What We Collect

‘They are records of ordered transcendence.’ So writes Helen MacDonald in H is for Hawk, the memoir that tracks her grief for her father’s death as she trains a goshawk.

She’s describing her father’s plane-spotting diaries, six exercise books meticulously filled with information representing hour upon hour of gazing skyward. The data holds no intrinsic interest for his daughter. She has ‘no idea what these planes are,’ but as her eyes scan the facts, her mind discerns a deeper significance.

Collecting and cataloguing, she sees, can help order an outside world that is broken or in disarray. She reflects on her father’s wartime childhood in London, where children scavenged bomb-sites for collectibles, from shrapnel to cigarette packets, somehow bringing into line the terrors of the Blitz. It’s the same instinct, perhaps, that has the grieving suddenly wanting to tidy cupboards and clear clutter.

Macdonald reflects on what her father has chosen to record – not simply facts about fuselages, but the flights that the planes represent. Seeing these machines take to the skies for unknown, exotic destinations carries the watcher’s heart and imagination with them. She recognises a yearning towards distant horizons that she shares with her father. Whether captivated by a Vickers Viscount or a goshawk, their spirits could fly wild and free, transcending the losses, fears and limitations of life on the ground.

IMG_0082In exploring this passage with creative writing groups, we reflect on our own collections and what they mean to us. Some have childhood collections linked to early memories. Others do not know what do do with inherited cabinets of relative’s collections. To dismantle and disperse a collection seems like a betrayal, yet what do you do if its objects have no direct personal meaning? We write about our memories as collectors and our dilemmas as care-takers.

Writing is also an act of collecting in words on a page. In our journals we record what is personally significant to us – what we see, or read, do or think.

Writing can help us define our emotions, as well as explore them; bring solace to loss and clarity to our direction; preserve our memories and prioritise our actions. But even before we put the words down, we’re collecting in our internal worlds. Some treasure happy memories, upbuilding words and successes; others hang onto grievances, criticisms and experiences of failure.

It can be worth reviewing what we store through our mental gazing – and grazing. In The Organised Mind, psychologist Dan Levitin notes the brain’s capacity to tune into stimuli related to our chosen focus, and filter out whatever we deem irrelevant. For example, if we’re looking for a lost girl in a red dress amidst a crowd, we can will the brain’s sensitivity to the sensory clues we need – a red dress, a young female voice.

What do our collections, outer and inner, mean to us? Do they enhance our lives or clutter our spirits? Perhaps we have an inner magnet that picks up criticism. If so, we may want to re-balance this by re-tuning our sensitivities. Journal-writing can help. Somethings as simple as writing a regular ‘gratitude list’ or list of encouragements can nurture a new attentiveness to positives that can energise us – a collection worth keeping.

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  • About Julia


    From writing stories for my younger brother, to penning poems for the School Magazine and filling a growing pile of personal journals, the written word has always been part of my life’s journey.

    I started out as an English Teacher and subsequently retrained as a Counsellor. I have counselled in a GP Surgery and worked with various Employee Assistance Schemes and Charitable Trusts alongside seeing private clients.

    Although I have done some freelance journalism and written four non-fiction books, creative writing has become my main focus in recent years.

    My poems have appeared online on sites including Amaryllis, Silver Birch Press, Clear Poetry, Spilling Cocoa Over Martin Amis, Riggwelter and Ink,Sweat and Tears. I have been published in Curlew and Bucks Mill Magazine, and anthologised in Our Hearts Still Sing. My first poetry collection, Chester City Walls, came out in 2015.

    Read more about Julia
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