For My Fellow Teachers

Imagine it is still July. The height of summer. Yes, you have already invested hours in learning how to use Canvas (or trying to). Yes, you have already spent hours making sure your classroom furniture is set up for social distancing. No, this does not feel like a normal summer break. Because it hasn’t been. And the upcoming school year won’t be normal, either. But we’re not there yet. It’s still July, remember? At least, that’s what we’re pretending.

On this particular July day, I am at the beach. The water is wavier than it was the day before. For several minutes, I hesitate to get in. I watch as my husband takes a running leap into the water. I stand in the surf, just up to my knees, the crashing waves pelting my calves with bullets of sand and pebbles. After several stinging waves, I tentatively wade in to my hips, waves sending splashes against my stomach, up to my face. In a little lull, I finally join my husband, in water up to my shoulders. Waves roll in, relentlessly. I jump them or bob over them. After a few gentler waves, a big, menacing wave blocks my view of the horizon. I kick towards it to beat its break, get into deeper water, counterintuitively safer. Each big wave, I swim into instead of away from, until, despite my efforts, in a trough between waves, a roiling monster comes cresting towards me faster than I can beat its break.

“Gotta go under this one,” I hear my husband say.

Just as its frothing crest barrels toward me, I duck beneath its wrath, below its white water, into relative calm, resurfacing to hear the wave crashing behind me with its roil of sand and foam, sparkling water and blue sky in front of me, the water around me momentarily calm, swimmable, cool, clear, and aquamarine.

School Year
Matty, Soda, and Nacho on the beach in the Outer Banks of North Carolina in July

Like swimming toward a wave, we teachers are swimming (or perhaps being pushed or pulled or dragged by an undeniable undertow) toward a challenge we have never faced before. I have been tempted to swim away from the waves–run for the shore. But whenever I do that at the beach, I usually end up clobbered from behind, sputtering salt water, gritting sand between my teeth. In swimming toward the wave, meeting the challenge head-on in the best ways we know how, we can let it crash behind us while we continue looking ahead. And so I have spent much of my summer trying to learn how to use Canvas (I still have work to do) and Planbook and Virtual Virginia. I have spent even more time worrying about the energy, effort, and time I will need to convert all of my materials to digital versions of themselves; about how to preserve the rigor of my honors class in a purely virtual environment; about the fact that even in my in-person classes, some of the most effective activities I do are unsafe in the current situation, and will have to be modified or abandoned.

At the beach, I am good at reading, writing, sleeping, walking, playing paddle ball, and swimming in calm water. I am not good at surfing or swimming in rough waters.

At work I am good at connecting with students, helping students improve their writing, creating and facilitating lessons that involve movement and socializing, helping students make connections between literature and the outside world. I am not good at technology.

I like the analog, the physical. I am not going to have a cute, Bitmoji online classroom–or any bells and whistles at all. I simply don’t have the bandwidth. And overachiever that I am, I am not sure I’m okay with that. It’s difficult for me to accept that my mind and time are going to be too occupied converting all my old-school analog activities to digital formats for me to think as creatively or innovatively as I want to. I will have to save that for another year, one where the basics are under control again.

I don’t want to do my first year again–not for myself and not for my students. I can’t survive first-year-teacher me again (and my husband probably can’t either).

I liken the experience to driving: When I drive a route I know well, I don’t have to think much about where to turn or when to slow down. I don’t have to read the street signs or pay attention to the street names. The familiarity allows my mind to wander. I can drive and focus on the podcast I am listening to. I can drive and think about the ways I want to improve my unit on The Great Gatsby. I can drive and brainstorm how to rearrange the chapters of the novel manuscript I’m writing.

When I drive a new route, though, I don’t have the luxury of letting my mind wander. I have to listen to every direction Waze offers, pay attention to how far it is before the next turn, read all the street signs. I can’t afford to think about my writing, my teaching, my podcast, or anything else. I have to think about the fundamental act of getting to my destination.

