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  • S F Hayes

Be Like The Bird

Out on a limb or winged for flight? On creativity and vulnerability.

Be like the bird who

Halting in her flight,

On a limb too slight,

Feels it giving way beneath her

Yet sings

Knowing she has wings

- Victor Hugo

Songs of Twilight 1877

When my children were born it was both a literal and metaphorical splitting open — and it took me years to smooth out all the jagged edges and rawness of being a mother.

It began with an emergency C-section during the birth of my first child — the literal splitting open. While the doctor’s scalpel dug deep and her hands pressed hard to do the work of forcing my baby out of my womb — I lay there, feeling nothing but a slight pressure — because the doctors had numbed me.

But there was no anesthesia for what came next: that metaphorical splitting open — the moment you fall in love with your new baby and the moment you realize that his fragility makes you vulnerable, too. It’s as if someone has taken out a vital organ and handed it to you without any guidance except the admonition: “Take care of this — your life depends on it.”

In the months that followed, my initial realization crystalized into a stinging anxiety that I would remain exposed in this way for a long time. Perhaps for the rest of my life. The sharp edges of this seeming powerlessness snagged on everything — pierced every action and every decision with fear, doubt, paralysis. Fear that I would make the wrong decision and doubt in my own judgement — because I could not know everything in a world that is often unpredictable. Books and experts were no help; no one agreed on anything, no one had the one right answer. And what’s worse, they seemed to discover a new danger daily.

But all acts of creation seem to involve — no, to demand — this vulnerability; your creation, whether child, art, or scientific hypothesis, is born of you but must be released out into the world to thrive or not.

So how do the creators of the world release their creations into the world? How are you supposed to keep creating and leaving yourself open to the rawness? How can you face those moments, hours, days, when you can’t find the evidence to convince yourself that you can trust the universe to take care with your creation? You fear that your child will be bullied or hurt, or your writing misunderstood and reviled, or your scientific grant revoked because you insisted on studying an unpopular facet of reality. In short, how can you live with this kind of vulnerability constantly?

But perhaps vulnerability is not the right word for it — and this is where the problem lies. Most definitions of vulnerability are about being defenseless, open to attack, unprotected in some way. Is one defenseless, though, as mother or artist or scientist? My epiphany came when I realized that I could learn not to be defenseless.

The bird on the branch in Hugo's poem is secure not because she believes that the branch can’t break, but because she knows that if the branch does break, she can use her wings to keep from falling to disaster. She is not defenseless; she is not vulnerable — she is confident because she knows how to fly.

And so what all acts of creativity actually demand is confidence — earned from understanding that the world is a knowable place and that you can gain the knowledge you need to act when hardships arise. You can guide your child through the bullying if it happens or help him recover when hurt. You can defend your writing or be persuasive that your scientific theory merits study. Branches often break — but with work you can learn to fly.


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