For the past three months, I’ve been seeing a lot of vultures. I see them almost every day, at home, at the farm with my daughter, at the dog park. It happens the same way: a single bird circles and once I take notice, the circle gets tighter and it eventually flies over my head, low and magnificent. They aren’t much to look at if they’re perched, but in flight, they are amazing, graceful creatures with a significant wingspan. It is both awe-inspiring and a little frightening to have one swoop right overhead. It is unnerving to have it happen so many days in a row.
Our culture reviles vultures. People see them as disgusting creatures, bad omens. Since I am one who looks for and listens to signs from the universe, particularly when it comes in the form of animals (some day I really need to blog the story about how I asked for a sign from the universe and got growled at on the side of the trail, possibly by a mountain lion), I took note. And not wanting to believe there was something wicked coming this way, I researched the way different cultures have interpreted the presence of vultures.
As it turns out, vultures are seen by most as a good thing, an auspicious sign. At the very least, in other world views, vultures are respected. They are nature’s purifiers. They eat the dead and the rotting (prompting some cultures to call them “death eaters”) and they internalize it. When they produce waste, it is completely free of any bacteria or harmful entities. In fact, their urine has beneficial antibacterial properties.
It fascinates me and comforts me that these birds have come to me at this point in my life. I am straddling two lives: the writing that fuels my passion and the law that taps into my need to be of service to others (as well as my need to pay the bills). I have spent months trying, and largely failing, to keep these two worlds separate. I have struggled to see how I can leave law behind and switch over to only writing. My job is amazing in many ways, but the substance of what I read crushes my soul. Every day, every case, I never cease to be surprised at the level of cruelty people are able to inflict on each other, even to children. Two days ago, I read one that made me spontaneously burst into tears. I took a break and came back at it fresh after having some time to think about the vulture.
The way I see it, writers, or artists of any kind (I address writers here because that is what I am familiar with), are society’s carrion eaters. We are the shit shovelers and processors. We take in the worst of society, the extraneous, the minutia, all of it. We eat it, then we churn out a story that moves people to think about life in a slightly different way. We take the things no wants, the heartbreak, the agony, the telemarketing calls, and we turn it into something beautiful, or at least entertaining. And every detail of what we’ve absorbed may not be explicit in the story, but it permeates.
I see a lot of parallels between writers and vultures. We tend to stand just a little bit apart from society. We watch everything as we ride the currents around us, waiting for that thing we need. And while it may seem an unpalatable process to many, the work is sacred and vital for the community.
I have heard so many criticisms of writers, including myself, as being too sensitive, wanting to see themselves (ourselves?) as tortured. It is the sensitivity that allows us to feel exactly what is in the moment we are witnessing and to recreate it, if in some alternate form, for others later. We have to experience it in some way to share it. At the risk of sounding too literal or gross, we ingest society’s detritus and purify it through story. It is a very emotional, and laborious, process.
But it is through the stories that we hear and, most importantly, the stories we tell ourselves that we are able to heal, to come together. We learn our code of conduct through stories. Unfortunately, it is often story that keeps us apart. The story that someone is too different from us to understand because of [insert hot-button issue of choice, such as race, religion, social status, heck, even clothing]. We tell ourselves that certain someone doesn’t love us and it allows a space for meanness to enter. In this way, we’re all writers, spinning the yarns of our lives out without realizing this inherent connection to lore.
Many of us are too busy to stop and question these beliefs we hold about others, about our own capacity for love or cruelty. Many are too scared. And unless the universe forces your hand, I’m going to guess that most who have access to this post wouldn’t need to actually find out.
That’s where the writer, the vulture, comes in. We collect these stories and make a composite, cleansing it in the process of the specific details that would make someone say, “That could never be me,” and hold up a mirror. Those of us who love to read find connection in characters. Those characters absolutely could be us, even if we don’t want to admit it. Through books, the reader can see the steps a person took to get to that terrible precipice where she finds herself. And it is easier to understand the other that way.
A neighbor of mine is from a small town, never got to go to college, and we live in smallish suburb now (definitely lacking in the culture department). She has found herself drawn to memoirs. She reads voraciously about Arab-American women, the mentally ill, everyone she can, in their own words. And each one, she says, allows her to see just a sliver more of what is out there, who is out there. When she comes across someone new now, she’s curious about him, about his adventures, his struggles. That is the power of story.
I realize, courtesy of my neighbor and these beautiful birds who visit me, that this is the power in my professional work as well. In my career, I have been in prisons, in locked psychiatric institutions, and I have listened to or read thousands of stories of darkness. I have sat on the phone with family members of veterans who told me in great detail how they found the bodies of their loved ones who had committed suicide. I have held the hand of a young woman who was being force-fed nasally because of her anorexia, and I’ve documented hundreds of stories of abuse and human rights violations.
I have never felt that law was my purpose and for years I’ve been searching for what that “purpose” is. It is too soon now, but I see that my ultimate job is to give to witness to these things, to give them a voice, to help bring some level of purification to these injustices and hardships. So, as I sit with each true life crime story that comes across my desk, I will honor the people involved by doing my professional duty to the utmost of my ability. And, like the vulture, I will circle patiently until the time is right to share some fictionalized version of what I have seen. Art is sacred work, as is most work if you think about it in a particular way. And it is a work that, while at times is excruciating, I am honored to do.