A Bend In The Willow was released on January 18. It has been one heck of a ride. Fun. Exciting. Frightening. The book was published by Tirgearr Publishing, a relatively small publisher out of Dublin. They did a wonderful job with the cover, edits, proof-reading, and getting it listed on many different book selling sites internationally. But, like with so many publishers today, much, if not all of the marketing, falls to the writer. We writers tend to be a reclusive bunch, so this felt like a daunting task to me. But with the help of my good friend, Susan Kelly, A Bend In The Willow got off to a great start and was actually one of Amazon's Top 100 Hot New Releases. The truth is, no one can buy your book if they don't know it is available. In my last blog, I outlined many of the steps I took to ensure a successful launch. I set up promotions for that week. Places like: Book Lovers Heaven, Book Goodies, My Book Place,
Ebook Soda, Read Cheaply. EReader News Today (ENT) is one of the better sights but requires reviews. As soon as I had some reviews in place, I contacted them. According to my publisher, 162 ENT readers bought the book. Now, comes the maintenance phase for A Bend In The Willow. A Bend In The Willow will be listed on Kindle Books and Tips on March 14. http://www.fkbt.com. You may purchase it there for only .99Starting tomorrow, I've schedule a Book Blitz Tour through Goddess Fish Promotions.
March 14: It's All About the Romance
March 15: T's Stuff
March 16: Queen of All She Reads
March 17: Fabulous and Brunette
March 20: The Avid Reader
March 21: BooksChatter
March 22: Stormy Nights Reviewing and Bloggin' - reviewMarch 22: EskieMama and Dragon Lady Reads
March 22: Hearts and Scribbles
March 23: Booklover Sue
March 24: Long and Short Reviews
I'm 5 days into launch week for my novel, A Bend In The Willow. It has been a time of excitement, anxiety, awe and of humbleness for me. At last one of my big dreams is coming true. I spent a lot of years saying I wrote because I loved to write. That publication wasn't important to me. But I was only fooling myself. Most of us write because we want to be heard. Without readers, we remain mute.
As of this hour, the novel has 47 reviews on Amazon and 60 on Goodreads. They average about 4.5 stars. A Bend In The Willow is rated #1,462 in all Amazon Kindle books, #31 in Saga, #33 in Family Saga, and #48 in Women's Fiction Saga.
And this morning, as if I needed anything else to dance about, I learned it was selected as one of Amazon's Hot New Releases--rated #4. It has already dropped to #5 (the stats change hourly) but still, I was thrilled beyond measure. The rainbow in the photo below was taken a few minutes ago from my front porch. It seemed somehow appropriate on this banner day.
A friend suggested I talk about the process of getting to this place--that it might be of interest to other writers. This is what I've learned:
1. Write the very best book you can possibly write. Don't think you're finished because you've come to the end. Edit. Rewrite. Edit and rewrite some more until you've done all you can.
2. If you are self publishing, hire a good editor. Take her suggestions unless you have a very good reason not to.
3. Get someone who is good with grammar to proofread the book.
4. Have a great cover design. I was very fortunate that Tirgearr assigned me an editor, had the book proofread and designed a fantastic cover. If you are self-publishing, you need to take the same steps.
5. About six weeks before the book is to launch, start soliciting reviews. Some publishers will do this for you. Most will not. I went through Amazon's Top 10,000 reviewers and pulled out the ones who reviewed books similar to mine and who'd left an e-mail. There are websites you can join that will do the scanning for you and provide you with a list of e-mail addresses.
6. I wrote query letters to each one--giving them a brief summary of the book along with the cover art. I was polite. I told them how much it would mean to me if they'd review the book. But even if they didn't want to, I appreciated the time they'd taken to read the query.
7. When I heard back, I sent their requested format. Since Tirgearr publishes first in e-book, I had mobi (for Kindle) e-pub (for Nook and other e-readers) and PDF. Be polite. They are doing you a favor. I sent out twice as many ARC's (advanced reader copies) than I have, so far, received reviews--but 50% is a good turnout.
