Day 63 in alert level 2 and I am sensing an easing and a level of comfort building as we begin to feel reassured that the virus has been successfully contained. My friend in public health said to me yesterday, as long as we keep the borders closed for a year we should be okay. This is good news. The relief that courses through the veins, if you let it, is very pleasant. And with this growing confidence the mind is set free to wander and roam and think of things beyond the pandemic. I’m aware this is a luxury when in some parts of the world, in Africa and some parts of South America in particular where health systems are often fragile, the virus still presents a very great threat to human life. When I stop to consider this I wonder if it is even okay to let my mind drift.
But it has moved on of its own accord. Writing about the monarch butterfly on day 59 set me thinking some more about butterflies and how the monarch seems to have accompanied me, or I have been alert to its presence since I developed a garden at my family home in a gully of native trees and ferns in the city suburb of Westmere. In that garden I grew the South American salvias. They were ideally suited to our sub-tropical climate and offered the colour and form, that in the south island would normally be provided by herbaceous perennials — penstemon, scabiosa, monardia, allium, euphorbia, the gentle geum. I had no idea when I first planted the purple salvia ‘Indigo Spires’, and next the lime and purple ‘Mexicana limelight’ and the velvety lilac leucantha with its silver leaves that monarch butterflies would be drawn to the purple spikes to sip on the nectar. In my mind’s eye I see them now hovering above the plants, rising and dipping, silent and ethereal, dancing.
I am not alone in my love of the monarch. I have a good friend who draws strength from the butterfly too. She lost her mother, sadly far too young, and for her the sightings of the monarch provide a link to the spirit of her mother. They flutter in front of her just exactly when she most needs them. When my mother died, my cousin noticed a dead monarch butterfly on the pavement outside the country school where the funeral was held. She too has always associated butterflies with her mother, my aunt.
On the day in May when I returned home from Christchurch at the end of the long week of my mother’s dying and burial, I was gazing through the window checking the garden to see what had flowered in my absence when I noticed a monarch hovering about the salvia leucantha near the kitchen door. The wings were a brilliant orange, its black markings were thick velvet seams. The brightness on that day in late May was dazzling. I had collected young Arlo from school and together we stood at the sliding door transfixed by the spectacle, while it lingered on the flower long enough for me to photograph it.
Three months later on the morning following the end of my marriage, I was driving through the streets of Auckland on a grey, showery, bitter day at the end of August, in a state of numbness, hardly knowing where I was, or what I was doing. At the lights waiting for them to turn I saw through the rain-smeared window the monarch hovering around the car. It was persistent. It flew towards my face and flapped at the window until I drove off.
Again on the first anniversary of my mother’s death when a crowd of her friends and family gathered around the grave and one by one selected a smooth stone collected from her favourite beach at Kaitorete Spit and placed it on the earth naming a virtue they saw in her, a monarch arrived to bless the ritual.
Seeing the monarch the other day alighting on the orange flower of the Cape Honeysuckle I had a feeling that something good was on the way…
Day 61 in the time of coronavirus and there is a definite feeling in the air of moving forward out of lockdown and into something that tastes and feels familiar only this is better, a lot better. There have been no new cases over the last three days and incredibly only three new cases over a fourteen day period. This is a remarkable achievement for the Labour government and their cohorts in public health. We really ought to get down on our knees and thank them.
This is what I am noticing in general on this side of lockdown: that people are appreciating the good things more. Living in isolation for nearly eight weeks has shown us ways of being in this world we didn’t know were possible. It’s given us an opportunity to recalibrate and consider what really matters. Many of us have longed for a simpler life but not known how to achieve it. Consider those people who sell up and move from the city to the country to lead a quieter, more sustainable and eco-friendly life, whether it involves moving to Provence, or Port Chalmers, there is a trend. And reflect on how often when we look back on childhood it is with a sense nostalgia for a life we perceive to have been uncomplicated, a time where people lived in closer connection to the land and their families and communities and how this had a civilising influence on people. In some ways Lockdown allowed us an experience of something a little similar, only with Netflix and zoom added in.
We learned about the virtues of simplicity and the benefits of spending less and budgeting better. We reduced our trips to the supermarket, we baked bread and in kitchens everywhere people were cooking up a storm. The social distancing requirements in supermarkets actually forced us to use our time there more efficiently. And so we made lists and this lead to more conscious decision-making about the food we consume. For me the challenge was to stretch out the days between food shops. In my old life before coronavirus I would pop in and out of the supermarket and the wholefood store far too often and unnecessarily. In lockdown I began stretching out the trips, seven days first and then it was every eight days, once it was nine days and it was easy. All that was needed was some forethought.
