The Pilgramage (or why I really went to Atlantic City last week)

“Everything dies, baby that’s a fact
But maybe everything that dies some day comes back.
Put your makeup on, fix your hair up pretty
And meet me tonight in Atlantic City.”

Bruce Springsteen, Atlantic City

Last Friday I made the 60 mile pilgrimage from Philadelphia to the Atlantic City, New Jersey to present my writing workshop “Learn to Write like No One is Reading” at New Jersey Educators Convention.

The workshop, a culmination of strategies and experiences I’ve accumulated over the last 15 years of teaching, explores how teachers can use storytelling as an instructional practice to deepen student learning while helping students further embrace the writing process.

The workshop was well received by the audience. They actively participate, smiled, laughed at my jokes and from what I could tell, left with at least one new strategy to use in their classrooms.

For the last few months I’ve been making presentations at various professional learning seminars. And I’ve come to really enjoy talking literacy and helping educators facilitate classrooms that promote writing and storytelling so to inspire their students to become better writers.

But if I’m being purely honest — the real reason I went to Atlantic City last week to present a writing workshop was a purely selfish one.

The Real Reason

In September of 2013 an MRI revealed that I had suffered significant brain damage.

However there was no clear catalyst — a car crash or a fall — to warrant such loss of brain matter so quickly.

In October of 2013, after the Director of Neurology at Jefferson University Hospital examined my MRI he acknowledged majority of my cerebellum had died, suggested I start testing for every known debilitating and fatal disease and then asked if I had long-term disability insurance.

“No.”

“I can’t predict what will happen to your brain,” he paused and looked over at the MRI still displayed on his computer screen, “but if you can somehow acquire long-term disability insurance I think you should.”

The Silver Lining

During its annual Convention, the New Jersey Educators Association has a no-physical-required, no-questions-asked open enrollment period for its long term disability insurance.

The only caveat was you have to enroll in person at the Convention in Atlantic City.

So in November of 2013, as mom drove the 60 some miles to Atlantic City, we outlined my plan —  enroll in long-term disability insurance and brave on long enough for the paper work to process so that when I when inevitability lose the ability to speak or see or lose muscle function and can no longer work, my family would’t be so financially burdened.

When mom dropped me off outside the Convention Center, I told her to circle around the block because I wasn’t going to be long. I guess because when your life is undergoing a massive reconstruction sometimes you have no choice but to work as fast as you can.

I mazed through the Convention floor until I found the Prudential Insurance booth where I asked a few questions, looked at a few charts, enrolled in the long-term disability program, hustled back the way I came, walked out of the Convention Center, into the cold November sunlight and waited for mom to pick me up and take me home.

The purpose of a pilgrimage is about setting aside a long period of time in which the only focus is to be the matters of the soul. Many believe a pilgrimage is about going away but it isn’t; it is about coming home. Those who choose to go on pilgrimage have already ventured away from themselves; and now set out in a longing to journey back to who they are.” 

L.M. Browning, Seasons of Contemplation: A Book of Midnight Meditations

Last Friday I selfishly trekked 60 miles from the Philadelphia suburbans to the Atlantic City Convention Center.

In a way, I found something redemptive in those hard-earned miles. And though skirting pot holes and grinding through traffic can not repair the damage in my brain, it did remind me that somehow I’m still very much alive and that I still have a story to tell.

Be well,

Jay

The Scary Work of Redefining Yourself

It was this week, last year that I published The Day I Learned I Could No Longer Jump ( or learning to fly). It was one of the greatest leaps I ever took.

Here’s why.

Any writer who tells you they’re not worried about how their work will be perceived is lying.

Look dear reader, I want you to like my work. Scratch that — I want you to love my work.

I want you to read each post twice and share it three times.

I want you to think about me as you’re buttering your morning bagel or waiting for the elevator doors to open.

I want to make you laugh and cry. Give you chills and rock your soul and make you turn over the wonder and magic and mystery of your own life.

