Word of the Week: Biophilic

Admittedly, this post is more like “Word of the Year” than “Word of the Week,” since I haven’t written a “Word of the Week” post in much, much longer than a week–but better late than never, as they say.

On Friday, February 7, I attended a presentation that was part of the annual Richmond

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Dr. Tim Beatley presents a plaque to the Mayor’s Office commemorating Richmond’s commitment to becoming a biophilic city.

Environmental Film Festival (it runs through this Friday, February 14, so show Mother Earth some Valentine’s Day love and attend if you’re in the area!). The presentation was called “Singapore: Biophilic City.” Two elements of it caught my attention: 1) the new, unfamiliar word “biophilic” and 2) the fact that my city, Richmond, recently committed to becoming one of 22 biophilic cities worldwide. I needed to know what the word meant in general, but also what it meant for my community–and for myself as a resident.

The program opened with Dr. Tim Beatley asking the audience, by show of hands, to indicate how many people were familiar with or had ever used the word “biophilic.” A sparse smattering of hands went up, and Dr. Beatley explained that “biophilia,” which contains the root “phil” (love) literally translates to “a love of nature” or “a love of life.” A biophilic city, then, is one that focuses on and incorporates nature into the urban environment, as opposed to isolating its citizens from the natural world. A biophilic city recognizes nature as its core. As Dr. Beatley said, “Nature is not optional,” and a biophilic city recognizes the important role nature plays in, well, everything–even as we as a species seem to be distancing ourselves from it with technology and increasingly living our lives inside.

“Biophilia,” which contains the root “phil” (love) literally translates to “a love of nature” or “a love of life.”

In addition to Richmond, Portland, Oregon, is part of the Biophilic Cities Network. In the film screening shown during the program Friday, one of Portland’s residents explained, “We share the urban landscape with wildlife,” in reference to the city’s successful efforts to reinforce and preserve a school’s old chimney to provide a roosting place for swifts. Watching the swifts fly in and prepare to roost for the night has become a major community event in Portland, helping its residents feel more in harmony with and connected to nature–more biophilic.

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Part of Richmond’s plan to become biophilic includes making sure every resident lives within a ten-minute walk to a park. Above, my littles, Nacho (left) and Soda (right) enjoy a nature hike on the Buttermilk/North Bank trail, the Richmond skyline in the background.

In Atlanta, Georgia, a biophilic charter school engages in what they call “nature-based learning.” The school’s administration said, “We have to be prepared for whatever nature brings for us.” The students keep all kinds of clothing and gear, from rain boots to winter coats, in their lockers. They don’t hide from the weather; they work with it. As one of my favorite sayings goes: “There is no bad weather, only bad clothing.”

The Atlanta charter school doesn’t stop at teaching students to work with the weather, not against it; they also aspire to teach children to appreciate all forms of nature and life. Teach children to “appreciate the life of an ant,” the administration said, and you can teach them to more deeply appreciate human life.

As the word “biophilic” indicates, pillars of a city committed to this mission include fostering a strong connection with nature and creating a sense of our place within nature. Despite our iPhones and climate-controlled classrooms and cars and laptops, we cannot get away from nature, because we are part of it. We have no choice. We are not separate from nature, and, according to Dr. Beatley, “Contact with nature is a birthright.”

At the close of the program, Dr. Beatley challenged all in attendance to find a way to use the word “biophilic” in our conversations and lives. This blog post is one of my attempts–and now, I leave you with the same charge: use the word “biophilic” and spread the word (pun intended) about our continued, inescapable connection the the natural world.

Now, go forth! You have been linguistically empowered!

 

 

 

 

Planning a Night In for the Literary

In my neck of the woods in central Virginia, the weather has been unseasonably warm, with the exception of a five-day cold snap a week or so ago. We’ve had no excuse this winter to snuggle up inside and hibernate (at least not yet). In fact, if you follow me on Instagram, you’ve seen lots of photos of the Littles running around outside without their sweaters on. Still, there’s something about these winter months that puts me in the mood for cozy nights in, and if you’re in a clime colder than mine, you might be looking for ways to stimulate your creativity out of its cold-induced stupor. Here are a few ideas.

Game Night

  • Scrabble

  • Liebrary

  • Balderdash

Of course Scrabble is the go-to game to exercise your lexicon, but what about your creativity and bookishness? Liebrary requires players to write a fake first line of a real work of literature in an attempt to fool the other players into believing it is the genuine first line of the work. The “liebrarian” rolls a dice determining which genre the work of literature will come from, and then draws a card from that genre. The card bears the title, author, and summary of the book, as well as the real first line. The liebrarian shares with the players everything except the first line. Players then compose a first line and hand it to the liebrarian, who reads off all the first lines, including the real one. Players have to guess which line is the true first line. Essentially, it’s Balderdash for books.

For more writerly games, check out “5 games for writers” by Kevin Paul Tracy of Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers.

Movie Night

  • The Professor and the Madman

  • The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

My husband and I rented The Professor and the Madman from a RedBox in the Northern Neck back in the fall. We loved it so much that instead of returning it to the RedBox the next morning, we went ahead and bought it from the RedBox instead. Watching this movie allows viewers to learn the history of the Oxford dictionary and appreciate the intricacy of language. I have to admit that the history of the Oxford dictionary was never something I wondered about. In fact, I suppose I’ve generally just taken the existence of the dictionary for granted. This movie made me see its existence, creation, and continual evolution in a whole new light, and gave a human story to the history.

