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.

 

 

 

 

Calm, Cool, and Creative

Pandemic. Social distancing. Restaurants and bars shuttered. Cultural institutions and libraries closed. Economic crisis. Political dysfunction. Sickness and death. Uncertainty. Shelter in place. Isolation. Time. Oh my god, it is bonkers, and there are hours and hours of extra time to allow my anxiety to overwhelm me and surrender my spirit to despair and loneliness. And Netflix. And biting my cuticles bloody and freaking the fuck out.

Breathe in through the nose. Breathe out through the mouth.

I refuse to give myself over to loneliness in this time of quarantine, because I am finally starting to crack the code for living alone in peace. Besides, I am not alone. I have my dogs, the internet, and a cell phone with unlimited usage. I’ve already had countless text conversations with my mom, sister, and several friends. I’ve enjoyed lengthy telephone calls with my daughter Savannah in Chicago and my friend Sandra in Springfield. I had a scheduled video chat with my friend Bridgett in Olney, who doubles as my writing coach. All of these “social distance” interactions with beloved people in my life brought laughter, wisdom, and brilliant inspiration.

Deep Sigh regarding Netflix, though, because it is tempting to settle down in front of it and binge watch for days and days. I will not waste time watching Netflix. I refuse to give myself over to Netflix. Ok, so here’s my plan: I will allow Netflix to provide limited, curated therapy. Because if I’m honest, all the news about infection rates and death tolls, economic losses and news about people who are losing their livelihoods, and the daily buffoonage from the White House will make me crazy. The kind of crazy that yoga or meditation or contemplative walking cannot soothe, let alone undo. That’s the kind of crazy that requires me to get out of my own head. That’s the kind of crazy I usually combat by hanging out with friends in a cozy, noisy pub or cheering for a team during a televised sporting event. Netflix will have to step up and be the pub or the basketball game. Periodic episodes of Schitt$ Creek will lighten my mood on rainy days when I cannot work in my yard or go for a long walk. Father Brown’s singular concern for the souls of murderers will make me believe, at least for an hour, that all humans can be cast in their own tales of redemption. And when I think the entire world is going to hell in a hand-basket, I’ll watch a few episodes of the Great British Baking Show and remind myself that healthy competition is, indeed, possible, and you do not have to kill everyone around you or step on people to win at cake, politics, or life.

I am lucky. I am grateful. I have worked from home as a scholarly editor for eight years, so I don’t have to figure it out or patch it together like so many people now are scrambling to do. My job relies on NEH funding, which makes me nervous. But for now, it is secure, my paychecks are coming, and I do not have to worry about food or shelter or paying my bills. My daily life will not change all that much, and I will continue to do work that challenges my mind and makes my heart sing. I am going to continue my yoga and meditation routine, and I intend to be restful and calm during this isolation. Instead of seeing this predicament as forced isolation, let’s say we are hibernating. We are bears, cute and cuddly and warm in our homes, resting up for all the living we will do when humanity finally kicks this pandemic’s ass.

With a little help from my human, furry, and television friends, I will be calm and keep my cool. In the space of that quiet solitude, that beautiful serenity in my lovely new home, I vow not only to stay calm and keep my cool but to also make the most of my time. To cook. To draw and to color. To freestyle my yoga practice. To read half a dozen books and make a worthy effort to catch up on the New Yorker. But most importantly to write. Hours and hours and hours of extra writing. I will keep writing in my daily journal as well as blog and work on the revisions of my memoir. I am going to spend so much glorious time at my computer writing that my aging knuckles will get sticky.

Last week in the Washington Post I read an interesting story about Isaac Newton. During the Bubonic Plague of the 1660s, Newton’s college closed, forcing him home to his family’s estate. While at home, he wrote a paper about some math he was working on (math that became calculus); and he sat under that famous apple tree. I will do nothing so important as inventing calculus or defining gravity in my isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020. None of the trees in my yard produce anything big enough to knock brilliance into my head. However, like Newton I’m going to be creatively productive in my isolation. I’m going to engage my brain. I’m going to see all this extra me-time as a gift and do my amateur best to make the most of it.

