On a recent walk, I came upon a man standing on the side of the road. He had a pretty creepy vibe, but since I was on a trajectory to walk right past him, I figured I should probably say something. As I passed, I pushed my headphones off one ear, made eye contact, and said, “Hey, good to see you!”
Yup. “Good to see you.” That’s what I chose to tell a creepy man I’d never seen before in my life. After two years of limited contact with other humans, my interpersonal muscles have atrophied. I can’t even manage a cliché conversation. At this point, folks, what I need more desperately than anything available from Pfizer or Moderna is a social skills booster.
I envision the SS booster re-instilling basic abilities like:
At a store: How to make idle chit-chat with the teller
At an event: How to engage in simple, unoffensive group conversation
In daily life: How to have a non-mortifying, two-second encounter with a stranger
Given how long the pandemic’s dragged on, I doubt I’m the only socially-impaired person flailing around the world. I recognize a booster shot may be unrealistic, but could someone please open some sort of post-pandemic finishing school?
My little family (two humans + two dogs) is staying at a very cool AirBNB on the South Carolina coast this week. The place is amazing – spacious, beautifully appointed, etc. I love it, except for one thing. The only available cutting board is made of glass.
Lots of people like glass cutting boards, even though they are the absolute worst. Last night, as I cringed my way through the process of mincing a whole head of garlic, I generated a list of other things people like that I don’t understand. (Please know this list is in no way comprehensive. I don’t like lots of things.)
#1 – Porn. From my viewing experience, porn is equal parts boring, depressing, and infuriating. Granted, I haven’t watched porn in many years, so maybe it’s improved….? (Just kidding, I’m sure it’s still terrible.)
#2 – Romantic comedies. See “porn” explanation above.
#3 – Also related to porn, calling anything you like blank-porn (e.g., food porn). Blech. Stop equating good things with porn. Especially food. Food is awesome. Porn is dumb.
#4 – Referring to oneself as a whore based on one’s interests (i.e., “I’m obsessed with shoes. I’m a total shoe whore”). This makes no sense. Whores get paid. Did you get paid to buy those twelve pairs of shoes? No. No, you didn’t.
#5 – Glass cutting boards. FOR THE LOVE OF GOD WHY DO THESE EVEN EXIST? The last thing any cook needs is a cutting surface that’s abrasively loud, ruins knives, and provides a continual stream of nails-on-a-chalkboard heebie jeebies. If I believed in Satan, I would blame him for creating these evil pieces of shit.
#6 – Kombucha. All I have to say about this rotten tea is 🤢 .
#7 – Reality TV and talk shows where people act like complete idiots and scream at each other. Again, see “porn” explanation above.
#8 – Shopping. In theory, I don’t mind shopping. Even knowing myself as I do, when I need to purchase something, I can psyche myself up for it. Right now, for example, I’d like a new pair of waterproof sandals, and I am delusionally telling myself it will be a fun experience to shop for them. But what I also know is this: shopping has a wholly soporific effect on me. As soon as I walk into a store, I want to curl up on the floor and go to sleep. Therefore, in an effort to remain conscious, I spend as little time in stores as possible. My husband is the opposite. He loves to shop, but not with me. On the rare occasion when we do shop together, if he sees me approaching, he’ll run in the opposite direction. This is because I only ever have one question for him: “You ready?”
All right, that’s enough. This type of exercise is a slippery slope, leading inevitably to the land of I Am All Alone in the World, which, I realize, is not true.
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:
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!
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.
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.
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?
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 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.
The last few months have been utter bullshit on both global and personal scales. While the world shut down in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, my dear sister was diagnosed with blood cancer. As protests erupted in response to police officers murdering people of color, our next door neighbor overdosed, requiring CPR at 5 a.m. from my husband and me. (Giving chest compressions when you’re not sure whether or not the person is already dead is not something I would wish on anyone. It is haunting.)
Also, somewhere in the midst of all this crap, our sweet cat Shmee died.
Others have written about the pandemic and Black Lives Matter movement far more eloquently than I could ever hope to, and right now I could use a distraction from current horrors, if only for a few minutes. So I am going to tell a story about the day my dog and I almost fell off a cliff.
