The Vault: the best of herkind.com / Lost Lagoon Swans

The following piece was first published in 2001, but watching Mute Swans in High Park today reminded me of a time when I had a lot invested in these beautiful creatures. I became part of a group of “swan-watchers” who daily checked on the progress of the nesting, hatching and growth of the cygnets. For hours I would sit on the grass by a pair as they tended to what turned out to be unviable eggs. Still we sat until they were long past due, and I pinned all my hopes on those eggs hatching as a sign that my life in Vancouver would be successful. Here’s a story I wrote for the local paper about the dramatic events that unfolded in Lost Lagoon that spring. 

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At High Park, a stand off between a male Mute Swan and a Canada Goose.

I was reminded because today I spoke to a gentleman who told me that the nest of the pair of swans in Parkside pond had been upset and probably ruined by a few kids who have been regularly fishing on a log shooting out in the middle of the pond, where the pair had made their nest. It’s true that swans mourn their losses, just like humans, so I wasn’t surprised to see their forlorn behaviour today. The male kept a Canada Goose at bay, chasing it across the pond and away from the barren nest, still protecting what had been lost. The female wondered around aimlessly, only reviving herself when her partner came near. I can only hope she has more eggs to lay, though I can’t see a safe place for a nest, among the plastic bottles, discarded pizza bags and other debris.

These are delicate creatures and we’ve done them a disservice by holding them captive for esthetic purposed – to beautify our parks – and thereby making them vulnerable to harm while stopping them from living out their natural lives.

LOST LAGOON SWANS

last cygnet

Just hatched!

On June 13th, after 37 days of incubation, four cygnets were born to a pair of Mute Swans nesting in Lost Lagoon. The hatching began at 9 am when the first ball of wet, grey down tumbled out of one of the eggs. At 2:30 pm a second cygnet burst out of its shell, this one ivory coloured, with unusually pink feet and a lighter grey beak that its sibling. Evidently exhausted from their efforts to break free of their embryonic shelters, the babies napped frequently while their parents waiting patiently for five more hours until the final two beaks started poking out of their eggs. The tiny grey “twins,” as they were dubbed, toppled out within a couple of minutes of each other at around 7:30 pm. Delight and relief were immeasurable among a group of Stanley Park “regulars” who had been keeping vigil at three swan nests since mid-April, as if their very presence would send positive energy for a healthy, new generation of Lost Lagoon swans. A week later, only one cygnet remained alive, the three others were killed, eaten or drowned. In the past few years, the hatching, and rearing of swans has been precarious at best, and rumours abound among this dynamic group of wildlife watchers as to why.

first cygnet

about a half hour old

The Vancouver Parks board characterized this year’s cygnet hatching as a “miracle,” for more than one reason. At approximately 16.5 hectares in area, Lost Lagoon is thought to be much too small for more than one pair of nesting swans, since swans typically require an area at least the size of the whole of Stanley Park (1,000 acres) to accommodate the protectiveness they exhibit while they incubate, hatch and bring up their young. Two other female swans laid seven eggs each but all were lost, allegedly either from spoiling, predators like racoons and otters, or to humans. The four cygnets that did hatch were laid by a young mother who, at two years of age, had supposedly not yet reached reproductive maturity, since Mute Swans usually do not lay their first eggs until at least three years of age. Her partner is estimated to be in his twenties, and to never have successfully parented any young. Although swans habitually mate for life, this male’s partner died last year and it was his first mating season with a new, much younger female. Mike Mackintosh, of the Vancouver Parks Board, who has been involved with the swans in Stanley Park since the 1960s, is not concerned with their low birth rate. “The nine we have now is a much more realistic and manageable number.” In the past they were much larger in number in the park, and were kept company by a few Australian Black Swans that were subsequently stolen, and some native North American Trumpeters and Tundra Swans, that eventually moved on.

The Mute Swan is perhaps the most replicated of all the swans species in art, poetry and literature, and commercially in company logos, insignias, and advertising. This is the one species most known to people, due to the fact that it was introduced to North America from England over a hundred years ago, and lives in parks, lagoons and waterways across this continent, close to urban areas. Most Mute Swans are considered relatives to the “royal” English Swans, raised along the Thames River and therefore originally the property of the British royal family, except for a sub species known as Polish Mutes, who have pink feet, compared to the black of the English Mutes and, when mated with them produce a white or light coloured cygnet rather than the usual grey. They are admired for their natural, ornamental beauty (especially when they cup their wings above their backs) and, in their semi-domesticated homes in urban settings, they have learned to have little or no fear of humans, and are therefore susceptible to their attention.

