‘Grief is that thing with feathers’

The poet, Robert Adamson, whom I follow on Facebook, has been writing of his experience in rescuing a small bird, whom he named Spinoza, and of helping this bird to heal, to grow and in time to fly.

One day soon, Adamson reports the bird will be big enough to join his other bird friends in the wild, and that will be a sad day for Adamson, who has come to love this bird.

Spinoza in turn has helped his rescuer to get over some health concerns, to get outside more, and in a sense to fly.

In his musings about Spinoza, Adamson quotes a line from Emily Dickinson, words that have not left me since I first read them.

‘Grief is that thing with feathers.’

These words conjure up the image of a bird in flight, a bird traveling to and from, a bird that abandons you.

I have long thought of grief as something that travels in waves, and to be sure, although I have had my share of misfortune, I have yet to suffer real grief, deep grief, the sort that doubles you over.

I have lost loved ones, watched a young niece die, and watched my mother and father die, though the deaths of my parents seemed timely.

I have suffered disappointments as well, but never the mind numbing grief that leaves a person diminished and changed forever.  Not that I am asking for such a load, but still I am curious about how it might be.

I suppose, as in all things, there are levels of grief and levels of loss. These I have known and I have sat with others through their own unbearable grief at the loss of loved ones, at miscarriages, at broken hearts.

It seems strange to be writing this, as if I am inviting it upon my head.

It reminds me of a notion I held as a child, that if you spoke out loud about something, you most likely made it happen. Therefore it was important to keep your dangerous thoughts to yourself, even from yourself, which was the hardest thing of all to do.

This morning in my sleep, punctuated by my need for a pee, I dreamed I used the oven as a toilet. Somehow I managed to ease my body into the cold oven, whose door was wide open and I peed onto its baking tray.  As I peed I realised how unsanitary this must be and decided to stop mid stream. Then I pulled out the baking tray and washed it down the sink.

A dream perhaps of putting things into the wrong place, and of realising my mistake before it is too late.

Have I done this of late, put things in the wrong place, and talked to people about things I should not have shared with them?

It’s not unheard of. My impulse, whenever I feel overwhelmed by some event, is to share it with another person whom I trust will understand.

Recently, I talked to a writing friend about my experience of a writing workshop several weeks ago. It’s a long story but one in which a large group of women sat around in a circle to discuss their experience as writers.

At one point during this workshop, after I had raised the issue of my four times edited manuscript to the person running the group and talked about my difficulties of getting said manuscript published, her response was one of, ‘Sometimes you need to know when it’s time to let things go.’

Somehow these words derailed me. They hit a raw nerve, of grief, perhaps.

I had hoped she would say something like, ‘Stick with it. Rejections happen often. You just need to persevere.’

I’m good at persevering, not so good at giving up.

Anyhow, after the lunch break where I chose to sit alone nursing my wounds because I could not see how else I could deal with them, the discussion continued around the idea of the importance of not chasing publishers all the time, of knowing when a project should be abandoned, of knowing when to give up and of starting something new.

And as the woman who ran the group spoke these words, as I sat in my place at the tables, which they had set up to form a horse shoe of sorts, tears rolled down my cheeks.

I kept my head lowered. I tried not to let it show. In order not to let it show, I wrote down the words the leader of the group was saying onto my notepad.

No one in the group said anything about my tears and I have no idea whether anyone from this large group of women noticed them but no one alluded to my distress and the speakers spoke on, and I wrote down their words as a way of holding myself together.

Whether it was in my imagination or whether it was a fact for the entire group, I sensed the energy in the room drop. It was as if everyone in the room began to feel some wash of grief as well, as the leader continued to talk about the importance of knowing when enough is enough.

I made it through to the afternoon tea break and escaped to the toilets outside where I could let myself howl.

I howled it out, whatever it was. My disappointment in this woman’s words. The way I heard her telling me to stop this project of mine and move onto another.

I managed to get out a last sob, wash my face, dry my tears, pull myself back in place and go back for the final session before the end of the workshop.

During the last short writing exercise in which the organisers wanted us to write out our plans for the next year, I found myself writing down words to the effect: ‘Fuck you. I’ll show you. I’ll get this book published.’

Ten minutes before we were due to finish, the organiser asked each of us in turn to outline in a few words what we would take away with us from the workshop. People spoke with optimism and determination about the year ahead and of what they would do to improve their writing practice.

I was second last to speak. I, who had come to feel like the great naysayer of the group.

The leader hesitated before my turn, as if apprehensive of what might follow.

