Guest Essay: “Choosing Joy,” by Jenny Gooch

October 27, 2016

You probably know that October is “Breast Cancer Awareness Month”.  Before this month runs out, then, I need to post an essay by a wonderful friend of mine, Jenny Gooch, who is on a journey with breast cancer. Jenny is a literacy coach at James Lewis Elementary School in Blue Springs, MO. I have known Jenny for six years, and she has been a loyal participant in the summer writing institutes I lead there every year. Jenny is a wonderful writer. She posted these thoughts on Facebook one day, meaning to share with her circle of friends (who number in the 660’s) how she was feeling as she was going through chemotherapy for breast cancer. I wrote her to say that she had written an essay, and would she mind if I put it on my blog. It took me awhile, but I need to post this today because today is another critical day in her life, and I can’t stop thinking of her.

A few words about the craft of Jenny’s essay: she writes in first person and in present tense, which makes it so familiar that it speaks to many who know what it’s like to live inside serious illness. Surprisingly, it is funny and clever, and it’s the first piece I’ve read that talks about emojis as metaphors for states of being. Jenny’s voice is honest and angry, and if you knew her, you would never, ever use the word “angry” to describe her, for she has a positive, loving light in her at all times.  But in fact, her indignation rises as she notes how she usually posts positive updates, as if she is HAPPY about her condition. The rant builds in a list of sentences, all beginning with the phrase “I’m not happy [about this and this and this],” and it seems as if the act of writing and poring out that anger is helping her. And then Jenny realizes something quite important and deep and true about what she is doing and how she feels, and it was inspired by a quote from her reading of the Bible.

Today I post Jenny’s essay in gratitude for her courage to share her journey, and in honor of all the women and men who are living with breast cancer, and especially in honor of four dear friends of mine. You are always in my mind and heart, and I am grateful every day for your lives.

 

Choosing Joy

By Jenny Gooch

At this point in my journey I think I can describe my feelings with those cute little emojis that everyone loves to text, post, and email. I’ve had a lot of smiley face days when I truly feel happy. A lot of heart days where I feel loved or want to share love. I’ve had a lot of those little flexed muscle days where I feel so strong. I’ve had a lot of the palms together, hands of prayer days where I feel covered in prayer or find strength from praying. I’ve had a lot of cross emoji days, where I feel blessed more than I can ever describe, and I know I need Jesus in my life now more than ever. I’ve had a lot of clapping hands days were there is much to celebrate. And a lot of pink ribbon and heart days when I’m reminded that I have breast cancer and that my life will forever be changed.

In the world of emoji I’ve had it pretty darn good. But let’s get real friends. I’ve also had a lot of the crying face days. And the sleepy guy face days. Days I just want to answer the question “How do you feel?” with the thumbs down emoji. And my favorite…the little poo emoji. Yep, I’m saying it…there are days I just feel like poop. Terrible, can’t get off the couch kind of days. Maybe I can create a couch potato emoji. That would be perfect.

In reality, more days have been positive emoji days than negative. And I’m definitely ok with admitting this journey has been full of both. I promised myself that I would share as much as I was comfortable sharing on this journey, which for me means I need to share the good, the bad, and the ugly!

 

So here goes…this has been weighing on my mind for weeks now.

I need to be honest. I’ve worried the last couple months that I’ve given everyone the impression that chemo is easy or that I’m happy about the journey that has been set before me. I’m going to try to be really transparent here. I am definitely not happy. Don’t let my smiling chemo day photos fool you. AND chemo is definitely not easy, fun, or anything to be happy about. To be completely honest…it stinks. I’ve had a couple of rough weeks. Which have come with some good cries. I have even mumbled the words, “I don’t want to do this anymore. I just want to be done.” There are days I think, “I don’t want to be an inspiration. What’s your plan for me God?” There are days I just want to get back to being me and feeling normal. But those moments are short and usually come on days I feel my worst as far as being “sick”.

Several weeks ago I was really struggling with this thought of being happy. I generally consider myself a pretty happy person and it takes a lot to keep me down for long. I had found myself scrolling back through my Facebook posts reading about my cancer journey thinking…man, I do look pretty happy. In no way do I want anyone to think that I am happy about any of this. Then why all the smiles? Why the “happy” posts with my amazing chemo crew? Am I making chemo look fun? I never, EVER want those who have walked this path before me, or those who will walk behind me someday to think that I have taken this journey lightly or made it seem like a good time. So why the smiles? And am I… happy?

