A Guest Post from Kalani Parnell
(This post is long but well worth the read. It is an excerpt from an email Kalani sent me earlier this year. While I have edited it slightly to fit this blog, I have tried not to remove any of the context as I fear it would take away from the key message.)
You asked yesterday if I was happy…and at the time I couldn’t answer you. But today is different. I believe I had breakfast with a messenger of God this morning.
I met a young man this morning at the valley restaurant. He had Down’s Syndrome. I had recently arrived and about five minutes later, he walked in and sat a few chairs away.
The young man knew everyone and as he exchanged hellos with all of the waitstaff, his eyes found Bonnie, a middle aged woman who was the only one to greet him with a warm embrace.
He asked me if he could sit in the seat right next to me and I said sure, realizing I must be in or near “his seat.” As he sat down, he feverishly rubbed his hands together and rubbed his hair with excitement and anticipation of his breakfast.
As is my custom, I continued reading my news until Bonnie came over and suggested that the young man be quiet so as not to disturb me. But I gestured to Bonnie that he was okay, though at the moment I was honestly unsure.
You see, I couldn’t smell this young man from three chairs away, but right next to me he smelled of Cheetos, but in a body odor kind of way, not in a way that said he’d just eaten some. His hands were thick mitts, calloused, with very long fingernails and dirty. He belched an average of once per minute and coughed without covering his mouth. When he rubbed his hands and hair, I was concerned something unsanitary and unsavory would wind up in my food.
Regardless, I responded to Bonnie that he was just fine!
So the young man began to talk to me. He didn’t speak well, and mumbled most words but he compensated with a quasi sign language, in the same way charades is played.
He told me he played basketball so I asked if he was good at it. Without thought, he definitively said, “YES!” as if he was legendary and I was the only one who didn’t know!
He offered his name to me but I didn’t understand so I said “what?” He spelled it out on the counter while he exclaimed each letter. D*E*V*I*N. Then he said “that’s me” as he pointed to himself.
He asked “what’s you?” I told him, “Kalani,” but he said “what?” so I repeated myself. (In hindsight I should have spelled it on the counter with my finger like he did for me.)
Devin told me he loves Bonnie. Then six or seven times, he said it not just with words, but with sign language. First pointing to his heart, then crossing his arms in an X, then pointing to Bonnie, then locking his index fingers together. Then, he would make a noise that I could only describe as “primal glee” as he rubbed his hair.
Devin pointed out to me that the ketchup bottle was red, the napkin in front of him was white, and the counter was blue…”just like that” he said as he pointed to the small American Flag at the register.
Then Devin said, “I’m happy.” Of all the words Devin mumbled during our breakfast together, these two words were the most clear: “I’m happy.”
He would end similar color comparisons around the room and each time ending with this significant two word phrase.
The message had been delivered. But while I had heard it, I had not yet recognized the lesson I had just been given.
Devin asked if I liked boxing. I said yes, and asked if he liked it. He said no, but asked if we could box. I chuckled and said, “no Devin, you would win.” This made him laugh and he then admitted he boxed. He informed me he had two belts at his house as he demonstrated with his hands: starting at the navel of his chubby belly and moving his hands toward his sides, he illustrated the word “belt.” Devin then held up a pretend microphone and said, “you do this?”
I didn’t understand so he turned his hands into puppets and made them pretend to talk. “Oh,” I exclaimed, “you want me to be the announcer?” to which he exclaimed, “YES!”
I asked him to go first so he held his pretend microphone to his mouth and mumbled a sentence I didn’t understand but by the inflection of his voice, I could tell he was imitating a boxing ring announcer. He cracked himself up with whatever he said, which made me laugh because of the irony – Devin had apparently said something really funny, that I heard but didn’t understand. (It made me wonder if a joke was told in a language that no one understood, was it still funny? The answer must be yes.)
Then Devin gestured that it was my turn, so I pretended to hold the microphone and I put on my best Michael Buffer impersonation…
“And in this cornerrrrrr….hailing from Palmer, Alaskaaaaaa….the one and only undefeated heavy weight champion of the worlllddddd.