I told the group then, in polite form, that I had found it difficult this idea that I might give up on my manuscript. I told them how instead of writing down plans for the year ahead, I had written down the words: ‘I’ll show you. I’ll get this manuscript published’.

The leader seemed pleased with that response. ‘Good on you. Go for it,’ she said

And everyone else seemed happy after that, but not me.

It’s not grief really. It’s more a heavy sadness that weighs me down still some weeks after the event.

In time I expect it too shall pass.

I told my writing friend this story yesterday and maybe some part of me believes I should not tell it to anyone ever, as if the very telling of it will make it all come true and jinx my manuscript, like peeing in the wrong place.


This is the bird who sat in the tree under which her family scattered my niece’s ashes.  The bird arrived at the beginning of the service and did not leave until we were done.  That thing with feathers.

10 thoughts on “‘Grief is that thing with feathers’”

  1. How wrong Emily Dickinson was! Hope is not “the thing with feathers.” The thing with feathers has turned out to be my nephew. I must take him to a specialist in Zurich. – Woody Allen.

    I was a grown man before I read Emily Dickinson and so when I picked up Woody Allen’s ‘Without Feathers’ in the mid-seventies I’m afraid the quote at the start of the book when whoosh! over my head. Even now I struggle to remember the Dickinson poem. But it is ‘hope’ and not ‘grief’. ‘Grief is the Thing with Feathers’ is a book of poems by Max Porter that owes more to Ted Hughes’s ‘Crow’ than Emily Dickinson. In ‘Boys’ Porter writes:

    Pillows are made of feathers, go to sleep.
    It’s a big black feather.
    Come and sleep in my bed.
    There’s a feather on your pillow too.
    Let’s leave the pillows where they are and sleep on the floor.

    I have never known the grief I’ve read about. I’ve known love and hate, jealousy, hurt, happiness from time to time but when people talk about grieving a little voice inside me tells me to say (although I never listen to him), “What is this grief of which you speak?” I’ve known loss. I’ve lost both parents although as a euphemism I’ve never much cared for it. They died. My mother told me my dad was dead and I saw my mother die and that was enough for me. There’s no Romantic in me insisting I make more of it. This is why in 2006 I decided to write the novel that finally became ‘Left’—‘left’ as in abandoned as opposed to ‘left’ as in sinistral—to explore my feelings following the death of my parents but especially my father. My dad died in 1995 and my mum in 1998. After 10,000 words I abandoned the text and began again. I had intended to make the father the focal point of the book but the daughter took over as the protagonist and her/my inability to feel. This I decided was due to her suffering from schizoid personality disorder although I never mention it by name in the book. She’s not me but she makes sense to me.

    Other people have a way of making you feel wrong. I see this in police procedurals all the time. If the spouse doesn’t express grief in the way the detectives expect he or she immediately becomes their prime suspect. I miss my parents—aspects of my parents anyway—but I’m a practical person and so I’ve never dwelled on things that are set in stone. I will not see either of them again, not in this life nor the next they gained comfort from. I remember being at a funeral once in Stevenston and being puzzled by the histrionics of some of the women. These were people who believed the deceased had been “faithful unto death” and a place in God’s kingdom was vouchsafed for her. Why weren’t they happy for her? Made no sense to me. Still makes no sense to me.

    Death is something we can do little to affect. It can be postponed for a time but it can’t be avoided. Disappointments are another thing. If you never sent your manuscript out you would never have to face rejection. What’s worse, a spouse dying or leaving you? Many would say the latter because there’s choice involved. Few of us choose to die. If your husband ups and leaves you for another woman he’s not just left you, he’s rejected you. All those publishers who politely declined your book (and I’m sure they were polite) were slapping YOU in the face. No one ever died from a slap though, not directly in any case.

    My first experience with psychoanalysis came from an unexpected source, my best friend’s big sister who as these things happen eventually became my sister-in-law when I married their sister. For some reason—this was the first time I ever met the woman—she decided to tear me to shreds and did an excellent job—I would’ve been about sixteen at the time—and I couldn’t understand why she’d done this to me. Years later, once she’d become my sister-in-law, she revealed to me that she’d fully expected me to go back so she could show me how to “fix” me. I have to say I was gobsmacked by the admission. Of course it would’ve helped had she told me at the time but, no, she let me go fully expecting me to put two and two together. I went away offended. She clearly didn’t like who I was. (To be fair I was an arrogant little snot back then.) After the initial upset I just dug my heels in and went on to become the man I am today but a part of me has to wonder if the journey could’ve been an easier one had I listened to her. (She wasn’t wrong.) Or perhaps I’d be someone else and would that have been so bad?

