Mack Memo #5: Just Be Cool

A very cool math teacher Mack had in middle school assigned his students to construct an item that he could stand on without breaking. He was a big fella with a big sense of humor, and Mack thought it was just about the coolest homework she ever had. It was one of those rare school projects that she did not procrastinate, and she immediately engaged her Papa Bear and his carpentry skills to meet the challenge.block I cannot now recall the particular details of the assignment, but there were rules about dimensions and weight and solid objects did not qualify. Mack and her dad dug through the scrap wood in the basement, did some measuring and sawing, and came up with a hefty little step (measuring in at 11¾” x 5.5″ x 2¾”) with a big hole in the middle of it. Not satisfied that the bare wood did the successful design justice, Mack personalized it in Irish-green spray paint and some stick-on letters.

That green, math-teacher-holding block of wood sat around in Mack’s bedroom in Springfield for years (responsible for at least a couple of stubbed toes and a few creative screams of obscenities) and got packed up and moved to her bedroom in St. Louis, too. She displayed it on her desk, a funny reminder of a cool teacher. Now it occupies a corner of the bureau in my bedroom, a funny reminder of a cool kid. Every day, this unique artifact of Mack’s life catches my attention, and memories of her cool persona make me smile. When Mack applied those letters to write “Mack is Cool!” on the block, she was just being silly, putting her witty mark on a witty school project. But now those letters preserved on that green block of reclaimed wood forever encapsulate the spirit of Mack’s cool. Mack really was always so damn cool. But not just the too-cool-for-school kind of cool. Mack was also cool in the cool-as-a-cucumber kind of cool. And it was the refreshing combination of those seemingly contradictory cools that contributed so much to Mack’s charm and magnetism. It was also that healthy combination of cools that gave her astounding inner and outer peace. Mack exuded a cool confidence and lived her life with the easy calm of a warm, ocean breeze. Mack’s be-cool-because-it’s-all-cool attitude kept her even-keeled and happy and it also rubbed off on the people in the room with her. Mack-cool had a way of diffusing tension, lowing blood pressures, and making fast friendships.

This morning as my eyes rested on that green block of wood and the “Mack is Cool!” lettering, I said out loud: “You know what, Mack? Everyone in the world could use a whole bushel basket full of your brand of cool in 2017.” I could picture a crooked smile forming on Mack’s lips as she said: “Well, then just be cool, Momma Bear. It’s super simple. Just. Be. Cool.” But while cool came naturally to my sweet girl, I do not possess that gift, and I have lived long enough to know that it does not comes so naturally to most people, either. Because it is, actually, very difficult to be cool when the disagreements between people are fundamental. It is very difficult to be cool in the face of the political, economic, and social chasms that divide us. It is very difficult to be cool with people when there is no foundation of assumed facts and shared values to build bridges across such wide divides. I believe that all of these difficulties will become increasingly harder in 2017, because the incoming president thrives on those divisions between us and seeks so readily to maintain them. Since November, I have found it extremely difficult to keep my cool. But anger stands in where cool should be, and as is so very often the case, anger has accomplished nothing. In fact, my anger has settled into my bones and it has been making me sick. I really do not wish to spend 2017 angry and sick, so I need to get me a whole bushel basket full of Mack-cool. Like me, Mack would have been disappointed in the 2016 election and the divisive words and actions of the president-elect would have startled her. But Mack would have stayed cool. She never would have let anger settle into her bones and make her sick. “Just be cool, woman,” she would have told me. “Just. Be. Cool.”

So being Mack-cool in 2017 is gonna be my goal. I will no doubt fail at various points along the way and occasionally scream an obscenity or two at the news or Twitter, but I promise to emulate Mack as best as I can. I will try to get me some cool and keep the anger out of my bones. This does not mean that I will accept the political propaganda, the divisive rhetoric, and the hateful lies that have been so successful in robbing me of my cool. It just means that I will try to manage my responses the way Mack would have managed hers. Because holding onto anger really does make you sick; and all I really want to do anyway is just be cool like my Mack. I suppose it is entirely possible that if I find a little success in this cool endeavor, I might be able to make some small difference in the world. But at the very least, though, my weary bones will thank me for giving them a lighter load to carry.

Mack Memo #5: No matter what happens, no matter what is said, always be cool. Cool looks good on you. Cool influences friends and wins restful slumbers. Just. Be. Cool.