But in order to accomplish those Herculean things I need to be honest, authentic and share my story. I need to tell you things I’ve yet to tell my wife. That’s our agreement. And that’s why, sometimes, writing is incredibly hard.

In the quiet hours of life, I often think about my twelve weeks at the St. Lawrence Rehabilitation Center. About the new truths I learned. About how I learned I could no longer jump. About how quickly years of the personal definitions of me being a man strong and athletic crumbled to the cold linoleum floor on a gray December afternoon when an unassuming physical therapist asked me to jump.

What I tried to capture in The Day I Learned I Could No Longer Jump was the raw embarrassment and shame and sadness I felt in those rehab sessions.

What I didn’t tell you in that story was how scared I was.

The fall and winter of 2013 was the most terrifying stretch in my life. It wasn’t the thought of dying, which did hang heavy in those days, it was a fear of redefining myself. My brain was damaged and the doctors didn’t know why. But the scariest part was digesting the news that parts of me could only now be found in photo albums and in flickering reels of memory.

Take your parents or grandparents. Great people I’m sure. But they’re set in their ways. They detest change. They’ve got their favorite chair, their eternal pair of slippers. They’ve been buying the same toothpaste for 30 years. They’re comfortable. They resist to change. And it drives you crazy but they’re too advanced to redefine themselves. So you smile and accept it.

I knew that my season of physical rehabilitation was crucial. I knew I had to let go of who I was — an athlete, coach and begin the painful and confusing task of redefining myself as a writer — before it was too late.

Redefining yourself is not easy. It’s scary. You’re not a kid but you fear judgement and criticism the way you did in high school. And sometimes redefining yourself becomes dangerous work. Drugs, alcohol and other destructive habits become your new definitions.

But I’ve learned that if you redefine yourself positively and purposefully you can tap new potentials.

When you write your new definitions you find new ways to in be strong and empowered and your life is suddenly swirling with exciting possibilities. You discover new energies. New angles. You begin to realize your potential.

Aside from William Faulker, any writer will claim that editing while writing is a literary sin. You write and write and write then edit. They are separate adventures. But this is life. You can’t write, enjoy a cup of coffee, take a breath then edit your past. We must write and edit at the same time. You must redefine yourself as you go. And it’s unnatural. It’s hard. It’s really fucking hard.

But dear reader, it might just be the most important thing you ever do.

Be well,

Jay

The Day I Learned I Could No Longer Jump ( or learning to fly)

Six months after being diagnosed with cerebellar degeneration, six months after a neurologist examined an MRI of my brain, leveled his eyes, cleared his throat and said to me, “you should be dead or in a hospital bed” I’m staring at my physical therapist, Denise, and she’s daring me to jump...

 

A Moment with Tom Petty

When Tom Petty died I was suddenly 19 again, wearing headphones and slumped in the backseat of a rented minivan.

Dad is driving, Mom is riding shotgun and my two younger brothers are tucked in the middle bench watching Home Alone on a TV/VCR combo dad had strapped to a milk crate to entertain the kids on our first family road trip — a traverse through New York state and into Canada.

To pass the time, I brought a pen and notebook, a discman and a binder with stuffed CDs.

 I’ve forgotten large chucks of my teen years but I remember, with absolute clarity, the songs that soundtracked the most confusing, polarizing, contradictory, painful and fun years of my life.

On that trip, I listened the contemplative “Time to Move on”, the third track on Tom Petty’s “Wildflowers” album over and over and over again, convinced it was written for me.

“It’s time to move on, time to get going
What lies ahead, I have no way of knowing”

I remember, as the New York tree line flicked by, writing out scenes for what I thought was going to my first novel. A fictional yarn about a rich 19 year old kid who declined a scholarship to Princeton so he could make a year long transcontinental hike from New Jersey to California. Of course, his hard-boiled father disapproved and his mother was too busy stroking the pool boy to care. It was a massive idea. Too massive for me then. Maybe too massive for me now.

When you’re 19, life gets complicated.