Cygnets on board

adult swan protects young from predators

The Mute Swans in Stanley Park are the descendants of the original number that were introduced from England in the park’s early history. Although the record keeping on the Stanley Park swans has been poor at best, Mike Mackintosh remembers that fifty years ago as many as seventy-five lived in the natural habitat of Beaver Lake and Lost Lagoon, which both provided plenty of what the Swans thrive on—a vegetarian diet consisting of pond weed, various grasses, and some invertebrates like insects, molluscs and tadpoles. Over the years, through natural attrition due to old age and death by predators, their numbers gradually dwindled. At certain points new swans were introduced in an effort to avoid inbreeding. The Mute Swans are distinguished from the native North American Trumpeter and Tundra Swans by their black knobs that protrude above their bright orange beaks (the knob is more pronounced in the male Mute, than the female). They are known for their territorial nature, especially during nesting periods, and in order to keep them from mixing with or moving the other species out of their migratory spots, the Mute Swans are required by law in Canada to be pinioned. This procedure, which is recommended to be done in the first 2-5 days in a cygnet’s life, but which is carried out three or four months into their life at Stanley Park, permanently prevents the swans from flight. The great debate about whether pinioning is humane or not remains unsettled, but by most accounts it is a relatively painless cut made in the wing of a young bird before it grows its flight feathers, so the swan is none the wiser about its ability to fly. The result is a bird that is perceived to be more domesticated, but which is still governed by the survival-of-the-fittest laws of nature, and any close observer of our Mutes can easily see that these two factors are in constant conflict these days in Lost Lagoon.

It is only since 1998 that the swans have begun reproducing again after a five-year dry spell, with only three cygnets surviving and growing to adulthood. Swans typically lay between three and seven eggs per season, so if they are in good reproductive health, they can hatch up to seven cygnets. In a protected and thriving environment, all seven would live to adulthood, mate and reproduce. In Lost Lagoon in 1998 three cygnets hatched, two of them died of a parasitic infection caused by algae in the lagoon, and one was killed by an off-leash dog. Out of the three hatched in 1999, two survived (one of them being the young mother of the four cygnets this year). And in 2000 one went missing and one lived. Many park regulars silently, and some openly, accuse the Parks Board of having an unspoken policy to control the number of swans in the Lagoon. As the Parks Board mandate is more about providing a natural, recreational playground for residents and tourists than it is about protecting the wildlife, many feel that it simply doesn’t care. Particularly unprotected are the swans, which are stuck here, in an inadequately small space, fighting for territory, their young vulnerable to too many close by predators, and a few known human repeat offender feeders. With the exception of Ziggy Jones, a park “wildlife technician” who, because they are not migratory, feeds the swans a supplemental amount of wheat grass, duck pellets, park staff cannot be everywhere at once keeping track of the wildlife in the park. An Eco-Rangers program is in effect in the summer months only, where twice a day volunteers go out into the park to remind visitors about the “no-feeding” by-law and to try to educate them on why feeding wildlife is harmful. Many of the prohibitive no-feeding signs are hidden by foliage, particularly in the lush spring and summer months. Mike Mackintosh admits that the Vancouver Parks Board needs to get more serious about enforcing the by-law, especially in light of recent coyote attacks. His lists of the problems feeding and overfeeding causes include overpopulation of wildlife, disturbance of natural balances, higher risk of wildlife disease, an increase of rodents and other pest species, habitat damage, and physical injuries to people,

This year, with only four swan eggs making it to hatching time, regulars commiserated that the Vancouver Parks Board was simply not being diligent enough to ensure a successful breeding season. A years-old rumour resurfaced about the Parks Board addling and spoiling the eggs, and then pointing media attention to wild predators or humans to cover up their below the radar agenda on control. Mike Mackintosh’s reply to that is, “Why would we want to shake the swan eggs, as if there is some kind of evil intent.” In fact the Parks Board does have a policy about rounding up Canada Geese, and limiting their large numbers. “In the case of the swans,” he says, ‘I just sort of shake my head and say, Get a Life!”

Among the group of regulars, there are distinctions as to which members have the best interests of the swans in mind, and those who have perhaps too much of an emotional investment in them and have forgotten that they are wildlife, and not mere pets, or worse, human. The former are lovers of waterfowl and wildlife alike and respectfully observe, take photos, and chat with other nature-lovers, as well as keep the Parks Board and Stanley Park Nature House (the two on-sight organizations) informed of any harm or mischief being perpetrated on park wildlife. The latter are the repeat feeders, who believe that there is not enough natural food in the Lagoon for the swans and have taken the care and feeding of them upon themselves, sometimes to a harmful conclusion.

