Day 48 and as commercial activity resumes and everybody begins the process of trying to inject warmth into a seriously battered and diminished economy some strange things are appearing out of the woodwork. Ages ago I consulted with a 'new age' dietician about my inner health. At the last visit, and it really was my last, I left the consulting room with a huge thorny wand of aloe in my hands that was to be steeped in boiling water and consumed for the purpose of 'healing your gut', and a feeling of disquiet. I had mentioned the intractable stresses in my life at that time and she said ‘you could always slip something into the person’s tea.’
Yesterday, because I’m still on the database, I received an email about a ‘longevity fasting diet,’ set to start when we transfer into level 2. I’ve never seen anything so silly, or so punitive. Day 1 was the generous starting day, you got a breakfast muffin, detox green soup for lunch, 10 olives as an afternoon snack and cauliflower with chumichumi sauce and an avocado pot mousse for dessert. It rapidly deteriorated from there. The olive snacks disappeared, there was only one more dessert, the avocado pot mousse on day 3. The meals were the same horrid soups swapped about and one pasta dish which seemed odd, pasta being heavy on calories. Am I being unkind? Of course it is well-intentioned, aimed at making you very thin and extending your life span, if that is really what you want, but now I’m remembering something more. I had to do a saliva test for this clinic, I can't remember why, and it had to be achieved first thing in the morning, before food and water had been consumed whilst in a state of dehydration. I had to spit and spit and spit into a plastic vial up to a certain level and in the midst of this a courier arrived and was waiting at the front door, for me to finish so he could despatch the sample to the Hawkes Bay whacky testing centre. I never got a result because the sample was insufficient!
Aue. The time of silence, when we tapped the pause button on consumer spending and stayed at home and the birds got louder and the fish returned to shallow waters, this precious time is coming to an end and the realisation is bittersweet. Emerging from this gentle vacuum of peace and quiet, this cocoon where in some respects I would like to huddle away for longer, into the madding world of buying and trading feels vexatious to the spirit. The words of Desiderata reverberate, ‘ Go placidly amid the noise and haste and remember what peace there may be silence.’ It feels a bit like that. We will remember, won't we?
I have a hope that the time in freeze frame has changed the way many of us think and operate going forward. Alongside this statement goes an awareness that such a position is a luxury. There are people around the world at this moment, who are sick with the virus and any number of other illnesses, there are people dying and people who have died from covid-19, there are those made homeless and jobless by the economic meltdown and they are all suffering. We owe it to those who have lost so much during this unprecedented time and to those who will continue struggling into the future, to be more determined than ever to resist the light and trivial. I hope we will put our energies into reaching out and helping others more. That we will be more conscious of the irrationality and oddness of many modern day trends — the diet industry, the plastic cosmetic fantastic industry, the dominance and supersaturation of sporting activities to the exclusion of other ways of being (do we really need so much of this?) and another thing, though I recognise that our national airline has suffered and there has been a terrible loss of jobs and people are hurting, I am glad the planet has been spared its regular dousing of toxic fumes for almost eight weeks now. It is my hope going forward that the national carrier in an attempt to rein in expenditure will decide not to waste money on any further puerile safety videos and that refreshingly, like the old days, we will return to a far simpler and probably more effective method of communication whereby airline crew will stand in the aisles, legs firmly planted on the floor, as they demonstrate with seat belts and oxygen masks what to do in an emergency. That we will choose simplicity over fads.
Many will be glad to resume some of the old routines, hairdressers will be busy. A famous elder author I know said she longs for a massage. There is much I could do without and will have to if I want to continue the writing life. To live modestly that is the intention. Yesterday I gave myself a hard time because I overspent my food budget by $10, this was eight days after the last shop so maybe the extra spend was legitimate but the fact that I gave myself a talking to was a good sign I thought. How long does it take to shift old habits I wonder and was eight weeks in lockdown sufficient?
A moment ago I looked up from my desk and saw a kite soaring over the channel. The lime green sail caught my attention through the openings in the wooden venetian blinds. It moved gracefully, pulled along by the action of the wind and the surfer tugging on the lines down below. I couldn’t see the person creating the joy, it was too, too far away. If it was a line of music the swaying of this kite would be the soaring, lyrical line of the second movement of Dvorak’s New World Symphony. If it drew shapes, it would be cursive handwriting, like my grandmother’s rising and falling fluid script. Soon the floating fabric was joined by another, this one turquoise and together they performed the dance of scarves over the dull metal sea. Watching them play I found myself thinking how out there the wind would be hollering in the surfer’s ears and a mighty battle with the elements would be underway that would be both exhausting and exhilarating all at once, whereas in here it was blissfully silent.