Life on the Monkey Bars

In the fall of Mack’s second grade year, she fell off the monkey bars during recess and broke her arm. When I arrived at the school to pick her up, she was sitting on a plastic school chair in the office, and the playground monitor, a woman named Rachel whom I had known for many years, was supporting Mack’s arm on her clipboard. Mack was not crying and, in fact, she and Rachel were giggling, no doubt sharing some sports-related playground secret. But I almost cried when I bent down to inspect her arm. Although the skin was not broken, Mack’s poor little radius bone was grossly protruding upwards, clearly snapped free from the wrist. Mack looked up at me with those deep, warm, and brown eyes of hers and said, “Can I get some candy for this boo-boo?” Rachel looked at me, shook her head and said, “Not a tear. Just plans for candy.”

Mack never cried about that badly broken arm, not from the physical pain nor from the disappointment of the premature end to her tackle football season. She did not complain about the discomfort of the cast, and, in fact, she bragged about her colorful choice for the first large cast and wore the smaller purple cast that followed like a badge of monkey-bar honor. With the exception of a good punching of her sister, who laughed at the woolly arm that emerged when the purple cast came off, Mack kept that broken arm perfectly in perspective. As was typical, she never dwelled on her problems, big or small. And, perhaps most importantly, as soon as that cast was off, she was right back on those monkey bars. It was always her inclination to take in stride inconveniences and disappointments, and she never allowed life’s bumps and bruises to replace her joy for a thing with fear.

I recognized those qualities of Mack’s character at a very early age, and I admired them, partly because they were so unique in a little kid and partly because I was incapable of naturally emulating them myself. Mack always was a bigger human being than her Momma Bear. She put her seriously injured arm in her stride. She kept calm and carried on with her life as if the pain and the inconvenience was of no consequence. She never hunted for sympathy or felt sorry for herself. In contrast, when an old, rope-hung window smashed the three middle fingers of my prominent hand, I wailed like a baby, demanded sympathy from anyone who would listen to the story of my injury, and complained at the inconvenience during the entire healing process. It became a family inside joke for many years afterwards that I sure did talk a lot about those smashed fingers of mine.

This fall, I suffered a serious professional and personal disappointment that knocked me off of my feet. Earlier in the year, the Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield seized control of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln, a project for which I had worked for twenty years, and forced me out of my scholarly editing position in November. True to form, I cried, ranted, and raved about how unfair it was that being a long-serving, exemplary employee with a project I had helped to build ended up being worth so little. My appointment is with the University of Illinois Springfield and not with the Library, so I was not losing a paycheck or benefits, just being reassigned. Instead of feeling lucky that I still had a job, I took to feeling very sorry for myself, moping around, casting blame, and holding a whole hell of a lot of negative energy in my soul.

Then I thought about Mack’s broken arm, or rather her gracious handling of the injury. I pictured that sweet little kid sitting there on that school chair, her grotesque wrist quietly  balanced on that clipboard, and those big brown eyes, free of tears, as she asked me for candy. I remembered how Mack happily cheered on her football team from the sidelines during the Super Bowl victory from which that broken arm had kept her, never moping or feeling sorry for herself for missing the opportunity to play that day. And I remembered how she popped right back up onto those monkey bars just as soon as her arm was healed, because it was not in her nature to do otherwise.
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Mack understood that life’s bumps, bruises, and disappointments were a part of the journey, and dwelling on them and sucking the people around you into the vortex of your self-pity is a really rotten way to spend a day. Given what I have learned about unexpected tragedy, genuine personal loss, and the cruel companion that is grief, I should not need a refresher course in perspective. But, alas, I do. Frequently, I admit. Unlike my precious Mack, my sense of calm and perspective is an ugly and imperfect work in progress. I needed the memory of Mack’s arm and her incredible grace, and it was just the slap upside my head that I needed. Now instead of moping about my lost position, I am pouring my enthusiasm into my new challenge at the University, helping develop a plan for a campus institute for Abraham Lincoln Studies. The example of Mack’s brave endurance and fearless resolve also inspired me to take a risk and make a creative application for a part-time, scholarly editing position at the Jane Addams Papers Project. On December 9, I accepted the position, which offers the exhilarating challenge to study a different historical era for me and explore a new professional path. Mack no doubt would have made a crack about how it was past time for me get out of Lincoln’s grill, and I can hear her vociferous approval of my new scholarly focus on an important humanitarian and feminist.

