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.

 

 

Throw the Damned Discus

When she was in the sixth grade, Mack came home from school one day and announced, “I’m going out for the track team.”

“But you hate running.” I said.

“I’m not gonna run,” she replied, looking at me as if I was crazy to think was going to run.

“But people on track teams run around a track. That’s why it’s called track,” I said.

“It’s track and field, mother. I’m gonna high jump and throw discus. In the field,” she stressed, annoyed.

I skipped over the high jump part, because, yes, I thought she could actually probably do that, she did possess very long legs. But I looked at her noodle arms and her lanky and un-muscular body, and I did not see any comparative physical quality in my twelve-old-girl to the thick-set, muscled discus throwers I had seen in the Olympics. Yes, it is true, I went from zero (six-grade track and field) to 100 (Olympic-caliber discus throwing) in .3 seconds flat.

“But you don’t know how to throw a discus, do you?” I asked, confused.

“No. The eighth graders will show me.”

“But have you ever even held a discus?” I asked.

“No. I will at the tryouts, though,” she answered, looking at me like…duh.

“But…um…do you think you’ll be able to throw it very far?” I gazed at her noodle arms again, and even thought about poking where a bicep should be. Mack looked up at me curiously, with no furrowed, worried brow on her sweet freckled face as she, I suppose, prepared her response to my ridiculous questions. And then she absently shrugged and ran up to her room.

As Mack’s mother at that moment, I had been full of worry and fear that she would fail. I mean, just look at what an unsupportive ass I was employing all of those “buts” in my discussion with her! As Mack’s mother now, however, I am filled with wonder at my daughter’s matter-of-fact approach to living. She wanted to be on a spring sports team with her friends, and since she did not enjoy running, she chose high jumping and throwing the discus instead. She had no idea if she could do either one. “What the heck” and “why not” were her mantras, and questions like “what if I can’t do this” or “what if people see me fail” did not hold any sway with her.

This discus-throwing decision was not a moment in Mack’s athletic life when she knew going in that she would be good at something new. Rather, this was a moment in her life when she was going to try something new even though she might not be able to do it. Whereas I failed to see Mack’s discus-throwing potential and worried she would fail, Mack thought it was ridiculous to be worried about an outcome that, either way, would be perfectly fine. I also failed all those years ago to see the life lesson my little girl was standing there in my kitchen teaching me. She was not afraid to try something new not so much because she might enjoy it and might be good it. Rather, Mack was not afraid to try something new because she saw no shame in the failure to succeed at something new.

On Wednesday, I am going to throw the discus. Well, I am going to try something new, something that I may or may not be good at. I am going to begin teaching a six-week writing class for an adult, continuing-education program in suburban St. Louis. I want to become a part of a community of writers who share their joys of writing and their struggles with the craft of writing, and for me right now in my life that means teaching. I have taught history and I consider myself a writer, but the teaching of writing is a whole new thing for me. The old me would have been terrified at such a risky prospect.

However, for the past week, as I have finalized my syllabus, gathered my readings, prepared my writing prompts, and thought about all of the things I want to share with my first small group of writing students, I have also spent much time thinking about the sixth-grade Mack and her attitude about throwing the discus. “What the heck” and “why not,” I keep saying to myself. I want to do this, I’m going to give it a try, and I refuse to be terrified (although I am just a little bit scared). I do not want to be that fearful mom who stood in the kitchen all those years ago injecting doubt in the form of a whole lot of buts. I want to be the sixth-grade Mack, ready to throw the discus no matter how far the damn thing might go. Mack did not worry about how it might turn out, she worked hard, and she became a pretty good middle-school discus thrower. Channeling her, I will try not to worry about how far the teaching might take me, I plan to work hard, and, hopefully, I will turn out to be a pretty good first-time writing teacher.

Anyway, it is far too late to be terrified. This new thing of mine is in motion, and I intend to face it with the resolve of a sixth-grader who sees no reason not to try something new and no shame in the outcome, whatever that outcome might be. Besides, Mack is now standing in the peripheral vision of my memories cheering me on from behind the fence: “Just throw the discus, Momma Bear, and everything’ll be alright.”

