Day 151 in the time of coronavirus and the things that are currently preoccupying me are: the media and its destructive reverberations; the media and the potential of journalism for healing and enlightenment; and acts of human kindness.
I admire journalists, some more than others, though. I respect their skilful handling of language and form, there is sometimes a loose free flowing feel, a soaring and easeful rhythm to a journalist’s writing that makes the reading experience so very pleasurable. I have total admiration for the quality of in-depth research and well-balanced synthesis of information in many an investigative article. I admire the speed with which a journalist can pull together an article covering a demanding set of ideas making them comprehensible and digestible. I admire too the ability of the journalist to cut to the chase, go straight to the expert, or the human beings at the centre of a subject for direct answers to relevant questions. I warm to the writers that operate with integrity and humanity. They are the classy ones and then there is a breed and a genre of reporting, perhaps that is the best term here, that can cause unnecessary trouble and pain, spreading alarm, squashing hope, stirring the pot pointlessly in an insatiable and oftentimes seemingly desperate quest to attract a reader.
I’m sick of this aspect of our news coverage. It is bad news in the time of a pandemic. Also I’ve detected recently, as others have also voiced their dismay, that in defending their own work, a certain arrogance has crept in - I'm talking about a few individuals here, not the entire community of writers. It goes along the lines of; it is our job, because we have the intelligence to do this, to point things out to the poor ignorant public. They need us to ask the questions they haven’t thought of yet, and might not ever. There is even a sense of righteousness, that some consider themselves the moral arbiters of the issues of today. It is never spoken but a feature of the reporting style seems to be to badger, harass and taunt those in public office, under the guise of ensuring they are made accountable, when sometimes what is really happening is a misguided witch hunt.
We are told we need this. And yet do we? Without news reporting there would be no Donald Trump, president of the United States. It wasn’t the people so much as the continued and unbalanced global exposure of the buffoon beamed into people’s living rooms or featured in print media from the beginning of his campaign that secured his ridiculous victory.
With that off my chest I can focus on a positive aspect of the journalist's craft and how it can be a force for good. That’s how it felt during this momentous week in New Zealand history when mosque killer, I don't want to say his name, was sentenced in the High Court and given the harshest sentence available, life imprisonment with no possibility of parole ever, for murdering 51 worshippers and attempting to murder a further 40 people, on 15 March, 2019, at two Christchurch mosques, Al Noor Mosque and the Linwood Islamic Centre.
Throughout the week I have been informed of the proceedings via Radio New Zealand whose focus has been on reporting verbatim the impact statements of victims injured in the attack and family members of the 51 worshippers who died on that terrible afternoon. Initially a total of 66 statements were expected but as people in the packed public gallery and seven additional court rooms listened, more came forward to give their testimony, leading to 93 statements in all. This was the darkest and worst mass killing in New Zealand history and it needed this level of exposure to honour the loss of life and its shattering impact on many, many, many lives. The massacre was pre-meditated. It was motivated by hateful, ideology, implemented by a cold-blooded murderer who showed no mercy at any point.
Through the efforts of Radio new Zealand I have been able to listen, through the week, to many of these courageous people presenting their experience, expressing their pain. The speakers were eloquent, passionate, angry, fearless and one beautiful woman, Janna Ezat whose son was murdered, was forgiving. “I decided to forgive you, Mr Tarrant because I don't have hate. I don't have revenge," she said directly to him. “In our Muslim faith we say . . . we are able to forgive, forgive. I forgive you. Damage was done and Hussein will never be here so I have only one choice to forgive you." Throughout the period since the massacre, seventeen months ago, the terrorist has shown no remorse, no insight, no comprehension of the shattering pain he has caused to so many people but at Janna Ezat’s words he nodded in acknowledgment and blinked profusely wiping at one of his eyes.
And yet who would not weep at her words and those of the other 92 who came forward. The stories that have flowed in the High Court these past days have been devastating to learn about. Aya Al Umari, who lost her beloved brother — their birthdays were always celebrated together, as they were only one day apart — described the “gut-wrenching feeling” of having to call her mother and say to her that “Hussein might be dead, prepare to grieve," she said. "I still have the urge to pick up the phone and talk to my brother tell him about my day and rant to him because he's the only one that would understand.”
