Happiness in the Time of COVID-19

Writing in Slate, (https://slate.com/technology/2020/06/advice-on-reopening-activies-er-doctor.html?utm_source=pocket-newtab), Amita Sudhir, an emergency doctor, discusses what’s permitted now that states begin to open, and analyzes what and why we might choose certain activities. She’s clear-spoken and kind, and I appreciated reading her words as we grapple with acceptable risk going forward. While weighing pros and cons, she admits: “We are all in need of a little happiness right now.”

Dr. Sudhir considers the possibility of in-person family visits, and while I’m beyond grateful for all the electronic interchanges (and painting Lord B’s outfits has been a very real source of lockdown happiness), like all grandparents, I’m nostalgic for adventures of the past and wondering about the future.

Tiny Triumphs in the Time of COVID-19

Back in the Before Times, I wrote about Austin Kleon’s book, “Keep Going: 10 Ways to Keep Creative in Good Times and Bad.” In his recent newsletter, Kleon quoted from a letter he received: “Every time we make a thing, it’s a tiny triumph.”

Maybe now, after last week, there is a glimmer of political hope, racial justice hope, but probably not COVID hope, and while I ask myself what’s next (a friend suggested earthquake) – I relish the idea of registering an ordinary accomplishment as a tiny triumph. Making a mask, yes, and a rhubarb crisp or dinner – or a flower postcard.

And joy is to always get a flower postcard in return!

 

Optimism in the Time of COVID-19

Did you hear the NPR piece about whether optimism is learned or innate? After reading a transcript, I’ve been thinking about the psychologist Martin Seligman’s comments about optimists and pessimists – and wondering if alternating between these two ways of being explains my changeable reaction to life right now. Seligman says an optimist assumes the problem is “temporary, just this one time and controllable,” a pessimist believes bad events are “permanent, pervasive, uncontrollable.”

Controllable – whether the pandemic is controllable or not – that’s the fluctuation and uncertainty. If we knew more, I might indulge my fantasies about motorhomes (new for me). My first notion (mostly as something to talk to Sweet B about) was the proposal I rent an RV and park it in her driveway. I threw that suggestion out on FaceTime, and Sweet B said, “hmmm, my mommy’s car is parked there.” She was quiet for a minute, then said, “we need to give that some more thought.” Indeed.

When we next spoke I proposed the LA family rent an RV and drive it up here, and we discussed the logistics of such an journey. A pleasant distraction for people to whom planning (and controlling or at least arranging outcome) is a pleasure no longer available.

Creative projects can be controllable, but these days the big blankness at the beginning intimidates me. I’ve liked watching other people’s creative moves though: my painter friend makes little water media paintings that I picture as big oil paintings someday, and as a daily discipline, my old friend who lives on the island makes postcards to mail to her three grandsons. She includes riddles, odd facts, and lists the things she is grateful for. The Wordsmith grows a garden destined to be bountiful with food and beauty.

Some have used the time to teach and to learn. My friend who paints in the woods posts video tutorials about her work methods on Instagram, another friend, a woodworker, whose daughter expressed interest, makes furniture with her – imparting skills to last. My physical therapist completely gave in to his teenage son’s long held obsession with llamas, and together they built the llama barn and fencing required to adopt two llamas, Ned and Giovanna. My good-natured husband (certified optimist) continues his pursuit of the Greek language – ancient and modern.

But I often retreat to the repetitive, familiar, doable task of mask making – more than 150 now, sending them to the project initiated by Washington’s Lt. Governor and the United Way, where mask makers are matched with volunteer organizations like shelters and food banks.

Sometimes I wonder if I’d have done more creative work if I didn’t make masks, but maybe I’d just be doing more “doomscrolling.” (What a great new phrase to describe that which we do too much of!)

One heartening thing has been to see the ever-changing costumes of Lord B, like the one below. I asked for identification of the knight – Mrs. Hughes replied, “just a run-of-the-mill knight.” But the ballcap and basket lid seem inspired.

