I’ve been a little absent from the blog lately, but it hasn’t been without good reason. After receiving favorable feedback from a small press back in August, I’ve been working diligently on revisions of my manuscript, formerly titled The Experiment, recently retitled An Expected End. It’s no secret I would love to see this manuscript morph into a real book, one that is “absolutely real,” with “pages and everything,” to quote Owl Eyes in Fitzgerald’s famed The Great Gatsby. To that end, in addition to continuing to look into agents and small presses, I have entered the piece in the Inkshares All-Genre Manuscript Contest.
As part of the contest, I will be posting a new chapter of my manuscript every Tuesday and Friday (with the exception of Christmas day; I will post Tuesday and Wednesday that week). To read them, just visit An Expected End on Inkshares, and click “Read” just under the cover (which is not the actual cover yet).
If you like what you read, a cross between Adam Silvera’s novel They Both Die at the Endand the 2004 film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and want to help my manuscript move forward in the contest for its chance at publication, I invite you to follow the project on Inkshares, leave comments in the Discussion, and write a review in the Reviews tab. One element of the contest involves reader engagement, so if you follow the manuscript, any time you read, discuss, or review it, you’ll be helping it find its way to bookstore shelves!
If you really like what you read, I hope you’ll pre-order your own copy of the book. After 750 pre-orders are placed, Inkshares will commit to publication, regardless of the manuscript’s performance in the contest. If the manuscript doesn’t reach 750 pre-orders, everyone who pre-ordered a copy will receive a refund.
So, let me send you off with a book blurb, in the hopes that it will whet your appetite to head on over to Inkshares and follow An Expected End (the first chapter is already up!).
The year is 2045 and science has made a breathtaking discovery: People can predict, with incredible accuracy, the day that any man, woman, or child will die. But Penelope Hope won’t accept that. She wants to live her life without the overwhelming knowledge of her death, no matter how many people in society choose to learn their deathday (officially known as one’s Date of Departure, or DoD). That is until her self-centered fiancé, Sebastian Flach, and her spunky best friend, Bea Adams, convince her to enroll in the Experiment and learn her deathday for the sake of her future family. What she learns turns her world upside down, breaks up her engagement, brings new love into her life, and forces her to make a stark choice: Does she tell her new love, Marshall Mitner, whose child she now carries, that she will die very soon, or force him to live in the ignorant bliss she wanted all along–and break his heart?
There is something particularly fertile about the thoughts that float between the waking life and the sleeping, that swim in the twilight of consciousness. I have known for years now that I am most creative and most open when my self is out of the way, in a state where only mind and imagination exist, independent of any self, any ego, any personal effort. Even when I feel fully awake and aware, when I have found what is known as “flow,” it seems I am merely a conduit for my creation, not its personal author.
In this way, praying and writing are not unlike. I write best from my proverbial closet, my mind closed to all the minutiae of daily existence, and open to everything–anything–else.
I had two experience with this phenomenon this week alone. The first was mid-week. Nacho woke me up for a quick potty break around 2:30 in the morning. For whatever reason, as I pulled the fleece sheets back over my shoulders and settled into bed again, a concrete thought, born no doubt of some unconscious musings still lingering in my mind, so recently asleep, presented itself to me in isolation: “We think our plans are set in stone.” And after that, another thought, and another–until it became clear to me that I was writing a poem, a poem about planning–and its futility (perhaps or perhaps not inspired by what it’s like to be a teacher right now. Read: near daily unexpected and inconvenient if not debilitating technology glitches, students with quarantine dates that continually change, the absolute necessity for patience and flexibility).
I stayed awake for maybe 30 minutes, reciting the stanzas over and over again in my head to cement them there for when I could write them down. (On my to-do list: a bedside writing station). Plagued by a slight fear of losing them (as often happens) before fully awake, I awoke several times between 3:00 and 5:15, each time reciting–and slightly revising–the poem in my head. As I finished breakfast a little before 6:00, after I had fed the Littles and let them out to potty, I finally wrote it down in my journal:
The Insanity of Humanity
"The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."
