Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Book Release Party

George Atkisson's book release party was a huge hit!

Friends, neighbors, and family members gathered to celebrate his enormous accomplishment of publishing The Chalice and the Stirrup Cup at age 94. He had a wonderful time telling us some of the backstory on the novel and signing copies.

It has been so fun to share this story with you. If you haven't checked out George's book yet-- available on Kindle, softcover, or hardcover-- please do.

He is enjoying all of the feedback.

Monday, April 2, 2018

The Man Next Door, Part 3

George and I talked about his goals of finding an agent, shopping the manuscript to New York publishers, and how long that might take. I wasn't trying to be snarky about his age, which is one of the neatest things about this story, but I also didn't want to discount it. After losing my mom when she was 46 and my son at 12, I've come to realize that tomorrow is never promised.

I asked him if he wanted to invest years and possibly not ever get published, or whether he would consider self-publishing in order to make make his dream come true. I could tell he'd need to wrap his brain around the idea, so I let him know that I am self-publishing my upcoming children's book, and that it could be a faster way to get his book in the hands of readers.

Savvy as ever, George asked whether, if after self-publishing, he could still have his book traditionally published if someone showed interest in it. Yep. I explained that freeing it from the cardboard box in his bedroom could be a good first step in that direction. 

I reached out to a local friend who had already done research about self-publishing  and asked if she would be willing to edit George's book and shepherd him through the process. I knew she was not only a fantastic editor but a great conversationalist who would be awesome company for him as they worked through the process. The value of human contact is no small thing. I had no idea if they would develop a friendship, but I sure hoped they would.

I told him I felt bad I didn't have the time to be the one to get his book to print, but he made me feel better by saying, "Well, you are going to write about it on your blog, right?"

Do you love him, or what?

So here I am, spreading the news of the man next door, an amazing debut author, who at the young age of 94 (95 in June!) never gave up on his dream. Through work, family life and retirement. Through losing his beloved wife of 69 years. Through being housebound. George Atkisson did not let any of that stop him, and I know my life is richer for having witnessed this.

George holding his book for the first time

George and his editor, Michelle Layer Rahal

When we handed him his book for the first-time, he was speechless. It was a moment more than 40 years in the making.

For years I avoided getting to know my neighbor. How grateful I am to have not missed the chance to make a new friend and immerse myself in George's characters and the world he created.

Next week we are having a small book launch party at George's house for The Chalice and the Stirrup Cup, and now I'd like to introduce it to you!

The Chalice and the Stirrup Cup is a wonderful coming of age novel that begins shortly after World War I. This book has romance, history, theology, and characters you will root for. Here's a quick description:

"Only three things matter to Billie: her horse, her writings, and JD. But JD, the strong and introspective farm boy growing up in the shadow of his alcoholic father, has yet to determine what he wants out of life, and no one seems to expect much out of him, especially Billie's wealthy parents. It appears that JD is set to run with the hounds until an unexpected benefactor steps up to redirect his route. Though bound together by their love for each other, poetry, and the great outdoors, it is their opposing views on God that ultimately influence the choices JD and Billie will make. For Billie, trying to understand God is like describing a rose to a blind person. If she can succeed in this task, perhaps she would believe. Set in rural Virginia in the aftermaths of World Wars I and II, The Chalice and the Stirrup Cup chronicles the escapades of two unlikely friends as they grow and mature in this coming-of-age story. Their friendship sustains them through the darkest times, but it is their search for God that ultimately impacts how they live and love."

Please celebrate George Atkisson's enormous accomplishment from wherever you live.

Purchase his book (available in hardcover, softcover, and kindle) and/or leave an encouraging comment for him.

Please contact me if you have a local book club that would like to read George's book and connect with him.

And if you are a publisher looking for a new author, I have a special one in mind!

(affiliate links included)

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

The Man Next Door, Part 2

Read Part One Here

Tim looked at me like I was crazy when I carted the box of binders inside. He knew how frustrated I was at my lack of time to write, and he was afraid I'd spend too much time wading through someone else's work to do my own. I also think he worried that I'd be too nice if I didn't like the book, even though George had insisted he wanted me to be straight with him. I was worried about that, too.