Day 47 and the big announcement and explanation this afternoon about alert level 2 and how it will play out from this Thursday. No more than ten people in any one space is a key principle. Maintain social distancing, two metres apart at all times with people outside your bubble. Do shop but limit your contact with others. Act fast and report to your doctor, or Healthline if you detect even the slightest sniffle. Work from home if you can and stay safe. Jacinda was wearing a bold metal neck plate for the media conference. It glinted between the two curtains of her long dark tresses. The adornment looked Egyptian. I thought how appropriate. In some respects Jacinda, with her pale skin and chiselled features, the black long hair has the look and stance of an Egyptian Goddess. She would be Maat, or Mayet the goddess of Truth, Morality, Justice and Balance, daughter of the sun deity Ra and the moon god Toth. Mayet kept the stars in motion and the seasons changing. She maintained order in the cosmos and stability in the universe. And that, to me, is Jacinda our prime minister and what she has achieved for New Zealanders over the past nearly eight weeks. She acted decisively and came in early with lockdown. She averted catastrophe. And now she is opening the country again to rebuild the economy, earlier than her counterparts. She has done an amazing job along with her team. The words of my friend in public health continue to resonate. She said, ‘This has been a dream government to work with.’
While those thoughts were running I was observing Jacinda’s stance as she delivered the weighty speech, long and dense with information as it was. Occasionally I saw her swaying, a small motion, from foot to foot — I’m sure Helen Clark did something similar — as she gripped the lectern. Perhaps the movement is designed to pump blood through the system and help the orator stay focussed. I’m not really sure but it had me thinking about the colossal juggling act she has been performing, this woman who is by turn prime minister and strong leader, Egyptian goddess and ethereal creature, young mother and partner, somebody who clearly loves children, a family person and I was thinking about her youth and the extraordinary burden placed on her shoulders. I wonder sometimes how she stays standing.
This last weekend I saw a post from Jacinda on Instagram. It was a photograph of a very short wooden stool placed before a low bench. On the bench there was a chopping board with one onion and one head of broccoli. Jacinda said she’d been wondering about the very low bench and it’s function. Finally she had worked out a use for it. A place to sit to peel and chop vegetables. In that action you have her humility. She is someone we can relate to. When you consider how many leaders fall into the trap of believing they are mightier than the people they govern Jacinda’s lack of vanity gleams even brighter.
I enjoyed that. Writing my tribute to a fine human being.
And to finish on the flowers, featured here. They were picked yesterday for my mother. Back in February I had pruned the Beaglehole’s climbing roses. They ramble along two fences near the back garden. It was a scorching hot Saturday when I went to work. I saw this as something to do while my stomach was churning over the approaching mediation. There is something about working in a garden in times of stress that can be a great salve to the spirit. Yesterday I happened to notice that the rose nearest to where I park my car had one pale pink bloom, just the one. I took it as a thank you from the plant and picked it.
Day 46 and it was mother’s day and it came with a hard decision. I had to decline an invitation to accompany the family on a picnic. I didn’t want to stretch the conditions of alert level 3. It would have involved a drive north and we knew my grandson would want a cuddle. ‘I can wait,’ I said, ‘until we have clarity on level 2.’ But oh I felt wistful. I missed the three of them and the baby bump. I missed my son in Sydney just as much. I missed my mother. The third anniversary of her death is looming in just a few days. It was on this day, in 2017, that I rang Silverdale Hospital in Christchurch — the place my mother lived when MS robbed her of her mobility — to wish her a happy mother’s day. We’d been on the phone the day before. I’d described the view across the exposed sand at Cox’s Bay, the tide was well out — the children stepping over the squelchy sand, two women walking, and in deep discussion, one wearing a pink hoodie, beautiful in the distance against the wet grey ground the pale white sky. ‘It sounds good, Deborah,’ she said. She loved this, me in the car taking her places around Auckland and describing the scene via the Bluetooth connection to my phone. Mum only had a small crackle in her chest. I remember thinking, please not pneumonia again. She’d nearly died two years earlier.
