June 29 I enjoyed Nike in Katerini’s account of sleeping with an owl and a snake by her bed. In her culture, these are choices full of classical meaning. In my own more prosaic world, I do not instinctively turn to such mythical objects when in need of guidance or security.
I was raised in a Protestant denomination. Methodists focus on words, whether spoken, read, preached or sung. They do not employ three-dimensional symbols to embody spiritual verities or to keep us safe from Bunyan’s lions, dragons and darkness. I do, nonetheless, keep two objects on my desk to guard my endeavours, albeit of an altogether more humdrum nature.
The first of these is a small, carved, wooden tortoise whose provenance I have long forgotten. I explained the connection between this animal and the lot of the long-distance writer in the entry for April 29. I have an engagement with tortoises beyond the ownership of my pet Herodotus (Nike may note that I was stretching for a classical association). Ten years ago, whilst still a university manager, I was sent to give a keynote speech at the remarkable Loja University in central Ecuador. The organisers arranged for the speakers to visit the Galapagos Islands before the conference started. There I met Lonesome George, the last known Pinta Island giant tortoise, just two years before his untimely death at the age of 102.* It is one thing encountering a tree that has survived over centuries, it is quite another gazing eye to eye with a creature that has moved so little and seen so much over so many years.
My second penates is quite different and much slighter. It is a mass-produced, 6.5cm high plastic model of a cowboy, six shooter in each hand. I don’t know where I found it, but it speaks to me at some unconscious level. I must have owned such a toy as a small child. Now it stands at the opposite pole to my other desk guardian. The tortoise represents the slow daily slog that all scholarly writing requires. But I have read book after article after manuscript where the routine has overwhelmed the inspiration. Each page represents a dutiful journey between evidence and interpretation, all true, all hard won, but lacking any spark in either the prose or the argument. It is far from easy to sit down day after day and attack the project, putting to flight mediocrity of thought or writing. My cowboy with his guns reminds me of that requirement.
So it has been during the pandemic. The tortoise element has not been so difficult. For those already living in semi-lockdown, surrounded by sufficient creature comforts, the prohibition on movement has not seemed a practical problem. The real threat is avoiding the descent into the Slough of Despond which faced Bunyan’s Christian. Deprived of the stimulus of events, travel and fresh company, it becomes a challenge to generate the spark of energy and creativity during a day that begins and ends in the same place as the one before.
I have to find the six-shooter in me, up for whatever drama and danger I can manufacture.
*In February of this year, naturalists claimed that after all they had found thirty near relatives. Too late for George.
I’ve chosen to do so for years. I also always have books at my bedside. Reading, as all writers know, is doing a workout, attending a seminar, and participating in a workshop all in one. I’m not racist in my reading choices either. I read modern and classic literature of all genres and ethnicities, they each have theirs quirks and joys.
The Russians become entangled in minutiae and veer from the central theme of the story, the Indians are wordy, with a great love for the polysyllabic, the Africans use proverbs with a profound weariness, the Scandinavians insist on grinding mundanity into the reader till we feel their melancholia, the Australians work hard at appearing unassuming, all achievements must be quiet. The Brits think for a scene to be more interesting it requires sex. Who doesn’t love a good sex scene – but theirs are mostly raw, grimy, slimy.
I read them all, studying their styles – but I am resolutely steeped in the Greek classics. The philosophers are my saints. Their works are my Bibles. Diogenes the Cynic of Sinope is my current entertainment. His writings have not survived but it’s the way he lived that has me chuckling to myself at odd times during the day. Every time I buy chicken to cook for dinner, I must suppress my laughter. It causes me to recall how Plato declared to the world man is a featherless biped. Diogenes showed up at The Academy at Plato’s next lecture with a plucked chicken, held it up for all to see and said, “Behold, I give you – man!”
