In late September 2019, I was emerging from the dense fog of grief, but I was still wobbly with heartbreak, and I was terrified. I was facing a new life on my own, packing and preparing to close on a new house in a new town at the end of the month. Change is a challenge in the best of circumstances. It can uncomfortably bend or break us even when we are strong and well-prepared. It is risky and daunting when you are grieving. It had taken every grain of grit I could collect from the ruins of my old life to set in motion this plan for building a new one. Even small things like a superficial papercut from a cardboard packing box could provoke an anxiety attack. I was a wreck that month, and before I moved I knew I needed to calm my nerves and find my courage.
So the weekend before I was scheduled to close on the house, I drove from St. Louis to outstate Missouri to visit some old friends from my Springfield days. Kurt and Alicia are two of my most calming influences, and I needed to soak up their good sense and soothing natures. I was relaxing on their beautiful deck, just settling in for a peaceful weekend, when my realtor called to tell me that he needed to push back my closing by one week, a minor glitch regarding the title. He said the closing was now scheduled for October 7.
I sucked in my breath.
“No…No….No,” I whispered into the phone. “I can’t do October 7.” I told him I’d have to check my calendar and call him back.
I could not possibly start the new life I was planning on the very day my old life fell apart. October 7, 2014, was the day my darling Mack was taken from me, and every October 7 since had been a horrible reenactment of that nightmare of a day. October 7 was not just a day on the calendar. It could not be scheduled or rescheduled. It was a memory, a misery, a mark in angry, black Sharpie upon a terrible page of my life.
Kurt calmed me down, and then I called Savannah. My savvy and sassy elder daughter is my joy and my salvation. She is the reason I keep breathing, and she was my inspiration for taking hold of my life and making this plan for moving forward. I told her the realtor wanted to reschedule my closing for October 7. She sucked in her breath, and then she sighed. “Oh, my God, Mom, they want me to start my new job on October 7. Maybe we both need to say yes. Maybe Mackenzie wants us to remake this day.”
And so we did.
On October 7, 2019, Savannah started her exciting and better paying new job at a tech start-up in Chicago, and I closed on my charming 1919 bungalow and moved into my new life. It has not been an easy path for me. Learning to live alone, to maintain an old house on my own, and to build a new life in a very small town has been a struggle. The pandemic also interrupted my adjustment, of course, and I am still plagued with doubt and anxiety. However, I have made some great strides here in this old house and new life. I have discovered hidden talents, developed new skills, and collected a lot more grit in this effort. Most importantly, I have accepted my new life and my new self as a collective work in progress, an unpredictable journey upon bumpy roads with glorious scenery as far as my eyes can see.
I have survived three October 7s in my cozy, quiet bungalow. This year, I will survive a fourth. I will, if I am lucky, survive many more. October 7 remains more than a date on a calendar. It will always be a memory and a misery, marking the passing of my beautiful girl. But now it also marks the moment I began curating my own peace in my own place in honor of both my daughters. Savannah inspired this remaking of October 7, and Mack’s spirit may well have engineered it.
On every October 7 for the rest of my life, I will relive a mother’s nightmare and feel the loss of Mack more keenly. I will also give myself permission, with a happy license from Mack, to acknowledge every October 7 as the first day of my bold beginning. I have come to believe that all dates on a calendar are more than dates on a calendar. In the end, every day we breathe is momentous, and no date over the course of a lifetime is all darkness or all light. Each date of the year in every year of every life is a collection of stories, snippets of who we are and all we have experienced in our lovely and fragile human existence. Dates on a calendar make up an index of our history, marking our memories in time.
Since April I have been writing and writing and writing, hard at work on my unusual biography of Abraham Lincoln. Nearly 80,000 words have flowed from my fingers, revealing the need within me to get my relationship with Lincoln and the field of Lincoln Studies out of my body and safely onto the page where it will no longer be unfinished business. Fits and starts, this writing, as strange to me as this biography-slash-memoir-slash battle cry, because everything I write since Mack died is hyphenated with battle cry. Writing this genre-bending book has been a scary struggle, artfully melding history with personal narrative has posed new challenges for me. I am making progress, but the process has been messy and painful. I’ve lost myself and my way a dozen times these past five months.
There have been crazy flurries of frenetic writing, words flowing onto the page like refreshing cold water gushing from a garden hose on a hot summer day. However, progress has often been followed by historic droughts, which leave my mind and my heart parched and thirsty for the words that will not come. Words abandoning me and my fingers sitting idle on the home keys are new experiences for me. I’m not used to these dry spells. I have been lucky in my writing life, rarely blocked or conscious of writing, the writing itself a joy and the research or preparation for writing the difficult task that paralyzes me. I’ve always been a weird historian that way, and I do not like this new feeling of writer’s paralysis.
Yesterday, when I was supposed to be writing on a free-and-clear Saturday reserved for working on the book, I was instead sitting on my porch, rocking and staring out into the front garden. As I was working up the nerve to return to my computer and risk another rejection from words, the mail arrived with a neatly addressed envelope postmarked Kirksville, MO. I knew my writing was done for the day. Because I also knew the letter was a handwritten thank-you note from the latest Truman State University recipient of the Mackenzie Kathleen Memorial Scholarship. The eighth such letter. The eighth scholarship bestowed on a creative writing student at Mack’s alma mater. These letters are a solace. Eventually. After good a cry and a little distance. First, however, they must do their damage. They must crack open the wounded side of my heart, scabbed over since last year’s letter arrived. The scholarship is a beautiful legacy to my beautiful daughter, but it is a starling reminder of all the life my baby has missed since the previous scholarship recipient was named.
Dammit. It never gets easier. It gets different, but it stays brutal, hard, and unforgiving.
