In my final week on Orcas Island, where I’d lived alone for three months to focus on writing, every ending made me cry. The end of a book. A hiking trail. A meal. A football game. With each one, I choked back sobs and wiped away tears, wondering how I’d become so fragile. After a few days, I figured out the pattern. My life on the island was about to be over, filling me with so much grief that all other endings did the same.

About a month ago, I started to experience similar, spontaneous bouts of distress. I’d be in a meeting, on a walk, or spending time with friends when my heart would start to race and a lump would rise in my throat. Having been through this before, it didn’t take long to pinpoint the cause. I’m nearing the end of a book I’ve been working on since 2012, and no matter how exciting it is to approach the finish line, I always get a bit sad when I finish a piece of writing. For the past eleven years, I’ve been hanging out with this cast of characters on a world I created, and all of that is coming to an end.

But there’s another layer to the grief that accompanies the completion of this story. My dad, who passed in 2020, was one of its first readers, critics, and fans. When I wrote the Acknowledgements section of the first part of Aret back in 2016, I began with this:

Before reading Aret, my father (who reads about five books a week) had never read a single book in the fantasy genre, as he had zero desire to do so. But because he is meticulous, highly critical, and frank (which also happens to be his name), I asked him to be one of my first readers, then burdened him with each major revision (I believe there were four or five, although he estimates the number at closer to a hundred). With each reading, he’d take several pages of notes, and we’d spend hours together so I could “defend my dissertation” while he inundated me with questions and critiques. Although I know he’d prefer it if I wrote about spies, the Old West, fly fishing, or the Napoleonic Wars, he worked tirelessly on Aret. Dad – thank you.

I wrote those words with the confidence of someone who had no idea what life would bring. It never occurred to me that Dad would die before I finished the story. I thought we’d be on the journey together – him brutally criticizing every word while also celebrating the characters and plot points that brought him joy. As I reach the final page, there is a huge, unmistakeable void in my writing process. Dad should be here to see how it ends, and he isn’t.

A few days ago, I looked through photos of my parents’ visit to Orcas, back when the world of Aret was just coming to life. I found this shot of Dad and me at the Little Summit in Moran State Park:

And this one of Dad beating me with an imaginary baseball bat after I accidentally took him on an hourlong hike that was supposed to be half a mile:

(Anyone who’s hiked with me knows this is par for the course, but Dad was unamused.)

Photos and memories like these help to balance the grief of his loss with gratitude for the silly and loving relationship we had. He helped me develop a thick skin, along with a greater ability to accept criticism, and that made me a better writer.

Thank you, Dad, for everything. What I tell myself is that you would’ve hated the way I ended the story, and you would’ve fought me on it, and it would’ve been a whole thing. So maybe it’s better this way. 😉

But really, I just miss you, and I wish you were around to help me navigate and celebrate this ending.

Daisy’s Great Escapes

I didn’t fully understand what I was getting into when I chose to adopt a hound. I’d heard rumors that hounds were willful, stubborn, and oblivious to direction after picking up a scent, but those warnings flew from my mind when I met Daisy at the Blue Ridge Humane Society, looked into those woeful eyes and stroked her long, soft ears. I was smitten.

The first time Daisy caused a major coronary event was about five days after we adopted her. Following her spay surgery, I took her to my mom’s house to convalesce away from her 9-month-old brother Titus, with whom she liked to engage in round-the-clock WrestleMania. I gave her free roam of the fenced backyard, which had always been a secure space to contain Titus. However, after a particularly long Zoom meeting on the third day at Mom’s, I went looking for Daisy, and she was nowhere to be found.

My mom lives in a remote, heavily wooded area with poor cell service, so even though Daisy was wearing a collar with my number on it, I knew that wouldn’t help. I ran through the woods and along the lake path, calling her name while thinking, What are the chances she’ll recognize her name already? And why would she come to me? We barely know each other! Finally, I grabbed Mom’s landline from inside and called my husband to tell him I’d lost our new dog. But as soon as I made my confession, I heard the wonderful sound of a tag jingling against a collar. As it turned out, Daisy was standing next to my car in the driveway. I let JR know she’d reappeared, walked her back into the yard, and closed the gate. She looked from me to the gate, then leapt over it like a gazelle. Happily on the other side, she turned to me with an expression like: Did you see me? How cool was that? I told her it was not cool at all and marched her inside.

I wasn’t used to this kind of behavior. Our other dog, Titus, is a giant. He could probably step over the fence in Mom’s backyard, but he has respect for boundaries. Daisy sees them more as a fun challenge to overcome.

