Write, Rest, Repeat

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.

Now it is time, again, to write.

Mack in Monsaraz

Craggy cobblestone paths amble through the haunting medieval village of Monsaraz, passing under Moorish arches on their way to an ancient past. On the banks of the Guadiana River in southeastern Portugal, Monsaraz is home to the spirits of human history. Neolithic people were the first to find comfort in this country of rolling hills and cork oaks. Romans, Visogoths, Arabs, and the Christian crusaders of the Reconquista staked their own claims under the region’s bold, blue skies. Romantic tales of the Knight’s Templar and Portuguese bullfighters whisper on the breezes atop a castle keep that has stood watch over the valley for a thousand years. Mack is there, too, mingling with all of the spirits of the dead, all touched by the magic and the memories of Monsaraz.Back Camera

As the seventeenth-century outer walls of this quiet village of historical spirits hold tight their ancient memories, so, too, the fortified places in my mind hold tight my memories of Mack. It is within the most vibrant landscapes of our shared experiences, like those viewed from the parapets below the castle tower of Monsaraz, where my lost girl still lives. In Monsaraz, Mack walks in basketball shorts and suede, New Balance shoes. In Monsaraz, Mack stands with irreverent and commanding posture among the many ghosts of villagers past, holding her own in an uncharacteristic pink t-shirt. In Monsaraz, Mack breathes air among colorful Bougainvillea that bloom against white walls. Mack is in Monsaraz.

Mack’s spirit fills several specific places, fixed in time and in space within my memories, where closed eyes are all I need to transport myself to her. It makes sense that in my memories, Mack comes to life in places like the gymnasium at Springfield High School, the penguin exhibit at the St. Louis Zoo, or the outfield bleachers at Busch Stadium, because these were favorite and frequented sites of our lives together. But for some reason I cannot quite comprehend, the idea of Mack in Monsaraz is one of my most vivid and comforting memories. Mack’s time on this extraordinary planet was short, but her dad and I were able to show her at least a little of the world beyond her Springfield, Illinois, home. Perhaps castle-7Monsaraz represents my gratitude to have spent cherished hours with Mack in a few exotic locales. Perhaps the Portuguese sun on whitewashed medieval walls offers the enchanting environment in which I wish her beautiful spirit to roam. Perhaps I want my Mack to be a part of the haunting history of that spectacular, historical place. Perhaps I want her to gaze forever through those ancient windows, watching the past, existing in the present, and waiting for the future.

Grief is a cruel thief, and my best defense against its relentless assault upon my heart resides in vivid places like those within the medieval walls of Monsaraz. Places where Mack continues to be. Where color and beauty, life and love, and the irresistible pull of the past help me find what I have lost. It is, perhaps, a strange truth that I can feel Mack’s presence in a quaint, medieval village nearly halfway around the globe, where we spent just one happy day together. Strange or not, however, Mack in Monsaraz is a sweet and haunting solace. I think it is such that the memories we make with the people we love bind us in beautiful and unexpected ways to the beautiful and unexpected places we explore together. And no time and no distance can break our emotional connections to the places where we live and remember the most magical moments of our lives.

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Road Trippin’

Over the twenty-four years that I raised my amazing daughters, I had such great fun, but little of my fun and none of my favorite memories happened inside of the car on road trips. My husband’s jerky driving, the din of headphone leakage emanating from the backseat, Mack’s inability to sit still when not sleeping, whining dogs, Mack’s rancid basketball shoes, and my travel anxiety and fear of semi-tractor trailers made road trips something of a personal hell for me. Destinations were usually just great, but the journey? Not so much.

My nerves drove Kevin and Savannah nuts, but my worries simply amused Mack. She always tried to ease my tension in the car, if only for a short while. Occasionally, she offered a loud and lengthy belch that invited groans and comments and distracted everyone for a time. Sometimes she sang a song, frequently mimicking Shakira by singing out of the side of her mouth through clenched teeth. And other times she would just say something like, “quit trippin’ and enjoy the scenery, Momma Bear. Everything’s just dandy up in here.”

While Mack was amused about my anxiety, my epic preparations for every road trip, no matter the length or the distance, bemused her. In an effort to calm my journey jitters, I have always over-prepared for short trips and vacations. Weeks before embarking on any kind of getaway, I begin preparing what my girls always called the “mommy folder.” I make notes and I collect maps and travel information about hotels, restaurants, and activities. I create checklists. I pack early. I check and recheck my lists. I put post-it notes on toothbrushes and phone chargers so I will not leave anything important behind. I use a final checklist when packing the car, some items going in the night before departure. This behavior, I understand perfectly well, is an effort to take control and ease my fears. I also understand that it fails every time to meet those expectations. Oh, it is true that I do not forget items at home. But I am still anxious. I am still a difficult traveler. And this is the part that really confused my happy-go-lucky, anything-goes, calm, cool, and centered daughter.rental car in Ireland

Through every stage of my preparations for travel, Mack would laugh at me, shake her head, and roll her eyes. She had no earthly idea why I would expend so much energy on the “mommy folder” when all I really needed to do was to throw some clothes in a bag, trust everyone else to pack their own stuff, and call it good. Of course that is what Mack would advise, because that is exactly how Mack traveled. She rolled out of bed a few minutes before departure, threw into a backpack a few items of clothing (sometimes from the dirty pile in her room), and happily flung herself into the car. Certainly, Mack’s style frequently resulted in packing dirty clothes or forgetting something she needed—like athletic socks, her toothbrush, or a swimsuit (the photo below is a case in point). I was the one who fretted, over-prepared, and had every item I needed; and still the journey offered me no joy and no peace. In contrast, Mack never worried, never prepared, often left necessary items behind; yet for her, the journey was always a delight. Except for her “Macko the Terrible” toddler phase, Mack was always a happy and funny little traveler.

not a swimsuit my love

This past week, as I have prepared for my first ever extensive road trip alone—a research visit to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill—I have thought a great deal about Mack’s traveling philosophy. As I have fussed and fretted about how to make this long drive and this busy research trip go as smoothly as humanly possible, Mack’s faces of incredulity have appeared in my mind’s eye. As I have made my lists and checked them twice, I have heard her voice chiding me for being so particular. As I mapped out my twelve-hour drive in both directions and made notes—two weeks in advance!—Mack was sitting on my shoulder, shaking her head at me in total disbelieve. I could hear her saying, “dang, woman, I woulda just tapped that address into my phone when I pulled out of the garage!”

If Mack were here today, she would tell me to have fun on my little adventure. She would giggle at my jitters, tell me to breathe, and ask me what I had in the “mommy folder.” More than anything right now, I want to channel Mack’s calm acceptance of a journey that might not go as planned. More than ever, I need a healthy dose of Mack’s inner peace. Mack had the right idea about a lot of things; and her serene approach to a long trip in the car was a hell of a lot healthier than mine. So, on this trip, I am going to try to be more Mack-like, to worry less, to laugh out loud like a crazy person, and to relax. Maybe I will even belch and sing like Shakira. I think Mack would love the thought of that! Most importantly, however, I am going to breathe. And, for once in my life, I am going to enjoy the journey. No “trippin” on this road trip, Mack. I promise.

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It is this same old Honda Element (shown here on a road trip to Colorado) that will deliver me to North Carolina.

Here are some road trip photos I love…

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Tiny rental car in Spain.