You're Not Ok. That's Ok.

You're not ok that's ok

Photo illustration by Mark Riechers. Original images by Charles Monroe-Kane (TTBOOK), JR Korpa and Noah Rosenfield (CC0).

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Original Air Date: 
June 18, 2022

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, producer Charles Monroe-Kane made 300 yard signs that read "You're not ok. That's ok." He put them on his porch. Soon they were gone.

"You're not ok, that's ok" yard sign

During the height of the pandemic, producer Charles Monroe-Kane made a yard sign — 300 of them, in fact. They read "You're not ok. That's ok." He put a few in his yard and the rest on his porch. Soon they were gone.


Susan Cain is the author of "Bittersweet." She says the experience of sadness can help us feel whole. Cain said "bittersweet" is one of those words we use, but don't know what it means.


Critic Alissa Wilkinson has found that artists have been responding to the pandemic by doing what they do best: creating and making things that — for at least some people — helped them feel like they are still alive even as they face grief and trauma.

bomb shelter
Sonic Sidebar

Mary Laura Philpott's memoir is called "Bomb Shelter." It is also an apt metaphor. When the world is on the brink, what do you and your family need to survive?

Show Details 📻
June 18, 2022
January 21, 2023
October 07, 2023
Full Transcript 📄

Anne (00:00):

It's To the Best of our Knowledge. I'm Anne Strainchamps.

Rebecca (00:13):

I saw the sign on a walk last October, black with simple white lettering. It seemed to have been put there just for me.

Anne (00:24):

Writer, Rebecca Jameson.

Rebecca (00:29):

Earlier that day, I had gotten a prescription for Lexapro after struggling with anxiety and depression since I was a teenager. Up until then, I hadn't felt like medication was right for me, but my anxiety had gotten so bad over the pandemic that I knew that something had to change. With another COVID surge and a long, hard Wisconsin winter looming, I finally accepted that I needed more support for my mental health. I needed to see the sign that day. It made me feel seen and accepted when I was feeling anything but okay. In a culture that glorifies happiness and stigmatizes everything else, I need all the reminders I can get that how I feel is okay, no matter what.

Rebecca (01:16):

I posted a picture of the sign on Instagram later that day and through the magic of the internet, Charles saw it and got in touch. He gave me a sign of my own, which I put on my front lawn. Almost every day, I see people pause to read it. I hope that some of them need to see it as much as I did. I hope that it makes them feel a little less alone. A little more okay, in their not okayness.

Anne (01:46):

This hour. We're going to tell you the story of this sign, which was created by our producer, Charles Monroe-Kane.

Charles (01:55):

The sign was simple. It was very simple. It was black background, and then it said, "You're not okay. That's okay." Let me take you back. It was the second winter of COVID and for those of you who know Wisconsin, it was October, already snow on the ground. Things were getting tough. I knew what was coming and I went to the grocery. I could walk to the grocery store by my house and get a gallon of milk. I had, I swear to God, combat boots on with no laces. I had on boxer shorts and my winter coat.

Anne (02:34):

Boxer shorts and your winter coat and that's it?

Charles (02:36):

Yeah. That's it. I had on my mask, but you have to realize that at the time I had a six, seven inch huge beard. I get the milk, I get in line and there's a woman in front of me. She has a house coat on and she's wearing slippers. You could see the wet soaked into the side of the slippers. Her hair was, she looked rough, she looked rough. She had eggs and bread and we looked at each other, said nothing more. It doesn't get fancier than that. We looked at each other and I'll be honest. It made me feel better. I'm not the only person who feels and looks like crap, who will not make the effort to put a pair of pants on in the winter because I'm just too wiped out and it just made me feel better. When I got home that night, I don't know, I did what I had been doing, unfortunately. I got really high and I got really drunk and I sat in the basement and I just said, "I've got to do something." Somehow, somewhere out of that came, "I should make a yard sign."

Anne (03:45):

A yard sign.

Charles (03:45):

Yeah. A yard sign.

Anne (03:49):

You're not okay...

Charles (03:50):


Anne (03:51):

...and that's okay.

Charles (03:52):

Yeah. That's how I felt. I felt like I'm not okay.

Anne (03:55):

This is maybe the thing you wanted to say to the woman you saw at the grocery store.