The unofficial leader of the “swan-watchers” is a woman named Jean who, after many years of keeping an eye on park wildlife, has by far the best memory and documentation of the swans. She also knows who belongs on which side in terms of healthy and unhealthy interest in the swans, and pulls no punches when it comes to telling people not to feed them, get too close, or to please put their dog on a leash. Everyday throughout the spring during the long transit strike, she travelled from New Westminster, walking into the park from the closest Skytrain station and could be found somewhere along the Lost Lagoon path, between the three swan nests. She kept copious notes on when each swan laid which egg and likely knew more accurately than the Stanley Park Nature House staff and the Parks Board itself about when the hatching would begin. She explained to any and all that hatching was not guaranteed and that even if the cygnets hatched, they may not live to adulthood. She happily showed off her photos from last year and she spoke lovingly about how the proud parents fuss over their young, described the cygnet’s first swim, and the way they ride the lagoon on the protective backs of their mothers, their little beaks peaking out from her wings. Her enthusiasm, tinged with sadness for the lost cygnets over the years, easily ignited interest in others about the pending births. Over the course of the time of the nesting, the group grew in number. Some members were first-timers, some old-timers, and all gravitated toward Jean to learn the latest progress of the swans. By the end of May it looked like only one set of swans would produce the coveted cygnets, and “regulars” could be seen peering over the fenced-off nest closest to the causeway as the hopeful parents stubbornly tended to their eggs, although they were long past their hatching date. Soon, all focus and anticipation was directed to the four remaining eggs in the middle nest. And what had started out as a few people strolling along the Lost Lagoon’s 1 km pathway had turned into a group of people with a common interest meeting to chat about life and nature in the company of the swans.

CygnetsAfterSwim

Cygnets after their first swim

It is not surprising then that when the first two cygnets went missing, it was one of the “regulars” who first noticed, and another who found one of the bodies and brought it in to Ziggy Jones, the waterfowl caretaker. It was less than a week after their birth, and just as they were becoming experts at climbing on and off the nest to swim and learn to feed, trying to mimic their parents’ neck-dive to the bottom of the lagoon to forage for food. The speculation was that the inexperienced mother was lured to the opposite side of the lagoon by “the swan lady” who claims to have raised them for more than thirteen years by feeding them abundant amounts of food, sometimes bird seed, often times cat food. The swan, clearly used to being fed by this woman, took her young too often into the territory of the other swans that were still in their defensive nesting mode, despite losing their eggs. As well, they were much easier prey for herons, crows and other predators on the open lagoon. After several witnessed battles between the male swans, it was concluded that the grandfather of the cygnets (the male of the unsuccessful “causeway” pair) finally found one of them swimming too far from the protective wing of its mother. Ms. Jones sent the found body off for a necropsy and to date, two months later, the results are not known. After that the parents became more cautious, but the food on the other side of the lagoon still held a fascination for the mother and off she went, continually putting her two remaining cygnets in danger. A few days later one more cygnet vanished and Ms. Jones took the final one into protective custody at an undisclosed place in Stanley Park, where she is raising it in a wading pool for the next few months. She plans to first place it in a farm yard in the park, and by fall she will put it back into the lagoon. She is aware that by then even the cygnet’s parents may not recognize it and that no matter when she re-introduces it could prove dangerous, but she maintains that in the fall, with the nesting season long over, the Lagoon is a quieter, more tranquil place, where the swans co-exist more peacefully. She has based this decision on her six years of experience looking after the Stanley Park waterfowl, her own rearing of birds and plenty of pertinent reading. As a “wildlife technician” for Stanley Park, she has no related educational credentials, and expresses frustration with the Parks Board’s budgetary constraints on wildlife protection. When asked if she consulted waterfowl experts on her decision to take the cygnet away from its parents she replies, “I don’t even have a computer.”

As many people as there are who want the cygnet protected, there are likely as many who think it should have been left to nature’s order. This is the gist of Zoe Renaud’s response to whether or not a cygnet should be taken from its parents at such a young age. As a certified wildlife rehabilitator, at the Wildlife Rescue Association in Burnaby, she receives many calls about injured or abandoned birds and animals and empathizes with Ms. Jones on her decision to remove the cygnet. “When you pinion the swans you basically turn them into a domesticated animal. In the wild a cygnet would never be taken from the protection of its parents. In Stanley Park the worst that can happen is that it will be forced away from the flock of swans and rely on the companionship of humans.” Ms. Renaud also understands that this falls into the other risk categories of over domestication of wildlife. “There is no right or wrong answer here,” she says, “They are already living unnaturally.”

Melanie Beeson, founder of the Swan Sanctuary in Surrey, England advises that our cygnet is quite special as it is in fact a Polish Mute which, she says, tend to be more delicate. “I would say a Polish cygnet tends to need his parents that little bit more. This could be why you’ve lost cygnets in previous years.” She recommends reintroducing the cygnet sooner than later to diminish the risk of rejection.

For the first time in many years, the swans basked in the limelight of media attention. The Vancouver Sun carried a daily account of the life of the cygnets, and both VTV and Global Television featured segments on them. Many regulars were reluctant to speak on camera or be quoted in print and were so protective of the swans and their story that one reporter, sensing a conspiratorial air, commented, “This is about the swans isn’t it?” What was really happening was wariness about the way ordinary people had been implicated in the media as part of the problem, and frustration with the misrepresentation of the swans as vicious, or neglectful parents. The oft quoted Ziggy Jones claims that she was misquoted in the stories. After allowing the Vancouver Sun a photo of the cygnet in its new home, she is refusing any other media access for the time being. That photo, and another one just published clearly shows the cygnet to be “ivory” the second born with white down and pink feet, who possesses the less common genes of the Polish Mute, and therefore is a rarity. “No,” says Ziggy, “it’s the second lightest one.” Several photographs taken by the regulars prove, however, that there was never a second lightest coloured cygnet in the clutch. The others were the typical grey colour, with dark beaks and black feet. All are mystified by this confusion and await the day they can actually see the young swan, whose gender also won’t be known until it is taken to the vet for pinioning in another month or so.

