Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Things we Keep

I helped my friend Deborah move last week. We quickly transitioned from the stage of lovingly holding treasures and thinking about the memories they evoked, to wanting to torch the whole house, crushed by the sheer volume of accumulated stuff.

I felt those same sensations when my family moved two years ago. On the final exhausted, emotional morning, my carport was full of piles that hadn't made the first, second, or third purges, but simply could NOT come to the new house with us in the end.

Yet today, I still have too much stuff.

Both my friend's life of late and mine are examples of what we already knew-- the words painted on the wall at my old house-- "The best things in life aren't things." 

We get it.

Yet still, we do have THINGS, which is never more clear than when we must move them from one place to another.

I wanted to help Deborah more than I did, because choosing what to keep and what to donate is extremely personal. The humblest item could be full of meaning, while the most expensive isn't.

For example, one of my family's treasures is a big brown plastic mixing bowl with a handle and a spout.  It used to have a buddy, a slightly smaller orange counterpart, until Shadow chewed it up a few years ago.

These bowls have always reminded me of my childhood, a time when I felt nurtured and safe. I remember my dad sitting in his brown and orange rocking chair in his pj's, chowing down on multiple scoops of ice cream from the orange bowl, while wielding an enormous spoon.

That orange bowl took me right back to the 70's. To unsupervised kids making ice cream floats in tall glasses, always adding extra Coke as we drank them down. To roaming the neighborhood. To four square in the driveway and kick ball in the street. To bikes with banana seats, jaunts to 7-11, and the hot walk to the pool in bare feet. To figuring out how to navigate the culture of growing up.

The big brown bowl reminds me of popcorn, and watching movies with my mom and a string of friends and boyfriends on our plaid couch in the early 80's. To a nascent social life, still in the security of my home. To sleepovers, siblings, first kisses, and Saturday Night Live.

Today, when Margaret makes popcorn for one of our Survivor marathons, she always reaches for the brown bowl. She knows it's impossible to pop every kernel, that the good pieces always run out too soon, and that even though we pass the bowl back and forth between three people now, not four, it represents both her past and her present. I have a feeling that as long as the dogs never get a hold of the bowl, it will end up in her home when she is an adult.

To most eyes, the bowl is insignificant and even ugly. It does not give me the same thrill of promise and orderliness and beauty I get when I browse the matching housewares in a Target aisle.

But to my eyes, the big brown bowl means family.

What is something that you keep that would not mean anything to outside eyes?

Friday, June 26, 2015

Because Sometimes Beauty Doesn't Fit Into a Bikini

As always, I am thrilled to have Noelle Juday writing for us again today - you'll love her stories and insights! Noelle, like me, believes in the beauty and power in sharing our stories. She blogs regularly at NBrynn, where you will find everything from delicious, healthy recipes to insight about parenting, spirituality and orphan care. Please welcome Noelle as she shares more of her story with us today. 


Last summer I did the unthinkable: I trained for and then completed a half-marathon. It sounds absurd to even say, eight months, a dozen doughnuts and a long, motionless winter later. But it's true, and I have the medal to prove it!

Completing a half-marathon is not an accomplishment I ever fathomed being able to reach. I ran track for a couple of years in high school, but pretty much swore running off ever since. I hated that burning feeling in my lungs and the sheer exhaustion after, oh, maybe a quarter of a mile. All through college and my mid-twenties I stuck to Pilates and the occasional bike ride, mostly counting walking as my daily form of exercise.

It's not that I am an undisciplined person or totally out-of-touch with my health. In fact, discipline and an obsession with my body defined over a decade of my life. I spent all of my teens starving or binging or trying to sweat adolescence away, striving toward an ideal that was really just an unattainable illusion. Starting as an eleven-year-old, I began manipulating my caloric intake to try to shrink my widening pubescent hips and flatten my feminine tummy. I became well-acquainted with diet and exercise as a part of life - and in many ways, they were my life. 

Some good friends, a great husband, and perhaps a little more maturity, finally freed me from this constant obsession. But for a time, calorie counting and exercise remained to me what I can only imagine alcohol is to an alcoholic. I could not partake in moderation. I could be mindful about making healthy food choices, but if I began to associate my daily meals with a size goal or even a weight loss hope, it was all downhill. I was so afraid of tumbling down that same life-suffocating spiral I had lived for so many years previously, that I more or less avoided gyms or food labels for the next several years. 

