I am a writer. And writers write. That’s what we do.
I put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard nearly every day of my life. In my profession as a scholarly editor, I write annotations and blog posts. As a historian, I write articles and books. As a grieving mother, I blog my emotions. As a wannabe poet, I assemble words in pretty collections of my feelings and observations. As a diarist, I release my pain and share my joy on the pages of a journal. I share my wit (ha ha) and wisdom (ha ha ha) on Instagram. And true to the old-fashioned soul I am, I pen handwritten letters to my friends.
Along with my flesh and my bones, I am words. Words are me. Writing steers the ship of my life across both smooth and roiling waters.
Currently, I am working on a book project. A biography of Abraham Lincoln told through the biographies of the women in his life. I am telling the stories of his mother, his lovers, his wife, his female friends, and some of the women who were his legal clients and political constituents. I am seeing Lincoln through these women’s eyes, as well as through my own, which are cast in the light and the shadow of being a woman myself. I can write this new biography of Abraham Lincoln. I edited Lincoln’s papers for twenty years, published widely on his life and times, and wrote a biography of Mary Lincoln. I have the Lincoln chops to complete this project, and I have the advance contract to prove it. However, this book project is a challenging one. It is personal. The doubts creep in, and I get scared. The fear of failing a brilliant idea, my unique perspective, and my creative approach to tired old narrative biography beats a cacophonous rhythm inside my chest.
I am a writer, yes, I know. Writers write, and that is what I am doing. But writing is hard. It tests your mettle. It is not always catharsis. It can also be a pesky task or a wretched responsibility. At times it is a chore much like washing the dishes. There are some days you get on with it and wash the damn dishes. There are some days you need to let the dishes stack up and go outside to play in the sun.
When the fears and the doubts push aside the confidence and determination it is time for a break. All writers know this is true, even as it is hard to admit it and give yourself permission to do it. I denied my need for a break for a month or so, head down and straining against the reality of it before fessing up and throwing up my hands, prescribing myself a two-week rest. A hiatus. A vacation I never take, but a vacation that was as imperative as air. Stepping away and going away would be deep breathing.
I spent the second week of my book vacation in Washington, D.C., where I communed with the spirit of Mr. Lincoln on the National Mall and at Ford’s Theatre. I spent time with family and friends, enjoyed great food, walked my legs every day to happy exhaustion, and consumed beautiful cocktails and gallons of sweet sunshine. Most nourishing to my writer’s heart and my ever-grieving soul was serving as moderator for the Lincoln Ideas Forum on Grief and Loss at President Lincoln’s Cottage. Mack’s spirit was with me, and so was Abraham Lincoln’s. The public program made me good nervous, allowed me to talk about Mack, evoked cleansing tears, sealed a new friendship, and introduced me to four people who know as well as a I do that grief is the flipside of love, that it is natural and universal, and that in our grief-averse society we all need to do better bearing witness to the suffering of others.
I spent two weeks tending to my heart and my brain and my body. I’ve communed and connected and breathed. I am refreshed and revived. The doubts and the fears are moving away, making room for the full bloom of confidence and determination. It is time to return to the book. To get back to work. To put my fingers to the keyboard.
I took time to sit among the tulips in the sunshine.
The Winter Solstice, which I passed with a small group of lovely (vaccinated and boosted) new friends, was, as it always is, a charm against my onset-of-winter melancholy. Though the prairie winds blow cold, now that the days are slowly lengthening as we stretch our way to spring, I am okay. I am well, I promise, but I need to write a few bitter shadows off my heart.
I have survived another set of holidays. Another four seasons. Another year without her, my baby girl, my Mack. I have passed another 365 days of missing her grin and her giggle and her light against my darkness. This year was not easy. Nor was it easier than last year, or the year before that. It is not getting easier, despite the promises of well-meaning people trying to make me feel better. For me it will never be easy. It will just be different. Different the way summer feels different with every additional year between the human I am now and the human I was when I was barefoot and ten in the backyard of childhood.
I know myself well enough to accept and to admit that from Thanksgiving through Christmas, I am the worst of me. Sorrow, anxiety, and impatience override joy, productivity, and peace. The short days and long nights and my false cheer for the holidays and my shame for humbug plague me, and they will, I suspect, forever conjure the ghosts that haunt me. My grieving-mother sadness is the primary source of my melancholy, of course, but I also suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, which rubs like course sandpaper against the raw edges of my grief. This is an annual torment, and it always takes me three cycles of the moon to accept the end of warm and joyful summer.
Yet this December I leaned sadder than usual. My divorce being finalized and my beloved dog Pepper’s health problems cast menacing spells against my spirit and made the melancholy debilitating for a number of days. Burying a female house sparrow who died on my porch on December 19 made the last two days to the Winter Solstice a moody struggle. And although I have tried to keep other negative emotions in check, I have also been angry and filled with despair. My fury and frustration rising with every new report on the climate crisis, deadly tornadoes in December, and the pandemic going on and on and on because so many selfish Americans falsely believe that public health policy is a violation of their individual rights.
“What about my individual rights,” I screamed as I paced through my empty house these past few weeks. “Don’t I deserve during my hardest time of the year to be surrounded by people without having to worry about my health and the possibility of making my loved ones unwell?” Family and friends are my medicine against grief, and this fucking pandemic has withheld in large measure the remedy that sustains me.
And then there was the added insult of writer’s block.
In early November, I began a new scholarly project, which during my struggle season was unfortunate timing. At the beginnings of big projects when I am setting my head to a difficult task, the intellectual power that effort requires zaps my energy, stealing away the creative power I usually ration so well for my personal, therapy writing. The writer’s block this year has been as difficult as anything to endure. Writing is my solace, especially when I am at my worst, in my seasonal doldrums, when I need most to turn my emotions into words and sentences, paragraphs, prose, and bad poetry. This year that coping mechanism failed me. Next year, I will be more cognizant about keeping safe the ration for personal writing, because although I make a great many mistakes, my grief has made a good student of learning what I need to survive the difficult and beautiful condition of being human. Already with the packing away of another year of holidays, made as joyful as absolutely possible by my good and cheerful sister Tracy, and with my new project well underway, my attitude is brighter even as I pen this last blog essay of 2021.
