Day 105 and as I wait in the time of coronavirus, on a bitterly cold winter’s night in early July, to welcome a new member to the family, I have been reflecting on what an extraordinary time it is to be giving birth. For every woman pregnant on the planet now the very act of delivering new life seems to me to call on extreme courage and fortitude and hope, for there must be hope propelling the desire to bring a baby into the world in a time of crisis. Or anytime for that matter as childbirth calls upon a woman’s deepest reserves of strength to sustain her through the powerful contractions, the splitting pain as her body opens and stretches and as the new life intent on being born pushes down. The process is like nothing else on earth. It is an experience that is both utterly shattering and absolutely astonishing.
I remember the feeling after my firstborn, a daughter, arrived. The shock and amazement as, cradling her in my arms, I looked into her cherub upturned face for the first time. And it was the same again when my son floated up through the water of the birthing pool into my arms and I laughed to see this chubby boy and his big hands folded, he was here at last. The feeling both times was one of elation. If I could grow new life in my body and then live through the pain of labour to deliver my newborn then I could do anything. This was the act of creation, and it was the most empowering thing I had ever done. There has never been another experience to come close.
And soon my daughter will begin this same ancient, primal function of life replicating itself. My mother loved 'The Prophet' by Kahlil Gibran and would quote the lines ‘Your children are not your children, they are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.’ Such beautiful words, ‘life’s longing for itself’ to describe reproduction and the life force.
Currently there is a movement among some younger women in response to the problem of overpopulation and the depletion of finite resources from a planet already in crisis. They are choosing not to bring another child into the world and further exacerbate the situation. I respect their position and admire it. In a similar vein, I have concerns for this next generation wondering what kind of future the children will have? Please may humankind move forward in the right direction, not backwards into more mayhem. Please may there be more kindness and compassion in every sphere of society, more peace, not war and greed and corruption, more collaboration and unification to save the planet and live more sustainably. But then on a personal level and in opposition it seems to these philosophical and desperately pressing practical concerns is my own experience of my three year old grandson, the light of my life, the baby who brought great joy and enrichment into my life at a difficult time and now another grandchild very near, and all the delight this new life will bring and I can't help rejoicing.
Last weekend on a brisk grey day we took the three year old to a playground on the isthmus, aware of it being just the three of us, one child, mother and grandmother together before the arrival of a sibling. How precious it was. That afternoon he wanted to stay on the swing and he wanted his mother, only, pushing him. I watched his face and saw his mouth creasing into a smile at the simple sensation of movement, and then his features smoothed into an expression of what looked like rapture as the repetitive, rhythmic action lulled him. On and on she pushed him. On and on he sailed back and forth. And it seemed he knew this was it and he wanted to hold the moment forever.
Day 102 in the time of coronavirus and tonight it is blowing a gale, the wind gusts so wild and brutal it feels as though the world is ending. The mournful sound of the air whistling under the eaves sets my heart aching. As it seeps through cracks in window frames, curling round me, clutching at my chest I find myself shivering. Outside, through a blur of running water the night is pitch black. At least we still have power and I can put a heater on to warm the room and there is the glow of the lamp softening the table where I work but still it is a harsh night.
I’ve been having trouble sleeping these past nights, waking with a sudden jolt and then staying awake with a torrent of thoughts occupying my mind. I know what is happening here. Recently my timetable has cranked up and in the rush and hurtle I’ve lost my equilibrium. While I know it would be unbearable to be forced back into lockdown I do almost miss the slow, slow, slow creep of time in lockdown when my car was out of action and the day was punctuated only by a walk around the volcanic cone, sinking into the beauty of the hour. I will not romanticise about that period but there is a feeling of nostalgia when I remember the solitary rambles and the gentler pace.