Then one day, I realized something profound had happened. I awoke to a new sense of freedom and wholeness. For the first time in my life, I found myself actually forgetting to eat (this was, previously, a phenomenon I thought only skinny girls made up to torment the rest of us!). To go from having thoughts of food constantly on play in my mind to actually forgetting about food for hours on end was nothing short of a miracle to me. 
What's more, for the first time in my life I actually loved my body. I was comfortable with the curves and the imperfections and finally, FINALLY, was not spending all my energy dreaming of a day when, at last, my body was beautiful. I could look in the mirror and genuinely see beauty looking back at me. Can someone spell, M-I-R-A-C-L-E?!

I have never taken this freedom lightly. It remains to me a miracle, something I am deeply grateful for, something I think and talk about as though on sacred ground.  

And so, when I set the goal to train for a half-marathon last Spring, it was in this freedom that I walked. I did not fantasize about long, slender Greek Goddess legs or even hope that I would lose extra weight, which surely would have been my main concern in earlier years. My focus was on the impossible task of running for just over 13 miles straight, and that was more than enough for my mind and will to handle.

So run I did. I ran and ran and ran. May turned to June, and June turned to July, and by the beginning of July I had already logged hundreds of miles and was walking on legs completely foreign to me. They were far from Greek Goddess legs - but things were firmer, a little less wiggly. One day, I took off my shirt and realized I could faintly see muscle definition in my tummy, almost like a six pack was trying to squeeze through a pile of bread dough. It was there, even if faint. 

Naturally, I ran to the store and bought the first bikini of my life. True story. I had never worn a bikini in public, at least not past my pre-teens, and now at 31 and two children later, I finally felt the right to bare my belly for all the world to see. I wore my bikini proudly all summer, in many ways marveling that this was my life. That imperfect, full-hipped, self-conscious 'ole me was actually wearing a bikini. Several times over the summer I patted myself on the back, not for being in such great shape, but for being so courageous and wearing that bikini. 

When summer said its goodbyes in yellows and oranges and reds, I snuggled up in scarves and sweaters and talked to my daughter about how beautiful every part of her body is. We talked about loving ourselves and beauty deeper than appearances, until I completely forgot about the bikini in the bottom of my lingerie drawer.

Until now. 
With bikini-season upon us, and winter being so tasty, I found myself stepping on the scale the other day and being faced with the harsh truth that loving myself and accepting my body are a lot easier to do when I'm sun-kissed and lean from running all summer. 
Because the reality is this: the thought of wiggling and jiggling back into a bikini right now does not invoke feelings of self-love or self-acceptance - in fact, the thought just makes me desperate to dig out my old one-piece or skip summer altogether! And at first I feel greatly ashamed about this, like I lived a lie last summer. I realize it has never crossed my mind that my willingness to wear a bikini was perhaps more of a realistic reaction to being in the best shape of my life, than an evolved state of self-love or freedom. Maybe the bikini was just about being in great shape, and had nothing to do with embracing imperfections. Even worse, maybe the bikini represented the old ways, the longing for more and more and more, even though more was never enough. 
And so I stand on the scale and wonder aloud, What about beauty deeper than appearances? What about looking in the mirror and finally seeing beauty? I look in the mirror as I ask these things and suddenly I know - I know, regardless of last summer's bikini days or this summer's one-pieces, that something akin to a miracle has still come about in my life simply because of this truth: When I look in the mirror, I do see beauty, beauty just doesn't look very good in a bikini right now. 

Ten years ago, I could have never looked at my body with kindness and love, while being a bit too pudgy for a bikini. Never. I would have immediately gone on a diet, berated myself for eating so many sweets all winter and forced myself to wake up at the crack of dawn to exercise. I would have been swimming in pools of shame and self-hate and defeat. I wouldn't have been able to see my worth beyond the extra weight.

Today, miraculously, I can. That doesn't mean I wouldn't love to look great in a bikini (I mean, I am human). Or that I think there's anything wrong with getting in shape and honoring your body through good nourishment and exercise. But that's not the end of the story. Today, I can see more.
Today, I can see that maybe beauty is not defined by being able to wear a bikini. And maybe self-acceptance does not need tan lines and flat abs to know just how far we've come, and what a miracle living each day in freedom from calorie-counting and body-hating really is. And I'll take that over a bikini any day.  

Every quarter, Noelle leads a 30 Day Writing Challenge - a chance for you to join her in experiencing the hope and meaning and power of telling your story. Need a little convincing? Here are 3 Minutes That Will Change Your Life, also known as the The Top 6 Reasons Why You Should Write Your Story This Year!

Whether you tuck your words away in a journal, share your stories with a few friends or post them in a blog for all the world to see, there will be healing and freedom just from having written. As author and doctor Charles L. Whitfield has said, "The most useful and healing thing about telling our own story is that we, the story teller, get to hear our story. When we tell our story from our hearts, bones and guts, from our Real Self, we discover the truth about ourselves. Doing so is healing."

