Hello friends and fiends,
Today in the Madhouse, I'm sitting down and chatting with one of the most lovely people I've met to date: Lee Murray. Lee is a fellow horror writer and RDSP author, and every time I've had the pleasure to be in her company, I find myself forever smiling and simply being in a state of awe because of her talent, strength, and warmth. As such, I wanted to reach out to her today--from Pittsburgh, PA to New Zealand--to see how she was doing and to chat about how her writing habits and her relationship to art has changed due to the state of the world.
As always, Lee met my request with light, love, honesty, and grace, and I hope you find her essay as touching as I did.
Be safe, take care, and we'll speak more soon.
Stephanie M. Wytovich
Writing From My Bubble
by Lee Murray
In Aotearoa-New Zealand, we called them bubbles: closed households of two or three people with whom you would protect the vulnerable and see out the apocalypse. Because my husband had just returned from a business trip to the US, three Murrays went into lock-down on 17 March, getting our supermarket stock-up done before the rest of the country followed suit a little over a week later.
a fantail flits
fired upon at the border
toilet paper wars
In those first weeks, social isolation felt like business as usual, since my husband and I both work from home anyway. We didn’t need to rush-order new desks, rearrange workspace in a spare room, or commandeer a corner of the kitchen table. No need to order in another reem of paper. Our home internet is 900MBits/sec. We were all set. We simply switched our pre-breakfast gym workouts for longer walks around the neighbourhood with the dog, jumping up on banks or onto dewy grass verges to keep a suitable social distance from any others out walking. Most neighbourhoods have a local bush trail within handy reach, and in a town like Tauranga, there are never too many people on the trails. In the lockdown, the streets and tracks were almost deserted. Birds chattered. Lawn mowers hummed.
We certainly weren’t minimising the threat of the pandemic—New Zealand’s numbers were on the upswing with 256 cases recorded on the day the lockdown went into place. The economic fall-out would be brutal, but the lives of New Zealand’s vulnerable were at stake. There was comfort in knowing that our precious family members were safe in their respective bubbles. Our government had a plan. Go early and go hard. We hunkered down and got on with the task of flattening the curve, checking in daily for live updates from Jacinda and Dr Ashley, who provided Kiwis with their daily report card. Strangely, in those early days, my anxious-Piglet self was almost upbeat. We could do this. We simply had to stay the course.
rising story arc
how it ends
But it’s like Steinbeck said, isn’t it?
“It is not good to want a thing too much. It sometimes drives the luck away. You must want it just enough, and you must be very tactful with Gods or the gods.” ― John Steinbeck, The Pearl
I wanted too much. Perhaps my hubris had angered Whiro-te-tipua, the lord of darkness, because on May 29, New Zealand recorded its first death. We had known it would come, and yet inside our bubbles, we were stunned.
Days passed and more people died. TV became both torture and distraction. Two billion others watched on, everyone, everywhere consuming stories. Our vocabulary expanded to include words like co-morbidity, immune compromised, and hydroxychloroquine. Acronyms like R95, ICU, and PPE. We studied graphs, Ro ratios, and percentages. We mastered Zoom, Teams, and Facetime.
the battle raging
my dog snores
Too numb to write fiction, I resolved to be productive in other ways; my speaking events and conventions had been cancelled, so I took on new mentees, read books, wrote blurbs, signed up for a course, and produced some webinars. Still, I couldn’t write. Nothing solid. Nothing that worked. Nothing that would stick. There was only the weekly social media poetry-date with my friend in Wisconsin, where, for the past year, we have shared our observations and reflections as haiku/senryu. These tiny poems of less than seventeen syllables have become the backbone of my pandemic record.
On 4 April, my mother got a call from the rest home, and for the next week I was immune to the pandemic.
the world stills
New Zealand’s compassionate policy during Level 4 lockdown was for one family member visitor per dying non-Covid patient. In strict quarantine. In full PPE. For a week, my mother, my sister, and I did turn about. My brothers, living in other towns, were not so lucky. I read Dad the poems he’d read to me when I was little. The Wreck of the Hesperus. Jabberwock. Even giggled over some Pam Ayres. I read him a couple of poems of my own, including the one about our midnight trips to catch eel at Pukehina creek. He died gently, in his own time. I joked that he could at least tell me where he’d buried the family treasure before he went. Nothing doing. Dad raised his eyebrows in a classic Kiwi East Coast wave.
