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:

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Search for Meaning in the Face of Loss

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Jack and Sadie on a trail along the James River at Pony Pasture Rapids on April 11

April 11

It is a Thursday afternoon, warm–but the kind of warmth easily defied by the shade. The tall, thick, green grasses along the James River have just begun sprouting up out of the newly awakened earth. Jack stops every few feet to snack on some of the young blades. Bluebells hang their pretty little heads all along the paths that parallel the river at Pony Pasture Rapids. Some delicate white flowers–I don’t know what they are–join the bluebells along the trail. The wetlands are soggy and stagnant, but haven’t been that way long enough to accommodate mosquitoes just yet. The day is quintessential spring, and I am grateful to have this afternoon to take Jack and Sadie adventuring. We don’t get very far; not too warm for me is slightly too warm for Jack and Sadie, always wearing fur coats–but we spend close to an hour wandering around the woods, watching the river race past its banks, swollen with spring rains to the west.

April 13

I sit in the lobby at Veterinary Referral and Critical Care (VRCC). It’s cold, over-air conditioned. Jack is somewhere in the back, having his bladder emptied. He began shaking as soon as we walked into the clinic, but not because it’s cold. Because he is scared.

I look around the lobby. A wall of windows behind me. A wall of windows to the left of me. Magazines scattered on every flat surface (who can read a magazine in a time like this?). A TV endlessly playing cooking shows–but once, a wildlife show. I like the wildlife show better. The reception desk is straight ahead. Two industrious women sit in swivel chairs with wheels and answer phones and take payments and file folders. Above them, perched atop a door leading into what looks to be a file room, rests a hand-painted wooden sign. “Be Kind,” it reads, in bold, black lettering. It’s adorned with red and pink hearts on a white background. I assume it’s a gift from a grateful client whose dog (or cat) is happy and healthy again. I like its message. I find it somewhat comforting.

April 15

Last night I promised Jack I wouldn’t take him back to VRCC to have his bladder emptied again. He has been on new medication for going on three days now. It should kick in any minute.

It is a little before 11:00 PM. I have to break my promise to Jack. He is in the back at VRCC again. I am sitting in the cold lobby with a plastic cup of water in my hand. A competition cooking show is playing on TV. One of the contestants is cooking plantains. The receptionist behind the desk under the “Be Kind” sign tells me she doesn’t like plantains. I don’t like plantains either. I stare at the clock. It is a Monday night. I am tired. Jack is tired. We get home sometime after midnight and fall asleep together in the family room.

April 16

It is a Tuesday afternoon, warm–but it started out chilly. I have shed my coat and sit beside Matty and Sadie in the backyard grass with Jack, leaning against the sun-warmed brick foundation of our house. Jack doesn’t want to come inside. He lays in the grass or makes a nest in the moldy dust under the shed. The sky is robin’s egg blue. When the wind blows, yellow clouds of pollen dust drift through the air, taking flight from the tufts of white pines’ needles. The dogwoods are almost done blooming, their white blossoms giving way to green leaves. A pair of robins build a nest in the bushes to our left. New life is everywhere.

The medication is not doing its job.

I text our sister-in-law, also our vet, who gave Jack a home until he joined our pack. I fill her in on the latest details, ask for her honest professional opinion.

“I think it’s time,” her text tells me.

I put my arm around Jack and cry, my hand shaking after I text back, “Okay.”  Jack stands beside me, squinting in the sun, wagging his tail.

Less than an hour later, I squat on the floor of Room 5. Jack is lying like a sphinx on a cold, metallic table draped in a plush, blue blanket. The hairs of other dogs and cats are stuck in the fibers. Matty, Sadie, and my mother-in-law are there. Jack is trembling. My face is level with his front paws, my hands on his shoulders. I talk to him. I sing to him. “Shepherd Show Me How to Go” and “On Eagle’s Wings.” I tell him not to be scared; it’s okay. But I am scared and none of this is okay with me. I sing again. I am amazed at my ability to sing and not sob. How am I doing this? After a shot the shaking starts to subside, and his eyes grow drowsy, though he is fighting sleep with all his might. I lift my face to look into his eyes. He meets my gaze. His eyes hold mine as I sing, until they glaze over and he gently lowers his head. He is asleep. I rest my head on the edge of the table. After a moment, I stand. I press my face into the fur on the back of his neck and inhale deeply. I will miss this warmth, this softness, this smell.

