Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Paperback News!

Guess what? Rare Bird is coming out in paperback on Sept 8!

That day is the four year crapiversary of Jack's death. No, the publisher didn't know or plan it that way, but these "coincidences" have ceased to surprise me.

I am honored to have both a hardcover and paperback of the book, and I hope this new release will get my account of raw, early grief in the hands of many more people who could get something out of it.

An exciting development is that there will be a brand new cover! Turns out sometimes a new cover translates better into paperback.

Here is the original hardcover. I loved the book jacket's orange accents and the image of 2 kids who looked exactly like mine. If you want the amazing story behind where we found the image for the hardcover, look here.

Here's the paperback:

I love it! I think it will look terrific on a glossy paperback. The only thing I think is missing is that cool subtle feather graphic that's under the title of the original.

The year since Rare Bird came out has been one of quiet growth for me. I spoke to book clubs, church groups, and met with people one on one to talk about the book and about life. The largest group was nearly 400 as I stood at the pulpit of my home church 3 years to the day from when I spoke there at Jack's funeral. I could feel the love and support in that room, and I'm grateful to each person who came.

Other get togethers took place in libraries, other church sanctuaries, and office buildings. I was honored to sit and listen at the kitchen table of a couple who had lost their beautiful daughter to suicide just a few months before and who both read Rare Bird when it was first released. One of my favorite book discussions took place inside a packed hair salon with multi generations of women sharing laughter and stories late into the night. Another was when my presence at a book club was bid upon at a charity auction.

The paperback edition has the same content as the hardcover, but it will also have a discussion guide in it that is ideal for book groups or for individual thought and journaling.

I don't know how it happened, but somehow Rare Bird turned out to be about more than just grief, and the year since it was released turned out to be about a lot more than launching a little blue book into the world. To me, it was a year of human connection and my spreading my wings. It helped me remember how much I love speaking to groups even if my voice wavers sometimes and my eyes get moist. It reminded me that there are many, many kinds of loss and that we all have a story to tell.

Thank YOU for being such an important part of my story and for all of your support this past year! For reading the book, for showing up at events, for following the blog, for encouraging me on Facebook (my second home) and for putting the book in the mail to friends and even strangers with the hope that it somehow could make someone else feel less alone.

P.S. The paperback is available for pre-order NOW from all retailers and is an amazing 51% off at Amazon today. That's only $7.42 with free Prime shipping!  I wanted to let you know about that deal as soon as I found out.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Virginia Vacation

We just got back from vacation at our friends' pond house. They have graciously offered it to my extended family for the past few years since we can't quite bring ourselves to go to the Outer Banks of NC without Jack. I also used their home as a writer's retreat when I started Rare Bird. Remember when I broke Tim's car on the way to their house and had to pee in a cup?

My brother and his family couldn't make it, so there were only 5 of us this year. Margaret and I decided to liven things up with theme nights at dinnertime!

Our themes were:
Movie Night
Glow Stick Night
Game Night

For movie night, we watched Spiderman while eating theater-sized boxes of candy Whoppers, Milk Duds, Skittles, and Starburst.

Glow night meant filling water bottles with glowsticks to make bowling pins, and setting up a mini bowling alley in the dark. The funniest part was when I accidentally pegged Tim in the nuts. Seems no vacation is complete without a little crotch humor or flatulence. Fortunately, we had both.

For fiesta night we used props for a mini photo booth, and did salsa roulette. Tim whipped up different salsas (hot, mild, peach, barbecue sauce, and grape jelly. We spun the salsa wheel to see who could guess the flavors.

We also shook our maracas every time someone said the word hot.

For the luau, we wore leis, and ate seafood and pineapple out on the deck.

For game night, we dusted off Pictionary, one of my all-time favorites.

While out fishing with Margaret, my niece, and Shadow, Tim got stung by a wasp. Although his hand swelled up like crazy, we were glad he was the victim, not one of the girls, because we never would have heard the end of it. Every time they saw a HOUSE FLY after Tim got stung, they freaked the freak out.