Charles (04:00):

It's funny you said that. It's the thing I wanted her to say to me. I was not in a position at this point in my life. I was really struggling. I was not in the position to offer much to other people, but I knew what I needed and by chance, what I needed is what other people needed as well. It's just really easy to get a sign, just go on the internet. I swear to God, you go on the internet and type in yard signs and all these printers come up. I was like, "Fine. I'm going to get three or four signs," so I go on and I get three or four signs and the print point was 300. I remember my wife was asleep and I'm like, "Should I wake her up and ask her if I can spend 500 bucks to make the signs?"

Charles (04:37):

I'm like, "No, this is for me," or whatever, so I print these signs and I don't know, a week later, these big boxes came. It was probably the most excited I had been in a year. I get the signs and immediately, you take the little metal part and you put the paper part on there. At this point, there are a couple inches of snow on the ground and I stick this black and white sign in the middle of the snow so it looked really cool. Then I thought, what am I going to do with 299 signs and I thought, "I'm going to send a text blast to eight or nine close friends who live in Madison and say, "Hey dude, I did these signs. If you want them, Merry Christmas." The rest, I have an open porch and I just put them on the porch and figured if people saw them and I hate to use this word, but if it touched them, 24, 36 hours later, they were gone. All of them.

Anne (05:27):


Charles (05:28):

Yeah. That made me feel good. I was like, "Okay, maybe I did do the right thing."

Anne (05:32):

Do you know who took them?

Charles (05:34):

It was weird. My daughter noticed some of it more than me, because we're all at home, but I'm in the basement. I work in the basement, but my daughter would be like, "These two people came up. I think that lady down the street or this guy came," and occasionally someone would knock on the door and say, "Is it okay if I have a sign?" It's COVID so you'd yell through the door, "Go ahead." Whenever, for my friends, I did something where they'd be like, "Hey, I really want a sign." "Okay. I'll bring you one over to your house," but I'd bring them five. "Here. Give them away to people you think want them," and it just spread.

Charles (06:13):

Hello? How are you?

Andrea (06:15):

Good. How are you?

Charles (06:16):

I'm excellent.

Andrea (06:17):

I was just about to text you and ask when I could talk to you.

Charles (06:17):

Here I am.

Andrea (06:17):

Here you are. Come on in.

Charles (06:17):

How's life? I'm going to give you a hug.

Andrea (06:24):

Life's okay. How's your life?

Charles (06:31):

It's all right.

Andrea (06:32):


Charles (06:32):

High schoolers.

Charles (06:34):

Andrea, when my children were little, they went to a Montessori preschool and she was one of their preschool teachers. I've always really liked her and she's one of the people that I had texted and Andrea told me, "I would love a sign." I walk in the door here and you've got my sign that I made right in the front of your house.

Andrea (06:53):

Right there.

Charles (06:53):

Yeah. Why? Why did you want the sign?

Andrea (06:59):

You have a way of generating excitement around things that you do, so that was one thing, but I think I like the sign as a way of dispelling the myth that we all need to be okay and that we live in this culture of curated lives on social media. Especially coming through the pandemic, I feel people are like, "I did sour dough starters and I started PX90," and I was really not okay.

Charles (07:32):


Andrea (07:32):

I wasn't making sour dough or doing PX90. I was lying awake at night wondering what would happen to my kids if I died from this virus. I like truth telling and I feel like that sign is a truth teller.

Charles (07:48):

Was there a moment during COVID for you where you were like, that's it? Not like some huge life lesson. I hate when people talk about the life lessons from COVID, but more of like, this was a moment for me where I'm going to declare, I'm a mess.

Andrea (08:07):

Yeah. Yeah. I think it was leaning out my upstairs window, smoking a cigarette when I shouldn't be smoking inside my house in the middle of the night, feeling super overwhelmed and super isolated and super scared. It's just such an isolating experience being here by myself with two kids all the time. Single parenting is the loneliest you'll ever be without ever actually being alone and then feeling like there's this crazy dystopia outside the window and then, "Oh my God, what if I die and leave my kids behind? What if something happened to me?" I made a will. I spent my government money on a will.

Charles (09:20):

People were saying, "I saw your sign here. I saw your sign over here. I live on the east side. I saw your sign on the west side," and then people would be like, "I was on Instagram. I saw your sign on Instagram." It just started to really, really grow. Not only did I not know these people, their pictures were just photos of the sign that they saw on a walk, so when I figured that out, I would hunt the people down on Instagram. "You only have a photo. How about come and get a real sign," so it just exploded. With those people, I did the same thing, "Here, have five," or "Here, have three." Then I had a person in Illinois who got it from her cousin who blah, blah, blah and then it just exploded, in a limited way, 300 is a small explosion, but it was a bit of a buzz.

