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On Heronry

'Not a Heron', 35mm, East Coast Tasmania, 2021
“Then it occurred to me that perhaps I’d been terrified for longer than all day, and I had rather mixed feelings upon realising that - I wasn’t much keen on the idea that I had been terrified for years, but it seemed possible. Well, I knew it really. I damn well knew it, have known it all along.” ~ Pond, Claire Louise Bennett

My gift to myself for my 30th birthday was a long weekend away in Copenhagen.

I was at a point in my life where I’d spent a long time not travelling and seeing the places I wanted to because someone else was always dictating what this part of my life looked like. Now I was free. I could go as I pleased. And I did.

Copenhagen is a beautiful city, and if you ever have the chance to go, you should. All travel at that time was fueling me, but there was an ease to being in the Danish capital that did a great job of soothing my soul when I felt on the cusp of something transformative.

On my last day in the city, I decided to head to a heritage site and gardens, just outside the city centre, to spend some time reading and writing and to visit a cafe I had recommended to me. The park was beautiful, sunlit, green and shiny. My life was coming together and simultaneously collapsing in unexpected ways, and it was on this day that I had a moment of clarity wherein I realised that regardless of what was coming next, I was happy. It seems an odd thing to say, but it’s the easiest truth.

As I continued exploring the gardens, I reached a part where people seemed to be gathering to observe something in the trees. A small island was sectioned off by a moat, and people were pointing and chatting. As I got closer, I saw the signs: Heron Colony.

And my mind slipped sideways into a near-forgotten experience.

For a number of years, in my early to mid-twenties, I was obsessed with herons. I’ve tried to trace this fascination to a beginning, only coming up with vague recollections that seem to merge into the timeline of my life.

One of my most vivid memories of this obsession stems from when I had just graduated from university. I was living with my parents in a small house that backed onto a woodland in the countryside of England. It was a far cry from the buzzing, busy social life of university. I would wake most mornings after my parents had already left for work and take my dog, an ageing lurcher, for a walk or run through the woods, in the middle of which lay a small lake. On rainy days, I’d see fish brim to the surface and take small leaps, misreading the splatters of rain for bugs to consume. The centre of the woods was always a rich, moist green, even in winter, or so my memory tells me, but memory can be full of falsehoods.

At some point during these walks, I began to see a great white heron, always the same one seemingly, stalking its way into the shallows of the lake and waiting patiently. Whenever I walked by, it would turn its elegant head and watch me knowingly.

From then on, spotting herons became the benign detail upon which I began to hinge my state of mind.

Once I noticed one heron, I felt confronted with them everywhere. Stretched out in the sky, the impossibility of flight made even more grandiose in their spread of wings. Marching through the swampy patches of fields as I sped by in a car or bus, leaning forward, neck stretched out, as though working against some invisible forcefield. Working hard to make it through.

I took my sightings of herons, and this one in the lake in particular, as a sign, but I was never quite sure what the sign meant. Whenever I left the house to venture to the woods, I would look for him, his elongated yellow bill bowed down, resting against an even longer neck. His white feathers a beautiful stark contrast against the greenery.

How did he manage to stay so clean?

In those early days after university, it felt like my whole life was a lie. I had been sold and greedily devoured the snake oil that getting a degree would equate to securing a promising career, but job after job application went unacknowledged, I wasn’t even worth a rejection email. The perfectionist tendencies that had steered me so well in academia turned against me. I was a failure. Without the pressing notion of studying, assignments, exams and social needs, my life felt empty. Without work to replace it, I looked for anything to fill the void. Dedicating my mental energy to heron sightings made sense at the time. Percolating on why they were standing out to me likewise felt like a valuable use of my energy.

I moved from my parent's home in the countryside back to my coastal hometown and forgot about the herons for a while. I no longer lived in close proximity to nature, and life got messy in all the ways it seems to in your twenties.

I embarked on a ‘career’ - not the one I envisioned during my university days, but a respectable one, or so I was repeatedly told. It earned me nods of approval from older relatives. I eventually took a job in London, an hour's commute from where I was living at the time, an opportunity I pursued to give myself distance from a place that I had always known was eating me up but that I felt unable to escape completely. It was in this phase of being caught between places that the herons reappeared.

My commute took me through country fields on the way into the city, and I would regularly see a heron, a smaller grey version, its long legs stoking through muddy banks, always at roughly the same place, the midpoint of my journey. It was a brief but vivid vision on those early morning rides, forcing me to sit upright and press my nose to the smudgy glass.

Like a ghost, this new heron was back to remind me of something I had forgotten, a message I’d failed to receive. I started to believe that the heron was a positive omen. On the mornings I saw it, it meant it was going to be a good day; some unanswerable question that was leaving me panicked would finally be resolved. Some anxiety that was gnawing away at me could be laid to rest, at least for the remainder of the day.