The next day I rang her again. The nurse answered and said, ‘Your mother’s condition deteriorated overnight. The doctor is here, would you like to speak to him?’ The following conversation had touched on the surreal. He said ‘What do you want me to do? Send her to hospital or keep her here. If she stays here she will die.’ My answer, said with a gulp, ‘I rang to wish my mother a happy mother’s day. Please may I talk to her.’ My mother, very crackly, came on the phone. She said, ‘Deb they’re asking me about my end of life care plan. This is unreal.’ The ambulance took her to hospital and a two and half days later she died. Looking back I feel lucky. With my brother and sister we companioned her throughout that precious time and were sitting alongside the bed, in the field of her vision, when she died. I say we were lucky because I know of people who have lost a parent in the time of coronavirus. They were separated by hundreds of miles and were unable to follow their instincts and travel to be there at the end. Thinking about them now makes me tearful.
My mother’s day. Knowing I would be alone I prepared for the day. Yesterday I’d bought a croissant, through the window of the local French patisserie, Chateaubriant on Vauxhall Road. How do you heat a croissant without an oven? I had discussed my dilemma with my Dutch friend Fredrika. The question was posed in the context of me describing how I like to demarcate the advent of the weekend. I have Friday night drinks with myself. I buy a small bottle of cherry plum kombucha specifically for this purpose. And for the weekend I have a croissant on Saturday morning. This is something from my old life; croissants and a leisurely read of the weekend paper, sharing the sections, whilst sitting in a patch of sunshine luxuriating … and she said, ‘Oh that’s easy. You cook it in a frypan.’ What? ‘You slice the croissant apart and put a little butter and your favourite jam inside, and then you butter the outsides and fry on each side until golden brown.’ I tried this with my favourite marmalade, the Anatoth brand with its juicy chunks of peel. The best way to eat the lightly browned, buttery, dripping morsel is with a knife and fork. Enjoy with a cup of organic English Breakfast tea, just the very best.
This morning over croissant and tea I read the Devonport Flagstaff from cover to cover. There I learned about the sightings of dolphins performing acrobatics in the Rangitoto channel. There was a photo of one sleek dolphin leaping on page fourteen. Apparently they’ve been feeding in the shallow waters off the beaches at Narrow Neck and Cheltenham. They’ve been attracted here by the silence. According to research, marine life, 'from oysters to mammals, are sensitive to the noise of loud motors.' Even before lockdown, on the coastline of France, some bays were closed to boat traffic, or the speed strictly limited and this has brought the fish close to shore to feed. The writers of the article Alan and Wendy Pettersen wondered whether ‘maybe we could also be as considerate here and reap the rewards’. On finishing the read I thought this is another reason why I would like to put down roots in Devonport, to read these kinds of thoughtful nature observations by local writers.
In the late afternoon a great blessing was bestowed in the form of a family video chat with a lively three year-old, who, without prompting placed a series of affectionate kisses on the screen, in the place he judged my mouth to be. Then my son, sitting on his sofa in his Sydney apartment, turned his camera on a snuggly cream house made of felt, it looked like an igloo. There in the recess, at the back, was an eight week old Scottish Fold kitten. ‘This is Sylvie,’ he said. There were cries of delight all round, ‘the cutest thing, the little darling…’ And my heart swelled to be sharing the joy with my family; my son and grandson, and daughter, and bump, and baby cat.
When I said goodbye to my son, wishing him a good first night with a new kitten in his life, he said, ‘it feels good to have two beating hearts in this apartment.’
Day 45 and the whole world appeared to be out on Narrow Neck beach today. We’d been gifted a day from the heavens. A smooth cerulean canvas stretching to the horizon, sun shining bright from the blue expanse and throwing a warm light over land and sea. On the sand it was jam-packed with people and dogs. There were toddlers sitting in their shorts and overalls in the lapping water at the tide’s edge, picking up clumps of wet sand and looking at it, and there was a woman in a bikini with a long cardigan thrown over the wet garments, because after all it is May and although the sun was lighting up the world, turning the water into sparkling diamonds, the air temperature was definitely cooler. This reminded me of another day in early February at Home Bay on the other side of the harbour. We were having a heat wave then and the small sliver of sand between the pohutukawas on the cliff and the tideline was so jammed with people we had to walk in the sea first and then make a beeline to a patch smaller than a bathing towel in size, among a seething mass of sunscreen covered humanity. On the way I remember lifting my feet high as I stepped over prone bodies, saying, excuse me, excuse me until I reached the folded picnic rug. Even in the luke-warm, grey-green water you had to steer around bodies floating feet up, faces turned to the light. I remember feeling overwhelmed by the heat and the dazzling light and the press of bodies and thinking this is awful. It’s not New Zealand the way I remember it. Get me out of here.