Ellen (10:08):

A lot of people around me have had a hard few years and I wanted them to know that that was fine. I understood that, whoever I was right in this house on Oak Street.

Charles (10:26):

Ellen runs, I think it's the largest food bank in Dane County, so she's the executive director of a pretty big organization, also an organization under a lot of stress.

Ellen (10:38):

I think one of the things that's been really hard for me over the last few years is that, as a leader of an organization, I feel like it's my job to emotionally support the people who are on my staff and in our care, and so I have felt like I have had to be very, I'm not the one struggling. I'm here to help all of you. I have to hold it together. No one wants to look at their leader and say, "They're falling apart." Someone had to be the strong person. Also, how do you model for people that it's okay not to be okay if the person who's the leader is always okay?

Charles (11:24):


Ellen (11:25):

That doesn't make any sense either.

Charles (11:26):

It's unhealthy.

Ellen (11:27):

It's unhealthy for everybody and it's not real and so I think the weight of that dichotomy has really been hard for me over the last few years. That's just COVID and then you have the rest of life, which adds all kinds of complexities to that. That feeling of it's not okay and it's okay that it's not okay. It doesn't mean we don't have good moments. It doesn't mean we don't move forward. It doesn't mean we don't reach out to people, but it's okay for us to be that way and to be vulnerable with each other and share those things with each other.

Charles (12:13):

My wife was like, "Why did you do it?" I had to think about it. I knew why, but I couldn't articulate it. In the end, I did it because I wanted permission. I wanted permission to be a mess. I wanted permission to not be okay. I wanted permission to wallow. I wanted permission and I think people felt for sure that my sign granted them permission to just be.

Speaker 6 (12:46):

I saw the sign in my neighbor's yard and then I asked our other neighbor, Brett, where did that sign come from? He was like, "Ellen has a bunch of them in her backyard," and I said, "I need that sign, now."

Charles (13:07):

You needed it. You needed it now. Why now?

Speaker 6 (13:13):

I think that was maybe a year ago?

Charles (13:14):

Yeah. About a year ago.

Speaker 6 (13:17):

Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I'm going to try not to swear a lot.

Charles (13:22):

You can swear all you want.

Speaker 6 (13:24):

Life is a shit show. Everything. I'm immunocompromised, so COVID's been really exciting. I work with the public, so trying to figure out the balancing act of taking care of myself while meeting the needs of working within a public space. With personal family stuff going on, we lost both of Mark's parents in the last two years and then every day is just an adventure and how to deal with trauma.

Charles (14:03):


Speaker 6 (14:05):

I was just like, "I get it," and part of me started to just really think about how I grew up. I come from a very small town and there was a ton of people that I didn't really see eye to eye with and there was this idea that you have to fake it till you make it and you have to put on this really happy face and keep going and all of that. I wish I would've seen that sign. I wish there would have been somebody that was like, "No, it's okay."

Speaker 7 (14:41):

One thing that really struck me was how many people got the sign and for them, they immediately made the jump from their individual pain to collective suffering.

Charles (15:08):

It's completely systemic and I would say that one of the things we could learn from the pandemic, but we probably won't, one of the things we could learn is dealing with that problem in our culture of rugged American individualism, pull yourself up by your bootstraps kind of ethos.

Charles (15:36):

I think about my friend, Mike, he's part of this group of guys. We've been meeting for about 17 years and we go to our local bar, Woody Ends. It's a dive bar and we hang out and then as the winter went along and everything got closed, I started doing fires in my backyard and I remember Mike saying how important those fires were to him once a week, six feet apart in a chair with his buddies, not talking about COVID. Smoking cigarettes and drinking and looking at the fire.

Charles (16:03):

Right around that time, unfortunately he had a terrible, terrible tragedy in his life. I don't know if you guys remember, there was a parade, a Christmas parade in Waukesha, Wisconsin where he's from and a man drove an SUV through the parade. He killed six people. More than 60 people were injured. It was just terrible. One of the people killed was his sister. Of all the people who had a sign, I wanted to talk to Mike the most. I said, "I want to talk about the signs," and he said, "Only on a speed walk," and he is fast. I had to be next to him with a microphone, just keeping up with him during this conversation.

Charles (16:42):

If you don't mind me asking, you had a tough time during COVID.

Mike (16:47):

Are you talking about the incident with my sister?

Charles (16:49):

Yeah. Do you mind talking about what happened?

