Monday, February 24, 2014

Broad Strokes

My friend Theresa asked if I'd paint some furniture to sell in her charming store in downtown Falls Church, VA. As you may know, I haven't painted furniture since the week of Jack's accident. It has just seemed so empty and meaningless to me.

I wrote toward the end of my book about noticing Margaret get excited last summer just seeing me carry old paint cans up the stairs at the old house. She was hoping I was up to my old tricks, most likely because that would somehow take us back to at least SOMETHING being the way it was before.

I wasn't sure if Theresa's appeal for "help" was along the lines of the Dowager Countess of Grantham and Mrs. Hughes constantly digging up causes and people for Isobel Crawley to assist as a means of getting her interested in something other than the blackness of her grief, or whether she genuinely was backlogged with painting projects.

Either way, with her encouragement, I stepped away from the computer for a few weeks and picked up the paintbrushes. It felt awkward. My brushes had grown stiff, so I had to buy new ones. It was a different kind of paint, not what I'd used before, and I didn't know if I'd find a rhythm with it.

Margaret sat on the leather couch as I spread flattened moving boxes out on the family room floor to protect it from spatters. We watched American Idol and Downton Abbey as I opened a few cans and started testing the paint. I talked about how it was different, how I didn't know if this was going to work out at all. After a while, she asked if she could try her hand at painting a little too, so I gave her some pointers and let her pick the color for the next piece. We sat on either side of a tiny doll cradle, painting it together, talking about our TV shows.

My pushing through fear to write a memoir did not impress her one bit. Blog conferences and the new business cards I bought (but am too wimpy to hand out) that proclaim, "Anna Whiston-Donaldson, Writer" don't merit a second glance.

But the back and forth of our brushes, and seeing me do something that links us both to an earlier time-- a time when we were yet unscathed by a level of pain and longing so profound that despite my best efforts still rarely forms words between us-- felt good to her.

And to me.


Tuesday, February 18, 2014

A Gift for Yourself or Someone You Care About

For some time now I've been making a list of books that have been helpful to me on my grief journey. I'm not finished yet (grieving or reading) but I wanted to share with you today a little book that is profound, powerful, and comforting. I would recommend it as a gift for anyone grieving the loss of a loved one. It has been in my bathroom (TMI?) since shortly after Jack's accident and has spoken truth to me and helped me have hope.

"Healing after Loss: Daily Meditations for Working Through Grief" by Martha Whitmore Hickman is a classic daily devotional. Each day starts with a quotation, poem, or Bible verse and is followed by several short paragraphs about grief. Each entry ends with a one line prayer or promise such as, "I will relax into the memory and spiritual presence of my loved one, and feel at peace" or "As often as I need to, I will tell my story."

The writing is conversant yet stunningly beautiful and gives the reader hope that healing (not forgetting!) really is possible.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014


I was at Target earlier this week and picked up a cool dark green purse for myself for Valentine's Day. Years ago I told myself I would never resort to shopping for presents for myself for holidays. I was certain the strength of Tim's and my love would manifest itself in thoughtful, romantic gifts year after year after year. The fact that he bought me a coupon organizer for grad school graduation should have tipped me off that something was amiss, but alas, I forged ahead with stars in my eyes.

When I showed Tim and Margaret the purse a few days ago, Tim was offended that I'd picked something out for myself. "I've already planned on ordering you something for Valentine's Day!" he said.

"Is it chocolate, jewelry, flowers, or this green purse?" I asked.


He whispered in Margaret's ear hoping to get her approval. I may have overheard something that sounded an awful lot like "wireless mouse" which IS something I 've been wanting, but that won't look quite as cute out and about as my new green purse.

Feel free to take a trip with me down memory lane to revisit Valentine's Day 2006-2008 with the Donaldson family. And a Happy Valentine's Day to you!

Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Words of a Stranger: The Power of Writing

I don't know who wrote the words on the yellowed pages that fell from the book I pulled off the thrift store shelf. At first I figured they were study notes, or maybe a simple to-do list, but after a few seconds of reading the nearly indecipherable handwriting, it became clear that these were the private thoughts of a troubled soul.