8. When they wrote back with their reviews, I thanked them profusely and asked them to post the review on Goodreads (they allow reviews on books that have not yet been launched) On launch day, I already had 35 or so reviews on Goodreads. I also asked if they would like to be on my list of reviewers for my next book, Redemption Lake, which will launch in May. All of them said, "yes". This is important because it will decrease your work load when your second novel is released.
9. The morning of book launch, I sent an e-mail to everyone who'd requested the book, reminding them that they could post their reviews on Amazon. I told them not to worry if they hadn't read the book yet, I'd greatly appreciate their review whenever they had time to do it. Again, be nice.
10. About a month before launch, I set up promotions for that week. Places like: Book Lovers Heaven, Book Goodies, My Book Place,
Ebook Soda, Read Cheaply. EReader News Today (ENT) is one of the better sights but requires reviews. As soon as I had some reviews in place, I contacted them. According to my publisher, 162 ENT readers bought the book. Well worth the investment of $50.00
11. You might want to start out with a low price. Tirgearr started A Bend In The Willow at .99. The price goes up to $4.99 tomorrow. Readers are more likely to take a chance on a new writer with a low price. And for the first book, you want to get your name out there. You may not make a lot of money, but you are getting name recognition and fans who will want to read your next book.
12. Don't be afraid to ask other writers who have been through this process (either self publishing or with a small press) for help. I would have been lost without my very generous writer friends. Most writers like to help and share what they've learned.
I hope you found this advice helpful. I'm flying by the seat of my pants a lot of the time, too. It's a learning curve.
Watch for your rainbow. But be willing to work to make it happen.
Link to Buy
Launch day is a little more than a month away. It's hard to believe my book baby is about to come into a world already filled with so many books I don't know how she'll find her way. It's been an interesting and exciting process from the letter I got from Tirgearr Publishing last July saying they wanted to send me a contract up until all the edits were made, the proofreading done, and the cover designed. The cover designer created an enticing cover. Now, I'm in the process of getting reviews. I have to admit, I was terrified when I sent out the requests to Amazon's Top Reviewers. Would they hate it? Would they say terrible things about my book?When the first 5-star review came back only 2 days after I sent the Advanced Reader Copy, I cried, I hate to admit it, but I did. The second one, also 5-star, came early the next morning and when my husband got up I was already sitting at my computer, tears streaming down my face. "What's the matter?" he asked. "Did somebody die?" It was nearly impossible to explain to him what I was feeling. I shared the review with some of my best writing friends, confessed my meltdown and asked the question, "Why does it mean so much?"My friend, Lloyd Meeker, a wonderful writer, himself, sent the following e-mail and I think he nailed exactly why it means so much to us writers. This is what he said. "This is wonderful, Susan! It's incredible when someone really "gets" what we write -- not just the technique, structure, pacing, dialogue, etc., but the actual story.
Why does it mean so much? Because an understanding stranger really "saw" your creation, and therefore saw something of your truth, too. The anthropologist Eliade declared that the two strongest desires in human experience are to know another and to be known. When someone "gets" something I've written, I feel known at some deep psychic level, and it is an indescribably rich, nourishing experience for me."
I'll probably get some bad reviews along the way, but the shock will be cushioned by those first two good ones. And with good writing friends like Lloyd, I'll weather the storm. A Bend In The Willow is now available for preorder for only $.99The price will increase after launch. If you'd like to order a copy, here's a link: Amazon
We dance round in a ring and suppose,
But the Secret sits in the middle and knows
I’ve been trying for days to write about my feelings during this complicated time for our country. We are divided as a nation. Many families are also divided by our recent election. All in all, I find it heartbreaking. There are protests all over the country some of which are violent. It seems we’ve come so far away from the secret center where there is harmony and calm.
On Sunday, at a service I attended at the Grants Pass Center for Spiritual living, we held hands and sang, “Let There Be Peace on Earth and Let it Begin with Me.” There were tears streaming down faces. There was fear and disappointment. There were probably many differing opinions, but we were acknowledging in the joining of hands, that we are all one. I believe this is the center we need to find during this time of diversion.