Mike (16:54):

My sister was one of the victims in that Waukesha parade incident last November, which is still fresh and I think it's fair to say with respect to that, I am not okay and nor is our family and it's not even trying to necessarily put on the pretense. I think we're trying to be supportive and kind to one another and uphold one another, but you look at acts of devastation and these aren't things that just go away with the next news cycle. We're confronting that just today. Right before coming over here, I was talking with my two sons about the school shooting and stuff.

Charles (17:27):

So was I.

Mike (17:28):

Yeah. Yeah. Here are these devastations heaped upon other devastations and this comes what, two days after another mass shooting in the grocery store up in Buffalo, where just to show you how tightly woven and intricately woven our world is, I read a reporting out of the Buffalo press that that young man has the name of my sister inscribed on the barrel of his rifle. That's not okay. I'm not okay with that.

Anne (17:58):

The guy who did the shooting in Buffalo...

Charles (18:01):


Anne (18:01):

...carved Mike's sister's name on his gun?

Charles (18:04):

Yeah. What people don't realize is the man that drove the SUV in Waukesha was African American and the Buffalo shooting was a white supremacist and he did the Buffalo shooting out of revenge for what happened in Waukesha and he chose to write the name of Mike's sister on the side of his gun.

Anne (18:24):

Mike must be drowning in bitterness.

Charles (18:27):

It's funny, I've known a lot of people. I'm 50 whatever years old. I've known a lot of people for a long time and Mike is the opposite of bitter. He's the example for all of us, certainly for me, of how to deal with what's happening.

Mike (18:43):

It's hard to be a person. It's hard to be a person. The human condition is hard. It just is, and I think that we just need to start there with that simple understanding that we're all carrying things, that we're all bearing up, that we all have on our own tragedies that we're trying to deal with and why can't we just take each other right there from the point of compassion. Today is a great day to bake a cake. Today is a great day to kick off early and go for a walk in the woods or take the dog for a walk. Today is a great day to write your friend a card or great day to take the kids out and go grab some ice cream. This is all we've got. This is it. This is it.

Anne (19:35):

That's Charles Monroe-Kane speaking with Andrea Reilly, Ellen Carlson, Sarah Wilcox, Rebecca Jameson, and Mike Carlson.

Anne (19:50):

Coming up, we'll dig deeper into what it means to be okay with not being okay. It's to the best of our knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX.

Anne (20:02):

In 2009, the film director, Pete Doctor had an idea for a kid's movie about a girl who was grappling with complicated emotions. Doctor is the guy behind a whole string of animated hits for Pixar, but this time he wanted to make a film in which the main characters didn't just have emotions. They were emotions. The issue was, which ones?

Susan (20:40):

Yeah. He needed to pick one or two emotions as his central characters so that there would be a protagonist.

Anne (20:49):

Writer Susan Cain has the story.

Susan (20:53):

He spent some years with fear and joy as the two central protagonists.

Speaker 10 (20:58):

All right, what are we watching?

Speaker 11 (21:01):

Fear, I don't think you can handle this. It's a scary movie.

Susan (21:06):

Then he realized that the movie wasn't working.

Speaker 10 (21:11):

Thank you, Joy, but I'll have you know, I'm not scared of everything.

Susan (21:16):

He was years into the production and he felt like the whole thing was a big failure and he started to feel as if those hits that he had enjoyed were all a big fluke and his mind went spiraling out and he started feeling that he was going to lose the whole thing. This beloved career of his, and also his beloved colleagues, everything that he knew and loved, he was going to lose. With that apprehension came this realization. He started feeling really sad and he realized that this sadness was the great bonding agent, because it was his sadness that was making him aware of how connected he was to all these fellow filmmakers, who he loved so much.

Speaker 12 (22:10):

I'm sorry they took your rocket. They took something that you loved. It's gone, forever.

Susan (22:19):

Sadness was the key and sadness was the character that had to be the protagonist of this movie.

Speaker 13 (22:26):

Sadness, don't make him feel worse.

Speaker 12 (22:28):


Susan (22:30):

He went back to the executive board of Pixar and said, "We have to redo the whole thing with sadness at the center," and he was really nervous about how they were going to take that because they live in the same culture that you and I do, which doesn't really like sadness very much, but he somehow convinced them and it became a gigantic hit.

Speaker 14 (22:54):

I bet you and Riley had great adventures.

Steve (22:57):

They were wonderful.

Susan (23:02):

What art often does for us is speak the truths that we don't say in everyday life.

