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Posted in Adventures With Humans

Swans and the Drunken Troubadours 

In 1992, our little family, that was one beautiful little boy, my then husband Neil and I, and two stupidly large dogs, a Newfoundland and an English Mastiff, moved north of the city after an arsonist torched the house two doors west of the one we were renting. The night it happened, we were home and I remember our Newfoundland barking at something specific over the west fence. We figured she had noticed a racoon, but then we felt a blast that shook the little post-war house we were in. Seconds later, the lovely Italian woman who lived between us and the blast, came to our door, her eyes wide, face pale, in shock from feeling her house shake, and afraid of the flames next door, fierce and threatening.  Neil ran to the burning house and hollered in to it to see if anyone was inside, almost losing his head when a window blew out directly above him. Nobody was killed, but after the investigation revealed arson as the cause–our Newfoundland barking at the arsonist and not a racoon, Neil and I decided to raise our new family–human, and the dogs big enough to be considered as livestock, somewhere safer, north of the city. We moved to a beautiful, Victorian house on ¾ of an acre in a small town set into hills and farm land.
The house was really a frustrating assortment of odd, small rooms, but we were both excited; it was ours, and we loved it. We did little updates to it after we had a second child. We repainted rooms, added a woodstove, and gardens. There were two large yards with a pathway connecting them on the west side of the house. Neil made a tree fort, and built a sand box in the corner of the west yard. I worked on the gardens, pulling out a whole crop of perfectly good phlox, a tall, flowering perennial plant that I thought was a weed. I remember my new neighbour looking out at me, wondering if I was some kind of a monster. When she told me what it was that I had ripped out, I was annoyed at my compulsiveness. It was then that I began researching before removing. With the help of Harold, a retired farmer with a truck, I added more flower beds. Harold and I would go to the local garden centre and return with his payload filled with dark, rich soil. After a couple years, plants that I had put in, and our seasonal vegetable garden, began to flourish. I added some low, split-rail fences to keep the dogs out, and to add another aesthetic touch.
 I became enamoured with the plants, delighted at the emergence of a tomato, or the velvet flower on a clematis vine that I had managed to cultivate instead of decimate. Something seemed to awaken inside of me and I began to acknowledge the potential for making those yards beautiful. I found an old, wooden picture frame, painted it red, secured two metal rods as legs, and would position the frame in front of whatever was blooming at the time, pulling it up and moving it when that bloom was finished, and framing the next blossom that caught my eye. I don’t recall anyone else in the family being bonkers impressed by my moveable plant portrait, but I liked it. I found myself pausing, sincerely captivated by the beauty as if I had discovered a new dimension.
I don’t think sensing beauty is a purely objective exercise, as simple as just ‘looking at a thing,’ and analyzing it as beautiful as if it was a fact. I think beauty is about a relationship with the thing. It is being in a moment in time, knowing what you know, able to feel what you feel thanks to whatever you have experienced up to that point, and having this feeling drawn forth, summoned from somewhere deep-in by the thing you are looking at, listening to, or participating in. To be moved by something beautiful is to power down the ego and allow the welling-up and out of what wants it, what needs its’ very essence in order to live. This need is different at two years old, at twenty, and continues on changing until you pull your last breath. Either this, or beauty was nothing more than a refuge from all of the burping and farting going on inside my male-dominated household, the Newfoundland and I, the only feminine.
Just as pot used to be considered a ‘gateway drug,’ plants seemed to represent a kind of ‘gateway beauty,’ through which I moved; my psyche, my deeper self, starting to come out of hiding. The natural world, sunsets, starry skies, all stopped me in my tracks, intoxicating now to notice, to observe. Years later, when I was taking care of my elderly mother, we were living in a small town with a large pond close to the urban center. I would use my van to take her the short distance to the pond, as it was too far for her to manage on foot. We would watch the Canada Geese taking off, or landing in their iconic ‘V’ formation. There were ducks too, and while the flight routines of the geese reminded me of air force squadrons, I imagined the ducks as their flight crews, air traffic control, and mechanics.