When we turn around and walk out–I am the last to leave–I can’t shake the feeling that I am abandoning him.

April 19

Jack and I used to go for a walk every single morning, no matter what. He and Sadie would eat breakfast, I would eat breakfast, and then Jack and I would head out, Sadie joining us on occasion if it wasn’t too dark, too early, or too cold, by her standards.

Now that Jack is gone, my morning routine feels disjointed, inefficient, disturbed. I am awake, I have eaten, but there is no dog waiting to go for a walk with me. Sadie is snuggled back up in her bed. I hold up her harness and dance around and sing and try to convince her she wants to go for a walk. She looks at me and lowers her head, resting it on the bolster of her bed. I decide to go for a quick run. I lace up my shoes and step out into the cerulean morning.

Alone.

I am about half a mile away from home when the sight of a black sock on the shoulder of the road stops me in my tracks. The sense that Jack is with me, leaving me a message, is overwhelming. Every morning when we woke up, Jack would stand patiently in front of my dresser, waiting for me to take out a pair of socks and give it to him. Then, he’d run around the house with the socks in his mouth until I had his breakfast ready. Every afternoon when I got home from work, Jack would root around in my gym bag or work bag until he found a sock (or shoe) to parade around the backyard with. Matty and I were forever finding missing socks and shoes out in the backyard, where Jack had deposited them. In this moment, in the quiet predawn with the birds singing, when I would normally have been out walking with Jack, it feels like he is with me.

April 20

The next day is a Saturday. Matty, Sadie, and our four friends (two humans and their two dogs) are at the Northern Neck. It is the first weekend we have come here without Jack. Last time we were here, just weeks ago, he was here, too. I am walking Sadie with my friend, Ashley, and her dogs, Gryff and Ellie. I look down to my left and a slight, delighted gasp escapes my throat. I feel elated. A well of emotion springs up in my chest. “Look!” I say. There, on the sidewalk, is a single green sock.

April 22

Yesterday was Easter. Ashley and I don’t have to work today, so we decide to take our dogs to Pony Pasture for an afternoon adventure. It is the first time Sadie and I walk these trails along the river without Jack. Eleven days ago, he walked them with us. Eleven days. A week and a half. Last time we were here, Jack was here, too.

We are almost to the trails in Ashley’s white Dodge minivan when something catches my eye on a tree to my right. It is a white sign with pink and red hearts. “Be Kind,” it says in bold, black lettering.

April 23

It has been one week since we said goodbye to Jack. I am half a mile from home on one of Jack’s favorite walking routes, out for a quick run before work. In the grass along the sidewalk, in the half-light of morning, I see a brand new, unused dog-poop bag. I stop running, bend down and pick it up. No sense in leaving it there to litter the neighborhood, especially when I could use it on a future walk with Sadie. The bag bears some kind of cutesie pattern, but I can’t really see what it is; it’s still fairly dark out.

When I get home and turn on the light in the mud room, I can see the bag’s decorative pattern. It is a white bag, adorned with tiny, little, green alligators in a repeating pattern. Some of Jack’s (many) nicknames were Alligator Face, Alligator Mouth, and Chompy-Chomp, because when he was really excited, really happy, or really trying to get me out of bed, he would smile and gnash his teeth like an alligator trying to snatch an unsuspecting gazelle from around the watering hole.

Instead of adding the poop bag to my stash in the mud room, I tie it to the handle of Jack’s red leash, still hooked to his black and gray, reflective, skulls-and-crossbones harness.

April 27

In January 2015, I wrote a diary entry about a walk I took with Jack and Sadie in the Northern Neck. It morphed into a blog post, which morphed into a submission to Chicken Soup for the Soul: Life Lessons from the Dog, which morphed into a story in the book. Over a month ago,  several weeks before we lost Jack, I  scheduled a reading of the story and a book signing at the Richmond SPCA to raise funds for its dogs and cats. Jack and I had had a fulfilling experience completing three or four levels of agility classes there, so it seemed an appropriate venue and beneficiary. After the reading, as I sit in the lobby with Sadie and Matty, I look up to my left. There, above the reception desk, is the same sign I saw at VRCC and Pony Pasture: “Be Kind.”

