Love is blind. I know this to be true because Sumo-Pokey (his hyphenated name derived from his physique as well as his general demeanor) is our blind and mostly deaf pug. At
nearly 14 years old, he is becoming more and more like a pillow. Soft and placid, content mostly to stay in one place most of the time, except around 5 p.m. when his internal alarm clock tells him it’s approaching supper. It’s then that he begins to pace around the kitchen door, politely (and sometimes sassily) reminding us that another day has slipped by … a day when working from home has meant grading projects submitted remotely by my students, planning (and praying) for their continued online engagement in learning, and helping my wife herd our two granddaughters, Louise and Margaux, as they ride bike (Louise, age 5) and balance-bike (Margaux, age 4) relentlessly back and forth circling the alley behind our house.
Sometimes Sumo accompanies them, resting on the small patch of grass tucked between cement slabs that flank the alleyway, much to the pleasure of Margaux, who calls him “Sumo-Puppy” – an ironic moniker, but one that still holds its own form of truth, because to Margaux this old, blind, deaf pug is still a puppy who patiently receives her hugs and withstands her other boisterous attentions as she attempts to share her enthusiasm for life with him while he rests his oversized head on the memory-foam pillow he seems to love more with each passing week.
When Sumo is not patiently enduring Margaux’s attention, or sleeping on that beloved pillow, he’s usually at my feet while I attempt to work from the dining room table at
home. That’s nothing unusual for him, or for me, since teaching duties don’t disappear when the students board their yellow buses every afternoon. But somehow there’s something more comforting than usual in his regular presence there these days. He’s a reminder that, despite the growing tumult of the pandemic, and the closure of my school building, the world is still going on in its usual, regular, normal pattern for some. Indeed, the world will go on in its usual, regular, normal pattern whether or not I eventually contract COVID-19.
Watching Sumo-Pokey snore, his head on my right shoe as I try not to move my foot and disturb his slumber, I am reminded that there have always been diseases, and somehow the world has continued rotating every 24 hours, circling the sun every 365 days. There’s no need to let anxiety about work or the collapse of the stock market or even the possible
loss of loved ones cause undue sturm and drang in my daily existence. What will be will be. I’ll have to be more intentionally like Sumo-Pokey, if the expected symptoms someday arrive. If he can take Margaux’s poking and prodding without complaint, and wag his tail in the process even without being able to see her adoring face, I should be able to do the same should the coronavirus come calling at my door. Sumo is a comfort, a living pillow whose patience and affection are offered without expectation of recompense. I find comfort in his presence.
Before becoming a high school teacher, Michael Goodrich-Stuart wrote and directed writers professionally for more than 20 years. His first career was spent working as an advertising copywriter, copy chief and creative director in Michigan, Wyoming, Pennsylvania and Virginia. During his advertising tenure, he received numerous industry awards, ranging from Addys and Tellys to Caddys and Echos. Today he draws on his career experience in the classroom – combining a love for the English language with a past that paid him well for using it. Michael is a graduate of Michigan State University, where he wrote for The State News and earned a degree in Journalism. Sumo is his second pug. He and his wife, Jill, have had Bundle and Smokey as well. He also has four accomplished children, all of whom love pugs, their other pets, and their parents.
Want to share a story about your dog(s)? I would love to read it! To learn about submitting your own story, click here.
A little over a week ago, I serendipitously learned that Bike Walk RVA, a program of the Richmond Sports Backers, was holding a creative writing contest as part of their annual Bike Month celebration. Equally serendipitously, only a week or two before, I had begun mountain biking again, an activity I had all but given up after a spill scared me off the trails a few years ago.
Left to my own devices, I doubt I ever would have thought to write about my return to mountain biking, but the contest spurred me to do so, and I am so glad. One of the best things about writing contests is the motivation they can provide for us to write, the creativity they can inspire. Whether you place in the contest or not, producing a quality piece of writing is its own reward. I felt extremely satisfied and fulfilled after I sat down and churned out my piece, and that is its own win. In this particular case, I enjoyed the added perk of earning first place in the contest, which came with its own sense of satisfaction and excitement.