The election is over. We have a new president. While he didn’t win the majority vote of the American people, the Electoral College has put him into office. Many of us, like in Robert Frost’s poem, are dancing around in a ring, supposing what will happen next. Some of us are fearful our new president will fulfill his campaign promises to reverse LGBT rights, throw out people who’ve come to America for what she has always promised, “A better life.” We fear he will empower white supremicists, build walls, take away health care from millions of poor Americans and end a woman’s right to make decisions about her own body. We are terrified he will be the dictator he has promised.
We all know our country needs to unite. But unity is impossible with so much fear and hatred. We have to find the center which I believe is love. I know that sounds idealistic, but we can disagree and still love each other as long as that disagreement doesn’t take the liberties, the rights, or the dignity away from other human beings. That we cannot and must not tolerate.
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me:
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
Is it any wonder why she is weeping?
Who among us doesn't love the Statue of Liberty and everything she stands for? It welcomed so many immigrants into our country, including my husband and his parents who fled Hitler and the atrocities of the Holocaust. My husband's parents were physicians who came to love this country. They learned our language. They became certified to practice medicine here. The first thing my father-in-law did after receiving his citizenship was join the Army to fight for the country that saved his family. My husband became a medical school dean and spent his career ensuring that every qualified student regardless of his race, gender or religion, could be admitted to medical school and, with hard work, become a physician. These were good people who deserved the chance this country gave to them. They contributed to our society through their service for the greater good. I get teary eyed thinking about what they must have felt when they first saw our Statue of Liberty.
At its dedication, President Grover Cleveland said, the statue's "stream of light shall pierce the darkness of ignorance and man's oppression until Liberty enlightens the world."
Let's not forget those words or what it has always meant to be an American.
Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with every one of us.
These are some questions I'm often asked about how and why I became a writer. Tirgearr Publishing is scheduled to release A Bend In The Willow on January 18, 2017. It is beginning to feel real to me and I'm excited about bringing this child of my imagination into the world.
1. What can you tell me about your latest book and what inspired you to write it?
I've always been haunted by the above quote from Maya Angelou. What would it be like to have a story you could never tell anyone? Almost all my stories begin with a "what if?" question. When I began to think about A Bend In The Willow, the first question that came into my mind was: What would happen if a teenaged girl met violence with violence, then disappeared and completely reinvented herself? What if 20 years later that girl had found a way to go to college, had married a good man and together they were raising a son? What if the little boy was diagnosed with a chemotherapy- resistant leukemia and would die without a bone marrow transplant? What if relatives make the best donors? What if neither she nor her husband is a match? What if she goes back to a town where she is wanted for murder to find her family and hopefully save the life of her five-year-old son? One question builds upon another until the story emerges.
Now that I’ve written a few books, it seems I most often write about themes of forgiveness and redemption. How a character finds her way back to herself.
2. What made you become a writer?
I don't think I made a decision to become a writer. I believe I was born a writer. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t writing. Let’s face it, writing is isolating and doesn’t pay very well. I’m not sure many people would choose to write if they were of sane mind and could avoid it. When I was a little girl, my father won a Smith Corona portable typewriter in a poker game. He gave it me. It came with 45 rpm records guaranteed to have you typing in four weeks. It was the beginning of my life as a writer. I taught myself to type with the help of those records and started writing poems and stories. I’ve never stopped. I went back to college after my children started school This time I majored in creative writing.
3. What book has most influenced you as a writer and why?
To Kill A Mockingbird had a profound influence on me because of Atticus Finch and the pureness of his vision—his knowledge he was doing the right thing—his willingness to fight for his client, even though he knew he couldn’t win. Atticus was a great character—obsessed with justice. I’ve learned over the years obsessed characters are usually the most interesting and the most fun to write.
4. Where do your ideas for books come from?
Ideas are everywhere. I find them in my life. In articles I read in the paper. Sometimes I hear something on the news that triggers me to ask the “what if?” question. One time I was sitting on a park bench watching a little girl on the swing set. I had a terrible feeling—almost as if it was happening right in front of me. What if someone who loved that little girl got distracted? What if it was her half-sister, a teenager? What if she was babysitting for that little girl? What if she had a terrible relationship with her young stepmother, but adored her half sister? What if that little girl was kidnapped?