Anne (23:21):

The giant hit was of course, the film Inside Out, which came out in 2015 and went on to win an Oscar. Writer Susan Cain has a talent for uncovering deep emotions and undervalued personality traits. Her bestselling book, Quiet, made the case for the power of introverts in an always on, always out loud culture. Now she has a new equally restorative book out. This one, championing an emotion almost nobody wants to feel. Sadness. The book is called Bittersweet. Cain told Steve Paulson, "It's one of those words we use without really thinking about what it means."

Susan (24:04):

Yeah. I do think we tend to use it to describe a particular moment in time, which it does, but to me it also describes a state of being or a state that we can be prone to. The state is a kind of intense awareness that in this life, joy and sorrow and light and dark are always paired and in fact, there's a wonderful Arabic proverb that goes days of honey, days of onion. It's also an intense awareness of impermanence and of the fact that everyone and everything that we love will not live forever and the amazing thing that comes with this awareness, which is an intense sense of beauty, the beauty of the world and the joy of the world that almost mysteriously comes with this apprehension of its bitter sweetness.

Steve (25:01):

Are you saying that if you just have the sweet, just have the joy, it's maybe a little empty without the underlying sadness?

Susan (25:11):

I don't even know if I would say it's empty and I love to have joy just as much as anybody else does. I would say more that it's not true. To pretend that that's all that life is not true and therefore, to live that way is shutting ourselves off from that truth and from all that's to be gained by looking in a clear eyed way at what life does hold for us.

Steve (25:39):

There's a phrase that philosophers use. They talk about the paradox of tragedy. We often gravitate towards things that do make us sad, like movies or songs, even though I think most of us would say the last thing in the world we want is to be sad. We don't want that in our lives. How do you explain this?

Susan (25:58):

I explain it in this way. When you look at the kind of art that people tune into that's sad, whether it's sad songs or sad movies or Greek tragedy or whatever it is, what you realize is that these things that we're tuning into are not only sad, they're sad and they're beautiful. They're the two combined. Researchers have actually looked at what happens when let's say we look at a series of pictures of sad faces, just pure sad faces. We don't actually love that so it's the sadness and the beauty together that we love, the romantic spires poking through the clouds. That's what we love.

Steve (26:41):

Why don't we just want the beauty in itself? Why does the sadness have to come with it?

Susan (26:45):

The reason is that we are all of us creatures who are born into this world with a kind of fundamental longing for a more perfect and beautiful world and we know this because everyone of our religions has told us this story. We're longing for the Garden of Eden. We're longing for Mecca. We're longing for Zion. The Sufis call it the longing for the beloved of the soul. We see it in our art. You see Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz as longing for somewhere over the rainbow or Harry Potter enters the story at the exact moment that he's just become an orphan and he's going to spend the rest of his life longing for these parents who he can't remember. That's fundamental to the human condition and that sense of longing is also one of our greatest strengths and powers. It is our creative source. It's also our spiritual source. Our religions tell us this, so whether we're atheists or believers, it doesn't make a difference. This is still fundamental to our DNA.

Steve (27:52):

What you're saying just seems so right, so true to me, and yet we live in a culture, we in America, in a culture that is obsessed with positivity. You call it the culture of positivity. We're expected to put a good face on a bad situation. That's a problem, isn't it?

Susan (28:12):

It is a problem. It leaves us, especially ill-equipped when difficult moments do happen, like the one that we've been in these last couple, well, you could say the last couple years with the pandemic, or you could say more broadly than that with the broader social fraying that we're having. The problem with only being positive is that we're not telling the truth and that we're not tuning into some of the deeper states that we have and to our ability to connect with each other, which depends to some degree on being able to respond to each other's sufferings, which is what humans are designed to do. That's not just a Sunday school teaching. We're evolutionarily designed to react when we see another being in distress, so to only tune to the positive, you could call it a spiritual impoverishment.

Steve (29:07):

What would our culture look like if we were not always putting a good face on everything? If we show that life really is hard, if that was just out there for pretty much everyone to see.

Susan (29:17):

I think it would look more interesting, for one thing. It would just be more interesting. People would talk to each other in a more real way. I also hold out the hope that to do this could repair some of the fraying social bonds that we're experiencing. We have in our bodies, it's called the Vagus nerve. It's the bundle of nerves we have and it's so fundamental. It regulates our breathing and our digestion and it's a very ancient part of the human body. Our Vagus nerve also reacts when we see another being in distress so we are designed to do this. If we could figure out a way for people, opposing sides of political divides or class divides or whatever we want to look at, just for people to be telling each other their stories, absent any discussion of politics or policy or anything like that, just to be talking about who they truly are. I think that could move us along towards seeing each other as humans again.

