Day 88 and the thing I thought might not happen for a very long time has occurred. I have returned to the island of my birth to visit loved ones, and to absorb the beauty of a very special landscape and thus replenish my spirit. I know I am very, very fortunate. Many people around the globe are still in lockdown and unable to cross borders and make their way home while still more cannot risk current job security in their country of residence to fly home for a visit as the exercise would entail spending two weeks in quarantine in the home country and then two weeks more in quarantine in the city of employment upon their return. My own son falls into this category living across the Tasman in Sydney. Unfortunately, because of recent lapses at our border, the Australian government is now reconsidering their plan to open up a trans-Tasman bubble soon.
Separation from offspring is something many parents across time have had to learn to accommodate but since the rise of globalisation it is an even more prevalent feature of family life — sometimes I wish we could return to a simpler age where we didn't travel and instead lived in closer proximity to our immediate family and wider community. Something critical has changed since the arrival of coronavirus. We’ve lost some of the civil liberties we took for granted and with this a sense of our own personal autonomy.
But I am here. My feet are on the ground in Canterbury for five blessed days. Once again I can enjoy the chill of its sharp winter air on my face, waking me up as it always does and sharpening my focus. I love this sensation, it’s something I yearn for when my brain turns sluggish on the sultry, sticky, humid days of late summer in Auckland. Yesterday I walked through the gardens of Mona Vale, along the river, admiring the impact of crisp temperatures on flowers and shrubs and trees, feasting on visual delights, on towering bushes of rhododendrons, the blood red flowers nestling amongst dark green foliage beneath the wintery tracery of a copper beech decorating a silver sky. The lily pond had disappeared in a carpet of nutmeg coloured oak leaves. Silver birches stripped of their leaves trailed fine, feather light branches downwards against a pale sky. Hellebores the ‘winter roses’ in two colour variations, antique cream speckled with green and a deeper pinky mauve plum nestled in a thick bed of autumn leaves. And what was that scent? I smelt it before I spotted it. 'Winter sweet' its glorious penetrating perfume a sensual delight like no other. Picking a twig I carried my scented perfume stick with me through the city.
It occurred to me today, on visiting my mother’s grave in Ellesmere, with my brother and my sixteen year old niece, that there couldn't be a finer way to spend a Saturday afternoon than this, communing with the dead in the company of the living. I took them to see the grave of our great-grandparents as well. ‘Have you seen the porcelain roses?’ They hadn't. My brother leant down and removed the coppery rusted wire covers so we could gain a better view of the porcelain shapes under the glass. Soft olive-grey lichen spores flecked the glass. Below were roses and a weeping angel, preserved like coral on an underwater reef. Miraculous. Pausing to consider the writing on our great-grandparents’ grave stone, my brother reflected on the young age of our great-grandfather when he died, 58 years, and then our grandfather, in the grave next to my mother, who died at 52. ‘I had the benefit of a stent and modern medication,' he remarked ruefully. Lucky, we all think.
The day was gentle. It had the feeling of my mother and her mother accompanying us, along with the fantails, the piwakawaka, softly looping round and round, as we meandered through the graveyard stopping to read names on weathered stones. Although cryptic often you find a brief, poignant passage of memoir encapsulated there. Everywhere we saw names we recognised. Speaking a thought aloud I said, ‘As I grow older, I find visiting this graveyard more and more enjoyable.’ My lovely niece looked surprised. What did I mean? The names reawaken memories of childhood, of people long forgotten who once belonged to families who lived down the road from you, or travelled alongside you on the country bus to school, or sat in church pews nearby, or were the pillars above you as you grew. They remind me we were part of something once, connected as a living organism, while living quite different lives of course, but living alongside one another nonetheless in a beautiful landscape with the Southern Alps, coated in pure white snow on one horizon, as they were today, and the soft mounds of the Port Hills, smudged mauve and grey on the other, and looking out for each other.
