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 Memo #3: Love Trumps Hate

During the televised Democratic National Convention, I cried during the poignant speech of Muslim American Khizr Khan, an immigrant from Pakistan, about the loss of his son—fallen U.S. Army Captain Humayun Khan—and about Mr. Khan’s own love for and commitment to America. As I listened and watched, I saw an American family who sacrificed their son for our country, and I saw and understood all too well the deep sorrow in Mrs. Kahn’s eyes. As a grieving mother myself, it was for her specifically that I wept. My own broken heart shared her pain, and I admired her ability to bravely stand there on that big national stage while her husband shared their family story. When Donald Trump attacked the Khan family, dismissed their sacrifice, and suggested that Ghazala Kahn was not allowed to speak, he offended every immigrant who has ever believed in the American dream, every soldier who has ever given his life for our country, and every mother who has ever lost a child.

For months, I have watched in horror as Trump’s statements have become more outrageous and have further illustrated his ignorance and his vitriol. His attack on the Khan family is one more example in a long progression of ever escalating examples of his lack of character and grace, his appalling misanthropy, and his all-encompassing unfitness for the Presidency. Trump’s utter failure to see the grief in Mrs. Kahn’s face is another vivid instance of Trump’s inhumanity. In the past few days, as I have thought about Mr. Kahn’s speech and about Trump’s response to it, Mack has been ever present in my mind. Mack’s character and humanity are what I use these days to measure my own actions and life and to assess the world around me. Inherent in the high bar that Mack has set in that regard is some disappointment, I admit. For few of us will leave this earth with as perfect a record of happy human relationships as our dear Mack. But Trump fails my Mack test on all counts, and I have come to believe that his absolute inability to feel empathy and to show compassion for his fellow Americans is, perhaps, his gravest deficiency for suitability for the American Presidency.

If my Mack, a feminist and liberal-minded young woman, were here today, she would be a strong supporter of Hillary Clinton. One of her favorite mottos, “uteruses before duderuses,” would no doubt have found new meaning in this historic 2016 presidential campaign, In fact, it’s entirely possible she may have been actively engaged; and she certainly would have been proud of her dear friend Meagan, who is a Clinton field organizer in Nebraska. But more to the point, my loving, just-minded, big-hearted, and nonjudgmental daughter would be aghast by Trump’s tactics of hatred and bigotry. Trump’s campaign would offend everything she believed about human decency, civility, and leadership. Mack would have spoken out against Trump’s hateful campaign, and she would have wanted me to do so as well. It is for her and in honor of her true heart that I now raise my own voice.

Over the years, I have followed a general rule to keep my politics off of Facebook and out of polite discourse with people in my life who hold opposing political views to my own. I have always reserved my unabashed support for the Democratic Party and my liberal snark for family, for a close circle of politically like-minded friends, and for the shallow and more fleeting arena of Twitter. But I cannot remain silent on Trump any longer, because he is a danger to the human decency and ideals I instilled in my daughters. He offends my family’s deeply held convictions of tolerance and equality. He mocks and demeans women, which is a direct affront to the brilliant and promising girls I raised. Mack is not here to offer her own objections to Trump’s candidacy, but I knew my daughter’s heart. The boisterous hatred Trump and his supporters spew would have outraged her open mind, the negativity and cynicism of his campaign would have offended her happy heart, and his racism would have stirred her strong sense of equality and justice.

Simply put, Trump is not a legitimate candidate. He is not a legitimate Republican. I respect my Republican friends; and I admire their commitment to principles of limited government and fiscal conservatism, even though I do not share them. I whole heartedly honor their rights to voice their own opinions, to engage in civil political debate with their opponents, and to vote their own consciences. This is America, and our democracy depends upon intelligent debate. But the 2016 Presidential Campaign is not a real campaign, because the Republican candidate is an affront to our ideals of tolerance, compassion, and liberty. Every single time that Trump opens his mouth, he reveals his bigotry, his sexism, his ignorance, his vanity, and his complete lack of empathy for his fellow Americans. He mocks people with disabilities, attacks the service of members of our military, incites violence against those who challenge him, and breathes hatred and intolerance. Not to mention the fact that he offers no coherent domestic or foreign policies to move America further toward a more perfect union, Trump’s message of hate should scare the hell out of every American.

Trump is not a true Republican. Trump represents no Republican ideals that I can recognize. More and more real Republicans and conservatives agree with my assessment. Trump does not represent the party of Abraham Lincoln, and Lincoln is rolling over in his tomb at the possibility of a Trump presidency. So far from the character of Lincoln, Trump is a hate-mongering, egomaniacal narcissist who has devoted his entire life to himself and to his own business interests. He has no moral compass, he has no interest in public service, and he has no understanding of American history and the political foundations of our great government. His ignorance of world affairs is terrifying, he is not committed to preserving the principles of our founding fathers, and he lacks humility, honor, and empathy for the American people. He is the most dangerous presidential candidate of a major political party in the history of the United States, and the American electorate—Democrats, Republicans, and Independents all—must defeat him in November. Bigotry and hatred have no place in American politics, and we all need to show Trump that they have no place in America. Not anymore. And never again.

I know that many of my Republican friends have serious reservations about Hillary Clinton. Although it is my opinion as both an informed reader and as a professional historian that no person has ever been more qualified to be president than Hillary Clinton, I appreciate the hesitancy of some, more conservative Republicans to eagerly support her candidacy. In opposition to a real Republican candidate, I would be explaining why Mack would have supported Hillary Clinton and why I support her, too. But this campaign, sadly, is not about electing a qualified life-long public servant to be the first woman President of the United States. Sadly, it is about keeping an ignorant, hateful sociopath out of the White House. The American presidency is a job for true leaders—leaders like Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Barack Obama—who have character and grace, honor and humility, and empathy and compassion for their fellow Americans.

So, please. Please. Please. I appeal to your humanity in this election. Do not vote for Trump, a man so devoid of qualifications for the Presidency that it should be laughable, a man who would shed no tears for your children. Do not vote for one of the long-shot independent candidates simply because you hate Hillary. Significant voting for independents could skew the election in favor of Trump, which would validate his candidacy of hate. Vote for Clinton-Kaine because it is a reasonable, legitimate Democratic ticket that is running a campaign against racism, against sexism, against religious intolerance, and against anti-immigrant hostility and scapegoating. Be a part of this historic election to put the first woman President in the White House, but, most importantly, cast your vote for the Democrats, who are running a real campaign against hate.

Mack Memo #3: Love Trumps Hate. Always. Did you ever go on hatin’ after a Big-Mack hug? Nope. Never. No matter what you think about my girl Hillary, her election in November will send a message to the haters that we are all in this America together.