At least we can control our outfits and accessories, if not the outcome of our current plight.

Life Still in Lockdown

My thoughts flitted all over this week, always recognizing the need to keep them corralled and forbid awfulizing. And I’m in a privileged world with work and loving families in secure situations – for now. Maybe that’s it. We have no idea what’s coming – some recovery? Or the “darkest winter in modern history?”

To think I began the year imagining us walking along the remains of Hadrian’s Wall this summer – knowing Lady B would love that. She’s very interested in history these days, her prized possession a fat history of the world from prehistoric times to “the year my mom graduated from college.” My only concern then was how old Sweet Brother would be for traveling. “We were so naïve,” a friend said yesterday.

The other day I walked down to the ferry dock just to remember leaving the island and was shocked to see the totally empty parking lots. I can read about things, but seeing the vacant tarmac startled me.

I walked home thinking about the administration’s frighteningly successful attempts to dismantle our democracy, and their chaotic and pathetic response to the virus. What if this pestilence that’s touched the entire world had been some universal good circling the globe, sudden outbreak of fair treatment and kindness – a virus causing reasonableness.

At my age will I ever see the grandchildren again in real life? What will happen in the election? That’s what my mind does – goes a little way down the path of despair, and then remembers how lucky we are when getting through the day and the month, is a challenge for so many. Countless lost lives and livelihoods.

And then my mind veers off, into dailiness or into the legitimate enjoying of what is still before me. I can’t hug the grandkids (although I really loved the tale of a grandpa donning full motorcycle leathers, helmet, mask, gloves so he could hug his grandchildren or the family who erected a plastic barrier with plastic sleeve tubes so a grandmother could hug her little people), but I can talk to ours, engage with them on a screen.

We could be there virtually at reading time when Lady B discovered the dictionary definition revealed when you press a word on a Kindle – and learned the magic of looking up Stonehenge and seeing what the index of her history book can do.

We admired Lord B’s costume of the day (Artemis, goddess of the hunt, with tropical shirt and shorts) and viewed a favorite book of his about trucks and excavators, followed by his rendition of “Henry the Explorer.”

We’ve seen puppet shows and live performances (every detail planned by Sweet B), including “Sunset Performance” – staged in the garden and set to classical music as she twirled and posed in ballet moves, including lifts by her tuxedo-clad dad.

And Sweet Brother – he’s the one who has changed so very much in the lockdown – transformed in these months from newborn to chubby, cheerful guy, cuddling against his dad in matching gray sweats and blue t-shirt.

It’s greedy to want more. Being thankful for what is seems a better idea.

 

 

 

Another Postcard Project in the Time of COVID-19

But first – the time has come for a name change. I started to write that recently I saw a photo of Baby Brother wearing a helmet and sitting on a rock by scrubby grass on a spring bike ride with his family. He was drawing in a large sketchbook. He’s no baby anymore. He’s tall and smart, and has an astounding vocabulary. Therefore, henceforth, in keeping with his sister’s title, his name here shall be Lord B. He might like that if he ever knew, certainly like it better than Baby Brother.

And it’s time for a project with him. I asked his mom if he might like to do a postcard project, she said yes, and added that when he draws, “every scribble comes with a story.”

So, in postcards north I plan to ask about those stories, and maybe receive a drawing and story in response (this will require some dictation to his parents).

Lord B excels at costuming – one of the highlights of our three-times-a-week reading sessions with Lady B is the initial brief appearance of Lord B in the day’s outfit – firefighter jacket, mask, and sword, or police hat and cape – ever varied.

My first postcard depicts Lord B (or a boy looking vaguely like him) drawn from a photo where he’s dressed after the protagonist in “Alexander, the old Town Mouse.” I didn’t know that book, but looked it up and the re-creation is spot on. Alexander has a green sash, and to mimic this Lord B used his Super G cape slung over another cape. Perfect.

I hope I get to hear the story.