I think I am right about this. There seems to be a rising trend amongst parts of the population to get out and exercise. Perhaps the period in lockdown has made us tighten up our intentions, firm our resolve to make exercise an integral element in the daily routine. But some are overly intense and spoil it for others. These people assume that just because they are jogging and have worked up a sweat, and just because they are dressed in fancy slinky gear and are wearing fit bits and apple wrist watches, telling the world that a serious programme is in progress, they can career past the rest of us and almost collide. There seems to be no attempt to observe the two metre social distancing rule that will keep us safe. I get quite cross about this.
The tide was way out today. You could virtually walk all the way to Rangitoto. Around the rocks, at the southern end of the bay, the departing sea had revealed crevices and shallow basins brimming with fresh sea water. Here the surface was still, like glass and seeming to heighten the colours in dusky purple seaweed and ochre sediment. When my eye notices these things I want to stop talking and have the rocks all to myself. I want to kneel down with my hands together, bowing slightly and say thank you.
Back home I read in a-Sunday-afternoon-with-the-papers-fashion, although this was on a screen, jumping from article to article, only reading three-quarters of the way down, even less, to discover what was going on in the world. Of the 3.7 million recorded and reported cases of coronavirus (it is likely the numbers are far higher than this) there have been 264,000 deaths. The highest numbers are in the US with the UK, Spain and Italy not far behind. Next there was a study of people’s compliance in lockdown and the reasons for this. Unfortunately I failed to absorb the discussion. My attention was diverted by an unsettling online advertisement at the top right of the screen — a photo of two rats, their faces peering out of a small hole in a wall. They each had a dark pink rim, that looked like blood, around the edge of each eye. Utterly disgusting, yet frustratingly when I scrolled back up hoping they would disappear or be replaced by something better, they stayed put. I tried putting a piece of paper over the image but it showed through. It was as though the internet knew that today when I emptied my food scraps in the black compost bin beside the garden gate, I had disturbed a rat. The creature made quite a noise as it dived under the rotting kelp and out through a hole in the side. I saw the body and tail disappearing through the gap, and a flicker of movement as it sped under the fence into the neighbour’s back garden. I stayed quite calm. My heart did not jump.
Then this evening on a phone call to my son, in Sydney, we discussed the big event of tomorrow. He is collecting an eight-week old Scottish Fold kitten from its breeder. This winsome creature, a female, has a cuddly round face, black with a white nose and tummy. Its two front paws are white as well, eyes pale grey-blue. We went through a hundred French names for girl cats. Enchanting, a delightful diversion and a very happy way to round out and finish day 45 in alert level 3 in the time of coronavirus.
Day 44 and more chance meetings in the green reserve, filling up the well of emptiness that sometimes oppresses me. It is not depression exactly, it’s more a vacuum, a hole that opened inside me in childhood when first my brother died and next my father and the losses that cut our family in half, sent my dear beautiful mother into a deep grief that lasted for some years. Thank goodness there was family — grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins and family friends — who through all that time, still even now, gathered in close. I see them in a ring, holding hands around us, their shadows long on the grass, keeping us safe.
Most of the time this vacuum stays sealed but losses in the present, big changes, uncertainty, loneliness, any of those forces can trigger the feeling. Given that the condition of being human makes us vulnerable to pretty much all of those things, I fully expect the void will accompany me to the end. I’ve accepted that because there are riches too, all the creative pursuits which were nurtured by my mother for one thing and her love of the natural world and teaching me nature appreciation, her friendliness and warmth they have eased the path. I’m making it sound simple and it isn’t.
The park is getting busier. I had reached the bottom of the circular walk yesterday, when I saw a man across the grass, near the start of the rock-lined path that winds through the trees. He was standing very still eyes trained on something. I crossed the park quietly and a little uncertainly for he was dressed in rather unusual gear — old white overalls, clean but dull from lots of washing. They were tucked into dark grey gumboots. The frames of his glasses were dark and rectangular, the kind that a scientist might wear, or a professor and he had on a hat, made from soft cotton, the dark blue colour had faded to a washed out blue-grey. And this was interesting, he was holding about fifteen bright green beans in one hand. I wasn’t sure what to do so I asked him what he was looking at. ‘A partridge,’ he said, ‘over there.’ I looked but I couldn’t see it, anywhere. I wondered if it was real. There was a shade structure with a roof blocking my view though. By the time I reached him it had gone. ‘It was over there where that sparrow is now,’ he said, smiling at me.
