My Year of Un-Gilded Quiet

Grief is not eased by material possessions and luxurious distractions, nor is grief drowned in wine, nor muffled out by mindless noise and superficial, furious activity. Living with the death of a child requires inner strength, which cannot be borrowed, purchased, or negotiated from the universe. Only the human grit within our own bones can give us the courage to seek our own robust measure of contentment in the heartbreaking and beautiful world in which we live. Likewise, solace does not come in a package wrapped in pretty paper and tied with a shiny bow. Solace only exists within the confines of our own beating hearts, and we can only tap its healing powers when we possess for ourselves the strength and the courage to find it.

All this truth converges upon me on first-day January air, with the struggle of past months barely quiet but with a fresh set of new days brightening my doorstep. All this truth I now know as intimately as the breath in my lungs, but the full meaning of all this truth I cannot yet fully comprehend. Still, I have stuffed it all deep into my pocket like a good luck charm at the ready for what comes next. The big what comes next—a dream of establishing a writer’s retreat in a spacious historic home—is still just a warm feeling in my hopeful heart, still a glimmer in my expectant eyes, and still a dream whispered to me from across an unknown landscape far, far away in the future. But for now, baby steps forward. Always forward, and that is the important thing on the cusp of a fresh new year. Right now, I still have much important work on myself to do; and the aspiration to a better human me is the current value of that charm of truths tucked away within my pocket.

In December, I read in the New York Times an opinion piece entitled “My Year of No Shopping” by the author Ann Patchett. In the article, Patchett describes her year of minimalist consumerism inspired by the country’s turn at the end of 2016 “in the direction of gold leaf, an ecstatic celebration of unfeeling billionaire-dom” that kept her up at night. I share Patchett’s political anxiety, but mine is also grounded in my current historical research on the excess and inequality of the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era of America’s sordid past. The political ascension of an old-fashioned robber baron in America’s second Gilded Age keeps me up at night, too. And like Patchett, I have, in middle age, come to question the mindless consumer culture that lulls us into complacency and false contentment and now carries with it such unwieldy and untenable political freight, as well.

Since reading Patchett’s article, I have not been able to quiet its inspiration for my own personalized version of her experiment. It seems to me brilliantly pertinent to my life at this moment when I need so desperately to break free from false contentment. Therefore, I have formulated my own plan for a year of un-gilded quiet, which I believe might actually feed two birds with one small pack of seeds. It will help me focus my attention on making a better human me out of the riches inside my own head, within my heart, and from my own cherished circle of human beings. A happy bonus of the project will be extra money saved for my big what-comes-next dream. More importantly, however, pulling back from the frenzied consumer culture of our society will help me rediscover what I already have, teach me what I can do without, reinforce for me what is truly important, and inspire meaningful quiet time and space unburdened by the broken promises of frivolous pursuits and material possessions.

I want to spend the next year becoming more comfortable being alone with myself without noisy, meaningless props, like Netflix, which I have these past four bitter years used like drugs to distract me. I want to work on my human self, concentrating on reading and writing, exercise and nutrition, and peaceful living. I think this relatively simple plan for my un-gilded year of quiet, is just what the doctor ordered (or at least it is what this particular doctor of philosophy has ordered!). Over the coming year, I will purchase only necessary consumables and used books required for my professional work and scholarship; and I will only replace broken household or worn-out personal items I absolutely need and use (like a toaster or running shoes). I do not expect my plan to solve my problems, counsel my heartache, or fix my human deficiencies, but I do hope the living out of the plan will simplify my daily life and enrich the experiences that come along the way.

My survival is a work in progress. My life is a work in progress. My life, like any life, is a lifelong journey, and 2019 will be just another path along the way. I still need my sweet Savannah and my family to be healthy and hopeful roots, grounding me to the earth. I still need the broad and generous shoulders of old friends upon which to lean on my bad days. I still need the sweet, daily devotion of my beloved, cuddly dogs to soothe my troubled soul. But I also need to get a little closer to making my own inner peace, building up my own quiet strength, defining the parameters of my own survival, and finding contentment in the world standing on my own two feet.