I’ve already made scones and homemade granola and expended a lot of nervous energy doing “art.” Living well, especially under duress, is about the process and the journey. I’m not a chef or an artist, but I enjoy cooking; and drawing, I very recently learned, is a scary challenge that makes me smile like a fearless six-year-old on the monkeybars.

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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.

Fiction and Truth

I started reading Pasty, a novel by Nicole Dennis-Benn, for a book club I have just joined. As I read and floated into the book on the soft clarity of the writing, I tried to understand the title character, who in the very early pages of the book abandoned her five-year-old daughter Tru in Jamaica to move to the United States. Patsy wasn’t rich in Jamaica and she lived in a depressed, struggling town; but she had a decent secretarial job and a family, food on her table, and a lovely and smart little girl. Unlike so many immigrants who leave their homes to better the lives of their families, Patsy was not going to America to make a better life for her daughter. She was going for her own selfish reasons; she was leaving her daughter to be with her best childhood friend. When Patsy left Jamaica, she lied to her daughter in her sweet little face that she was coming home. Patsy boarded a a plane to New York, leaving her daughter to live with a father she barely knew, and she had no intention of ever returning to retrieve her.

My tolerance for Patsy decreased as I turned every page, the prose quickly incapable of overcoming the pain the narrative delivered to my heart. In the early pages, as Patsy settled in with her friend’s family in New York, while she learned how to navigate her new city, and when she applied for jobs as a nanny, Patsy gave me no reason to understand her. She offered no righteous explanation for the abandonment of her daughter. She was shallow and cruel, and I did not wish to know her.

I have a hard and fast rule about the books I read for leisure. I give them twenty-five pages to draw me in; twenty-five pages should be enough to make me love them or at least want to keep reading to see if I can love them. There are too many good books in the world that have the potential for making my heart sing to spend time reading even one that makes me miserable. But in this case, I turned page 25 and kept reading, no matter how much the story was breaking my heart and making me angry. I read for the sake of the book club. I did not want to attend my first book club with some people who have not yet met me without having read the book in its entirety. Without having given the author a fair trial. Without having given Patsy time to make me know her, to want to know her. 

On p. 115, Patsy decided to call home. Finally. After weeks in the United States—while poor Tru cried and cried every day and desperately yearned for her mother—Patsy finally picked up the phone to call her daughter. Just as she heard the child excitedly rushing to the phone to talk to her mom, Patsy put down the receiver. A coward, she hung up on her baby, and abandoned her all over again.

I could read no more after that.

If this book was memoir instead of fiction, I would have tried harder to empathize with Patsy’s choices and her motives. I would have given her time to explain why she gave up her precious child. But does a fictional character deserve the same effort, the same time, the same compassion? Does a fictional bad mother deserve the same human consideration? The old me might have said yes for the sake of good prose. Fiction is supposed to stretch the boundaries of what you think you know and understand. It can reveal what the truth cannot. Maybe the old me would have been more patient, as the story of Patsy unfolded. But the present me was failing to sympathize with a fictional mother who turned her back on her child. The present me has no time for untrue horror stories with which I possess no responsibility to grapple.

In my new realm of existence, I have no tolerance for despicable or shallow fictional characters with whom I cannot relate. I see no compelling reason to read a novel about a fictional woman who chose to abandon her daughter when I am a real woman forced to live without one of mine. Reading past page 25 was my own damned fault. I should not have let the author who dreamed up this character to punch me in my heart for ninety pages after I knew better than to keep reading. Yet I cannot help but feel like it might be partly the author’s fault, too, that I feel so aggrieved, that Patsy throws such sharp elbows against the bonds of real mothers and daughters.

