Writing for My Life

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.

Mack’s Back to School

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

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

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

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

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

Laura Shipley

Me and Mack in the Garden

I was in the garden yesterday.

I was there to seek the company of the dawn redwood trees, upon the deeply fissured trunks of which there is written an ancient wisdom and under the branches of which I often find comfort. I was feeling a great deal of anxiety, as I always do at the end of a project that has consumed much of my creative energy and intellect over a long stretch of time. Instead of embracing a contented feeling of achievement, my mind was restless from the release of its previous intensity of purpose; my body was stiff and sore with the lingering memory of the labor, hanging tight and clinging heavy to my bones. It is a regular, and peculiar, ritual with me that the completion of a piece of writing about which I feel so damn good also leaves me, in the bargain, feeling so damned lost. It is similar to the sorrow that overcomes me when I read the last word on the last page of an extraordinary book. It feels something like the loss of a friend, or a missed opportunity, or a misplaced treasure. To complicate my trouble with endings, I also frequently feel a little off-balance within the uncomfortable and uncertain space in my mind that occupies the time between the end (or death) of one creative project and the beginning (or birth) of a new one. It makes me feel quite lonely, very sad, and sometimes a little crazy, too. Usually I can conquer on my own any negative energy that should never cling to a successfully completed project in the first place, but sometimes I need a little outside help to do so.

The Missouri Botanical Garden has become for me not only a physical sanctuary but an emotional and intellectual one. It is a place where nonjudgmental spirits reside and where I find both relief and inspiration. The garden has become my happy refuge and a cherished friend. It grounds my restless spirit to the earth, provides solace to my broken heart, and refreshes my tired mind. It is where I go to be uplifted by the songs of birds and to be renewed by the wondrous, ever-changing colors and shadows of all of the seasons of nature. It is where I go to walk with my memories, my sorrows, my hopes, my worries, and my intellectual and creative ideas. It is where I go to conquer the uncertain and uncomfortable in-between spaces in my mind. Yesterday, the latter was my need for the garden, and to be in the presence of the majestic Metasequoia was my singular purpose. I made a brisk and determined path to the redwoods in the back of the garden, noticing neither the birds nor the colors and shadows along the way. So eager was I for those trees to release me from my burdens, I had ignored all other greetings of the garden and offered my happy refuge, my cherished friend, no greeting of my own, either.

But, thankfully, Mack was in the garden yesterday, too.

As I followed the path, curving around the Victorian section of the garden and leading toward the stand of the dawn redwood trees, Mack popped up in my mind at precisely the moment that a single snow crocus, poking up through a carpet of old autumn leaves, popped into my peripheral vision. “Slow down, Mamma Bear,” she whispered. “Walk with me.”

It was then that I first noticed the warmth of a long-missing sun and the crisp breeze upon my face. It was then that the nurturing characteristics of the garden began to work their magic upon my tired body and to ease the discomforts of my restless mind. We started walking, Mack and I, under the branches of the dawn redwoods, and for more than two hours we mindfully strolled. Along every path, we spied chipmunks scurrying in bushes and we looked for the shiny blades of new-born leaves peeking up through the dirt and promising the coming of spring flowers. In the Japanese garden, we chatted with some turtles sunning on rocks and laughed at the awkward and silly cypress knees randomly jutting up out of the ground. We lingered at every statue we passed, we found some pansies in the home garden, and we sat for a spell on a bench in the woodland garden, enjoying the soothing sound of the water gently falling over rocks on its way down the stream. Everywhere we walked, we listened to the songs of the birds and took in all of the colors and shadows that a glorious pre-Spring day in the Midwest has to offer.

I did not think about the past. I did not worry about the future. I did not think about the end of my completed project. I did not contemplate the challenges of my new one. I just walked, with Mack, breathing easy and settling my mind upon the present. When I finally made my way to the exit, the in-between space in my mind had closed. I whispered my gratitude to Mack and to the garden, and I headed for home, basking in the satisfaction connected to rewarding work and the successful completion of a creative project and happily looking forward to a new creative project on the horizon.

