Congratulations to all the writers who submitted entries for the Joy Forever Ink True Life Story Contest. Thanks too, judges at Joy Forever Ink who took their judging job seriously as they counted words and discussed the merits of the stories entered. They were impressed by all the stories submitted and that made their job even more difficult. We hope you are thinking about what tale you will tell for next contest. Please find below, the entries that made it to the top.

A Horse Out Of Water by David Bartley: [1st Place]

Like most people, David Bartley has seen his fair share of successes and setbacks: from directing a nationally recognized nonprofit to battling a life-threatening mental illness. But over the last seven years, David has successfully navigated from the isolation of mental “hellness” to the inclusive space of mental wellness. Along the way, David has learned how to successfully manage his condition with a host of supportive practices centered on the notion of Whole Person Care, and by leveraging the power of connection.

Currently, David is a member of the Placer County Mental Health Drug and Alcohol Advisory Board (MHADAB). David also sits on the Board of Directors for the local chapter of the Depression Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA), and Bread of Life, a community-benefit educational non-profit. David is a member of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the International Association for Youth Mental Health, the National Storytelling Network’s Healing Story Alliance, and the Stability Network. David holds certifications in Mental Health First Aid for Adults, Mental Health First Aid for Youth, SafeTALK (Suicide Awareness for Everyone), and QPR (Question, Persuade and Refer) an innovative suicide prevention technique.

David has been invited to speak before a wide range of audiences across the country, giving keynote speeches and leading workshops on the topics of mental health, employee engagement, student wellbeing, and congregational care to organizations such as the United States Food and Drug Administration, Sutter Health, UC Davis, Sacramento State University, William Jessup University, Sierra College, Lyft, Vision Service Plan, CalPERS, Caltrans, the United Methodist Church, the California Highway Patrol, the Sacramento Sheriff’s Department, and Folsom State Prison. David’s goal for each speech and workshop is the same: to shed light on the issue of mental illness, teach people how to use connection to create hope, and open doors to the possibility of mental health for all.


A horse out of water By David Bartley [Winning entry]

For more than 11 years I co-directed a large nationally recognized senior, special needs and end-of-life animal sanctuary. The sanctuary was home to as many as 100 animals at any one time; 25 horses, 23 dogs, 9 pot belly pigs, umpteen sheep and goats, ducks and geese, bunnies and birds, fish and turtles, and even a turkey named Thomas.

Odie was a 35-year-old Tennessee Walker, a chocolate brown colored proud former parade pony who came to the sanctuary severely depressed, thin and suffering from a bad hip that caused him to list to the right-hand side.

But like all of the other animals that came to live at the sanctuary, once Odie’s hooves touched the soil, he became connected. In turn, Odie went from hopeless to “hope-filled.”

As Odie’s transformation progressed, he went looking for a job.

Horses want and need a purpose, and Odie, being no exception, soon assumed the role of the “town crier.”

Odie was always the first at the gate for both the morning and evening feeding. The other animals took their cue from Odie, and when the grand old man was standing front and center, they knew it was time to travel between areas to eat: from the front pasture to the rear pasture in the morning, and then in reverse, rear pasture back to front pasture in the evening.

One morning, I opened the gates to both pastures and watched as Odie led his tribe the 100 feet across the top of the gravel driveway to the rear pasture. I shut that gate, and then returned to the front pasture to begin my chores.

But, soon I had a weird feeling and turned to see Odie down on his bad hip on the edge of the large pond that was the focal point of the rear pasture. Then, I watched in horror as Odie tried to stand, fell sideways and then into the pond!

I dropped my muck bucket and rake and sprinted towards the rear pasture. I vaulted myself up and over the 4-foot rear pasture gate and rushed up to the edge of the pond.

Once there, I relaxed a bit as I reckoned the water would make it easier for Odie to get back on his feet.

But, over the course of the next several hours, I watched as time and time and time again Odie attempted to rise, only to fall back into the water.

My former wife, Deanna, and I were committed to the quality of life for each animal that came to live at the sanctuary, not their tenure. It was each resident animal’s joy of living that was most important to us, no matter the length of their stay.

Watching our beautiful boy unable to rise, even in the buoyant environment, I realized it was time to help Odie onto the greenest pasture of all.

I went inside and called our vet, and together we created a unique plan to euthanize Odie in the pond, and then later, retrieve his body.