That is what this year will be like: driving a brand new, unfamiliar route that demands all of my attention. Usually, I make all my lesson plans over the summer, so during the school year I can drive on autopilot–I know the route. I planned it out months in advance, and, because I have been teaching for 14 years, I have likely rehearsed most of it at some point in some form or fashion during my career. I don’t have to think about how to make that quiz or when to give it–I figured that out back in June. Instead, I can focus on giving my students timely and thorough feedback on their papers. I can focus on helping students I don’t even teach this year improve their college essays. I can focus on writing college recommendation letters for students I taught the year before. I can focus on how to improve the project I have planned for November, how to increase the rigor of my honors class, how to help students understand the historical context of a certain work of literature. The fundamentals are under control. They’re not taking up any of my mental bandwidth.

Recently, I heard about a rock musician, Mike Scott of the Waterboys, whose newly-released song, “Beauty in Repetition,” relates William James‘s meticulously following the exact same routine every single day. Scott himself follows a tight routine, right down to eating the exact same dinner every night. Not having to think about the mundane tasks of life (what time to get up, what to wear, what to eat) frees his mind up, he said, to ponder higher thoughts–to access his more creative mind. When his brain is not bogged down with questions like “What’s for dinner?”, it is free to soar to new heights of cognition and creativity.

That is how my school year usually goes. I create a very strict routine for my students and for myself. My lesson plans are flexible, but set enough that I don’t have to worry about what we are doing in class tomorrow–or this week or next week or all the way through the end of the year. I have laid the groundwork for daily survival in my classroom: an established routine.

This year, there is no groundwork. Despite the time I have spent in professional development this summer, I am almost as unprepared for this coming year as I was for my first year teaching back in 2006. The only advantage I have this year is that I am aware of my shortcomings. I have no delusions about my situation.

School Year II
Sadie, Matty, and me days before my first day teaching

I entered the profession naive and idealistic. I was 22 years old. My wakeup call was swift and violent. I devoted all of my mental energy to simply making lessons plans for the next day. Occasionally, I was able to get maybe a week ahead, and that was something. Just to achieve a day or two worth of lesson plans, I regularly arrived to work between 6:00 and 6:30 AM, often bringing with me a microwaveable dinner so that, if I stayed at school later than dinnertime (which I often did), I wouldn’t go hungry.

It was traumatizing.

When students began to arrive for the day around 7:15, I felt like they were interrupting my much-needed quiet time to plan. When I had to bring home their journals to read or their essays to evaluate, I felt like they were taking away from time I needed to plan for their next class period, not to mention recharge personally. Basically, so much of my focus was directed at the daily logistics of teaching, that I didn’t even have the energy left for the reason I started teaching: my students.

I don’t want to do my first year again–not for myself and not for my students. I can’t survive first-year-teacher me again (and my husband probably can’t either). I have to accept the fact that my plans and activities and projects and instruction might not be up to my own high standards, but it won’t be at the cost of how I treat my students or how I feel about them, and it won’t be at the cost of my own mental or emotional well-being.

When I start to feel overwhelmed this year by waves of I-don’t-have-a-clue-how-to-use-Canvas, I-don’t-have-time-to-convert-this-quiz-to-a-digital-format, I-can’t-adjust-to-this-every-other-day-schedule, and so on and so on (it’s a long list), I will try to remind myself of that day in July, diving underneath the roaring waves. I will take a deep breath and I will dive right in, but I will also try to remember: I do have to come up for air. And when I do, the foaming, angry wave will be behind me, and I will be able to look ahead for calmer waters.

© Amanda Sue Creasey

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.)

The Book of Joy: A Reaction Paper

I sat in the passenger seat of my husband’s pickup truck, riding along the country roads in the Northern Neck on a Saturday morning, my two little dogs asleep between us on the bench seat, their scruffy hair blowing in the air conditioning. It was a hot, sunny day in late June, and we were heading to a small beach on the shore of the Potomac River, where it opens wide to the Chesapeake Bay. Outside my car window, I watched the fields, green with corn, and the wildflowers, alive with butterflies, flourish under the summer sun. It was summer break. I was beachbound. 

And I was crying. 

Despite my situation seeming so pleasant–even idyllic, I felt pretty miserable. My inner experience was completely incongruent with my outer experience. I felt so stressed and anxious about the upcoming school year and all I would have to learn and change and do to prepare, much less be effective (not to mention safe), in the face of a global pandemic, that I was struggling to enjoy the present moment. My worries and uncertainties about the future were stealing any present peace I might have hoped to enjoy.

