In May, I went to a long-awaited John Mayer concert. As many people know, there’s almost nothing I like better than his music and seeing him perform it. (I get a lot of flack for it, but let’s ignore that for now) And I enjoyed it, the company of my fun concert companion, and the show. But something was missing. At first I couldn’t put my finger on it. I thought maybe I was disappointed with the set list and fewer new songs than I expected. Then I thought it was trepidation about being in a crowd after so much time stuck at home on my own. But after a week or so of feeling perplexed by my own reaction after not seeing him — or any music — live for two years, it slowly dawned on me that I had lost my usual breadth of emotion. I had become numb from the years of trying to balance unrelenting bad news with my deep fear of medical emergencies — while being steeped in too much reality in my journalism work realm. A person like me, anxious about anything health-related, should probably not be assigned to interview multiple epidemiologists during a global health crisis! I worried for my family members, friends, my city and country, the world … and myself.
Prior to the pandemic, I had somewhat successfully taken the hold button off my life, and for the first time in years began really leaning into a balanced life. I branched out a little more, worked normal hours, made new friends. Took better care of myself. In Toronto, it’s just so easy for me to fall into stasis. But I was having some success climbing out of that until the pandemic threw me back into my workaholic tendencies – this time as a way to counter the chaos around me. At least I can control my day-to-day, was likely my rationale.
A reporter once asked musician/poet Leonard Cohen what he thought his legacy would be. The situation I describe above is not at all about legacy, but his answer rings true with what I think I —- and perhaps a good many of us — have experienced during the pandemic. He said, it’s hard to get a sense of things when you’re always on the front lines dodging bullets. Dodging bullets is what 2020 to at least half of 2022 has felt like.
This inertia, plus some serious work burnout, is how I arrived in Vancouver on July 4th. A trip I usually take twice a year, I hadn’t been here since December 2019, just before that first terrifying world-wide lock down. And I’d missed it, the place I come to ground myself and to refill the well. Where I remind myself of what’s important to me and determine whether I need to change course on any goals or situations in my life. As I slowly began to get my bearings and reacquaint myself with what I’ve come to consider my true home, it occurred to me that this was the exact state of mind I was in when I moved here in 2000.
It was just before my 40th birthday. I’d just left a high-profile entertainment PR job to move west where I knew almost no-one, to start fresh in the life I had manifest for myself during five years of intense therapy. After 10 years in a career I was good at but that I’d ultimately learned didn’t suit me, my intention was to see where my creative brain would lead me, maybe pick up some freelance work, and learn how to live the “writing life.”
I had lost my mother unexpectedly three years prior and the biggest revelation to me those first few months was that I hadn’t even begun to process this profound loss.
I had two occupations then: lying on the beach at English Bay listening to music and the soothing power of ocean waves. And keeping a close watch with a lively group of Stanley Park wildlife enthusiasts on the Lost Lagoon mute swans nesting and hatching their young.
Who was this new person who cared about swan eggs so much that she’d sit beside the nest uttering encouraging words to the parents as they took turns warming the eggs. I barely recognized myself as I recited silent prayers daily for these precious birds whose eggs I’d been told, hadn’t been viable last season. Worse, as part of the decorative swan program in parks across the Commonwealth, they were pinioned and unable to fly away from urban pests such as raccoons, and wildlife such as eagles and blue herons. We worried the species might die out, especially since part of the reason for difficult fertility was that the mutes were aging and there were not enough mating-age swans. One older male had become pretty much the only partner for a few female swans. This also became the cause for more territorial behaviour than usual on the lagoon. That spring, I made a deal with the one pair whose eggs stood a chance: if your cygnets survive, my life in Vancouver will thrive, too.
This was just the beginning of new experiences and the biggest transformation in my life. Though it’s now more than 20 years later, so much of what forms my foundation now began then.
