Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Wonder-filled Wednesday: Safe


On the hottest day of the year, the summer after we lost Jack, my friend Cindy and I hang out at her house, spending time together while Margaret and Cindy’s kids are at Bible camp. She shows me around her beautiful yard with its stone retaining walls built by her husband, the fish pond, the new back deck, and the enormous shade trees.

Cindy tells me that she felt Jack’s presence the day before as she stood in her garden. I don't really know what this means, because it hasn't happened to me, so I ask for details.

"I can't really explain it, Anna, but I got the impression Jack was letting me know he was protecting our house."

I don't know what to say. Why would he protect her HOUSE, not her FAMILY? And protect it from WHAT?  A suburban summer? And isn't GOD the one who protects? Or maybe His angels? Cindy doesn’t know what it means either. We shrug and give each other a “What the heck?” face, as we have many times since Sept 8, realizing how little we understand about this life and the next. The mystery and surprises keep piling up, so what’s one more thing?

I go to pick up Margaret, and think nothing more of our conversation.

About five hours later, a freak thunderstorm storm called a Derecho rises suddenly in our region. It comes with very little warning, just like the fateful storm we’d had in September. In fact, Tim is out playing softball with his church league. They quickly call the game, and Tim has a frightening, dangerous drive home amid lightning, crackling power lines, and falling tree branches. Winds of 60-80 miles an hour tear through our region. Nearly 1 million people in the DC area will lose power tonight.

Cindy quickly returns from a neighborhood party just down the street as soon as the storm rises up. Her kids are by themselves, and she doesn't want them to be frightened if the power goes out. They hunker down.

Their next door neighbor, who had been in his driveway packing his car for a beach trip, stands on his front stoop to watch the crazy weather-- a brilliant show of lightning and hot, swirling wind. He hears movement at Cindy’s house and sees her enormous oak trees begin to pop, crack, and teeter in the wind. He sees them start falling directly toward Cindy’s house, then reverse and fall toward the street instead.

The wreckage includes downed trees with nearly 10 foot root balls reaching up toward the second story of her house, the beautiful stone walls knocked over and the irrigation system pulled up. From the street you can now barely see her house, and her yard looks nothing like the yard I'd seen at four that afternoon.

It will take several months, annoying insurance claims and many workmen to get Cindy's yard back in order. The only tree that hits the house is a smaller one from the neigbhor’s yard that damages the garage roof.

The body of the house is completely untouched. Cindy and her kids are inside and will be unaware of the strange scene her neighbor witnesses until the next day when they compare storm stories.

Amidst the wreckage stands a small black lamppost, upright, untouched, and still tied with a royal blue “Jack ribbon” from the previous September.



Oak tree fell toward street:

Look how close this one was to the house:


No longer a clear view of house from street because of all the trees and limbs down:
 You can barely see the house. Cindy's husband is standing in front of garage. The lamp post is in the middle of the fallen trees on the left:

Monday, April 14, 2014

Everyone Has a Story: Listen To Your Mother Ticket Giveaway

I just bought my ticket for Listen to Your Mother's DC show on May 4.

If you are not familiar with the LTYM movement, it is a spoken-word show started by Ann Imig that will be in 32 cities this year in the days surrounding Mother's Day. 

Writers around the country audition to read short pieces related to some aspect of motherhood. Twelve to fifteen are selected to take part in each city's show. On show day, performances range from hilarious to gripping to poignant, just like motherhood. You will love the honesty and vulnerability of the performances.

I was honored to be part of LTYM DC just seven months after we lost Jack. This year there will be a show in Baltimore as well. If you love to hear women's stories, the LTYM experience is for you!

To see if there is a LTYM show near you this spring, check out the website.

I'd really love to see you at the DC show at 2pm on May 4 in Crystal City, and today I'm giving away a set of two tickets! Wouldn't that be a wonderful way to spend a spring afternoon with a friend, your mother, your Mother-in-law, and...me????