The philosophers’ works don’t need to be read all at once, indeed I prefer them taken in morsels not main courses. You never finish reading them, you re-read them for all your days. Yet there are novels I can’t finish. The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood is one. I’ve started it five times. It might have won her the Booker Prize yet to me it’s like a trip to a monastery. The arrival is as good as it gets. The outlook is appreciated but once relics are seen and the story of martyrdom has been recited by a sullen monk all I want to do is leave. …. Except one time when I went with a group of friends to see the monastery of St Ephraim.
St Ephraim had been tortured then hung by Turks. Saint Ephraim is a healing saint, so many of my group went into the chapel to light candles and pray for the health of themselves or their loved ones. I stayed outside to stroll around the garden. Monastery gardens are gorgeous. I was admiring their stunning roses when I saw a young man on all fours on the stony ground. He was clearly suffering, dusty, sweating and chanting an incessant prayer as he crawled his way to the chapel. To witness such humility causes humility to pour into you. His emotions bounced around the searing stone walls of the monastery courtyard and right into us.
I’ve heard many a story of a pilgrim making a tama, a vow of personal sacrifice in exchange for the improvement in health of a loved one. The most common tama is to make the journey from their home to the monastery of the saint to make offerings and prayers – on hands and knees. Who knows where this young man lived or for whom he was carrying out tama, a parent, a sibling, his child?
We parted to give him free passage and offered words of encouragement for his pilgrimage. When one of the more elderly women present called out to him, “My blessings dear boy, the saint will hear your prayers,” his face, set hard in determination, crumpled and he began to sob – but he didn’t stop crawling. We shared his relief when he reached the entryway of the chapel and the shade embraced and drew him in.
A sacred silence enveloped us all afterwards, the type where a supressed thought can reverberate through your mind until it’s all you hear. My thought was, if a young man can endure such pain and suffering why can’t I finish reading a book in the comfort of my home? I’ve always believed if a book was too tough to read just don’t read it, but this was Margaret Atwood, the world’s favourite literary darling. I mean, I like her, I think she’s terrific, but maybe I just don’t like the way she writes? I think I shouldn’t have watched her in a few interviews. Her voice is flat, no warmth, no inflections. When I read her words I hear her flat voice reading them back to me. I’m being too harsh, I must be, everybody loves her, yet nothing changes the fact, for me, The Blind Assassin is a dull read and certainly not the first time a prestigious prize has been bestowed upon a boring book not all that well written. I’m still trying to digest how Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch won the Pulitzer. I decide to try to get to know Atwood. I read some interviews.
She’s into astrology. I’m not, but, just for her, I read my stars for the day.
“To increase your creative powers, try to sleep with either an owl or a snake nearby.”
I look to my right and to my left. I have both an owl and a snake.
I bought the owl of Athena because it’s the symbol of wisdom.
I bought the snake for the cup of Hygeia, the pharmacist daughter of Asclepius god of healing. Snakes were considered a symbol of eternity by the ancient Greeks because they could shed their skin. It’s only since modern times Greeks began to view the snake with revulsion.
I keep my keys in it.
So, according to my stars, my creativity is in full force because of the owl and the snake.
Life in Greece right now is dominated by two things, Covid-19 and Turkey. We call Erdogan, the dictator of Turkey, a snake. Every single day Turkey commits some provocation, from promising to send drilling vessels into our waters to drill our gas and oil reserves to gloating in his parliament how he believes Rhodes, Chios and Crete should belong to Turkey and he is going to take them, to sending fighter jets into Greek airspace to disturb the flight paths of our own domestic carriers, to Turkish coast guards spinning their craft around the boats of Greek fishermen until they capsize. And I haven’t even mentioned the illegal immigrants. France, Italy, Egypt and Israel are telling him to back off. Russia doesn’t want to know, and the USA has Trump who holds hands with Erdogan. To think he is just to my left, across the sea.
But the symbol of Athens is the owl. The Greek government wisely says, “We do not seek war,” to which they add, “But we do not fear battle.”
