Time is a Gift…

One of the revelations of this period of enforced isolation is that we have more leisure time than we’ve ever had in recent years. The virus has truncated our long list of weekly errands. The hour plus we usually spend trudging the grocery aisles has been cut to minutes scrolling a list of food items on an online app. We’ve cut out trips to the pharmacy, the post office, the bank…no need for cash if we aren’t shopping or dining out. We probably won’t need to pump gas for weeks.

Our year long decluttering/downsizing project has ground to a halt since thrift shops where we donate our treasures have closed for the duration. No trips to the hazardous waste drop-off or our storage spaces are on the agenda. Even dragging boxes of paper to be shredded seems like a chore that can wait.

For some reason, the format of online meetings seems to be more efficient, thus shorter. Reasons for many meetings have evaporated since our community art programs and shows are on hold until the curve is flattened. Travel time is now the minute it takes me to locate my laptop.

Since our social life now takes place on video chats, we spend no time picking up clutter, setting the table, or preparing appetizers and drinks for guests. We are enjoying the simplicity of scheduling online time with others who are also idled by this shelter in place order, but we miss the hugs, the back slaps, the clink of glasses.

My writing space…

The big question is how to make use of these free hours so that when life returns to some form of normal, I’ll feel like I accomplished something! Art and writing…I’ve been too busy to pursue both. Now I’ll divide that gift of extra time between my easel and my laptop!

Some Wins and a Loss

About a week into home isolation, staycation, hideaway, or however it feels at a particular time, we are starting to get a grip on our new daily routine. Self-help books state that it takes three weeks to develop a new habit, but a sense of determination/urgency/panic has accelerated that process for us.

The checklist works in this household. Every day we have a place to record that, yes, we remembered to clean our device screens, drink that cup of hot water first thing in the morning, and for me, take both doses of my asthma meds. We’ve recorded that we are spending time outside, listening to music, and limiting news. And, that we are yet to make art or play the piano…that will change this weekend.

Happily, the item “Check in with family/friends” has been easy. Between Zoom, FaceTime, and other video apps plus good old-fashioned phone calls, we’ve been able to connect with various family members and friends. It seems that regular reaching out is going to be very good for our mental health during this trying time. And hopefully we can help others by being more available…something that can be challenging during “normal” times.

Buying groceries through Instacart is working okay. When we can get a delivery appointment, that is! Bill wants to bake bread this weekend and we are low on flour. A surreptitious trip to Lucky revealed that flour is another hoarded item…not a speck to be found.

Logged into Instacart and at Safeway I found acceptable flour along with other items we need. Plowed all the way through the order only to be startled by the message “No Delivery Appointments Available!” What? On to Lucky, same message! But Lucky does offer to deliver to one’s car parked in front of the store, so we’ll do that. But, why isn’t the “No Delivery Appointments Available” message splashed across the screen before one goes through the ordering process? Curious. We’ll continue with online ordering for now…but order well before supplies are low!

Our fridge never has this much food! Or beverages!

So, some wins, definitely. One loss, that hit us just as talk of self-isolation was growing louder. For years, we have had certain affairs arranged in what we believed was a prudent and maybe obvious way. That turned out to be a huge mistake. We fixed the situation with help from people we can trust. The fix was expensive and inconvenient, but in some ways this experience turned out to be a win. We were reminded once again about how many truly wonderful people are in our lives!

Keeping In Touch

Perusing my activity list for this period of shelter in place, one item emerged that may have the most long lasting consequences…in a good way. And that is checking in with family and friends. It is a bit of a habit with me anyway, but busyness intrudes from time to time. Activities with deadlines tend to take precedence over the casual phone call or coffee date.

So, this week is about creating a new practice of being in more frequent contact with both family members and friends. We can’t get together in person, but we can use some amazing tools to connect virtually.

Yesterday, our art association board used the video conferencing application, Zoom, to hold our monthly meeting. It was a little awkward at first and we need practice with the application to create a meeting where we can all see and hear each other. However, it was gratifying to see the faces of women who are not only colleagues, but good friends.

My youngest sister and I had a nice long visit using Facebook Messenger video this morning. It is fun to see each other while we talk…especially first thing in the morning when our hair is still messy and our jammies rumpled. Later today my other sister and I will spend time together using either FaceTime or Zoom.

This weekend Bill and I will host two virtual events. First on our agenda is a video cocktail party with artists in our community followed by a video cousin reunion. Next week, we plan to hold a salon type event that we’ll announce on Facebook. Our goal is to not just maintain the friendships that mean so much, but to rediscover old ones and grow new ones.

