Stumbles, Restarts, and Stories

The year 2022 has been a struggle for me. In many practical ways, it was the first year for a fair evaluation of this new life of mine as a big-city-minded single woman in a small college town. The pandemic years were a false test, a stunting of my regrowth, and 2022 taught me nothing if not that I am still hoeing, most of the seeds remaining in my pocket for this project of my replanting. Hoeing is damned hard work, and my hands and my heart earned new calluses this year.

It was a year of head-down working, writer’s block, doubt, and lethargy. I was overwhelmed and scattered, wading in new waters of worries, some real but most imagined. I struggled to stay on task, giving in to uncharacteristic procrastination, and I was prone to wallowing in sorrow, like a sad little pig stuck in the mud. Walls and little dogs in the middle of the night are uninspiring audiences for a storytelling chatterbox, and my purpose in 2023 will be to seek a balance to my determined self-sufficiency and my tendency to be forlorn.

For all its struggle and sorrow and evidence for the need of self-improvement, 2022 was not all sad-sack and serious. I made some memories. I am wizened enough from grief to know that light exists in the darkness. I was busy and productive this year, working full-time as a joyful editor of the Jane Addams Papers Project, finishing up two years of work on an 800-page manuscript. I spent 650 hours writing and researching and pacing and thinking about the unusual book I am writing about my relationship with Abraham Lincoln. I planted and tended to my growing yoga garden, maintained a nurturing yoga practice, and settled into my volunteer activities. I enjoyed several weekend visits with my daughter and old friends, walked more than 1,500 miles, hosted a fall gathering around my fire pit, and read books and served craft cocktails on my peaceful porch. I took a few fun field trips in Mary Arizona, the brand new Ford Escape hybrid I purchased after finally letting go of my beloved Ellie, an 18-year-old Honda Element. I also enjoyed two short vacations, one to Washington, D.C., with my sister and niece, and another to Annapolis with my dear Springfield Sallies. Throughout the year, I had my writing group meetings, chats with neighbors, and so much good food at my sister’s house.

And I read 52 books. Although I lost the thread of my own story a little this year in the daily grind of getting by and getting through, there were stories all the while. Beautiful books, take-me-away tales, and stories of being human. Reading lifted me through the darker days, and I am grateful, always indebted to the magical quality of books to give me perspective, to transport me to other lands, to introduce me to other lives, to entertain me, to make me laugh and to cry and to think. The reading list this year was lighter than reading lists of the past, but perhaps the selections were my subconscious mind giving my busy, hard-laboring brain a break. There were stories of a fig tree, sexism and talking dogs, tragedy, grief, American slavery, and the Great Depression. Among the protagonists were native Americans, displaced Cypriots, dysfunctional families, a robot, grieving spouses, an African immigrant living in London, a lexicologist, orphaned boys, and flawed middle-aged women figuring shit out, the latter sometimes too much like me. There were stories about love, death, travel, war, marriage, ghosts, and honey bees, and, interestingly, nine books I read in 2022 spun stories about the power of words, the magic of book stores and libraries, or the truth that books can literally save our lives.

Below I offer you my humble reading list, complete with brief descriptions and my love ranking. The 21 great books with five or four hearts are ranked in the fairly precise order of my affection. The remaining books are merely categorized as the “The Good,” “The Pretty Good,” and “The Truly Awful,” the latter of which there are three. The Island of Missing Trees is my book of the year, and if you take any recommendations from my list at all, read that one. A more creative, beautifully written story, which weaves a tapestry of nature and humans and the present and the past, will not soon, if ever, be written. It is a story of all stories, inspirational and vast, intimate and true. I think I’ll take my cue from Elif Shafak, the novel’s gifted author, and keep my eyes open in 2023 for the inspirational and the true, existing in the wide world around me as well as in the corners of my own home and heart.

My Year of Stories

#1) The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak (2021): This is a gorgeous story about love and grief and ethnic divisions, which bends and sways like trees in an island breeze, across the distances humans create in their own hearts. At the center of this poetic tale is a fig tree, a unique historian and storyteller who understands the roots of the human characters’ emotions better than they to do themselves. And on every page is Cyprus, beautiful and tragic, and the trees and the birds and the insects, and the impermanence and the continuity of life. ♥♥♥♥♥

#2) Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus (2022): Elizabeth Zott is my favorite fictional person I met all year, and her dog Six-Thirty is hilarious. Bravo, bravo, Bonnie Garmus, for making me laugh while I raged against the men and the sexism that kept thwarting the main character’s perfectly reasonable ambitions. Lessons in Chemistry is smart and funny and right on the nose about the power of women to do what they want, in the way that they want, and to succeed on their very own terms. ♥♥♥♥♥

#3) The Sentence by Louise Erdrich (2021): Wait, what?!! This book is the author’s follow-up book to her Pulitzer-Prize winning novel? Holy cow. Oh, Louise, you wonderful word wizard, you. I want to be friends with Tookie, this book’s lovely and flawed main character who is bursting with soul. This book is real and mysterious, humorous and deep, and offering the best pandemic reflections I’ve read to date. I selected the audio book because it was read by the author, and I urge you to do the same. It is an exquisite story written and narrated by one of the best authors writing today. ♥♥♥♥♥

#4) The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams (2020): Words are the star characters of this imaginative, alternative story of the Oxford English Dictionary. Pip Williams has written a feminist and human portrait of words and their meanings on the tongues and in the imaginations of the people who speak them. It is such a treat to read fiction that allows the reader to escape to the past, but at the same time offering real-life food for thought for the modern world. Esme, the heroine of the novel, is another of my favorite characters this year.  ♥♥♥♥

#5) Oh, William by Elizabeth Strout (2021): This is the story of Lucy Barton that finally touched my heart. It took me longer than everyone else to get on the Strout bandwagon, but I am a happy passenger now. Lithe and also profound, this novel is the story of a marriage and the miracle of forgiveness. Strout is tender in this telling, and now I appreciate her gifts as a writer. ♥♥♥♥

#6) The Reading List by Sarah Nisha Adams (2021): Widower Mukesh is an isolated widower when he ventures out to his public library, and this heartwarming tale is the story of how this delightful old man learns, through the power of books, that he has so much more to live for and to give. I adore the intergenerational friendships in this novel and how reading books in common has magical power to connect us to each other. ♥♥♥♥

