Podcast Host Jessica Bowser Discusses the Value of Journaling About Outdoor Experiences

Jessica Bowser, host of the Virginia Outdoor Adventures Podcast, began Virginia State Parks Trail Quest in 2015, visiting every state park over the course of five years. In 2019, when then-state parks director Craig Seaver gifted her with a state parks journal while she was visiting Natural Tunnel State Park, she began journaling about the experience. In the interview below, Bowser talks about the great outdoors, writing, and mental health.

INSPIRED BY OTHER PEOPLE’S STORIES

Mind the Dog Writing Blog: You don’t normally journal in your everyday life. What made you decide to journal about your state park visits?

A cozy fireside at Hungry Mother State Park provides the perfect place for Bowser to write about her experience at the park in March 2020.

Jessica Bowser: The inspiration came from the journals in each of the cabins. When you leaf through those journals, you find people have had very different experiences, even though they are all staying in the same place and the same activities are available to everyone; everyone makes it uniquely their own. You read about something funny that happened with a  pet they brought with them, or some people are newlyweds on their honeymoon. Other people are locals who have family traditions of returning to the same park every year.  You read their personal stories. For example, when I was at Hungry Mother State Park, I was reading an entry from a family that comes every year, and the husband/father is a coal miner–so they had to come during a time that worked out for the coal mining schedule. It was the only vacation that they got every year and that was what they did: They went to Hungry Mother. They stayed in the cabin. They went paddling and swimming in the lake and hiking, and then a few days later, they would have to get back so that he could go back to coal mining. I thought that was so unique. I live up in Northern Virginia. There’s no coal mining up here, and it really is representative of part of the state that unfortunately, a lot of people are unfamiliar with. I love to read these stories and hear about other people’s lives and learn about other people. That is what made me think I should also be keeping a record of my own journey, because I do get around so often that there’s a lot to write about and a lot of things I want to remember and be able to look back on. Those journals prompt you to enter a lot of different information, and so when I do go back and read it, I can think about things that were very specific to that trip that I probably would have otherwise forgotten.

THE VALUE OF RE-READING PAST ENTRIES: REMEMBERING THE PAST, PLANNING FOR THE FUTURE

MTDWB: How often do you go back and read your journal entries? What effect does doing so have on you?

JB: I don’t read them terribly often, but when I am actually at a cabin and I finish an entry, I sometimes flip back and see what else I had written months or even a year or more before. The whole purpose of the journal is to keep a record of what I’ve done so that I can remember my experience. If I don’t go back and read it, then I’m not fulfilling that goal. The benefit that it has, is it brings up a lot of fond memories, but then it also makes me think, ‘Oh, I really want to get back here and do this other thing’ or ‘There’s another park I want to visit that I haven’t been to in a while where I can also have this same experience.’ For example, if I really enjoyed kayaking at Belle Isle, it makes me think, ‘What parks have I not kayaked at?’– because I didn’t have my kayak until last year, so where else do I want to get back to? Well, Smith Mountain Lake is one place that I would love to kayak. I’ll be there this June and I’ll get to have that experience. When I read my journal, I can think about what else I’d like to do in the future, but also be reminded of interesting and fun and meaningful things that have happened in the past.

When I read my journal, I can think about what else I’d like to do in the future, but also be reminded of interesting and fun and meaningful things that have happened in the past.

ON ADAPTING THE JOURNALS TO A PUBLISHED PIECE

MTDWB: Would you ever consider publishing your journal(s) in some form? Why or why not?

JB: I hadn’t thought about it, but now that you say it out loud, it sounds like a future book! It’s interesting you say that, because part of the reason I started the podcast is because there’s a real lack of diversity and also a lack of representation of pretty much all groups except white men, but women specifically. It’s lacking in the outdoor industry and it’s lacking in podcasting, so a podcast by a woman about the outdoors is sort of filling the gap in two different spaces. The larger group that is interested in the podcast are women my age, which isn’t surprising. I think it really appeals to them because they don’t usually hear about somebody like themselves doing this.      