As I said his name, he clasped his hands and raised them over his head in quiet accolades! We traded off doing introductions four or five times.
My breakfast came and at first my plate was angled to my side away from Devin as you see, I still had the fear of something flying onto my plate. But as I ate, Devin continued to talk. He first asked me if it was good, then told me what he was going to eat, which was really a series of questions from me to him that he would answer yes or no to. “Eggs?” yes. “Sausage?” no. “Bacon?” yes and so on until I’d dialed in his breakfast preferences. And by the time we finished this conversation, my plate was now closer to the center.
While I ate, Devin told me he was here with his mom, uncle and three siblings who were sitting at a long table in the middle of the restaurant. He didn’t so much say it as much as he pointed and gestured. But through my questions, I discovered that he likes to sit at the counter because “his seat” is right next to the “ice cubes” as he says, where the wait staff frequent, which gives him the opportunity to chat and and be friendly…especially with Bonnie.
Devin asked if I have dogs, I said no but asked if he did, to which he replied he had two. I asked their names but he said, “I don’t know.” This was a common answer to many questions that involved the name of something, like his basketball team, song he was singing, etc.
Devin’s meal came, and he held an imaginary microphone up to his mouth and asked me to announce it. So I announced all of the elements of his breakfast as if they are warriors stepping into the circled ring of his plate to do him battle. The outcome was a forgone conclusion. Devin would massacre that bacon, those eggs didn’t stand a chance, and that toast….would be, well…toast.
Devin laughed very hard which got the attention of Bonnie who came over and said “Devin, it looks like you’ve made a new friend” to which he replied, “yes, I’ve made a new friend, he knows my name, and I’m happy.”
Bonnie turned to me and asked if I was alright; I think she was worried that I was just being polite, but that I was really not okay.
But by now…I WAS really okay, in fact…I was happy.
Devin and I continued to chat while he ate, and I realized that Devin, like me, likes to make sandwiches with his food if bread is present. I laughed inside about that as I got up from the counter to pay my check and leave. I told Devin goodbye and patted him on his shoulder. Without fanfare, he said, “okay goodbye” and continued with the feast he was so blissfully delighted to get.
I chose the right option! I gave myself over to Devin’s frequency or oscillation, and was blessed for it!
I could have buried my head in reading the news, I could have attempted to eat my meal in the comfort of solitude, or I could have creatively thought of a way to change seats.
But I let Devin into my bubble and I’m thankful for having done so.
I learned today what I did not know yesterday: You don’t ponder being happy. You don’t need to logically convince yourself you are happy. You certainly don’t, by process of elimination, arrive at happiness.
You just are happy!
We should all take counsel from Devin. We should start with joy in the tiny things – like the mere anticipation of our favorite meal, or spotting our favorite colors. We should allow ourselves the opportunity to say “I don’t know” without thinking less of ourselves. We should recognize the moment of delight in seeing someone we love. We should find commonalities when we meet a stranger and find laughter when we convince others to engage and play with us!
Being present and focused in these moments can provide us happiness.
If we practice, we can master moving from one happy moment to the next! Then, when we look back, we will realize we were and are happy. That’s the sermon as delivered to me today.
About the Author
Kalani Parnell is the Organizational Development Coordinator at the Alaska Native Tribal Health Organization in Anchorage, Alaska.
I have had the pleasure of knowing Kalani for nearly 7 years and have shed many tears, guffaws and “aha moments” since that time. A Master at telling stories, Kalani has always inspired and taught me things about leadership, teamwork, and perseverance. He has been a source of knowledge and encouragement to hundreds of executives, managers and leaders throughout his career and is highly coveted for his LEAN Six Sigma knowledge, Quality Improvement expertise and his facilitation and public speaking talents. Earlier this year, he was attempting to tell me about “oscillation” and how we can (and should) turn ourselves over to the positive energy of others. He and I were speaking of happiness and you know the rest of the story…he met Devin. I hope you have enjoyed Kalani’s message and, likewise, may you have ample opportunities to find happiness today.