This is why, for me, writing and grief and life have been braided all together into a thick strand of rope. Some days the rope is around my neck, threatening the breath within my body. But most days the braid is a lifeline. Thankfully, I have learned not only to see that lifeline but to take hold of it and let it save me. The arrival of this year’s letter coinciding with my cursing the failure of the writing was a reminder that life is the reason and should also be the respite.
I think right now I am struggling because for the first time the writing threads of my braided lifeline are loose or a bit frayed. For eight years the writing has supplied the tension necessary to hold my weight, allowing the balance of grieving and living to be less burdened. I am far less adept at striking a healthy balance without the writing. I need the writing, and it scares me that the words have failed me. I understand these truths. I accept them. But I also know that writing this very personal biography of Abraham Lincoln has stirred up a brand new cocktail of emotions, opened old wounds, and triggered doubt. My work, my writing, my life, Mr. Lincoln, and my darling Mack are tangled up all together in this project, and I took for granted the power of the writing to make sense of the knots.
And so, on a day of writer’s block and the arrival of a letter, I gained some clarity. I have no answers, really, and the doubts they do linger. However, I have named the trouble and it is mine, not the writing, to tackle. A dear friend who is also my writing therapist recently told me I needed to step away from the writing in order to play. In other words, I need to let life carry the heavier burden of my braided lifeline.
The trouble is that I have not been so good at living these long eight years without my girl. I have rarely had the energy or the mindset for play. Work and writing, along with yoga, have been my saving graces. My challenge now is to lean into living, which a recent long weekend away with four of my oldest and dearest friends showed me I can do with energy and with joy. I need to cut myself a little slack and live. I can no longer take the words for granted, because it turns out my Lincoln book needs more of my own grit. I have been confident in this unusual writing project of mine, but I have doubted my ability to do it justice. The fear, I think, has scared off the words that have always flowed naturally and unencumbered. If I want to complete this project—and more than almost anything I’ve ever attempted I want to complete this project—I need to dig deeper. I need to locate in my bones the belief that my life is the power, not the words or the writing.
My life is the reason this unusual biography of Abraham Lincoln is possible. My knowledge and my experiences will guide me if I let them. Mack and the grief and my writing texture the story I want to tell and need to tell, but the living must fuel the narrative. Because this is a story of my life, and I cannot tell it on autopilot. I need to be present for the process and remember that I have all I need to do the work. I still have a full year before the manuscript is due. I have 80,000 words already. I have the historical expertise and a damn good story to tell. There is time to find myself in this project, to make sense of what I have written thus far, and to write what will be needed to complete the story. If I let myself live while I’m looking for the truth this work requires, the words will come. They will arrive when I am ready to summon them, because I they were mine all along.
I am a writer. And writers write. That’s what we do.
I put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard nearly every day of my life. In my profession as a scholarly editor, I write annotations and blog posts. As a historian, I write articles and books. As a grieving mother, I blog my emotions. As a wannabe poet, I assemble words in pretty collections of my feelings and observations. As a diarist, I release my pain and share my joy on the pages of a journal. I share my wit (ha ha) and wisdom (ha ha ha) on Instagram. And true to the old-fashioned soul I am, I pen handwritten letters to my friends.
Along with my flesh and my bones, I am words. Words are me. Writing steers the ship of my life across both smooth and roiling waters.
Currently, I am working on a book project. A biography of Abraham Lincoln told through the biographies of the women in his life. I am telling the stories of his mother, his lovers, his wife, his female friends, and some of the women who were his legal clients and political constituents. I am seeing Lincoln through these women’s eyes, as well as through my own, which are cast in the light and the shadow of being a woman myself. I can write this new biography of Abraham Lincoln. I edited Lincoln’s papers for twenty years, published widely on his life and times, and wrote a biography of Mary Lincoln. I have the Lincoln chops to complete this project, and I have the advance contract to prove it. However, this book project is a challenging one. It is personal. The doubts creep in, and I get scared. The fear of failing a brilliant idea, my unique perspective, and my creative approach to tired old narrative biography beats a cacophonous rhythm inside my chest.
I am a writer, yes, I know. Writers write, and that is what I am doing. But writing is hard. It tests your mettle. It is not always catharsis. It can also be a pesky task or a wretched responsibility. At times it is a chore much like washing the dishes. There are some days you get on with it and wash the damn dishes. There are some days you need to let the dishes stack up and go outside to play in the sun.
When the fears and the doubts push aside the confidence and determination it is time for a break. All writers know this is true, even as it is hard to admit it and give yourself permission to do it. I denied my need for a break for a month or so, head down and straining against the reality of it before fessing up and throwing up my hands, prescribing myself a two-week rest. A hiatus. A vacation I never take, but a vacation that was as imperative as air. Stepping away and going away would be deep breathing.
I spent the second week of my book vacation in Washington, D.C., where I communed with the spirit of Mr. Lincoln on the National Mall and at Ford’s Theatre. I spent time with family and friends, enjoyed great food, walked my legs every day to happy exhaustion, and consumed beautiful cocktails and gallons of sweet sunshine. Most nourishing to my writer’s heart and my ever-grieving soul was serving as moderator for the Lincoln Ideas Forum on Grief and Loss at President Lincoln’s Cottage. Mack’s spirit was with me, and so was Abraham Lincoln’s. The public program made me good nervous, allowed me to talk about Mack, evoked cleansing tears, sealed a new friendship, and introduced me to four people who know as well as a I do that grief is the flipside of love, that it is natural and universal, and that in our grief-averse society we all need to do better bearing witness to the suffering of others.
I spent two weeks tending to my heart and my brain and my body. I’ve communed and connected and breathed. I am refreshed and revived. The doubts and the fears are moving away, making room for the full bloom of confidence and determination. It is time to return to the book. To get back to work. To put my fingers to the keyboard.
I took time to sit among the tulips in the sunshine.