I hope, and I think I am right to believe, that in spending the next twelve months living life with more deliberate purpose, by slowing things down a bit, and by relying not on material comforts but on meaningful experiences, I might just unravel some of the mysteries of personal contentment. I am going to try to help myself get stronger and healthier in my body, in my heart, in my mind, in my confidence, and in my very being. I think all of this is good work, and no matter how successful it may actually be, I think it will lead me a little closer at least to finding my own, more permanent solace. The poet David Whyte defines solace as “the beautiful imaginable home we make where disappointment can go to be rehabilitated.” During my year of un-gilded quiet, I intend to make that home in the chambers of my very own heart, fueled by the power of my own inner strength, and contented enough within myself to let the year unfold as it may.

P.S. Dear Mack, as with each and every single thing I do, you are the inspiration.

January

The Missouri Botanical Garden has been for me a sanctuary for peace. It will no doubt continue to play a role in my survival during my un-gilded year of quiet.

I am Well and Reading

I stopped reading. For three and a half years, I stopped reading. For forty-two interminable months, I had no mental or emotional capacity for books. I lost the fiction and poetry and historical writing that had for a lifetime filled my mind and my spirit with the beauty and challenges of the world. I lost the loveliness of words shining off a page with the power to transport me into a new landscape, to take me back into a mysterious historical past, or to let me see through the eyes of a stranger who becomes by the end of a narrative a familiar and beloved friend. I lost the ability to appreciate the power of brilliantly constructed sentences and paragraphs to reach out to ears and eyes open wide to knowledge and the emotions and experiences of all kinds of people, real and imagined. I lost the joy of curling up with a book and a cup of Earl Grey on a cold night in winter. I lost the desire to lose myself in someone else’s story.

I stopped reading, and I understand now that the desire to lose myself in someone else’s story was the reason I stopped reading. It was why I no longer wanted to read. Why I had no mental or emotional capacity for books. Why I abandoned a love and how grief stole from me an activity that had since the age of four enriched my life. I lost reading and love of books because I was lost in my own story. Lost in my own experiences, my own emotions, my own self pity, my own inner voice reflecting my own bitter struggles. Grief is cruel that way, because it is not merely a heavy crown of sorrows upon your head. Grief also chips away at you, piece by piece, bit by bit, joy by joy. Then, it takes individual human time, glacial time it seems, to realize the damage grief has inflicted upon your spirit. And then, I think, it takes a lifetime to be restored. Or rather, it takes a lifetime to restore for yourself what grief claims from you, piece by piece, bit by bit, joy by joy.

From October 2014 through February 2018, I managed by necessity to make my way through historical works related to my current research on Abraham Lincoln and women and vital to my new professional work on Jane Addams and the Progressive Era. I read with great difficulty a couple of beautiful memoirs, tiptoed through some books on grief and healing and life, and even slogged through a few volumes of poetry and fiction. But all of that reading was a struggle, and I have not retained most of it. Nor did I love any of it with the passion of previous, joyous reading. Reading did not consume me as it had always done before; it did not possess the power to transport me to the distant worlds of other people’s stories. My own story was still too much a central focus, and I was not ready, I suppose, to give it up as the singular narrative in my brain and on my heart. These desolate forty-two months I lived without books would have made my Mack very sad, more sad even than it made myself. For I knew all along what I was missing, what I had lost, and I feared the bits of myself I fortified with reading might be lost, indeed, forever.

But in March, I started writing poetry and doing some other creative writing. I was just ready, I suppose, to start examining something of the world around me, outside of myself. This writing was a balm, a restoration of an old teenage joy reborn, partly at least, out of the anguish of losing my daughter, and partly because I needed to give birth to a new me out of ashes and charred bits of my past selves. This restored bit of myself, this creative writer within me, also miraculously restored my joy of reading. Or maybe the creative writing in my bones conspired with the love of books in my bones and restored themselves together, like a joint gift to a better me. I emerged that spring a little stronger, a little brighter, a little lighter, and a hell of a lot more hopeful, too. Grief is a process. Life is a process. And my restoration to life is a process, too.

In July I wrote that I had arrived at a place somewhere over Mackenzie’s Rainbow, a place that was not a paradise in which pain and sorrow is vanquished, but a place were I am becoming comfortable walking in love and grief and acceptance of life as an existence of beauty and pain. I wrote that “a mist has cleared for me or I have emerged through a portal into the light or come to some proverbial crossroads. Or, perhaps, I really have arrived somewhere over Mackenzie’s Rainbow. Still grieving. Still a speed bump away from a straight-jacket. But better. More vibrant. Less afraid about where life will lead me in the coming year. And, I think, looking a little more like the Momma Bear Mack knew and loved for twenty precious years of my life.”

