A Family is a Circle of Friends Who Love You

"Be kind; for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle." -- Philo of Alexandria

We are getting ready. Bought these blue chairs and a little blue table, too -- we'll put 'em outside on May 10, along with the other tables and chairs we've collected.

It's been raining dogwood blossoms for days; I'll sweep soon.

And I'll pot plants. I've got lots of pots, lots of plants, and now need lots of time, which I don't have. But that's okay. Everything is okay, as we speed toward that magical day, May 10, when Hannah graduates from Oglethorpe University here in Atlanta.

A cast of thousands is coming to the after-party, and we can't wait. Have you ever worked so hard to see a dream turn into reality, so hard that you almost can't believe it's happening?

I didn't write the papers and read the books and study the notes and take the tests and work the summer jobs and pull all-nighters for exams -- Hannah did that quite handily and beautifully and exhaustively, herself -- but I did play my part.

I filled out the FAFSAs (No More FAFSAs!Waaahooooo!), I wrote the myriad of letters, I sat in the financial aid offices ad nauseum, I signed my name in blood on a million dotted lines, I took on every extra gig I could find and learned to love them, I traveled the country until I didn't know which end was up, teaching and speaking and learning so much, I planted us in Atlanta, where I began to make Home, all over again, and I cheered my daughter on from the sidelines, literally, at her soccer games, I attended every chorale concert, read my share of Core and history papers (and learned a lot), as I found the money and wrote the checks and had an occasional nervous breakdown, as did Hannah. But we hung in there.

There was a time when we couldn't fathom this day. There was a time, seven and a half years ago, when I didn't have two nickels to rub together and the very idea of paying for a week's groceries was overwhelming. I still remember the first time we bought pizza after I became so suddenly single. It felt extravagant, but oh-so-delicious. It made me feel capable, too -- I could do this single thing, I could work hard and make a living, I could keep my daughter in college and see her grow into a courageous young woman with a steady ethical and moral compass and a degree that will help her as she looks for ways to do good in the world.

It has been a long, hard (and often, hilarious) slog, and great, good work, on both our parts -- and not just by us, but by everyone in our family, and by you, too.

Friends stepped into the void with us seven years ago and held us up, when we most needed them. Perfect strangers (who became friends) hired me to work in schools and at conferences -- they held us up more than they know (and you know who you are...). I went back to school and got my MFA (how did I ever do this?) and began teaching, which brought me great joy (and considerable panic). Son Jason moved home from Santa Fe and lived with us for almost a year. His help was invaluable, as was the strong right arm offered by daughter Alisa, who had her own family to care for yet found time for us, too.

The stories I can tell you from these years! The folks I have met! The stories they have told me! We are so much more alike than we are different. You can read more about our family's odyssey here, if you want to.

The past seven years have changed me. I have found love again, as well. And I have learned what love is. I am learning to love, every day. From the days of finding ways to buy a used car for Zach, our philosopher, and then for Hannah, to send them off into the world and away from home, I found ways to rub those nickels together creatively while also finding time in airports, hotel rooms, and in my own new home, to write. To write....

There was a time I no longer believed I would be a writer, in the midst of this challenge. "I have to give you back the advance," I said to my editor, Liz. "I can't write a thing worth reading." Liz, who was smarter than I was, said, "You are forgetting you're a writer. A writer writes. Put that story away -- you'll go back to it one day. In the meantime, I want you to promise me you will show up at the page every day and ask yourself this question: what can I write? Will you do that?"

I promised I would, and from that promise came EACH LITTLE BIRD THAT SINGS. Who would have believed that from the pain and grief that swallowed me as I watched my longtime marriage dissolve, would come such a beautiful book? The death of my marriage was the first loss. My mother and father died within four months of one another as I wrote LITTLE BIRD. Their deaths are represented by Great-Uncle Edisto and Great-great Aunt Florentine, although I didn't know this would be the case as I wrote the first line of the book: "I come from a family with a lot of dead people." I wrote through all the loss of those years -- I sold the house I'd lived in for 25 years, I moved from the only home my younger children had known, my youngest graduated high school -- even my dog died. Writing LITTLE BIRD saved my life. It brought purpose out of the suffering. And it gave me back my writing self.