Hubby and I usually celebrate St. Patricks’ Day with our great friend and neighbor, Ginny. It was not possible to share the traditional meal in person this year, so we wrapped a portion in foil and invited her to come over and pick it up at the doorstep. She sent a photo later of her smiling face and a full plate. And then a long phone chat topped off our evening

People create the joy in our lives. Moments with friends or family lift our spirits and encourage us to persevere in so many ways. I’d like to invite any of my friends or family who are feeling a little lonely or blue to pm me and we’ll connect…on a phone call or a video chat…after I brush my hair!

Ingredients delivered by Instacart…another helpful app we just discovered.

Planning…to Make It Through

It seems obvious to me that one cannot approach the COVID-19 crisis in a laissez-faire frame of mind. So today I did what I do best perhaps…put together a project plan using my favorite organizing tool…yes, the spreadsheet. I took the points shared yesterday, added a few more, and voila! We have a plan! And having a plan hugely reduces our stress and anxiety.

We need to develop new habits and develop them quickly. Plus in a two-person household we need to verify, not assume, that certain tasks are done daily…like sanitizing hard surfaces. We want to be conscientious about those activities that we both know help our mental health…like listening to music and getting outside. It helps to record that we did those activities and tasks each day.

Our weekly spreadsheet will help us keep of track of critical items like making sure I actually take two doses of my asthma meds every day. We already switched Bill’s meds to an AM/PM daily pill box. Until we get into a new routine, we need to check and double-check to make sure we are not forgetting anything!

One thing we both noticed is how fast the day went. We never even got to the first task on our major project list…but tomorrow is another day.

Accessories of the day…my kitty cat rings! Gifts from my husband, they always make me smile.

Finding the Calm, Ignoring the Chaos

So hubby and I are exercising restraint and practicing a slightly modified home stay as recommended by local health authorities. We plan to limit outside excursions to one or two things we cannot cancel this month. Once the weather clears, we’ll head back to Newhall Park to enjoy the brilliant spring greens and the view of our beloved Mt. Diablo. We figure no one is going to tell us we can’t spend time in nature.

Many of our usual activities have been postponed or canceled. Our meetings and classes with artists and other friends will be on hiatus for an unknown period of time. Realizing so much more free time could lead to both anxiety and depression, we have been thinking about ways to create a positive experience that maybe opens up new adventures for us.

We’re starting by establishing new habits which we think will protect our health and reduce stress. Here is our daily list in no particular order:

  • Sanitize hard surfaces like handles, door knobs, faucet levers, light switches
  • Wipe iPhones and iPads with alcohol wipes
  • Change kitchen and bathroom hand towels
  • Meditate
  • Listen to our favorite music-break out those old CD’s
  • Create-a small art piece or a poem or a journal entry
  • Check in with friends and family
  • Prepare healthy meals-maybe two per day instead of three!
  • Limit time reading the news to ten minutes
  • Find a new comedy series and make that the last thing we watch before bed
  • Avoid sharing a lot of negative news on Facebook
  • At least five days per week, get out of the yoga clothes or pajamas and dress up
  • Establish a definite bed time and stick to it
  • For me: wear something cute every day! Like these darling French shoes! Brand new and never worn outside…they may be my new house shoes!

There and Back Once More

Once again, we are preparing for an overseas adventure. This trip seems a little crazier than most. We’ll be traveling for two months and staying in eight different countries with day trips to two more. The beginning weeks will focus on areas that are very new to us while the end of the trip will take us to places we know and love. We are excited to be traveling unfamiliar roads, savoring new cuisines, and making new friends. And, we’ll enjoy returning to cities we love and hanging out with old friends. So, onward to Portugal, Spain, Morocco, Malta, Italy, Austria, Germany, and France!

In His Honor-A Memory

Making Like Anthony Bourdain

“You can’t believe everything you read on the Internet,” Bill said.

I replied, “Sometimes you just have to take a leap of faith.” We were cruising the Holland America website exploring excursions for our Alaska vacation. As always, the conflict between my craving for adventure and Bill’s practical nature had to be taken into account. I added, “Honey, this ATV tour really does look terrific! We can fit it in the day we arrive in Denali. We’ll get to see a glacial moraine and a braided river!”

“Neither of us have ever ridden one of these things.”