This was back in 2006, soon after we adopted Jasper as a goofy, big-headed, 1-year-old pup. We headed out on a hike with a couple of friends, intending to find a waterfall none of us had seen before. One of the friends was a paramedic and had a shift scheduled later that afternoon, but we figured we’d have plenty of time to complete the 8-mile loop before she was due to arrive at work.
About four miles into our journey, we saw a Trail Closed Ahead sign and merrily stomped past it. “How can the trail be closed?” we joked to one another. “Caution tape? A stop sign? This is the forest! It can’t be closed.”
Two miles later, however, we came to an abrupt halt as the trail dropped straight into a fathomless abyss. To our right, a cliff rose into the sky. To our left, the cliff plummeted into a ravine. About ten yards ahead, we could see where the trail picked up again, but in between our feet and the trail’s continuance was an insurmountable void. “Well…shit,” we said. We were a couple miles from the end of our loop. If we had to backtrack, we’d have six miles left, and our paramedic friend had an ambulance waiting for her.
I looked back the way we’d come. “Okay,” I said, “we’re not the first people to hit this point. Someone’s figured out how to get around it.” We searched along the cliff beside the trail until, sure enough, we found a rope. I tugged, and it held fast. Handing Jasper’s leash to my husband, I said, “I’ll climb up. If there’s a rope leading down the other side, I’ll let you know.”
I pulled myself up the cliff about fifty feet to discover – hooray! – another rope dangling down the other side. I called to my friends, then lowered myself down the rope to land victoriously on the trail at the other side of the ravine. After doing a little happy dance, I called to my husband, who was now at the top of the first rope. “I’m back on the trail!” Knowing it would be impossible for him to repel down the rope while holding a leashed dog, I added, “Go ahead and let Jasper go!”
What I didn’t consider as these words left my mouth were the ramifications of a 60-pound dog running free down a steep, 50-foot slope. That reality became clear, however, as I heard the amplifying thunder of a high-velocity canine hurtling my way.
Hmm, I thought. I looked over my shoulder to confirm what I already knew: directly behind the thin ridge trail on which I now stood was that cavernous ravine we’d been so careful to avoid. Hmm, I thought again. Jasper and I are about to fly off a cliff.
As Jasper’s stampede grew ever louder, I took a deep breath, assumed as wide a stance as possible on the 18-inch trail, put all my weight on my back foot, and waited. The moment my flappy-eared, happy-as-could-be dog burst into view, I pitched forward and threw myself at him with full force, smashing us both into the cliff side in a shower of sweat, drool, and terror.
We lived. Our paramedic friend made it to her shift on time. And although I’ve been known to say I didn’t learn much of any value in high school, as I look back on that experience, I’ve gotta admit:
I recently listened to a “Self-Care in the Age of COVID-19” talk, and the presenter mentioned something that bothers her about today’s pandemic dialogue. “People keep saying we’re all in the same boat,” she stated, “but that’s not the right metaphor. It’s more accurate to say we’re all in the same storm. We’re in very different boats.” Her words rang true for me, as I’m sure they did for all the mental health workers tuned in to the training. Over the past several weeks, I’ve counseled folks captaining a vast array of boats – from luxurious yachts to driftwood pieces lashed together with twine – all trying to stay afloat through a prolonged, deadly storm.
There’s a lot of advice being batted around on how best to get through this time. “Take the opportunity to deep clean your house and learn a new language!” is often countered with: “Don’t stress about productivity. If you get through the day, you’re doing just fine.” “Go outside and take long walks!” is met with: “If you go outside, someone is definitely going to sneeze straight into your mouth.”
Since the dawn of the pandemic, I’ve landed on just one piece of advice, but I believe it’s a solid one, and there is no true counterargument. It’s simply this:
Breathe in through your nose…
…and out through your mouth.
Breathe in through your nose…
…and out through your mouth.
When negative, intrusive thoughts try to capture your attention, make note of them and put them aside.
Breathe in through your nose…
…and out through your mouth.
In through your nose…
…and out through your mouth.
If you haven’t breathed properly in a long time, by now you probably feel pretty high. But keep going. That’s just oxygen doing its thing.