If I didn’t see the heron, it was a bad sign. I would spend the rest of my journey on edge, biting the cuticle on my thumb as I searched for it, a low mood settling over me as we got closer to the city. My mind keenly latched onto anything negative, any small thing, as proof that the heron was a sign that directly connected to my own experiences.

I returned to attempting to puzzle out what the herons represented, what they were trying to tell me. I looked up their meaning to see what other cultures or dream decipherers had to say but came up with little or little that I wanted to connect with. I started to land on the conclusion that I just had to trust whatever the universe was trying to tell me, vague though it might be. If I could believe in the herons and be willing to receive the message they might have to share, all the unanswered questions of my life would no longer matter.

As you may have guessed, I was not healthy when my heron obsession peaked.

Anxiety, depression, low self-worth. I spent years held tightly in the grip of these storms, gripping onto a version of reality I thought I wanted. And I spent many days pretending I was completely fine when I wasn’t.

Maybe my herons were the eye at the centre, something inexplicable enough to reach for when everything else that was supposed to make sense simply didn’t.

I spent most of my time masking my days with a pleasant enough attitude, but as soon as I was alone, I fell apart. I spent many evenings working late so I could catch a mostly empty train home. I left nights out with colleagues or friends without a word so I could walk home or back to a train station on my own, overwhelmed by how exhausting it all was. Nothing felt right, but some part of me thought if I kept pretending, willing myself to believe that I just had to keep doing what I was doing, I might be okay.

Looking back now, I can see the gaps clearly. Graduating left a hole in my life. I no longer had a sense of what the ‘right thing’ was. I had been told what I needed to do for so long, and I was doing it. I rarely thought about how I felt because what I was doing was all that mattered. Outwardly I was successful, ticking all the boxes, but internally I was failing, faking it, scared and unsure how to get out of the black hole I’d fallen into. Panicked this might be all the future had to offer.

I’d learnt, falsely, that the coping mechanism for stress and sadness was to work harder, and I was working, striving, reaching as hard as possible. I began to lose my grip on the identity I once firmly believed in as I realised I didn’t know who I was or could be - or what I truly wanted.

And if I am honest, I think that’s when I started to look for the herons and gave them meaning. When I began to transfer the power I felt I didn’t have, was supposed to have, over my life, to them.

I was tired of taking responsibility; the herons could do it for me for a while.

I wish I could tell you there was a clear path to getting better. That I woke up clear-eyed one morning, and the brain fog that plagued me, the doubts and insecurities, simply disappeared. That I stopped pretending and reached out to someone, a friend or a professional to help me tackle what I was experiencing.

In truth, it took years and many more dark moments, but bit by bit, I started to piece myself together. Despite my internal battles, I had a beautiful support network of people who loved and still love me. I gradually loosened my foot on the accelerator and sought ways to slow down. I became mindful about what felt good and what didn’t. And I stopped letting my fear of failure, or disappointing others, dictate my own sense of peace.

I left the men I wasn’t supposed to be with and walked out of jobs that reduced me. I lived alone for a while, and that was hard, but it gave me space just to be. I bought a set of brightly coloured postcards by an admired illustrator and wrote on them in thick, black lettering, You Are Enough. I placed them all around my apartment, on doors as I entered rooms, mirrors, and inside cabinets. A constant reminder. The one I needed.

The moment in Copenhagen was a full circle onet. I’d only ever seen my herons as solitary creatures, always alone. I had no clue they lived in colonies. The Great Blue Heron can live in colonies as large as five hundred individual nests. And while alone time is important to these birds, many of the species seek out and live together in these close groups.

A heronry. A sense of belonging.

Learning this felt like the huge piece of the puzzle I’d failed to slot into place for so long. The balance of self and others, of choosing what supports our needs and creating the spaces that fuel this on our own terms. The joys of solitude and the undeniable innate need for others.

In Copenhagen, I realised I had instinctively been working towards this. I was building a life with people who felt authentic, but most of all, I was finding a deeper sense of belonging and authenticity in myself. Instead of fearing what I was doing and who I was, I was filled with ideas and exciting things I might like to pursue. I was gathering the pieces and places of my life and creating something beautiful.

The world felt open and enticing rather than flat and monotonous.

I no longer see herons so much, and when I do, they make me smile because they are a graceful, peculiar bird to observe, and the idea they could have any power to change the course of my life is absurd to me now.

I realised I was always seeking answers outwardly when I needed to go within. My healing had to start with me, but I was too scared to face what that might look like, too worried that if I went inward, I would find nothing.

I wish I could go back to the beginning and tell that version of me everything she needs to hear, but I can’t, so I will tell you instead: I see you. I care for you. And you are enough.

“Everybody knows deep down that life is as much about the things that do not happen as the things that do, and that’s not something that ought to be glossed over or denied because without frustration there would hardly be any need to daydream. So even though it feels like one could just die from disappointment I must concede that in fact in a rather perverse way it is precisely those things I did not get that are keeping me alive.” ~ Pond, Claire Louise Bennett

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