Category Archives: Writing
For this article for ASCA School Counselor magazine, I had the privilege of interviewing school counselors from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., and from Myrtle Cooper Elementary in El Paso, Texas. Read the complete article.
Trauma comes to school in all shapes and sizes. It may stem from adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) such as parental divorce or mental illness, from exposure to violence or substance abuse, or from a large-scale event with widespread impact such as a natural disaster or a mass shooting. No matter the source or scale, when trauma reaches a school building, school counselors are first responders.
On a Saturday in August 2019, a gunman opened fire in the Walmart at Cielo Vista Mall in El Paso, Texas, killing 22 people and injuring 24 others. Virginia Bueno, a K–5 school counselor at Bill Sybert School, was at the mall that morning to meet her friend Belinda Calderon, a fellow El Paso school counselor from Myrtle Cooper Elementary School. Calderon had just pulled into the mall parking lot when the shooting started and wasn’t allowed to leave the area for several hours. Routed behind the Walmart, she saw injured people being evacuated on shopping carts while U.S. Army helicopters circled overhead. Bueno was in lockdown in a store inside the mall, using her experience with school safety drills to keep herself and other shoppers safe.
Come Monday, both would face tearful students, anxious parents and distressed teachers, while still dealing with their own direct experience of the situation. … Unlike in El Paso, where school counselors were able to reassure students and parents that school was still a safe place, those at Marjory Stoneman Douglas (MSD) High School in Parkland, Fla., had trauma come within their walls in February 2018. Seventeen students died, and 17 more were injured in that school shooting.
From doorway to doorway across Milan, voices rise and fall, calling and answering. The words are familiar and imploring – people of all ages and backgrounds are singing together while staying apart, facing a pandemic that is making unfathomable changes to life as they know it.
Have you seen the viral video of that?
In fact, you can’t have seen it. That singing happened in Italy more than 400 years ago, during an outbreak of plague across Europe that lasted nearly two years.
But these voices are from just two weeks ago in Siena, Italy. As I write this, the world has reached almost 1.5 million cases of covid-19. More than 130,000 Italians have contracted the deadly respiratory illness from the novel coronavirus, and 17,000 have died there. (See the latest numbers here.) The entire nation of Italy was put under a lockdown on March 9.
And that’s when the videos of singing began to appear.
The physical act of singing is good for us, we know – the breathing boosts the oxygen in our blood and our brains. Singing together is really, really good for us, in so many ways. For starters, it releases dopamine (activating pleasure centers) and serotonin (fighting depression). Who couldn’t use more of that when there’s a deadly virus going around?
But even more than the physical boost, research has shown that singing together heals our spirits.
That’s what they believed in 1576, too, when plague struck Milan. The wealthy fled the city and people dropped in the streets. Plague was believed to be punishment for the sins of the whole community and singing together in prayer was a search for a remedy.
To prevent people from gathering in churches or processions that could spread the plague, bells would signal the 300,000 people of Milan to sing from the doorways of their homes. And sing they did, “sending up an harmonious voice of supplication for deliverance from their distress,” according to a witness at the time. Simple, familiar, call-and-response songs of prayer connected homes and streets across the city. It was a communal ritual in a time of danger and separation.
We are in our own time of separation and danger, and our singing echoes those ancient voices.
It started back in January, in Wuhan, China, then the epicenter of covid-19, which the World Health Organization has designated a global pandemic. People shouted the Chinese phrase “add oil” from building to building, meaning keep fighting or keep going. They sang patriotic songs on balconies, too, until fear of transferring the virus via falling saliva droplets put a stop to that. By early March, the virus had spread to Europe, the Middle East, and North America, and so had the city lockdowns and the singing.
In Milan, quarantined people sang the Italian national anthem from their windows and balconies. In Edinburgh, neighbors sang “Sunshine on Leith.” Apartment blocks in Spain sang along to Frankie Valli’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” while Israelis in a raucous balcony party sang about sisterhood, brotherhood and being part of a tribe. To show support for Italians under coronavirus lockdown, Germans sang the Italian resistance song “Bella ciao.”