Day 84 and some good news and a development that was inevitable, now that we have opened up the borders, two new cases brought in from the UK. I don’t want to write about that here. It would only whip up further agitation and the news channels are doing a good job of that, along with Todd Mueller, when actually the damage is done and I think we have learned from it. Maybe we’re even safer because the new measures in response are stringent with more checks and balances in place. The good news is that doctors in the UK have discovered that a low-cost steroid drug, dexamethasone, is helping prevent the deaths of some of the sickest coronavirus patients. The finding, was made in the ‘Recovery trial’, the biggest randomised, controlled trial of coronavirus treatments in the world and it has shown that the drug eases inflammation in the lungs and has reduced deaths among patients on ventilators by up to one-third and those on oxygen support by one-fifth. It is the one drug, at this moment, that reduces the risk of dying in the sickest patients and as such is being hailed as a breakthrough. This is really the news of the day, I think.
Increasingly in these troubled times I have found myself searching more consciously for soothing and uplifting activities that counteract the stresses. I’ve figured that if I can glide through problems and perplexities rather than get snagged on stuff then I think I will do better. My mother often talked about the Waimakariri river in Canterbury with its braided streams and tributaries seeing it as a metaphor for how to live one’s life. She used to say ‘life is like this braided river.’ She loved the big river that flowed down from the Southern Alps bringing the blue alpine waters with it. She loved its striations, the way tributaries break off again and again into streams of veins highlighted bright aqua against greywacke river stones. She would say look at the places where the water knocks up against huge trees that have hurtled downstream in storms, and see how the flotsam and jetsam collects around them. If you can imagine yourself in that moving current and see yourself flowing round the obstacle, not getting caught but staying mid-stream, gently turning and tilting and moving on through, that's the way.
I like this parable for living and have been thinking about the things that help me in the time of coronavirus to glide on through. In my day I like to make time for walking in nature and tuning in to its rhythms and beauties; meditating in the quiet of morning is a good way to begin; sharing a meal and watching a film with a friend warms the night; and then there is the joy and solace of being in the presence of a child, seeing the world through their eyes, moving at their pace which is often slow and thoughtful and attentive. My three year old grandson is the beam of lightness in the shadow of this virus.
Recently we spent part of a day together. We went to the library first in his mama’s car while my car was being fitted with a new front facing car seat. Her car is keyless. At the park I closed the car door and then my grandson touched a rubber button on the door handle and the car locked. Very satisfying. We went to the lift well. He pushed the button to open the door. Inside he pushed the next button to take us to the first floor. In the library he posted the books into the return slot. On the way out he climbed the child-size wooden steps placed beside the checking station. Very confidently he held the card with its barcode up under the laser light and then swiped the books across and we were done. Back at the car he touched the door handle and the car unlocked. I followed all of this with fascination and awe that someone so young could be this competent. When the door unlocked, I commented ‘You are magic. You push on the door handle and the car opens!’ He looked at me and considered my flattery. ‘No,’ he replied. ‘Mama would say it’s a button not magic.’ I love him.
Then we went down to the sea and he sat at a picnic table scooping out his elaborate morning tea from the compartments in his metal lunch box. We observed two seagulls in loud argumentative conversation and he commented, ‘Those seagulls are squawking.’ The language. On the swing he chortled as I pushed him higher and higher. Propelling him, I sang ‘You are my sunshine, my only sunshine. You make me happy when skies are grey…’ The lyrics rolled out automatically, the song ringing on the air while my attention was on the giggling child and keeping him high, on this glorious bright green, bright blue day. ‘Why does the sunshine go away?’ he asked. I hadn’t thought about the lyrics as I sang, ‘… Please don’t take my sunshine away,’ How strange are grown up sentiments to a child who is paying attention and trying to make sense of it all. Again I love him and treasure these moments in the time of coronavirus.
Back at the car I had great difficulty plugging him into the car seat. His bright green raincoat was bulky. ‘Oh, darn.’ I exclaimed. ‘We’re going to have to take off your coat and start again.’ To which he sighed ‘Oh this ridiculous coat!’
Day 81 and resuming after a break of four days I find myself casting about wondering how to begin again. In her journal, 'Still Life with Teapot: On Zen, Writing and Creativity' (2016), New Zealand born writer Brigid Lowry dealt with a gap like this, ‘… Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. Forgot to write anything.’ The Friday entry that followed was sharp, pungent, joyful.