Unique to this town, still, are two white, trumpeter swans; a couple. They have lived here since I can remember; their sleek, porcelain-like forms always perfect, like Wedgewood figurines with submerged motors moving them gracefully through the water. This past season, they had offspring–cygnets, they are called. Townsfolk were concerned when the adult swans went unseen after a tornado went through, thinking that they had succumbed to a turbulent death, but days later, they appeared with four, ridiculous looking, tiny birds swimming obediently like the Von Trapp family, but with webbed feet. The cygnets grew. One disappeared, likely dinner for some other creature, and then a second one went missing. By this time, they were a substantial size so instead of being eaten, I imagined this second swan getting a bus to New York where it got a job as a coat check at a theatre on Broadway, and it spent its’ nights composing the play that it would call, “My Cygneture; One Swan’s Journey from Egg, to Stage,” written as French Farce.
One evening, late in the summer, my mother and I were sitting on one of the many benches set around the pond. This one was perhaps fifteen feet away from the swan family, now up on the shore, napping and preening as was their habit. They were used to people, and it was nice to watch them from such close range. While we sat, I noticed two young men approaching from the south along the pond pathway. One was playing an acoustic guitar. He was wearing a small straw hat, shorts that were barely staying up, and bare feet. His friend, more securely dressed in his pants, baseball cap, and t-shirt, was carrying a six-pack of beer. It is possible from, observing the swagger with which the pair walked, that they had downed one six-pack before heading out. They were not in a hurry, and not interested in navigating ‘as the crow flies.’ The musician sang, and strummed; a snoggered troubadour, with his pal, done work for the day, and going to a party, perhaps. The musician smiled as they passed, then they caught sight of the swans. They stopped, and the musician handed his guitar to his friend so he could pet one of the great birds. My mother and I watched them, the swans and the men. The swans were having none of it, got up, and slid into the pond, well away from the man’s tottering, drunken advances. Out of nowhere, I stood up and yelled, “Thanks for wrecking our evening!” The men both looked over, and as they continued on to their destination, the less blasted one yelled, back, “Oh come on. You used to be young once!” I was shocked for so many reasons. First of all, he was right! And DAMN! They weren’t hurting anyone. It wasn’t like they were throwing stones at the swans, and in his state, Butt Cheeks the Clown, was not much of a threat; swans are well able to protect themselves. Yes the men were slightly drunk, but they were walking, and singing, with a guitar, in the sun instead of driving, and risking having an accident. Why did I yell at them? Where did that come from? I sat back down and thought about it. I mean, I didn’t just yell–there was a rage underneath that rose up like a volcano; I felt my face flush red. I realized that I envied the young men, carefree and frankly, beautiful. There I was with my mother. That was the reason.
The farm upon which I grew up, was beautiful, and it’s sad that we sold it, but likely a good idea. The white stucco farmhouse had a built on, wooden addition, common in Southern Ontario architecture of that age. You saw it as you rounded the corner along a gravel road that ran past. At night, in the summer, you could sit on the screened in porch, enough citrine-coloured lamp light shining out through the window between the porch and the living room so you were not in the dark. There was a period of time when my paternal grandmother would visit, always for too long, and her presence brutally hard on my mother who never stood up for herself against the constant judgement, and arrogance. On one particular occasion, I remember sitting out on the porch with my mother.  She was smoking, as she often would. I don’t know where dad was. He could have been late home from work, which if you knew his mother, you wouldn’t blame him. The frogs were loud in the pond. My mother and I sat listening to them, and the radio–the CBC show, “As It Happens,” that was our routine, while the grandmother sat in the living room. She would holler something every now and then as if thinking out loud. At one point, my mother spoke up and said, just to me,  “I really don’t want to go on living.” In that moment, I felt like my body wasn’t strong enough to hold the feelings that came up. I began crying, ran into the living room, and yelled at my grandmother, clear that I wanted her to leave my mother alone. I was somewhere between nine, and twelve years old, so small, but I remember the fearful look on my grandmother’s face as if I posed a physical threat; I was enraged. I went back to the porch, crying hard, and suffering a nose bleed, and later on found a burst blood vessel in my left eye, a souvenir of the yelling.