P.S. My daughter Savannah, who is a bleeding-heart, not-for-profit, liberal-arts-educated young woman, just started an executive MBA program at the University of Illinois. Talk about not being afraid to try something new! Here is the great big giant truth of my life, people: I have learned more from my two girls than I could ever have dreamed of teaching them. I just wish I would have started letting them teach me a whole hell of lot sooner.

discus

This is the 8th-grade Mack, by then an experienced discus thrower, competing at a track and field meet at Southeast High School in Springfield, Illinois.

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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My Year of Un-Gilded Quiet

Grief is not eased by material possessions and luxurious distractions, nor is grief drowned in wine, nor muffled out by mindless noise and superficial, furious activity. Living with the death of a child requires inner strength, which cannot be borrowed, purchased, or negotiated from the universe. Only the human grit within our own bones can give us the courage to seek our own robust measure of contentment in the heartbreaking and beautiful world in which we live. Likewise, solace does not come in a package wrapped in pretty paper and tied with a shiny bow. Solace only exists within the confines of our own beating hearts, and we can only tap its healing powers when we possess for ourselves the strength and the courage to find it.

All this truth converges upon me on first-day January air, with the struggle of past months barely quiet but with a fresh set of new days brightening my doorstep. All this truth I now know as intimately as the breath in my lungs, but the full meaning of all this truth I cannot yet fully comprehend. Still, I have stuffed it all deep into my pocket like a good luck charm at the ready for what comes next. The big what comes next—a dream of establishing a writer’s retreat in a spacious historic home—is still just a warm feeling in my hopeful heart, still a glimmer in my expectant eyes, and still a dream whispered to me from across an unknown landscape far, far away in the future. But for now, baby steps forward. Always forward, and that is the important thing on the cusp of a fresh new year. Right now, I still have much important work on myself to do; and the aspiration to a better human me is the current value of that charm of truths tucked away within my pocket.

In December, I read in the New York Times an opinion piece entitled “My Year of No Shopping” by the author Ann Patchett. In the article, Patchett describes her year of minimalist consumerism inspired by the country’s turn at the end of 2016 “in the direction of gold leaf, an ecstatic celebration of unfeeling billionaire-dom” that kept her up at night. I share Patchett’s political anxiety, but mine is also grounded in my current historical research on the excess and inequality of the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era of America’s sordid past. The political ascension of an old-fashioned robber baron in America’s second Gilded Age keeps me up at night, too. And like Patchett, I have, in middle age, come to question the mindless consumer culture that lulls us into complacency and false contentment and now carries with it such unwieldy and untenable political freight, as well.

Since reading Patchett’s article, I have not been able to quiet its inspiration for my own personalized version of her experiment. It seems to me brilliantly pertinent to my life at this moment when I need so desperately to break free from false contentment. Therefore, I have formulated my own plan for a year of un-gilded quiet, which I believe might actually feed two birds with one small pack of seeds. It will help me focus my attention on making a better human me out of the riches inside my own head, within my heart, and from my own cherished circle of human beings. A happy bonus of the project will be extra money saved for my big what-comes-next dream. More importantly, however, pulling back from the frenzied consumer culture of our society will help me rediscover what I already have, teach me what I can do without, reinforce for me what is truly important, and inspire meaningful quiet time and space unburdened by the broken promises of frivolous pursuits and material possessions.

I want to spend the next year becoming more comfortable being alone with myself without noisy, meaningless props, like Netflix, which I have these past four bitter years used like drugs to distract me. I want to work on my human self, concentrating on reading and writing, exercise and nutrition, and peaceful living. I think this relatively simple plan for my un-gilded year of quiet, is just what the doctor ordered (or at least it is what this particular doctor of philosophy has ordered!). Over the coming year, I will purchase only necessary consumables and used books required for my professional work and scholarship; and I will only replace broken household or worn-out personal items I absolutely need and use (like a toaster or running shoes). I do not expect my plan to solve my problems, counsel my heartache, or fix my human deficiencies, but I do hope the living out of the plan will simplify my daily life and enrich the experiences that come along the way.