You see, I really I am okay. I struggle, yes, but I am capable of finding my way back home. Now that I have written away the bitter shadows, I feel lighter. I am lighter. Even as my head is filled up with the brains of a cynic who ascribes no tangible value, no magic, to the turn of the New Year, I am hopeful I will find purpose and peace in 2022. Perhaps it is simply the pleasant surprise of my survival of another year which has provided this shift in perspective. I forget sometimes that I can do hard things, and when I am reminded that I can I am grateful. Gratitude frames my mind to see the long winter in front of me as time to work on another book, to rest, and to wonder. And as each passing day gets a little longer, I will be stretching my spirit toward the spring.
Here is to a productive and peaceful winter to us all.
The Dorothy-Parker inspired ditty below is the only thing of any value I managed to write in the past two months. More bad poetry, I know, and I’m sorry! But Mack would appreciate it, and that makes it okay by me.
Writer’s Block Some days I can write on for hours, So clever I am with my pen; But then comes a clog in My thick, stupid noggin, And I think I shall never write again.
I talk myself out of doing things because I feel awkward about doing them alone. All the time I do it. I talk myself out of doing things I enjoy because I don’t have a partner or a friend to do them with me. I’m afraid to be out in the world alone, and that is ridiculous. People go out in the world and do things by themselves all the time. I don’t need to be strong or cool or brave. I just need to make myself go, push my pathetic butt out the door. I don’t want to be a crazy old lady hermit.
So, a couple of weeks ago, I purchased a season ticket for one to attend all of this season’s premier shows at the performing arts center here at Eastern Illinois University. I figured plunking down $180 would be the answer for every excuse I might use to keep from taking in good shows that are right here in my little town. I went to the first show of the season last Wednesday, and I didn’t talk myself out of going because I already had a ticket. I felt a little self-conscious and uncool finding my seat alone, among hip college students, but it turned out that going alone was not that hard. I survived it. And although the show itself was not that great, I felt pretty great when I stepped out into the chilly night air after the show and walked myself to my car.
A good friend of mine suspects I might eventually like to do things by myself. I am less sure about that. But here are three things about which I am certain. One: I live alone now. I am a single woman without a partner, and I have no interest in finding a new one. Two: locating joy is hard enough for me in my melancholia without giving up the simple things that still have the power to make me smile and to lift my spirits. And three: I need to cut myself some sack for being tentative and shy about being on my own. I am an old dog trying to learn new tricks. I’m living alone for the first time in my entire life, it’s only been two years, and most of that time, good grief, has been during a global pandemic.
Change that makes us better takes time and patience. Change is a challenge. It demands hard work. And, hey, that is a fourth thing I know: I can do hard work.
Not today, I said.
So, this morning I didn’t let me talk myself out of taking my bike out to explore the Lincoln Prairie Grass Trail, just four blocks south of my house. It was not easy to beat down the excuses hammering in my head while I sipped my morning coffee on the porch. I am my own worst enemy, after all. What if I fall, who will pick me up? Should a woman be alone on a bike trail in the country? Who will tug me back home if the wind is too strong and I can’t make my heavy bike move forward (this really happened to me once, back when I did have a partner). What if I get a flat tire or get lost or what if what if what if wtf if… See? This is what I do. This is why I have been so unsuccessful taking myself out into the world on my own and doing things all by myself.
Today, I am riding alone.
I got on my beach cruiser, which always makes my heart skip rope like a girl. I smiled and pedaled all the way to Charleston Country Club and back. Just eight miles round trip, but a long ride for me. I enjoyed the sunshine and the lovely breeze, and I stopped by a few butterfly gardens along the way. I waved at passing cyclists, many of whom were alone, like me. None of us wallowing in the self-pity of loneliness. In the bargain, I didn’t fall or get a flat tire and it wasn’t scary. Not really. It was delightful; and I grinned the whole time like Mack always grinned when she was delighted.
It was another baby step on the road to confident single womanhood. It was a badge earned on this journey of mine to be at peace in my head and confident in my place in the world, as a single woman doing my own thing.
I can ride alone. I am riding alone. And that’s okay.
Yoga in the park this morning was all about the spine. My soft-spoken teacher stretched and twisted and cooed us into shapes that make the back-body purr. The rising sun cast majestic shadows on the concrete of the pavilion. Shadows of my body, reaching and breathing into beautiful movement in the already-warm breeze of a Midwestern day in late summer.
This stretching reminded me that I am alive, like yoga always reminds me that I am alive. These shadows made me grateful. I am able-bodied. I am here. I am breathing. Imperfect and grieving and uncertain, yes; but also accepting and peaceful and hopeful that life might still bring me gifts. That I am deserving of those gifts.
The mantra of my first yoga teacher, more than two decades ago, was: “You are only as young as your spine is flexible.” I didn’t appreciate her mantra back then, because my spine was flexible. It was also young and supple and strong. I was in my early thirties. I did not yet know that my body would change and that life would make me rigid. Back then, I could still do flips in the backyard with my daughters, the muscle memory of competitive gymnastics still lithe in my muscles and bones.
Not so much today, now that I know the weight of living. In my fifties, I am starting over and feeling green, despite my graying hair. I am unbending, even though life has done its damnedest to bend me. I am strong, in spite of all I have endured. But I know all of this, and that is the difference. Knowing is what makes me flexible.