The courage to stand up and speak publicly about their suffering has been humbling to witness. Many of the speakers looked him, ‘the devil’ one person called him, in the eye as they spoke. There was the heart-breaking account of Nathan Smith, who converted to Islam about nine years ago, speaking directly to the killer saying "After you left Mosque Al Noor I was surrounded by the injured, the dying and the dead. I held a three-year-old boy in my arms praying he was alive - he was not. You took him away. He was three."
And providing context, Mazharuddin Syed Ahmed explained, "We all come from countries where these things happen," and then amazingly he continued, "We came to New Zealand because it is safe, but after the shooting when we saw how people respected us and treated us all well that made us feel good about New Zealand."
It was expressed more than once, that the terrorist had failed in his mission to spread racial and religious hatred and xenophobia. Instead he had united the community and New Zealanders in general. Wasseim Sati Ali Daragmih said, "You think your actions have destroyed our community and shaken our faith, but you have not succeeded. You have made us come together with more determination and strength.”
"So you have failed completely. So you have failed completely."
In this instance the media, and in particular RNZ through its thorough reporting and transcribing of statements have achieved something important. It has provided an opportunity for the rest of New Zealand to listen and to learn. We might all pause to consider the words of Nathan Smith, to the killer, ‘When you get a free minute… maybe you should try to read the Quran – it’s beautiful.’
And then there was Justice Cameron Mander. Family members and victims spoke highly of him saying he had made the court a safe space for people to express their pain and the rippling impact on families, so many parents, siblings, children, friends still grieving and traumatised. In his closing words Justice Cameron read out all the names of the murder victims, mentioning details of their lives, and referring to the shattered families left in the wake of the killer's actions. He said to the terrorist that he had been motivated by a "base hatred of people perceived to be different from yourself". And added the murderer's "hateful ideology was anathema to the values of New Zealand's society."
"It has no place here. It has no place anywhere."
The flowers in the accompanying photo are for the brave worshippers at the two Christchurch mosques, defenders of their loved ones and their faith. The posy was originally a gift to me, on a bright morning in early spring, from a friend who had seen my photo and read my earlier post on the tussie mussie. She phoned and said, ‘I’m delivering some flowers from my garden to your door.’ Acts of human kindness in harsh times. They count.
Day 144 in the time of coronavirus and Auckland remains in level three and I have let this journal lapse because I haven’t felt like writing. Each night I say to myself, ‘come on do something’ and then decide to watch an episode of Netflix instead — only one episode, mind you, for I have read that binge watching dulls the mind and ultimately lowers the mood. My problem is that there is too much to write about — there is the disappointment and shock at lunging again into another coronavirus meltdown after 102 days with no community transmission, there is the political turmoil, the election deferred a month and an escalation of hostilities from other parties, the implementation of the depressingly familiar blame game strategy showcasing the viperish tendencies of people hellbent on gaining power not on motivating the population to stand together to eliminate the virus and save lives. All of this has lead to a climate of distrust and restlessness in Auckland and a lower tolerance and commitment, this time round, to applying ourselves to the team effort.
I am genuinely concerned that many Aucklanders seem disinclined to wear face masks in public. According to epidemiologist Professor Rod Jackson Covid-19 is many times more severe than the flu. And why aren’t people motivated to download the Covid-19 tracer app and swipe their phone across the barcode when entering public premises? It’s easier and quicker than taking a photo on the iphone. Are we waiting for the government to implement Sam Morgan's bluetooth cards at a cost of $100 million. Money doesn't grow on trees. We have an app and could use it.
The other problem is that there is also very little to write about, for level three is really lockdown for most of us where each day feels the same, same, same and very boring and pallid and grey, even on sunny days. I write this even though I’m in the midst of a busy work programme, one that I find sustaining and interesting and also, as a member of a family bubble, I am involved in their lives offering support as they try and deal with the impact of the restrictions on their newly created family of four, the little one will be just five weeks old on Monday. Observing this situation in close up I realise how hard lockdown is for families confined to home without their normal social outlets to break up long days, even harder when a parent is working in their midst requiring a level of quiet to be productive. Actually both parents are always working. In this instance, one is full-time parenting, the other is the main income provider.
When the bad news first broke my daughter asked me what to do about the three year old. Should she tell him we were in lockdown again? My advice, was 'No, keep it from him for as long as possible.' It took him seven days to work it out by a process of deduction, we think, for not a word had been breathed, apart from once when he asked his father if he could play on the swing down near the beach. ‘No,’ said his father. ‘The playground isn’t available for ten days.’
