The Mountain Goat Routine

Once upon a time in 1983 I moved to Madison, Wisconsin and met three guys named Steve. The Steve who came with me to buy my futon and help me shlep it up the stairs to my tiny apartment became known as Futon Steve. Everyone who met him through me also called him Futon Steve. He would call me up and say, “Hi, it’s Fu.”

One night Futon Steve invited me to Club de Wash, a bar that usually featured live music. It was a Tuesday night and the cover charge was two bucks. We went to see a group called Ark Improv. We sat with a bunch of folks in a big round booth and as I watched the show, I kept turning to Futon Steve and saying, “I could do that…” or “I don’t know if I could do that…” or “I could totally do that.”

I felt like I had found my tribe, that these were my people; they were speaking my language. My inner plates shifted.

Of course people who are really good at what they do make it look easy. That ensemble of nine UW-Madison undergrads was a talented crew. Almost every single person from that first generation of Ark Improv is working professionally in the entertainment industry. While Joan Cusack is the biggest name from that group, other folks have won Emmys, write for and act in films, network and cable series, produce documentaries featured on CNN, work in France in film and theatre. When I finally attended my first improv class, I found there was a teensy weensy bit more to the art form than I had anticipated. (See first sentence of this paragraph.)

I finally auditioned for and got into the third generation of Ark Improv. That was over 35 years ago. I have been studying, performing and teaching improv for more than half my life. Most of what I’ve learned doing improv informs the way I move through the world and how I filter relationships and experiences.

In particular, I am always and forever on the lookout for a good scene partner. Someone with healthy mischief, a generosity of spirit that is infinite, someone who will say “Yes, and” to my suggestions in a heartbeat.

Enter Morty.

He always wants to play. He is always “in the mood” for a good time. In the mornings he jumps on the bed to smell my eyes for goop, tells me to get moving, then jumps off the bed. Rinse and repeat. Sometimes he lays vertically down the length of my body and tries to lick my lips, which I never let him do. If I’m in the mood to frolic, I cover my mouth with the blanket and make wild noises, which drives him bonkers. More jumping. More dramatic expression. Sometimes he lays across my chest, pauses for a moment and lets me pet him. Then the mountain goat routine resumes.

Whatever I offer, he says YES: modern dance, speaking in gibberish, singing crooked harmonies, crying, cooing all of the names I have for him. Sometimes I’ll say, “Puppy – look adorable if you think I should XYZ.” He is so supportive. Loyal. He seems to love me no matter what. I like that in a scene partner.

Morty, on the other hand, always has the same suggestion: B-A-L-L? Now? How about Now? Okay, Now? He is ever hopeful.

He doesn’t mean to be funny, but Morty is a laugh riot. His latest trick is to push the ball inside the cover of the bed I made for him that’s in the art room, act like he can’t for the life of him figure out how to get it out of there and then drag the entire bed into the living room. He is always creating impossible situations with the fahshtunkenah ball—pouncing and pushing it under something so he can’t reach it—and then running up to me, jumping on me, desperately saying, “Mama-Mama-the ball-needs-to be-rescued-never-mind-how-it-got-under-the-chair/couch/nightstand-aren’t-I-the-cutest-pony-in-the-world! Urgent-urgent-Mayday-Mayday-Fire-in-the-hole!”

We are both doing so much better regarding the whole reactivity dynamic. When he gets triggered by a dog or a person, he is able to regain his composure and re-focus so much more quickly than before. I too am learning how to pull his focus back to me and to keep us both moving. I have discovered the power of turkey sausage. I will have to write an Ode to Turkey Sausage, as it is my best friend and savior.

I am also improving when it comes to reacting to people. I catch myself sooner vs. later and fight the urge to be ‘right’ on a daily basis. I met a Black woman whose young adult son was murdered a couple of months ago. No matter how leaky my mortal heart gets, I think of her and the fact of her loss and am brought to my knees. Surrender is a true starting point for transformation.