Somehow, music has the power to helps us deal with this vast, frightening unknown. What will our world look like in a year? In a month? Music bridges the distance between us – across a road between city blocks and across the globe via streaming and social media. Music can even build a bridge across time, like the voices of sisters of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, singing on March 19 from a rooftop in Rome, praying for the people of their city and the world and sounding right out of 1577.
One couple in Chicago built connections both in person and online. They set up the Chicago-Wide Window Sing-a-Long, using Facebook to invite people across the city to sing with Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” on March 21. The idea took off – more than 18,000 people expressed interest, a local radio station played the song that night at 7, and Jon Bon Jovi himself recorded and shared a video supporting the event. People sang from apartment to apartment, played along on their porches, and shared their videos online.
Many choral directors are putting together virtual choirs in the style of composer Eric Whitacre: Individual singers record their part and send a video, which then gets edited with others into a whole. Students at Berklee College of Music in Boston created an inspiring version of “What The World Needs Now.” Choir members from a Lutheran church near me (including a friend from my community chorus) put together the appropriate “How Can I Keep from Singing.”
Multiple British groups are going large-scale with virtual choirs. Choir celebrity Gareth Malone livestreamed the first rehearsal of his Great British Home Chorus on March 23, with more than 15,000 people (including me) watching. Learning “You Are My Sunshine” in four-part harmony over one week, singers are submitting their recordings, with the final mixed version still to come. Next week they’re preparing an Elton John song. On the classical side, the Stay At Home Choir worked up Vivaldi’s “Gloria” its first week, and is partnering with the King’s Singers in its second.
But at some point, people seem to want to move away from screens and be physically present with other people. “Choir isn’t something you can do alone with a webcam on your computer. It just isn’t,” wrote Joan Riddle Steinmann, a chorus teacher from Salt Lake City.
Angela Alsobrooks, county executive of Prince Georges County, Maryland, described walking through her neighborhood during this pandemic and seeing “children in driveways with sidewalk chalk, people in lawn chairs, people walking. I had never seen this many people sitting outside before. Just people drawn closer as families.” I’ve observed the same while out with my dogs.
Neighbors are standing on stoops and sidewalks (but not too close) in Baltimore and Pittsburgh and joining their voices, some meeting each other for the first time this way. I led a driveway sing on my street and had a few neighbors I’d never met come out to sing “America the Beautiful” and “You Are My Sunshine” with me. We know that singing in groups strengthens a community, and maybe these new neighborhood connections give a glimpse of a way the world can be different after the pandemic.
It’s going to get worse before it gets better, they’re telling us. In spite of this, I have hope that people will keep turning to the sustenance of singing, despite our losses and our separations. We don’t need instruments or electricity or technology. We can make music from nothing but breath and heart. No matter how bleak things get, we can sing together even when we cannot be close together.
As Bertolt Brecht wrote in 1939:
In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will be singing
About the dark times.
These are dark times. Let’s keep singing.
I just finished a writing retreat during which I did the exercises in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Steering the Craft: Sailing the Sea of Story. Some of them were hard work and some were really fun – just wordplay. Much to my surprise, I discovered that I, who never write fiction, am capable of whipping some story and dialogue out of thin air. Some bits turned out well and others were garbage, but I learned a lot from the process.
Here are a couple of short narratives I wrote during the retreat that I really like. The first assignment was to write with no punctuation, and the second was to use repetition of a word.