If that weren’t enough happiness, my five-year-old niece, who entered a short piece in the 5- to 11-year-old category, earned an honorable mention for her story. Currently, she doesn’t particularly enjoy writing, but as the contest motivated me to write my essay, I hope earning recognition in the contest will help foster a love of writing in her.
Below, you’ll find my essay. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it
My Return to Mountain Biking
I am not a risk-taker. I avoid bodily harm at almost all costs. That’s why I run: It requires only that I put one foot in front of the other, preferably without tripping. It’s also why I was in second grade before I removed the training wheels from my bike. My mom maintains second grade “isn’t that bad,” but my kindergarten-aged niece has already mastered the art of riding on two wheels, and her younger sister isn’t far behind. So I really don’t know what got into me several years ago when I decided to try mountain biking. I knew absolutely nothing about it, and it wouldn’t have crossed my mind as a viable outdoor activity for me if I had had an idea of the risk involved.
But I didn’t, so clad in a brand-new helmet and riding gloves, my naivety and I showed up at the Buttermilk Trail. The sign at the trailhead welcomed me with a depiction of a stick figure cyclist falling head-over-heels off his bike, helmet all but flying off his head. “Experienced Riders Only,” it said. But my husband had told me always to use the right break—the rear brake—so what could go wrong?
Surprisingly, nothing did. I rode slowly and dismounted at every obstacle, but I never fell and I never got hurt, so I rode for several months, my growing confidence outpacing my stunted skill.
It was inevitable, I suppose, that the trails eventually put me in my place. One sunny day I decided not to dismount and walk. At all. I cleared the first obstacle. A rush of pride flickered through my body. My confidence surged. I cleared the second obstacle. I was euphoric. I even cleared the third obstacle—but beyond it was a hairpin turn, a small tree situated just at the curve. I lost control, careening into the tree. My bike was broken. My pride was broken—and I thought maybe my wrist was, too. My courage crawled back into the hole where it usually lives.
Having heard the crash, my husband came riding back down the trail toward me. We limped back to our car, walking our bikes. It would be years before I tried mountain biking again.
Those years came to an end last week. On a new bike—one better equipped for trails—I joined my husband and nephew at Pocahontas State Park. I was the slowest of us, but by the end of our ride, my confidence peered around the corner of its cave.
Yesterday, my husband coaxed it out even further, and it felt the sun on its face for the first time in a long time. Without falling, without dismounting to walk, without getting hurt, I rode several trails, ranging from “easiest” to “more difficult.” Common sense steered me away from “most difficult.” For now. But I surmise that maybe, eventually, my courage and my caution will learn to hold hands, and as their relationship thrives, so will my riding.
Sylvia Plath said, “everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.” I find this quote relevant to my experience with this essay in multiple ways. First, self-doubt and fear are exactly what kept me off my bike for so many years, missing out on all kinds of adventures and scenery and exercise. Self-doubt, it seems, is an enemy to more than our creativity. Second, I wouldn’t have thought to write about riding, despite the fact that “everything in life is writable about.” I should keep that advice in mind; there is always something to write about if I have the imagination to find it.
And speaking off…Mind the Dog Writing Blog is currently accepting for consideration submissions about how your dog(s) operate(s) as a positive force in your life. To learn more about submitting your own writing to be featured here, check out the submission guidelines. I can’t wait to see what you’ll write!
It’s probably pretty obvious, but I’ll say it just in case: I love writing and I love dogs. My dogs, Jack, Sadie, Nacho, and Soda, have inspired me in so many areas of my life–including my writing life, and it occurred to me recently that that might be true for a lot of you, your writing, and your dogs, too. So, in honor of my love (and yours!) for my dogs and for writing, I invite you to submit your own original piece of writing for consideration as a guest post on this blog. Before writing and submitting your own piece for consideration, I recommend reading this post as an example of the types of work likely to be accepted. Please do not feel like your submission has to focus on the pandemic; to the contrary, I welcome submissions about any way your dog has ever helped you see the bright side of things, lifted you up, taught you a lesson, cheered you up, kept you going, or made you smile. Posts will be accepted for consideration until 11:59 PM June 16, 2020.
