The Improbable Upside

I’m starting a podcast, and not just because everybody has one and I feel left out. Rather, I finally landed on a topic that seems worthy of the amount of thought and attention required for such an endeavor.

My husband’s encouraged me to do this for a long time. He even bought me a microphone last year. “It’s for podcasting!” he explained. When I responded with a confused look, he said, “You should start a podcast!” That’s how JR works. Soon after we became housemates in 2001, he came home one day and excitedly presented his new purchase: a Muppet Show DVD. “Cool,” I said. “We don’t have a DVD player.” “Yeah, I know,” he replied. “Guess we need to get one.”

Anyway, here’s how I came upon my podcast theme:

I have a dear friend back in California. Let’s call her Skippy. (I’ll explain later.)

Skippy was brought to mind last week as I worked on a grief therapy assignment – writing out statements of forgiveness, directed at the person whose loss I’m mourning. The assignment included a stern warning: If the person you’re mourning is still alive (like in the case of divorce), DO NOT read your statements of forgiveness to the person. No one wants to hear that you forgive them unless they’ve specifically requested your forgiveness.

As I considered this caveat, I remembered one of my friend Skippy’s quirky, needling behaviors, to which I was subjected many times over the 4+ years we worked together. Periodically, out of the clear blue sky, she’d remark, “Kelly, I forgive you.” I’d look up from my desk like, Huh? Forgive me for what? I didn’t even do anything! And she’d just be typing away at the computer with a mischievous grin on her face. Sometimes she’d follow up with an evil laugh.

I then recalled another of Skippy’s signature traits, one less needlessly damaging to a person’s psyche. Whenever anything bad happened, no matter the severity, she would ask, “What good can come from this? Where’s the positive?” That was her immediate reaction. Always. It was particularly striking to me because I’d never responded to tragedy that way. My thoughts and mood would just plummet straight down a rabbit hole of doom. But with Skippy’s steadfast role modeling, I learned a powerful reframe. Positive things can emerge from catastrophe. Find the good. It’s there.

And that’s the focus of my podcast: Sharing stories of experiences that were chaotic, tragic, or simply ridiculous, then digging down to find the positive. The beauty. The points of clarity, purity, truth. The Improbable Upside.

Now that I have a theme, all I have to do is learn about podcasting. Here is what I know so far: Nothing. But I have a theme AND a microphone! That’s a start, right?

[P.S. How Skippy got her name ~ Each year, she and I walked several miles to raise money for the nonprofit where we worked. I’m very tall, and she’s very short (she calls me Gigante, and I call her Camarón), and as I’m sure you can imagine, it’s challenging for a giant and a shrimp to walk in step. After the fundraiser one year, she explained to one of our volunteers that she had to skip forward every few steps to keep up with my long strides. In her thick Southern drawl, the volunteer replied, “Well, isn’t that nice. I’ll just call you Skippy.” And there ya go. It stuck.]

My Dog Ate My Grief Homework

Between grief counseling sessions, I’m given homework assignments. The most recent was to create my “loss history graph” – a detailed report of each significant loss in my life, when it happened, and how intensely it affected me at the time. Needless to say, that wasn’t so fun to do, and once I completed the arduous task, I folded the page and tucked it inside a book for safe keeping.

A few days later, I noticed my dog Daisy munching away on a piece of paper. I sometimes give the dogs junk mail to tear apart, so I assumed that’s what it was, but closer inspection revealed the truth. She was eating my loss history graph. After pulling the soggy, tattered page from her mouth, I assessed the damage, which turned out to be minimal. While she’d chewed the edges and blurred much of the writing with drool, the only segment she’d removed entirely were the words: Dad died.

Later that week, my grief counselor and I both had a good laugh as I held up the pitiful remains of my loss history graph and explained what had happened. I mentioned how strange it was that Daisy had gone so far as to pull the page out of a book, which she’d never done before. My counselor, also a dog lover, spoke of dogs’ intuitive nature and suggested (somewhat tongue in cheek) that Daisy might have sensed that particular piece of paper made me sad and figured she could help me out by eating it.