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The Vault: the best of herkind.com/ What I Learned from Kate Middleton

In honour of Kate’s 31st birthday today, here’s a piece I wrote in July 2011, just after the newlyweds took their first trip abroad to Canada.

WHAT I LEARNED FROM KATE MIDDLETON

The other day I tripped on a busy city sidewalk and fell in plain public view. I can only hope my skirt didn’t fly up as I landed. At the time I was too busy trying to buffer myself from too much injury to notice. Now, anyone who knows me well will tell you I’m clumsy, so tripping and falling is not all that unusual; the one and only time I’ve ever broken anything – my foot – was during a fall from two harmless and not even steep concrete steps.

But, my recent tumble is different. It happened because I was trying to BE Kate Middleton.

Kate walks with confidence

One day after the Duke and Duchess left Canada, and following days of my obsessive royal watching, I tried to emulate Kate’s flawless, confident walk. Instead of the normal cautious stride of a serial klutz, head down, carefully watching my step for any potential risks, I breezed along, head high, looking forward. I wish I could tell you my heels were too high, or my shoes were too tight, but no – nothing. Just klutziness and, well, the sidewalk might have been uneven. Something the Duchess likely never has to worry about, what with all the planning and inspections and all the practicing and coaching that goes into being a royal on display to the fawning public and unforgiving media.

So, why had I taken up the mantra of “what would Kate do?”

“it should have been me”

Well, because there’s a little bit of Kate Middleton in all of us, isn’t there? Sure, she’s a Duchess now, married to a prince who will one day helm one of the most influential monarchies around. She’ll likely produce a child who will also one day inherit the throne.  Her parents are now millionaire entrepreneurs, but at the time of her birth in 1982, they were airline employees. She’s what is known in British circles as a “commoner” – not so different from the women in the crowd that lined the royal wedding route with signs on their backs reading “it should have been me.” It well could have been.

Kate’s 29, born in 1982. I’m 50, born in 1960. There’s no way I could ever be her at this point in my life, but watching her reminds me of  the promise that life holds in your 20s, when anything is possible, everything achievable. Life before too much heartache; thwarted dreams, lost jobs, men, parents, friends; events that can affect even the way you stand, and walk in the world. I realized, watching Kate, that I’ve developed a hunch – part weariness, part self-protectiveness. It’s been awhile since I approached my life with the confidence I once exuded, with the poise my mother insisted I learn, with the spark constantly remarked upon and admired.  And, I honestly never thought life could drag me so far down that it would show in my countenance. In fact, my mantra has always been, “just keep moving forward.”  Yet somewhere along the way, I stopped doing it, no matter how often I give this advice to others.

Of course it didn’t immediately occur to me why the royals gripped me so strongly. But now I see that they look exactly like I used to feel. Happy, friendly, looking out, focused on the moment, ready for anything, generally game for life.

Prince William is compelling enough on his own – born and bred to one day be King, adored and protected by his mom, Diana, Princess of Wales, he was probably one of the most photographed babies ever. Who can forget his silent, heartbreaking walk behind his mom’s coffin after her tragic death? We felt invested in his growing up, his success at school and his struggle to learn to live within the stricture of his destiny. We watched and waited to see who William would choose for a partner. And though we saw all the tabloid “waity Katy” fluff, depicting her as a woman he trifled with and didn’t intend to marry, when they finally became engaged after eight years of dating, living together and one very public break up, everyone began to focus not just on what Kate wore, but on who she really is. Who is this steady, calming influence on our beloved Wills?

We caught glimpses of her on their wedding day – elegant and glowing, she looked to the entire world nothing but ready to become the Duchess of Cambridge, with all the attention – positive or negative, and service that is involved in being a member of the British royal family.

partners, lovers, friends, royals

But, it wasn’t until she stepped onto Canadian soil for her first official Royal trip abroad with her husband that we saw her true nature. Leading up to the wedding I wrote a number of feature articles on the plans and preparations and I’ll admit it, I kind of fell in love with them. Now, since I’m a journalist I’m supposed to be naturally wary, or jaded or something that I can never quite pull off. So the thing is, they looked and seemed so down to earth, that I believe I was seeing one fairly normal human being, who just happened to be born Royal and bred to be King. And one natural beauty that just happened to appear in his sphere and become the object of his affection.

Some have said Kate Middleton quite strategically became Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge. That she set her sights on William at St. Andrew’s university where they both studied, and manipulated her way into his heart, that her mother helped her come up with ways to ensure she’d one day marry that prince.