Stories are everywhere. It’s just a matter of finding the ones you are willing to spend years writing. Finding characters that don't bore you.
5. Where do you find ideas for your characters?
Usually the story comes first. And once I have the story I create characters who will help me prove my premise or answer the central dramatic question. I will create a complicated history for them—a backstory—so I get to know the character before I begin to write. In the case of A Bend In The Willow—the central dramatic story question is: Will Catherine Henry face a past in which she murdered someone in order to save her son’s life? Since the main character has been deceiving her husband and everyone around her for years—it was important that her husband be a stickler for the truth. Jim Frey (How To Write A Damn Good Novel) calls this the unity of opposites. It makes the characters ripe for conflict and growth.
6. What is your writing style?
Somewhere between commercial and literary. My creative writing focus in college was on poetry so my style tends to incorporate metaphor and simile. I make use of some poetic devices while trying to keep moving the story forward. I realize most readers are more interested in the story than in beautiful writing—so I strive to find balance.
7. What is the most difficult part of writing a book for you?
For me, the most difficult part of writing a book is the synopsis. No kidding. I can write that 400-page manuscript, but when it comes time to write a one or two page synopsis, I’m tearing my hair out and opening the wine bottle.
8. What are your working on now?
In addition to planning for the release of A Bend In The Willow, I’m working on a 3-book series using the same detective. The books are a bit of a cross genre—family dramas in which there is also a murder or a kidnapping. I sent the first one to my publisher to see if they are interested. The second one is almost ready to go. The third is still a seed in my mind.
I'm doing something a little different for this week's blog. I'm always fascinated by what people choose to do with their lives and why. Very few writers make even a dollar an hour for the time they spend writing. But we are compelled to do it. And many of us, like Maya, began to write and tell our stories as soon as we could hold a pencil or utter a complete sentence.
I am pleased to introduce Maya Tyler, author of the paranormal romance Dream Hunter.
Q: Tell us something about yourself.
A: I’m married to my high school sweetheart and we have two sons and a nine pound shih tzu. I love to read anything I can get my hands on, mainly romance these days. I have a strong interest in healthy living. I am active every day which helps when I decide to cheat on my diet. I have a weakness for carbs and I like a little cream and sugar in my coffee. I love being outside and outdoor living in my backyard (work-in-progress) paradise. We grew beans and broccoli this summer, but I didn’t help much… I have a completely black thumb.
Q. How did you get into writing?
A: As soon as I could hold a pencil, I was writing little stories. I have a box full of stories and poems I wrote as a child, mostly handwritten. These days my first drafts are electronic and saved on my laptop. I just find it easier to express myself in written (or typed) words. I love to read and writing is a natural extension of that love for the written word. Whether I’m blogging, plotting, writing or revising, I try to write every day.
Q. How do you develop your plots and characters?
A: I have an active imagination and love creating believable characters. For the most part, my plots just come to me. I start writing and the story appears in my mind like a movie. Dream Hunter, in particular, was inspired by a dream I had.
Q: What inspires you to write?
A: I write because I love a happily-ever-after. Life isn’t always lollipops and rainbows, it is unpredictable with ups and downs. When I read, I am drawn into a book and, for a time, distracted from life’s worries. I want to write a book which provides my reader with the same solace.
Q: Who is your all-time favorite character (from your books) and why?
A: Gabe, from Dream Hunter, will always have a special place in my heart. I wanted to create a sexy and strong hero, with a hidden protective and sensitive side, and Gabe appeared in my mind. What I didn’t expect was his rebellious and defiant nature, but it certainly came in handy when he met my heroine Cynthia.
Q: Do you prefer coffee or tea?
A: Coffee… I prefer a dark roast and I love Starbucks…
Q: What’s better than chocolate?
A: A lot of women swear by chocolate as their go to sweet. I, unfortunately, have been allergic to chocolate since I was a child. Don’t worry, there are plenty of other vices out there… I get my sugar fix from cake, pie and cookies (whatever’s in the house).