The other night when I woke at 3am I simply could not slide back into slumber. Round and round in my head went a pile of silly things, and the more I thrashed at them trying to solve the quandaries, speak to them, comfort them, the bigger they got. It seemed my brain simply wasn’t interested in being soothed. No it was off on its own powerful and seductive and increasingly mad narrative train. Money. That was one. Am I going to be able to change my spending habits, meaning curb them, or am I going to squander my precious settlement? Can I trust myself? The apartment. Am I going to overspend on renovations and find myself poverty stricken in older age? The financial trainer, I am working with, has estimated my budget for the rest of my life and told me if I adhere to it I won’t run out of funds until I am 100. But I DON’T WANT TO LIVE TO ONE HUNDRED. I’m not even sure about heading into the nineties. Yes, if you have wonderful form — a body that is strong and fit and not prone to illness or general health issues and yes, if you have a mind as sharp as a tack until the very end, then of course it would be fun and interesting but more often than not, it seems to me, the decade of the nineties is instead a time of loss; loss of faculties and functions and liberties and comfort. I’d rather take a pill. The writing life. That was another worry and though deep down I know I am going to be fine with plenty on the go and plenty to look forward to, still I feel like an animal licking my wounds while I adjust to the loss of an important project. Then pain. Back pain. The same as usual only worse, feeling as though a bus had run over my frame. And next, my son in Sydney. I really do need to rein in my worrying in this regard because he seems fine and when I speak aloud my anxiety he finds me annoying and undermining. I think this is me in the time of coronavirus wanting him near, wanting to keep a protective eye on him, wanting the world for him, wondering if the creative life isn’t just too, too hard and whether he’d be better off coming home and finding a job in essential services. I’m not the only mother in this position, with a child overseas, also longing to see him and hug him and finding the difficulty of visits between the two countries an unexpected challenge.
There is something else rumbling below, like a sound with a sharp edge playing continuously and it this troubling sense of disquiet. It’s with us now, felt across the world, in a solid way, every day. I don’t think there is a person on the planet who is not affected by the consequences of the pandemic. Every person I have listened to recently has expressed it, this feeling of having been pushed into a place that is uncomfortable. Waiting for something. Someone said, ‘We’re in the eye of a storm, waiting for it to break.’
How do we carry on then? For me it is adhering to simple routines, keeping them going, while trying to stay present in each moment. After the night of bad insomnia the book I reached for was 'The Miracle of Mindfulness' by Thich Nhat Hanh. There is a simple message in the opening pages of this book and it is this. When you turn your consciousness to the present moment and sink into it, the world stills, your heart beats steadily, your breathing relaxes, your mind slows. He also says this, ‘When you are doing the dishes, you are doing the dishes.’ He says, ‘When you are walking in a green park. You are walking in a green park.’ Paying attention to this step and the next step and the path beneath you and the trees and foliage beside you absorbing them, being in harmony with your immediate surrounds, keeping to this simple principle of being present, your life is just right.
Today while walking along the beach at Cheltenham with friends, my eye on the sea, observing the antics of the wind surfers out on the dark channel daring and playing with the powerful air currents I saw a surfer lifted high, a black figure whipped from a dark sea, pausing in mid-air above the churning water in a moment of exhiliration. Next time I wake in the night, I'm going to try and do the same.
Day 98 and we are living in a state of continuous flux and terrible unknowing as the virus storms through communities causing endless havoc and devastation. 10.5 million reported cases worldwide and 511,000 deaths to date. And as the numbers continue to rise we witness, in stark relief, the light and dark sides of human behaviour, acts of shining selflessness particularly those medical professionals who are risking their own lives to care for the sick and the appalling rapaciousness of politicians. Today I learned that the US have purchased all the supplies, that is all the stocks in the world —if we are to believe the Guardian source —of the one steroid drug that is offering a treatment that can save lives. How incredibly selfish and inconsiderate. What is wrong with the Republican government and its idiot fake president whose stupid, inept management of the pandemic has caused endless suffering, death and hardship. When will this end? And what will be left at the conclusion?
We are so very fortunate to be living in New Zealand at this time led by a brilliant Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern who took decisive action so early in the pandemic, when there were very few cases and then managed to contain the spread of the virus and stop community transmission. Still I think to myself. Amazing. Good woman. We must never forget that the sense of freedom we are enjoying now is a direct result of those actions. I believe we are the only country in the world to currently be in such an enviable position. But though the relief is sweet we can not escape the wider economic and social consequences of this catastrophe. Nobody is immune to the trail of disaster. Here in New Zealand, in order to ensure our continued safety we must cut ourselves off from the rest of the world and float adrift. This means a halt in tourism and brings with it an eerie sense of being alone.