Titus: “This fence marks the boundary of our territory.”
Daisy: “Oh, Titus. You big dummy.”

Daisy has escaped from the house on several occasions. Most times, we’ve found her nearby, hanging out on someone’s porch or visiting a neighbor’s dogs through their fence. One time, though, JR found her far from the house, soaking wet and looking quite proud of herself. We’re still unsure what happened there.

Since we have a six-foot stockade fence encircling our backyard, for the first year we had Daisy, I felt perfectly safe leaving her outside unsupervised. However, that all changed when she chased a squirrel across the yard full-tilt and ended up vaulting over the fence like a goddamn Olympian. It was a drizzly Sunday morning in winter, and JR and I had to go outside in our pajamas to fetch her. Thankfully, she was standing right on the other side of the fence with a bewildered, How did I get here? look on her furry face.

JR and my anniversary was on April 1st, and we rented an AirBNB in Hot Springs to celebrate. The main living area, on the second story of the house, featured a lovely, wraparound deck, the backside of which butted up against the forest. The moment our backs were turned, Daisy took the opportunity to bound off the deck, clamber up a steep cliffside (we could see her claw marks in the dirt) and disappear into the woods. After twenty minutes of running around, calling her name, JR found her at the edge of the property, far from the house and right next to a busy road. She’d rolled in something disgusting, so we had to give her a bath, which caused her to explode into earsplitting vocalizations like a deranged, half-man, half-turkey being throttled to death. Seriously. When she’s amped up like that, she sounds 0% like a dog.

Here she is pretending to feel bad about her behavior. In actuality, she didn’t give a shit and would do it again in a heartbeat. (Also note that she is tethered to my chair.)

We’ve managed to capture some photos that highlight Daisy’s true, unhinged personality, like this:


And this:

And entirely unlike this:

“I didn’t do it. Nobody saw me do it. I’m innocent, I tell ya.”

Or this:

“Don’t believe a word my mama says about me. I am a perfect little angel.”

We Finish Each Other’s…

My husband JR is an excellent sleeper. He can sleep anywhere at any time, entirely unconstricted by conventional boundaries. It doesn’t matter if we’re in the middle of a dinner party; he’ll leave the table, move to the nearest flat surface, and go to sleep. While I have an extensive, regimented nighttime routine, carefully developed to combat pervasive insomniac tendencies, JR needs no preparation whatsoever. He just falls asleep. It’s astounding.

The other night, JR went to sleep a couple hours before me, which is the norm. When I found him in bed, fully dressed with his glasses still on, I debated whether or not to wake him. Sleeping JR can be a real brat. Here’s a typical example:

Me: “JR, you’re snoring.”

JR: “You’re snoring.”

Me: “No, I’m lying here listening to you snore. Could you roll onto your side?”

JR: “No.”

Me: “JR…”

JR: “Just go to sleep and you won’t hear me!”


Out of concern for the wellbeing of his glasses, I decided to wake him. After his eyes popped open, he asked, “How did I get here?” I replied, “The same way you get everywhere,” then concluded with: “Free will,” at the same time he said, “Magic?”

This exchange brought to mind another recent occasion when we offered very different simultaneous answers. Someone had asked us for the key to our relationship’s longevity, and JR replied, “A sense of humor,” at the same moment I said, “Time apart.” JR loves to tell that story. I maintain that both factors are important.

Besides his ability to sleep, JR has another magical power: an unparalleled sense of direction. This is something I lack entirely, so it makes no sense to me when I start to guide him somewhere and he says, “I know. I’ve been there before.” Seriously, what the hell does that have to do with anything? If you plunked me down in the center of my hometown right now and asked me to take you to the house where I grew up, I would not be able to do it. JR, on the other hand, has internal maps and intuition that are baffling to me. When he helped me move to Orcas Island back in 2012, we arrived after dark and drove around the island for about an hour, trying to locate the AirBNB where I’d be staying for three months. The directions I’d been given didn’t correspond with reality, and when we found ourselves in downtown Eastsound for the third time, I started to panic. JR, however, remained totally chill. He set the directions aside and said, “I think I know how to get there,” then proceeded to drive us straight to the house. Upon arrival, I felt like I’d just watched the parting of the Red Sea. That was eleven years ago, and I’m still in awe.

JR finds my lack of directional prowess equally baffling. He’s shocked every time I don’t know how to get somewhere, as well as every time I do know how to get somewhere. What can I say? I like to keep him on his toes.

While JR and I aren’t always on the same page, I think we’re at least in the same book. I’ll call it I Don’t Know, It Just Works: Life With a Couple of Goofballs. It’s not finished yet, but when it is, I guarantee it will be interesting enough to get banned in Florida.

