I didn’t want to write about the break-up. I wanted to write about the Purple Martins: 150,000 of them who, on their way to Brazil, had stopped over in Nashville and taken up roost on the symphony roof and in the city trees around it. It would be easier to write that story, less intimate. As I gazed out onto the indifferent asphalt of the road home from the airport I defended this instinct, told myself avoidance was a mercy I could allow. And anyway, who wouldn’t grasp onto a grand metaphor from the skies over the perfectly common catastrophe of a broken heart?
Even still, I fumbled with my phone at a stop light, trying desperately to find a specific This American Life episode on break-ups. I distinctly remembered listening to the episode the first time––on a train ride from Boston, my cheeks wet with fresh tears, chugging steadily away from the same person I’d just now dropped off at the airport. That day I remember feeling a pain so deep-seated in my chest, so horrifyingly physical, that I called my mom, terrified, to ask her if I would feel that way forever. The stoplight changed and I shoved my phone aside. A light clicked on in the dashboard and, as if to taunt me, my car informed me that the fuel was low.
I wanted to hear the Break-Up episode again to remind myself that this had all happened before. That I’d left this boy at another point of departure not so long ago, that it had all turned out to be okay. With a twang I recognized the repetitive nature of those final goodbye kisses: sloppy and urgent and unedited, one of us leaning out the window of a car, salt on our cheeks and both our noses running. But also, I found something about the podcast’s content, the words themselves, comforting. Breaking up with someone is literally the most common thing. …Everyone you know broke up with everyone they ever dated until maybe the person they’re with right now, if they’re with someone right now. But when it happens to you, it feels so specific.
My frantic stoplight scramble, however, had been unsuccessful and now the silence in the car sat heavier than the humid Nashville air. I thought about going to get gas as I took the exit ramp into the city, but in a split second I turned right instead of left and headed downtown, past honky tonk bars filled with unfamiliar people in displays of joy and celebration that at that moment felt dubious, impossible even. I peered out the window as I passed the symphony and looked up into a sky with no signs of life. Of course, I thought to myself, how fitting. The birds are gone.
In a different year the Purple Martins might have skipped over Nashville, disturbed by the busyness of downtown, but 2020 was not like other years. They’d drawn a fair amount of attention from local newspapers and even NPR had done a spotlight, but it was a friend who finally convinced me to go and see them. I’d gone to watch them for the first time a couple of weeks before, laid down in the grass next to the Music City Walk of Fame and stared up at the sky.
The blue expanse above was marbled with the silhouettes of thousands of birds. The birds: moving en masse through the clouds aglow with the setting sun, and me: alone, below them. Me in this new city and them on their great migration south, the changes we were experiencing simultaneously spectacular and repetitive. I am prone to metaphor in moments such as these, and I thought about looking up and writing things down, the things you might miss if you don’t. Before long my friend found me and led me to the display outside the symphony doors, a sight which left me speechless.
There, the birds swooped low, darting across the sky and then arcing down into the trees like crashing waves above our heads. My mouth hung wide open as I dumbly repeated, “This is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen,” and actually, truly, racked my brain to try to remember if I’d ever seen anything so fantastic. It was unbelievably coordinated, choreography against the backdrop of a periwinkle sky fading to deep blue, the movement like the ribbon twirling at the end of a rhythmic gymnast’s baton.
Recently, I met a musician who told me he writes the music first, lyrics second. Told me the lyrics start as just sounds, that they slowly morph into coherent phrases. This was a new idea for me: to write something by ear, by the shape of the words in my mouth. It feels like that way it would be more honest, less edited, like the difference between texting and talking; the truth is in the tone. Something about sound is more adjacent to emotion than language. A tremor in your voice is all it takes to tell us that the story about the birds is actually about a break-up, that their communal dance was not a trigger for emotion but rather a mirror, as the bluest of skies often are.
The musician regaled me with the story of his most recent song, how he was trying to capture a moment of teenage emotionality, when in an outburst he walked some fourteen miles from his father’s house to his mother’s. But it turned out to be a love song, he said. They all do.
Driving home that night from the airport I saw no signs of the Martins, the empty sky mocking me alongside the silence in the car and the miles until empty counting down on the dashboard. Still, I pulled over a few blocks from the symphony, hoping to catch one more glimpse of them before they were gone.
