Ode to My Silver Maple

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Finch Finds Fern for Family

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

Momma Finch Looks On

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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Silence

The radio scratches in my ears, and from the back seat I can just make out the balls and strikes count through the AM static. My little sister is next to me in the back seat, jabbering to my mom, who is the front passenger seat, her head turned around jabbering back at my sister. I have no idea what they are saying, and I do not care. I am trying to read my book.

My dad is driving and smoking and keeping a score card. The car windows are cracked open to keep us from choking to death, and the wind noise is crashing into the radio static, occasionally mixing with a sudden clarity of the radio signal and the baseball announcer calling a play at the plate. My dad curses and bangs his fists on the steering wheel, and the Reds are losing, and still I am trying to read, dammit, and we have another baseball game worth of driving, and I am losing my mind in the chaos.img_9486

Can’t the quiet of my book overcome us all? What would be the cost of one hour of silence in this car? What could I pay them to whisper? Why is there always radio static and sisters and moms jabbering and wind noise and dads yelling at baseball games?

Today, I live alone. Silence is a precious joy of my life, treasured, filled up with reading one book after another, with New Yorker magazines sprinkled in between. And oh my goodness, but the quiet is divine. But there are days when I would trade in all of my books and my solitude for one hour in the backseat of the car in the chaos of my childhood, my mom and sister jabbering away, my mind unsettled by the wind noise and the Reds playing on the radio through AM static, and my dad cursing the blown call at the plate.

*****

Note: I was lucky and am grateful to have been invited to join a monthly memoir writing group called Past Forward. It is a group of bold and brave people who write their hearts and memories and share their writing with each other. For each meeting, we write from an advance prompt on a particular topic or theme, and when we get to the meeting we are presented with another writing prompt on which we write quietly for twenty minutes or so. After the writing, we spend the remainder of the time sharing our prepared and spontaneous writing with the group. It’s a courageous new experience for me, reading aloud my creative writing, and it is stretching me in wonderfully uncomfortable ways. Some of the most enjoyable writing I have ever done has taken place in the quiet space of that spontaneous writing, sitting in a circle with other writers who are willing to share and to listen. I wrote this piece at the most recent meeting, the spontaneous prompt was “Silence.” 

 

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.