I didn’t used to be this curious, or is it nosy, I’m unsure. Neither did I strike up conversations with strangers but it seems that in the time of coronavirus I throw caution to the wind and open my mouth and the questions fall out. I learned that he lives in the house beyond the karo trees on the corner of the park. a very pleasant man, a retired scientist from the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Auckland. He didn’t tell me this at the time, but I googled him later and discovered that some years ago he received funding to trace the origins of human influenza by studying traces of the virus in Adelie penguin dung samples in Antarctica.
‘You’ve been picking beans,’ I said. And that’s when I discovered he is one of four gardeners who tend the community gardens on the edge of the park. I’ve often looked through the mesh fence and admired the musky mauve flowers of the cosmos, the scarlet geraniums in their raised beds, the salad greens and herbs and I’ve wondered about the good people who grow things for the benefit of a community. Apparently I’m welcome to join. They need new members. I also learned he is a beekeeper. That’s why he was dressed in overalls and why they were tucked into his boots.
Later at home I opened my inbox and there was an email from the scientist. It had come via the contact page on my website. He’d sent me links to three writers, a Swedish journalist and a couple, both of whom write, who live further down the street from the park. Four writers in two days.
Day 43. What I really wanted to write about yesterday was a chance encounter in the park. The day began with washing, this time in a proper machine, not by hand. I will admit to having grown tired of wringing clothes with my bare hands and hoisting them soggy and heavy onto the line. It's an activity better suited to summertime. The weather these past few days had been rainy, squally, cold. Finally this morning it dawned bright and blue, a perfect day for drying clothes. When I’d pegged the last towel on the line I decided to go directly into the park. Normally I arrive there later in the day.
Over the weeks since lockdown began this beautiful reserve has been largely deserted. Shortly before we went into level three I came upon the gathering of dope smoking teenagers in the shadowy glade. There was Jude collecting mushrooms from the soggy ground that same day. Then the day before yesterday I saw a woman with a tall white dog with black spots on its coat, she was swaying and the dog was cavorting gracefully in the long green grass, the pair of them performing a slow dance.
This morning, as I was almost through my second swift walk around the perimeter and on my way up through the thicket of native trees along the path bordered by low rock walls, I happened upon a man on his way down. ‘Hello,’ we both said at once. And then I turned back and said, ‘I haven’t see you here before. Do you live nearby?’ He turned around and pointed further up the hill to the huge old Victorian house I’ve often considered from my seat in the rocky nook. There is one large, square bay window on the end of this building that receives the last of the afternoon sun. A kitchen is just discernible on the far wall and perhaps a table and seats nearer the glass. I like to imagine what it might be like sitting in the snug sunporch gazing at the view over the park and up the volcanic cone. Once or twice I’ve seen a figure, female I think, insubstantial and shadowy in the deep recess, but mostly the room stands empty.
The man I met, lives with his wife and two sons in a flat on the other side of the rambling two-storeyed house. I learned a lot in a very short space of time. I think this is an unexpected consequence of lockdown. Our enforced isolation has made us yearn for actual connection with other human beings. You forget, until you start a spontaneous conversation, how easy and pleasant is the process, with just air around you and lovely native trees, very different from staring at a screen and getting eye strain.
I discovered that the man on the path is from California, and oh joy is another writer, self-employed like me. He has a doctorate in philosophy and has taught critical thinking skills and Early Modern Philosophy at Auckland University. He also has a background in information technology and a past career as a computer programmer. Now he works as a copywriter, he’s written parenting articles too, and there is a big novel on the go. He runs a bicycle repair shop. I’ve noticed this about writers. They’re often highly skilled in several areas because the writing life doesn’t pay the bills.
The conversation roamed over different subjects mostly to do with writing. There was his reading of New Zealand literature and the enjoyment of comparing it with American literature. He’d just finished Janet Frame's 'Faces in the Water' the novel she based on her experience of life in a psychiatric unit. He commented on the ending, ’it was gripping. Just stunning writing.' We discussed Frank Sargeson as well, the bleakness of his stories. I can’t see beyond that. Pointing towards the Rangitoto channel I asked him whether he’d read the story about the two men who row out into the middle at low tide and one leaves the other stranded on a shallow bank, unable to swim, and rows away fast. Sargeson’s stories often end like that on a sinister twist.
