The Book of Joy: A Response to the Final Pages

My greatest and broadest takeaway from pages 228-348 of The Book of Joy by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Douglas Abrams, was that everything is practical. So many teachings on how to live a more joyful life can seem abstract and theoretical, things I find myself saying, “Well, that sounds great in theory, but in practice, not so much” about. But in this book, almost everything was applicable to real life, in practice. 

Practical forgiveness is defined on page 234, when readers are advised by the Archbishop to see forgiveness as a means to freedom. “When we forgive,” he says, “we take back control of our own fate and our feelings. We become our own liberator.” A few pages later, on page 239, he explains a practical way to forgive: separate the person we perceived to have wronged us from his or her actions.

Practical gratitude is discussed on page 248, when the book describes how we can practice gratitude by writing gratitude lists or keeping gratitude journals. Engaging in these exercises helps us focus on what we have as opposed to what we don’t. “Gratitude,” Abrams writes, “means embracing reality. It means moving from counting your burdens to counting your blessings” (243). Now, doesn’t that have a nice ring to it? (Must be the alliteration.)

“Gratitude means embracing reality. It means moving from counting your burdens to counting your blessings.”

–Douglas Abrams

Practical compassion is also discussed, which is no surprise, considering “There is probably no word that the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop use more when describing the qualities worth cultivating than compassion” (337). The Dalai Lama tells readers that “when we think of alleviating other people’s suffering, our own suffering is reduced. This is the true secret to happiness. So this is a very practical thing. In fact, it is common sense” (254). The way to practice compassion in our daily lives, then, is to do our best to both understand and alleviate the suffering of others. As the Archbishop says, “It’s something that you have to work out in actual life” (255)–it is something practical, and reminds me a little of the command in the Bible that we all “work out your own salvation.”

On page 272, the book talks about educating youth to be compassionate. As an English teacher, I feel I have a real opportunity to engage in compassion education through the literature I read with my students. Books let us live other lives and walk in other shoes. They allow readers to experience situations and places and emotions and people they might not in their own real lives. Teaching literature is one way I can help educate students in compassion. 

The section on compassion also reminded me of the message conveyed in the required #EdEquityVA PD. Like the Dalai Lama says, “the only way to truly change our world is through teaching compassion” (296).

“The only way to truly change our world is through teaching compassion.

–His Holiness the Dalai Lama

These pages also focus on acceptance, an area in which I often struggle. I suffer from a dangerous idealism that drives my husband (and me, sometimes) crazy. Abrams writes about the Dalai Lama’s ability to “accept the reality of his circumstances but also to see the opportunity in every experience. Acceptance means not fighting reality” (243). When I was a junior in high school and my family was moving from Pennsylvania to Virginia, I overheard Art, a man who attended our church in Pennsylvania, say to my dad after the last service we would attend there, “Well, change is the only constant.” I was, at the time, appalled–and still today, I sometimes wish that awful truth weren’t true. But it is, and I was reminded of it when the Dalai Lama says, “Impermanence … is the nature of life” (unfortunately, I have no idea what page this is on). The fact behind that statement is difficult for me to accept, something I fight against a lot. I do not like change. Acceptance is a pillar I will need to cultivate. A lot.

Lately, I have been pondering the idea of “unselfed love,” and what those two words actually mean together. In my religious faith, our text, Science and Health with Key to the Joy coverScriptures by Mary Baker Eddy, includes the line: “The prayer that reforms the sinner and heals the sick is an absolute faith that all things are possible to God, — a spiritual understanding of Him, an unselfed love” (1:1-4). The Book of Joy has helped shed a little light on the subject of unselfed love for me. The Archbishop says, “So, our book says that it is in giving that we receive. So I would hope that people would recognize in themselves that it is when we are closed in ourselves that we tend to be miserable. It is when we grow in a self-forgetfulness–in a remarkable way I mean we discover that we are filled with joy” (263). I think the concept of unselfed love relates directly to the idea that when we forget ourselves and instead tend to the joy and lessen the suffering of others, we experience pure joy. There is a letting go of the self, the ego, involved. 