#7) The Music of Bees by Eileen Garvin (2021): I love and need good stories about grief, and this book is a treasure, the charming, human story about sorrow and lost souls, healed by the magic of unexpected friendship. The main character is a widow who throws herself into beekeeping and takes comfort in sharing her love of bees with the two misfits she hires to help her expand her business. The rich details about bees, beekeeping, and honey are a delicious bonus. ♥♥♥♥

#8) In Love: A Memoir by Amy Bloom (2022): This is a touching memoir about a wife honoring her husband’s choice to die on his own terms, before Alzheimer’s disease steals his essence away. Bloom is a terrific writer, and this is a heartbreaking, matter-of-fact memoir that is not overly sentimental. ♥♥♥♥

#9) Signal Fires by Dani Shapiro (2022): This beautifully spare and vastly human novel is the story of the ghosts that haunt us and the spirits that connect us. It begins with a fatal car crash in 1985 that takes the life of a teenaged girl, a story that breaks the lives of the people who survive it. It ends with the ways in which the people we lose keep on living, providing love and hope and connections we find in the rubble of our broken lives. ♥♥♥♥

#10) This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger (2019): I am not on my own drawn to coming of age stories of boys, but on the recommendation of my friend Sandra, with whom I share a love of books with deeply human themes, I listened to the audio version of this superb book. The story, set in the Great Depression, follows the desperate travels of a group of orphans, but it is about so much more than want and survival. It is an epic narrative about the families we choose, the experiences that shape our becoming, and the stories we keep to make us feel whole. ♥♥♥♥

#11) The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich (2020): Erdrich won the Pulitzer Prize for this book based on the story of her grandfather’s life, and it is compelling and classic Erdrich. Native American spirit meets struggle meets transformative human narrative that transcends race and ethnicity. This incomparable writer never disappoints me. Her voice is loud and clear and breathtaking. ♥♥♥♥

#12) The Lost for Words Bookshop by Stephanie Butland (2017): This story of the unfortunate life of Loveday Cardew made me laugh and cry and cheer. I stumbled across this book and didn’t expect much, but it is among the best audio books I enjoyed all year, artfully narrated by the incomparable Imogen Church. The heroine of the novel keeps on keeping on and eventually shines through; uplifting and lovely, and driving a story I did not want to end.  ♥♥♥♥

#13) Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole by Susan Cain (2022): I didn’t need this book to validate the way I am—a serious person who tends toward the melencholy—but it sees me in ways I never knew I needed to be seen. I am not a sad sack or a gloomy Gertrude, dammit, I am beautifully bittersweet, able to balance the hard and the soft and to see snippets of sunshine through the clouds of doom. I don’t embrace sad at the expense of happy; I simply understand that the happy means nothing in a life devoid of sorrow. Thank you, Susan Cain, for giving me my word: bittersweet. ♥♥♥♥

#14) All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (2014): I am late to this novel, but better late than never, because this is a damned good story well told. Horrible and beautiful, it is an elegant tale of war and love, death, the living, and the memories that bind us all up together in this shared, fragile, tragic, lovely, human existence, no matter the political or national boundaries or the divisions of our own hearts. ♥♥♥♥

#15) Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love by Dani Shapiro (2019): Who am I? is a question that occupies the mind of every human being at some point in our lives. Are we our biology? Our upbringing? And what happens if what we thought we knew about ourselves is shaken to the very core? This book is the fascinating and beautifully written story of what happened when a writer took a little DNA test that turned her identity upside down. All I learned when I took my DNA test was that I am a white AF, Anglo-Saxon all the way back to the big bang, but this story offers a very different outcome. ♥♥♥♥

#16) The Book Woman’s Daughter by Kim Michele Richardson (2022): One of the features of fiction I adore is the relationship the reader develops with a character over the length of a great novel. It’s the same reason I am not a lover of movies; I want to spend 10-20 hours with a character I love in the pages of book. This book, a sequel to The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, follows the life of the daughter of the packing horse librarian in the first novel, another strong, extraordinary woman character to respect and to admire. ♥♥♥♥

#17) The Library of Lost and Found by Phaedra Patrick (2019): What an unexpected pleasure this novel was with its quirky characters and the merging of fairy stories with the dark and the light of everyday, human life. The protagonist finds it easier to connect with books than people (I resemble that character), but she learns her heart is more open than she ever imagined. The book wins three hearts for being enjoyable and the fourth heart for surprising me, which is a rare and welcomed treat. Never underestimate a well written book to overcome the low expectations of its cover. ♥♥♥♥

#18) Love that Story: Observations from a Gorgeously Queer Life by Jonathan Van Ness (2022): I discovered Jonathan Van Ness when the rest of the world did: on Queer Eye, and he is one one of my favorite follows on Instagram. The world needs more lovely and wise humans like JVN. He is kind and honest, an original sweet spirit in a time of hateful public discourse. This book of essays offers dead serious commentary and is also a spontaneous backflip of good cheer. I listened to the audio version of the book, read by the enthusiastic and uproariously funny author, and I recommend you do the same. ♥♥♥♥

#19) Apples Never Fall by Liane Moriarty (2021): Moriarty is for the middle-aged woman what Dickens was for Victorian orphans. I always connect with her memorable characters, and I appreciate the darker side of her tales. This novel is about the Delaney family, the members of which love each other but might also want to kill each other, too. ♥♥♥♥

#20) Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel (2022): Strange, lovely, and provocative, this book bends time and broke my brain, which I loved. Books that make me want to stay wide awake and look alive to keep track of the clues and the characters are always winners with me. Futuristic stories are not my jam, but the story and connections of the characters in the future hellscape Mandel created helped me see beyond the genre. ♥♥♥♥

#21) Vladimir by Julia May Jones (2022). This is a dark comedy about sexual relations in a sleepy college’s English department. I laughed. I gaped. I yelled, “NO WAY!” The story is hilarious and crazy. A book way out of my reading lane, but I’m glad I swerved to read it. ♥♥♥♥

The Good..

