Love in the time of COVID

Image: A heart-shaped stone on top of green, white and blue beach glass, set against a red background. Photo by the blogger.

So this weekend, it’s Valentine’s Day on Sunday—and, for some of us, it’s also the Family Day long weekend. And, whether you celebrate either of these or not, you can’t deny that there’s a distinctly different vibe this year.

Many of us don’t have families of our own, or families at all (physically or emotionally); nor do we have romantic partners. Some of us are lucky enough to have ‘chosen family’, a small circle of close friends that go beyond friendship into kinship. The pandemic has forced both extreme distance and closeness with family and lovers alike—each situation with its own set of unique challenges and perks. And people have lost loved ones, not only to the pandemic, and welcomed new loved ones into their lives. To keep each other safe, we’re connecting virtually over email, text, telephone and video—even to say our final goodbyes.

Above and beyond all the marketing hype, cards and flowers, and family events—virtual and otherwise—this weekend, there is a real sense of how important these love connections and relationships are; and, as with so many other aspects of our lives these days, the pandemic has only served to heighten this feeling. This pandemic has shone a spotlight on priorities—on a global, national, local and personal level.

All of this came to mind as I was pondering the first things I want to do once we’re safely out of the shadow of COVID-19. Hug my loved ones long and hard. Spend time with family over dinner at a family member’s home. Brunch and movie/potluck nights with friends. Take public transit to the Beaches for a long walk on the sand, collecting bits of beach glass and driftwood as I go. Attend live arts performances and galleries/museums in person. So many things.

Our post-pandemic hopes and dreams reveal who and what we love the most.

Who do you long to see and what do you dream of doing when the pandemic is over?

All the feels

Photo of a pink neon heart, shining from an apartment window, by Valerie Gow.

Happy really belated New Year! It’s been a while since I posted here. Like many of you, I’ve been taking some time for self-care and reflection as we transition into 2021.

I celebrated the holidays this year, a year unlike any other; but also harkening back to holidays past, before my snowbird parents started heading south in November several years ago. After some careful planning and orchestration, I did a 14-day isolation period and visited my parents for a couple of days over Christmas, during which we wore masks and physically distanced. This was important for all of us, as I’d missed seeing them at Thanksgiving and my youngest brother’s 50th birthday; our case numbers were too high and I didn’t want to risk it, especially as they’re in their 80s and live in a lower-risk region. And, since I live alone, it was important for my mental health to have some in-person contact with loved ones after so many months of isolation—and who knows how many more Christmases we’ll have together.

As I rang in 2021 alone in my apartment, filled with cautious optimism about the incoming vaccines, but tired and frustrated over the significant numbers of individuals and businesses that were still not taking the pandemic seriously, I was struck by how quickly emotions can shift—or be felt all at once.

At the beginning of the pandemic, we were collectively going through the five stages of grief in our own individual way: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance—and like any grieving process, the progress of these stages is not linear, and can often circle back on itself. During one of my daily neighbourhood walks in March, I overheard a small boy ask his mom, “Are we afraid of people?” He’d been noticing how we were all keeping our distance from each other, and this must’ve puzzled him. The mother’s reply began with, “No…” but I didn’t hear her full response, as I’d moved on by then.

Physical distancing isn’t done so much out of fear, but out of respect and taking good care; and is part of the public health arsenal for controlling, and hopefully stopping, the spread of COVID-19. It’s a simple, easy thing we can do to keep ourselves, each other and our health care system safe. So we wash our hands, we wear our masks, we keep our distance—at least, most of us are. But, yeah, I guess we are a bit afraid of people. At least, I am. And the fact that some people and businesses choose to flout public health guidelines and bylaws—putting friends and family, and employees and customers, and our health care system, at risk—makes those of us who’ve been working and sacrificing for almost a year, frankly, frustrated and angry.

Fear has definitely been a large part of the pandemic experience. When people ask me what I’m more afraid of—catching COVID-19 or giving it to someone—my answer is: both. When I’m out doing errands, picking up takeout or on transit (which, except for three round trips in early August 2020, I’ve been avoiding), I’m afraid of catching it. When I’m with loved ones, I’m afraid of passing it on (even when we’re all carefully washing hands, masking and distancing).