Q: If you believed in this sort of thing and could channel an artist from the beyond, who would it be and why?
A: I ask this question of the authors I interview as well. I would select a humanitarian, one who creates art, not in the traditional sense, but through their betterment of the world. Princess Diana has long inspired me with the grace and compassion she brought to the world.
Q: What are your plans for the future? Where do you see yourself in five years?
A: My plans for the future are centered on my health. I plan to continue to live a healthy life and strive to make the world a better place for my children. I see myself writing and publishing more paranormal romance novels.
Q: Any advice for those aspiring novelists out there?
A: If you are an aspiring novelist, keep writing. Write for the pure joy of writing, not to get published or become famous.
Maya Tyler is a romance author, blogger, wife, and mother. She has a degree in Commerce. Over the past few years, she decided to unleash her creative streak and get serious about writing. So far, she has published a short story “Just for Tonight” in an anthology called With Love from Val and Tyne and her debut paranormal romance novella Dream Hunter. She has also written a few other books (Her latest, A Vampire’s Tale, is scheduled to be released in 2017). Writing mostly paranormal romances, all her books have a common theme – happily ever after. When she’s not writing, you can find her playing with Lego and watching superhero movies with her husband and sons.
Thanks for your time, Maya.
In fiction we writers create obstacles for our characters because we know it is through conflict they will reveal who they are and what they are made of at their core. In life, the obstacles are often created for us. And it is our choice as to whether or not we surmount them. Obstacles often come in the form of a person we perceive as difficult or a life challenge such as ill health, the death of someone we love, a divorce, a job loss, or for us writers--yet another rejection letter. It's important to remember there are gifts in making the effort to step back, see the problem for what it really is, and start climbing up and over it. The view from the top is often different from the one at the bottom and the gifts received from our efforts to make the climb can be both life changing and life affirming. I often wonder how many people, writers especially, give up just before something wonderful is about to happen.
My daughter and I begin each day with a telephone call (she lives in San Diego, I in southern Oregon) in which we take turns reading aloud a daily reflection by Mark Nepo in his work entitled, The Book of Awakening. The pieces are brief and followed by a short meditation. I was especially moved this week by one of his entries. When The Path is Blocked, Back Up and See More of the Way. Our reading prompted me to stop and think about the way I sometimes judge a person or a situation without seeing the whole picture. In these times of political diversion when our country and often our families are divided, it seems especially appropriate to take that step back and realize what really matters most to all of us is love.
All life is finite. We will all die. And when that end comes, we won't be thinking about what we did or didn't accomplish in our lives or what political party or candidate we supported. We will be focused on the people we loved and how well we loved them. My work as a hospice volunteer has made me as certain about this as I am anything: Those final reflections on our joys and regrets will be centered on love and nothing else.
Just as the mountain is clearer from a distance so are the people and obstacles in our lives. We have the choice to view ourselves and others in wholeness. We have the opportunity to see each challenge and each individual in their entirety. We can make the choice to keep climbing rather than give up and walk away. We can choose love over hate and diversion. We can keep our dreams alive, pursue them with every ounce of our being, and still choose the path of love. The path that matters most.
Last week, while vacationing with my family in Delaware, I received an e-mail response from a publisher. I took a deep breath, prepared myself for a rejection. The e-mail said:
"Thank you for your submission of A Bend in the Willow, and thank you for your patience while our team evaluated the project. I've heard back from my team now and will share some of their comments with you...
The story hooked the readers from page one and had them reading well into the night. The story was intriguing, well-written, and the plot and characters well-developed.
On the back of this, the team is recommending the book for contract." I had to read it three times before I believed it.
They sent me a 12-page contract. My son, a lawyer, reviewed it for me. And today, with hands that shook a little, I signed and mailed it back. The novel I've worked on for more than a decade is going to be published. Did you hear that folks? MY NOVEL IS GOING TO BE PUBLISHED. Am I happy? If I had a cake I'd push my face into it just like my little grandson did on his second birthday.