I feel time is playing tricks, behaving like an elastic band. Time seems to have stretched out: it feels like forever since we were enjoying ourselves in Paris. Now each week dissolves, leaving hardly a trace. I have finished my nightly meetings with Alec Guinness in his “positively final appearance”, but a bit from the December chapter stuck in my mind. “The days, they say, are drawing out. All that strikes me is that in spite of the slowing up of time, the weeks gallop apace; Sunday comes sharp on the heels of Sunday.”
At first, it seemed that enforced isolation would have one positive aspect. Time without without socializing, shopping, travelling or hosting travelling friends would free up time to address some of those things one can always find a reason to leave for another day, month or year. There is the basement, never sorted out after moving, and the perfect thing to do during the winter months of which Canada has so many. Then there is the idea of learning and doing something new – writing a children’s book based upon a doll that belonged to my daughter. When rescued from the garbage and cleaned up, he looked just fine as the main character for a story – perfect for spring creativity and increased energy. Spring would also be a good time to address some landscaping at the front of the house, of which there is really none. And then there are all those bookcases full of books, in fact, a whole library of unread books, good at any time of the year. However, there is another side of COVID confinement – no cleaning help. Now too much time is filled with cleaning a rather large house, and Monday comes sharp on the heels of Monday as the dust rolls down the halls and the cleaning cycle starts up again. No new tasks get taken up.
Right at the moment, time seems to be collaborating with its colleague, the weather. Early summer arrived with 30 degree days several weeks ago, but down jackets have been donned again, and tonight the temperature will descend to 6 degrees. As Ontario has begun to open up further, although cases are still not falling consistently, the weather seems to be intimating that it is April or perhaps early May in COVID time, and too soon to be tossing aside so many precautionary measures. I read a comment today that COVID is very young as a virus, mere months old, and we have hardly gotten to know it. Nonetheless, the more than three months of self-isolating feel much longer: time is still playing its tricks.
May 31. I don’t like Sunday nights. Maybe this stems from my years at boarding school, when Sunday nights were the pits. Maybe it was the long weeks remaining of term time, or the sad girls coming back from exeat, or struggling over an evening meal of brown vegetable soup, or the sound of weeping after lights out.
And this Sunday night, the last night of May 2020, it seems the world is not getting better on many levels. I planned to write a blog about how we all hoped for an improved quality of life emerging after Covid-19. I would amass the feel-good stories of people being kind and resourceful and imagine how this might carry forward.
Instead, tonight the TV news was about the USA cities on fire with protests as the country is saddled with a president who fails on every count of decency, honesty and moral leadership. Next came the news about the virus: we have reached over 6 million cases and 370,000 deaths of Covid-19 world wide and that is surely a significant under-assessment of the real numbers. These numbers are rubbery, certainly not overstated. The virus spread continues – without much check in densely populated countries.
My husband and I are in the cohort of the elderly in need of ‘shielding’ (as the Guardian suggests). The over 70’s. As my friend, James, said, it’s a bit like being back at boarding school. There are certain similarities: that feeling of nothing to look forward to, an awareness that you are being controlled by the system. This sense that tomorrow is like today.
But hold on! We have so much more we can do. We baby boomers have, in general, lived a charmed life in the West. Better education, better health that ever before. So, we have lived longer than the generations before us. We are a bridge between the old world and the new one of our grandchildren and we are in a position to remember the lives of our parents and the stories that came down through them of our grandparent’s lives. We might have snippets, or long stories; we might have old black photos albums or diaries. But I am sure we have something – and that something is of value.
My father was born in 1911, my mother in 1920. They were strong people and valued their backgrounds. I learnt of my grandparents and their birthdates go back to the 1880’s. I have stories of the Boer war, of the Kimberley’s diamond mines, of a great uncle dying in the Gaza desert in the 1st WW; of an uncle shot down in the Dieppe Raid, of my father fighting the Italians in the mountains of Somaliland in the 2nd WW and of my mother driving an African man mauled by a leopard to a hospital in Tanganyika. And so it goes.
