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.
Day 38 and I began the day feeling flat. The confinement is getting to me, the never-ending nature of lockdown, one day following another, all of them blurring and tending to look much the same. I try to create variety in my structure and different activities for each day but don’t have much to work with. Reading through my collection of books is out because they are locked away in storage. Knitting is out, same issue. Colouring in, my one book of mindfulness colouring same issue again. Baking can’t happen. I don’t have an oven. Playing the piano, I long to do that. I would start at the beginning of the Bach preludes and fugues and work my way through, playing very slowly, sight reading and learning as I go and have a sense of gratitude.
The term bubble is beginning to grate. Bubble implies fun. It suggests floating inside a wobbling, diaphanous shape, the sun tinting it purple and pink and having a sense of lazily hovering above things gazing at the wonder. Bubble suggests luxurious baths. It suggests champagne and corks popping and gatherings of people and loud laughter. But this is not how it is in lockdown for many of us. Today, for me, felt more like living in a cell of one, it wasn’t solitary confinement obviously but on a dark, damp, gusty day in late autumn, looking through windows onto greyness, it felt close.
Briefly my spirits rose during a mentoring session on Skype. This was the meeting I missed earlier in the week because I had no idea what day it was. It was a pleasure to spend an hour fully absorbed in another writer’s project. This one has a solid structure and structure is everything in writing. Without it you are flailing about and getting stuck. The project is built around a collection of softly coloured Kodachrome slides. The writer’s father began photographing on arrival in New Zealand in the late 1950s, using his camera to document rural life in the Franklin district where he, his wife and young family had settled. The story is told by the son in ‘vignettes’ each one written in response to a selected photo. The writer is a secondary school history teacher and brings his interest in history to the interpretation of the photos. The experience of the migrant, of being an outsider in New Zealand society informs both the father’s and now son’s interest in the indigenous and multicultural history of the area around Pukekohe, the Maori communities, the Indian and Chinese market gardeners, the predominantly pakeha and conservative farming community. The trick is to provide the historical background, supply the appropriate detail but not too much, or the text will sag and the reader’s interest will be lost.
Later in the afternoon, my day got better. Inspired by an article in this morning’s Guardian, I went through the hole in the hedge looking for cracks and crevices in the paths around the park. I was searching for botanical plants. The article had described a phenomenon sweeping through Paris and London and further afield where people with a knowledge of botany are busy identifying the wildflowers and herbs that spring out of breaks and ruptures in the city pavements. Referred to as ‘rebel botanists’ they write the plant names in chalk next to each specimen. Unbelievably it is a criminal offence to write in chalk on the footpath. Children are forbidden to draw a hopscotch, even. It was good to read however that in Hackney the council has lifted their draconian regulation and are welcoming the intervention of botanist Sophie Leguil ,the instigator of the More than Weeds campaign and are allowing her to create chalk trails to highlight ‘the forgotten flora at our feet’.
These projects remind me of the botanical gap filler project that emerged along the High Street in central Christchurch after the earthquakes. Entitled the Botanical Preservation Project it was the inspiration of Liv Wokshop and her response to the startling and welcome appearance of wildflowers and herbs scrambling over derelict sites where city buildings had once stood. Making use of the mesh fences that surrounded those ‘vacant’ sites, she attached black and white illustrations of the flowering plants: Trifolium repens (white clover), Echium vulgare (Viper’s Bugloss), Rumix crispus (curly dock), Lapsana communis (Nipplewort), Ulex europacus (gorse.) I remember how my heart lifted encountering this display and how the inclusion of their Latin names seemed to endow plants once considered common weeds with greater significance.
Out in the park this afternoon I found a pink flowering ‘polygonum orientale’ commonly known as ‘Kiss me over the garden gate.’ It was growing in the top of a rock wall in my nook. The leaf growth was healthy and, remarkably for this time of year, there was one precious flower. I photographed it for this entry and also tried to write its name on the rock wall, with a piece of chalk, but the roughness of surface and the slippery stone insets obstructed my effort. But I tried. Tomorrow on my walk I will be on the lookout for more precious specimens on the Devonport streets. In preparation I have downloaded a plant identifier app to assist the identification.
The activity raised my spirits as did a comment from an 'anonymous London chalker' in the Guardian article. She had been describing her tree labelling walks, saying that naming trees gives people a quick blast of nature connection by encouraging them to look up into the sky through the leaves of plane, sycamore, oak, chestnut, beech and notice them. And then she remarked, “this is good for mental health when none of us can manage that much — living through a global pandemic is quite enough to be getting on with. But it’s brought me a great amount of joy.”