It’s deeply saddening to hear story after story of family members having to say goodbye over a tablet because they can’t be in the hospital or long-term care room when a loved one is sick or dying. Many of us empathize with health care and other essential workers, exhausted and putting their own health at risk, as they face this pandemic every day; sometimes separated from their families for safety, or going through rigorous disinfecting procedures in their garage when they return home from a shift. And we’ve all heard the wake-up call regarding longstanding social inequities that make the pandemic experience extremely difficult, and more deadly, for racialized and low-income Canadians—many of whom are essential service and health care workers.

Health officials warned us in the beginning that this pandemic would be a marathon. A marathon of resilience, determination and taking good care. A marathon of public health measures, bylaws, emergency orders and lockdowns. And, like the stages of grief, it hasn’t been a linear process. As predicted, the second wave has proven even deadlier than the first, with instances of illness and death mounting—and there’s a person behind every number we hear cited in the national, provincial and local updates. It’s also been a masterclass in radical acceptance. Accepting the reality of a difficult situation doesn’t mean you think it’s okay; but doing so can save you the pain of denial, and get you to a place where you can sort out what is and isn’t within your power to do about it. And, for some, that’s a huge ask. Perhaps, for some, denial is a more comfortable place to be—because to accept the reality of the situation is too scary to face. And it’s easy to feel totally helpless during times like these.

The COVID-19 pandemic has evoked all the feels. Right now, I’m feeling hopeful, impatient, frustrated and exhausted. I’m also feeling grateful for the privileges I enjoy. I’m not experiencing housing or food precarity. I have supportive family and friends; a cat for company and cuddles; freelance work coming in from appreciative, collegial clients; access to a public health care system that will provide free vaccinations; and Wi-Fi and cable that allow me to work from home, connect remotely and enjoy a variety of storytelling.

With Winter forcing us to be indoors more, it can be a particularly challenging time as we count the days till Spring. Wherever you are, I hope you’re okay; and doing what you can to keep yourself, others and your health care system safe. Reaching out to family and friends. Staying connected however you can. Help is on the way; we just have to hold on a bit longer. Keep taking good care, now and in the future.

Safe & happy holidays

And, suddenly, it’s December. It’s Winter Solstice today, and the final weeks of the holiday season are unfolding unlike any other before.

Many of us are in, or about to go into, lockdown. Favourite holiday traditions, family gatherings, shopping and outings have had to be cancelled or rearranged to follow public health protocols and local bylaws. Some will have to resort to seeing family onscreen this holiday season, as many aspects of our lives have been relegated to the safety of the digital space. It’s a huge sacrifice, but we do it to keep each other—and our beleaguered health care system and workers—safe.

I’m now on day 12 of my 14-day pre-holiday self-isolation period, an added safety measure for my Christmas visit with my parents. This means no errands, no laundry room visits, and only leaving my apartment for daily walks (weather permitting). I can easily keep my distance and avoid others along the quiet side streets of my neighbourhood as I take in some fresh air, exercise and, hopefully, some sunshine.

I’m equal parts nervous and excited. It was heartbreaking to miss Thanksgiving, and then my youngest brother’s 50th birthday (the latter I was at least able to Zoom into for a bit)—most of my immediate family live in lower risk regions of the GTHA—and I’d been hoping against hope that we’d be able to see each other for Christmas. Normally, my parents would be in Arizona right now, so I’m grateful for the chance to see them this year. I live alone and have been living a largely stay-at-home lifestyle during the pandemic. I’m very grateful to have my furry four-legged friend Camille for company and cuddles; but the lack of in-person human contact has been challenging—even for an introverted homebody like me. I really, really miss the hugs.

My parents and I have discussed detailed safety protocols for our visit, including for when they pick me up and drive me home (many of these were worked out previously, when my parents hosted small family gatherings in July and September—mostly outdoors, where we were always distancing, wearing masks indoors, and had individual servings of snacks and one person plating food at dinner). My mum was a nurse and my dad is a retired Professional Engineer (chemical)—so they know from health and safety, and disinfecting—and we’re all on board with public health rules and what we need to do to keep each other safe. I acknowledge with gratitude that we’re able to do this; and that we have the privilege of having homes that allow us to keep our distance and stay safe.