What I had at first interpreted as a nasty, unexpected, professional curve-ball, I now see as a big, fat softball coming in across the middle of the plate. Mack is, as always, coaching me to hit the ball out of the park. My latest Mack-reality check helped me to not only put the disappointment in my stride, but also to get back up on the monkey bars. Of course, I am uncertain about what the future of my new professional opportunities will hold, but I know I have the heart to give them my best effort. And with Mack swinging on the bars next to me, smiling from ear to ear, I will endeavor to keep the bumps, bruises, and disappointments along the way in the proper perspective.

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Voting for Mack

This 2016 campaign for the Presidency has been an emotional one for me. The hate-mongering negativity of the Republican candidate has enraged me. The blatant sexism, racism, and the terrifying Know-Nothing ideology of many Trump supporters has brought real sadness to my heart. The offensive tenor of the debates and the shocking rhetoric of Trump’s campaign has tested my faith in America. Last night, my restless slumber illustrated the depth of my campaign anxiety, my Fitbit recording just 2 hours and 27 minutes of sleep. Election Day 2016 clearly weighed heavy and dark upon my racing mind. I awoke bone tired, but I also awoke with a renewed sense of civic duty, with a hopeful spirit and a readiness to put this ugly campaign behind us, with enthusiasm to cast my vote for the first woman president of the United States, and with Mack whispering in my ear to get thee to the polls. Because even my morning-adverse Macko was up early on this historic Election Day.

Mack was a liberal, open-minded, justice-loving feminist who never saw race, ethnicity, religion, or sexual preference as barriers to a Big-Mack hug. She did not believe in walls or hate or politics of exclusion. In her life, Mack always understood that love trumps hate; and this campaign would have only strengthened her loyalty to the personal philosophy she so naturally embraced. And so, for Mack. For me. For the very best of the American character, I voted for Hillary Clinton and for the Democratic Party all the way down the long, Missouri ballot. As my Mack would have been, so too am I excited about this historic election. Because it is time for a woman to lead us. Because it is time to put hateful, bitter, and divisive politics behind us. Because it is time to celebrate the characteristics and values that make America great: diversity, equality for everyone, freedom of religion, open and democratic debate, civic mindedness, and compassion and empathy for all of our fellow human beings.

Mack, this one’s for you, my angel.

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Mack Memo #4: Nothin’ You Can Do About It Now

One Sunday many years ago, Mack, her dad, and I headed home from a youth basketball tournament just like we did on so many Sundays during Mack’s competitive basketball career. We passed through the University of Illinois campus, where we had spent the weekend. We traversed nearly the entirety of the twin towns of Urbana and Champaign. We drank leftover Gatorade and engaged in some small talk, perhaps about the basketball facility, a bad ref, or a Mack-crazy assist to one of her favorite inside targets. But soon we settled in for the ninety-minute drive home to Springfield, and then Mack tuned out with her headphones, ear spray wafting up to me in the front passenger seat. It was a typical afternoon in our basketball lives. But as we were cruising at 75 mph on Interstate 74, nearing the town of Monticello, a soft little voice, quiet and matter-of-fact, whispered from the back seat: “Hey, mom, do you have my basketball bag?”

Of course, I did not. Of course, I yelled a few obscenities, demanding answers as to the said bag’s whereabouts. Of course, Mack feigned investigative effort, leaning over the back seat of my Honda Element to search the trunk, but knowing full well that the bag was sitting on the sidewalk outside of the recreational center on the University of Illinois campus, so many fucking miles behind us. As I loudly recited a list of the bag’s contents, offering appraisals as to each item’s monetary value, Mack maintained the resting heartbeat of a person who was sleeping. As I frantically, and maybe even a little hysterically, called coaches who might have stayed behind after we were gone, Mack was cool and composed in the face of the unfortunate situation and in the path of her Momma Bear’s wrath. While I raged at her about responsibility and warned about consequences of the lack thereof, Mack’s easy breathing in the vicinity of my stress over her lost basketball apparel, would have been the envy of even the most secluded Buddhist monk. As she always did in unfortunate situations, Mack remained perfectly relaxed and serene even in the knowledge that she might never again see her beloved and perfectly broken-in Nike high-tops. As she frequently said, and certainly uttered in some form or another on that day as well, “Oh, well,” shoulders shrugging, “nothin’ I can do about it now.”oh-mack

As it turned out, Mack’s basketball bag made its way into the car of a coach of another team who recognized the Predator logo upon it. There was no hard lesson for Mack to learn and, in fact, the good luck only reinforced Mack’s perspective on the whole sordid affair. When the bag with the entirety of its contents returned to her, Mack sweetly reminded me of how much energy I had expended in the car that day. Mack knew that sweating and fretting and carrying on was of no use. It could not change the fact that Mack, distracted by giving hugs to parting competitors and teammates, had left the bag sitting on the sidewalk in the first place. It did not cause a coach who knew Mack’s team to recognize the bag and pick it up for safekeeping. And even if the bag and those beloved Nikes had been lost forever, Mack knew that sweating and fretting and carrying on had no power to change that either.