Here at the close of the year, 2018, during my fourth holiday season without my special and spirited girl, I am still all of those things I believed I was in July and, perhaps, a little more. Now I am maybe two or three speed bumps away from that straight-jacket, even more better and, without a doubt, even more vibrant, in a big way because I am reading again. I have books in my life again, and I have the Amazon.com receipts to prove it. In no way is it more clear that I am a little more like the Momma Bear Mack left behind than in my grateful return to voracious reading. Returned to me is my indefatigable love of the written word, of books, of writing that lifts the soul into the clouds and propels the reader on the wings of eagles. The greatest gifts I gave my girls were my unconditional love and the love of books and the joy of reading. Mack would be so very glad I found my way back to books once again, although like always, she would tease me for the dense and scholarly ones I tend to select to occupy the most precious of my leisurely hours.

I say thank goodness and release a noisy, breathy sigh of relief. Mack would say hallefuckinglujah! My mental and emotional capacity for books is restored to me like a gift from angels, and I have forty-two months of lost time to recover. Since March, I’ve read a dozen or so historical works for my personal research and professional work with a renewed clarity of purpose. I can now fully concentrate on their historiographical significance and also let them take me away to mysterious historical pasts. As well, I have read or listened to twenty-eight novels and works of poetry for pure pleasure. Reading is easy and joyous and freeing once again. Reading is again as vital to me as breathe in my lungs, and I am over Mack’s rainbow with love and gratitude for its return to me. I am reading so much these days, feeding an appetite that for too long grief suppressed, that it has encroached a bit upon my writing. But that is OK. It feels good to let reading and books occupy the best of my free time for now. For a little while, at least, while I get reacquainted with the power of good writing to make life more joyous, more precious, more human.

So for now, dear friends, know that I am well and reading. And reading and reading and reading.

Mackenzies Rainbow

Books are vehicles to transport our minds, lift our spirits, and save our souls…here, there, or somewhere over Mackenzie’s Rainbow.

 

Noodles and Writing and Life

Dear Mack:

I’ve lost my way a bit these past few weeks. Perhaps the coming of midwestern winter gloom has fogged the path for me, but I rather think I have my own doubts to blame.

You see, in the cool refreshing air of spring, I determined to set myself on a writer’s journey: to read more, to increase my time spent on personal writing, and to use my contemplative walking practice to pen poetry, no matter how pitiful. My efforts to live a writer’s life, particularly in the penning of the pitiful poetry, have been efficacious. Deliberate reading and purposeful writing have offered much joy and many tangible rewards. But in the face of holidays and four months of the winter season, which despises my emotional well-being, my body of late is filled with trepidation and my spirit is disquieted.

And then there were the noodles.

Having eschewed the 2018 holidays in a pact with Sissy (who begins grad school in January and wants to pass a calm holiday season sans the chaotic and expensive obligations), I gave in at last minute to Thanksgiving. Last night while making my annual batch of noodles, I melted into a puddle of grief, anxiety, regret, and doubt. Something within the flour or in the kneading of the dough conjured my memories. You were in them. (Surely you must know you are always in them). So vivid and so clear you were, right next to real, avoiding the turkey, gorging on a mound of piping hot noodles, and smiling.

The grief as tears came first, then the rest of the emotions flooded in behind, and the questions, which flashed across my mind’s eye like a breaking-news ticker, replaced your sweet face. Such is the cruelty of grief, it overtakes your heart with intense feelings of love and loss and yearning and then beats you about the head with your own insecurities and self pity.

The intruding questions mocked the self-importance of my personal writing intentions, condemned my recent abandonment of my historical writing, and challenged the wisdom of my dreams to renovate a historic mansion to share with other writers as a writer’s retreat. Mostly, I think, the questions scratched the doubts paving the way of my current path, on a human journey of survival, through a life without you. A life I did not want. A life I can sometimes barely countenance. A life from which I know I must extract as much joy and hope and love as I can possibly locate.

I cried out some of the anxiety, regrets, and doubts last night before falling into an uncommonly restful sleep. I awoke this morning with a resolve to return to the two historical projects I have now underway. I awoke no less determined to live a writer’s life. But I think the cathartic noodle making last night jolted, at least a bit, my faith In myself to attain such lofty dreams (you, of course, are laughing at me now, because for you it would be in the noodle eating and not in the making where catharsis might be found!). I have challenging work yet to do to be the writer and the human I want to be, to build a life of purpose and of peace, and to live a life worthy of your admiration.