We discussed the appeal of Devonport. His family loves it here. The children attend Devonport Primary School. ‘It's fantastic,’ he said. ‘What makes it fantastic?’ I asked. ‘It is on a volcano!’ And the teaching is very good too apparently.
We could have talked all morning but his wife was at home juggling her work with minding the children. He was carrying a hemp grocery bag. He considered it now and said, ‘I just hopped out to collect some kindling for the fire. I’m predicting a chilly night.’
Day 42 and I am going to write a little about ethics which was the subject of the journal session this evening although I’m not sure I want to. It is a huge subject, a minefield often and tricky to navigate in a practical sense. How, for instance do you write about the people who figure in your life — significant others, family, friends, colleagues, acquaintances — while protecting their right to privacy? How do you avoid hurting people if the portrait is not always flattering? The dilemma is how to balance your right to express your thoughts openly, honestly, insightfully if you can, with their entitlement to privacy and respect. And how do you stay safe yourself? How much to reveal, what to leave out and how to achieve something satisfying without annoying your audience, because a curious and perceptive reader will sniff out omissions and silences, these are all dilemmas the writer has to consider.
One of the challenges for the journal writer is how to navigate the pressure that arises from the common perception of the genre as a confessional mainly. This carries with it a weighty expectation that you will reveal all, leave nothing out, in short write an exposé of your life. But is it possible to provide access to your inner life, to supply the kind of detail that is expected — the hidden passions, secrets, dreams and yearnings, the fears and insecurities — without compromising your privacy? I don’t honestly know the answer. But this is why I have a deep respect for the writers who have plumbed the depths and in the process allowed us to learn from them. I’m thinking of Thomas Merton, Anais Nin, May Sarton, Kate Llewellyn… And yet I’m also aware of how they have been diminished and judged by their critics, for their efforts.
In our discussion today the journal writers considered other dimensions of the journal form as well, for there is so much more, there are the dazzling strands of nature writing woven through the journals of all the writers mentioned above that offer inspiration and delight to the reader. In an historical sense a journal provides a window onto how people lived at a daily level during a particular moment in time. Think of the seventeenth diaries of English writer Samuel Pepys, written over ten years and how this record of daily life is now prized for the glimpse it allowed into the life of an English naval administrator and politician and his wife, poor Elisabeth Pepys. On Wednesday 1 January 1661/62 Samuel wrote, “Waking this morning out of my sleep on a sudden, I did with my elbow hit my wife a great blow over her face and nose, which waked her with pain, at which I was sorry and to sleep again.”
One of the pleasures to be had in reading his journal 360 years on is the discovery that people all that time ago, weren’t vastly different from us. They were flawed, they fell down, they got angry, they loved, they yearned for more. In this context a journal, your journal hopefully, written in the time of coronavirus will offer insight into how lives were lived at a critical historic juncture in the early 21st century. It is this aspect of the journal that appeals to me. More than any other written form, apart from the personal letter, a journal offers a window onto people’s experience at a given moment in time, it brings history vividly and intimately to life in a way that an academic history can not.
It is late and I think I have strayed off the topic. Ethics. There are so many dimensions to consider it can tie you in knots trying to get it right.
My advice is to write. Write with feeling, write with urgency, express exactly what you need to now, as if you have been waiting all your life for this moment. And enjoy the process. Allow yourself to revel in the pleasure of releasing thoughts and feelings that may have been building inside for a long time possibly, and committing them to the page or the computer screen. That is the first task. Later in the edit you will have time to consider the implications of what you have written. This is where you can begin the process of sharing relevant passages, trialling them with a neutral reader first, then showing them to the person concerned. In my work as a biographer this is the part where it gets interesting. I think of it as negotiating the content. It involves trust and a deep engagement with the people concerned and ultimately leads to more writing, expansion and deepening of the content. In the case of my own personal pain journal the process that I embarked on with my mother, where I sent her the relevant passages of memoir and asked her to check and approve the content, there was learning and healing on both sides. (In the photo accompanying this entry my mother is seated on the right of Margaret Mahy who featured in my book 'Her Life's Work'. With both women there was a participatory process whereby we worked together on the text until we were satisfied. Then the books went to print.)