REFLECTING ON EXPERIENCES

MTDWB: How did you feel about journaling during your visits?

JB: Even on the nights when I was really exhausted and I’d think, ‘Oh, gosh. I haven’t done this yet and I really need to,’ I never dreaded it. If it was a chore, I probably wouldn’t do it–I do enjoy doing it. I do like thinking about all the things I might have otherwise missed. I’d really think about what I did on Day One, what I did on Day Two. I’d ask myself how did that make me feel, what did I enjoy about it, what would I like to do differently, what would I like to do when I come back. It was reflective. You do have to really think about everything you did and why you did it and could it be different and was it worth it and all of the things. As an educator, I come at it from having that practice of being reflective and journaling. I appreciate being able to think about what the purpose and the meaning is while I’m writing.

ON JOURNALING AND MINDFULNESS

MTDWB: How did you feel after each entry?

JB: Tired! I only say that because I always journal at night and after a long day, I just want to crawl into bed. I felt fulfilled because I took the time to think about my experience. Oftentimes, we go through the motions and while we might be enjoying it in the moment, once it’s over, sometime we don’t think about it anymore because we’re on to the next thing. Even sometimes while were doing something, we’re not always present. I think that is something people are starting to become more aware of, and they are trying to be more in the moment. That’s something that I personally am working on and I think that journaling is helping me do that more because I have to pay attention to what I’m doing and not let my brain wander. Especially now, as a podcast host, that has crept into my personal life. I have to figure out where the boundaries are for that, because I can no longer just go out for a hike and enjoy the hike. The whole time I’m out there, I’m thinking, ‘what content am I going to come back with and what kind of photos and what kind of video and how do I present this to people?’ As a former educator, I’m also thinking, ‘What questions would people have about this?’ It really takes away from a lot of my experience, so the journaling helps me to be more present in the moment and to enjoy it more because I know I am going to be reflecting on it later.

Bowser journals by the fireside in a cabin at James River State Park in November 2020.

Journaling helps me to be more present.

JOURNALING: GROWTH THROUGH REMEMBERING

MTDWB: Did anything surprise you about your journaling experience?

JB: I think the thing that surprised me was how quickly I forgot about past experiences. You think, ‘Oh, I’m going to remember this,’ and then you don’t. I appreciated, especially as time went on and the entries started to build, that I put those things in writing so that I could remember them—because I really was surprised at how much I forgot. It was a nice reminder of going back to being present in the moment so that I do remember more of the experience. I also like  remembering my feelings at the time, especially with new experiences–if I am doing something for the first time or doing something that I am nervous about or that pushes my boundaries. People often say to me, ‘You’re so fearless; you’re always out there doing these crazy things and you just have no fear,’ and that is absolutely the farthest thing from the truth. I want to do this thing and I’m scared out of my mind and I am going to push myself because I know I shouldn’t be afraid or I’m never going to reach that goal if I don’t step outside of my comfort zone. I see it as a growing or learning opportunity. Journaling helps me with thinking about those moments when I pushed myself out of my comfort zone, and remembering what that was like. It makes me ask myself why I was so afraid of that and what I could have done differently so I wouldn’t have been so nervous–or I realize I can’t believe that scared me because after I did it, it was like, ‘Oh, I could totally do this again,’ and now maybe I have done it three more times and it’s no big deal anymore, but in that initial, first time, it was something really scary. I like to look back, especially on those moments, because I can see the growth and I can see how it’s impacted me and I can see the change and the value in it and it encourages me to continue doing those things. 

Journaling helps me with thinking about those moments when I pushed myself. I like to look back on those moments, because I can see the growth and I can see how it’s impacted me. It encourages me to continue doing those things.

WEAPON OF CHOICE: PEN OR PENCIL?

MTDWB: Did you use pen or pencil when you journaled?

JB: I have a gel pen, and I keep it tucked in the spirals of the journal. I have so many gel pens, it’s ridiculous.