And so, dear Mack, once again you inspire food for thought. You were beside me last night when I made noodles to share with beloved people today. You were first in my mind when my eyes popped open this morning. You were next to me as I enjoyed my morning coffee and reflected on noodles and writing and life. You will be with me this afternoon as I avoid the turkey, eat a mound of piping hot noodles, and, for you, try to smile.

You are here, dear girl. Still here. Still loved. Still shining your bright light on a Momma Bear, ever grateful, for your continued presence in this beautiful and terrifying world.

Previous Mack and food blog posts, full of memories and Mack-inspiration that make my heart sing:

https://macksmommabear.com/2015/11/25/a-thanksgiving-tradition-for-mack/

https://macksmommabear.com/2017/11/22/mack-memo-6-eat-until-it-hurts/

Four Years On

Dear Mackenzie,

Exactly four years ago this morning, I kissed that glorious giant freckle on your left cheek and watched you pass through the airport security line and disappear through the gates. I was bursting with happiness for you on that pre-dawn Sunday, as I watched you leave for Spain. You were so bright and so brave, even with the tiny twitch of nerves you revealed as you tried to calm my own by telling me you’d be alright. Because you knew “hola” and “cerveza” and probably wouldn’t need to learn too many more words beyond those. Liar. I could never have imaged the extra tight big-Mack hug you gave me at the last minute would be the last. We could never have known you only had one month in front of you. Four years ago that was. Four years. Four long years without you, after twenty too-short years with you.

Today is a really bad day, honey. I know you would not like it, but these milestones practically undo me every time. Sometimes the pain of your absence feels like a freight train coming on fast, the panicky whistle growing ever more shrill, and I am paralyzed on the tracks with no power to get out of its way. I am still, and always will be, profoundly sad without you. And, whoa, some of the days along the way are as painful as the first day without you. It’s just the way it is. We all miss you. Even Pepper, who, by the way, went to the puppy spa yesterday (she got her hair did, as you would’ve said). Did you have something to do with the groomer choosing for her a deep purple bandana? Anyway, she is delightfully fluffy you’d be happy to know, and she knows I need extra cuddles right now. You told her to take care of me when you left, and she does a pretty good job of it.

Tomorrow will be better, I promise. I’ll be in Chicago with Sissy and my dear friend Bridgett. We are going to take a yoga class with pygmy goats. Can you believe yoga with pygmy goats is a thing? You’d even do yoga with me if there pygmy goats, wouldn’t you? We will also visit the new American Writer’s Museum, and you know we will eat some amazing food and enjoy overpriced drinks in the windy city, too. How about I promise to find happiness tomorrow and you check in to make sure? At the end of what I know will be a good day, we will settle in for drinks at a cozy bar, and I will offer four toasts to you: The first to Mack the animal lover. The second to Mack the writer. The third to Mack the bratty baby sister (that one for Savannah’s sake, of course). And the fourth to Mack the bright spirit who continues to shine a light upon my life, four years on.

Pep Dog

Mack’s Back to School

The milestones faced on the journey of grief generate profound feelings of loss and longing. Emotionally and physically painful are holidays, Mack’s birthdays, and the anniversaries marking the last day I saw her and the terrible day that I lost her. But as parents across the country are celebrating the First Day of School and marking important academic milestones in their children’s lives, I am celebrating the First Day of School, too. August back-to-school season stirs in me more joy and gratitude than sadness, because it marks the beginning of a new academic year for another talented recipient of the Mackenzie Kathleen McDermott Memorial Scholarship at Truman State University.

As fragile mortal beings, our time on the planet is limited, and there is so little time to make an imprint on the world. The best that most human beings can do over the course of a lifetime is be true to themselves, be kind to others, and apply their particular talents for some sort of greater good. In just twenty short years, Mack accomplished what it takes most of us sixty years or more to understand and to achieve. She was always true to herself, comfortable in her freckled skin and confident in her definition of herself as an athletic, nail-polish wearing, goofy intellectual. She was never mean-spirited, judgmental, or unkind. She used her talents of humor, charm, and unconditional love to make a significant and lasting impression on the lives of her family members and friends. And because of the impact Mack made on the people who had the good fortune to know her or to make her unforgettable acquaintance, an endowed scholarship in her name at her alma mater perpetuates her beautiful spirit. Therefore, every August, Mack goes back to school, too, making a difference in the life of another special young person who is preparing to share their talents with the world.