Tell me, though, what teenage girl doesn’t dream of marrying a prince, real or figuratively? And if you happen to live in England and are around the same age as him, sure you’d have his photo on your wall.  “Harry Hunters” have had the “spare” prince squarely in their sights for years. These are girls, mostly from abroad, who enroll in British universities and then track down Prince Harry in clubs for a chance to meet him.

At 20, when Prince Charles and Lady Diana were married, the younger Prince Andrew attended an Ontario boy’s school in Lakefield, where my best friend lived. We weren’t aristocracy like Diana, but we felt sure we had a chance with him.  We may not have had the breeding but we did have the poise, the manners and, most important, pureness of heart. The princess dream starts early and dies hard, or never.

Now, I’m not looking for a prince. One good man will do. And that’s something else about Kate and my sidewalk tumble. The dapper Prince is entirely protective of his bride. Never too far from her side, he often extends a reassuring hand to her back. Since royal protocol restricts too much, or any PDA, this is his way of letting her – and us avid watchers looking for signs of affection – know how he feels (I don’t want to even talk about the adoring and knowing looks that pass between them). They are obviously in a true partnership. They are clearly there for each other.

I’m here for you

Since stumbling is par for the course for me, I’m usually pretty good at catching myself before I fall. This time however, I walked beside a male companion – someone I’ve spent a good deal of time with, whom I trust and care for. As I began to fall, I reached out for assistance, grabbing his arm with my hand as I went down. He let it go. He didn’t catch me; he said he thought I would catch myself.

Come to think of it, if there’s anything strategic about Kate Middleton’s behavior it’s that she was smart enough to leave a man who exhibited ambivalence about her. And he was clever enough to look inside his heart and out at his options, and see he had a good thing going and went back to get her.

So, what I learned from Kate Middleton is something I used to know. A little thing called confidence goes a long way to achieving the rewards you want, and deserve.

The Vault: the best of herkind.com / An Ocean of Spilled Ink

Lately I’ve been wondering why I no longer keep a consistent journal.  I feel like I’ve lost the habit of putting pen to paper and sometimes I just want to write something down to remember it – a passing thought, a good sentence I may need in the future; to recount a fun night out or a good conversation, or to work out a worry. My iPhone notes app has 238 very small entries in it! Everything from grocery lists to rough drafts of articles, recipes, books I want, music I need, song lyrics, blog post drafts, quotes from authors at their readings, interview notes, etc. Most entries would have been expanded and expounded upon in my journal. Is technology making me a lazy writer… and thinker?

Then I remembered this:

Originally published March 20, 2006

In eight short days I leave Vancouver, where I have lived the last five and a half years, to return to home to Toronto. Well, it’s not so much going back as it is going toward (I thank my wise Uncle John for asking me to differentiate between the two). I’m going toward my future, toward what I have made peace with as the next part of my life, rather than the last half of it, as I had recently been stuck on thinking. I’m sure some people out there can identify with the dilemma of losing both parents, therefore having a viable via genetics end of life date. That thought immobilized me for the better part of last year.

But… now that I’m on the move again, it’s time to truly relieve myself of the past. So, I’ve made what I’ve learned is a controversial decision to get rid of a lifetime of journals filled with a good deal of stuff I have moved beyond. After much thought, soul searching, double checking and some stomach churning anxiety, I see no real need to continue lugging The Vault around. Good thing too because movers charge by the pound and a lifetime of paper weighs A LOT!

There’s just one tiny problem. It’s impossible to open The Vault without actually reading and noticing what’s in there. Impossible to cut up paper with eyes closed. I have to wonder why I left it til the last week to crack. Day One only released a mere five journals out of about one hundred!

a few journals

Now, The Vault is a trunk full of not just journals since about 13 years of age, but day timers for about 20 years in a row (wherein I wrote everything I did and everything I thought to minute detail), photos, letters and emails received and sent to family, friends, boyfriends, hopeful boyfriends, ex boyfriends (torturous)! The Vault also contains my juvenilia and other younger writing (which will not be pitched).I made a few mistakes with The Vault today:1) I read some of those crushing, vulnerable, even pathetic emails and letters;2) I read but one journal passage (1985 I think) which defined my life with men, then and up until far too recently (but hopefully not going forward);

3) I opened up some letters from my much missed dead mother written in 1981, the first time I left home to move West. The letters reveal our lifelong closeness and inability to live apart. What a joy to see her handwriting, evidence of her life; and read the words, evidence of her love; but Oh what heartbreak to be smacked hard again with the reality of her loss.

Result – a pool of tears onto an ocean of spilled ink.

It’s good to cry though. So they say. I was just trying to save it up for my last walk around the Seawall, behind sunglasses and away from everything, released and lost into the vast Pacific.

Try as I might to look at this move as just another day in my life, it’s really so very much more than that. The need to purge – to not lug the life back that I brought here – is large.