Her nod to dogs’ intuitive and protective tendencies reminded me of an incident not long after Dad’s death. I’d left Titus asleep on the couch and gone into the bedroom to cry. Soon after I left the room, I heard Titus plop onto the floor and prepared to be tackled by a giant, exuberant puppy, as was his norm. But the wild assault never came. Instead, Titus crept onto the bed, crawled up to my head, sniffed at my face, and gently licked the tears from my cheeks.

“Hello, human. We are here to consume your sadness.”

In light of these two events, I’ve concluded my dogs are super heroes. “Doodlebug” is my usual nickname for Daisy, but in light of her new hero status, she may need an upgrade. I’m thinking: Daisy the Grief Gobbler.

And Titus can be: Titus the Tear Terminator.

I’ve said it countless times over the past year of fear and misery, and I know I’ll say it again.

Thank God for dogs.

Post-Pandemic Plans

In no particular order…

  • Book a massage
  • Hug my friends
  • Go out for breakfast
  • Write OPEN IN CASE OF PLAGUE on the top of a shoebox, toss all my face masks inside, and stick it in the back of a closet
  • See a movie in a theater
  • Go out dancing
  • Take my laptop to a brewery/cidery/coffee shop, sit by a window, and write for as long as I want
  • Stroll casually through a library
  • Walk by other people without trying to measure 6 feet with my eyes
  • Plan a trip that requires air travel
  • When visiting friends, ask to use their bathroom without fearing I’ve condemned them to death
  • Ride a rollercoaster and scream my head off
  • Take a class – any subject will do, as long as it’s not on Zoom
  • Meditate because I want to, not because I have to to keep from losing my mind

Death Is

The Tao Te Ching was the first religious text I ever read that made real sense to me. It hit home so hard, in fact, that I cried the first time I read it, which was a particularly huge feat at the time (~20 years ago), when I tended to cry on an annual basis.

One theme that runs throughout the Tao is that people erroneously judge and weigh the realities of life. What should be perceived as simple, we complicate. What is truly complicated, we consider simple. And therefore, as we attempt to navigate existence, we spend much of our time completely off course.

In the counseling, reading, and thinking I’ve done on grief over the past six months, I’ve realized my conception of death, and how to respond to it, have been filtered through the very lens described in the Tao. I always viewed death as complicated, but it’s not. Death is simple – neither malevolent nor kind, as plain as it is absolute. There’s no point railing against its wrath, injustice, or unseemly coldness. Death doesn’t answer for itself. It just is.

Many years ago, a friend of mine lost both parents within months of each other, and because I had no idea what to say in the wake of such tragedy, I didn’t say anything. I avoided her, and we drifted apart. I now realize I needlessly complicated the situation. All my friend needed at that time was a benevolent witness – someone to acknowledge the raw pain of her loss. Death is simple, and so is the most meaningful response to it:

“I’m so sorry. I know you’re hurting. I’m here.”

And that’s all. It’s not complicated. I suppose that’s the good news. When faced with another’s suffering, we don’t need to offer advice, redirection, cheer, or distraction, conjure up magical words or devise brilliant strategies to try and salve their pain. All they really want to hear is:

“I’m so sorry. I know you’re hurting. I’m here.”

Simple.

That’s What Happens on Monkey Island

At this time twenty years ago, I was just getting to know JR, my new housemate. We’d come to live together via a mutual friend, Kyoko, who had lived with JR previously and assured me, when proposing the three of us share a home, that not only would I love JR, but he would prove to be entirely unlike anyone I’d ever met.

A few weeks after we moved into our new house, I told Kyoko the story of Coconut Harry, a Golden Retriever in the Florida Keys who’d been swept off a sailboat and lost at sea, only to turn up over a week later on a remote island inhabited only by monkeys. At some point in the telling (I can’t remember the context) I said, “That’s what happens when you put a bunch of monkeys on an island!”

After a momentary, thoughtful pause, Kyoko said, “The next time we’re with JR, one of us should randomly drop that sentence into the conversation. Whatever we’re talking about, whenever there’s a pause, just drop it in. No explanation. I’m telling you, he’ll go with it like it’s totally normal.”

