If there is one book you read as a dog lover, dog owner, dog handler, or dog professional, let it be Alexandra Horowitz‘s 2010 book, Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know. The only fault I find with this book is actually a fault of my own: that I didn’t find and read it sooner. In the Q&A section beyond the book’s main chapters, readers encounter this question: “How is your book different than other dog books? Does the world need another book on dogs?” Before reading Horowitz’s answer, I knew mine: Yes. If it’s this one, definitely. Yes, it does.
Inside of a Dog is different from any other dog book you have ever read. Rife with short, heartfelt narratives about Horowitz’s own experiences with her beloved dog, Pumpernickel, affectionately called Pump, this scientific and informative piece is relatable and human.
Though Horowitz herself says this “is not a sentimental book,” I would describe it as an effortless mix of sentiment and science, though I admit the likelihood that that perception stems largely from my own sentimentality. I have always loved books that make me cry. Perhaps I was foolish not to think this book would be one of them. The idea that a scientific, informative book of interest to me for practical purposes and general curiosity would make me cry, never crossed my mind. I expected to learn, to be intrigued. I didn’t expect poetry. I didn’t expect to smile so often or cry so much. I never expected so informative a book to also be so emotional.
Human beings act on emotion as much as, if not more than, on reason, so Horowitz’s ability to make sensitive the science, or to make readers sensitive to the science’s ramifications for our own dogs and the quality of the relationships we have with them, not to mention their quality of life, is only appropriate, to say the least.
Her writing utilizes an extensive vocabulary I admire, and is poetic, eloquent, and even tender. The way Horowitz manages to make so educational a book so personal is impressive. Despite its informative nature, the book successfully avoids a didactic tone, and opts instead for a relatable one that is engaging, illuminating, and perspective-changing.
Human beings act on emotion as much as, if not more than, on reason. Horowitz’s ability to make sensitive the science is appropriate, to say the least.
The biggest disappointment about this book is actually the biggest disappointment about humans’ relationship with dogs: that despite so much science, so little has changed in the last 11 years regarding our relationships with our dogs. People are still uninformed or misinformed, and their dogs–and their relationships with them–pay the price.
One of my favorite literary characters, Anne Shirley, often discusses kindred spirits. Ever since I met her on the page, Anne felt like an old friend to me. She is the reason I savor sunsets and sunrises, can’t keep myself indoors on a beautiful day, and shamelessly used the phrase “alabaster brow” in much of my pre-teen ramblings.
When I read Mary Oliver’s book of poetry, Dog Songs, recently, I found a second kindred spirit on the page. Here is a woman who writes about cancelling a trip because she feels her dog does not want her to go, who says one of the most beautiful sights is a dog running unleashed on a beach, who relishes waking at night to snuggle her dog.
Now, I feel as though I have found a third: Alexandra Horowitz, an advocate of sharing our beds with our dogs, of reveling in the joyful greetings we share upon reuniting after a day apart, of not bathing our dogs or cleaning our homes as frequently as society would have us believe we should, and of allowing a dog to be a dog–and understanding what that means.
One of the biggest ideas in the book is “Umwelt,” a German word describing the way a particular being experiences existence and the world. By understanding that our dogs’ Umwelt is not the same as ours–in large part because their sense of smell is primary, where our sense of sight is; because their eyeline is far lower than ours; because of a whole slew of other often overlooked facts–we can better understand their needs, desires, behaviors, etc..
If you want a more informed, fulfilling relationship with your dog, do yourself–and your dog–a favor: Read this book. Learn its lessons. Take them to heart. It will change your life, and your dog’s, for the better.
Today is my birthday. In the world as we know it, birthdays and cake are synonymous. In the world of An Expected End, my novel manuscript, deathdays and cake are also synonymous. In fact, cake features pretty prominently throughout the story. Marshall learns his deathday at Shyndigz, a real bakery in Richmond, Virginia. And although he is eating their signature oatmeal cream pies, as opposed to cake, while he dials into the Hotline to get his official Date of Departure (DoD), Shyndigz is also known for one of my favorite menu items, their salted chocolate caramel cake.
Cake also features in the story when Marshall’s colleagues, much to his chagrin, surprise him with an office deathday party, complete with deathday cake.
Marshall is eating the last piece of his birthday cake when he realizes how knowing his deathday has changed his perspective on life and the way he lives it: Life is like a piece of cake; he savors each bite, but knows each bite moves him closer to the last bite, and ultimately, to no more cake.