Choices become harder, they have more gravity and greater consequence. Time is suddenly finite. Reality is tangible. You realize you need to do something with your life. And as sad as it is, you realize your on the verge of comprising your dreams to appease the status quo.

At the end of my freshman year of college, I was 19 and had a growing awareness of how hard it was going to be to become a writer. It was a life of discipline and sacrifice and deep examination only to be rewarded with self-doubt and rejection.

When it was convenient, like in the back of a minivan in upstate New York, I would scratch down stories but I wasn’t committed. I grew frustrated by the amount of work being a writer took and I remember being 19 and concluding that writing was a cute dream, but ultimately a dream for other people to entertain.

“Broken skyline, which way to love land?
Which way to something better?
Which way to forgiveness?
Which way do I go?”

At 19 you’re wedged between the adulthood and childhood. You’re letting go of romantic ideas of adulthood and submitting to reality —  the one with time clocks and car insurance and parties that end at 9 pm. At 19, I didn’t want that adult life. And, in a way, I still don’t want.

“It’s time to move on, time to get going
What lies ahead, I have no way of knowing
But under my feet, baby, grass is growing
It’s time to move on, it’s time to get going”

When Tom Petty died, like when all great musicians die, the alchemy of music twists time and somehow the past becomes present.

And suddenly you’re 19 again, slumped in the backseat of a minivan, rolling through the mountains of New York. You’ve got your headphones on and a scruffy guitarist from Gainesville, Florida is singing out your secrets. There’s a fear swirling in your chest. A fear that will settle, take its shoes off and rest heavy in your chest for years to come.

Because you’re afraid to move on.

You’re afraid to get going.

Be well,

Jay

This One Simple Tool Will Make You a More Effective Writing Teacher

Teenagers are notorious for their lack of attention and internal busyness– especially in a classroom. They live in a chronic state of unawareness and have a cantankerous yearning to be somewhere else.

“I want to go to sleep.”

“I want to go home.”

“I’m starving, when’s lunch?”

And in these modern times of computers and smartphones, the teenage attention span is quite slim (and seems to be getting slimmer by the day).

As writing teachers, this wandering teenage mind is one of the greatest challenges we face.

So how do we tame the teenage monkey mind? How do we get a classroom of unfocused students focused and prepared to write?

The answer, is a surprisingly simple one. (And yet took me many painful years to figure it out.)

A timer.

In recent years, a timer as become my most important and effective teaching tool to tame the wild teenage mind.

 

The use of a timer in the classroom creates three things…

  1. focus
  2. urgency
  3. a goal

Experience has shown me that students actually enjoy the demands of the timer. It teaches them that in brief, focused bursts they can overcome procrastination and actually accomplish things.

Lesson Plan

Let’s say you want to have your students write a narrative piece on failure.

Here’s a simple 3 step, 240 second process you can implement to get students started, focused and excited to write…

Step 1 (180 seconds)

  1. Have students write the heading “Times I failed today…” on a blank page.
  2. Set a timer for 30 seconds.
  3. Beneath the heading, tell the students that when the timer begins, to scratch down all of today’s failures (these can be internal and external). Tell them they’re not writing sentences. Just a word or phrase (Alarm clock) that indicates a failure. I call this word or phrase a “working title”.
  4. Ready, Set…Go!

Prior to and during Step 1 it’s vital to stress that students are not to worry about spelling or grammar. This worry will only slow them down and restrict the process. Encourage students write messy. Tell them that this activity is not for a grade and that their list only has to make sense to them.

I would then repeat Step 1 two more times, each with a new heading, “Times I failed this week…”, then “Times I failed this year… “. I would also expand the time– 60 seconds for the former, 90 seconds for the latter.

Step 2 (30 seconds)

Have students evaluate all three lists. Have them mark three moments of failure that they still think about. That if they had the power, would turn back time and do over. 30 seconds. Go!

Step 3 (30 seconds)

Finally, evaluate the marked three failures. Which one still keeps you up at night? Which one has changed you the most? Mark that one. 30 seconds. Go!

