My Mom was brought up in the American South, in what was then a small town in Florida called Fernandina Beach on Amelia Island.
Of course today's Fernandina bears little resemblance to how it was during my Mom's time (although many of the wonderful older homes and places have been beautifully restored and preserved) but there is one thing that never changed about Mom, irrespective of time or years.
Her great manners.
As kids, we were brought up to be mannerly and I've never thought there was anything at all wrong with that. We often resisted, as kids are wont to do, especially when it came to writing our thank you notes after receiving fabulous Christmas gifts lovingly posted from American 'aunts' and 'uncles' (who were actually my Mom's dear friends; we called them aunts and uncles because that's how Mom referred to them). Mom would sit us down with pen and paper (no email back then) and make us write down how much we loved our gifts, thank you so much.
Holding a high spot on Mom's Mannerly List was: 'Always speak to people.'
An adjunct to the 'always speak to people' was, '... even if you don't know them or like them much.' Fair enough. My Mom liked most everyone, and most everyone liked her and if there was someone she didn't really care for, you would never know as she would be just as gracious to that person as she would be to anyone else.
I am reminded almost daily of Mom's manners when we are out walking and pass by neighbours' houses and they're sitting out on the lawn: say hello, how are you, anything you need? There are lots of people I don't know, walking about at our beach, and there's always a wave (as we keep our social distance) or a smile, or a greeting. It's rare for folks not to say hi these days.
When Mom was alive, she'd take her daily walks with me, my sister, or Dad. With Parkinson's slowly debilitating her, we would wheel out her walking frame, get her organised, and off she'd go. The photo is of Mom and my sister heading off to the beach.
On her walks, she would stop to 'visit', as she termed it, with people she met. Chat over the fence, admire the flowers, pass the time of day. She would always speak because that's what you did. Some people in our street still remember Mom doing this, and they will tell me about it to this day.
Call it good manners, call it communication, call it being neighbourly - but call it important as we all do our best to manage this health crisis.
It doesn't take much. A smile, a wave, a howdy-do.
We've been so fortunate with the weather here in Auckland. Every day since the stay-at-home was imposed has been fine, warm, plenty of sun, a few showers but nothing to keep anyone indoors for long. The tail end of a gorgeous summer.
People are making the most of it, getting out for walks, sitting down at the beach, enjoying the warmth and the scenery. Kids are finding ways to entertain themselves, as kids do. They're so good at it. If I was a kid, say 10 or 11, and I was told I'd have to be at home, wow, what a school holiday bonus.
What would I be doing?
Well, it was different when I was that age .. I sound like an old thing don't I? 'When I was young we had to stay outside and play until dinner time, and we didn't have video games, and ... and ...' It's true, and our house on Auckland's North Shore in Murray's Bay had plenty of good stuff to explore and keep us busy.
We had bush down the back where we'd set terrible booby traps for each other and try not to fall over the cliff edge, we had home made trolleys (literally an old apple crate on wheels) that we'd race down the hill, trying to avoid the massive old drainage ditches on either side of the road so you wouldn't have a 'crash'up' , we all had bikes and we'd terrorise the place, whizzing up and down like high-powered vultures. Ah, those were the days.
And kids in our neighbourhood are doing cool stuff: they're playing tennis in the street, skateboarding over the traffic humps or flying down the steep access road to our beach, learning to play the drums, building interesting looking huts in trees and on front yards, playing hide and seek, taking their younger siblings down to the sea for a while.
As for us, what are we doing to entertain ourselves? My walking buddy Pam and I really like strolling down the middle of the road. The picture is of Pam doing just that. This is mighty fine entertainment. There are no cars, no motorcyles, kids on bikes and skateboards give us a wide berth and the tennis stops as we parade by. We are making the most of this.
It feels thrilling. It's something extraordinary that we can do during these most extraordinary times.
We're not really up for playing tennis any more, so why not?
People are doing some very fun things to keep up community connection, like placing teddy bears in their windows for kids to spot as they take daily walks.
They're putting up other creatures as well, like this little rabbit my mate across the road propped up in his window.
We have a proliferation of toy creatures in our neighbourhood and I think it's great.
On our walk yesterday, my walking buddy (two metre separation) Pam and I made it our mission to spot the teddy bears and toys in the windows and we were so entertained by what we saw. One rather large fellow was clinging to the window, half in and half out, with a sign around his neck saying 'Get me out of here! I want COVID 19 to go away so I can go have a picnic!' I know how he feels.
Toys of all different shapes and sizes were displayed in windows, and kids were taking note, pulling at Mum's hands to get over and have a closer look, pointing and laughing.
Such a simple thing and yet it has brought a lot of fun at a time when a laugh is needed most.
Pam and I laughed too, allowing ourselves, for about an hour, to be kids, scanning the houses along the street for teddy bears, eagerly pointing out when we found one, telling those neighbours how cool we thought they were, being joined by others who gathered to see what was going on. (I've noticed people are looking for anything distracting - even the garbage trucks rolling down the street on Monday attracted attention).
