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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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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I am Well and Reading

I stopped reading. For three and a half years, I stopped reading. For forty-two interminable months, I had no mental or emotional capacity for books. I lost the fiction and poetry and historical writing that had for a lifetime filled my mind and my spirit with the beauty and challenges of the world. I lost the loveliness of words shining off a page with the power to transport me into a new landscape, to take me back into a mysterious historical past, or to let me see through the eyes of a stranger who becomes by the end of a narrative a familiar and beloved friend. I lost the ability to appreciate the power of brilliantly constructed sentences and paragraphs to reach out to ears and eyes open wide to knowledge and the emotions and experiences of all kinds of people, real and imagined. I lost the joy of curling up with a book and a cup of Earl Grey on a cold night in winter. I lost the desire to lose myself in someone else’s story.

I stopped reading, and I understand now that the desire to lose myself in someone else’s story was the reason I stopped reading. It was why I no longer wanted to read. Why I had no mental or emotional capacity for books. Why I abandoned a love and how grief stole from me an activity that had since the age of four enriched my life. I lost reading and love of books because I was lost in my own story. Lost in my own experiences, my own emotions, my own self pity, my own inner voice reflecting my own bitter struggles. Grief is cruel that way, because it is not merely a heavy crown of sorrows upon your head. Grief also chips away at you, piece by piece, bit by bit, joy by joy. Then, it takes individual human time, glacial time it seems, to realize the damage grief has inflicted upon your spirit. And then, I think, it takes a lifetime to be restored. Or rather, it takes a lifetime to restore for yourself what grief claims from you, piece by piece, bit by bit, joy by joy.

From October 2014 through February 2018, I managed by necessity to make my way through historical works related to my current research on Abraham Lincoln and women and vital to my new professional work on Jane Addams and the Progressive Era. I read with great difficulty a couple of beautiful memoirs, tiptoed through some books on grief and healing and life, and even slogged through a few volumes of poetry and fiction. But all of that reading was a struggle, and I have not retained most of it. Nor did I love any of it with the passion of previous, joyous reading. Reading did not consume me as it had always done before; it did not possess the power to transport me to the distant worlds of other people’s stories. My own story was still too much a central focus, and I was not ready, I suppose, to give it up as the singular narrative in my brain and on my heart. These desolate forty-two months I lived without books would have made my Mack very sad, more sad even than it made myself. For I knew all along what I was missing, what I had lost, and I feared the bits of myself I fortified with reading might be lost, indeed, forever.

But in March, I started writing poetry and doing some other creative writing. I was just ready, I suppose, to start examining something of the world around me, outside of myself. This writing was a balm, a restoration of an old teenage joy reborn, partly at least, out of the anguish of losing my daughter, and partly because I needed to give birth to a new me out of ashes and charred bits of my past selves. This restored bit of myself, this creative writer within me, also miraculously restored my joy of reading. Or maybe the creative writing in my bones conspired with the love of books in my bones and restored themselves together, like a joint gift to a better me. I emerged that spring a little stronger, a little brighter, a little lighter, and a hell of a lot more hopeful, too. Grief is a process. Life is a process. And my restoration to life is a process, too.

In July I wrote that I had arrived at a place somewhere over Mackenzie’s Rainbow, a place that was not a paradise in which pain and sorrow is vanquished, but a place were I am becoming comfortable walking in love and grief and acceptance of life as an existence of beauty and pain. I wrote that “a mist has cleared for me or I have emerged through a portal into the light or come to some proverbial crossroads. Or, perhaps, I really have arrived somewhere over Mackenzie’s Rainbow. Still grieving. Still a speed bump away from a straight-jacket. But better. More vibrant. Less afraid about where life will lead me in the coming year. And, I think, looking a little more like the Momma Bear Mack knew and loved for twenty precious years of my life.”

Here at the close of the year, 2018, during my fourth holiday season without my special and spirited girl, I am still all of those things I believed I was in July and, perhaps, a little more. Now I am maybe two or three speed bumps away from that straight-jacket, even more better and, without a doubt, even more vibrant, in a big way because I am reading again. I have books in my life again, and I have the Amazon.com receipts to prove it. In no way is it more clear that I am a little more like the Momma Bear Mack left behind than in my grateful return to voracious reading. Returned to me is my indefatigable love of the written word, of books, of writing that lifts the soul into the clouds and propels the reader on the wings of eagles. The greatest gifts I gave my girls were my unconditional love and the love of books and the joy of reading. Mack would be so very glad I found my way back to books once again, although like always, she would tease me for the dense and scholarly ones I tend to select to occupy the most precious of my leisurely hours.