I haven’t yet seen The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, but I want to. It tells the story of post-WWII writer who, while writing about their experiences during the war, forms a relationship with the inhabitants of Guernsey Island. It’s told via letters shared between the writer and the residents–so basically, it’s a story told through writing, about a writer, writing a book. What’s not to love?

Netflix and Chill

  • Anne with an E

  • You

One of my favorite book series growing up was the Anne of Green Gables series by Lucy Maud Montgomery. The character of Anne Shirley not only contributed to my desire to be a writer (I have vivid memories of incorporating the phrase “alabaster brow” into much of my writing in middle school after reading it in an Anne of Green Gables book), but also influenced my personality and life philosophy. I wholeheartedly embrace(d) the idea of kindred spirits and at least partially because of the description of Anne “drinking in the beautiful sunset,” a line that has stayed with me over decades, I have an insatiable thirst for natural beauty–largely manifested in an obsession with sunsets and sunrises. I also share Anne’s dislike for math, and as a middle school student, found great comfort in our shared torture at its hands. You can imagine, then, my delight when I discovered the Netflix series Anne with an E, based on one of my childhood literary heroes. I have watched the first season and just started the second. It is just as whimsical and lovely as I remember, and also tackles some interesting contemporary social issues (to be sure, Maud’s writing did the same in its own historical and social context).

You tells the story of a struggling writer and grad student, and her ill-fated (total understatement) romance with a bookstore owner named Joe. To read an analysis deeper and more insightful than mine, click here.

Writing Contests

If it’s too cold to get outside, stay in and send your writing out instead. The contest windows for the Virginia Outdoor Writers Association (VOWA) writing and photography contests close February 1 and February 15, and the Poetry Society of Virginia (PSoV) Annual Contest closes every year on Poe’s birthday, January 19. You might also want to download this free guide to 2020 winter writing contests. Chilly winter days are made for summoning your muse out of hibernation, thawing out your creativity, and snuggling up on the couch with a mug of hot chocolate, a couple of dogs, and your ideas.

 

Contest Window Open for Outdoor Writers and Photographers

It’s the beginning of a new year, and lots of us are looking for ways to start the year off strong. We’re setting goals–exercise goals and weight loss goals and money-saving goals. We writers are also setting goals–word count goals and deadline goals and submission goals. One way to kick off the year strong is by entering some of your writing in contests. Currently, the entry window is open for the Virginia Outdoor Writers Association (VOWA) annual contests. These contests invite high school students, college students, and professionals to submit for consideration their best writing and/or photography centering on the great outdoors. High school students could receive up to $300 for their writing and up to $150 for their photography, while college students could win up to $500 for their writing and photography.

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I present awards at the 2017 VOWA Awards Luncheon and Annual Meeting.

 

An awards ceremony is scheduled for March 28, 2020, in Charlottesville, Virginia. Here, winners and their guests will be treated to a delicious luncheon, guest speakers, networking opportunities, and the awarding of their monetary prize(s) and plaques. An overview of each contest is provided below.

VOWA High School Contest

This contest is open to high school students across the commonwealth of Virginia, including homeschooled students.

Deadline

February 15, 2020

Theme

A Memorable Outdoor Experience

Prizes

Writing Prizes

First Place: $300.00

Second Place: $150.00

Third Place: $75.00

Photography Prizes

First Place: $150.00

Second Place: $100.00

Third Place: $50.00

More details available here.

VOWA Collegiate Contest

This competition is open to any student enrolled at a Virginia public or private college or university, including two-year colleges. Students who are Virginia residents enrolled at out-of-state institutions are also eligible to enter.

Deadline

February 15, 2020

Theme

A Memorable Outdoor Experience or Special Interest

Prizes

Writing Prizes

First Place: $500.00

Second Place: $200.00

Third Place: $100.00

Cooperative Living Magazine Award: $100.00 and publication in the magazine

Photography Prizes

First Place: $500.00

Second Place: $200.00

Third Place: $100.00

More details available here.

VOWA Excellence-in-Craft

This contest is open to all Virginia residents. Non-residents who wish to enter are welcome to do so, providing their material is specific to Virginia.

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My friend, Ashley Unger (right) and I (left) display our awards after the 2018 VOWA Awards Luncheon and Annual Meeting.

Virginia residents who are first-time entrants in the contest will receive a free, one-year membership to VOWA, as well as an invitation to attend the annual meeting and awards luncheon on March 28, 2020, at no charge.

Deadline

February 1, 2020

Writing Categories

Writing published during 2019 can be submitted to any of the following categories:

  • Blog Post
  • Feature Story
  • Newsletter
  • Newspaper or Magazine Column
  • Book.

Visual Arts Categories

Visual artwork published or produced during 2019 can be submitted to any of the following categories:

  • Published Photography
  • Unpublished Photography
  • Illustration
  • Film or Video.

Special Awards Categories

Mossy Creek Fly Fishing

Writing submitted to this category should focus on fly fishing. One winner will receive a guided fishing trip with Mossy Creek Fly Fishing.

Fly Fishers of Virginia Conservation Award

Writing submitted to this category should emphasize conservation. One winner will receive a $100 cash prize.