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One of the many “Be Kind” signs I began seeing around the Richmond area in key locations. This one hangs at the Richmond SPCA, where Jack and I completed several levels of agility classes and I held a reading and book signing to raise funds for the shelter.

April 28

This evening brought my most intense bout of regret yet. People talk about our pets crossing the rainbow bridge and waiting for us while they scamper and play. I don’t know what I believe, but tonight I am tormented because popular belief says Jack crossed the rainbow bridge; Jack was afraid of bridges. Jack was afraid of bridges and I left him while he was asleep and didn’t stay for his last breath like I always thought I would and what if he was afraid to cross that bridge without me?

May 4

I am just blocks away from my dad’s birthday brunch when my car strikes and kills a bird. I slam on my brakes and peer down at his little broken body–just in case. Maybe he’s not dead. But he is dead and I am as crushed as his delicate bones and I arrive to lunch a wreck. But as I approach the door, I see a stone with a dog painted on it. A dog that looks like Jack. And, instead of feeling more sorrow, I feel slightly comforted. And then I walk inside and on the floor is a mat bearing the same canine likeness. And in the bathroom, a sticker on the paper towel dispenser.

 

After I order my food from a waitress who discreetly supplies me with extra napkins (I don’t even have to ask her) to blow my nose and wipe my eyes, I glance around the restaurant and there, just above the mirror at the bar, hangs the sign: “Be Kind.”

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The “Be Kind” sign at Millie’s

Eventually, my sobbing subsides and I am able to eat most of my food, though I hardly touch the virgin drink I ordered. My dad, mom, brother, and I pay, and they walk me back to my car. As I get in and close the door, I look up to see the back of my dad’s T-shirt. “You Should Know Jack,” the lettering says.

And I did. And I am so glad I did. Jack and I shared a bond that, for a while, I took for granted as the bond all dog owners form with their dogs. It took me a long time to realize that Jack and I were a special pair. It was not telepathy, not really–but we had an understanding that transcended words. We communicated with each other through a look, a slight gesture.

An emergency vet I took Jack to several years ago in the middle of the night when he was suffering from pancreatitis commented on how in-tune he and I we were with each other. Strangers sometimes approached me to comment on the way Jack watched me. Matty was always telling me, “I have known people with dogs all my life, and had dogs all my life, and I have never seen anything like what you and Jack have.” If any dog could find a way to reach me, to communicate with me beyond my ken, I know Jack would be that dog. And there is a skeptical side of me that says the socks and the signs and the subtle little hints are just coincidences, or would have been there but gone unnoticed if Jack were still with me. But I prefer to believe that’s not true. I prefer to believe Jack is with me, somehow.

A few days ago I was out for a run when I came across two of my neighbors walking their dogs. I stopped to chat and pet all the dogs. In the course of conversation I heard myself say, “When Matty and I were walking Jack and Sadie earlier–” I stopped. “Well, Sadie,” I corrected myself. But as the conversation wound down and I resumed my run I said aloud, “But maybe Jack was there, too.”

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I love you, Jack. Forever and ever, my whole life long.

 

My Writing Buddies have Four Paws

It all started on a walk with my dogs. Which shouldn’t be that surprising, as every day starts with a walk with my dogs. We eat breakfast, leash up, and head out. Every day begins with a dog walk–and so do many of my essays, poems, blog posts, and book chapters. One of my essays, about to appear in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Life Lessons from the Dog (in bookstores April 9), was not only inspired while I was walking my dogs, but is also about walking my dogs. It tells the short tale of how letting Jack take the reins (or should I say, “leash?”) and determine our walking route one morning led me to a beautiful view–and taught me a valuable lesson: I don’t always have to be in charge.

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The view I was treated to when I let Jack decide which way we should walk one January morning in 2015.

The essay had humble beginnings. It started as a January 2015 diary entry, penned after returning home from our walk, and eventually morphed into a blog post on my now debunked, little-read personal blog, where it sat for several years, largely unnoticed. In 2018, while scrolling through a Freedom with Writing e-mail (if you’re a writer and you don’t subscribe already, you should), I learned that Chicken Soup for the Soul was accepting submissions for several upcoming books, one being Life Lessons from the Dogs.

