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

 

In Good Company

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A student recently asked me, “Hey Mr. Armstrong, what do you think about before you write?”

I curved my eyebrows inward, adopted a deep, contemplative look, held a silence for a second too long and replied,  “Words.”

The student rolled their their eyes, shook their head as if to say “Sorry I asked, you pretentious jerk” then turned away and moved on with their life.

Writers are often considered guarded, cantankerous folk. Often aloof and indifferent while sitting cross-legged in Starbucks, wearing tweed jackets and sporting wire-rimmed glasses.

So what do I think about before I write?

Well, I thought it might be interesting to unlocked that world for you. To share my mental geography. A geography I often disappear in while driving, coaching soccer, eating Golden Grahams, sitting through meetings or digesting the news that my 6 year old now knows the “f” word.

For me, the process is pretty simple. It involves a bar, Brenda, fried mushrooms and most importantly, you.

So, before I get more pretentious, let us go then…

You and I are at a bar. A local bar. A simple place with a simple name. Pat’s Pub or Mike’s Tavern. They serve American draft beers in thick handled mugs. The menu is limited to deep fried and pickled foods. The walls are dark wood paneled. The bartender’s name is Brenda. She is divorced, has a son in prison, a smoker’s cough and a faded rose tattoo on her forearm. 

There is a pool table in one corner and a jukebox that plays mostly southern rock in the other.  In the windows hang neon beer signs. Miller High Life. Coors Light. We are on our first beer and watching a 30 minute replay of Superbowl XXV on ESPN 2 when you ask me how I ‘m feeling. I tell you  I have good days and bad days. I don’t tell you good days are when I don’t think about dying until lunch.  I don’t tell you bad days begin when I think about dying before the coffee meets my morning mug. You ask what it’s called. Cerebellar Degeneration. You ask if there is a cure. No. You ask if the degeneration will stop on its own. Maybe. But the brain damage is permanent. You ask if I should be drinking beer. Probably not. You ask how I have been dealing with this. I drum my fingers on the bar. I want to cry. But I muscle it down. I look at you and smile and say I write stories. What kind of stories? My stories. Stories of my success and failure. Of my disease. Of my childhood and adulthood and fatherhood. Funny stories. Sad stories.  Embarrassing stories. Stories to remind me that I’m still alive.

I take a drink.

The Buffalo Bills kick off under a burst of a million flashbulbs. You know some nights, when Cindy and the kids sleep, I sit at my computer and stare through the words and watch my life play out on the screen like a movie.  Through stories we can make sense of the past which somehow alleviates the pain of the present. Because writing is easier then forgetting. Because writing is now a  therapy for me. More than any pill I have been prescribed, I have found real, human comfort in the re-imagined past. It’s like each story I write is a puzzle piece to my life. But the healing power lies in the fact that I can dull or sharpen the edges to each piece to fit my design.

I take a swig of beer and squint at the TV. We watch Phil Simms march the Giants down the field on their opening drive and kick a field goal. Giants 3 Bills 0. When the TV cuts to commercial you ask if I would share some stories I’m writing. I’m flattered and a bit unprepared but we’re friends. Sure. You smile, motion to Brenda and order  another round. I tell you that these stories are true. For the most part. memory is never completely accurate and that over time stories change shape. And with the fusion of time and repetition, and now alcohol, some of the facts may, at times, dissolve into fiction. I assert that I’m not a liar. I may inject hyperbole but that’s only for your entertainment. You concur.  I remind you that you asked me to tell a story not report the news. You concur. I tell you that though I may bend the truth, the themes of the story are true. You tell me to stop being an English teacher.

We get our beers and you pick at your fried mushrooms. You take a drink and I tell you that stories are like bookmarks to our lives. Stories remind us of where we have been and how far we have to go. I tell you that when we retell a story the past collapses into the present. And when we experience that collapse, we can learn deep and profound things about ourselves. Stories inspire us…

You wave your hand.

You tell me to shut the fuck up and get on with it already. I don’t take offense. We are old friends remember. We’ve been telling each other to shut the fuck up for years. I smile. You smile. We both take a swig of beer. I put my mug down and clear my throat and look at you and smile and say, “Ok, here is a something I’ve never told anyone before…”

Be well,

Jay

Why I Write with Blake Kilgore

WoFo is honored to have writer and teacher Blake Kilgore participate in the “Why I Write” series. Blake’s writing has been featured in various literary magazines such as Stonecoast Review and Forge. Please check out Blake and all his writings at.blakekilgore.com.

“Why do I write?

I teach history, and this requires me to read stories almost incessantly. I am blakeoften surprised and almost always delighted. Some of the accounts make me angry and others break my heart. And I find inspiration in the courage of the dutiful, who faced death rather than turn a blind eye to injustice.