Wintering: The Power of Retreat in Difficult Times by Katherine May (2020): This book did not make me love winter weather, but it was a thought-provoking book about wintering—for the season, for an illness, or for a deliberate stepping away from the world to find peace. The story of May’s own break during an illness will give me the courage to look at my wintering in 2023, during the winter months of January and February, quite differently, not as a banishment from the bad weather but as a time to rest, reflect, and renew my spirit, while keeping warm inside my cozy bungalow. “Life meanders like a path through the woods,” writes May. “We have seasons when we flourish and seasons when the leaves fall from us, revealing our bare bones. Given time, they will grow again.” Good advice, dear woman, and thank you for it. ♥♥♥

The Friend by Sigrid Nunez (2018): Intriguing. Strange, in a good way. Descriptions call it a novel about grief and love and dogs. But I think it’s more of a novel about how to write a novel from life and a story about unusual people. ♥♥♥

Call Us What We Carry: Poems by Amanda Gorman (2022): Gorman’s melody is clear and crisp and all her own. There is brilliance in this volume, but the poems are uneven; some are lost, a little off Gorman’s beat, others are a symphony of emotion and truth. She is a talented, intuitive young poet, and I will read whatever she offers. ♥♥♥

French Braid by Anne Tyler (2022): Not the best Anne Tyler novel by far, but even a mediocre novel by her is better than many great novels by other novelists. This book, which is the story of Garrett family and a family vacation in 1959, has all of the charm Tyler always breathes into the lives of her ordinary, yet eccentric, families. It is a joyful story she plaits here, about the fun and foibles of family. ♥♥♥

Eating the Sun: Small Musing on a Vast Universe by Ella Frances Sanders (2019): This little book is a perky and poetic collection of musings on science, our bodies, and the natural world. Great writing that makes science accessible always makes me happy, and when there are small stories within the big stories imagined in the telling, which there are here, all the better. ♥♥♥

Family Remains by Lisa Jewell (2022): A family murder mystery about secrets and lies, this thriller is fast, fun, and twisted. It is delicious junk food with no nutritional value whatsoever, like greasy potato chips you keep eating until the bag is empty. ♥♥♥

Then She Was Gone by Lisa Jewell (2017): The premise of this book is as dark as I’ve ever read—a missing child. I should not have read it. It was too painful. Too close. But I couldn’t stop turning the pages, which is the happy danger of a good thriller, right? The author also provided some of the truest observations on grief I’ve ever read, in fiction or nonfiction, like this one: “Losing a child ages you faster than a lifetime spent chain smoking on a beach.” ♥♥♥

The Nature of Fragile Things by Susan Meissner (2022). Set in the aftermath of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the story is an engaging one focused on the life of an Irish immigrant who is a mail-order bride and the way in which a horrible natural disaster set her free. I enjoyed the story and the pace, but I suspect the characters and the details will quickly melt away from memory. A tad better than junk food, but far from a memorable meal. ♥♥♥

The Madness of Crowds by Louise Penny (2021): I listened to this seventeenth instalment of the Inspector Gamache series (which has had two excellent narrators). I love this series for the artful unwinding of a mystery, the delightful Three Pines characters, and the literary, historical, and cultural references Penny always supplies. ♥♥♥

Watching You by Lisa Jewell (2018): This is a creepy story set in a swanky neighborhood of Bristol, England. Are the characters what they seem or something dark hiding beyond appearances? I thought I cracked this mystery in Chapter 60, but I was so wrong; and I love that! ♥♥♥

The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom (2010): I picked up a copy of this book while I was swapping books from my Little Free Library with another Little Free Library in town. It was a decent story with passable historical context. I admit that as a historian of race, it is hard for  me to read fictional stories about slavery in the American South. I am too critical, I suppose. The enslaved women in this story, however, are compelling, with souls that soar beyond the horrible circumstances of their physical lives. ♥♥♥

Invisible Girl by Lisa Jewell (2020): This is a solid thriller with an interesting plot about a lost guy who leans toward creepy and becomes embroiled in a mysterious disappearance. I discovered Lisa Jewell this year and read four of her novels. I like her style of unveiling a story, and her books helped me escape this year. Jewell is a page-turning master, but the downside of thrillers like this one, however, is that while they take me away, I seldom return home with any of the characters with whom I traveled. ♥♥♥

A Poetry Handbook: A Prose Guide to Understanding and Writing Poetry by Mary Oliver (1994): I fancy myself a poet, a bad poet of course, but a poet nonetheless. I picked up this old book in an effort to become a better poet. There are useful nuggets in this slim volume, but I refuse to accept Oliver’s opening statement: “Everyone knows that poets are born and not made in school.” I love Oliver’s poems, but I finished this guide feeling very disgruntled with her. ♥♥♥

The Hangman by Louise Penny (2010): This is a novella of the Inspector Gamache series I somehow missed. I listed to the audio book one night while I ate a leisurely dinner. Love, love, love Penny’s characters, and her style shined through even in this short murder mystery.

The Pretty Good…

The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley (2018): This story is set in the Scottish highlands, which is half the fun, and it swept me away on the winds. But, if I’m honest, I cannot remember a damned thing about it. Reading Foley is kind of like eating sugar all day and going to bed starving. ♥♥

Marrying the Ketchups by Jennifer Close (2022): I selected this novel because it was set in Oak Park, Illinois, a town with which I am very familiar. It is the story of a family of big personalities whose lives revolve around the family restaurant. The members of the family experience a catharsis when their patriarch dies and the Cubs win the World Series. It is a decent light summer read, offering a few giggles and some observations about bad omens, like what happens when the Cubs finally win and Donald Trump wins the Presidency. ♥♥

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson (2016): I would not normally choose a philosophy-of-life book written by a millennial man, but it was recommended so I gave it a listen. There was some wisdom within it, and I jotted down in my journal a couple of golden nuggets, but it ruined my affection for the word fuck. Now instead of dropping f-bombs I think I’ll switch to dropping oh-my-lands-bombs, instead. ♥♥

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro (2021): Artificial intelligence and friendship are the key themes of this odd story about what, I am not at all certain. A robot, yes. Teenagers, yes, but surely there is something else going on here in this book by the Nobel Laurette. I did not like this book, but perhaps I didn’t understand it. One heart for finishing the book, and a second heart because it confused me. ♥♥

The Guest List by Lucy Foley (2020): A wedding from hell could be the subtitle of this book. I enjoyed the audio version well enough, but even the mystic Irish landscape cannot forgive the outrageous coincidences employed to move the story. ♥♥

Love of My Life by Rosie Walsh (2022): A somewhat convoluted story about an obituary writer who discovers that his wife, the love of his life, is not who he thinks she is. The narrative is a little too slow to unwind, but the relationship at the heart of the story kept me reading, as did the main theme of the tension between the things human beings believe and the things they hide. ♥♥

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (2014): Did I love this book? No. Did I like it? I suppose I did. Kind of. I read it because I enjoyed Sea of Tranquility. Station Eleven is the story of what happens to a handful of people after a flu pandemic kills off most of the human population. I do not care for dystopian scenarios, but a couple of the characters in this one were compelling enough for two hearts.

