Mind the Gap

This morning I opened Twitter and saw that John le Carré had died.

I don’t know how to talk about this.

He wasn’t John in our house, but David—his given name. I grew up alongside his grandchildren in California, fellow offspring of English parents who had come to LA to work in film and stayed to raise families. Those eight children formed a counterpoint to my existence as an only child; a reassurance that I’m not the only person who pronounces certain words with a different vowel emphasis, or who feels like she needs to have a foot in two countries at once to make any kind of sense.

They’ve also become external sources against which I can confirm my experience of my parents. As dementia alters the way my father moves through the world, I’m more and more attached to the people who knew him as he was before. I don’t believe I’m capable of fully expressing the kind of remarkable and loving man he is and was. I need witnesses.

At 81, the majority of updates my father receives from friends and family are about death.

He and David were eight years apart in age, two patrician Englishmen dual-wielding charm and intellect. They delighted in each other’s company whenever they crossed paths at parties and family gatherings. We’d receive Christmas cards from David’s house in Cornwall and my father would send cheeky handmade bookmarks in return (although, to be fair, he was exceptionally generous with his bookmark-gifting. This week alone I’ve talked to three people who have them sitting visibly on shelves in their homes or offices).

I’ve always had a hard time bridging the generational and international gap between my parents’ worlds and mine. So often, when I go to try and explain my family to my peers, they don’t know the first thing about the people I’m referencing. It feels alienating and strange. Whenever a friend or relative in the UK passes, it feels like losing a fragment of an impossible world I got to be part of as a child.

I remember David taking us to a Chinese restaurant in London where I ate crispy duck with plum sauce for the first time. There was a fountain running down an indoor staircase and everything felt glamorous and grown-up. I’ve never had duck that good since.

I feel strained and strange because the public grief sits at odds with my own experience of this man. It’s not the intimacy of family, nor is it the distanced attraction of fandom. It’s something tangled around the fact that David and my father were of a type, and his death points at something looming in the mist of my future.

The loss of creative people is complex. If we have nothing to do with a creator in person, then our grief is often more to do with the loss of potential future output—the books unwritten and songs unsung. But we are not our work. It is a part of us, but not the whole of us. Certainly no substitute for the love we give—or are unable to give—to our children. No shortcut to understanding our innermost selves, or what we meant to the people who loved us.

The one cult hit my father played a hand in writing is so far from what I want him to be remembered for—but sometimes it’s the only thing I can point to that might help a stranger understand what he means to me.

There is so much about his life that is improbable, delightful, complex. I can’t recount his escapades without feeling like I’m trying to brag. He came of age in the midst of Britain’s satire boom, bucked familial expectation to travel halfway around the world, and ended up touring America as a stage actor and writing movies in Hollywood. Each time I think I know every celebrity anecdote in his arsenal, he surprises me with another.

I can’t tell so many of the jokes he told because my Yorkshire accent is abominable.

How am I going to tell anyone about who he was if I can’t tell his jokes?

The news of David’s passing shakes me because I realize there will be no pageantry of this scale when my father goes, but there will still be some kind of reckoning between what he represented to other people and who he was to me. I’m grieving for my friends, who have lost a father and grandfather, but I’m also grieving this dwindling thread to a place that made me; to something I cannot hold.

Unselfing, Grief, Birds

I came to Helen Macdonald’s work late—long after H is for Hawk had graced bestseller lists and garnered awards and been subject to breathless recommendations from friends. Somehow these trappings make me less likely to pick something up in the moment, until I get to it years later via my own circuitous means and become a breathless proponent myself.

In this case, those means involved stumbling across a gorgeous edition in the gift shop of the V&A during a trip to London in 2016.

I mean, look at it. It’s perfect.

Vintage Classics edition cover of H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald, illustrated with an elegant goshawk on a blue background.

It was also the right size. It fit my palm like a secret, and I carted it out of the museum in triumph.

The next few days were a blur. I downed the book like the titular goshawk, fierce and ravenous. It danced through so many threads of literature and loss and nature, cataloguing the strange places we go when we can’t cope with our own grief and must instead contextualize it within older networks of meaning. I absolutely fell in love with it. It mapped a landscape of parental loss I’d been dreading my whole life and, in doing so, humbled me with gratitude.

I’m probably due a re-read.

Macdonald has a new essay collection out this year called Vesper Flights. I’d tuned into a chat about it between her and Robin Wall Kimmerer (of Braiding Sweetgrass fame) earlier in Quarantine, but hadn’t been able to give it my full attention. The gist I left with, though, was that in addition to being a magnificent writer, Macdonald is also one of those people who feel deeply human when placed in front of an audience—funny and self-effacing and smart and real. It’s something I put a lot of stock in, that little waggle of the antennae that says “Here. Pay attention. These are your people.”

Imagine my delight on Monday when I found I’d forgotten about buying tickets to hear her in conversation with Jeff VanderMeer! Smart move, Past Lucy.

The conversation was wonderful. Macdonald endeared herself to me forever by revealing that while all her childhood friends were pasting rock stars on their bedroom walls, she venerated pictures of kestrels. As someone who scrawled lines from Dryden on her wall as a youth and never understood the appeal of Jonathan Taylor Thomas, I relate.

Early in the conversation VanderMeer asked “Do your enthusiasms find you? Or do you find them?” This kind of emergent question feels loud right now. It’s not so much that I’m on the warpath, hunting down a particular line of inquiry, rather that every book I open seems to suddenly be in conversation with everything else I’ve read in a given week. The threads start talking to each other. This is always The Sign.

Macdonald and VanderMeer also explored the dangers of projecting human emotion onto animals, leading Macdonald to refer to the “strange unselfing that happens when you see a wild creature.” What was the last thing that unselfed me? The great horned owls calling to each other in the meadow preserve. The western fence lizards skittering across the drive. The moon, unexpected and sharp, hanging low in the sky.

When an audience member asked if she’d be returning to writing poetry, she paused. Her poetry, she said, had been a sort of lovechild of cryptic crosswords and abstract expressionism (HI WOW HELLO). But she went on to explain that “things are really urgent now” and that essays were where she wanted to focus her energy because they allowed her to speak to the current moment most directly. “Essays,” she said, “are about being puzzled by something and needing to work it out.”

Of course the mediums we chose reflect the times we live in—I feel it in my frustration with the glacial pace of making comics—but it was refreshing to hear someone say it outright. It feels adjacent to how I’ve been approaching Rambles on Patreon. Crafting written updates was taking too long. Talking is swift and personal and correct for what I’m trying to do in that space. But it’s been two years and now I’m beginning to wonder what comes next.

Toward the end of the discussion, someone asked a question about how we can balance a sense of wonder at the natural world with the immense losses of climate change. Macdonald was blunt in her response: sometimes wonder simply isn’t accessible. Sometimes we are flattened by grief.

“The banked grief at the back,” she called it, and something cracked open in my chest. This was the backbone of H is for Hawk: “You grieve things because they should be there and they’re not.”

A stand of eucalyptus trees silhouetted against the sky at dusk. There an owl perched on a high branch. A crescent moon above.

New Comic: Salt Soap

This is a short piece that I’ve been meaning to draw for a few years now—glad to finally have it finished. You can find it in print in Irene #6 later this year. Enjoy!

[For optimal viewing, click on panel one to read the comic in slideshow mode.]

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