Maybe Patsy turned out okay for all of the characters in the end. If it were memoir and I had stopped reading, I would have checked in on Tru and made sure she was okay, at least. But because it was fiction, I can let it all go now that I have written my peace about it. Good writing alone just doesn’t cut it for me these days. Good writing cannot atone for characters with whom I could never connect on a human level. I don’t want to spend time with fictional characters I would not wish to know in real life. Not anymore. Life is hard enough without letting a work of fiction beat me upside my heart. Life is too short to read books that poke my grief with a stick.

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Writing Peace

Writing a memoir walks a fine line between therapy and self-destruction. I know it, because that is what I have been doing since February 2019. I have been writing a memoir and walking  a delicately fine line between healing my shattered spirit and endangering any healing progress I have made since losing my sweet Mackenzie in October 2014. Honest reflection is tricky business, and my honest report is that peering into your soul is both perilous and breathlessly rewarding. Finding the words to explain and to understand the difficult and winding path of my journey through grief has been a balancing act, indeed. But the reward for finding the words and striking that balance, through the very process of the writing itself, is peace.

When my daughter died, writing was the weapon I selected to battle my grief and to repair the many damages it inflicted upon my body and my being. Writing became my assertion of agency against the frailty of my humanity. The process of writing became a search for peace and the practice of writing its own kind of solace. Five years of steady writing—137 blog posts here at Being Mack’s Momma Bear and a nearly 200-page memoir of my experiences with grief redefined for me the meaning of peace and showed me how to find it.

When I started writing for my life, I did not understand that peace is not a destination; it is not a paradise at the end of a long journey or a utopia you win after a hard struggle. Rather peace is a state of mind you achieve for yourself at the precise moment, any moment along your way, when you find your balance within the disorienting storm of living. Every time you breathe in joy and exhale pain in the same breath, or level your achievements with your disappointments, or bank love against loss, or successfully walk the fine line between your therapy and your self-destruction, peace is your gift. Peace is not the absence of pain and sorrow; it is the acceptance of the hardships of living along with the precious gifts of being human. Peace is not a reward for traveling, it is your traveling companion.

Some people learn this truth far earlier in their lives than I did. Some people are born with this wisdom. Mack was. I think for most of us, however, real peace only comes after a great deal of eyes-wide-open, whole-hearted effort. For me, it was revealed through difficult, personal writing and honest evaluation of my experience with grief. My writing began as a personal journal but quickly became my therapy, and it was, ultimately, also a companion, a witness, and a great teacher. As I stand here at the doorway of a brand new decade, I am healthier for having spent half of the last decade writing my grief. I credit the personal writing I published on Being Mack’s Momma Bear for leading me toward peace and the memoir writing for revealing to me my capacity for finding it.

For the rest of my life, surviving the loss of my daughter will require eyes-wide-open, whole-hearted effort. A mother’s grief does not fade. I know there will be times when I will fail to maintain my equilibrium and to walk peacefully with all of my love for Mack and with all of the pain of losing her. Mack is still with me, I converse with her each and every day, and she will be with me for the coming decade, just as she was in the previous two. I am not done writing about my daughter. I am not done writing about my grief. I have just finally arrived at a place in my journey of grief that requires less therapy.

Castle 7

Mack in Monsaraz, Portugal, 2011.

Going forward, Being Mack’s Momma Bear will remain a space for me to share my memories of Mack and continue to process my grief when the need for it arises. Writing will always be the therapy I choose first for healing. But Being Mack’s Momma Bear will also be a space for me to write about books and writing, dogs, walking and yoga, friends, food, flowers and birds, history, politics, and peace. No matter the headspace I inhabit— mom, friend, professional historian, dog lover, bad poet, angry liberal voter, or middle-aged, single woman trying to understand our crazy and beautiful world—I am still Mack’s Momma Bear. I will always be Mack’s Momma Bear.

And so I keep the name Mack herself gave me, Momma Bear, to honor her; and I retain the blog title Being Mack’s Momma Bear to memorialize the continued presence in my life of Mack’s inspirational spirit. Hopefully, with a lot of grit, a little grace, and a dash of Mack-style humor, I will offer some insights about history and life along the way, share some honest reflections that might be of use, and serve up some simple truths about the loving, grieving, thrilling, terrifying, lonely, joyful nature of being human. 