The Messy Lives of Book People by Phaedra Patrick (2022): This is a cockamamie story of a voracious reader and house cleaner who works for a best-selling novelist who dies and bequeaths the house cleaner to finish her last novel. Hmm. I listened to the audio version of this book, and I think I might have liked it better if I had read it. The reader was fine in the main voice, but the voice she used for men scratched my nerves. Patrick’s story was zany and she is a good writer, but this book lacked the flit and the flare of The Library of the Lost and Found. ♥♥

The Night She Disappeared by Lisa Jewell (2021): This book about a young mother who goes missing offered me a good summer read for the porch and hard liquor. But one of the villains, who is a mother, was unbelievable to me. In fact, now I think about it, all of the characters were a bit off the mark. I hold all books I read to a high standard in terms of character development, and this thriller missed the mark by a kilometer. ♥♥

The Binding by Bridgett Collins: Slow, slow, slow burn this novel, with enough flame to keep you reading but by the end you are rubbing your hands together in front of the dying embers. Imaginative, I suppose, this fantastical story about how books are the stories of real people, bound to forget and for profit. One heart for the premise and another because I finished a mediocre 448-page novel about bad men. The story is kind of good, but the writing is awful, with sentences like “They laugh, like machines clanking.”  ♥♥

The Book of Two Ways by Jodi Picoult (2020): Starts strong, naps like a sleeping baby in the middle, and then falls from the sky, like the narrator’s airplane, landing with a thud. One heart because it was about an ancient book and Egyptology and another because I hoped Picoult might bring it in for a crash landing. She did not. Picoult is a popular writer, but she has disappointed me for the very last time. ♥♥

The Sisters of Glass Ferry by Kim Michele Richardson (2018): This novel followings the story of sisters in the South, whiskey, and family secrets. It is good, perhaps, if you like southern gothic. I do not. Nope. Not even Faulkner works for me. ♥♥

The Paris Apartment by Lisa Foley (2022): Far-fetched and disappointing, another best seller that left me cold. This novel is the story unlikeable people who lie and swindle. I finished the book to see what happened to Ben, even though he’s kind of a shit (although less so than the others), but this is a formula thriller that made me feel led by the nose. I wasn’t compelled by the characters and couldn’t get lost in the suspense like I did in the author’s other books. ♥

The Good Left Undone by Adriana Trigiani (2022): Too damn slow to unwind, this family epic set in Italy was disjointed and disappointing. The matriarch at the center of the story is somewhat compelling as a character, but the plot progress was contrived, and that letter at the end, a lame effort to wrap it all up, is the proof that I am right in my assessment. Whoever recommended this book to me, please wait a full year before recommending another one. Even though I can’t remember who you are, I’m mad at you. ♥

And the Truly Awful …

The Maidens by Alex Michaelides (2021): Not sure why I read this at all—a book about a male professor who collects women, one of whom ends up dead, will never be my cup of tea. The audio version was engaging enough to keep me listening, but I actively disliked the story and the characters. Don’t read it, but if you do read it tell me what you think. Maybe I missed something? ♥

The Private Librarian by Marie Benedict (2021): Oof. This book was a disappointment. I was excited about it because it followed the glamorous story of the female librarian J. P. Morgan hired to curate a collection for the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York City. Had I been reading it, I would have bailed, but since I was listening to the audio version and could walk or work on a jigsaw puzzle while I listened, I finished it. The main character is lacking, there is too much telling and not enough showing, and the dialogue is too modern. If you like good historical fiction, avoid this book. ♥

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah (2015). Yikes. Couldn’t finish this one, because nothing about it was historical. Hannah frustrates me. She is a good story teller and a decent writer, but some of her historical fiction, like this one that opens in France in 1939, is truly awful. Sorry. I realize she is beloved, but she has a lot of explaining to do about this WWII bomb.

Love Ratings

♥  Finished the book. I give books about 25 pages, and if I finish a book it gets at least one heart.

♥♥  Pretty good story, writing meh.

♥♥♥  Solid writing. Good story. Enjoyable, useful and/or important.

♥♥♥♥ Excellent writing and story. Taught me something or took me away and I was happy to go.

♥♥♥♥♥ Wonderful. Breathtaking. A book for my lifetime master list of great books.

Ice Cream, Grief, and Becoming

Dear Mack,

I had vanilla ice cream for dinner the other night at 9 p.m. I drizzled it with local honey and topped it with salted, roasted peanuts. I convinced myself it was food, an easy meal that would fill me up for the night. I was too tired to cook, too beaten up by the first day of October, a month that has haunted me since you left us. Anyway, I thought ice cream with nuts made the meal at least a notch above junk food. Not so bad, I lied to myself while I plopped the three small scoops into the bowl and added the toppings. When I added the whipped cream from the pressurized can, piling it up above the sides of the bowl, my “meal” went the way of indulgence, unwise for a lactose intolerant, middle-aged woman who should not eat anything so late, let alone ice cream.

But, of course, you showed up and nudged me, your face in my mind’s eye and your voice in my ear. “Eat it, Momma Bear,” you whispered. “Just do it.”

The ice cream was delicious, and I enjoyed it, even as I cursed myself for eating it so late. It tasted like a Payday candy bar. I love Paydays! Remember those, Mack? I often had one in my handbag when we were traveling all over the world for your basketball games. In the absence of gummy worms or sour Warheads, you would eat a Payday, in a pinch, even though you said you hated peanuts. Like you said you hated oats but always asked me to bake oatmeal cookies with dried cranberries. Like I say I hate ice cream because I hate milk, but I eat it often anyway because it is delightful and worth a little tummy ache.

You always come to me when I want to break my rigid rules, when I am pausing before something I enjoy, trying to talk myself out of it because I think I should. You help me see my truth and embrace it. You come to me almost every day, and you come for a million reasons, but when you come to absolve me of useless guilt and regret for being human, I am particularly grateful.

You are looking at me right now, smirking from the other side of my laptop screen. You’re giving me your crooked grin and shaking your head because I’ve spent too much time worrying about eating that late-night ice cream, and now, here I am, writing about it. Life is too short for lament, you say. Your stomach got over it and your heart was happy eating that ice cream, you say. I know you are right, but I cannot do it alone. I need backup. I need you. I will always need you.