Perhaps one of the most important roles cake plays in the manuscript is that of being the reason Marshall meets Penelope. He goes to her bakery, The Cakery, a fictional bakery in Richmond, to pick up a deathday cake for a colleague’s office deathday party. Later, on his thirtieth birthday, he revisits The Cakery to purchase himself a birthday cake, which is really just an excuse to see Penelope again. He is eating the last piece of that birthday cake when he realizes how knowing his deathday has changed his perspective on life and the way he lives it: Life is like a piece of cake; he savors each bite, but knows each bite moves him closer to the last bite, and ultimately, to no more cake.
In its final role in the manuscript, cake features again when (**spoiler alert**), after Penelope has died, Marshall bakes a birthday cake from one of her recipes for their daughter, Evergreen’s, birthday.
Recently, cake has also featured prominently in my own, actual life.
Sunday, my husband came home from mountain biking in Richmond with our nephew. “I stopped at Shyndigz on my way home,” he told me.
“What did you get?” I asked.
“Oatmeal cream pies.”
“What else did you get?” I asked, taking for granted that he also brought back a piece of salted chocolate caramel cake for me.
Surely, he was pulling my leg.
“No, seriously. What else?”
“No, seriously. Nothing.”
I waited for him to break down, and admit, cackling, that a piece of cake waited for me on the kitchen counter. When he didn’t, “What?” I said.
“I didn’t get anything else.”
On New Year’s Eve, the fifth day after The Day I Did Not Get Cake, the doorbell rang just as it was getting dark outside. When I answered it, my husband was standing on the front porch, holding out a plastic container in which rested the perfect piece of Shyndigz salted chocolate caramel cake.
“You didn’t get me any chocolate cake?” I was incredulous, still sure he must be kidding, dragging the joke out as long as he could.
“No. Really. I’m not lying to you. I was in a hurry and I just didn’t think to get any cake.”
“Are you serious? You went to Shyndigz and didn’t get me any cake?”
He laughed at the utter shock that must’ve been on my face. “Sorry?” He was still laughing.
For the course of the the week, I lost no opportunity to remind him of the fact that he had gone to one of my favorite bakeries where they make one of my favorite cakes, and neglected to bring a piece home to me. I must’ve found a way to work his negligence into every single day at least twice.
On New Year’s Eve, the fifth day after The Day I Did Not Get Cake, the doorbell rang just as it was getting dark outside. When I answered it, my husband was standing on the front porch, holding out a plastic container in which rested the perfect piece of Shyndigz salted chocolate caramel cake, complete with a to-go cup of extra salted caramel spread. During his lunch break, he had driven downtown to get me my long-awaited piece of cake. He has been forgiven.
I let him in and set the cake down on the counter, every intention of savoring it after the Chinese takeout we’d ordered for dinner with a couple friends. As we finished our lo mein and rice and pot stickers and egg drop soup, I eyed the piece of cake on the counter. But before I could eat that: New Year’s Eve fortune cookies. We each cracked open our fortune cookie and shared the fortune within with the rest of the table. Mine? “A piece of cake is awaiting for you.” Forgiving the misuse of “awaiting,” never has there been a truer fortune. Just a moment later, I was sinking my fork into the moist chocolate cake, savoring the thick chocolate icing and salty caramel goodness of the slice.
Today, being my birthday, is also likely to involve cake in some capacity, at some point.
And I’m hoping my New Year’s Eve fortune holds a longer-range, figurative meaning in addition to its immediate, literal one. I’m hoping it’s prophetic, foreshadowing that my manuscript, rife with pieces of cake, will achieve publication this year–will become a real book, one I can hold in my hands, flipping through its pages, savoring its existence the way I do a piece of chocolate cake.
I’ve been a little absent from the blog lately, but it hasn’t been without good reason. After receiving favorable feedback from a small press back in August, I’ve been working diligently on revisions of my manuscript, formerly titled The Experiment, recently retitled An Expected End. It’s no secret I would love to see this manuscript morph into a real book, one that is “absolutely real,” with “pages and everything,” to quote Owl Eyes in Fitzgerald’s famed The Great Gatsby. To that end, in addition to continuing to look into agents and small presses, I have entered the piece in the Inkshares All-Genre Manuscript Contest.