STORYTELLING: WRITING TO CONNECT

Bowser records an episode of her podcast in her closet–a common practice among podcasters. Always looking for ways to connect to her audience, she has found that telling stories of her outdoor experiences has been the most successful.

MTDWB: Did journaling carry over into any other aspects of your life?

JB: I think when you’re a content creator like I am, you have to find ways to connect with your audience. I look for ways to connect with people. It’s all relational. The best way to connect with people is to tell your story, and to tell it in a way that people can envision themselves in your place. In my case, I want people to be encouraged to do those things, whether it’s an outdoor activity or visiting a place or trying something new. For me, journaling is just another form of storytelling, and also at the same time encouraging people to get out and create their own adventure.

The best way to connect with people is to tell your story. Journaling is just another form of storytelling.

ON HER JOURNAL

MTDWB: Was there a specific brand or type of journal you used or preferred? Why?

Bowser displays the state parks journal where she records her various experiences, excursions, and adventures at state parks across Virginia.

JB: I use the same journal that you find in all the state park cabins. It’s the same standard journal in all the cabins. I was visiting Natural Tunnel State Park in October 2019, and it was my first time at that park. I picked up the cabin journal that particular day and I realized that there was an introductory welcome message from Craig Seaver, who was the director of Virginia State Parks when the journal was published. I had met Craig recently and I really connected with his message in the journal because I had just met him at the Virginia Association for Parks conference and really liked him. I wanted to let him know that I had read his message, so I reached out to him on social media, and it turns out that Natural Tunnel was the park where Craig was the park manager before he became director of the whole system, so he had a personal connection with Natural Tunnel. I told him I would really like to have one of these journals, and asked where I could get one. He had a ranger show up at my cabin and deliver me my own journal. I was delighted. I was so excited to start using it. It made me feel so special. The journal itself has meaning to me, because the person who gave it to me is someone I admire. Every time I pull it out, it’s a reminder of Craig. It’s also a reminder of my advocacy with VAFP. It’s also a reminder to take a few minutes out of my experience and document what my experience has been like.

JOURNAL ROUTINE

MTDWB: Was there a particular way you formatted your entries?

JB: The journal asks what dates you were there, what the weather was like, what activities you did, what wildlife you sighted, who you met, who was with you. That’s the front page, and then the back page is blank lined paper for notes

MTDWB: How often and when did you journal?

JB: I always do it at the end of my visit, because I want to make sure that the entry captures my whole visit. Sometimes I will start it during the visit, especially for wildlife sightings, so I don’t forget anything. I will start to fill it out, but I don’t usually do the blank back page until the last night.

JOURNALING, NATURE, AND MENTAL HEALTH

MTDWB: May is Mental Health Month. Can you speak a little bit to the role the outdoors has on mental health? Can you speak a little bit about the role journaling has on mental health?

JB: There has been research out on the benefit of the outdoors on mental health for a long, long time, but I don’t think it has gotten as much attention as it has gotten within the last year. Given the circumstances with the pandemic, you hear over and over that people are getting outside in ways that they never have before. All of a sudden, you couldn’t buy a fire pit or a kayak or a bike. Still, every supply chain is dried up. That is all evidence of the fact that people are now realizing the value of the outdoors. I hope that this isn’t short-term, a time people got outside because they had nothing else to do or they didn’t have other places to go where they could be safe. I hope that this experience will lead to people connecting to the outdoors long-term. Especially from a conservation standpoint, we want people connecting to the outdoors in a meaningful way so they will appreciate it and want to conserve it. Certainly being outdoors has a huge impact on our mental health and it’s something I have done for years and years. I am really excited other people are coming around to have that experience as well.

In terms of journaling and mental health, it has been helpful for me to be more present in the moment. I have also talked to other people who have been journaling about the outdoors.  A potential future guest on the podcast is writing a memoir about losing her brother, and she says the reason she started journaling was because when her brother passed away, someone bought her a journal and encouraged her to write letters to her brother. She started doing that, and it became the basis for her memoir. I can see where journaling would have an impact.