Writers certify that they are 18 years of age or older.
Prose submissions should consist of 250-550 words and poetry submissions should be 24 lines or fewer.
All submissions should respond to the prompt: Write about how your dog/dogs has/have been a positive presence and influence in your life.
Submissions should include a short bio of the writer, ranging between 50 and 75 words
Submissions can include up to three photos of the dog(s) written about.
Writers agree to allow their full name, submission, bio, and photos to appear on this blog and the associated Instagram account, as well as on other associated social media accounts.
Writers of accepted submissions agree to spread the word about their guest post on their own social media, including by sharing a link to their published piece on their own social media accounts and/or websites and by tagging the Mind the Dog Writing Blog Instagram account.
All submissions must be original and true.
Submissions may not have been published anywhere else at any time.
Writers retain all rights to their work but are asked to acknowledge Mind the Dog
Writing Blog as the original publisher should the piece be published elsewhere in the future.
Writers will not be paid, but will be featured on Mind the Dog Writing Blog and the associated Instagram account, including with links and tags to their social media accounts and/or websites.
To submit a piece of writing, your bio, and up to three relevant photos, email your submission to MindtheDogWritingBlog@gmail.com by 11:59 PM June 16.
Please allow at least three weeks after submitting your post for a response.
Don’t like to write or have a dog, but know someone who does? Please share this opportunity with them!
Have questions? Feel free to comment here, DM me on Instagram, or shoot me an email at MindtheDogWritingBlog@gmail. com. I can’t wait to read what you write!
A year ago today, Matty and I saw Soda and Nacho (then Scotch) for the very first time. It would be another month before we saw them again, and before we got to actually meet them, as opposed to just seeing them on the other side of their kennel bars. Because both dogs and writing are extremely therapeutic, and because I love both with an unrivaled intensity, it seems fitting to share here, today, a piece I wrote about the role Nacho and Soda have played in my emotional and mental well-being in the last year, but most particularly, in the last few months. Below is that piece.
It is a quintessential April morning. The air smells faintly of lilac and cut grass, silky-sweet, soft, and verdant. The laser-sharp but soothing call of cardinals cascades down from the trees around us, the birds themselves hidden amongst boughs whose leaves are just emerging, ready for their summer’s work. Normally at this time of the morning, I am at school, helping a group of teenagers work on the yearbook, watching the clock as lunchtime approaches and my stomach clenches.
But schools shut down a month ago, so today, after calling students to check on them and sending them digital copies of next week’s assignments, I am walking my two eighteen-month-old dogs, collectively known as The Littles. They’re a pair of littermates we adopted back in June—back when we could still hug our parents and travel and go to the beach without a second thought about our social responsibility or personal health. Back when things were still normal. Before Covid-19 and its swift sweep around the globe.
I am deep in these thoughts when a neighbor stops his riding lawn mower as we walk by and says to me, “Those two really keep you going, don’t they?” He nods toward Soda and Nacho. I look at the two of them, 15 pounds combined. Their dark brown eyes meet mine, joyous, expectant, eager. His words hold more truth than he knows. I have lost count of the times I have told my husband how lonely I would be without them during this experience. Deprived of my routine, my students, my colleagues, and many of my friends and family members, my daily walks with The Littles are one of the few activities that feels normal, their company the only constant companionship I have during any given day. They are my purpose and structure.
My two small dogs have helped me become aware of the small pleasures of social distancing, instead of dwelling on the inconvenience and deprivation. Jarring alarm clock wake-ups have been replaced by slow wake-ups occasioned by snuggles and nuzzling noses. We go outside together and sit in the sun because it’s out and we can be, too. They are not confined to the crate; I am not confined to the classroom.
And although small, The Littles have cultivated a big appetite for adventure since I’ve been home. Unable to while away the hours shopping, going to movies, staying after school for meetings, or running errands, we have found time to explore secluded trails we didn’t know existed, often traipsing much longer and farther than I thought their short, little legs might carry them. We have stopped and stared at great egrets, blue herons, water snakes, turtles, deer.