And this is, precisely, the point of yoga. To practice. To learn. To bend. Not just in body, but also in spirit. To remind us to breathe. To make us sit in our moment with all of the crap life heaps upon us. To witness our shadows. To know the beauty of our bodies to bend without breaking.
Sometimes, I think I am old and inflexible. But in reality, I am young and bendy. I am strong. I am human. I am flexible.
During this year of our plague, two thousand and twenty, I spent roughly a third of my waking hours working as a scholarly editor (thank goddess I am still employed), a third sprucing up the 1919 bungalow with overgrown yard I purchased in October 2019, and a third escaping within the pages of books. Losing myself in other people’s stories and reading about faraway worlds and experiences from the safety and comfort of my heavenly front porch was my best remedy for coping with the isolation and emptiness of the year. Reading books has been a balm on my anxious bones; and audio books, too, helped fill the vast silences of my days and nights. Books have been great friends, keeping me company and joining in the chorus of my voice echoing off lonely walls.
I read fifty-five books this terrible year, nearly double the leisurely reading I might have done if the pandemic had not isolated me from friends and family and travel. My reading journey this year began on New Years’ Day with The Giver of Stars and concluded December 28 with Girl, Woman, Other. In my reading this year, I escaped to rural Kentucky, London, Australia, the Holy Land, and the Pacific Crest Trail in the American Northwest. I read novels, memoirs, collections of poetry, history, and one work of philosophy. I enjoyed books about nature, coming of age stories, and nineteen works of historical fiction, my favorite pleasure-reading genre. I solved mysteries, walked the streets of seventeenth-century Amsterdam, shivered in Alaska winter, traveled back to 1950s India, learned about the brain and personality of the American crow, and raged at the injustice that is bound up tight in the DNA of American democracy.
I smiled. I frowned. I laughed. I wept. I pondered. I learned. Books are so magical in their power to influence our emotions and challenge our brains.
As a historian, I read history books and articles and bend over historic documents during my work days, and pleasure reading provides an important counterweight to all of the scholarly reading I do. However, pleasure reading this year took on a more important purpose. I felt a pressing need to escape the political and biological chaos of the world around me and to fill the silences of socially distanced family and friends. In that context, I read far more light-hearted books than I have allowed myself the luxury of reading in decades, and I embraced the soothing joy of audio books to cope with a new and unwelcome brand of quiet. Books helped me cope with that quiet, and although I am happy to bid farewell to 2020 and will not remember it fondly, it has been an epic year of reading.
And for all the books I read—the great, the good, and the meh—I am grateful. They remind me that stories are at the heart of every human experience. That stories nurture and guide us, teach us, remind us of the past, get us through our days, and inspire us to face the future. Stories reveal the breathtaking diversity of life experiences, but they also remind us of our shared humanity. Stories help us understand the world and ourselves.
In no other time in my life do I think that books have been so important, so loved, so appreciated, so damned necessary. This is my humble ode to my 2020 reading list, filled up with books that nurtured and inspired me, kept me sane, and carried me through the long, lonely year. It is also a kind of portrait of my life this past year, a record of my travels, a log of the characters I met along the way, and the stories I heard from the comfort and safety of home.
Alphabetical Annotated Reading List for 2020 (Each includes my love rating)
♥ Finished the book. I give books about 25 pages, and if I finish a book it gets at least one star.
♥♥ Pretty good story, writing meh.
♥♥♥ Solid writing. Good story. Enjoyable, useful and/or important.
♥♥♥♥ Excellent writing and story. Taught me something and/or took me away and I was happy to go.
♥♥♥♥♥ Wonderful. Breathtaking. A book for my lifetime master list of great books.
Bauermeister, Erica, The Scent Keeper (2019), fiction. This story about a family who smells memories is mystical (and odd) and mildly interesting. ♥♥
Burton, Jesse, The Miniaturist (2014), historical fiction. I likely would not have picked up this book in a typical reading year, but listening to it on audio was quite agreeable. I think my daughter Mack was right when she said: “Everything sounds good in a British accent.” ♥♥♥
Cameron, Claire, The Last Neanderthal (2017), historical fiction. Meh. I really don’t remember why I even finished it. Good idea, poor execution, and I don’t recommend it. ♥
Chevalier, Tracy, A Single Thread (2019), historical fiction. A sweet story about a single woman in the decade after WWI, when a generation of women in England was adjusting to a heartbreaking dearth of young men. ♥♥♥
—Girl with Pearl Earring (1999), historical fiction. After reading A Single Thread , I remembered how much I loved this older book I had read many years ago. This time around, I listened to the audio book. Chevalier is a great writer of the genre. If you’re new to her, start with this one or At the Edge of the Orchard (2016), which is my favorite. ♥♥♥
Coehlo, Paulo, The Archer (2017), fiction. As a rule, I don’t read much nonfiction by men, frankly because so few of them write well-formed, realistic female characters. So why would I bother with the Brazilian Coehlo, you ask? I loved The Alchemist, and so decided to try this novella, a fable like that older book. Bad idea. Definitely my worst reading decision of the year, and I only finished it out of respect for the renown of the author and because it was mercifully short. ♥
Diamonte, Anita, The Boston Girl (2015), historical fiction. This book is a good story about an immigrant girl in the tenements of Boston. I listened to it on audio, read by the actress Linda Lavin, who elevated the story. She was a brilliant narrator. One of these stars is all hers. ♥♥♥
Diaz, Joanne, My Favorite Tyrants (2014), poetry. Witty and deep, this Illinois poet is incredible. So good. She teaches at Illinois Wesleyan, and I saw her do a reading from this book in January before the pandemic cancelled 2020. Not all of the poems are great, but a few of them are sensational. ♥♥♥