Day 37 and tonight I am thinking about our great leader Jacinda Ardern and how she has negotiated a path through a devilish maze of challenges these past weeks, balancing the safety of her people and the protection of our economy, as best she can dealt an impossible situation, with deftness and grace. I am in awe of her. Where global leaders and politicians, some of them almost double her age and with all the privilege and advantage that membership of an exclusive, white male hegemony bestows upon them, have stumbled and side-stepped and delayed, letting their egos get in the way of making sound decision-making and in the process watched death rates soar higher and higher while Jacinda, on the other hand, only in her fortieth year on the planet, has guided us swiftly through a crisis and brought us almost to safety. She is being hailed around the world for her astute leadership, her actions being described as ‘a triumph of science and leadership.’
What is it that makes this woman so seriously good, the new type of leader humanity desperately needs? There are the star qualities; she combines a highly tuned intelligence with an abundance of empathy; there’s her straightforward honest style — people trust her — and superb communication skills which speak to people across socioeconomic groups and prove irresistible. I’m thinking of her daily press conferences which many of us leaned on through alert level 4, and her style. There she spoke with feeling, her message was clear, she encouraged each of us to take responsibility and to work collectively to achieve the goal of virus containment. In photos on the cover of Time magazine, in the Guardian, on Al Jazeera, the pages of Vogue and Mindfood —she’s everywhere — it’s there in her face, a radiance and goodness that shines forth. She is authentic. She is principled and ethical and she walks the talk. Recently, in acknowledgement of the economic pain many New Zealanders are experiencing, the prime minister and her cabinet took a 20% pay cut. Where else in the world would or does that happen?
The other important element in Jacinda’s success is that she hasn’t done this alone. Her ability to work constructively with her own tight cabinet and to listen to, synthesise and act on the advice of a wider task force of advisors and public health officials, has been her strength. In combination with Dr Ashley Bloomfield, director general of health they have made a powerful duo. And also with Grant Robertson, our minister of finance. I remember watching Grant Robertson at the historic television press conference on 24 March when Jacinda announced the plan that would take us into lockdown. As she talked of the hard and uncertain road that lay ahead, of the sacrifices we would all have to make, and of the impact on our economy I saw Grant Robertson gulp and his eyes moisten. He stood staunchly by as she outlined unprecedented plans for freezing New Zealand businesses and it was obvious this economy that had enjoyed healthy surpluses was surely going to take a knock. There was no way we would escape unscathed. Robertson’s expression at that time, of genuine emotion entirely appropriate to the magnitude of what the course of action would trigger was the human response I needed in that moment, watching alone, cut off from my family, feeling afraid. I remember phoning my daughter directly after the screening and that we cried together. I treasure that memory now, not the distress we were feeling but that it was shared and in that way eased a little.
What amazes me though is that still there are the cynics, the misanthropes and the naysayers. Most of them, unsurprisingly, are the white and powerful men in opposition and their female counterparts who, unthinkingly, accept the values of the elite. Others are just mad, bad misogynists who cannot accept that a woman can govern so supremely well. I’ve heard that two men are suing Jacinda for imposing a lockdown, claiming there was no threat, she made up her numbers. It’s more likely they have issues with her being female. In Gerard Otto’s recent post on Facebook ‘Jacinda’s critics need to get real’ he shone a spotlight on the miserly critics who cry she has ‘no substance’. This, even after her ethical and humane handling of the Christchurch mosque massacres, even after her exemplary management of coronavirus, even after she bailed their businesses out, still they cry ‘no substance’ and stoop to pathetic comments about her appearance, her hairstyle, her teeth. There is nothing new in this phenomenon it’s how many a female leader around the world is regularly treated by her critics, who repeatedly demean, discredit and devalue her achievements. I remember meeting a person who did the exact same thing with Helen Clark. Everything was wrong with her because she was a woman — it was her teeth, it was her deep voice insinuating she was lesbian, as though that was a slur against her character, and this from a man with questionable morals and who was, to use his own words, ‘no oil painting.’
I would like to think that the denigrators are in the minority and belong to an outmoded and crumbling edifice that is surely on the way out. Surely. Please. I think the world is ready for the new leadership, one that listens to and connects with the people, one that draws on the skills of professionals and advisors, a warm kind of leadership that is being demonstrated by Jacinda Ardern along with several other female leaders currently guiding their countries through the pandemic — Angela Merkel in Germany, Erna Solberg in Norway, Katrín Jakobsdóttir in Iceland and Silveria Jacobs in the Caribbean nation of Sint Maarten.