You may read a sample (the prologue) by going to the Book page of this website.
I can't remember a time when I didn't know I was born to be a writer. I suppose that makes me one of the lucky ones. I do know why I'm here. But as all you other writers out there know, it isn't always an easy life. In fact, it is rarely easy. We writers receive so many rejections. We agonize over query letters and sample chapters, then send them out to agents and editors who often don't respond at all. One time I received a letter from a small press I'd queried. It said, "I only publish my own work and I'd rather have a root canal than publish yours." If it weren't so funny (and almost always wins the worst response from an agent or editor award) I might have cried.
Tenacity is the most important quality for a writer. It is a gift I received from my father. Believe in yourself and the power of your words. Never give up. Keep sending out your work. And one day, you'll get an e-mail or a letter in the mail that makes you want to throw up your arms, leap into the air, and smash your face into a cake.
--Work in the invisible world at least as hard as you do in the visible--
--Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond--
--The door to spirituality truly must be opened from the inside--
I just completed a four-week class on the life and work of Jalalud’din Rumi, the 13th century Persian poet. Rumi is not new to me. I first discovered him as a teenager and have been reading and loving his work ever since. Isn't it amazing that he remains, after more than seven centuries, the most popular and well-read poet in the world. Rumi believed that art both heals and transforms. He believed human beings were sent into the world to do a particular work specific to the person. We all have many branches and we spread out in thousands of different ways. Rumi asks us to remember “the deep root of your being.”
For me, that deep root is writing, especially poetry. I know this by my behavior. Whenever I wake up with a poem, or the seeds of one, inside my head, I go straight to the kitchen table, still in my pajamas, pull out a notebook and start to write. I keep writing until there is nothing left inside me.
Sometimes this process goes on for hours and I will end up with 50 different drafts. And once I get it right, I feel ecstatic. So happy I want to become a whirling dervish, dance around and sing. Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? But this is what it feels like to be in touch with the deep root of your being.
The following poem is the first one I’ve written since taking the Rumi class. I woke up with the image of the dandelion and how it propagates itself--blazing yellow flower--cottony ball tumbling into wind--and the following spring, another blazing yellow flower. From there, my mind leapt to my children, the death of their father--his cremation, his ashes and the box that held them.
It was interesting for me to see the subtle influences of the Rumi class in this poem--(its facilitator was one of those guides sent to me from beyond). My original title was “Cremation”. It didn’t feel right. The title needed to reveal something about the poem not completely obvious from the content. When I shared it with my daughter (who often acts as a midwife to me during the birth of a poem) we came to realize this one is about transformation and the fluent nature of time-- past, present, and future. It's about Samsara—the Sanskrit word that refers to the theory of death, rebirth and the cyclicality of all life. Something Rumi was very familiar with and was part of his teachings.
Where Time Touches Eternity
At the crematorium, a man in a black suit,
yellow rosebud tucked into his lapel,
hands her a mahogany box carved with sailboats.
“It’s heavier than it looks,” he warns.
“Six pounds, thirteen ounces.”
In the first photo pasted in her baby book,
she is swaddled in a pink blanket,
six pounds, thirteen ounces,
cradled in the crook of her father’s arm.
His face, often stern, is soft,
frozen in wonder as he greets the last
of his five children—the daughter who
thirty years later will mother him
as he moves from professor to toddler--
like a birthing gone backwards.
She will walk him through a meadow of
dandelion blossoms—tiny yellow suns that blaze
and bow with the breeze. For a summer moment,
she’ll pause to weave daisy-chain necklaces and
with a boy’s heart he’ll greet honey bees fat with pollen,
then turn his attention to one flower gone to seed--
a cottony bubble to carry his wishes into the wind.
Though she would always be his child,
he could no longer place himself between
her and the rest of the world, no longer weather
the first blows for her. But for seven years, she
stood up for him, believed her love could save him.
As she straps the box onto the passenger seat,
she hears his voice, as she has many times.
She now knows the dead never stop talking.
This time he says, “Let’s go for ice cream.”
She laughs out loud and pulls into Baskin-Robbins
for his favorite—a double strawberry waffle cone.