Lastly, I want to talk a little more about how these pages relate to my teaching practice and the English 11 curriculum. Lots of what I read reminds me of the Transcendentalists, which is maybe a little bit ironic, because they emphasized individualism so much, while the Archbishop and the Dalai Lama advocate for looking outside of oneself and to others, using the idea (and I paraphrase) “we are people through people.” Still, the idea that people must realize that “the source of happiness and satisfaction … is within themselves” (297) rings true with the Thoreau and Emerson’s advice that people must look within to find their true selves, and self-fulfillment. I also think excerpts of this book, particularly the death mediations, could pair really well with William Cullen Bryant’s poem, “Thanatopsis,” which translates to “a meditation on death” or “a view on death.”

“Joy is the happiness that does not depend on what happens. It is the grateful response to the opportunity that life offers you at this moment.”

–Brother Steindl-Rast

In the vein of education and curricula, I found it stunning that at the Tibetan Children’s Village, students “had been studying how to find joy and happiness in the face of adversity” (277). This was not an implied lesson or a byproduct of a larger unit geared towards passing a standardized test or earning a specific grade; they were studying joy for the sake of joy. Joy was the lesson. I would like to find a way to incorporate the teaching of joy, compassion, acceptance, forgiveness, gratitude, etc. more overtly in my current curriculum. I am hoping the lesson and unit plans from Positive Action, Inc., touched on in one of our required PD sessions for the summer, might help with this.

Along those lines, in English 11 Honors, we work throughout the semester to answer an essential question. Because the class is American Literature, the essential question we explore is: What does it mean to be American? I think this book has a place in helping answer this question. For the last two years and up until this year, when the pandemic canceled summer reading (which I really, truly hope is not a permanent change!), students enrolled in English 11 Honors for the upcoming school year read two books over the summer, Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck and Funny in Farsi by Firoozeh Dumas. Provided summer reading is reinstated in the future (please, please, please!), I would like to add The Book of Joy as the third book, as it provides a perspective different from the other two books (which are very different in their own right), and offers a very different idea about national (and human!) identity.

Now, I want to close with one of my favorite quotes from these pages, which comes from Brother Steindl-Rast: “Joy is the happiness that does not depend on what happens. It is the grateful response to the opportunity that life offers you at this moment” (245). Now, doesn’t that have a nice ring to it? (Must be the alliteration, assonance, and consonance.)

Guest Post: Finding the Good with Georgie Jane

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.

Lauren V
Wearing her signature pink flower, Georgie shares Lauren’s lap with Gus, the family’s second rescue dog.

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

Lauren II
Georgie and Gus in their Christmas garb

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.

Lauren I
Lauren, her husband, Georgie, and Gus pose for a holiday portrait.

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.

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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.

Author Bio

Lauren headshotLauren 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.

First Place Essay: My Return to Mountain Biking

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 Mtn Bikecreativity 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!

Littles in the sun
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!

Call for Submissions: Write About Your Dog!

It’s probably pretty obvious, but I’ll say it just in case: I love writing and I love dogs. My dogs, Jack, Sadie, Nacho, and Soda, have inspired me in so many areas of my life–including my writing life, and it occurred to me recently that that might be true for a lot of you, your writing, and your dogs, too. So, in honor of my love (and yours!) for my dogs and for writing, I invite you to submit your own original piece of writing for consideration as a guest post on this blog. Before writing and submitting your own piece for consideration, I recommend reading this post as an example of the types of work likely to be accepted. Please do not feel like your submission has to focus on the pandemic; to the contrary, I welcome submissions about any way your dog has ever helped you see the bright side of things, lifted you up, taught you a lesson, cheered you up, kept you going, or made you smile. Posts will be accepted for consideration until 11:59 PM June 16, 2020.

Guest Post Nacho and Soda
My dogs have proven to be extremely inspirational to me. Above, Soda and Nacho take a break from paddleboarding on the Potomac River in the Northern Neck of Virginia.

Submission Guidelines

  1. Writers certify that they are 18 years of age or older.
  2. Prose submissions should consist of 250-550 words and poetry submissions should be 24 lines or fewer.
  3. All submissions should respond to the prompt: Write about how your dog/dogs has/have been a positive presence and influence in your life.
  4. Submissions should include a short bio of the writer, ranging between 50 and 75 words
  5. Submissions can include up to three photos of the dog(s) written about.