After the lengthy call, I walked outside to find the animals lined up, ready to return to front pasture for the evening meal. But, instead of Odie at the front, it was his BFF, Prince, a tall, 30-something, rust-colored former racehorse who stood nervously at the gate while Odie, head above water, watched from the pond.

Tears streaming, I opened the rear gate. Prince and the other animals began to move forward at an uncharacteristically slow pace.

But, after just three steps forward, Prince paused and then let the other animals move ahead of him. When Chrissy, our 3-legged goat, finally passed by, Prince turned around and walked back into the rear pasture. He continued up to the very edge of the pond and then came to a complete stop and locked eyes with Odie.

I moved forward and joined Prince at the edge of the pond, and we three stood there, frozen in a solemn, triangular embrace, fully engaged in a sacred goodbye for close to 30 minutes.

And then, without warning, Odie rose up in the water and steadied himself.

Odie moved to his right and slowly but surely, walked out the shallow end of the pond. He then made a sweeping left-hand turn and made his way towards me, lowering his head right before he put it in the very center of my chest.

I held Odie’s head in my hands and then lowered my forehead until it rested on his. I felt the dampness in his coat; I breathed in his scent and felt his mighty essence. We stayed that way for five full minutes until Odie pulled away and went nose to nose with Prince.

While I didn’t hear words, I know exactly what was said.

Price speaking to his beloved friend,

“Not today my brother.”

“Not on my watch!”

The two besties then turned and headed to the front pasture, Odie leaning into Prince, and Prince holding Odie steady, their journey marked by the drops of water falling from Odie’s body.

The two continued until they stopped at the open dish of feed the other animals refused to touch. They too saying,

“Not today, Odie.”

“Not today.”

Odie didn’t live for three more months after that incredible experience.

Odie didn’t live for three more weeks, not three more days.

Odie lived for three more years!

That’s the power of connection.

Connection creates hope, and hope saves lives.

It alone can draw forth a soul from isolation to inclusion, from banishment to belonging. It can rescue a being and pull them to the safety of the shore.

On August 31, 2011, I was in such dark waters, close to drowning, the dense weight of depression slowly but surely pulling me down.

My pond was the very edge of the rail on the 730 foot high Foresthill Bridge, the fourth tallest bridge in the United States.

But, like my beloved horse, I too was saved by the power of connection.

My “Prince” was the emergency first responder who arrived at the bridge, established contact and then created connection. From there, it was connection with the emergency room physician, the psychiatrist in the psych ward, and the staff in the hospital.

Today, it is connection with my therapist, my support group, my current psychiatrist, my friends and my family. The connection each of them has and continues to create acts as a lifeline to me, keeping me safe and out of the depths of hopelessness.

In my opinion, connection is the answer to the question, the remedy that solves the problem, the way in which we can help another find their way out of suffering.

The truth is, connection creates hope, and hope saves lives.

Just ask Odie.




NaryAGlance by Caroline Igra:[2nd Place]

She grew up in Philadelphia and, after graduating from Brown University, she collected a master’s degree at the University of Michigan and a doctorate in Art History from the Institute of Fine Art, NYU. After relocation to Israel, she continued to develop her academic career by teaching at both the University of Haifa and Hebrew University, curating exhibitions on the work of J.D. Kirszenbaum at the Museum of Art, Ein Harod and the Museum of the Jewish People, Tel Aviv and publishing articles in scholarly art history journals. A few years ago she decided to turn her attention to non-academic writing, starting off with a blog named “Stuck in the Middle” that captured her experience as an American living a life in Israel, and culminating in her first novel, Count to a Thousand.

NaryAGlance By Caroline Igra [2nd Place Entry]

This isn’t my story. I was never meant to live in Israel. There’s the palette: beiges, tans and sandy tones that stultify with their monotony. I’ve always luxuriated in deep reds and burnt oranges, jewel tones like sapphire and emerald. There’s the season. It’s all wrong. Everything about Israel smacks of summer: the blinding, obliterating, light, heat that settles on your skin leaving a sticky residue, a lethargic, almost impossibly sluggish, pace. My season has always, most firmly, been Fall. I spend most of the year waiting for sweater weather, thrill at those blackening skies that portend violent thunderstorms, and thrive when scurrying, especially when there’s a green light to be made.