Plain glazed that’s what she always got because there were too many choices but today she would take her sweet time crumpling the $20 bill in her pocket so many combinations chocolate maple strawberry icing and cake or raised and coconut sprinkles and even bacon which sounded weird but she might try it just once she crouched at the case to think but now the heavy man too close behind her sighed and she panicked and took a dozen plain glazed hot and turned to him with lips tight but he wasn’t even looking his kids had their hands all over the case she bit hard into a donut and felt the crisp hot sugar shatter on her tongue so rude so pushy when she wanted to choose her treats she’d make him sorry with one greasy donut smear down his windshield with his fat kids and skinny wife who stunk of cigarettes and didn’t eat a donut at their table just frowned and tapped her foot until well Christ she marched to the doorway dug through her purse and lit up a Virginia Slims you could see her relax as the smoke curled out of her mouth the boys were still in with their dad getting sprinkles everywhere and slopping milk so maybe he was already sorry and she’d just keep her donuts for herself and Pop who shouldn’t eat all that sugar but fuck it we’re all gonna die of something might as well be donuts
Marcus was a troublemaker, Shasta said, and everybody knew it. Nothing but trouble would come from that boy, and wherever he set his feet, disaster would follow. If he was cursed, he decided, he and Davy might as well make the most of it. “Trouble’s my middle name,” he informed Louise behind the counter at the gas station shop. She looked skeptical but kept a sharp eye on him as he browsed the candy aisle then moved on to look at the snacks. As he pulled out a package of chips, the whole shelf fell and an avalanche of chip bags dumped around his feet. While Louise dashed over, cursing under her breath, Davy pocketed a handful of candy bars and shot Marcus a look. Later, munching the chocolate together in the dark, Davy’s praise for his smooth work warm in his ears, Marcus felt satisfied with his cursed future and considered what he and his trouble might get up to next.
I was excited to learn that my article on how physical therapists use outcome data was the cover story in the spring 2019 issue of the American Physical Therapy Association’s Perspectives magazine.
View the complete article
Your data has power. Every day, physical therapists (PTs) and physical therapist assistants (PTAs) use data from patient measures to guide their treatment decisions. But those measures—and, in fact, every piece of information that goes into a patient’s chart—can do more. Data can demonstrate your efficacy and the value of physical therapy on a broad scale. And as value-based payment, merit-based incentives, and interprofessional care teams become more prevalent, communicating the impact of physical therapy will be crucial.
PTs and PTAs play a vital role in patient outcomes across an entire episode of care—and a patient’s life. For those early in their career, “it’s going to become very important to say, ‘I help manage people over a lifetime,’” said Paul Rockar, PT, DPT, CEO of the UPMC Centers for Rehab Services in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. When a PT or PTA helps a patient’s situation, such as overcoming low back pain, and becomes “their go-to person to keep in touch and help them manage that problem,” Rockar said, the practitioner’s information about that success is a significant selling point.
“We’ve realized that a lot of health care providers still may not fully understand what happens in physical therapy,” said Mike Osler, PT, vice president of growth and development for Rock Valley Physical Therapy, an orthopedic practice across Iowa and Illinois. “Frequently, it’s ‘I didn’t know you guys treated fill-in-the-blank.’” Rock Valley Physical Therapy has used case data to demonstrate how 10 or 12 physical therapy visits can increase a patient’s level of functionality to 80% or 90%.
In any field, your passions can drive your commitment to giving back to the community, whether locally, nationally, or internationally. This article was published in the winter 2018 issue of the American Physical Therapy Association’s Perspectives magazine.
View the complete article
Two days after the baby boy died, doctors finally discovered his diagnosis—and it had been a treatable condition. His physical therapist (PT), Mary Elizabeth Parker, PT, PhD, found herself deeply angry and considered quitting practice. Instead, she focused the anger into a passion for undiagnosed and rare disorders, making a volunteer commitment that transformed her practice, research, and dissertation direction. “There’s more that we could do. We couldn’t save him, but I bet there are others we can save,” she said. Partnering with 2 women who had lost children to undiagnosed causes, she founded U.R. Our Hope, a nonprofit that supports families coping with undiagnosed and rare disorders. Parker is a board-certified clinical specialist in pediatric physical therapy and in neurologic physical therapy and is on the faculty at Texas State University.