You won’t want to hear this, Mack, but I am still grieving the loss of you. In that grief, I fight each day to live, and I power the struggle with my desire to make you proud. And because of you, because of my promise to you, I eat ice cream. I daydream on Sunday afternoons in a rocking chair on the porch when I should be doing the laundry or scrubbing a sink. I laugh out loud at myself when I trip on my own feet or bump my head on a kitchen cabinet I left open. I stop in my tracks to smile and giggle when some human absurdity catches my attention—like a middle-aged man walking down the street with his white socks pulled up over his calves, or pumpkin-spiced everything at the grocery store, or Pepper waking me up for a sip of water from the cup I keep for her on the bedside table. I know you are happy I can find laughter in this silly stuff, which lightens the burden of missing you. And I know the silly stuff is what gives me my best chance to see myself through the sorrow, to show me I need to go a little easy on myself.

You might like knowing that you taught me how to find joy, humor, and perspective. You continue to teach me these precious skills on which I must work but to you came naturally. You keep my serious in check, Mack, reminding me to laugh out loud every day if I can, especially on the days when all I really want to do is cry. You enable ice cream and pass no judgment. You are my guide in grace and gratitude and gusto; and all the positive attitude I am able to muster is all you, baby girl.

It would please you to know that am healthier than I was two years ago when I began charting a path all my own. I am becoming the human I need to be to live without you, to be independent, to put myself out there, and to find the right balance of productivity and pleasure, purpose and peace. I am still up and down, a little sideways, off and on, lonely, and uncertain. I am a work in never-ending progress. I still stand on wobbling legs, my heart skipping occasional beats to the broken rhythm of grief; and my progress of becoming is slower than I would like it to be. But my becoming is in progress, your spirit keeps me grounded, and though I don’t know where the path will lead me, I am walking there with you. I am moving forward in my remaking, in my becoming, and I am making a wish of it in honor of you.

A day without you is an eternity. Seven years? Infinity beyond an eternity.

And that is why I keep you with me. You are with me now and always. You are still laughing at me, making it a mission to keep me in balance. You are still lighting up what passes for my life without you.

You are not gone, my darling girl. You are here for ice cream. You are here to temper my grief. You are here to witness my becoming. No, you are here to be a part of my becoming.

You are here. You are here. You are here.

My New Spirit Place

In the shade beneath the feathery emerald branches of a weeping white pine in a secret garden, I closed my eyes. My yearning for the spirit therapy of the dawn redwoods I left behind, along with the rest of my life in St. Louis, was quiet. I had arrived at the new altar of my peace. I breathed in the joyful air of finding a treasure, and I exhaled the end of a two-year search—or, rather, a waiting—for a new spirit place.

I am curating a new life and redefining peace for myself in a charming, craftsman bungalow on a corner lot in a sleepy college town. It is still a restless, sorrowful, lonely journey, but I am well most days and comfortably tethered to the earth. But now that I have found The Whiteside Garden, I have a place for my spirit to wander, for my mind to wonder, and for my heart to continue its journey of healing. I finally have a place to contemplate life, to contend with grief, and to get the hell out of my head for an hour or two each week, away from home. A place to amble and write and commune with trees.

I extract a great deal of the vitamins I need to be emotionally healthy by tending to my old house, reading on my breezy, shady porch, and spending meditative time in the yoga garden I created all by myself. But I have spent two years looking for a replacement for my health-giving, Wednesday morning strolls through the Missouri Botanical Garden. I’ve spent two years pining (pun here intended) for a place that is serene but engaging, bright and shady and lovely, restorative and transcendent. The Lake Charleston trails are too rugged, the sidewalks of my historic neighborhood too noisy, the college campus too populated with ghosts of the past, and the bike trail, although vibrant with wildflowers and butterflies, too unsheltered from the punishing Midwestern sun.

The dawn redwoods and the Missouri Botanical Garden helped me begin my spirit’s healing. And now the weeping white pines and The Whiteside Garden, just two miles east of my new home, will tend to my spirit going forward.

Who knew I only needed to get in my car and drive across a state highway and a corn field, to find my new spirit place? It’s funny how simple the remedies for our sorrows often are. Funnier still how long it sometimes takes to find precisely what we need, although the remedy is so close, within shouting distance, or just around the corner. And isn’t it frustrating that some of our remedies, the life-altering, precious, restorative life medicine we need is often hidden behind an experience or acquaintance that has not, as yet, crossed our path? Is it not unfair that we must sometimes wait for that remedy to emerge from the randomness of life, from serendipity and stupid luck?

Oh, that life is short and still we must be patient.

The planets do not align for our singular benefit, but sometimes we do win the universe’s lottery. In fact, I find it to be mostly true that the elixirs and balms that have helped me to survive my grief have found me when I wasn’t looking. It is no surprise to me that I would find my new spirit place by happenstance. That at yoga one Friday morning at the end of summer I would meet a woman, and that the yoga teacher would introduce us and tell her I was new to the area. That the woman would give me her docent elevator pitch for The Whiteside Garden. That I would venture out into a dangerous heat wave to visit the garden later that morning. That a weeping white pine would greet me like I had known her my entire life. That I would stand under her gentle branches, sheltered in the impossible coolness beneath them, and know that my spirit was home.

The Whiteside Garden, the lifelong labor of love of Eastern Illinois University botany professor Wesley Whiteside, is small and charming, hemmed in by a busy state highway and central Illinois fields of corn and soybeans. Yet to me, it a grand thing, a majestic replacement for my beloved Missouri Botanical Garden. The weeping white pine a gracious gift to fill the void of the dawn redwoods. This glorious new spirit place is the perfect size, the perfect setting, for me right now, where I am in time and space, where I am in my journey of healing. Opened to the public just three months ago, The Whiteside Garden is also a new kid in town, just like me. Yet, as Professor Whiteside, who died in 2015, began cultivating the gardens surrounding his home in the early 1960s, before I was born, his legacy garden will be a wise teacher.


Winter Ughs and Uggs

Winter coming on as a global pandemic heats up is a one-two punch to my gut. Even winters passed with dear friends in warm kitchens and cozy pubs doesn’t melt the ice between me and the jerk Old Man Winter. The bitter air, the sleet and snow, the short days and the overcast skies, and turtlenecks and fleece that make my thin hair fly out kooky away from head make me grumpy. Seasonal Affective Disorder is not fake news. I get it every year. Black Friday means red-hot shopping deals for most people, but for me Black Friday means the arrival of my winter blues.