Appalachian Mountain Advocates Conservation Writing Award

This award is for best conservation writing. The winners earns a $100 cash prize.

More details available here.

VOWA is an organization very near and dear to my heart. We at VOWA combine two of my beloveds: writing and nature. Our main mission includes “to improve ourselves and our craft and increase our knowledge and understanding of the outdoors.” We also “pledge to support conservation of natural resources.” If you want to help spread awareness of our natural world and its beauty, as well as meet like-minded people and improve your craft, I hope you’ll consider entering this year’s contest–and spread the word! Happy writing, and good luck!

School Year’s Resolutions

Today marks the final day of 2019, the final day of the last decade. As we look ahead to a fresh decade and think about our New Year’s Resolutions, I want to share the way I like to start a brand new, fresh school year with my high school English students.

Setting Goals

Sometime during the first week of school in September, I show my students the goals for our class. (Once on the site, scroll down to the section titled “Our Goals.”) We read through and discuss them together.

After that, I instruct students to fill out this School Year’s Resolutions handout, and share what they come up with the small group of students sitting around them.

Following their discussion, each student creates a small poster based on his or her goals. The poster includes a list of written goals, and pictures to go with them. Then, they tape or glue their School Year’s Resolutions handout to the back.

When students have completed their posters, they display them on our classroom bulletin board, titled “School Year’s Resolutions.” If we have time, each student also stands up and presents his or her goals to the class as a whole.

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This portion of the activity serves as an ice breaker, gives me invaluable insight into my students, helps students understand the context and purpose of the class and associated material, requires students to present information orally, and gives students insight into me–for I, too, set and share my goals.

This school year, the goals I set and am working on are:

  • Get more sleep
  • Reduce stress
  • Get back into running
  • Read at least three books for pleasure before school ends in June.

Reflecting on Progress

At interim (progress) report time, or around when report cards go out for the first grading period, I assign students a journal topic that requires them to assess the progress they are making (or not) or have made (or not) towards achieving the goals they set at the beginning of the school year.

This part of the activity asks students to reflect and requires them to write.

As for my own progress at this point in the school year, I would say I’ve been fairly successful at getting more sleep. During the week, I typically succeed at getting to bed between 9:00 and 9:30, and I get up around 5:15, give or take a few minutes.

I’ve also experienced moderate success in terms of reducing my stress. My job is just as stressful, if not more so than usual due to changes coming down the pipeline from the state level, but I love my students and have made and mostly kept this promise to myself: I will work eight hours a day, Monday through Friday. No more, no less. The only exception to this rule is if I happen to feel inspired to work longer hours, in which case, I will. I bring work home every night in the event that this happens, and sometimes it does. In the past, however after spending roughly eight hours at work, I would bring home an additional one to three hours of work to complete in my family room or out on my back deck. My husband would say, “Do you want to watch a show tonight?” And if he was asking any time between September and June, 99% of the time, my answer was a pat “I can’t; I have papers to read/tests to grade/projects to evaluate/plans to make.” Now, I remind myself that while I was at work, I worked. Now, I am at home. And that means I don’t have to work at the moment. I’ve discovered that somehow, I still complete all the work I need to complete. Just not as quickly. And that’s okay.

As for getting back to running, I’ve been less successful there, but it hasn’t been a total bust. I used to stick to a strict regimen of runs. I planned my mileage out for each week–or, if I were training for a race, months in advance. And I stuck to these running routines religiously. After saying goodbye to Jack and Sadie, adopting Nacho and Soda, and totaling my car, for the first time in over a decade, my running sort of fell by the wayside. I had deep emotional and minor physical injuries to recover from, and running, once at the top of my priority list, wasn’t even on the list at all. I do miss it, though, and currently, I am running when I feel like it, or when I enjoy some found time here and there. Some weeks I might run one mile. Others, I am fitting in one or two miles three, maybe five, times a week. It’s coming along. It’s a work in progress. So am I.

Finally: Read at least three books before the end of the school year. I would say I have been the most successful here. I started reading Madeline Miller’s Circe in September, and though I didn’t finish until December, finish I did. (And I highly recommend it. I immediately loaned it to a colleague, a Latin teacher, who, last I checked, was also thoroughly enjoying it. It’s thought-provoking to the point of an existential crisis–in a good way.) Following Circe, I picked up Elin Hilderbrand’s Winter Solstice, which my sister recommended and which seemed seasonally appropriate. I read that considerably more quickly, using winter break to my advantage. Just a few days ago, I started reading Present over Perfect by Shauna Niequist, a book my best friend recently gifted me for Christmas, with the inscription that it’s the highest recommended book for my Enneagram type (Type 1, with occasional deviations to Types 3 and 6). I’m on page 33, and let me tell you–the book speaks to me. So, I am on book three and we’re not even halfway to June yet. Definite progress there.

Further Reading

For more on the subject of resolutions–whether for the upcoming calendar year or a future school year–check out my blog post about student me, and why it’s important we teachers don’t forget what it’s like to be students.

Reading Recommendation

No matter what your Enneagram type, Niequist’s Present over Perfect is a fabulous read to ring in the new year. If you are looking to slow down, simplify, and live a life more authentic to the true you, start with this book.

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If you are looking to slow down, simplify, and live a life more authentic to the true you, start with this book.