For more information on the next 30 Day Writing Challenge, or to read more of Noelle's recent posts, go here

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The ABC's of Me

I saw this on my friend Jennifer's blog and thought it would be fun. What are some of the ABC's of YOU today?

A: Age 45
B: Books on my nightstand: When God and Grief Meet, These is my Words: The Diary of Sarah Agnes Prine, Magazines: Vanity Fair, Washingtonian, Better Homes and Gardens, Guideposts
C: Cunningham, my middle name
D: Delighting in the cooler air today and a big cup of tea.
E: Eyebrows "on fleek" as my daughter would say
F: Fears: Having someone I love need me and my not being able to help.
G: Gray hair percentage: 100%
H: Hope is the thing with feathers, that perches in the soul (Emily Dickinson)
I: Inside Out, the movie we are going to see today
J: Jack (witty, clever, loving, wise)
K: King Charles Spaniel, Charlie the puppy who now shares our bed.
L: Love never dies.
M: Margaret (quick, funny, insightful, beautiful)
N: Nothing can separate us from the love of God
O: On Demand and Netflix, things that keep me from writing.
P: Psalm 139 has spoken to me since I was a little girl.
Q: Quality: Laziness (see also, B: bathrobe as day wear).
R: Relating to people, a joy for  me. Let's get together and laugh and cry over lunch.
S: Snack: Chips and guac, followed by anything chocolate
T: Trust: I can trust in the bigger picture.
U: Underwear, yes, always.
V: Verse, today probably Proverbs 3: 5-6
W:Wedding: a 72 degree day in December 1996
X: eXample. Grateful for so many beautiful people who serve as examples to me.
Y: Yearning for a time my family was together; yearning for a time we will be again.
Z: ZZZZzzzz Sleeping is my favorite!

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Anna's Interview with J. Todd Billings, Author of Rejoicing in Lament

When I lost Jack, I brought to my mourning my identity as a Christian, a mother, a writer, a wife, and a motherless daughter. J. Todd Billings is a Christian theologian, and when he was diagnosed with incurable cancer at age 39, he grappled with his diagnosis and his future through the lens of father, husband, theologian, professor, and Christ-follower. After reading his rich book, Rejoicing in Lament:Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ, in which he shares how the Psalms became a refuge for him, I asked if I could interview Todd for readers of An Inch of Gray. I hope you will enjoy meeting him:

Anna: Tell us about when you were diagnosed, and what that diagnosis means for your life?

Todd: I hate waiting in doctor’s offices with nothing to do, so I had brought a rough draft of a document for work. I crossed out a phrase, circled another, and corrected a misspelling. I was in editing flow. When my doctor walked in, he greeted me as usual, but I was still curious about why he had called me in. Every respiratory infection within miles had been latching on to me, so he had run a number of tests. Would there be a new antibiotic regimen?

Instead: Multiple Myeloma, an incurable cancer. It had already eroded the inside of my bones in my skull, arm, and hip. When the receptionist called with a referral after the appointment she whispered the diagnosis into the phone – apparently frightened to speak the words. I later found out that I was stage three out of three according to one of the main ”staging” systems for Multiple Myeloma. At the age of 39, I was three decades younger than the average diagnosis age for the disease. 

I received this diagnosis in 2012, and since then I have been poked and prodded with toxins, steroids, chemo, and a stem cell transplant. But the hardest part of the diagnosis has been what this means for my life as a spouse and a parent of young children. My wife Rachel and I had just celebrated our tenth anniversary. We have two children, and their ages were one and three. They are incredible gifts from God: we had tried to have kids earlier in our marriage, but were unable. Yet, God blessed us with a daughter, adopted from Ethiopia. Then, months later, Rachel was able to get pregnant. Why would God take away the father of my children during their childhood? When I discovered that the median lifespan for my diagnosis was around 4-7 years, I immediately thought: that only brings my daughter to 7 to 10 years. What does it mean to raise my three-year-old with the expectation that I would only have a few years with her? My grief and fear led me to prayer.

On the one hand, God doesn't owe me a long life. I'm incredibly grateful for the many gifts and blessings that he has given -- it's more than enough for one life. Yet, the questions still sting: why would God allow my kids to lose their dad? In Rejoicing in Lament, I explore how I turned to the Psalms which bring grief, confusion, and protest before the Lord in the context of trust. For the sake of my family, I joined the Psalmist in complaint: “He has broken my strength in midcourse; he has shortened my days. ‘O my God,’ I say, ‘do not take me away at the midpoint of my life, you whose years endure throughout all generations.’” (Ps. 102:23-24) 

Anna: How did you come to rediscover the Psalms of lament? Why is your book called “Rejoicing in Lament”? 