--Not Albert Einstein
We think our plans are set in stone,
this life, this time--all our own,
entitled to our every plan--
Oh! the arrogance of man!
Until catastrophe takes shape,
putting us back in our place,
reminding us we're not as great
as destiny or cruel fate.
So we retreat to lick our wounds,
gather comfort from the gloom,
then emerge renewed, refreshed,
having learned we don't know best.
But then we lament what might've been,
and the cycle starts again.
The second experience was early this morning, long before sunrise.
I am currently working on revisions of a manuscript for a novel I submitted to a small press under the working title The Experiment. Among the many revisions suggested to me was to come up with a better–a more apt–title (fair enough, as the working title applied to the very earliest conception of the piece, but really isn’t very relevant to its current form). I received this feedback in August, and have been struggling to divine the perfect title ever since. Over the course of the last couple days, several have materialized out of my half-awake mind, four of them in succession this morning. I now have a list of fifteen potential titles. Maybe I’ll use one; maybe the perfect one has yet to arrive. Either way, I have begun to have fun–and usually (as in when I am awake), titling a work proves a struggle for me. (And let’s not even get into the (albeit beautiful and fulfilling) struggle that is revising an entire manuscript!) Here are the now fifteen working titles:
One Thing Certain in an Uncertain World (thematic; also a phrase that pops up here and there in the manuscript)
Every Plan is a Tiny Prayer to Father Time (thematic; lyric from Death Cab for Cutie‘s “What Sarah Said”)
An Hourglass Glued to the Table (thematic; partial lyric from Anna Nalick‘s “Breathe (2 AM)”)
T-Minus (thematic; plot-inspired; suggested to me by one of my readers)
In So Many Sunsets (thematic)
All the Water in the River (thematic; symbolic; related to the symbolic motif of the James River in the manuscript)
Time is But a Stream I Go A-Fishing In (thematic; symbolic; a quote from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden)
The Water in the River Flows Only One Way (thematic; symbolic; related to the symbolic motif of the James River in the manuscript)
And now, perhaps because I am fully awake, I am having trouble writing a conclusion for this post. Maybe I should try later tonight–from the quiet confines of my bedroom and the soft desk that is my pillow; after all, I write best when I’m asleep.
The first time I saw Mary Oliver’s book of poems, Dog Songs, it was sitting on a short stack of books on my mother-in-law’s coffee table in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. I wondered how it was possible I didn’t know such a book–one seemingly written for me, if I took it at its cover–existed without my knowing about it. I thumbed through it, but between walks on the sound, visits to Seagreen Gallery, naps, and various other weekend endeavors, I kept too busy to give it a good reading.
I left with the intention of buying my own copy to explore.
That was in January or February.
In March, the pandemic made its entrance into mainstream American experience, and we didn’t return to the Outer Banks to visit my mother-in-law until July. I read a few of the collection’s poems, but the TV was on and the family room conversation was interesting, and I couldn’t properly focus.
I left with the intention of buying my own copy to explore.
In August, I sat cross-legged on the floor, my knees under my mother-in-law’s coffee table. Dog Songs still sat on top of the short stack, where I’d left it the month before. The family room was quiet. Nacho and Soda were gnawing on antlers near my feet. I picked up the book and read it, almost in its entirety. Compelled to write in it, I got on Amazon right away–and finally bought my own copy to explore.
It arrived on my front porch three days later. Between now and then, I have dog-eared most of the pages in the book (which seems appropriate for a book named Dog Songs), and written notes, memories, ideas, and inspirations on just as many.
This morning, while my husband ate his pancakes, he nodded at the book where it sat beside my elbow on the kitchen table.
“Look at all the pages you’ve dog-eared in Dog Songs,” he said. “You must’ve really loved that book.”
And I did. In addition to making me feel like Mary Oliver and I are kindred spirits in terms of how we perceive and relate to dogs, her book made me think, laugh, cry, and remember. Here is someone who feels about dogs the same way I do.