The following day on my arrival I was called upstairs for ‘a show’. There we were seated on chairs, baby tucked into a soft cotton wrap, wound around her mother’s body, facing the bed, Remy in the bed with all his soft toys under the duvet preparing them for their moment of stardom, when he got up suddenly and shut the bedroom door. ‘We have to lock the door because the coronavirus is back in Auckland,’ he said, very firmly. ‘Everyone has to stay inside, and Mormor has to stay the night, and we can’t go out because there are snapping creatures out there.’
My daughter and I sat there mouths open, looking at one another. How did he know? Creche and the fact that he wasn’t going anymore hadn’t been mentioned, but of course he must have sensed his weekly rhythm, three days at daycare, was out and odd. Then his teachers launched their regular videos again, of them performing dance routines, reading stories, doing puppet shows. That must have felt familiar from lockdown. But how he knew it is only Auckland in lockdown is a puzzle.
I think, reflecting on these family interactions that I am in a good position really, yet it doesn’t stop me being disturbed. It’s the feeling in the atmosphere that corrodes. This time I do not find peace in the stillness. I do not embrace the rhythm of walking on my own around the park. I do not feel greatly uplifted when I spy a lone cargo ship, coloured cream and orange, moving slowly across a sheet of gunmetal grey water towards the container terminal, even though the colours and textures seen in abstraction are gorgeous, no my heart does not leap for joy for I am losing hope that we will ever rise again and be free of this wretched virus. Also I miss being with my friends, seeing the light in their eyes as they talk, their features animated. Sometimes I even miss the smell of my friend’s home, of her.
There are days when I feel like a boat grounded in the mangroves, without the promise of a returning tide to float me back into the swim of life.
Day 136 and a critical one as we awaited news at 5.30pm of the plan going forward. Through the day my thoughts went crashing about. Will we stay in level 3? I could bear that but please may we not move into level 4. When I heard the decision, twelve more days in level 3, my heart sang though I never expected to write that. Also I discovered I can trust Grant Robertson and that made me happy, for in the morning I’d read on my Radio New Zealand app that he’d declared he would not allow the Auckland region to go into level 4. Still I worried that at the cabinet meeting before the announcement, they might change their minds. Incidentally, about the media and following it, I am becoming extremely reactive around bad news. I cannot cope with the avalanche of woe and doom, thus I’ve made a decision to limit exposure and follow just one news source, Radio NZ. I find there is more balance there. Recently I heard a presenter on the concert programme saying, ‘I’m going to play you something light and delightful now. We need a break from the all gloom and misery’ (or something like that). Even the people who make the media can’t stomach their own pill anymore. This means however, that the Guardian and its fabulous journalism is off-limits for now, even the cultural articles. I can’t risk the possibility of spying bad headlines as I scroll down to the arts section.
Today as I awaited the announcement I found myself needing to re-establish a routine. Fortunately I had kept my schedule from the first lockdown. Reading the content I was reminded how to do this. The principle is to divide the day into small, achievable segments being careful not to be overly ambitious and then experience failure. Mine is divided into the following: work, house cleaning, clothes washing, exercise, play if possible, I’m still working on this, and for a person in a bubble of one the crucial online contact with family and friends.
I wrote out the new plan this morning and mostly kept to it finding in the process a sense of security and of purpose. The work I’d hoped for, making a start on the first three chapters of a manuscript assessment got done, and I relished the experience. There was housework that satisfied me and more arranging of flowers to beautify the table where I work.
The day had begun with meditation. I can’t do long stretches at the moment. With my jangled nerves, thoughts galloping and leaping over one other, it has become a battleground. But to manage just a little time of sitting quietly, slowing my breathing, settling like a hen on her eggs, feathers floating, fluffing, gently closing in on the body, simply being here, that felt good. Then breakfast which was oat porridge cooked with banana, raisins and cinnamon. I still had some apricot halves from the tin I’d bought at the dairy the other day, and added yoghurt and the smallest drizzle of cream. I’m not worried about extra calories at the moment as I’ve lost weight. It went up in lockdown and then dropped away. I’m sure these changes are happening for everyone in the time of anxiety and loss of hope. And anyway self-improvement programmes that were important before coronavirus have shrivelled into irrelevancy in this fiendishly difficult environment. I've decided, ‘What the hell, I’m going to drink more fizzy ginger ale now.’
