On the Wing: A Natural History of Grief

h_is_for_hawk_cover450I began reading Helen Macdonald’s heartfelt memoir, H Is for Hawk in early June. Based on the author’s family history and intertwined with reflections on T.H. White and the history of falconry, Macdonald’s book won the Samuel Johnson Prize and the Costa Book of the Year Award in 2014. Her compelling take on “the archaeology of grief” and her decision to train a goshawk as a form of solace and redemption transform the concept of a memoir into something more than words on a page. It unfolds as a study on ways to move through the landscape of time and space.

“We are very bad at scale,” writes Macdonald. “The things that live in the soil are too small to care about; climate change too large to imagine. We are bad at time, too. We cannot remember what lived here before we did; we cannot love what is not. Nor can we imagine what will be different when we are dead. We live out our three score and ten, and tie our knots and lines only to ourselves. We take solace in pictures, and we wipe the hills of history.”

green-voices“It struck me then that perhaps the bareness and wrongness of the world was an illusion;” she continues, “that things might still be real, and right, and beautiful, even if I could not see them – that if I stood in the right place, and was lucky, this might somehow be revealed to me.”

In the past, I’ve written numerous articles blending fact and fiction in essays linking nature and myth. Macdonald takes this one step further with first-person accounts reflecting on concepts of loss and the experience of communing with nature as she trains a goshawk she names Mabel. As part of the process, Macdonald folds the narrative into shared experiences with T.H. White: “The lines between the man and landscape blur,” writes Macdonald. “When White writes of his love for the countryside, at heart he is writing about a hope that he might be able to love himself.”

night-hawk“Like White I wanted to cut loose from the world,” she continues, “and I shared, too, his desire to escape to the wild, a desire that can rip away all human softness and leave you stranded in a world of savage, courteous despair.”

This was something I could relate to. But her grief at the loss of her father was foreign to me. It wasn’t until I was in a traumatic bicycle accident a few days later that I began to connect with the rawness of her sorrow.

“Here’s a word. Bereavement. Or, Bereaved. Bereft,” Macdonald writes. “It’s from the Old English bereafian, meaning ‘to deprive of, take away, seize, rob.’ Robbed. Seized. It happens to everyone. But you feel it alone. Shocking loss isn’t to be shared, no matter how hard you try.”

I did not lose a member of my family or one of my friends. I lost myself. And I had no way to grapple with the devastation wreaked upon my body and soul until I once again picked up H Is for Hawk. This time, the text took on a new meaning.

hawk1My accident occurred when I was about halfway through the book, just as I had started Chapter 13, “Alice, Falling.” It seemed appropriate. “And me? I do not know,” Macdonald writes. “I feel hollow and unhoused, an airy, empty wasps’ nest, a thing made of chewed paper after the frosts have murdered the life within.” The author’s grief mirrored my own.

“The archaeology of grief is not ordered,” reflects Macdonald. “It is more like earth under a spade, turning up things you had forgotten. Surprising things come to light: not simply memories, but states of mind, emotions, older ways of seeing the world.”

And this proved true. Like Macdonald, I worked through the loss of who I had been. It was a slow process, one that still presents challenges as I continue the transformation. There are times when I want to run away, times I am overwhelmed with the desire to escape the realities presented by loss, but these impulses are coming further and further apart. And one day, I hope to find resolution in the way I see myself and the world I live in.horus-spirit-of-the-hawk

“There is a time in life when you expect the world to be always full of new things. And then comes a day when you realise that is not how it will be at all,” Macdonald writes. “You see that life will become a thing made of holes. Absences. Losses. Things that were there and are no longer. And you realise, too, that you have to grow around and between the gaps, though you can put your hand out to where things were and feel that tense, shining dullness of the space where the memories are.”

And that’s what it’s all about, growth through loss—“a reckoning…of all the lives we have lost (Macdonald)”—and the lives we have yet to discover.

mabel

Artwork: Green Voices, Night Hawk, and Horus-Spirit of the Hawk by Susan Seddon-Boulet. All Rights Reserved by the artist.

Fight or Flight: Words of Wisdom for Writers

lamott“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor,” writes Anne Lamott in her highly acclaimed book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (93). I first read this book more than 20 years ago in the only college writing class I’ve ever taken—and I hated everything she had to say. Lamott wrote about self-doubt, addiction, jealousy, hopelessness, and despair. None of these things applied to me. At the time it was published in 1995, Lamott was in her early 40s; I was in my mid-20s. I had just sold my first professional magazine story. Perfectionism was a tool I used to make my work shine. It wasn’t until my writing career plummeted and my personal life shattered that I returned to this book, seeking wisdom from a woman who has known self-doubt, addiction, jealousy, hopelessness, and despair.