I hate the cold months. I abhor snow flurries. And as a daily pedestrian, I abominate sidewalk skating rinks created when an Illinois winter storm can’t decide whether it prefers to drown me in freezing cold rain or bury me under the snow. I am a sun worshipping, flip-flop wearing woman who loves to sweat and to bake my skin in the heat of a muggy Midwestern summer. I like my arms free of sleeves. I want to live every day in bare feet without socks and shoes hindering the wiggling of my painted toes. I love my freckles, bursting in July and August, when tomatoes are ripe and cold beer beats the heat at a backyard cookout with friends.

Summer is my season, and Thanksgiving, otherwise known as the American launch of Christmas, marks the end of it. No more Indian summers to keep me in denial. Thanksgiving fills up my belly with my sister’s wonderful food all jacked up on carbs and calories, but it leaves my summer-loving heart bitter and empty. Every year, just as the Thanksgiving sun sets and I’m falling into a food coma, winter shows up. It watches me get all liquored and fooded up on Thanksgiving, and as if to smite me—because that’s the kind of season winter is, a smiting season—it moves in while I am weak and whining about how much unhealthy food I have just consumed. And then, that jerk throws his winter blues at me when I’m too fat to get out of the way.

I don’t have a lot of coping strategies for my winter blues. My way is to cry about the cold, badmouth sledding and snow angels, and blame winter for my bah humbugging of Christmas. All of the standard winter rituals get me down. But there is one personal winter ritual that doesn’t completely ruin my life: the rotation of shoes in my closet. I put away my flip flops and Birkenstocks and hiking sandals, because they cannot make me happy when the temperatures drop into the thirties. I pull out my embarrassingly extravagant collection of Ugg boots. When the weather turns cold and wet in the days after Thanksgiving, and the furnace has kicked on to stay on for the next three and a half months, I slip my feet into a pair of my beloved, shearling-lined Uggs.

Ahhh. Toasty and warm. Uggs give me a spirit power. Uggs are my way of sticking up my middle finger to winter. The first feeling of this ritual cuddling of my feet makes me smile. It makes my toes and my heart toasty warm. I know I will still curse the winter, swear at every flurry that flies. But I also know that my feet will be luxuriously warm all winter while I dream about next summer.

Holidays are hard without Mack. This year I also had to endure Thanksgiving without Savannah and her husband Levi, without my mom and her husband Mike, and without my friend Dan, who has been joining our feast for years. Grief is always a challenge, but in a pandemic it has tested the limits of my ability to cope. Thank goodness for my sister Tracy, who fed me, albeit in the driveway at a healthy distance from her and my brother-in-law Jason and their daughter Zoe.
I did enjoy a couple of holiday cocktails, including this gin and jam with fresh cranberry sauce and rosemary. I toasted Mack, like I always do, after curating my perfect last bite in her honor: homemade egg noodles, mashed potatoes, and a dab of fresh cranberry sauce.

Mums and Memories

ghost white mums in the garden, tinting to purple, hinting of MACKENZIE and the day I lost her, six years ago wednesday.

ghost white mums in the sunshine, embracing the autumn, while I brace for grief the color of milestones in hues of dark days.

mums and ghosts in the garden, tinting my memories, hinting of MACKENZIE, the love and the joy of her, forever from sunday.

That face—forever.

Ode to My Silver Maple

The tree in my backyard is going away. She’s a silver maple, 70-feet or so in height, stretched out wide across the lawn, her branches heavy with shiny, lush ivy. She’s been standing in her spot, growing up and out for more than thirty years, shading the back side of my 1919 bungalow and sheltering generations of wildlife families. Her presence in the yard was not a factor in my decision to buy this old house last fall, but when I first toured the property and stood under her cooling canopy on that muggy August afternoon, I pictured summer evening meals with friends beneath her leafy umbrella. I certainly had no plans until recently to kill her.img_1632

She’s not dead or rotting, and she’s not that old, either. But she’s a tree-quirky thing and potentially dangerous. Her codependent trunk, with its five enormous branches, and her daring proximity to my backdoor make her a menace, “unfit for a small yard” said two arborists who sealed her fate with pronouncements of eventual doom. “She’s gonna come down at some point,” said one of them, “and she might take out your house in the bargain.”

Her massive limbs reach halfway across my roof and also threaten the cottage behind me, along with the back porches of the old, historic homes on either side of my house. She’s on borrowed time in her uprightness, vulnerable to injury by a lightning strike or by heavy winds in thunderstorms, which are frequent on the Illinois prairie. It is better to bring her down peacefully and to keep the insurance companies out of it. In my head, removing the tree is a smart choice. In my heart, I feel a little bit like a murderer. Unlike the arborist who is cutting her down for a king’s ransom, I cannot take such a purposeful felling lightly. I feel the natural as well as the unnatural weight of responsibility for the tree’s demise. I have even shed tears over my decision, not only for the dent her removal is putting in my savings account, but also for the loss of the tree’s beauty and for the well-being of her current inhabitants.

There is a red squirrel, a fat one with a fabulous tail, who I see most mornings from my bathroom window, as she is perched on one of the tree’s outstretched branches. That squirrel is a friendly neighbor, and I cannot explain to her that her home will be soon be destroyed. What will the warbling vireos do now but move on down the street, perhaps too far away for me to hear their lively, insistent singing. I expect, as well, to lose my regular midnight visits from the barred owl, who coos high up in the silver maple’s branches. I’m less remorseful about the fate of a colony of five million box elder bugs living in and around the tree, but my heart aches for the nesting cardinals who will not return to my back garden in the spring.

img_1634Seeking professional advice on the tree and deciding to defer to the expertise of arborists forced me to overrule the faintness of my heart to kill such a large, living creature. Instead of dwelling on my nature-loving feelings for the tree, I’ve been thinking about all the hours I will be able to read instead of raking her fall leaves and her damnable helicopter-seed pods. I’ve imagined all the herbs I will be able to grow next summer, just outside of the back door, where the sunshine will paint the yard in the place of the deep shadows cast in the last living summer of my silver maple. It will be lovely, I remind myself, to fall asleep to the rolling thunder of a storm instead of being frantic and awake, waiting for the tree to crash down through the roof and kill me and the dogs in our own bed.