During the time in isolation we learned that we didn’t need so much of everything to get by on. We didn’t need to drive places for interest and stimulation instead we could attend more closely to the world at our doorstep. The increase in walking and cycling, rather than taking the car was liberating. And we began observing the natural world more keenly and having quiet moments of communion with its beauty. I don’t think I’m imagining this. It seems to me that people are more observant now, that strangers are making connections with one another, heads are up, not looking down and there is more smiling and courtesy on the streets.
I think we have learned a lot from the period in freeze frame. In the time before coronavirus there were so many things that were wrong in the world, in a very big and awful way. It was so bad it felt overwhelming. There was an avalanche of dreadful, unsolvable, intractable problems — global warming, over consumption of finite resources, terrible piles of waste, air and water pollution leading to habitats contaminated and species extinction, the widening gaps between the rich and the poor and a refugee crisis that is a humanitarian catastrophe — and we felt helpless. How can I, as a single human being do anything to avert the disaster, how can I make a difference? And then we’d slip into a place of despondency. These problems have not gone away but during lockdown we have begun to glimpse the possibilities for genuine change. Here in New Zealand we are fortunate. Jacinda and her government have been gesturing towards new ways of running the economy, of making society more equal. There was talk of introducing a universal wage. Today there was a promise of a significant increase in the unemployment payment for all those out of work and unable to earn a living. Overall the position we find ourselves in today is positive. We’ve come out of lockdown with a new resolve to drop old bad habits, to drive our cars less, to moderate our expenditure and not squander resources… We can do this.
And now I have to admit something. I forgot to keep my distance today. It was an involuntary response. I saw my good friend for the first time since going into isolation and the reaction was instinctive. We both sprang forward into a hug. I think this is okay. We are both well. I certainly don’t regret it for a minute, for the reconnection was sweet. It reminded me of the day exactly a year ago, on 24 May, when we met at St Pancras station to journey together by underground then train, two changes, a bus trip and finally a walk down a country road to view the home of British gardening guru Beth Chatto in Essex. It was an unforgettable day. There was the magic of springtime in a lovely garden, softy flouncy irises in muted shades, ponds reflecting the lime greens of trees overhead and the soft pinky-russet of new leaves on copper beeches. The effect of soft English light filtering through lacy tree canopies onto big rhododendrons, the pile up of flowerheads like icing on a tiered wedding cake, cast a spell on us and there was the added delight of having realised a dream and got ourselves to a beautiful place that we'd previously glimpsed in glossy photos in Gardens Illustrated. For me on that day there was a sense of sadness and gladness at having lost a family home but escaped a difficult life and now starting out on something new.
Day 59 in the time of coronavirus and I have languished inside today. This past week has been challenging at times. Then on Thursday I had the flu vaccine and unusually, because normally I sail through them, I have felt miserable ever since. At the time I said to the nurse, ‘Did the needle go in? I didn’t feel a thing.’ I knew by nightfall something had happened because my arm ached. A walk with my friend yesterday was marred by a splitting headache. I’d hoped the chilly air and our fast pace along the shaded pipeline to view the lower Waitakere dam would push it away but it got worse. Throughout there have been muscle aches. I can’t remember feeling this exhausted. I noticed on the phone this afternoon my voice was reedy and the man I was in conversation with could hear it too and it embarrassed me.
And so I have drooped and flopped about. There have been spurts of activity on the computer trying to keep abreast of the never-ending cascade of emails followed by periods spent reclining on the bed reading the biography by Sarah Gaitanos of Shirley Smith, the extraordinary feminist lawyer and human rights campaigner who represented gang members never able to pay for her services and the wife of left-wing economist Bill Sutch who was charged with espionage in 1974. I’m up to the gripping description of his clandestine meetings with a KGB agent and First Secretary at the Russian embassy in Wellington and the terrible shock to his wife when the police turned up late one night and raided their home. The search continued until morning, with her making them cups of tea, while her husband was held at the police station. Imagine her feelings. Years and years of living alongside a man, her husband, and not knowing his very big secret.
All through my reading, knowing this was a perfectly legitimate activity, part of my own research for the biography I am embarking on, I felt impatient with myself for being a layabout because I’d had a plan to begin cataloguing material for the biography today and hadn’t done a thing about that. Where did the term ‘layabout’ come from? (I’ve just looked it up. Coined in 1932. Another way of saying an ‘habitual loafer.’ Now ‘loafer’ where did that come from? I could go on here.)
Is it just me? Am I a peculiar person or do others suffer from something similar, this need to be constantly productive fighting the need to rest when the body is crying out ‘for goodness sake give me a break and let me lie down’? Is this the affliction of a freelancer, a problem that develops out of the boundaryless-ness of the work schedule. I remember when I was working to my publisher's tight deadline on the book 'The Writing Life' and how it necessitated a relentless work regime that spread into the weekend and late into every night. Did the bad habits start then?
