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.

Transcending a Difficult Childhood in Lucy Grealy’s “Autobiography of a Face”

Lucy Grealy’s remarkable memoir, Autobiography of a Face, was published over twenty years ago. Discovering it now leaves me wondering how I missed it all this time, but grateful that I finally read it.

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Grealy was diagnosed at age nine with Ewing’s sarcoma, an extremely rare form of bone cancer that most often affects children and adolescents. For Grealy, the cancer developed in her jawbone, and the surgery to remove it resulted in the loss of a third of her jaw. Following the surgery, she spent two and a half years undergoing radiation and chemotherapy five days a week. She and her mother made the trek from New Jersey into New York City and back (one hour each way) for that entire time period.

Grealy describes these experiences with precision, putting us into the mindset of a child going through tremendous suffering. She writes about how, at first, she welcomed all the attention, and the break from school and her somewhat volatile home life it provided her. But no one ever actually bothered to explain to her the seriousness of her condition or the extent of the surgery, so she was left, repeatedly, to piece these things together on her own. In fact, it took years before she even realized that Ewing’s sarcoma is a form of cancer.

The surgery left her disfigured, and when she returned to school, she faced the awful cruelty that kids can display, enduring their teasing and taunts. She wanted desperately to fit in, but never felt at ease.

She had to have repeated surgeries on her jaw, as the doctors tried to use various measures to rebuild it and give her a more “normal” appearance. But time after time, these did not go as planned, leaving Grealy feeling even more isolated at school. She, like anyone else, craved acceptance and love, and she came to believe she’d never find either.

It’s in her evocative writing about feeling alone and wanting more than anything to feel connected to her peers that Grealy’s book becomes more than just a specific story about an illness and its aftermath. It becomes something universal, something that I’d guess just about any reader who has been a pre-teen or teenager can relate to. While her situation was undoubtedly extreme, and she faced abuse from her classmates that will break your heart, Grealy captures here what it’s like to be a kid looking for your place in the world.

When she went off to a small liberal arts college, she at last did feel the warmth of acceptance and lack of judgment from her fellow students. Differences were celebrated. It was here she began writing, an outcome we are the richer for.

(Originally published here: http://msbusiness.com/2016/03/book-biz-an-arresting-memoir-about-childhood-illness-and-loneliness/)

Discovering the Mississippi Delta in “Dispatches From Pluto”

It sounds like the start of a classic fish-out-of-water tale: take one man from England who’s been living in New York City, plop him down in a tiny town in the Mississippi Delta, and hilarity ensues. It’s a true story, though, and Richard Grant writes about his adventures in the entertaining and enlightening Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta.

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After befriending Delta native and cookbook author Martha Foose, Grant visits her home stomping grounds and finds himself entranced by the land, the people, and the beauty of it all. The Delta’s languid pace appealed to him, as well, especially coming from NYC’s frenetic, stressful quality of life. Grant persuaded his Arizona-born girlfriend, Mariah, who’d also been living in Manhattan, to move south with him. (She didn’t take much persuading, as they were both burned out on big-city living.) Before you know it, they’re the proud owners of a circa-1910 4-bedroom farmhouse in Pluto, Mississippi.

Right away, they tried to orient themselves in their new Holmes County surroundings, learning the ways of their fellow Delta residents as if undertaking an anthropological study. The neighbors welcomed them with the hospitality you’d expect, filling their calendar with social engagements from elaborate dove hunts to dinners with eccentric characters galore.

Grant and his girlfriend learned how to shoot guns and hunt, how to deal with more mosquitos than they’d ever seen in their lives, how to identify cottonmouths, how to effectively clear weeds for a garden, and how to make home repairs on a hundred-year-old house. They learned new words (like “brake” and “slough”) and explored many of the small towns in the Delta that have seen more prosperous days. Grant toured Parchman, made a friend in Morgan Freeman, visited with bluesman T-Model Ford, and covered Bill Luckett’s campaign for mayor of Clarksdale.

Through it all, Grant writes with an admiration and tenderness for his new home and neighbors. The book’s often riotously funny, particularly when describing real-life crime stories in Greenwood and elsewhere. But Grant’s also thoughtful and earnest in trying to understand race relations in modern-day Mississippi. In one chapter he tackles, for instance, the current abysmal state of affairs of the public schools in the Delta. And he writes movingly about the grinding poverty he sees there.