We got our chance that night, while chatting in the front room after dinner. Out of absolutely nowhere, Kyoko turned to JR and declared, “That’s what happens when you put a bunch of monkeys on an island!”

“I know!” JR enthusiastically replied.

Kyoko stared at him, her look incredulous. I sat on the couch, watching like a spectator at a tennis match.

Kyoko: “Wait. What? What do you know?”

JR: “That that’s what happens.”

Kyoko: “What’s what happens?”

JR: “That’s what happens when you put a bunch of monkeys on an island!”

Kyoko: “But what are you talking about?”

JR: “I don’t know. What are you talking about?”

It was perfect.

I’ve recalled that exchange a lot over the past ten months, as I’ve tried to channel JR’s bottomless ability to shift gears and adapt. These days, I consider “monkeys on an island” as a battle cry of sorts. New COVID variants? Monkeys on an island! Insurrection at the Capitol? Monkeys on an island! Jewish space laser conspiracies? Monkeys on an island! Yet another month of quarantine? Monkeys on an island!

This all-purpose declaration serves me in the same way “It is what it is” served my dad during times of unwelcome, jarring change. However, it’s much more fun to say. Also, it really takes the sting out of stressful events to picture a Golden Retriever, having just escaped the jaws of a watery death, joyously bounding around an island full of monkeys.

Oh, Coconut Harry. You must’ve thought you’d died and gone to Dog Heaven.

A Year of Challenge

Back in January, I wrote about the 52-week gratitude challenge my mom, sister and I had embarked on three months earlier. Last week, we arrived at our final topic: Lessons Learned/Did this challenge change you? Though we should’ve finished back in October, we had to hit pause on a few occasions, namely:

  • My sister’s hospitalization, cancer diagnosis, and beginning of treatment (March-April)
  • Dad’s sudden death (September)
  • My sister’s stem cell transplant and recovery process (October-November)

Quite a year. I think there might’ve been a plague, as well. And a bunch of other gruesome shit.

🤬

As it turns out, choosing that particular challenge was eerily timely. Given all the trauma and tragedy of the past year, it was a true blessing to have a designated time each week to focus exclusively on gratitude.

Here are the final emails we sent each other:

My Response:

To be perfectly honest, when I look at this week’s subject, part of me is like: Barf! Screw you, Gratitude Challenge, my lesson learned is that everything sucks! 

😭
👿

Ahem.

Okay, so really what I learned over the course of this challenge is that it is always an option to be grateful, rather than focusing on struggles and suffering. Concentrating on points of gratitude is best for my mental health, physical health, and general state of well being.  

The past year has certainly provided its share of challenges, and having this weekly exercise has provided a consistent reminder to shine the light on gratitude. Choosing to prioritize gratitude is the wisest choice. It feels better and is more beneficial, so why not do it?

I am grateful to both of you for hanging on over the last year+ to complete the challenge. It hurts my heart to think back on the breaks we’ve had to take over the past year, but I am grateful we’ve come through it together, and I am grateful for the honor of having you both in my life.

Love, Kelly

Mom’s Reply:

So beautifully stated, Kel…. particularly the disclaimer at the beginning!  

😄

But I think that that is what we’ve all learned in a nutshell: Even though everything sucks, there’s always something to be grateful for, and looking for those things helps to keep us calm(er), happier and sane. It’s quite remarkable that we chose to do a gratitude challenge during what turned out to be the worst year of our lives; and it certainly turned out to be a timely and beneficial choice.

Katy’s little sign in her kitchen says it so well: “Every day is not good, but there’s something good in every day.”  Another expression I love is: “Keep your head where your feet are”. Focus on where  you are, not where you’ve been or where you might go. My tendency has always been to spend a lot of time ruminating ….regretting things that did or didn’t happen in the past; worrying about things that may or may not happen in the future. But this challenge has helped me to stay focused on today and what is good about today. And there’s always so much to be grateful for.

I’m grateful for having made this journey with you, and for all I learned about you. Something I didn’t learn because I already knew: There’s nothing in this world I’m more grateful for than both of you.