Happy New Year!

 

 

 

Vote for my Essay about the Littles in the Petco Foundation Holiday Wishes Grant Campaign People’s Choice Awards!

Those of you who follow me on Instagram in addition to reading this blog have already met The Littles, at least virtually. They’re two precious chihuahua-terriers we adopted from the Richmond SPCA in June. They’re littermates, and just celebrated their first birthday on November 17. Nacho is our little man, and Soda is our little lady.

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We adopted Nacho (left) and Soda (right) in June 2019. The essay I wrote about how they brighten my life will earn between $5,000 and $100,000 for the Richmond SPCA. The amount will be revealed at an event on December 20 at our local Petco. The essay could earn up to an additional $25,000 the shelter if it places in the People’s Choice Awards! Please vote for us here. (Photo Credit: Radiant Snapshots)

A few weeks after we adopted them, and knowing that I teach English and write a considerable amount (in April, I held a book signing to raise money for the shelter with Jack and Sadie’s story in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Life Lessons from the Dog), the shelter reached out to ask me if I would write an essay and submit it to the Petco Foundation Holiday Wishes Grant Campaign in an effort to earn funds for the shelter. Always eager to write, especially about my dogs and for a worthy cause, I gladly accepted, honored to have been asked.

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In November, I was notified that my essay about how Soda and Nacho brighten my life is a winning essay! I almost cried. At the time, the Littles weren’t even a year old, and they were (are!) already doing great things. On December 20 at 10:30 am, at the Petco in Carytown, the amount of the grant that will be awarded to the Richmond SPCA will be revealed (as will the amount of the Petco shopping spree The Littles and I will get to enjoy).

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We adopted Nacho (left) and Soda (right) in June 2019. The essay I wrote about how they brighten my life will earn between $5,000 and $100,000 for the Richmond SPCA. The amount will be revealed at an event on December 20 at our local Petco. The essay could earn up to an additional $25,000 the shelter if it places in the People’s Choice Awards! Please vote for us here. (Photo Credit: Radiant Snapshots)

Between now and then, though, we have another opportunity to earn money for the shelter! Right now, my essay and the Richmond SPCA are in the running for the People’s Choice Award. The shelter stands to win up to $25,000 in addition to the grant they will already receive. To read and vote for my essay, click here–and please please please spread the word!

One of the most fulfilling things I get to use my writing to do is serve worthwhile causes and benefit worthy organizations. Your vote for my essay can help me do that!

NHS and Beta Induction Ceremony Speech

In many professions, people are rewarded for their hard work and performance with accolades, bonuses, raises, and trips. Earlier this year, my brother won a trip to a tropical island resort for his performance at his job. Three years ago, my husband and I spent a few days at Disney Land because of his performance in his job. One of my best friends has been in the workforce only a year longer than I have, and earns a salary three times larger than mine. As a teacher, I consider my year a success if a few students ask me to sign their yearbooks at the end of the year. (I’m not being facetious; that really does mean a lot to me.)

While I will never be offered a tropical vacation or hefty pay increase for my performance at work, honors like being invited to attend the Senior of the Month dinner and earning the title Teacher of the Year have been incredibly rewarding and fulfilling.

Last night, for just the second time in my fourteen-year teaching career, I was privileged with another honor: delivering the speech at the NHS and Beta induction ceremony. For weeks, I mulled over what to say, and how to say it. Below is what I came up with.

NHS and Beta Induction Speech

November 2019

Good evening and congratulations. I am so happy to be here tonight to share with you a celebration of your achievements and accomplishments. For those of you who might not know me, my name is Mrs. Creasey. I wear a lot of hats here at the high school, but the most important one to all of you is probably my English teacher hat: I teach English 11 and English 11 Honors. It’s precisely the English teacher in me that decided to write a poem to express how I feel about your induction into NHS and Beta, and what it means. Don’t worry; this isn’t going to be some cheesy, rhyming, rhythmic verse—it’s an acrostic poem—a poem that describes its subject matter using the letters that spell the word. It’s called “Honor,” and here it is:

acrostic honor

Some of you are probably familiar with the quote, “With great power, comes great responsibility.” True statement. But I would argue that equally true is this statement: “With great honor, comes great responsibility.”

Now, I know a lot of you, so I know you have a lot of responsibilities, and I know you experience a lot of obstacles to taking care of them. I would almost be willing to bet money that when I say the word “responsibilities,” a lot of you think of some of the following:

Studying

Getting good grades

Going to sports practices

Working a part-time job

Going to club meetings

Passing your SOLs (preferably advanced)

Earning a high score on your SATs

Getting into a good college.

And I would wager that the obstacles you face in achieving these things typically include:

Not having enough time

Not getting enough sleep

Having too much to do.

What does all of this lead to? Stress. A lot of it. So I want you to ask yourself something: What is it all for? Why am I in these honors and AP classes? Why am I involved in the clubs I am? Why am I even here at this induction ceremony tonight? If the answer is because it looks good on your college resume, I want you to reconsider.