“No, but I’ve driven a snowmobile, you’ve driven a motorcycle, and the website shows this is a level two adventure—perfect for us! If it were really dangerous it would be a level three. Please, please, can we sign up?”

My husband nodded. I added the ATV tour to our list of excursions and clicked “buy”. We started counting down the days until our departure for the fiftieth state and the vacation dreamed about for years.

After a scenic all-day train ride from Anchorage to Denali National Park, Bill and I checked into our rustic cabin, grabbed a quick dinner, and hopped on a van for a short drive to the Black Diamond ATV resort. Three handsome young men garbed in mud splattered rain suits greeted us as we clambered off the van and stumbled over water-filled ruts to the resort office. The tallest of the group yelled, “Okay, peoples, first you watch safety film, then you grab helmet, gloves and raincoat!” They herded us into a drafty shed with our twenty or so fellow adventurers.

“See, honey, they obviously have been doing this a while or they wouldn’t make us watch this safety film and oh, uh, read this two-page liability release form…” The mandatory film was a well-produced infomercial for a popular brand of ATVs. There was some mention of things like wearing a helmet, following instructions, using the hand brakes. The liability release form was vague enough that one couple decided to wait in the van rather than experience the adventure.

We donned our gear, laughing a bit at the awkward fit of the helmets and the dirt-encrusted gloves. Chatting with our guides, we discovered that they were college students from Bulgaria working in Alaska for the summer to learn the tourist business. The crew hustled our crowd to the muddy yard to select our ATVs.  “Womens take big machines! Much safer! Mens, little ones goes faster!” shouted one of our guides.

I pulled myself up onto a big, green four-wheeled ATV. Somewhere during our suiting up, I think we were told how to start the machine, but between the guide’s rough accent, his distracting smile, and the muffling of my helmet, I missed most of the instructions. Bill sped off while I was still trying to find the on switch. After a few minutes my guide strode over, turned on the engine, and urged, “Go quick! You are behind!”

I gunned the engine. My ATV roared out of the yard and onto the gravel-strewn trail. In seconds, I was running off the trail and skewing into dense brush. I clamped down hard on the hand brake and shuddered to a stop. I jockeyed my weighty machine back and forth to regain the trail. After a few minutes of strenuous effort, I gunned the engine again and set off to find my group.

The trail took a sharp left turn. I pulled to the left with all my strength. I negotiated that turn only to be confronted by a ninety-degree right turn and an ill-placed boulder. I yanked hard, but the ATV knew I was no match. The big green monster bounced over the boulder and flew off the trail and down the steep hillside. I hung on with an iron grip as the monster sought level ground. We traveled faster and faster smashing over wildflowers and boulders alike.

“Oh, my God, I’m going to die my first day in Alaska!” Suddenly an image flashed before my eyes. Just the week before while watching the Travel Channel, I had seen host Anthony Bourdain in a very similar predicament. Frantically, I recalled his heavy ATV rolling over him twice as he crashed down a steep sand mound. “What did Anthony say he should have done?”

“Jump! Jump! Jump!” I leapt off at the next bounce. The monster galloped downhill. I was airborne for a few seconds and then I hit the ground hard. Opening my eyes, I found I had landed in a large patch of brilliant purple fireweed. The dense foliage and the daypack I had cleverly worn front-wise broke my fall.

I moved my head and each limb in turn. “Nothing’s broken!” I extricated myself from the smashed blossoms and stood up. A head appeared above me on the trail.

My guide looked at me with a quizzical expression and asked, “Why you drive off trail, lady?”

After figuring out that I was not the litigious sort, my dark-eyed escort said, “Lady, maybe you ride with me now. I got plenty room. You have more fun, okay, lady?” Georges and I quickly caught up with our group.

“Honey, I drove off the trail and crashed my ATV, so Georges suggested I ride with him,” I explained to my shocked husband. After a quick hug and a shake of his head, Bill chased off after one of his new buddies. It turned out that Bill took to ATV’ing like a grizzly to ground squirrels. He sped around turns, raced up hills, splashed through puddles and generally behaved in a totally un-Bill manner. I escaped my adventure with only bruises and scrapes. Word of my derring-do soon spread within our tour group and I dined out on the heroic story for several days.

A couple of months later, we acquired coveted tickets to a lecture given by my favorite chef, author, and adventurer. His talk was funny. I bought his latest book and stood in line to have it autographed. As I waited, I rehearsed a fifty-word version of my amazing story to share with him.