Love,
Mom

My Sister’s Conclusion:

I’ve taken so long to respond because I don’t really have much to add to all the beautiful things you both wrote! 

☺

It really has helped me get through this godforsaken year having these weekly emails to look forward to and to keep my focus on what is good and positive in our worlds. I learned that gratitude really is a mindset that can be cultivated.

I’m grateful to the children’s book club meeting I went to where I learned about this challenge, and I’m grateful that you both were willing to take on the challenge with me!

I’m grateful that we didn’t let misfortune and long breaks derail us and that we persevered together.

Now, what’s next?

Love you both so much!

💕

And…scene. Challenge completed. As my sister said, it’s time to pick the next one. I’ve done a little online digging and haven’t been inspired thus far, having found mostly kill-joy self-improvement projects focused on crap like budgeting strategies and home organization. Snore. I did see one about sending a personal piece of mail each week and may try that. I mean, who doesn’t love getting mail?

I know we’re all anxiously awaiting the end of 2020 while faced with the reality that nothing will be different as of 1/1/2021. That being said, I encourage everyone to try the gratitude challenge. I truly believe it saved Mom, my sister and me over the past year. Despite everything that happened, we were still inspired to send each other Bitmojis like this:

And who knows, maybe when you reach the final topic 52 weeks from now, life will be a little more normal. Maybe we’ll even get to see the bottom half of people’s faces again! Can you imagine?

Dichotomous Heart

When Dad saw the photos from my 2018 falconry adventure, he asked if I’d ever heard about the little owl he found, back in his sailing days. I hadn’t, and given my newfound interest in birds of prey, I eagerly listened while he shared the tale.

Dad was Chief Mate on the container ship SS Detroit as it sailed from New Jersey to Puerto Rico. One morning, he discovered a tiny owl with its talons entangled in the ship’s rigging. The poor thing had been blown out to sea in a big storm the night before and was well and truly stuck. After freeing the terrified owl, Dad prevailed upon the ship’s cook to provide him with hamburger to feed his new charge. Trust-building was a challenge, and Dad described his huge sense of relief the first time the owl accepted food from his hand. When the ship docked in San Juan, he transferred the little survivor to the Audubon Society.

On November 1st, my mom, husband and I set up an altar to honor our departed loved ones. Mom thought it would be a good time to sift through piles of family photos she’d been given over the years, and in the process, we discovered this:

What a gift to find an image of Dad with his tiny rescued owl. Seeing him here reminds me of the countless times he offered care and comfort with sincerity and love, and without question.

My dad was a man of two hearts. The physical heart, with its valves, ventricles, aorta and atriums, was weak and fragile. It failed and took him from the world. But the heart he shared with others was fierce and mighty, radiating kindness, protection and generosity. That’s the heart he gave to those who crossed his path. That’s the heart that remains with us.

Inappropriate Joke Time

A dear friend told me this joke many years ago. I usually forget jokes, but this one has stuck in my head for decades, likely due to its stellar first line.

[Disclaimer: This joke is downright inappropriate. Over its relatively brief span, it manages to cover child molestation, infidelity, and the intentional spreading of infectious diseases. Is it gross? Yes. Does it make light of truly heinous acts? Absolutely. But I don’t care. I still like it. Are you easily offended? Then don’t read this. Click away and save yourself.]

Okay, here it is:

A little boy walks into a whorehouse with a dead frog on a leash.

“Hello, little boy,” the madam says. “May I help you?”

“Yes,” the little boy replies. “I want an hour with your dirtiest whore.”

The madam gives him a strange look. “All right,” she says, “but we do have clean whores here. May I ask why you want a dirty one?”

With a nod, the little boy replies, “From what I’ve heard, dirty whores have lots of diseases. If I have sex with one, then I’ll get all the diseases, and when I go home and have sex with the babysitter, I’ll give her all the diseases. The next time the babysitter has sex with my dad, she’ll give him all the diseases. Then Dad will have sex with Mom and give her all the diseases, and the next time Mom has sex with the postman, she’ll give him all the diseases. AND HE’S THE ONE WHO RAN OVER MY FROG!!”

