Television journalist Jehan Casinader was eating alone at a New York City restaurant in September when he received an unexpected email from a retirement village in Christchurch.
He immediately opened the message that was titled, "Making a difference to someone's life". That person happened to be 90-year-old former nun and nurse Noelene Boag, who had read Jehan's book about overcoming depression and suicidality.
"That's not a sentence you read very often, if ever, and I was obviously intrigued," recalls the award-winning reporter and author of This is Not How it Ends: How Rewriting Your Story Can Save Your Life.
"The email said my book had given new meaning to her life and a purpose to live, and she desperately wanted to meet and thank me. I knew I had to meet this lady, there was no question."
For Holly Lea Village resident Noelene, who has battled depression since getting chronic fatigue syndrome around 40 years ago, Jehan's book inspired her so much, she decided to write her own memoir. Edited and published by her local Anglican church, A Pilgrim's Story details her years working as a nurse before devoting her life to God and joining the Community of the Sacred Name.
"My worst enemy in life has been myself and engaging in too much negative thinking, which was the biggest battle to overcome," shares Noelene, who was born to farming parents in mid-Canterbury in the 1930s. "It all comes when I'm very tired. I've been told a virus triggered my chronic fatigue because I was very low in health with a very bad flu for a while and under a lot of stress."
Working as a nun from around 30 years old, Noelene stayed in the order for 20 years, including spending four years in a Fijian children's home founding a Christian establishment.
"For the first four years as a Sister, I was happy as Larry, and enjoyed it all and fit into the life. Then they sent me to Fiji very suddenly, with barely any preparation, and that was a big shock. Things became very difficult after that," shares Noelene, who found the heat and humidity hard to manage.
"I had to withdraw and was given another creative job to do, and that was good for the next 10 years, but afterwards is when I crashed."
For years, Noelene carried a sense of failure because of her health. During one of her lows in November 2020, after seeing a write-up about Jehan and his debut book in the local paper, she purchased a copy.
"I was unappreciative of my life and wasn't feeling very fulfilled," says Noelene, who wasn't leaving her room at the village where she has lived for 26 years. "I read the book and realised instead of valuing my life and accepting it as a precious gift, I'd been hoping I don't linger into decrepit age.
"I'd pushed myself too far to serve God and had to retreat after getting sick. But I'm an ordinary person, and I can just relax and enjoy life."
Noelene spent the next 18 months writing her memoir, feeling a sense of release upon completion. A self-proclaimed introvert, she enjoyed writing for hours at a time in her apartment, using old journals for reference.
"I didn't ever think I'd write a book at 90 because I didn't want to live to 90, but here I am," she laughs. "I'm glad I did. Although the world is very troubled and stressful, beauty is here in the ordinary world if we look for it – and we must look for it."
Two months after receiving the email, Jehan boarded a plane to Christchurch to meet Noelene for her book launch at the village, where he made a speech.
"I wasn't sure whether she'd find me as interesting as the person she'd read about in my book," grins Jehan, 32, who spends most of his career now travelling New Zealand, speaking at conferences and events about mental health, leadership and diversity. "But she was just so delighted and it was a really nice moment to celebrate her. I felt privileged."
The television journalist is blown away by the ripple effect of his book, and the fact it impacted someone from a completely different generation and cultural background. The healthiest and happiest he's been, Jehan says meeting Noelene was the best day in the entire process of writing and releasing his book.
"I had no idea that two years later I'd be sitting in a retirement village in Christchurch with someone telling me it's helped them to turn their life around," he enthuses. "Noelene has taught me it's never too late to change your mindset."
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