Joy Littles on the beach BQS
Nacho (left) and Soda (right), AKA The Littles, lounging on the beach later that day.

Around the same time as the situation described above, I began participating in a book group begun at my school. The group, which focused on the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Douglas Abrams’s The Book of Joy, could not have been better timed for me, both professionally and personally–especially since my professional life and my personal life often seem to bleed into each other.

On page 88 of the book, we read that “…so much is determined by our own perception.” My perception of the pandemic and how it would affect me at work and at home come August was an extremely negative one–one that did not serve me or the people around me. It was a perception that brought about fear, insecurity, self-doubt, and stress. Some of what I have read in this book has helped me think about reshaping my perspective to see the current situation and next school year as a challenge instead of an obstacle, as an opportunity for professional and personal growth instead of a hindrance to peace. Part

Joy cover
The Book of Joy, by the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Douglas Abrams

of what makes this perspective shift possible is an idea expressed on pages 196 and 197. Douglas Abrams writes, “When we confront a challenge, we often react to the situation with fear and anger.” He might as well have replaced “we” with “you,” so accurately does this sentence describe my initial reaction to challenges, which I tend to see as frustrating inconveniences at best, insurmountable obstacles at worst. On the next page, Abrams advises, “…what we think is reality is only part of the picture” and “our limited perspective is not the truth.” The book goes on to talk about taking a broader perspective–about realizing that we are not alone, and that all of our roles (AKA Teacher During A Pandemic) are temporary. Thinking about my present situation in a longer view, “in the larger frame of [my] life” (198), enables me to see that in the future, it will be just one strange year of a years-long career, a little blip in the otherwise mostly smooth (I hope!) experience. Thinking about my present situation in a wider view, I am able to see that even now, in the throes of it, people around me are innovating and collaborating like never before. They have all learned to “…respond instead of react” (181), a lesson I am trying to take to heart for myself.

In the vein of learning, another idea that comforted me was the concept that we are all learning–that our lives consist of innumerable lessons, each tailored to our own needs. At one point in the book, we learn that Abrams’s father suffered a terrible injury as a result of a fall. When Abrams’s brother told their father he was sorry he was going through such a rough time, his father’s response was: “‘It’s all part of my curriculum’” (157). I love this idea. “It’s all part of my curriculum” can serve as a reminder that we are all getting the lessons we need. In my case, these are likely lessons in flexibility and grace (not to mention instructional technology…).

A few days ago, I was lamenting to my husband about the fact that I don’t believe I will be as effective a teacher next year as I hope I have been in years past–that I don’t know how to use the technology and even if I figure it out, I won’t know how to use it well. That I don’t have the first lesson plan done. That I don’t even know where to start. That I feel woefully unprepared on a number of levels. On page 211, the Archbishop says, “…even if you are not the best one, you may be the one who is needed or the one who is there.” I don’t think I am going to be the best anything next year, least of all teacher, but I am going to be the one who is there, in the classroom, and for next year, that might have to be enough.  

I sat in the passenger seat of my husband’s pickup truck, watching employees scurry around a parking lot at a Chick-Fil-A, tirelessly delivering to-go chicken to cars parked in numbered spaces throughout the lot. It was a warm, humid evening in early July, and we were heading to my parents for dinner with my sister and her family. Outside my car window, I watched as what must have been a dozen masked people ran around in black pants and red polo shirts. They had not worked like this before–wearing masks in the heat, serving food through car windows, hoofing drink carriers from the drive-through

Joy Littles on the deck
One of my greatest sources of joy comes from doing my best to give The Littles a good life. Here, they look over their side yard and driveway from the outdoor couch on  our deck.

window to the far end of the parking lot. But here they were, uncomplaining, productive, and efficient, serving the needs of their customers. Reading this book enabled me to draw a parallel between what I was watching from my passenger seat, and the work I myself need to do for next school year. If these Chick-Fil-A employees could work this hard and this well under these conditions–then couldn’t I do it, too? Granted, we waited 30 minutes for our meal–but everyone I saw was working so hard, the wait hardly seemed important. What was important, though, was realizing I wasn’t alone. I’m not alone. None of us are. Since the shutdown in March, essential workers all over the world have had to adapt how they operate–including my own husband, who works at a bank. I can’t promise I won’t find myself crying again before school starts in September, or several times throughout the school year as I struggle to adjust to the demands of the unknown, but now I can remind myself that we are all in this together. That other people are struggling, too. That it is okay not to be the best one. And that it’s all just “part of my curriculum.”  