So what does this have to do with this past month? Well it all felt so similar. With a two-year gap in my time in the place that revives me, I had lost myself a little more than I’d realized. I arrived late on a Monday night, fumbled in the semi-darkness for the lockbox and keys to my West 3rd Ave apartment, a few blocks up from Kits Beach. I went straight to bed, exhausted by the flight, and the time difference, anxious to get this travel day over with.
The next day I woke to almost the exact view I’d had in my first-ever Vancouver apartment: the North Shore mountains and English Bay, and to the right a speckling of high rises just to remind one that a city exists against this idyllic surround. It took me no time to get into the swing of west coast life to the point that after a month of being here, I’m not sure how it’s possible to get on a plane and go back to a place where I often feel like an imposter living a parallel life to the one I should be enjoying.
This visit and all I learned during it is extremely personal and I’ll reserve most of it for myself. During my time here, I kept both a physical and video journal, I documented every cup of coffee, cocktail, scenic walk, conversation with friends, the mountains from all different perspectives, and so many sunset photos I had to ask myself if it was too much. Ultimately I decided that every sunset I captured was enough to warrant all that iPhone storage! I didn’t want to forget a thing because the pandemic has (re)taught me that nothing can ever be taken for granted and though I plan to come back next year … you just never know, do you?
The writer Isabel Huggan says: There are places on the planet we belong that are not necessarily where we were born. If we are lucky — if the gods are in a good mood — we find them, for whatever length of time is necessary for us to know that, yes, we belong to the earth and it to us.”
I came to Vancouver somewhat broken. I return with a renewed sense of direction and confidence. There’s no question where I belong. Only what to do about it.
Once again on a very short three day spring stop in Vancouver I’m reminded of my dual life — I live in Toronto, I thrive in Vancouver. It remains the one place where I reconnect with what’s important to me, where I get back to me. I usually go home resolved to stay grounded. Then… I lose myself. I’ve never understood why and I won’t begin to this time either.
This visit is a bit different. Last time I was here for a luxurious two weeks. I walked everywhere, I saw everyone important to me. I went home feeling connected to people who have/make time to spend time. What a relief. In Toronto, I hibernate. I’m static. I hide out. I give out my time sparingly… I’m protective because my experience there is people are too busy… spending time isn’t a priority. I try not to take it personally. But, I do.
In Vancouver, I expand.
This time, riddled with a very sore back which makes walking very far a lot more difficult, I stayed close to home in Kits (thank goodness for great Airbnb apartments in familiar neighbourhoods). I had just spent four days in Portland on a work trip and the 50-minute flight to Vancouver flying over the Cascade mountains was gorgeous and left me happy to be on Canadian land.
Home. Second home, first home. They are interchangeable to me. My family and lifelong friends in one place, my heart and soul in the other.
If this life is about working out unresolved issues from a previous one, I’m sorely behind because I just can’t fully accept having to live somewhere that doesn’t suit me and constantly pine for the one I know does. I may never stop regretting giving up on Vancouver after only six short years. The best thing I can do is try to visit as often as possible the place where 16 years ago I finally came, after years of hoping and planning to live. One that changed me in every way:
I learned balance after a lifetime of extremes
I learned a completely different and much more suitable lifestyle
I finally began to reconcile the shock of losing my mother
Which somehow led me to an unexpected, life-altering reconciliation with my father
I took great strides in moving forward – something I advocate yet sometimes find hard to do
Tested my independence, learned to be alone, discovered I prefer and need great amounts of time on my own
Learned to accept my true character, learned how to stay true to it, and the kind of work that jived with it.
In a nutshell… living here meant EVERYTHING and everything important – every way that I am now began in Vancouver.
Alas, I leave for Toronto tomorrow – to cold and snow. Where I must wait at least another month for the kind of blooming abundance that is here now. It’s no small thing. It’s part of what suits me vs. what I endure.
It’s why I’ll be crying as he plane takes off over the Pacific Ocean tomorrow afternoon.
“That’s a lovely skirt. Tell me, is it difficult to iron all those pleats?”