As part of the contest, I will be posting a new chapter of my manuscript every Tuesday and Friday (with the exception of Christmas day; I will post Tuesday and Wednesday that week). To read them, just visit An Expected End on Inkshares, and click “Read” just under the cover (which is not the actual cover yet).
If you like what you read, a cross between Adam Silvera’s novel They Both Die at the Endand the 2004 film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and want to help my manuscript move forward in the contest for its chance at publication, I invite you to follow the project on Inkshares, leave comments in the Discussion, and write a review in the Reviews tab. One element of the contest involves reader engagement, so if you follow the manuscript, any time you read, discuss, or review it, you’ll be helping it find its way to bookstore shelves!
If you really like what you read, I hope you’ll pre-order your own copy of the book. After 750 pre-orders are placed, Inkshares will commit to publication, regardless of the manuscript’s performance in the contest. If the manuscript doesn’t reach 750 pre-orders, everyone who pre-ordered a copy will receive a refund.
So, let me send you off with a book blurb, in the hopes that it will whet your appetite to head on over to Inkshares and follow An Expected End (the first chapter is already up!).
The year is 2045 and science has made a breathtaking discovery: People can predict, with incredible accuracy, the day that any man, woman, or child will die. But Penelope Hope won’t accept that. She wants to live her life without the overwhelming knowledge of her death, no matter how many people in society choose to learn their deathday (officially known as one’s Date of Departure, or DoD). That is until her self-centered fiancé, Sebastian Flach, and her spunky best friend, Bea Adams, convince her to enroll in the Experiment and learn her deathday for the sake of her future family. What she learns turns her world upside down, breaks up her engagement, brings new love into her life, and forces her to make a stark choice: Does she tell her new love, Marshall Mitner, whose child she now carries, that she will die very soon, or force him to live in the ignorant bliss she wanted all along–and break his heart?
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.”
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 Scriptures 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.”
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.)
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.
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
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
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.”
Reedsy is a publishing company that helps authors realize their publishing dreams by connecting them with professional editors, designers, and marketers. Since our founding in 2014, we’ve helped countless self-published writers perfect and launch their books. However, about two years ago, we realized there was another side of the equation we hadn’t addressed: the review and recommendation side of the book industry.
Hence, the idea for Reedsy Discovery was born. We wanted to create a book-focused platform where authors can promote their books and readers can discovernew titles to peruse. And while we regularly shine a spotlight on up-and-coming indie titles, the bibliophiles in us will never stop cherishing all good literature. Which is why Reedsy’s content team decided to curate a list of the 115 best books of all time. If you’re wondering how we took on this gigantic task, read on!
Deciding on the Structure
Before we even started selecting titles, we needed to decide the basis on which we would organize this list. There have been so many masterpieces crafted throughout time, and we hardly knew where to begin! Naturally, we were immediately drawn to the idea of having a list of classics available in the English language. But we wanted to go a bit further.
Particularly, we wanted to draw attention to the fact that there is more to the world of written text than English literary exploits. What of spiritually-rich ancient recordings? What of stories from across the globe?
While we realized that many of these wouldn’t be considered books the way we know them today, the fact that they told tales meant that they were as close to books as was possible at the time. With this in mind, we decided to structure our list according to a vast timeline: from ancient times to the post-classical era to the contemporary world.
Looking for Titles from Across Cultures
The criteria for the “best books” has certainly changed over time, especially as voices and styles have adapted to fit each society’s ever-evolving readership. However, we made a point to include stories that pulled readers in, narratives that moved souls, and prose that was considered beautiful both at the time of publication and decades later.
It didn’t matter what language the story was told in, because an enticing tale transcends borders. You will find in our list many texts that are pillars in Chinese and in Indian literature (most notably Romance of the Three Kingdoms and the Mahabharata).
And the diversity didn’t stop with classical texts. We also wanted to show our appreciation of voices from many current regions of the world, voices expressing the different ways we all grapple with modernity — which is why you’ll also find contemporary masterpieces such as The Kite Runner, Midnight’s Children, and Angels in America.
Searching for Titles that Reflect the Complexity of Society
Beyond the beauty of the language and an enthralling plot (think of Agatha Christie’s ingenious mysteries), we were also on the lookout for titles that are unafraid to demonstrate the many perspectives that weave together to make our societies.