Prayer. Listening tonight to my car radio as I drove home into a billowing sunset, the sky and sea lit with a radiant pinky tawny light, I chanced upon a BBC programme, 'Heart and Soul: Personal approaches to spirituality from around the world’. The topic was prayer in the time of coronavirus and it crossed many religions: a Buddhist man in Sri Lanka, an Anglican nun in the north of England, who has lived as a hermit for two decades, a Muslim woman lecturer from Sudan, a Tanzanian writer, a Scottish monk in Santiago, Chile... The themes were the same. They spoke of the value of simplicity in a time of confusion and fear, of the importance of creating regular routines to provide structure to days thrown off schedule. Time for meditation and prayer came through as did stopping to see the beauty in the ordinary.
The nun had made a path around her small garden and created twelve stations where she would stop to pray for people’s spirits to be released from stresses. She spoke of other ways of calming the mind, ‘play a piece of piano music, something simple, not too difficult, the same one, over and over.’ She said some people found the act of knitting a comfort in challenging times — its repetitive action, the soothing rhythm.
Up came a memory of a dear friend, a teacher, wife, mother and grandmother, a craftswoman, who through the earthquakes in Christchurch and then through her own dying process knitted, all kinds of light and feathery and intricately patterned ethereal shawls, the wool so fine, they were more ornate cobweb than woollen garment for babies, for friends. Very near the end I visited her in hospital. Her pain by now was severe. Her face shone with moisture, she pressed her lips together and sometimes paused to breathe, but still she asked how my shawl was coming along for the new baby. This had been her initiative. She’d taken me to the wool shop in Devonport and helped me choose the gossamer skeins and set me up with circular needles. I had the shawl in my back pack and pulled it out. ‘I’ve come to a halt,’ I said lamely. I’d dropped a stitch and didn’t have the skills to fix it. She took the needles then and working slowly, digging down the rows she rescued the fallen stitch and cleverly and with dexterity knitted it back up. I watched incredulous as this dear person, in the midst of extreme pain, resolved my problem.
The Buddhist speaker reminded me of the inevitability of death and how becoming ill and declining is a natural process and part of being human. The challenge, he said, and the others talked of this too, is finding the courage not to resist. Instead when we accept this absolute truth it can help us to live more fully and deeply in the present moment.
Day 77 and I’ve been trying to pin down the feeling I have been encountering when reuniting with people after a long period apart. I think it is trauma. I saw it yesterday in the eyes of my sensitive osteopath — what a relief to finally feel my spine unwind. He looked haunted. And I’m seeing that expression in others too. What their faces are saying is that we’ve been through something big, pushed forcefully and shockingly into the strangest time of isolation, seeing our work and incomes dry up, cut off from vital human and work connections and propelled into falling back on the immediate family unit, or flatmates, or oneself, which was good for some and not for others and through it all and still now, ad infinitum, we've been dealing with an onslaught of negativity and alarm emanating from the reportage on the catastrophe. This takes its toll on the psyche. To my mind the pandemic has precipitated a profound change to the lives we have known since birth. I’m not sure we’ve fully acknowledged this to ourselves, that our sense of trust in the safety and constancy of existence has been threatened.
Only today, in the Guardian, a US infectious disease expert, Dr Anthony Fauci referred to Covid-19 as his ‘worst nightmare,’ saying he was astounded at the speed with which the virus spread across the globe, just four months, and infected 7 million people and killed 400,000 while leaving those more seriously affected unlikely to fully recover. And then he said, “Oh my goodness, where is it going to end? We’re still at the beginning of it.” His words sent a chill through me. While New Zealand is in an enviable position with no new infections for days and no community transmission of the virus we are vulnerable now that our borders are opening up a little. Fauci put the rapid spread of the virus down to its contagiousness and extensive world travel by infected people. And still there is no effective vaccine and no certainty of one anytime soon. In a way we are now existing in a strange kind of limbo waiting for the virus to strike again.