Doyle, Glennon, Untamed (2020), nonfiction. Doyle is a social media darling who offers some valuable nuggets in this book. I appreciate Doyle’s voice, and I follow her on Instagram. She is smart and observant as fuck. But, I must say, the book was a tad underwhelming, and a bit overhyped. ♥♥
Erdich, Louise, Future Home of the Living God (2017), fiction. Two stars because Erdich is a great writer, and there is some great writing on the pages of this book. However, this futuristic story did not capture my imagination. ♥♥
Ervick, Kelcey Parker, The Bitter Life of Božena Nȇmcoá: A Biographical Collage (2016), nonfiction. Part history, part memoir; has words and images. This book is so weird, impossible to categorize, and so wonderful because it is brilliantly off kilter. ♥♥♥♥
—Lilian’s Balcony: A Novella of Fallingwater (2013), fiction. Ervick is a creative storyteller. I met her at a writer’s fair and workshop at Eastern Illinois University early in 2020, before we knew there was a virus lurking. She views writing as more than words in ink on a white page, preferring to tell stories with images and space as well as words. Function and form commune with the voices of her characters, and she likes to blur the lines of genre. I love her work, and she’s a fun follow on Instagram, because she draws memoir almost daily (that’s a bad description of her work, but check her out, she’s great). ♥♥♥
Evaristo, Bernadine, Girl, Woman, Other (2019), fiction. Winner of the Man Booker Prize, Girl, Woman, Other is a triumph of writing, of the powerful voice of female characters who know who they are, and of storytelling across race and gender. The diversity of voices in this creative work scream from the mountaintops that their stories matter. That all of our stories matter. ♥♥♥♥♥
Gregory, Philippa, Three Sisters, Three Queens (2017), historical fiction. Written by a popular British writer of historical fiction, this book is about Margaret Tudor, Mary Tudor, and Catherine of Aragon. Oh, the intrigues of British royalty during the Middle Ages. And, yikes, the human drama of medieval life in general. ♥♥♥
Hamilton, Gabrielle, Blood, Bones, and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef (2012), memoir. My surprise book of the year, written by the chef of the award-winning New York restaurant Prune. Gorgeous writing about life and food. Read it. It is fabulous and there are mouth-watering descriptions of food. ♥♥♥♥
Hannah, Kristin, The Great Alone (2017), historical fiction. Pretty good coming of age story, but the star of the book is Alaska. Lovely. Vivid. And fucking freezing. ♥♥♥
Harjo, Joy, An American Sunrise (2019), poetry. Want to cry? Read this collection of poems by U.S. Poet Laureate Harjo about the Trail of Tears, history, grief, cultural annihilation, and memory. Wow. Breathtaking. Horrifying. Heartbreaking. ♥♥♥♥
Harper, Michelle, The Beauty in Breaking (2020), memoir. A female, African-American ER doctor, Harper puts her deft fingers on the heart of racism in America and caresses out of her stories the truth of our shared humanity. After I read the book—in two days, it is that good—I watched Harper on Zoom in a book talk and Q&A, and she is an impressive woman. She is a bright-sider, despite all the ugly she has seen, and her perspective was a welcome viewpoint during this year of our biological and political plague. ♥♥♥♥♥
Haupt, Lyanda Lynn, Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness (2009), nature. I only discovered Haupt last year, but I’m hooked. She is a spectacular writer and gives the reader science and nature with pure joy. She is birder with a great sense of humor, and her knowledge and insights are wonderful. Love her work. ♥♥♥
—Urban Bestiary: Encountering the Everyday Wild (2013), nature. I am obsessed with Haupt’s view of nature and her funny bone on the intersection of humans with nature. Her eco-sensible philosophy is inspirational, and she has made me a more observant citizen of the spaces I share with birds and squirrels and other wild animals. She has a new book coming next year called Rooted, and I can’t wait. ♥♥♥♥
Hoffman, Alice, The Red Garden (2010), historical fiction. Hoffman is a very popular author in the genre of historical fiction. However, her books for me always just miss the mark. This one was creative and enjoyable, but not great. ♥♥
Holmes, Linda, Evvie Drake Starts Over (2019), fiction. I chose more light books this year than is typical for my tastes, because pandemics are pretty damned depressing. But this book was a little too romancy for me. If I’ve learned anything from this year of magical reading, it is that prefer books that are more substantive than this one. ♥♥
Joshi, Aika, The Henna Artist (2020), historical fiction. Joshi’s story of a single woman making a life for herself in India in the 1950s reveals much about caste and gender and human dignity. Great story with very good writing. ♥♥♥
Kendi, Ibram X., How to Be an Anti Racist (2019), nonfiction. It is not enough to just not be a racist (is there I better way to state this—I tried but failed!). In America, white people must become actively anti racist. This book by an important historian of race should be required reading for every high school student in America. ♥♥♥♥
Kendzior, Sarah, Hiding in Plain Sight: The Invention of Donald Trump and the Erosion of America (2020), nonfiction. A journalist and anthropologist who studies autocratic and dictatorial regimes, Kendzior offers a lucid portrait of the horrifying story of Trump’s rise to the presidency and depicts American democracy dangling precariously from a cliff. She’s lives in St. Louis, where I lived from 2012-2019, and I knew about her work and followed her on Twitter before she became well known. She’s super smart (PhD, Washington University), and she minces no words. She’s not an optimist, though, so if you’re looking for a bright spot in the dark of night, don’t look here. ♥♥♥
Kidd, Sue Monk, Book of Longings (2020), historical fiction. This was the bravest book I’ve read in a decade, the biblical story of Jesus from the perspective of his wife. Fabulous writing and sensational female characters set in the stark historical context of the Holy Land in the time of Jesus. Brilliant. Stunning. One of my favorite books of the twenty-first century. Shout out to my dear friend Sandra who recommended the book to me by saying: “Stace, I know you don’t do Jesus, but you have to read this book about his wife!” ♥♥♥♥♥