When I wasn’t with him, I wrote daily updates for the family, doing my best to smooth the edges of words like night and death.
eggshells, hearts, and other fragilities
tiny wings struggle
in a web
Nor was I with Dad when he died on 9 April. On 10 April, I woke up early. Or perhaps I’d barely slept. I pulled the curtains open and watched a milky sunrise.
grey upon grey
a heron in flight
But I was lucky because Mum joined my family bubble. I got to hug her, at least. For two days, we sat in the sun, drank tea, and took phone calls from friends and family. We told stories of Dad. There was nothing for us to plan; Level 4 health regulations meant all bodies had to be cremated. There were no funerals. No flowers. No family groups. No exceptions. Cart me off in a cardboard box, Dad always said.
in the rushes
a reed bends
The pandemic raged on. While Mum knitted me a jersey, I went back to work, a short commute when you’re a full-time writer working from home. Over the next few weeks, I replied to mentees, judged an award, edited a national children’s anthology, rescheduled some local writing meet-ups, and critiqued some work for colleagues. I read another book. I won an award which would have made Dad proud; we celebrated with a cup of tea. In the evenings, we turned off the news and watched the Endeavour series from start to finish. I cuddled the dog, my son, my darling, my mum. Still the only writing was the poems. A few words scribbled on scraps of paper. Like breathing in tiny shallow breaths. Stabs of acute pain, while I wait for the panic attack to pass. I imagine those same feelings are playing out in ICUs everywhere.
On April 28, New Zealand loosened its lockdown restrictions, moving into Alert Level 3 in a cautious contactless reopening; Mum went home to sleep in her own bed and, I suspect, to start her grieving.
We’re not special, and I’m not complaining. Yes, it’s hard to lose a parent in a global pandemic. Yes, it’s hard to be far from the people you desperately need to hug in times like these. But it was the right thing to do. Here in New Zealand, our numbers have been promising—just 2 new cases in the past week, with 96% of all cases recovered. Things could have been so much worse; they might still be.
draped with privilege
her back freezes
On 13 May, New Zealand moved to Alert Level 2, which allows for up to ten people to meet with distancing and contact tracing records. Our precious bubbles are popping, and it scares me. But I saw my brother and his family yesterday. We had a family lunch. Sushi. Pasta. It felt almost normal. Today, my daughter and her partner flew home.
I’m not sure when I’ll be able to write again. For now, it seems the world is changing too fast. Anxious-Piglet-sorts don’t cope well with change. I’ll try again tomorrow.
the pestilence followed us
in ragged, haggard lungs
We ejected the dead,
sent them gentle into the night.
Imagined the starry fireworks
glimpsed on far-off porches.
We saw only darkness.
Bereft, we drifted on.
Lee Murray is a multi-award-winning writer and editor of science fiction, fantasy, and horror (Sir Julius Vogel, Australian Shadows) and a three-time Bram Stoker Award® nominee. Her works include the Taine McKenna military thrillers (Severed Press), and supernatural crime-noir series The Path of Ra, co-written with Dan Rabarts (Raw Dog Screaming Press), as well as several books for children. She is proud to have edited thirteen speculative works, including award-winning titles Baby Teeth: Bite Sized Tales of Terror and At the Edge (with Dan Rabarts), Te Kōrero Ahi Kā (with Grace Bridges and Aaron Compton) and Hellhole: An Anthology of Subterranean Terror (Adrenaline Press). She is the co-founder of Young New Zealand Writers, an organisation providing development and publishing opportunities for New Zealand school students, co-founder of the Wright-Murray Residency for Speculative Fiction Writers, and HWA Mentor of the Year for 2019. In February 2020, Lee was made an Honorary Literary Fellow in the New Zealand Society of Authors Waitangi Day Honours. Lee lives over the hill from Hobbiton in New Zealand’s sunny Bay of Plenty where she dreams up stories from her office overlooking a cow paddock. Read more at www.leemurray.info