Then I found my answer. The feelings I have been trying to figure out how to describe to others and eventually put into words to write about. And where did I find my answer? You guessed it…The Bible. I believe 100% God knew I was struggling with my emotions and led me to the verses that helped me comprehend my own feelings about happiness. I know this because it wasn’t the first time I had chosen to write down these specific verses in my journal, but the second time in several weeks. It was almost like God had to put flashing lights around it and say, “Here it is, right in front of you!”

 

I hope I haven’t lost you yet, stay with me… (Insert winking emoji here!)

Here is the scripture that finally made me realize I wasn’t happy about anything, but instead, I was choosing joy. (Thank goodness for my teaching application Bible that put these verses in perspective for me.)

Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing. James 1:2-4

 

It’s not about PRETENDING to be happy, but CHOOSING to be positive, which helps overcome challenges, which leads to…JOY!

So I have convinced myself with the help of the Bible that…NO, I am not pretending to be happy. I’m not happy about having cancer and putting my life on hold. I’m not happy that I have to endure 16 total chemo treatments. I’m not happy that I had to miss my family beach vacation with my best friends. I’m not happy that I lost my hair. I’m not happy that I have no energy to play with my kids most days. I am not happy that many foods taste terrible to me and sometimes—even water tastes weird. I’m not happy that I have been fighting mouth sores. I’m not happy that I have terrible hot flashes and night sweats that keep me from sleeping well. I’m not happy that walking up the steps in my own house makes me out of breath. I’m definitely not happy about any of this.

But I can take every single one of those things and CHOOSE to be positive about it instead of dwelling on how terrible it all feels. I find myself thinking and saying…it’s only one summer. It will all be over soon. Carter couldn’t go to the beach either, so we are lucky to get all this over with at once. I’m blessed to have the financial means and access to good medicine and doctors. Those 16 chemo treatments? That means 16 opportunities to spend one-on-one time with some of amazing friends and family members. Bald is beautiful. Trying out different scarves and hats is good retail therapy. Getting ready for work is going to be so quick and easy. Thank goodness for wigs! My kids are learning so much about supporting someone in need and taking care of family. Since food doesn’t taste that great maybe I will finally stick to eating healthy. I’ve kicked my Diet Coke addiction! I will never take exercising for granted again. I could go on and on. This journey WILL and already has made me stronger and more positive.

I’m so glad I stumbled across those verses in James to make me realize that I was not, and am not, pretending to be happy, but instead choosing to be positive. And if that looks like joy, then I can live with that. And most days I can do it…choose to be strong and positive. I have a few bad days where I feel sorry for myself, but someone is always there to pick me back up. I used to feel guilty for feeling down. But everyone says I’ve earned it. So I just have to believe and pick back up the next day. And by the grace of God I get a do- over each day.

I’m going to continue to work hard each day to choose joy. Thank you all for being part of my team. Without you, choosing joy would be impossible and pretty lonely.

Choose joy with me!

(Insert the little smiley face emoji with joyful tears. And the little winking guy too, just for fun!)

 

 

 

 

Guest Essay: “Finding Solace in the Busy” by Kacina Pfeiffer

Today I post the first in what I hope will be dozens of guest essays written by teachers, students, and blog readers. This one is by Kacina Pfeiffer, a brilliant middle school reading and writing teacher at Theodore Potter School 74,  Indianapolis, Indiana.

Kacina attended a two-day summer writing institute I led, which was focused on teaching and writing essay as a journey of thinking. The institute was sponsored by the Indiana Partnership for Young Writers (indianayoungwriters.org), a phenomenal professional development organization where I’ve consulted and collaborated for at least sixteen years.