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Mack’s Angry Momma Bear

I am on a rough patch of the road on my journey without Mack. Since mid-December, the absence of her laughter is a loud and painful silence in my ears. My yearning for her wise commentary on our upside-down world is beating out of my chest. I am furious with the universe for stealing her away so soon. Too soon. Holiday blues, which fester into the January cold and gloom, sit heavy upon bones, intensifying the pain of all grief. I accept this truth, because I have seen it with my own brown eyes for four holiday seasons past. But this rough patch is different than the others. It is angrier and sharper, and it is palpable and relentless.

This time the road is not so much a sharp and treacherous s-curve through the loneliness of my loss, but rather it is a stretch of road bumpy with injustice. This rough patch is not only personal, but also political. It is a consequence of my grief for Mack, aggravated by my grief for the evil in the world. It is fueled by my anger at men who abuse their power over women, who use their authority to inflict harm upon women, and who disrespect the humanity of women. You see, Mack’s dream was to write TV shows with purpose. She was planning to create strong female characters, craft stories and dialogue that empowered women, depict the intelligence, dignity, and hearts of women, and demonstrate the beauty and strength of equality, diversity, and justice for all of us. Mack wanted to use her voice to celebrate women. And it really pisses me off that the universe gave despicable men like Donald Trump, Harvey Weinstein, Roy Moore, and Larry Nassar so much time to degrade and to terrorize women and denied my sweet baby her chance to raise her voice in behalf of women.

Most of the tears of a mother’s grief fall for a bright future denied a promising child. Every single day I breathe, I miss Mack’s presence in my life, but I also mourn all of the years she is missing, all of the experiences she will never have, and all of the beauty she would have spread out into the world if she would have had more time. It is bitterly unfair that such a heart as hers is gone. Mack missing from the world enrages me. As anyone who has ever endured the loss of a child knows, much of the struggle is keeping yourself from becoming adrift in a sea of anger. Sometimes, however, our strength fails us and we wade out too far into the dangerous water.

This particular patch of angry grief sits at the intersection of personal and political grief. Or, in other words, it sits in juxtaposition with my anger over the ongoing stories of sexual assault and harassment these past weeks and, specifically, the horrendous story of abuse of girls at USA Gymnastics. The abuse, injustice, and inequality that women continue to experience in our supposed enlightened society has incensed the liberal feminist human in me as I know it would have incensed the liberal feminist human in my Macko. But late this week, my grief and anger overwhelmed me, as I read about the evil that Dr. Nassar perpetrated against the female gymnasts whose bodies and wellbeing were entrusted to his care. I wept as I listened to the courageous testimony of the survivors, whom so many grownups had failed to protect. In my grief for them, my grief for Mack bubbled over and beyond the bounds of my strength to endure it.

It is hard for me to explain this complicated emotion and to characterize the ways in which grief intensifies the force of all other feelings. But I think it is just simply this: that a broken heart forever breaks more easily. Since I have chosen to feel the pain of my grief, instead of to bury and deny it, I must feel the full force of every other emotion that comes over me. I accept the reality that the full force can be cruel and that my response to it is not always courageous. My knees buckled under the strain of it all on Friday evening, relentless tears and anxiety bearing down upon me. Therefore, I spent the weekend cleaning up the debris of this particularly violent collision between my grief for Mack and my grief for humanity. It was not a pleasant two days, I assure you. Yet the weekend culminated, finally and thank goodness, with a particularly therapeutic session of what writing coach Natalie Goldberg calls “writing down the bones.”

I am still angry and sad and probably vulnerable, too. But, oh my, I do feel a lot better. For me, writing releases the negative energy that threatens my wherewithal and zaps all of the resources of my survival. Thank goodness I can let it go out of me along with the emotions pouring out of my heart, through my fingertips, and onto the page. The sharing is good, too; so thank you for listening. And don’t you worry about me, because Mack is here. She never liked it when her Momma Bear was angry, so she’s with me now, helping me breathe. She also promises that tonight will bring a good sleep, and that tomorrow morning will bring…

Peace.