On a more literary level, I was deeply impressed with the book’s depth, and the deceptive simplicity with which it digs. Oliver’s poem, “For I Will Consider My Dog Percy,” which appears on page 69 of the book, provides a perfect example. She describes Percy as “a mixture of gravity and waggery” (71)–and so is the book itself, filled with poems of sorrow, philosophy, joy, grief, pleasure. Poems like “The Wicked Smile” and “A Bad Day” bring humor to the collection, while others, such as “Dog Talk,” are more sobering.
Through her poems, Oliver seems to express the disconnect that sometimes exists between our human expectations of dogs, and a dog’s true nature. The poem that begins the book is aptly called “How It Begins” (though, of course, “it” is not just the book). This poem begins with the assertion that “A puppy is a puppy is a puppy” (1). Many subsequent poems in the book seem to echo the message that a dog is a dog is a dog, no matter our efforts to change him, whether through breeding or training. “Her Grave” advises readers, “A dog comes to you and lives with you in your own house,/but you/do not therefore own her, as you do not own the rain, or the/trees or the laws which pertain to them” (25). In “Dog Talk,” she reminds readers, “Dog promises and then forgets, blame him not. He understands what is wanted; and tries, and tries again, and is good for a long time, and then forgets” (115).
In her poem “A Bad Day,” Oliver imagines a conversation with her dog Ricky, during which he says, “‘Honestly, what do you expect? Like/you, I’m not perfect, I’m only human'” (93). The book as a whole seems to remind us that dogs–and people–should be left free to live according to their own nature, embracing their imperfectness. Her poem “School” describes a dog many people might label a “bad dog” or a “dumb dog.” The first several lines of the poem describe the speaker’s inability to get the dog to listen or obey. It defies, ignores, or misunderstands every command it is issued, “like a little wild thing/that was never sent to school” (49). The last four lines of the poem, however, reveal that this “dumb” dog is perhaps wiser than the speaker. “It is summer,” the speaker says as the epiphany breaks. “How many summers does a little dog have?/Run, run, Percy. This is our school” (49). In “Dog Talk,” Oliver asserts that a dog “that all its life walks leashed and obedient down the sidewalk–is what a chair is to a tree. It is a possession only, the ornament of a human life,” but “There is not a dog that romps and runs but we learn from him…Only unleashed dogs can do that” (119).
As the dozens of dog-eared pages in my book can testify, many of the poems in Dog Songs speak to me, but the one that touched me the most deeply–the one that makes me cry and smile and ache and sigh– is “The First Time Percy Came Back,” on page 77. This poem echoes my own experience with Jack, and all the times he has come back–one as recent as yesterday, when Matty, the Littles, and I found a sock on the trail to Fossil Beach in Westmoreland State Park.
Finally, a note on the layout of the book: The left page of every spread is blank. My first instinct was to dismiss this choice as a waste of paper–imagine all the trees that could have been spared had the backs of pages been utilized for text. But as I read, I found myself penning my own poems onto those empty pages, pressed between Oliver’s verse. Those blank backs-of-pages weren’t a waste of paper at all; they were there waiting for me to fill them with my own inspiration from Oliver’s work. And I have, and will likely continue to for a long, long time.
Below are some works-in-progress that resulted from my reading of Dog Songs, which, I am sure you realize by now, I recommend (and to be honest, I could go on and on about the symbolism of the unleashed dog, the metaphors Oliver uses to convey the lessons dogs have taught her and the lessons they can teach humanity, the theme that dogs connect us to our origins–but this is a blog post, not a book–so I’ll just let you read the book for yourself).
you were hungry and alone--
only you did not
know what hunger
or what aloneness
only that you
And you never
went hungry again,
nor were you alone.
This is Love Eternal
No matter how many years we share,
it will not seem like enough.
And no matter how aware you are that some day will be our last day,
you will not be ready.