There on the porch, I had cause to yell. On the bench, near the swans, my hollering was unfortunate–the fellas didn’t deserve it, but I think their easy joy was just enough of an invitation for my own, human, sacrificial valve to blow–a sacrificial valve being the safety unit on top of a water heater that will burst if there is a pressure issue, rather than having the whole tank explode. The situation on the porch was complicated, because it’s clear that my mother needed defending, but what kind of mother hints at suicide to their child? What kind of mother after having done so, does not at some point, talk about such an event with the child to settle things down? Mine.
Every summer, before dad retired from his corporate gig, he would host a barbecue at our farm. He would invite his staff–scientists and engineers, who helped him solve problems for the large packaging company that depended on him. Dad would make ‘Crab Louie,’ a kind of seafood salad, and the only menu item I ever saw my father prepare in the kitchen. We would build a nice fire and roast corn, barbecue sausages, and whatever. It was nice. The weather was nice, the people were nice, and the farm was, as always, beautiful. People would enjoy a beer or two, but not overdo it except for my mother. You know, my mother was beautiful too. I should mention this, but it was never allowed to be the most noticeable fact, because her drinking took over. During one of the barbecues, I remember watching her as she sat in a lawn chair, blasted, and slowly, oddly flipped over backwards out of the chair. It would have been outstanding if she had laughed, stood up and posed, as if she had just finished a gymnastic move, then it might have been funny, but it wasn’t. It wasn’t at all like the two men on that summer day, singing and wanting to pet the swans. My mother was like a dark vortex, something that needed to be watched, tended, instead of enjoyed. She wasn’t going to show you something beautiful, she was going to suck the life from it, almost as arrogant as my grandmother, not caring about who got in the way.
I don’t live in the Victorian house anymore, I’m no longer married, my kids are launched and wonderful, I have no dogs, my grandmother died long ago, my father died by suicide in 2004, and I am no longer responsible for my mother’s care. In the summer of 2019, I travelled out West and spent a few days in a tent campground set in forest along the Bow River, just outside of Lake Louise. I would get up early with the birds, make coffee, and then drink it while sauntering to the opposite end of the campground. There was a clearing and I could look up and see one of the mountains, a particular one that came into view through the trees before the others. I felt moved by the view of this mountain. I don’t mean, “Oh that was neat,” but rather, I felt moved almost to tears, could feel my chest open, my heart swelling. I experimented with this experience, and would try to summon the feeling just by thinking of the mountain. While ‘the thinking of,’ was nice, it was the actual view, having the mountain in my gaze that brought the full emotion. There I was far away from my regular environment and the ancestral stories rooted through it. There’s a lot to be said about traveling on your own. There’s the downside of being fully responsible for all of the logistics, but the upside is that you are not distracted by anyone else. You can be fully present to beauty, whether it’s framed, floating past, or solid and mountain-pointy.
In 2022, the American journalist Anderson Cooper launched his podcast, “All There Is.” In it, he discusses his struggle with grief around the death of his mother, Gloria Vanderbilt in 2019, and the suicide of his brother, Carter, in 1988. Cooper interviews others regarding the topic of grief, one of them being Stephen Colbert, host of The Late Show. The whole podcast is powerful, helpful, but one comment that Colbert made, I loved. I loved it because while listening, I knew what he was going to say. I felt it, and spoke the first, “beautiful,” before he did. Colbert’s quote:
“I’ve come to realize, recently, that I cry a lot, but I don’t…I don’t…I don’t cry over grief, like I’m not crying over the death of my father, or my brothers, or my mother, or my other brother, or…or even the condition of the world, or, or every sparrow that falls. I end up crying over beautiful things, because they’re beautiful, despite the grief of the world. And my experience with grief has made me long for beauty in ways that I’m not even aware of.”
So, Colbert and I, on the same page! I’m with him. And I was going to say, “I’m in, one-hundred percent,”
 but that makes it sound like it’s a choice. For me, this longing, this emotion is not the result of any choice, but rather the simmering, paradoxical richness of grief, and the heart opening that comes with it, like breathing. I don’t want to yell at people anymore. I want to be fully present, fully open to the beauty of the world, as if I am my own red garden frame.