I’ve been reluctant to write about Birds Art Life because reading it filled me with ease and contentment and I was worried that writing about it would ruin everything. I guess we’ll find out.
Kyo Maclear wrote this book while dealing with grief. Her father was dying; she was unravelling. She wasn’t coping well. She still had to live her life, take care of her children, work on her writing.
“I had always assumed grief was experienced purely as a sadness. My received images of grief came from art school and included portraits of keening women, mourners with heads bowed, hands to faces, weeping by candlelight. But anticipatory grief, I was surprised to learn, demanded a different image, a more alert posture. My job was to remain standing or sitting …”
She tries to find a way through her grief: art classes, asking questions of strangers. “I wanted gifts of knowledge. I wanted company. I wanted someone to lead the way forward and keep me going. Not a saviour but a guiding force.”
Maclear meets a musician turned bird watcher and photographer. He agrees to take her around Toronto and show her how to bird watch and help her find birds. She observes the birds and sees similarities in their lives and their patterns to her own. She extrapolates from caged birds: “I understand getting stuck. I understand wanting to make a change while circling around the same neural cage.”
When I started reading it, I expected to be sad: to be confronted with grief and to have to consider my own inevitable grief from the death of a loved one. Or to consider how I may have grieved those already lost. But instead I relaxed into Maclear’s exploration of urban birds, told through each month’s experiences and birds found. She learns to sit quietly. She has time to think. She has time to experience her feeling of being lost. She meditates on bird watching. I have zero interest in birdwatching, but found her experience soothing anyway. It was its own kind of meditation.
Watching other people’s grief is strange: it’s not unfamiliar, but it’s not yours. You can see it, and understand, and find similarities to your own, but you don’t need to live in it.
If anything, Birds Art Life exposes some of our most empty, afraid spaces and exposes them gently. We can find pieces of ourselves in the pages and feel less alone. The book exposes our most empty, afraid spaces and teases them out gently and without judgement. Maclear has seen her own spaces, revealed them and shown that common ground and experience is everywhere.