Sometimes when it all gets too much it helps to return to simple tasks and to work on breathing and quietening the mind and so I performed some household chores and found myself enjoying the act of folding washing, noting the fall of low raking light on soft fabric. Later a brisk walk around Takararo, three times, climbing up the paths bordered by low rock walls and swirling down the curving path on the other side, lifted me right out of the doldrums. The birds were singing fit to burst, it was the song birds — the riroriro, grey warbler and thrush and I’m sure I heard the piercing tone of pipiwharauroa, the shining cuckoo — giving full voice, voce piena, from the branches of a tall kanuka. They stopped me in my tracks, the sheer glory of their sound ringing on the still air. My son sent a photo of a giant humpback whale jumping in Sydney harbour this morning. Many have noticed an increase in the activity of sea and bird life during the time in freeze frame and it appears to be continuing. Although it is back to business and the economy is in swing again, we’re not quite at the volume of before and maybe the creatures are aware of this and continue to feel emboldened. I hope so.
My day ended at my friend’s home, cooking a meal in the glow of her yellow splashback. Together we watched a miraculous, experimental film, 'The Silence Before Bach', by Catalan director Pere Portabella. This was a blend of contemporary vignettes about the people who either perform, or love the music of Johann Sebastian Bach with dramatic re-enactments of his life and work and lots of his music, including his organ music performed in the Lutheran church of St Thomas in Liepzig where he was Kapellmeister from 1723 until his death in 1750. Sitting there feasting on the content it had me thinking maybe we don't need to travel so much when we have access to such experiences through online platforms. We're very lucky really.
Day 75 and in an hour New Zealand will be shifting into alert level one which means a return to life as we knew it before. This means no more restrictions on our movements and everyday dealings. We can fly about the country. We can gather together in large numbers. Business and industry can resume, as before. The only barriers remaining in place are our international borders. People arriving will receive a health check and if they have symptoms — a temperature, a cough, — they will be tested for Covid-19. Every overseas traveller, will go into quarantine for fourteen days. And though we may open our bubble to Australia and some Pacific nations it is likely this measure will remain in place for quite some time.
It is remarkable what Jacinda Ardern, her cabinet, and Ashley Bloomfield have achieved. There are no longer any active cases of Covid-19 in New Zealand. Overall 1154 people have been infected with the virus and there have been 22 deaths whereas through the rest of the world the figure that we know about with certainty is now up to six million infected and over 400,000 deaths.
We have done extraordinarily well. That rush into lockdown, while bewildering and shocking at the time, was the very best action our prime minister could have taken. Yet we cannot be complacent. Until covid-19 has been eradicated from the planet we remain vulnerable, along with every other human being. We are in this together. And here it is only a matter of time before an international traveller will bring the virus back into New Zealand. Hopefully the new stringent tests and checks, the refined contact tracing system, the strengthened health protocols at airports and within hospitals will provide the necessary protection to keep us from falling again into a version of lockdown at level 2, or 3, or, and oh please not, 4. That was awful for many of us, although not all. Some people liked the stillness, the very deep peace and quiet. They had their significant others with them. They didn’t need outside connections. They were content with the pared down, simple life. I’ve read that for some people with anxiety disorders their condition improved in lockdown. They felt less depressed because they weren’t alone with their fears. All around them, across the world, people were worried and fearful too. But again this wasn’t consistent, many people suffering from anxiety felt much worse in lockdown. Still others were trapped with a tyrant and were unsafe in their family groupings, shut in with bullies and molesters. Those stories are just beginning to come out now.
All of this illustrates how varied has been the experience of the coronavirus pandemic for each and every individual across race and age and health status and economic class. Some of us have been very lucky, the privileged have been sheltered while others at the opposite end of the spectrum, and many in between, have experienced extreme pain and suffering and grief. There are multiple stories, so many variations and versions under this one theme — pandemic. I really hope people will continue to send in their reflections/observations/stories/journal entries to the growing collection, in order to record this historic moment. For it is important to pay attention and remember and learn from our experience.