Often such stories involve challenging existing beliefs in order to bring out different points of view. With this list, you can travel back to the 15th century and see how Christine de Pizan challenged gender constructs in The Book of the City of Ladies, or teleport to a Brave New World where the bliss of consumption and indulgence is pulled back to reveal society’s dark underbelly.
Sometimes such rebellious content can also be accompanied by innovations in literary style. You probably won’t be surprised that we included Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises for this very reason. How could we have resisted this modern classic, with its simple-yet-elegant prose and plotline alluding to the problematic drunken lifestyle of the Roaring Twenties?
Of course, we realized that there were plenty more books that could have been included in this list, but didn’t make it. With a lot of consideration and reluctance, we decided to narrow it down to these 115 titles. It’s by no means definitive; they just happen to fit our criteria the best. Feel free to discuss and suggest other books in the comments below!
Thao Nguyen is a writer at Reedsy, a platform that connects authors and publishers with the world’s best editors, designers, and marketers. She enjoys writing non-fiction, especially the historical kind, and is delighted by the prospects that self-publishing provides for aspiring authors nowadays.
Writers, at least those of us with a desire to share or publish our work, need a thick skin. There are always people with ideas pertaining to how we could improve our writing. Some of them are right. Some of them are not. There are always publications that will
reject our writing–many more than will accept it. For years, I have kept color-coded records of the work I have sent out into the world in hopes of seeing it published. Red indicates a piece has been rejected, white indicates that its publication is still pending (Read: I haven’t heard anything back–yet), blue indicates that it has made it through some initial phase of the acceptance process, and green indicates it has been officially accepted for publication. Consistently, red (in other contexts one of my favorite colors) dominates my submission spreadsheets. So far, 2020 hasn’t proven an exception to this seeming rule. Above is my submission spreadsheet for 2020 thus far. You will note a whole lot of red. And one–one–row of green.
But that single row of green means everything–means more than the over a dozen red rows. That single row of green means the one piece that I most wanted to find a publication home, did. The original version of this piece, “A Search for Meaning in the Face of Loss,” appears on this blog. An abridged version, retitled “Always With Me, Still,” will appear in an upcoming edition of Chicken Soup for the Soul, Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Magic of Dogs, available at bookstores on July 14.
The piece, the third about Jack and Sadie to appear in a Chicken Soup book, details the many ways in which Jack is still with me, leaving me signs (usually socks), comforting me, communicating with me, making me smile. Though I initially wrote this piece about a year ago, signs from Jack have not stopped materializing, and I am near-to-tears happy that the story of his ability to stay by my side will be able to reach thousands of readers around the world.
Jack and Sadie are featured in two other Chicken Soup for the Soul titles, Life Lessons from the Dog and Think Positive, Live Happy.
Jack and Sadie are featured in two other Chicken Soup for the Soul titles, Think Positive, Live Happy and Life Lessons from the Dog.
Ever since I submitted the piece in November 2019, I have held close to my heart the hope that it would be accepted. As the January 2020 submission deadline approached, I became increasingly eager to hear whether it would be included. My husband has probably lost count of the number of times I earnestly voiced my hopes, but as he shared them, he was patient with me.
Yes, I am disappointed about the pieces that, so far, remain homeless–but I will continue searching for their homes, and in the meantime, the red rows on my submission spreadsheet pale in comparison to that one, green row.
Across the country, schools are shuttered in the face of the current Covid-19 pandemic, in some states (like mine) for the rest of the school year. Yesterday afternoon, Governor Northam of Virginia announced that all private and public schools will remain closed through at least the end of this academic year. This announcement no doubt panicked parents, and I know firsthand, saddened many teachers. To their own surprise, even many students were disappointed. Within minutes of the Governor’s announcement, I received a flurry of emails from distraught students, many of them containing messages like, “I never thought I’d say this, but I really miss school!” For my own part, I feel cheated out of the time I thought I still had with a group of students I really enjoyed and care about, and that just scrapes the top of the iceberg of my emotions right now.
No one knows yet what this extended closure will mean for grades, graduations, or promotions, but in the meantime, we need to make sure our children and students stay engaged, active, and productive. This could be a great opportunity to get to know each other, our neighbors, our communities, and ourselves better. Below are some resources colleagues have shared with me, as well as some I created myself, to help children, parents, and educators navigate these uncertain times.
Listen to a Story
This morning, a colleague of mine who is also a parent shared that while schools are closed, Audible is offering free audiobooks for kids and teens. If you’re working from home and want to offer your children more than another TV show or movie, offer them an audiobook! You can ask younger children to draw pictures of what they heard, and older children to write summaries or reviews.