When you combine journaling and the outdoors, you have both of those elements working for you at same time. You have the experience of the outdoors, and the journal to help you reflect on it, and be more present. It is a double whammy. The journal reinforces the impact that the outdoors has on mental health and wellness. It is two sides of the same coin.

When you combine journaling and the outdoors, you have the experience of the outdoors, and the journal to help you reflect on it. The journal reinforces the impact that the outdoors has on mental health and wellness.

Author Bio

Jessica Bowser is the creator and host of Virginia Outdoor Adventures Podcast, which showcases the diversity and beauty of our state by Virginians who have a strong connection with the outdoors. Through conversations with guests, Jessica has created a guide to outdoor recreation and provides recommendations to assist listeners with planning their own adventures close to home. Jessica enjoys capturing her adventures in photographs while she is hiking, cycling, climbing, kayaking, birding, and camping throughout Virginia. Virginia Outdoor Adventures Podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and anywhere you listen to podcasts. For outdoor travel ideas and recommendations, or to follow Jessica’s adventures, visit www.VirginiaOutdoorAdventures.com, or follow the show on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

© Amanda Sue Creasey

https://amandasuecreasey.com/

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.)

© Amanda Sue Creasey

https://amandasuecreasey.com/

NHS and Beta Induction Ceremony Speech

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

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

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

NHS and Beta Induction Speech

November 2019

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

acrostic honor

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

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

Studying

Getting good grades

Going to sports practices

Working a part-time job

Going to club meetings

Passing your SOLs (preferably advanced)

Earning a high score on your SATs

Getting into a good college.

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

Not having enough time

Not getting enough sleep

Having too much to do.

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

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

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

acrostic light

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Lucky Ones

Those of you who follow us on Instagram or know us personally probably already know: Our pack of four lost an integral member a week and a half ago, leaving behind three grieving members. I am not ready to write about it yet, at least not in any sort of meaningful, comprehensive way, though I have been writing about it in a very personal, rather disjointed way in my diary just about every day. I am still processing. (If processing this is even possible, which I am not yet convinced it is.)

IMG-8791
Jack and I in our backyard one hot October day a few years ago

What follows is a narrative essay I wrote about Jack in 2011, when I was about halfway through my graduate degree in creative writing and Jack had been part of our family for close to four years.

I should mention that since this writing, we learned Jack was actually closer to two years old when he joined our pack, as opposed to the not-yet-a-year detail mentioned in the essay below. He was roughly 14 when we said goodbye last week.

Lucky Dog: A New Leash on Life

It is 4 o’clock in the morning. November. Just starting to get cold outside. Feels like the middle of the night. Yesterday, my husband brought home a new dog. We already have one. A little beagle. Sadie. She likes to sleep later than 4 o’clock in the morning. But this new dog, Jack — he doesn’t know any better. He bounds up, wide awake, as soon as he hears me stir. I open the bedroom door to step out into the hallway that leads to the family room. Jack bounds out ahead of me. He stops in the center of room. Looks at me. I look at him. He is a cockeyed sort of dog. One of his eyes has a brown spot around it. The other eye gazes out at the world through short white hair. His nose is crooked. His back is crooked; he stands in a sort of “C” shape most of the time, looking a little like a cocktail shrimp on a plate. One of his ears stands straight up when he’s listening; the other one flops over no matter what. Just as I begin to think how endearing this inherent asymmetry is, he suddenly bends down slightly, bracing himself. I wonder what he is doing. Then he begins to pee. A lot of pee. Right there on the family room carpet, in the middle of the floor. It is four in the freaking morning. I don’t know how to potty train a dog.

I clap my hands. He looks at me blankly. Cocks his head slightly, wondering, probably, why I am applauding his piss. I clap harder. Maybe the noise will startle him into not peeing. Maybe it will distract him.