Steve (30:23):

I want to bring COVID more directly into this. How has the pandemic changed how you think about this whole subject of the bittersweet? Has it complicated things for you?

Susan (30:35):

No. For me, it's actually simplified things or, how do I say it? I've been working on this book for years now, so long before the pandemic, I've been wondering this question about sweet music for... I'm sorry, about sad music. That was a funny Freudian slip. About sad music for decades, so to me, before the pandemic, it had always seemed this strange thing to me that if times were good, that was all anybody thought was real and then when times are bad, that's all anyone thinks is real. To me, the pandemic is more like, now there's a bit of an opening up to talk about all the sides of human experience.

Steve (31:23):


Susan (31:24):

Yeah. It didn't surprise me in the same way.

Steve (31:27):

You've also been really hit personally by it. Your brother died of complications from COVID, right?

Susan (31:33):

Yeah. My brother and my father. Both of them. Yeah. For my brother, it was right at the beginning. He was a doctor at a hospital in New York City, so it was very early on in the pandemic and then my father about a year later. The pandemic has definitely, I don't know how to explain it. It's been full of grief, but not surprise, I guess is what I would say.

Steve (32:02):

Yeah. It does make me wonder if the wound is just sometimes too deep to heal.

Susan (32:13):

I think there are some wounds that are too deep. I think both things are true. I think many wounds heal much more than we think they would ever be capable of and there are some wounds that are too deep to heal. I think both of those things are true.

Steve (32:33):

You touched on this, but I want to go a little bit further here. Do you have thoughts on how we as a society collectively can become whole again, after so much grief and trauma? Most obviously because of COVID, but because of all the other stuff that's happening in our culture these days.

Susan (32:51):

I think we have to do two opposing things simultaneously and one of those things, as I say, is to make way more space than we do to be able to tell each other what we're actually feeling in our workplaces. There's so much feeling. I go in and I talk to a lot of workplaces, especially about harnessing the power of introverts at work. I see what happens. I'll come into a Zoom meeting, let's say, and somebody asks the question at the beginning before we get started, "How's everybody doing today?" Everybody types into the chat box about how they're doing so great and they're so thrilled and they're so pumped and they're so grateful and it's great if they're all feeling those things, but I often wonder what are the chances that everyone truly is feeling what they're purporting to?

Susan (33:49):

Making a lot more space than we do on the one hand, would be incredibly useful, and then on the other hand, I think we need more gateways for tuning in not just to a superficial poppy happiness, but into deeper states of beauty and joy, really actively working those into our days, to begin our days by tuning into beauty. That's something people could do in their workplaces, too, share with each other daily shots of beauty. I think we need more space for that as well.

Steve (34:27):

How do you try to do that in your own life?

Susan (34:30):

I actually started this during the pandemic. I started actively following a lot of art accounts on Twitter, so my feed now is full of art, and especially while I was writing the book. I, every morning would begin the work day by choosing a favorite piece of art and then sharing it on my social channels and I would usually pair it with a favorite poem or quotation or idea or something like that, that went along with the art and share it out. It often took quite a while to assemble it, but it was such, both a grounding and uplifting way to start my work day. What it really did is connected me with this whole community of people who are oriented in that direction, too and that's been just an incredible gift.

Steve (35:20):

Can I just say, I love that idea. I do not do it myself and I think I'm going to start, but I love the idea of just that's the first thing you do when you wake up is somehow seek out beauty.

Susan (35:30):

My gosh, you have to let me know, because I really did find it transformative when I started doing this.

Anne (35:45):

Susan Cain is the best selling author of Quiet. Her new book is called Bittersweet. How sorrow and longing make us whole. She was talking with Steve Paulson and because this is audio, we had to end with one last question. How does bittersweet sound?

Susan (36:07):

I have one sad musician who is Leonard Cohen, who I just love beyond all reason. In fact, I dedicated my whole book, Bittersweet to him and the epigraph to the book comes from his song, Anthem, a particular line from that song, which goes...

Leonard Cohen (36:29):

Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That's how light gets in. That's how the light gets in.

Susan (37:00):

There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in.

Leonard Cohen (37:00):

That's how the light gets in.

Susan (37:05):

That's my entire philosophy and the fact that he put it so beautifully and pithily in one line and in an entire body of work is why I love him so much.