Breathe in through your nose…
…and out through your mouth.
In through your nose…
…and out through your mouth.
That’s it. Keep breathing. It won’t change our current circumstances, but it will keep you calmer, more rational, and better able to face what comes. In a time full of fears and unknowns, sometimes the simplest actions are the best option we have.
In 2005, my husband and I decided our cat Sid needed a friend. This was one of many incidents over years of pet ownership when human-to-pet communication would have been helpful, because if we’d asked, Sid would’ve let us know that the last thing in the world he wanted was a feline friend. Oh, well. We adopted Shmee, and Sid hated her immediately. For the first few days after she came home, he perched on top of the kitchen cabinets, growling at all of us. When he finally deigned to come down, he hissed at her, smacked her in the face, and chased her under a bed.
From that moment until Sid died ten years later, Shmee mostly lived under our furniture. Since she preferred the guest room bed for that purpose, we had to warn folks staying overnight that they might be awakened in the middle of the night by a sweet, fluffy kitty snuggling, head-butting, and licking them. Shmee always loved love; she was just too scared to come out and get it. It wasn’t just Sid who scared her, either. Any new sound or activity sent her running for a dark and quiet spot, and once she found one, she’d stay there for days. She was the quintessential “scaredy cat,” and therefore, we hardly ever saw her. Many of our friends didn’t know she existed, and even our other pets seemed alarmed whenever she made one of her rare appearances.
Despite her obvious preference for staying inside under furniture, each spring, we’d pull Shmee out from under the bed for a field trip to the groomer so she could have her thick coat removed. This continues to be an annual event that is absolutely hilarious for everyone except Shmee.
All groomers over the past 15 years have shared the same report: Shmee is the best cat ever. She loves to be touched, so grooming is like a deep tissue massage as far as she’s concerned. She just lies there, limp and purring. If we’d ever tried to get Sid groomed, he would’ve killed someone.
When Sid passed away in January of 2016, Shmee moved out from under the furniture and onto my lap.
Every time I sit down, she’s on my lap within seconds. Sometimes I don’t even notice she’s there until I try to get up. (And yes, she’s on my lap right now. It makes typing difficult.) On occasion, she has to share some lap real estate with Jasper, or at least Jasper’s ear.
This is how Shmee and Jasper spend about 90% of their time:
For the brief duration of their waking hours, they mostly attempt mind control, willing me to put food in their bowls.
Shmee is now at least 16, and her Golden Years are a mixed bag. Her back end has a hard time keeping up with the front, which makes for some wobbly walking. She rarely cleans herself anymore. Sometimes I’ll find her alone in a room, meowing at the wall. On the flip side, not only has she fully integrated herself into a regular on-not-under-furniture life, but she also recently decided that she likes to go outside.
Shmee never even came close to stepping outside until about six months ago when I opened the back door and she just strolled on out. Now she explores the backyard daily and waits patiently at the dog door when she’s ready to come back in. The funniest part is how ballistic the birds go whenever she’s in the yard, obviously screeching out the warning: “CAT! CAT! CAT!” while she looks at them with clear annoyance like, “Could you please pipe down, whatever you are? I’m trying to sniff this plant.”
Shmee reminds me of a lifelong recluse who decided at age 80 to hike the Appalachian Trail and play competitive tennis. She is a completely different creature than she used to be. And while I loved Sid, despite his violent tendencies, I am so thankful that Shmee has had the last four years to move out from under the furniture and into our lives.
“Always have something to look forward to” was one of my grandmother’s sage adages, regularly administered to loved ones during times of stress. In these waning (yet persistent) days of winter, I think of her trusty advice, and as I peer into the future, I look forward to . . .
Short-range: Upon waking tomorrow, I will have coffee. I love coffee. It makes mornings far less annoying.
Mid-range: I’ve signed myself up for a “goat yoga” class at a local farm next month. Our stretching and mindfulness practice will be enhanced by the presence of bounding baby goats. I recently attended a “pilates with puppies” class in which I snuggled with puppies the entire time (I might’ve squeezed in a leg lift or two; I don’t really remember), and I expect this to be a similar experience. Plank pose = baby goat platform. I can’t wait.