Or else…

angry

Where Hope Lives

Three years ago this day, Mack slipped away from us, quietly, unexpectedly, and so very far away in Spain. She was a towering, colossal presence in the lives of her family and her friends, and the holes in our hearts from her absence are deep and wide and Mackenduring.

Recently, my dear friend Bridgett, who is both a writer and a gifted listener for wisdom on every breeze, wrote a blog about hope and an Emily Dickinson poem I once loved but had long forgotten: “Hope is a thing with feathers that perches in the soul, and sings the tune without the words, and never stops at all.” Deconstructing the image of hope as a delicate bird, my friend wrote: “hope is dogged and rough and resilient. Hope resides in the dimmest doorways and the darkest corners of our lives. Hope grows up from the disaster and the dirt, the fertile floor of grief.”

That passage got me thinking about the residence of my hope, along the path of my grief. Perhaps once…before…hope was “a thing with feathers” that perched in my soul. But when a soul is grieving, there is no room for the perching; and along the way these past three years, hope’s song has sometimes gone silent. In missing Mack’s giant presence in my life, in longing for her love and her laughter, and in lamenting all that a short life denied her, I have spent thirty-six months reflecting on loss, on life, and on learning the human balance of both. What I have been chasing all along, I now understand, is hope. Hope is the fire of our expectations, aspirations, desires, simple plans, and grand ambitions. Hope resides in that space between loss and living. Hope is food for a life worth living; and like all food, Mack would want us all to consume it, to take delight from it, and to appreciate the nourishment it offers.

In those bitter first days in early October 2014, I witnessed the flight of hope from my soul. Yet in the early fog of my grief I somehow knew, wondrously and thankfully, to reach out and grab it. When such a force of nature as Mack takes her leave, hope flies away with her. Hope was no longer within me, but I instinctively knew that I needed to keep it within sight. Hope came first in the face of my daughter Savannah, for hope resides, for mothers at least, in precious children. But since my mother’s hope for Mack could no longer reside in her body, I needed to find a way for hope to reside in her spirit, instead. The establishment of the Mackenzie Kathleen Memorial Scholarship at Truman State University, where Mack learned to fly, provided a residence for my lost hope for her. Now hope resides in that scholarship. It resides on a pretty little campus in northern Missouri. It resides in the students who have benefited already and will continue to benefit in the future. It resides in an enduring legacy of Mack’s passion for writing. Even though I will sometimes fail in my grief to see it, hope will always reside there, waiting for me to reclaim it.

Today, as we mark the third anniversary of Mack’s passing, I am so proud…and bursting with hope…to announce that the scholarship that bears her name has its third recipient, a small town, Missouri girl named Athena Geldbach. The scholarship will help this studious, serious-minded young woman minimize her college debt and play a small role in her hopes of writing books and pursuing a career in publishing so that she can also help other hopeful writers. Athena has some charming characteristics that remind me of Mack. She has a passion for books, a devotion to pets, and is a liberal arts dreamer who is also, oddly, a math whiz (Mack did calculus just for fun; Athena is a math tutor at Truman). Mack always said she had a super-powered, two-sided brain; and, apparently, Athena has one of those, too.

Today, while you are all, like me, grieving for Mack a little more tearfully, missing her a little more terribly, and feeling the hole she left in your hearts a little more keenly, I send you love and a big-Mack hug. And I send you hope. Because in loving Mack and keeping her spirit always with you, some of my hope resides in you. I have learned that it really doesn’t matter where hope resides; it simply matters that it lives.

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

To read more about the scholarship and the hope it has brought me, see:
Honoring Mack, 2014 (Endowment of the Scholarship)
Magical Medicine, 2015 (First Scholarship Recipient)
The Happiest and Most Enduring of Memorials, 2016 (Second Scholarship Recipient

To learn about why Mack chose Truman State, see:
A Purple Bulldog

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Time

At 6:19 a.m., Sunday, September 7, 2014, Mack left St. Louis on a plane to Spain. It was the last time I saw her. Three years later, and those last moments with her at the airport are so clear and close in my mind and yet so foggy and far away, as well. Time plays its tricks, but time has lessened neither my love for Mack nor my longing for her. If I have learned anything at all from my sorrows, it is that time is no elixir, nor do I wish it to be. Some wounds are ours to bear for a lifetime, because they are the proof that we have lived.