When I travelled to Christchurch a week ago the thing that troubled me was the silence in the departure halls, the emptiness of spaces that normally pulsed with life. It was only kiwis travelling and while it is essential that people support the economy in this way our domestic spending is a drop in the ocean and will surely be insufficient to ensure the continuing viability of airlines and businesses built around tourism. Only a month ago we hoped we might have an open trans-Tasman bubble very soon and that a steady flow or travellers back and forth would sustain the tourism industry, but the brief breach in our own border, when two infected people raced through the country carrying Covid-19 with them, and then the recent alarming rise of cases in Melbourne have shattered that possibility for the time being. Soon after our lapse Scott Morrison squelched the idea of opening the bubble anytime soon. And now the feeling is mutual on this side of the Tasman as we read with dismay and concern about the fate of Victorians living in the identified suburb hotspots who must now return to a state of lockdown. This is serious for businesses just getting back on their feet and harsh on public morale as well. Journeying back into lockdown must feel like a backward step bringing with it dreaded restrictions on movement and more anxiety.
These are challenging times. For myself, although I have finally found a home and there is joy and relief in the new situation this does not insulate me from the repercussions of the coronavirus. I am separated from my son in Sydney and this makes me anxious. He has been gone four years now and I had adjusted to his absence but the recent restrictions on movement mean I can’t up and visit him should he need to see me, nor he me. There had been plans for him to come home soon to greet the new baby.
There is a saying ‘when one door closes another opens.’ In my case it has happened the other way round, the door had opened and provided a new home in a wonderful setting but I have had a terrible disappointment in my writing life, with a big project falling over and a door slammed shut. The project grew in lockdown and seemed to be on firm ground only to halt very recently. Ah. At least I am better equipped to deal with disappointment these days. The experiences of the past three years have been so hard I have been forced to grow a carapace that inures me to shock and difficulty. I can pause and halt the spiral down before it begins, can catch the old outmoded thought patterns before they warm up and speak to them. In Buddhist philosophy it is the concept of equanimity that saves us.
I want to finish this entry on something simple and enjoyable. Last Saturday I met my friend at the storage unit in the city, feeling doubtful we would be able to extract anything useful from the tightly packed space for my new apartment but determination is a good driver. We cleared a space and she climbed onto the metal filing cabinet and picked out a strange collection of items: one solid rimu stool that had seen better days, one dining chair, one occasional chair with a floral patterned cover, tawny autumn leaves on cream, and we rolled out the desk chair from near the front. One box of possessions was easily accessed. Later I would find inside six black tea cannisters, one pale green eggshell ceramic mug, one place mat, my mother's lace-edged afternoon tea cloth, a small saucepan and one small fry pan. It was like opening parcels in a lucky dip. Each item was greeted with cries of love. And then there was a Rick Rudd black ceramic stupa, with a gold cap, sitting at the front of the storage container. Once it was a focal point in a dry stream bed in my garden, juxtaposed against a row of weeping salvia uglinosa that produced pale blue flowers in summer and the native carex with its flowing strappy form, some balls of pruned coprosma and in the foreground the Persimmon tree its leaves flame-coloured in autumn and the Mutabilis rose with its delicate apricot and pink flower-heads.
I wanted it. My friend frowned but very patiently she helped me wiggle it onto a blanket and then down onto our trolley. Lovingly we lifted it, like a body into the boot of her big car taking care not to dislodge the pale green lichen on its surface. It took years for that plant matter to collect. At the apartment we carried the precious artefact into the lift and placed it on a small balcony against a black column. It sits there now without its garden foliage but with Takarunga behind instead and the gray-blue sea washing in below.