I remembered my diary-entry-turned-blog-post, and, after a few revisions, submitted it. Almost a year later, I received one of the most exciting e-mails of my life to date. The essay I wrote, at the time called “Northern Neck Dog Walk,” had been shortlisted in the selection process for the upcoming Chicken Soup for the Soul: Life Lessons from the Dog.

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Kat Simons, local Richmond radio personality, was kind enough to have Jack, Sadie, and me into the studio for an interview this afternoon. We talked about my upcoming fundraisers for two local animal shelters and the soon-to-be-released Chicken Soup for the Soul: Life Lessons from the Dog, in bookstores April 9.

Trying in vain not to get too excited, I started a group text including my parents, three siblings, in-laws, and half a dozen friends, and texted out my happy news, complete with far too many exclamation points and smiley face emojis. I e-mailed all of them, too–to make sure they got the message. Though it was difficult, I did manage to resist the urge to post my good news to social media, in the event that, in the end, nothing came of it.

Then, I waited–telling myself it was a big success to have made it even this far.

A few weeks later, I received official word that my essay had made the cut, and would be featured in the book, a fact I quickly plastered all over my Facebook and Instagram accounts.

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Sadie and Jack pose with a few copies of the book they’re in.

My complimentary copies of the books arrived last week, and I have been busy setting up fundraisers for Richmond Animal League, where my dogs inspired me to volunteer in their honor for roughly five years, and the Richmond SPCA, where Jack and I completed (and LOVED) several agility classes.

If I don’t already have enough to thank my precious little dogs for, I can now add publication, book signings, fundraisers, and a radio interview to the list of experiences they’ve given me.

 

Why You Should Join Writing Groups and Organizations

During a recent visit to the Northern Neck, I found myself sitting across from my aunt at a Mexican restaurant where we had met for lunch, along with my uncle, my husband, and my parents. As we noshed on tortilla chips, waiting for our burritos and fajitas and taco salads to arrive, she observed, “So, Amanda, it seems to me your writing has really taken off since you’ve gotten involved in a few writing groups.” Her observation is completely accurate. (And, if I know her, she’ll probably take credit for inspiring this blog post–as she should.)

While writing itself often requires at least some solitude, “no man is an island.” Since I’ve gotten more involved with Virginia Outdoor Writers Association (VOWA) and James River Writers, my writing has taken off, and I am learning more than I ever knew there was to learn–about writing, publishing, networking, motivation, you name it.

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My mom, me, my friend, Ashley, and my dad enjoy lunch at The Market at Grelen after the PSOV awards ceremony and poetry reading.

One of the benefits of becoming involved in–or at least aware of–the various writing groups in your area is learning about opportunities to enter contests. The Poetry Society or Virginia (of which I am also now a member) holds a contest I learned about when I attended the James River Writers Annual Conference. I entered several poems, and one earned second-place sonnet in one category of the contest. Not only did this success bolster my self-esteem and increase my enthusiasm, but it also meant I got to attend an awards ceremony and luncheon at a nursery near the mountains, where I not only had the opportunity to read my poem to an audience of fellow poets, but where I also got to sit in a greenhouse on a hillside and listen to dozens and dozens of other poets read their winning poems. I left the awards ceremony inspired, awed, and filled with creative energy. (I also bought a dragon plant I’d been eyeing in the greenhouse throughout the readings. It’s my poetree, and since I brought it home and re-potted it last April, it has grown and thrived in tandem with my writing practice.)

In addition to the opportunity to enter and maybe win writing contests, becoming involved with writing groups gives you the inside scoop on classes, workshops, and conferences. I learned about the year-long novel-writing class I enrolled in at VisArts at

VOWA
Ashley and I outside the Double Tree Hotel in Charlottesville, Virginia, with our Excellence-in-Craft award plaques.

the James River Writers Annual Conference. Had I not joined that group and attended that conference, I never would’ve learned of or taken that class. Had I not taken that class, I can almost guarantee you I would not have finished my second manuscript, and if I had (which is unlikely), it would not be nearly as strong as it is (though it still needs some work).

 

Participating in the class at VisArts not only ensured I completed my manuscript, but also allowed me to meet several other really talented writers, people I learned a lot from and who are still helping me with my writing today. And if that isn’t enough, it was through taking this class that I was asked by a classmate to co-chair the 2019 Writing Show with her. (Shameless plug: The next one is this Wednesday! Topic: How to Write a Killer Synopsis.) This opportunity has been priceless, and we’ve only just begun. Already, I have met so many intelligent, literary people; learned a TON about the writing industry; and been inspired over and over again. My involvement in James River Writers paved the way for me to take the VisArts class, which in turn paved the way for me to become more deeply involved with James River Writers.