I sauntered up to the signing table. “Chef Bourdain,” I said, “Remember the ATV accident you had in New Zealand, you know, the one where you almost got crushed on the sand dune? The exact same thing happened to me in Alaska, only I remembered what you said you should have done and I jumped. So, here I am!”

Tony favored me with a blank stare.

“You saved my life!” I gushed.

My hero’s mouth turned up in a scornful smile. He scrawled something illegible in my book. In his jaded eyes, I could see the question, “What the hell kind of numbskull middle-aged broad talked herself into driving an ATV in the wilds of Alaska?”

Moving on…or maybe not

Monday marked fifteen years since the death of my mother. In that strange bifurcated way that one perceives personal events, it seems like she has been gone forever, but also like she departed only yesterday. For years after she died, I dreamed that she had wandered off on some kind of junket. Our family searched for her in vain. In one vivid dream, Mom walked into our family home carrying a small briefcase and wearing a non-descript coat. We greeted her with joy leavened by consternation. I grabbed her hands and demanded, “where have you been? How could you have left us for so long?” She replied in a stern, no-nonsense tone, very unlike the real her, “I had other things I needed to do.” Dreams of her have faded, yet I can still hear her laugh, feel her soft hands, see the sparkle in her eyes.

My mother had just recuperated from multiple surgeries for oral cancer, when a sudden onset of severe heartburn prompted her to visit yet another doctor. Tests revealed that this non-smoking, tee-totaler had esophageal cancer. After a long recovery from the surgery to remove the tumor, Mom’s life returned to normal for some months. We all pretended to ourselves that her fine surgeon had eradicated all of the cancer. The reality was that her disease was far advanced by the time she had surgery and there was no way she would survive for long. But, we ignored that fact and continued to live as if she would be with us for many years. 

Mom did live long enough to meet two more of my grandchildren, boy cousins born three days apart in August. By the beginning of November, our fantasy of many more years with Mom was coming unspun. The entire family including her favorite sister and all three of my grandchildren gathered at my parent’s home for Thanksgiving. Some of my most precious memories are of Mom and Aunt Ellen holding and bouncing the baby boys.

Within a few days after our family celebration, Mom agreed it was time for hospice. Visiting nurses came and went, checking vitals, ordering increased dosages of the pain-killing drugs she now needed, counseling all of us on what to expect. My father veered between anxiety about Mom’s diminished appetite and free-floating anger at everyone within earshot especially me. I saved my tears for the drive to and from work. Mom asked for help cleaning out her closet. “I won’t need these large-size tops and pants this spring. I’ll have to get a whole new wardrobe.” To me, at least, she displayed an unquenchable optimism. Somehow she would beat the cancer.

Just after Christmas Mom fell and broke her hip. As our family doctor put it, “the fall was just another stage of her cancer.” An eager young bone surgeon prepped to perform a hip replacement. With the counsel of the middle-aged anesthesiologist who recognized the brevity of Mom’s life at this point, we suggested that pinning the hip to alleviate her pain made more sense. Mom surprised everyone by surviving the surgery. Within a day or two she was sitting in a chair, forcing herself to eat so she could go home, joking with her son-in-law and grandson, flirting with the doctors.

Despite the successful hip surgery, Mom soon slipped into a coma. We had her moved to a large private room with a sofa-bed for family sleepovers. Family members, including our son and his breast-feeding wife and one of our best friends became her guardians. We made sure she was never alone. My sister and I worked with hospice and they worked with the orthopedic staff to manage her medications and hydration. I was desperate to get her home and tried every tactic I could with the doctors, but she was too fragile to travel in an ambulance.

The night my mother died, my husband Bill and I were her guardians. Mom had not spoken for several days, nor opened her eyes. She no longer squeezed back when I squeezed her hand. In the middle of the night, Bill and I stood at either side of her bed and watched her chest rise and fall. We stroked her hair and assured her that if it was her time to go, the family would be okay after a time. I knelt by her side for a long while, holding her hand, thinking about the thirty-some hours of labor she endured bringing me into the world. At last, exhaustion drove me to the sofa-bed. Bill joined me a little later. 

At about 3:30 in the morning, Bill awoke to a rustling sound. A nurse held a stethoscope on my mother’s chest. Bill shook me out of a deep sleep. As we struggled off the bed, the nurse turned to us and whispered, “she’s passed.” I was stunned. Mom had been breathing quietly when I laid down…less then twenty minutes before. It was so like my very private mother to wait until Bill and I were asleep before drawing her last breath. 