(That is one huge hand, Tim!)

One of the craziest parts of the week was when Shadow, seeing Tim paddle away in a kayak without her, went soaring off the dock after him to avoid eternal separation. Fortunately, we were able to lift her into the kayak and she had a great ride. If you have a labrador who just loves, loves, loves her special person, you will have no trouble picturing this scenario.

(A very wet Shadow, hitching a ride with her Alpha dog)

So, we had theme nights, watched a lot of TV, played 4-square, paddle boarded, kayaked, did a puzzle, saw bald eagles, and fished. Oh, and Tim and my sister went running while I slept in.

Boy, I love vacation!

(She was a pro!)

(When I tried to paddle board in a dress, got attacked by horse flies, ran into a branch in the water and fell in)

Monday, July 27, 2015

One Part of a Whole

When I wrote Rare Bird,  I had a lot of choice in what to include. It seemed overwhelming. I listened quietly and carefully to my heart, and many must-haves bubbled up: raw pain, Bible verses, miracles, Jack's OCD,  humor amidst the heartbreak, and even some curse words.

I was surprised I felt compelled to share about OCD, because although my readers knew Jack well, I had never been specific here on the blog about what his struggles were. I was reluctant to have just one part define him to others, because it certainly didn't define him to us. Jack was a kid with OCD, but he wasn't OCD.

Similarly, I am not my grief.


Grief is neither my identity, nor my essence. Certainly, it has given me a story to share, in openness and humility, in the hope that it will resonate with others and somehow foster healing for me and for someone else. But I am not grief, any more than someone else is childhood sexual abuse, anorexia, addiction, or cancer. I am Anna-- loyal, kindhearted, reliable, often lazy, searching, old before her years-- Anna. That's who I was, and who I am.

Of course losing a child has changed me in numerous ways. It has made me more aware of how fleeting life is. It has disabused me of my insular, privileged notion that life is "fair," and it has made room in my heart for more mystery and greater compassion. Grief has softened my heart to a hurting world, while at the same time making me less tolerant of petty concerns and less invested in surface relationships.

To CHANGE after such a loss honors the experience, acknowledges the magnitude of the earth-shift of my child going from here to "there" and says, "this is not something to be sloughed off, tamped down, or ignored. I will mine it for truth, growth, and somehow, for hope."

But grief is not who I am. I can promise you that.

Our experiences and our struggles inform us and shape us, but they did not create us. They did not give us a soul as unique as our fingerprint and as necessary to this world as a clear spring in a parched desert.

Jack was a child with OCD, but he wasn't his OCD.
The creek happened, but Jack is much, much more than a boy in a creek
I am a griever, but I am not my grief.

 What is one part of your story that will never be the whole story of YOU?

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Coupons, Groupons, Holiday Inn on The Mid

Do you love getting coupons, Kohl's Cash, and discount cards, or does it make you quake with fear?

I'm writing over at The Mid today, baring my soul about what a failure I am at staying on top of all such things. What about you? Are you able to keep your shizzle together when it comes to discounts and sales?

Here's the article!

Thursday, July 16, 2015

You Are Not Alone

Once again, I am excited to have Noelle from NBrynn writing for us today - you'll love her stories and her 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. 


We walked off the plane after over 24 hours of travel, into a crowd of welcoming, if not cautious, arms - a moment I had played out in my imagination dozens of times before. Only in my earlier versions, this moment was defined by sheer joy, dominated by victorious applause, doused with huge smiles and laughter and first meetings. In that version, we walked out even more sleep-deprived, yet even more exuberant, as our first son sat perched on my hip, ready for his grand debut. 

Instead, we walked off the plane with only our carry-ons in hand, and with a mountain of grief inside our hearts that we had not yet had the courage nor the understanding to begin to deal with.