—The Invention of Wings (2014), historical fiction. I had missed this novel about the life of Sarah Grimké, a historical hero of mine, because it was published in the year my daughter died. In a normal year, I would have read this book by an author I loved and a historical topic that intrigued me. But my grief robbed me of reading for almost four years. I stopped reading after losing Mack because I couldn’t let my mind go long enough to get through a novel. Thank goodness my joy of reading and my ability to read returned to me in 2018, and I am grateful it was here for me this year when I needed it so much. In this book, Kidd takes too many literary licenses with Sarah’s story, but her writing is always good and the story moves along at a good clip. ♥♥♥
Kingsolver, Barbara, Unsheltered (2018), fiction. I’ve been a fan of Kingsolver forever, and this book is the epitome of her. Kingsolver knows humans better than almost any writer I’ve ever had the pleasure to enjoy. Simple story paired with good writing is Kingsolver’s method for uncovering the beauty of the human heart, and this book is her, per usual. ♥♥♥
Letts, Elizabeth, Finding Dorothy (2019), historical fiction. This story of L. Frank Baum’s wife, Maud Gage Baum, who consulted with MGM on the production of The Wizard of Oz offers some interesting stories of Maud Baum’s early life and her famous suffrage mother Matilda Gage, and it offers some provocative observations about Judy Garland. Good story, but a little draggy. ♥♥
McLain, Paula, Circling the Sun (2015), historical fiction. Mediocre novel set in the overlapping contexts of the Out of Africa story. Privileged white people in Africa. Kind of boring. And definitely passé. ♥♥
Miller, Madeline, Song of Achilles (2011), historical fiction. I read this because I loved her novel Circe, but this book is not as good. However, for full disclosure, I suspect I didn’t like this one as much because it is about a man and Circe is about a woman. I prefer a women’s perspective on things, even regards ancient mythology, thank you very much. ♥♥
Moriarty, Liane, The Husband’s Secret (2013), fiction. Moriarty is my latest guilty pleasure, because I relate to the quirky, middle-aged women who inhabit her stories. I started reading Moriarty’s work last year with Big Little Lies and Truly Madly Guilty, and I appreciate the dark corners her humor. ♥♥♥
—The Last Anniversary (2005), fiction. Sisters and secrets. ♥♥♥
—Nine Perfect Strangers (2018), fiction. Wacky characters in an absurd settling. Mayhem ensues. Laugh out loud funny. ♥♥♥♥
—What Alice Forgot (2009), fiction. A story of amnesia with Moriarty’s usual compelling characters. I made my way through five of Moriarty’s light-dancing books this year, and what fun they were. On audio, they are made even more delightful by the talented Australian voices of the two fantastic readers who narrate them. Moriarty doesn’t set the world on fire, but she tells a good story and makes a reader giggle and gape. ♥♥♥
Moyes, JoJo, The Giver of Stars (2019), historical fiction. This book offers a fictionalized story about the Packhorse Librarians, women during the Great Depression who delivered library books to people in the hills of Kentucky. It’s pretty good, but the happy ending is contrived and disappointing. ♥♥
Oliver, Mary, Upstream: Selected Essays (2016), essays. Stick to her poetry, which is gorgeous. These essays, published late in her life, not so much. ♥
Orlean, Susan, The Library Book (2018), nonfiction. Interesting story of the devastating L.A. Public Library fire written by an excellent journalist who is also a great writer. It’s a bit plodding in its methodical retelling of the events of the fire. I liked that level of detail, but it’s probably not for everyone. ♥♥♥
Owens, Delia, Where the Crawdads Sing (2018), fiction. A truly lovely novel with a haunting human story told among the vivid images of a disappearing landscape. Gorgeous prose and an unforgettable female protagonist. ♥♥♥♥
Penny, Louise, A Better Man (2019), mystery. This book is part of a great mystery series I love, but it is a weak book in the series. However, I recommend the entire series, which is chockablock with loveable, eccentric characters, gorgeous (and frigid) Canadian landscapes, and great literary and historical references. The series is much more than the standard detective story. It weaves together the lives of Inspector Gamache and his wife with the residents of a strange and isolated little town where the stories are set. Start with the first book Still Life and keep on reading…there are sixteen books in all (and the seventeenth is scheduled for 2021)! ♥♥
Richardson, Heather Cox, How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America (2020), history. If you want to understand why America is in such a political mess these days, read this book. Richardson, a political historian and expert on the history of the Republican Party from Lincoln to the modern day, studied American history under the great Lincoln scholar David Herbert Donald at Harvard, and I have admired her work for years. She is one of the most trustworthy and talented historians working today. ♥♥♥♥
Rutherford, Edward, New York: The Novel (2010), historical fiction. Rutherford’s book sweeps broadly across time, setting fictional characters, connected through the generations, in the (fairly accurate) history of one of the world’s greatest cities. The sweep, I think, is why I enjoyed this fictionalized story of New York, which began with the Dutch in the colonial period and ended with stockbrokers in the 1980s. ♥♥
Sedaris, David, Calypso (2018), humor. Is there any writer who is funnier than Sedaris? That’s a rhetorical question. I love, love, love this guy. Calipso is not his strongest collection, but it has some dandies; and I happily recommend any of his books or audio book (he reads them himself). I met him once at a book signing, and my signed copy of Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls is a treasured possession. ♥♥♥
Stedman, M. L., The Light between Oceans (2012), historical fiction. I was haunted by the many sides of loneliness depicted in this story, set in Australia after WWI. Did I relate a little too directly in my isolation to the two lonely characters in the story who inhabited a lighthouse on a remote island? Maybe. Whatever, I enjoyed the book. ♥♥♥
Stockett, Kathryn, The Help (2009), historical fiction. I had never seen the movie or read the book, and I selected it this year as an audio book. It is a good, albeit problematic, story, the dialogue is fantastic, and the black women in the novel are compelling characters. The readers of the audio book elevated the story, and their brilliant reading added that fourth star. ♥♥♥♥