It is so much easier talking to Morty in the dark, either in the early morning or at night. I tried to explain what the Chauvin trial verdict means, but have to keep amending what I say as more and more black people are being killed by police.

Morty doesn’t ask for the ball when I talk about this. He sighs in all the right places, curls up a little tighter and leans against me, as if for ballast.

Oh so mortally yours,

Jodi

Easily Catapulted

This past week I knocked over two full (plastic) cups and dropped a humongo ice cube on the floor. While picking up the ice cube I thought, “Jodi, you need to get a grip. Literally.” When my father (avah shalom) was alive and I’d mention my fumbling, he’d say, “Well it’s because you’re not paying attention.” I would allllllllllways become defensive while my subtext shouted, “WHAT’S YOUR POINT????” There’d be loud harumphing and galumphing on the inside.

Not paying attention! Ha!

All of the everything with Morty last week left me feeling raw, vulnerable, hyper-aware of when I would hear my own tone of voice start to sound cranky or impatient as well as when people around me were acting dramatic and exasperated. My friend D’vorah says, “Consciousness changes everything.” I’d been ultra-conscious about reactive behavior, especially my own. Awareness is exhausting.

In our spiritual direction work together, Jinks is always asking, “What is God saying to you in this moment?” I have been asking myself that question and trying to slow down and tune in.

I don’t mean to sound kvetchy, but this whole ‘paying attention’ and ‘being present’ thing is hard work. I can’t multi-task when I’m listening for messages from Spirit. Believe me, I’ve tried. I keep trying. Next thing I know I’m shopping online, doing a crossword puzzle, calling someone or even—gasp—cleaning.

When I am listening in, I have to close my eyes. I have to stop and be still. This annoys me from the get-go. But that’s how it works for me.

And being quiet doesn’t stop the ten thousand thoughts swirling, which lead to other thoughts, associations, images, song lyrics, scraps of poems, lists, movie dialogue. Everything reminds me of something. I am easily catapulted into various eras of my past while simultaneously future-hopping all over the place. I remember when I met my pulmonologist in Philadelphia and he asked me why I had trouble sleeping. Several minutes later when I finished answering the question, he smiled, pointed to my head and very gently said, “Ah, I see it’s busy in there.”

There is always so much traffic on the inside, a fervent clamor, even with the joyful noise.

The irony is that I am desperate to connect with God, to get out of my own way, to have a moment of respite and at the same time, I am oh-so-resistant to slowing down and being quiet. This reminds me of the ritual that I go through with Morty several times a day: I put on his collar with the leash attached and then put on my shoes. He knows what’s happening, he’s hip to the process, ready to giddyup. I ask him if he wants to go out and inevitably he runs away from the front door and into the living room.

Yesterday afternoon I was sad and considered several different things I could do, all in the name of feeling less sad. Finally, it occurred to me that this might be a good time to pray and to listen. I laid on the bed and Morty jumped up and lay down next to me, which is always helpful. He falls asleep so easily; he is able to relax and let go in seconds flat.

What came to me is that my grief is like a tablecloth upon which everything in my life is placed. I am sad and all I can do is surrender to the sadness again and again. I know there is an invisible timeline for healing, yet I can’t help wondering when my soul will stop aching so much, so often, so deeply.

Morty woke up and stood on my chest, hence the photos from this angle.

All he wants is the ball. All I want is to feel differently than I do.

I keep hearing these lines from Galway Kinnell’s poem “The Still Time”:

there is time, still time,
for one who can groan
to sing,
for one who can sing to be healed.

Mortally yours,

Jodi

Stuck Between a Rock and a Chew Toy

As someone who leads a self-examined life, I did not like what I found this past week. As always, the lesson involved Morty. Ah Morty, my little mirror, my reflection pond. The invisible choreography of the Universe making a match between me and MortyPie never, ever escapes me, try as I might to downplay it.

For the record, can I just state that I was not in the mood to be brought to my knees spiritually?

Like so many of us, I am worn out from all things pandemic and keep hitting my pandemic wall. Grief just heightens the exhaustion. It doesn’t take much to make me feel like I need to lay down: I have to open an envelope? I have to cut off the ends of the Brussel sprouts? I have to put on my shoes? Oh lord.