“No!” I say. “No!” As if a dog that just last week was a wild dog  picked up by the dog catcher in the foothills of New York has any idea what the word “no” means.

He continues to pee on the carpet. I swoop down upon him mid-stream, scoop him up into my arms, and rush him to the back door. I set him down outside. He has stopped peeing, but I can tell by the way he is sniffing around he isn’t actually finished. I follow him around the yard for a while. It is not fenced. Jack makes a break for it. Down the driveway. Down the road. I am chasing him in my pajamas in the dark in the cold. Luckily, he is distracted by something he smells in the bushes of my neighbor’s yard. He stops to sniff. He lifts his leg. Pees some more. I wonder if this adventure is going to make me late for work.  

“Good boy,” I say, hoping I am reinforcing the concept of pissing outside and not the concept of running away. When he is done, I pick him up and carry him back home.

***

It took Jack a while to learn that he was now, actually, home. We had to teach him how to sleep under the covers with us at night. That he didn’t need to be afraid of towels or of walking across bridges. How to take a treat from our hands without taking one or two of our fingers with it. How to pee outside, and that the fact that the family room was outside the bedroom did not qualify it as outside. How to walk on a leash, and that while he was out for a walk on his leash, he no longer had to eat road kill and trash off the street to survive (we are still working on that). He even knows how to smile now, though he won’t on command – only when he is genuinely happy. When Jack first came home, he had a lot to learn. So did I.

A few days before Jack came home, my husband Matty and I had an argument about whether or not we should add a second dog to our household. We were just starting out in our careers and were pretty poor (some things never change). And dog supplies can be costly. A second dog would mean buying double the food, double the treats, and paying double the vet bills. Today, three years later, I am Jack’s human of choice and whenever he feels jealous, Matty likes to remind Jack, “Mommy didn’t even want you, buddy. Remember who brought you home. Daddy had to fight Mommy to bring you home. You’re lucky Daddy won.” While this isn’t entirely true (it was never that I didn’t want Jack), I am glad that though he tries, cocking his head from one side to the other and lifting his mismatched ears (we call the ear that never lifts up his “broken ear”), Jack cannot understand what Matty is saying. There are, however, many words and phrases Jack can now understand. This is a list of them: sit, stay, wait, leave it (selectively), down, doggy practice, ride, walk, dinner, breakfast, dessert, treat, up, jump, here, Jack, daddy, mommy, who’s here?, hungry, and outside.

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Jack and I at our local Petco (now torn down and rebuilt), Jack having completed one of his many “doggy school” classes

***

My sister-in-law is the one who essentially saved Jack’s life. She was working as a vet in the hills of New York when the dog catcher brought him in to be spayed and get his shots before going on to the pound. Jack was a little, emaciated, big-eyed wild dog that had been living off acorns (which to this day he carries home and drops on our deck after autumn walks) and dead things. He wasn’t even a year old. She couldn’t let such a sweet dog go to the pound and, lucky for Jack, told the dog catcher she would keep him. Jack spent the next several months living between the vet’s office and a crate at my sister-in-law’s house while she tried to find a suitable home for him.

During that time, Jack learned very little. The problem was this: The first thing Jack did when he got to my sister-in-law’s house was climb to the top of the stairs, squat down, and poop. She already had a black lab, two cats, a husband, and a toddler. She didn’t have the time or energy to potty-train her son and Jack. Thus, Jack was relegated to a plastic dog crate – the travel kind with nothing but a caged front and little holes in the side that usually spell out something like “DOG TAXI” and serve as ventilation. There he stayed, except for a couple potty breaks a day, while home after home fell through for one reason or another. Then one November day, Matty drove up to New York. When he came home, Jack came with him.