Strayed, Cheryl, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (2014), memoir. I am very late to the party on this one, but it is a fascinating, well-told story. I liked it. As well, in reading this book, I learned not to ever, in a million years, no matter what personal difficulties befall me, to go looking for myself, all by myself, on a hiking trail more than four or five miles in length. ♥♥♥
Strout, Elizabeth, Olive Kitteridge (2008), fiction. Many of my friends love Elizabeth Strout, but I am less enamored of her writing. Olive is, however, an intriguing character, and I hope I do not become the cranky old lady she turned out to be. ♥♥♥
—Olive Again (2019), fiction. I did not really think I needed more adventures of Olive, but this book was not without its worthwhile scenes of Olive’s strange interactions with the world. ♥♥♥
Ware, Ruth, The Death of Mrs. Westaway (2018), mystery. Not my usual fare, but this story was fun and this British writer definitely has found a niche. ♥♥♥
—In a Dark, Dark Wood (2015), thriller. Not my cup of tea, and I think Ruth Ware might be crazy. The pandemic has been scary enough; I should have skipped this one. ♥♥
West, Lindy, The Witches Are Coming (2019), essays. West’s cultural critiques are hysterical, and she is dead-on balls accurate in her observations about Trump, social media, and an array of other topics, as well. ♥♥♥
Wetmore, Elizabeth, Valentine (2020), historical fiction. Yowza! This is a stunning first novel, set in the bleak oil landscape of Odessa, Texas, in the 1970s. And it is an important novel, too, with its beautifully crafted story of race on the border. Gut-wrenching. Haunting. It will make you scream and cry and mourn the pain that humans are capable of inflicting upon the “other.” ♥♥♥♥
Wilson, Catherine, How to Be an Epicurean: The Ancient Art of Living Well (2019), philosophy. I picked this book up in late December 2019 on a “new book” display cart in the library at Eastern Illinois University, where I hold a “local scholar” library card which grants me 16-week borrowing privileges. The book’s cover intrigued me, but it sat on a shelf in my office for weeks and weeks. I never picked it back up, and then the pandemic came and the library closed, and all of the books I had checked out were renewed through October. And so, with time and automatic renewal, I finally cracked it open; and although I probably would not have ever gotten around to reading it if not for the pandemic, I’m glad I picked up and even more glad I read it. It’s basically the philosophy of me. I understand myself so much better now. I am an Epicurean. Who knew?!! ♥♥♥
Zabin, Serena, The Boston Massacre: A Family History (2020), history. A fresh approach to the American Revolution that depicts the blurry lines between patriot and loyalist. A friend of mine who is a professor of political science at St. Olaf College recommended the book, because she knows Zabin, who is a professor of history at neighboring Carleton College in her Minnesota town. I like reading books written by people I know or with whom I have some personal connection. ♥♥♥
Today would have been, should be, Mack’s twenty-sixth birthday. Maybe twenty-six would have been the age when she finally admitted she was a “grown-ass woman.” Oh, probably not. Who am I kidding? It was a status she was never eager to attain. When she was ten she declared to me her intention to remain ten forever, and I could see in her dirty, freckled face that she was speaking her truth. I never doubted the veracity of her assertion, either, because even when she became a serious student in college she never let go of the child she was at ten. Both of her parents are old souls, but a youthful heart was in Mack’s DNA. She inherited my father’s Peter-Pan gene, the gene that sits between the goofball gene and the I’m-gonna-eat-junk-food-and-sit-on-the-couch-in-front-of-the-TV-all-day gene. She inherited both of those other genes from Frisky Pratt, too.
As Mack’s inner circle of close friends are each making their own way in the world now as grown-ass women, I have been passing many melancholy minutes lately wondering where Mack might be living and what career she might be pursuing if she was still here. So deeply pulled into these wonderings, or daydreams I guess you might call them, I sometimes wake up and fifteen minutes are lost and a vivid scenario of Mack’s could’ve-been life is flashing like an illustrated storybook in my brain. Mack dreamed of a writing career in television, and that is my favorite daydream for her. She’s a writer for a sit-com in Hollywood. She’s working with Joss Whedon to bring back Buffy the Vampire Slayer. She’s pitching Mack’s Makin’ Bacon, her own comedy cooking show for the Food Network. Or she’s living in my guest bedroom writing a screenplay. Goodness but do I yearn for that latter daydream. But daydreams are not terribly productive, I’m afraid, and Mack’s old-soul Momma Bear usually awakens from those daydreams emotionally bruised, sadness giving way to anger at all that Mack missed out on and all the things that have happened that I have been denied sharing with her. Like her twenty-sixth birthday.
Milestones like birthdays are trigger points for grief. The day will be rough. There isn’t enough candy in the world to sugar coat that truth. The paradox of my grief is that every day I must live in a world without my daughter, I get another day of practice living in a world without my daughter. The pain is no less keen, but the callouses of long-time sorrow limit the blood loss when the sharpness of a milestone, or a bad day, break open the heart. Again. And again.
I will no doubt pass a few melancholy minutes. However, I won’t be wondering what Mack would be doing on her twenty-sixth birthday, because I’ll know exactly what she would be doing if she was here. She would be embracing social distancing, happy for an excuse to be alone on her couch in front of the TV, eating junk food. She’d settle in for a birthday-binge-watching bonanza, surrounded by Funyons, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, sour candies, two giant cans of Arizona Iced Tea, and the best looking Italian sub, wrapped in plastic, that was available in the deli case of the convenience store where she shopped for her birthday feast. She would get comfy with her two dogs, one an Irish wolfhound and the other a pug, and both named for characters on television (maybe Leslie and Ann, but who knows with that kid?). She would spend the day watching shows she’d already seen a hundred times, consume her food in cozy sweatpants and reclined repose, text her besties and her momma and her sissy, giggle to herself, and tweet about the upsides of quarantines and restaurant closings and how she wished her school had been cancelled for a month when she was a kiddo.