Become a Citizen Scientist: Zooniverse
Another colleague notified all of the teachers in our city at the middle and high school levels about Zooniverse, which allows students (and parents and teachers!) to become citizen scientists. The hands-on involvement in real projects and studies lends to the authenticity of the task, and can be not only educational, but also empowering. Children can choose which projects to be a part of, according to their own interests, talents, and skills. Projects are available for various ages catering to all kinds of interests with a range of topics, including art, language, biology, climate, nature, medicine, social science, physics, and more.
Preschool to Early Elementary
Write to Pete the Cat
Our superintendent sent along an invitation to become pen pals with Pete the Cat. Many young children are familiar with the beloved feline literary character. Right now, children can engage with him through letter-writing. Writing a letter to Pete the Cat could help activate your child’s imagine, as well as help him or her practice his spelling, handwriting, and grammar skills. You could even pick a certain topic to focus on (writing a specific letter your child struggles to write, spelling a specific word, using a specific type of punctuation, etc.) as you help your child write the letter.
Scavenger hunts can be a great way to get outside, get moving, and activate the mind and imagination. So far, I have created and completed two, both with children between the
ages of 4 and 7. One is geared towards teaching children a little bit of the history of their city (in this case, Richmond, Virginia) while the other teaches them just a little bit about ecology and the food chain. Make your own or, if you’re local, use mine!
As its name implies, the Forest Hill Avenue Park Scavenger Hunt takes place in Richmond’s Forest Hill Avenue Park. It’s about 1.6 miles long and our group of three adults, four children, and two little dogs took about two hours to complete it (we spent a lot of time playing on the rocks and in the creek).
Late Elementary through High School
Become a Primary Source for Historians: Journal
Writing in journals is a good practice for the mental health and emotional well-being of people of all ages, as well as for improving their writing skills; stimulating their minds and imaginations; and, in these unprecedented times, providing genuine, primary sources for historians in the future. Before asking your children or students to write, have them read this article, shared with me by a colleague, on how important their journal entries could become. Sometimes, writing for an actual audience increases motivation and purpose. As poet Denise Riley writes, “You can’t, it seems, take the slightest interest in the activity of writing unless you possess some feeling of futurity.” The ideas in the article should provide young writers with this “feeling of futurity.”
“You can’t, it seems, take the slightest interest in the activity of writing unless you possess some feeling of futurity.”
-poet Denise Riley
Middle and High School
Read a Book
Students often don’t have time to read for pleasure, with homework, part-time jobs, extracurricular activities, and sports practices monopolizing most of their time. This period of social distancing is the perfect opportunity for students to enjoy a good book (or several). Below is a list of book recommendations I shared with my high school students a few days ago. I would recommend clicking the link to learn more about any given book before handing it off to your child or recommending it to your students. Some are better suited to specific age groups than others.
Salt to the Sea, Ruta Sepetys (I read this about a year ago and recommended it to my parents and my neighbor, all of whom loved it. It’s YA historical fiction, based on real events that happened during WWII. It’s a look at WWII that you’ve probably never gotten before.)
East of Eden, John Steinbeck (One of my all-time favorite books, this novel is by author who wrote Of Mice and Men and Travels with Charley) **Note: My academic classes read Of Mice and Men earlier this year, while my honors class read Travels with Charley as one of their summer reading books.**
Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card (another one of my all-time favorite books)
Dog Songs: Poems, Mary Oliver (Admittedly, I haven’t read this yet, but I want to!)
Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl (really uplifting read; nonfiction by a Holocaust survivor–yes, an uplifting book about the Holocaust…!) **Note: This would be a particular timely read given the current pandemic.**
The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien (somewhat autobiographical essays about the Vietnam War from a Vietnam War veteran)
Ask students to think of a book, the end of which they did not like (most of my students were appalled at the way Of Mice and Men and The Crucible ended). After having them read a summary of the work or watch the film (if available) to refresh their memories, ask them to rewrite the ending as they wish it had been.
Reasons for Optimism
While much about the current times can seem bleak, scary, and confusing, this period of social distancing and sacrifice can also prove a time of increased creativity, new perspectives, innovation, introspection, and enrichment.