The other thing I will say is this. I think a journaller needs to be brave and a little bit tough. You have to create a carapace around yourself as you go, because for the journal to be worthwhile it ultimately does require you to open up and give of yourself and share something of your vulnerability.
Day 41 and still I’m feeling invigorated by the collaborative writing exercise yesterday and all the enjoyment to be had in letting the imagination run, and by tuning in last night to hear the work of other writers engaged in chronicling covid-19. This was a vast improvement on the weekend when I had reached the end of my tether and was feeling lonely, bored, wistful at the thought of not being able to visit my grandson, wanting things to change. I wonder whether it is like this for other people? The pendulum swings evenly for a bit and then something or somebody knocks it off course and the steady momentum is lost.
There are days here where life feels manageable and even enjoyable and then next morning it all comes crashing down and the situation seems impossibly burdensome and just too hard. That is what I've been noticing in myself but also in conversation with others, they are finding it difficult too. My friend phoned this morning, aghast. The business next to hers had disappeared. She’d arrived at work to find everything in the adjacent building gone. These were her colleagues and friends. I could hear the dismay in her tone. Another friend had been caught up in a major dispute that had tilted the smooth functioning of the family home. I’m convinced the underground rumbling that is coronavirus and the heavy uncertainty it carries with it is undermining our sense of security and making us more labile. Our usual capacity for patience and forbearance is harder to maintain. It doesn’t take much to tip a person over.
The things that have kept me on an even keel these past two precious but possibly fragile days have been the increase in social connection — I’d noticed in the weekend that I’d lost touch with some people and there and then made a conscious decision to change that — mixed with spells of creativity. I’ve been hard at work on my business affairs too getting things done and completing a new budget that I now have to live within. And then there have been the chance happenings.
Yesterday I had the door open to the outside and I heard Professor Robert Beaglehole swish up the drive and turn into the car port in his wife’s cherry-coloured, silent electric car. He got out and I heard a voice from just beyond the door, I couldn’t see him, ‘I’ve been gathering kelp,’ he said. And so he had. Two huge black plastic buckets full of tan and mustard gifts from the sea. They were sitting on the driveway in the sun. The big storm over the weekend had deposited seaweed along the shoreline and he’d been down to the rocks at the northern end of Cheltenham to gather some in. ‘Where will it go?’ I asked. He was planning on putting some in the compost and the rest would be laid onto the raised vegetable beds to rot down. Then he would dig it in.
Tonight on my way back from an early evening walk around the park, I pushed through the hedge, opened the gate and smelt the sea. It was dark by now and the salty smell was so intense, the tide might as well have been at the end of the garden. The kelp is now laid out across the garden enriching the soil. Pausing at the next gate I looked up and saw the house alight with the glow of lamps. The two professors were at work in their separate studies, each of them focussed on their screens and this was the thing that I loved; they were working right through the dinner hour. Turning to secure the picket gate, I looked at the light pouring from the window nearby and right at that moment Robert looked out and saw me. He smiled. This had me grinning as I approached my own door. I had thought I was the only person who worked strange hours, through the dinner hour, on into the night… I’ve always been a night owl but the lockdown has loosened my schedule considerably.
There was something May Sarton wrote about the views she glimpsed sometimes while walking along the coastline at night. It was the beacons glowing in the dark —"there are lighthouse keepers on rocky islands along the coast” — that made her feel less alone. “Sometimes when I have been for a walk after dark and see my house lighted up, looking so alive, I feel that my presence here is worth all the Hell.”
Day 40 of lockdown and it has been a busy and fulfilling day. This evening I participated in a zoom meeting with a life writing group that formed three years ago, following one of my courses. I hadn’t seen a number of them since the summer of 2017. What a pleasure to be able to see their faces on screen and to listen to them reading aloud their prepared story, with its lockdown theme. I don’t always remember the names of writing participants but I remember their stories. There is always at least one standout piece that remains with me. Tonight it was a pleasure to connect through a virtual window and to discover that their writing is thriving.
I wrote in the morning as well. This was a collaborative writing exercise, something that sprang from the nature writing group that formed after my Karekare course last year. One of the members suggested the idea and began the story. Her nature allusions were beautiful and lyrical, and then the next member picked up and ran with her writing, extending the story a little further while continuing the gorgeous descriptive referencing of the natural world. The underlying theme was the coronavirus and its implications moving into the future.