Guest Post: 14 Pounds of Courage

Charlie is 14 pounds of Toxirn courage. He is aggressively friendly and has never met a person who doesn’t love him. This little guy has a long list of funny fears, though. He hates bicycles, mopeds, and unknown items by the curb on large trash day. He hates the robot vacuum that, to him, turns itself on and chases him around the house. He even hates walkers. Imagine my surprise when we first adopted him and he barked not at random strangers, but at an elderly woman with a walker!

The thing about Charlie, though, is that he’s incredibly brave. In such a big world, he is always gentle to creatures smaller than himself. He adores head rubs and scratches

Charlie III
Charlie enjoying some rubs and scratches

behind the ears from children, even as they run at him in groups clambering to love the little dog. “Look how tiny he is!” they giggle with delight, even sometimes awkwardly trying to pick him up. He licks their faces all the same. He fearlessly runs to greet huge dogs and doesn’t think twice about the fact the other dog could eat him for breakfast. He doesn’t care, either, because in his mind, he’s just saying hello. He’s incredibly happy and loves to share his toothy smile with everyone.

What’s amazing is that this boy doesn’t hide from things that scare him, but confronts them directly, barking to deter them. He perches on the edge of the couch to valiantly defend it from the vacuum. He barks menacingly at dogs walking in front of our house…on the other side of the street. This is his home and he wants to make that clear!

Charlie shows me it’s okay to be scared, but to face those fears instead of hiding from them. When he’s around, it becomes clearer what it means to be a good person and have an appetite for life. Above all, he proves that love wins in the end. People will still love you even when you look a little wild (up to and including having Albert Einstein hair). Happiness is achievable just by virtue of being around the people who love us most.

Charlie II
Charlie with a favorite toy

Charlie’s people are everything to him, and that’s perhaps the most profound message anyone can learn. Community, family, and love for others are some of the strongest

Charlie
Charlie enjoys an outdoor adventure.

bonds we can create. It doesn’t take money or fame to achieve true happiness, but compassionate connection and the realization that we’re all just people trying to live joyful lives. We often get caught up in surviving monetarily and forget the simple pleasures – Charlie doesn’t, though. Watching him really puts life into perspective.

We are Charlie’s people, and he is our boy. I can’t imagine a life without this smiling, tiny-mustachioed boy who is a continual source of joy in our lives. It’s just a plus that he proves taking multiple naps in a day is completely acceptable.

Author Bio

Charlie IVRachel Tindall is a passionate writer, blogger, and writing confidence coach. She has worked with numerous students in the classroom and building confidence in others is at the heart of all she does. When she’s not writing, she’s reading books, learning and building her business Capturing Your Confidence, watching lame TV shows with her husband, and playing with her adorably sassy dog, Charlie. Find her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and LinkedIn.

That Little Brown Dog

One year ago today, Matty and I drove to the Richmond SPCA to meet “that little brown dog” (Soda) we had been thinking about for a month. During our meet-and-greet, we learned she had a brother–a tiny brown and white boy, then named Scotch. The adoption counselor said we could take them home for a trial sleepover, which we did–both of us knowing this “trial” wasn’t really a trial. Soda and Scotch were almost as good as our own.

Gotcha Day III
Soda and Nacho during their “trial” sleepover, June 21, 2019

After an evening of walks and snuggles and deciding Scotch’s name would have to change so we didn’t come off as lushes when people asked us what our dogs’ names were, Matty woke up the next morning and looked at me across our pillows, the little tiny dogs still asleep in our king-sized bed with us. “Nacho,” he said. And with the renaming, their adoption was solidified for us. A few hours later, we were back at the SPCA, signing the official adoption paperwork.

So, in honor of Nacho and Soda’s one-year “Gotcha Day,” here is the essay I wrote about them last summer, which would go on to win a $5,000 grant for the Richmond SPCA from the Petco Foundation.