My survival is a work in progress. My life is a work in progress. My life, like any life, is a lifelong journey, and 2019 will be just another path along the way. I still need my sweet Savannah and my family to be healthy and hopeful roots, grounding me to the earth. I still need the broad and generous shoulders of old friends upon which to lean on my bad days. I still need the sweet, daily devotion of my beloved, cuddly dogs to soothe my troubled soul. But I also need to get a little closer to making my own inner peace, building up my own quiet strength, defining the parameters of my own survival, and finding contentment in the world standing on my own two feet.

I hope, and I think I am right to believe, that in spending the next twelve months living life with more deliberate purpose, by slowing things down a bit, and by relying not on material comforts but on meaningful experiences, I might just unravel some of the mysteries of personal contentment. I am going to try to help myself get stronger and healthier in my body, in my heart, in my mind, in my confidence, and in my very being. I think all of this is good work, and no matter how successful it may actually be, I think it will lead me a little closer at least to finding my own, more permanent solace. The poet David Whyte defines solace as “the beautiful imaginable home we make where disappointment can go to be rehabilitated.” During my year of un-gilded quiet, I intend to make that home in the chambers of my very own heart, fueled by the power of my own inner strength, and contented enough within myself to let the year unfold as it may.

P.S. Dear Mack, as with each and every single thing I do, you are the inspiration.

January

The Missouri Botanical Garden has been for me a sanctuary for peace. It will no doubt continue to play a role in my survival during my un-gilded year of quiet.

Mack’s Back to School

The milestones faced on the journey of grief generate profound feelings of loss and longing. Emotionally and physically painful are holidays, Mack’s birthdays, and the anniversaries marking the last day I saw her and the terrible day that I lost her. But as parents across the country are celebrating the First Day of School and marking important academic milestones in their children’s lives, I am celebrating the First Day of School, too. August back-to-school season stirs in me more joy and gratitude than sadness, because it marks the beginning of a new academic year for another talented recipient of the Mackenzie Kathleen McDermott Memorial Scholarship at Truman State University.

As fragile mortal beings, our time on the planet is limited, and there is so little time to make an imprint on the world. The best that most human beings can do over the course of a lifetime is be true to themselves, be kind to others, and apply their particular talents for some sort of greater good. In just twenty short years, Mack accomplished what it takes most of us sixty years or more to understand and to achieve. She was always true to herself, comfortable in her freckled skin and confident in her definition of herself as an athletic, nail-polish wearing, goofy intellectual. She was never mean-spirited, judgmental, or unkind. She used her talents of humor, charm, and unconditional love to make a significant and lasting impression on the lives of her family members and friends. And because of the impact Mack made on the people who had the good fortune to know her or to make her unforgettable acquaintance, an endowed scholarship in her name at her alma mater perpetuates her beautiful spirit. Therefore, every August, Mack goes back to school, too, making a difference in the life of another special young person who is preparing to share their talents with the world.

Laurie Shipley, a senior from Kansas City, Missouri, is this year’s scholarship recipient. Laurie, who will earn a BFA in the spring, is a creative writing major, a Spanish minor, and a member of the Truman State Color Guard. Her Spanish minor led her to a study-abroad term last summer in Costa Rica, where she took classes in Alajuela. After graduation, Laurie will be staying on at Truman to earn a Master’s degree in education. She plans to become an elementary school teacher and is anxious to share her love of literature and writing with students.

The reason why back-to-school season is special for me should be abundantly clear, and I am sending big-Mack hugs to everyone who is celebrating a milestone First Day of School this August. For me, the season will always be a time to celebrate Mack’s beautiful life, to rejoice in her spirit alive in the world, and to feel gratitude for all of the people who have contributed to the scholarship these past four years (a special shout-out to the Sunrise Rotary Club in Springfield, Illinois, for their renewed annual contribution). Thank you for your generosity. Thank you for loving Mack. And thank you for helping us to immortalize the impact of Mack’s beautiful life, one beautiful student at a time.