Sometimes it was a slog going through the double-spaced pages. This was no short memoir, like I had written. It was an epic novel spanning decades, exploring class, family dynamics, American History, and theology. Some of the chapters plopped me right into the scene, leaving me wondering which thread of the story I was reading about. George told me he sometimes liked to keep his readers guessing, but I didn't want to have to guess. Tenses occasionally shifted, making me lose my place.

But each night, when I turned out my light, I thought about JD, the young boy in the novel. I pictured him growing and maturing among the agricultural fields and streams where my suburban town now stands. I wondered if he'd go off to college. If he'd get the girl. If he'd find faith.

It dawned on me.

JD and the other characters had become real to me. And once again, I was awed by how anyone ever writes fiction. How I could hear JD's voice in my head as clearly as someone I knew in real life. How I could practically smell the reek of liquor as his alcoholic father stumbled in and out of his life. How the funny and poignant anecdotes of the townspeople placed me in a community as believable as the one I live in right now.

In my pre-sleep thoughts, it was as if I were watching a movie.

I was no expert on publishing, and certainly not on fiction, but I knew without a doubt I could tell my 94 year old neighbor that I loved his book and wanted to help.

More to come...

Read Part Three Here

The Man Next Door, Part One

I have the neatest story to tell you.

Shortly after we moved into our neighborhood, I learned there was a really interesting man next door. He'd lived in our town for his 90+ years and was filled with good stories about local history.

You would think I hurried over to introduce myself. Nope. I told myself if I bumped into him, we'd chat, but I wasn't going to extend myself. I'd come out of my last neighborhood feeling bruised, broken, and vulnerable. I was running away from something instead of toward something, and if my new neighbors didn't reach out to me, I pretty much kept to myself. Tim prodded me to meet him, saying, "I really think you would hit it off." But I resisted.

Finally, late last year a knock came at the door. A young woman introduced herself as my elderly neighbor's caregiver, and handed me a slip of paper with a phone number on it.

I'd been summoned next door.

I arranged a babysitter and headed out. I walked upstairs to the bedroom where George spent his days, unable to walk as a result of a bout with polio when he was a young husband and father. Now I knew why I'd never bumped into him in the yard.

Within seconds, my fears vanished, and I was enthralled by what my charming neighbor had to say. We hit it off instantly, taking about history, politics, and faith. And even though I was paying a sitter by the hour, I didn't want to go home. I realized how much time I'd missed out on getting to know a kindred spirit.

As things wound down, George told me why he'd invited me over. I'd been summoned because George's daughter and granddaughter had read Rare Bird. George had also written a book. He'd started writing a novel way back in the 70's and wanted my professional advice. Could we talk agents, publishers, and publicity?

A few hours later, I walked back across the lawn carrying a cardboard box with three black binders in it-- George's manuscript--that had been around almost as long as I had.

I was excited but apprehensive.

I loved meeting my new friend, and was looking forward to reading his work, but what if it wasn't any good?

Read Part Two Here

Read Part Three Here

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Morbid Humor

I spent time with a grieving friend recently. Some of our conversation involved morbid, irreverent humor, and a generous helping of curse words. We bounced from topic to topic, and ridiculous cemetery stories were mixed in with talk about youth sports and silent, wide-eyed stares that said, "Is this really happening?" "WTH?"

It reminded me that humor, cursing, and wide-eyed disbelief all have a place in grief. Morbid laughter is not the same as the gentle laughter and even belly laughs that come during a memorial service as sweet and hilarious stories of a loved one are shared.

Morbid humor has an edge, and it might make people uncomfortable.

It's laughing at the sheer absurdity of it all. How life was one way yesterday, and oh so different today. When you'd just stocked up on a bunch of snacks that now will never be eaten, on Irish Spring soap that no one else wants. For how could stupid soap or Cheez-its "outlive" a beloved person?

See? Ridiculous.

I remember joking that I had a little cloud of doom that went with me wherever I went. Now if you'd just met me, with smile lines around my eyes and a talkative nature, you wouldn't jump to that conclusion. Doom? She's just a regular person. But what if you found out I was the girl whose mom died? What if, years later, I was known to you only as the mom of the boy in the creek?

Not exactly laugh-inducing.