It is true that studying, earning good grades, and achieving high test scores are your responsibilities. But accomplishing these tasks is not an end in and of itself. Your true responsibility is not to earn an A in every class you take and get into the best possible college; it is to learn the material to the best of your ability—to really engage with it, understand it, and apply it, so that you can use it to help others, to improve the human condition, to make the world a better place. There is no “A” in “honor.” In fact, there’s no “B.” There’s not even a “C.” Honor does not manifest itself in grades on a report card. Someday, when you’re as old as I am (not that that’s that old, because it’s not), it won’t actually matter whether you got an A or a B in any of your classes. What will matter is what you learned—and what you did with what you learned.

I want to share another acrostic poem with you. This one is about your actual responsibilities as an accomplished, intelligent, capable student—a member of NHS or Beta. I call it “Light.”

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This responsibility is not heavy or burdensome—it’s light. Your most important responsibilities are not staying up past 2:00 in the morning to study for that Wordly Wise quiz or running from school to track practice to work, only to complete five hours of homework when you get home. Your most important responsibilities are to be a good influence, use your gifts to give back, develop your talents to develop the world, and lift others up. You are here tonight because you are being recognized as studious, capable, ambitious, hard-working, and honorable.

When you start to feel overwhelmed or stressed out because your to-do list is 500 miles long, tell yourself to do the most honorable thing. “How will I know what that is?” you might be asking. “How can I decide if I should study for math or finish my APUSH outlines or write my English literature portfolio or clean my room or help my mom cook dinner or just go to sleep?” Well, I’m going to share a mantra with you. It’s one I’ve been trying to live by this school year. Next time all of your obligations are vying for your attention and you need to prioritize them, you can use my mantra. Ready? Here it is: You don’t need to get the most done—you need to do the most good. That is how you judge your priorities. Don’t worry about getting the most done; worry about doing the most good.

One day last spring I was driving to school early so Mrs. S. and I could meet with the NEHS officers. I was crossing the bridge over Swift Creek—you know, that bridge over by Wagstaff’s—when I saw a bird, a king fisher, lying in the road. It had been hit by a car. I looked at the clock in my car. 6:55. The meeting was supposed to start at 7:05. I engaged in a little inner battle, one side telling me I had a responsibility to be at the meeting, another side telling me I had a responsibility to help this otherwise helpless bird lying in the middle lane of The Boulevard. I drove another 500 feet or so before turning around. At least I could check and see if the bird were alive, if I could help somehow.

The bird was, indeed, alive. So I wrapped it in a blanket and laid it gently on the passenger side of my car, texting Mrs. S. that I might be a little late to the meeting. As things turned out, I didn’t make it to the meeting at all (though I was at school on time). I stopped to help that bird because I knew it was the right—the honorable—thing to do. When we see someone who lacks what we have, someone we can lift up, it is our responsibility to use our resources and talents. It is our responsibility to lift others up if we have the power to do so—and you do. Your generation is going to face some difficult problems. Human rights issues, a failing infrastructure, political divisiveness, climate change. But each and every one of you in this room is up to the challenge if you nurture your talents, skills, and capabilities, and apply them for the greater good. You have the perspicacity to help solve these problems. We need you—like the bird needed me, we need you. That’s why you’re here. That’s why you’re being honored tonight. You are bright. You are capable. You are dedicated. You are diligent. You are talented. You have been gifted with these traits, and it is your responsibility to use them to improve whatever you can. You should feel honored to do so. Thank you.

Even before I began composing the speech, I was excited about the evening. It means a lot to have a group of young people decide they want to hear what you have to say, so I felt an enormous amount or pressure to live up to the honor. Adding to this was the fact that the day after the speech (today), many of the students I would be addressing were assigned to deliver their own speech to the class for a quiz grade; I had to set a good example.

I knew I had succeeded when, today, several students I don’t currently teach made special trips to my classroom just to tell me that the speech had made them cry, had been exactly what they needed to hear, had hit all the right notes. One student shook my hand. One gave me a heartfelt hug. One told me her mom sent her compliments, but “wouldn’t have picked up the bird.”

Tonight, I spent my Friday evening sitting on my couch with the Littles, reading my students’ Friday journal entries and writing back to them. I closed one and laid it in the basket with the others, reaching for the next one, only to find I had read them all. I was done. And instead of relieved, I felt a little disappointed. I had been looking forward to reading what my next student had to say. Just as they wanted to hear what I had to say, I love to read what they have to write.

 

Four Tips for Conducting an Interview

Perhaps because I am nosey by nature, one of my favorite elements of writing is the interviewing process. I have no formal training in this arena, but my natural curiosity and talkativeness has helped me out, as have my roles as English teacher, yearbook advisor, freelance writer, blogger, newsroom receptionist, and college-level writing instructor. For the last year in my role as a contributor for The Village News, I have conducted interviews on a regular basis–and love it. If you’re about to embark on an interview, here are four tried-and-true tips for you.

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My most recent interview included Bella, a Rottweiler who recently retired from work as a therapy dog. I interviewed her two owners for a story about Bella’s career and retirement. Photo Credit: Radiant Snapshots.

1. Be Prepared

Come with a few questions prepared and an angle in mind, but also be prepared for the story to reveal itself as the interview unfolds. Don’t be afraid to ask follow-up questions that weren’t part of your original plan, or abandon some questions altogether. I typically end up asking all the questions I came with–and then some. In some rare instances, I didn’t prepare questions at all. Instead, I was prepared to let the conversation unfold completely organically. Usually, I find the theme of the story reveals itself as I interview my subject. By the end of my interviews with several students in and a sensei of a special needs karate class, I knew my theme would be smiling despite trials and tribulations, but I did not start the interview with this message in mind. See what threads you notice, and follow them.