Anne (37:18):

It's to the best of our knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX.

Anne (37:25):

When Alyssa Wilkinson and Robert Joustra wrote How to Survive the Apocalypse, they were thinking about zombies, alien hoards, killer robots, all those end of the world scenarios we used to watch mindlessly on TV after a long day at the office back before COVID 19 started literally killing us off. Shannon Henry Kleiber wondered what it must be like to know you got the end of the world, kind of right.

Shannon (38:02):

You write about the plague prophets. Who are the plague prophets?

Alyssa (38:08):

At the beginning of the pandemic, I started thinking of people that I had read books from or talked to, or even took a class from who had said things that seemed to be significant and related to what we were going through. One of them was Max Brooks who wrote World War Z years ago, which is kind of a book about international relations and political theory in which he thought about if there actually was a zombie apocalypse, if it were to happen, how would different countries respond to it differently based on their core values of their nation or the way they think about isolationism versus immigration and all of these different issues. When we got to the one year mark, I wondered how much people who had written books that seemed eerily prescient or made movies that seemed eerily prescient. How much did they think they had gotten it right and how much did they say, "I never anticipated this."

Alyssa (39:15):

I contacted Scott Z Burns who is the screenwriter who wrote Contagion, which is a movie that a lot of people were talking about throughout the past year, because it's fairly accurate, even though the virus in that film is even more severe and fast moving in the way it kills people. I contacted him and was like, "What do you think you got right? What do you think you got wrong? What could you have never anticipated?" I did this for a number of people. I talked to Ling Ma who wrote the novel Severance. I talked to Emily St John Mendel, who wrote the novel Station 11. I talked to the filmmakers who made the film Palm Springs, which just happened to come out in the middle of the pandemic, but I think really captures the feeling of living in this kind of Groundhog day reality where...

Shannon (40:04):

A time loop.

Alyssa (40:05):

...every day is the same.

Shannon (40:06):


Alyssa (40:07):

Yes, exactly. For the most part, a lot of them were like, "I never ever, ever anticipated that something like this would become as politicized as it has. That there would be people who literally just didn't face up to what was going on or that it would suddenly become an identity marker. Do you take these social health measures or do you not and that was supposed to say something about your political affiliation? They just never anticipated that, which is I suppose reasonable and other people said, "We didn't write this movie or this book to reflect anything about a world where people are isolating, staying apart from others, but what we realized as we lived the reality that we had written about, was that we had gotten something right and that we were learning a lot about ourselves and our relationships to one another," and all of those kinds of things.

Alyssa (41:09):

It was quite interesting to talk to all these people and I think one thing I learned, is that obviously artists anticipate things because artists work in the realm of the imagination and sometimes they get it right, but even then they're not actually prophets so much as they are tapping into something fundamental about the human condition, which is something that artists have always done, but it was really revealing to speak with them about it.

Shannon (41:39):

Do you think artists have an unusual ability or even responsibility to reflect what's going on, but also predict the future?

Alyssa (41:49):

I always hesitate to say that artists have a responsibility to do anything in particular, because I think it depends on where their gifts lie, but I do think there are a lot of artists whose job, or what they feel inside of themselves is their work, is to know human nature so well that they can put humans into different situations in their imaginations. Obviously science fiction has done this for a very long time and find something there that can tell us something about ourselves, whether we're in or not in that situation and also help us to reflect on how do we feel towards one another? What does it mean to have empathy? What would it be like to face a particular ethical dilemma that might mean that I don't come out on top, but more people live. There are all these kinds of stories and questions that have been told for a long, long time and I do think that's something that artists often uniquely have the ability to do because they train and hone their imaginations to really think through all the scenarios and tell compelling stories that people can relate to.

Shannon (43:08):

What about you, Alyssa? During this time after writing about what could happen, do you feel, wow, it is happening? What surprised you? What shook you up?

Alyssa (43:23):

I think in myself I was reminded of how hard it is for me to sit around and wait for something that I don't know if and when it's coming. I also tend to be a person who doesn't... I wouldn't call myself introverted, but I always had trouble talking about my relationship to other people and I realize that I really like being around other people, even people I don't know, just as a reassurance that we're all humans and living on this planet together.

Shannon (43:58):

That we're all still here.