This one failure will be the focus for the narrative writing assignment on failure.

Collectively, the three steps are 240 seconds of focused brainstorming that, when completed provide each student with a powerful, personal moment that harbors all the intimate ingredients needed for a good writing piece.

Furthermore, after just 240 seconds, the page should be littered with ideas. For students, this littering is rewarding. Students can be messy, not be judged (which is a natural confidence booster) and in a brief time realize that they’re lives are worthy of writing about.

Note: As the classroom teacher, you’re the expert on your students. You’re encouraged to modify this strategy to meet the age and level of your students.

Takeaways

  • A timer is essential for a writing classroom since it helps create focus, urgency and a goal.
  • Brainstorming should be structured.
  • Eliminates the “I have nothing to write about” problem.
  • Students can accomplish much more in quick focused bursts, then a long meandering brainstorming session.
  • Students enjoy a focused brainstorm activity.
  • This activity allows students to fill the page with meaningful experiences that can serve as great writing subjects.
  • This “messy” activity provides apprehensive writers with confidence.

Teaching is tough business. Sign up. Get help.

Receive Write on Fight on’s weekly post along with strategies and ruminations on how to transform your classroom into an authentic learning environment.

 

What I Learned from My Year of Writing

This week marks one full year of writing and publishing at least one original blog post a week.

I’m proud to announce that this act of showing up and writing stands as a personal milestone.

See, for years I wanted to be a writer but convinced myself that the time wasn’t right to undertake such an endeavor. So I found often frivolous ways to busy myself, to lie to myself.

writing-828911_960_720

Call it maturity, call it a fear of living an unfulfilled life but for the past year I have shown up and wrote almost everyday.

Now please understand these sessions were not carnivals of creativity where I tore through sentences with wild, Shakepearean abandonment. No. Often these sessions were slow, painful exercises. Equivalent to a literary Tough Mudder or shoe shopping with the wife.

Sometimes it took cups of coffee, bowls of Fruity Pebbles and every ounce of energy to grind out a few terrible, ill-fated sentences that never came close to sniffing the sweet air of a final draft.

However, sometimes with the proper balance of caffeine and high fructose corn syrup cartwheeling through my veins, I found a groove. And in these groovy moments the writing came easy, naturally. And writing was well, fun.

Either way, a year of consistent writing has been a tremendous teacher. A teacher of both powerful writing and life lessons.

Lesson# 1-  “Too busy” is simply too convenient of an excuse.

When I was 18 I told a friend I wanted to be a writer. Then I blinked and I was 33. For 15 years I was always “too busy” to write. For 15 years I was hoping “writing” would just magically happen. It saddens me to think how many ideas, how many stories were ultimately lost and will remain forever unwritten because I was “too busy”. Commitment to writing required me to quell my excuses and take ownership of my life.

Hope without action is a meaningless exercise.

Lesson #2- Even in our desensitized world, people still like to feel things.

The internet is saturated with nonsense (Clearly, any knucklehead can start a blog). And sometimes I like reading nonsense. But over the year my most read posts were To Robbinsville, New Jersey, The Day I Learned I Could No Longer Jump, and Bowling with God.  All three posts were described as a “tough reads”. All three explore death and the fragility of life. Not that I necessarily like the gloom (hell, a bowl of Fruity Pebbles is one of go to writing fuels) but I learned that people want to be moved. They want to be entertained and informed yes, but people want their emotions stirred. I believe people secretly enjoy entertaining the big, scary, unanswerable questions about life and death for awhile.

We can say we understand another’s pain but no matter how accurately we articulate, our words fall tragically short of what is swirling in our heart and head– further exposing the flawed nature of the human design.

Lesson #3- Writing allows me to better understand myself.

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Here I am looking pensive, slightly pretentious as I try to understand myself.