The Mackenzie Kathleen Memorial Scholarship Fund
Truman State University Foundation
205 McClain Hall, Kirksville, MO 63501
800-452-6678
http://www.truman.edu/giving/ways-of-giving/

Laura Shipley

Mackenzie’s Rainbow

I find myself standing in a curious landscape. My travels through grief have brought me here. For much of the journey, the weather was foggy and misty and so much of the traveling progressed during the darkest of nights. A return to wherever it is I was before is impracticable; and besides, to this unexpected new topography I find myself profoundly drawn. The contours of the land are as yet unknown to me, and the lightness of the atmosphere in this new country unfamiliar. Yet I recognize the historical landmarks and the precious human faces of this peculiar place. The breeze here rings bells in my memories. The sunlight stirs in me warming hope. The fresh air gives buoyancy to aspirations I now feel strong enough to embrace. And, strangely, I am not a stranger here. I am home.

I have finally, thankfully, perhaps evenly blessedly, arrived somewhere over Mackenzie’s Rainbow.

I am relatively certain that I have not been in this new place for very long, and I have only just noticed my arrival on this bold frontier. Last week at home after a therapeutic four-day weekend with old and dear friends in Minnesota, I cried. And cried. And cried. Every day the tears falling like rain in the springtime. I hadn’t cried like that in many weeks, and I had become very worried that my tears had dried up forever. I had been feeling cracked and hardened by their absence, but now the clouds had opened up and these tears poured down, refreshingly different, less bitter, more cleansing. It was through these new tears that I first saw the beauty of the very different landscape in which I now find myself. What is most curious, and wonderfully unexpected, is that this fresh landscape of my life is a whole new place under the sun, created and settled by all of the people, living and dead, who are critical to my survival in this world. It is a landscape planted with all of my tangible and emotional needs for a livable, breathable environment that is not only healthy and whole but also full of possibilities I thought gone forever.

This place somewhere over Mackenzie’s Rainbow is not a paradise in which my pain and sorrow have vanished or where I possess total clarity and feel no fear. Instead, it is a place where I can walk hand-in-hand with grief and with happiness, in security and in uncertainty, and through all of the pain and the joy of being human. It is a place that allows me, simultaneously, to inhabit two separate pasts, to define a new and brave present focused only on the things that bring me peace, and to curate a future of my own making. Innumerable, varied, and terrifying uncertainties remain, but I have some pretty good ideas about what life here will look like and, most importantly, I know I have the strength to face whatever experiences life might bring me and to go wherever life might call me. Mack will continue to guide me and my sweet and sassy Savannah is here to keep my feet upon the earth, but as terrifying as life still is and as hard as I know it will continue to be, I feel like I have emerged from a fog.

In life somewhere over Mackenzie’s Rainbow I have:

  1. Family members and friends who have traveled with me on this journey, people who knew and loved Mack, who each share with me the agony of her absence but also carry the light of her beautiful life within them. Last week while I was crying my eyes out I was reminded once again of how Mack’s spirit shines out into the world. Mack’s best friend Justice (with the help of another best friend Elyse) and Project Mack hosted an inspiring gathering of community in hometown Springfield, Illinois. The two-day Take Back the City event, featured a concert and all-star basketball game, raised awareness about gun violence, supported scholarships for city high school students, and directed a positive spotlight on local talent and an incredible group of young people making a difference in the world. In these people that Mack collected, I am incredibly proud, and I am so grateful that Mack brought them into my life. All of Mack’s best friends are as important in my world as my family and my cherished Springfield friends who helped me raise my daughters. All together, these people represent my past with Mack, they are of my life with her, and they are now and forever, collectively, my family.
  1. I can be the Stacy I was before Mack and the Stacy I was with Mack and the Stacy I am now without Mack. This might seem very obvious, but I assure you it escaped me, and I cannot express how liberating it is for me now to know that it is true. After Mack died, I could only conceive of life and memories with her; to my mind there was no past, no present, and no future without her. But six beautiful and beloved growing-up friends—three from high school and three from college—wrapped me up so tight that they have, finally, squeezed this ridiculous misconception out of me. It took me too long to get it, but I get it now, even if I only just figured it out last week in Minnesota with two of these friends at my side. None of these women knew Mack, but they reached out and were willing to bear witness to my grief, to be old friends who knew me happy, and to be new friends willing to know me sad and dramatically different. They turned out to be life preservers and guides—Bridgett, an immediate and enthusiastic cheerleader of my blog, encouraging my writing and helping me find my way back to reading; Kathy, a keen observer of what my intellect needed to stay alive during some very dark days; Carol, an earth mother who gave me her heart, her family, and a dog; Michelle, who always cheerfully offers unconditional love, no matter what; Julie, a delightful imp who dared me to laugh and lets me laugh through my tears if that is what is required; and Diane, who faced cancer at the precise moment I faced the loss of Mack and whose quietly brave, matter-of-fact, ass-kicking of the disease was an inspiration to me when I thought all inspiration was lost. These women represent my past before Mack, and vital as they were to my formative development, they are ever so more vital to me now.
  2. My life in the present is up to me to define and to narrate. A mother’s grief is bone-shattering, life-altering, and permanent. I am coming to grips with this reality, and I am learning, as well, that I can bear no people or circumstances that make me feel my grief must pass. Part of my recovery is wearing the badge of that truth on my forehead and refusing to apologize for it. As well, I need to do a much better job of surrounding myself with the people and the things that bring me peace. I deserve peace wherever I can claim it, and in this new landscape I can see more clearly the roads I need to take to claim some of that peace.
  3. I am strong, but that does not mean I don’t sometimes need a little help. During the past nearly four years of life without Mack, there have been countless days when I was the only person who made me get out of bed. I had Savannah and good work to draw my broken spirit out from under the covers sometimes, but I have come to rely mostly on own my stubbornness to live. Throughout my grief, my mom kept telling me that I was strong, and I’m sorry to say, it made me angry. I didn’t want to be strong. I wanted to curl up into the fetal position and let somebody or something else be strong for me, to bear the weight for me, to fix me. But now I understand that it is OK to be strong, because I am, actually, really strong. But mostly, I understand that being strong does not mean that Mack’s absence somehow matters less or is easier for me to bear. This realization in the learning curve of grief is, perhaps, the most significant lesson I have learned. Just because I get out of bed every morning and function and dare myself to be productive does not mean I don’t miss Mack and struggle to breathe without her. It simply means that I am strong enough to survive it with a little grace and enough of myself intact that Mack might still recognize me. In this weird and wonderful new place in which I now find myself, I no longer feel guilty for being strong. But I am also no longer afraid to lean a little bit on people who will prop me up if I need to renew my energy, to regain my own strength.
  4. My brain is still alive, thank goddess, although its resuscitation has been a terrible trial. When Mack died, I quit reading books, I stopped taking online classes, and I abandoned my Pimsleur Spanish and French lessons, too. I gutted out the reading and research for my job, but my former life of the mind, my voracious reading, and my personal scholarship were casualties of my grief. Because you know what no one tells you? Grief is a monstrous, devastating destroyer that shatters so much more than the heart. I could no longer concentrate and for better than three years I faded as my eyes stared blankly at Netflix. My brain went offline, and I did not expect it to return to active duty. But thanks to all of the brilliant book-loving women in my life, I am a reader again. Thanks to an amazing new editing job, I am a scholar again. Thanks the lifting of the fog that smothered my brain, I have taken one online class and am in the middle of another. My brain is coming back, and that means in one really big way, I am coming back, too. And as I stand here in this bright new landscape, I’m smiling because Mack would be so damned happy and very relieved to know that my brain is not dead after all.
  5. Today, along with being Savannah’s mom, a daughter, a sister, a friend, and a professional historian, I am a creative writer. Since attending a two-week creative writing camp at Indiana State University with my dear Bridgett in 1984, I have been a creative writer. But while I enjoyed a successful career of historical writing, life often intervened and my creative pen was idle. In October 2014 I started this blog, a desperate attempt to capture in words my memories of Mack, to celebrate her life, and to work through my sorrow. This blog was the first non-scholarly writing I had done in years, and it sustained me through many dark and very lonely stretches of depression. In March 2018, the urge to be creative again bubbled up anew, and I purchased a thick blue notebook with a wide green strap, and I became a creative writer again. Every single day in my notebook, I jot down thoughts and observations about the world, copy a paragraph of beautiful writing from the latest book I am reading, compose a poem, or frame dialogue gleaned from eavesdropping on conversations in restaurants. Since March, I’ve been writing a lot of poetry, and in my less lucid moments sharing that poetry with poor people who have no choice but to accept it. I’ve also written character sketches and short pieces of prose; I’ve conjured up ideas and taken copious notes for a book of essays and two novels, and I’ve written nearly 100,000 words for a memoir about grief. At some point I will explore the publication of some of this writing, but publication is not the end game. In my new life it is the process of the writing that matters, it is the good therapy it does me, it is the solace it brings me, it is the journey of curiosity and exploration and the rediscovery of me.
  6. BKS=01

    Me with Bridgett and Kathy, present for my epiphany in Minnesota.