You will not be ready
to say goodbye
when I am ready to go.
And yet this does not stop us from starting.
And this is love eternal, though time is limited.
But it was never about how you would feel losing me--
only about you what you could give me.
I know that.
You will feel like you let me down
and wonder why you didn't do better;
you will feel like there's a hole in your heart,
an emptiness in your day.
It is an end you know will bring sorrow,
but it is unselfish and glorious and beautiful,
and no sorrow is deep enough to
steal this love.
For this is love eternal, though time is limited.
And sometimes you will look at me
and, thinking it impossible, you will wonder
how you will ever love
this much or
after I have
left this world of particulars,
you will look at
the face of a little,
and her brother,
and you will know--
I didn't take up all the room in your heart;
I just made it bigger.
Roommates with God
My husband said
living with Jack
roommates with God.
And in the way
that God is
that is true.
Sumo Says Goodbye
There’s not a clear cell signal here, but there’s a clear view of the milky way.
And here it is that Saturday morning, we laid Sumo to rest beside Smokey and Baxter, under trees, where crickets chirp all day long in the perpetual twilight of the shade.
He died Friday afternoon, outside in front of the house on Goddin Street.
That very day I’d been thinking Sumo probably had several more years left, just plugging along like he had been.
On Wednesday, Matty’s birthday, we saw him for the last time. He’d become so low-maintenance, he was almost a non-entity. He would greet us and was then happy just to sleep on the floor in the room where everyone was, sometimes staying there long after we’d switched locations, maybe not knowing we’d moved, maybe his near-blindness and near-deafness hiding our departure from him.
And now he has departed from us, as quietly and invisibly as we had from him a hundred times before, not saying goodbye, not wanting to stir him from his slumber.
And now we are as surprised at his departure–taken so as not to disturb us–as he, waking up to find himself alone, must’ve been at ours a hundred times before.
Charlie is 14 pounds of Toxirn courage. He is aggressively friendly and has never met a person who doesn’t love him. This little guy has a long list of funny fears, though. He hates bicycles, mopeds, and unknown items by the curb on large trash day. He hates the robot vacuum that, to him, turns itself on and chases him around the house. He even hates walkers. Imagine my surprise when we first adopted him and he barked not at random strangers, but at an elderly woman with a walker!
The thing about Charlie, though, is that he’s incredibly brave. In such a big world, he is always gentle to creatures smaller than himself. He adores head rubs and scratches
behind the ears from children, even as they run at him in groups clambering to love the little dog. “Look how tiny he is!” they giggle with delight, even sometimes awkwardly trying to pick him up. He licks their faces all the same. He fearlessly runs to greet huge dogs and doesn’t think twice about the fact the other dog could eat him for breakfast. He doesn’t care, either, because in his mind, he’s just saying hello. He’s incredibly happy and loves to share his toothy smile with everyone.
What’s amazing is that this boy doesn’t hide from things that scare him, but confronts them directly, barking to deter them. He perches on the edge of the couch to valiantly defend it from the vacuum. He barks menacingly at dogs walking in front of our house…on the other side of the street. This is his home and he wants to make that clear!
Charlie shows me it’s okay to be scared, but to face those fears instead of hiding from them. When he’s around, it becomes clearer what it means to be a good person and have an appetite for life. Above all, he proves that love wins in the end. People will still love you even when you look a little wild (up to and including having Albert Einstein hair). Happiness is achievable just by virtue of being around the people who love us most.
Charlie’s people are everything to him, and that’s perhaps the most profound message anyone can learn. Community, family, and love for others are some of the strongest
bonds we can create. It doesn’t take money or fame to achieve true happiness, but compassionate connection and the realization that we’re all just people trying to live joyful lives. We often get caught up in surviving monetarily and forget the simple pleasures – Charlie doesn’t, though. Watching him really puts life into perspective.
We are Charlie’s people, and he is our boy. I can’t imagine a life without this smiling, tiny-mustachioed boy who is a continual source of joy in our lives. It’s just a plus that he proves taking multiple naps in a day is completely acceptable.