Next week my pal Steph and I are gonna burn all this paper. Cutting it up is just the dress rehearsal. People have been advising me not to do it, but I crave, and am fully ready, for a life unfettered by the past. From now on, what is in my head and in my heart, and on the legitimate writing page is what will be remembered.

Lived, felt, and let go.

The Vault: best of herkind.com/ Solo

Originally published February 8, 2010

A few months ago I went to a concert by myself. I do this a lot, go out alone. Sometimes I prefer it. I really didn’t think it was a big deal until I told a couple of people about the concert. Of course the inevitable question was, who’d you go with? The reactions surprised me.

Apparently it’s courageous to do something social on your own. Or, maybe it’s even anti-social!

I’ve often written about my intermittent loneliness and how I feel that it is something that, although difficult, can be overcome. The key is to learn how to not let it affect big decisions. I’ve let that happen and learned from it – I hope. The biggest one, I believe, was moving back to Toronto from Vancouver before I’d given my life there enough of a chance. I felt indescribably lonely and was susceptible to family and friends saying, just come home. It was a mistake, but one I am trying to make the best of.

These days I’m more willing to wait the lonely feeling out. To let it run its course, because I believe it always will.

I never felt lonely a day on earth while my mother was alive and because I believe my loneliness is attached to her death, I always think of it as situational. That she’s been gone 12 years doesn’t seem to affect my characterization of the feeling. It comes, it goes.

A new book called Lonely by a Canadian writer, Emily White has got me doubting myself and wondering if I’ve caught the bravado bug I sometimes accuse others of having, the ones who are unwilling to admit their loneliness.

White bravely tells of her chronic loneliness which she  felt most of her life, but intensely so for about 3 years in her mid-30s. Three years! Chronic? Oh dear.

I have to admit I read the book with much fear. In fact, in parts my heart was beating so fast I felt sure I was having a full out panic attack. Her early life mirrors my own: feelings of separation, isolation, too much of a gap of age and temperament with siblings, parents at odds with one another, their evident loneliness, a mother who held me a little too close to fill in the spaces for her. Hell, even Emily White’s first boyfriend had the same name as mine. Has my loneliness been with me my whole life? Could feelings of loneliness and isolation be the reason I have so few memories of my young life?

I looked up from the book at the prints decorating my bedroom – it’s not the first time I’ve wondered why every single one of them depicts a woman alone.

Picasso’s Blue Nude, hangs above my bed

Has loneliness so shaped my life that it’s the reason I am middle-aged, single, with no safety net, a tiny social circle and indistinguishable social life and, worst of all, no kids? Did I somehow make this happen? And collect the art to reflect it back to me each day upon waking?

Do people look at me walking down the streets of my neighbourhood and say, there goes that lonely woman. Always alone. (no wonder I feel giddy when I can go into a local coffee shop once in awhile accompanied by a – usually male – friend. Phew, they will know I have friends and maybe even a boyfriend!)

White makes a case for loneliness as an affliction caused by genetics and nurturing. She believes we are wired through DNA to be lonely. And that sometimes our loneliness mirrors that of our parents, in her case mostly her mother. Because she wants it more out in the open, she believes it should be listed in the updated version of the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), due to come out in 2012. This, she says, would ensure it gets properly funded for research and treatment, the natural progression of this being medication.

Now, I haven’t done the exhaustive research she has but I disagree.

I think loneliness is a periodic state of being that visits itself upon each and every one of us at various times. Let’s face it, more people live alone now and gone are the days of close knit communities and extended families. The key is learning to understand how it affects you and what to do to work through it. After all, we’re supposed to grow and learn in life. Sometimes my loneliness is acute and it feels like nothing can alleviate it. Since I’m pretty comfortable alone it’s not being alone that triggers it. It’s being alone when I don’t want to be and feeling like I can’t connect with anyone. It’s that feeling that there’s no way to communicate my deepest feelings that makes me the loneliest.

Admittedly, the biggest reason is not having a one and only – which isn’t necessarily a love partner, though that would be nice. And I’m trying to find a way to understand how to make that very neglected part of my life work. But, just one or a few good companionable, compatible, supportive friends would do the trick.

I have friends like this, but they are mostly busy with their lives of husband/wife, active young family connections. Or they’re too far away to connect with very often. I’m a natural sharer and sometimes feel unbelievably bereft, and afraid for my future with no safeties in place. Also, being alone so much means that my nurturing instincts can go numb with disuse, or worse, get misplaced on someone entirely inappropriate. Something that can catch me unawares if I’m not careful.

Emily White thinks this type of dulling of the senses is a result of loneliness. She also offers up plenty of studies, although they are relatively small ones, that show how loneliness affects heart health, and is implicated in dementia. These pieces of information are nothing short of terrifying to me and the surest way to get me to try any outlet at all towards connection.