… Whatever the spark that lights the path to pro bono work—a mother’s inspiration, anger after a patient’s death, or a simple invitation to participate—giving service provides personal and professional fulfillment and growth. “You get a great education, and you come out very prepared, but now you’re on a new learning slope. Work has become the learning, and it’s continuous learning, both about yourself, your patients, and your practice,” Iwand said.
Reading gives us access to new ideas and new knowledge. It lets us visit distant times and unfamiliar locations, and temporarily inhabit other lives and relationships. We explore what is happening in our world through news reports and in-depth articles. We explore skills like cooking and learning a language. Academic reading pushes us to learn by exploring, whether it’s Feynman’s physics lectures, essays by Ta-Nehisi Coates, or Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. And exploration happens with both nonfiction and fiction, as Bill Gates said: “A lot of the reading I do is so I can keep learning about the world. But I love the way good fiction can take you out of your own thoughts and into someone else’s.”
Escapism has a bad rap, but sometimes you’ve got to get away and reading offers an exit. I was born in 1968 when my sister was just 13 months old. My father was a graduate student and the hot streets of south Philadelphia simmered with tension in the wake of the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy. My mother, a nice Catholic girl from Denver, was stuck in a third-floor apartment with two infants, no air conditioning, and no money. She credits J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings with getting her through those days, as she escaped to the elves and orcs and misty mountains of Middle Earth.
Like my mom, the women of Japan’s Heian court around 1000 CE were confined, but by their culture rather than temporary circumstances. Only men were permitted to read Chinese characters and literature, but women and men communicated via written poems using the lesser Kana script, a phonetic transcription of spoken Japanese. One woman (known today only by the name of her famous character, Murasaki Shikibu), secretly learned to read Chinese as a child and went on to write the first real novel in history, The Tale of Genji. To hide her unbecoming knowledge of Chinese and protect herself from gossip, she wrote in Kana, which allowed other women to use her epic work as an escape from the luxurious forced boredom of their lives.
With email, texting, social media, discussion forums, and online commenting, so much of our daily reading is an effort to engage with others. The 4000 or so editors in my busiest Facebook group can lure me into hours of distraction, with posts from the practical (“How do I respond to criticism from a client?”) to the ridiculous (“Check out these shoes that look like pencils!”). This engagement is compelling, even addictive. But we choose longer forms of reading to engage us, too. With the connection we build with characters and emotions in novels, we can experience grief (also known as a book hangover) when a good book ends, as book-grieving readers attested on a recent Reddit thread with more than 1000 posts.
This purpose is perhaps the most important and certainly the most dangerous. And it gets a post of its own.
A Word about Sources
My exploration of how reading began owes a debt to the authors of several books related to this subject. My questions first formed as I read Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts by Christoper De Hamel. I then found essential information in A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel, A History of Reading in the West edited by Guglielmo Cavallo and Roger Chartier, The Written World by Martin Puchner, and The Book by Keith Houston. The 2006 Education for All “Literacy for Life” Global Monitoring Report from UNESCO was fascinating and valuable, particularly chapter 8, “The Making of Literate Societies.”
North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, is not a destination for upscale vacations. You enter the cheap “Going out (for) business!” beach stores through the mouth of a giant shark to buy flimsy chairs, painted shells, and non-sea-worthy swimsuits. The fried seafood buffets and ice cream shops attract long lines of people hungry after a day in the sun. Mini-golf courses compete for attention – see the volcano belching smoke! Watch the animatronic pirates battle! There’s not a bookstore in sight.
During our annual week in Myrtle, I especially enjoy walking the section of beach in front of the nearby high-rise hotel. The sand there is paved with chairs, blankets, coolers, umbrellas, and bodies of every shade and shape. Plump moms in swim dresses chase toddlers while skinny teen boys hop on skim boards. Elderly locals sit and smoke, displaying their signature deep and wrinkly tans. It’s a busy place of earthly delights – hot sun, salty waves, cold drinks, flesh on parade – not a place that seems inclined toward intellectual pursuits. Yet everywhere you look, people sit and read.