Bill pulled on his coat and rushed out of the room to carry the news to Dad, leaving me alone with my mother. I grabbed her now-cool hand and wished for her to come back to me, not for just an instant; I wanted her back forever. Fifteen years later, I still feel that way. 

In the Bubble…

So we spent the last hour relaxing on our verandah here on the MS Maasdam. While we finished off a bottle of bubbly, courtesy of our travel agent, we had time to observe the late afternoon activity at the Port of Otago…Otago being the name of the peninsula where our ship has been docked all day. The nearest town is Port Chalmers and the big city on the peninsula is Dunedin, population about 120,000. 

For such a lightly populated area, the port seems quite busy. With a backdrop of emerald green hills and a foreground of  turquoise bay water, the various fork lifts and other machinery of the port carry on their activities, which seem to consist of moving brightly painted containers from one stack to another. As we watched, the stacks at one end of the dock became taller, while at the other end they became shorter.

We wonder what all this constant activity means. Where are those containers destined? Do they contain supplies for this area? Outbound material for export? There is no way to tell from our perch on Deck 9 of the Maasdam, but seeing the name Maersk on so many of the containers I wonder if that is a company in which we should invest.

Today was our first ashore after three days at sea. Yesterday we did see land…Milford Sound and another fjord, but other than those magnificent areas, our world has been the ship and the sea as far as we could see. It began to feel rather strange and maybe naive, to be ensconced on this lovely ship with all of the glamorous touches of decor and style. 

There can be a complete disconnect on board ship from everything going on in the land-bound world. Yes, there is internet and each morning someone prints out a news digest which can be picked up at the front desk. If we wanted to, we could probably watch one of the cable news stations on our stateroom television. However, the atmosphere aboard discourages one from overly serious pursuits. 

Not all is totally frivolous. There are lectures and such on the culture of the places we’ll visit. Many activities on this ship emphasize nature with tours, talks and films on the environment of New Zealand.
But, it is easy to just float in a bubble of contentment. To live very much in the moment…whether it is a moment of gazing at the dawn sky, or spotting a waterfall cascading down a high cliff, or reveling in the antics of the seabirds. Maybe, this is what we need once in a while…a divorce from the reality of civilization and a chance to connect with the quiet beauty of our natural world.

Shopping at the Woolworth’s

Staying in a rented flat or apartment hotel  when traveling outside the US allows us to cook some meals instead of eating out three times a day. And cooking, of course, means grocery shopping, always an amusing and interesting activity in a foreign city.

Our first day in Sydney, stocking the larder landed first on our to-do list. Right around the corner from our hotel is a Woolworth’s…not the US drug store of our childhood memories, but a fully stocked multi-story grocery store. 

We strolled through the door only to be caught up in a cyclone of shoppers. Duh, we should have thought twice before venturing into a grocery store at 5:30 pm mid-week. Harried shoppers rushed around grabbing steaks here, veggies there, piling up their little green shopping baskets. We wandered the aisles in a post-fourteen-hour-flight daze, trying not to get trampled.

A tad overwhelmed by the crush, we limited our purchases to those items critical for our breakfast…crumpets, marmalade, apples, milk, yoghurt, bircher mix. Shaken, but un-bruised, we escaped to the street.

A couple of days later, we needed to restock the breakfast pantry and pick up  veggies and pasta for dinner. In a moment of clarity (still suffering from jet lag), we decided to shop a little earlier to beat the post-work insanity. 

Now this was fun! Like most big-city grocery stores, Woolworth’s reflects the diversity of the population and the breadth of products available in a cosmopolitan area. Gleaming veggies and lush fruits bore the proud, “Australian Grown” label. Aisle after aisle featured Indian or Asian cuisine. We had time to peruse the tinned goods aisle and marvel at all the ways the rest of the world comes up with to package staples like tuna fish. The candy aisle held us in thrall, but more on that in a future post! We love to buy products not available in the US…like real crumpets, fennel-fig paste, Bircher mix…(just add water or milk to oatmeal and dried fruit and refrigerate overnight! Yum!)

We filled to overflowing two little green shopping baskets. Overloaded with too many heavy sacks, we staggered back to the hotel, but no worries! That evening we savored a delicious dinner of pasta with fresh pesto cheese sauce (created from the cheese we bought at our previous day’s stop at the Smelly Cheese Factory) and a huge salad with the freshest, tastiest greens and veggies.