Day seventeen, and today I came upon an entry in an earlier journal, dated February 24, written one month before we went into lockdown. I had just moved into this refuge on the side of Takarunga and was facing into a different set of stresses that also felt deeply challenging. In the second sentence of the entry it was as though I’d had a premonition of what lay in store for I referred to the writing as my ‘survival log.’ I went on to describe my nomadic journey since losing my home and how often over the nine months I had thought of and been inspired by a woman who had survived a far more desperate and extreme situation than my own.
The story of US academic Haleh Esfandiari is recorded in her memoir ‘My Home My Prison.’ It describes how she was arrested and placed in solitary confinement the notoriously harsh Evin Prison in Tehran, following a visit to see her mother in Iran. She was on her way to the airport, enroute to home, her husband and family, when she was apprehended at knifepoint, her luggage and US passport taken from her. There followed four frightening months in prison with no certainty of when the nightmare would end, no clear date for release.
During her imprisonment she did these things to hold onto her sanity. She had eight blankets and used six for her bed, one for her book, she was allowed a copy of the Koran, and one for her clothes. Each morning she would fold her bed away to clear a space for her own exercise regimen. This involved pacing her cell back and forth and she used two water bottles for Pilates exercises to strengthen her arms. Over the period of her confinement Haleh Esfandiari wrote two books in her head, one was a story for her grandchildren. Each day a guard would take her to a closed-in area on the roof for a 30-minute break. While there she washed her clothes under a faucet using detergent. She always changed into clean clothes for dinner. When the ordeal was finally over and she emerged from prison, though she was emaciated and in poor health, she said she had been well treated.
In my journal entry I wrote ‘I thought of her yesterday as I set up my new living space in this granny flat. I spread my bright yellow-gold linen tablecloth bought at a market last year over the table and claimed it as my writing space. Then I placed my small gold pottery jug for pens near the lamp provided. I’d purchased the jug from my friend Sonia from Babushka. I‘d noticed it on her desk, with pens in it, and asked whether it was for sale. She looked surprised, ‘Do you like it?’ She told me it dated back to teacher’s college days where she’d trained as an art specialist. Very generously she said ‘Yes’ I could have it.
Also travelling with me are two ceramic plates upon which I place small arrangements of fruits and vegetables - there are kiwifruit and an avocado on one plate while the white pottery plate is currently holding a collection of pounamu and three large white stones gathered from the sea shore at Kaikoura, before Christmas. During the big earthquake the beach was shunted up several metres and in the process all kinds of treasures were revealed, including the jagged chunks of limestone. Flowers in a vase are an essential fixture at my writing desk and I carry a collection of pottery vessels for them as well.
Other essential routines established on this wandering journey, to help create a sense of order and structure, involve keeping surfaces tidy and clean and organised, folding my soft blankets each day and placing them at the end of the coverlet and draping an amber merino shawl over the big wire basket that sits on a chair, beside the table, holding my files. Perhaps the most critical feature of the travelling collection are the special books to inspire the writing. Currently I‘m travelling with Adam Nicholson’s ’The Making of Poetry’. I have volumes of poetry Vincent O’Sullivan’s ‘Being Here’, Fleur Adcock’s ‘High Tide in the Garden’ and Fiona Kidman's 'This Change in the Light' and a memoir by nature writer Terry Tempest Williams, ‘Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place,’ a brilliant, bitter memoir about a wildlife sanctuary at Great Salt Lake, under threat from rising water levels and her mother’s dying from cancer caused by exposure to the fallout of atomic bomb tests in the 1950s. It is a stunning piece of writing, her passages of nature writing shine luminous and are a reassuring counterpoint to the terrible, heartbreaking tale of destruction and death.