In the green room of the North York Centre for the Performing Arts, I’m keeping Alice Munro company until it’s time for her to step on stage for her rare double-bill appearance with Robertson Davies. I’m not sure who’s minding Mr. Davies, but I definitely got the good gig!
Of course, I want to gush to her about how Friend of My Youth (her 7th and my cherished title) changed my life, about how her writing is such an inspiration and how reading it makes me somehow feel less alone. But she wants to talk about something… anything else, as a way to calm her nerves. I’m happy to oblige her every need. In fact my job as the publicist for the Harbourfront Reading Series which is presenting the evening’s event, depends on seeing to her comfort. So, we talk about the challenges of keeping well-formed pleats in my skirt.
When she’s sufficiently relaxed, I shyly ask her to sign my copy.
That was in 1994. I declared my PR career could end then since I reached the ultimate goal of meeting and chatting with my favourite author.
Fast forward to 1998, Ms. Munro is up for the coveted Giller Prize for The Love of a Good Woman. I’m production coordinating the live-from-the-cocktail party portion of the Giller Prize broadcast on Bravo! where I work as PR director. Of course, the producers and hosts want to talk to her, but knowing as I do about her shyness and reluctance to be in the public eye, I keep telling them she will likely not show up until the absolute last minute. Sure enough, she sneaks by all the cameras into her seat in the Four Seasons ballroom.
Her acceptance speech is a very humble few words about how maybe now the short story will gain acceptance as a legitimate form of writing.
I didn’t speak to her that night, just simply basked in her graceful, winning aura.
In Vancouver in 2005, I get to talk to Alice Munro one more time after she accepts the George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award in the atrium of the beautiful Vancouver Public Library main branch. I line up to congratulate her and to my absolute astonishment, she remembers me from those many years ago in the green room at the North York arts centre. I wish I could tell you what we talked about that day at the library. I think I was overwhelmed knowing she could recall ever meeting me! She invited me into the small private gathering inside the library.
What I remember most is her warmth, grace and the generous way she spoke to her fans and colleagues that day.
I’m so pleased she’s won the Nobel. I can’t think of a more deserving or worthy Canadian writer whose first thought, when accepting this honour, was directed to those for whom she’s set the trail.
“I would really hope that this would make people see the short story as an important art, not just something that you played around with until you’d got a novel written.”
Sadly, Alice Munro has announced her retirement from writing. But then again, she’s put so much of her singular talent out into the world, we can only be happy and grateful for it, and for her.
I once heard Doug Coupland refer to book reviews as “homework,” and there is an element of drudgery to them. That is, unless you get assigned a great book that you would read even if you didn’t have to.
Oh, My Darling by Vancouver writer Shaena Lambert is one of those. If you appreciate finely crafted short fiction, this is well worth the read.
Every year for the past six I’ve written a fall books preview for the Ottawa Citizen. It’s labour intensive in the sense that I have to research all the fall offerings from the many large and small publisher catalogues (most are online now, which helps) then write a succinct few sentences on a variety of books ranging from fiction to non-fiction, lifestyle to memoir, biography, food, sports and Young Adult/Kids books. Since I’m writing largely from marketing copy with so few books actually finished or even in the advance reading copy stage, it takes awhile to come up with something new, fresh and lively to say. The task takes me awhile to research and a longer while to write.
Still, I love doing it because a) it introduces me to the new exciting list; b) I get boxes of books, the equivalent of Christmas morning to a book-lover; c) it’s become an annual assignment that I can count on.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
It’s a day late, but in honour of St. Paddy’s Day, here’s a little something I’ve imported from my old website, herkind.com. It seems appropriate just now.
“When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth our while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.”
I’ve read Angela’s Ashes a handful of times, listened to it twice on tape (read to me by the man himself), I’ve given this book to at least a dozen people as gifts for various occasions, or none at all, and seen the film (only once, generally I dislike books to film). It’s safe to say I’ve done some serious time with Mr. McCourt.