I think few of us get through our twenties and thirties without encountering tragic loss of one form or another. Within my own little circle, parents have died of cancer, brothers have taken their lives, babies have been born blue, friends have fallen or crashed or wandered to their deaths, adoptions have fallen through, marriages have crumbled - all within the past decade. And I know every little circle, in every little corner of the world, is unfortunately familiar with similar tragedies and losses.

After losing a dear friend two summers ago, I found some degree of comfort in educating myself with every piece of literature I could get my hands on regarding grief and the process of recovery after tragic loss. I read book after book after bookand flitted from one blog to the next, not in search of answers, but in great need of camaraderie and guidance. I didn't want concrete steps to follow, but I did need to know what sorts of things I could expect on this road of grief and what things had helped others along the way. More than anything, I wanted a hand to hold as I walked, to know that I was not alone.

I love what Glennon Doyle Melton says about grief in her memoir, Carry On Warrior, "Grief and pain are like joy and peace; they are not things we should try to snatch from each other. They’re sacred. They are part of each person’s journey. All we can do is offer relief from this fear: I am all alone."

Perhaps the saddest part of our tragedies - more wounding and breaking to the human spirit than even the loss itself - is the way we treat one another in the wake of these experiences. How many times has someone in their grief been greeted with overly optimistic smiles and assurances and appeasements of why things happened the way they did? Well-meaning and kind-hearted people rush to provide answers, to wrap the messes of our lives with neat bows like, "At least he's happy in heaven now." or "God always has a plan." or "She's an angel now. The best one up there." Answers and justifications given before the griever has hardly even had time to ask the questions or raise the concerns for themselves.

And how many times has someone in their grief suddenly realized that nobody in the room is willing to make eye contact with them? Instead of bright smiles, they receive awkward glances and downcast eyes; instead of confident answers, they experience complete avoidance. Perhaps meals are dropped off for a week or condolence cards trickle in for a month, but all too often when the going gets really hard - when the reality of a lifetime without the loved one starts to sink in or the questions finally start taking form - the griever finds herself alone, left to feel as though she now and forevermore wears a Scarlet Letter, that her pain is too big or her healing is taking too long.

Anna speaks to this in her beautiful book, Rare Bird, when she writes, "It dawns on my that I’ve never walked beside someone in deep pain. I’ve been more of a drive-by friend, the kind who reaches out once or twice and hopes the situation will be resolved quickly. I care. I cry. I pray. But I don’t stick around long. I’m the type of friend you would want around for a broken ankle but not for chronic depression."

I understand Anna's words far too well - both as the giver of such shallow comfort and as the receiver. Grief is messy and scary and quite unpredictable - just the opposite of the neat, controlled lives most of us strive toward. We get lost in that unpredictability and rather than sitting in silence and patience with ourselves or others, we rush ahead with answers and will for life to go on as we once knew it. We hurry the griever into clean black and whites - answers that may in fact satisfy our own souls - without allowing them space to wrestle and cry and wander and just not know, perhaps ever. 

Anne Lamott offers this insight on grief in her book, Stitches"I’d given talks for years about how when it comes to grieving, the culture lies - you really do not get over the biggest losses, you don’t pass through grief in any organized way, and it takes years and infinitely more tears than people want to allot you. Yet the gift of grief is incalculable, in giving you back to yourself." 

I have fumbled on my words and overcompensated the discomfort of a situation with chatter and cheek-numbing smiles. I have wrestled through the muck of my own grief, not knowing how to ask for help or what help it was that I even needed. I have been quick to anger, quick to judge, quick to tears. 

Through it all, I have learned that there are guideposts gleaned from others' experiences to help mark our way and myths about grief and loss that we need to uncover. I have learned that there are stories that we need to hear and stories that we need to tellThat there is courage to be mustered for that painful but necessary task of staring our loss straight in the face. That there are questions that need to be asked and space - within a loving arms' reach - that needs to be given. 

I have learned that we still need to laugh. We still need to cry. And always, we need to know we are not alone. 

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

When the Inside Oozes Out

Last night I cried for the first time in a long time.