Grant’s insights as an outsider trying to decipher a new world make this book compelling and also challenging. He’s confronting tough truths and asking hard questions, but from a place of genuine respect and love.

(Originally published here: http://msbusiness.com/2015/12/book-biz-an-englishman-adjusts-to-his-new-mississippi-delta-home/)

“Coming of Age in Mississippi” Still Inspires and Humbles

Reading Anne Moody’s searing autobiography of her time growing up in Wilkinson County, Mississippi, I was struck again and again by her bravery. I’d read Coming of Age in Mississippi before, years ago, but felt drawn to it again recently, and found it just as powerful now as ever.

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Born in poverty and raised by a mother who worked multiple jobs to put food on the family table, Moody shares, in detail, just exactly what it was like growing up poor and black in rural Mississippi in the 1940s and 50s. She worked from an early age to help her siblings and mother, doing housework, yard work, babysitting, and odd jobs for the white families in their community. She explains vividly how, as a child, she grew to recognize but not fully understand the differences between her family and those she worked for. She captures this perplexity and this heartache perfectly.

Just as Moody was entering ninth grade in 1955, Emmett Till was murdered. He was 14 at the time, and so was she. At this point, everything changes. She remains a hard worker and a precocious student, but she’s now committed to fighting for justice and fairness. She finds she can’t be complacent, can’t just accept “things as they are.” It puts her at odds with her mother and many in her family, who fear for her life and theirs, too – a fear that is completely justified.

Moody would eventually attend Tougaloo College, where she was active in the civil rights movement. She participated in the famous Woolworth’s sit-in in downtown Jackson in 1963, where she and two other activists sat calmly for three hours at the lunch counter while an angry mob hit them, yelled at them, and poured ketchup, mustard, and sugar on them. She was resolute.

She saw and experienced more violence, from attacks on peaceful protests she participated in to threats while she was working to encourage black Mississippians to register to vote. Still, she didn’t cave. She didn’t run. She persevered. She recounts, in her book, the horror of hearing about both the murder of Medgar Evers in June 1963 and the Birmingham church bombing in September 1963. The latter happened on her 23rd birthday.

Reading this book places you right in the heart of the civil rights movement, with a remarkably strong woman as your guide. She was bold and outspoken and unafraid.

Moody died in February 2015 at age 74. Thankfully, though, her words, her courageous spirit, and her important legacy live on to inspire future generations.

(Originally published here: http://msbusiness.com/2015/08/book-biz-revisiting-the-life-story-of-a-civil-rights-pioneer/)

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.

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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/)

“Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart” Offers Tips for a Meaningful Life

For many of us, the start of a new year brings the desire to engage in a little self-reflection, to change for the better, and to be the person we all believe we can be when we look deep down inside. Whether we’re vowing to finally get control of our eating and exercise habits or to make our family and friends a bigger priority in the year ahead, anything seems possible at the outset of a fresh new 12-month period.

Yet, as I’m sure just about all of us can attest, things can so quickly revert back to our old ways and practices of years gone by. Creating lasting and effective change isn’t easy, no matter what the calendar says. Psychology and the role of ingrained habits in our lives loom perhaps larger than we’d like to admit.

Psychiatrist Gordon Livingston’s Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart: Thirty True Things You Need to Know Now, would be helpful for nearly everyone in one way or another just about any time of the year. But read now, in the glow of hoped-for new approaches to life in the coming year, it’s an honest look at the challenges we all face.

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Livingston’s book combines his many hours as a professional listening to people’s troubles with his own very human heartaches to create 168 pages of straight talk with a compassionate bend. His life, like everyone’s, has not been without struggle. For instance, he served in Vietnam where he was awarded the Bronze Star for valor, but became disenchanted with America’s goals there. He discovered as an adult that he was adopted. And in one 13-month period, his oldest son and his youngest son both died, leaving him with unimaginable grief.

Livingston writes about the many common problems he sees people having in their relationships with their spouses, their children, and their parents. He also addresses, for example, the ways in which some of us abdicate responsibility for ourselves and our actions, either by blaming traumas from long ago or by believing that fate is somehow against us.

