I am reading Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett. I do not know why I haven’t read it before unless it was because I knew that it would hurt me in the way that some beautiful writing does. Beautiful writing coupled with a powerful story that just happens to be true can bring me to my knees. Each reading excursion with this book leaves me feeling less than everything I want to be while, at the same time, fuels my belief that writers are the most powerful people in the universe. I dole out the pages, a few at a time, just before bed, hoping that filling my brain with Patchett’s beautiful words will fill my subconscious with the ability to the same.
It has been seven days since I took a photograph. I’ve picked up the camera, again and again, but each time I do I feel like I am holding something I’ve never seen before. It feels awkward in my hands and I struggle not to drop it. It has been seven days since the two eggs being warmed by the mama hummingbird I named Lily were stolen, then found broken and empty on the ground beneath her nest. It has been seven days of me questioning myself, could I have somehow prevented nature from taken this path to destroy something I hardly knew yet something I knew I loved?
I hear a bird and for a split-second, before that high-pitched chirp turns into something else, I forget. I grab the camera and race to the window only to be disappointed, again, at the chestnut-backed chickadee playing on the water rock. Still, of their own accord, my fingers fumble for which button to push turn the camera on. I flip a few dials, zoom in, but I’m out of step, too late. I can’t focus. I miss the shot and I just don’t care.
My dog Cassie mopes around the house and I’d like to think she is grieving too though I know she’s probably just having one of those days when her many medicines upset her stomach. When she rings the bells to go outside, I follow, half-heartedly and empty-handed. I wander down the path and sit on the glider at the far end of the garden. I have to walk by Lily’s nest to get there and I try, oh how I try, not to look because I can’t bear the emptiness I know I will find, the emptiness that will only echo how I feel.
Cassie does her usual garden patrol, down dogwood alley and back again. Shoves her head into the verbena, chasing bees, pauses to squat and pee in the carex meadow, sneaks a drink of water, even though she knows better, from the bubbling rock.
I don’t catalog what’s blooming for my garden log. I don’t pull the chickweed tangled in the coyote mint. I don’t worry about the wasps building yet another nest up under the eaves. I don’t check the growth of the madrone or pinch tip the ceanothus or even check to see if the lacewings are still laying eggs on the pipevines and monkeyflowers.
This garden I’ve built to be a sanctuary for me as much as for wild life isn’t working its magic on me. Not today and I wonder, in the way that an emotional writer wonders to extremes, if it ever will again. I kick my feet and glide back and forth until I can’t stand to be outside anymore.
In the kitchen I wash my hands out of habit, not because I’ve done anything outside to get them dirty. I look out the window above the sink and wonder, absently, how long it will take for the manzanitas to grow up above the courtyard fence and give us the privacy we want from people peeking into the kitchen as they walk by. There’s a bubbling rock on the other side of the fence. It’s hidden from me inside the house but sometimes I see birds, crows and finches most often, as they come and go for a drink or a bath. Today a hummingbird hovers window high, stares in at me the same way people passing on the sidewalk do before diving down, I assume, to the water rock. A minute later she is there again, dancing in place, staring right at me. I am the one who turns away first.
Of course I do not know, for sure, if it was Lily. My writer’s imagination can conjure up any number of stories around the experience but the truth is, I will never really know for sure. Anything I want to believe, I will have to take on faith, a faith of my own creation.
In Truth and Beauty, Patchett tells a difficult story made more painful because it is the true story of her decades-long friendship with Lucy Grealy. It is a story about loving someone you know you can never save, not from the rest of the world. Not even from themselves. As I knew it would, reading this book makes me fold my soul into a tiny piece of nothingness until it nearly fades away. I feel two things at the same time: incapable of ever writing again and a hunger to tell a story so true that it slices the reader into little heart-sized pieces.
I damn Patchett for making me feel so much at once. I feel like I haven’t really lived the life I have been given. I feel like I haven’t experienced anything big enough, strong enough, raw enough to be able to craft a story that will split you wide open and leave you and your emotions scattered, shattered, all around you.
These are not sentences I write to elicit emails and phone calls from people who want to soothe and assure me of my own unique abilities. I write these down for anyone, including myself, who has ever felt they were not enough of anything to do whatever it was they wanted to accomplish.
Because whatever it is, you are enough. You are enough right now to be a writer, a poet, an artist, a sister, a mother, a friend or whatever it is that you want to be. You don’t need to travel the world. You don’t need a special education. You don’t need fancy equipment or approval from some committee. You don’t need to experience and overcome a catastrophe. Anything and everything you need, you already have, inside of you and because of the life you have already lived in the way that only you can live it.
If this were a novel I would tell you how, after watching that hummingbird dive down and dance back up again, several times, to watch me watching it, I would tell you how I picked up the camera, filled again with confidence, went outside and took shot after shot of beautiful photographs of the bird I felt sure was Lily.
But this is not a novel. This is real life. And the truth is that when I saw that hummingbird outside my window I felt nothing. No desire. No connection. Yet later that night, when I crawled into bed and picked up Truth and Beauty I started to cry. And instead of reading, I finally reached for my notebook and a pen and I started to write.
The things that break us are often not what we would expect. And the things that open our eyes to who we really are often small, sometimes no bigger than a hummingbird.