We have also found time for learning. While we work together as they learn basics like “sit,” “stay,” “down,” “come,” and “leave it,” I learn to slow down. To give myself and others grace. To digest one day at a time instead of flipping through the pages of my
planner to August, and realizing every single weekend is booked until then. To be flexible in the uncertainty—because things are pretty backwards now. I used to make every effort to keep Nacho and Soda out of their crate; after all, they spent enough time there while we worked during the day. Now, we conduct near-daily “crate practice” to make sure that someday, when I start working somewhere other than the couch again, they will remember that the crate is a safe place, and that I will be home. I manufacture reasons to do this—to leave the house so The Littles can practice being without me. Sometimes I go for a jog or ride my bike, sit in the sun with a book, stroll a route The Littles aren’t fond of. They have given me this gift—permission to engage in soul-nurturing activities, time to relish the solitude I rarely had time for before. And when I get home, and crate practice is over, I am so glad it is not an empty house I return to, but one filled with the contagious exuberance and affection and companionship of two tiny dogs with two enormous spirits.
The gentle rumble of my neighbor’s idling mower brings me back to the present moment. I stand on the sidewalk. He looks at me expectantly from his seat, probably glad to speak to someone new for the first time in I-don’t-know-how-long. It takes me just a second to remember he is waiting for my response. “Those two really keep you going, don’t they?” he’d said.
I smile at him. “Yes,” I say. I smile at them, the little dogs who make staying home better, and give me reasons to get out. “They do. They really do.”
I invite you to share in the comments how your own pets have helped you stay positive–now or any time.
Writers, at least those of us with a desire to share or publish our work, need a thick skin. There are always people with ideas pertaining to how we could improve our writing. Some of them are right. Some of them are not. There are always publications that will
reject our writing–many more than will accept it. For years, I have kept color-coded records of the work I have sent out into the world in hopes of seeing it published. Red indicates a piece has been rejected, white indicates that its publication is still pending (Read: I haven’t heard anything back–yet), blue indicates that it has made it through some initial phase of the acceptance process, and green indicates it has been officially accepted for publication. Consistently, red (in other contexts one of my favorite colors) dominates my submission spreadsheets. So far, 2020 hasn’t proven an exception to this seeming rule. Above is my submission spreadsheet for 2020 thus far. You will note a whole lot of red. And one–one–row of green.
But that single row of green means everything–means more than the over a dozen red rows. That single row of green means the one piece that I most wanted to find a publication home, did. The original version of this piece, “A Search for Meaning in the Face of Loss,” appears on this blog. An abridged version, retitled “Always With Me, Still,” will appear in an upcoming edition of Chicken Soup for the Soul, Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Magic of Dogs, available at bookstores on July 14.
The piece, the third about Jack and Sadie to appear in a Chicken Soup book, details the many ways in which Jack is still with me, leaving me signs (usually socks), comforting me, communicating with me, making me smile. Though I initially wrote this piece about a year ago, signs from Jack have not stopped materializing, and I am near-to-tears happy that the story of his ability to stay by my side will be able to reach thousands of readers around the world.
Jack and Sadie are featured in two other Chicken Soup for the Soul titles, Life Lessons from the Dog and Think Positive, Live Happy.
Jack and Sadie are featured in two other Chicken Soup for the Soul titles, Think Positive, Live Happy and Life Lessons from the Dog.
Ever since I submitted the piece in November 2019, I have held close to my heart the hope that it would be accepted. As the January 2020 submission deadline approached, I became increasingly eager to hear whether it would be included. My husband has probably lost count of the number of times I earnestly voiced my hopes, but as he shared them, he was patient with me.
Yes, I am disappointed about the pieces that, so far, remain homeless–but I will continue searching for their homes, and in the meantime, the red rows on my submission spreadsheet pale in comparison to that one, green row.
In honor of National Poetry Month in April, the Poetry Society of Virginia held a poem-a-day writing challenge on social media. Each day, a word was designated as the inspiration for the day’s poem. Some of the words included “apple,” “news,” “mask,” and “underwear,” for example.