 

2. Get the Basics

Sometimes, I get so lost in the stories my subjects are telling me, I forget to note down the fundamental facts of those stories. Make sure you get the basics–dates, job titles, full names, ages, spellings, locations–whatever might be relevant to the subject matter. I’ve learned to do this up front. I begin by asking as many basic, formulaic questions as I can think of, and when my subject tells me about something that happened, I have learned to immediately follow up with whatever who, what, when, where, why, or how I might need when I sit down later to write the story.

3. Respect the Silence

Sometimes, you’re going to ask a question that your subject isn’t going to answer right away. It may feel awkward, but if someone is silent for a long time after you ask a question, respect the silence. Let them be silent. Sit in it. Let them think. It may be you’ve dredged up an emotionally charged memory and your subject needs a moment to compose himself before he can answer. It may be you’ve asked a question that requires your subject to delve deep into the recesses of memory, retracing facts and dates, before she can respond adequately. Wait. Be patient. The silence will yield to conversation again in due time, and the answer you get after a prolonged silence is likely to be a better one than an answer you prodded for.

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After my June interview with combat wounded war veteran Carlos Rivadeneira, my photographer kindly commented on what an adept interviewer I was. In this particular interview, respecting the silence played a key role. Photo Credit: Sarah Blanchard Photography.

4. Be Clear

Always be clear with your subjects about what is on the record and off the record. If a subject says something that you’re not sure they want published, ask. If you want to ask a question you know isn’t relevant to your story, let your subject know you’re asking “off the record.” If a subject precedes a statement with “not for the story” or “don’t print this,” don’t even take notes about it. This will help you avoid inadvertently including it, having forgotten your subject told you in confidence.

No matter how strong a writer you are, to write journalistically, you must also be a strong interviewer. In fact, over the course of the last year writing for my local paper, I’ve learned that if I conduct a good interview, the person I’m talking to essentially writes the story for me. I just have to put it all in the right order to convey the theme I need to communicate.

Five Reasons I Write

I’ve gotten a lot of rejection e-mails lately. Like, a lot. From literary agents, websites, and magazines. It happens. Rejection is commonplace when you write, in part, to get published. Still, it’s pretty painful to hit what you think is a homerun only to have it caught in the outfield.

Lots of writers will tell you–wisely–that rejection letters can be a sign of productivity, and even success. At a Writing Show I recently chaired, one of the panelists even said during her first year freelancing, she made it her goal to get as many rejections as possible. Hey–if you’re getting rejection letters, that means you’re writing, right? And getting your stuff out there. Hey–if an outfielder catches your homerun, that means you’re swinging the bat, right? And you hit the ball. So, kudos. Rejections are just a reality of the write life. But that doesn’t make them feel any better than it feels to hear the umpire holler “out” before you’ve even reached first base, certain of your homerun status.

While I wholeheartedly subscribe to the idea that rejections mean I am writing and putting my writing out there, and are thus their own form of validation–it also helps me to remember that, while I do have publishing goals, I write for many other reasons, as well.

1. Leaving a Legacy

I don’t have children. I don’t plan on having children. Any legacy I leave will be in the form of literature. Each piece of writing I produce, I leave behind for my nieces to read someday, for my nephews to read someday. For someone I have never met to read someday.

2. Telling People’s Stories

In addition to leaving my own legacy, I write to tell other people’s stories. I tell the stories of people who can’t, for one reason or another, tell their own–or, sadder still, people who don’t even realize their story is worth telling. I have an almost insatiable curiosity about others. I love hearing their stories. Most of the time, people don’t realize how interesting they really are. I want them to know–and then I want to tell everyone else, too.

3. Empowering and Educating People

I like to think the stories I tell, whether my own or others’, empower and enlighten the people who read them. I hope when people read stories like Carlos Rivadeneira’s and Mary Setzer’s and Larry Gable’s, they find hope and strength and perseverance. I hope when they read stories like Ashley Unger’s, they broaden their understanding and capacity for compassion, as well as find self-worth. I hope my stories connect people, build community, inform people, and enhance people’s sense of belonging and place.

4. Immortalizing Loved Ones

I write about the people and animals I love, because that is the best way I know to keep them alive. If I write about someone, she is not only alive in my memory, but also in the mind of anyone who reads what I wrote. It is the best way I can think of to honor the people and animals I love. Writing is my gift, more so than any other means of expression. I love to use it to memorialize my loved ones.

5. Serving Others

One of the most fulfilling aspects of writing is its ability to help me give back–to my community, to worthy organizations that have enhanced my experience or life, to people I care about, to the world. I haven’t yet found a way–written or otherwise–to express how satisfying it has been to use my essay, “The Reward,” in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Life Lessons from the Dog to raise money for the Richmond SPCA, Richmond Animal League (RAL), and Bay Quarter Shores. I experience a similar sense of satisfaction each time I work with a friend to produce an article, complete with stellar photographs. I find helping my photographer friends gain experience and exposure (no pun intended!) fulfilling, and the sense of collaboration and teamwork is exceptionally rewarding and, well, just plain fun!