It was mid-June. School had just let out for the summer. All year, I’d been looking forward to this time with my dogs, Jack and Sadie—trips to the river, after-walk naps together, sunset strolls in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. That is what my summers had been made of for the last thirteen years—my entire adult life. My entire teaching career. My entire marriage. But this summer was different; Jack and Sadie had passed away. On this June afternoon as I turned my key in the backdoor, in place of a wiggling whippet and baying beagle: silence. I was alone. No dogs to walk. No dogs to feed. No dogs to settle in beside me on the couch while I wrote or read, waiting for my husband to get home. I didn’t know who I was without my dogs. The structure of my day disintegrated without them. Empty house, empty heart.

Soda was my glimmer of hope. She was a tiny, bright-eyed Chihuahua-terrier my husband and I had tried very hard not to see during our volunteer orientation at the Richmond SPCA several weeks before. She was six months old, not quite five

Gotcha Day II
Soda and Nacho during their “trial” sleepover, June 21, 2019

pounds, and seemed to expend all her energy attempting to engage us. Wherever we maneuvered ourselves in the group of volunteers, Soda weaseled her way around her corner kennel to position herself in our view, wagging her tail, wiggling her entire tiny body, and earnestly seeking eye contact. We looked away, went home, and didn’t talk about her until two weeks later when my husband asked, “Have you thought about that little brown dog?”

“Every day,” I answered.

We inquired about her, and within three days of Sadie’s passing, we got a call: Soda was available for adoption—and she had a littermate. We adopted them. Once more, we were a pack of four: my husband, Soda, Nacho, and I. The family felt whole again. Soda and Nacho renewed my sense of purpose and identity. Taking them to training classes at the Richmond SPCA with my husband, beginning and ending my days on a walk with them, and exploring the East Coast together all summer has given me the sense of fulfillment I lost when I kissed Jack and Sadie goodbye.

Recently, we were on the beach with friends. The Littles, as we’ve come to call them, trotted behind me wherever I went. “Do they follow you around like this at home?” a friend asked.

I thought for a second. They sleep with me in bed each night. Nacho shares my chair when I eat breakfast every morning. When I pull back the shower curtain, they’re both looking up at me from the bath mat. “Yeah,” I said. “They do.” I never felt more alone than I did at the beginning of this summer, but with Soda and Nacho, I am never alone. Thanks to two tiny dogs who weigh less than 15 pounds combined, my heart, so recently hollow, has begun to heal.

Gotcha Day
Nach, Soda, Matty, and me on June 22, 2019–the day Matty and I signed the official paperwork to adopt them from the Richmond SPCA.

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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!

My First Three Book Signings

Shortly after I learned that Jack’s story, “The Reward,” would be included in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Life Lessons from the DogI also learned that I could hold readings and book signings. I was so excited to get the word out about the book and Jack’s part in it, and even more excited when I realized I could use his story to raise money for organizations important to the two of us. I immediately began reaching out and planning. I contacted the Richmond SPCA because Jack loved his many agility classes there. In addition, Jack, Sadie, and my parents’ pug, Smokey, completed the shelter’s one-mile Dog Jog a few years ago, and I have both run the 5k Dog Jog and volunteered at the race. I contacted Richmond Animal League (RAL), because Jack and Sadie inspired me to volunteer there for four or five years. Finally, I contacted Bay Quarter Shores (BQS), because Jack and Sadie loved to go there, my husband and I got married there (Sadie was at the wedding rehearsal), and the story takes place there.

Richmond SPCA

My very first reading and book signing took place Saturday, April 27, from 1:00 to 3:00 at the Richmond SPCA. I planned to sell books for $15 each, with $10 of each purchase staying right there at the SPCA to benefit the animals.

When I arrived, the staff had already set a table up for me in the lobby, to the left of the reception desk and right in front of the gift shop. The reading was to take place in the adoption center.

The audience for the reading was sparse, with my husband and parents making up about a third of those in attendance. Still, I stood up in front of the room with Sadie beside me and read Jack’s story. I made it to the last few sentences before my voice broke, and I gave up trying to hold back tears. When I finished reading and looked up, many of the audience members were wiping away tears.

reading spca 3
Sadie stands beside me for most of my reading at the Richmond SPCA in April.