Yes, yes, I know, I know. It’s just a tree, and I’ve never been that much of a treehugger anyway. She is a tree, I agree. But is a tree really just a tree? Isn’t a tree also a beautiful, green, living thing, cleansing the air, providing shade, sheltering wildlife, and connecting us to the earth? My tree has lived well and fulfilled her promise, providing fast growing shade and massive sanctuary for birdsong. I think she is deserving of this ode, because it is not her fault a previous owner of my house planted her so thoughtlessly. I honor her utility and grace and beauty; and when the chainsaw makes its first assault upon her bark, I will feel the pain of it.

I suspect, however, that it will take me far more time to recover from the size of the check I will write to pay for the tree’s removal than from the size of the space the tree will vacate in my back garden. Perhaps the high cost of removing a 70-foot silver maple is a penance for murdering her. Perhaps the economic pain of this felling will help me ease some of the heartache of losing the tree and the shade and the birds, as well.





Finch Finds Fern for Family

CHARLESTON, Ill., May 25, 2020— A pair of house finches have moved into the scrawny fern on the eastern side of Stacy Lynn’s porch. The mother-to-be finch built the nest secretively sometime last week, and it was discovered today that she had laid four eggs in it. She was seen sitting on the eggs and tweeting. Tweeting as in chirping, not as in Twitter. Finches in this neighborhood are not yet online.

Momma Finch Looks On

Stacy Lynn, the home owner and a new bird nerd, said she was surprised to discover the eggs. “I’ve been hearing that finch and seeing her fly out of the fern,” she said, “but I had no idea she’d made the nest!”

“I’m delighted, and I can’t wait to meet the babies,” she added.

Since the nest will soon be home to a family of six, bird protective services stopped by for a home visit. As the situation was investigated, the male finch, a first-time father, puffed up his red feathers, bold like a cardinal, and nervously watched from a nearby tree.

A cardinal couple on the other side of the front lawn looked on, and six house sparrows and a common grackle made up the crowd that had gathered in the rosebud tree next to the sidewalk.

To secure the little family’s new home, there is a temporary restraining order around the immediate perimeter of the fern. That order, along with a moratorium on the watering of the fern, will help ensure the health and wellbeing of the unborn chicks. Stacy Lynn has agreed to respect the young family’s privacy.

The mother finch and the eggs are safe from the weather in the fern, which is under the eaves, and although the nest is very near Stacy Lynn’s front door, she assures the bird authorities that there hasn’t been much activity at the door in the past two months anyway, so she said the young finch family would not be inconvenienced by the gathering of strange people. All agreed the little family would likely thrive in this location.

The planet is dying, the world finds itself in the death grip of a terrifying pandemic, and American democracy is going down the tubes, but all the creatures in the yard, including a fat angry bee that kept buzzing the reporter, agreed that the news of four baby finches on the way was happy news. Happy news, indeed. It’s a sign of hope and the beauty of life.

“Nothing better to celebrate like new baby birds in springtime,” hooted the barred owl up the block.

Mack-Day Mood

Today would have been, should be, Mack’s twenty-sixth birthday. Maybe twenty-six would have been the age when she finally admitted she was a “grown-ass woman.” Oh, probably not. Who am I kidding? It was a status she was never eager to attain. When she was ten she declared to me her intention to remain ten forever, and I could see in her dirty, freckled face that she was speaking her truth. I never doubted the veracity of her assertion, either, because even when she became a serious student in college she never let go of the child she was at ten. Both of her parents are old souls, but a youthful heart was in Mack’s DNA. She inherited my father’s Peter-Pan gene, the gene that sits between the goofball gene and the I’m-gonna-eat-junk-food-and-sit-on-the-couch-in-front-of-the-TV-all-day gene. She inherited both of those other genes from Frisky Pratt, too.

As Mack’s inner circle of close friends are each making their own way in the world now as grown-ass women, I have been passing many melancholy minutes lately wondering where Mack might be living and what career she might be pursuing if she was still here. So deeply pulled into these wonderings, or daydreams I guess you might call them, I sometimes wake up and fifteen minutes are lost and a vivid scenario of Mack’s could’ve-been life is flashing like an illustrated storybook in my brain. Mack dreamed of a writing career in television, and that is my favorite daydream for her. She’s a writer for a sit-com in Hollywood. She’s working with Joss Whedon to bring back Buffy the Vampire Slayer. She’s pitching Mack’s Makin’ Bacon, her own comedy cooking show for the Food Network. Or she’s living in my guest bedroom writing a screenplay. Goodness but do I yearn for that latter daydream. But daydreams are not terribly productive, I’m afraid, and Mack’s old-soul Momma Bear usually awakens from those daydreams emotionally bruised, sadness giving way to anger at all that Mack missed out on and all the things that have happened that I have been denied sharing with her. Like her twenty-sixth birthday.

Milestones like birthdays are trigger points for grief. The day will be rough. There isn’t enough candy in the world to sugar coat that truth. The paradox of my grief is that every day I must live in a world without my daughter, I get another day of practice living in a world without my daughter. The pain is no less keen, but the callouses of long-time sorrow limit the blood loss when the sharpness of a milestone, or a bad day, break open the heart. Again. And again.

I will no doubt pass a few melancholy minutes. However, I won’t be wondering what Mack would be doing on her twenty-sixth birthday, because I’ll know exactly what she would be doing if she was here. She would be embracing social distancing, happy for an excuse to be alone on her couch in front of the TV, eating junk food. She’d settle in for a birthday-binge-watching bonanza, surrounded by Funyons, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, sour candies, two giant cans of Arizona Iced Tea, and the best looking Italian sub, wrapped in plastic, that was available in the deli case of the convenience store where she shopped for her birthday feast. She would get comfy with her two dogs, one an Irish wolfhound and the other a pug, and both named for characters on television (maybe Leslie and Ann, but who knows with that kid?). She would spend the day watching shows she’d already seen a hundred times, consume her food in cozy sweatpants and reclined repose, text her besties and her momma and her sissy, giggle to herself, and tweet about the upsides of quarantines and restaurant closings and how she wished her school had been cancelled for a month when she was a kiddo.

Mack would not be mad that COVID-19 ruined her birthday, cancelling dinner plans or drinks with friends. She wouldn’t see it that way at all. She would look at the down time as a chance to relax, be alone with her own thoughts, and do absolutely fucking nothing. Every day I miss Mack, and today I’ll miss her more. Every day I talk to her, and today will be no different. She’s heard a lot of swearing lately, because I frequently dial her in for my dialogue with the morning and evening news. She’ll laugh as I let the f-bombs fly, and she’ll shake her head at me because she thinks I let the orange moron and his clown-car of a government get too much under my skin. “Sure, Momma Bear, he’s a genuine ass,” she’ll say, “but don’t let him push all of your buttons.”