This blog entry is a meandering mess, but my strict rule of raw, vulnerable, quick release forbids editing and, thus, I apologize for the density and the disorder. But, I hope, it is clear enough, dear reader, 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.

Mackenzies Rainbow

Better than Angels

Many well-meaning people have told me that Mack is an angel now, in Heaven. That she is eating infinite quantities of sour candies, sushi, and Thai fried rice in a place where the weather is ever perfect for her open Jeep to drive down beautiful, tree-lined avenues, music blaring, with a car full of puppies. I do not doubt that religious belief eases the burdens of grief for religious people. Yet I cannot seek comfort in the magical thinking of religion. For me, death is terminal to the flesh and to the soul. I keep the spirit of Mack within me and allow her impact upon my life to guide me, going forward, but my grief is grounded in the painful reality that neither her body nor her soul inhabit any world. And so, in the absence of spiritual solace, I seek a more tangible comfort.

I have spent innumerable hours pondering this idea of angels, of the meaning of the people who pass through our lives and of the trauma their deaths inflict upon the living—the people they leave behind in the world to understand and to make peace with the fragility of being human. Losing Mack ripped open the flesh of my emotional vulnerability and offered shocking clarification of my own mortality and of the mortality of every single person I love and need. But losing Mack also uncovered, in the exposure of my bones, other lost people, living there, with me still, although long gone from the world of the living. In the parlance of the religious observer, I have three angels: Mack, my dad, and my maternal grandmother. But I have come to understand that the bold impression that each of these three marvelous humans made upon me and the tangible guidance they continue to provide me are much more powerful than any otherworldly existence they would inhabit if heaven was a place and angels lived there. But what does any of this babble mean, anyway, and why do I feel compelled to define Mack, Jim, and Kathleen as something other than angels?

There is a historical debate about whether upon Abraham Lincoln’s death, his Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton consigned Lincoln to the “angels” or to the “ages.” If one subscribes to magical thinking—as author Joan Didion argues every grieving person does, at least at the immediate impact of a loss—then it is likely that perhaps all of the people present for Lincoln’s last breath, each of them grounded in Christian theology, believed Lincoln had joined the angels in Heaven. Certainly Mary Lincoln believed it so. But what we have learned in the 153 years since Lincoln’s death is that he actually resides with the living. He does not inhabit some ethereal plane as an angel, but rather he belongs to the ages, regardless of what Stanton might have actually said. Lincoln exists in the bones of America; just as Mack, Jim, and Kathleen exist in my bones. Lincoln is, for Americans, a folk hero—a tangible historical presence who corroborates our past, who by the example of his own leadership offers tools for leadership in the present, and who in his human worth provides inspiration for the future of America. Mack, Jim, and Kathleen are, for me and for my life, folk heroes—the tangible comfort I seek, because they corroborate my past, they by the examples of their own lives give me tools to navigate my life in the present, and in their human worth, and from their significance in my life, inspire me to gaze forward, onward, toward the future.

In looking back across three and a half years of the blog entries in Being Mack’s Momma Bear, I realize that what I have written is a series of “Mack-tales,” stories of Mack’s life and the influence she had upon the people who knew her, many told with some moral or inspirational purpose beyond the story itself. My individual stories about Mack are all true, but taken together, they read as folktales; and Mack, I think, reads like a folk hero. It is not my intention here to argue that Mack is a folk hero in the way that Abraham Lincoln is a folk hero. Rather, my point here is that we all have people we have lost who are so much more than angels looking down upon us from some kind of heaven, happy away from the ones who loved them, looking down upon mere mortals through some bright, heavenly light. And I also think it is good and useful, in fact it is a tangible comfort, to recognize the folk heroes we were so damn lucky to know and to keep them with us by telling their stories. Perhaps not for the ages, but for us and for our immediate families, as a way to make sense of life, of death, of the world around us, and of our fragile but beautiful human connections.