My friend said to me this morning, ‘I’m glad I’m old.’ I knew what she meant. I feel something similar. But oh, my darling baby Sage and her brother Remy, what lies ahead for them? It saddens me to see them growing up in the time of a pandemic and to hear that my daughter has ordered my grandson a mask with dinosaurs on it. Children wearing masks to protect them from a virus? This is not normal. Thank goodness the beach is her happy place and his happy place too. They go there every day.
Day 134 in the time of this confounding virus and Auckland is in level three again, while the rest of the country is in level two. I think we all knew this was inevitable, for how do you keep the virus out when the borders have to remain partially open to facilitate trade to assist the functioning of the economy and to welcome home those New Zealanders wanting to return.
Recently my friend in public health had said, while walking along the inlet at Ngataringa Bay on a silvery Saturday morning, ‘you need to be prepared, Deborah, for a return of Covid’. And I had responded ‘Please stop. I don’t want to hear. My anxiety is running high. I want to get into my apartment.’ I saw her again today and she said, ‘I knew nothing about this until it happened.’ She had however been focussed, with her team, for some weeks now on the final details of the resurgence response plan. When they pushed the button recently they thought it might either be needed soon or they might just be putting it away in the cupboard and bringing it out at a later date.
My friend was also the person who said, way back, ‘this government is a dream to work alongside.’ And I remember being struck by that. Then last night, when we learned about the return to level three, along with thinking, ‘I can’t bear it,’ followed sometime later with ‘we have done this before. We can do it again,’ lastly I felt a sense of gratitude for Jacinda’s decisive response. They are a dream government and really we are fortunate.
Speaking of last night, oh what a night. It was book club and during the evening, in the time of innocence before the media announcement, we had frightened ourselves thoroughly with talk of the virus. One reader had reviewed Michael Moseley’s new book 'Covid' and as happens in this lively group of thinkers, two of whom are medical laboratory scientists, one of whom is a journalist and another a writer the discussion roamed and stretched out. In the process the tenor dropped and we sat there feeling helpless and disturbed. Then another reader reviewed, quite brilliantly, a terrible, terrible, extraordinary book. 'The Second Sleep' by Richard Harris. It is set in 1468 but not looking back, looking forwards from the year 2025 when there is a breakdown of technical, digital communication leading to an apocalyptic fall into chaos, into social fragmentation and collapse. I will not elaborate on the plot, it felt uncannily close to what is happening now,. We were all wide-eyed. Then ping, a message to a reader, 'turn on the news'. And there was Jacinda looking tired, extremely serious and very thin, wearing the same lovely grey dress from her election campaign launch where she had been smiling, especially following Clarke Gayford's speech, and now she was not. She was delivering the bad news.
This morning when I awoke I tried to plan my morning in a way that wouldn’t be too stressful. I had attempted to visit the supermarket on my way home last night but they closed the doors on me. This morning my friend said don’t queue there go to the dairy instead. When I did, I bought the strangest things. I needed milk but then I saw a tin of Watties asparagus spears and put them on the counter and then wanting more comfort I purchased one small bag of kettle chips. I associate asparagus rolls with my mother's tender care when recovering from stomach ailments. When I was through the sickness she would appear in my bedroom bearing a tray which held a glass of ginger ale with 'Andrews Liver Salts’ stirred in. I have no idea why she did this — the salts made an already fizzy drink even more so — but it doesn't matter I loved it. And on one of her Susie Cooper bread and butter plates, these plates were cream with sage green spots and fluted ornamentation round the rim, there would be two asparagus rolls made with soft white, or wholemeal bread. I still hanker after precisely this when I am recovering from something.
After the dairy I went to the village pharmacy and bought some more face masks and then drifted further up the street to the optometrist to purchase contact lens solution. On the way I stopped at the flower shop and spent $12 on a brilliant blue-red cyclamen plant. So many times this winter I have said, ‘No you don’t need one.’ Today I thought, 'I do.' Also I bought a thin slab of Devonport Chocolate with whole pieces of hokey pokey. Across the street I noted people buying gelato from the stall that is part of The Vic, cinema. Good on them.