Later, she’ll find the tree where he carved their names,
scatter some ashes into the wind—her wish that he,
like the dandelion, might blow across the hillside,
replant himself, then rise up and take a bow.
John Martin Taedu Clayton blowing his wishes into the wind
We all have things in our lives we regret—grief and losses that weigh us down. My brother Grady's death is one such grief for me. He has been dead for 17 years, but it's a rare day I don't think about him, remember something from our childhood when he was the boy who loved me best. He was big brother to me, but often played the father role as well.
He was the one who took off the training wheels and ran along side my wobbly bicycle as I learned to ride. (As many of you know from my earlier blogs, our father was crippled by a grenade during WWII) It was Grady who tightened my roller skates with a key he kept on a string around his neck, taught me how to climb trees and shoot a Beebe gun. In the third grade, Grady took me to my first, and only father/daughter dance. I was so proud of my handsome, big brother. After dinner, when weather permitted, we played outdoors with the neighborhood kids until the street lights came on and told us it was time to go home.
On warm summer evenings, after we’d had our baths and were dressed in pajamas, our mother would sometimes spread a quilt on the grass in the backyard. Grady and I would sprawl out on our backs and look up at the stars. He’d point out the big dipper, but I couldn't see what he saw. He told me to connect the stars with an imaginary line, like in the connect- the-dots books that entertained us on rainy days. And it worked--I saw the big dipper for the first time.
It was also Grady who helped me move into my dorm room and later my first apartment. He used to visit me at the University of Delaware and take me out for dinner. What do I regret? My beautiful brother gained an enormous amount of weight as a middle-aged adult. He became so heavy it was hard for me to look at him. I never, not once, stopped loving him, but I did stop looking at him. And I'm deeply ashamed of that. Beneath the weight, my brother was still there. And all I needed to do was look into his eyes to find him. I miss him so much. Each spring when the forsythia bloom, I look at those clusters of yellow blossoms and think of him.
There are no streetlights in my neighborhood now. But when night falls, I often look up into the star-studded sky and imagine him there, gathering the dust and sprinkling it on the people he loves. It took many years for me to write a poem about the day he died. I will share a portion of it with you—the part where, by the magic or poetry, he is brought back to life. Ironically, I wrote it on the 17th anniversary of his death. It came pouring out of me, as if it had been inside all along, just waiting to be seen.
In the photograph that precedes it, I am three years old and Grady is six. He was a beautiful boy. Adored by his little sister. And now that he is gone, I wish I'd loved him better--especially at the end when it would have mattered so much to him. He loved his family and his church. When he was mobile, he was the first one to offer help to others. And when he was no longer able to move around so easily, he had a telephone ministry with those who were in need of a gentle giant with a sympathetic ear.
My big brother taught me many things in life. In death he taught me to always remember love is so much bigger than embarrassment or shame. None of us are perfect. And maybe it is the imperfect who are the truly beautiful people--the real heroes among us.
THIS WEIGHT I CARRY
On the March day my brother’s big heart
stopped beating, forsythia burst into
yellow blossoms outside his bedroom window
and one crocus opened its purple-petaled eye.
Each blade of grass seemed numbered as it bent
beneath black boots that marched him across his yard.
Neighbors spoke in soft whispers,
clutched Bibles fat with mercy for their home-bound
church brother. As his body was taken away,
they hung their heads, then hurried home
to bake him chocolate cakes and casseroles.
How easy it is to love what is gone.
As minutes tick back into memory, I disassemble
my big brother and me. Break us apart like
pieces of a gigantic puzzle, fragments of love
stronger than obsession, fear or shame.
When I connect them to the place fantasy and longing merge,
we will stretch our arms, weightless as wings, and fly.
Together we’ll wade barefoot in the shallow creek
behind our house in Collins Park, listen to our mother
sing hymns in the garden while sun dries our mud pies
on the flat rocks. We’ll hold our funeral processions
for dead birds, oatmeal-box coffins lined with
fragrant orange peels that linger on our fingertips.
The ebony trill of my clarinet in the summer air.