Rachel Tindall is a passionate writer, blogger, and writing confidence coach. She has worked with numerous students in the classroom and building confidence in others is at the heart of all she does. When she’s not writing, she’s reading books, learning and building her business Capturing Your Confidence, watching lame TV shows with her husband, and playing with her adorably sassy dog, Charlie. Find her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and LinkedIn.
One year ago today, Matty and I drove to the Richmond SPCA to meet “that little brown dog” (Soda) we had been thinking about for a month. During our meet-and-greet, we learned she had a brother–a tiny brown and white boy, then named Scotch. The adoption counselor said we could take them home for a trial sleepover, which we did–both of us knowing this “trial” wasn’t really a trial. Soda and Scotch were almost as good as our own.
After an evening of walks and snuggles and deciding Scotch’s name would have to change so we didn’t come off as lushes when people asked us what our dogs’ names were, Matty woke up the next morning and looked at me across our pillows, the little tiny dogs still asleep in our king-sized bed with us. “Nacho,” he said. And with the renaming, their adoption was solidified for us. A few hours later, we were back at the SPCA, signing the official adoption paperwork.
So, in honor of Nacho and Soda’s one-year “Gotcha Day,” here is the essay I wrote about them last summer, which would go on to win a $5,000 grant for the Richmond SPCA from the Petco Foundation.
It was mid-June. School had just let out for the summer. All year, I’d been looking forward to this time with my dogs, Jack and Sadie—trips to the river, after-walk naps together, sunset strolls in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. That is what my summers had been made of for the last thirteen years—my entire adult life. My entire teaching career. My entire marriage. But this summer was different; Jack and Sadie had passed away. On this June afternoon as I turned my key in the backdoor, in place of a wiggling whippet and baying beagle: silence. I was alone. No dogs to walk. No dogs to feed. No dogs to settle in beside me on the couch while I wrote or read, waiting for my husband to get home. I didn’t know who I was without my dogs. The structure of my day disintegrated without them. Empty house, empty heart.
Soda was my glimmer of hope. She was a tiny, bright-eyed Chihuahua-terrier my husband and I had tried very hard not to see during our volunteer orientation at the Richmond SPCA several weeks before. She was six months old, not quite five
pounds, and seemed to expend all her energy attempting to engage us. Wherever we maneuvered ourselves in the group of volunteers, Soda weaseled her way around her corner kennel to position herself in our view, wagging her tail, wiggling her entire tiny body, and earnestly seeking eye contact. We looked away, went home, and didn’t talk about her until two weeks later when my husband asked, “Have you thought about that little brown dog?”
“Every day,” I answered.
We inquired about her, and within three days of Sadie’s passing, we got a call: Soda was available for adoption—and she had a littermate. We adopted them. Once more, we were a pack of four: my husband, Soda, Nacho, and I. The family felt whole again. Soda and Nacho renewed my sense of purpose and identity. Taking them to training classes at the Richmond SPCA with my husband, beginning and ending my days on a walk with them, and exploring the East Coast together all summer has given me the sense of fulfillment I lost when I kissed Jack and Sadie goodbye.
Recently, we were on the beach with friends. The Littles, as we’ve come to call them, trotted behind me wherever I went. “Do they follow you around like this at home?” a friend asked.
I thought for a second. They sleep with me in bed each night. Nacho shares my chair when I eat breakfast every morning. When I pull back the shower curtain, they’re both looking up at me from the bath mat. “Yeah,” I said. “They do.” I never felt more alone than I did at the beginning of this summer, but with Soda and Nacho, I am never alone. Thanks to two tiny dogs who weigh less than 15 pounds combined, my heart, so recently hollow, has begun to heal.