Yet most of the adventures are about the rich and powerful, the winners. Sometimes arch-villains are set up as marks to be taken down. But the common, poor, illiterate souls who lived in quiet, sustained dignity below the gaze of the scribes, well – we know little about them. In the last half century, some historians have tried to uncover the patterns of simple folk living in the depths or along the edges of society. Nevertheless, we often don’t even know their names. I want to hear their story.

Much of my writing starts there, telling stories of the unnamed.

My writing is also about the struggle to believe. There are simply too many questions, and I know that I will find too few of the answers. Yet my soul continues in faith. There is deep illumination waiting beneath our thoughts and cravings. For me, writing helps stir that part, and a little wonder rises, and I find the hope to press on. I know that I am not alone. Many are wandering, buoyed by faith yet throttled by despair. I pray my writing might be a balm for those skeptics who still believe.”

Write-a-Thon Recap

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Write-a-Thon Scholarship winners- Michelle Singh and Shameek Ray. Each writer won a $500 college scholarship.

On May 17th, amidst the buzz of the approaching senior prom, WoFo sponsored a Write-a-Thon  at Robbinsville High School .

The event attracted thirty-three 12th grade writers. Their mission–in two hours compose an original, personal story which recounts a time where their perspective of themselves or the world at large was challenged.

For the contest I constructed a panel of judges who read through each entry. Throughout the readings, the panel continuous commented on how impressed they were not just by the writing skills the students demonstrated but with the sheer vulnerability the students wrote with.

I applaud all those who participated in the Write-a-Thon. Who summoned the courage to be vulnerable and pin their truths down on the page.

When the contest concluded, I read every entry.  The submissions run the gamut of emotions and subjects. Of styles and themes. But for certain– all entries announce an aliveness with passionate voices. I can only hope all the writers strengthen and sharpen their writing into a fearsome roar. A roar that will continue to echo deep into the jungles of adulthood.

My initial hope for the Write-a-Thon was that one essay, one writer would win a $500 college scholarship. However, through some generous donations, through some extended support, WoFo was able to award two $500 scholarships.

When the judges presented me the two winning entries I was a bit surprised– not because the winners are not good students (because they are)– but because they are both such quite people.

And yet their writing is loud, humming with tension. Unlike the writers themselves, their writing demands attention. Their writing announces an intrinsic strength to question and to challenge not only themselves but the world at large. Their writing aches with vulnerability and honesty and I ( and the world) can only hope they continue to write.

Be well,

Jay

Why Stories Matter

There are some nights I lie awake wondering how I got here.

Not how I physically got into bed (I’m a few years away from that) but how I became a father, a teacher, a writer.  I watch the ceiling fan spin, listen to my wife snore and try to comprehend the facts of my life.

I think (and hope) this normal for most people over the age of 30.

It is in these late hours where stories prove their worth, where stories provide necessary reassurance and perspective. Maybe that’s why as children we desired to fall asleep to the comforting rhythms of a story.

Our lives are just a collection of stories strung together like laundry on a line. Some stories are better than others. Some stories are fancy and meant to impress. Some are new– bright and vibrant. Some are faded and worn. Others were passed down–second hand stories that we adopted as our own. Some stories never get old and fit just right.

If you want to learn what’s under a person, listen to their stories. Are they the constant victim? The proud hero? The humble hero? A foolish drunk? The lovable loser? Listen to their inflections. Watch their subtle expressions. We define ourselves by the stories we tell. Or in some cases, fail to tell.

The first story I wrote for this website was a story entitled The Wink. A story about a baseball game I played in 20 years ago. In the many years following that game, I realized that the game, the story, became a symbol of the relationship I have with my father.  Furthermore the wink, the gesture, also fashioned into a symbol now etched in my own mythology. It wasn’t until I was alone,  laying nervous and scared in the confines of a Cat Scan tube that I fully understood the significance of that story, of that wink.

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Chase and I at the Phillies game. A game in which Chase got his first foul ball.

As a parent, it’s a delight to witness your children begin to collect their own stories. Stories that will one day symbolize something bigger. Years from now when Chase runs his fingers across the seams of that ball, I hope he will be magically transported back to night of April 30, 2016.

I hope he will still smell the popcorn we shared. Feel the soft wind on his face. Hear the crack of the bat.

I hope he recalls this night with fondness, the way I will. And years from now, when he finds himself at a crossroads–the intersection of present and future– he will think of this night, of this story and realize that the past can provide the reassurance needed in that moment.

I hope that ball and the story it holds will calm him, rock him and remind him of the love we share.

Be well,

Jay