Sometimes, a word proved easy inspiration, and I would write a satisfactory poem before 9:00 AM. Other times, I would roll a word around in my mind until just before bed before any ideas emerged. Some days, I just gave in and wrote a poem for the sake of writing a poem, even though the result was, frankly, pretty crappy. It was still a poem, and I wouldn’t have written it otherwise, so that was a win of sorts.
The experience definitely got me thinking about a variety of topics I would not otherwise have given any thought to–and got me thinking about them in new, creative, deeper ways. Whether the writing was good or not, satisfying or not, I wrote something every single day, and that felt good.
Throughout the month, churning out even one piece of poetry every day became as routine, necessary, and satisfying as, well, using the bathroom! Just letting the poem out was a relief–and I hadn’t even known it was in there!
I’ve written thirty poems in thirty days. Here, in chronological order aside from the first and second poems (I think you’ll understand why) are some of my favorites. (If you’d like to read the 16 poems not included in this post, you can find them on my Instagram account.)
Day 8: Blue
I don’t have music
to put the words to—
the sonorous howl
of my sweet Sadie Blue,
but this is Sadie’s song:
where have you gone?
You know I can’t stay here
without you for long.
“We’ve walked our last walk,
chewed our last bone—
do you think Mom and Dad
can bear this alone?”
I like to think,
and it seems like I know,
that Sadie saw Jack
just across the rainbow,
and this is Sadie’s song:
I see you again!
You can’t imagine how much
I missed you, best friend!
“Let’s hike every trail here
and squeak every toy—
make sure Mom and Dad know
all we feel now is joy.”
So I must return
to a life that is changed,
a whole universe
that’s all rearranged—
but I still sing Sadie’s song.
*After I wrote the poem above, I asked my uncle, a talented musician, to set it to original music. He did, and the poem transformed into a beautiful song, which I then used to make a little music video tribute to Jack and Sadie. Now, if only I could figure out how to share it…
Jack and Sadie at the Wetlands at Pony Pasture
Sadie and Jack at home, watching doggy TV
Day 23: Dream
I’m always happy
when I wake
from a dream
But I’d be happier still
if you were still
Day 2: Neighbor
Julie & Ed’s dogwood tree blooms both pink &
and Larry, our Vietnam War vet, runs each
morning with a stick in his hand.
Lee walks the streets in the quiet predawn,
and Mr. Yates sits on his Jazzy chair, shirtless
in his overalls, beside his voluptuous
Camilla bush, petals in the grass.
And me? Melody and I are the ones who walk
Fourteen years of shared time, shared space,
have made each new For Sale sign a
these stretches of street the only ribbon tying
us all together, unraveling, until one day
Nobody knows my dogs
or Larry with his stick
and Julie & Ed’s dogwood blooms for
Day 3: Air
An osprey catches
hovers above the highway bridge—
balanced between blue river, blue sky.
When I arrive
on my parents’ porch,
they do not come out.
I do not go in.
We do not hug.
We talk through the screen door, their faces
dim. I fight
the urge to lean in closer.
When I leave, some of their
terror follows me, heavy, weighted. And I think
of the osprey—
high above it all, unaware, unaffected, free.
Day 4: Playground
“Playground: Slide of Time”
There is one rule
on the playground. Everyone knows:
You’re not supposed to climb up the slide.
And all the best playgrounds are
in Michigan. My grandparents knew where—
The Rocket Playground
(I once got stuck at the top—that’s how I
learned I was afraid
of heights like my dad, who had to climb up
to carry me down).
The Castle Playground,
made all of wood with bridges and turrets
and secret, shady hiding places.
The Tire Playground,
where we played
Roll-the-Ball-to-the-Bat and 500
Until one summer was the last summer
and we didn’t come back anymore, because
there is one rule everyone knows:
You’re not supposed to climb
Day 9: River
“James River Days”
(An Acrostic Poem)
Just yesterday it was winter,
And I ran along your banks,
My breath a thin cloud trailing behind me.
