Here on this green hilltop in Ohio, the birds are not mine, and yet their goings and comings back surround and enclose and also free my life through every moment of the day, even when I am not looking or forget to feel grateful for their presence. They are in constant motion, little citizens of the leaves and light, a part of my life at all times, even when I am a far off traveler in my own mind.
So when awareness reaches me that they are not moving, that in fact the very air has suddenly become a place of stillness and cessation, and that what I’m missing is my small friends in their relentless little zoomings through passageways of light, through tiny holes of entry in the fine bright net of life all around me, that I too am caught up in, I instinctively feel, in my own tightened shoulders and the slight electric prickle down the back of my neck, that a reason has arrived, is here somewhere, taking up the whole sky with its mere presence.
When the birds are frozen in place around my life, I know by now to look up. Whenever there is a standstill in response to the arrival of a force of power positioned somewhere too near for life to continue for the smaller birds in its usual ways, what I’m trained to look for is a hawk.
And when a writer is frozen in place, unable to attempt what she has dreamed of for so long, to birth into the world all the eager life inside her, the words that perhaps only she has for something of what the world might need to know, she, too, is crouching down in quiet terror beneath a hungry shadow watching her life.
Whenever a writer does not write, a hawk is present.
Is this you lately, or perhaps for a while now, or for years, even? This bright-winged life form disturbingly vulnerable to air attack, clinging awkwardly to the bird feeder while trying not to move so much as the minutest of muscles?
Or perhaps you have been trying hard, your very hardest, to move, if only to flee successfully, but have been finding yourself totally unable?
Are you a victim of Hawk Paralysis?
And is this your seemingly undefeatable fear of claiming your own gifts: that big gorgeous redtailed hawk in the pine with its amazing laser eyes trained on none other than that tasty little snack cake of your courage to fully and faithfully inhabit your writing life?
If you are a writer, a person who loves more than anything to put pen to paper or fingertips to keyboard, and yet, hour after hour, or day after day, or year upon year, you find yourself paralyzed, unable to exercise your talent and move toward fulfillment of your writing dreams, there is a reason.
I repeat: there is a hawk.
Have you ever tried to punish, denigrate, or scold yourself into writing? You already know this doesn’t work. You are hunkered down in freeze mode because of a powerful perceived threat, a very real threat to your creative life. This is all instinct, animal instinct–you are simply sheltering in place, trying not to be detected by what feels like an alien and hostile force capable of destroying what you love best.
Your hawk may well be beautiful. Yes. It is also haughty, cold, and obsessed with its own life, caring not a fig for yours. In fact, your hawk is likely amused right now as he sees you adopt the freeze response. It can see mouse whiskers twitching from long fields away, but you convince yourself it can’t see you, so near below, hunkered down in not doing, trying to breathe undetected without moving your rib cage, trying to be satisfied not attempting the thing you were born to do, which is to write.
The redtailed hawk’s sight is the best in the entire animal kingdom (eight times better than our own) and they can dive at 100 miles per hour or more in pursuit of their prey.
Of course you’re afraid.
But when it comes to your own writing practice, freezing in place is not as safe a strategy as you might think. In fact, it is terribly perilous, for you–and for the world that stands to lose your words of insight and comfort and love.
But suppose the hawk of your fear has not come to kill you. Suppose it’s come to feed you instead. To nurture your whole life with its way of going where you cannot go on your own and its marvelous capability of taking you along with it. Yes, none other than you, who were so sure you were its intended prey, you with your amazing way of storing up in words the very light of its eye and the sweep of its wing. And in the process, its own mysterious purposes, whatever they are, will be accomplished too. And whether you chose it or it chose you, this is not fear, not death, not a leaving behind, but life, your life, your reason for being.
This is your hawk.
You, I, we must not fear our hawks. We must simply, with the never-giving-up attentiveness and admiration of the falconer who studies with his own soul this fierce, odd feathered beast of the wilderness, tame it.
We must cease looking down, quaking in our selves, and twist our necks bravely upward to see it where it waits. We must put down our self loathing and doubt and go toward what we love. And when we can do that, we will see that this is not a malevolent force at all, but our muse, not the machine of our death, but the very means of our life.
Our hawk is not a malevolent force at all, but our muse, having taken shelter in the shape of our fear. This creature has not come to break us and consume us, but to free us to fly with it along the highest corridor of light and wind and stars we can reach. That is its only task. Not our destruction, but our liberation into the light and leaves.
So if we can accept this frightening, breathtaking, coldly keen-eyed being in its hackle-raising arrival as a meant thing, and a means of our own deliverance, where and how do we begin to avail ourselves of the gifts it brings?
- We must respect its dual nature: both its wildness and its benevolence toward our lives. And then we must stand ready to receive it.
- We must–and we have to put aside our fear to accomplish this–stand up straight and call it down. Yes, instead of freezing in our wild hope that it may soon depart, we must call our hawk down to us.
- And then we must tame it. But only enough to move us skyward with it, to bring us along in its soaring and its unabashed claiming of this world. And just enough, its wildness still intact, to have it want to come back to us, the day in its talons, the moment shining in its hooked beak to be laid at our imagination’s table. Enough to feed us both.
