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Murmurations by Susan Eve Haar


“Considering how common illness is,” Virginia Woolf observed, “how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed…it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love, battle, and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.” While a great deal has been written about illness in the century since Woolf published “On Being Ill,” new ways of exploring that undiscovered country continue to emerge. How can a writer express the unfamiliar relationship to the world and their own body that illness entails?

In her creative nonfiction flash “Murmurations,” Susan Eve Haar alludes to the onset of disturbing symptoms. Unexpected clumsiness when she breaks a cup. Did she forget she was holding it? The cup is one she loved, but she can’t remember where and when she acquired it. The cup is “unique, irreplaceable, and gone” like the health she formerly enjoyed without thinking about it. She has begun to grope for words. How many small injuries and deficits have crept up without her noticing? What do they signify? On an unbearably hot summer day, she finds herself in front of The Women’s Brain Health Clinic, reluctant and afraid to discover more about her condition.

Third-person narrative point of view is an unusual choice in flash memoir, but seems particularly appropriate for the alienation from one’s body and mind that illness can represent. “First person,” Haar writes in her author’s note, “would be a wail or a complaint.” Third person seemed just right for what she calls “an elegy for my mind” that “came out whole,” directly following her experience at the clinic.  —CRAFT


 

She had become clumsy. She’d dropped the mug she loved, the green one the color of an aspen leaf, with its fluted skirt at the bottom. Either she’d knocked it to the floor, or worse, forgotten it was in her hand, she just didn’t know. And she had no idea about its provenance, although experience would suggest the Salvation Army. Either way, it was unique, irreplaceable, and gone. Now she noticed a thin red line of blood along the side of her hand, probably drawn when she’d wrapped the pieces into two plastic grocery bags and placed the bundle carefully in the garbage. A tiny injury that she hadn’t felt, another of many small injuries that added up to diminution. Was it only clumsiness? Or had something dreadful crept in? Had she failed to notice until, like a squatter, it had taken up permanent residence? She’d hoped it was a failure of attention when it began. But now, it seemed a signpost on the road to decline.

It was so hot, the kind of day that suggested suicide to those who’d never contemplated it before. The air dense and oily, bodies wilted like the plants on the deck. There had been three suicides on Staten Island. She thought of Durkheim, Suicide, relieved that she remembered his name. Thoughts of suicide ever? She had lied to the intake woman on the phone. Ever was way too long. Time, she’d decided, obliterated the obligations of candor. Though she did remember. Weed? Yes. How often? She’d said twice a month, though perhaps she was averaging back. Perhaps she’d forgotten. Determined to keep count she stopped smoking entirely. It was easier to eliminate sins than to keep track of them. But nothing improved. Her lover was an old pothead, but his mind was sharp; he found her keys and phone without passing judgment and she loved him for that.

Now she was there, in front of the building that housed The Women’s Brain Health Clinic. Of course she was afraid, sucked down by the dread of her own demise. She got out of her son’s car reluctantly. He knew, after all he was her child. He got out of the car too and put his arms around her. She rested her chest on the fin of his clavicle. She wept a little, leaking a small sadness and he patted her back.

Did she really want to know the state of her mind? No, not really. But she had to know. There’d been indications; a constricting of language, the loss of fluidity as she groped for words—for aphasia, castration, and eggplant in French. She had known that a flock of larks was an exaltation once upon a time, but now she only remembered the black print on the cover of the book she’d read years ago. An exaltation of larks, a murmuration of starlings, a murder of crows.

 


SUSAN EVE HAAR is a lawyer and writer. Her work has been primarily in theater. A member of the Writer’s Guild East and Ensemble Studio Theater, her plays have been published and produced at a variety of venues. Recent prose has appeared in The North Dakota Quarterly, The Columbia Journal, bioStories, and the Breakwater Review. susanevehaar.com

 

Featured image by Rusyena courtesy of Unsplash

 

Author’s Note

I watched my father lose his mind. The terror, the covering, the anger, the obfuscation. He collapsed out of English into the language of his childhood and eventually fell into silence. I was his caretaker and pray that my children will not have to be mine.

I wrote this piece in a sitting after returning from an evaluation at The Women’s Brain Health Clinic at Stanford. It got shaped some, but unlike so much of my other writing, woven and unraveled again and again, it came out whole, an elegy for my mind.

You could say, though, that it was written over a period of years. The years in which I have found myself groping for words, curiously more in speaking than in writing. An experience that I have found horrifying, humiliating, and frightening.

My focus was on compression. The piece is about constriction; I felt it had to be terse. Each word had to count. And the ideas had to be grabbed as they disappeared and anchored in the physical detail.

It is not surprising that it is written in third person. First person would be a wail or a complaint. I did not want to write an exegesis or a medical history. It is terrifying to lose linguistic fluency if you are a person who has lived by the word, experienced your existence through the sieve of language. In this piece I wanted every word to count. And I wanted to leave space for the reader.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis suggests that the structure of language shapes cognition. That if you have language for a hundred shades of blue you will have the capacity to see them, each different, each distinct. I don’t know if that is true. But words are the butter on our bread.

What I have lost infers what I remember. It is like a figure ground image, I see the gaps but I can’t fill them. We tell ourselves stories, we narrate our lives. There’s what happens of course, but that’s in no way the totality. It’s the way we frame and shape experience, what we allow to be significant and what we shed, shred, or otherwise obscure that constitutes a life.

What is the story of a life without words? Only the indescribable present or nothing at all.

 

 


SUSAN EVE HAAR is a lawyer and writer. Her work has been primarily in theater. A member of the Writer’s Guild East and Ensemble Studio Theater, her plays have been published and produced at a variety of venues. Recent prose has appeared in The North Dakota Quarterly, The Columbia Journal, bioStories, and the Breakwater Review. susanevehaar.com