End of winter brought purple blooms,
Springing up along the trails,
Reaching above the green grasses for the
I stood on the bank, watched your swirling
waters beat between rocks like blood
End of spring I will stretch across a sun-
Drench myself in your watery womb
And emerge glowing, reborn—
Yes. Now, it is
Day 12: Else
“Easter Morning: Turn to Something Else”
I was supposed
to do something
I had my own plans—
and a sense of entitlement to their
But I recall the man
from the pool
to see Jesus—
And I think of Mary,
to see Jesus—
And I remember the time
I sat at Logan’s Steakhouse
watching half a dozen
flat screen TVs and two truckers
at the bar,
and then I turned
and saw the sunset out the window behind
the sky resplendent with red, violet, gold,
and I thought,
“How long has it been like this?”
And I heard,
“Forever, my child—
you just had to turn
and see something
Day 13: Pretty
“Pretty on Paper”
I am pretty—
tall, thin, blond.
To the untrained eye,
I belong on a runway,
in a magazine—
but professional perception knows better:
My eyes are brown, not blue;
there’s a strange asymmetry to my features;
I’m just a tad too tall to walk
(Can’t have you taller than the boy, you see).
When I was in my twenties, my sister (prettier
told me I just kept getting
The trend has begun
but I have learned pretty
does not mean
Day 15: Taxi
“Confessional on Wheels”
One Florida morning when I am 23
I find myself
confessing my fears from
the backseat of a Tallahassee taxi
to a driver who tells me
he’s also a preacher,
which is not why I’m confessing.
It’s just that at 23, I already know
strangers are the safest place for secrets.
He dispenses free advice
while the taximeter counts the number of
Hail Marys I will need to say
to atone or do penance
or whatever it’s called—
I am not Catholic
and neither is he
and back at my hotel
I tip for the company,
not the ride,
and watch as the yellow
confessional drives away with my secrets
moves on to
its preacher’s next parishioner.
Day 17: Language
“The Language of the Land”
This is the language of the land.
“Be still, breathe deep,”
whisper lilacs at the back porch.
This is the language of the land.
“Stop here, drink up,”
babbles the brook in the woods.
This is the language of the land.
“Stand firm, take root,”
sing the trees.
“Work hard, with purpose,”
buzz the bees.
“Rest up, feel me,”
begs the breeze.
This is the language of the land.
“Look up, reach out,”
beckons blue sky, white clouds, warm sun.
“Be calm, sleep well,”
soothe stars and moon when day is done.
This is the language of the land.
Day 18: Red
When I met Freddy Red one June night,
I learned it was real—love at first sight.
Because with just one glance I knew:
We belonged together, we two.
Shiny red with six-speed turbo,
my little car could really go.
Key West, Detroit, Philadelphia, DC—
all places Freddy Red took me.
I paid Red off one day in May,
just ahead of our five-year anniversary.
I promised to drive her right into the
but my little car was accident-bound.
I sat on the median, head in my hands,
looking at all the deployed air bags.
I cried to a witness, “I love Freddy Red!”
He said, “That car is why you’re not
Day 21: Over
This word actually resulted in two poems, both of which are below.
“When this is over”
When this is over
I will miss
sleeping until 7:30.
I will miss working from
my back deck,
my fire pit.
I will miss
sweatpants and hoodies and Crocs
I will miss takeout
“because it’s just easier.”
When this is over
wear a little makeup again.
I will go to a restaurant—
and sit down inside,
or maybe on the patio.
I will go shopping,
get a haircut,
get a tattoo
take a road trip,
resume my monthly massages.
But right now
what will we remember,
when this is over?
What will life be like,
when this is over?
What will we have learned,
when this is over?
“It’s not over, not really”
I always knew
the two of you
were my line
between then and now.
Then we walked together.
Now there is only
the joy of
for a while,
having shared some
of the same space,
of the same time.
But it’s not over,
Only the nature
of our relationship
I know you are here,
your presence felt
like a shadow that
sweeps across the ceiling,
its source unknown.
But I know.
Each prism-cast rainbow
Each impulse to be kind
Day 29: April
April spirited Jack away on birdsong and lilac breath
Sent my grandmother to sleep one night and
didn’t wake her in the morning
Threw hail stones that
beheaded the fragrant lilacs and amputated
the branches of the struggling magnolia
and followed it all with a rainbow.
Gifted me with a robin’s nest
and a pair of besotted cardinals
and little bunnies in the backyard—
As if to say
The whole universe loves you—
In its season.