As I made my way to the book signing table, a woman from the audience approached me. As serendipity would have it, she told me she owns a place in White Stone, a town in the Northern Neck of Virginia not far from the scene of the story. We chatted for several minutes about dogs and the Northern Neck, and she purchased a book for her sister, whose dog had just passed away.

The next person to approach my table was a journalism student at nearby Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). He explained to me that he’d been assigned to attend and report on an event, and he had chosen mine. I expected him, as a journalism student, to have a few questions, but he asked only three, took my card, and went on his way.

Next, a woman who arrived specifically for the reading and book signing approached. She bought the book and explained she has several sisters, one of whom has six dogs. The sisters plan to mail the book between themselves. “It’ll be The Sisterhood of the Traveling Book instead of the traveling pants,” she told me. I love the idea of Jack’s story–and all the other stories in the book–traveling around the country.

One of the highlights of the event was when a troop of young Girl Scouts lined up to pet Sadie. They were learning how to properly approach and interact with a dog. Sadie remained calm on the floor, letting each little girl approach her, offer her a sniff of her hand, and gently pat her head.

In the end, the two hours raised $160 for shelter where Jack loved his agility classes.

Richmond Animal League at Cafe Zata

My second event was, appropriately, a dog-friendly reading and signing that took place on the outdoor patio at Cafe Zata. I was pretty excited to be the cafe’s first-ever patio event, and that dogs would be invited to attend. It was also exciting to see my name beside the word “author” on the sidewalk sign Zata had set out to advertise the event, which would raise money for Richmond Animal League.

20190518-IMG_5021
My friend and fellow writer, Lauren Mosher (left), and I pose outside of Cafe Zata beside the sidewalk sign advertising the May 18 book reading and signing to benefit RAL. Photo Credit: Radiant Snapshots

This event took place on Saturday, May 18, from 1:00-3:00 pm. Despite the heat, it was exceptionally well-attended. Every chair on the patio was full, and several dogs panted in the shade under the umbrellas. I felt so supported. Two volunteers from RAL attended, along with Gertrude, a beagle available for adoption at the shelter. Several of my friends, family members, and neighbors were there. A few strangers and even an old high school friend (and her dog) came. My friend Jamie, who owns Radiant Snapshots, photographed the event for me, and my friend Lauren, a fellow writer and longtime RAL volunteer, introduced me to the crowd before I began reading.

As with my reading at the SPCA, I cried, and I was told later by a few people in the audience–some of whom knew Jack–that they teared up, as well.

After the event, I was parched, so once the patio had cleared out and I had cleaned up all my materials, I went inside to purchase a cold drink. The owner generously gave it to me for free, and I was happy to hear that the reading had brought in some extra business.

In the end, we raised $285 for RAL that day.

If you would like to offer your support to Richmond Animal League, a no-kill animal shelter, as well as for our recently adopted puppies, Nacho and Soda, please consider donating to Soda’s RAL 2020 Calendar Contest Page. Every dollar donated to Soda and Nacho’s Page is a vote for Soda to appear in the calendar, as well as a much-appreciated donation to the dogs and cats in RAL’s care.

Bay Quarter Shores

My third reading took place Memorial Day weekend, on Saturday, May 25, at 4:30 pm during the annual Bay Quarter Shores Memorial Day potluck and picnic. The reading and book signing was a fundraiser for BQS, where story takes place. Jack loved to go there and swim, walk on beach, walk on the nature trails, SUP, and ride on the speed boat. In the end, we raised $140 for BQS.

I cried more at this event than at the others, despite the experience behind me at this point, perhaps because I was standing so close to where the story takes place, and it was only the second time I’d been there without Jack.

readings bqs
I read Jack’s story at the Bay Quarter Shores Clubhouse Memorial Day weekend. Right outside is the setting of the story.

People came up to me to tell me they cried, too. People told me about dogs they recently lost and showed me photos. Dogs really do bring people together. One woman said she couldn’t bear to buy the book right now because she had lost her dog two weeks prior, and that I should write a piece about loss. I told her I already did.

In preparation for my three events, I had ordered 60 books–and I am all sold out. I’m looking forward to possibly another event or two this summer, and maybe one in September. It was so fulfilling to give back to groups that have meant a lot to me and my pack. I love being able to use my writing this way. My main takeaways are not procedural or logistic. They are this: Dogs bring people together–and I have the most loving, supportive family and friends a girl could ask for.