Then it was one last look at the world from my apartment with the sliding doors open, breathing in the salty air, gulping in the glorious views, absorbing on my retina the vivid blue-green of the seawater, at high tide lapping at the stone crescent on the edge of Stanley Bay. Construction can continue in level three but if we head into level four my project to create a study nook will be put on hold. More patience is required.
Day 131 in the time of coronavirus and the situation in Beirut remains dire. The death toll has risen to 154 and the number of injuries is up by a thousand to 5000. There is rioting in the streets too for people are angry at governmental negligence. They doubt there will be any meaningful attempt to address the weaknesses in the system that allowed the disaster to occur. I fervently hope that amongst the citizens who are suffering there is a sense of community and family to bind them, hold them, otherwise how do they go on.
These are difficult times. The pandemic runs like a low, deep rumble below the surface, putting people on edge. Where once we might have sailed through blips, small things can sometimes sideswipe us. Feeling uneasy myself I headed out to Karekare on Saturday to collect a small set of bookshelves and a collection of books on nature writing that I’d left behind following my residency last year. I’d fully intended collecting them on my return from a summer holiday in the south but it didn’t happen and then we went into lockdown. This past week though I have felt a deep urgency to gather in my treasures and regain more of my life.
It was like being reunited with old friends. I was mightily glad to see Sara Maitland and her "A Book of Silence" and Anne Morrow Lindbergh and her "Gift from the Sea" too. Now I long to place them on shelves in my new home. The waiting has stretched out and still I am living adrift without my belongings. But soon, soon… Just a little more patience.
It was good to walk on the beach at Karekare with my friend, to take a route I’d walked almost every day for three months while on the residency and to feel again the natural world working its magic. As I emerged from the pohutukawa glade and took the path above the watery ponds I remembered the frogs last November and the tremendous din they had made, a sound so strange and unfamiliar it sounded like the speedway. Further along I remember coming upon a father and three teenagers also entranced by the performance. I didn’t know them but we stood quite still listening, mouths creased into smiles.
Always there is a lift when, at a turn on the path, the sea comes into view washing around the small island named Paratahi, the same as before and different. And then to draw near and hear the clash and sound of cymbals and to breathe in the ozone. I’m convinced the powerful force of huge waves breaking on the shore at Karekare creates a denser kind of ozone, one that goes straight to the brain and sharpens focus. The sea today was the purest white fondant, the wave tops fluffy.
This was the brilliance after the storm for the previous night had been a wild one according to my friend. By the time I wound down the ravine, passing under the vast pohutukawa that spans above the road, and emerged from the tunnel of native foliage into the green valley all was washed clean and glistening, leaves shining in the sunlight, bulbous trunks of the nikau projected in vivid lime. Beautiful.
When I got home I looked up my Karekare journal and found this excerpt. It began with a reference to John, the photographer who had also been in residence.
“I have to confess to a wish that sneaked into my head today, in response to John’s encounter with the gannet. Coming out to the beach I had wanted to find something for myself but Anne Morrow Lindberg writes in her small volume "A Gift from the Sea" that ocean treasures ‘must not by sought for.’ It doesn’t work that way, she writes. ‘The sea does not reward those who are too anxious, too greedy, or too impatient.’ Rather we must practice patience.
'Patience, patience, patience, is what the sea teaches. Patience and faith. One should lie empty, open, choiceless as a beach —waiting for a gift from the sea.'
Day 127 and I am just home, walking through the dark again, smelling the citrus scent of daphne on the night air, and I have hit a wall and am weary and wish to fall into bed but I cannot yet because tonight my thoughts are with the people of Beirut and Lebanon and the agonies they are enduring at this time and I must write and acknowledge the catastrophe.
Only very recently I had read of the collapse of their economy and the dire situation for all, with hyperinflation diminishing the value of their currency, reducing people’s incomes drastically and leading to job losses and nationwide poverty. And now this, two massive explosions in the Port of Beirut. Vast mushroom clouds and flames— some thought it was a nuclear explosion — hung in the air for nearly thirty minutes. Speculation is running high about the true causes of the disaster. The official explanation is an accidental detonation of ammonium nitrate left unsecured for some years in a warehouse near the port. Somebody, or some people ignited those chemicals. 100 dead, 4000 injured, a hospital destroyed, houses, whole streets gone, shattered glass on the ground, people missing… it is too terrible. Medical facilities are already stretched as doctors deal with the impact of coronavirus, how will they manage the flood of injured? ‘We’re cursed,’ said one young man, blood streaming from his arm. Power out. Lights off. The city in darkness. People leaving their crushed homes but where will they go? People searching through the smoking ruins and debris for family. A mother down at the port calling out the name of her son and saying ‘His eyes are green.’