Very quickly into the first day of the workshop, Kacina was on fire with an idea to think through in her notebook. I caught her working on it any moment she could for the next two days, bent over her notebook with intensity and focus. Teachers had only a few hours total to work on their essays, yet the final draft Kacina was able to produce is terrific, and it contains many features of essay that I was proposing we teach to students. Here are some gems to notice and name:

  • Kacina was inspired to write because she had CHOICE of topic. She was living her topic, so it seemed to be literally waiting for paper to put it on. The bigger idea she comes to, that she feels most herself when she is super busy, came from the writing to think she did in her notebook.
  • I haven’t asked Kacina at which point of the process she found her metaphor of the race car and track to describe her hyper-active life, but it certainly works well in this essay, and she wisely decides to open with it, and carry it through to the end.
  • Even in such a short piece, Kacina makes room for specifics to flesh out her structure  around downtime vs. busyness: the “housewife dramas” she reads, the three-mile run, and lounging poolside  vs. an “adventurous marriage,” her daughters’ faces when they get the “winning catch.”
  • Notice that this essay does not follow a template or standard 5 paragraph formula, where the thesis statement resides in the first paragraph, with 3 supporting paragraphs and a recapitulation at the end. Instead, it pulls you in with the powerful race track metaphor, sets up the “experts” about how to live our lives, then tears those experts down swiftly and beautifully in three rhythmic sentences, all beginning with the essayist’s language of thinking , “Perhaps,” and comes to a realization rather than a conclusion, ending in a trumpet call of independent clauses: I want this and this and this, and I’m willing to accept the danger of my decision.
  • I love the contrariness of this piece, a common voice or tone found in many essays that live in the world, where Kacina takes the current wisdom—that we should take time for ourselves, simplify, slow down, appreciate the merits of doing nothing—and turns it on its head, claiming that in the busyness of life, family, and work, she finds her identity and what is most important to her.

Please enjoy this wonderful essay, and consider sharing one of your own! Send it to my email: kbomer@gmail.com

 

Finding Solace in the Busy

by Kacina Pfeiffer

Take a moment and think about daring to drive a race car. Imagine your speed climbing to a quickness that causes everything in your peripheral to blur. Imagine the car screaming around a track. It is dangerous. It is exhilarating. It travels over 240 mph. You know full well that at any moment it could spin out of control, cause life altering damage, break into a million bits…if you let it. In that moment the only thing you can see is one single solitary focal point directly in front of you. You may not even realize how fast you are going because of your intense focus to keep from crashing.

The onlookers in the stands might cheer your speed. They may even praise your courage to do the things they’ve only dreamed of. From out here though, it’s easy to carefully weigh and measure the danger. From out here, it’s easy to be an expert on things we know nothing of. From out here, it’s easier to say, “You should slow down! Something bad is going to happen.”

Isn’t that the way of life? All day long we race around at what feels like well over 240 mph juggling the demands of getting up early to rush to work, just to race home to manage all that comes with raising a family. Eventually, the experts on the outside all say, “Take a break. You’re always so busy!”

I listened to the experts. I took pause from the racing and gave into all the selfishly indulging things a person does when you begin to coast. I idled by the pool. Drifted down the highway of housewife drama in another Liane Moriarty novel. Took a three-mile run. Parked myself alone on the couch, unmoving, in an endless Netflix marathon.

Although I tried desperately to suppress the urge, I could see in the rear view the realization that I tend to put myself right in the middle of all the things I love, the things that fundamentally make me whole, make me who I am. To step away from that, even momentarily, makes me feel breathless. Wrought with worry. Wondering what if I missed a moment of that to be—alone?

Perhaps I find solace in the busy. Perhaps it’s where my soul resides. Perhaps it is in the busy that I find the best version of myself. After all, aren’t we all searching for those pieces of ourselves that we want to hold onto tightly? It could be that I stumbled upon an unexpected place – a place different from yours – to find myself.

In my race, I’ll hold on for dear life and go as fast as I can because I want an adventurous marriage; I want to see the look on my girls’ faces each time they make the winning catch; I want to be there for each bruise; I want to show my children what it means to not give up; I want to prove that I can do all the things I set out to do, even if they didn’t believe I could do them; so I push on, and I’ll race forward ignoring the fuzzy edges in my peripheral that warn me of danger.

 

Thank You Notes

In this post, I want to publicly thank some people who generously offered to write essays for my new book. Their writing makes The Journey is Everything a unique, useful, and beautiful book.

Two of them reside in Chaper 1: “Joyas Voladuras,” by Brian Doyle, and “Pride,” by Dagoberto Gilb. These are two of my favorite published essays—I’ve been using them with teachers and students for years, and I am grateful to the authors for granting permission to include their pieces in full.

