Back in 2012, author Kyo Maclear was feeling untethered. Her father was becoming increasingly frail, having succumbed to two strokes and a couple of bad falls. Then an MRI revealed he had an unruptured cerebral aneurysm, a time bomb that left Maclear suffering from what she describes as “anticipatory grief.”
“I had always assumed grief was experienced purely as a sadness,” Maclear writes in Birds Art Life, her memoir of the year following the discovery of her father’s aneurysm. “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.” Anticipatory grief required something different, an alertness, a sense of being constantly on the lookout for doom. Maclear compares the experience to that of women keeping watch from widow’s walks, half-expecting their seafaring mates will never return.
As the only child of divorced immigrant parents (Maclear was born in London to an English father and Japanese mother, and moved to Canada when she was four), she bears the burden of caring for her father, albeit willingly. Over the course of Birds Art Life, the author frequently notes how similar she is to her father in temperament, and it is clear from the way she describes her parents that it is her father to whom she is closest.
“I had inherited from my father (a former war reporter/professional pessimist) the belief that an expectancy of the worst could provide in its own way a ring of protection. We followed the creed of preventive anxiety,” Maclear notes early in the book, and this explanation of her own personality sets the tone for much of what follows. A sense of despondency and fatalism prevail over Maclear’s writing as she ponders many existential questions related to art, love, beauty, and happiness. All of these questions and explorations are set against Maclear’s experimentation with birding.
Following a visit to her father in the hospital, Maclear watched a rough edit of a documentary her musician husband was scoring. The film, 15 Reasons to Live, included a segment with another Toronto musician, a man who had given up drinking and found he was able to set aside his fears and anxiety about his work when he took up birding and avian photography. Sensing both a kindred spirit and perhaps a guide to more than just birding, Maclear spent countless hours over the course of a year tracking and observing birds with him.
The relationship as Maclear describes it is somewhat odd: though the author and the musician (which is how he is referred to throughout the text, rather than by name) become friends, there is little in the way of warmth that comes through. He is an unconventional teacher, instructing her more in the ability to observe than in bird-specific knowledge, which Maclear takes upon herself to learn.
The result of their days together is ultimately, for Maclear, less about the birds themselves than about the joy the musician takes from observing them. That’s what she is looking for: that spark of hope, the calmness, the feeling of gratitude that comes from the appreciation of beauty. How to translate that to other aspects of her life poses the main problem, and lies at the root of what she endeavours to unspool through her ruminations on art and life, how the two intersect and are affected by external forces, and why art is important: “Making art … in my case, art about the trials of making art – was a fairly limited and potentially narcissistic thing to be doing with one’s time on a fucked-up planet,” she writes after the musician declares that he’s done with birding, giving voice to a feeling that many of us have, regardless of what we do for a living. What, in the face of so much awfulness in the world, is the point?
Not surprisingly, given all that is going on in her life at the time, Maclear’s tone is somewhat morose. But there are numerous moments in which, despite the downcast tone, the beauty of her writing and playfulness with language leap forth (“I lived in a state of unforgiveable anthropomorphism. Antrhopoapologetic. That’s what I was feeling).” These instances serve to remind readers that Maclear is not just an author who ponders the deeper meaning of existence and relationships, but also one who writes subversive children’s books that have been highly praised as much for their buoyant text as for the author’s willingness to take on unusual or sensitive subjects.
Though Maclear bases her memoir on questions related to life as an artist, some of her observations and discoveries are universal. We may not all be drawn to birds as conduits to understanding, but there are few people who could not benefit from some contemplative introspection. “[The birds] tell me it’s all right to be belittled by the bigness of the world. There are some belittlements and diminishments that make you stronger, kinder.”