My involvement in VOWA may also soon support my role as co-chair of The Writing Show. Yesterday, I attended VOWA’s Annual Conference. One of the panel discussions centered on how to please an editor. It just so happens the May Writing Show topic centers on how to make freelance writing financially rewarding. My hope is to contact one of the editors I heard speak to VOWA yesterday about speaking at The Writing Show in May.

“So, Amanda, it seems to me your writing has really taken off since you’ve gotten involved in a few writing groups.”

Finally, I learned about Life in 10 Minutes at a James River Writers class a few years ago. Since learning of Life in 10, I have taken several of their workshops, attended a one-day event, and taken a class. These experiences have produced several pieces of writing, a few of which have gone on to appear in sweatpantsandcoffee.com, Nine Lives: A Life in 10 Minutes Anthology, and more. I even got to interview Valley Haggard for a blog post, which was later republished in WriteHackr Magazine. The same class where I learned about Life in 10 Minutes was also the reason I finished my first manuscript.

Joining writing groups and becoming involved makes writing, usually so solitary, a social activity, in the most productive of ways.

Through a James River Writers newsletter, I learned about Cafe Zata, which is going to make an excellent outdoor venue for a dog-friendly book signing and reading coming up in May.

Joining writing groups and participating in their contests, classes, conferences, and workshops is not the only decision that has helped support my writing–my family, fellow writers, friends, and colleagues have also played a role–but joining writing groups and becoming involved makes writing, usually so solitary, a social activity, in the most productive of ways.

 

To Teach or Not to Teach (English)? Five Things You Should Know

I began my teaching career in the fall of 2006, just weeks after graduating from college and returning home from a five-month semester abroad in Germany. Nearly thirteen years later, I still teach at the same high school in the same classroom I walked into as a fresh-faced, 22-year-old, first-year teacher, barely older than my students. Looking back at the past decade or so, I realize there are a few things any aspiring English teacher might want to know.

Your life will be a revolving door of essays and papers to grade.

1. You are always going to have more grading than anyone else in your building. Ever. Stacks of essays, research papers, journals, etc., and they will require a lot of attention and time and thought and feedback. As soon as you finish grading one pile of papers, the next paper is due. Your life is a revolving door of essays.

If you can deal with #1, go ahead and read #s 2-5. If you can’t handle #1, just stop reading right now and reconsider your career path.

You will have the joy of discovering and rediscovering literature for the duration of your career.

2. You are going to get to know your students very well because of the things they write. They will often write things they will not say–things that will surprise, sadden, and delight you.

3. You are going to have the joy of discovering and rediscovering literature for the rest of your career. You are going to become an expert on the books you teach, and yet see something new in them–Every. Single. Time.

Writing college recommendation letters is a lot of work–but it’s also one way you will directly, positively impact your students’ futures.

4. Lots of students are going to ask you to write lots of college recommendation letters and scholarship letters because, well, presumably you can write. For the same reason, lots of students are going to ask you to look over their college admissions essays (as if you didn’t already have stacks of papers to read!). It’s a lot of work–but it’s also one way you directly, positively impact your students’ futures.

5. You will have opportunities to be active “in the field”–to judge, run, and enter writing contests, and to attend writing workshops, classes, and conferences. Of course, this is what you make it and you get what you put in. I try to take full advantage of this perk of the job. I believe participating in and facilitating contests, attending workshops, and completing classes all enrich me both personally and professionally. I also feel like the fact that I blog, publish articles and essays, and continue honing my craft and content knowledge earns me some credibility with my students  When they notice the byline on the framed articles around my classroom boasts my name, they are often surprised and in awe. When they see the awards for articles and poems on the windowsill, they often want to know about what I wrote. I could be wrong, but I feel like knowing I actually WRITE helps them feel like I am more capable of teaching THEM how to write. I am not just a talking head, parroting back the rules of writing; I am also a writer. I love that my job lets me directly engage with activities I would be doing anyway: writing and reading. And, often, my career as an English teacher directly SUPPORTS my writing endeavors outside the classroom, as well. Many times, I have earned professional development points for my teaching license. My school even supplemented the cost of my graduate degree in creative writing.