For years, this Mack story was just one of dozens of illustrations of the peaceful and lackadaisical quality of her nature in striking contrast to the frenetic and worry-wart quality of my own. But during this past year, I have been practicing meditation and the basic principles of mindfulness in an effort to quell my anxiety and to lead my restless mind to some peace. In this personal journey, Mack’s natural sense of peace has been my guide, and this particular Mack story is now an inspirational one for me. Though I am still very much a novice, my practice is beginning to make a positive impact on the health of my mind, I now understand better how Mack possessed such a healthy and happy spirit, and I am finding some clues about how to make my spirit happy, as well. While I know I will never achieve Mack’s level of calm, because of her and with her as my guide, I am working very hard to one day be the kind of person who might inadvertently forget a bag of necessary and favorite items on a sidewalk somewhere and shrug my shoulders and say, “Oh well, there’s nothin’ I can do about it now.”

Mack Memo #4: Let it go, people. Relax. Have some Gatorade. Nothin’ you can do about it now.

 

The Essence of Our Mack

I know that if my Mack was here, she would want me to enjoy the warm, early-fall weather. She would chide me for defining this comfortable and colorful season as the beginning of winter, instead of embracing it as the beautiful end of the summer. I know that if my Mack was here, she would want me to enjoy a few pumpkin-spice lattes. She would yell at me when I looked up the nutritional info on my phone, because didn’t I know that those seasonal beverages at Starbucks are special and don’t have any fat or calories? And I know that if my Mack was here, she would insist that a 50th birthday should be a happy affair, instead of one spent counting wrinkles. She would have denied that the gray hairs at my temples existed (even as I stretched them out before her eyes), arguing that 50 is the new 30 and that I should shut up, sit down, and watch a few episodes of Sponge Bob since I was feeling so damned old.

But my Mack is not here to hold my winter at bay or to aid and abet my consumption of too many sugary coffees or to employ her goofiest humor to keep me from turning…from feeling…old. But my Mack was here, and it is this magnificent fact on which I am determined to focus. Her time spent on the Earth was short, but it was bounding with joy and bursting with meaning. I was lucky to have shared life’s journey with her, if only for twenty short years. Mack’s spirit lives on in my heart, in my soul, and in my memories. It lives on in the hearts, in the souls, and in the memories of all the people who knew and loved her. Yet while Mack’s radiant spirit is always in the air around us, this week it must be particularly present. This week her laughter must ring a little louder in our ears. This week, the heartbeat in her gentle soul must resonate more deeply within our own, as we face this dreadful two-year anniversary of our lives without her.

Mack was a force of nature in my life, and now her spirit continues to guide me. As I have gathered up my courage to face this difficult week with resolve and at least a little grace, I have drawn from more tangible reminders of Mack’s good life than just my treasured memories. I have been reading Mack’s poetry and essays, watching videos of her playing basketball, and listening to recordings of her voice. So here I offer a sampling of beautiful material evidence of the essence of our Mack: a couple of lists in her own words, two delightful videos that depict her cheerful disposition and irreverent wit, and the precious sound of her voice.

In a Facebook game in high school, Mack offered these nine things about herself:

  1. Basketball and softball are the best.
  2. I act like a five year old.
  3. I have a freckle moustache.
  4. I like being a freshman.
  5. I enjoy music.
  6. I’m putting off homework right now.
  7. I’m good at math.
  8. I try to be nice.
  9. I need to work on my language, it’s becoming a problem.

Wish to recall something that Mack said? Here is funny little list she offered on social media of thoughts that frequently crossed her mind: 

  1. Man, I could go for a corn dog.
  2. Why’d I wear this?
  3. I hate schooooool.
  4. That was a really stupid thing to do.
  5. Yep, I failed that.
  6. When’s summer?
  7. Is it almost lunch?

