Photo representation of grief by Mandi Natali via Unsplash

Evidence of grief and loss is all around right now:  on the news, in the streets, even in the air millions of us in the Western U.S. are breathing.  In my Northern California yard, I wipe ashes off the top of the garbage bins. From my window, every week I watch socially distanced funerals in the cemetery across the street. I can’t take walks, even with a mask on—the air is that unhealthy.

You would think that with so much sorrow all around, I wouldn’t have been drawn to read two essays about grief and loss.  And you would have been right, except my husband had passed one on and  the title of the second one caught my eye.

The first, “Notes on Grief” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie,  is in the September 10, 2020 New Yorker newsletter here.  Adichie, the acclaimed author of Americanah, writes of her shock and grief at the unexpected death of her beloved father.  There are two sentences of Adichie’s account I can’t get out of my mind. One begins:  “I am filled with disbelieving astonishment that the mailman comes as usual….”  The other:  “For the rest of my life, I will live with my hands outstretched for things that are never there.” Neither of my parents died unexpectedly but I know exactly the emotions she is describing. 

The second piece, by Eviana Hartman in the current issue of Departures Magazine* is called “Happiness.” Hartman, recently widowed and the mother of a two-year-old, refers a phenomenon known as “post-traumatic growth (PTG),” which she describes as “following a life-altering event, after an initial period of shock and struggle. Those who experience PTG go on to exhibit improved relationships and life appreciation, as well as a newfound sense of meaning and spiritual connection.  They don’t just recover, they’re psychologically transformed—and in some ways, they might be happier than the rest of us.”  I have seen this occur with close friends who have experienced great losses.  It has been both a surprise and a comfort to see. And now I learn that this experience has a name–and even initials! Perhaps when we get through this dark period, instead of looking back to what we have lost, we will all be able to appreciate much more what have to gain.


*I can’t link to this article in Departures magazine, which mysteriously appears quarterly, without subscription, in my mailbox.

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From the Archive:

Dog Nose“Does this smell bad?”
“No, Mom.”
“What about this?”
“No, Mom.”
“Or this?”
“Mom, I feel like I’m living with Helen Keller.”

Eight years ago I lost my sense of smell. I had had a very bad head cold and was flying back and forth from East Coast to West every couple of weeks. Every time there was a pressure change and my ears hurt, I plugged my nose and “blew out” the pressure. My doctor says we’ll never know what caused the loss of smell, but I think it was a combination of the severe head cold, the cabin pressure, and the blowouts.

At first, I assumed that as soon as the cold cleared up, I would be able to smell and taste. That didn’t happen. I was surprised at how the loss affected my enjoyment of life. Food didn’t taste the same; when people commented on smells–the seashore, Casa Blanca lilies, fresh bread–I couldn’t share their pleasure, no matter how deeply I inhaled. I had always liked having a keen sense of smell. I used to make my kids kiss me good night after they’d been out late. I was sure I could detect evidence of smoking and/or drinking (it turns out I was wrong, but that’s another story). It was depressing to lose what I came to realize was an important part of my life.

Eventually and to my great relief, some of my sense of smell returned and with it the ability to taste food. The weird thing is, many odors don’t smell the same. In their place, there is a “bad smell” that represents many stinky sources. Garbage, Tibetan toilets, cat boxes–they all smell the same: bad, but not a differentiated bad. Furthermore, the “bad smell” changes over time. Right now, it smells like a fishy sauce we once ate in Madagascar more than a year ago. I can’t describe what the previous bad smell was, but it applied to all things malodorous.

There’s no snappy way to end this. I do have a couple bits of advice, though: if you don’t have a good sense of smell, travel to countries that aren’t that fragrant; you’ll see a lot of exotic places many people would find unbearably smelly. And if your sense of smell is intact, don’t forget to appreciate it.

If you want to read about this important sense, here are two first-person books on the subject:
Remembering Smell: A Memoir of Losing–and Discovering–the Primal Sense by Bonnie Blodgett
Season to Taste: How I Lost My Sense of Smell and Found My Way by Molly Birnbaum

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This lovely poem, passed on to me by my Spanish teacher, is from the Purepecha people of Michoaca’n, Mexico. It was written in the 1500s but strikes me as relevant today, in this unexpected situation in which we find ourselves, trying to figure out how we want to live.

In life you neither win nor lose, 
nor does it fail 
is not successful. 
In life you learn, 
it grows, 
is discovered; 
is written, 
is deleted and 
is rewritten again; 
is spun, 
frays and 
is spun again. 
The day I understood 
that the only thing I’m going to take 
is what I live, I started to
Live what I want to take. 


*Photo taken by me, October 2016.

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Photo by Janet Alonso

Recently, Janet Compiano Alonso–a friend since 4th grade–sent me the following note about an event that brought joy in her life. And since she has known me since we were nine years old, she calls me Karen–though I am not “A Karen.”

Hi Karen,
I know you have no personal connection my little country school across the street from my house,  but my heart is so full of joy I had to share. Your blogs are always full of a positive outlook and I thought you might enjoy this. 