The thing is, our kids are too busy, our grandchildren are too ignorant – at the moment to ask, to remember, to value this. We have a debt to pay, to record what we know of the past: to keep our family stories alive for the future – whatever form that takes. We are the shaky bridge between the past and the strange post Covid-19 future.
It’s not a repeat of a boarding school exercise, but it is a serious project to take on board during Covid-19. No exams to fear, no pass or fail, just a challenge to record your past as a gift for your future generations.
May 20. Yesterday, the Today programme included a meditation by the novelist Ian McEwan on the coronavirus pandemic as ‘an experiment in subjective time.’ For those not engaged in vital work, or managing the minutely structured task of teaching unschooled children, the experience, he argued, has altered our perception of time: ‘Bleached of events, one day like another, time compresses and collapses in on itself.’ The consequence has been ‘an exponential growth in introspection, day- dreaming, mental drifting, especially about the past.’ We find ourselves ‘tumbling backwards through time’, achieving a new understanding of our selves as we embrace without guilt a stillness in the midst of our days.
All of which is both eloquent and true. Those who have erased their diaries for months ahead have to learn for the first time in their long lives new ways of justifying the use of time. There are different kinds of choices in its management, and, above all, the choice of not managing it all. As anxiety about the unfilled hour recedes, so we can, as McEwan argues, form a calmer sense of who we have become and what matters to us.
And yet. There are contradictions lurking in McEwan’s eloquent prose.
In the first case, the form contradicts the content. This was an exactly timed slot in the country’s premier current affairs radio programme. It lasted precisely five minutes, sandwiched between an item on Brexit and another on government financing of industry. The studio manager will have controlled the event with a stopwatch as the programme headed towards its nine a.m. conclusion. McEwan will have been given the task of turning his prose into time – 150 words a minute is the BBC norm – and by pre-recording the talk, the programme presenter was relieved of the task of disciplining the speaker. Nothing can have been more time-infused than this disquisition on its absence.
And then there is McEwan himself. His experience of time may have changed with the lockdown, but he remains a professional writer. Unlike those who earn their living in more structured contexts, he has a lifetime’s experience of controlling the use of the unforgiving hour. Finishing novel after novel requires, in P. G. Wodehouse’s famous dictum, ‘the application of seat of pants to seat of chair.’ You do not wander through the day, jotting down the odd sentence, waiting for inspiration to strike. You devise a timetable that suits your temperament and circumstances, and stick to it all the more rigidly in the absence of external compulsion. I don’t suppose for a moment that McEwan has stopped doing this, just because he can’t see people at present. He will still be setting his clock, starting at his desk, just as he has always done.
I am myself a writer, of stories with footnotes. Three books published in the last five years. I start relatively early in the morning, and work in 75 minute-blocks, stopping for a coffee and then starting again. I did this before the pandemic and I am doing it now. So, four minutes before the next break, this entry ends.
14 May. We both retired. 18 years ago. I found retirement was a process of adaptation. There were at least two years of adjustment as we settled into working out what to do. And we did get going, we got the message that this was a gift – time – valuable FREE time. So we… moved house; studied; travelled; planted trees; travelled some more with our local museum; bought a holiday home at the seaside; got a dog; planted more trees from our own seed; I wrote a short biography of my grandmother as requested by my 90-year-old father when he emigrated from South Africa to Chester, UK ; I wrote a longer biography of my father published after his death at the age of 97, and I wrote two novels about Africa.
And now, it’s as if a second retirement is before us, with a further consideration of what we should do. However, there are fewer options and in the background is the possibility of being stricken with Covid-19. Times have changed. We constantly hear that our age group bears the highest risk for hospitalisation and death. Especially so if you have a ‘comorbidity’. (Comorbidity is a word I have never used before. It ‘refers to the presence of more than one disorder in the same person’. I am assuming that old age is now regarded as a disorder, a ‘morbidity’.)