Peace, and Happy New Year to you all.

Back Camera

Me in Monsaraz, Portugal, 2011.

P.S. Wish me luck with the memoir. I spent half of one decade doing the personal work and writing it required, and editing and publishing the manuscript is my first goal for the new decade. 

 

Permanent Pain and Bright Beginnings

Five years ago today, the beautiful world fell into darkness when the light of our lives left us. Mackenzie Kathleen McDermott was a beaming smile of sunshine, a giggling goof of joy, and a bulldozing force of nature. Her absence left holes in the hearts of everyone who loved her, holes that can never be refilled.

Five years have filled no holes. Five years have healed no pain. Five years have not made me miss her less nor feel her a absence less keenly. In fact, some days–days like today–I miss her more than ever.

Balance is the lesson I have learned in the deepest grief of a mother’s broken heart. Every day I must balance my love for Mack and my permanent pain from the loss of her. Every day is a struggle, but on the good days, sprinkled in between the bad and the okay and the barely breathing, I can find that balance. I can take hold of some peace and find some solace. I have that scar upon my heart, yes, but joy and beauty and light are possible.

Today, Savannah is starting an exciting new job. Today, I am moving into a charming old house in a new town. Today, Kevin starts looking for his own path, too. Today is going to be one of those days when balance is vital, as our little family carries all of our pain and all of our love forward into the next five years without Mack.

Today I walk with sorrow, but I also walk with hope and the real prospect of peace. I walk onward into the sunshine of this bright beginning.

Chance Meetings and the Connection of Spirits

It was cold for late April in central Illinois, and the sun was reticent behind dense gray clouds resolved to keep the blue sky far away from Saturday. The day was drizzly and windy and raw to match my mood, and the chill nipped my bare ankles when I stepped from the car. But as the four of us walked up towards Mack’s gravestone, the breeze blew a little lighter on our cheeks. The rain clouds offered amnesty to mourners, and I would have bet a hundred bucks if I had had it in my pocket that the temperature ticked up a bit on our behalf, too. The painted landscape of spring lifted my spirits, and the white and pink petals of the dogwoods were luminous in the gloomy shadows on the first day of their full bloom. The colors were perhaps emboldened against the backdrop of Oak Ridge Cemetery just bursting into the opulent shades of spring green. Mack-greens, I thought. Beautiful like her. Brilliant like her. Dazzling color worthy of her true spirit.

Alicia, Maureen, Sandra, and I had gathered together for a Springfield-ladies reunion of dinner, drinks, and deliberations on books, politics, and life. Before dinner, we wanted to spend a little time with Mack. It was my first visit to Mack’s grave in four months, and I was grateful for the company of dear friends. The more time that passes the harder I find it is to return. One might think it should get easier. I once thought it would get easier. But it didn’t, and it won’t, and I guess it never should be comfortable to visit your child in a graveyard. I visit Mack because of the tangible feeling of peace it offers, although I never relish the pain it also touches upon my heart. Such is the experience of grief that one thing can be good and bad and situate you in all of the complicated spaces in between. Some visits to Mack’s grave are therapeutic. Some are devastating. Each has a character all their own, but this would be the first one I would characterize as weird as well as wonderful.

Sandra, who lives in Springfield, brought the flowers, a sunshiny mixture of daisies, chrysanthemums, and carnations, and she placed them in the urn she had stuck into the ground on a previous visit. There were no tears that gloomy yet colorful Saturday, but they were at first on the edges of our actions and on the surface of our stories. I swept the dust from Mack’s marker while Maureen rearranged the Irish felt hat and green beads she and my husband had brought to the grave the weekend of Mack’s birthday in March. Alicia, who had been away from Springfield longer than me, was quiet even for her. She located the Lincoln Tomb up the hill, framed by the dogwoods, and we all sighed at the exquisite landscape of Mack’s resting place. I pointed out one of my favorite trees near her gravestone. Just twenty or so paces to the south is a gnarly giant pine growing two wild limbs at the top. Situated as they are at wacky angles, and each with their own shades of green, they look like two entirely separate trees haphazardly attached to the top of the gnarly pine below. “Mack was as unique as that crazy old pine,” I said, and we all laughed with memories of our silly and funny girl.