In the shower the other day, I threw a bar of soap with an uninspired floral scent over the glass shower wall. I am an afficionado of strong scented, beautifully crafted soaps, and this bar was a dud. I deserved better. I was aiming for the sink, where the soap loser could await its fated deposit into the garbage bin. Instead, the thick bar slid down the inner side of the sink nearest the shower, traveled across the bottom of the basin and picked up speed, ramping up the other side of the sink. The soap then flew up into the steamy air before landing with a plop into a small drinking cup perched on the top of the sink. I squealed. It was like a three-point shot from midcourt at the buzzer.
But there were no cheering fans to adore me. No partner to call to the bathroom to share the story of my sensational shot. No handy family member or friend to regale with my dramatic telling. No one but me to care that a story of soap was a joyful beginning to another morning of my life on the planet.
You see, along with the momentous moments of life, I also need to share the mundane and the absurdities. When I read an interesting news article, get lost in a great book, or see a person in a taco suit on my noontime walk, I want to tell someone about it. I need to tell someone about it. For me, it’s less interesting, less great, and far less funny if I can’t share it. Mack was like that, too. She wanted the people around her to take part in the things that amused her, and those amusements were enhanced by the sharing. She is the one I most wanted to call to share the story of Stacy’s spectacular soap shot.
Instead, I threw the soap in the bin where it belonged, got dressed, and went downstairs to my home office to start my day. No one to tell, so I put the soap out of my mind; what do little dogs know of soap and midcourt shots at the buzzer? I did wonder, however, if my ex-husband Kevin got a little twinge in his stomach at the moment I squealed over that soap. The twinge like a ghost of the past giving him a strange sense that he had been saved from another drawn-out telling of a silly story, Stacy’s eyes wide as she told it with her hands and her eyeballs and her words, fast like a child, chattering on and on and starting the story all over again.
Clearly, I didn’t forget about the soap. I’m writing about the soap story because it got me analyzing myself in the context of this new quiet life of mine. I am a storytelling chatterbox living alone, and that has been of surprising consequence to me, I suppose, and I’m just now realizing it. Oh, I text or call my daughter Savannah several times a week, and she indulges my stories when I tell them. My sister will tolerate my stories while she has a cocktail in hand. My mother, who lives far away, always appears to be listening to my stories when I tell them, but really I think she is just measuring the size of my eyeballs as I jabber on, telling the story two or three times to make sure she hears it all. And, I also have friends, near and far, with whom I will relate a story or two, if I remember a good one when I see them.
Yet I think it is true, that living alone has altered the rhythm of my storytelling, narrowed my eyes and dimmed the sparkle. This realization of diminished, daily storytelling is another clue to me that I am struggling to adjust to living alone, to relying on myself for everything that I want and need. For fifty-three years I lived with my family, then college roommates, and then a husband and daughters. For fifty-three years, I had a captive audience. I’ve only been solo for two years, and almost all of that time during a global pandemic. Such a change was bound to be dramatic, radical even, and it has altered many rhythms of my life.
And that’s okay. Good, maybe. Or, perhaps, even great. The altered rhythm of a heart demands attention, requires assessment, suggests treatment. Why not the rhythms of a life?
What the altered rhythm of my storytelling means going forward, I do not know. I realize now that I have always found joy in sharing the stories of my life, particularly the silly ones, and also in sharing my observations about the world. Perhaps that is why since living alone I have taken to Instagram. It is no true substitute, of course, but it has given me an outlet, especially on the many days in each week when there are only the walls and the dogs to hear my stories and random observations.
I miss the chattering, the animated telling, and the instant gratification of getting the words, the thought or the story, into the ears and the heart and the funny bone of someone I care about. Not a great reflection of myself, centered as it is upon my ego. But that statement is the truest statement I have written about myself in a long time.
Perhaps I should learn how to enjoy unusual occurrences like spectacular soap shots all by myself in the same way I learned how to use a drill and to cook for one. With practice. And cursing. Lots and lots of people are content to live quietly, laugh on the inside, and leave it to other people to tell the stories. Why couldn’t I just be one of them? Because, if I am honest, I am not and likely never will be quiet. I’m a talker. Talking is what I do.
Perhaps I should start a special journal to record my soap stories. Writing them out and reading them later might provide a similar feeling to the satisfaction I get from talking to people. Nah. This option sounds like a lot work, a little pathetic, and slightly off the mark. Before this introspective rambling, I never thought of myself as a performer, but now I wonder if that might be part of it.
Perhaps living alone is not for me, after all. Maybe I am one of those people who needs a partner, a captive audience with whom to share my daily soap stories. Or maybe it is going to take so much time to get used to living alone that I will never get used to living alone. Goodness. I hope not. On both counts, I hope not. Because I am a long way from healthy enough to live with somebody else, and I may not be for a long time or ever. Besides, although I admit I am needy of attention, the peace and privilege of making all the rules and curating every corner of my house and my yard, all on my own, is too lovely to give up. And, I know for certain, that having to compromise only with dogs and myself provides the most blissful environment in which to figure out what ails me and what heals me.
For now, maybe I’ll just talk to the walls or tell my stories to myself, out loud, while I take my daily walk. What if some, or a lot, of the people we see muttering to themselves on city streets, aren’t mentally ill, but people just like me. Chatterboxes with no one to tell their stores. Hmm… That’s an interesting idea to ponder on a Saturday afternoon, blustery with indoor weather.
I think, I’ll just try telling my stories to the dogs, and see how it goes.
The Winter Solstice, which I passed with a small group of lovely (vaccinated and boosted) new friends, was, as it always is, a charm against my onset-of-winter melancholy. Though the prairie winds blow cold, now that the days are slowly lengthening as we stretch our way to spring, I am okay. I am well, I promise, but I need to write a few bitter shadows off my heart.
