Not long ago, after my marriage had ended but while we were still too polite to say so, I awoke one morning to the soft song of birds. Exiting the bedroom, I descended the stairs of our 3800-square-foot house in the suburbs of Nashville, making my way to the coffee maker. As I fired up the espresso machine, my thumb tapped “enter” on the Google search already queued up on my phone: “Why do birds sing just before morning?”
Some scientists believe the reason for the “dawn chorus” is that male birds are calling to their mates, letting them know they made it through the night and are, um, shall we say “open for business.” It is a rite of passage, of sorts, or at very least, a beautiful booty call. Either way, it occurred to me that maybe this is why we sing, too, why we create art: as a way of saying to each other, “I made it. I’m still here.” I carried this thought into the hardest season of my life, one that included a divorce, writer’s block, and even a global pandemic.
The day before Valentine’s Day, I sat my children down at our breakfast table, looking into their eyes and breaking their little hearts with the news that their mother and I would no longer be living together. That night, I packed up a pile of clothes that had been lying on the floor of the guest bedroom where I’d been sleeping, threw them into a trash bag, and carried the bag to my car. The next night, in a half-furnished apartment a mile across town, I drank cheap beer with a friend and wondered what the hell I had just done. The next week, a tornado hit Nashville, and a day later we started hearing reports of the “coronavirus.” The President declared a state of national emergency, friends went into isolation, and my kids extended their spring break by a week, 300 miles away at their grandparents’ house.
Most mornings during those early days of Covid consisted of struggling to get out of bed, going for long walks, and eating whatever felt like comfort—usually toast, eggs, and a few cups of coffee. At night, I’d stay up late mixing cocktails, preparing elaborate dinners for myself, and messaging friends on Instagram, never choosing to fall asleep so much as surrendering to the exhaustion that eventually overtook my body.
Working in a pandemic was weird. As a self-employed writer, I found myself in a quantum state of not wanting to start anything new nor feeling like I could return to the old. During this time, I pretended to be unfazed by conflicting reports regarding what was happening in the world, feigning profound insights on the complexities of life, epidemiology, and even race relations in America. But really, I was confused and scared like many others, trying to find ways of passing one monotonous day after another.
Sometimes, I’d watch a movie in the middle of the day; others, I’d just start drinking. If I could muster the courage to get in thirty minutes of email, the day was considered a success.
It had been years since I’d written anything I was proud of, and this state of global lockdown wasn’t doing much to motivate me. A couple of my books in the past had found their way onto bestseller lists, then bounced back to relative obscurity, leaving me with a sense that it was all downhill from here.
The most popular thing I’d written in years was a viral tweet about those damn birds, which was hardly something to glory in. My sister recommended a book of poems, one I’d never heard of but somehow stumbled upon in a used bookstore one night. I bought it and ordered a pizza, staying up late to devour them both. The poems reminded me of long nights as a teenager when I would write confessions of unrequited love to the literal girl next door. Poetry, for me, had been a way of making sense of things in a world that did not, and this seemed as good a time as any to get back into it.
When you get divorced, people say all kinds of things to you. One person congratulated me. “This,” he said, “will be the best thing that ever happens to you. I think everyone should get divorced at least once.” Another whose marriage was on the rocks encouraged me to “be alone for a while.” To which I replied, “Try it.” Many wanted to know the unknowable, like why a person would ever choose to end what they intended to be a lifelong commitment. Or what the specific reason was for such a conclusion, as if there were an answer other than the decade of stories it takes to get to such a state. Most say “sorry,” and that’s probably all that can be said. One friend told me, “You’re depressed,” and I responded, “I am?” I was also, it seemed, in denial.
The first night my children spent away from their mother, my four-year-old refused to sleep in her bunk bed and could be comforted only by the stroking of my hand on her back while she sobbed into the mattress. “Mama!” she cried for over an hour until falling asleep, whimpering gently throughout the night. The next morning, I took the kids to school and then walked around Radnor Lake, a large forest preserve tucked away in the hills of Tennessee, a cloud haunting me with each step. There was a familiar pressure on my chest that day, one that seemed to say, “you should have known better.”
As I hiked, emotions being stirred up in the body, my tears joined my daughter’s. Unable to disguise my feelings, I wept, not caring who saw me or what they thought. When there were no more tears to shed, a phrase rocked through my consciousness: “This, too, is beautiful.” It felt like cool water on a scorched psyche.
Perhaps, this is what Joseph Campbell meant when he said we aren’t looking for a meaning to life so much as we are searching for the feeling of being alive. The sadness made me more sensitive, more tuned in to the experience of life. In a way, I liked it. It reminded me of a Rumi quote I had understood conceptually but now knew at a deeper level: “The wound is where the light comes in.” The realization of what I’d lost was unmistakable, but so was the sun beginning to break through the canopy of trees overhead. Reaching the end of the trail, I returned to my car, took a deep breath, and left, the chatter of birds echoing behind me.
I found an old day planner lying on the side of the road one morning. It was full of plans that likely never happened—a graduation party, a family trip to the beach, a fiftieth wedding anniversary. It was a remarkable sight: an entire year of plans, hopes, and dreams that did not occur. How does one grieve what they never had?
Halfway through that walk, I stopped in the middle of the trail and pulled out my phone to jot down a few words that suddenly came to mind. Those words turned into lines, and those lines became a poem, something new staring back at me from a touchscreen. It was short but good, and I knew it, the words sending signals to parts of me that had long been forgotten. It felt nice to say something again, even if only to myself.
And then, there were the hawks. It had recently rained, and the air had that wonderful smell of warm, wet pavement one midsummer afternoon. I crossed an overpass, looking down at the highway with few cars driving down it, and then noticed a huge, red-tailed hawk. It was perched on a steel beam, not ten feet away, the raptor’s chest full of digesting prey. It stared at me, solemnly and unflinching.
I stopped, captivated by its gaze, so close I could have touched it—and wanted to. It was quiet; I felt some primal compulsion to speak, to say something reverent, but could not. When I passed the bird, neither of us broke our gaze until at last, I turned away to head home, walking in a different direction from the way I came. A friend studying to become a shaman told me the visitation of a hawk is a good sign: “It means you’re on the right path.” I saw hawks everywhere after that.
People now were responding to the pieces of writing I was sharing online, and that felt good, if not a little superficial. Still, it was something. One reader said she liked me a lot better now; I did, too. My agent called about a book idea we had been discussing years before, and as we spoke, he said it was time to begin again. I agreed. After school one day, my son said to me, “You know, I’m starting to get used to this.” He and his sister had finished feeding the pigeons on the balcony, and I had just hit “publish” on a new poem. As the sun set and the birds pecked at their seed, we started making supper together.