While rejection after rejection can be disheartening, to say the least, I find it helpful to remember that while I do want my work published, I write for a myriad of other reasons, as well–not the least of which is the fact that I am simply compelled to do so, even if I strike out sometimes. More often than not, though, after I write something–anything–I am left with the same delicious sense of satisfaction produced by the sound of a ball smacking into a glove when I am the outfielder.

If you’d like to help the latest additions to our pack, Soda and Nacho (we call them The Littles), and I continue to support RAL, please consider making a donation here before 8:00 PM EST on August 17.

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Nacho (left) and Soda (right) are littermates Matty and I adopted from the Richmond SPCA on June 22. They are almost eight months old, and are ready to start giving back! Please help them raise money for the dogs and cats at Richmond Animal League by donating to their calendar contest page.

My First Three Book Signings

Shortly after I learned that Jack’s story, “The Reward,” would be included in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Life Lessons from the DogI also learned that I could hold readings and book signings. I was so excited to get the word out about the book and Jack’s part in it, and even more excited when I realized I could use his story to raise money for organizations important to the two of us. I immediately began reaching out and planning. I contacted the Richmond SPCA because Jack loved his many agility classes there. In addition, Jack, Sadie, and my parents’ pug, Smokey, completed the shelter’s one-mile Dog Jog a few years ago, and I have both run the 5k Dog Jog and volunteered at the race. I contacted Richmond Animal League (RAL), because Jack and Sadie inspired me to volunteer there for four or five years. Finally, I contacted Bay Quarter Shores (BQS), because Jack and Sadie loved to go there, my husband and I got married there (Sadie was at the wedding rehearsal), and the story takes place there.

Richmond SPCA

My very first reading and book signing took place Saturday, April 27, from 1:00 to 3:00 at the Richmond SPCA. I planned to sell books for $15 each, with $10 of each purchase staying right there at the SPCA to benefit the animals.

When I arrived, the staff had already set a table up for me in the lobby, to the left of the reception desk and right in front of the gift shop. The reading was to take place in the adoption center.

The audience for the reading was sparse, with my husband and parents making up about a third of those in attendance. Still, I stood up in front of the room with Sadie beside me and read Jack’s story. I made it to the last few sentences before my voice broke, and I gave up trying to hold back tears. When I finished reading and looked up, many of the audience members were wiping away tears.

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Sadie stands beside me for most of my reading at the Richmond SPCA in April.

As I made my way to the book signing table, a woman from the audience approached me. As serendipity would have it, she told me she owns a place in White Stone, a town in the Northern Neck of Virginia not far from the scene of the story. We chatted for several minutes about dogs and the Northern Neck, and she purchased a book for her sister, whose dog had just passed away.

The next person to approach my table was a journalism student at nearby Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). He explained to me that he’d been assigned to attend and report on an event, and he had chosen mine. I expected him, as a journalism student, to have a few questions, but he asked only three, took my card, and went on his way.

Next, a woman who arrived specifically for the reading and book signing approached. She bought the book and explained she has several sisters, one of whom has six dogs. The sisters plan to mail the book between themselves. “It’ll be The Sisterhood of the Traveling Book instead of the traveling pants,” she told me. I love the idea of Jack’s story–and all the other stories in the book–traveling around the country.

One of the highlights of the event was when a troop of young Girl Scouts lined up to pet Sadie. They were learning how to properly approach and interact with a dog. Sadie remained calm on the floor, letting each little girl approach her, offer her a sniff of her hand, and gently pat her head.

In the end, the two hours raised $160 for shelter where Jack loved his agility classes.

Richmond Animal League at Cafe Zata

My second event was, appropriately, a dog-friendly reading and signing that took place on the outdoor patio at Cafe Zata. I was pretty excited to be the cafe’s first-ever patio event, and that dogs would be invited to attend. It was also exciting to see my name beside the word “author” on the sidewalk sign Zata had set out to advertise the event, which would raise money for Richmond Animal League.

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My friend and fellow writer, Lauren Mosher (left), and I pose outside of Cafe Zata beside the sidewalk sign advertising the May 18 book reading and signing to benefit RAL. Photo Credit: Radiant Snapshots

This event took place on Saturday, May 18, from 1:00-3:00 pm. Despite the heat, it was exceptionally well-attended. Every chair on the patio was full, and several dogs panted in the shade under the umbrellas. I felt so supported. Two volunteers from RAL attended, along with Gertrude, a beagle available for adoption at the shelter. Several of my friends, family members, and neighbors were there. A few strangers and even an old high school friend (and her dog) came. My friend Jamie, who owns Radiant Snapshots, photographed the event for me, and my friend Lauren, a fellow writer and longtime RAL volunteer, introduced me to the crowd before I began reading.

As with my reading at the SPCA, I cried, and I was told later by a few people in the audience–some of whom knew Jack–that they teared up, as well.

After the event, I was parched, so once the patio had cleared out and I had cleaned up all my materials, I went inside to purchase a cold drink. The owner generously gave it to me for free, and I was happy to hear that the reading had brought in some extra business.

In the end, we raised $285 for RAL that day.

If you would like to offer your support to Richmond Animal League, a no-kill animal shelter, as well as for our recently adopted puppies, Nacho and Soda, please consider donating to Soda’s RAL 2020 Calendar Contest Page. Every dollar donated to Soda and Nacho’s Page is a vote for Soda to appear in the calendar, as well as a much-appreciated donation to the dogs and cats in RAL’s care.