Just enter the giveaway using the entry form below and I'll announce the winner of the tickets on Friday.
http://www.rafflecopter.com/rafl/display/81fd631/" rel="nofollow">a Rafflecopter giveaway


To give you a taste of what to expect, here is a video of my reading at LTYM in 2012. Note: I think most of the performers will actually make eye contact with the audience. :)


Wednesday, April 9, 2014

I'm a Fixer, Just Like Olivia Pope

olivia-pope.jpg

...for those of you who don't watch Scandal, see you on the next post!

Although I don't look as good as she does in white and off-white, and my mom really died when I was a teenager--  not fake-died, spent decades in prison and then came back to terrorize the world-- I still think I have a heck of a lot in common with Olivia Pope, the main character in Scandal.

Take the vintage oak table.

"Vintage oak table? That does not sound like Olivia Pope," you might be saying. Olivia is all modern and sleek, with walls an icy gray and wine glasses the size of gourds. Oak and Olivia don't mix! True, but here's the thing: there was a vintage oak table in my life, and it was a problem that needed fixing, Olivia Pope-style.

In attempt to earn some money in dribs and drabs to try to shore up our hemorrhaging bank account, I decided to start hitting the thrift store again. On one recent trip I found a beautiful vintage table in perfect condition. I wanted to take it home, paint it, and re-sell if for a handsome profit.

But when I got it into my garage, I felt my motivation ebb. There was no one there to look me in the eye and say, "Get out your paintbrushes, Anna. You are a gladiator! Do what you must to earn the $100 OBO that will surely save your family from ruin!"

So it sat. My husband was not thrilled to see a table occupying his parking spot in the garage. Day after day, when he came home from work he'd push the button on the garage opener, and as the door made its slow ascent, he'd look with fear and dread to see if there were four oak legs waiting for him, and there were.

I suggested that perhaps we could move it to the basement until my painting mojo returned. He said a dismissive yet definitive, "It won't fit down the stairs," and that was that.  Now, as a fixer, I probably would have said, "Let's just try it" especially based on the knowledge that this is the same man who told me this curbside sideboard/cabinet would never fit in my minivan. Amateur.



Eventually, I decided to sell the table on Craigslist As-Is, and let its new owner paint or not paint at his or her choosing. Tim suggested we move it into my office area until it sold, but I prefer to keep active Craigslist items a little farther outside the heart of the home so that my neighbors can hear me scream if something goes down. Good Olivia Pope-thinking, right?

This makes me wonder how no outsiders ever seem to notice the murder and mayhem in Olivia's sphere of influence. Hmmm.

I was actually grateful Tim was out of town last week so the table could stay put while his car was at the airport. That gave me time to deal with two Craiglist no-shows. And by deal with them, I mean write pleasant emails back and forth for several days about the joy of owning this table, truly bonding with my new Craigslist friends until pick-up time when...nothing. It made me think that when I die and someone sends out a mass email to report the fact, there will be a lot of Craiglisters in my contacts who will say, "Who the hell is this Anna person they're talking about, and should I be sad?"

Anyway, with the prospect of Tim's return looming, my inner Olivia Pope sprung into action. Using my already advanced powers of estimation (see: Sideboard, Minivan), I was able to deduce that a solution had been right under my nose the entire time and that Tim's angst over the table could be alleviated rather quickly.

I know this is almost as complicated as some of Huck's computer hacking codes, but stay with me here. If I rearranged some of the crap in the garage and turned the table SIDEWAYS, I would be able to gingerly wedge it against the wall and Tim would still be able to pull into his spot safely. Oh yes.

Tim hasn't mentioned the change yet, but I went ahead and rewarded myself with a glass of wine and a bowl of popcorn for dinner.

Gladiator, indeed.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

How We Write



When the lovely Allison Slater Tate asked if I'd like to answer a few questions about my writing process as part of a blog tour, I said "Sure!" even though I don't know how much of a process I have.

Is drinking tea all day and cruising Facebook a process?