Laurie Shipley, a senior from Kansas City, Missouri, is this year’s scholarship recipient. Laurie, who will earn a BFA in the spring, is a creative writing major, a Spanish minor, and a member of the Truman State Color Guard. Her Spanish minor led her to a study-abroad term last summer in Costa Rica, where she took classes in Alajuela. After graduation, Laurie will be staying on at Truman to earn a Master’s degree in education. She plans to become an elementary school teacher and is anxious to share her love of literature and writing with students.

The reason why back-to-school season is special for me should be abundantly clear, and I am sending big-Mack hugs to everyone who is celebrating a milestone First Day of School this August. For me, the season will always be a time to celebrate Mack’s beautiful life, to rejoice in her spirit alive in the world, and to feel gratitude for all of the people who have contributed to the scholarship these past four years (a special shout-out to the Sunrise Rotary Club in Springfield, Illinois, for their renewed annual contribution). Thank you for your generosity. Thank you for loving Mack. And thank you for helping us to immortalize the impact of Mack’s beautiful life, one beautiful student at a time.

The Mackenzie Kathleen Memorial Scholarship Fund
Truman State University Foundation
205 McClain Hall, Kirksville, MO 63501
800-452-6678
http://www.truman.edu/giving/ways-of-giving/

Laura Shipley

Mackenzie’s Rainbow

I find myself standing in a curious landscape. My travels through grief have brought me here. For much of the journey, the weather was foggy and misty and so much of the traveling progressed during the darkest of nights. A return to wherever it is I was before is impracticable; and besides, to this unexpected new topography I find myself profoundly drawn. The contours of the land are as yet unknown to me, and the lightness of the atmosphere in this new country unfamiliar. Yet I recognize the historical landmarks and the precious human faces of this peculiar place. The breeze here rings bells in my memories. The sunlight stirs in me warming hope. The fresh air gives buoyancy to aspirations I now feel strong enough to embrace. And, strangely, I am not a stranger here. I am home.

I have finally, thankfully, perhaps evenly blessedly, arrived somewhere over Mackenzie’s Rainbow.

I am relatively certain that I have not been in this new place for very long, and I have only just noticed my arrival on this bold frontier. Last week at home after a therapeutic four-day weekend with old and dear friends in Minnesota, I cried. And cried. And cried. Every day the tears falling like rain in the springtime. I hadn’t cried like that in many weeks, and I had become very worried that my tears had dried up forever. I had been feeling cracked and hardened by their absence, but now the clouds had opened up and these tears poured down, refreshingly different, less bitter, more cleansing. It was through these new tears that I first saw the beauty of the very different landscape in which I now find myself. What is most curious, and wonderfully unexpected, is that this fresh landscape of my life is a whole new place under the sun, created and settled by all of the people, living and dead, who are critical to my survival in this world. It is a landscape planted with all of my tangible and emotional needs for a livable, breathable environment that is not only healthy and whole but also full of possibilities I thought gone forever.

This place somewhere over Mackenzie’s Rainbow is not a paradise in which my pain and sorrow have vanished or where I possess total clarity and feel no fear. Instead, it is a place where I can walk hand-in-hand with grief and with happiness, in security and in uncertainty, and through all of the pain and the joy of being human. It is a place that allows me, simultaneously, to inhabit two separate pasts, to define a new and brave present focused only on the things that bring me peace, and to curate a future of my own making. Innumerable, varied, and terrifying uncertainties remain, but I have some pretty good ideas about what life here will look like and, most importantly, I know I have the strength to face whatever experiences life might bring me and to go wherever life might call me. Mack will continue to guide me and my sweet and sassy Savannah is here to keep my feet upon the earth, but as terrifying as life still is and as hard as I know it will continue to be, I feel like I have emerged from a fog.

