Thriving, Not Just Surviving

Our Honda CRV was filthy, unwashed for five months or so. On a fair Saturday morning a couple of weeks ago, we crept out of our refuge to test our comfort level at a drive-through car wash. The place was uncrowded, all workers wore masks, and exterior-only washes were on sale. We aced the test. Our experience was fine. Soap bubbles streaming across the windshield, the cool darkness, the thump of the dryers, those sensations washed up memories from many years ago.

As a teenager I spent many Saturdays washing the family sedan…my job, because I hogged it most of the time as Dad drove a company car and Mom never did learn how to drive. Clad in a bikini top and cut-offs, barefoot, I’d spend hours at the task…hoping that a friend or two would drop by to help or flirt. As I got older, car washing was a bothersome chore, so I turned my car over to professionals, although from time to time I used one of those handy self-serve car washes. No matter how broke I was, there’d be enough change scattered in the glove box to get the job done.


Memories of that simpler time drew my focus to life in the recent past. Happy in marriage, family, friends, retirement, travel, avocations, volunteer work, I have been leading the life of my long ago dreams. Until March, of course, when the curse of COVID-19 struck us all. The first few months were about coping. I created a multi-page spreadsheet to organize our lives and get us through the pandemic. We would cope! Survive! We would take care of our mental health, physical health, and all other aspects of life and very soon come out the other side of this nightmare slimmer, fitter, smarter, and full of energy to continue traveling, partying, and living the good life.

And then a scorcher of a heat wave, followed by fires, smoke, and hazardous air quality intervened. Many activities that were helping us cope became impossible. Walks, time in nature, meditation on our deck…not going to happen when the temperature is over 100 and the air quality index is twice that number. So how do we avoid sinking into depression when we are not just isolated inside, but isolated from the outside? How do we prevent anxiety when we can’t escape to anywhere?

Even before the premature start of the fire season, the new reality tainted future plans. The upheaval affecting many areas of our lives could last not for months, but years. Many favorite activities may not be possible for a very long time. Some will be just a small version of what we enjoyed before. Even with a safe, effective vaccine the world will never be as it was in early 2020. Change will be more rapid and disruptive than ever before. To thrive we must adapt, not merely cope.

Before we can adapt, we must stop railing about our losses and accept them. So many have lost so much. Our personal losses have not been tragic, but still we grieve. Our grief is centered around the loss of freedom to travel, to attend the opera and theater, to dine out often, to visit family and friends, to be around other people without risk, to live the life we loved. It is time to accept the losses and move on.

So how do we adapt? We embrace video technology to solidify old friendships and to build new ones, to share the lives of far flung relatives, to take classes on subjects that always interested us, to explore subjects we never knew interested us. Hours saved by using delivery services for everything can be devoted to art and writing. When the air clears, there is that deck gardening project which was annually buried under travel plans. With the end of fire season, we’ll be back on our local trails, bathing ourselves in nature.

One day, not soon, we’ll stride from our refuge confident that our risk of COVID-19 infection is minimal. Some things in life will be as before; others changed forever. By adapting we can thrive, not just survive.

One More Opportunity…

Summer heatwaves are common here in Northern California, but the high temps usually dissipate in a few days. In other years, that is. This mid-August heatwave seemed longer and hotter than usual with temps shooting past 100 day after day. Afternoons we sprawled on the love seat in our fairly cool den, chilling with icy drinks, and binge watching such gems as Glow Up, a British make up competition series.

Cool evenings enticed us outside to marvel at the rosy sunset sky. Enjoying a glass or two of white wine, dancing on the deck, stargazing—perfect antidotes to the scorching daytime weather. The surprise rain would have been a blessing had it not been accompanied by thousands of lightning strikes. And then the horrible news: those strikes had ignited hundreds of fires throughout the state.

Watching the Storm-created on my iPad.

The fires have surged, creating tragedy for many, and tainting our air with suffocating smoke. Air quality in our locale has ranged from “Unhealthy for sensitive groups” to “Very unhealthy for everyone.” As a person with moderate asthma I must avoid breathing in smoke. So our ongoing social isolation is now coupled with physical isolation from the outdoors.

