Day 26 and the nation tuned in at 4pm to hear the announcement from our leader, Jacinda Ardern, outlining the plan going forward. She began with the positives. The number of new cases of covid-19 trending down — just seven and two probable today. This is a sign of progress. Our position internationally is enviable. The strategies implemented early and decisively by the government, in consultation with our top public health professionals, are being viewed as exemplary by most experts in global public health. Jacinda says our sacrifice has paid off. And then she said, ‘But.’ We must be patient for a little while longer. Alert level four is to be extended by a further week, making a total time in lockdown of five weeks all up. Then, all going well, we will drop to level three for two weeks by which time the position will be reassessed and a decision will be made on the model going forward. This will make a difference to many workers and employers in the construction, forestry and food industries and to business retailers. Over this next week, Jacinda explained, those businesses can begin preparations for re-opening in controlled circumstances. The advice to the rest of us however is to stay home. If we venture out for exercise we must continue to observe social distancing, rigorously, and not drop our game. Keep washing and drying your hands, cough into your elbow.
We hang on her every word. We have put our trust in this bright star of a woman, and her ministers and her director general of health to guide us safely through the crisis.
The over-riding mood, it seemed to me, was one of cautious optimism — better to be careful than rush heedlessly ahead of ourselves and end up in lockdown again because the virus has regained control. I don’t imagine anyone will be celebrating wildly tonight, although people in the businesses identified will be mightily relieved. The mood otherwise amongst the rest of us will most likely be one of quiet resignation.
Why then do I feel low? Why does the world, from where I see it, continue to wobble? Do others also query the bold promises, relying as they do on ‘objective ‘ analysis and projections from statistical data, which are just that, fragile and subject to the vagaries of many an uncontrollable and unknowable factor including the whim of a capricious virus. And how will the drop in levels play out in reality? I want, desperately, to leave lockdown but I worry that when we begin interacting again and people return to confined workplaces to mix in close proximity with one another that the virus will spread again? The thought of schools and childcare centres going back too early alarms me. I recognise the fiendishly difficult dilemma facing governments around the world at this moment, offsetting the containment of the virus against a terrifying economic slide that might take years to climb out of.
It might be that presently I’m struggling with being in limbo, wanting to find a home of my own and desperate for access to my archives, my printer for goodness sake so I can get cracking on my new project and with the rest of my life. It might be that I crave a hug. My daughter, out in the country, posted a photo of herself on Facebook hugging a tree. I could see her baby bump in silhouette. Tantalising in the virtual distance. I don’t think I’m alone in feeling vulnerable. Talking with people these past few days I’ve discovered many are struggling financially, interpersonally, psychologically, emotionally colliding with one another in their enforced bubbles. Some people just shouldn’t be squashed in together at this time. Worries about income combined with toxic personalities make for a disastrously volatile mix.
This is why, tonight, I’ve gone back to Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk whose wise words formed the epigraph to my pain journal,
“You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognise the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope.”
Thomas Merton was the son of New Zealand artist Owen Merton, the painter of soft flowing watercolours of Canterbury and also the Cornish and French coastlines. It was in France that Owen met his wife, the American-born artist Ruth Jenkins, and there that their elder son Thomas was born in 1915. The family’s fate was ill-starred. Thomas Merton’s mother died of cancer when he was only six. He lost his father to a brain tumour when he was sixteen. His only brother went missing while flying over the English Channel in 1943. By the age of twenty-eight, Thomas Merton was entirely alone in the world.
How does a person survive multiple losses? They say that Thomas had an exuberant and turbulent youth. He was clever and could have pursued a career as an academic, but in the midst of his studies for an MA at Columbia University he suddenly renounced the material world and entered the spiritual, to become a Trappist monk at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in the rolling hills of Kentucky. That is where his writing career began. The monks, recognising his brilliance, nurtured and protected his writing practice. Between 1941 and 1968 Thomas Merton wrote over seventy books; journals, poems, philosophical writings, essays on the threat of nuclear war, on peace and justice, critiques of the writing of Albert Camus, and an autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. At the abbey he had found sanctuary and salvation. Somewhere gentle on the spirit.
I wonder whether pain drives people to do the unexpected, or perhaps it is more like falling backwards into something entirely predictable. Thomas Merton lived with back pain. It was so bad that he underwent an operation when he was fifty-three. During the recovery he fell deeply in love with a student nurse, ‘M’, who was half his age. He wrote about this short, doomed love affair in 'Learning to Love' describing the crisis and his struggle to choose the right path. In the end he relinquished M but reading between the lines of his journal, it seems he never got over loving M and losing her.
Thomas Merton is regarded as one of the great spiritual writers of the twentieth century, but he was human, too, flawed, like all of us, and searching for love. Perhaps when he wrote that you do not need to know precisely where you are going but ‘you can embrace the challenges with courage, faith and hope’, he was trying to find a way to live with the pain of his many deep losses. In the midst of the crisis that is Covid-19, Thomas Merton’s words ring out as a summons to draw on our deep inner resources and try to ‘embrace the challenges with courage, faith and hope.’