Yesterday a friend sent me a link to a recent article, “Covid-19 and The Ethics of Memory,’ published in the medical journal 'The Lancet' on 6 June, 2020. There the author Richard Horton suggests that though lockdowns are lifting around the world we should not be complacent. “Pandemics are the number one acute risk to societies in the 21st century.” And though, understandably, we all wish to move on, ‘We have an obligation to remember this pandemic and its consequences. The number of lives lost is too great to forget.’ He believes it is essential to find ways of embedding the memory of the pandemic within our communities to ensure that the things we have learned are not forgotten. In this way society will be stronger the next time a pandemic strikes. This question of a society’s obligation to remember is also examined in The Ethics of Memory (2002) by Ashivai Margalit who wrote, “The search for knowledge is therefore an exercise in reminiscence, that is, an effort to recall and recollect that which we once knew.”
Horton ends the article on this thought “Securing the memory of COVID-19 is the minimum we owe to each other in the aftermath of this catastrophe.”
And so I will continue my commitment to documenting, from a personal perspective, the experience of living in the time of coronavirus although the increase in my own workload as we move into level 1 means it will be less often, twice a week, on Wednesdays and Sundays. Hopefully though your stories will roll in...
Day 73 since lockdown began in New Zealand. It was a quiet day following a week of excitement that ended last evening with dinner out on a wet, wintery night with three good friends at Gemmayze in the lovely St Kevin’s Arcade. The food. The best of Lebanese cuisine you would find anywhere in the world. The company. Dearest friends, one cut off from her home and daughter in upstate New York, missing her beautiful old farmhouse in a wood, her log fire, her views of spring blooming through the panes of mullioned windows, her interiors with the timeless charm of a setting in an artwork by Andrew Wyeth or Grahame Sydney. She was very bright nonetheless, full of stories. She can quote extensively from many a book, remember the plot of any novel, any film. She told me, with confidence, the story of Anne Salmond’s husband Jeremy — they live in Devonport — and a lovely detail of their relationship, and I said ‘that story was in my book, Her Life’s Work: Conversations with Five New Zealand Women’ and she laughed. She’s here with her partner, indefinitely now, and last night spoke of how glad she is to be a New Zealander.
Still I struggle with being alone. I’ve read Sara Maitland’s 'How to be Alone' twice and it is good, yet I continue to feel stricken when a day dawns without scheduled meetings or guaranteed moments of human connection. The house is quiet. When I awoke though, I told myself this was going to be a special day, one where I might do whatever I wanted. I had my own permission to be kind and gentle on mind and body.
What a difference an intention makes for it was a glorious day filled with catching up on tasks that had been left undone and with the concert programme playing as an accompaniment while I did the washing, the cleaning, the emails — one to a nature writer with a beautiful style and an exciting project, just starting — then trying to get to grips with a confounding and irritating new financial training programme. I don’t appreciate the very rigid budget. It makes me want to rebel and yet I recognise this is childish. I’ve embarked on the exercise because I am no longer the wife of a plastic surgeon, I am a writer with a minimal income, like all writers and I need to be able to sleep at night knowing I will survive financially.
I could weep over what has happened to my brilliant journalist friend who lost her column in lockdown and is finding the market for her well-researched freelance articles all but gone as well. Lockdown meant a freeze on the advertising that normally wraps around the journalism and provides the revenue to pay writers like my friend. All the writers in the Bauer Media stable are in the same position, that’s all the writers for the Listener, North and South, Metro and more. Unthinkable. I heard that one prominent columnist was told the column would remain but the payments would be less. How can that be legal? I am aghast at the treatment of writers in this country. How did the assumption ever form that writers can live on air, that they don’t need remuneration for their strenuous effort, for their years of practising the craft, for their dedication. It makes me wild and sick this cock-eyed devaluing of the work of journalists and authors, while rugby stars are paid thousands for running with a ball up and down a field. I know, of course how could I forget they get so much screen-time, that they are highly skilled, staunch and determined but so are writers.