COVID-19, political instability, fire, smoke…this year is like no other. We’ve been forced to adjust constantly to changes that seem to impact every moment of our lives. It is astonishing that so many of us have somehow managed to find ways to cope, to develop new habits, to maybe even experience personal growth during this frightful time. We are learning to adopt attitudes that help us to survive and thrive: acceptance, flexibility, resiliency, and optimism.

What is going on is bigger than any of us…we can’t change any of these external situations overnight, but we can find ways to help create change for the future. Instead of railing against our misfortune, we can use this time to become more creative, to participate in our political process, to recommit to a green life-style, to be kind to every person with whom we interact.

Maybe we can someday remember this year as the turning point when everything changed for the good, for each of us, our country, and our planet.

What Works? Maintaining Our Mental Health-Part 1

Since my first blog posts this pandemic year, the virus has spread to every corner of the world. Here in the US, including our little city, cases are spiking in the midst of the still surging first wave. There is little progress in slowing the explosive growth of new cases. The vaccine is still an idea, not reality. The lack of political will hinders smart policy making. That, plus the unwillingness of so many to take simple actions to protect themselves and others convinces me that we will be in this pandemic for a very long time.

My own mental state flails between mild contentment and mild depression. Anxiety is less than a few months ago, probably because we remain so isolated. Our scariest sojourn so far was to my husband’s eye doctor for what is called an A Scan, necessary before cataract surgery this year. We were nervous and stressed, disappointed that the office did not seem to be on top of all of the latest protocols for patient safety.

As the news becomes more dire, we are canceling every planned outing…dentist appointments, dinner out with friends, a road trip to southern California, house-sitting for family. We are coming up with creative ideas for at least being in the same space in real-time with a few family and friends who have remained as isolated as us.

We await the delivery of baseball caps with attached face shields. Our expectation is that wearing these along with our three-layer masks with filters may enable us to venture out a bit more. I can’t believe that those words are appearing on my screen. Venture out…so timid, so tentative.

My husband and I were world travelers for the last 25 years! Europe, Africa, South America, Central America, Australia, New Zealand, most all of the 50 states, plus Canada and Mexico—-we’ve traveled widely and fearlessly. And now, somehow a visit to a friend feels as complex as planning a vacation in Morocco. Are we over-reacting? Or being prudent?

I can’t see us remaining as isolated as we have been without damaging our mental health. As helpful as video chats are, they don’t replace being together in person. So, we’ll take baby steps…walks with friends, a front-yard chat, maybe outside dining in a few weeks. We’ll plan one activity every week away from our retreat, wearing our protective gear, watching our distance, washing our hands. Being with family and friends creates joy and now is the time for it!

My husband said that this is a very dark poem. Version one in 2016 was a reaction to the looming darkness, but now I glimpse light on the horizon.

Small Differences…

Laughter overcame me the other day as I slid open the shower curtain that hides our pantry annex. Me, storing things in the bathtub? Never, ever, except now I do. So many items that we normally buy as singles we now purchase in bulk…and our walk-in pantry is full…as is the hall closet emergency stash bin.

Like everyone, we’ve made some big changes since early March resulting in a very different lifestyle. We cook instead of dining out; attend online meetings and social events rather than seeing friends and colleagues in person; tie on masks when we step outside; wipe down EVERYTHING that comes into the house. Two people who live to travel have no travel plans. All big differences from the way we were living earlier this year. But there are also small things that taken together create a radically different life. For example:

1-Long, silky hair is out; wavy, messy hair is in. My blow dryer has not been turned on in two months, resulting in more than one tangle and quite a few knots.

2-A luxurious quantity of facial hair adorns Bill’s face since he stopped shaving and trimming his beard. (That needs remediation if his mask is ever going to fit properly!)

3-The skin on our hands looks like alligator hide from washing excessively/compulsively during the day. No amount of hand cream seems up to changing the new texture.