How do we, then, accomplish such a difficult task, such an act of balance and belief, with a creature more capable of a cold familiarity, perhaps, than anything like what we would call love?
Well, what does the falconer have at her disposal when approaching such an incredibly beautiful, free, by nature totally unobligated being, capable of ascending to heights only dreamed of here on the ground? (And do you notice what a perfect description that is of our soul’s creativity, our heart’s dream for ourselves as writers?) What does the human standing there with her gloved arm offered up for a landing pad possess that might tempt this lovely, wild creature to come to her, and once departed, to return?
The falconer has these three things in her repertoire:
1. Repetition: the painstaking, slow process of freeing the bird into the world and calling him back to her, over and over, day by day, month by month, until the whole unfolding, really quite a mysterious bond of action and pure being, of life itself, becomes natural and right-seeming–to both creatures involved.
2. Reward: the repeated offering of something of value to the hawk–here in the form of food, or nourishment, given without fail on the glove. The key here is consistency, which feeds both hope and trust. The bird must feel the dance is worth it. So must you.
3. Relationship: the most unknowable, highly complex gift of all–based on the technique of manning, in which the young hawk early on is familiarized with his human, and on the daily work engaged in by both members of this odd pairing, fates tethered to one another–one creature a fearless rider of the light, being guided by human agency, and the other wholly earthbound with a mind that flies.
And these are precisely the three things (the only things) you need to relinquish your frozenness and come to life again as a writer.
To stop cowering, stand up straight, take a deep breath, and call your hawk down to you.
Repetition, for you the writer, simply means to establish a particular place to write (a room, a desk, a chair, a laptop, a notebook, a cafe–whatever your particular hunting grounds may be) and to go there most days. A few writers do this in a daily way, but most of us simply do our best to be there, where our work can be done, more days than not in one human week. This is enough. If you do this regularly, you are a real writer with a writing practice. It is that simple. Do not worry at first about your productivity–that will come as an outgrowth of your faithfulness. Your job is just to create a place in which to do your work and to show up there on a regular basis. If you find yourself daydreaming, drawing, doodling letters, writing seeming drivel, good for you. That’s where it all begins.
Reward means exactly what it says. When you perform the task of showing up, every single time you do it, reward yourself, just as the falconer places food for the hawk on the glove. Every. Time. The hawk won’t return to an empty glove for very long. And neither will you. Without the reward, interest is lost, action is thwarted, trust is broken. Something beautiful and mutual quickly breaks down and is replaced by nothing. Reward, on the other hand, will always nurture and strengthen the bond of trust between you and your muse.
Repeat: you cannot punish, flog, shame yourself into creative activity. Imagine if the falconer were to scream at or strike the hawk as it was trying to return home. This is so often what we writers and creatives do to ourselves, but once we see that we are both the falconer and the hawk, and that the responsibility for our well-being and the giving of our gifts falls always and only to us, we can go another way. We can reward ourselves each time we do something that is difficult, tricky to navigate, but necessary to the world. It is heavy work, this making of something where before there was nothing, this offer of the self to the process of creation, this sometimes awkward, very beautiful flying without wings.
What should the reward be? That will be individual, whatever soothes and replenishes you–you know best what that is. It could be something for the writer in you (a new notebook, a visit to a website that sparks fresh ideas, a pack of pens, the reading of a poem you love). It could be something to feed your physical animal (a walk in the woods, a cup of lemongrass tea in a stoneware mug, a cozy throw around your shoulders as you write). It could mean reaching out to a friend or fellow writer to ask for or give comfort or support. Your reward is anything at all–you say what it is–that nourishes who you are and thus feeds your strength for your craft.
Always, always, always reward the risks you take in your creative life. The hawk of your being will respond.
Relationship: the riskiest, most delicate, least forcible of the three-part work the falconer engages in with her hawk. It is not something that happens with study or application. It is, for lack of a better understanding on our part, art. It would be all right to call it love, I think, though in the case of the hawk, as with our muse, we must accept a vast bright field of all we cannot, can never, truly know. It is the same with our writing, a mystery we are entered by that never leaves us, the not knowing why we should find ourselves so in love with language, with the words by which a life is lit from within. Half understood, difficult, sometimes harsh, but so beautiful, relationship is the way the world comes down to our outstretched arm moving with pen in hand, and agrees to land there for only a moment while we try to write down something we so briefly, imperfectly, but shiningly can somehow see. Light, feathers, movement, life itself–all so difficult to hold in a human hand, mind, heart. To cradle in our own words. But this coming together, this touching of one heart to another that takes on its own meaning, this relationship, day by week, week by year, is a sidelong, background, below us, above us, suddenly upswelling thing that somehow comes flying in on its own when we show up over and over to do the work, when we give ourselves the gift of whatever we truly need in order to keep going, and when we humbly make ourselves available to this one moment that has so many things to tell us that all come down to love.
So do it all again today. Give yourself something beautiful, whatever it is, to keep you strong and flying high. Make something yours by the effort of becoming its welcome and its familiar home, by waiting so hard for its return.
And don’t be afraid. Call your hawk down to you. It’s been waiting for your voice alone. It is yours forever, for as long as you both shall love.