As vaccines are starting to roll out, there is hope for the New Year. We just have to persevere and hold on a bit longer. Keep keeping each other, and our health care system and caregivers, safe. It will be a very different kind of holiday this year, but I hope we can all find comfort and joy in keeping with the season, and connect and celebrate with loved ones safely.

Have a safe and happy holiday—and all good things for 2021.

COVID-19 marquees 2

Well into the second wave, we’re all so very tired. But we need to keep going. We need to keep ourselves and each other safe – and protect our health care system, our most vulnerable citizens and our already exhausted health care workers.

Every week during the pandemic, I continue to create marquee messages and post them on social media, in the hopes of encouraging participation in public health measures, spreading hope and inspiring resilience.

Here’s the second marquee collage.

Please continue to take good care. It really takes a village to get this virus under control – so we all have to do our part. And the sooner we do so, the sooner we can plank the curve and get to the other side of this pandemic.

DIY mask design

One of the ways we’ve been keeping ourselves and others safe during these days of COVID-19 is wearing masks. Masks have become a topic of controversy, debate and protest—but I want to talk about masks from a creative perspective. As a means of self-expression, creating wearable art/fashion accessory and having fun.

When it became evident that mask wearing was going to be a thing for a while, I figured it was time to purchase some reusable cloth ones. My first mask purchase was a gorgeous Van Gogh-inspired Toronto skyline designed by Alumnae Theatre friend, graphic artist/designer Suzanne Courtney, who you can find on Redbubble.

Starry Toronto Night, by Suzanne Courtney

While I love supporting artists by purchasing their art, as a freelancer navigating financially uncertain times, I also had to watch my budget. So I found some inexpensive, plain solid colour cloth masks (in this case, at Old Navy) and decided to do some DIY wearable art.

Ideas became sketches; from there, it was a matter of opening up the mask and mounting it on a Styrofoam wig head, chalking the design onto the mask, then painting with fabric and/or craft paint. It was an inexpensive way to have some creative fun and exercise self-expression.

Since being out in the world with them, I’ve received a few compliments—and this sparked some pleasant, positive conversation about wearing masks, masks as the new fashion accessory, and how fun and easy it is to paint your own. When I was chatting with the sales clerk in the Wine Rack this week, I even suggested making a painting party out of it, with your kids or roommates/household members. You could even do a DIY crafting Zoom party with friends and family outside your household—a safe way to connect and have some collective good times.

Like health officials have been saying: this is a marathon and public health measures will be with us for a while—so let’s make the best of it and have a good time putting our own personal signature on an item that will keep our loved ones and community safe, and avoid stressing the health care system.

Here are the three masks I painted: a sunflower, the redesigned Pride flag, and a seagull flying across the sun.

For info on building your own non-medical, reusable cloth masks—including instructions on adding a third/filter layer—check out the Government of Canada masks page.

List of firsts, interrupted

During the last week of August, I started a “list of firsts”. That list has since been interrupted as Toronto residents, among others, return to more cautious public health measures—notably not venturing into other households—now that we’re into wave 2 of the pandemic.

It’s not a huge list, but it’s a meaningful one, and stretches back to the end of June.

  • First time seeing friends in person (June 28): Physically-distanced visit with Lizzie, Zoltan, Val and Laurie (drive with Laurie, masks, me in the back passenger seat) on backyard patio at L, Z and V’s building (again on Aug 16).
  • First time seeing family (July 26): Physically-distanced visit at my parents’ place—masks indoors and distancing in the living room/dining room and out on the patio, by household pod.
  • First time back on TTC (July 31): Short bus trip to/from Camille’s annual vet checkup/rabies shot (TTC good).
  • First walk with a friend (Aug 1): Physically-distanced, with friend Brenda, on the Cedarvale Ravine trail.
  • First dinner with a friend (Aug 1): Thai delivery, with my neighbour MC, as we both sat inside our respective doorways across the hall (then, a doorway coffee on Aug 9).
  • First trip downtown (Aug 4, to Yonge/Bloor): Second TTC trip (YUS subway), to pick up printouts of two large reports from a freelance client (TTC good).
  • First hair cut (Aug 7): Third TTC trip to see Rhonda at Top Cuts, Avenue/Lawrence (salon excellent, TTC not good). People on transit not wearing masks properly (not covering noses, or pushing mask down to chin to talk on cell or eat) and not practising physical distancing when they had opportunities to do so.
  • First Tim’s iced cap (Aug 11).
  • First coffee in a park with a friend (Aug 22): Met my friend Kerri in a park in my neighbourhood, picking up coffees on the way.
  • First hug (Sept 6): At my mum’s 80th birthday party—distanced indoors/outdoors, masks indoors, and one person (me) wearing mask/gloves plating food for everyone. Mum was determined to hug everyone, so we all wore our masks and washed/sanitized our hands, and she got her birthday hugs. [She also gave me a quick hug on July 26—but I was so shocked, I didn’t hug back.]