Early in the week I asked Morty one morning, “What does God want from us today?” After a few seconds of silence I said, “Okay, I’ll go first.” I can’t remember what I thought God wanted from me, but I was glad to have taken a few short moments to think about that. I thought God would certainly give me points for trying to connect or at least acting like I was trying. Mostly what I remember from that morning is how funny I thought I was when I said, “Okay, I’ll go first.”

So Morty attacked a small dog at day care on Tuesday shortly after I dropped him off. This was his second time attacking another dog, so I was asked to come get him with the understanding that he was not welcome back.

Morty is a reactive dog. I ended up with a dog that barks and lunges at people and dogs, no matter how close or far they are from us. Once he barked incessantly at a washing machine that was on the ground next to the delivery truck. On Tuesday I was triggered by Morty’s reactivity and spent most of the day reacting (poorly) to everyone and everything. I was crunchy and untethered on the inside, with a side of snappy, mean-spirited behavior. 

My knee-jerk reaction was that I had no choice but to return Morty to the shelter where I got him. I’d show him: I’d get a dog that was docile, that I could take to visit sick kids in the hospital, which is something I originally wanted to do. Can you just picture Morty in a hospital: barking at anyone walking with an IV pole, chomping on small children who make noise, attacking people pushing a gurney. Lawsuit Central, please hold.

I was so mad at Morty and told him so. I told him that I was most likely going to give him away. If I was in a cartoon there would have been steam coming out of my ears.

Tuesday evening was my zoom session with Jinks (Hoffman), with whom I practice Spiritual Direction. I sobbed and sobbed, asking Jinks if God was punishing me by giving me a Dog With Issues. I felt stuck between a rock and a chew toy: I did not think I could endure living with Morty’s reactivity and also would not survive the grief of returning him.

I took my crankiness out on Jinks, who read me the riot act, as she is wont to do when I fall off the rails. I wanted to leave the country, as per usual, and she encouraged me to stay in the conversation, noticing that she was there with me and for me. Once I got on my knees metaphorically and actually became present, we prayed. And then we listened for what God was saying or wanted us to notice.

I consider most of my praying as really ‘placing my order with the Universe.’ I even picture an angel as waitress, with a small pad and pen. I pray for outcomes I’d like, I make requests and what I think are Helpful Suggestions. I am very busy talking to God. It is the listening that I struggle with; the getting quiet and still. The waiting.

Often in my conversations with Jinks when we’re being quiet together and tuning in, I’ll see colors or images, I’ll recall a dream, I’ll hear song lyrics or lines from a poem. Discovering what Spirit has to say isn’t a linear process, which both frustrates and delights me.

I cried some more. Deep belly cries. About Morty, about missing my Pop, about all of the clients I talk to every day who are being evicted, who have lost family members, whose electricity has been cut off, who don’t have enough food.

The great thing about crying is that it clears out the feelings I’ve been schlepping around on the inside. While it isn’t so much fun when it’s happening, I always feel lighter afterwards, with a bit more clarity.

Jinks encouraged me to refrain from making a decision about Morty, to keep asking Spirit for help and to try my very best to listen for any updates from my soul. She said the work was to live with the uncertainty of not knowing what I was going to do. As someone who has done improv since the late 1800s, the not knowing can still be so challenging. I said okay, I will do my best.

Tuesday night Morty was on my bed, just lying there, minding his own business. I talked to him about what was going on. He can be such a good listener. No judgment. Wednesday was not one of my better days, as I was exasperated by small things and um, quite reactive.

It finally occurred to me on Thursday how reactive I am myself. The buzzers sounded and the lights flashed during my aha moment. Oysh. It is incredibly embarrassing to finally notice what is so damn obvious. I am not proud of how reactive I am nor the fact that I spend way more time apologizing for my behavior than I want to, which is not at all.