At a break in our whispery conversation, I heard some music in the breeze and turned in the direction of the sound. Five men bundled in jackets stood around a headstone a few rows east of Mack’s grave, just by the road on the other side of the lot. There were pretty liquor bottles lined up on the top of the headstone. The quiet laughter of the men floated across the grass toward us, and the barely discernible decibel of classic rock rolled out of a car parked at the curb. Five friends they were. I knew it in an instant, their body language giving them away. They were five friends communing with another they had lost, celebrating a life that mattered to them, and toasting the fragile beauty of their human connections. The five of them and the four of us were the only living souls I could see in the cemetery. Even on warm sunny Saturdays these days, few people tend gravestones. The five of them and the four of us shared a common purpose and possessed a common need to commune with spirits. Nine people we were, drawn to that place because we had loved and lost, because we accepted the tether of life with death, and because there is in a communal pilgrimage great comfort for the human soul.

Several minutes passed after our notice of and whispered appreciation for the five men across the lot, when one of them stepped over to greet us. Geoff introduced himself, begged apology for the intrusion, and invited us to join him and his friends for a shot of fine tequila. So novel is such an invitation in a cemetery that we could never have declined it, even if we had not been delighted to receive and to accept it. We happily joined their group, and we introduced ourselves while the first shots of tequila were poured into tiny red cups. Geoff, Bill, Harv, Kevin, and Rick come together in Oak Ridge Cemetery every year on the birthday of their departed friend Mike. It’s a ritual now in its fifteenth year. They showed us pictures and told us about Mike, who was a joyous man and the life of every party, a man who appreciated a good bottle of tequila, enjoyed traveling, and adored his family and friends. In turn, we told them about Mack, who was a happy-go-lucky kid with a delightful wit, a girl who was a star athlete who knew no strangers but preferred quiet lazy time with best friends. Upon sharing our stories, we all agreed that Mike Henry and Mackenzie McDermott were special spirits on the earth who inspired friendships powerful enough to transcend death.

We toasted Mike, full of life, who died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of forty-six in 2004. We toasted Mack, full of life, who died suddenly of Addison’s disease at the age of twenty in 2014. We toasted precious lives gone too soon. We toasted love and friendship.  We toasted life and the joys and human connections that come to us along the way.

Life is weird and wonderful, isn’t it really? I am frequently overwhelmed by the human connections Mack keeps bringing to me. How fortunate I feel to have been in the cemetery with my dear friends honoring Mack, when Mike’s dear friends were in the cemetery honoring him. Mack would have chuckled with delight at the sight of her Momma Bear and three of her adopted moms shooting tequila in the cemetery with strange men. Mike’s friend Kevin, who had also been his business partner, told me that Mike would be happy to know he still had the magic of bringing people together.

It may be odd, but in a way, it feels a little bit like Mack’s spirit has a friend in Oak Ridge Cemetery. She’s not alone, and neither is Mike. Mack and Mike brought nine people together that chilly Saturday. Now through the people who loved them, they are connected, too. You can call it odd all you want to, and it may even be weird, but to me it is perfectly wonderful to know that Mack’s sweet spirit is in such good company with Mike’s sweet spirit out there among those glorious old trees in the majestic shadow of the Lincoln Tomb.

 

 

 

P.S. Harv sent me the photo of Mack’s marker. After we left, the guys went over to pay respects to Mack. I know from now on, I’ll always stop over to see Mike, too.

Writing for My Life

Writing saved my life. No joke. No lie. No hyperbole here.