I say thank goodness and release a noisy, breathy sigh of relief. Mack would say hallefuckinglujah! My mental and emotional capacity for books is restored to me like a gift from angels, and I have forty-two months of lost time to recover. Since March, I’ve read a dozen or so historical works for my personal research and professional work with a renewed clarity of purpose. I can now fully concentrate on their historiographical significance and also let them take me away to mysterious historical pasts. As well, I have read or listened to twenty-eight novels and works of poetry for pure pleasure. Reading is easy and joyous and freeing once again. Reading is again as vital to me as breathe in my lungs, and I am over Mack’s rainbow with love and gratitude for its return to me. I am reading so much these days, feeding an appetite that for too long grief suppressed, that it has encroached a bit upon my writing. But that is OK. It feels good to let reading and books occupy the best of my free time for now. For a little while, at least, while I get reacquainted with the power of good writing to make life more joyous, more precious, more human.

So for now, dear friends, know that I am well and reading. And reading and reading and reading.

Mackenzies Rainbow

Books are vehicles to transport our minds, lift our spirits, and save our souls…here, there, or somewhere over Mackenzie’s Rainbow.

 

Mack, Me, and Dorothy Parker

For nearly twenty years, I have had this funny set of four coasters. White ceramic. Annoyingly useless for absorbing condensation formed and dripping from tumblers full of icy beverages. No matter, though, because I did not keep them for their utility. Rather, I kept them for the quatrain printed neatly upon them, one line of the punchy verse per coaster. Since I received the set, a gift from a close friend, I have kept them stacked, in order of the verse, easily accessible on prominent tables in my home for the enjoyment of any visitor who dares to use or to inspect them. Over the years, I have often been delightfully rewarded for my brazen display of these coasters; because so hilarious have been the scenes of unwitting visitors, especially innocent teenagers, who have picked up the stack and shuffled through each coaster, reading each one out loud:

I’d like to have a martini.
Two at the very most.
At three I’m under the table.
At four I’m under the host.—Dorothy Parker

While I always enjoyed the shocked, wide-eyed and gaping-mouthed horror of teenagers who walked right into this little trap, Mack enjoyed it even more. For surely we were the me and mackonly house with children that kept such scandalous literature out for all to see. As soon as a friend would pick up the stack of coasters or take hold of the top coaster to employ it, Mack would issue a deep “heh-heh-heh-heh” and wait for that friend to start reading. If necessary, she would encourage the visitor to inspect the verse, and then she stood back and let the magic happen. I was witness to several such encounters in which innocent teens read the verse loudly and dramatically, belting out each line; the rhyme taking hold of their good sense and rendering them powerless to stop the punch line from passing across their lips. These scenes sent Mack into fits of giggles, and she and I shared knowing glances. That stack of coasters was a shared prop of plotted good humor in our old Springfield house. An inside joke with Mack, me, and Dorothy Parker.

Today for me that stack of under-performing but delightful coasters is a humorous artifact of my life with Mack; and that erroneously attributed ditty printed upon them has become something of a little legend in my mind. A legend of Mack. A legend of Dorothy Parker. A legend of a couple of smart and witty dames who made me laugh…who make me laugh. You see, when Mack and I enjoyed our coasters and used them as a prop for evil, we believed that Dorothy Parker wrote those delicious lines. We had no reason to doubt. It certainly sounded like something she would have written or said. Besides, Dorothy Parker’s name lent credibility and elevated the brow of the joke, which made it all the funnier to us both. We were not pushing dirty limericks. We were dealing in fine literature. And that made us laugh all the louder.