4-Since instituting the daily checklist, adherence to my asthma med regimen has been perfect! Yay!

5-Projects litter every horizontal surface in every room because we don’t have to straighten up the clutter for our cleaning team…sad face. The person in our household who does the dusting just flicks the duster around the messes! (Note: I used to be known as a neatnik!)

6-We have a lovely new hobby…building Harry Potter Lego sets during FaceTime calls with my cousin’s grandson. And at other times…like when we are supposed to be cleaning out the office.

7-We see some of our friends more often now that our social life takes place on video calls. It is so much easier to get an hour or two together when no one needs to fight traffic!

8-Our once pristine car is covered with dust because we haven’t yet figured out where to have it washed. Of course, we have only driven it three or four times in the last two months…but, still!

9-Kale and sweet potatoes are now staples in our house. Vegetarian meals are prominent on the weekly menu. We drink tea more often than beer. We juice…enough said!

10-We binge on “The Brady Bunch!” I think that says it all.

Black Hearts

These are tough times for optimists like myself. Even though this household rations our exposure to the news, we are immersed in the events that are engulfing the planet. It seems like there is little good news most days. We are in for it…a time of suffering and deprivation for many.

Much of the pain could be alleviated if we each tap into the kindness that is in our hearts. Most of us are very willing to be kind and fair to people we know and love; we can extend that to strangers. The love in our hearts can be limitless…love cannot be quantified, and no heart is too small to love everyone. Where are examples of this love? Look to the nurses, the nurses aides, the doctors, the grocery store clerks, the delivery persons, the volunteers doing what they can to help all of us through this nightmare, the people wearing masks, those staying at home.

Of course, where there is kindness, there is also the opposite. Cynics and opportunists make decisions that affect all of us. Their cold calculations of the worth of a life determines many policies. Harsh rhetoric frees many to act out their biases and hatred. Shooting a store employee who asks one to wear a mask; screaming at a police person who is guarding a state capitol; cutting back on healthcare and food assistance in the middle of a pandemic…what is in the hearts of those who behave in this way?

What kind of hearts hold distrust of people of different races, disregard for the homeless, disdain for the elderly and infirm? What heart beats in a person who can see suffering and not act? What heart allows one to refuse care and concern for others at a time they need it most?

Black Hearts May 2020
Catherine Hensiek
Mixed media and collage

I don’t know the answer, but in my mind those hearts are black…stained by hatred or perhaps deep holes devoid of light. This artwork tells that story.

Paris Ramble (from 2014)

As is our habit every first morning in Paris, my husband and I awoke bursting with big plans for the day. This year we decided that topping our agenda in the City of Lights was a revisit to the beloved Impressionist paintings at our favorite French museum, the Musée D’Orsay.


After a petit déjeuner of baguettes slathered with butter and jam, crispy croissants, freshly pressed orange juice and strong coffee we descended to the Metro at Grands Boulevards. The Paris Metro app on my iPhone directed, “Ligne 8, direction Balard, transfer at Concorde to Ligne 1.” Alighting at Tuileries station we walked through the gates of the Jardins des Tuileries. We knew a ramble through the gardens on our way to the pedestrian bridge over the River Seine would ease our transition into la vie parisienne.


Spring was mature when we left our home in northern California on March 30th. Many trees bloomed early this year; in our neighborhood the plums were in full flower in late January. In Paris, spring was newborn. Rows of trees in the Jardin des Tuilleries were just budding out, creating a pale green haze above our heads. Lipstick red tulips nodded at their reflections in the limpid ponds. Winter-weary citizens lounged in slant-backed chairs lining the paths, their faces turned towards the yet pale rays of sun.


We wandered the groomed avenues of the garden, reveling in the light breeze and fair sky. Soon, we were feeling peckish. It was early for a full lunch, so we stopped at one of the open-air cafes in the park for take-away food. A perfect late morning snack…baguettes with jambon and beurre. That salty-fatty combination of country ham and butter layered in a crusty baguette called for ice-cold cokes. Luckily for us icy drinks are readily available in Paris these days.