Day 95 and tonight’s entry is more a culmination of a personal journey than a record of living in the time of coronavirus, although the process by which I got here was most definitely shaped by the pandemic. In August 2017 the life I knew, or thought I knew, ended. In May 2019, I lost my home. Nine months later, at the end of February 2020, I arrived in Devonport to shelter with my friends Ruth and Robert until mediation in mid-March. Then along came lockdown and I was here to stay, indefinitely. I spent those strange, quiet weeks walking the streets, climbing the volcanic cones and becoming more acquainted with the immediate environs. Slowly, slowly I was falling in love with the beauty of a place of extraordinary natural beauty, situated at the end of a long isthmus across the water from a major city.
When I was finally able to begin the house-hunting in earnest, I think it was level two, things happened fast. I was in the midst of viewing a different house when I spied my future home, towering above me. ‘What about that, I said to my lovely real estate agent?’ pointing up into the sky. Very soon she had arranged a viewing and I knew immediately that this was where I would put down roots — in the sky. Since then I’ve been speeding like a bullet train through the acquisition process up to last Friday, 26 June, when I became the owner of a fifth floor apartment in a twelve storey tower on the end of Stanley Point, Devonport. It was opened in 1966, seven years after the Auckland Harbour bridge, which can be seen from the northern end of my new living room. The first apartment block ever built in Auckland, the only tower block to be built in Devonport, it was designed by Neville Price, originally a boat builder, who went on to design the elegant and sculptural West Plaza in downtown, a structure that was voted Auckland’s best building for many a year. Bill Mackay, architectural critic said of it ‘West Plaza helped turn Auckland from big town to international city.’ Neville Price eventually moved to San Francisco and to a long architectural career there.
I love this new/heritage building its clean lines and functional simplicity, even the concrete stairs with their refined steel balustrades painted chestnut brown appeal. My apartment is small, 110 square metres, and will require a Japanese approach to storage solutions for tight spaces. In a way I am relieved to be impelled into diminishing my footprint. And anyway the nomadic passage has shown me that it is entirely possible to live with a smaller collection of belongings and still thrive. The shedding of things — there will be more when I finally bring everything out of storage — and the smaller floor area brings with it a feeling of lightness. I can lock up and leave this home, head off on research trips, or travel south to visit family and friends and when I return home I will be safe and snug in my writer’s eyrie with its all day sun and expansive views as far as the eye can see — east to Takarunga and Rangitoto and south over the harbour to the city side and all the way along the bays to St Heliers and beyond to the Tamaki River, and further still to Chamberlin Island and the Coromandel. From the far end of the living room and the bedrooms I can see north over the bays and inlets towards my daughter’s home on the Whangaparaoa, and round to the west to the harbour bridge, as well.
When I am in this space there is a feeling of hanging suspended above the land, its waterways, parks and bays, the heritage buildings and trees. Over this past weekend I have been watching the weather, a constantly moving and ever-changing pageant passing through. I've seen bright sun and brilliant cloudbursts followed by mysterious mist so dense it swirled around the building and obliterated the far view. When friends arrived on Saturday afternoon the weather had pulled in like a curtain around the windows and I had to say ‘But Rangitoto really is out there’. Today rain fell on the diagonal in sun showers, the light picking out the rain drops turning them into paper darts. On both days there have been rainbows appearing through the day and this afternoon I saw one gracefully falling through the fog and touching on two 19th century churches on the lower slopes of Takarunga.
I can see I will get no work done in this setting. Today I found myself stopping mid-task. The dishes were underway but the scene beyond the far windows, light illuminating watery bands making them shine silver whie softly shading the narrow strips of land dusky pink and tawny brown. I simply had to stop what I was doing and gasp.
There is more but very soon the word count will be exceeded. I will pick up again soon...