In life somewhere over Mackenzie’s Rainbow I have:

  1. Family members and friends who have traveled with me on this journey, people who knew and loved Mack, who each share with me the agony of her absence but also carry the light of her beautiful life within them. Last week while I was crying my eyes out I was reminded once again of how Mack’s spirit shines out into the world. Mack’s best friend Justice (with the help of another best friend Elyse) and Project Mack hosted an inspiring gathering of community in hometown Springfield, Illinois. The two-day Take Back the City event, featured a concert and all-star basketball game, raised awareness about gun violence, supported scholarships for city high school students, and directed a positive spotlight on local talent and an incredible group of young people making a difference in the world. In these people that Mack collected, I am incredibly proud, and I am so grateful that Mack brought them into my life. All of Mack’s best friends are as important in my world as my family and my cherished Springfield friends who helped me raise my daughters. All together, these people represent my past with Mack, they are of my life with her, and they are now and forever, collectively, my family.
  1. I can be the Stacy I was before Mack and the Stacy I was with Mack and the Stacy I am now without Mack. This might seem very obvious, but I assure you it escaped me, and I cannot express how liberating it is for me now to know that it is true. After Mack died, I could only conceive of life and memories with her; to my mind there was no past, no present, and no future without her. But six beautiful and beloved growing-up friends—three from high school and three from college—wrapped me up so tight that they have, finally, squeezed this ridiculous misconception out of me. It took me too long to get it, but I get it now, even if I only just figured it out last week in Minnesota with two of these friends at my side. None of these women knew Mack, but they reached out and were willing to bear witness to my grief, to be old friends who knew me happy, and to be new friends willing to know me sad and dramatically different. They turned out to be life preservers and guides—Bridgett, an immediate and enthusiastic cheerleader of my blog, encouraging my writing and helping me find my way back to reading; Kathy, a keen observer of what my intellect needed to stay alive during some very dark days; Carol, an earth mother who gave me her heart, her family, and a dog; Michelle, who always cheerfully offers unconditional love, no matter what; Julie, a delightful imp who dared me to laugh and lets me laugh through my tears if that is what is required; and Diane, who faced cancer at the precise moment I faced the loss of Mack and whose quietly brave, matter-of-fact, ass-kicking of the disease was an inspiration to me when I thought all inspiration was lost. These women represent my past before Mack, and vital as they were to my formative development, they are ever so more vital to me now.
  2. My life in the present is up to me to define and to narrate. A mother’s grief is bone-shattering, life-altering, and permanent. I am coming to grips with this reality, and I am learning, as well, that I can bear no people or circumstances that make me feel my grief must pass. Part of my recovery is wearing the badge of that truth on my forehead and refusing to apologize for it. As well, I need to do a much better job of surrounding myself with the people and the things that bring me peace. I deserve peace wherever I can claim it, and in this new landscape I can see more clearly the roads I need to take to claim some of that peace.
  3. I am strong, but that does not mean I don’t sometimes need a little help. During the past nearly four years of life without Mack, there have been countless days when I was the only person who made me get out of bed. I had Savannah and good work to draw my broken spirit out from under the covers sometimes, but I have come to rely mostly on own my stubbornness to live. Throughout my grief, my mom kept telling me that I was strong, and I’m sorry to say, it made me angry. I didn’t want to be strong. I wanted to curl up into the fetal position and let somebody or something else be strong for me, to bear the weight for me, to fix me. But now I understand that it is OK to be strong, because I am, actually, really strong. But mostly, I understand that being strong does not mean that Mack’s absence somehow matters less or is easier for me to bear. This realization in the learning curve of grief is, perhaps, the most significant lesson I have learned. Just because I get out of bed every morning and function and dare myself to be productive does not mean I don’t miss Mack and struggle to breathe without her. It simply means that I am strong enough to survive it with a little grace and enough of myself intact that Mack might still recognize me. In this weird and wonderful new place in which I now find myself, I no longer feel guilty for being strong. But I am also no longer afraid to lean a little bit on people who will prop me up if I need to renew my energy, to regain my own strength.
  4. My brain is still alive, thank goddess, although its resuscitation has been a terrible trial. When Mack died, I quit reading books, I stopped taking online classes, and I abandoned my Pimsleur Spanish and French lessons, too. I gutted out the reading and research for my job, but my former life of the mind, my voracious reading, and my personal scholarship were casualties of my grief. Because you know what no one tells you? Grief is a monstrous, devastating destroyer that shatters so much more than the heart. I could no longer concentrate and for better than three years I faded as my eyes stared blankly at Netflix. My brain went offline, and I did not expect it to return to active duty. But thanks to all of the brilliant book-loving women in my life, I am a reader again. Thanks to an amazing new editing job, I am a scholar again. Thanks the lifting of the fog that smothered my brain, I have taken one online class and am in the middle of another. My brain is coming back, and that means in one really big way, I am coming back, too. And as I stand here in this bright new landscape, I’m smiling because Mack would be so damned happy and very relieved to know that my brain is not dead after all.
  5. Today, along with being Savannah’s mom, a daughter, a sister, a friend, and a professional historian, I am a creative writer. Since attending a two-week creative writing camp at Indiana State University with my dear Bridgett in 1984, I have been a creative writer. But while I enjoyed a successful career of historical writing, life often intervened and my creative pen was idle. In October 2014 I started this blog, a desperate attempt to capture in words my memories of Mack, to celebrate her life, and to work through my sorrow. This blog was the first non-scholarly writing I had done in years, and it sustained me through many dark and very lonely stretches of depression. In March 2018, the urge to be creative again bubbled up anew, and I purchased a thick blue notebook with a wide green strap, and I became a creative writer again. Every single day in my notebook, I jot down thoughts and observations about the world, copy a paragraph of beautiful writing from the latest book I am reading, compose a poem, or frame dialogue gleaned from eavesdropping on conversations in restaurants. Since March, I’ve been writing a lot of poetry, and in my less lucid moments sharing that poetry with poor people who have no choice but to accept it. I’ve also written character sketches and short pieces of prose; I’ve conjured up ideas and taken copious notes for a book of essays and two novels, and I’ve written nearly 100,000 words for a memoir about grief. At some point I will explore the publication of some of this writing, but publication is not the end game. In my new life it is the process of the writing that matters, it is the good therapy it does me, it is the solace it brings me, it is the journey of curiosity and exploration and the rediscovery of me.
  6. BKS=01

