Do not go gentle into that good night./Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
In the beginning was the Word.
This morning, two sleek black crows perched on the backs of the Adirondack chairs on top of the hill. One on the back of each chair, they sat together in the morning light like a couple who’ve been together long enough that silence is no longer uncomfortable. They reminded me of my parents, who often watch the sunset from those chairs. When the birds spotted me, one flew away into the morning sky.
Because I am a writer.mom who can’t ever shut off her brain and who searches for meaning everywhere, the flight of that single crow struck me with the force of poetry.
Ornithomancy, aside from sounding like a class at Hogwarts, was the ancient art of divining omens in the flight of birds. This is one of the random things I learned in college that stuck with me long after I forgot a lot of the big stuff. The flight of the crow probably should have made me think of journeys, but instead all I could think about was suffering and loss. I know, I’m a ball of giggles, right?
I am afraid of loss, but suffering horrifies me. It’s incomprehensible, nonsensical. Its existence challenges everything I believe in. Like most things that people hate, I hate it because I fear it, and I fear it because I don’t understand it.
We write to try to make sense of what’s beyond understanding. We write to stave off the darkness. Like our nameless ancestors who built fires against the terrors of night, we write to bring light to the darkness. I think of them often, those early men and women, huddling inside the ring of firelight and trying to make it to sunrise. They are our spiritual as well as biological ancestors. Genes travel through centuries. So can fear.
The more I see of life, the scarier and more haphazard it seems. I understand the need for a certain measure of suffering. I don’t think that we would fully appreciate perfect lives, whatever those might look like. But there’s some stuff that just doesn’t need to happen.
My father’s mother lived in a nursing home for eleven years after the stroke that left her paralyzed and speechless. My mother’s father is in the same nursing home now, slipping into the twilight of Parkinson’s. Is agony and decay the reward for a life well-lived? some kind of final payment that must be made for happiness?
I think of my friends who will struggle all their lives with addiction, abuse, and mental illness. Was there a purpose to all that? I want there to be meaning in this life, but does horror really happen for a reason? If someone could say to the beautiful soul trapped in an endless nightmare, the innocent child in torment, the brilliant mind crippled by pain, “It’s okay, all this is happening for a reason,” would that make it better? or worse? Would that institutionalize suffering, make it somehow okay to inflict it on others?
In too many ways, we’ve already legitimized suffering. Men, choke down all your emotions so you look strong and cool. Women, starve and maim your bodies so you will be desirable. Little girls, we love to be horrified by sensational accounts of abduction and abuse, and then turn around and dress you like tiny hookers and exploit you in kiddie beauty pageants. Little boys, we say we want you to be sensitive and loving, but even your underpants and toothbrushes are plastered with images of raging superheroes out to exact justice through violence. And animals? The means don’t matter as long as we reach the end result of juicier burgers and new pharmaceuticals to treat the vast array of health problems resulting from too many juicy burgers.*
As I write, I keep trying to figure out how the flight of a crow could conjure these images of suffering. Maybe it’s because loss is an event, but suffering is a process. Loss is the thing that happens to you, but suffering is how you experience it. Loss is something that happens, while suffering is a journey. Maybe that’s what makes suffering seem so difficult. After all, journeys of any kind are seldom easy.
The journey of writing is a journey into the best and the darkest corners of the human soul. Perhaps all our writing, all our creating in any form, is an attempt to get a little closer to understanding our own creation. Where do we come from, and what is our purpose? If we hate what we fear, and fear what we don’t understand, then creation may be our best hope. If you create, that brings you closer to understanding, and farther from fear and hate. In the end, all creation is an act of love. Maybe the opposite of suffering is not comfort or pleasure or happiness, but creation. There is something in us that does not want to slip into the twilight, that fears the darkness beyond the firelight, that resists and pushes back. Maybe this is the divine spark in us.
When I write, I am writing not towards an end, but a beginning. I am fumbling toward that place where it all began, a place before loss and suffering, a place of pure creation and light. I am searching for that moment before flight, when two crows sit in perfect silence in the bright openness of a sun-drenched hilltop on a summer morning.
*I love superheroes, juicy burgers, and pharmaceuticals. But I would like drugs from companies that don’t abuse animals, burgers from happy healthy cows, and a greater range of options in toddler undergarments that were not produced by sweatshop labor. I don’t want my kids’ underwear, my cheeseburger, or my antacid to be the result or cause of anyone else’s suffering.