Allison is the talented writer whose post about moms staying in the picture with their kids went viral and landed Allison on the national news. Her piece really touched me, as it made me think of how grateful I am to have been in photos with both of my kids while my son Jack was still alive, even though in some of them I'm wearing denim overalls and a scrunchie.  I love reading Allison's words of wisdom on her blog, and all around the internet for that matter.

Thank you, Allison!


HERE GOES:

1. What am I working on?

My book, Rare Bird: A Memoir of Loss and Love is in the typesetting stage! You can even pre-order it now from Random House, Amazon, or wherever you like to buy books.

It is starting to sink in that my words will be in a book, uh, forever. I'm the type who constantly replays in my head all of the conversations I have at parties, making sure I didn't sound like an idiot, so you can see how I might be having a little stress about my words being in print. Is it too this? Too that? Not enough?

In an effort to keep myself calm, I'm attempting to stay busy until the release date, September 9. This means I'll be blogging more frequently at An Inch of Gray. Not so frequently, I hope, that you'll start telling me to step away from the keyboard, but enough to get some of the random non-book thoughts that have been floating around in my head onto the screen. I felt like I fell off the writing wagon, while writing my book. I know that doesn't make much sense, but the words kind of POURED out of me very early on, and a great deal of time after that was spent just figuring out where to put what, what to keep, and what to discard. It wasn't truly evident to me at the beginning of the process what the book would be about, so I have pages and pages about my childhood and other topics that I didn't put in the book. Maybe some of those thoughts can lead to a future project...

In addition to blogging, I am working on a short article for a MAJOR women's magazine. I've been reading women's magazines since I was a little girl, and I'm so excited I could just scream! This should be a great way to let magazine readers know about Rare Bird. I also think that seeing my by-line next to glossy pages of recipes, face creams, and fashion will somehow, finally, convince 12 year old Margaret that writing is my new gig.

2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I think my memoir differs from others because it is truly a memoir of very early grief. It captures the pain and shock of losing our son in a terrible accident. I began writing it less than a year after we lost Jack, and it was pretty much finished by the two year mark. In fact, some of the material came from this blog, which quickly became an example of grief unfolding in real-time. One day I was posting first day of school pictures of my two kids. Then, I had to tell my wonderful readers that Jack had died the very next day.

I do not yet have the wisdom that comes even 5 or 10 years out from a tragedy. Books with that kind of perspective have helped me a great deal in my own journey, but I hope Rare Bird will offer something, too. Looking at the early stages of grief, without the benefit of years of introspection and the certainty of survival will, I hope, provide an honest depiction of grief for those going through it, and for those called to walk beside suffering people. I did not write this book as a tribute to Jack (although it was very tempting!), or as a how-to manual of survival. Instead, I wanted it to be a glimpse of real loss and real hope that could somehow be meaningful to everyone, because everyone loses something in life, just by living and loving.

3. Why do I write what I do?

Well, I began writing to share small, funny observations about our family's simple, imperfect lives. That was more than 6 1/2 years ago, when it wasn't yet all that okay to let on, even to close friends, that your life was hard and complicated. It was before my friend Glennon's hilarious post "Don't Carpe Diem" went viral, giving women permission to let go of trying be perfect and sucking the marrow out of every damn day. In my small way, I hoped that the honesty that came through my writing would help other moms say, "Yeah. Me too."

When Jack and Margaret got older, they got less comfortable being the subject of my little stories. Tender moments were often followed by, "You aren't putting this on the blog, are you?" Because of that, I began transitioning to blogging more and more about decorating, painting furniture, and thrifting.

My writing changed again after Jack's accident as I found myself digging deep to try to understand how and why what was so precious to us was taken away in a flash. I wondered, on the screen, where God was in all of this. I showed up every day or so to show my readers that I was trying to survive; and they showed up to cheer me on and give me a reason to keep writing.  I didn't want my writing to be too painful to read, but it soon became clear that loyal readers were willing to step into the muck with me as I woke up each day to face life without Jack.