    Me with Bridgett and Kathy, present for my epiphany in Minnesota.

This blog entry is a meandering mess, but my strict rule of raw, vulnerable, quick release forbids editing and, thus, I apologize for the density and the disorder. But, I hope, it is clear enough, dear reader, that a mist has cleared for me or I have emerged through a portal into the light or come to some proverbial crossroads. Or, perhaps, I really have arrived somewhere over Mackenzie’s Rainbow. Still grieving. Still a speed bump away from a straight-jacket. But better. More vibrant. Less afraid about where life will lead me in the coming year. And, I think, looking a little more like the Momma Bear Mack knew and loved for twenty precious years of my life.

Mackenzies Rainbow

Peace, Luck, and Chipmunks

On Wednesday and Saturday mornings, the Missouri Botanical Garden opens at 7 a.m. for seekers of tranquil walking upon deserted, dewy paths and among the early birds singing in quiet and fresh morning air. As a rule, I am not a disciple of mornings, as most img_1528of my nights are late and disrupted, but I make happy exception for daybreak in the garden. The gentle solitude of an early morning spent walking with memories, lost and found among the trees and the flowers, wraps up my broken heart and brittle bones like a heavy, handmade quilt on a lonely night in winter. For most of these quiet morning walks, I take Mack with me. Like me, she was not enamored of wakefulness at god-awful hours, nor was she a devotee of strolling or of flowers or of birdsong before coffee. Yet I think it is precisely the unlikelihood of this path forward with grief that would lead me and my lost girl into a garden in morning that renders such productive peace upon my soul. These morning walks are when I feel most grateful and lucky and human.

Recently, after a particularly difficult two days, my large umbrella and an overwhelming need to commune with the garden gave me the resolve necessary to venture out on a dark and rainy Wednesday morning. By the time I arrived at the garden, the rain had mostly cleared, although the southern skies still threatened. I stood at the car debating the inconvenience of carrying an unneeded umbrella for my morning therapy stroll in the garden, and I closed the car door and left the umbrella on the passenger seat. I walked away from the car and toward the garden and the dark clouds. Yet although I could feel the warming presence of the sun lurking just beyond the dissipating thunderhead, I stopped walking, sighed deeply, and then returned to the car to retrieve my umbrella. It was to be just my first curious and fortunate volte-face of the morning.

My umbrella tucked uncomfortably under my arm, I entered the visitor center, scanned my garden-member card and collected my ticket, and ascended the stairs to the garden entry. I stopped before the fountain on the main plaza, like I always do, and weighed the options of taking a clockwise or counter-clockwise path. Remembering that my most recent morning walking had taken me left around the Linnean House and toward the Ottoman Garden, I stepped right, thinking I would walk toward the Climatron first and spend a little time in the rock garden. As I reached the tram shelter along the clockwise path I had selected, I abruptly turned back toward the fountain and headed toward the Linnean House after all. I do not know why. I just did. Sometimes simple life choices simply make themselves, I guess. I looped the handle of my umbrella on my right arm, knowing now that the day was free and clear of the rain, and I walked briskly toward the Ottoman Garden. Curious and fortunate volte-face number two.