Time

Who says time heals all wounds
does not know time.

Time heals not
the souls of grieving mothers.
Time fills no
holes in hearts, yearning for lost daughters.
Time rests never
for weary travelers on roads of grief.

Who says time heals all wounds
does not know time.

Time plays tricks
cruel and bitter on broken hearts;
Speeding forward,
no mercy for seekers of happy pasts;
Caring nothing
that some of us need to linger.

Who says time heals all wounds
does not know time,
nor grief, nor mothers and daughters, nor love.

 

 

The Happiest and Most Enduring of Memorials

There is a smart, joyful, and kooky young woman at Truman State University for whom writing is an essential activity of life. She is also a devoted fan of sleeping, eating, and steering clear of spiders. Oh, and her name starts with an “M” and she is witty and adores absurdity. Sound familiar? Uncanny, indeed, but in all of these wonderful ways, she truly is just like our Mack. So I am beyond charmed and delighted to announce that Marisa Gearin—a senior, creative writing major from St. Louis—is the second recipient of the Mackenzie Kathleen McDermott Memorial Scholarship. Kudos to the Truman State Foundation for finding yet another Mack-like spirit on which to bestow the award that honors her life.

Even before official word from the Truman State Foundation, I received a welcome holiday gift in December in the form of Marisa’s handwritten, thank you note. marisaIn the message, penned in a slightly larger, but scratch-style writing quite similar to Mack’s own, she exuded passion in her descriptions of her writing and in sharing her aspirations for her life beyond college. Like Mack’s sister Savannah, she hopes to live and teach abroad after graduation. The scholarship will help ease the costs of her final year at Truman and will help her save money for graduate school, as well. Marisa writes poetry and short fiction and has been involved with the Truman slam poetry team TruSlam (check out her Mack-perfect, spider-hating poem at https://soundcloud.com/truslam/reasons-why-spiders-are-bad). She has published work in the Truman publications Windfall and Monitor and is the author of a collection of short stories entitled Egg Teeth: Realist Fiction for Young Minds. The back cover of Marisa’s book would have earned critical acclaim from Mack, tickling her funny bone and eliciting her classic crooked smile and a hearty Mack cackle.

book-back

 

In my heart, I am starting to think that Mack herself might be intervening in the selection of these scholarship recipients, whispering in the ears of the judges, telling jokes to bend them toward the most Mack-appropriate of the candidates. In my head, I know that Mack would be pleased to make this little, annual difference in the life of a student writer. Knowing that it would please Mack so well adds another depth of meaning in the enormity of this scholarship to my emotional wellbeing and my search for solace in a world without her.

Mack’s scholarship began as a simple gesture of grieving parents to honor a beloved child. The scholarship has become a living memorial to Mack’s beautiful life and spirit and to the joy and meaning she brought into our lives. The scholarship at its core is for and about Mack. But it is also about the amazing student writers it benefits; first Megan, now Marisa, and all of those amazing student writers yet to come. Mack’s scholarship is also about the donors who have made it possible. The power to confer this $1,000 annual award lives within the love and generosity of all of the amazing human beings who have helped endow the scholarship in perpetuity. I am still overwhelmed by the contributions that provided the initial endowment way back in December 2014 and by the donations that continue to flow in support of building the endowment for even greater impact.

I have said it before, but I can never say it enough, and so I am saying it once again. Thank you for loving Mack and for supporting this scholarship in her honor. What could possibly be more gratifying than helping a passionate, student writer like Marisa Gearin pay for college? What could possibly be a more fitting way to honor our Mack, whose joy for life brought so much joy into our own? And what could possibly bring a grieving mother more solace than a legacy that preserves her child’s spirit in the present and connects her legacy to the future? This scholarship really is the happiest and most enduring of memorials; a living, breathing tribute to a beautiful life well lived, to the promise of lives yet lived, and to the gratitude and love within the living hearts that Mack left behind her.

 

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

True Bulldog 5