Friday, December 07, 2007

Heaven for the Holidays

The day after Thanksgiving, we were bombarded with cheery strings of lights, angels hanging from streetlamps, Santas showing up at shopping malls, and rampant thoughts of gift-giving. For most of us, the idea of buying presents fills us with joy. But for those of us who have grievers on our gift list, the idea of buying presents can fill us with dread. I know. I’ve been there.

Back in 1996, my family lost two of its cherished members. My grandfather died in September and three months later, just weeks before Christmas, my beloved aunt passed away unexpectedly. We were having what I now fondly refer to as “that terrible year”.

Some of you out there are having a “terrible year.” There’s no way to get around it. For the ones left grieving, the holidays are a difficult, often miserable few weeks. Yes, many times it’s good to go through the normal routine of giving and getting gifts, but sometimes it’s best just to spend time with family, trying to remember the blessings in life.

I will admit that I am horribly inadequate when it comes to giving sympathy. I have a hard time knowing what to say to a friend who is grieving or ill, let alone coming up with a gift! I imagine there are many of you who feel like I do. You want to console and inspire, but you don’t know how. Well, this feels a bit odd, seeing that it’s my book, but I’ll just say it. I wish I had written The Spirit of Sweetgrass a long time ago. I wish I had had it back in 1996 when my family was mourning the loss of our loved ones. It would have come in handy. It is because of that “terrible year” that I wound up writing my debut novel. You see, my eyes turned to Heaven for the first time in 1996. And they have not turned back down since.

I wrote The Spirit of Sweetgrass when I was expecting my son three years ago. Long story short, there were hospital stays, bed rest, and then an emergency birth where my son and I nearly lost our lives. We are both happy and healthy today, but I came home from the hospital with a renewed sense of purpose and the voice of my main character, Essie Mae, louder and more persistent than ever. She would wake me up in the middle of the night. I simply had to tell her story, that of sweetgrass and Heaven and family. I did not know why then. But I know why now.

Since The Spirit of Sweetgrass came out in March of this year, I have been blessed to meet readers. Readers are amazing people who love books as much as I do, and every time I speak to one of my own readers, I am fueled and inspired to keep writing. The reason I wrote The Spirit of Sweetgrass is simple. I know now that it was all about the readers. Take for instance Rhonda from Kingstree who read my book and approached me in tears at a book signing, thanking me for “bringing back” her beloved African-American nanny for just a short while. Then there was Heather, the bookstore manager who had miscarried the year before and was touched by a certain child character in my book. There was Cindy who had lost her husband to cancer and longed to sit with him like Essie Mae did her husband, Daddy Jim. But the one reader who amazed me the most, the one who showed me that God works in beautiful, mysterious ways, was a woman in Hilton Head Island who said she finished my book one day and the very next day her mother passed away unexpectedly. She thanked me for my depiction of Heaven since she’d never been able to imagine it before. She said now she could picture her mother in a better place. That was the most humbling, awe-inspiring moment of my writing life. That was my gift to her, and her gift to me.

There are many books this season that are inspirational, that may point eyes to Heaven and fill with hope. Just ask your local bookseller for suggestions. If you are looking for a gift for a loved one who is suffering, consider fiction. Sometimes, I’ve learned, fiction can say things you’d never be able to say yourself. And fiction allows the reader to go on a very personal journey. For those who are having a “terrible year,” I can’t imagine a better gift than the comforting thought of Heaven.

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