The others reside at the very end, near the Appendix, where I have appended a set of incredible essays, written for young people, ages 8 to 18, that can be used as mentor texts for their own writing. The essays are funny, informative, angry, quirky, moving, even tear-jerking.

All the things that essay can be.

Authored by people in the fields of children’s literature and literacy education, some of their names will be quite familiar to those who read professional books about teaching writing and reading. And some, if you do not know them yet, will become familiar because they are fantastic writers. This is not the only place you can read them, and you will want to go find their work in the world: novels, poems, picture books, and books that help us teach.

Here are the authors and titles of their essays in the order in which they appear (which is a very rough “age-appropriate” order):

GuestEssays From: The Journey is Everything: Teaching Essays That Students Want to Write for People Who Want to Read Them. 2016, Heinemann.

I am extremely honored to sit inside the same book with all these writers, and I am overjoyed to share their essays with teachers and students.

The Transformative Power of Essay

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Even as I was writing my new book, The Journey is Everything,  (it came out today!) about how to write and teach essay, I did not imagine that the book’s ideas, practices, strategies, and especially, the possibilities for structuring essay would feel “transformational” for so many teachers I’ve worked with this past year.

Transformational.

A magnificent 4th grade teacher in Missouri described essay as transformational after spending one week last summer in a writing institute I led, where teachers read essays that made them laugh, and cry, and see the world in new ways. Then they talked about, wrote, and shared their own essay drafts with each other. This 4th grade teacher’s writing to think and discover that week marked a turning point in her life, she said, and she volunteered to read her essay in front of about one hundred colleagues. She said she found her mission in life because of what she discovered in writing that essay, and from reading it out loud. She wanted to bring that power and revelatory experience to her students.

So she opened her Writing Workshop last August with a passionate invitation and clear, practical strategies for writing to think in notebooks. She shared her experience from the summer and parts of her notebook and essay drafts, and then invited her students to compose essays with organic structures as their first unit of study. She says that study transformed her teaching and her relationships with her students for the rest of the school year, and now, every time I share her story with new groups of teachers I meet, it seems to plant the seed for more and more transformative experiences.

It shocks me, frankly, that studying and practicing essay with teachers and their students feels transformative. When I ask why it seems so, they tell me that essaying, taking a journey of thinking, is just so radically different from what they thought essay looks and sounds like. They use words like “liberating,” “calming,” and “easy!” to describe this new (actually quite old) way of writing.  One 4th grader said it felt like he was “on the radio, talking on air” because it seemed so easy to write what he thinks and not worry about fitting it into a formula. I suspect that he could hear how much his own voice was coming through in his words on the page.

Perhaps what excites teachers and kids is writing about things. Yes, things. (Not to mention places, objects, books, people, and abstract concepts like jealousy or contentment). And having ideas about those things. It sets minds on fire. Though essay often uses narrative, frequently personal, to add texture and circle around an idea, it is unlike memoir. (Don’t get me wrong–I’m an enormous fan of memoir and wrote a book about it!). Essay does not need to dwell in the author’s past or try to find meaning in memory as much as a memoir would. Essay does not even need to feel personal or to be only about “feelings” because we discover we can write about super novas, walking rain (see photo above), low-riders, diseases, Darkling Beetles (from the Pinacate family)  in the desert, micro-mini pigs as pets. There is subject matter as vast as the universe to explore.

We can muse on the universe and have ideas about those things. We can change our minds mid-stream, mid-essay! We can borrow other people’s words and ideas to keep company with ours. We can play with how our voice sounds in writing—skeptical, smart, or smart-alecky, funny, awestruck. We can wow our readers with lyrical language and surprising structures. We can shock them with the truth.

And we can do all those things in as many paragraphs as it takes.

As I begin my own journey into blogging about writing, reading, and teaching, I invite you to share your thoughts, questions, and transformations as you practice writing and teaching. My dream is to have a space to pour the stories, student writing samples, mini-lesson ideas, videos of lessons and conferences, and resources I could not fit into my book about essay. And I hope to share this blog space with teachers I work with from around the world, who have crafted their own brilliant ideas and activities for teaching essay.