I didn't cry at my sweet Grandpa's funeral last week. Or during some painful relationship stuff the week before. When, during our camping trip Friday night, torrential rain flooded our tent, Margaret felt sick, and she and I had to sleep sitting up in the front seat of the car. Or when all the moms/daughters I know were at the Taylor Swift concert, which would have been the perfect 14th birthday present for my girl, if only I'd had my act together and $300 bucks sitting around.

I cried in Chipotle.

I went to grab some carryout because Chipotle was donating 50% of its proceeds to an organization that gives extra support to families whose kids have cancer. I hoped to run into a few friends who also support this organization. What I wasn't ready for was to reach the restaurant at the same time as a big crew of 16-18  year old boys. How did I know their ages? Well, I am a student of teenage boys, their mannerisms, their size.  I search their faces for signs of my kid in them, in their joking and jostling, their acne, their abs.

I saw my friend Dawn and asked about her son, one of Jack's buddies. He has started driving. He just got back from motorcycle camp. I wondered what Jack would be doing this summer before junior year.

Teenage boys all around me.

Dawn's son spreading his wings.

The moms and dads whose kids have cancer.

It became too much. I was trapped in line. Hemmed in close behind by another boy I knew from church, the son of another friend, I started my routine to try to stop the tears. Biting the inside of my lips. Digging fingernails into my palms. Looking away from Dawn's kind eyes when she asked if I wanted her to stay with me as I made my way through the line.

No, I shook my head, unable to speak. I wanted to regain control. Not that I think crying is bad. It's cleansing, healing, and natural. But last night I just wanted my damn burrito bowl. I didn't want to be different. I didn't want to show my inward pain on the outside. Others in the restaurant surely didn't want to be different either. The adolescent girl with her hair gone to chemo. The kind dad in front of me who noticed my crying, told me his daughter is a cancer survivor, and asked if I needed to talk. "It's okay if you don't want to talk, but I'm here if you do." I am guessing had his life not fallen apart one day in some pediatrician's office, he wouldn't have taken the time to notice a middle-aged woman sniffling behind him.

But he did notice.

His perspective, like mine, changed and can't be changed back. Same with Dawn, whose red-headed boy, Cortland, lost his friend in the creek. Christine, across the restaurant, who didn't feel snubbed when I finally got my food and darted for the side door without saying hi. Her new path started when her baby's bloated stomach turned out to be neuroblastoma. Even the laughing, joking teenage boys around me were surely acquainted with difference and pain.

Who isn't?

When I made it to the car, I let it all out. Heaving sobs, hands gripping the steering wheel for some semblance of rootedness.

I cried all the way home.

Sunday, July 12, 2015


I was honored to be asked to say a few words at my grandfather's funeral on Thursday. He lived to be 99 years old and left quite a legacy. I thought you might be interested in reading the words I spoke. I am grateful to have had him in my life for so long.

Charles J. Whiston:

When I was 12 years old and in 7th grade, I had to give a speech about a famous person. The person I chose was my Grandpa, Charles J. Whiston. 

You see, even if we had not been related, I would have been taken with his humble beginnings, as a teenager toiling in the coal mines to help support his family, a young husband and father living and working in a coal camp, and the way he established himself as a police officer, then as sheriff, mayor, county commissioner, insurance agent, and even a congressional candidate. In his life he received many well-deserved accolades.

When we went out together, people recognized Grandpa and would shout out, “Hey, Charlie!” “Sheriff!”  and, “Hey, Mr. Whiston!” whether we were walking down High Street, popping into his office at the police department, at a WVU basketball game. or shaking hands at a local fair. 

From his stories and pictures, I knew he had encounters with well-known people such as presidents.To me, that made him famous, but it was his interactions with everyday people that had the biggest impact on me. Grandpa’s dazzling smile, twinkling blue eyes, and warm heart were for everyone.