Mack would not be mad that COVID-19 ruined her birthday, cancelling dinner plans or drinks with friends. She wouldn’t see it that way at all. She would look at the down time as a chance to relax, be alone with her own thoughts, and do absolutely fucking nothing. Every day I miss Mack, and today I’ll miss her more. Every day I talk to her, and today will be no different. She’s heard a lot of swearing lately, because I frequently dial her in for my dialogue with the morning and evening news. She’ll laugh as I let the f-bombs fly, and she’ll shake her head at me because she thinks I let the orange moron and his clown-car of a government get too much under my skin. “Sure, Momma Bear, he’s a genuine ass,” she’ll say, “but don’t let him push all of your buttons.”
As soon as my eyes pop open I’ll miss kissing Mack on that big freckle on her left cheek. I’ll shed some tears into my morning coffee. I’ll take Mack with me to vote in the Illinois Democratic Primary, let her pick which old codger I vote for, and I’ll tell her how furious I am that I didn’t get to vote for Elizabeth Warren. I’ll try not to swear at NPR, protect one or two of my buttons, and take Mack’s lead and relax. It’s her birthday, after all, so we all should let her make the plan. I’ll probably need Mack’s spirit to stick around for the entire day, and maybe she’ll bring her grandpa with her. I trust Mack will chill me out when I get upset that COVID-19 is keeping me from the draught Guinness I traditionally enjoy on her birthday. I trust she will keep me grounded in the present, holding my hand as I take the day as it is and give myself up to the cool breeze of life, hitting my cheeks and reminding me to live and to breathe and to refrain from counting the calories and the dairy content of the Mac-n-Cheese my sister is planning for dinner.
Mack Day 2020 will be a rough day. That is no lie, and certainly no joke. But when it’s over, I will put my head down on my pillow next to gratitude. Gratitude for Mack and her presence in my life. Gratitude for the vibes of a Mack-Day mood. For twenty-six years, first in person and now in spirit, my daughter has been teaching me about life. I am not always a quick study in Mack’s be-chill school, but old souls always at least try to be at the head of the class. I am a work in progress, and Mack knows it. I’ve got a sneaking suspicion she hangs around not only to tease me and to teach me, but to make sure I don’t beat myself up for not getting straight “A”s.
It was cold for late April in central Illinois, and the sun was reticent behind dense gray clouds resolved to keep the blue sky far away from Saturday. The day was drizzly and windy and raw to match my mood, and the chill nipped my bare ankles when I stepped from the car. But as the four of us walked up towards Mack’s gravestone, the breeze blew a little lighter on our cheeks. The rain clouds offered amnesty to mourners, and I would have bet a hundred bucks if I had had it in my pocket that the temperature ticked up a bit on our behalf, too. The painted landscape of spring lifted my spirits, and the white and pink petals of the dogwoods were luminous in the gloomy shadows on the first day of their full bloom. The colors were perhaps emboldened against the backdrop of Oak Ridge Cemetery just bursting into the opulent shades of spring green. Mack-greens, I thought. Beautiful like her. Brilliant like her. Dazzling color worthy of her true spirit.
Alicia, Maureen, Sandra, and I had gathered together for a Springfield-ladies reunion of dinner, drinks, and deliberations on books, politics, and life. Before dinner, we wanted to spend a little time with Mack. It was my first visit to Mack’s grave in four months, and I was grateful for the company of dear friends. The more time that passes the harder I find it is to return. One might think it should get easier. I once thought it would get easier. But it didn’t, and it won’t, and I guess it never should be comfortable to visit your child in a graveyard. I visit Mack because of the tangible feeling of peace it offers, although I never relish the pain it also touches upon my heart. Such is the experience of grief that one thing can be good and bad and situate you in all of the complicated spaces in between. Some visits to Mack’s grave are therapeutic. Some are devastating. Each has a character all their own, but this would be the first one I would characterize as weird as well as wonderful.
Sandra, who lives in Springfield, brought the flowers, a sunshiny mixture of daisies, chrysanthemums, and carnations, and she placed them in the urn she had stuck into the ground on a previous visit. There were no tears that gloomy yet colorful Saturday, but they were at first on the edges of our actions and on the surface of our stories. I swept the dust from Mack’s marker while Maureen rearranged the Irish felt hat and green beads she and my husband had brought to the grave the weekend of Mack’s birthday in March. Alicia, who had been away from Springfield longer than me, was quiet even for her. She located the Lincoln Tomb up the hill, framed by the dogwoods, and we all sighed at the exquisite landscape of Mack’s resting place. I pointed out one of my favorite trees near her gravestone. Just twenty or so paces to the south is a gnarly giant pine growing two wild limbs at the top. Situated as they are at wacky angles, and each with their own shades of green, they look like two entirely separate trees haphazardly attached to the top of the gnarly pine below. “Mack was as unique as that crazy old pine,” I said, and we all laughed with memories of our silly and funny girl.
At a break in our whispery conversation, I heard some music in the breeze and turned in the direction of the sound. Five men bundled in jackets stood around a headstone a few rows east of Mack’s grave, just by the road on the other side of the lot. There were pretty liquor bottles lined up on the top of the headstone. The quiet laughter of the men floated across the grass toward us, and the barely discernible decibel of classic rock rolled out of a car parked at the curb. Five friends they were. I knew it in an instant, their body language giving them away. They were five friends communing with another they had lost, celebrating a life that mattered to them, and toasting the fragile beauty of their human connections. The five of them and the four of us were the only living souls I could see in the cemetery. Even on warm sunny Saturdays these days, few people tend gravestones. The five of them and the four of us shared a common purpose and possessed a common need to commune with spirits. Nine people we were, drawn to that place because we had loved and lost, because we accepted the tether of life with death, and because there is in a communal pilgrimage great comfort for the human soul.
