It is a gift when a writer brings a new perspective to a challenge we have faced since the dawn of human life — the challenge of loss in the face of love and the grief that follows. Margaret Renkl offers us a new perspective in “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss” a collection of short essays and nearly poetic writing that move around the issue looking for a new way in.
Renkl explores both the world outside her home, filled with rat snakes, bees, and her beloved birds, and ties it into the loss of her own parents. She ties all this together, stating the obvious in new ways that connect life and death in a natural context, but not diminishing the impact. “The shadow side of love is always loss, and grief is love’s own twin” (7).
Her description of the natural world is centered around her own backyard in Tennessee, something that most of us can relate to easier than the wilderness explorer. In the chapter, “Late Migration,” Renkl tells us about her desire to attract monarch butterflies. She notes there were once over a billion monarch butterflies in North America, and now there are less than 100 million. “Once upon a time, even a loss of that magnitude might have caused me only a flicker of concern, the kind of thing I trusted scientists to straighten out. But I am old enough now to have buried many of my loved ones, and loss is too often something I can do nothing about.”
Since she can do something about this problem, she plants a garden to attract monarch butterflies. Although they do not come at first, a later migrating group comes at the end of summer. She notes that monarchs migrate like birds, but it takes four to five generations of butterflies to make it. No single butterfly makes the entire migration. The natural world follows its own path.
Her love of the natural world around her reminds her of the fragility of life and cruelty of the world. But knowing that death is part of a natural cycle does not make it easier to address. In “After the Fall,” a single powerful page addressing grief and offering hope, Renkl writes about grief:
“This talk of making peace with it. Of feeling it and then finding a way through. Of closure. It’s all nonsense.
Here is what no one told me about grief: you inhabit it like a skin. Everywhere you go, you wear grief under your clothes. Everything you see, you see through it, like a film.”
Grief changes people. But change is not always bad and with time those changes create a different person who can still live.
“What I mean is, time offers your old self a new shape. What I mean is, you are the old, ungrieving you, and you are also the new ruined you.You are both, and you will always be both. There is nothing to fear. There is nothing at all to fear. Walk out into the springtime, and look: the birds welcome you with a chorus. The flowers turn their faces to your face. The last of last year’s leaves, still damp in the shadows, smell ripe and faintly of fall” (281).
Part of that new person is the memories that we carry with us. Memories become unreliable for accuracy as we move on. “All these images are absolutely clear, but I know better than to trust them. I have turned them over so often the edges have become soft and worn, their contours wholly unreliable” (98). While our memories do change, I only see them as becoming unreliable in their factual accuracy. We begin to alter those memories so they become true to our experiences more than the facts. Truth is not always found in the facts.
Renkl’s short essays reflect a range of writing styles. From natural descriptions to what can best be described as prose poetry (e.g. “Redbird, Sundown), making this a fascinating read. She even includes an essay called “The Imperfect-Family Beatitudes” that offers a humorous look at families and ends with an exhortation to tell your children you love them every time you leave them.
Renkl is an outstanding writer who has published in a number of publications, especially the New York Times, but this is her first book. After the success of this book, we can hope to see more come from her. It is a rare voice that can address grief and yet offer hope.
“Human beings are creatures made for joy. Against all evidence, we tell ourselves that grief and loneliness and despair are tragedies, unwelcome variations from the pleasure and calm and safety that in the right way of the world would form the firm ground of our being. In the fairy tale we tell ourselves, darkness holds nothing resembling a gift.
What we feel always contains its own truth, but it is not the only truth, and darkness almost always harbors some bit of goodness tucked out of sight, waiting for an unexpected light to shine, to reveal it in its deepest hiding place” (186).
Renkl excels at finding that unexpected light in the darkness. As a result, she has added an indispensable volume to the library of grief, loss, and love.