But by describing myself as such, with my own little cloud of doom, I could laugh at the absurdity of  the most boring, predictable person in the universe living a life marked by something as dramatic as death. By making jokes, I could feel like I had some control of the narrative, even though deep down I'd come to realize I had none at all.

Morbid humor shows up as families do the unthinkable-- pick out clothes for funerals, write obituaries, or try to remember important details when their brains are misfiring and the sky looks too, too blue. It's easier to make fun of the way a hapless funeral director or grief therapist said something than to fully grasp why you were in the funeral home or in the therapist's office in the first place. It's easier and a lot more fun to play the "My Friend Compared my Loss to a ________ Game" than to agonize over whether anyone will ever truly understand the extent of your grief.

Morbid humor is the domain of the grievers themselves.

PLEASE know I wouldn't have taken kindly to someone making jokes around the death of my mother or my child. In fact, many grievers save this kind of humor for grief groups or with others who have "been there" and can "get" the sometimes snarky shorthand of grief. It feels safer in that atmosphere.

But what if they do share it with us?  How can we show support for a friend who lets us in on this sacred facet of grief?

Be honored. Buckle up for the ride. Embrace irreverence for a while. Listen. Hug. And if it feels right, throw in a few curse words now and then.

P.S. When Tim, Margaret and I entered our room at the safari lodge on our dream Africa trip last December, these insect repellents were the first thing I saw.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Busy Bee

Last week was a challenge, with Tim traveling, Andrew getting a cold that quickly turned to croup and landed him in the ER, and the painful lead-up to Jack's 19th (yes, NINETEENTH!) birthday on Sunday.

There were many bright spots too.

Andrew and I were playing on our hill when he made a bee-line for the garage in search of something. He came out with a toy shovel and started heading toward a neighbor's house. He'd spotted their enormous pile of mulch and wanted to "help" shovel it.

These kids notice everything, don't they? The only thing that got him away from their mulch pile was his fortuitous discovery of a balance bike in the garage I'd bought at a yard sale for when he was older. Much older.

Here he is all tangled up in it. It took some serious restraint not to untangle him, but I could tell he didn't want help, "I OKAY! I OKAY!"

Today, he was at it again. After some time lovingly embracing our local fire hydrant, he saw the mulch guys show up in a big truck, and he wanted part of the action.

This time he got his wheelbarrow and took it down so they could all compare equipment. He wanted to be sure they knew his wheelbarrow has ONE WHEEL, so please get that on the record.

So glad he's on the mend. I love seeing how his mind works. Now Tim and I are trying to teach him to sleep on his own after being sick...

Monday, February 26, 2018

Thoughts and Prayers

After Jack died, thoughts and prayers helped carry me.

I could feel our pain being shared in our town, across the country, and around the world by readers like you. You were willing to step into our story, to care and pray, even though it hurt. Those thoughts and prayers helped me get up and speak at Jack's service, and greet his classmates in the carpool line each day after school that first terrible year. They helped me have enough strength to parent Margaret in my most depleted state.

Some people wonder why "thoughts and prayers" are getting such a bad rap these days. I'd love to share my perspective.

For those of you who were with me in those early days, there was absolutely nothing that could be done to "fix" our family's situation. There was no real "cause" attached to Jack's accident. The best thing that could be done for us was to send up fervent prayers.

You prayed, and it did make a difference.

"Thoughts and prayers" ring hollow, however, when those in a position to effect change after a tragedy choose to do nothing, or even actively WORK AGAINST change, while saying they will pray.

This heaps pain upon pain. It is the utmost in disrespect.

When I see yet another child with cancer come across my timeline, I pray. Hard. But I also get out my credit card and donate to children's cancer research, because I know that money will make a difference. I am not a policy maker. I don't decide why children's cancer only gets about 4% of research funds. But I can pray, donate money, spread awareness, and not look the other way.

In the case of our nation's epidemic of school shootings, I can honor the children who died by advocating for common sense gun control. I can support Sandy Hook mom Scarlett Lewis's program to increase Social Emotional Learning so that fewer children will feel so alienated that they turn to violence.

It's easy to say that NOTHING will prevent all school shootings.