A couple of months ago, I picked up a musty old first edition of the Viking Portable Library’s Dorothy Parker, published in 1944. I paid $1.95, and I’ve certainly gotten my money’s worth, as I have been toting it everywhere I go. It’s about four inches wide and six inches tall, the faded brown, hardcover binding is pliable from wear, and the pages when flipped fill the air with the pungent yet pleasing fragrance of a used book store. I’ve been carrying around this little book, reading the poems and prose within it, laughing and crying, imagining Parker holding court at the Algonquin Hotel in New York, and imagining Mack holding court in our Springfield living room with our coasters. In the reading and through my emotions in that reading, I have been feeling connected not only to Dorothy Parker, but also to Mack. Because I don’t think Mack read much if any of Dorothy Parker, and I am so very sorry about that.  I think Mack would have loved Dorothy Parker. Mack would have understood the quiet reflection and hint of sadness under the brash style and sharp wit. Mack would have marveled at the melody and tone of a charming and imperfect woman who lived life. She would have appreciated Parker’s ability to cut to the heart of a matter and not waste a person’s time with frivolous details.

I think Mack was a little bit like Dorothy Parker, who was intelligent and wise, an astute observer of humanity and the wonder and absurdity of life. I have been hearing Mack’s voice within Parker’s words on the page. Spending time with my worn little volume of Parker’s work (and learning that Parker did not write that quatrain on our coasters!), has made me see that I have actually been reading as much for Mack as I have been for me. Sometimes the life experiences we have—in this case my discovery of Dorothy Parker’s poems—can, indeed, be shared with the dear people whom we are missing. So if you’ve wondered where we’ve been, Mack and I have been away together on a little journey with Dorothy Parker, drinking martinis and talking about life.

And here is a little Dorothy Parker for you:

My favorite for Mack…
Inventory
Four be the things I am wiser to know:
Idleness, sorrow, a friend, and a foe.
Four be the things I’d been better without:
Love, curiosity, freckles, and doubt.
Three be the things I shall never attain:
Envy, content, and sufficient champagne.
Three be the things I shall have till I die:
Laughter and hope and a sock in the eye.

My favorite for Dorothy…
Unfortunate Coincidence
By the time you swear you’re his,
Shivering and sighing,
And he vows his passion is
Infinite, undying—
Lady, make a note of this:
One of you is lying.

My favorite for me…
On Being a Woman
Why is it, when I am in Rome,
I’d give an eye to be at home,
But when on native earth, I be,
My soul is sick for Italy?
And why with you, my love, my lord,
Am I spectacularly bored,
Yet do you up and leave me—then
I scream to have you back again?

And, while Dorothy did not pen the verse on my coasters, she did, in fact, pen this:

News Item
Men seldom make passes
At girls who wear glasses.

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Our delightful coasters!

Books

One of my primary goals as a mom was to give my girls a love of reading and to instill in their minds and in their hearts a deep appreciation for books. My older daughter was born with her face in a book, so I cannot take any credit for accomplishing that goal with her. My younger daughter was born with a super-charged turbo engine, making sitting still for long periods of time impossible. Mack had so much energy to burn that on weekday evenings, I often found it necessary to take her and a stopwatch out to the sidewalk in front of our house and then dare her to beat her record sprint to the end of our block and back. Only when all of her energy was exhausted could she sit still at the dining room table long enough to eat her dinner. So obviously, spending quiet time with a good book was of little interest to a toddler thundering through life at the speed of light.

For Mack, books were no competition for the backyard fort, the scooter, the bike, or the basketball hoop. Therefore, I concentrated my efforts to make her a reader after the sun went down and after much of her energy for the day was already expended. Whereas her sister had sat with me for hours with piles of books, word flashcards, and workbooks, I had to teach Mack on the run. I sat on the floor of her bedroom, holding the same flash cards that had enthralled Savannah. I would yell out words and definitions; and as Mack would dash by me bouncing a big playground ball or chasing a Nerf football she had flung across the room, I worked to improve her vocabulary. Maybe she was too wild to read just yet, but perhaps I could teach the child some new words. Mostly, she ignored me; but sometimes she would pause, violently poke a flashcard with her finger, and scream out the word it contained.