Her words helped me rediscover my own voice during adversity and I returned to this book over the years passed. I’ve used it as a resource for teaching writing and I’ve also used it during times when I needed a push to continue with my own work. As a writer constantly searching for ways to improve my work, I’ve read numerous craft books on writing, but Lamott’s book is the only one I return to over and over again. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life offers practical wisdom for writers with an emphasis on some of the things that matter most: short assignments, shitty first drafts, and self-discovery.

cropped-gabriel-moreno-woman-bird-hybrid-art-pen-and-ink-illustration-beautiful-portrait

One of the most important things to take away from the advice in this book is on breaking your work down into short assignments. It is something my students have found useful as a tool and it is a technique I use frequently in my own writing. The title of Lamott’s book comes from an experience she observed while growing up. The memory she recounts is when her ten-year-old brother was panicked into inaction when he finally sat down to write a report on birds he’d put off for three months. It was due the next day. Their father, who also happened to be a writer, propelled him into motion. “…[He] put his arm around my brother’s shoulder,” she recalls, “and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird’” (Lamott  19). This common piece of wisdom can be elusive, especially when tackling large and/or complex projects.

Although I was able to write magazine articles in one sitting, I soon discovered that fiction needed a different approach, especially when written in the longer forms. The desire to know everything before sitting down to write can be crippling. My stalling techniques are similar to hers, so I followed what worked for her and discovered that it worked for me to. If the writing is going well, I will stay in my chair until a scene or a chapter is complete.

romantischer_spiegel_an10321aa_2_1012If things aren’t running smoothly, I use Lamott’s one-inch picture frame technique to focus in on just one thing: a paragraph detailing setting, a section of backstory, a character study. Lamott claims that an entire novel can be written one paragraph at a time by focusing on short assignments: “L. Doctorow once said that ‘writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’ You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice about writing, or life, I have ever heard” (Lamott 18).

I agree. When I find myself floundering, wondering if being a writer was the worst possible decision I have made in my entire life, trying to decide what other choices I might have left in the life ahead of me, I take a breath—sit down and work on writing just one more sentence, just one more paragraph, just one more page. Those short assignments add up and inevitably I’m surprised when each story finally comes to an end.

birdwoman-nancy-woodThere is always a sense of relief and accomplishment when a story or a project is finally finished, but it doesn’t take long before you realize that the first draft is only the beginning. There is a different sort of panic that sets in when you realize everything you’ve just put on the page is a jumbled mess: giant plot holes, inconsistent characterization, generic settings, stilted dialogue, information dumps. “Very few writers really know what they are doing until they’ve done it,” Lamott sympathizes. “For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts” (22).

I struggle with this every single time I sit down. There is the urge to polish each sentence, to listen to the lyricism of the words, to create a beautiful paragraph. However, it’s difficult to make any progress if you attempt to edit as you write. “The bottom line is that if you want to write, you get to, but you probably won’t be able to get very far if you don’t start trying to get over your perfectionism,” Lamott writes. “Perfectionism…will only drive you mad” (31).

gabriel-moreno-illustration-bird-womanIt can be a difficult pursuit to move past the desire for perfection in order to put the story on the page in its raw and garbled state. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to discover the places where a story might have missed its mark or characters whose voices might never be heard if you don’t get the words on the page. When I find myself struggling, I remind myself that what I’m writing is a shitty first draft. It’s an act of forgiveness. The creative process is for the muse; it’s the time to wallow in emotion and discovery. The critic has her turn, but that comes later—much, much later.

Lamott says, “We write to expose the unexposed” (198). The only way to uncover these hidden truths is through the process of emotional exploration and self-discovery. As a writer who has experienced the fear of putting too much on the page, I can relate to Lamott’s assertions.

fireeaglespirit“If something inside you is real, we will probably find it interesting, and it will probably be universal. So you must risk placing real emotion at the center of your work. Write straight into the emotional center of things. Write toward vulnerability. Don’t worry about appearing sentimental. Worry about being unavailable; worry about being absent or fraudulent. Risk being unliked. Tell the truth as you understand it. If you’re a writer, you  have a moral obligation to do this. And it is a revolutionary act—truth is always  subversive” (Lamott 226).

But the fear remains. What if the emotional center we expose, the sentimental truths aren’t of interest to anyone else? I believe this fear is universal, that’s why writing is a risky business. Writing becomes flat and generic without passion. We need to shine a light in the dark places, expose the hidden truths. “The core, ethical concepts in which you most passionately believe are the language you are writing,” writes Lamott. “Telling these truths is your job (103).

There is a plethora of craft books to choose from and many focus on the fundamentals: plot, character, dialogue, setting, and so forth. However, it is the rare gem that looks at the other aspects of living a creative life. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life is one those gems. Lamott gives writers permission to take breaks, to “free yourself to begin filling up again” (178). She focuses on practice and progress through short assignments, she encourages forgiveness and exploration with shitty first drafts, and she inspires with the advice to expose the unexposed through self-discovery.  The more I’ve lived, the more Lamott’s “instructions” make sense. Above all, she reminds writers that we are our own worst critic. There is a time to let it go in order to move forward with craft and life. “…[T]here will always be more you could do, but you have to remind yourself that perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor” (Lamott 93).

Suggested Reading: Lamott, Anne. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. Anchor Books, 1994.

Illustrations: Bird by Gabriel Moreno, Bird Woman by Nancy Wood, Butterfly by Gabriel MorenoFire Eagle Spirit by Susan Seddon-Boulet. All Rights Reserved by the artists.

Finding Beauty in Brokenness

In The Woman Who Watches Over the World, Chickasaw novelist and essayist Linda Hogan speaks to the vulnerability inherent to storytelling:

“To open our eyes, to see with our inner fire and light, is what saves us. Even if it makes us vulnerable. Opening the eyes is the job of storytellers, witnesses, and the keepers of accounts. The stories we know and tell are reservoirs of light and fire that brighten and illuminate the darkness of human night, the unseen. They throw down a certain slant of light across the floor each morning, and they throw down also its shadow.”

brooke-shaden-the-shadows-we-follow

The stories we know and tell. Could it be that easy to throw down the shadows of despair and doubt? This is something I’ve been thinking about quite often as I’ve been struggling to emerge from a place of pain and fear, the lingering trauma of a freak accident at the beginning of summer.

18553461709_dc2e41aeec_z

“Fire, like pain, like love, is a power we do not know,” Hogan continues. “Yet from the ashes of each, something will grow. No one knows if it will be something beautiful and strong. But in our lives it is sometimes the broken vessel, as writer Andre Dubus calls it, that spills the light.”

I am a broken vessel, even though time is slowly healing my wounds. However, patience has never been a strong suit of mine and, not even a month into recovery, I pushed myself to a point where I created even more damage to a body and mind already weakened by trauma. There came a moment where I had to accept the limits of a broken body. There came a moment when I needed to take the words of T.S. Elliot to heart: “I said to my soul be still and wait… So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.” And I waited.

billie-bond

Now three months to the day of the accident that nearly destroyed me, body and soul, I am finally moving forward. This time, I’m attempting to be kind to myself. I am attempting to be patient. These are not easy things for me to do, especially as I feel the press of time and the uncertainty that comes with more surgeries on the horizon.  I still struggle with pain and my limitations (both cognitive and physical) each day, but I have hope that I will emerge from this storm stronger than ever before.

“And once the storm is over, you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive,” writes novelist and essayist Haruki Murakami. “You won’t even be sure, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.”

expansion

I am attempting to embrace my brokenness and the things I have learned from these months of forced quietude. People have shown me kindness I didn’t even know existed. I was so trapped by my darkest fears, I almost missed the opportunities presented through doors that opened up during this greatest time of need.

8713331685_ace61ab814_z

One of the most beautiful things that came from this time of dark despair was in the interaction with Greg Hartman, a Colorado writer who I met a few years ago.  He showed his teenage daughter a side-by-side photo comparison of what I looked like with and without makeup just a month after the accident. After a long moment, she said she preferred the photo without the makeup. When her father asked why, she said, “I think scars are beautiful. They show who you are and your history.”  This girl I had never met shared the wisdom I needed to begin the journey past preconceived notions of beauty and self-worth.

A few years ago, I became fascinated with the art of kintsugi (or kintsukuroi). This art form centers on a Japanese method for rejoining the pieces of broken ceramics with an adhesive lacquer mixed with precious metals such as gold, silver, and platinum. “When the Japanese repair broken objects, they aggrandize the damage by filling the cracks with gold,” writes artist Barbara Bloom. “They believe that when something has suffered damage and has a history, it becomes more beautiful.”

kintsugi-1

Contemporary Korean artist Yee Sookyung expands on the concept with an explanation of her own process:

“The master potter was trying to create the perfect piece each time, and he would discard even the ones with the slightest flaw. So I chose to create new forms from them, because perhaps, I don’t believe completely in that kind of perfection.

“To me, a piece of broken ceramic finds another piece, and they come to rely on one another. The cracks between them symbolise the wound. The work is a metaphor of the struggle of life that makes people more mature and beautiful as they overcome their sufferings.”

yee_sookyung_close-up

This is the place I now find myself in. I will never look the same as I used to. I have been broken, shattered, and then pieced back together. Although I have been broken by violence in the past, those wounds are hidden. This time there is no hiding the scars. They have changed the landscape of my face and body. They have transformed me. And now it’s time to stop waiting. It’s time to emerge from the darkness. It’s time to embrace the light that is starting to seep through the cracks. For now, that will have to be enough.

let-loose-the-curious-being

“The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” –A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway.

Images: the shadows we follow, the song of time, phoenix, we are infinite, guiding lights, let loose the curious being by Brooke ShadenKintsugi Head 1 by Billie Bond, Expansion by Paige BradleyTranslated Vase by Yee Sookyung. All Rights Reserved by the artists.