Remember those silly faces she always made?
Mack’s unique way of telling me she cut off her hair

Remember the way ridiculous ways she danced:
Mack dancing a jig in a prom dress and posing for one of my favorite photos, below

And…oh my god…do you remember Mack’s sweet voice:
Encouraging Pepper to jump and “speaking Spanish”

Reading her “This I Believe” essay on the radio

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And now, Dear Mack, I’m on my way to collect my first pumpkin-spice latte of the season. Iced. Grande. With whipped cream. And, no, I did not look up the calories!

Shut It Off

Anticipation of the impending two-year mark of my life without Mack has infiltrated my bones and made me unsteady on my feet these past days. In an effort to regain some balance and to face the grim week ahead, I need Mack to guide me. So I have taken yet another journey through Mack’s beautiful brain by spending time with the precious book that Mack’s adoring father assembled just months after we lost her. The spirit of our Mack dances (Irish jigs, actually) off of each of the priceless pages of Mack: Her Life & Words (http://mackmcd.yolasite.com/), reminding the reader of her quirky wit, her gracious and kind character, her uncompromising belief in equality and justice, her love for life, and her uncommon wisdom.

This morning, I was reading out loud her poetry. It is undisciplined, and it is raw. It is not the stuff of literary giants, but it has a beauty and a quiet wisdom that is uniquely Mack. One particular poem might in some ways now seem prophetic, but this morning as I repeated it half a dozen times or so, it was, very simply, pure and human truth. A sage epistle from my sweet girl. A gentle reminder to find the sun.

Shut it Off
By Mackenzie Kathleen McDermott

It’s all okay
The sun is out
But hidden behind generous clouds
On a lazy day
Soon to be replaced by lazy stars

Then all at once
The world collapses
The clouds turn mean
And the sun retreats
To mourn the ashes of kin
A touch is in order
Some simple relief from the gripping reality
As the world dims
But there’s a head on those shoulders
So give it all you’ve got
Then shut it off

Move quickly
And hold tight to false hope
Cling to the smallest of rocks in the stone
Just make sure you don’t look down
Because letting go is much harder than pretending

Shut it off
There’s much more pain that love can bring
Than just a body in a box
So shut it off

And then it’s almost okay
The sun is out
But hidden behind generous clouds
On a lazy day
Soon to be replaced by lazy stars
Shut it off
It’s not that hard

freckle

As I myself cling to the smallest of rocks in the stone, I can assure you all that under some of life’s cruel circumstances it is, actually, quite hard. But for my Mack, I will always try harder to find the sun.

Amazing Super-Bad Pope of Thought

I am a dark shade of blue today.

I am a tad over-tired, and I will admit to more than the usual angst about work. There have been intermittent, yet ominous, gray clouds passing over my balcony all afternoon, stealing away my sunshine and threatening rain. Even though I returned five days ago, I might still be the victim of a little post-vacation melancholy, as well. Yet today, I think, is just one of those days when missing Mack sits heavier on my shoulders. One of those days when the emptiness of life without her settles deep within my bones, crowding out hope and resilience. One of those days on which my smile is lost, and I am incapable of laughter. One of those days that only Mack herself could make better.

In my electronic files for this blog, I keep a folder labeled “Mack-Funny Faces.” Frequently, on blue days just like this one, when I so desperately need to smile and to hear my own laughter, I look through those photos. These glorious pictures so capture Mack’s spirit that they have become my medicine, of sorts; and that electronic file of Mack-funny faces is a portal for me, connecting my dreary spirit to Mack’s ever cheerful one. On a day like today, I need those photos to find a smile or some laughter tucked down deep under the shades of blue that oppress me.

So today I opened that folder to browse the photos, seeking some solace from the blue. One particular Mack-funny face popped off of the screen. I smiled at the sight of Mack’s face within it, beaming in the thumbnail, and I was laughing out loud by the time it opened and filled my computer screen. There was my silly girl, with her classic head-tilt pose, wearing some kind of hand-made paper hat, bearing the words, in her own hand, “The Amazing Super-bad Pope of thought.” I have no memory at all as to the purpose of that strange, school-project hat or of  the circumstances that may have elicited Mack’s theatrical pose within it. But Mack’s wit and irreverence found in me the smile and the laughter that I needed.

I am still feeling blue today, but the shade is decidedly less dark.

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Thank you, Mack. Thank you for being you every single day of your beautiful life. Thank you for making that stupid hat. Thank you for making that silly face beneath it. And thank you for finding me today.