 

 

The Garden Here in the Time of COVID-19

Today, spring rain falls on the tiny patio outside the window where I sat so much during recovery – my spot for early morning tea. Last month I watched the rosemary bloom sky blue and eager hummingbirds visit. Beneath it, pink blossoms of thyme crowded the pavers. Planted three years ago, the clematis finally produced white flowers against the trellis. The old rose is huge and full of budded promise.

A pot of Apricot Beauty tulips, one bulb planted years ago on the bluff, produced three welcome flowers. I can see lily spears emerging from another pot, and the hollyhock from last year looks strong. A bundle of forget-me-nots – tagalongs from Alaska – fills a pot. Bags of potting soil and compost clutter the space now – spring cleanup and planting underway.

Theoretically. But this year, like everything else gardening is different. An old and dear friend, wrote that “it’s hard to match the exuberance of my outside spaces with the interior obsession with pandemic news.” That’s true.

At the garden center, with limited opening and strict rules, I bought compost and soil and pumpkin seeds – and sweet pea seeds (quickly, as we are one person at a time inside the building). You can wander the plants outdoors, staying apart from other masked people, but I came home feeling a little sad, the springtime enthusiasm seems muted, wary, gardeners stopping to chat a thing of the past. Employees looked windblown and exhausted. Plants limited. Something grim tinges everything with so much sad and awful news circling the planet.

So far, my sweet peas seeds and cannellini beans haven’t germinated. I’ve attempted to prepare the pumpkin patch from last year (it’s still lumpy with unbuilt planting mounds). Eager for their color, I bought a couple of tiny calibrachoa, destined for containers, at the grocery store on my weekly shop.

But exuberance? Thanks only to perennials (my friend has a perennial garden I bet). The sturdy, old and beautiful trees and shrubs left by the gardener of 30 years ago – the crab apple, rhododendron, and lilac – all burst forth undiminished. I greet the newer perennials with gratitude – the scraggly rose bushes, gift from a gardener on my morning walk, now fill their space, a California poppy rescued from the garden center (the one blossom such an unusual pink) has become a sizeable clump. Lavender, nepeta, and geranium, return and push aside the yellowing leaves of daffodils and tulips.

And on a self-seeded foxglove, gift from a bird, six sturdy stems head skyward. Out back, a grocery-store-purchased compact delphinium I never managed to repot, neglected all winter, reappeared with new healthy foliage – a rebirth I don’t deserve.

And in a cheerful quarantine garden activity, Sweet B and I are beginning a project. Each week we plan to send each other a little painting on a watercolor postcard of a flower from our gardens – adding words about the flower on the back of the card. We’re in early stages, but it’s a thrill to get mail from her. (On FaceTime recently, she advised me that I might want to add some figures to my paintings and they wouldn’t be so plain.)

It inspires to make a record of garden bloom – maybe specially in this pandemic year.

 

 

Gardening in the Time of COVID-19

The other morning I read an inspiring and joyful article by Charlotte Mendelson titled, “It’s Time To Grow Your Own Beans.” Right away I forwarded it to the California gardener, and put a handful of heirloom cannellini beans (from a sealed bag I seem to have saved for the apocalypse and can now use to make soup) in the mail to California.

I kept thinking that the author’s name sounded familiar, and, to my chagrin, realized Mendelson’s gardening memoir, “Rhapsody in Green: A novelist, an obsession, a laughably small excuse for a vegetable garden,” has sat unopened on our coffee table since last year (it does have a wonderful cover, but still).

For this whole strange time when thinking about reading, I have assumed I would concentrate better on a page turner, some junker that could transport me to a different catastrophe, one with an ending. I would never have predicted a memoir about a “comically small town garden, a mere 6 square meters of urban soil and a few pots,” would be my escapist dream.

Mendelson’s writing really appeals – and her delicious sense of humor about gardening, gardening experts, and gardening desires – also slugs, failures, and small triumphs. In her prologue, she welcomes the reader, “Come into my garden. Try to keep a straight face.”