Within a few yards was an unoccupied bench where we spread out our picnic lunch. Midway through my sandwich, I asked Bill, “Do you really want to spend the day inside?” He swallowed and considered the question. “Let’s go over to the museum and see how long the line is.”


While he finished his sandwich and mine, I sketched a gentleman sitting near us. Like many older men in this city he was dressed nattily, in a sport coat and slacks. Engrossed in his book, he was oblivious to my observation.


We gathered our things and strolled away. As always, when we came near the steps to the bridge, our question was “Over or under?” The pedestrian bridge from Jardin des Tuileries to the left bank is relatively new and features two approaches. One involves walking down a shallow flight of steps in a tunnel under the peripheral road, the other up a steep flight of steps from within the park. We opted for the shallow steps and were joined by a dog-walker with a pair of boisterous pups.


Emerging in the sunlight we were swept into a small group of people hurrying across the river to the museum. We slowed and stopped to savor the view from the bridge. The foamy wakes of tour boats traced long arcs on the gray-green water of the Seine. The Louvre stretched for blocks on the right bank, while on the left the mansard roofs of the Musée D’Orsay gleamed.


A dark-haired woman approached Bill and held out a gold ring. We laughed and shook our heads. She looked crestfallen, but even addled by a long flight and jet lag we were on to the gold ring scam. Plus she hadn’t performed it well. To pull it off, she needed to pretend to pick it up from the pavement at his feet before handing it to him. We were not off the bridge where another woman thrust a ring at Bill. This time, I scanned my husband’s attire. “Something about you is screaming tourist!”


At the Musée D’Orsay, the line of art lovers queuing for tickets filled the plaza. We looked at each other and shook our heads. “Today is for walking!” I suggested. Bill grabbed my hand and we turned our back on the Impressionists.


We walked down the narrow street behind the museum and then turned left on a side street towards the Seine. Crossing the boulevard we found ourselves at the line of stalls where for years, booksellers have offered used and new volumes in French and other languages. We ambled along, stopping when a bright cover or words in English caught our eyes.


“Shakespeare and Company!” I remembered that on the list of things we really wanted to do in Paris this visit was a stop at the iconic bookstore. It was somewhere on the left bank, in the direction we were headed. We walked on, crossing the street again to try to find some shade.


At Place Saint-Michel, I shivered a little despite the bright sun. Nearby walls bear plaques with the names of resistance fighters who died on that spot in August 1944. I could feel the bloodied courage of these men and women as if their shades lingered even now.


The traffic in the area was a bit daunting. When a glimpse of bright color caught Bill’s eye, we sidled down a side street to find one of those vest-pocket parks that dot Paris. Cherry trees crowned with blossoms shaded the grass. Four young women giggled as they postured for photos in front of masses of pink blooms. The sounds and smells of the cars on the boulevard seemed far away. We were delighted to relax in this green haven in a bustling neighborhood.


And then we walked on…arriving at Shakespeare and Company where we edged our way through the warren of narrow shelves, jostling other readers to find the poetry section. Bill chose e.e.cummings while I picked a slim book by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, poet and owner of City Lights bookstore in San Francisco. Somehow that felt just right.

Small Changes for A Big Effect

My husband is a man to whom change is an anathema. We still live in the same condo we bought 35 years ago, because the idea of a change to our abode is just too huge to contemplate. Over the years, he has resisted many of my creative ideas…eventually coming around to most (moving is a prominent exception) albeit with a sense of unease that lingers. Simple changes, like switching our brand of peanut butter or buying a new blender or rearranging the pantry shelves, are not taken lightly around here.

So I am amused and amazed at how readily he has adapted to the myriad small changes we have had to make in the last two months. Staying home every day instead of running out on errands suits him fine. He is diligent about his new daily tasks and keeping track of them. Switching brands based on what is available is okay now. For the first time ever, he let me help trim his very unruly beard, although allowing me to cut his hair is still a scary idea!