I am going to keep pondering this idea of folk heroes, and probably of angels, too. It is a topic, as yet unresolved in my brain, and about which I intend to write more. But for now I want to tell you about my first folk hero, my grandmother, whose name I gave as a middle name to Mack and whose stories I shared with my girls as they grew. My  grandmother died when I was in graduate school, and she was with me, tucked deep within my bones, throughout my doctoral studies as I gutted out soul-crushing seminars, grueling reading lists, and inhuman schedules. My memory of her grit and her sass offered me strength and solidarity from beyond her grave. I did not have any real sense at the time that she was with me or that I had attached so much purpose to my memories of her. But now I do, as it is one of those curious light bulbs that have switched on in my psyche, through the fog of my grief for Mackenzie. So on what would have been her 95th birthday, I give you Kathleen: a woman, a grandmother, a folk hero. See for yourself why she is so deep within my bones and how much of her folk-hero character and traits ended up in the bones of Mack, as well.

Kathleen was a hard-working, tough-talking woman who survived the depression, sacrificed during World War II, and suffered premature widowhood and early breakdown of her body and her health. She was a real-life Rosie-the-Riveter who swooned over Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley. She was a diabetic addicted to sweets and to junk food. She was a house-dress-wearing, pocket-book-carrying granny who enjoyed pinching and teasing her grandchildren and wrapping them up in bone-crushing bear hugs. She had the delicate penmanship of an artist, the mouth of a dishonorably discharged marine, and she crocheted colorful blankets while watching professional wrestling. Kathleen did not bake pies and whisper; she worked in a box factory and told dirty jokes. She was crass and direct and devastatingly funny, full of chutzpah, contradictions, and complexities. She was true to who she was and how she felt and what she thought, and she never apologized for any of it.

Kathleen indulged my sweet tooth, once cheering me on as I devoured a Hostess Ding-Dong in one outrageously large bite. She appreciated and encouraged my spunk. She taught me to use my middle finger with authority, both literally and figuratively, and she showed me how to be bold in the big, bad world. She adopted my friends without putting on fake grandmother airs. She made card games uproariously fun, but she also made them dangerous, threatening to get those who bested her with her “bowling-ball grip” as she gestured over the card table, three angry fingers pointing skyward. First-time hearers of Kathleen’s unique and sometimes obscene vocabulary gaped, veteran hearers tittered, and everyone, in the end, understood that in speaking her truth in her own language, Kathleen had scooped them up into her bosom to love them, to boss them, to be herself with them, and to bear witness to their true selves, as well.

A 1943 photograph of Kathleen is one of three perched within the deep grooves of a giant framed mirror on the floor in my bedroom. In her photo, Kathleen is wearing a vibrant floral dress and is wrapped up in the arms of my handsome, uniformed grandfather who will soon be in Europe fighting Nazis. On the right is a photograph of Jim, my father, in 1981. Standing in my childhood kitchen, he is wearing a suit vest, tie, and an impish grin as he holds up a glass-bottle of Pepsi. In the middle photograph is my precious Mack in 2010. Clad in her red, high school basketball silks, bearing her lucky number 4, she spins a basketball atop her long, right index finger. When I propped up those photographs there, more than three years ago now, I had not given much thought to the intent of their placement. But now their purpose is perfectly clear. These are the photographs of my folk heroes, spanning nearly seventy years of time and history. Mack, Kathleen, and Jim are folk heroes. No different, really, than Abraham Lincoln, Johnny Appleseed, Paul Revere, or any other folk hero you might imagine–at least not to me. My memories and my stories of them are the folktales of my life, and they are my tangible comfort. They root me to my past and to my Indiana ancesters, they ground me in the present guiding me by the examples of the lives they led, and they inspire me to see a future, even if it is one without them.

And, that, my friends, as you likely already know, is precisely what folk heroes are supposed to do.

folk heroes

Kathleen and Clyde c1943