Margaret Renkl wants you to know that loss is universal.
The Nashville-based writer, perhaps best known for her regular columns in the New York Times, explores that idea in her debut book, Late Migrations. Part memoir, part observation of nature, the book weaves together dozens of short, poetic essays into a narrative about coming to terms with grief.
Especially in her own Southern family, there's something therapeutic about keeping memories alive with stories. "I don't think that anyone is ever really completely dead in the South. I think that we carry our people with us," she tells WPLN.
But she starts her process of facing the inevitability of death by exploring its role in nature: how the joy of one animal outside her window (the wren, the hawk) spells the doom of another. In an early essay, "Red in Beak and Claw," Renkl tells the story of a bluebird's nest filled with eggs that, a few days later, is undisturbed but empty.
"The cycle of life might as well be called the cycle of death: Everything that lives will die, and everything that dies will be eaten," she writes. "That's how wildness works, and I know it. I was heartbroken anyway."
Renkle started writing after the death of her mother, she recalls. Shortly after, her mother-in-law went into hospice care.
"It was just overwhelming to me how all of this was coming together to just remind me on a daily basis, like a tolling bell, that time is running out," she tells WPLN. "And yet, there was all this life outside the window. I just was feeling that if I concentrated on that life — if I forced myself to see this rat snake coming out of the chickadee nest box and the crow stealing the cardinal's babies — then I would stop feeling so singled out for suffering."
One of the most intensely bittersweet essays is called "What I Saved," tallying the process of cleaning out her mother's house — the one coffee mug out of 37, the three lipsticks out of two dozen.
"I saved all five giant boxes of OxiClean, and oh my God, why did you never tell me about OxiClean?" she writes. "At 156 loads per box, our socks have been white for all the years you've been gone."
"I think about my own children, what have I not mentioned to them," Renkl says. "You know, my oldest son is 27, and he read the book. He said, 'So many of these stories you've never said.'
"I didn't realize I had never told them those stories. I mean, I tell stories all the time. Southerners tell stories, that's what we do. But apparently not all of them."
Listen to the full radio interview above. Late Migrations releases July 9.