There are seven of us in the group, one writer lives in Australia. Round the group, we went, each writer referring back to the stories that went before and building on them. And in this way the story grew and grew like magic, blooming into something extraordinary as each writer’s imagination was ignited. Very soon it was evident we were one year into the pandemic, one year on from the start of lockdown and life had not got easier, instead it had morphed into something grim and totalitarian and awful, here in New Zealand! Just this weekend my walking friend said to me, 'If you had written the experience of the last six weeks as a short story, and delivered it to a competition a year ago, the judges would have dismissed it as thoroughly unlikely and farfetched, a piece of nonsense'.
As our tale has developed the darkness has continued and yet there is a story of female friendship here, of old and young and a faithful dog, there is kindness and warmth, and passages that made me grin, when I read them, and this is what is carrying them through. The talents of the women that people the story are inspiring. The places they’d been before lockdown, the things they’d seen, their resilience and self-agency. It made me wonder how a psychotherapist might analyse what is happening here and how this kind of writing might be used as a practice to empower.
I was the last to contribute to the story. Initially when I heard about it I noticed some resistance. Nonfiction is my genre was my first thought. It’s what I know and where I’ve focussed my energies for many years now. People sometimes say to me, ‘Would you write a novel?’ And I respond slightly sharply with another question, ‘Would you ask a watercolourist if they had considered being a sculptor?’ I was pretty sure that leaping into fiction was going to take me out of my comfort zone. And yet why not try it, especially in the time of coronavirus, why not give things a go.
The writing exercise turned out to be absorbing and fun. Only two days ago I’d been complaining about being unable to access my knitting needles, my colouring in book, my piano from storage, when actually there was a new and novel project awaiting my attention. The other thing that intrigued me, as I got into the writing, was how connected I felt to the other writers. Somebody had already commented on how much she appreciated the work that had gone into each of the passages that went before hers. It was something about the act of paying attention to the writing of each individual, their content and style and finding ways to reference it in the continuing story that I enjoyed, the sense of cooperation and collaboration which felt special because the writing life is for the main a solitary occupation.
I have finished on an open ended note hoping we might continue.
Day 39 of lockdown. Rain. Drenching the landscape, filling the sea. Down at the harbour’s edge it was driving hard on the vertical stirring the grey water, pushing white flecked waves from left to right in dynamic motion. Close to the surface a swirling haze spun, distorting the view of the shoreline, the hills, the causeway on the other side, muting colours and blurring landforms into mysterious shapes. And the wind. Roaring. Shrieking. Whistling round the eaves. Blowing under the doorframe into the kitchen when I was cooking tonight. It’s been like this for two days and two nights now. A mighty tempest shaking the house, bending the trees. It surprises me how the physics of nature continues to provide the weather patterns and seasons — tropical storms in the north, crisp temperatures and frost in the southern regions, mushrooms appearing in the grass in the park next door, leaves turning golden, scarlet, maroon, telling us it is autumn in New Zealand while elsewhere on the revolving planet gentle spring has arrived bringing warm sunshine, coaxing trees into tender leaf, flowers into bud— during the time of coronavirus. An odd statement but then so is the situation we find ourselves in shut in our homes, separated from those we love, unable to venture far. This is not normal. Everything feels strange and unnerving. It surprises me that the natural world carries on the same as usual, oblivious, it seems, to our plight.
I got absolutely drenched on my walk today but wouldn’t have missed it for anything. My shoes were sodden at the end and I limped the last section with a blister on my heel. I should have worn my socks. But none of that mattered. It was such a relief to escape the confines of the dwelling and to be out in the wild weather. Wind buffeted my body, water poured down my rain jacket and I felt alive. And even better I was not alone because I have to say I am growing heartily sick of my own tedious company. Today I thought it would be good to swap my life with somebody else’s and try inhabiting a different reality. Anything to relieve the monotony of the current unlikeable situation.
Being with a blessed walking friend, —that’s how I think of her, as a blessing — catching up on an entire week of living in the time of the coronavirus gave me the diversion I craved. I was hungry for news, curious to know about her week on the front line in public health, dealing with the twisting path of this unreasonable virus. Together we talked about the six new cases as we went down to the beach and took shelter under a dripping Moreton Bay Fig. And there our attention was diverted away from the worries to a glorious spectacle directly in front of our eyes. Surfers wrangling their kites in the choppy sea while further out in the channel two champions were whipping along, tousling with their kites, play fighting it seemed with the elements. It looked so good.