It doesn't take much to make a difference right now. As Pam and I walk along, we speak to, our wave to, people we pass. I've never seen these people before and yet we all have a bond of 'we're in this together so let's acknowledge that with a gesture, a smile, a word or two, a bit of a laugh.' It's not hard to do and it feels good.
As for the teddy bears, well there appear to be more popping out every day and not only bears but often whatever people have at hand: toy rabbits, dragons, and other cuddly creatures.
That in itself is a game, occupies some time: what is that in the window?
Before I started this entry, I updated my journal prompts and hesitated for a second or two: what day is this? Oh, it's Monday.
Every day feels like a weekend right now, because: people are out walking and kids are playing as they do on weekends, do-it-yourselfers are sawing and hammering, lawns are being mowed ... these are weekend things.
But here I am, at 7.18am, sitting down to do my work (such as it is in this strange time). Why? Because I am a creature of habit and routine, and my day has some structure. I don't have a gorgeous wee puppy in my lap but I think this photo illustrates structure (working from home perhaps?) and distraction (cute doggie).
My good friend and wise sex therapist Jane McPherson (let me say here that she is not, nor ever has been, my sex therapist - and I do wonder how busy she is right now ...) once told me that 'structure and distraction' is important for our mental health, particularly during times of emotional stress. I've written about structure and distraction before but feel it's important to mention it again.
Structure gets us through the day, provides some security and routine, the knowledge that we need to do this thing at this time, and distraction is the fun stuff that balances it out: walking, playing, watching TV, reading books, exercising etc etc.
The neighbours I meet on my daily walks are developing structures to their days as we wait out our four week isolation. One elderly man I know well said he and his wife 'watch a movie on Netflix in the morning, sometimes another in the afternoon, we take our folding chairs to the beach after lunch and sit up on the grass, then we go home, have a cup of tea, I do some housework while she makes dinner then we read books.'
Sounds like a plan. I usually walk around 2pm or so and I see the same people out each day, so we have similar routines.
Right now they are encouraging us to get up and go to bed at the usual times, to develop some routines during the day and this can take a while. Trial and error is OK, experiment and be inventive and innovative, especially for the children. They will need some routine and that brings reassurance and feelings of security while we're surrounded by such uncertainty.
It's now light outside and looks like rain. Betsy has come downstairs for her work day too. My requirement before working is a cup of black coffee and a piece of toast. Hers is a small bowl of cat biscuits (for the 'mature' feline) and a bit of milk around 10am.
Yesterday I mentioned how my cat Betsy comes to work with me each morning.
This involves coming down from my house to my writing studio, The Writing Place. Both houses are on the same property, connected by some 60 steps. (People have counted them but I can't remember the exact number).
Betsy is 21 years old. Sometimes I cannot believe she has been with me for so long. We have weathered many storms together. She was my constant companion during my first breast cancer diagnosis, resting with me every day while I managed the side effects of chemotherapy treatments. Her calm presence was such a comfort.
She endured many years of alienation when my other cat, Little Boy, came on the scene and ousted her from her position of privilege in the household. LB was a stray who arrived one day and never left. He chased Betsy mercilessly and she took up residence on the roof, in the shed out back, or in the bush. I tried endlessly to bring her back into the house but only on the coldest winter days would she come in to be by the fire. LB passed on (he's out under the pink hibiscus now), Betsy has her home back and every day I think of everything I can to make her life a happy and comfortable one.
In my last journal entry I also wrote about the stairs that Betsy has to negotiate when she comes to work. The photo is of the topmost section that leads up to my house. They are the toughest because they are large, uneven, high-rise steps. So I often carry her up these ones.
It's a bit like this for everybody right now. We're facing the biggest hurdle with this virus, the highest and toughest steps, but there's light at the top. Some of us may need to be carried part, or all, of the way, and, a terrible and sad fact, some of us may not make it up there at all.
I'm continually inspired by my cat Betsy. I guess that comes from us having been together for so long. She has toughed it out through the reign of terror that was Little Boy, weathered all the battles that cats do (other cats invading the territory, wounds and occasional sickness although she has been a very healthy cat, etc).
She has given me, in her cat-ly way, so much love and companionship and if I can carry her up those last few steps every day, by golly, I will do it.
Nobody on the road
Nobody on the beach
I feel it in the air
The summer's out of reach
Empty lake, empty streets
The sun goes down alone ..
The Boys of Summer: Don Henley
It's Day 3 of the four week isolation and I woke up hearing in my head the song 'The Boys of Summer' by Don Henley.
I knew there was some lyric in that song that described what I saw yesterday on my walk. Nobody on the beach - usually there'd be kids a-plenty, people swimming, boats and jet skis, cars parked up with radios going, young folk playing guitars and singing.
Yesterday, only a small group ahead, and me ... and the sun really does go down alone right now.
I'm getting into an isolation routine: Betsy-cat howls at me around 6am and it's impossible to sleep through it. She's pretty much deaf and as her hearing has declined, her voice has gotten louder. It's an immediate wake-up call from a deep sleep. I get up and feed her right away otherwise she won't quit.