Is that reason enough not to try? The victims' families can't be "fixed." They need our prayers, big-time, as they grieve. How generous of them, in the depths of their pain, to use their voices to try to stop this from happening to another family!

There is no way to gauge the power of a single heartfelt prayer.
Or a single weapon that didn't get into the wrong hands.
Or one human connection that made the difference between destructive anger and hope.

I'll close with this powerful video from Aaron Stark, "I Was Almost a School Shooter" Interview is at the top, Aaron reading his letter is at the bottom.

Andrew Fix

For those of you who are not on Facebook, I bet you are overdue for an Andrew Fix.

Here's my busy guy enjoying being outdoors and playing with paint and shaving cream. Puddles are his favorite. Can't believe he'll be two in April!

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Be Mine

I know you are used to my rants about Tim's ignoring the Big Day. Or, my propensity to buy myself a purse from Target to celebrate my ardent love for myself on February 14. Or, sweet blogs about family traditions, from WAY BACK in the days when, for privacy's sake, I called Jack "Jake" and Margaret "Molly" on this blog.

Today's a little different.

Tim got me salt and pepper shakers in our china pattern to replace ones that have been broken and mended, broken and mended, over the years. What an appropriate and thoughtful gift.

My first thought when looking at both the old and new shakers, however, was that each set looked a bit...anatomical in its own special way.

My second thought was that the old salt shaker is a really good illustration of 26 Valentine's Days and 21 years of marriage.

The cracks and mending represent some of the excruciatingly hard times we have endured. Times when we've been shattered on the ground. Times we've had to pick through shards and pieces to see if and how we'd fit together again, particularly after our son's death. We are changed by what we've been through, even as we still function. The sustained, everyday use, despite these scars, reminds me of how we have continued to show up, long past the heady early days of wedding registries and clueless optimism.

So maybe this isn't the most romantic Valentine's post you've ever read, but I think instead of throwing away that salt shaker, I may keep it around as a reminder of how far we've come.

LOVE to you today, as always.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Kids and Grief: How do you make a Rainbow Baby not Feel Like a Replacement?

A few months ago I wrote about how Andrew has redeemed "boy things" for me. After Jack died, all things boy, whether the clothing aisles at Target, a Lego ad, or seeing boys of any age, brought much pain. Now, I can go to the boys' department and look for a good deal again, not cry for a stage of Jack's that I miss, or that he never got to. It's easier to look forward when fully engaged in the day-to-day needs of parenting a flesh and blood toddler, who is glued to my hip much of the time.

A reader who considered himself an unwitting and unwilling "replacement child" for his dead  brother shared how difficult it was growing up under the shadow of the sibling he never met. His pain was compounded by the fact that they shared a birthday, so even what should have been the most special day each year for him was linked to his brother and the reminder of the depths of his parents' grief and sadness. He considered it selfish for parents to try to have another child after loss because of the heavy baggage that child would always bear, and he recommended therapy rather than procreation as a way to find redemption.

I so appreciate his honesty and insight into the complexity of being a child who comes into a family after a sibling has died. He has been there; I haven't. And I want to honor his experience.

His comment also gave voice to some things I'd been wondering:

How do you make a rainbow baby not feel like a replacement?

How do you help your child grapple with the complicated realization that will likely come at some point, that had a sibling not died, he or she might not have been born?

How do you focus on the living child here, while honoring the memory of the child who died? 

Andrew is already going to have the oldest mom and dad around. His sister will be out of the house by the time he is 3 years old, so instead of being born into a noisy, boisterous family, he may have a childhood that feels more like Donaldson2.0 than what I would have chosen for him.

But he's here. Right now. And he's awesome. How will I help him with our family's less than traditional story?

Here are 5 ideas:

1) Let Andrew know that we always wanted a 3rd child, which is true, even though we never acted on it because life got in the way. His arrival may have been a lot later than we envisioned, but it was right on time, so that Andrew would be Andrew.

2) Make sure he knows he is not responsible for my healing or my happiness. Yes, having a baby brings life and promise and optimism, but it is not Andrew's job to fill me up or take away my grief. That's too much responsibility for a child to bear. I have myself, God, friends, and professionals to help me. He can be a kid.