Day 30: May
We have one foot in April now,
the other foot in May,
toes stretching out
to test the waters of an unfamiliar bay.
May I get a haircut?
May I get tattooed?
Tell me, are these things
yet safe enough to do?
May I hug my mother?
May I hug my dad?
Can I go out for ice cream
without feeling really bad?
Yes, wade in the water;
it’s safe enough to test.
Go on and dip a toe in—
just don’t get soaking wet.
In closing, I would like to provide an addendum to one of my favorite lines written during this writing challenge: “Strangers are the safest place for secrets.” Addendum: Unless you have dogs.
Across the country, schools are shuttered in the face of the current Covid-19 pandemic, in some states (like mine) for the rest of the school year. Yesterday afternoon, Governor Northam of Virginia announced that all private and public schools will remain closed through at least the end of this academic year. This announcement no doubt panicked parents, and I know firsthand, saddened many teachers. To their own surprise, even many students were disappointed. Within minutes of the Governor’s announcement, I received a flurry of emails from distraught students, many of them containing messages like, “I never thought I’d say this, but I really miss school!” For my own part, I feel cheated out of the time I thought I still had with a group of students I really enjoyed and care about, and that just scrapes the top of the iceberg of my emotions right now.
No one knows yet what this extended closure will mean for grades, graduations, or promotions, but in the meantime, we need to make sure our children and students stay engaged, active, and productive. This could be a great opportunity to get to know each other, our neighbors, our communities, and ourselves better. Below are some resources colleagues have shared with me, as well as some I created myself, to help children, parents, and educators navigate these uncertain times.
Listen to a Story
This morning, a colleague of mine who is also a parent shared that while schools are closed, Audible is offering free audiobooks for kids and teens. If you’re working from home and want to offer your children more than another TV show or movie, offer them an audiobook! You can ask younger children to draw pictures of what they heard, and older children to write summaries or reviews.
Become a Citizen Scientist: Zooniverse
Another colleague notified all of the teachers in our city at the middle and high school levels about Zooniverse, which allows students (and parents and teachers!) to become citizen scientists. The hands-on involvement in real projects and studies lends to the authenticity of the task, and can be not only educational, but also empowering. Children can choose which projects to be a part of, according to their own interests, talents, and skills. Projects are available for various ages catering to all kinds of interests with a range of topics, including art, language, biology, climate, nature, medicine, social science, physics, and more.
Preschool to Early Elementary
Write to Pete the Cat
Our superintendent sent along an invitation to become pen pals with Pete the Cat. Many young children are familiar with the beloved feline literary character. Right now, children can engage with him through letter-writing. Writing a letter to Pete the Cat could help activate your child’s imagine, as well as help him or her practice his spelling, handwriting, and grammar skills. You could even pick a certain topic to focus on (writing a specific letter your child struggles to write, spelling a specific word, using a specific type of punctuation, etc.) as you help your child write the letter.
Scavenger hunts can be a great way to get outside, get moving, and activate the mind and imagination. So far, I have created and completed two, both with children between the
ages of 4 and 7. One is geared towards teaching children a little bit of the history of their city (in this case, Richmond, Virginia) while the other teaches them just a little bit about ecology and the food chain. Make your own or, if you’re local, use mine!
As its name implies, the Forest Hill Avenue Park Scavenger Hunt takes place in Richmond’s Forest Hill Avenue Park. It’s about 1.6 miles long and our group of three adults, four children, and two little dogs took about two hours to complete it (we spent a lot of time playing on the rocks and in the creek).
Late Elementary through High School
Become a Primary Source for Historians: Journal
Writing in journals is a good practice for the mental health and emotional well-being of people of all ages, as well as for improving their writing skills; stimulating their minds and imaginations; and, in these unprecedented times, providing genuine, primary sources for historians in the future. Before asking your children or students to write, have them read this article, shared with me by a colleague, on how important their journal entries could become. Sometimes, writing for an actual audience increases motivation and purpose. As poet Denise Riley writes, “You can’t, it seems, take the slightest interest in the activity of writing unless you possess some feeling of futurity.” The ideas in the article should provide young writers with this “feeling of futurity.”
