Last night, my husband and I attended the Georgia Author of the Year Awards ceremony. My children’s book, Baby Birds, had been nominated. I met a brave woman, Jane K. Ashley, who fought cancer and wrote a book about it. I am inspired by her. She and her husband stopped near our table looking for a place to sit. I invited them to sit with us. It was so exciting when her book, Cancer: The Light at the End of the Tunnel, won in the category of Inspirational – Secular. I told her I liked the cover of the book. She said some people had expressed that it was too dark and too dramatic.
She told those people, “You haven’t been sitting in the chair I sat in and given the diagnosis I was given. It’s pretty dramatic.”
Raymond L. Atkins, author of The Front Porch Prophet, Sorrow Wood, Camp Redemption, Sweetwater Blues, and South of the Etowah, received a Lifetime Achievement Award. In his expected humorous acceptance, he said now that he had this award he could stop writing. I guess you have to be a writer to understand he’s not through writing.
When one particular winner was announced, many of us stood and clapped hard. It was all we could do to show our admiration for Congressman John Lewis. Just to be in the same room with this Civil Rights hero was awe-inspiring.
It was humbling to realize my book for children was competing for the same kind of award as his history-changing memoir/autobiography. His speech was indicative of how he lives his life—humble. He gave most of the credit for the book to Andrew Aydin, co-author of their book March: Book Three.
Lewis said, “It was Andrew’s idea to write the book. I was just along for the ride. He did all the heavy lifting.” But we all knew who did the weighty marching.
At the end of the ceremony, I made my way to the front of the room where a line was already forming in front of Mr. Lewis, and I boldly took my place. I not only wanted to get my picture made with the icon and his signature on my program, but I had something to say to him. The line moved. I was up next. I got the co-author’s signature, whose parents were Muslim immigrants to this country. Then, it was my turn. Our hands reached toward each other…and clasped in a handshake.
I said, “Thank you for what you’ve done with your life.”
He stopped shaking my hand, and we made eye contact. His hand moved from the handshake position to holding my hand and covering it with his other hand. I felt that he was blessing me in that moment. His expression was one of humility and love. He nodded his acceptance of my gratitude. We turned to the camera to get our picture made, and a lady dropped her pen. He bent down to pick it up for her. We put our arms across each other’s back and held the moment to be recorded. I thanked him again and floated away.
Sometimes you go to an event and things are just rocking along and it's going the way you think it’s supposed to go and then something that’s not on the radar comes out of left field and the experience is elevated to a different level. This night was like that.
In parting, I told my new friend, Jane Ashley, that I thought fate had put her at our table. “You invited us to sit,” she said as she smiled. “I was a stranger and you gave me bread.”
I was prepared to give my own speech last night, but fate would have it that only a few special people have heard it. I left that building feeling very much like a winner. If you are so inclined to continue reading, here’s what I would have said….
An economy of words.
That’s how someone kindly described my children’s book, Baby Birds. I will try to express my gratitude for this award with the same spirit. I had three beautiful children. Their voices were like birdsong to my heart. They all flew away, and I felt the sting of an empty nest. My grandson was born, and with him, the idea for this book.
I am standing in this wonderful place tonight because my mother read the Bible and Little Women to me; because Amber Lanier Nagle taught a class on the campus of Dalton State College about writing family stories; because my husband loves me so much he does an unequal amount of household chores while I write; and because a young girl named Alana Kipe brought a watercolor painting she had done on the back of a pizza box to a meeting of the Calhoun Area Writers.When I was a preteen, there was a private book-burning in our home. I don’t remember the title, but on some of the pages were curse words and descriptions of sensuality. My mother lit the match and made me
watch. I am grateful for that, too. It was in that horrific moment that I was awakened to the power of words.
I was reminded of that power recently when I heard from the caretaker of a four-year-old who was placed in a foster care home for troubled children.
The caretaker said to me, “We go through the same routine every night. He won’t go to sleep until I read him the book you gave him. You know, the one you wrote about the baby birds.”
If you are waiting for a sign to move forward with your own story, wait no longer. There are readers waiting for you to use your power. But it’s not about us, the writers—it’s about the story, and inspiration, and letting go to give the story a voice. Thank you for listening to mine.