Grief and healing in “H Is for Hawk”

I love it when a book makes me interested in something I never thought I’d care about.

For example, The Orchid Thief’s brilliant exposition on the history of both orchids and the state of Florida coupled with a real-life hunt for the elusive ghost orchid kept me enthralled page after page. A Deadly Wandering used a texting-and-driving accident as a narrative thread for looking at how the law adapts to new technology and how our brain tries (and often fails) to the do the same. And in Factory Man, I became acquainted with the American furniture industry and the fiery figure who fought the way foreign competition was affecting his industry.

Another book I’ll add to this list of favorites is Helen Macdonald’s powerful, poignant H Is for Hawk. If you were to ask me if I’d like to read a book that’s partly about the history of falconry, focused especially on the temperamental goshawk, partly about the life of author T.H. White of The Sword and the Stone fame, and partly a grief memoir following Macdonald’s father’s sudden death, I’m not sure I’d sign right up.

And yet, I find myself years after having finished the book still thinking about it, from time to time. I also find myself still looking with a new respect at the red-tailed hawks circling and soaring over my backyard — one, last week, with a scrambling squirrel held tightly in its talons.

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Macdonald’s ability to create a story that moves through these various topics astounds. At times, I simply found myself marveling at how she did it, but mostly I wanted to learn more and more about hawks and about her and about her father and about the reclusive T.H. White.

Macdonald’s father helped foster an interest in the outdoors and in falconry in her from a young age. We learn of his unexpected death early in the book and join her as she journeys through grief and despair and anger and disillusionment.

She writes, “Here’s a word. Bereavement. Or, Bereaved. Bereft. 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.”

If you’ve been through an unexpected death, and particularly the sudden death of a parent, you will relate to this and to so much that follows. While it’s true that death and grief are specific to each individual, and sharing it perfectly isn’t ever attainable, there are some broad similarities. Macdonald deals with her grief by adopting and training a goshawk, finding release in the bird’s wildness and in her ability, and struggle, to contain that.

H Is For Hawk reminded me of two other books about grief, and healing it, in part, through the natural world: The Snow Leopard, by Peter Matthiessen, and Wild, by Cheryl Strayed. If you enjoyed either of those, I bet you’d find solace in Macdonald’s book, and vice versa. All three touch on something similar — the need to get out into nature in order to embrace the unimaginable.

Elegy for a cedar waxwing/Ode to a robin

(Inspired by reading Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard.)

This morning an army of birds invaded our yard, a horde of robins, a flock, a grouping. What is the word for a swarm of robins? I like to imagine it’s a christopher. (Groan.)

The holly bushes, laden with small red berries, became a smorgasbord, a buffet, all they could eat, seconds and thirds, please please please. They picked it clean, left it empty.

The ground, the front yard, the back yard, littered with robins. Chests, reddish orange all, but backs light brown so that against the dry winter grass and dirt, they blend in, until you focus your eyes, catch the small, jumpy movements, the pecking of the soil, the threatening of each other.

Along with the robins, the usual feathered visitors showed, too: the wrens, the titmice, the bluejays, the cardinals. Even the pileated woodpecker, resplendent with his bright red head, made an appearance. I watched him, large like something descended from dinosaurs, which I guess he is, nervously testing the flesh of the live oaks, the bark of the laurel oaks, for decay, for deadness that would signal to him a meal, a delicacy. At last, he found it with a large chunk of wood, still on the ground from months ago, after the hurricane toppled and uprooted an old tree, long dead.

The windows today, with an overcast sky, touches of blue peeking through fluffy cloud cover, have proven irresistible to the birds. Three hits and one death, instant.

A cedar waxwing lay on the front porch, blood coming from his mouth, still, gone, from flying so vigorously at his own reflection, thinking it a threat, another male bird. (At least, this is what I tell myself to ward off those creeping memories of superstition. What’s it mean when a bird dies by flying into your window? I don’t want to know, but I can’t imagine it’s the good luck supposedly portended by a dropping on your favorite shirt, on your freshly washed hair.)

His little body, the cedar waxwing, was so lovely, feathers gray and brown with a splash of yellow at the tip of his tail. His head, black with white, only the red of the blood seeming out of place. He was a young one, I believe.

Another of the window chargers flew off right away after his hit, while the third, a robin, stayed for several minutes on the back deck, sitting on the ground underneath his point of impact. I watched from inside, observing his quick shallow breathing, his body turned away from my own, his head still.

How to help a robin? I felt haunted even with everything else going on in the world, the great injustices, the small, and here was this one creature I couldn’t do anything about. Was he in pain? Was he suffering? Surely — you should have heard the blast when he hit the glass.

I watched, in pity, in uselessness, and then I saw his head turn. First left, then right, then back again. He hopped a little, shook out his wings. Oh, have I ever felt so hopeful? A few more tests of the neck and he moved to the edge of the deck, waited a beat, the perfect rest, and was gone. He flew, his wings worked just fine, and landed on a tree across the yard.

I never knew I could cheer for something as seemingly mundane as a bird taking flight. But here I am. And there he goes.

Oh, so THAT’s grace.

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Man, this week. All the emotions. ALL. OF. THEM. Just me? Or you, too?

I keep coming back to that Leonard Cohen lyric about the crack and the light. You know the one. Objectively, sure, that makes sense. I can dig it. In practice, though, ouch.

This week I felt crack after crack, ache after ache, opening after opening. “Ah,” I’d think, “that’ll be the end of it.” And then the next day, more. There’s always more, it seems.

It finally dawned on me, though, how to explain weeks like this, how to best describe what was happening. And believe me, the word that came to mind surprised me, because it’s not a word I’m used to using or even believing in the existence of. It’s a word I’d even say I sort of mock, a word I feel gets overused and distorted. When I made myself be quiet and still and clear, though, I kept coming back to this word, despite my intellectual objections.

I am skeptical. I am hard-headed. I am an unbeliever. And yet.

That word is grace. This week — grace. These emotions, this revisiting of the past, this reevaluation — grace. This pain — grace. This grief — grace. The opportunity to feel all of this, to sit with the emotions, to be here and present to process them — grace. The knowing that it’s not over yet and I have more work to do — grace.

Spending hours last Saturday talking in person with my little brother, who doesn’t live near me and I don’t often see, about our father’s death (which happened well over two decades ago) — grace.

Having a long, honest, vulnerable talk with my mother the next day — grace.

Unexpectedly finding a copy of something my father wrote right before he ended his life that I thought was in a box hundreds of miles away — grace.

The hawk flying by my screen porch, low and slow, letting out a short quiet whistle, as I drank coffee out there alone the other morning — grace.

Having the chance to talk deeply and freely and then do yoga with a wise friend this week — grace.

Coming across a book I’d never heard of but needed to read right this very second — grace.

Sitting in meditation for 20 minutes a day, every day, as I have been doing for weeks now, and finally feeling my breath, knowing my breath — grace.

All these and more, these sly little moments of coincidence, day after day this week, when I thought I couldn’t take more — ha, I see you, grace.

Now, sure, I could call this “the universe” or maybe even point to my own intuition as behind these things this week, but for whatever reason, those weren’t the words or terms or explanations that came to mind. So, grace it is.

Just one of these things on their own and I wouldn’t have thought much. But every day this week, they just kept piling up. These beacons. These totems. Impossible to ignore, improbable though they were.

Improbable.

I thought grace, if it existed at all, would be so lovely and pain-free. Like a nice little pat on the head. An easy release.

WRONG.

Grace is the the push, the nudge, the shove, even, to move you out of comfort and into growth. Grace is kind of a bully, to be honest, but maybe for only those stubborn like me. I had to be yelled at, in a way. It wasn’t enough to send one signal. For me, grace needed a barrage.

Fine. FINE. I may feel like a petulant teenager about it, like the teen girl who lost her dad at 14, but I swear I’m listening now. I’m open. I’m paying attention.

I’m certainly not pretending to be fearless.

I’m scared. I’m alive and I’m me so of course I’m trying to over-analyze and control everything. I’m anxious.

I’m fidgeting, wondering what grace has planned next.

Because I can tell it’s something.

Being a woman: A description, in part.

  • I hope one day someone does to your teenage daughter what you did to me: A revenge fantasy.
  • No, I don’t love you back, sorry: A discourse about appropriate behavior between high school students and their English teachers.
  • When I say stop and it’s not funny and I’m not amused, I mean it: An exploration into necessary physical violence.
  • In my time at the unnamed think tank: An inquiry into the nature and various expressions of sexual harassment.
  • I’m not here for your entertainment, to make you feel better about yourself, or to create comfort: A general look at the nature of reality.

 

“Impermanence mocks us.”

A little something in honor of (sort of), the Day of the Dead.

“Impermanence mocks us. Our efforts — to learn, to acquire, to hold on to what we have — all eventually fail us and come to naught. This is the final and controlling paradox: Only by embracing our mortality can we be happy in the time we have. The intensity of our connections to those we love is a function of our own knowledge that everyone is evanescent. Our ability to experience any pleasure requires either a healthy denial or courageous acceptance of the weight of time and the prospect of ultimate defeat.” — Gordon Livingston, M.D.

Final Exam

I can figure this out.
I can answer this question.
I can solve this equation.
I can work out this riddle.
I can break this code.
I can crack this case.
I can put this puzzle together if only I can find all the pieces.

I can locate it on a map,
try to draw a thin
unsteady dotted line,
from

here

to

there

and back again.

I can make this calculus work.
I can fashion an answer from this algebra.

x + y = father dead by suicide
(when I was just 14)

What is the x, the y, that ends in that solution?
Is there a z I’m missing?

Where, I beg of you, are the alternative outcomes?

I need to know.

I’ve needed to know for 26 years.

I can solve for x, for y.
For why.

But I can’t and that’s the trouble.

I can solve for everything else.
Everything but.

But it all comes back to him.