In Adelaide, South Australia, we have not been as constrained as many other major cities but still the flow of disturbing news has been a constant since early March … that’s two months for us to adapt to a second retirement from our first retirement.
And how has our life changed? For a start, each day is much the same as the previous day. Small, hardly noteworthy differences: driving to walk the dog in the park and fetch the mail; sometimes a big supermarket shop in the early morning … etc.
So, most of the time is spent in the house or our garden. And somehow the day goes by very fast. We have ordered three vegetarian meals a week from a service called HelloFresh. The box is delivered to the door on Monday and consists of the ingredients for the meals plus a comprehensive guide to the process of cooking. This is entertainment as much as anything else, for these are meals I would not normally cook: roasted sweet potato risotto … pesto, roast pumpkin and fetta risoni …
My husband complains about the lack of MEAT. Since I am verging on becoming a vegetarian, this is not what I want to hear. During the week, there are 4 other dinners that can feature meat. The trouble is that the meals from HelloFresh are generous and we have leftovers. There is a definite greater interest in food and home cooking during this new retirement. We used to eat out 2-3 times a week.
The phone: we are spending more time talking on our mobiles (we don’t have a landline). We catch up with family and friends and since two daughters live in the USA, another daughter lives in Sydney and a son settled in South Africa, these calls go on throughout the day.
The computer is a huge resource and gobbler of time: for emails; Zoom meetings of my writing group and my husband’s geology club; for bridge games and lessons; for watching movies on ‘demand’. We are indeed lucky to have such a marvellous array of entertainment.
Every night, on YouTube, I watch the ‘Serengeti Show Live’ show for 30 odd minutes where Carel Verhoef and Sally Grierson show us their camp in the Serengeti and take us on a game drive. In 2018, we spent a week with their company, Great Migration Camps, on the shores of the Mara River. Watching these episodes, I can immerse myself in the landscape of Africa. And soon Serengeti Show Live will take us up Mt Kilimanjaro and then to Zanzibar. (Once upon a time in Africa, I lived in the shadow of Mt Kilimanjaro and then moved to live in Zanzibar).
I belong to the Adelaide Lyceum Club, a women’s club that was begun in London in 1903. (‘Clubs for women interested in arts, sciences, social concerns and the pursuit of lifelong learning’). We gather in interest groups called ‘circles’ and one of the circles I joined was the film circle. Our members have joined the Zoom brigade and meet to discuss certain films which are available online. Our SBS on Demand and ABC iView channels provide hundreds of films and TV shows free. Quite distracting in fact.
Don’t forget the dog! Roy, aged 11 has his own program, more insistent now that we are around almost 24/7. He wakes at dawn at 6.45am and goes out to check if any koalas or kangaroos are around. Whether they are or not, he wakes the neighbourhood with a morning bark. I am growing accustomed (as winter comes for us) to spend more reading in bed before a short program of yoga. This laziness delays breakfast as well as Roy’s walk up the long drive or in the local park.
Home maintenance and gardening fill in the holes in the day. April and May are planting months in South Australia as the rains arrive. I have paid more attention to edible plants this year – there’s nothing quite like picking your own herbs, lettuce and spinach for an evening meal. I have given up on actively growing potatoes but remnants are doing well. We have planted 20 trees that will give joy one day. I am reading City of Trees by Sonia Cunningham, a series of absorbing essays about our urban landscapes and how we are losing forests. Sonia Cunningham was a speaker at our Adelaide Festival’s Writers’ Week in March this year.
So, our new retirement is OK; we have lots to do, lots to entertain us. Soon we will be able to travel within the borders of South Australia and in July they might open up to other states … and one day maybe New Zealand will be included.