There’s something about turning intangible thoughts into tangible words that deepens your understanding of yourself and the world at large. A few months ago I wrote a piece called, “In Good Company” and explained how, when I write, I imagine that I’m sitting down with an old friend in a local bar and how the magical mix of alcohol, dim lighting and a familiar songs rolling out the jukebox coax me to let my guard down, strip away layers of pretentiousness, question my core and gain a deeper perspective of myself.

It takes more courage and less energy to say “I don’t know” than pretend you do.

Lesson #4- Writing can be done anywhere, under any condition.

As I’m writing this sentence my two sons are speeding around the kitchen table dribbling basketballs. For years I thought I needed optimal conditions to write. A big mahogany desk sitting quietly in a quiet room. Turns out this “perfect condition” was just another excuse. I’ve learned that the conditions for writing (or for anything else) will never be optimal, there will always be chaos and distractions and waiting for the “perfect” time to start anything is our way of procrastinating everything. Part of the challenge and excitement now is finding the focus to work through those imperfect conditions.

It’s as if life is daring me to write. That’s why I treat every writing session like a snarling act of defiance.

Lesson #5-Do you.

For years I was concerned about what “they” will say about me and my writing. This is destructive thinking. It’s guarded and soul-sucking and cowardly. This year of writing has taught me that to write authentically I have be willing to expose and expound upon my fears and insecurities. I have to invest in myself. I have to be me.

The easiest way to ruin your life is to allow other people’s opinions of you become your reality.

I’m truly humbled and honored by all the support I’ve received over this year. I simply hope that my writing, my story has improved your day, your life in some way.

Thanks for reading. Thanks for listening.

Be well,

Jay

The Most Important Thing Writing Has Taught Me

The other night, at a little holiday shindig, I got into a discussion about writing with a Kindly Stranger. When K.S. learned that I write, K.S. engaged me in a spirited exchange about our favorite authors, favorite books and why writing can be as therapeutic as island sand between your toes and an umbrellaed drink in your hand.

Our conversation weaved through a few more literary topics when K.S. reached for a cucumber wheel, dunked it in their very own “homemade” ranch dip and asked me, “So what has writing taught you?”

Good question.

I sipped my drink and attempted to conjuncture up something profound. Something Fauklner-esque.  Something that would knock K.S’s Santa socks off.

But all I could come up with in that moment was, “Umm…Umm… this “homemade” dip is pretty good.”

Then the tide of the party rolled to the appetizer table and K.S. was lassoed into another conversation about of all things–cowboy hats.

Such is the nature of parties.

I lingered around the appetizers. Working my way around the veggie tray, questioning the “homemade” authenticity of the ranch dip and turning over the question.

So two days later, K.S. I have your answer.

What has writing taught me?

Writing has taught me the importance of daily practice.

writing-828911_960_720Look, in our fragile human hearts,  I think we know that to fundamentally improve, at anything, we need to put in the work. The daily practice.

We live in the age of the the hack, the cheat, the easy way. We want to believe, that we are the chosen one who will find the mythical short cut that everyone else–in the history of the world–has failed to find.

The daily practice rule for writing holds true for becoming a better person. Not saying that writers are great people, in fact a lot of great writers are pretty shitty people but self improvement, like writing requires daily practice.

And the daily practice of being a good husband, wife, father, mother, friend, student and colleague. Of compassion and listening. Of empathy and tolerance and mindfulness and commitment to a goal takes knuckle-splitting work.

Self-improvement, like writing, is a hard daily commitment. It’s a process you must learn to trust consisting of a million little baby steps often without producing any noticeable milestones.

It helps to remember that even the experts, the Goliaths in any field– Dickens in writing, Gates in computers, the Dalai Lama in life were at one point novices in their respective fields. These experts only became experts through perseverance, through the art of daily practice.

My daily writing habit has made me a better more confident writer. It has instilled a certain courage ( or lunacy) needed to toss my words and guts and ideas on your screen. A courage ( or lunacy) to chase dreams. A courage ( or lunacy) I severely lacked before I started writing everyday.

So K.S., great question!