White says lonely people are reluctant to tell their families and friends that they are lonely. It’s true. Most people end up feeling responsible for how you feel and it only serves to turn them further away, not closer. I prefer to just bare down and get myself through it. But I’m also not afraid to say it’s a pretty big part of my life right now. But that really is my challenge, not anyone else’s.

I do know how to reach out and I enjoy sociability. I welcome it, when I’m feeling up to it. The truth is, through many years of therapy and 5 years of living away from home, I discovered the original me and that person requires more time and space, which usually means plenty of solitude of the chosen variety.

Most lonely people I know -whether they admit to being lonely or whether it’s something I sense – are creative, singular,  and as I like to call it, living outside the much touted “normal” lines. I can’t really complain about feel lonely when I bring it on by leaping out of my life every five years, at least.

My worry is that I will always do this and never settle down and that my innate (not genetic though) loneliness causes me to do this.

Perhaps I will never know. It’s not a worry I really want to take on. I prefer to believe it’s a badge of maturity to learn to live with loneliness. or should I say, live it out.

But I certainly have no intention of taking a pill for it. Nor will I stop my solo, apparently oh so courageous, outings to concerts and social gatherings.

The Vault: the best of herkind.com / Unrequited

Originally published March 12, 2007

Is it possible to suffer a broken heart because of a failed relationship with the city of your dreams?

Moving home from Vancouver almost a year ago was like saying goodbye to a lover I didn’t want to leave, but with whom I knew there’d only ever be heartache. It’s not surprising then, that I would be filled with a longing that is most times very difficult to put into words.

Funny, how I keep trying…

This whole year has been a reintegration, a re-learning of sorts and I should probably keep the process to myself.  But…

English Bay sunset

If you haven’t lived in a place that doesn’t get ridiculously cold and, worse, barren for 6 months of the year, then it’s hard to understand what you’re missing, or even that there are liveable, viable places like that in the world to conduct your life (that aren’t resorts, I mean).

If you have, then this would be the longest winter of your entire life!!!

Sweet and helpful people tell me that it’s been a good winter, not too many cold snaps or snow, but that’s really besides the point for me. In October when the leaves started changing colour (admittedly pretty), and then falling off (oh dear!), I knew I was in for a long lush-less period of browning grass and cold, dark concrete, dirty, slushy snow that hangs around for eons. But I never would have anticipated the impact of it on my psyche – I guess I thought, well I was born here and survived 39 winters in a kind of desolation I never named, because I didn’t know any damn different! So, what’s the problem?

Well,, I only learned to appreciate nature by waking up to its unrelenting beauty every day. It really does change your whole perspective!

Stanley Park Seawall

Lovely Desiree, my friend in Vancouver, said last night, “well, it’s raining here.” Another well-meaning friend commented, “We have our own weather issues… it’s cloudy” Um… big flippin’ deal!!! My umbrella has been sitting under my work desk for months now, and I would kill to be able to use it over dragging on coat, scarf, hat and boots for the 5th month in a row!!! My dear West Coast friends, you probably don’t know this but RAIN and cloudiness is far better. You see, it means things are green, spring comes early and it never gets all that cold.

There!

Vancouverites love to compare themselves to Toronto and Montreal, feeling they always come up a bit short (oh they deny this, but it is sooo true!) It seems like a pointless effort, since they are really apples and oranges. And here’s why:

Each region of Canada has a way (and means actually) of life that is based purely on geography and climate. A road trip across the country is the best way to understand this. The things that concern us here in the centre of the universe don’t even register on the radar of rural Albertans, prairie folk, Islanders or west coast dwellers. This is the main reason why both sides of the country feel alienated, to one degree or another, by a centrist government and media. Who can blame ’em?

There are differences that are so subtle it’s easy to dismiss them – except that at the moment they are glaringly obvious to me. This morning, for instance, seeing the temperature was finally a balmy 1 degree above zero, I pulled out a top I haven’t worn in ages, but that was a staple in my wardrobe in Vancouver – in any season. Why? It’s a light weight cotton long sleeve, which up until this point would have me freezing both under my winter coat and sitting at my desk. Simple but important difference – you don’t have to invest in four seasons worth of clothing!! (good thing in a city as expensive as my beloved)

Cherry blossom-lined streets

Folks in Vancouver have impeccable shoes, hair and very clean cars. Nothing is weather-beaten. It’s one of the first things I noticed, with pleasure.

By the time I left Toronto 6 years ago, I had grown to hate winter and that fact was a big influence on the decision to live in a part of our country that pretty much skips that season.

I guess I forgot that part!

Last week I spent a day at Canada Blooms, a gardening trade exhibit. We were shooting stories for the tv show I work on and it sure felt strange to have to go inside at this time of year to see trees, waterfalls, streaming rivulets and flowers. It was so out of context for me that some of the displays looked downright funereal. At first struck by the crowd, I soon realized I was one of them, desperate to see green, growing things; willing to drop any amount on whatever it takes to make my 2×4 Toronto garden look lush for as long as possible (AND I DON’T EVEN HAVE ONE).