I have survived another set of holidays. Another four seasons. Another year without her, my baby girl, my Mack. I have passed another 365 days of missing her grin and her giggle and her light against my darkness. This year was not easy. Nor was it easier than last year, or the year before that. It is not getting easier, despite the promises of well-meaning people trying to make me feel better. For me it will never be easy. It will just be different. Different the way summer feels different with every additional year between the human I am now and the human I was when I was barefoot and ten in the backyard of childhood.
I know myself well enough to accept and to admit that from Thanksgiving through Christmas, I am the worst of me. Sorrow, anxiety, and impatience override joy, productivity, and peace. The short days and long nights and my false cheer for the holidays and my shame for humbug plague me, and they will, I suspect, forever conjure the ghosts that haunt me. My grieving-mother sadness is the primary source of my melancholy, of course, but I also suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, which rubs like course sandpaper against the raw edges of my grief. This is an annual torment, and it always takes me three cycles of the moon to accept the end of warm and joyful summer.
Yet this December I leaned sadder than usual. My divorce being finalized and my beloved dog Pepper’s health problems cast menacing spells against my spirit and made the melancholy debilitating for a number of days. Burying a female house sparrow who died on my porch on December 19 made the last two days to the Winter Solstice a moody struggle. And although I have tried to keep other negative emotions in check, I have also been angry and filled with despair. My fury and frustration rising with every new report on the climate crisis, deadly tornadoes in December, and the pandemic going on and on and on because so many selfish Americans falsely believe that public health policy is a violation of their individual rights.
“What about my individual rights,” I screamed as I paced through my empty house these past few weeks. “Don’t I deserve during my hardest time of the year to be surrounded by people without having to worry about my health and the possibility of making my loved ones unwell?” Family and friends are my medicine against grief, and this fucking pandemic has withheld in large measure the remedy that sustains me.
And then there was the added insult of writer’s block.
In early November, I began a new scholarly project, which during my struggle season was unfortunate timing. At the beginnings of big projects when I am setting my head to a difficult task, the intellectual power that effort requires zaps my energy, stealing away the creative power I usually ration so well for my personal, therapy writing. The writer’s block this year has been as difficult as anything to endure. Writing is my solace, especially when I am at my worst, in my seasonal doldrums, when I need most to turn my emotions into words and sentences, paragraphs, prose, and bad poetry. This year that coping mechanism failed me. Next year, I will be more cognizant about keeping safe the ration for personal writing, because although I make a great many mistakes, my grief has made a good student of learning what I need to survive the difficult and beautiful condition of being human. Already with the packing away of another year of holidays, made as joyful as absolutely possible by my good and cheerful sister Tracy, and with my new project well underway, my attitude is brighter even as I pen this last blog essay of 2021.
You see, I really I am okay. I struggle, yes, but I am capable of finding my way back home. Now that I have written away the bitter shadows, I feel lighter. I am lighter. Even as my head is filled up with the brains of a cynic who ascribes no tangible value, no magic, to the turn of the New Year, I am hopeful I will find purpose and peace in 2022. Perhaps it is simply the pleasant surprise of my survival of another year which has provided this shift in perspective. I forget sometimes that I can do hard things, and when I am reminded that I can I am grateful. Gratitude frames my mind to see the long winter in front of me as time to work on another book, to rest, and to wonder. And as each passing day gets a little longer, I will be stretching my spirit toward the spring.
Here is to a productive and peaceful winter to us all.
The Dorothy-Parker inspired ditty below is the only thing of any value I managed to write in the past two months. More bad poetry, I know, and I’m sorry! But Mack would appreciate it, and that makes it okay by me.
Writer’s Block Some days I can write on for hours, So clever I am with my pen; But then comes a clog in My thick, stupid noggin, And I think I shall never write again.
I don’t cook much from scratch anymore—since Mack died, there are a lot of things I don’t do anymore—but every year for Thanksgiving at my sister’s house I make egg noodles. They aren’t hard to make, although making them is a little annoying and a lot time consuming. And messy. The flour gets all over me and the kitchen, and dried, eggy dough gets stuck to the counter top. I can’t stop rolling the dough until all dozen eggs and three pounds of flour are rolled out because my hands are encased in wet dough and getting it all off my fingers takes almost as much time as the rolling.
But no matter all of that. I make the egg noodles. For more than thirty years, I’ve been making the egg noodles. For all of the years Mack was here to eat those noodles, I didn’t mind making them. But Thanksgiving, a food holiday, was Mack’s favorite, and making noodles and eating noodles and thoughts of passing another Thanksgiving without Mack suck some of the magic out of those damned noodles. I half-heartedly try every year to get out of the noodle-making business and suggest that someone else pick up the tradition. But my egg noodles are special, pillowy and delicious, a family legend, and no one, particularly my niece Zoe, will let me off the hook. I need to make the egg noodles, and that’s okay. Some traditions should continue no matter how annoying or grief provoking, and I suspect I’ll make the family egg noodles until I’m dead.
So here I am, standing in my kitchen working up the courage to make noodles. It is quiet like death in the house and I shudder at being alone with my pre-holiday grieving and my noodles. I used to love to cook while listening to music, but one of the other things that I don’t really do any more since Mack died is listen to music. Music summons the ghosts, which stir up my grief into a hopeless melody of sorrow and self-pity. But a few months ago I started listening to 1920s jazz for brief intervals; and a couple of weeks ago I started listening to the blues. Shemekia Copeland specifically. Something about the old music calms me, and the spirit and humor of Copeland’s songs and the bad-ass-I’m-here-and-you’re-gonna-like-it sound of her voice give me strength.
Okay, then, I think, let’s invite Shemekia to this noodle-making party and see what happens.
I ask Alexa to shuffle Shemekia Copleland, and I get started on the noodles. The next thing I know I’m singing along and my hips are swaying and I’m rolling the dough in time to the music. I am shaking off the cobwebs of ghosts and grief with Mack laughing and cheering me on, helping me face another holiday without her. I am happily making noodles for the people I love most. Savannah will be here for the holiday, and she enjoys my noodles almost as much as Mack did. We will eat them together and remember our Mack, the food-loving, silly, joyful girl whose motto was to eat until it hurts, baby, and then eat some more.
