I have a wonderful book to recommend. It’s called Bless the Birds: Living with Love in a Time of Dying, and the author, Susan J. Tweit, is a friend of mine and also a longstanding member of Story Circle Network, the international women’s writing non-profit for which I have the honor to serve as current president. I have been in a Works-in-Progress group for several years with Susan and had the privilege of hearing how she approached her process of writing and rewriting this very personal journey of slowly losing her beloved husband Richard to brain cancer while also tending to her mother, who was in failing health.
As someone who has lost not only my parents, but also my best friend and four of my siblings, I approached this book with excitement. Susan brings years as a plant biologist to her observations about life, and has a unique way of weaving both the beauty of nature and concerns about our environment into everything she writes. Was it possible she could do this with her book on dying as well? The answer is yes. In her preface, Susan wrote:
This story is about living in a time of dying. It is both prayer and love song, an invitation to walk in the light of what we love, especially when times are hard or heartbreaking. To open our hearts and go forward with as much grace as we can through life’s changes. To honor our cell-deep connection to all of the other lives with whom we share this planet. To celebrate the miracle of simply being, our capacity for love, which is both gift and salvation.
I think this is when I burst into tears.
Susan’s book is peppered with wisdom, warmth, honesty and a generous dose of reality-based humor. It also tells a real love story of two people who face losing one another far sooner than they had anticipated and how they savor the time they have left. I laughed, cried and excused myself from several family gatherings so I could sneak away and continue reading. I highly recommend this book for anyone who wishes to have a glimpse into a world where consciously living in the present teaches us how not to be so terribly afraid of dying.
Susan’s book can be found at https://bookshop.org/books/bless-the-birds-living-with-love-in-a-time-of-dying/9781647420369
Here are a few questions I asked Susan after reading her wonderful book:
- The structure of the book has clearly been carefully devised and is quite effective. Can you elaborate on what the divisions are and how you came to the decision to proceed with this structure?
The narrative in Bless the Birds is framed by the 20-years-belated honeymoon trip we took at the end of my husband Richard’s life, a 4,000-mile journey from our home in Colorado to the Pacific Coast in Washington, and then down the coast to Big Sur in California. Each chapter opens with a vignette from that trip, and then looks back at our lives and how we became the people we were by the time we journeyed (in the metaphoric sense) with his brain cancer. I had originally written the story more chronologically, but it seemed too clinical that way, too much about brain and/or and not enough about how we can live with love in the hardest times we can imagine, whether those be with the crisis of climate change, the epidemic of shootings of young black men, or any kind of personal tragedy. I was casting about for a new way to tell the story when I was on a month-long writing residence at Women’s International Study Center in Santa Fe a few years ago, and as I told the story of our road-trip to my casita-mate, the playwright DS Magid, she said, “That’s a movie!” Her intrigue with the road-trip story gave me the idea of using it to frame the larger story of how and why we vowed to live right up to his death, with our hearts open.
2) What was the value to you of working on this memoir then letting it sit then picking it up again? (That is my understanding of what you did, at least.) What insights came from that process and how different is the final book from the early drafts?
Bless the Birds went through so many major revisions over the 8 years I worked on it that I don’t even remember the number! Being able to pick it up, read the whole thing through out loud, listen to the overall story arc and the details of each part, revise, and then let it sit allowed my understand of the story and why it mattered to grow and deepen. And that protracted process, plus the long periods away from the story, allowed me to see more clearly what was crucial to the essential point of how we can live in a heart-full way in the hardest times of our lives, and what I could leave out. It also allowed me to refine my language, almost to the point of considering each word, to make a story that has tragic moments more lyrical, and more funny.
3) You clearly chose to go with SheWrites Press, which is a hybrid publisher. What motivated that choice and what do you see as the benefits and drawbacks?
Actually, my literary agent, who truly loves this story, shopped it to major publishers first. We got great rejection letters from some big-name editors, who all said some form of, “I love the story and the characters, and the writing is gorgeous. But we don’t think there is a big market for this book.” Part of that is that I haven’t had a book out since 2009, so even though I had a dozen books published with good publishers before Bless the Birds, my name isn’t on anyone’s radar anymore. And while I have a following of fans, it’s not a big following like that of say, Oprah! So my platform isn’t big and my name isn’t a household word. I knew Brooke Warner from a Story Circle Network memoir conference where we both were speakers, and I admired her publishing savvy and her dedication to getting women’s stories published. So I decided to go with She Writes Press based on that. I was fortunate to be able to invest the money in hybrid publishing, which is a cost-share model. That’s the drawback: the author shares in the cost of publishing through She Writes, including paying for publicity and marketing, both of which can be expensive. The advantage are many. One is that She Writes Press has a reputation for publishing high-quality books, well-edited, beautifully designed—books that don’t just look good on the shelf, but win awards. Another is that Brooke’s business model builds a community of authors who support each other, review each other’s books, help each other find publicity and sales opportunities, and generally give each other a boost. Another is the return: because authors share in the cost of publishing, our royalties are much higher than those in traditional publishing. And then there’s the publishing schedule, which is shorter than most traditional publishers.
4) What were your goals when writing this book? How did your goals change (if they did) over the course of the writing?
My goal throughout was simple: to use my experience to help others accept that natural death is part of life. And that we can choose how we live the ends of our lives, just as we can choose how we respond to any tragic or unimaginably difficult situation. That we can live our hardest and most painful times with love.
5) How did writing the book contribute to your personal healing process? How do you hope it will help others who are facing similar circumstances and/or the loss of a loved one?
Writing the book was less about processing grief than using my experience in a positive way. What helped me most was accepting before it happened that Richard would die. We talked about our grief in his last weeks, and that gave me permission, as it were, to feel bereft and angry and lonely and miserable. Beyond that, as you said, grief is a process, and the truth is that time does indeed heal. I’m a happy person by nature, I have a full life with my writing, teaching, and speaking, plus my work restoring ecosystems. I’m very connected to the community of lives that animate this numinous planet—a community that includes humans. I take comfort in the fact that life as a whole continues, even as our own lives do not.
Bless the Birds is a love story, a tale of how we humans can rise to be our best selves when the world goes crazy on us, whether because of a pandemic like COVID-19, deadly racism, or the crisis of our planet burning. It’s about finding a way to act with love when the worst happens, and learning to appreciate our imperfect selves, along with the miracle of life on this numinous earth.
Buy Bless the Birds and read it, my friends. Your lives will be enriched and you will grow in wisdom as well. You can find it at all major book retailers as well as at https://bookshop.org/books/bless-the-birds-living-with-love-in-a-time-of-dying/9781647420369