When I was 17, I saw the movie Billy Jack and loved Jean. She was quiet and soft spoken. Plus she knew how to ride a horse. For the longest time I wanted to be like her. Over the years I’ve been told to lower my voice, stop making so much noise, stop being so dramatic, get a grip, reel it in, calm down, dial it down, simmer down.

How do I honor my big, bold spirit and also create more even keel?

In my training with Bobbi I am working on walking Morty by shortening the leash, tucking my elbow into my waist and moving forward with my head up.

I am curious about how to do this with myself. At the end of Postcards from the Edge, Gene Hackman makes a great speech to Meryl Streep about how change occurs by telling her that it’s not like in the movies where you have a realization and then suddenly life changes. He says that you have a realization and your life changes maybe a month later. 

So for now I am keeping Morty, who is having his third nap of the day as I write this. I wanted a dog that I could take on long walks, who was people-friendly, who would be easy. I ended up with a dog who challenges me at my very core. Go know.

I am praying for help and for patience. For real. I am tuning in, waiting for what Anne Lamott refers to as the next step of my ‘operating instructions.’

The sun is out, the wind is friendly. Thank you for listening.

Oh so mortally yours,

Jodi

Fooling Around or Not

Many months ago, A Bad Thing Happened to me, Morty, a neighbor and her dog. I cringe thinking about it. Long story short, which usually ain’t my style, I put all four of us in a dangerous situation in our kibbutz dog park by bringing Morty’s favorite ball into the park. OY!VAY!OY!VAY! The Traumatic Event involved kicking, screaming, growling, jumping, running, crying, blaming, yelling, biting, whining and guilt. I will not clarify who did what, only that it was messy.

My go-to plan after a fiasco of my own doing is always the same: Leave the country. 

I chose to remain in my petite corner of the universe and called around to find a trainer to help me. I felt like I was living with a monster. Unlike geckos, birds or lizards, I couldn’t toss Morty out into the wilderness and wish him good luck on his own. I knew something had to change and my hunch was that Morty wasn’t going to initiate any follow up.

I found Bobbi and things have changed radically.

The first time we met with Bobbi, Morty barked the entire hour. We were sitting about seven feet away from her. Bobbi pointed out, in the nicest possible way, that Morty was obviously running the show, I was a wreck and that the dynamic needed to change. It’s all true – he was in charge and I was tense, irritable and overwhelmed by all things Morty. It had gotten to the point where the love I felt no longer outweighed the challenges of my life with Morty.

Bobbi has spent the last several months working with me on relaxing, calming down and setting boundaries with the MortyMoo. She has worked on my behavior. Lo and behold, my changes affect Morty, who is still quite articulate, overly protective of me and um, spirited, is a polite way of describing him. Bobbi says he can be a punk and a bully too. She also says that Morty is a good pup who had a bad puppyhood. And let’s be honest, it’s not like I showed up sans baggage.

The work I am doing with Bobbi is about breathing and communicating what I want and expect from Morty. At first, I was cranky and resentful about having to spend so much time schlepping out to Bobbi’s place (in Kishinev) and how after all the time I’d spent on training Morty the first year and a half, things had gotten so out of control, and the dynamic between us was so cockeyed.

Carolyn Forché, one of my favorite poets, used to have a sign in her kitchen that read, “Whatever keeps you from doing your work has become your work.”

Silly, naïve me – I thought I would get a dog, take it on walks and the rest of my life would carry on as before, buh buh buh. The Universe was not fooling around when it sent Morty into my home and my heart. My relationship with Morty has become my work, which involves learning how to breathe when I feel tense, being present, setting intentions, walking with confidence and acting like a leader in charge.

Here we are.

Morty still drives me crazy sometimes and every so often I long for a quiet, easy puppy. I’m pretty sure he is writing about wanting a Mama who jogs and doesn’t blow her nose so loudly when she cries. But then Morty will jaunt over to help me find the right lid for a container or jump on and off the bed in the morning like a joyous mountain goat or sit on my lap in the art room to sniff my latest project and I am smitten all over again.

Oh so mortally yours,

Jodi