3) Share about big brother Jack when it seems natural to do so, but don't deify him, and don't compare. Be sure to mention Jack's quirks and struggles as well as what came easily to him. Celebrate Andrew's uniqueness, his interests, his strengths.

4) Don't feel the need to bring Jack into every single conversation, but don't avoid mentioning him either. Gauge this on Andrew, just as we have with Margaret. Remember Jack is in paradise, and there is no way for me to let him down, disappoint him, or leave him out. There is no greater cheerleader for our family than Jack, so he would want us to find a rhythm that works for us.

5) Acknowledge Andrew when he feels like he is missing out, whether he grieves having siblings in the house with him, having younger parents, or whether it's about losing Jack, specifically. Let him know it's okay to grieve, it's okay to be angry, and it's okay to be happy.

What would you add? Are you parenting after loss, or are you, yourself, a "rainbow baby?" I think this is an important conversation, and I'd love to hear from you!

If you are in grief, or have a friend who is grieving, please consider giving them my book:

Saturday, January 20, 2018


Due to icy weather, illness, or school holidays, Andrew has only been to preschool 2 times since Dec 13! Being cooped up quickly took a toll on both of us, and I found inertia setting in. Too much TV. Too little human interaction and Vitamin D. One long day stretched into another, and eventually the thought of trying to leave the house became daunting.

Two weeks ago, we had a little break in the weather, so I decided to get off the couch and start taking him places again. First we went to church, where he explored the nursery. Next, I took him to the fancy-pants gym, where I discovered a contented Andrew having a tea party with several little girls and gnawing on the pretend food. The next day, preschool was back in session, and he had a blast as usual.

We both felt more positive about life.

By midnight the following night, however, we'd entered a barf-storm of epic proportions.

The misery.

The helplessness.

The laundry.

Oh, and did I tell you Tim was out of town? Over the next week and 1/2, we each succumbed to this nasty stomach virus AND Andrew was diagnosed with walking pneumonia.

So now we are back on lock-down. See you in the spring.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Sponsor the Gift of Rare Bird

It seems like each time I log on to my computer or turn on the TV, I see another tragedy unfold.

Sometimes, when I am able to locate a mailing address, I send a grieving family a signed copy of my book. Love gifts such as this meant a lot to me when I was in deep, early grief. THANK YOU to those of you who reached out to me in that way! Most times, however, I get overwhelmed by the logistics and expense and do nothing.

I'd like to invite you, as a reader of An Inch of Gray, to sponsor the donation of a copy of Rare Bird to a hurting family when you hear about a tragedy on the news or in your community. 

Each sponsorship is $15 and includes a signed hardcover copy of Rare Bird (retail $22.99), a note from me to the family, packaging, and shipping. I think this could be a good way to help me reach out to people I might not otherwise hear about.

I would need an address (U.S. only, please) and pertinent details that will help me inscribe the book and to make sure I'm not sending multiple books to the same family.

If this interests you, please email me at rarebirdbook@gmail.com

And, as always, if you would like to purchase a hardcover book for yourself or a friend (also $15 including shipping), this email is the best way to contact me about it. Paperbacks are available on Amazon, and wherever books are sold.

Again and again, I hear how this book brings light to those in the darkness of grief. Thank you for spreading that light!

Friday, January 5, 2018

Rare Bird, South Africa

I know some of you were hoping I'd have a rare bird moment in South Africa, so I am especially happy to share this story with you.

A few days into our trip, we were out on an afternoon game drive, looking for the elusive black rhino. I said to myself, to Jack, to God: "I need a rare bird. Something really cool, like a bird landing on our truck or something. But it can't be something Chris (our guide) will explain away, like, 'Oh, that happens every day around here.'"

Of course seeing any exotic animal was thrilling to us, but we could sense that Chris was more enthusiastic when he'd locate some animals rather than others. For instance, we were excited each time we saw zebras and warthogs (Pumba!) but Chris gave those more of a yawn because of what a common sight they were on the reserve.

Just a few minutes later, as we drove across a frighteningly narrow trail that dropped off into a pond, Chris stopped the truck short. He pointed out a bird in the tree right next to us. It was a smallish bird, and none of us would have noticed it if he hadn't said anything. He told us it was a Diederik Cuckoo that likely hadn't yet learned to fly.