Consider the advice provided in Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet: “To keep growing, silently and earnestly, through your while development; you couldn’t disturb it any more violently than by looking outside and waiting for outside answers to question that only your innermost feeling, in your quietest hour, can perhaps answer.” Or, perhaps even more timely: “But your solitude will be your home and haven even in the midst of very strange conditions, and from there you will discover all your paths.” And finally: “…it is good to be solitary, for solitude is difficult; that something is difficult must be one more reason for us to do it.”
“But your solitude will be your home and haven even in the midst of very strange conditions, and from there you will discover all your paths.”
-Rainer Maria Rilke
Though many people feel isolated and alone due to quarantines and social distancing, we are fortunate that in this day and age, we have innumerable resources available to us to stay connected: social media, cell phones, FaceTime, Zoom, Skype, etc. While there has been concern that people, in particular young people, have become too reliant on or even addicted to their devices and technology, this period of relative isolation might serve to remind us that while screens can provide for temporary connectivity, the human presence–face-to-face conversation, a hug, a handshake, someone to sit beside at the movies or the dinner table–provides an invaluable connection. While texting and calling can help us stay in touch right now, I believe we will also all be reminded of the importance of interpersonal communication and genuine relationships.
In my neck of the woods in central Virginia, the weather has been unseasonably warm, with the exception of a five-day cold snap a week or so ago. We’ve had no excuse this winter to snuggle up inside and hibernate (at least not yet). In fact, if you follow me on Instagram, you’ve seen lots of photos of the Littles running around outside without their sweaters on. Still, there’s something about these winter months that puts me in the mood for cozy nights in, and if you’re in a clime colder than mine, you might be looking for ways to stimulate your creativity out of its cold-induced stupor. Here are a few ideas.
Of course Scrabble is the go-to game to exercise your lexicon, but what about your creativity and bookishness? Liebrary requires players to write a fake first line of a real work of literature in an attempt to fool the other players into believing it is the genuine first line of the work. The “liebrarian” rolls a dice determining which genre the work of literature will come from, and then draws a card from that genre. The card bears the title, author, and summary of the book, as well as the real first line. The liebrarian shares with the players everything except the first line. Players then compose a first line and hand it to the liebrarian, who reads off all the first lines, including the real one. Players have to guess which line is the true first line. Essentially, it’s Balderdash for books.
My husband and I rented The Professor and the Madman from a RedBox in the Northern Neck back in the fall. We loved it so much that instead of returning it to the RedBox the next morning, we went ahead and bought it from the RedBox instead. Watching this movie allows viewers to learn the history of the Oxford dictionary and appreciate the intricacy of language. I have to admit that the history of the Oxford dictionary was never something I wondered about. In fact, I suppose I’ve generally just taken the existence of the dictionary for granted. This movie made me see its existence, creation, and continual evolution in a whole new light, and gave a human story to the history.
I haven’t yet seen The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, but I want to. It tells the story of post-WWII writer who, while writing about their experiences during the war, forms a relationship with the inhabitants of Guernsey Island. It’s told via letters shared between the writer and the residents–so basically, it’s a story told through writing, about a writer, writing a book. What’s not to love?
Netflix and Chill
Anne with an E
One of my favorite book series growing up was the Anne of Green Gables series by Lucy Maud Montgomery. The character of Anne Shirley not only contributed to my desire to be a writer (I have vivid memories of incorporating the phrase “alabaster brow” into much of my writing in middle school after reading it in an Anne of Green Gables book), but also influenced my personality and life philosophy. I wholeheartedly embrace(d) the idea of kindred spirits and at least partially because of the description of Anne “drinking in the beautiful sunset,” a line that has stayed with me over decades, I have an insatiable thirst for natural beauty–largely manifested in an obsession with sunsets and sunrises. I also share Anne’s dislike for math, and as a middle school student, found great comfort in our shared torture at its hands. You can imagine, then, my delight when I discovered the Netflix series Anne with an E, based on one of my childhood literary heroes. I have watched the first season and just started the second. It is just as whimsical and lovely as I remember, and also tackles some interesting contemporary social issues (to be sure, Maud’s writing did the same in its own historical and social context).
You tells the story of a struggling writer and grad student, and her ill-fated (total understatement) romance with a bookstore owner named Joe. To read an analysis deeper and more insightful than mine, click here.
Today marks the final day of 2019, the final day of the last decade. As we look ahead to a fresh decade and think about our New Year’s Resolutions, I want to share the way I like to start a brand new, fresh school year with my high school English students.
