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BooksApril 18, 2020

Lockdown letter #23, Renée: A wild patience

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

‘My patience, never a very strong part of my character, is being stretched a bit so thinking of something else is preferable to throwing all the cups on the floor.’

Read more from the lockdown letters here.

A wild patience has taken me this far… Adrienne Rich 

I thought of that line this morning while I was cleaning the kitchen. Wild patience exactly encapsulates what I feel right now. My patience, never a very strong part of my character, is being stretched a bit so thinking of something else is preferable to throwing all the cups on the floor. Besides I have just cleaned the floor… well I think I’ve cleaned it – another line pops into my head, this one from Mary McCallum’s poem, ‘Magnificence’ – Our bodies are magnificent and they fail us – my eyes are failing me. 

I clean and sweep, wipe and dry, knowing I’ve almost certainly missed something. I only buy red-skinned potatoes now. I like chips and I make good ones but peeling and cutting up the potatoes is getting a bit tricky. 

I can’t see my face in the mirror, just a sort of ghostly presence, but the other day I thought bugger this, I’m sick of always pushing my hair back so I washed it, put the mirror on the kitchen bench where two windows and the new expensive ceiling light were not quite enough to see clearly. I thought to hell with it, shut my eyes, grabbed a piece and cut it off. That was one side done. I felt the other side, sort of measured it in my head, and hacked that chunk off. As far as I could tell it matched the size of the lock I’d already chopped off. I have no idea what my hair looks like, probably a good thing, but it feels great. A finger in the air to you, Lady Fate.

I was first introduced to Adrienne Rich’s work in 1979 when I did a paper called 20th Century Women’s Literature, taught by Aorewa McLeod at the University of Auckland. It was a great paper and she was a great teacher. 

What Aorewa (and Adrienne) did for me was introduce me to poetry that reflected my thoughts, experiences and ideas, gave me new ones. What I had to do was exercise some patience and keep looking and reading and eventually I’d find poets who spoke my language. 

Up till 1979 I hadn’t felt much connection with poetry. It seemed to be written for well-educated people who understood the images and ideas, who wrote about form and stanza (what the fuck did they mean?), had never in their nice middle-class lives known what it was like to be hungry and cold. 

In the mid-1970s though, feminist poetry, song lyrics, novels, nonfiction, plus Broadsheet magazine, came on the scene and I gave poetry another go. If at first some of them didn’t seem to be on my wavelength, I just exercised some wild patience and gave them a second read. 

I’m into my fifth week of isolation. Although the word isolation is relative. It’s not like I’m locked up. I see people walking or cycling past, someone pushing a pram. I can walk around the little front lawn, ignore the apples all over the ground, because if I lean down to pick them up I’ll probably fall over. 

I have divvied up the cleaning so I do a third of this little unit each day along with the regular kitchen cleaning plus the daily heap of hand towels etc which have to be washed and hung out. I wonder if I’ll be so assiduous once this is over. Once we are back to what we called normal.

While my life has changed from time to time, one thing remains. Writing has kept me sane through two bouts of cancer and a diagnosis of macular degeneration which means that eventually I’ll only be able to see ghostly shapes. Sitting down at the computer is my normal. 

But what does normal mean? Everyone’s normal is different. The woman who heads a large finance company and is taking a 20% wage cut will have a different normal from the woman who exists on the benefit, doesn’t know if she’ll have enough for food plus electricity and doesn’t want to tell anyone in case the state comes and takes her kids away. 

Iris in Wednesday To Come faces her new normal. Ben is dead, no money, two kids, a mother, grandmother, all in the small house, very little going for her except her own hard resolution. She speaks to Ben in the coffin.

“Who will remember us? We need someone because it seems to me that everyone’s forgotten about us. And even if they do remember it’ll only be bits. We’re the ones they leave out when they write up the books.”

Will the Irises of 2020 be left out of the books? 

Three strawberries from the bins, eight tomatoes from the wild one.

Keep going!