Gardening season begins now in Washington, but we are weeks behind California. Over these last years, Sweet B’s dad (with her help recently) transformed a barren urban plot into a green haven. Larger than Mendelson’s garden behind her terraced London house, the California garden has a tiny square of lawn (just big enough for a small bike rider to make circles), and a brick patio (just big enough to hold a large deep wading pool). A pergola, covered in grape vine and shade-cloth, provides shelter from the sun for an outdoor couch, chairs, and table.

A podocarpus hedge grown tall shields the garden from close next-door neighbors. A variety of fruit trees in garden beds surround the lawn: banana, pomegranate, lime, papaya, orange, plum, and an olive. Bougainvillea climbs the painted bright-blue cement wall at the end of the garden, and throughout the beds California drought-tolerant perennials crowd huge lavender and rosemary shrubs and smaller herbs. Seasonal color flashes from early sweet peas, California poppies, red hot pokers, and more.

In the past, family summer traveling limited vegetable growing, but this year, by using a graveled-with-pots, previously ignored space at the corner of the house in full sun, a vegetable plot took shape. The chief gardener and his assistant cleared out the gravel, constructed an L-shaped raised bed, and erected a sturdy trellis.

By ordering soil and starts online, the gardeners planted food – tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, strawberries, snap beans, carrots, chard, kale, lettuce, green onions, radish, and zucchini. Behind the garage by the compost (beside a volunteer pumpkin), corn, melons, and cucumbers found space. (I had to ask for this list. It ended with, “and a few things I may have forgotten about – we’ll see if they grow.”)

And now there’s a chance for Jack-in-the-beanstalk moments!

Blue bird, butterflies, and bees visit flowers in her garden, by Sweet B.

 

Olive tree with climbing ladder, spirit house on stilts, and gardeners watering, by Sweet B.

Reading in the Time of COVID-19

Different – the reading. Several friends have said it’s hard to concentrate. The lure of news is huge – so much news that affects us all, fine journalism, hard to resist stories of the illness from doctors, sufferers, the recovered. The politics of it all.

A smart and thoughtful blog reader alerted me to a fine way to read important news quickly, without having to (heaven help me) watch the so-called Coronavirus “briefings” from the White House (the occasional glimpse of reality from Dr. Fauci and Dr. Brix so drowned out by nonsense, lies, and misinformation) is to subscribe to the newsletter, “Letters from An American” by Heather Cox Richardson. Richardson, an American historian and Professor of History at Boston College, writes clearly, conveying the important political happenings of the day in an immediate and accessible way

The New Yorker has been my breakfast and dinner companion for decades – and I’m always months behind. But not anymore – I’ve taken to reading the most recently arrived issue.

And now, because of sewing and not much time for reading, I’ve discovered the app Audm – professional voices read articles from multiple periodicals. The New Yorker posts many – including long profile pieces (the one about Mitch McConnell is horrifying) and short pieces they call “Dispatches from a Pandemic.” The sewing machine whirs, the voices keep me company, I get to catch up.

A great pleasure has been reading with Lady B and her brother on dual Kindles. We schedule our times to meet on FaceTime (once the pair showed up with a big container of cookies they’d made, oatmeal with smashed Oreos, to taunt their virtual granddad known as a cookie hound). For an hour or so, we take turns reading, until their iPad is needed for a classroom Zoom or the outdoors beckons.

We are all loving Damien Love’s “Monstrous Devices.” An English schoolboy, 12-year old Alex, a collector of toy robots and bullied at school, receives a toy robot from his grandfather and the adventure begins. The two set off by train from London toward Paris, and on to Prague. There are robots that come alive, enough humor and just enough fright to be perfect.

Lady B has become a proficient and expressive out loud reader. The book offers a sprinkling of unfamiliar words, French phrases and Britishisms and gives us food for discussion. Her mother tells me that the other day, Lady B said, “books are best.”

