doing something different. It wasn't until I had this opportunity to break the pattern that I realised how monotonous, how ‘1984’ George Orwell, these five weeks have seemed - the days with their formlessness, weeks blurring into one another, the holidays that didn’t feel like anything at all. Just this past Anzac day I missed an afternoon mentoring session with a writer. It just went clean out of my head. I hadn’t read his submissions or written down my thoughts, even. I’m lucky he is a gracious person.
I think it won’t be, until this country is on level one and verging on a resumption of normal, that we will allow our true feelings to surface about just how tough and frightening and unreal this time has been. I got a glimpse of that today and the sense of relief brought with it, strangely, more grief than joy.