It’s hard to believe I resisted reading this book that makes you cry and then laugh through the tears. I guess I thought it was just too popular so not my kind of read. Hey, I’m a self professed book snob. Published in 1996, I think I finally got to it a couple years later, and of course, didn’t put it down til it was finished. While reading it I found a newspaper photo of McCourt and pinned it to my bulletin board at work. I simply couldn’t believe he had lived through his miserable childhood But live he did, and the literary world was richer for it. Of course, Angela’s Ashes is the ultimate father/son story, a topic which has always been on my radar.
Now, I’ve met quite a few famous people. Just about anyone you can think of – writers, musicians, actors, celebrities. It doesn’t faze me usually. But when wee Frank McCourt came into Bravo! (where I worked at the time) for a news interview, I suddenly felt very shy. Though I was determined to get my book signed I didn’t know what I could possibly say to a man who had lived ten times the life, and hardship that I ever would. Feeling nervous, I waited in the wings while the interview wrapped up and then timidly approached. Lacking the courage to say very much I just asked for a signature. A co-worker who must have known what it would mean to me later, snapped our photo. I shook McCourt’s hand and walked away. Happy.
When I got the photo I tucked it away for safe keeping. Then, when I moved to Vancouver, changing my career to full time writing and journalism, I framed the photo and put it the desk by my computer. Inspiration.
I didn’t know if I’d ever meet him again, but his book, life and this meeting had made enough of an impression.
And yet I did meet him again. A few years later, working as a producer on a TV show in Vancouver I had the opportunity to invite him to the show while he was promoting his book Teacher Man. Now, getting authors on this particular show wasn’t easy, it simply wasn’t the best venue for a considered interview. And, no one there expected to ever have the chance to score this particular author, but there I was one bright, sunny, early morning greeting Mr. McCourt again. This time I had to overcome my shyness to talk to him since I was producing his interview. We chatted in the green room about his teacher anecdotes, deciding which ones he would tell and discussing how the profession has changed since his early days.
He was quite simply a lovely man. And though I didn’t by any means begin to know him, I miss him and his unwritten words.
“On Thursday, The Agenda explored whether our modern obsession with collecting “stuff” — gadgets, toys, appliances, and other consumer goods — might be coming at too high a cost to our pocketbooks and our emotional well-being. (You can watch that program above.)
Writer Carla Lucchetta, who has contributed many personal essays to The Agenda over the years, was inspired by the program to tell a story about a cherished object, emotion, and learning move forward.”
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!
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.
Last week marked the 15th anniversary of my dear mom’s death. So, I thought it was about time I scattered her ashes.
If only because every single time I moved them (at least 3 cross-country trips and a handful of smaller ones), no matter how carefully I wrapped the beautiful alabaster box that contained them, first in plastic bubble wrap and then in a small postal envelope, her dust would inevitably fall onto my hands. Moving them meant opening the box and nothing can ever prepare you for seeing the grey/white ash, dotted with small pebble-like pieces – no matter how many times you see it. So, wiping away a natural tear or two left some ash on my face or even in my eyes.
An accidental consecration.
Now, the odyssey of these ashes could fill a book but suffice it to say, I’ve never felt our family, or myself individually, has done her enough justice in an exact way to pay tribute to her. And then of course, I’ve never stopped missing her and still wanting to talk to her so nothing I could ever do would be as good as having her back in my life. Hanging on to this last vestige of her physical self was the best I could do.
The little alabaster box followed me to the west coast, where I moved three years after her death. Knowing how much my mom enjoyed the one time she spent there had me believing that she should be scattered in the Pacific Ocean.
In almost 6 years, I could never bring myself to do it.
I spoke to a de-cluttering expert about this while prepping her for a segment on the TV show where I worked. I boasted about my ability to purge my life often, about how easily I could let material things go. Heck, I even burned about 50 journals in order to draw a line between the past and my future. But I just simply could not cast off the contents of THE BOX. She explained to me that emotional clutter – like, for instance, the ashes of a dead loved one, has the ability to hold a person back from life.
