What’s Making Me Happy

I did not come up with this title on my own. One of my favorite podcasts is NPR’s “Pop Culture Happy Hour,” Pop Culture Happy Hourand they end with the panelists saying what piece of media is speaking to them. Their recommendations are always solid, and I hope that mine can be as well. I’ve gotten several that have stuck with me, such as “Steven Universe.” It has become more important to me over time, because it takes place on a Delmarva beach (code for the coast of Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia), and I have a college friend that reminds me so much of Steven that it’s hard not to believe that I am actually watching him. In the same vein, they also introduced me to “Adventure Time,” which I have found to be a complicated, winding mythology that is supposedly for children.

These panelists have encouraged me to make my own list, important especially because I often need to look back and find things that will make me feel better when I’m grieving (grief is too small a word to encompass all the emotions one experiences). Sometimes I exhibit behaviors that I don’t even realize are connected to grief, but if I dig down deep, I find they usually are. The media I have to recommend is sometimes hilarious, and sometimes heart-wrenching because I need the catharsis. One of them comes from last night.

This is Us” is not an easy show to watch, and I would never recommend a binge, even though they are on their third season. It is listed here because of the episode “A Hell of a Week: Part Two.”

***Spoiler Alert**

Kevin’s most significant love, Sophie, calls him to tell him her mother died. He decides to go to the funeral, and when she starts to break down during her eulogy, she looks out into the crowd and sees Kevin’s face, allowing her to continue. Flashbacks of Kevin’s relationship with Sophie’s mom populate the episode, but the thing that touched me the most was the reflection of my own feelings. She says her husband has been great through all of this, but she can’t believe she’s going to be married for the rest of her life to someone that never knew her mother. She also looks pained that her husband’s parents are still alive, which if my experience is any indication, it’s the reason she called Kevin in the first place.

Particularly in the beginning, I only wanted to talk to people who could understand my plight implicitly without me having to explain it in words that always failed to get the point across, anyway. People have told me I have a gift for words, but I could not find any that would explain in the moment how my world had turned completely upside down. I didn’t know the path to the new normal. I didn’t even know how to take the first step. I was in complete and total shock. Part of it was that my mother had died, and that was enough, but the insult to injury is that it happened in an instant. I wasn’t there. I heard the news over the phone… and so did Sophie. The difference between us is that her mother had multiple sclerosis, and had suffered for a long time. Her mother’s death didn’t come out of nowhere. If you are just joining the fray, my mother was perfectly healthy save a broken foot, which caused an embolism that loosened and traveled straight to her brain. She did make it to the hospital in an ambulance, but lasted less than a half hour there. My only comfort is that a couple of days before, I got to have a phone conversation with my mother that lasted two and a half hours. Though we did not talk about life and death issues, it still felt like we got to talk long enough that there was nothing left unsaid, no unfinished business. In fact, a good bit of the conversation was that she wasn’t working at all. She’d recently retired from teaching (elementary music), and the church at which she was playing the piano/organ had closed. She didn’t know what to do with herself. So, my absolutely black humor that makes me laugh to this day is, “Mom, if you’re bored with retirement, maybe signing up for yoga would have been a better choice.” I didn’t cry through the episode, I was excited to see my emotions reflected back to me. Enough time has passed that it just felt comforting in all the right ways.

I am also finding solace in books, some fiction, some nonfiction. The last novel I read that cut right through me was “Where the Crawdads Sing,” part murder mystery, part love letter to the North Carolina coast. I don’t want to give anything away about this book. I will just say that the prose is transcendent, and the ending a true “AHA! moment.” Telling you more than this is just robbing you of picking up a book you might not have read on your own and finding a rare treasure. It is one of the few that I might listen to as an audiobook later, because there are some sentences that I just want read to me, with the ability to rewind.

In terms of non-fiction, I am reading two books on very disparate subjects.

The first is “Spydust,” by the incomparable Jonna and Tony Mendez. Though it is technically about espionage, I wouldn’t classify it completely in that category. It is also a love story between two spies who have each other’s back at work…………….. and slowly realize they want to support each other in all areas of their lives. While learning about spycraft is infinitely interesting, I am really enjoying the parts of the book that explore spies’ lives beyond their operations. For instance, Jonna is on an op in which she writes a letter to her sister, “Jennifer.” It is not clear whether Jonna’s sister knows she is writing in code by saying that she’s “traveling,” and that’s why she missed her birthday, or whether her sister only knows that traveling is part of her job. My only clue that “Jennifer” actually does know is that from the letter, it seems as if the sister does know where she is, but the letter only references “this part of the world.” I would think that letters (and now e-mails) to family and friends are so hard, constantly wording them in such a way that they are not outright lies, but highly necessary sins of omission.

It is possible that is why so many spies date each other, but even that is problematic if you don’t have the same levels of clearance. You can get into just as much trouble for reading your spouse in on something that is above their pay grade as you can for talking about your work with family and friends…. which I learned from a TV show called “Covert Affairs,” which makes me ridiculously happy because it is not a dramatic procedural in which everything has to be spot on. In fact, it’s kind of ridiculous, but highly entertaining….. exciting without taking all the myelin off your nerves.

The second is by one of “my kids,” the term of endearment I use for all the computer users I tutored in the lab for the Graduate School of Social Work at University of Houston. Her name is Brené Brown, and even though I know there’s not a chance in hell she would remember me, I enjoy knowing that I had a tiny role in getting her papers in on time with the correct formatting. The book is called “The Gifts of Imperfection,” a book that “explores how to cultivate the courage, compassion, and connection to embrace your imperfections and to recognize that you are enough.” It’s probably one of the books I’ve needed to read since the moment it came out, but I’m glad I found it recently. Brown’s work on vulnerability and shame is slowly bringing me back out into the world, because vulnerability is not one of my strong points unless I am writing. In conversation, I have trouble letting people in. I do have two friends with whom I am completely authentic because I’ve known them for a relatively long time and they were there for me when my mother died, which carries a lot of weight. With people I do not know well, they are unlikely to hear anything from me that’s deeper than a glass of orange juice.

The last thing that’s making me happy is the movie “Jojo Rabbit.” Set in WWII, it’s about a little boy who wants to be a Nazi soldier and fight for his country…. to the point that he daydreams that Adolf Hitler is his imaginary friend (brilliantly played by Taika Waititi of “What We Do in the Shadows” fame). It is a farce, with many, many laugh lines… but also packs an emotional punch as Jojo begins to realize that being a Nazi isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Oh, wait. There’s one more thing. Coffee. Coffee is making me happy. You want a cup? I’ll make it for you myself. Do you prefer Cafe Bustelo or Kenya single origin?

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