Todd: For as long as I can remember, I have read the Psalms each evening before going to bed. But in all honesty, I often skipped over some of them. “Will the Lord reject forever? Will he never show his favor again?” Ouch, I’m in a good mood, I don’t want to pray this Psalm! These are hard questions emerging from pain, anger, and protest. Are we really supposed to pray to God with words like these? 

Yet, after my diagnosis my turmoil was deeper than I could be aware of at any moment. The Psalms – including the Psalms of lament – became a refuge. Eventually, I came to see how even the most raw questions of the Psalms are signs of trust. “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” When it feels like the pain will never end, we cry out – “how long, O Lord?” When we feel abandoned and forgotten, we ask “will you  forget me forever?” When we fear that God is withholding his goodness, we ask “how long will you hide your face from me?” I’ve asked others to pray these Psalms with me. For although God has not promised to fix my cancer, he has promised to be with us in the midst of suffering, to hold us in his hand. And in Jesus, even death does not have the final word.

My book is called Rejoicing in Lament with a double-sense: taking joy in rediscovering the healing balm of biblical lament, and also rejoicing in the midst of lament. I’ve not only shed tears of grief, but tears of joy in my cancer journey. Ultimately, this is a book that shows how lament can go hand in hand with gratitude and hope. 

Anna: You wrote that God’s story is bigger than your cancer story. What has this meant for you?

Todd: That idea came to me from a card that I received from a fifteen-year old girl in my congregation with Down syndrome. It was a few weeks after the diagnosis, and I had already received numerous cards. But this one was different. She colored a card for me and wrote:
“Get well soon! Jesus loves you! God is bigger than cancer!” 
As I read this, tears streamed down my face. She did not say, “God will cure you of this cancer,” or “God will make this mess disappear.” No, God is bigger than cancer. The fog is thick, but God is bigger. 

That theme became the heart of Rejoicing in Lament: I tell my cancer story as an entryway to rediscovering the much larger, more compelling story of God in Christ. I believe that God’s story does not annihilate our own stories, like our cancer stories. But it transforms them as we are incorporated into God’s larger story. While the book expresses many unanswered questions and raw cries, ultimately it is a testimony to the astonishing grace of God that meets us even in the darkness.

Thank you, Todd, for sharing these words with us today!

J. Todd Billings teaches theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, MI and is author of three award-winning books. His most recent book is Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ (Brazos, 2015). You can follow him on Twitter (@jtoddbillings) or find more of his writing on www.jtoddbillings.com.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

New Pergola!

I really miss our screened porch. For some time, I've been hoping to make part of our deck seem more room-like.

Last week I did a little shopping and asked on the An Inch of Gray Facebook page which of these we should keep, and which we should return:

1) 11 ft solar telescoping umbrella from Bed Bath and Beyond


2) 9.5 x 9.5 Metal Pergola from Home Depot.

Well, 100% of the respondents picked the PERGOLA and Tim and two friends assembled it on Saturday. They secured it to the deck with bolts.

I am in love!

Definitely the right choice, even with one caveat.

Here's the thing:

It looks terrific, but it doesn't provide any rain protection for our furniture. I don't like heading to the deck in the morning with the doggies and my tea and getting a wet rear end from rain and dew. The kind of tent/canopy I was looking for originally would have provided rain protection, but none would fit on the side of the deck.

Here are two examples of what I originally wanted, but were just too big for the only rectangular space on our deck.

So, with our deck size/shape, it was either pergola (and only sun protection) or umbrella (rain and sun protection, but the potential for it to blow away).

Go, Team Pergola!

It makes such a cozy space, and we have eaten dinner there the past few nights. It's going to be a great place to sit with a cold beer. Truthfully,  on the hottest Virginia days, it will be too hot, and on rainy days it's a no go as well. But that doesn't mean I'm not smiling every time I walk by and look at it!


Shade cover pulled back:

 Bigger view of deck:

I'd love to add a rug, but Tim is against having a wet rug sit on a wet deck. As you can see, we need to re-stain the deck. Thoughts?


If you like the look of a pergola and have an even smaller deck area, this (8 x 8 one) might work for you:

Monday, June 15, 2015

When is the Best Time to Give the Gift of a Grief Book?

A dear friend contacted me this morning for some book recommendations for a mom who recently lost her son in a car accident. She was interested in what books were most helpful to me in the throes of early grief.