Bay Quarter Shores

My third reading took place Memorial Day weekend, on Saturday, May 25, at 4:30 pm during the annual Bay Quarter Shores Memorial Day potluck and picnic. The reading and book signing was a fundraiser for BQS, where story takes place. Jack loved to go there and swim, walk on beach, walk on the nature trails, SUP, and ride on the speed boat. In the end, we raised $140 for BQS.

I cried more at this event than at the others, despite the experience behind me at this point, perhaps because I was standing so close to where the story takes place, and it was only the second time I’d been there without Jack.

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I read Jack’s story at the Bay Quarter Shores Clubhouse Memorial Day weekend. Right outside is the setting of the story.

People came up to me to tell me they cried, too. People told me about dogs they recently lost and showed me photos. Dogs really do bring people together. One woman said she couldn’t bear to buy the book right now because she had lost her dog two weeks prior, and that I should write a piece about loss. I told her I already did.

In preparation for my three events, I had ordered 60 books–and I am all sold out. I’m looking forward to possibly another event or two this summer, and maybe one in September. It was so fulfilling to give back to groups that have meant a lot to me and my pack. I love being able to use my writing this way. My main takeaways are not procedural or logistic. They are this: Dogs bring people together–and I have the most loving, supportive family and friends a girl could ask for.

If you would like to offer your support to Richmond Animal League, a no-kill animal shelter, as well as for our recently adopted puppies, Nacho and Soda, please consider donating to Soda’s RAL 2020 Calendar Contest Page. Every dollar donated to Soda and Nacho’s Page is a vote for Soda to appear in the calendar, as well as a much-appreciated donation to the dogs and cats in RAL’s care.

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The above photo features Soda, clearly a natural pin-pup girl (get it!), at Pony Pasture Rapids this past weekend. Help make her a calendar girl with your donation to RAL!

If Soda and Nacho raise…

$125, we can cover the cost of microchips for 15 animals

$250, we can cover the cost of a spay/neuter surgery for 5 kittens

$500, we can cover the cost of one day of Parvovirus treatment

$1,000, we can cover the cost of heartworm treatment for 3 dogs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then and Now

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One of two scenic overlooks on 64 East in Virginia. I stopped here on my way home from a college visit when I was 18 years old, and again last week, 17 years later, on my way home from a Virginia Outdoor Writers Association (VOWA) meeting.

The last time I stood here, I was 18. Half my life ago. I was headed home from an overnight stay at James Madison University, that cliched feeling of youthful angst clinging to me then the way fog and drizzle cling to the mountains now–that cliched angst I can describe only with another cliche: I was a caged bird ready to fly. I might even have gone home and written a poem about it.

Standing at that scenic overlook on the side of 64 East, I had no idea who I was, where I was going, or what I wanted. That’s how I felt then, standing at a crossroads: James Madison or Michigan State? Eighteen and in the spring of my senior year, I didn’t know yet. I do now. I’m 35. That time has passed. Those choices have been made. I went to Michigan State, became a high school English teacher. Things have been pretty stable since then.

And yet, here I am, standing where I stood 17 years ago, somehow unsure again, somehow on the precipice of something new and unknown again. I stand at the threshold of a new chapter, one I’ve dreaded for a long time–a chapter without Jack and Sadie at my feet, by my side, on my path. I have little idea who I am, where I am going (if anywhere), or what I want to do next.

I listen to the hiss of cars on the highway behind me, their tires slicing through rain puddling on 64 East, and wonder–who am I without these two dogs? Where do I go? What do I do and who do I do it for? Why is it possible for my life to keep going when it revolved around them and they’re gone?

And I’m still here.

Matty knew Sadie before he knew me. I knew Sadie before I finished college. Before my first day of teaching. I don’t know adult life without a dog. I’m not sure I know myself without a dog.  A line exists somewhere between “then” and “now.” Sometimes it’s blurry, but sometimes, it’s crystal clear, marked by a move or a graduation or a marriage or a child. Or, in this case, a loss. My time with Jack and Sadie, so recently “now,” has become “then.” We will talk about it in terms like, “When we had Jack and Sadie.” Use it as a reference point for stories we tell or memories we are trying to recollect more clearly, put into some sort of context.

The rain has soaked through my hair, and after a minute or two, I get back into my car

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Another scenic overlook on 64 East

and drive away, outrunning the rain for now. Three or so miles down the road is the second scenic overlook. It’s not raining here yet, and I pull over, step out into the sun. I watch an orange butterfly balance on the purple bloom of a thistle. I read names and dates scratched into the stone-and-wood fencing at the edge of the parking lot. I watch large, white clouds drift across a blue sky, their shadows sailing along underneath them, skimming across green fields. The rain looms to my right, creeping across the few miles that mark the difference between sunshine and clouds. I know it’s coming, but it hasn’t reached me yet, and I think about how people have told me it will get better. They promise. Time heals all wounds. But this time that heals all wounds also takes me farther away from Jack and Sadie.

I snap a couple pictures. Feel the sun on my back while it’s still out, before the clouds reach us. Remember the 18-year-old girl who stood here 17 years ago, whose questions I now have answers to. And I get back in the car.

As I pull out of the parking lot, the sunshine dims and the rain, like time, catches up to me.

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