Day 91 and the photo that accompanies this journal entry, snapped from a moving car, as we sped back into the city following our time at the Ellesmere Cemetery, reflects how I feel now after my short sojourn in Canterbury. The smoky blur of hedges and roadside grasses, like the scumbling effect on an oil canvas, depict exactly what happened. It was there and gone, the astonishing beauty of the landscape, those illuminated clouds, that verdant growth, those feathery outlines of poplars against a Dutch sky, the muted colour palette —greys, pale blue, charcoal, cocoa, green, the faintest hint of peach in the clouds — glimmering in the field of my vision momentarily and disappearing too quickly. And yet all is well. I know that road like the back of my hand, I know it even in darkness, going back all the years to when we would return from the city in the dead of night and I would lie on the back seat under a woollen rug and feel the movements and vibrations of the car on every straight, every bend from the city outwards, the bridge over the Selwyn River, the swooping curve over the millstream at Irwell… I used to know the names of the families and their farm names lining the road from Springston to Leeston. I still know them although some properties have changed hands since. I hope I will be travelling that road from now until the end. It is my turangawaewae. But if not I will relive it in my imagination, write it even. That is one advantage of choosing writing as a way of life, I suppose.
But I feel discombobulated. This trip was strikingly different from the earlier summertime journey, when I drove, with my son, down both islands in time for Christmas in the city, spending the rest of December and part of January in the company of friends, making trips to Diamond Harbour and the bays, enjoying the sunshine, carefree almost — I was still in the midst of a divorce and wasn't yet sure how it would culminate. Yes, I was aware of a situation developing in China, a new virus that seemed so distant and irrelevant, initially I was sceptical. I thought it was just the media desperate for a sensational story to shake up the quiet time when the country goes into holiday mode and people read good books instead of the news. I was wrong. The virus was the beginning of something big, a pandemic that would drastically re-shape the rest of our lives going forward, at least until we find a vaccine.
Such a lot has happened since then and as a nation we are reeling. We’ve built whole industries and livelihoods around tourism. What do we do now that visitor numbers have all but dried up? Yes, I know kiwis are being encouraged to take more holidays here but this won’t be enough to save some city businesses. I met a friend at the baggage carousel back in Auckland and she was returning from a holiday break in Christchurch however her focus had been on Akaroa, a boating excursion on the harbour to see Hector’s dolphins and Hanmer Springs to soak in the hot pools. She’d missed the city itself. In the centre it was very quiet. It felt like the time after the earthquakes. I looked at the great volume of brand new retail shops, constructed post-quakes, peered through their windows and found them almost empty. On the news on my last evening I heard an item about the plight of the Christchurch Arts Centre, the beautiful neo-Gothic blue stone building with its cloisters and quadrangles that was the original Canterbury University College that had only recently been painstakingly restored following the damage caused by the seismic jolts. The drastic decline in tourist numbers is hitting the thirty businesses that now trade there, and rapidly eroding the Centre’s financial viability. There was talk of it closing. No, no, no not after the huge effort to resurrect the historic buildings. This is too awful.
Last night, my first, home from holiday I had one of my vivid dreams. It was long and involved and I lost most of it on waking but what remained was chaotic. I was riding a bicycle, an old jalopy with wide rubber tyres when suddenly a big blue bird alighted on my shoulder. It was a pukeko, at least that’s the name that appeared in my mind in the dream. Its wings were indigo blue and shone with iridescence as they spread wide and large across my back like a feathered cape. The claws on the bird’s red webbed feet pinched my left shoulder but not too hard. I continued riding with the triumphant creature clamped on. And then this big bird peed on me, a thin spurt of hot liquid across the front of my shoulder, swiping my neck and hitting the other arm. It was the warmth that interested me. I wasn’t at all perturbed although when I reached a bay on the edge of road I saw a gathering of people and stopped and asked them to take the bird from me. Lighter now, I rode onwards down the road which was actually the Auckland motorway near Ellerslie. I travelled on into the countryside heading for a cottage to see my friend, desperate to tell him my story of the bird. When he heard I had been biking down the motorway he was incredulous.
Where do these dreams come from? What is going on? Yes the world has tipped upside down and the country is now being run by public health officials. Yes there are disconcerting new rules in public places — physical distancing, signs, sanitisers, face masks on, off, the risk when people sneeze, as somebody did today in the supermarket and then carried on brazenly splurting over the products. I would have frozen her with my stare if she had chosen to look but she didn’t. And yes we resist because we are used to living in a democracy and we might even break a rule yet we also comply because we are afraid.