This vivacious little kid had to be mostly exhausted before she would train her eyes on actual book. But there were times when she finally tuckered out at the end of the day or when she was feeling warm and cuddly after her evening bath, that she would tolerate a short story if I read quickly enough and turned the pages fast enough. Although I deemed it a far too infrequent activity, I did get some precious, snuggly reading time with my Macko when she was very small. I was also heartened when I would tiptoe into Mack’s room at night and find her asleep with an open book. As I paused to breathe in those sweet scenes of my crazy girl passed out with a book, I secretly hoped that the stories within those pages were seeping into her dreams. I quietly wished that those pages were becoming comfortably familiar. And I confidently anticipated the day that those books would become at least as important to her as basketballs.falling asleep reading 3

It probably happened more gradually than I remember it, but at some point when Mack was in fifth or sixth grade I noticed that she was reading a book I had purchased for her many months beforehand, that she was now packing books for car rides and trips, and that she was demanding her own copies of the Harry Potter books that her sister had already collected. Mack may have been a late bloomer where reading was concerned, but by the time she reached high school, books became more important to her than basketballs. Not only had she become an avid reader and a passionate lover of books, but she had also became a vocal proponent of the books she loved. She enjoyed talking with friends about the books she was reading, and when she encountered a lack of enthusiasm from them, it only steeled her resolve. One night I overheard Mack discussing with her high school boyfriend Abhinav the strong female character that Stieg Larsson had written in The Girl with the Dragoon Tattoo. Although Abhi seemed uninterested and was reluctant, he left our house that night with Mack’s copy of the book. But he did read that book for Mack, and he had to admit to her later that not only had he enjoyed it, but he had appreciated it, too. This pleased Mack a great deal, more than I suspect she ever revealed to him. She was generous with her books and always happy to share her favorites with friends. Two of Mack’s dearest friends now cherish the last books that she had lent to them. Brytani has Mack’s copy of Bossypants by Tina Fey, and Kailey has The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the very same copy that Mack loaned to Abhi.

This past week, with the publication of my new book, a biography of Mary Lincoln, I have thought a great deal about Mack and how satisfying it is to know that books were a joy in her life. I am reminded about how proud Mack was when I published my first book about antebellum juries, even though she relentlessly teased about how stuffy and scholarly it was. falling asleep reading 2When I had asked Mack to pose with that jury book, she gave me what is now one of my most favorite photos. I also recall with a smile how much Mack inspired my work on my second book. She was so filled up with excitement and intellectual curiosity as she was blossoming into a scholar during her sophomore year of college, and I was enjoying beyond words Mack’s discussions with me over the books she was reading in her courses. I was in awe of her growing intellectual talent for analysis and her critical eye; and her enthusiasm rubbed off on me. As I worked on my book, Mack and I chatted frequently about it, and she provided a great deal of comic relief when I needed it most. Checking in periodically, she would ask me, “Is Mary dead yet?” I’d laugh and tell her no, that the Lincolns were still in Springfield, or the Civil War had only just started. When I finally finished the first draft of the book, I burst into tears—relieved, I suppose, that the hard work was ended—and called Mack to tell her that Mary was dead. She responded, “Mom, why in the hell are you crying? You should be celebrating Mary’s death with a Guinness or two, instead.”

The publication of my new book has summoned clashing emotions with which I am struggling to cope. I am proud and excited about the book, but I am miserable knowing that Mack will never read it. Celebrating my first important achievement without her is devastating, and I yearn for a picture of Mack posing with Mary Lincoln, providing me with another perfect snapshot of her humorous take on the world. I wish I would have expressed in words how important that her support and good humor were to me, and I wish I could tell her now that she was an inspiration to me. Instead, I must focus on the fact that I am grateful that books became an important bond between us. I must focus on how honored I am that such an amazing young woman was supportive and proud of my accomplishments. And most importantly, I must focus on the simple truth that no matter how much longer I live and no matter how many books I write, Mack will always inspire me.

Sitting still for Grandma Marie…

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A very random sampling of a few of Mack’s favorite books…

Brave Potatoes

Something Queer is Going On

And the Relatives Came

Sheep in a Jeep

Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging by Louise Rennison

The Uglies Series by Scott Westerfeld

The Harry Potter series

The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives by Leonard Mlodinow

Anything by Augusten Burroughs

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

The book that Mack took to read on the plane to Spain:

Veronica Mars: The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line by Rob Thomas

Extra Note:

Mack’s close friend Kailey keeps her borrowed copy of A Girl with a Dragon Tattoo on her night stand at the University of North Carolina, where she is a student.reading-Kailey 2