I’ve been a writer my entire life—poetry and short stories in high school, creative writing minor in college, a few years as a journalist, an unsuccessful cookbook and children’s book author in adulthood, and twenty-six years as a historian, publishing two books and dozens of articles and essays. BUT, when Mack died in October 2014, I started writing for my life. I invested my Being Mack’s Momma Bear blog with the purpose of a life-preserver. The early days of writing helped keep my head above the water in the dark and stormy sea that was my grief. The writing helped me examine my experience with sorrow in real-time. It was a hard, ugly, messy business, but I felt the power of writing’s balm upon my shattered body and spirit. Turning the twisted knots of my grief into words and sentences that made sense in black and white was constructive and therapeutic and cathartic. Writing was a remedy for all the ways my grief ailed me. It saw me through the darkest tunnel and into the light. And it continues to fill my lungs with air, with life, and with courage.

Last year, I decided I wanted to make writing a bigger and bolder part of my life. I have a dream to purchase a large historic home and to create a serene writer’s retreat within it. I want to establish a place where all types of writers can come for quiet reflection and work, where authors visit to share their books with others, where poets practice, where creativity thrives, and where writing classes embrace the writing dreams of children, college-bound students, and adults who want to explore writing in their own lives. I can’t make this dream a reality tomorrow, or likely even soon, but I will someday make Mack’s Manor a reality in some form or another. The writing and the dream give me hope, push me onward, and are such good friends for my life’s journey, no matter what happens in the end.

While I save money and formulate plans for my writing retreat, I decided I wanted to teach some writing classes, to learn more about the process of writing and how different people approach it, and to share my enthusiasm for its healing power. I wanted to practice, if you will, what my writing retreat might be able to do. I created a Write Your Life class for an adult education program in St. Charles, MO, and I have spent the last six weeks as an excited newbie writing instructor working with a patient, kind, and creative group of students. Poor guinea pigs that they are, my first writing students will occupy a corner of my heart forever. Tonight will be my final class. Endings make me weepy, always have, and this ending will be no different. I do feel a happy sense of accomplishment for doing something scary, but I am sad it went by so quickly that I barely had time to breathe in all of the joy of it.

This little Write Your Life class of mine has been another important step on my road back to the core of my old self, and it marks good progress along my journey forward to a new life, to a new place, where there is peace and joy and grace. My first seven students have been a treat, and it has been my pleasure to inspire them to stretch the muscles of their creative spirits. Last week, one of those students—a delightful retired woman named Gloria who is finding a poet within her—gave me a thank-you box of chocolates and a little owl with solar-powered, light-up eyes. The owl was a perfect sentiment, because from this first class I was seeking wisdom to inform the future of the writer’s life I want to live. I think I found a little wisdom, at least I certainly learned a lot about the life in front of me. And in the eyes of my wise little mascot, the future looks bright (and happy?), indeed.

Mack Day for ProjectMack

Human life is short, and it is precious. Yet precious few of us live our lives like the breath might leave our lungs tomorrow, and many of us who learn the lesson, learn it much too late. Mack was one of those precious few, living each day like it might be her last. She lived in the moment, present for all of the simple joys many of us miss in the frenetic pace of our daily lives. Mack breathed life fully into her lungs, found humor in all the dark corners, inspired laughter and fun for every circumstance, and cherished family and friends with the simple, remarkable gift of her time. Mack was true to herself, and she let people be true to themselves, too, loving them unconditionally, never criticizing or judging them. Her sense of humor, her fearlessness, her devotion to good fun and endless leisure, and her fierce sense of loyalty and social justice inspired a close-knit circle of friends who were her everything.

To those of us who loved her, Mack’s absence is a void as expansive as the universe. But like the universe, brilliant with billions of stars, Mack’s spirit shines on. She is still here. She lives on in the hearts of the people who were lucky to love her. She continues to be an inspirational presence in the lives of her family and friends. The creative writing scholarship in her name at Truman State University, where Mack found the writer inside of her heart, will spread Mack’s love of words to students for decades to come. And ProjectMack shares Mack’s philosophy of living with people who never had the privilege of knowing her: Enjoy Life, Be a Good Friend, Try Something New, Relax More, and Laugh More. I have found precious little peace since losing Mack, but much of it has come by the way of her best friend Justice and the work of ProjectMack, making a difference in the name of my girl.