Several minutes passed after our notice of and whispered appreciation for the five men across the lot, when one of them stepped over to greet us. Geoff introduced himself, begged apology for the intrusion, and invited us to join him and his friends for a shot of fine tequila. So novel is such an invitation in a cemetery that we could never have declined it, even if we had not been delighted to receive and to accept it. We happily joined their group, and we introduced ourselves while the first shots of tequila were poured into tiny red cups. Geoff, Bill, Harv, Kevin, and Rick come together in Oak Ridge Cemetery every year on the birthday of their departed friend Mike. It’s a ritual now in its fifteenth year. They showed us pictures and told us about Mike, who was a joyous man and the life of every party, a man who appreciated a good bottle of tequila, enjoyed traveling, and adored his family and friends. In turn, we told them about Mack, who was a happy-go-lucky kid with a delightful wit, a girl who was a star athlete who knew no strangers but preferred quiet lazy time with best friends. Upon sharing our stories, we all agreed that Mike Henry and Mackenzie McDermott were special spirits on the earth who inspired friendships powerful enough to transcend death.
We toasted Mike, full of life, who died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of forty-six in 2004. We toasted Mack, full of life, who died suddenly of Addison’s disease at the age of twenty in 2014. We toasted precious lives gone too soon. We toasted love and friendship. We toasted life and the joys and human connections that come to us along the way.
Life is weird and wonderful, isn’t it really? I am frequently overwhelmed by the human connections Mack keeps bringing to me. How fortunate I feel to have been in the cemetery with my dear friends honoring Mack, when Mike’s dear friends were in the cemetery honoring him. Mack would have chuckled with delight at the sight of her Momma Bear and three of her adopted moms shooting tequila in the cemetery with strange men. Mike’s friend Kevin, who had also been his business partner, told me that Mike would be happy to know he still had the magic of bringing people together.
It may be odd, but in a way, it feels a little bit like Mack’s spirit has a friend in Oak Ridge Cemetery. She’s not alone, and neither is Mike. Mack and Mike brought nine people together that chilly Saturday. Now through the people who loved them, they are connected, too. You can call it odd all you want to, and it may even be weird, but to me it is perfectly wonderful to know that Mack’s sweet spirit is in such good company with Mike’s sweet spirit out there among those glorious old trees in the majestic shadow of the Lincoln Tomb.
Alicia, Maureen, Sandra, and me downtown after the trip to Oak Ridge
Rick, Kevin, Geoff, and Harv
P.S. Harv sent me the photo of Mack’s marker. After we left, the guys went over to pay respects to Mack. I know from now on, I’ll always stop over to see Mike, too.
Writing saved my life. No joke. No lie. No hyperbole here.
I’ve been a writer my entire life—poetry and short stories in high school, creative writing minor in college, a few years as a journalist, an unsuccessful cookbook and children’s book author in adulthood, and twenty-six years as a historian, publishing two books and dozens of articles and essays. BUT, when Mack died in October 2014, I started writing for my life. I invested my Being Mack’s Momma Bear blog with the purpose of a life-preserver. The early days of writing helped keep my head above the water in the dark and stormy sea that was my grief. The writing helped me examine my experience with sorrow in real-time. It was a hard, ugly, messy business, but I felt the power of writing’s balm upon my shattered body and spirit. Turning the twisted knots of my grief into words and sentences that made sense in black and white was constructive and therapeutic and cathartic. Writing was a remedy for all the ways my grief ailed me. It saw me through the darkest tunnel and into the light. And it continues to fill my lungs with air, with life, and with courage.
Last year, I decided I wanted to make writing a bigger and bolder part of my life. I have a dream to purchase a large historic home and to create a serene writer’s retreat within it. I want to establish a place where all types of writers can come for quiet reflection and work, where authors visit to share their books with others, where poets practice, where creativity thrives, and where writing classes embrace the writing dreams of children, college-bound students, and adults who want to explore writing in their own lives. I can’t make this dream a reality tomorrow, or likely even soon, but I will someday make Mack’s Manor a reality in some form or another. The writing and the dream give me hope, push me onward, and are such good friends for my life’s journey, no matter what happens in the end.
While I save money and formulate plans for my writing retreat, I decided I wanted to teach some writing classes, to learn more about the process of writing and how different people approach it, and to share my enthusiasm for its healing power. I wanted to practice, if you will, what my writing retreat might be able to do. I created a Write Your Life class for an adult education program in St. Charles, MO, and I have spent the last six weeks as an excited newbie writing instructor working with a patient, kind, and creative group of students. Poor guinea pigs that they are, my first writing students will occupy a corner of my heart forever. Tonight will be my final class. Endings make me weepy, always have, and this ending will be no different. I do feel a happy sense of accomplishment for doing something scary, but I am sad it went by so quickly that I barely had time to breathe in all of the joy of it.
This little Write Your Life class of mine has been another important step on my road back to the core of my old self, and it marks good progress along my journey forward to a new life, to a new place, where there is peace and joy and grace. My first seven students have been a treat, and it has been my pleasure to inspire them to stretch the muscles of their creative spirits. Last week, one of those students—a delightful retired woman named Gloria who is finding a poet within her—gave me a thank-you box of chocolates and a little owl with solar-powered, light-up eyes. The owl was a perfect sentiment, because from this first class I was seeking wisdom to inform the future of the writer’s life I want to live. I think I found a little wisdom, at least I certainly learned a lot about the life in front of me. And in the eyes of my wise little mascot, the future looks bright (and happy?), indeed.
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 their 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.”