Long-range: Someday, I hope to be a falconer. The first bird I plan to train is a kestrel, which is a tiny falcon.
I’m sure falconry will have its share of frustrations, but omg, that diminutive-yet-fierce bird is ridiculously adorable, and the idea of getting to hang out with one every day is very exciting.
So there we have it – three simple points of anticipation, and I feel pretty great. When it came to mood-boosting strategies, Gaga had it dialed in.
My mom, sister, and I are in the midst of a 52-week gratitude challenge. Each week, we’re assigned an area of focus and send responses to each other via email. The 52 topics are:
We’re now 11 weeks in and all agree that this exercise is offering a much needed boost to our wellbeing. For me, the best part is the requirement that we focus 100% on gratitude. As I consider my weekly responses, I have to halt the impulse to add disclaimers or counter-arguments, and each time I shed the negativity to shine a light solely on the positive, it’s like I’ve applied a magical, healing elixir to my beleaguered mind.
So far, my favorite week has been #8 – Express gratitude to 3 people. It provided an excellent reminder of something I’ve learned before (that people love it when they’re told, in a candid and genuine manner, how much we appreciate them) but have never managed to bring into regular practice. Unfortunately, I think this is true for most of us. Expressing gratitude to the folks in our lives, while important and uplifting, is rarely done.
Several years ago, I listened to a colleague as he spoke at length about how much he loved and valued the mother of his four children. When he finished, I asked if he’d ever shared that feedback with her, and he shook his head, admitting, “We mostly just argue about the kids.” I suggested that, the next time they were alone, he tell her what he’d told me. “It’s nice to hear how much you admire her,” I said, “but I’m not the one who needs to hear it.” He agreed and said he’d talk to her. I hope he did.
Although it can feel a bit awkward to express gratitude in person, it really doesn’t matter how it’s done. I sent my week 8 accolades via text and email, and not one recipient complained. Instead, I was told I’d brought tears to their eyes, made their day, and reminded them to take the time to appreciate their loved ones. In short, expressing gratitude is a win-win. Since good feelings get passed along just like bad ones do, sharing positivity provides a chance to shift the scales, creating ripple effects of joy rather than misery.
As individuals, we have very little control in this world, but we can choose how we think, react, and communicate. My goals for 2020 are to focus on the positive, immerse my thoughts in thankfulness, and get more comfortable with letting people know how much they mean to me.
When I spoke to a client a few months back, she was “goin’ thru it,” as my husband tends to say when life falls apart. Her kid was in a medical crisis that had caused her to miss exams and fail a class, thus screwing both her financial aid situation and pending post-graduation employment. It was one of those painful phone calls during which, as a counselor, I couldn’t offer much besides: “I am so sorry,” “That’s just awful,” and, “Don’t forget to breathe.”
I talked to her again last week, and when I asked how school was going, she replied, “Great! Graduation’s tomorrow!” She’d gotten an emergency loan, powered through the last semester, had a good job lined up, and all was well with her kiddo’s health. She sounded fantastic.
This conversational juxtaposition reminded me of something my uncle said throughout his many years of cancer treatment: “When you’re going through Hell, don’t stop. Keep going!” In a similar vein, I recently saw a sign that read: Rearrange the letters in depression, and you get “I pressed on.” Sure, it’s kinda hokey, and I don’t know how much weight should be put on the significance of rearranging letters (“live” rearranged makes “evil,” after all), but I still appreciate the sentiment. Sometimes hokey can be helpful.
I need to hold onto those valuable lessons during this season, aka “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” (a Christmas song often referenced with pronounced sarcasm). As we all know, this time of year can be less than wonderful. It can mean horrendous traffic, long lines, crowds, financial stress, family drama, travel nightmares, and general impatience/crankiness. And for many, it’s a time fraught with anxiety, sadness, and anger.
Perhaps the best thing we can do to muddle through the next couple weeks is act as one another’s cheerleaders. The next time I see someone red-faced and bug-eyed with distress, I’ll try offering a kindly wave and smile of encouragement. Hopefully they’ll hear the message behind the gestures: “Looks like you’re goin’ thru it, friend, but don’t stop ~ keep going! And don’t forget to breathe!”