***

It wasn’t long before we knew something was wrong with Jack. I came home from work one day and, as usual, Jack and Sadie came running to the door to greet me, Sadie howling and barking and Jack wagging not just his tail, but his entire body — wriggling around the way a worm does when a curious child pokes at it with a stick. Then, suddenly, Jacky’s little eyes were stone and his body, stiff. He tottered for a moment, back and forth, and then, he tipped over. Sadie sometimes had seizures, and while this episode wasn’t quite the same, I thought maybe it was a seizure. I did like I do for Sadie. Knelt down beside Jack, rested his head on my lap, talked quietly to him. After a minute or two, he stood up, shook it off, and went about the rest of his doggy day. I didn’t think much of it. But then it started to happen more and more frequently. Sometimes multiple times a day. Jack quit eating. Quit playing with Sadie. Eventually wouldn’t leave the bedroom at all. Matty and I had to carry him to the backyard to go potty and carry him back in again when he was done. We frequented the vet’s office, setting appointments for every two months for over a year. No one knew what was wrong with Jack. They put him on meds that made him vomit. They took him off. They put him on meds that would work for a few months, and then lose their effectiveness. We drove to the vet over and over again. Each time, Jack would curl up in the passenger seat, a look of heartbreaking resignation in his puppy eyes. I would stroke his back with my free hand as I drove, praying and praying and praying.

Everyone always likes to talk about how lucky Jack is. Really, I think, I am the lucky one.

After maybe five or six months, the vet told me Jack may need to see a canine cardiologist. That his red blood cell count was low and perhaps there was something amiss with the valves in his heart, as well. After paying several hundred more dollars in vet bills, I got in the car with Jack and drove quietly home. About halfway there, I called my husband. Told him the grim news. As we talked, I looked down at Jack now and then. When he was awake, he would look up at me out from under his sleepy eyelids. So much trust in those eyes. He had implicit faith in me. I couldn’t imagine a world without Jack in it. I was prepared to do anything to keep him here. I would spend any amount of money, go to the vet every day if I had to.

But that wasn’t working. Months and months and still not working. Still the tipping over. Still the lack of appetite. Still the gums in his mouth too white – indicative of anemia. Still the sadness. I prayed. I prayed every day for Jack. I prayed with Jack. I read him pieces of the Bible while I stroked his velvety, mismatched ears.  I held him always in my thoughts.

Then, he got better. For several days, I came home and waited for him to tip over. No more tipping over. After a week or two, I learned to stop expecting it. I started taking him on short walks with Sadie again. He regained his energy. He was more playful. He was eating. I took him to the vet for one more regular, two-month check-up.

“Jack,” the vet said after checking his gums, taking his temperature, listening to his heart, “you are a mystery. And you are one lucky dog.” She took him off the meds. Before long, Jack could join Sadie and me on our regular, longer walks. It was as if nothing had ever been wrong. The vets still don’t know whatever was.

***

Matty likes to say I am “at least 60% happier” because of Jack. He is convinced that since Jack came home, I am in general a cheerier person. I can’t really dispute this. Jack makes me smile more times a day than I otherwise would. He gets up with me every morning at 5 and romps around the house with a squeaky toy in his mouth, wide awake and energized – ready for the day. Without his shennanigans, I can safely say I would not be smiling at 5 every morning. But with Jack chasing me around the house wagging his tail and chomping on a toy, how can I not crack a grin? He looks at me with his goofy, cockeyed ears, and how can I help but smile? And one of my favorite feelings is Jack curled up against my stomach in bed every night. When I am away from home overnight, I get cold without his fuzzy warmth beside me and I miss him. When I return home, he is there – where he has been all along – waiting for me with love and joy and the ever-enduring faith that I was coming home all along. It just took me a little longer this time.

***

It is January. About 4 in the afternoon. A Friday. My mom and my brother’s dog Baxter, a furry husky/akita mix, meet Jack, Sadie, and me at the state park near my house for a late afternoon hike. The dogs have been cooped up all day while I was at work. Their energy and exuberance is evident in the way they spastically sniff and cry and tug at the ends of their leashes like they’ve never walked on a leash before. Sadie, in fact, jumped around my little car the entire ride here, hopping from window to window, seat to seat, front to back.