One change is a surefire hit! Hubby loves that we now eat home cooked dinners nearly every night. Those casual last minute meals at our favorite restaurants are no more. This meat and potatoes guy seems to savor the variety of new recipes served by his personal chef. The thoughtful meal planning required to shop for ingredients online has lead to healthier eating…a change that was overdue.

Some changes we are both embracing with enthusiasm, like having more time together. Our virtual social life is not as robust as it was the first few weeks of shelter in place. We agreed that we need more “we” time and less party time. But, it is fun to connect regularly with friends we haven’t seen in person for some time. We enjoy discovering online theater performances and cultural events. More time to read is a joy!

We are struggling with one change…getting outside to walk has been very hard. We open windows for fresh air and step out on our sunny deck when the wasps are asleep, but developing the habit of walking beyond the mailbox is a change yet to come. There are a couple of reasons for that. Not everyone in our neighborhood is adept at distancing…and until this week I didn’t have a mask that fit well with my hearing aids. My dear cousin took care of that problem…she sewed masks with ties for me. This week, change is coming to our physical activity…we’ll suit up and get out there!

Change…a new chair for the entry hall. Hubby can sit here to put on and remove his shoes and avoid tracking any virus particles all over the house!

In truth though, we’d very much like our old lives back. We should be deep into planning a big international trip for the fall, scheduling a road trip to visit family in the Pacific Northwest, setting up dinner dates with local friends, making theater and opera reservations. Instead we are supporting our community in the fight of our lives…and accepting that change is a constant and will be forever. We have no idea if we will ever return to the lives we enjoyed eight weeks ago, but we’ll persevere and change as we must to adapt to our new lives.

Coming Back to Creativity

Not that I’ve been blocked or anything, but my excuse is that visual art has been a casualty of everyday busyness the last few weeks. Every day something seems to come up that keeps me away from my studio space. After two hours rearranging art supplies last week, I realized that forward momentum towards actually creating art had sputtered to a stop.

A few days ago, the embarrassment of showing up week after week to two different art classes with no work to share, got me at least messing around with paint and some collage elements. For one class, the assignment is to work with narrative in an abstract form. My artwork is due for critique next week.

Early in the class, the idea for a narrative squirmed to the surface…and then got clogged in some emotional gunk before I could get to work. Attempts to plough through the blockage failed. A faint ray of sunshine revealed the obvious…there’s another story to be told and until told, everything else is on hold.

That’s happened with my writing more than once. A big writing idea molders in the back of my mind while I resist setting down the words that need to be said on a totally unrelated subject. I spent a year once avoiding work on a mystery novel while I fought to finish the story of my first marriage. Strangely, the week I finished that tale, I also wrote a thousand words of the novel.

So, I faced up to this block…and admitted that it was time to address some anger and pain that was wasting my energy and draining my creativity.

The piece is titled, “Black Hearts.” If I stay on trajectory, it will be finished next week…along with a written narrative of the story that had me hung up. Here’s a glimpse.

Collage and mixed media…fragment of the whole.

Green Goodness

This morning I noted “Week 6” on our checklist of daily activities. How could we be embarking on the sixth week of this new, isolated life? Just yesterday we were planning parties with friends and road trips to visit family. In many ways, however, it feels like we have been sheltering in place forever. Time is relative…the hours of the day evaporate before we even begin to savor them, but April of 2020 has been the longest month ever.

We’ve managed to create markers in our week: art classes on Wednesday and Thursday and social events via Zoom or other video apps on the weekends. Our days are full. We find many things to amuse or occupy us: art, writing, reading more than we have in years, building Lego sets virtually with my cousin’s grandson, video chats with friends near and far, house cleaning, and cooking.

There is more food in our pantry and refrigerator than we can ever remember. We had a rather European attitude towards food storage in the past. Every day or two one of us would make a run to the grocery store so we could cook dinner or lunch. And, of course, we ate out whenever the mood struck which was often.

