I kicked myself out of the house this afternoon to get some exercise, clear my brain and find some inspiration. It was one of those brilliant autumn days in Central Otago and there was a sense of perfection in the blue sky, turquoise water and gold and green hills, studded with crimson rose hips (a pest species which is admittedly only pretty if you don’t have to engage with it). It was impossible to feel anything other than a sense of gladness for being there, right then, in that way, no matter the myriad of things occurring in my head, region and country and world. I am no expert at permanent contentment, however. I am more likely to zing between great enjoyment of life and a contrasting depth of despair – I definitely had a minor mental meltdown at the weekend over some of the data I trawled through regarding our current crisis. However, I am lucky to have met a wide resource of people through my life, thoughts of whom I draw on to bolster me in times of need and from whom I hope I can continue to learn (plenty of that still to be done, without a doubt).
On the subject of ‘contentment’, my Dad has to get another mention. In one of our many, possibly heated, debates, we discussed happiness. Dad was clear that contentment is the higher goal. “You can’t be happy all the time, but you can always be content.” I think many of us have to live quite a bit of our lives to really embed that thought. Happiness is a counterpoint to unhappiness. But contentment can be a constant and, in times of crisis, a constant is much more welcome than a pinball of emotional ricochets . Dad was a remarkably contented person and I can imagine him, in this crisis, calmly continuing to work in his garden and have his one sherry in the evenings before dinner. There are also two other shining examples of contentment with whom I have had the pleasure of spending much time, and to whom I would like to introduce you.
Meet Margaret Ryan, or ‘Mrs Ryan’ to me (pictured here singing and playing the piano on her 100th birthday). Mrs Ryan was my piano teacher and I first met her when I was seven and she was sixty-five; she seemed ancient then! Mrs Ryan didn’t have a completely easy life. She was a highly accomplished pianist, gained the highest music qualification at a very young age, but to make money she had to accompany films in cinemas and teach young ingrates basic keyboard skills. Her first husband died shortly after WWII, when their son was young and times were pretty hard. Mrs Ryan had to put her son into foster care in order to be able to work enough to earn a living. She never made much money and lived in a less well off Christchurch suburb. Mrs Ryan never bemoaned her lot; over the 47 years in which I knew her, she was appeared very content with a life which, from the outside seemed quite ordinary. However, her ability to make friends of all ages and thus fill her life with people, was by no means ordinary. I believe it was the secret to her contentment, right up to the age of 102 at which she died like a clock winding down. What would Mrs Ryan be doing in a COVID-19 lockdown? She would be playing the piano, improving her dahlias, having a gin and talking with her chihuahua.
I am also pleased to introduce you to Mike Nelson, my father-in-law. He is pictured here above Te Rerenga Wairua where we took him on holiday. Mike had been to every continent, most multiple times, but when we asked him where he hadn’t been in NZ, he said ‘Cape Reinga’. So, 6 months before his death, we all visited a place from which spirits leap to depart this world. Mike was comfortable and content in a wide variety of situations, working in the World Bank as a resource economist, climbing in the Andes, playing incompetent croquet in the local Wanaka club, and hosting a multiplicity of people, of all ages, wherever he and his wife Jean lived. The vicissitudes of life did not seem to rock Mike, or his quiet attitude of positivity (except perhaps after the odd drink when he had a much louder attitude of positivity). What would Mike be doing in a COVID-19 lockdown? I think he would be smiling, having a whisky, scratching the dogs with his foot, organising his photos on the computer and calling friends and family in his drawling, warm voice to see how they are doing.
Sticking with today’s positive note , the best news of the day for me was that only 2% of New Zealand’s COVID-19 cases so far assessed are considered “community transmission”. Today the Ministry of Health categorised cases in this way for the first time, designating them ‘recent overseas travel’, ‘contact with known case’, ‘overseas travel and contact with known case’, community transmission’. Why is 2% so important? It’s because community transmission is the way that COVID-19 will spread through our population in an uncontrolled fashion, and the whole point of our current Level 4 alert is to suppress community transmission. At present, the MoH consider there are 11 cases where they don’t know the links in the chain of disease transmission, although they have another 100 cases where they are still assessing how the person acquired the disease. There’s always another number to watch in our set of action research, COVID-19 experiments, and NZ community transmission is going to be a very important one.