Part of getting up is opening the curtains and the bedroom window to let in some early morning air, see what the morning is like. If Betsy happens to run late with her wake-up call, as she did this morning, it's daybreak when I open the curtains. Peaceful, quiet, the sky just beginning to pink up as the sun rises.
Then it's into the shower, get dressed, go down to my writing studio (The Writing Place) to work. Put on the coffee (Jeds Number 4) and toast, switch on everything, power up the computer, sit down and get into it. My contract work is down, as it is with everyone, so I've been working on some of my own writing projects during this time and taking online sessions with writers.
Betsy often comes downstairs to visit me. She expects a small saucer of milk. I often think that's why she makes the trek all the way down, quite a hike for a 21- year old babe (I'll take a photo of the stairs for my next post so you can see what I mean). Then she sacks out on the deck in the sun and when I finish work, we go back upstairs for lunch. I often carry her up a ways as goin' up is harder than comin' down.
Then it's beach walk time, keeping the respectful distance from people I meet, a conversation with my neighbour and walking buddy Pam if she's out as well, then back home to do some chores, then around 4pm it's a nip of whiskey and a book. Fortunately I got several from the library before it closed but I'm whipping through them and know I'll have to start re-reading some of the books I have here.
So that's the routine. Seems to work for now. Today looks like a nice day: sun, a brisk wind coming in from the south. Every day this week has felt like a Saturday or Sunday because everyone's at home and it's kinda quiet. Today really is Saturday.
Feels no different.
It was so quiet when I got up around 630am this morning. I could hear the smallest of waves lapping at the beach.
That's unusual for a weekday as there is always the distant drone of the cars on the main road, continuous for a good two hours or more as people head into work or school, and the going-to-work-and-school noises in the neighbourhood.
I also heard my neighbour tumbling what sounded like heaps of bottles into his recycle bin. Desperate times ...
Yesterday I was out walking and met my friend Pam who lives over the road. We used to walk together every day and now, if we meet up, we do the 'virus salute' which is to extend our arms straight out to indicate our mutual exclusion zones. The 'don't come any closer' message is clear without being too rude.
Pam is a retired nurse and really good value, a straight shooter and down to earth. Having nursed for over 60 years, and taught new recruits too, she's just about seen it all. We had a brief conversation on the beach.
'All the years I was nursing,' Pam said, 'I never got sick, never picked up anything from a patient apart from one time. I was leaving a ward, did the usual hand sanitizing protocols, but touched the door handle on my way out and got the 'flu. Germs exist on different surfaces for varying lengths of time.'
This is a message we're hearing about petrol pumps: wear gloves, or wipe your hands right away after using a pump handle.
Pam also told me that the police had been around the evening before, cruising our streets, and had gone down to the beach that night to break up a gang of young folk drinking beer down by the public dunny. This was before the shutdown of 1159pm Wednesday night.
Pam and I continued our walk together a short way. She was on the grass verge and I walked down the middle of the street. Quite a refreshing thing to do as there are no cars and you can stroll right down the centre line if you fancy it.
We're starting our government-imposed 4 week period of self isolation here in New Zealand. It began at 11.59pm last night and will continue for 4 weeks. We have to stay at home to help prevent the community spread of this ghastly Covid-19 virus that is wreaking such havoc all over the world.
We can go out for a walk, go to the supermarket and the doctor. That's it. All of the bars and the shops are closed, and other services like hair salons (my hair will be down to my ankles by the time I see the scissors again) are shut too. We are not to travel anywhere and the police have additional powers brought into place while the country is in state of national emergency.
Even the army can march in if need be.
That's enough incentive for me to stay at home and behave myself.
Things look the same this morning. The photo above is taken from the deck of my Writing Place. The sun came up, my cat Betsy squalled and howled for her breakfast at the usual time of 6am (on the dot - how do they know?), I got up and did all the usual things (shower, get dressed. toast and coffee). So while things look the same, they don't feel the same. Not at all.
Our neighbourhood has a kind of post-apocalyptic calm. Usually at this time of day kids are chattering on the way to school, car doors are slamming and engines starting as neighbours head off to work, dogs are being walked, yapping and prancing about, pairs of people are striding along for their AM exercise, talking about the day ahead.
Nuthin' like that happening here this morning.
Last night I had a dream. I was at home but my house was bigger. I had two guests staying the night - a man and a woman - unbeknownst to me they had also invited Sonia, a thin, bespectacled, nervous creature (could that have been me?) who had then invited crowds of people for a party. Within minutes my house was packed with rowdy party-goers. Fortunately my house and lawns expanded in my dream to accommodate all of these party folk and I walked from room to room, thinking, 'I cannot get rid of them. There are too many. What should I do?'
Those of us who analyse dreams (and I'm not one of them but for me, this one is pretty clear) will say that this dream of mine shows a loss of control. Things are happening and there is nothing I can do about it. And the crowd of people is an absolute no-no as we deal with this virus.
I imagine the anxiety this situation is causing will invade my dreams again, as it is affecting my waking life too.
We just have to go with it for now.