Largely due to the careless actions and negligence of fellow citizens, our COVID-19 case numbers have shot up—and those who have been most vulnerable during this pandemic are once again at great risk. It’s not like we weren’t expecting a second wave this Fall; but it came early, hitting hard and fast. And it didn’t have to be this way; so many of our new cases were completely preventable—but some folks and businesses decided to ignore public health guidelines, experienced infections and infected others.

October holiday festivities have basically been cancelled, especially in Ontario hot spots like the GTA. It reminds me of when I was in grade 8, when the behaviour of a few classmates forced the cancellation of our class trip to Washington, D.C. Most of us have been following public health guidelines and city bylaws, and making great sacrifices along the way—and because of the actions of a bunch of idiots, we’re now all in detention. All are punished.

This makes me extremely angry and deeply frustrated; and I struggle with how I’m going to navigate this second wave, especially from a mental health standpoint. Many of us live alone, in a household of one, and are now facing the prospect of ongoing solitude during the holiday season. I get that people want to socialize, that masks can be uncomfortable, and that it’s exhausting to be continually careful and vigilant. We’re all tired. Like numerous public health officials have told us: this is a marathon. And we need to keep on top of the situation and take good care—of ourselves and each other.

I also realize that I can only control my own actions and responses. So I will continue to follow public health guidelines and city bylaws—for my own safety and the safety of others, especially my loved ones—and hope that those who haven’t been doing so, or let their guard down, have a change of heart.

And, one day, I will resume my list of firsts.

What’s on your list of firsts? What are you missing the most during wave 2?

Random acts of kindness

This is the true story of some random acts of kindness during COVID-19.

Out of the blue, a woman gave a friend $50, to be used however she wanted or needed.

The friend was surprised and grateful. Finances had been a concern during the COVID-19 pandemic, but her work and income had picked up recently, much to her relief. She didn’t really need the $50, and she kept this in mind as she pondered what to do with it.

One day, she decided to go for a walk and stop by her local pub to pick up some takeout along the way—mindful that it’s important to support local businesses, especially during the pandemic and subsequent recovery. As she waited outside the pub for her order to come out, she noticed two people sitting outside the drug store a few doors away. One was a young woman with a dog; the other a man of about 50-60—they weren’t together. She let the pub server know she’d be right back and walked over to them.

She gave the young woman $20 and chatted with her briefly. The young woman and her dog were camping out in a tent in a ravine with her boyfriend. She asked the young woman if the place was shaded and safe—the young woman said yes, and also mentioned that the money would come in handy, as it was going to be her birthday the next day. She wished the young woman happy birthday.

She moved on to the man and gave him $20, and asked him if he was doing okay in the heat and staying hydrated. He said he was doing okay. He didn’t seem to want to chat, so she wished him well and walked back to the pub to pick up her takeout order.

Because of a friend’s unexpected gift, she was able to treat herself to a cider with her meal, include a generous tip, and help out a couple of fellow human beings (and a dog). That first random act of kindness grew—and may have grown since then.

Acts of kindness don’t have to be about giving money. It can be about helping a neighbour with errands. Actively listening to someone’s troubles. Smiling at a stranger. And these seemingly small moments of kindness and connection have a way of rippling outward. And while you may never know if or how your kindness was passed on, you can be sure that you brightened at least one person’s day.  

Try it for yourself and see.


When I was a kid, I used to lay in the summertime grass in front of our house and look at the sky, watching clouds go by, and finding shapes and images up there.

As an adult, I still appreciate the beauty of the sky, especially during the golden time as the sun prepares to set, the colours as the sun goes down, and that deep blue before the sky goes dark. I’ve found a renewed appreciation—and even a state of grace and calm—looking up there these days; sometimes from my living room window, sometimes during a walk. It doesn’t always have to be about making out the shapes. But just being there, present, watching them go by. Like thoughts during meditation.

