A delicate purple flower floated toward me from a group of similarly hued trees in Hong Kong’s Wan Chai district. I was running through the dense mega-streets spilling over with morning traffic in early December. As the light bloom borne on the slight breeze blowing my way followed me through the concrete downtown, Led Zeppelin’s ‘All My Love’ sprang into my head. It continued to play as I ran back toward the harbor overlooking the moored ferry boats dancing in the waves and Kowloon on the other side. I don’t wear headphones when running because I like to be aware of my surroundings, especially in a foreign city. Music does the exact opposite, it takes me away. Usually I like that, but while running I like to, well, run. Just run …
As the song spun around my mind like the endless thread of which it speaks, I realized that the feathery petal was only the latest tip of all the many types of feathered creatures that had been flying through my mind recently. It had begun with the bluebird of happiness that had broken its neck trying to find me; before that, the frenetic, alive to the core, elusive hummingbirds; and more recently it was the rotund, graceless, captive fowl, a turkey, whose main function is to be consumed for its lean protein. (Previous blog Turkeys in the Midst has more on the bird theme.)
In Hong Kong, the bird thoughts morphed again, this time into swans. Magical creatures, swans had starred in stories I made up for my kids over the years, taking my children on journeys across still lakes. Swans seem mysterious and otherworldly, and as the centerpiece of the great classic ballet Swan Lake, they strike a pose of grace and beauty. And on the flight to Hong Kong, I finally saw Darren Aronsofky’s Black Swan (starring Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis among others) which I had been trying to view since its release last year. It struck a very deep, dark chord with me, as I’m certain it was intended to do. Great film!
No, this isn’t a movie review --there are plenty of those by real film critics. But the black swan portrayed by Natalie Portman’s character Nina haunted me just as his evolutionary cousin the bluebird had done years earlier. The black swan, beautiful and tragic, was ultimately a victim of its own refusal to come into the light. I wanted a different ending, an ending where the black and the white swans comprising the two halves of Portman’s ballerina-self Nina unite and fly away free -- unimpeded by Nina’s martyred, frustrated former ballerina mother, the ballet company’s controlling director, the competing ballerinas especially Mila Kunis’ Lily, or anyone else for that matter. That the one part of Nina (black swan) killed the other part (white swan) killed me. As much as I adore independent, foreign, non-Hollywood films that tend to lack traditional endings, I like salvation nonetheless.
So -- the white swan’s death, caused by the black swan? Ugh. Nina the entire girl sacrificed to her unaccepted darker side? Give me a break. I wanted to scream “You go, girl!” as she was trying to get a hold of it. I was rooting for her emancipation, freed from the tyranny of the denial of the supposed darker side – which holds so much potential for light, if only it could be incorporated into the accepted lighter side. But it didn’t happen. I was sad the rest of my trip in Asia for that black swan’s (and Nina’s) death. It didn’t need to be, I thought.
I suppose it did, though, since that was the ending of the original Swan Lake, tragic to the core, on which Aaronofsky’s Black Swan was based and remained faithful.
One afternoon I took a walk through a different part of Central Hong Kong towards the hills near the Conrad Hilton and the Shangri-La, aptly named; it’s one of my favorite hotels anywhere. The many types of colorful tropical birds in Hong Kong Park’s aviary looked entirely free. They have everything and hardly see the netting preventing them from flying away and not returning. But it is there. Again I was sad for the birds but shouldn’t have been– they have bird brains after all, don’t they? I’ve yet to see one of the colorful birds fly up against the netting only to be unable to break on through to the other side, to the sky. They certainly seem content, maybe happy even. Or maybe they already tried that and have given up…
Finally, there is the Peking duck that I don’t eat. I don’t particularly like duck and there aren’t many kosher restaurants in China, and none serve Peking duck as far as I know. But I have eaten such duck in both Beijing (the newer name for Peking) and in the US years earlier. The duck is succulent, ready for the taking, offering itself up, completely physical, fatty, full of cholesterol and grease, bad for your heart. It’s a trickster, ‘peeking’ around the corner. It reminds me of all the ways people mislead each other. Don’t ask me why; it just does. The duck seems the opposite of the swan, as the ugly duckling children’s story makes clear. Ducklings are adorable and a sunny yellow but grow into waddling, quacking adults, while young swans are unattractive and awkward, yet become so breathtakingly beautiful that they have inspired ballets, poetry, music and other art. (Not to mention ice sculptures.)
As I was writing some of these thoughts staring out the window of a massive suite at the Four Seasons hotel overlooking Hong Kong harbor and Kowloon again, I thought about all these feathery birds and why they wouldn’t leave my mind. More bird-related songs came and went, notably (and yes tritely) Free Bird. But even as the guitar in that reverberated on and on, the quieter strains of the feather in the wind that I somehow seemed to be chasing somewhere played in the background.
The birds were making me crazy.
I struggled for a better bird metaphor, and then it hit me: I needed the eagle, the king bird, the one with the keen eyesight who glides above the earth, circling majestically, seeming not to care what’s going on below -- until it’s ready. Not frenetic, not tragic, not a trickster, not imprisoned by a sheer net. It appears disengaged, flying above it all. It’s hardly a feather in the wind, it is the wind.
But there are no eagles in urban Hong Kong, I thought as I looked out into the gray sky and the many tall high rises of progress and urbanity.
And then I saw it. Out of nowhere it appeared, a great eagle circling the harbor, one single bird. It circled around and around, higher than the highest buildings. And then it disappeared with the wind. Where it came from I have no idea. Why it came just when I called for it I haven’t a clue. But it is a sign of something, of that I’m certain.