We walk, stopping now and then to let the dogs sniff and to listen to the quiet that is the woods on a cold Friday afternoon when most everyone is either still at work, or keeping warm inside. We talk about our days, the family, weekend plans. When we come to the old mill site, we cross over the bridge where once, Jack fell into the creek and I had to heft him back over the side of the bridge. We walk up a steep hill with trees to our left and a drop off down to the creek below to our right. As we round the corner to the boardwalk that will allow us passage through the wetlands that surround Beaver Lake, my mom says, “He really is lucky.”

“Who?” I say.

“Jack. He might not be around anymore if he hadn’t ended up with you guys. Whatever he had would’ve killed him.”

“Yeah,” I say, still unable to imagine a world without Jack.

After about an hour, we have walked the entirety of Beaver Lake Trail and it will soon be dark outside. Mom loads Baxter into her car and he curls up to rest on the back seat. I tell Sadie and Jack to “go for a ride” and they readily hop into my car. Mom and I hug goodbye and head home, she turning right at the park exit and I turning left. I smile as Sadie assumes her habitual position behind the headrests of my backseat where she can watch the road behind us peel away and stare at the drivers of the cars that follow us. At times, in my rearview mirror, I have seen such drivers wave at Sadie, even talk to her sometimes. They are always smiling. I look down at Jack, sitting up in the front seat like a little man, looking out the window. My whole heart smiles. That night after a late dinner, Matty stretches out in bed to my left. Sadie jumps up and pushes her way under the covers at his feet. A heartbeat later, Jack is standing at my side of the bed, looking up at me. I lift the covers up. He jumps up on the bed beside me, curls up at my belly button, sighs. I rub the space between his eyes. Everyone always likes to talk about how lucky Jack is. Really, I think, I am the lucky one.

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Sadie, Jack, and I at a Strut Your Mutt event held by Fetch-a-Cure in Bryant Park one October day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Found Time: 5 Tips to Find Time for Writing (and Reading)

You might be familiar with the term “found time,” which refers to time that unexpectedly opens up in our schedules–when a flight is delayed, when an appointment is canceled, when we miraculously finish the to-do’s on our list before we thought we would. Because one of the greatest obstacles to writing (and for me, to reading) seems to be finding time for it, it’s imperative that we A) find time and B) use found time to its fullest potential. While we’re all always incredibly busy, we might have more found time in our schedules than we realize, and we can use this time to support our literary lives, even with the rest of life seems to be getting in the way.

Make the Most of Mealtimes

If you find yourself eating a meal unaccompanied, write or read while you eat. You have to sit down and be still anyway–you can’t clean the house or go for a run while you eat–so it’s a great time to get out your laptop, journal, diary, or book and write or read. Plus, it makes you eat more slowly, which I’ve read is good for your health.

Be Prepared

In order to use found time, you have to be prepared to use found time. If time opens up in your day, but you don’t have the tools you need to use it (your book, pen, notebook, laptop–whatever), you’re going to be hard-pressed to be productive. For this reason, bring a notebook and writing utensil or your latest read with you everywhere. Then, when unexpected time arises, you can use it to write or read.

Use the Bathroom

Read or write when you use the bathroom. It might sound crass and it’s probably not hygienic, but it works. No one is going to bother you while you’re in there and, as with eating, you’re sitting down and being still, anyway. Take advantage of the time! What else are you gonna do with it (I mean, besides a No. 1 or a No. 2)?

Go to Bed

Or at least say you’re going to bed. Then, spend 15 to 30 minutes writing or reading before you turn out the lights for the night.

Keep a List Handy

For writing, make a list of topics, experiences, ideas, or memories you know you want to write about. That way, when you end up with a little unexpected time, you won’t have to waste any of it wondering what to write about–you can just pull out your list and pick from it.

While our lives are inevitably busy and sometimes chaotic, little pockets of time unexpectedly open up in our schedules now and again. When they do, be ready to use them to nurture your love of writing and reading!