I roll out the last of the dough and think to myself, wow. Instead of dreading Thanksgiving and letting my grief weigh me down low, I’m just here in my kitchen making noodles and singing the blues.
I talk myself out of doing things because I feel awkward about doing them alone. All the time I do it. I talk myself out of doing things I enjoy because I don’t have a partner or a friend to do them with me. I’m afraid to be out in the world alone, and that is ridiculous. People go out in the world and do things by themselves all the time. I don’t need to be strong or cool or brave. I just need to make myself go, push my pathetic butt out the door. I don’t want to be a crazy old lady hermit.
So, a couple of weeks ago, I purchased a season ticket for one to attend all of this season’s premier shows at the performing arts center here at Eastern Illinois University. I figured plunking down $180 would be the answer for every excuse I might use to keep from taking in good shows that are right here in my little town. I went to the first show of the season last Wednesday, and I didn’t talk myself out of going because I already had a ticket. I felt a little self-conscious and uncool finding my seat alone, among hip college students, but it turned out that going alone was not that hard. I survived it. And although the show itself was not that great, I felt pretty great when I stepped out into the chilly night air after the show and walked myself to my car.
A good friend of mine suspects I might eventually like to do things by myself. I am less sure about that. But here are three things about which I am certain. One: I live alone now. I am a single woman without a partner, and I have no interest in finding a new one. Two: locating joy is hard enough for me in my melancholia without giving up the simple things that still have the power to make me smile and to lift my spirits. And three: I need to cut myself some sack for being tentative and shy about being on my own. I am an old dog trying to learn new tricks. I’m living alone for the first time in my entire life, it’s only been two years, and most of that time, good grief, has been during a global pandemic.
Change that makes us better takes time and patience. Change is a challenge. It demands hard work. And, hey, that is a fourth thing I know: I can do hard work.
Not today, I said.
So, this morning I didn’t let me talk myself out of taking my bike out to explore the Lincoln Prairie Grass Trail, just four blocks south of my house. It was not easy to beat down the excuses hammering in my head while I sipped my morning coffee on the porch. I am my own worst enemy, after all. What if I fall, who will pick me up? Should a woman be alone on a bike trail in the country? Who will tug me back home if the wind is too strong and I can’t make my heavy bike move forward (this really happened to me once, back when I did have a partner). What if I get a flat tire or get lost or what if what if what if wtf if… See? This is what I do. This is why I have been so unsuccessful taking myself out into the world on my own and doing things all by myself.
Today, I am riding alone.
I got on my beach cruiser, which always makes my heart skip rope like a girl. I smiled and pedaled all the way to Charleston Country Club and back. Just eight miles round trip, but a long ride for me. I enjoyed the sunshine and the lovely breeze, and I stopped by a few butterfly gardens along the way. I waved at passing cyclists, many of whom were alone, like me. None of us wallowing in the self-pity of loneliness. In the bargain, I didn’t fall or get a flat tire and it wasn’t scary. Not really. It was delightful; and I grinned the whole time like Mack always grinned when she was delighted.
It was another baby step on the road to confident single womanhood. It was a badge earned on this journey of mine to be at peace in my head and confident in my place in the world, as a single woman doing my own thing.
I can ride alone. I am riding alone. And that’s okay.
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.
During this year of our plague, two thousand and twenty, I spent roughly a third of my waking hours working as a scholarly editor (thank goddess I am still employed), a third sprucing up the 1919 bungalow with overgrown yard I purchased in October 2019, and a third escaping within the pages of books. Losing myself in other people’s stories and reading about faraway worlds and experiences from the safety and comfort of my heavenly front porch was my best remedy for coping with the isolation and emptiness of the year. Reading books has been a balm on my anxious bones; and audio books, too, helped fill the vast silences of my days and nights. Books have been great friends, keeping me company and joining in the chorus of my voice echoing off lonely walls.
I read fifty-five books this terrible year, nearly double the leisurely reading I might have done if the pandemic had not isolated me from friends and family and travel. My reading journey this year began on New Years’ Day with The Giver of Stars and concluded December 28 with Girl, Woman, Other. In my reading this year, I escaped to rural Kentucky, London, Australia, the Holy Land, and the Pacific Crest Trail in the American Northwest. I read novels, memoirs, collections of poetry, history, and one work of philosophy. I enjoyed books about nature, coming of age stories, and nineteen works of historical fiction, my favorite pleasure-reading genre. I solved mysteries, walked the streets of seventeenth-century Amsterdam, shivered in Alaska winter, traveled back to 1950s India, learned about the brain and personality of the American crow, and raged at the injustice that is bound up tight in the DNA of American democracy.
I smiled. I frowned. I laughed. I wept. I pondered. I learned. Books are so magical in their power to influence our emotions and challenge our brains.
As a historian, I read history books and articles and bend over historic documents during my work days, and pleasure reading provides an important counterweight to all of the scholarly reading I do. However, pleasure reading this year took on a more important purpose. I felt a pressing need to escape the political and biological chaos of the world around me and to fill the silences of socially distanced family and friends. In that context, I read far more light-hearted books than I have allowed myself the luxury of reading in decades, and I embraced the soothing joy of audio books to cope with a new and unwelcome brand of quiet. Books helped me cope with that quiet, and although I am happy to bid farewell to 2020 and will not remember it fondly, it has been an epic year of reading.
And for all the books I read—the great, the good, and the meh—I am grateful. They remind me that stories are at the heart of every human experience. That stories nurture and guide us, teach us, remind us of the past, get us through our days, and inspire us to face the future. Stories reveal the breathtaking diversity of life experiences, but they also remind us of our shared humanity. Stories help us understand the world and ourselves.