Sometime during the first week of school in September, I show my students the goals for our class. (Once on the site, scroll down to the section titled “Our Goals.”) We read through and discuss them together.
After that, I instruct students to fill out this School Year’s Resolutions handout, and share what they come up with the small group of students sitting around them.
Following their discussion, each student creates a small poster based on his or her goals. The poster includes a list of written goals, and pictures to go with them. Then, they tape or glue their School Year’s Resolutions handout to the back.
When students have completed their posters, they display them on our classroom bulletin board, titled “School Year’s Resolutions.” If we have time, each student also stands up and presents his or her goals to the class as a whole.
This portion of the activity serves as an ice breaker, gives me invaluable insight into my students, helps students understand the context and purpose of the class and associated material, requires students to present information orally, and gives students insight into me–for I, too, set and share my goals.
This school year, the goals I set and am working on are:
Get more sleep
Get back into running
Read at least three books for pleasure before school ends in June.
Reflecting on Progress
At interim (progress) report time, or around when report cards go out for the first grading period, I assign students a journal topic that requires them to assess the progress they are making (or not) or have made (or not) towards achieving the goals they set at the beginning of the school year.
This part of the activity asks students to reflect and requires them to write.
As for my own progress at this point in the school year, I would say I’ve been fairly successful at getting more sleep. During the week, I typically succeed at getting to bed between 9:00 and 9:30, and I get up around 5:15, give or take a few minutes.
I’ve also experienced moderate success in terms of reducing my stress. My job is just as stressful, if not more so than usual due to changes coming down the pipeline from the state level, but I love my students and have made and mostly kept this promise to myself: I will work eight hours a day, Monday through Friday. No more, no less. The only exception to this rule is if I happen to feel inspired to work longer hours, in which case, I will. I bring work home every night in the event that this happens, and sometimes it does. In the past, however after spending roughly eight hours at work, I would bring home an additional one to three hours of work to complete in my family room or out on my back deck. My husband would say, “Do you want to watch a show tonight?” And if he was asking any time between September and June, 99% of the time, my answer was a pat “I can’t; I have papers to read/tests to grade/projects to evaluate/plans to make.” Now, I remind myself that while I was at work, I worked. Now, I am at home. And that means I don’t have to work at the moment. I’ve discovered that somehow, I still complete all the work I need to complete. Just not as quickly. And that’s okay.
As for getting back to running, I’ve been less successful there, but it hasn’t been a total bust. I used to stick to a strict regimen of runs. I planned my mileage out for each week–or, if I were training for a race, months in advance. And I stuck to these running routines religiously. After saying goodbye to Jack and Sadie, adopting Nacho and Soda, and totaling my car, for the first time in over a decade, my running sort of fell by the wayside. I had deep emotional and minor physical injuries to recover from, and running, once at the top of my priority list, wasn’t even on the list at all. I do miss it, though, and currently, I am running when I feel like it, or when I enjoy some found time here and there. Some weeks I might run one mile. Others, I am fitting in one or two miles three, maybe five, times a week. It’s coming along. It’s a work in progress. So am I.
Finally: Read at least three books before the end of the school year. I would say I have been the most successful here. I started reading Madeline Miller’s Circe in September, and though I didn’t finish until December, finish I did. (And I highly recommend it. I immediately loaned it to a colleague, a Latin teacher, who, last I checked, was also thoroughly enjoying it. It’s thought-provoking to the point of an existential crisis–in a good way.) Following Circe, I picked up Elin Hilderbrand’s Winter Solstice, which my sister recommended and which seemed seasonally appropriate. I read that considerably more quickly, using winter break to my advantage. Just a few days ago, I started reading Present over Perfect by Shauna Niequist, a book my best friend recently gifted me for Christmas, with the inscription that it’s the highest recommended book for my Enneagram type (Type 1, with occasional deviations to Types 3 and 6). I’m on page 33, and let me tell you–the book speaks to me. So, I am on book three and we’re not even halfway to June yet. Definite progress there.
For more on the subject of resolutions–whether for the upcoming calendar year or a future school year–check out my blog post about student me, and why it’s important we teachers don’t forget what it’s like to be students.
No matter what your Enneagram type, Niequist’s Present over Perfect is a fabulous read to ring in the new year. If you are looking to slow down, simplify, and live a life more authentic to the true you, start with this book.