But now, between meal delivery service and kind neighbors, our larder overflows with an eclectic assortment of fruit and vegetables. I get a little frantic about using all the fresh food before it wilts or rots so veggie soup is on the menu every week. I make a huge pot to share with our neighbors to thank them for providing the ingredients. But, what to do with all of those apples, kiwis, bananas?

The other day our neighbor dropped off a delicious smoothie made with carrots, ginger, and apple. We both enjoyed the flavor and freshness of the concoction. Much to my husband’s dismay as he really dreads crowding our small kitchen with more cooking toys, I rushed to order our own smoothie/juicey machine.

Today marked the inauguration of the newest addition to our family of appliances…and it was a culinary success. The sleek machine spun green apple, kiwi, celery, and parsley into a healthy smoothie that tasted like the fragrance of an orchard in the spring. The taste and texture pleased both our palates. No worries now about wasting food. The machine stays!

Into the 24 ounce container went 1 cut up green apple, 1 peeled and sliced kiwi, 2 sliced up skinny celery stalks, a small handful of parsley and about a quarter cup of water. Filled two juice glasses.

Rediscovering the Joy of Cooking

Retirement was not my dream in 2012. My role as a contract project manager suited my personality. I lead a team of bright, dedicated professionals in work that was challenging and worthwhile. The project required me to learn an unfamiliar technology, a useful brain exercise in my early sixties. Every morning I logged onto my laptop and joined the VPN with expectations of yet another productive day. The best part: I worked from home 100% of the time.

And therein lay the problem. My retired husband found my early morning conference calls with colleagues around the globe a major impediment to his nine hours of sleep. Somehow he enlisted two of my best friends to pile on and convince me that it was in his best interest for me to join him in retirement. So, with great reluctance and some resentment, I retired for the last time.

I extracted a promise from my husband. “No way am I becoming a housewife! We will always have a cleaning person and we’ll split laundry, shopping, and cooking!” He promised and our arrangement worked pretty well over the years. Our cleaning crew kept our home sparkling. I did bristle at my gradually evolving role as the laundry fairy, but hubby did his share of grocery shopping and helped with cooking. At first I enjoyed having time to cook. Cooking classes at home and abroad inspired us to try new recipes and polish old skills.

As classes and volunteer work absorbed more of my time, cooking became a how-fast-can-I-get-a-meal-on-the-table routine. Simple cooking became my forte. The elaborate gourmet recipes that required hours were banished from the kitchen. Healthy and quick…salads, omelettes, roasts. Cooking by rote, not love.

We ate out more often. Lunches, dinners, breakfast…whenever the larder was low we would head out to a local favorite eating spot. At least weekly, I repeated my mother’s refrain, “After blah-blah-blah years of cooking, I am done!”

And then came Shelter in Place…and eating out was no longer an option. Running to the grocery store for a last minute frozen dinner was not possible. Early in the isolation period we enrolled in a meal delivery services. Once weekly, a box with ingredients and recipes arrives at our door. My initial reaction was delight in both the quality of the food items and the delicious meals that resulted. Hubby was over the top happy with a home-cooked dinner every night.

By the second week all that cooking was stressing me out. Chopping, slicing, grating, browning and other tasks required to get a meal on the table overwhelmed me. It felt like managing a huge off-schedule project every night. I was beginning to dread meal prep.

Then a revelation…cooking dinner could be a journey, not a race. It was all about perception! So, taking the most complicated of the week’s recipes in hand, I planned my mise en place. Glass bowls for each ingredient covered the countertop. I took time to appreciate the quality of each ingredient; the fresh aroma of the cilantro, the deep green of the pepper, the unblemished flesh of the sweet potato, the firmness of the fish. I cut, diced, and minced with care.

Not until every ingredient was ready did I turn on the oven and heat the oil in the pan. I relaxed over the course of the prep…reminding myself to be grateful that we had such a bounty of good food in such a challenging time.

So this change in perception seems to work for food prep, but laundry? Hmmm…

Veggies ready to roast! To be topped with pan-roasted barramundi…yum.