In no other time in my life do I think that books have been so important, so loved, so appreciated, so damned necessary. This is my humble ode to my 2020 reading list, filled up with books that nurtured and inspired me, kept me sane, and carried me through the long, lonely year. It is also a kind of portrait of my life this past year, a record of my travels, a log of the characters I met along the way, and the stories I heard from the comfort and safety of home.
Alphabetical Annotated Reading List for 2020 (Each includes my love rating)
♥ Finished the book. I give books about 25 pages, and if I finish a book it gets at least one star.
♥♥ Pretty good story, writing meh.
♥♥♥ Solid writing. Good story. Enjoyable, useful and/or important.
♥♥♥♥ Excellent writing and story. Taught me something and/or took me away and I was happy to go.
♥♥♥♥♥ Wonderful. Breathtaking. A book for my lifetime master list of great books.
Bauermeister, Erica, The Scent Keeper (2019), fiction. This story about a family who smells memories is mystical (and odd) and mildly interesting. ♥♥
Burton, Jesse, The Miniaturist (2014), historical fiction. I likely would not have picked up this book in a typical reading year, but listening to it on audio was quite agreeable. I think my daughter Mack was right when she said: “Everything sounds good in a British accent.” ♥♥♥
Cameron, Claire, The Last Neanderthal (2017), historical fiction. Meh. I really don’t remember why I even finished it. Good idea, poor execution, and I don’t recommend it. ♥
Chevalier, Tracy, A Single Thread (2019), historical fiction. A sweet story about a single woman in the decade after WWI, when a generation of women in England was adjusting to a heartbreaking dearth of young men. ♥♥♥
—Girl with Pearl Earring (1999), historical fiction. After reading A Single Thread , I remembered how much I loved this older book I had read many years ago. This time around, I listened to the audio book. Chevalier is a great writer of the genre. If you’re new to her, start with this one or At the Edge of the Orchard (2016), which is my favorite. ♥♥♥
Coehlo, Paulo, The Archer (2017), fiction. As a rule, I don’t read much nonfiction by men, frankly because so few of them write well-formed, realistic female characters. So why would I bother with the Brazilian Coehlo, you ask? I loved The Alchemist, and so decided to try this novella, a fable like that older book. Bad idea. Definitely my worst reading decision of the year, and I only finished it out of respect for the renown of the author and because it was mercifully short. ♥
Diamonte, Anita, The Boston Girl (2015), historical fiction. This book is a good story about an immigrant girl in the tenements of Boston. I listened to it on audio, read by the actress Linda Lavin, who elevated the story. She was a brilliant narrator. One of these stars is all hers. ♥♥♥
Diaz, Joanne, My Favorite Tyrants (2014), poetry. Witty and deep, this Illinois poet is incredible. So good. She teaches at Illinois Wesleyan, and I saw her do a reading from this book in January before the pandemic cancelled 2020. Not all of the poems are great, but a few of them are sensational. ♥♥♥
Doyle, Glennon, Untamed (2020), nonfiction. Doyle is a social media darling who offers some valuable nuggets in this book. I appreciate Doyle’s voice, and I follow her on Instagram. She is smart and observant as fuck. But, I must say, the book was a tad underwhelming, and a bit overhyped. ♥♥
Erdich, Louise, Future Home of the Living God (2017), fiction. Two stars because Erdich is a great writer, and there is some great writing on the pages of this book. However, this futuristic story did not capture my imagination. ♥♥
Ervick, Kelcey Parker, The Bitter Life of Božena Nȇmcoá: A Biographical Collage (2016), nonfiction. Part history, part memoir; has words and images. This book is so weird, impossible to categorize, and so wonderful because it is brilliantly off kilter. ♥♥♥♥
—Lilian’s Balcony: A Novella of Fallingwater (2013), fiction. Ervick is a creative storyteller. I met her at a writer’s fair and workshop at Eastern Illinois University early in 2020, before we knew there was a virus lurking. She views writing as more than words in ink on a white page, preferring to tell stories with images and space as well as words. Function and form commune with the voices of her characters, and she likes to blur the lines of genre. I love her work, and she’s a fun follow on Instagram, because she draws memoir almost daily (that’s a bad description of her work, but check her out, she’s great). ♥♥♥
Evaristo, Bernadine, Girl, Woman, Other (2019), fiction. Winner of the Man Booker Prize, Girl, Woman, Other is a triumph of writing, of the powerful voice of female characters who know who they are, and of storytelling across race and gender. The diversity of voices in this creative work scream from the mountaintops that their stories matter. That all of our stories matter. ♥♥♥♥♥
Gregory, Philippa, Three Sisters, Three Queens (2017), historical fiction. Written by a popular British writer of historical fiction, this book is about Margaret Tudor, Mary Tudor, and Catherine of Aragon. Oh, the intrigues of British royalty during the Middle Ages. And, yikes, the human drama of medieval life in general. ♥♥♥
Hamilton, Gabrielle, Blood, Bones, and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef (2012), memoir. My surprise book of the year, written by the chef of the award-winning New York restaurant Prune. Gorgeous writing about life and food. Read it. It is fabulous and there are mouth-watering descriptions of food. ♥♥♥♥
Hannah, Kristin, The Great Alone (2017), historical fiction. Pretty good coming of age story, but the star of the book is Alaska. Lovely. Vivid. And fucking freezing. ♥♥♥
Harjo, Joy, An American Sunrise (2019), poetry. Want to cry? Read this collection of poems by U.S. Poet Laureate Harjo about the Trail of Tears, history, grief, cultural annihilation, and memory. Wow. Breathtaking. Horrifying. Heartbreaking. ♥♥♥♥
Harper, Michelle, The Beauty in Breaking (2020), memoir. A female, African-American ER doctor, Harper puts her deft fingers on the heart of racism in America and caresses out of her stories the truth of our shared humanity. After I read the book—in two days, it is that good—I watched Harper on Zoom in a book talk and Q&A, and she is an impressive woman. She is a bright-sider, despite all the ugly she has seen, and her perspective was a welcome viewpoint during this year of our biological and political plague. ♥♥♥♥♥