There was not, I suspected, anything new to say about love or its inescapable fallout, but there was endless content available. It wouldn’t be my first time writing about a heartbreak, not even the first time writing about a heartbreak with this person. Countless stories replayed in my head, vignettes of the two of us ice skating on a lake in Maine or jogging bare-legged on the bike path over Narragansett Bay, as the ice began to thaw and green grass peeked out from beneath the melting snow. Or, if I wanted to write about sex, I could wax poetic about the way our limbs tangled together that first time on a twin bed in his basement room, light from the street lamp outside streaming in through the small window.
In fact, as I walked towards downtown, sentences seemed to bubble out of me, finding their way, as they often did, into my notes app. Narrative is my first line of defense against unbridled emotion. It seemed to me that if the birds were gone I could write about their departure instead of his, with all the elegance and grace of winged creatures and none of the messiness of a human being with feelings and choices and freckles that dusted his shoulders in the summertime.
For all of love’s ubiquitousness, all the podcasts and books and essays and diary entries on the subject, each time the pain of its loss felt new. Specific, even. The ache of it fresh, the unique texture and shape of the wound, the sense that surely no one had felt this way before. The feeling that there was some takeaway from it, that there had to be. I desperately wanted a takeaway. And, though I resisted doing so, it felt good to write one, to reveal it to myself.
When I arrived at the symphony that evening and saw the birds there after all, I was almost disappointed. My sense of closure, or vindication maybe, was yanked out from under me. My story could no longer be tied in the bow that I wanted. But there they were, rising off of the powerline together and flying towards the city, silhouetted in the fading light, oblivious to the cracks forming in my polished narrative. I felt strangely light and heavy at the same time, my emotion from the night escaping its neat packaging at the same moment that the magnificence of the birds’ flight lifted me up.
In the sky like that, moving together through the post-storm evening clouds, I was struck by their resemblance to smoke. Like the smoke from those western wildfires. Or tear gas, maybe. In the year 2020, the suffering in the world felt both close and far away and decidedly too big to manage. This small, intimate devastation was something I could hold.
I could say that the swell of sadness that came over me as the birds settled in to roost was about their inevitable disappearance, the uncertainty of whether or not they would be there tomorrow. I could say it was the result of compounding tragedies or the realization that we are infinitesimally small. That the loss I felt was larger than me, wholly unselfish. To write it that way would be easier and harder and it would also be fiction.
James Pennebaker, a professor of psychology at the University of Austin, Texas, studies the ways in which writing about pain can help to heal it. It helps to achieve closure, to make sense of why we feel the way we do. The act of creating a narrative for ourselves, he suggests, frees us from rumination and allows us to move forward. It is less about novelty and more about solace.
I remember saying to a friend, once, who was going through the worst moments of her life, that she should write it all down, that someday she would want to turn it into a story. We would often joke to each other, whenever we encountered hardship, that the fact of our failure or hurt made us, of all things, relatable. But it was true in a sense; that any pain we took on strengthened our ability to connect to other people, to empathize. What, then, is the purpose of a narrative? Doesn’t the power of a story lie not in the fact that it is revolutionary but rather that it is utterly common?
That night, walking away from the symphony, words formed phrases over the orchestration of my emotion faster than I could get them down. In moments like that, I write by ear before I lose it, try to put it on paper in a way that doesn’t feel disingenuous, even if it is, a little. Even if it isn’t groundbreaking.
Our hearts are breaking all the time. It is ordinary. It is devastating and it is boring. We say our goodbyes and drive home from the airport and hope we don’t run out of gas. The space left inside of us feels raw, and then it doesn’t. The Purple Martins finish gathering their energy for their long migration and they leave too, and eventually we forget to miss them. Until they are there again, in the late August sky, and we rejoice in their return.
Morgan Florsheim is a writer and environmental educator based out of Nashville, Tennessee. She is not: neat, good at ball sports, fond of early mornings. She does enjoy long afternoons spent in the sunshine and saying hello to other people’s dogs. You can find her writing published or forthcoming in Hobart, Sidereal Magazine, and SLAB.
featured photo by Morgan Florsheim