In the afternoon I took a walk through the streets of Devonport. The beauty of this place on its isthmus where always there are bands and ribbons of water breaking up the wide angle landscape view, grows on me. The sky today, in between light rain showers, was the pale blue of a Claude Lorrain neoclassical painting. Some of the architectural features on rooflines are classical, some colonial, some French, outlined against this colour. Still there are leaves on the trees and in ripples on the ground. I passed the claret and yellow tones of a liquid amber, walked under the ancient gold of an oak tree and smiled at a strange mosaic dragon in bright coloured pieces, twirling round a seat. I saw a row of pigeons perching on a power line — dark grey bird shapes against a cloudscape lit up pale grey and white. I counted eighteen birds in a row, keeping each other company, just below the signalman’s cottage on Mt Victoria/Takarunga. Finally on my way back into the reserve at Takararo my senses were delighted by the brilliance of the lime green lawn.
When I arrived here in February the ground was amber, the grass all but dead. It stayed that way through the months of the drought — March, April and into May. Then came the rains dousing mother earth, soaking the soil, quenching the thirsty plants. Even though we are stepping down like Persephone into the darkness towards the shortest day, nature thinks differently in this subtropical climate where life is off again it seems.
Day 71 and I’m staggered at how much time has elapsed since day one when we awoke on the first morning in lockdown, all of us in shock at how everything had changed so rapidly in just two days — that’s all the time we had to prepare— and feeling fearful for the future that stretched, unknown, before us. When we opened our eyes on that day we wondered how many people would succumb to the virus here and how many would die. Would it take any of our elders, those with fragile immune systems, our health workers, the very young, the very disadvantaged?
Here on the side of Takararo I was terrified I would fall ill and infect my precious writing friend in the house above and so we kept our distance and were rigid about it. Sometimes through those long, quiet days it was tantalising hearing them in the house above, their movements, the murmur of voices, yes tempting but also comforting. But we never relaxed on the arrangement, they were public health academics after all. Instead we developed a routine where my friend would stand at the top of the stairs and I would be down below looking up and getting a crick in my neck, listening to her talk, then having my turn. I wouldn’t have missed this daily checking in for anything. On other nights she would place a bowl of steaming rice and stir fry on the top step, or her freshly baked sunflower seed bread wrapped in a serviette along with a bowl of lentil soup and I would receive these gifts and set them up on my table by the glow of lamplight and give thanks for the good food my friend had provided.
It’s funny although we are mixing more now in level 2, we’ve held onto the mentoring routine from alert level 4 and still do the writing sessions by Zoom, my friend in her study, one floor above and me down below. The screen sharing function suits the nature of the work. We can both read her journal-memoir of this strange year and she, in charge of the controls, can make adjustments as we go. I don’t edit too much. She has that knack and notices and hears, for she reads the manuscript aloud, and knows when something isn’t right. My role is to keep her on track with her writing goals, to offer my feedback as an interested reader, to tune in to my instincts and share them, to ask her to clarify when something isn’t immediately obvious. Near the beginning of the process I insisted she go back to the beginning and get the back story straight; the childhood experiences, the events and characters that have peopled her life, the training and career direction, the pivotal moments, her marriage, her children and grandchildren and the big years when she was director of the surveillance of non-communicable diseases at the WHO in Geneva. With this explanatory text as her introduction she could build on the material as the narrative developed without having to explain things. It has been a pleasure to work on this project during lockdown, to watch something emerge from nothing and slowly blossom.
Today was our 13th day with no new cases and only one active case in the country. Amazing. What an achievement for this country, this government. We're in such a good place. Soon we will be moving into alert level 1. Yet this feels fast. I'm still adjusting to level 2. Tonight was another first. The meeting of a Buddhist sangha in a city suburb, in a church hall behind a photinia hedge. As I pushed open the dark green door in the hedge and heard bells ringing, all of a sudden I felt uncertain. The Zoom meetings were strange initially but people adapted. I had become accustomed to being on my own in front of a screen meditating.
In the hall porch I looked down as I took my shoes off. To see so many dear familiar faces arriving through the door was almost too much. It reminded me of the feeling after giving birth at home, to my daughter, in an attic flat in Kentish Town. I think I stayed up there for ten days before I eventually came down, with my baby in a front pack, and walked out into the world. The sunlight as I stepped onto the pavement was dazzling. I felt wobbly and overwhelmed by the light and noise and movement.