A humanitarian catastrophe of horrifying proportions. This is too much for people to bear. The explosions have destroyed silos containing around 85% of the country’s grain when bread was already scarce. A warehouse containing medical supplies was lost as well. People are being turned away from hospitals, the injured are being treated in the streets. There are not enough words in the English language to express the awfulness of this absolute tragedy. Suffering heaped upon suffering — physical, emotional, psychological, financial. We can donate. We can meditate, or pray. We can continue to follow the plight of the people of Lebanon and care. My heart is heavy tonight.
Day 124 in the time of coronavirus and it was an exciting and healing day bringing with it a brief return to an experience that has always been a highlight of winter, something that brightened the bleakness of the season - the Auckland International Film Festival. This year the event has slipped by almost unnoticed without its usual weighty, informative and easy to follow booklet and mostly lacking a venue. In the main we have to watch online on a computer or apple tv. In the weekends though there are a just a few screenings at random cinemas, but not the beloved Auckland Civic.
I know. I know. I know. We are lucky to be able to engage in even the most minimal form of crowd activity in the time of lockdown. (Am I fully appreciating my good fortune, I wonder, or am I too focussed on how eerily quiet the city seems, apocalyptic almost on a Sunday in the viaduct, all the brand new apartment blocks standing empty?) But for today anyway it was a tonic to view a rare and precious feminist film set in Saudi Arabia, intelligently scripted, powerful, heart-warming, dismaying - oh the gender divide - and intensely thought-provoking. Then for the visual narrative to be amplified with a musical score featuring the exotic, and sometimes lonely, wandering sound of the oud, just stunning.
There has been discussion recently about the Netflix series ‘Unorthodox’ and its insight into Jewish Hasidic culture. This film, ‘A Perfect Candidate’ provided a similar fascinating frame by frame slice of contemporary life within a Middle Eastern Islamic culture, one I know little about. That is what I love about the medium of cinema, its facility to lift me from the mundane reality of everyday life in little New Zealand into other worlds, other cultures, other geographies, offering a chance to learn more and ponder more about the wonderful and perplexing wider world in which I live. This seems more important in the time of coronavirus because living here I do have a feeling of being stuck. We’ve pulled up the drawbridge and are living in quiet isolation, far from the madding world.
Tonight I took the ferry home from the city, a first, the boat slicing swiftly through the inky water away from a brilliantly lit city skyline diminishing as we moved further into the harbour towards Devonport. Sitting outside, slightly under the cover of a jutting overhead deck, feeling the chilly, slightly damp, salty air, a mist on my face, I felt a rush of adrenalin, felt energised. I could see the apartment tower, with its lights on as we crossed over. I'm not in residence yet but it lifted me to see it. And then I wended my way home through the village, along the side of Takarunga, pausing to look up through the ornamental branches of a flowering magnolia, and absorb its flushed petals softly drooping against a brushed dark grey sky. Again I knew I had made the right decision, to live here.
Day 120 in the time of coronavirus and my thoughts tonight drift over the Tasman to Melbourne and the wider state of Victoria, where people are suffering. In the last twenty four hours there have been 384 new cases and six deaths and still the numbers are rising and there seems to be no end in sight. Unbelievably Melbourne is now in a second lockdown and this time it is police-enforced, they patrol the state border, and on the northern boundary the state of New South Wales has restricted people from Victoria entering for the first time since the 1919 flu pandemic. The premier of Victoria, Daniel Andrews says, ‘I’m scared of this. We all should be.’
It is alarming how rapidly the situation has deteriorated for in mid-June, Melbourne, like New Zealand was doing well. Life was returning to normal, or as normal as it might be in the time of coronavirus. Restaurants, gyms, the beaches were open again. There was talk of a trans-Tasman bubble opening anytime soon. Instead the case numbers in Victoria are now almost as high as in the UK.