    Guest Post Soda
    Soda relaxes on a beach along the Potomac River.
  6. Writers agree to allow their full name, submission, bio, and photos to appear on this blog and the associated Instagram account, as well as on other associated social media accounts.
  7. Writers of accepted submissions agree to spread the word about their guest post on their own social media, including by sharing a link to their published piece on their own social media accounts and/or websites and by tagging the Mind the Dog Writing Blog Instagram account.
  8. All submissions must be original and true.
  9. Submissions may not have been published anywhere else at any time.
  10. Writers retain all rights to their work but are asked to acknowledge Mind the Dog
    Guest Post Nacho
    From the sand, Nacho watches his daddy paddle back to shore.

    Writing Blog as the original publisher should the piece be published elsewhere in the future.

  11. Writers will not be paid, but will be featured on Mind the Dog Writing Blog and the associated Instagram account, including with links and tags to their social media accounts and/or websites.
  12. To submit a piece of writing, your bio, and up to three relevant photos, email your submission to MindtheDogWritingBlog@gmail.com by 11:59 PM June 16.
  13. Please allow at least three weeks after submitting your post for a response.

Don’t like to write or have a dog, but know someone who does? Please share this opportunity with them!

Have questions? Feel free to comment here, DM me on Instagram, or shoot me an email at MindtheDogWritingBlog@gmail. com. I can’t wait to read what you write!

National Poetry Month: Thirty Poems in Thirty Days

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

“Sadie’s Song”

I don’t have music
to put the words to—
the sonorous howl
of my sweet Sadie Blue,
but this is Sadie’s song:

“Jack, Jack—
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:

“Jack, Jack—
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…

 

Day 23: Dream

I’m always happy
when I wake
from a dream
about you.

But I’d be happier still
if you were still
here
beside me.

Best Nap

 

Day 2: Neighbor

Julie & Ed’s dogwood tree blooms both pink &
white
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
our dogs.
Fourteen years of shared time, shared space,
have made each new For Sale sign a
betrayal—
these stretches of street the only ribbon tying
us all together, unraveling, until one day
Nobody knows my dogs
or Melody
or Larry with his stick
and Julie & Ed’s dogwood blooms for
somebody new.

Day 3: Air

“Airborne”

An osprey catches
an updraft,
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
every summer.

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
up
the
slide.

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
sun.
I stood on the bank, watched your swirling
waters beat between rocks like blood
through
Veins.
End of spring I will stretch across a sun-
warmed
Rock,

Drench myself in your watery womb
And emerge glowing, reborn—
Yes. Now, it is
Summer.

Day 12: Else

“Easter Morning: Turn to Something Else”

I was supposed
to do something

else today.

Be somewhere
else.

Eat something
else.

I had my own plans—
and a sense of entitlement to their
fruition.

But I recall the man
who turned

from the pool
to see Jesus—

and walked.

And I think of Mary,
turning

herself
to see Jesus—

and recognizing
her Master.

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

around—
and saw the sunset out the window behind
me,
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
Else.”

Day 13: Pretty

“Pretty on Paper”

I am pretty—
on paper:
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
a runway
(Can’t have you taller than the boy, you see).

When I was in my twenties, my sister (prettier
than I)
told me I just kept getting
prettier.

The trend has begun
to reverse,
but I have learned pretty
does not mean
perfect.

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
inside,
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

“Freddy 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
ground,
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
dead.”

 

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 couch,
my back deck,
my fire pit.
I will miss
sweatpants and hoodies and Crocs
all day.
I will miss takeout
“because it’s just easier.”

When this is over
I will
wear a little makeup again.
(Maybe.)
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
(a heron),
take a road trip,
resume my monthly massages.

But right now
I wonder—
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
having existed
together
for a while,
having shared some
of the same space,
at some
of the same time.

But it’s not over,
not really.
Only the nature
of our relationship
has changed.

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 sign
Each impulse to be kind

It’s you.

 

Day 29: April

“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
out front—

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
I’m sorry
I’m sorry
The whole universe loves you—

In its season.

Day 30: May

“May I?”

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.

Poetry Littles
Nacho and Soda snuggle on the couch, seemingly sharing a secret.

Word of the Week: Biophilic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, go forth! You have been linguistically empowered!

 

 

 

 

Planning a Night In for the Literary

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

Game Night

  • Scrabble

  • Liebrary

  • Balderdash

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

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

Movie Night

  • The Professor and the Madman

  • The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

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

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

Netflix and Chill

  • Anne with an E

  • You

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

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

Writing Contests

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

 

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.

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.

Poetree III
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.

 

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

walk
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.