Day 23 of lockdown and a busy and fulfilling day with the very first session of the new course ‘In Extremis: Writing a Journal in the Time of Coronavirus,’ underway this afternoon. Eight bright women, bringing a glorious wealth of life experience and stimulating perspectives to the practice of writing in the time of coronavirus, perspectives we are in need of. When, for instance, I referred to lockdown as an ‘unimaginable scenario’ — even two months ago many of us could not have dreamt this up — I learned this was not true for everyone. Plagues are known in other parts of the world, along with war and bombs. I was reminded then just how sheltered we are here, tucked away from the big world movements elsewhere, on our three small south pacific islands. We lost men in the war, we saw or heard about them coming home faded wrecks of their former selves but we didn’t endure bombs falling around us, the ear splitting noise and flare of fire, we didn’t see whole streets, neighbourhoods, significant landmarks falling and going up in smoke, we didn’t experience hunger and when it was over and the reconstruction began we didn’t suffer recurring nightmares, nor stress responses each time a siren rang out. But this is not to diminish the experiences of people in Christchurch during the earthquakes, nor the very real test the current situation presents to those of us not prepared from birth for such an occurrence. We are all of us working hard to adapt to the strange new world we find ourselves in. We’re doing our best.
Apart from leaping outside, dodging the rain spatters, to hang my hand washed towels and tea towels on the line — they’re still out there in the chilly, wet night — I spent the day indoors fine tuning my introductory lecture and preparing session notes. When the teaching was concluded I disappeared out the door and into the darkening evening. To my amazement, I wasn’t alone. There were people walking in silence along the footpaths, some on the side street taking up the middle of the road. Who would have thought it would be like this on a Friday night at 6.30pm, our streets alive with people walking mindfully and quietly, taking their exercise, staying healthy. I wish this aspect of lockdown could remain in place when all this is over.
There is something magical about walking alone down darkened streets, stepping through the fall of light from windows lit up bright and starry, sources of luminosity amongst the velvety shapes of rose bushes, softly patterned trees and clipped hedging. Now and then I could see signs of life through the windows, people working in their kitchens, or at their desks looking at computer screens, or gathered on sofas sitting in the blue light of a television screen. I felt comforted by the evidence of their lives, not unlike my own, and connected. I had company on the walk.
I think I have been fortunate to have washed up in Devonport, a seaside suburb rich in early colonial domestic architecture, planted with beautiful gardens, and very often, on the rises there are sea vistas. It enchants me. I said to my son in Sydney recently, it’s like Merivale only with a hilly topography, and sea on three sides, and two extraordinary volcanic cones, rising suddenly from the landscape offering viewing stations of the vast sea and city panorama. And he said, ‘I like Merivale.’ He got it. He grew up in Auckland but he knows the charm of the historic houses of Merivale too.
When I sat down, a little while ago to write of my day I thought of Anais Nin, one of the most prolific journal writers of her time and certainly the most daring and brilliant. Her work from the 1960s onwards, coinciding with the emergence of second stage feminism, issued a clarion call to women to explore the intimate details of their lives on the pages of a journal. She wrote this about the pleasures of a journal:
"We write to taste life twice, in the moment, and in retrospection."
That is how I feel when I have a journal in progress, more alive, more attuned to the passing moments, my focus is sharper. Then the pleasure when I turn to the journal at the end of the day to record my thoughts, remembering what stood out and putting it into words, the second tasting of my experience. Nin went on to write:
"When I don't write, I feel my world shrinking. I feel I am in a prison. I feel I lose my fire and my colour. It should be a necessity, as the sea needs to heave, and I call it breathing."