Here are some photos of clouds, taken during the pandemic. And a song by Joni Mitchell.

Art @ home

As we gradually begin to emerge from “stay at home” to a world of increased contact with others—including mask wearing and physical distancing—we may have come to know and appreciate our own surroundings with renewed hearts and minds.

While waiting for the green light to safely visit a museum or attend a performance event, many of us been engaging with the arts at home, through the pages of books or on a screen of some sort. And maybe you have some art on your walls that you’ve come to view with refreshed eyes.

In the spirit of sharing and engaging with art, here’s a little tour of the art that hangs in my apartment—in alphabetical order, by artist (with links, as available). These are not professional photos, and they’ve been taken where the pieces live, in their natural habitat—so there will be some glare and reflection in the glass.

Little Cruiser Lake (canvass-mounted print)—Cecilia Booth. A gift from the artist, who is also a friend. I love the peaceful calm of nature in this piece. There’s also a magical, fairy tale-like quality—of emerging from a dark forest, into the light.

Drowning Girls (poster print)—Suzanne Courtney. Suzanne is an Alumnae Theatre friend/colleague; and I had the pleasure of working on this production (on set painting, with designer Ed Rosing). I love how she combined the beautiful with the macabre, giving the design a haunting Gothic vibe. You can check out her art here and graphic design work here.

Celtic Camille—Laurie Fredheim. Another friend and gift from the artist, who drew this from a photograph, then added the traditional Celtic costume in a personalized, whimsical touch.

Angel Over the CityJennifer Hosein. I first saw this multi-media collage/painting on a tour of Jennifer’s apartment during a party she hosted. While still a work in progress, I asked her to put a hold on it for me. There is comfort in this guardian angel image—and I’m drawn to the blues.

Heart Comes Alive, from the animated short LabyrinthPatrick Jenkins. I met Patrick through his partner, photographer Pamela Williams (see below). When I lived in Little Portugal, Patrick had an exhibit at (former) loop, a local gallery. I was already a fan of the film and love this image of the awakened heart.  

Guardian cats quilt—Martha Leonard. A gift from the artist’s daughter, my friend Kat Leonard. It reminds me of the Celtic faerie cats knot design. The cat is the guardian of the underworld.

Multimedia text piece—Steve Rockwell. Can’t recall the exact name of this piece, but I saw it at an exhibit at the (former) Fran Hill Gallery and loved it. The text comes from an actual conversation he had with a gallery owner; hilarious in its dry humour. Also love the colour and design; it reminds me of a heraldic banner—and is meant to hang from the space where its mounted.

My love is like a red, red roseLeon Rooke. I brought a bouquet of roses to a salon that Leon and Fran Hill were hosting at home in the Annex, prompting Fran to request that Leon gift me this painting. It evokes the lyrics of the famous Robert Burns poem in a whimsical way.

On Some Faraway Beach #20—the late Blair Sharpe. I met/befriended Blair, the partner of friend/Environics Research colleague Brenda Sharpe, at an Environics winter holiday party and we hit it off immediately. This painting is another Fran Hill Gallery exhibit find; it makes me think of Adirondack chairs, and the brilliance of colour in the spaces where beach, water and sky meet. Sadly, Blair passed away a year ago; I’ll miss his creative spirit, his edgy sense of humour and his sharp, questioning mind.

Party for OneAndrea Stokes. I saw this hanging in an exhibit 10 years ago at (former) Ottawa restaurant ZenKitchen, where friend of a friend Caroline Ishii was cofounder and chef; I never met Andrea in person, but we chatted over email as I arranged for shipment. I love the sharp colouring and melancholy whimsy in this piece—especially pointed right now during these times of isolation.  

Cemetery sculpture photographs; clockwise, left to right: Water Nymph (Buenos Aires), Siren (Italy) & Dove (Italy)—Pamela Williams. I met Pamela years ago, at the Toronto Outdoor Art Fair. I’d seen an image of Siren in a NOW Magazine promo piece for the show and made a point to visit her booth. We became friends; and since then I’ve taken a digital photography workshop with her, and attended a lecture and exhibits at her home gallery.

What art do you love? What’s hanging in your home?