I gave her some suggestions that I have shared before, like the incomparable A Grace Disguised by Jerry Sittser:

However, I think better advice would have been not to worry too much about the BEST time to give a friend a book about grief. If you feel moved to share a book, go ahead and do it. That said, I would encourage us all to do it without any expectations. For instance, it was really important that people were here to love and support me but never to try to "fix me."

I was grateful that books were there when and if I was ready to dip into them. No friend ever said, "This is THE book you need to read,"and I appreciated that. A helpful approach might be, "I thought of you when I read this book," or "I'd like to give you this book in case you ever want to read it." There are so many fabulous books out there, and people will have very personal responses to them. My husband and I have turned to very different books in our grief; while I want to read memoirs and all I can about heaven, he is more interested in Bible studies and fiction.

Speaking of books, I read one in its entirety last night and it spoke to my heart simply, deeply, and eloquently. It is by Tom Zuba, an author/speaker/life coach I was privileged to meet at a local bookstore this week. His book is spare and appears simple, with the look of poetry on the page. Tom lost his 18 month old daughter. Years later, his 43 year old wife died. Finally, his 13 year old son died from brain cancer. I definitely wanted to hear what Tom had to say about grief!

This book is the one he wished he had read when he experienced his first loss, but instead he had to live it first, and then write it. I don't know if I would have been ready to read this immediately after Jack's death, because it really does offer a perspective quite different than the one I was living at the time. Had someone given it to me then, I might have left it on my bedside table for many months before I'd be able to consider reading the simple words of a man who had suffered such great loss yet was thriving and joyful!

But had a friend had given it to me, I most certainly would have benefited from it at some point, as I did last night, staying up late, soaking in every word, nodding along. Tom writes about how we need to give ourselves permission to mourn and really feel our feelings. He writes how we can indeed, find joy again, and he stresses that our relationships with those who have died are still very real indeed.

For other grief book recommendations, here's an article I wrote for The Daily Beast and an excellent list from What's Your Grief.

Books can be a balm to a grieving heart. When you share one, you often share hope and possibility to someone in the pit. And as I tell those who read Rare Bird: hold onto it loosely and pay attention-- because before you know it, there will be the opportunity to share it with someone else!

Friday, June 12, 2015

In the Trenches in the Dog Days of Summer

When the kids were little, it seemed as if all hell would break lose when Tim would leave town, but when I was away, Tim would say things like, "We made a quick trip downtown so I could show the kids what a real Picasso looks like. There was a parking space right in front, and the stroller made everything so easy!" Then he would leave town again, and I'd be like, "Well, we all have diarrhea. And croup. Bright spot? We had a productive discussion as to whether diarrhea should be called #1 1/2 or #3."

The best/worst example of this phenomenon was when he got an extended assignment for his firm in Paris.  I was pregnant, with a sick toddler and a my own case of walking pneumonia. Oh, and my rib was cracked from coughing.

I'm sure Tim dreaded calling home.

But for some reason that didn't stop him from telling me about the great wine selection and how at one restaurant the staff rolled a cart to the table upon which sat, "The biggest cheese wheel I've ever seen!" I didn't even know what that meant, but in my diminished and desperate state, upon hearing that my husband was enjoying wine, freedom, the City of Light, and an enormous quantity of CHEESE, I was fraught with jealousy.

I share this because on Saturday, while I was away at a fantastic blog conference, almost 14 years after the cheese wheel incident, I think we are more than even.

I received this email from Tim while I was sitting in the warm sunshine, connecting with old friends and new:

BTW, I came home after dropping Margaret off and Shadow had got into
the trash and eaten several boxes of raisins.  I made her throw up with
hydrogen peroxide (there were raisins in the vomit).  But within seconds
Charlie was chowing down on the peroxide-laced vomit.  So I put him inside
while Shadow barfed outside, only to find when I returned to the kitchen
that Charlie had barfed and was promptly snacking on the twice recycled
vomit (is that like double baked potatoes?).  Definitely could have used an
extra set of hands!

Things have since calmed down.

Hope you're having fun.  Look forward to having you home tomorrow.

Of course my first concern was for the puppies, because raisins can be lethal for dogs. Little Charlie only weighs 7 lbs, so the prospect of his ingesting even a single raisin was terrifying. Fortunately they are both fine!

Once we were able to determine that they would be okay, I was able to laugh at Tim's email.

I mean, I think the phrase "peroxide-laced vomit" earns him his stripes when it comes to being in the trenches solo, for sure. His story has several moving parts including peril and bodily fluids, so let's just give him props right here.

I was glad he was on duty, that the situation turned out well, AND that I was over an hour away from home.

p.s. The two happy pups are cuddled at my feet right now.

p.p.s. What do you think about the diarrhea question?