    I’ve not read your book and even if I had I have nothing to compare it to. I would judge it on its own merits and either like it or not like it. Maybe I’d want it to be something else, something to suit me. Do you remember Aesop’s fable about the man, his son and the donkey? They start off walking beside the animal and then someone criticises them for not riding on it. So the father puts his son on it and then someone reprimands the boy for letting his father walk so they swap places and next the father gets chided for letting his son walk. Eventually they end up with the beast slung from a pole between them much to amusement of all passers-by. Well, Lis, I’ve always said I won’t carry a donkey for anyone. You can only go so far to please people and you’ll never please all the people all the time so you might as well please yourself.

    ‘Left’ is not the book I wanted to write. I wasn’t capable of writing that book. That doesn’t mean the book I ended up writing is a bad book because it’s not. But I knew when I was flogging a dead horse. I didn’t give up though. I listened to the voice inside me and began again. I can’t pretend I wasn’t upset but it could’ve been 50,000 words and not ten. I’ve never climbed Mount Everest and I never will. I know my limits and there’s no good cursing myself for them; they’re me. And your book is you. You know (I hope) where I’m going with this.

    1. Thanks for giving me an accurate report on this wonderful sentence, Jim. I prefer the word grief, to the word hope, but the meaning still works with either. As I was writing this post I thought about you and your bird, and wondered whether the story of Spinoza might resonate for you.
      Obviously my self-pitying tale of the trials of non-publication meant more. I take your point, which I assume runs along the lines of working out for myself what I think is necessary and moving on accordingly. To that end, I enjoy your Aesop’s fable. It’s a helpful story to reflect upon, the degree to which we try to please everyone and wind up carrying the heavy burden of non-satisfaction. That poor father and his son lugging their donkey around. And no one’s happy in the end, not father, son, donkey or onlookers. Thanks, Jim.

  2. I can understand your reaction of “I’ll show you!”. I hope you do get your book published. Damn naysayers!
    I am sure this will show the naivety in my reading, but I have always grieved that Harper Lee was never published again after TKAMB. (This most recent attempt by, hmmm someone, is not relevant).
    Will you attempt another story while you await the publishing of your first manuscript or do the rejections mean it is not worth trying again?

    1. Thanks for the encouragement, Karen. I’m all for damning the naysayers, even as I can also see myself as one at times.
      Ever onwards, as the saying goes, Karen. Thanks.

  3. I’m not sure imagining grief-producing events brings them into being. Superstition is a funny thing. When I was pregnant the first time, I went over EVERY imaginable terrible outcome and I figured if I could think of them all and check them off the list, they wouldn’t happen.

    You’re a very engaging writer. It’s hard to imagine there isn’t a publisher who won’t want what you’ve written.

    The fact that you can write about your heavy sorrow and make us care is a good thing. I hope everyone in the group sensed the “fuck you” behind your soft, well-spoken words.

    1. Kass, you’re right about superstition, that fantasy that we can control everything, simply by going through certain rituals in our heads, is a funny thing, and all too human I reckon. Thanks for the thumbs up about my writing. I live in hope.

  4. I’m with you on the superstition thing but not the idea of “giving up.”

    Have you read or heard of Helen MacDonald’s book “H is for Hawk?” It’s a remarkable memoir about a grieving woman who is also a falconer and her goshawk Mabel. I imagine it will speak to you on many levels.

    1. I heave heard of H is for Hawk, Elizabeth. I once saw it in a bookshop in Scotland and toyed with buying it there. Instead, at the time, given I was travelling and needed to restrict my book purchases, I chose another book. I opted for Sue Peebles’s Snake Road, another lovely book I can recommend to you, fiction, but also of grief. Now I must read H for Hawk. So many wonderful books in this world to read, Elizabeth, and sadly there’s never enough time. Thanks.

  5. Don’t give up Lis! It mightn’t be right time for book for publishers, but doesn’t meant there’s anything wrong with the book. If it’s your dream go for it. Don’t give other people the power to dash it.
    (ps. I know you can write, just finding the right publisher at the right time)

    1. Thanks, Alison. I suspect there are things wrong with my manuscript – they’re never perfect – I just need to find someone to whom the story appeals, who sees the potential and is willing to help me with this final edit before publishing. I’ll persevere though, however much work my ms needs. Thanks for this encouragement. And congratulations on all your wonderful writing success.

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