I Can Love a Parade

Embedded in our psyches, we all have a series of scripts that guide our lives. Essentially, these are the stories we tell ourselves about our likes, dislikes, abilities, flaws, etc. Sometimes they’re helpful, as they allow for shortcuts in decision-making. Other times they get in the way, like when we hold on to scripts that are outdated or allow them to limit our opportunities.

One of my personal scripts is: “I’m an introvert. I don’t like parties or crowds.” So when I started a four-week drumming workshop and the instructors said we’d have the option of marching in the Mardi Gras parade at the end of it, I thought, Yeah, that won’t happen. I made a vague commitment to participate in the parade if the weather report for the day didn’t include cold temperatures or any sort of precipitation. Considering it was wintertime in the mountains of Western North Carolina, I felt pretty safe.

As it turned out, my confidence in the region’s crappy weather was misplaced. When the forecast indicated that Parade Day would be warm and dry, my heart sank a little. When my sister said she and her boys were coming to Asheville to watch JR and me perform, I knew my goose was cooked. It was happening. Script be damned – I was going to be in a parade.

And here is why scripts don’t always serve us: the parade was amazing. Thousands of people in colorful, alien-themed garb had come together after a long, anxiety-soaked hiatus, and for the first time in almost three years, I got to feel the buzz of energy that emanates from a joyful crowd. The smiles were huge. The costumes were jaw-dropping. Folks were dancing in the street. I was surrounded by cheers, music, and laughter, and it was awesome.

If I’d followed my script last weekend, I never would’ve seen my nephew flee from a giant CD dragon…

…or watched another nephew become a bead-bedecked Chewbacca…

…or gotten to showcase my fancy new drumming skills.

I wouldn’t have felt the flush of happiness each time kids in the crowd started to dance as our crew passed, their eyes growing huge when they saw the size of our drums. I wouldn’t have felt the warmth in my chest each time we rounded a corner to find a sea of smiling faces. I would’ve denied myself the joy of making music with and for my friends, family, and community.

This experience was an excellent reminder to question the set of stories I’ve chosen to believe about myself, even tried-and-true ones like: Parties Are Kelly’s Nemesis and Parades Involve Crowds, and Crowds Are Torture. Perhaps now I’ll change the parade one to: Sometimes parades can be less than horrible.

That’s progress, right?

Late Night Revelations

I started writing songs in my late-teens. Without access to a band or any instrumental prowess, I just sang them a cappella, dreaming that one day, they’d bloom into legit songs. Somehow.

Not long after JR and I started dating, I wrote a song for him titled Mi Rata Podrida (I meant it in a loving way). I gave him the song for his birthday, along with printouts of others I’d written over the years. He was appreciative but didn’t quite know what to do with them, so he signed up for guitar lessons.

About twenty years later, we started making music with our friends Chris and Brevis.

When we first got together, the country was in lockdown. Weekly band practice was pretty much our sole in-person interaction outside of grocery stores and our homes. We’d often comment on how we lived for Tuesday nights – a bright spark in an otherwise dreary, worrisome time. Throughout quarantine (and a variety of other unpleasant life events in the coming years), I found infinite catharsis in the simple act of screaming into a mic while engulfed in a sea of pounding drums, driving bass, and power chords.

Our first practice space looked like a haunted kill room. (Note the stained plastic sheeting behind Chris in the photo below.) From my position at the mic, I’d stare across the room at creepy portraits of little girls who were definitely ghosts (you can see them two photos down). It was terrifying, but we loved it…until we got kicked out for being too loud.

I blame Chris.

Our first fan was a darling dog named Bella. While we played, she’d lie on the floor in a circle of blasting amps, perfectly content.

Bella is a badass. I mean, just look at that mohawk. She never would’ve even considered telling us to turn it down.

(Although we really should. We’re all losing our hearing.)

Our first gig was for seven people in the guitarist’s backyard. After we played, no one said a word about the music. It was very awkward. A year later, we played another backyard show, this one for about twenty people. It was way better in that folks actually acknowledged we’d just performed songs. Many of them even said nice things.

After writing and practicing together for a couple of years, we grew tired of the crappy recordings captured on our phones, which were essentially in-your-face drums with melodic mumbling in the background. We found an amazing producer – Matt Williams at The Eagle Room – and recorded nine of our songs in one day. I think Matt is used to more polished musicians, not a bunch of grungy rockers who decide after three takes that it’s time to move on. But we were stoked with the results, and a few days ago, after a healthy dose of Matt’s magical mixing and mastering, we released our little album, Dark Circles.