And wondering about sharing a book with Sweet B, I googled “books to read aloud with a smart five-year old,” and found an article from Wired magazine, “67 Books Every Geek Should Read to Their Kids Before Age 10.” Great books, and Joan Aiken’s “Arabel’s Raven” looks just right for now, the adventures of a young British girl and her pet raven Mortimer. Sweet B could even listen to colorful British accents with the Audible version – listening with headphones on her “radio,” as she says, a favorite activity as she draws.

Lady B is right – books are best.

 

Sheltering with the Alaskans 

Lady B made the drawing below of her situation (that’s Baby Brother playing with trucks nearby). But I’m a little doubtful that her speech bubble contains a meaningful comment, because we hear tales and see photos and videos of a giant pile of snow in the back yard for snow caves, and of great cross-country skiing.

Lady B is learning to skate ski, but on the downhills, she gets her skis in the tracks, tucks, and hurtles around bends. Baby Brother rides in a trailer behind his dad (a handle on the back allows Lady B to also catch a ride). Luckily, good weather and plentiful snow fill these quarantine days!

She sees her class on Zoom – she tells us they each log in with something to share and the big screen fills with the classmate talking, the others appear in little boxes at the bottom. We are all pixels now.

But there must be moments like below.

Capes or Cloaks?

The distinction seems to be length.

A friend’s story about how she and her siblings inherited a nun’s habit, and how it’s been used through two generations to dress superheroes, Hogwarts students, and Halloween witches, encouraged my whole cape and cloak adventure.

Initially, the mother of my young friend drew me a little diagram of a simple cape with instructions to cut and hem a rectangle, gather the top with elastic, and add ribbons at the neck to tie. (I think I recommend the versatility of this version.)

But for the capes going north for make believe in Alaska, I used a pattern. I enjoyed figuring out the whole thing – so much is new to me these days – patterns you download, print, and piece together, a PDF of instructions, smaller seam allowances. These capes, with hoods and pockets can be reversed – but my first attempt at sewing on buttons led to buttons too tight to fit through fastening loops.

But I have a friend, a favorite, funny person, who is a master seamstress – queen of custom sewing – I’m convinced she can sew anything. She routinely wrestles huge sofas and boat upholstery for her clients, but when I asked her to describe a less utilitarian creation, she wrote, “Drag queen dresses for a coronation ball in 1979. Nobody rocks a two-foot headdress better!”)

To my button inquiry she advised me to hold a wooden match between cape and button on each side while sewing. Awkwardly accomplished and perfect!

Now that I’ve seen the movie of “Little Women,” I realize Jo and her sisters could wear the Alaska capes. (Oh, the clothes in the film! Did you see the article about the costume designer? I loved reading about her work: https://www.newyorker.com/culture/on-and-off-the-avenue/how-jacqueline-durran-the-little-women-costume-designer-remixes-styles-and-eras ).

Lady B and Baby Brother won’t know about “Little Women,” and we’ll see what they make of these capes.* I didn’t say which cape for which, when I sent them, but his mom told me that Baby Brother’s favorite color these days is pink.

Making things – such a fine way to stay inside one’s head for a while and see what might be there – but I’m probably cloaked and caped out for now!

*Addendum:  One evening, after sending the capes, I responded to a FaceTime call from Alaska. The phone connected and a darkened room, lit only by candlelight, came into view. Two hooded figures hunched over bowls of hearty soup, and a voice intoned: “…and at this inn this stormy night, two weary travelers break their journey…” One figure remained firmly in character while the other soon brandished a foam sword and requested more light. I loved it.

Sweet Brother and Big Sister

Suffice it to say that Sweet Brother looms larger in real life, than in this drawing of him with his mother – made by his sister on his first day home. Now, nearly three weeks later, although nested with his mother most of the time, he’s an impactful presence.

I don’t remember the day my sister came home. Do any oldest children remember the day? Such a profound event – gaining a sibling – influencing us forever. The initial arrival brings sudden puzzling changes, distracted grownups, and most of all a very busy – with somebody else – mother.