Thankfully tonight there was the thirty minute meditation to open the evening. In that space, eyes closed, body upright, a feeling of air between each vertebrae and comfortable on the cushion, I felt myself settling into my body, coming home to myself. Sitting there, attending to the breath, I observed a flow of thoughts moving through without getting snagged on anything in particular. Occasionally I got lost and gently steered my attention back to the breath, the constant element available within, to return to again and again. Once, in the peaceful zone, I heard the rain wash over, heard it pattering on the corrugated iron roof and was filled with a feeling of joy. It led me down a thought track, one I noticed and let happen, to a remembrance of childhood and nights on the farm, tucked up in bed in the warm, with the rain drumming on the iron roof, knowing my parents were just down the hall, siblings in their beds next door and feeling secure, safe, loved, carefree.
Day 69 and it is very late, almost midnight and I am just in from a long drive through the inky night, over the harbour bridge its sweeping arches silver against the dark while down below on the water coloured lights ripple over the black mirror surface. I was returning from dinner and book club in the city. What a night. The reunion after all the weeks in lockdown was vibrant. As we were going our separate ways one of the members, a writer who is also the manager of Pukororo Shorebird centre at Miranda, said into the dark to anyone listening ‘that was a splendid night.’ And it was. The evening was filled with lively discussion, so many opinions, ideas, comparisons, insights, exclamations, laughter, everybody exchanging their stories of life in alert level 4 and 3, everybody analysing and then predicting where things might go from here.
There was a shared feeling of unease about herd immunity and the fact that very few people in NZ, coming out of lockdown have any immunity to Covid-19. There was lively talk of politics and the approaching election here — fortunately we all share the same politics. There was general consensus that America is going to hell in a hand basket. There was less agreement on China and whether their armies really are amassing and which of the two powers are the greater threat to world stability. Everybody agreed that the experience of coronavirus, which came out of nowhere and suddenly plunged the world into a health and economic crisis of proportions we haven’t seen in our lifetime, was unexpected and has shaken our faith in the constancy of our continuing existence. There is now a very real possibility that the future may not go well. We all agreed we’ve been the lucky generation with our free university educations, our home ownership, our relative economic security and the assumed but blithe self-confidence that we were somehow in charge of our destinies. I remember my grandparents saying to me when I was a young woman, ‘the world is your oyster’ and believing them, unquestioningly.
And then there were the books, each one of us presenting a title, or two that had been consumed over the period in lockdown. This book club was my idea after my marriage ended. I wanted to meet with people from a range of different professions. I wanted a balance of male and female and we nearly made it — three men, four women. It’s strange how the complement feels even. Is that because it is a rare thing to draw men out at night to discuss literature? I find similar ratios, or smaller, in my writing classes. Once at a biography course I asked ‘Where are all the men?’ And somebody replied ‘Waiting for their wives to write their biographies.’ It was funny at the time, possibly a little unfair although what I can say is true is that some women come to my courses to gain inspiration to write their husband’s biographies, or their husband’s family histories. Always I try to draw out their own stories as well. The other wish, when I formed the book club, was to offer the freedom to bring whatever reading material was currently of interest to the reader.
The formula has worked surprisingly well. It means we get to hear about a range of subjects and about authors we mightn’t ever consider exploring. Tonight there was the pleasure of a book 'A Widow from the South' by Roger Hicks set in the period of the American civil war and a biography, 'A Few Hares to Chase,' by Alan Bollard about an economist Bill Phillips from Dannevirke, who, in his time at the London School of Economics designed a revolutionary hydraulic model of the economy and was a leading and innovative economist of his era. I would never in a million years have considered this book but, and some of this is linked to the skill of the reviewer, the account and the excerpts were fascinating.
I hadn’t realised until tonight how much I had been craving this kind of intellectual engagement, this lively back and forth of ideas, this rapid swirl of conversation with one person after another taking and off and building on what had been said a moment earlier and the excitement it generates. I think my mind went a little sluggish and quiet in lockdown. I had enjoyed the interaction between writers on the journal course and loved hearing their writing but looking back I have decided that Zoom is a pallid alternative to the real thing.
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.'