The staff including teachers, admin, secretary, para-educators, bus drivers, and custodians who have been working tirelessly over the last few weeks to prepare for successful distance learning. I walked over this morning to give the some moral support and was completely amazed with all they’ve done….. comprehensive grade level  lesson plans, chrome books, hot spots, detailed instructions in two languages to help students and parent understand how to use all the technology, supplies… there’s even a science experiment in a jar! 

There’s so much angst about kids and school (a more than reasonable worry) but I felt like every effort had been made to assure the best possible learning experience despite the challenge. 

Actually…. more “hands on” and relevant curriculum than we ever experienced in the 50’s! 

Ps…. this is not ‘splaining…. just jumping for joy! 



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I was driving with a close friend the other day and the subject of protective gloves came up.  I was thinking out loud about when to don gloves to protect my new granddaughter when my friend began to fill me in on the uses of gloves: when to wear them, when to change them, what they are good for, etc., etc., etc.  If he had looked into the back seat of my car, he would have seen that I have a box with a small quantity of everything needed to stock an ICU.  I gently inquired if he was familiar with the phenomenon of “mansplaining,’ to which he gently replied that he was not, but he was sure I had several definitions I was going to share with him.  And so it goes.

Nicole Tersigni and Jen Kirkland’s new book, Men to Avoid in Art and Life was published on August 11 and is already unavailable for two to four weeks via Amazon.  The New York Times describes it as “an explanation of ‘Mansplaining’ with help from 17th Century Art.”  You can read (and see) more about it here.  A sample caption, pasted over an oil painting of a man speaking to a woman holding a water jug: “I’ve seen you get water from this well every day. Allow me to explain all the ways you’re doing it wrong. Number one…”   I imagine the book was well along the road to publication before any of us dreamed we would be sheltered in place, seeing the same few people at the same unnatural distance day after day, losing patience by the hour. I believe this has contributed to an excess of Mansplaining, a practice that is not only unnecessary but also (intentionally or not) misogynistic.  

And speaking of misogyny, the long knives are out for Kamala Harris, now that she has been chosen as Joe Biden’s running mate.  Fox News has already criticized her for lacking charm and warmth.  Really?  To me, she is exceptionally warm and charming—but even if she weren’t, since when are charm and warmth requirements for elected officials?  Mitch McConnell and Jim Jordan (to name but a few) could never pass that test. Clearly, male and female candidates aren’t judged by the same standards. 

Just wanted to ‘splain that.


Do you have any thoughts on Mansplaining? Your experiences or lack thereof? Let’s talk!

Photo by Van Tay Media via Unsplash

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I got a catch-up note from an old friend yesterday that got me thinking about happiness. He wrote, “That said, we are great, positive, and enjoying most days with activities we would not have done without Shelter in Place.”  Because he is my friend and entitled to privacy, I will not enumerate what went into “that said,” but he and his wife have been through situations that would defeat most of us.  

It made me think about how people can find joy almost anywhere if they pay attention.  It doesn’t take much to notice, however fleetingly, that something or someone brings us happiness.  This isn’t the kind of thing I would normally write about (i.e., it seems a little sappy) but it seems like we should grab happiness where we find it right now.  My go-to guide on happiness is the Dalai Lama, and among the dozens of quotes attributed to him, the one I like best is, “Choose to be optimistic.  It feels better.” Good, practical advice!

My personal happiness these days:  our new granddaughter; my family both nuclear and extended; the hummingbirds and their aerial battles at the feeder on our window;  Bella the dog, who greets me as if she hasn’t seen me in years, even if it’s been only an hour or two.  

Where are you finding happiness in this uncertain time?

Photo by Sara Rankin 

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I just made up the title, “Motivation Loss Syndrome,” and then found that there is a named condition very similar to it:  Abulia.  While this sounds very much like a plant I wanted to buy yesterday at the East Bay Nursery (Abelia), Abulia is something no one wants.  Its definition includes: 

-loss of productivity, effort, and initiative
-lack of plans and goals;
-poor attention and being easily distracted.  

There are more symptoms but these are the ones with which I am all too familiar. And I am not alone.  I learned from the check-out clerk at the nursery that she, too, feels like she has lost all motivation.  (These days I am very chatty when I encounter a person who is not in my 24/7 bubble.)  She reorganized her refrigerator by adding covered plastic containers.  I reorganized a storage closet by foisting unwanted items off on Goodwill.  Neither she nor I was proud that this was all we were motivated to do in more than four months, though at least she had the excuse of working part of the time.

Here are a few things I planned to do before Loss of Motivation (my Abulia) set in:

-touch up all the dings in the trim paint throughout the house
-commit to actually writing the novella I have been writing in my head for the past 2 years
-master the features of my iPhone so that my kids won’t make fun of me
-learn how to use the many useful features of the car I have driven for 3 years
-Sand and paint the small table on the deck with equipment I bought two summers ago
-read more fiction

My conclusion?  If the sort of Abulia I just described is a symptom of mental illness, then it is a second pandemic that was created by the COVID pandemic.  I don’t think it will be cured until we can safely go back to our COVID-less lives.  In the meantime, let’s give ourselves and each other a break and soldier on.