No, my story was supposed to be something different entirely, taking place somewhere along the East Coast in a Brownstone or Tudor, organized around the Gregorian calendar and characterized by the occasional reunion, Major League sporting events and cozy Sundays tucked in with fresh bagels and the New York Times.  It was meant to be populated by individuals whose pedigrees, graduates of elite private schools with double or triple degrees from one or another Ivy League institution, were similar to my own. My story was predictable and determined before I was even born.

But all this, everything I’d anticipated, the story I’d imagined for myself as long as I could remember, was washed away in an instant by a pair of eyes that burned a hole straight through to my soul with their promise of passion and a set of hands whose confident touch on the small of my back conveyed a heady mixture of adoration and protection–in short, the Holy Grail: true love.

In retrospect, it all sounds crazy, and, decades later, I know that it most definitely was. After all these years, I’ve come to understand the true insanity of my capricious actions, to recognize just how astonishing it was to ditch the path I’d never ever thought to question, the one for which I was so clearly destined, and embrace one completely unknown halfway across the world. But back then, when it all began, I fell so hard and so completely, that stepping off track was as natural as opening my eyes. I embraced the fairytale love I’d discovered whole-hog with nary a glance behind.

I met my husband in a fluky manner, complete happenstance. I was in my late twenties, working on my doctoral degree in New York, continuing along an expected trajectory, when BOOM! Enter, stage right. There he was. My memory of those first few weeks, the blossoming of a love similar to those described in the Harlequin romances I’d devoured as a pre-teen, is primarily visual: a tapestry of reds, purples and blues. The wine, the flora of Southern France and those ‘bluer than blue’ eyes run together to form an inkblot of dazzling beauty still vivid in my mind today.

Of course, by the end of that summer, that passionate palette, so redolent of our first blush, had completely shifted. No, not to those sandy hues which characterize my current life–not yet, at least–but instead, to one indicative of transition, or better described, transportation, as our whirlwind romance segued into real life. The shift was smooth, arriving without fanfare, one reality simply replaced another. In our Act Two, that first visceral palette was exchanged with one more monochromatic: a series of steely grays, metallic blacks and whites characterizing the shells of the aircraft that carried us back and forth across the Atlantic, the ink of a Mont Blanc pen that spread across an endless sea of crisp white pages in looping cursive, describing our storybook love, white crockery piled high with the glistening shells of mussels shared at tiny bistros tucked away behind the Grand Place in Brussels or along the Rue Mouffetard in Paris. But this sober palette, so suited to the negotiation of our distinct personalities, cultural differences and national alliances, did not portend any accounting of the difficulties we truly faced. Such an assessment was thwarted both by the disorientation incumbent to intercontinental travel and the overwhelming propulsion of the tide, set in motion by the intensity of our beginning.

It’s nice to imagine that we’ll recognize the pivotal moments in our lives, that we’ll feel the shift of tectonic plates beneath us, be fully cognizant when everything that has gone before, everything we expected, will be erased as if it never existed. Yet, more likely than not, these life-changing moments pass us by without notice, not even a blink.  And so it was. I stepped into this story, one so obviously not my own, with as much nonchalance as stepping into the wrong pair of flip flops at the end of a hot summer’s day, with that same burst of self-confidence that quickly slows to hesitation, segues to acceptance and finishes with embrace. The scenario is familiar: the run up the beach, soles scorched by the blisteringly hot sand, the frantic search through the enormous pile of plastic and rubber left abandoned earlier in the day at the top of the dune, the glee at pulling out the ones you’re convinced are your own. By the time you’ve arrived home, you realize that something isn’t right, that the fit isn’t quite as you remembered. You frown with the comprehension that you’ve taken someone else’s flip flops that these aren’t yours at all. You wiggle your toes a bit, settle your heels deeper into the indentations created by other feet, and in an instant, decide that they’ll suffice; that, in actuality, they’re just as good as any others.

With one huge leap, I found myself in a story one hundred and eighty degrees different from the one I’d envisioned for myself, my future forever altered.  Gone were the inviting storefronts along Third Avenue, the grit of the Lexington Avenue Subway, the luxurious, fecund green of Central Park, their place taken by the blistering-hot sidewalks of Jerusalem, bus rides crammed in beside Israeli soldiers dressed in green fatigues, an endless horizon of blues shot through with the dazzling rays of the sun.