Supposedly it all began at a city hotel when there was contact between security guards and seven returning travellers in quarantine, who then later tested covid-19 positive. They say the transmission could have been the result of something as seemingly innocuous as the sharing of a cigarette lighter, although that is an unfortunate analogy as cigarettes are not innocuous. Then it spread like lightening through public housing towers and aged care facilities and into the community stretching hospital and medical resources so thin that specialist medical teams from around the country are now being brought in.
It makes me sad. Melbourne is one of my favourite cities. For many years I travelled there annually and indulged, for that is how it feels now in what was another life with its overseas travel to soak up culture, moving freely following individualistic whims and, in Melbourne, steeping in the vast array of cultural activities on offer. I was happy wandering the streets under the leafy plane trees, threading my way down tiny lanes amongst some of the most splendid examples of Victorian Gothic architecture anywhere, big and solid and monumental, smaller, detailed, glorious. Always I would visit Butterfield’s church opposite the railway station, with its constructional polychromy and if I was lucky find a pew and listen to a choir rehearsing. And of course the art galleries, I feasted on the exhibitions.
My last trip was in 2017, six months before my marriage ended, when I was fortunate to see a retrospective of the work of Australian artist John Olsen, his paintings, panels, sketches, ceramics, tapestries, his workbooks and journal entries — oh he was a writer as well, such descriptive, lyrical prose. His work is featured in the photograph here. To think that those galleries are now closed. Streets are silent. The people are indoors.
I was considering all this when I sent a text message to my cousin who lives there. We hadn’t been in contact for some time but reading her reply I felt instantly close. Her words illustrated the hardship people are facing better than any news item. She said they’d had a scare last week. Her husband had been in contact with somebody who had tested positive with Covid-19. Everyone was then tested. So far all the associates of this surgeon were negative. Then she wrote that she has her good days and bad days. ‘It’s really hard to keep the spirits up on the cold grey days when the news is bad and there is no end to the stories of the selfish types who believe it’s a conspiracy, refuse to wear masks, continue to hold parties and large family gatherings, don’t isolate when they are Covid-19 positive etc etc. This time has been an insight into human nature.’ Then she said something that surprised me. She wrote I had been her saviour. What could she mean? It was my book, the pain journal I wrote almost nine years ago, ‘Giving Yourself to Life’ which was about a confounding neurological pain I suffered, and still suffer, and finding a way to live with the raspy, snapping sensations that then grew into a kind of treatise on all the pain that afflicts the human spirit over the course of a life. At that time, in my life there was earthquake pain watching a beloved city fall down, for I was writing in 2011 — 2012, there was the pain of past losses, there was the pain of witnessing my mother living valiantly with MS. My cousin said she turns to this book for inspiration ‘when I am down. It resides permanently by my bed now.’ Her revelation is moving. I had no idea when I was writing that book all that time ago that it might one day help someone during the pandemic.
Day 116 and a baby girl has been born and her name is Sage, wise one. And all is well in this small corner of the world in the time of coronavirus. Each day in the presence and knowledge of the cherub’s arrival in my life, I, her grandmother, feel blessed for the birth of a baby in challenging times does feel like a precious gift, something to be celebrated and attended to. During the week of her birth and the one that followed I went silent, letting my journal lapse. I needed time to process the momentous event, to sink deeper into its wake. I was exhausted too and needing early bedtimes, not sitting up late on wintery nights writing up my journal.
It was a busy time. There was the time before her arrival staying with the family and then caring for my grandson when his mother went, first into hospital, and then to the birthing unit nestled in the folds of the green hills of Warkworth. The following day I took my grandson to meet his sister. Straight onto the bed he went to hug his mama, and then to hold Sage in his lap, his voice lifting to a higher pitch as he repeated, ‘I love her. I love her,’ I watched him kiss her forehead and then give her skin a quick lick to see what she tasted like. Beautiful.
My cousin had sent gifts for them both and Remy clasped his present, a monkey wheat bag calling it Bravo, although the name keeps changing. He has a gift for naming. On arriving home Bravo was placed with care on a cushion to sleep and covered with table mats to keep her warm. At bedtime Bravo lay near him on a pillow under the duvet. As I was leaving the room he said, ‘I love this baby. It can talk!’ The inanimate object, unlike his sister obviously. He’s a character.