It was nice to meet you and I hope the cowboy hat conversation was just as scintillating as ours.

And your “homemade” ranch dip, was delightful!

( Psst… I know it was Hidden Valley straight from the bottle… but no worries, your secret is safe with me.)

Be well,

Jay

Passing Through: A Reflection

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Last Thursday night, after I finished the final edits for “The Day I Learned I Couldn’t Jump (or Learning to Fly)” I couldn’t sleep.

While writing that story, I felt like a guest at a reunion of sorts. Bill and Denise and the two chatty Cathys on the treadmill were in attendance. Although brief, it was comforting to have people from my past  back in my life again.

As I laid in bed, working my head into the pillow, watching the ceiling fan spin, I wondered what Denise thought about the Giants chances this season. I imagined how her eyes would light up when she talked about Odell Beckham’s athleticism.  What she would say about Carson Wentz? Does she believe he’s destined to bring the Eagles their first Superbowl title?

Though physical therapy was hard, humbling, ego-shattering work I miss the camaraderie,  the challenge, the little triumphs. Like on the afternoon when I learned I didn’t have Huntington’s Disease, how Denise high-fived me and how later that same afternoon, I successfully walked heel-toed along a 10 foot length of blue tape without using a handrail.

I remember, on the second to last rehab session at St. Lawrence, I entered the activity room and the chatty Cathys were chatting and walking on the treadmills. Denise wasn’t around. Neither was Bill.

It was January. Everything was in deep freeze. From the sky to my bones, the entire universe seemed to be low on light, low on energy.  I dragged myself to the elliptical machine and set my feet on the oversized pedals.  My legs were tight and heavy and with Denise not around, I worked the pedals with little enthusiasm.

After a few uninspired minutes, Denise entered the activity room and I straightened up, like a kid caught misbehaving and pedaled faster. She walked toward me holding her clipboard close to her chest.

“Hey Denise, Eagles-Giants this weekend. Hope you’re ready lose?

She offered a curt little nod and looked as if she wanted to say something but simply couldn’t find the words.

“Denise are you ok?”

Her eyes filled as she spoke, “Bill fell last night.”

I stopped pedaling.

“Is he ok?”

“Last I heard, no.”

Bill’s brother found Bill lying in a pool of blood on the bathroom floor. Fracture skull. Doctors gave him a 50% chance. Denise, the forever optimist, was 100% certain he would survive.

On my last day at St. Lawrence,  Denise and I walked out into the cold ache of a January afternoon exchanged a final barb, hugged, and went back to our lives.

A few months ago, a student told me she was going to miss class because she had to drive her father to physical therapy. He had a hip replacement and was rehabbing at St. Lawrence. The student said at first her father resisted physical therapy, but now he actually enjoys it. Looks forward to it even. She tells me her father’s therapist is really nice.

“Is her name Denise?”

“Yeah! How did you know?”

“Long story.”

“She’s awesome.”

“I know. Do me a favor. Tell her Jay say hi and that the Giants stink.”

It was reassuring to know Denise was still doing her thing. Still telling bad jokes, still smiling, still inspiring.

Unfortunately, I don’t know whatever happened to Bill.

“The Day I Learned I Couldn’t Jump” is a hard story to put to rest. Maybe that’s why I’m still writing about it this week.  Writing the story made me think about how we’re all just passing through each others lives. Of course, some pass slower then others yet nevertheless, it’s impossible to understand the depth of the impressions we leave on each other..

Some people pass through us like medicine. Like magic waters. They heal us, strengthen us, fix us.

Others are hurricanes. They break our windows, unhinge our doors and crumble our foundations. Forcing us to rebuild, rehab, or quit.

It’s nearing midnight.

Cindy just stole the comforter, the ceiling fan is spinning and though I’m sure he’s a page and spine man, I imagine Bill alive, somewhere, reading this post. His steely eyes tracing my words, his mouth remaining straight and strict even when he realizes that he, just a traveler just passing through, inspires me to write on, to fight on.

Be well,

Jay