Photo of adorable dog by Bianca Ackerman on Unsplash

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Photo by Amish Thakkar via Unsplash

Kanye West
This past week a post about Kanye West’s Bipolar Disorder appeared in Instagram Stories under Kim Kardashian’s byline. In it, Kardashian made several important points:  (1) it is complicated and difficult to understand; (2) the pressure and isolation in West’s life is heightened by his bi-polar disorder; (3) when a bipolar people most need help, they are incapable of seeking it because they are manic.  Her plea for compassion was unusual for a celebrity of her sort, but anyone who has dealt with the ravages of mental illness know how much that is needed.*

The New Normal 
Though the statistics tell a different story, almost everyone I see on the streets around town (Oakland, CA) is wearing a mask and thereby protecting themselves and others from COVID.  It is interesting that even though masks are hot and uncomfortable, it has become automatic to wear one. I have several styles:  homemade, surgical, stylish (from Anthropologie) and one made of some kind of plastic that seals tightly and looks like something athletes wear in a very different location.  Some people have been so rude as to giggle when I wear it.  

Finding Hope:  What I’m reading this week
The Tree Where Man was Born by Peter Mathiessen  
My friend Jim Martin recommended this book because he knows how much I love traveling to Africa (and has led many of my photo trips there).  I am seventy pages in and, aside from failing to keep all tribes separate, I take heart in knowing that tribal hatreds appear and then wane (as do pandemics for that matter), alliances are formed, animals’ numbers decrease and then grow again and through it all, humans move forward.


*You can read a fictional version of the effects of Bipolar Disorder on the life of a family in my novel, Kiss Me Over the Garden Gate.

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Photo by Rui Xu on Unsplash

This is not about the new life we are all experiencing due to the Corona Virus Pandemic.  This is about a New Life our family has been graced with during this very difficult time.

A few days ago,  Baby T. was born into a world that is not only unknown to her but also pretty darn strange to everyone who has been awaiting her arrival.  While most grandparents are flexing their infant-memory muscles prior to a birth, the four of us are ensuring that we are COVID-negative.  How weird is that?  What is not weird is that this new life seems like a 6 pound, 11 ounce miracle.  She is perfectly formed, down to her tiny fingernails.  She has figured out how to nurse, and she is definite about when to rest and when to fuss.  Though we can’t know now who she is—her personality, her way of sizing up the world—it is already there and we will discover it in time.

I can hardly write this without choking up.  Since March our daily lives and the foreseeable future have changed in unimaginable ways.    We do not know what lies ahead.  I have good days and difficult days, trying to deal with isolation, anxiety, and innumerable changes as I navigate through an unforeseen way of living.  And then Baby T. shows up and a blessed peace descends:  it is pure happiness. 

I had many expectations of the birth of our second grandchild, but I never expected the joy, the suffusion of happiness her birth has brought.  For the past five months of our altered life I have been trying to savor happy moments:  family, nature, clouds, good weather.  But this is different.  The birth of a child at this time is a gob-smacking dose of joy that is indescribable. Thank you, little girl.  If all goes well, you will never fully understand what your birth at this particular time means to us.

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Cormorant Rookery

I spent a day on the San Joaquin Delta’s rivers, sloughs and cuts  this week, exploring the area where I was raised but never appreciated.  My sister Liz and her husband Steve acquired a boat earlier this year for fishing and exploring, and now, during the pandemic, as a place to be with extended family safely, in the open air.  Driving from Oakland to their boat in the Delta,  I passed towns that were little more than crossroads when I was a kid and are now medium-sized cities with acres of newish housing developments and shopping centers.  

A Great Blue Heron

At some point the freeways led to old highways and bridges I remembered from the back seat of the car as a little kid, elbow- wrestling my siblings out of the way.  I think the only sib I was nice to was Liz, the youngest—this weekend’s hostess and tour guide. The other thing I remember from those days was passing on the narrow Delta levee roads settlements that my parents said were where the gypsies lived.  (And there really were and still gypsies around Stockton and other places in the Central Valley.  You can read about them here.)

This is only a small portion of the vast Delta area. Unfortunately, Disappointment Slough isn’t shown here but it exists–believe me.

I never thought I’d feel nostalgic about Stockton, a town I left at 18 and to which I returned only spend time with my parents,  but I carry within me a boatload of good memories.  If you look carefully at this map of a small portion of the Delta, you will see a stretch of water named “Disappointment Slough,” where I spent many an hour fishing with my father.  The slough lived up to its name.  Visiting the Delta after 50 years away, I am impressed with its beauty:  the vistas, the silence, the wildlife. I was not for one minute disappointed.


Photos by Bill Popik

I never thought I’d feel nostalgic about Stockton, a town I left at 18 and to which I returned only spend time with my parents,  but I carry within me a boatload of nostalgia.  If you look carefully at this map of a small portion of the Delta, you will see a stretch of water named “Disappointment Slough,” where I spent many an hour fishing with my father.  The slough lived up to its name.  Visiting the Delta after 50 years away, I am impressed with its beauty:  the vistas, the silence, the wildlife. I was not for one minute disappointed.

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