For me, this silences those constant rumbles about the death of reading. You can’t fling a plastic shovel in Myrtle Beach without getting sand in somebody’s pages. And I mean their pages, not the crevices of their Kindle, because almost no one on the beach is staring at their phone or e-reader. Thick paperbacks rustle in the breeze while the tide approaches and recedes. The beach always makes me think about the inexorable changes of time, so it feels a fitting setting to consider how humanity has been reading, in some form or another, for 5000 years.
We read constantly, most of us, without any thought or effort. Yesterday was typical: I received 87 emails and read some of every single one, even if it was just the subject line or the name of the sender. One of my Facebook groups has nearly 10,000 members, editors all around the world, who post a lot, asking questions and sharing concerns. I read these posts and many of the replies. I read texts I receive. I read news articles in print and online. I read almost all day long, and then in the evening to relax, I read.
And it’s not just avid readers like me who are always reading. All those annoying people on their phones while walking, dining out, and especially driving – they’re reading. All those people with laptops in coffee shops – they’re reading away, and even if they’re writing, they’re reading. We as a society are constant readers. Road signs, nutrition information, Tweets, fast-food menu boards, fantasy football stats, TV news crawls, Reddit threads, bumper stickers. And books – fiction and non, highbrow and low. From Fifty Shades of Grey to Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, in print or as ebooks, we’re reading.
Reading started in another hot and sandy region: ancient Mesopotamia, where the very first reading involved accounting and records of temple assets. When a man by the Tigris river 5000 years ago could look at the markings on a clay tablet and know the number of sheep to expect in a payment, reading – for the first time – gave power.
I only wanted to find out when we started reading – we humans, we non-royals, we non-clerics, we women. But as I pursued this information across 5000 years of Western history, I reached a conclusion much more compelling than just the when and the whom: Reading makes people powerful and dangerous – to institutions and to ourselves. And it always has.
The world’s very first readers (and writers) were the scribes of ancient Babylon, who recorded and read the data, news, and information that kings and administrators needed to make their civilizations grow and thrive. While these abilities made scribes powerful, they also made the scribes a potential threat to those in charge.
This dynamic continues today.
I don’t feel like a dangerous force when I’m enjoying a novel or bantering with other editors on Facebook. But the power that I, an ordinary person, can gain from reading becomes clear when I freely read whatever I choose from across the political spectrum. I can easily acquire information about joining with others to support change – potentially threatening the status quo. I also see that my reading could conceivably present a danger to me, if my government began to use data to constrain the reading of its citizens.
The power and the danger of reading are alive and well.
In the coming weeks, I will share a series of posts from my process of uncovering this idea.
“Bird by Bird” by Anne Lamott and “The Writing Life” by Annie Dillard – how had I not read these outstanding books? But maybe it’s better that I didn’t read them before this summer. I suspect I would not have appreciated them as much.
These authors not only taught me some excellent stuff about how to write, but reminded me that, as a writer, I am not alone. Every writer struggles. Writing – forcing yourself to sit down and make something out of nothing using your own difficult brain – is really, really hard, even for people who are very successful, excellent writers.
Leading up to my two-week writing retreat in June 2018, I started “Bird by Bird,” Lamott’s presentation of what she shares with students in her writing seminars. It’s hilarious, touching, and hits the insecure nerve of anyone who has ever fought to generate the shitty draft. I set the book aside half-read, though, because I needed to focus on research for my retreat. I picked it up again on our August beach vacation and found myself laughing out loud while sitting by the ocean. Her chapter on jealousy is one of the most affirming things I’ve ever read.
Coming to Dillard’s “The Writing Life” right after two weeks of self-imposed isolation and immersion in a huge and difficult topic was powerful. “Yes!” I kept exclaiming. “That’s exactly how it is!” Again, writing is just hard. And when you’re in it, you walk the tightrope between the inescapable draw of the subject (I found that my brain kept on thinking about the work no matter what else I was doing) and the constant temptation to do anything – anything at all – to avoid it.