As soon as my eyes pop open I’ll miss kissing Mack on that big freckle on her left cheek. I’ll shed some tears into my morning coffee. I’ll take Mack with me to vote in the Illinois Democratic Primary, let her pick which old codger I vote for, and I’ll tell her how furious I am that I didn’t get to vote for Elizabeth Warren. I’ll try not to swear at NPR, protect one or two of my buttons, and take Mack’s lead and relax. It’s her birthday, after all, so we all should let her make the plan. I’ll probably need Mack’s spirit to stick around for the entire day, and maybe she’ll bring her grandpa with her. I trust Mack will chill me out when I get upset that COVID-19 is keeping me from the draught Guinness I traditionally enjoy on her birthday. I trust she will keep me grounded in the present, holding my hand as I take the day as it is and give myself up to the cool breeze of life, hitting my cheeks and reminding me to live and to breathe and to refrain from counting the calories and the dairy content of the Mac-n-Cheese my sister is planning for dinner.

Leprechaun 2

Mack Day 2020 will be a rough day. That is no lie, and certainly no joke. But when it’s over, I will put my head down on my pillow next to gratitude. Gratitude for Mack and her presence in my life. Gratitude for the vibes of a Mack-Day mood. For twenty-six years, first in person and now in spirit, my daughter has been teaching me about life. I am not always a quick study in Mack’s be-chill school, but old souls always at least try to be at the head of the class. I am a work in progress, and Mack knows it. I’ve got a sneaking suspicion she hangs around not only to tease me and to teach me, but to make sure I don’t beat myself up for not getting straight “A”s.

Throw the Damned Discus

When she was in the sixth grade, Mack came home from school one day and announced, “I’m going out for the track team.”

“But you hate running.” I said.

“I’m not gonna run,” she replied, looking at me as if I was crazy to think was going to run.

“But people on track teams run around a track. That’s why it’s called track,” I said.

“It’s track and field, mother. I’m gonna high jump and throw discus. In the field,” she stressed, annoyed.

I skipped over the high jump part, because, yes, I thought she could actually probably do that, she did possess very long legs. But I looked at her noodle arms and her lanky and un-muscular body, and I did not see any comparative physical quality in my twelve-old-girl to the thick-set, muscled discus throwers I had seen in the Olympics. Yes, it is true, I went from zero (six-grade track and field) to 100 (Olympic-caliber discus throwing) in .3 seconds flat.

“But you don’t know how to throw a discus, do you?” I asked, confused.

“No. The eighth graders will show me.”

“But have you ever even held a discus?” I asked.

“No. I will at the tryouts, though,” she answered, looking at me like…duh.

“But…um…do you think you’ll be able to throw it very far?” I gazed at her noodle arms again, and even thought about poking where a bicep should be. Mack looked up at me curiously, with no furrowed, worried brow on her sweet freckled face as she, I suppose, prepared her response to my ridiculous questions. And then she absently shrugged and ran up to her room.

As Mack’s mother at that moment, I had been full of worry and fear that she would fail. I mean, just look at what an unsupportive ass I was employing all of those “buts” in my discussion with her! As Mack’s mother now, however, I am filled with wonder at my daughter’s matter-of-fact approach to living. She wanted to be on a spring sports team with her friends, and since she did not enjoy running, she chose high jumping and throwing the discus instead. She had no idea if she could do either one. “What the heck” and “why not” were her mantras, and questions like “what if I can’t do this” or “what if people see me fail” did not hold any sway with her.

This discus-throwing decision was not a moment in Mack’s athletic life when she knew going in that she would be good at something new. Rather, this was a moment in her life when she was going to try something new even though she might not be able to do it. Whereas I failed to see Mack’s discus-throwing potential and worried she would fail, Mack thought it was ridiculous to be worried about an outcome that, either way, would be perfectly fine. I also failed all those years ago to see the life lesson my little girl was standing there in my kitchen teaching me. She was not afraid to try something new not so much because she might enjoy it and might be good it. Rather, Mack was not afraid to try something new because she saw no shame in the failure to succeed at something new.

On Wednesday, I am going to throw the discus. Well, I am going to try something new, something that I may or may not be good at. I am going to begin teaching a six-week writing class for an adult, continuing-education program in suburban St. Louis. I want to become a part of a community of writers who share their joys of writing and their struggles with the craft of writing, and for me right now in my life that means teaching. I have taught history and I consider myself a writer, but the teaching of writing is a whole new thing for me. The old me would have been terrified at such a risky prospect.

However, for the past week, as I have finalized my syllabus, gathered my readings, prepared my writing prompts, and thought about all of the things I want to share with my first small group of writing students, I have also spent much time thinking about the sixth-grade Mack and her attitude about throwing the discus. “What the heck” and “why not,” I keep saying to myself. I want to do this, I’m going to give it a try, and I refuse to be terrified (although I am just a little bit scared). I do not want to be that fearful mom who stood in the kitchen all those years ago injecting doubt in the form of a whole lot of buts. I want to be the sixth-grade Mack, ready to throw the discus no matter how far the damn thing might go. Mack did not worry about how it might turn out, she worked hard, and she became a pretty good middle-school discus thrower. Channeling her, I will try not to worry about how far the teaching might take me, I plan to work hard, and, hopefully, I will turn out to be a pretty good first-time writing teacher.

Anyway, it is far too late to be terrified. This new thing of mine is in motion, and I intend to face it with the resolve of a sixth-grader who sees no reason not to try something new and no shame in the outcome, whatever that outcome might be. Besides, Mack is now standing in the peripheral vision of my memories cheering me on from behind the fence: “Just throw the discus, Momma Bear, and everything’ll be alright.”

P.S. My daughter Savannah, who is a bleeding-heart, not-for-profit, liberal-arts-educated young woman, just started an executive MBA program at the University of Illinois. Talk about not being afraid to try something new! Here is the great big giant truth of my life, people: I have learned more from my two girls than I could ever have dreamed of teaching them. I just wish I would have started letting them teach me a whole hell of lot sooner.


This is the 8th-grade Mack, by then an experienced discus thrower, competing at a track and field meet at Southeast High School in Springfield, Illinois.

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: