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.

Mary Karr’s Mastery on Display in “The Art of Memoir”

Everyone has a story to tell. For some among us, the hope of connecting our own personal story to the larger human narrative drives us to write and share what happened. But even if you, instead, just prefer to read others’ true-life stories, Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir proves to be a thoughtful investigation into the popular literary form.


Based on thirty years of her own research into and teaching of memoir, and written in Karr’s signature gritty, funny east Texas voice, The Art of Memoir works as both an instruction guide for the willing writer and an exploration into the best memoirs for the hungry reader.

Karr begins the book with, “No one elected me the boss of memoir.” While technically true, she still must be credited in large part with the explosion of the genre’s popularity.

Published twenty years ago, her first memoir, The Liars’ Club, was a revelation. Without a hint of pity or sentimentality, she shared the harrowing tales of her dysfunctional and, at times, violent upbringing in an east Texas oil town, her artistic, alcoholic mother and tough-guy father springing alive from the pages. With love and lots of laughs amidst the pain, it was an honest look at a not-perfect childhood from someone who survived it. She followed that up with Cherry, about her rebellious teen years, and in 2009, with Lit, about her own struggles with alcoholism and eventual conversion to Catholicism. When it comes to memoir, Karr knows what she’s talking about.

She explores all the facets of writing memoir that a budding author should master: developing a voice, choosing details, describing those details effectively to create a living, breathing world in the mind of the reader, and perhaps most vitally, how to handle questions of truth and memory.

Every memoir is by nature subjective and not an objective history of the facts, but that can certainly be tricky territory when it comes to writing about your own past or your family’s past. She touches, too, on the way memory itself works. It’s not a faithful recording of every part of an experience. It’s shaped by the emotions of the event and can be influenced by what others remember and share about what happened. Her advice is to write about the most vivid memories and never, ever make stuff up.

She includes commentary, as well, on many of her own favorite memoirs, and a reading list at the end. Whether you’re a hopeful memoirist or someone who enjoys reading them (or both), there’s much to love and learn from here.

(Originally published here: http://msbusiness.com/2016/01/109574/)

A Book About Obsession, “The Orchid Thief” Creates It

(Looking for a captivating beach or poolside read this summer? Try this one!)

Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief is, quite simply, a wonder. You’ll find yourself fascinated (perhaps unexpectedly) by all the twists and turns and divergent paths Orlean takes you on. Inspired by a small newspaper article she read about the arrest of four men (three Seminoles, one white) for the theft of rare orchids from a protected Florida swamp, in Orlean’s capable hands, this story becomes so much more than that.


As a work of nonfiction, everything she writes here is necessarily true, of course. But she somehow manages to tap into a seemingly unending well of larger-than-life real people and colorful stories. Even she herself suggests she couldn’t create fictional characters as interesting and complex as these. You might never look at an orchid, or Florida for that matter, the same way again.

From the history of Florida’s many outrageous land-grabbing real estate schemes to an in-depth look at the orchid’s evolutionary adaptations (which captured the mind of no less than Charles Darwin himself) to an exploration of how orchids became coveted assets in Victorian England, this book brings history and botany to life. Orlean bounces from topic to topic, making me want to know more about things I frankly never knew I was interested in.

And I can’t overlook John Laroche, the white man who was arrested and charged with the Native Americans for stealing orchids. His story, and perhaps even more importantly, Orlean’s reactions to and feelings about him, ties it all together. We are constantly brought back to Laroche, and his search for the elusive ghost orchid, as a sort of lodestone throughout the entire book.

We also meet many other orchid growers and collectors in south Florida. These are people so passionate about these temperamental flowers that Orlean actively avoids owning orchids herself. She gives away every orchid given to her. She only wants to write about their passion, not share it.

Writer Charlie Kaufman adapted The Orchid Thief for a movie, sort of. Called Adaptation and starring Meryl Streep as Susan Orlean, it’s about, well, Charlie Kaufman struggling to turn the book into a movie. I’ve seen it a few times and already liked it for its self-referential funny weirdness, but now having read this book, I have a whole new appreciation for it.

Regardless if you’ve seen Adaptation or not, The Orchid Thief is a book that just about anyone would enjoy. Orlean’s writing is so beautiful and full of life, and she’s as much a part of the story as the other characters.

(Originally published here: http://msbusiness.com/2015/05/book-biz-this-story-of-orchids-and-florida-captivates/)