😁

Back in March, when my sister was in the hospital and the country was shutting down in response to the plague, my parents and I congregated at my sister’s house, fretting about her health, her two little sons, COVID, and the general state of the world. To break the tension, we decided to share jokes, and this one really cracked my parents up. In the face of despair, brash inappropriateness can work wonders. And now that Dad has departed the world, I think back with a smile at how much he appreciated the dead frog joke. The night after he heard it, Mom told him something funny had just happened, and he asked, “Is it as funny as a little boy walking into a whorehouse with a dead frog on a leash?”

[P.S.: If you have a joke of your own that you’d like to share to cut the tension of our current times, please do. It doesn’t even have to be grossly offensive. Also, if you’re a fan of the dead frog theme, here’s an unfortunately true story that you’ll probably like.]

Another Week of Blursdays

When I started to see photos of ash raining down on my friends in California, I was so confused. Wait. It’s not wildfire season. I mean it’s…what, spring? Winter? 1992? When is it again?

Oh, right. It’s late August.

It’s late August, y’all. As ridiculous as it seems, after weeks and months of consecutive Blursdays, we’ve arrived at the end of summer.

As we all know, things we used to take for granted (e.g., time passing in a familiar way; basic neurological functioning) have been warped by the pandemic. I’ve been at a new job for four months, but my internal clock tells me that it started yesterday, or never. My ability to concentrate lasts anywhere from zero to three seconds. And my baseline emotional state is the unpleasant combination of tension and boredom that I normally associate with watching baseball. The problem is that this game has lasted for 5 months. It’s been well over ten thousand innings, and it just keeps going.

For a mental health worker, it’s a particularly troublesome time. Ordinarily, folks in my field help people identify the disconnect between their anxious/depressed moods and reality, but these days, extreme anxiety and depression are perfectly rational. Pretty much all I can tell people is: Try meditation. There’s a lot to be said for giving yourself permission to think about nothing.

On the upside, my husband and I fell victim to the lure of the Pandemic Puppy, and this little guy has been added to our family:

Say hello to tiny Titus. We’re thinking he’s a Mastiff/Great Dane/Horse/Godzilla mix.

Here’s how he looks on a paddleboard:

And here’s how he looks upside down:

As difficult and annoying as puppies are (and oh, they really are), Titus provides a spark of joy to our stupid, quarantined lives, and for that I am truly grateful.

There have been a few other sparks of joy during this utterly craptastic era. Alicia Bognanno, lead singer of Bully, livestreamed a few shows from her home, and they were amazing. We get to access The Moth’s storytelling events via Zoom. And I’ve seen some really cool mask designs. So there ya go! Three good things. But goddammit, I sure do miss hugging my friends.

In conclusion, I offer the same advice I give myself every day ~

Keep breathing. Drink water. Maintain hope. Be kind to yourself and others.

If you haven’t already, try meditation. It really does help.

And to all of you out in Cali ~ stay safe. I’m so sorry you’re going through this.

Virtual hugs to you all. 🤗

Back to Aret

For the past couple years, I’ve worked on a book of interlocking stories, all of which follow the lives of four siblings as they travel through the foster care system. Each chapter is told from a different point of view: the police officer who removes the kids; foster parents; the birth mom; social workers; the kids themselves; etc. In February, sixteen chapters in, I decided to go back to the beginning and work on revisions before moving forward. And then the world collapsed, and I stopped working on it altogether.

When I opened the document last week, I found myself reading about a cop sitting in a bar, drinking a beer and listening to a woman nearby talk to her friends. In the next scene, he waits in his patrol car while three kids step off a school bus. Well, shit, I thought. This is a pre-COVID world. And since I have no idea what a post-COVID world will look like, and I don’t feel like rewriting the whole book with the characters in masks and physically distancing, I decided the project needs to be shelved.

The upside of this is that I’m returning to Aret.

Book cover design by Fian Arroyo

Book Three has been sitting around tapping its foot for years, and it’s time to give it some attention. Besides, spending time on a world with multiple wars and man-eating dragons seems like a pretty decent option right about now.