“You can’t, it seems, take the slightest interest in the activity of writing unless you possess some feeling of futurity.”
-poet Denise Riley
Middle and High School
Read a Book
Students often don’t have time to read for pleasure, with homework, part-time jobs, extracurricular activities, and sports practices monopolizing most of their time. This period of social distancing is the perfect opportunity for students to enjoy a good book (or several). Below is a list of book recommendations I shared with my high school students a few days ago. I would recommend clicking the link to learn more about any given book before handing it off to your child or recommending it to your students. Some are better suited to specific age groups than others.
Salt to the Sea, Ruta Sepetys (I read this about a year ago and recommended it to my parents and my neighbor, all of whom loved it. It’s YA historical fiction, based on real events that happened during WWII. It’s a look at WWII that you’ve probably never gotten before.)
East of Eden, John Steinbeck (One of my all-time favorite books, this novel is by author who wrote Of Mice and Men and Travels with Charley) **Note: My academic classes read Of Mice and Men earlier this year, while my honors class read Travels with Charley as one of their summer reading books.**
Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card (another one of my all-time favorite books)
Dog Songs: Poems, Mary Oliver (Admittedly, I haven’t read this yet, but I want to!)
Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl (really uplifting read; nonfiction by a Holocaust survivor–yes, an uplifting book about the Holocaust…!) **Note: This would be a particular timely read given the current pandemic.**
The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien (somewhat autobiographical essays about the Vietnam War from a Vietnam War veteran)
Ask students to think of a book, the end of which they did not like (most of my students were appalled at the way Of Mice and Men and The Crucible ended). After having them read a summary of the work or watch the film (if available) to refresh their memories, ask them to rewrite the ending as they wish it had been.
Reasons for Optimism
While much about the current times can seem bleak, scary, and confusing, this period of social distancing and sacrifice can also prove a time of increased creativity, new perspectives, innovation, introspection, and enrichment.
Consider the advice provided in Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet: “To keep growing, silently and earnestly, through your while development; you couldn’t disturb it any more violently than by looking outside and waiting for outside answers to question that only your innermost feeling, in your quietest hour, can perhaps answer.” Or, perhaps even more timely: “But your solitude will be your home and haven even in the midst of very strange conditions, and from there you will discover all your paths.” And finally: “…it is good to be solitary, for solitude is difficult; that something is difficult must be one more reason for us to do it.”
“But your solitude will be your home and haven even in the midst of very strange conditions, and from there you will discover all your paths.”
-Rainer Maria Rilke
Though many people feel isolated and alone due to quarantines and social distancing, we are fortunate that in this day and age, we have innumerable resources available to us to stay connected: social media, cell phones, FaceTime, Zoom, Skype, etc. While there has been concern that people, in particular young people, have become too reliant on or even addicted to their devices and technology, this period of relative isolation might serve to remind us that while screens can provide for temporary connectivity, the human presence–face-to-face conversation, a hug, a handshake, someone to sit beside at the movies or the dinner table–provides an invaluable connection. While texting and calling can help us stay in touch right now, I believe we will also all be reminded of the importance of interpersonal communication and genuine relationships.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
February 15, 2020
A Memorable Outdoor Experience or Special Interest
First Place: $500.00
Second Place: $200.00
Third Place: $100.00
Cooperative Living Magazine Award: $100.00 and publication in the magazine
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.
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.
February 1, 2020
Writing published during 2019 can be submitted to any of the following categories:
Newspaper or Magazine Column
Visual Arts Categories
Visual artwork published or produced during 2019 can be submitted to any of the following categories:
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.
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!
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Tim Ferriss's 4-Hour Workweek and Lifestyle Design Blog. Tim is an author of 5 #1 NYT/WSJ bestsellers, investor (FB, Uber, Twitter, 50+ more), and host of The Tim Ferriss Show podcast (400M+ downloads)
Running doesn't exist in a vacuum. It exists in the whole fabric of life as one square of the quilt, sewn in among other squares--family and career and travel and friends and and and... It gets rearranged on our list of priorities according to time of life. This is about how running fits into my life, right now.