Alyssa (44:00):

Yeah. I got a weird amount of comfort out of just going down the street and buying a coffee from someone and exchanging two sentences because it felt like, "Right. There's something still there," and that was a bit of a surprising realization for me. One thing I wrote about and considered a lot, was the role of remembering what had happened and I saw in myself the desire to jump past this time when it's over to just get past it and not have to ever think about it again. I know a lot of us are feeling that and other people are not feeling that and I think that I had to challenge myself to not forget it and not make it go away in my memory because it's uncomfortable to remember, but instead to, it sounds like a cliche, but to live in the moment and to be present in what's happening and to then not try to sweep it away when it's over.

Shannon (45:10):

Alyssa, what do you think is coming next in terms of creative writing and film and art from this moment? Do you think that a new kind of art is emerging and what will we see?

Alyssa (45:24):

I have talked to a lot of authors who wrote novels during this time and they were like, "I had to write it, because I felt like I was going to disappear if I didn't."

Shannon (45:34):


Alyssa (45:35):

Filmmakers who picked up cameras and started making movies about what was going on, whether it's documentaries or fiction and often with these constraints that were on them for various COVID related reasons. I think for a while, we're going to see a lot of that kind of thing but I think in the longer term, we'll see a lot of people working out the incredible anxiety that we felt and feel, but certainly that we were feeling very acutely when there was just no end sight, no idea if any of this would ever end.

Anne (46:21):

Alyssa Wilkinson is a culture reporter and film critic at Vox. She and Robert Joustra wrote How to Survive the Apocalypse. Shannon Henry Kleiber talked with her.

Anne (46:38):

One last thought this hour. This one from Mary Laura Philpott. Her new memoir of surviving pandemic times is called Bomb Shelter, which is a good metaphor, not just for what we've been through, but for what, who knows, we might need as we face the future. How would you stock yours? What do you need most to survive?

Speaker 19 (47:04):

Just what can you do if fallout comes your way? Yes, this does mean you.

Mary (47:17):

I'll tell you what I would put in my bomb shelter and this is something I've learned as a parent, after sending my first kid to college.

Speaker 19 (47:28):

The best protection of all is the special shelter.

Mary (47:33):

I put all this stress and planning and money and packing into sending him off with all the right stuff, to keep him happy and healthy and safe and comfortable and what I have learned now at the end of the school year is, it's not the stuff that keeps them happy and healthy and safe and comfortable. What we need is human connection.

Speaker 19 (47:56):

The basement of any house or building will become a good improvised shelter, if you block the windows with sandbags.

Mary (48:03):

I think if I had limited space in a bomb shelter, I would obviously take up whatever room I needed for food and medicine or whatever.

Speaker 19 (48:12):

You'll want plenty of fruit juices, and lots of your family's favorite canned foods.

Mary (48:17):

As much space as I could get for batteries, not to keep the lights on, but to keep the communication devices charged.

Speaker 19 (48:28):

A transistorized radio is best as the batteries last longer.

Mary (48:33):

I know that in real normal, contemporary life, we're all a little too dependent on our phones, but if you're stuck in a bunker, I think you need to be able to call people in other bunkers and say, "How's it going over there in your bunker?"

Speaker 19 (48:47):

Maybe one or two small, simple games.

Mary (48:49):

"Down here in my bunker, we just played Scrabble 47 times." "What's happening there?" I think that connection is what will save lives and sanity, so I would just have as many batteries as I could possibly have for all the phones and then I think I would also pack a bunch of books.

Speaker 19 (49:08):

Some books and magazines.

Mary (49:09):

If the batteries didn't work or the phones died...

Speaker 19 (49:11):

Paper and pencils.

Mary (49:13):

...and you needed to feel connected to people other than yourself in your bunker, books can do that. In a pinch, they can stimulate the parts of your brain that crave human connection.

Speaker 19 (49:24):

Watch and listen. One day, these facts may save your life.

Anne (49:30):

I don't know. I think a few podcasts might help, too. Don't you? Mary Laura Philpott, author of Bomb Shelter.

Anne (50:04):

Thanks for joining us today and for sticking with an episode about some things that can be uncomfortable to face, like how scared or tired or lonely or sad so many of us, maybe all of us feel right now. If you heard anything that resonated, please keep the conversation going by telling somebody else. Sharing the ways that we feel broken is how we show up as whole human beings here together, especially when we're sad. Our show this week was produced by Charles Monroe-Kane. Thanks to the entire, To the Best of our Knowledge crew, Angelo Bautista, Shannon Henry Kleiber, Mark Rickers, Joe Harkey, Steve Folsom and me, Anne Strainchamps. Be well and join us again next time.

Last modified: 
October 06, 2023