What should I do with them? Tuck them in my purse? Put them back in the book and leave it on the shelf?  It was not a current title and might never be purchased. What was the next stop on the journey for unwanted books?

I bought the book and the pages along with it and became their steward and a witness to the pain of one hopeless morning in the first week of 1996. The thoughts and feelings of a man who felt disconnected from family. Marginalized at work and in community. Who craved recognition and acknowledgment, but got neither. Who wanted to be valued and to make someone proud. Who recognized his deepening depression but wanted to try to tough it out without medicine. Who understood how some people, including the protagonist in the book I now held, would turn, on their darkest day, to suicide. He wrote of his one great love, a woman whom he had cast aside "like garbage" and the one he was now with, even while knowing there could be no future together.

I think back to my own life in the early days of 1996. It was a time of personal and professional promise. In a few weeks would come a rare Virginia blizzard, and Tim would purposely get snowed in with my roommates and me. There would be parties, card games, a snowy trudge to the local movie theater, and cooking together in the big, drafty kitchen. We were so young. A few months later he would propose, and the promise of a future together as a family became real. In the waning hours of that year, on a strangely warm December day, we would marry.

In the almost 18 years since, it's clear my life has not turned out the way I would have imagined or planned. Not that I did that much planning anyway. We had two kids not because that was the magic number, but because that was how many we had before the thought of having more frightened us. I stepped off the career path because I was able to stay at home with Jack and Margaret, but I had no real picture of what my second or third acts would be. And my own family relationships chugged along with varying  levels of beauty, pain and sometimes dysfunction. We stayed in my home town because it was all I knew, and the years kept moving past and we grew settled. Life happened.

And then the creek happened. And we were dragged to the depths of a despair and pain too deep for us to have ever imagined. And now, almost 2 1/2 years later, we stand again on dry land. Not because we are healed. Not because it's all okay, but because we have hope. It could be that our survival is just one more form of settling, more trudging forward without a plan, because that's all we've ever known how to do. But maybe it's more. Maybe it's a peace that doesn't come from us and our plodding, or from our strong wills, but from God and our love for Jack.

I wonder about the man who wrote those pages. His mind and heart felt no peace that day. No shelter in the storm. Has he kept going for all these years? Did he find help in the way of needed medical attention, acknowledgment, and healed relationships?

I don't know.

But I am hoping he found some release and relief in the writing itself. In turning his thoughts over in his mind. Of getting them down on paper. On seeing what parts of life he could change, and what parts he couldn't.

I don't think writing is THE answer, but it is AN answer. I know it has been for me.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Valentine's Gratitude Box Time!

It's time to get out that Valentine's Gratitude Box again.

Tim, Margaret, and I will write down little things we appreciate about each other (and Shadow!) and put them in the box, reading them aloud on Valentine's Day. I like saving the slips from previous years so we can read those too, like these hilarious ones from Margaret the first year we did it.

Want to join me this year?

Monday, February 3, 2014

Cancun Getaway!

We are back from 5-ish days in paradise. Based on our friend's recommendation, we booked a tropical vacation to the Moon Palace Resort in Cancun, Mexico and I'd have to give it two huge thumbs up! In fact my thumbs might be especially huge today because of all of the delicious food we ate. Three meals a day with dessert? Yes, please.

The room was even fully stocked with an open bar! It was wasted on me. I traveled with my own Constant Comment tea bags as I am known to do.

I didn't take as many photos as I wish I had, but maybe these will warm you up on a cold, snowy day. Either that, or they'll  make you seethe with jealousy. But I hear that seething is warm, too, so that'll work.

And as much as I love a nice break, it's always good to come home. I'm so glad to be back here with you today.

 Not afraid to rock the long sleeved Land's End swim shirt. No sunburns here!
 Margaret started reading The Glass Castle as soon as I finished it. Maybe she'll think Tim and I are awesome parents now!
 Love that face!
 A drip castle, like old times.
Speaking of old, old friends are the best. So happy to see my friend Ana who lives in Cancun after so many, many years.
 View from our room.
 Why I could never move to a tropical paradise without a personal hairstylist.
 Weather was perfect! Not hot or cold.
 Painting pottery.
 How fun would it be to have a little thatch umbrella in our back yard?
Or maybe one of these?

Oh well. There's no place like home!