I’m glad the me who started writing songs 30 years ago didn’t know it would take this long to get them out in the world, because she would have drowned in a puddle of tears. But the me of today is feeling pretty snazzy about the whole thing, especially since I just learned you can ask Alexa to play our songs, and she does it. How cool is that?

I mean, you know you’ve really made it when even Alexa knows who you are. 😏 😆

Safely Frozen

At 10 p.m. on Friday, December 23rd, I texted this photo to my mom and sister with the message: This is how cold I am.

My sister wrote back: No wonder you’re cold!!! along with a screenshot of current weather conditions in my hometown, where it was 1 degree with a “real feel” of -18. Mom replied with a screenshot of her town’s current conditions (3 degrees with a real feel of -8) and the message: Come here, it’s warmer!

My sister’s text inspired me to check our thermostat to see if it was, in fact, 1 degree outside. What I found was a blank screen. The thermostat was dead. I informed my husband of this unfortunate turn of events, and he went to check the circuit breaker while I texted the update to my mom and sister, whose joint response was the equivalent of AAAAAAHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!! accompanied by offers to help and a variety of troubleshooting suggestions.

Finding no issue with the circuit breaker, JR and I reviewed the thermostat’s user guide and searched for answers online, to no avail. Around 11:30, we decided to bury ourselves under a million blankets and try to get some sleep. The next morning, all that had changed was that it was even colder in the house. Our HVAC company’s “emergency hotline” wasn’t operational. Since we couldn’t find anyone to come out to the house, we realized that our plan to host Mom for Christmas was officially thwarted, as the ability to see one’s breath indoors is neither merry nor jolly. Bundled in several layers of clothing, we began packing up our holiday gifts and food while poor Titus provided a running soundtrack to our miserable situation, crying continuously under a mountain of blankets with only his nose sticking out.

For the next three days, we hunkered down at Mom’s, distracting ourselves with holiday merriment and trying not to picture pipes bursting in our frozen house, turning the inside into an ice castle. On our drive home yesterday, we got a call from an HVAC repairman who was at the house. He let us know that all was well – the thermostat was working again, and the house was warm and undamaged. “We found the problem,” he said. “A pipe outside froze. That must’ve triggered your thermostat to switch off as a safety measure.” Um…huh? If that is indeed a safety measure, it must’ve been designed by a sociopath. When the outside temperature drops below zero, your thermostat will switch off automatically, allowing you to quietly freeze to death in your home.

Now that we’re on the other side of that debacle, my primary feeling is gratitude. I’m thankful we were able to spend Christmas with Mom in her nice warm home. I’m thankful our house is okay and the thermostat magically fixed itself. But I also 100% stand by the message I sent to my mom and sister before diving under a million blankets the other night:

Winter can suck it

The Other Kelly Wolves

Soon after I moved to Asheville, North Carolina and began working in social services, I learned there was another Kelly Wolf in the area. The imparting of that knowledge involved a number of conversations like this:

Person: “Oh! You’re Kelly Wolf!”

Me: “Yes, I am!”

Person: “The PhD sexologist?”

Me: “Um, no.”

Person: “Oh.” <insert look of profound disappointment>

Almost a decade later, I still have that conversation on a fairly regular basis. It always ends with me biting my tongue to prevent an explosive outcry of: “But I have strengths, too, goddammit!!”

In the virtual world, I am also periodically mistaken for another Kelly Wolf, this one an ultramarathon runner. [Side note: I am the opposite of an ultramarathon runner. I hate running. Other people who hate running tend to say, “I only run when chased,” but I wouldn’t even do that. If someone were chasing me, I would turn around and try to talk them out of it. After a couple decades of work in the mental health field, I figure my chances of verbally deescalating a person are way higher than outrunning them.]

Occasionally, an online article is posted about Kelly Wolf, the ultramarathon runner, detailing her most recent thousand-mile dash over a series of mountain ranges, and my social media persona is erroneously tagged, resulting in a flurry of undeserved praise for my inspirational endurance and exceptional physical feats. Again, I have to explain to these starstruck fans that I’m not the Wolf they’re looking for, and again, they are terribly disappointed upon learning my true identity.

I’ve decided the next time I have to explain that I am a different, far less exciting Kelly Wolf, I will add a random tidbit of self-appointed praise, like: “No, but I do take a mean mushroom photo.”

Or: “No, but I once found an egg with Australia stamped out of it.”

Or: “No, but I do have a really big dog.”

And then I will scurry away, either virtually or IRL, hoping I’ve left the person so confused, they forget to be disappointed.