It’s more likely this way of being was inculcated a long time ago in childhood. My mother was an exceptionally hard worker throughout her life until MS slowed her. Even before she returned to teaching I have memories of the long days she put in on the farm, working hard at keeping an immaculate home, windows shining, silver sparkling, surfaces dusted and polished, baking in the tins, she filled the preserving and jam jars with every kind of delicious fruit and froze peas in summer, she knitted, so neatly, her dressmaking skills were legendary, everything she did was finished to perfection. Sometimes though she looked terribly tired. I think I am like her.
When I did venture outside briefly to peg washing on the line something lovely happened. A monarch butterfly whisked past my cheek. I watched its flight path, upwards, twisting, pirouetting like a ballerina on one foot and settling finally on the orange flower of tecoma capensis, Cape Honeysuckle. I continued gazing at the spectacle. Wings opening and closing, like a very precious illustrated book, the hinge swinging wide to reveal the illuminated beauty of the interior until it whispered away, soaring out in an arc into the blue.
Day 57 and a news item piqued my interest about a social media hit where people were posting their last ‘normal’ photos taken before lockdown. The original tweet had triggered a wave of nostalgia across social media platforms, as people scrolled back through their photo collections to discover what their lives had looked like before everything shut down. In one photo featured in the ‘Guardian’ a parent, photo editor Joe Plimmer, was holding a small child aloft on the open palm of one hand. The photo was crisply defined with the white cliffs of southern England and a perfect blue sky as backdrop. It was the swoop of the movement and the child lifted high knocking against the deep blue infinity of the sky and the feeling of light-hearted spontaneity conveyed in the gesture that summed up the spirit of the time before. This was a photo taken in a state of innocence when its photographer, Urszula Soltys, could not possibly have predicted the difficulties that lay ahead. Fast forward to lockdown and the uncertainty we have all been dealing with and how bittersweet that image seems.
My photo from 'the time before' was taken in February at the St Francis Retreat Centre in Auckland during a five day study retreat ‘Walking the Buddha’s Path to Freedom.’ The Franciscan friar in the image was real. He lives at the retreat centre. The first time I saw him, it was early morning and he was in the refectory. He passed through in his long mahogany coloured hemp cassock, with the heavy tie at the waist, roman sandals on his feet and I blinked and wondered if I had imagined him. Had I stepped into a different age, another place? The second time I saw him was during a walking meditation. He was in the garden attending to the grounds, his presence was deeply reassuring.
After a time when you sink more deeply into the silent world of a retreat your small room with its sash window looking into the arms of a big tree, your simple single bed on one wall and wash basin in another corner, rising early at dawn to meditate, meal times where food is eaten in silence, each day segmented into sitting and walking meditations and dharma talks, the final sit of the day in the gloom of the upstairs room with the last of the sun’s rays gleaming through stained glass windows coloured raspberry and green, you accept the way things are, exactly as they are. And as the days pass you not only accept the simplicity your heart slowly fills with gratitude for the very fact that you have food and shelter and warmth and all the teachings you could possibly want from three fine Buddhist women scholars. You have everything you need.
On that retreat I kept a journal as a way of consolidating the learning. There was so much to absorb, the quality of the teaching and the wisdom imparted, I wanted to try and put it into words wherever possible. And so my pen recorded the content of the talks, it described the beauty of the park that wrapped around the Franciscan priory, the weather, the light at different times of day, the very quality of the warm summer air.
During such a retreat there are opportunities to have a private audience with a scholar teacher. I was at a crossroads at that time, uncertain about where I would put down roots, on which island of Aotearoa, with which constellation of people. I remember the teacher saying ‘No matter which choice you make you cannot safety proof the outcome.’ At the time I found this hard because still I did not know. She also said, ‘You solve one conundrum and then others you hadn’t even considered appear as challenges.’ This was difficult too but she spoke calmly, without emotion, her voice coloured with empathy and I was receptive. Her next piece of advice, delivered as another challenge, offered something more I could warm to. ‘You need to learn how to live with unexpected and unpleasant consequences, and to sit with the uncertainty with equanimity.’ This is something Buddhism teaches, the practice of non-reactivity in all situations. To me it offers the best equipment for living, a practice to keep coming back to even and especially when I falter and get upset. I can still come back. I can aim to stay steady when the waves wash over, supported by mindfulness, and by the meditation practice of coming back again and again into this moment and to this body, breathing, quietly. And that seems to me to be all you need do through life's difficulties come back into the moment and simply be with what is here now.