The mission of ProjectMack “is to inspire those around us to live a positive impactful life. We have this idea that if one person can make the conscious effort to change the world, it can inspire others to do the same. ProjectMack isn’t something we do, it’s how we live our lives every single day. Through projects big and small we try to inspire positivity and good vibes in our communities by our words and actions.” The organization—now established in Kansas City, MO; Springfield, IL; Rantoul, IL; and Cincinnati, OH—has created music and sporting events to raise awareness about gun violence, held bake sales for cancer patients, organized sing-a-longs at nursing homes, passed out donuts, goodie bags, and care packages. It also uses its website and social media to inspire monthly Big-Mack challenges for people to initiate in their own communities.

Mack would have turned twenty-five this St. Patrick’s Day, and to celebrate her life, her legacy, and her birthday—Mack Day 2019—I want everyone to visit the ProjectMack website and consider making a $25 donation. It’s a beautiful thing—it’s a Mack thing—to live a life of impact.

And now a special statement from ProjectMack founder and CEO:

“If I have learned anything in my twenty-three years of life, it’s that death gives you perspective. When Mackenzie passed away four years ago, my biggest fear was that one day, eventually, people would find Project Mack 3their new sense of routine, and they would forget about her. I thought ultimately life would go on and everyone would get to a point where they wouldn’t even remember what life with Mackenzie was like. People ask me all the time why I created ProjectMack, and if I’m completely honest, it was to keep Mackenzie alive. I refused to accept a world without her in it, even if she technically wasn’t here anymore.

“I look back at where ProjectMack started and where we are today, and I am genuinely humbled because every single day I get to share my best friend with the world. I think I am fortunate, because at twenty-three I know what I want to do with the rest of my life. I see the difference and impact ProjectMack is making, and it motivates me more than anything. I see how Mackenzie’s spirit has changed hearts and affected lives; and I think she’s exactly what this world needs. Mack understood you could change the world just by how you treat other people. I miss her more than anything, but ProjectMack is my way to make sure her legacy and memory never die. Mackenzie might not be here anymore, but her spirit and legacy will forever live on with ProjectMack.”

Justice Collins, Kansas City, March 2019.

 

 

Meaning in Molasses

There is a meditative peacefulness in observing the rich and lovely darkness of molasses, meandering across the lip of a glass bottle and flowing in a quiet cascade of sugary goodness into a measuring cup. The pouring of the syrup and the anticipation of its luscious sweetness offers a philosophical opportunity for the baker, which the mindless, crude scooping of white granulated sugar could never provide. The very viscosity of molasses, stretching slowly through space, settles the mind upon the simple beauty of a humble ingredient. Such present-minded pouring not only joyfully stimulates the taste buds, but the patience it requires also alights the deliciousness of gratitude upon the heart.

One does not wake up on a Saturday morning determined to find meaning in molasses. Philosophers and poets may naturally see the value in the ordinary, but for flawed, grieving, self-pitying mortals like me, it requires effort. I am deliberately determined to be more present in the daily routine of my life, but my effort is a practice, and it is oh so very far from perfect. Sometimes, however, almost like magic, I reap the sweet benefit of mindfulness and find quiet beauty, simple joy, and meaning in the mundane. It was just such a magical moment for me a couple of Saturdays ago, when feeling brave and ambitious, I washed and made tidy my kitchen pantry.

Cleaning out a kitchen pantry is an unpleasant chore, offering me nothing but a fleeting sense of satisfaction in exquisite organization destined for almost immediate destruction. For this reason, it is a chore I procrastinate; and because it is a chore I procrastinate, it is always a chore which sorely tests the limits of my extremely weak stomach. This particular cleaning required the chiseling away of encrusted residue of marshmallow cream and the wiping clean of two sticky pools of unidentifiable substances, creeping like monsters born in primordial ooze. Not only did the task of cleaning the pantry make me nauseous, but expired specialty items, like three cans of sweetened condensed milk, purchased for recipes long forgotten, stared at me like abandoned puppy dogs. As well, novelty ingredients such as a tin of anchovies packed in oil and a petite pot of peri-peri spice, purchased in the name of broadened cooking horizons, mocked my good intentions.