Reading his book feels a bit like listening to an opinionated, well-educated friend as he passes along wisdom he’s gathered. His comments never feel like platitudes. He doesn’t offer or tolerate excuses. Further, when he uses experiences from his own life to illustrate his points, you can trust that he’s being just as hard on himself as on you. If you’re hoping to truly change in 2016, this book offers lots to think about.

(Originally published here: http://msbusiness.com/2016/01/bookbiz-a-seasoned-therapists-advice-for-a-meaningful-life/)

“M Train” a Meditation on Life, Loss, Love

Patti Smith is a woman of many talents. She’s an accomplished performer, visual artist, and photographer, as well as a punk-rock icon and poet. With the publication of her exceptional memoir Just Kids in 2010, she added National Book Award winner to the list.

In Just Kids (which I liked so much I read it twice within a year) Smith chronicles her life from her blue-collar upbringing in New Jersey through her discovery of her love of music and poetry and art to her eventual move in the 1960s/early 1970s to New York City. There she lived for a time in the Chelsea Hotel surrounded by many of the same musicians, artists, and writers she worshiped. It’s a book that is imbued with a specific time and a specific place, so filled with perfect descriptions of life then that you feel as though you, too, were hanging out at the Chelsea, chatting up Bob Dylan at the bar.

Her newly released follow-up to it, M Train, feels different but somehow similar, permeated instead with Smith’s attachment to her memories and the things and people she’s admired and loved and lost. It’s not a straightforward “this happened and then that happened” memoir. It reads instead as a beautiful look into Smith’s own mind, into her ruminations about the past and her obsessions with certain books, authors, and even TV shows.

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We tag along with her as she travels in the past and in the present; a trip to Japan, a trip to French Guiana, a trip to Berlin, a trip to Mexico, among others. We’re beside her as she visits the graves of Sylvia Plath, Jean Genet, and Arthur Rimbaud, marking these moments with quiet gratitude and respect. We see her Manhattan apartment, filled with photos and talismans from her life, as well as her books and her cats. We sip coffee along with her each morning, notebook and pen in hand, at the small café across from her apartment. We discover, as she does, the beauty of Rockaway Beach, and the unexpected folly of purchasing a falling-down house mere weeks before Hurricane Sandy would strike. (The house, remarkably, was still standing after, though many around it were not.) We feel her pain, years later, after first her husband died and then her brother not long after.

At age 68, it feels like Smith’s taking stock, in a sense, holding on to memories through photos and objects, trying to regain what’s been lost and hold on to what hasn’t been (yet). I think that’s something we can all relate to and Smith gives us her beautiful words to savor as we melt into that melancholy.

“The War of Art” Can Help Bring About a Breakthrough

Maybe it’s an idea for a start-up that you keep talking yourself out of. Or a new line of business for your company that you believe would improve your fortunes tremendously, but would be something of a risk to pursue. Or it could be finally sticking with an exercise routine — no matter how painful it is at first — to ensure that you’re around to enjoy time with your family for years to come. Or perhaps you loved painting or writing when you were younger and you’d like to try it again but you keep quieting the part of you that bubbles up these ideas.

I bet most of us have something like this inside; some unanswered call that we think about when we’re trying to fall asleep at night, some nagging little voice that knows you could do more if only you were braver.

When you finally reach a point where the voice is shouting and you realize you only have so much time here to do the things you’d like to do, read Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art. The subtitle for this slim little book (just 165 pages) is “Break through the blocks and win your inner creative battles.” If you’re willing to take a hard look at yourself and be honest, this book can help you do just that.

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Pressfield is the author of lots of fiction and a few works of nonfiction (like this one). Perhaps the book of his you’re most likely to have heard of is The Legend of Bagger Vance, which became a movie. However, he’d been at it for years before he was actually paid for his writing and before anything was published, simply because he believed in doing the work. He had to do it. And if there’s something you feel called to do, too, no matter how big or how small, The War of Art can be just the kick you need.

Pressfield, a former Marine, comes across as your own private drill sergeant, calling you on all your excuses as to why you can’t do the thing you most want to do. Pressfield dubs the enemy capital-R “Resistance.” It shows up everywhere.

In his words, “Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance.” The more important to your life the thing you want to do is, the more Resistance you’ll feel. This book breaks down how to recognize it and battle it. When you’re ready to fight, read this first.

(Originally published here: http://msbusiness.com/2015/07/bookbiz-a-book-for-cultivating-your-inner-courage/)