Haupt, Lyanda Lynn, Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness (2009), nature. I only discovered Haupt last year, but I’m hooked. She is a spectacular writer and gives the reader science and nature with pure joy. She is birder with a great sense of humor, and her knowledge and insights are wonderful. Love her work. ♥♥♥
—Urban Bestiary: Encountering the Everyday Wild (2013), nature. I am obsessed with Haupt’s view of nature and her funny bone on the intersection of humans with nature. Her eco-sensible philosophy is inspirational, and she has made me a more observant citizen of the spaces I share with birds and squirrels and other wild animals. She has a new book coming next year called Rooted, and I can’t wait. ♥♥♥♥
Hoffman, Alice, The Red Garden (2010), historical fiction. Hoffman is a very popular author in the genre of historical fiction. However, her books for me always just miss the mark. This one was creative and enjoyable, but not great. ♥♥
Holmes, Linda, Evvie Drake Starts Over (2019), fiction. I chose more light books this year than is typical for my tastes, because pandemics are pretty damned depressing. But this book was a little too romancy for me. If I’ve learned anything from this year of magical reading, it is that prefer books that are more substantive than this one. ♥♥
Joshi, Aika, The Henna Artist (2020), historical fiction. Joshi’s story of a single woman making a life for herself in India in the 1950s reveals much about caste and gender and human dignity. Great story with very good writing. ♥♥♥
Kendi, Ibram X., How to Be an Anti Racist (2019), nonfiction. It is not enough to just not be a racist (is there I better way to state this—I tried but failed!). In America, white people must become actively anti racist. This book by an important historian of race should be required reading for every high school student in America. ♥♥♥♥
Kendzior, Sarah, Hiding in Plain Sight: The Invention of Donald Trump and the Erosion of America (2020), nonfiction. A journalist and anthropologist who studies autocratic and dictatorial regimes, Kendzior offers a lucid portrait of the horrifying story of Trump’s rise to the presidency and depicts American democracy dangling precariously from a cliff. She’s lives in St. Louis, where I lived from 2012-2019, and I knew about her work and followed her on Twitter before she became well known. She’s super smart (PhD, Washington University), and she minces no words. She’s not an optimist, though, so if you’re looking for a bright spot in the dark of night, don’t look here. ♥♥♥
Kidd, Sue Monk, Book of Longings (2020), historical fiction. This was the bravest book I’ve read in a decade, the biblical story of Jesus from the perspective of his wife. Fabulous writing and sensational female characters set in the stark historical context of the Holy Land in the time of Jesus. Brilliant. Stunning. One of my favorite books of the twenty-first century. Shout out to my dear friend Sandra who recommended the book to me by saying: “Stace, I know you don’t do Jesus, but you have to read this book about his wife!” ♥♥♥♥♥
—The Invention of Wings (2014), historical fiction. I had missed this novel about the life of Sarah Grimké, a historical hero of mine, because it was published in the year my daughter died. In a normal year, I would have read this book by an author I loved and a historical topic that intrigued me. But my grief robbed me of reading for almost four years. I stopped reading after losing Mack because I couldn’t let my mind go long enough to get through a novel. Thank goodness my joy of reading and my ability to read returned to me in 2018, and I am grateful it was here for me this year when I needed it so much. In this book, Kidd takes too many literary licenses with Sarah’s story, but her writing is always good and the story moves along at a good clip. ♥♥♥
Kingsolver, Barbara, Unsheltered (2018), fiction. I’ve been a fan of Kingsolver forever, and this book is the epitome of her. Kingsolver knows humans better than almost any writer I’ve ever had the pleasure to enjoy. Simple story paired with good writing is Kingsolver’s method for uncovering the beauty of the human heart, and this book is her, per usual. ♥♥♥
Letts, Elizabeth, Finding Dorothy (2019), historical fiction. This story of L. Frank Baum’s wife, Maud Gage Baum, who consulted with MGM on the production of The Wizard of Oz offers some interesting stories of Maud Baum’s early life and her famous suffrage mother Matilda Gage, and it offers some provocative observations about Judy Garland. Good story, but a little draggy. ♥♥
McLain, Paula, Circling the Sun (2015), historical fiction. Mediocre novel set in the overlapping contexts of the Out of Africa story. Privileged white people in Africa. Kind of boring. And definitely passé. ♥♥
Miller, Madeline, Song of Achilles (2011), historical fiction. I read this because I loved her novel Circe, but this book is not as good. However, for full disclosure, I suspect I didn’t like this one as much because it is about a man and Circe is about a woman. I prefer a women’s perspective on things, even regards ancient mythology, thank you very much. ♥♥
Moriarty, Liane, The Husband’s Secret (2013), fiction. Moriarty is my latest guilty pleasure, because I relate to the quirky, middle-aged women who inhabit her stories. I started reading Moriarty’s work last year with Big Little Lies and Truly Madly Guilty, and I appreciate the dark corners her humor. ♥♥♥
—The Last Anniversary (2005), fiction. Sisters and secrets. ♥♥♥
—Nine Perfect Strangers (2018), fiction. Wacky characters in an absurd settling. Mayhem ensues. Laugh out loud funny. ♥♥♥♥
—What Alice Forgot (2009), fiction. A story of amnesia with Moriarty’s usual compelling characters. I made my way through five of Moriarty’s light-dancing books this year, and what fun they were. On audio, they are made even more delightful by the talented Australian voices of the two fantastic readers who narrate them. Moriarty doesn’t set the world on fire, but she tells a good story and makes a reader giggle and gape. ♥♥♥
Moyes, JoJo, The Giver of Stars (2019), historical fiction. This book offers a fictionalized story about the Packhorse Librarians, women during the Great Depression who delivered library books to people in the hills of Kentucky. It’s pretty good, but the happy ending is contrived and disappointing. ♥♥