Now this writing self is beginning to support us -- finally. I'm traveling less and I'm home more, and I'm watching my daughter, my youngest, graduate college on May 10. I am hugging every person who comes across the threshold of our little house in the little woods, here in Atlanta. I'm hugging Hannah's father, too. He'll be here and we'll be happy to see him. Jason will cook. Zach will spin records. Jim has hired his band and will play jazz for us to dance to. We'll reconnect with old friends, mingle with new friends, marvel at far-away friends, and claim every one of them as family.

"Family is a circle of friends who love you."

Cindy Powell appliqued this saying on the FREEDOM SUMMER quilt she made when my first book was published. Neither of us knew at the time how true this saying would be. I was days away from becoming single and plunging into the sea of uncertainty that the next several years would bring. Hannah was just 14 years old as I set out on the road to make our living. I took that quilt with me everywhere over the next few years -- it graced the bottom of every hotel-room bed I slept in -- and it is signed by hundreds of people now. I look back and read those signatures and remember those days of uncertainty with so much tenderness. I was creating a family of choice during that time, and that has made all the difference... so I want to ask you today:

Who is your family of choice? It can include family of chance as well -- there is enough love to go around. One thing I have learned from listening to all your stories is that, for some of you, family of choice is even more important to you than family of chance. Your stories have inspired me. So let me ask you -- when is the last time you celebrated your extended family of choice in all its messy glory? That's what we're about on May 10. Celebrating all the ways we have learned to become loving, tolerant, forgiving, generous, jubilant, funny, and yes, kind human beings on this planet. We'll be here on May 10, in all our different colors, languages, races, and persuasions... more alike than we are different.

I've been talking to a long-time friend who is coming to our celebration -- we've already started our catching up. He says, "The older I get, the less time I have for meanness. There is enough meanness in the world. I don't want to add to it, and I don't want to tolerate it in my life. I want to spend my time in meaningful ways, and spreading kindness seems like a worthy agenda at this point..."

My notebooks are full of thoughts about kindness... it's interesting to go back and read and see what was occupying my mind in years past -- kindness is a big thread. So is gratitude. So is all that messy glory. These are themes that find their way into my fiction as well.

So here's to the messy glory of life. New blue chairs and good stories to tell and stories to read, and family of choice and chance coming together to celebrate and laugh and eat cake and barbecue and ... just look at all the stories just waiting to be born.

I'm on the way to Birmingham later today. Tomorrow LITTLE BIRD receives the Alabama Book Award in the young people's category, an award presented by the Alabama Library Association -- thanks so much, Alabama librarians! I can't wait to see your smiling faces.

Back Thursday late, then off on Friday morning to the 26th Annual Festival of Children's Literature in Frostburg, MD, my old stomping grounds (Hey, Bill! Hey, Barb!). I'll try to remember to take my camera.

I'll turn around from Frostburg and go to Houston schools, then I'll be mostly home for the school year. And that's when I'll finish potting the plants and setting out chairs in time for our celebration. On this blog I'll introduce you, too, to my family, as they arrive during the first week of May for the IRA conference in Atlanta (more on this soon), and as they stay on to help us celebrate May 10.

In the meantime... be thinking about how you define family. Make a list in your notebook of all those who you deem and dub and esteem and cherish as family -- I bet you'll find, as I have, that you are rich, rich, rich in that circle of friends who love you.

And, if we're on your list, lemme know -- I'll send you a May 10 invite, even if you can't come... we can connect. That's what it's all about, anyway: connection. That, and a beautiful new diploma. Congratulations, Hannah. You are my hero.


  1. Simply beautiful, Deborah. Congratulations, Hannah.


  2. Your happiness is inspiring. I'm right now looking down the barrel of a book I've loved and had grand confidence in, and am now convinced isn't good enough. I can't tell if the life's gone out of it or out of me. I don't enjoy -- exactly -- reading that you've had doubts, but it's good to know you had them and have come out, happy and fulfilled, on the other side. Celebrate. And on down the road when I'm celebrating, I'll remember you and this time. Enjoy your party!


    P.S. Great shutters! Love the color.


Howdy. Moderating comments to prevent spam. I'm sure you're not that. Thanks for your thoughts! Write on, warrior on. Make art.