Here’s the crux of it: I never want to be a person who feels desperate for anything, least of all for want of a pretty flowering tree to gaze upon.

Cherry blossoms

But there’s also a deeper psychological issue at play here. I was brought up in a household full of extremes where I perfected the art of crisis management in order to feel any semblance of normal. To step out of the spiral I figured out that the extremes in weather too closely mirrored my early life.  I had to find moderation in all things – the ubiquitous balance to which everyone here gives lip service. As crazy as it sounds, for me that included weather, maybe even started with it. I thought I had succeeded , so this winter (and the horrific heat and humidity of this past summer) have been as much a test of endurance, as a barometer of personal growth.

I’m serious!

The truth is, as beautiful as Vancouver was and is, I could never quite find a way to make it feel like home. Had I been able to conquer that I would never have left. It was truly the biggest bout of unrequited love I’ve ever experienced. Geesh, you’d think I’d be happy it’s over!

Still… Spring has never been more welcome, and having said that I will rest my fruitless and exhausting comparisons and just find a way to make peace with my decision to live here.

OR…

The Vault: best of herkind.com / Non-Mom

 

(Summer is the time of year I really feel I’ve missed out by not becoming a mother. I think I said it best in this post introducing my TVO essay on the topic. Originally published on Jan. 6, 2011)

Last year I met the writer,  Molly Peacock and began, by chance, to talk to her about a piece I was trying to work out about being childless and how hard it was to a) reconcile that fact, in a world where motherhood is revered, and b) how silent the process is because there’s so little written on it, and it’s rarely discussed. What I didn’t know was that she had written an entire book on her choice to be child-free and how it had defined her life.

I devoured Paradise Piece by Piece and, though my childlessness has happened more from circumstance than choice – it would never be my choice – I still related to a great deal of what she wrote. That’s because to be a “non-mom” is still fairly undefined and misunderstood.

Here’s my TVO The Agenda essay on the topic. It’s Part 2, which began with an essay on how the advent of fertility technology makes us mistakenly believe we can delay motherhood. It struck quite a  nerve and this one is a response to a question posed to me :is it really all that emotionally difficult not to be a mother?

The Invisibility of the “non-moms”

The Vault: best of Herkind.com / Vancouver Vignettes #9

(originally published August 23, 2010)

For a long time it’s been my intention to write about my time spent living in Vancouver (2000-2006) but for one reason or another I never have. Since Vancouver is my unrequited love, it might have been a bit painful for awhile. But in honour of my visit there later this month, and as a primer for it, I offer these small memory vignettes.

Take That Toronto

In my freelancing writing quest in Vancouver, one magazine that I pursued had a “Take That Toronto” column. My idea was to write a short piece on how perfect everyone’s hair looked and how immaculate their shoes were. The editor wrote back telling me “Vancouverites don’t need to be told we have great style, we know we do.” Well, she told me!

But if you’ve ever lived in Toronto, with its humidity, over-treated, hard water, and snow and salt then you can appreciate what I meant.

Younger and blonder, circa 2005

I never understood the term “manageable hair” until lived in the land of soft water. It was softer, shinier and for the first time I could use “product” in it without worrying about buildup. In Toronto my hair was always BIG.

(to be honest my BIG hair sensitivity began in elementary school where I used to get called “mop-head” but we don’t need to go there today)

That it could, or ever would be any different is one of those happy discoveries that, while not life-changing by any stretch, certainly goes a long way to making your aging self feel better.

The shoe thing is just a matter of getting longer life out of a pair of shoes or boots due to little or no snow or salt. That means you’re more inclined to spend more on them, hence the well heeled feet of Vancouverites. (you could say the same about their cars actually).

Moving to Vancouver coincided with the first time since I was a teen that I grew my hair long, so having it so easy to take care of was a delight. In fact, I didn’t go for a haircut until about two years in. You can read about that harrowing experience in a piece I wrote called Of Human Blondage .

When I finally did get a salon haircut it was for a makeover show on CityLine. My former work colleagues from Toronto came to Breakfast Television, where I worked and couldn’t believe what they saw. Not only was my hair way long, but I wasn’t wearing the usual impeccable outfits and full makeup they were used to seeing me don as a junior exec at Chum in Toronto. They swiftly sent me to The Lounge Hair Studio on Richards, deaf to my protests of enjoying my new found “naturalness.”

That’s where Martin Hillier let loose my curls – yes, curls, which I didn’t even know I owned – and showed me how to enhance them with product! Product, I might add, that washes out just fine!

Now that changed my life. Let’s just say, men really like curly hair.

So as I sit here with a lump of build up at the back of my head, after years of detox shampoos, extra long rinses in the shower and narrowly escaping my own threat to just cut it out and off, I am really looking forward to 5 days of great hair in Vancouver later this week! And even though I cannot afford to get my hair cut and styled for the wedding I’m attending, I do know that no matter what, my hair will feel soft and look shiny clean! No buildup!

Take that Toronto!