Oliver, Mary, Upstream: Selected Essays (2016), essays. Stick to her poetry, which is gorgeous. These essays, published late in her life, not so much. ♥
Orlean, Susan, The Library Book (2018), nonfiction. Interesting story of the devastating L.A. Public Library fire written by an excellent journalist who is also a great writer. It’s a bit plodding in its methodical retelling of the events of the fire. I liked that level of detail, but it’s probably not for everyone. ♥♥♥
Owens, Delia, Where the Crawdads Sing (2018), fiction. A truly lovely novel with a haunting human story told among the vivid images of a disappearing landscape. Gorgeous prose and an unforgettable female protagonist. ♥♥♥♥
Penny, Louise, A Better Man (2019), mystery. This book is part of a great mystery series I love, but it is a weak book in the series. However, I recommend the entire series, which is chockablock with loveable, eccentric characters, gorgeous (and frigid) Canadian landscapes, and great literary and historical references. The series is much more than the standard detective story. It weaves together the lives of Inspector Gamache and his wife with the residents of a strange and isolated little town where the stories are set. Start with the first book Still Life and keep on reading…there are sixteen books in all (and the seventeenth is scheduled for 2021)! ♥♥
Richardson, Heather Cox, How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America (2020), history. If you want to understand why America is in such a political mess these days, read this book. Richardson, a political historian and expert on the history of the Republican Party from Lincoln to the modern day, studied American history under the great Lincoln scholar David Herbert Donald at Harvard, and I have admired her work for years. She is one of the most trustworthy and talented historians working today. ♥♥♥♥
Rutherford, Edward, New York: The Novel (2010), historical fiction. Rutherford’s book sweeps broadly across time, setting fictional characters, connected through the generations, in the (fairly accurate) history of one of the world’s greatest cities. The sweep, I think, is why I enjoyed this fictionalized story of New York, which began with the Dutch in the colonial period and ended with stockbrokers in the 1980s. ♥♥
Sedaris, David, Calypso (2018), humor. Is there any writer who is funnier than Sedaris? That’s a rhetorical question. I love, love, love this guy. Calipso is not his strongest collection, but it has some dandies; and I happily recommend any of his books or audio book (he reads them himself). I met him once at a book signing, and my signed copy of Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls is a treasured possession. ♥♥♥
Stedman, M. L., The Light between Oceans (2012), historical fiction. I was haunted by the many sides of loneliness depicted in this story, set in Australia after WWI. Did I relate a little too directly in my isolation to the two lonely characters in the story who inhabited a lighthouse on a remote island? Maybe. Whatever, I enjoyed the book. ♥♥♥
Stockett, Kathryn, The Help (2009), historical fiction. I had never seen the movie or read the book, and I selected it this year as an audio book. It is a good, albeit problematic, story, the dialogue is fantastic, and the black women in the novel are compelling characters. The readers of the audio book elevated the story, and their brilliant reading added that fourth star. ♥♥♥♥
Strayed, Cheryl, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (2014), memoir. I am very late to the party on this one, but it is a fascinating, well-told story. I liked it. As well, in reading this book, I learned not to ever, in a million years, no matter what personal difficulties befall me, to go looking for myself, all by myself, on a hiking trail more than four or five miles in length. ♥♥♥
Strout, Elizabeth, Olive Kitteridge (2008), fiction. Many of my friends love Elizabeth Strout, but I am less enamored of her writing. Olive is, however, an intriguing character, and I hope I do not become the cranky old lady she turned out to be. ♥♥♥
—Olive Again (2019), fiction. I did not really think I needed more adventures of Olive, but this book was not without its worthwhile scenes of Olive’s strange interactions with the world. ♥♥♥
Ware, Ruth, The Death of Mrs. Westaway (2018), mystery. Not my usual fare, but this story was fun and this British writer definitely has found a niche. ♥♥♥
—In a Dark, Dark Wood (2015), thriller. Not my cup of tea, and I think Ruth Ware might be crazy. The pandemic has been scary enough; I should have skipped this one. ♥♥
West, Lindy, The Witches Are Coming (2019), essays. West’s cultural critiques are hysterical, and she is dead-on balls accurate in her observations about Trump, social media, and an array of other topics, as well. ♥♥♥
Wetmore, Elizabeth, Valentine (2020), historical fiction. Yowza! This is a stunning first novel, set in the bleak oil landscape of Odessa, Texas, in the 1970s. And it is an important novel, too, with its beautifully crafted story of race on the border. Gut-wrenching. Haunting. It will make you scream and cry and mourn the pain that humans are capable of inflicting upon the “other.” ♥♥♥♥
Wilson, Catherine, How to Be an Epicurean: The Ancient Art of Living Well (2019), philosophy. I picked this book up in late December 2019 on a “new book” display cart in the library at Eastern Illinois University, where I hold a “local scholar” library card which grants me 16-week borrowing privileges. The book’s cover intrigued me, but it sat on a shelf in my office for weeks and weeks. I never picked it back up, and then the pandemic came and the library closed, and all of the books I had checked out were renewed through October. And so, with time and automatic renewal, I finally cracked it open; and although I probably would not have ever gotten around to reading it if not for the pandemic, I’m glad I picked up and even more glad I read it. It’s basically the philosophy of me. I understand myself so much better now. I am an Epicurean. Who knew?!! ♥♥♥
Zabin, Serena, The Boston Massacre: A Family History (2020), history. A fresh approach to the American Revolution that depicts the blurry lines between patriot and loyalist. A friend of mine who is a professor of political science at St. Olaf College recommended the book, because she knows Zabin, who is a professor of history at neighboring Carleton College in her Minnesota town. I like reading books written by people I know or with whom I have some personal connection. ♥♥♥