A few days ago, while at the grocery store, I noticed that out of the folks who were wearing protective masks, a few of them had fashioned a bow on the top of their heads with the top tie of the mask. Particularly striking was the elderly woman in the motorized cart, grabbing produce, the top ties of her mask fashioned into a Minnie Mouse bow atop her head. It seemed so out of place: a contrast of an unexpected innocence and purity amid a merciless pandemic, a swarming store of covered people, whose expressions were hidden, fighting for the best bunch of bananas, and an accidentally gleeful cartoon of a woman.
The bow was akin to a bouquet of flowers centered on a table surrounded by a bickering family. It put me in mind of the pink flower my rescue beagle, Georgie Jane, cheerfully wore.
Before she was my Georgie, CALC0E, as reads the serial code tattooed inside of her velvety left ear, spent the first six years of her existence stuffed into a communal cage, being used for laboratory testing. She was then purchased and used by a college for a veterinary class, prior to her dump at a local animal shelter. She needed a foster home: a halfway stop between her past and her future, ideally in a loving home.
All too familiar with being handled, she froze and locked her little body when I lifted her from the kennel at the shelter to take her to my house to foster. She was programmed to
brace herself, reflexively entering her self-protective state in preparation for a poke or a stick. She vomited during our car ride.
Over the next several days, I sat on the floor with CALC0E, holding her kibble in my outstretched hand during mealtime. Scurrying up to me, she would arrive to snatch the food from my hand with a strained neck and stretched, ready legs, prepared to dash off to the other room as she chewed.
She watched me constantly. She kept track of my position and whereabouts, and I witnessed her pause to discover her reflection in a mirror when her eyes left me long enough to explore. She learned to play, choosing a dancing leaf on the ground outside as her victim, rather than the furry squeaker toys piled in the corner.
She learned to let me pet her without self-protection, free from freezing into defensive please-let-this-be-over-soon mode. I clothed her in a striped sweater. She accepted a collar with a nametag and a fuschia flower, which, after signing the adoption paperwork, I decided would be her trademark. It represented the pink announcement of a birth into a new life, and the “It’s a Girl” declaration to the world, bearing the name “Georgie.”
She was at once difficult and easy to love. She was challenging and a piece of cake. She is ready and apprehensive and timid and eager and nervous and anxious always. She is every side of me I cannot stand, and every part which I love and accept in her. She never settles, and neither did I; neither do I.
I rarely tire of watching Georgie while she is in her curiosity, though on running-late-I-need-to-be-somewhere days, I am impatient with the amount of time her snout requires to discover THAT pavement smell or THIS damp leaf. I am always worried when she wades through fall’s leaves (thanks to THAT time she sniffed too close to a copperhead’s bite). I can never see my television show over her body as she stands on my chest, the pointy part of her head pushed against my face. Recently, a pillow fort was necessary to prevent her from leaping onto me post-surgery and unfixing my fixed figure.
It makes me happy to hear her beagle bark as she sasses me into a cookie (read: carrot) after potty outside. I cannot help my amusement when I see her stuffed tummy after I catch her (again) breaking into that drawer where we should know better than to keep food. I purse my lips to keep from laughing when I tell her “it’s not time yet” as she tries to convince me she’s ready for dinner. She has a million nicknames, and answers to all of them. She is happy with her entire, wiggling body.
Don’t we all deserve a CALC0E: a pink sweater; a pavement smell, a leaf-wading, wagging, sniffing, curiously timid chance of letting ourselves out of a reflexively protective life and into a Georgie Jane one? I believe we all deserve to find the Minnie Mouse bow, or the fuschia flower, in the middle of what can be a pandemic of tunnel-visioned, I-was-the-first-to-the-bananas selfishness.
Lauren Mosher is a self-proclaimed escapee of the corporate world. She is active in the community with her volunteer work, both in animal rescue and human welfare movements. She loves pink, has resided on both sides of the river (but won’t admit a favorite), and enjoys living the good vegan life. Lauren now resides in Midlothian, Virginia, with her two rescue dogs and her husband.
Want to share a story about your dog(s)? I would love to read it! To learn about submitting your own story, click here. Deadline: June 16.
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!
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.