Grandpa loved to tell stories, and we loved to hear them, whether it was about  busting up moonshine stills deep in the woods, or taking the local baseball team he coached to States. He held court in his chair, and Grandma would bustle around making sure he was comfortable, interjecting every once in a while, “Hey, Charlie, tell them the one about…” For as his bride of more than 77 years, they had not just grown old together but grown up together. His stories were her stories too.

Some of my favorite memories of Grandpa include going out to local restaurants like Ruby and Ketchy’s, admiring the beauty of Cooper’s Rock, and those days when he would tell John, Liz and me that we could sort the money in his massive spare change jar on the living room rug. We knew as we took an afternoon to spread out piles of nickels, dimes, pennies, quarters and the rare half dollar as the grown ups talked and laughed, we would go home with baggies full of treasure.

My sister Liz loved sharing music and faith with Grandpa, sitting together singing hymns as old as the hills. As Grandpa’s body aged, his light and faith did not dim, and that was ever so evident as the two of them would sing together.

My brother John had the pleasure of spending a lot of time with Grandpa and Grandma starting in college and all of these years since. He would go to their house for laundry and a nap on the couch, and he accompanied them to many, many WVU games. John tells the story of going to one game WITHOUT Grandpa and Grandpa and hoping they didn’t notice that the person being lifted over the heads of the spirited fans, body surfing through the crowd in the student section, was none other than their beloved grandson.

I am exceedingly and eternally grateful to have had a hands-on, loving grandpa who taught me much more than fame could ever do. He taught me by example the importance of knowing people’s names and stories, looking them in the eyes, and being generous with my smile. Because as much as I wanted to have a “famous” Grandfather whom I could brag about, I was much happier and more grateful to have a Grandpa with a twinkle in his baby blues, a lap for sitting on, a hearty laugh and a ready hug. When I think of words to describe Grandpa they are: gentle, generous, and genuine. 

YOU have your own special memories about Charlie Whiston, Grandpa, “Uncle,” or “Pop,” and how he impacted you during a long life centered around: FAITH, FAMILY, AND FRIENDS. 

His quiet FAITH grew in this church as he taught Sunday school decade after decade.

His FAMILY was his number one priority. He made frequent visits to our home, so my parents would never be too far from their WV roots. He loved the phone calls he shared each week with my dad when ringing up a big long distance bill was still a thing. He spent time each day enjoying the company of his son Charley Junior before his untimely death in 1997. And he loved his siblings mightily. I remember how he would get a tear in his eye just talking about the impact his sweet sister Eleanor had on him.

His FRIENDS were important to him from his first day to his last: intimate friends such as Coach Catlett whom you will hear from today, as well as the many people he encountered around Westover and Morgantown. Thank you for being his friend.

When we look at a life well lived, of almost 100 years, we see that, yes, some things do pass away: status, possessions, strength, and even this fragile tent we call the BODY. 

But oh, what remains! From Grandpa it is a legacy of love evidenced throughout this church today, especially among his many children and great grandchildren. It is his lifelong commitment to serving others, and his complete love of GOD. 

I think about one of the songs Grandpa and my sister Liz sung so beautifully together one of the last times we visited him. Of course Grandpa remembered all of the words because they had taken root in his heart many years ago.

1 I come to the garden alone,
2 While the dew is still on the roses,
3 And the voice I hear falling on my ear
4 The Son of God discloses.
And He walks with me, and He talks with me,
And He tells me I am His own;
And the joy we share as we tarry there,
None other has ever known.

In this life we are each able to spend time with a God who loves us and calls us His own. A God who gives us joy even when life is hard sometimes. And you don’t get to be 99 years old without experiencing hardship. We can’t stay in the garden with God at all times and the world tries to distract and keep us from going back because of work, worry, busy-ness, and petty concerns.

But TODAY, Charlie Whiston, Grandpa, gets to stay in the garden with Jesus. He was more than ready for this next stage of his eternal life. And the beauty is, now he’s not meeting with God ALONE, because he gets to be joined by his parents, siblings, many friends, his son Charley, his great grandson, and his wife.

And what a beautiful scene that must be!

Thank you.