Meeting my grand-daughter for the first time, holding her, feeling her smallness, her softness, my heart melted. The feeling was one of wonder as I looked upon the dark, dark eyes of the newborn and marvelled at the miracle and mystery of nature and reproduction. I thought of how people sometimes say of a new baby he or she is an ‘old soul’ and I felt that. She arrives with many of her qualities already set in her DNA, she arrives bearing a fascinating mix of family resemblances, characteristics and quirks yet to be revealed, she arrives with her human potential intact within her and awaiting development. Where will she go? Who will she be?
Thinking upon this some more I am reminded of Margaret Mahy and her answer to my question on the birth of her first child Penny for my book 'Her Life’s Work'. Her thoughts were profound.
“It was one of the most astonishing moments of my life because you look at the baby and think, on the one hand you are meeting her for the first time and on the other you have lived very intimately with her inside you, and suddenly there she is. Implicit in this baby are quite a lot of the things she is going to be. Her appearance is established, you don’t know whether she is going to be academic or sporting, but somewhere in her those capacities are contained.
I think when you first see your baby there is that feeling of, ‘I knew it was you. I knew it was you all the time,’ even though we were meeting for the first time. It was just such a huge magical feeling of fulfilment and I remember that very clearly. And I remember that on the one hand they lie there with only their relatively brief pasts, but somehow or other the future is implicit in them as they lie there and all sorts of possibility, and of course you immediately love them. You did before they were born, but when you see the actual baby your love takes on a specific shape and form and there’s an oddity that I’m seeing this baby for the first time and yet I already know it.
And it was the same sense of wonder with the second baby, Bridget, too but there was more confidence because I’d done it before.”
This entry began on Day 109 in the time of coronavirus and then was interrupted. Here it is, with the up to date entry arriving next. I’ve been aware of the noise from our mainstream media detailing the latest breakouts from isolation facilities. To me existing in a quieter zone right now the hyperbole and agitation seems unnecessary and counterproductive in the time of a pandemic. I think again why is it necessary to focus on the negative, the dark, the grisly, the sensational and exaggerate their significance? Where does this code of practice and mode of being come from? It seems a mile away from a zen way of being in the world. For the fact remains we are in an enviable position globally. We’ve had no community transmission of the virus now for two months. We’re doing as well as Taiwan and Vietnam, indeed it’s because we followed the example of Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen, who went into lockdown swiftly back in January to stem the spread of the virus and eliminated it, that we’ve done so well. The real issue worth pondering here is the role of the media in the dissemination of information. For there is an imbalance in both national and international responses to these successes, whereby our story has been privileged over that of Taiwan and Vietnam who led the way. Why is that? The world is but one people. We are all the same under the skin, there is no distinction because of skin colour, we are unified, as my mother who was Baha'i, would say. And yet all is not equal. This is a race issue. In an article published in The Spinoff, ‘Amid all NZ’s Covid back-patting, let’s not forget the country that did it first,’ Ron Hanson, a kiwi journalist living in Taiwan challenges our racist stereotypes. I will post it for it is thought-provoking reading.
The other reason for feeling removed from the chatter is that it pales into insignificance in the midst of awaiting the birth of a grandchild. For now my own reality has slowed down to child-time as I stay with my grandson and his parents. This is a refreshingly simple and heart-warming place to be. As I type on my laptop in my grandson’s bedroom— I’m sharing his room — occasionally I hear a small sigh reminding me he is here. Sleeping peacefully.
In the time of waiting we went down to the beach this afternoon, his happy place, and I watched him play. He was content to sit for a while on the tartan rug and contemplate the wind surfers, their bright purple and turquoise sails, like wings in a lego set, cutting across the sea and then to explore and dream and imagine on his own without input from me. This seemed a perfect way for a child to pass time as he faces into a major change in the life of his family, the arrival of a sibling. We lost count, today, of how many times he said to his mother, ‘Mama I love you.’ And she replied steadily,’ Yes I know that and I love you.’ Silence. ‘Mama I will always be part of your family.’ Yes, she said, 'you will.
Up and down the small dune he went chatting to himself. Up and down, up and down. He found a stick and then another and poked them in the sand. Poke, poke, poke. And what do you know he flicked up a grub. I’d never seen such a creature in the sand before, it was fat and pale like a huhu grub, with many tiny feelers wriggling. I really don’t know what it was. We examined it for a moment and then decided to help it back into its hole. Then we made our way home.