After washing my hands and calming my sick stomach, I gazed upon my trash bin and two paper grocery bags heaping full of wasted food and good money thrown away, and I withered. In the sight of so many casualties, a breathtaking first-world carnage, the only assessment was my exquisite failure. In that mood, I could not smile at an orderly cabinet, now glistening with washed glass bottles of cooking oils and vinegars and sanitized canisters and cans, lined up like ready soldiers. But then I remembered why I had tackled my long-neglected disaster of the pantry in the first place.

The Friday evening before, I had a telephone conversation with a friend, and we briefly talked about my intentions to halt all conspicuous consumption and to focus on spending good time instead of good money. She said that when she was on her year-long sabbatical in 2017, she conserved money by pulling out forgotten products from the backs of cabinets. She said, “you wouldn’t believe how much perfectly good stuff I had that I had completely lost track of and yet had continually been replacing.” As we talked, I stood in the kitchen and inspected my pantry, brimming full of items I had forgotten. Our conversation inspired the great pantry purge the following day.

When the pantry cleaning was complete and I had remembered the intended purpose of the task, I looked past the wasted items in the trash bin. I focused my attention instead on the beautifully organized pantry. My pantry may have been a mess of forgotten stuff before, but now it was a pantry full of perfectly good stuff I now knew I had. And among the perfectly good stuff was some perfectly wonderful stuff, too, like a tall jar of long forgotten, but unexpired molasses. “Duh,” Mack whispered in my head. “Sugar never expires.”

Molasses is an ingredient I always enjoyed incorporating into holiday baking with my girls, who loved gingerbread and gooey molasses cookies sharp with ginger. I decided to celebrate my clean pantry and the memories of happy Christmases past that the found molasses had spurred within me. I spent the next half hour or so reading recipes and examining other ingredients I had, looking for a recipe that would not require the purchase of anything new. I settled on a cake. In my pantry-purge cake, the molasses would be the star in tasty concert with a half-cup of golden raisins and three pink-lady apples just starting to soften and wrinkle in the back of my refrigerator’s fruit bin. The cake would be an homage to taking better stock of what I have, a ginger-strong nod to happy memories, and an ode to simple pleasures like molasses.

From the moment I poured the molasses into the measuring cup, I let the delicious syrup work its meditative magic. Never before had I employed such a satisfying and deliberate mindfulness in the making of a cake. When I pushed the cake tin full of the brown spicy batter into the oven, I could account for every minute I had spent in preparation. It is weird to realize how much daily life goes by for which we can make no accounting whatever. But it is also delightful to learn that you are capable of spending precious time living fully in a moment, even if what you are doing is baking a simple molasses cake.

My mindfulness that Saturday afternoon produced a cheerful glow in my attitude and a philosophical curiosity about how and why the hell I was finding meaning in molasses. The cake was pretty good, too. It was moist and warm with spice, and the light dusting of powdered sugar elevated the caramel depths of the molasses in no need of the cloying cream-cheese frosting I astutely edited from the recipe.

Busy and frustrated people might employ the old-fashioned phrase “slow as molasses in January” to express annoyance that another person in their way is going about some task with an insufficient amount of haste. But I think the expression merits a different meaning. To be “slow as molasses in January” is to be patient, to let life come to you at its own pace, and to be present for even the most humble of life’s experiences. It means that to full-stop it, to live in the moment, is to see value in the humble and beauty in the mundane.

Molasses might not be the metaphor for mindfulness, but on one Saturday in January it was mine. Letting this mindfulness in molasses happen was a victory. Because in my bumbling and stumbling journey forward through life, my human legs have often been running far faster than mindfulness allows, and I have missed far too much of the experience. If I slow it down like molasses in January, I know I will see much more of life’s interesting and beautiful terrain.

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