I never actually took the time to stop and assess. The chapters of this new, revised story, following one after the other at a breakneck pace, left virtually no time for consideration or second-thoughts. The ride was so glorious, the love so storybook-perfect, real life obstacles, and there were many of them, found no place to take root. How could I turn away from so much beauty? It was impossible to resist those alluring, feathery bougainvillea petals, the ones that had accompanied our love from the very start. It was impossible to foresee a time when they would fall off their branches, leaving behind a messy pile of detritus.

One story was swept away and replaced by another as seamlessly as the arrival of the next slide in the old Kodak Carousel trays. In one fell swoop, what might have been otherwise, the images contained in that alternative carousel, were lost forever. Gone were the benign moments, including tailgate parties with spiked hot cider, walks through snowy streets, meetings with college buddies, drunken, glittery, champagne-tipped New Year’s Eve celebrations, lectures in ivy-clad Revolutionary period buildings. Gone, too, were those of extraordinary significance:  family get-togethers that reminded me that I belonged, my beloved brother’s wedding, my father’s chemotherapy sessions. Over the years, I struggled to suppress the pain of their loss, purposefully shoving it to the back burner. It’s so much easier to inure oneself to sadness by donning a set of symbolic blinders and looking straight ahead.

The real questions, the kind that actually penetrated my soul, didn’t emerge until the hurdles began to mount, until I’d stumbled upon moments when life needed to be negotiated instead of simply lived. It was then that the raw material beneath the veneer began to emerge, coming on like rapid-fire, taking my breath away and turning everything on its head.  This alternative story was not all about passion, devotion and love, but also included a hefty portion of significant obstacles based on cultural incompatibility and the perpetual struggle with a foreign language. Over the years, an ever-growing collection of relationships, negotiations and professional opportunities went awry simply because I wasn’t a sabra–a native-born Israeli, prickly on the outside and sweet on the inside like the famed local cactus–because no matter how hard I tried, Hebrew would never be my native tongue. And of course, there were consequences distinct to raising children in the Middle East. Occasional threats to our security entailed sending my daughter to the Kindergarten down the road armed with a sandwich and a gas mask, stocking the bomb shelter with tuna fish and water just “in case,” and, no doubt most wrenching, watching my sons, one after the other, dressed in fatigues, with heads shorn, heft their heavy weapons and trudge toward the train that would return them to their base.

Choosing one story over another has exacted a heavy price and I’ll never completely get over the loss of those alternative memories, those on the carousel I’d discarded so recklessly years earlier, the moments of a life I haven’t led. But it’s just possible that the one I’m living, so fundamentally different, is as good as any other; that constantly replaying the free-fall of the past, reconsidering steps taken and decisions made, denying that it’s mine, is missing the point. After all, the colorless, dusty Wonderland into which I stepped innocently decades ago, not as a trailblazer or a pioneer, not because I was brave, but, in fact, almost as an afterthought, has laid witness to a beautiful new story replete with, not only difficulties, challenges and moments of excruciating sadness of the type incumbent to any life, but, perhaps more significantly, a spectacular daily dosage of blue skies and the exquisite Mediterranean Sea, the restorative peace only found in an Israeli Sabbath, life-sustaining friendships built on shared experiences living beyond the box, a revised respect for the concept of family and three fiercely independent children whose strength is the direct product of the unique environment in which they were raised. And yes, woven tightly within its weave is that luscious purple thread of steadfast devotion, commitment and love that changed it so dramatically a long time ago.


On Gender: A Sibling Story by Emory Oakley:[3rd Place]

Emory Oakley is a spoken word poet, fiction and non-fiction writer, and performer from Vancouver, BC. They represented BC at the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word (CFSW) twice in 2015 and 2017. They have authored three chapbooks of poetry, Unsent Letters (2016) and Red (2017) andThere’s Nothing Left to Burn (2018).

           On Gender: A Sibling Story By Emory Oakley[3rd Place Entry]

My brother yelled from the other room. “Hey. Come look at this!”

“What?!” I yelled back. Looking up momentarily from my psychology paper to glance at the open doorway. I don’t know why I bothered; couldn’t actually see him.

Our suite was small, so it would take only approximately ten steps to walk out and talk to me but again he yelled, “Come here!”

I groaned loud enough that he could hear me, but did not move. I looked up from my unfinished paper at the cotton candy sky. It was spring and fresh buds were starting to sprout from the trees in the back yard.

Before I’d had the chance to say anything more, my brother came bounding into the room, plopped down onto the couch beside me and snatched up my laptop. I watched, as he thumbed commands into the computer and within a few seconds pulled up the video I assumed he had just been watching. He was still dressed in the pants I was confident he’d slept in. “Have you eaten today?” I asked.