Although Lamott’s book in particular is geared toward fiction writers, which I am not, the truths she and Dillard share about writing in general are so valuable. And either book simply makes for an enjoyable read, even for a person without a writing agenda.
A rustic mountain cabin or lonely seaside cottage might fit the fantasy of a writing retreat. But if the cost or personal overhead of running away to write is too high – and you hate the thought of working without your usual monitor setup – a home office retreat can be a great option. I just finished a two-week, at-home writing retreat. When all was said and done, I accomplished my goal of writing 500 non-awful words each day. And that was while fighting an intestinal thing the first week and a bad (but fast) cold the second week.
Here’s how I approached the retreat.
I chose the retreat dates around my clients’ schedules and notified clients (and friends) several weeks in advance that I would be unavailable and would only check email occasionally. I unsubscribed from as much junk email as possible to keep the inbox cleaner. I also made a comprehensive dinner plan and did a thorough grocery shop so I wouldn’t have to make many meal decisions or extra trips to the store.
I established daily and overall objectives for the two weeks and set a daily schedule. All of these went up in plain sight over my desk. Each day on a small whiteboard, I listed the day number, some motivational words to myself, and the day’s tasks.
Take the Time
Two weeks worked out to be an ideal amount of time. By Friday of the first week, I was really glad that I still had another week to pursue my work. By the end of the second week, I was really ready to be done, take a break from my topic, and get back to my regular routine.
My daily schedule was, as always, constrained by my dogs’ walks, but that meant I took scheduled breaks and got outside. I also made a point of eating regular meals and snacks to help my concentration.
Making the deliberate decision to take a retreat put me in a new mindset. I posted a sign-off on Facebook and took the extreme step of uninstalling it from my phone for the duration of the retreat. Losing that tyranny of notifications was a surprisingly wonderful feeling. I don’t use Twitter, Instagram, or Snapchat, but I would have taken similar steps with those. I also postponed meetings and other events during the week and avoided running errands that would break up my days.
Every morning I typed up goals and thoughts for the day, and every afternoon when I was finished, I wrote an assessment of the day. At the halfway point in the retreat, I read through my notes, looked at what I had accomplished, and identified what I still wanted to get done. Then I noted what on that list was realistic. At the end, I had quite a few unfinished goals, but this whole process was an experiment for me and I felt that what I did accomplish was satisfactory. Getting a fresh take halfway through was helpful and encouraging.
- World Cup Soccer! I accidentally scheduled my retreat during the qualifying matches, which were the perfect entertainment during lunch or snack breaks.
- Giving up Facebook. Not having the blinking blue light and little F on my phone was liberating. I had other sources of news, and not being in the thick of responses to the day-to-day was such a break. I had to think hard about whether I wanted to reengage.
- Fun tools. I did my morning goals typing on my manual typewriter and my afternoon summary using the Querkywriter typewriter-style keyboard for my tablet – it was fun to use these tools and get more comfortable with both of them.
- I worked hard to make sure I would be able to keep my focus but found that I got a bit lonely, in part because my husband had several evening rehearsals. One article about planning a group writing retreat recommended having participants gather and read some of their work out loud every evening. I think building in some professional camaraderie would have been helpful, so in the future I might partner with other writers and meet a few times for non-critical reading sessions.
- Getting started with writing the first day was hard. It took some time to get into the writing mode, but having two weeks helped me not stress about some unproductive time.
- My writing topic was way too broad and my research was inadequate, even though I had done a lot in advance. My goal was to write a long essay that I could publish as blog posts, but I’m wrestling with how best to handle references and sources in that. And I didn’t have time for the research and writing for several points I wanted to make. My second goal was to consider doing a book proposal on the topic, and I’m undecided as to where I stand on that.
To keep some writing momentum going, I’m planning to schedule two designated writing days every month for a few months and see how that works out. I’m considering another retreat for this time next year, so if you’re interested in joining me, get in touch!