Because of their generosity and commitment, I didn't feel like I had to sugar coat anything. When I didn't feel strong enough, my writers began providing material, too, telling me how Jack's short life was impacting them, and by sharing the mysterious, spiritual signs God was sending them...signs that comforted, whispered and sometimes shouted, "This is not all there is!"

So I guess I have just written what is going on in front of me. Will I always write about grief? I don't know. I'm trying to be open to what comes next.

4. How does my writing process work?

If a topic or an observation comes to me, I jot it on a scrap of paper-- which could be the back of an offering envelope at church, a grocery receipt, or occasionally the small notebook I keep in my big green purse. It would not be that unusual to find a note in my house that says:  "gyno, dog barf, gravestone." I also keep paper by my bed in case I get a writing idea during the night.

I recently quit my job managing a small Christian bookstore in order to have more time to write while Margaret is in school. Unfortunately, this extra time has translated into less writing than ever! I think when my days had more structure, I felt more committed to carving out small pockets of time to write. Now I'm more likely to wander the house, make multiple cups of tea, fluff my back pillows, talk to the dog, or have a snack.

I realized early on that I will never be an early morning writer, just as I'm not an early morning exerciser or socializer. It's like I told my best friend Cynthia-- who goes by Diana in the book-- "Please quit inviting me to meet you for breakfast. It's never going to happen." And in more than 30 years of friendship, it hasn't.

My most productive time to sit down and write is between 10 am and 9 pm. Because Margaret gets out of school by mid-afternoon, I made sure to go away several times while writing my book, just for a few days here and there, so I could power right through those late afternoon hours. I write very quickly, kind of like I talk, and go back later to revise. When possible, I like to let a post sit for a few hours before posting it. Often my writing that touches a cord, however, will be something I've dashed off in the last hour before time to pick up Margaret.

Well, I hope that answered the questions. I am truly honored to share my words and my life with you here on this blog--  yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Thank you for making me feel less alone!

My lovely writer friends Susie Klein, from the blog Recovering Church Lady, and Jennifer Killi Marshall, from Bipolar Mom Life will be answering these same questions one week from today on their blogs. Don't miss out!

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Wonder-filled Wednesday

Six months after Jack died, my sister Liz ran along her usual trail in southwestern Virginia, trying to make sense of our loss, her loss. She had taken up running at around age 40, and since Jack's death it had become her refuge and her therapy. She would end up logging nearly 2000 miles that first year alone, moving from 10ks and half marathons to full marathons and eventually even a 50k in the grueling August heat.

But most of her runs were like this one, solitary, as she pounded the shit out of the path, crying out to in despair. She was a Christian yoga teacher as well, but she couldn't do yoga right now. She needed something brutal, punishing, and painful, like our new lives. Besides, who was she to be spouting off to her students about the goodness and provision of God when everything she'd ever believed felt cut off and upended now, lost in seconds in a stupid creek?

Sometimes she prayed to see a blue jay on her runs, ever since we'd started associating blue jays with our "rare bird." They rarely came. On this morning's run Liz was angry. Angrier than usual. Why give Jack a huge heart, if he couldn't use it beyond 12 years? Why did her kids have to suffer the loss of someone so beloved--  why did her son lose his best friend in the world? Why do evil and darkness and lies flourish? Why would she have to lose her mother so young, then her nephew, and now most likely her sister, changed forever by the scars of grief? And what did all this mean to her faith?

As Liz approached a familiar line of pine trees, she saw a flicker of color in one. Blue. Finally, a blue jay. Her breath caught and she smiled, then kept on running. The blue jay sailed up and flew to the next tree, further down the path. As Liz ran, so it flew, from tree to tree to tree until it disappeared into the woods.

The bird seemed playful, as if it were teasing her. Liz felt her anger dissipate. A peace washed over her. She told me later that the message she felt in that moment was, "I am okay and joyful and I love you. I know you are suffering. I am here to bring you joy and comfort."

Liz has since moved away from that town, from that trail. But she still looks for blue jays. She doesn't care when people tell her blue jays are ungainly creatures with a mean streak that runs a mile deep. That they aren't all that "rare." To her they are beautiful. And the one that kept her company that day was clever and loving and full of comfort.