“Mmm?” he made a noncommittal noise. “Are you ready?” he asked and looked up at me for the first time. His green eyes shone with tentative excitement, but there was something else there I couldn’t quite place my finger on. Quickly he turned back to the computer, thumbed the track pad, and began to move the mouse in a repetitive pattern over the play button. Was it anxiety? I considered.

“One sec,” I replied then I jumped up, ran into the kitchen that was adjoining to the living room and turned the oven to preheat. It was automatic for me to fall into the care-taking role since we had moved out of our parents’ house. What you might call the front door of our suite was open, the sun just barely peeked through the trees but it was still warm.

When I was settled back into the couch, he asked again, “Are you ready?” His long, thin fingers were poised above the play button. The pause screen displayed On Gender written across the top of a notebook in red Sharpie. The animator, who had made the video, was in the process of drawing a stick figure in the top right hand corner of the frame.


As a teen, this young animator explained they did not understand why humans made such a big deal about gender. I winced, unsure of where this video was going to take us. I glanced at my brother who was staring intently at the screen, it must be taking us somewhere interesting since he has chosen to share it with me, I decided.  The animator used stick figures with labels and speech bubbles to explain that they didn’t understand why many people proclaimed to be ‘a man’ or ‘a woman’ at all. The labels ‘man’ and ‘woman’ hung momentarily above the stick figures that could not possibly be gendered. To them, at that age, gender was an abstract concept because it was something they didn’t feel they could relate to. I let out a laugh, not because I thought it was funny but because I understood. I know exactly how difficult gender can be.

My brother paused the video, turned slowly and glared at me. His nose crinkled just enough to make this stare look unthreatening. I wondered what he was thinking, other than being obviously offended that I had laughed over the animator’s voice.

“I’m sorry” I said, and put my finger over my lips. Content with my apology and zipped lips he pressed play again.

The animator continued to explain their confusion about gender and mentioned that the thought of being transgender, sounded like a lot of work- especially if “gender doesn’t really matter at all”‘. I mean it is a lot of work, I thought. By then we had been living together for just over a year, I hadn’t changed my name yet but he had an understanding of my qenderqueer identity so I wondered why he had chosen to share this video with me.

The door swung slightly with the wind.  Our jackets hanging on the back of the kitchen chairs caught my eye. The chairs were pulled into the table we never use, except for stacking our various textbooks and assignments on. Both of our jackets were made of leather. From where we were sitting they were only distinguishable by the slight size difference. This made me smile, as when we were children people used to think the two of us were twins. These comments always made my brother really happy since he is the younger sibling.

As the video approached the speakers present day, they explained that they had developed a more in depth understanding of gender through exposure to transgender people’s experience. At that moment, I realized I had been that person in my brother’s life, opening his view of gender as I learned how to relate to gender myself. The speaker realized that gender is, in fact, a real thing. My brother smiled slightly, and turned to look at me to see how I was reacting. I smiled back.

At the conclusion, my brother sighed and pressed pause to prevent YouTube from auto playing the next video. All that was left on the screen was a blank piece of lined paper the animator had turned to. “What do you think?” he asked, more tentatively than I would have anticipated.  His sandy hair hung low on his forehead, and fell nearly into his eyes as he leaned over and placed the laptop on the coffee table in front of us.

Instead of answering, I asked, “Why don’t you tell me what you think of it?” I was unsure what I was supposed to think at the conclusion of the video, as this was all information that I had previously understood.

He hesitated, then said, “This is how I feel…” He trailed off, pink blush rising in to his cheeks. “I don’t understand gender…not the way you do. I don’t think I have one.”

I smiled. They smiled back. They let out a deep sigh, their shoulder dropped, and they sunk back into the couch. I thought to myself, we are definitely siblings.

Just then, the oven beeped and I went to make us dinner. “What do you want for dinner?” I asked my sibling as I looked into the Tetris packed freezer. They didn’t answer. I looked up at them and asked again. This time they looked up from the TV, they were connecting the Xbox to Netflix. They shrugged, their large graphic tee slouching over thin shoulders. The picture of Deadpool printed on the front was all wrinkled and it looked like that shirt hadn’t be washed in weeks. “You are so not helpful!” I exclaimed, and pulled pre-seasoned meatballs from the freezer and delicately placed them in rows on the baking sheet.



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