There are many reasons not to become an English teacher: endless stacks of papers and essays, trying desperately to help students understand Bryant’s “Thanatopsis,” standardized tests, the persistent struggle to find effective ways to teach proper grammar.

But, for me at least, the reasons to become an English teacher are even more numerous: watching students notice their own improved writing, taking advantage of professional development opportunities that also nurture your personal literary interests, diving deeply into beloved books, helping students learn to read between the lines. I could go on.

If you can stomach the less enjoyable aspects of the job (and, remember, every job involves these), the rewards–at least at my school–far outnumber the inconveniences and struggles.

 

 

 

 

Take a Hike! (Or a Walk… Or a Run…) And Then Write

I hadn’t run the first mile of this morning’s run when my mistake occurred to me, striding into my consciousness as clearly as the morning sun shone through the frigid air. I stopped mid-stride and unlocked my cell phone, accessing my e-mail.

“My pre-morning run mind must’ve been misfiring,” I typed as fast my thumbs could dance across the screen, in an attempt to explain the initial, embarrassingly erroneous e-mail I had sent not 20 minutes before setting out for this run. My mind, unaware of its own cloudiness before my run, had suddenly cleared as I ran. As my body warmed up to the run, my thoughts, too, became more awake and fluid and ran through my mind freely, unencumbered by any morning fog.

We all know people who live by the mantra: “But first, coffee.” I feel a similar sentiment, but my coffee is a morning walk with my dogs or a morning run (or, on a particularly good day, both).

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Jack, Sadie, and I enjoy a November morning walk on the shores of the Potomac River in the Northern Neck of Virginia, not far from the scene that inspired my essay, “The Reward,” which will appear in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Life Lessons from the Dog, set to be released April 9.

I don’t do anything important before my morning dog walk (I mean, besides breakfast–the most important meal of the day). I don’t have the mind for it yet. I need the time to move around outside in the fresh air and quiet, to gather my thoughts from wherever they roosted for the night and sort through them. My day–at least, the productive part of it–cannot start without this ritual: breathing the morning air, communing with nature, watching the morning roll in as my morning mind-fog rolls out. My body burns the calories and my mind burns off its fog.

I find the act of walking or hiking or running outside integral not only to my preparation for the day, but also to my writing. My personal essay “The Reward,” which will appear in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Life Lessons from the Dog, to be released April 9, was

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Sadie enjoys the boardwalk at Henricus Historical Park one morning this fall.

inspired by and tells the tale of a morning walk with my dogs. My essay, “The Mountains are Calling” describes, in part, a hike in Montana. My piece, “The moon was late to the party” also centers on a walk. While out walking or running, I have met countless interesting neighbors about whom I have written articles for The Villages News. I’ve even written longform articles about the benefits of walking your dog and how to maximize the advantages of your dog walk. Many of the descriptions of nature in my poetry, manuscripts, essays, and short stories come from scenes I witnessed or thoughts I had while out walking, hiking, or running.

Several years ago, I read a profile of a poet in Poets & Writers Magazine. I wish I could remember his name and the exact quote, but what I do remember is this: He loved to go for walks. He explained that he would begin a walk, his mind full of worries and stress over his own and the world’s problems. By the time he finished his walk, the

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Jack finds his stride on an early morning walk in Callao, Virginia.

problems were still there, but the worry and stress were gone. A walk’s ability to peel the worry way from problems allows us to think about them more clearly. This holds true not only for problems in our lives, but also for obstacles in our writing. I don’t typically begin a run or walk or hike with the intention of unraveling the knots in my tangled plot or finding a word to rhyme with “marathon” or “silver,” but often, the solutions and ideas simply present themselves as I move, as if the unrestrained movement of my body also releases my thoughts to wander my mind without hindrance or boundary.

This past summer, a neighbor let me borrow her copy of Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About RunningNow, several months later, one aspect of the book I remember most vividly is Murakami’s conviction that he runs so he can keep writing. And indeed, there are many parallels between running a long race and writing a long work.

“Don’t talk to me; I haven’t had my coffee yet” has never held true for me (which is good, because I don’t drink coffee, so I would be decidedly anti-social if it were true), but the same concept does hold true if I haven’t been outside for a walk yet.