Just like someone else she knew.







Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Flash

Today in the produce section I saw a cute young mom pushing her two kids in one of those plastic grocery cart/kiddie cars. A 3 year old boy and a younger girl who was probably around 15 months old. They stopped near the cucumbers and the mom went around to the front of the cart, took out her phone, and snapped a picture of them.

It was just an ordinary weekday morning, but she captured them in that moment, the little girl and boy tugging at a board book between them, laughing.

It made me think about so many ordinary moments when my kids were little, and of the clunky camera I had back then. It had a long carry strap and used rolls of film. Pre-digital, I would ask myself, "Is this event important enough to use up half a roll of film?" and later at the drugstore, "Are the yet unseen pics on this roll worthy of ordering double prints?" It was a gamble, for sure. And the clunky camera wasn't always handy for the little moments of life.

When I finally got a digital camera, 5 years into this parenting gig, I was able to capture many more spontaneous moments of mothering. I didn't worry about wasting film. I could let the kids take hundreds of pictures of the dog and their other favorite subject: cantelope.

I tried to take a decent amount of photos and little videos, considering I was the youngest child in my family of origin and have three whole pictures to show for it. I even made sure to be in pictures with my kids every now and then, since although I know my wonderful mother existed in my childhood, it's kind of hard to prove.

It wasn't until what would be the last eight months of our family being intact that I got a smart phone, and therefore had a camera with me at all times. By the time Jack died, I still hadn't grown that used to taking pics with my phone, which, as the cheapest model with no flash, didn't take great ones anyway. But now, just 2 1/2 years later, we have more iphones and ipads in this house than we do people, and there is no shortage of selfies going on daily. Plenty of dog shots, too. Blurry or not, we are capturing moments-- the monumental and mundane-- more than ever. Here are a few of Margaret and Tim when we went out for Jack's 15th birthday 2 weeks ago:





When I saw that mom and her kids in the store today, I was envious. Yes, for her healthy little boy and girl grinning next to each other, but also that she had probably been capturing those simple, insignificant/significant moments for their entire lives by just whipping her phone out of her pocket. I'm not saying that grocery trips with Jack and Margaret back in the day would have necessarily been that pleasant, but I am now greedy for many more glimpses of them, of us, of those years before we knew what we now know-- how fleeting it all can be.

p.s. A friend sent me a new photo today of us at a family mission camp years ago. That's us on the right about to make a butterfly garden.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Meatless Monday: Red Lentil Soup

We have a new favorite meal in our house.

It has kept us cozy during this ridiculously cold spring, and it costs only a few bucks for the whole meal. I'm not much of a recipe sharer, because I'm not much of a cook, but here's my friend Jenn's MIL's recipe for Red Lentil Soup. I hope you'll find it a healthy, delicious addition to your repertoire. Recipe can be halved, but I make the whole thing, because, yum.

Ingredients:

2 cups red lentils (rinsed)
2 onions, chopped
4 T tomato paste
2 med potatoes, sliced or shredded w/peeler
2 carrots, shredded w/peeler
1/2 cup uncooked white rice
water

Steps:

1. Bring 2 cups of red lentils to boil in water in medium pot. Boil until soft. There's usually some water still left in there. That's fine. Set aside
2. In LARGE pot, brown your chopped onions. (I use pre-chopped, frozen onions, and like to brown them very dark in a smidge of olive oil)
3. Add 4 T tomato paste to onions and cook a few minutes
4. Add 6 tall glasses of water to the paste and onions and bring to a boil.
5. Shred your potatoes and carrots w/ a potato peeler. Add to the water mixture and boil 5 min.
6. Drain your lentils
7. Add your lentils and 1/2 cup of rice to the boiling water.
8. Boil additional 15-20 min
9. Enjoy w/ generous dashes of salt and pepper and fresh lemon juice on top

This is a good weeknight dinner, b/c it's easy to keep these ingredients on hand.