Gearing Up

Well, it’s happened: a big rainstorm blew in last night, stripping most of the remaining fall foliage from the trees. We’re officially one giant leap closer to winter. Blech.

For me, what winter means is this:

(1) Cold hands and feet

(2) Endlessly runny nose

(3) Fear of the outdoors

(4) Mood in the toilet

Last week, I lamented to a colleague about the swift approach of Depression Season. While she agreed that winter is a bummer, she also listed several things that she appreciates about the season. I didn’t share her feelings about many of the examples she provided (e.g., wearing boots and sweaters – UGH), but her efforts to focus on the bright side inspired me to look back at photos from last winter to see if I could identify any personal points of gratitude.

Here’s what I found:

So I realized I do have something to look forward to in the coming months: a sweet, giant dog in sweet, giant sweaters. At least I know, as I’m gripping mugs of tea for warmth and continually blowing my nose, I’ll be able to gaze across the room at Titus and smile.

Stupid COVID

“Stupid COVID” has been my constant refrain over the past two and a half years, and at long last, it got its stupid hooks in me. Today, I’m supposed to be spending time with a friend who’s visiting from California. We haven’t seen each other in seven years. Instead of giving her a big hug, I’m texting her places to eat, shop, and hang out in my own damn town while I sit at home on the couch. ARGH. Hmph x 1,000,000.

But in the interest of holding grief in one hand and gratitude in the other (thank you, Francis Weller), I’m going to focus on the upsides of my current bout with the plague:

  1. I got sick now instead of next week when we’re heading to the beach.
  2. My dogs are still willing to hang out with me.
  3. For fear of catching the covids himself, JR is cleaning everything in the house. 🎉
  4. I recently started a giant, epic fantasy novel, so I have that to keep me company. And if this sickness lasts a long time, I have another one waiting in the wings.
  5. It’s warm and sunny outside.
  6. I don’t have a fever. In fact, my temperature yesterday was 96.7. What the…is there such a thing as a reverse fever? Or is that just hypothermia?
  7. We have an extra bedroom where I get to sleep without the usual addition of a 130-pound dog in the bed.
  8. The chapter I’m currently writing in the third book of Aret is deeply bleak and disturbing, which is a perfect match with my physical/emotional/mental state. So…yay for that.

All right, I seem to have hit a snarky patch in my attempt to be grateful, so it may be time for a nap. The most important thing I need to remember right now is this: I normally long for downtime to focus on things like reading and writing, so resenting it simply because it’s been forced upon me is pretty stupid.

But not as stupid as COVID. 🤬

We Miss You, Mister Buttface

Some dates have weight, and for me, September 14th is a heavy one. On 9/14/2012, I arrived on Orcas Island, where I lived alone in a magical wonderland and wrote Aret. And on 9/14/2020, Dad died in his sleep, setting my world off its axis with his sudden, permanent absence.

The juxtaposition of those two dates reminds me of Francis Weller’s guidance to hold grief in one hand and gratitude in the other, which is also how I try to balance memories of Dad. For each that brings a lump to my throat and tears to my eyes, I try calling to mind one that makes me laugh.

Like this:

My sister and her two boys were visiting my parents for the weekend. While the boys were goofing around during bath time, out of the clear blue sky, 4-year-old Henry called my dad “Mister Buttface.” Upon seeing the resultant, terrifying look on Dad’s face, Henry cried, “I’m sorry! I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry!” And that should’ve been the end of it, right? But no. On his way out of the bathroom a few minutes later, Henry called, “Oh, Graaaaaampy!” When Dad turned around, naked Henry made brazen eye contact, smacked his little butt three times, and dashed out of the room.

I arrived in the aftermath of this incident, and when I asked Dad how he felt about the unexpected, unprovoked attack from his normally sweet grandson, he gazed into the distance and replied, “I’m just trying to imagine what my grandfather would’ve done if I’d ever called him Mister Buttface.”

Dad had a framed photo of the two of us on his dresser, and now it’s on mine. Soon after he died, I had a necklace made from one of the pennies he’d kept in his penny loafers, and when it’s not in use, it hangs on a corner of the picture frame. Each morning, I lift the necklace from the frame and say, “Mornin’, Dad.” And at the end of the day, I return it and say, “Goodnight, Dad.” Sometimes I share news that would’ve been of interest to him, like, “We’re meeting up with Mom to celebrate her birthday,” or, “The boys start school today.”

This evening, to balance out the weight of September 14th, I think I’ll change things up a bit. As I place the necklace back on the frame, I’ll look down at Dad’s smile and say, “Goodnight, Mister Buttface.”