My first summer back in Toronto, I visited my mom’s marker in Mt. Pleasant Cemetery – where one full year after her death, me and my siblings scattered half her ashes (I had asked their permission to hold onto the other half). The true nature of my relationship with my mother had always been somewhat of a secret from the rest of my family – she feared our closeness would cause jealousy and tension, and she was right. So in deference to her wisdom (I thought), I couldn’t allow myself to openly show the extent of my pain. While my sisters and brother looked indulgently on, I stumbled over a stanza of Leonard Cohen’s poem, There Are Some Men , not able to really convey why I felt the words important enough to read aloud.
That summer day after my return to Toronto, I wandered around the massive cemetery grounds only to discover I had completely forgotten where she was. I had to double back to the office to get my bearings. Though I didn’t have the ashes with me, I became convinced that what remained of her should be where the other part of her rested. I went home exhausted and heavy hearted by a day’s wandering on sacred ground.
Yes, I realized that whatever was left in the box resting on my dresser in a mini-shrine, had long since ceased to actually be her. Still, I waited another few years. Last year, on the 14th anniversary, I made an attempt – at least in my mind, to do the deed. I even arranged a friend to come with me. But the more I thought about it, the higher my anxiety level became. Would I really be able to let go once and for all? Could I live without these last pieces of dust that long ago made up the strong body, spirit, brain and tender heart of my beautiful mother?
On Nov. 7th, 2012, 15 years to the day after the sudden and therefore shocking end of her life, a shock that lives in my muscle memory forcing me to relive it each November, I went with my friend D. to the Forest of Remembrance at Mt. Pleasant Cemetery, and I finally reconciled my divided mother with her long gone other half.
I don’t exactly know why I was able to do it this time. It could have been that D – inseparable friend of my youth, had been returned to me recently, alleviating a great deal of my loneliness. It could be that I felt that, of all the people in my life, D knew how the loss of my mother had deeply marked me, though I hadn’t seen or spoken to her since long before my mother died. It could be that, over the last few years, I’d begun to understand how holding on to the ashes meant vital parts of my life were standing still.
To do this properly though, I had to send a message to my mother that would only be between us. I had something I needed to say to her. Something fairly final. So I tore a piece of paper out of my journal, cut it in half and wrote her a tiny note, folded it into the smallest square I could and tucked it into the postal envelope ready and waiting to go. D came over at our arranged time, armed with a beautiful bouquet of fall flowers. Not only was she willing to help me out with this weighted task, but having known my mother for so many years, I think she welcomed a chance to pay her respects. We drove to the cemetery, but not before we reviewed the exact location of the garden. It took a few minutes to find the area where we’d previously scattered her and left a marker but once we did I silently dug a small hole in the soil where I placed my note, then emptied out the ashes on top. Thankfully, there was no wind, but the ashes, which had now been sedentary for the last few years, stubbornly stuck to the sides and corners of the box. With a tissue, I tried to wipe them all onto the ground. Of course, the dust fell into my hands. The effort it took to do all this almost distracted me from the feeling of doing it. D. gathered up a few wandering leaves and placed her flowers on top of the note, the soil, the ashes… my mother. She bowed her head in a silent prayer. We held onto each other for a minute, and then walked back to the car. I could feel my mother’s ashes on my face.
I never thought I could live one day without my mother, yet a decade and a half seems to have flown by and I’m still here. I think I finally learned to let her go. And it turns out it’s exactly the right time. I can’t prove that exactly, I just know something feels.. something IS different.
The truth is, I could never forget my mom because every time I look in the mirror, I see her. Every time I find myself rising in passion – for a belief, in protection of a loved one, for love, or for the love of voicing a well-thought out opinion, I channel her. So much of her resides in me and that was always the basis of us anyway – we were kindred, destined to find each other in the world, but lucky enough that her giving birth to me made the meeting easier.
Life goes on, as it was meant to all along. Imagine that!