If you would like to offer your support to Richmond Animal League, a no-kill animal shelter, as well as for our recently adopted puppies, Nacho and Soda, please consider donating to Soda’s RAL 2020 Calendar Contest Page. Every dollar donated to Soda and Nacho’s Page is a vote for Soda to appear in the calendar, as well as a much-appreciated donation to the dogs and cats in RAL’s care.

310d1554-37c5-4cf6-a080-506859b4846e
The above photo features Soda, clearly a natural pin-pup girl (get it!), at Pony Pasture Rapids this past weekend. Help make her a calendar girl with your donation to RAL!

If Soda and Nacho raise…

$125, we can cover the cost of microchips for 15 animals

$250, we can cover the cost of a spay/neuter surgery for 5 kittens

$500, we can cover the cost of one day of Parvovirus treatment

$1,000, we can cover the cost of heartworm treatment for 3 dogs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then and Now

IMG-9657
One of two scenic overlooks on 64 East in Virginia. I stopped here on my way home from a college visit when I was 18 years old, and again last week, 17 years later, on my way home from a Virginia Outdoor Writers Association (VOWA) meeting.

The last time I stood here, I was 18. Half my life ago. I was headed home from an overnight stay at James Madison University, that cliched feeling of youthful angst clinging to me then the way fog and drizzle cling to the mountains now–that cliched angst I can describe only with another cliche: I was a caged bird ready to fly. I might even have gone home and written a poem about it.

Standing at that scenic overlook on the side of 64 East, I had no idea who I was, where I was going, or what I wanted. That’s how I felt then, standing at a crossroads: James Madison or Michigan State? Eighteen and in the spring of my senior year, I didn’t know yet. I do now. I’m 35. That time has passed. Those choices have been made. I went to Michigan State, became a high school English teacher. Things have been pretty stable since then.

And yet, here I am, standing where I stood 17 years ago, somehow unsure again, somehow on the precipice of something new and unknown again. I stand at the threshold of a new chapter, one I’ve dreaded for a long time–a chapter without Jack and Sadie at my feet, by my side, on my path. I have little idea who I am, where I am going (if anywhere), or what I want to do next.

I listen to the hiss of cars on the highway behind me, their tires slicing through rain puddling on 64 East, and wonder–who am I without these two dogs? Where do I go? What do I do and who do I do it for? Why is it possible for my life to keep going when it revolved around them and they’re gone?

And I’m still here.

Matty knew Sadie before he knew me. I knew Sadie before I finished college. Before my first day of teaching. I don’t know adult life without a dog. I’m not sure I know myself without a dog.  A line exists somewhere between “then” and “now.” Sometimes it’s blurry, but sometimes, it’s crystal clear, marked by a move or a graduation or a marriage or a child. Or, in this case, a loss. My time with Jack and Sadie, so recently “now,” has become “then.” We will talk about it in terms like, “When we had Jack and Sadie.” Use it as a reference point for stories we tell or memories we are trying to recollect more clearly, put into some sort of context.

The rain has soaked through my hair, and after a minute or two, I get back into my car

IMG-9664
Another scenic overlook on 64 East

and drive away, outrunning the rain for now. Three or so miles down the road is the second scenic overlook. It’s not raining here yet, and I pull over, step out into the sun. I watch an orange butterfly balance on the purple bloom of a thistle. I read names and dates scratched into the stone-and-wood fencing at the edge of the parking lot. I watch large, white clouds drift across a blue sky, their shadows sailing along underneath them, skimming across green fields. The rain looms to my right, creeping across the few miles that mark the difference between sunshine and clouds. I know it’s coming, but it hasn’t reached me yet, and I think about how people have told me it will get better. They promise. Time heals all wounds. But this time that heals all wounds also takes me farther away from Jack and Sadie.

I snap a couple pictures. Feel the sun on my back while it’s still out, before the clouds reach us. Remember the 18-year-old girl who stood here 17 years ago, whose questions I now have answers to. And I get back in the car.

As I pull out of the parking lot, the sunshine dims and the rain, like time, catches up to me.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.