I am Well and Reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mackenzies Rainbow

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

 

Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sitting still for Grandma Marie…

falling asleep reading 4

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

Brave Potatoes

Something Queer is Going On

And the Relatives Came

Sheep in a Jeep

Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging by Louise Rennison

The Uglies Series by Scott Westerfeld

The Harry Potter series

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

Anything by Augusten Burroughs

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

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

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

Extra Note:

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