He told us more. They are brood parasites, which mean they lay a single egg in another bird's nest. Once hatched, this bird tends to kill off any of the original offspring who really belong in the nest. Boo. That didn't seem to be very nice, but it was fascinating. I still hoped this bird was for me. After all, everyone says how terribly mean blue jays are, but I love them for all of the comfort they've brought us.

But was this bird rare or special enough to be my sign? I mean, it hadn't landed on our car, or my arm. It was just sitting in a tree.

Chris radioed his best buddy and fellow guide, Bernie, to bring her group right over. Bernie pulled up, equally excited, and started snapping photos with her enormous camera. As the official photographer of the reserve, she wanted to capture this bird while she had a chance.

After about 10 more minutes of observing the cuckoo, we pulled away. Chris turned back to us and said, "That was incredible. I see them flying occasionally, but I haven't had a chance to see one up close like this in a long time, maybe 8-10 years."

Thank you. Thank you.

Monday, January 1, 2018

South Africa Recap

We made it back to the U.S. on Christmas Eve after a wonderful trip to South Africa. As you know I was nervous about leaving Andrew behind, but he flourished under the care of his aunties, and he seems to still like me.

So, how did this big trip come about?

Tim and Margaret went out of town for his parents' 50th a couple of years ago. I was left alone,  on Jack's 17th birthday, because I was hugely pregnant and couldn't travel. There was a charity auction at Margaret's school that night, but after a terrible day, I wasn't up for going. Instead, I placed an online bid for an African Safari right before the auction ended. I figured Margaret and I could have a nice mother-daughter trip before college. Later, when Tim decided to join us, it became a family trip sans Andrew.

In addition to leaving Andrew behind, I was a bit stressed about the rigors of travel. I'd never been on such a long trip before. The good news? Sitting crammed in economy seats and in airports for over 24 hours straight was downright relaxing compared to toddler wrangling. I just watched a lot of movies and tried (and failed) to sleep. Sure, I was tired, but I've been tired for a long damn time and it didn't seem any worse than usual.

The game reserve, Zulu Nyala, caters almost exclusively to school auctions. It is not one of the well-known, ritzy reserves you may have heard of. That was fine with us, as we are not very ritzy people. It was small and uncrowded, with only about 50 guest rooms, a lobby, a pool area, and a restaurant/bar/dining hall. As you can see, the setting was gorgeous.

view overlooking the reserve from the pool area:

 view outside our room:

The weather was perfect-- chilly in the mornings, warm in the afternoons, and windy pretty much all the time.

We had two game drives in an open Land Cruiser each day, the first at 5:40 a.m. I thought a 5 a.m. wake-up would be miserable, given that this was our first break from early rising in 20 months, but it was fine. We'd go out for 2 1/2 hours and then come back for breakfast. After that, we'd read or nap, have lunch, and go out on another drive for 2-3 hours in the afternoon. Our guide was animated and informative, our fellow travelers delightful, and we were engrossed as we bumped and flew along the rough paths looking for animals to observe.

And the animals did not disappoint! 

We saw warthogs, impalas, elephants, giraffes, zebras, rhinos, cheetahs, wildebeast, lions (on a different reserve), monkeys, baboons, nyalas, hippos, alligators, birds, and dung beetles! I will never forget what it was like to be so close to these magnificent creatures as they went about their business. We even had elephants come super close to our vehicle!

After dinner, we'd read some more or watch a tv show we'd downloaded on our iPad and be asleep  super early.

The latter part of the week we went on a few excursions. One, to a neighboring reserve that had lions, to the Indian Ocean for a few hours, and to an elephant rescue. As you can see, the elephant in the photo below is free to roam wherever he wants. That little fenced enclosure was just to keep us from getting too close to him if he wasn't ready.

Margaret rolled with all of the planes, trains, and automobiles of such a major trip even though she had a terrible cold. As a bonus, she and Tim even managed to sleep for almost the entire way home!

The time away from our usual routine was beneficial for all of us: to sit, to wait, to watch in anticipation and awe, to eat food prepared by others, to read, to rest.

Thank you for praying for us and following along with my updates on Facebook. It was an unforgettable trip.