The Ottoman Garden is tucked away in the northeast corner of the Missouri Botanical Garden on a short spur off of the main circuitous path around the entire perimeter of the garden. It is a small, square, wall-lined garden with a lovely pool and fountain in the center and lined with graveled paths trimmed with Turkish plantings. At the back of this quiet little garden, which is never crowded even on busy afternoons, there is a wooden arbor in front of a stucco wall and topped with a Moorish dome. Under the tiled roof sits a glorious, regally decorated wooden throne that sits up upon a slightly raised portico offering royal views over the fountain and the flowers. Whenever I take a female visitor to the garden, I always snap a picture of her sitting upon that throne being a sultan, if only for the duration of a minute or two. However, I do not always visit the Ottoman Garden on my early morning walks, but I suppose on this particular morning I needed to feel like a sultan in control of my life and the world. Or maybe this was my third curious and fortunate volte-face of the morning.

I walked over to the throne, and of course, it was wet with rain. Too wet for a sit, I thought, but then I brushed off the biggest puddle and struck a pose for a selfie, documenting that royal feeling with a photo I could pull out later as a reminder of yet another productively therapeutic trip to the garden in morning. After I snapped the picture, I noticed movement in the fountain. A small animal was frantically swimming and making repeated attempts to scale the deep lip around the edges of the pool. I kneeled down to see a chipmunk, desperately keeping her little head above the water, legs rapidly paddling. I put down my bag and my umbrella upon the wet stone and watched the chipmunk through eyes welling up with tears, and I wondered how in the world I might manage to catch the soaked and scared little chipmunk with my bare hands, fish her out of the pool, and bring her to safety. Almost before I could even rationalize or consider it, I grabbed the handle of my umbrella and gently dipped the thicker end of it into the pool directly in front of my desperate little swimmer. She immediately climbed aboard her unlikely life raft, and I carefully guided the umbrella away from the fountain, softly depositing its precious cargo upon the solid ground of stone.

She sat for several seconds, shivering and catching her breath, as I counted her blessings, and then she began to dry off and look noticeably stronger and more calm. As she collected herself and I cried, movement in my teary peripheral vision drew my attention. It was another chipmunk, this one much smaller, desperately swimming and barely keeping her tired head and sleepy eyes above the cold water. I picked up my “unneeded” umbrella and it performed its second heroic rescue of the day. For this second chipmunk, the cold morning swim had been more harrowing, and her breathing more labored and her body more shivery, as I gently sat her down upon the stone. She was just a baby and much more disoriented than her “sister” chipmunk, who by now was breathing normally and was drying herself off with busy little paws. I sat with those sweet little animals for about ten minutes, as their tiny bodies were warming in the humid morning air. When it was clear to my mind that they would live to see the sun burst out from behind the morning’s storm clouds, I resumed my morning walk in the garden, albeit upon shaky legs and with eyes still full of tears of sadness and joy and tender feelings for small creatures.

Mack would have rescued those chipmunks, too. And, like her Momma Bear, she would have cried with worry over the unfortunate morning circumstances of their cold and terrifying swim and fretted over their recovery long after they finally scurried along to dry and warm places under the protective branches of a flowering shrub. For the remainder of my walk that morning, Mack stayed with me, bringing to mind all of the memories of her and her tender heart for animals. You see, I do not go to the garden to escape my grief. Rather, I go to walk beside my grief, and to learn how better to live with my grief. I go to share my present life with Mack, because she is and will always be with me. And because she is with me in my memories and in my daily life, she was with me, too, for the lucky rescue of those sweet chipmunks.

I do not often feel lucky, and on many days I feel almost as unlucky as any person who has ever lived. But on one early morning in the garden, I was lucky to have an unneeded umbrella, lucky to visit the Ottoman Garden first, and lucky to happen upon two precious creatures in need of a life preserver. Most of all, it was a lucky day to be reminded of how lucky I was to have Mack, and how lucky I am that early morning walks and the rescue of chipmunks can melt my still-broken heart, can reveal to me something of the beauty in the world, and can bring me a little much appreciated and necessary peace.

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