And then there’s this long-awaited baby in person – after months of imagining a playmate, a partner, reality presents in this useless form. I remember Lady B telling me how she’d teach her brother about seat belts and helmets and how to keep safe (now – three years later – she does that). Her dad, when his brother came home, dashed to get his best friend next door. They came back with a cowboy hat and six shooter for the baby to wear. When that didn’t work, they lost interest.

Sweet Baby (who should really be Sweet B now, five years old in a month!) has more sustained attention – she falls in the camp of wanting desperately to participate in some way. A virus has stalked amongst us limiting her hands-on exposure, but she understands that in time she will be much help.

And on Valentine’s Day after she received a cobbled together “Best Big Sister” necklace to wear – she made valentines for all of us (she’d already made them for her class). She left out her brother, but told me how wonderful it would be when she could make him one – “in a few years or so!”

 

Create-ful

In the midst of decorating Christmas cookies, Sweet Baby asked her dad to help. While watching him make brown frosting to decorate a horse shape and add a single sprinkle to be an eye, she encouraged him, saying, “you are being very create-ful!”

The new year brings hopes and resolutions about being more of just that, and this year a gift from my friend who paints in the woods aided the thinking. She sent Austin Kleon’s book “Keep Going: 10 Ways to Keep Creative in Good Times and Bad,” a favorite she said, and a little treasure.

We know his 10 points, but reading the reminders in a new form inspired me: finish each day and be done with it, pay attention to what you pay attention to, go for a walk! Kleon would be the first to admit no news here, but his little volume refreshes our thinking.

During the weeks of blog break when considering its future, I read a John McPhee article where he writes of an “old man project,” something without a fixed end but engrossing (he’s 88 and beginning to revisit story ideas that didn’t see print). “Her spirits rose…” might be just that sort of endeavor – endless, no reason to do it, no reason to stop. I could go on for as long as I want or can – observing my surroundings, making note of things that inspire and seem important, and, getting a response if I strike a chord. Such an opportunity!

Another Kleon suggestion for keeping going is to make gifts, “making gifts puts us in touch with our gifts.”

Or our shortcomings!

I experienced this before Christmas when I set out to make a cloak for Sweet Baby, from a long-hoarded dark green velvet remnant. The soft fabric suggested a garment in keeping with the moments when a small princess needs a cloak with a hood! (No luck with that – not enough yardage.)

As muscle memory threaded my machine and filled the bobbin, I became engaged in the sewing – tedious and frustrating – but also engrossing and rewarding. I had plenty of time to be create-ful (adapting to the fabric shortage), and, allow my mind to wander to other possibilities!

 

Sweet Brother

Yes! – the first post back for the new year introduces Sweet Baby’s sweet brother! He really is very dear and calm – the name fits. His mom did a great job of bringing him into the world on the 29th of January. He was six pounds, 11 ounces, and 19″ long, and he’s beautiful! He’s figuring out how things work in this night and day routine, and, with luck, his parents might soon get some sleep.

Sweet Baby, like her cousin, will be a terrific big sister, this baby already turns his head at the sound of her voice – he’ll soon learn how much fun she is!

A Couple of Images from Christmas Just Passed

The Alaskans’ Christmas card was the cleverest ever! The back shows a smiling snapshot of Lady B and Baby Brother, but on the front is a drawing made one night at dinner by Lady B and depicting, as her mom said, “her parents – besotted with their children and absolutely exhausted.”

It arrived while Sweet Baby was here for the holiday (and such a good holiday!). The second she saw the card, Sweet Baby sat down (for a good long time), inspired by her cousin to draw a large and colorful version of her aunt and uncle and their house with a wreath on the door!

It’s winter break time — time to recharge on dark days (although today we have sunshine and I can see tulip and daffodil starts in the garden)! The blog starts its 11th year (!), but I’ll be back I think.

Thanks so much for reading – may your new year be off to a fine start!