By Kathy O’Dwyer
As I reached out my hand, the swan’s chest seemed to rise with a breath to meet my fingers. In death, the bird’s magnificence was not dimmed and, as I stroked its soft white expanse, tears sprang to my eyes. I drank in every detail. The curve of its neck, the gentle sweep of its bill, the plump density of its feathers, the scales of its feet, I easily imagined it gliding without effort across a lake, shimmering in moonlight.
Swans are special birds to me and the times I am out browsing art fairs and galleries, I look for pictures of them. So it was exciting for me to meet a young artist, Andria, at a Student Art Exhibition of the Art Institute. She is a senior at the school. Her paintings and drawings of birds are heartbreakingly beautiful and I felt fortunate when she agreed to do a drawing for me of three of my totems, the swan, the peacock and the birch tree. Although I gave her free rein with respect to the drawing, I had a vision in my mind of the peacock sitting in the birch tree on the left overlooking a swan floating on a lake. Either she read my mind or I telepathically sent my vision to her because the drawing is perfect. We spent more than an hour talking over a cup of tea the day she delivered the drawing to me. I shared with her my pursuit of Native American shamanistic traditions and the importance of bird medicine. She shared with me stories of growing up in rural Minnesota and her difficulty adjusting to the concrete of the city. To my delight, I discovered she was an intern at the Field Museum, working in the specimen lab that prepared the bird skins. Her work afforded her the opportunity to study the anatomy of birds and bring that knowledge to her drawings. Andria offered to give me a behind the scenes tour of the specimen labs and to show me the swan skins in the museum’s collection.
Last Thursday I met Andria at the museum, an afternoon that will stay with me always. As I cradled the cygnet, soft as a cloud, in my hand I shook my head in wonder that anyone could have called this tiny creature an ugly duckling. The cottony down reminded me of a dandelion puffed out and ready to give its seeds to the wind. I marveled that this fragile bird was born with the strength to swim and smiled at the little almost clown-like wings, amazed that they would eventually grow to an expanse capable of lifting a 50 lb. adult bird through the air. There were specimens of swans at various ages and I was stunned to realize that the downy white would change to muted grey before returning to white at adulthood. The tender grey of the juvenile swan’s neck only hinted at its future beauty and I considered all the changes the bird endures before it reaches adulthood. Other birds take wing and mature within months but swan understands that its divine perfection, its transformation, cannot be achieved without time and challenge.
The concept of totems is relatively new to me. Of course I knew about totem poles but only recently came to realize the power and respect the ancient tribes have for the various earthly and unearthly kingdoms. Minerals, animals, birds, and trees — I have always felt an affinity for nature. The clarity of that connection, the lessons of nature have always been there. I just needed to recognize and accept them. Meditation and Reiki brought swan to me. Exploring bird medicine in my studies, I came across a written piece designed to introduce the concept of winged flight through shape shifting and meditation. Feeling shape shifting was beyond my capabilities, I carefully read the meditation several times, taking it into my mind in the hope it would easily flow when I went into the meditative state. Without knowing why, I selected the music of sacred waters for my meditation, stretched out on my bed and started the integrative breath work practice. The water sounds seemed to rock beneath my feet, lulling me into a slight trance. As I focused my intent on coming to know bird, I suddenly felt a shift in my body, a growing in my chest and stretching of my neck. A wing seemed to brush across my face, soft and inviting. My arms began to tingle and quiver. I felt the pins of feathers prickle my skin and my arms seemed to lengthen under a cape of white. I opened my arms to swirl the cape and suddenly I felt as if I took flight, gracefully flying low over a pond of cool, blue water. Slowly I circled the water, looking for a place among the water lilies, coming to land on the pond, curling black scaled feet under me. Now the selection of water sounds made sense to me as I stretched my neck to see a reflection of glowing white in the pond. I knew in my meditation that this bird, the swan, was sharing its beauty and strength with me.
My lifelong love for animals prompted me to sign up for the course in Reiki for Animals. After completing the course, I enthusiastically headed out the next day to Lincoln Park Zoo to commune with the animals. Mickey, my teacher, jokingly warned me not to rile up the big cats but she had nothing to worry about. I headed for the central pond full of ducks and a pair of matched Trumpeter Swans. Using the distant healing technique, I stood at the fence, sending Reiki energy out across the pond. One Trumpeter blazingly white, immediately turned his head and looked at me. Gliding to shore, he walked out of the water over to where I was standing, pacing back and forth, back and forth, cocking his graceful head, keeping his eye on me all the while. He was magnificent and he knew it, strutting for me, daring me to admire him. His mate waddled over to sit nearby, casting her head down and peering at me discretely as if to warn me not to interfere with her mate. But there was no doubt the male swan felt the energy and was curious as to what I was doing. After a few minutes, he seemed to make the decision that what he was experiencing was a good thing. He came to stand in front of me before settling down to sit perfectly between the space framed by my hands, tucking in his wings and head as if going into a meditative state. Animals are completely open to energy, absorbing it quickly and knowing when enough is enough. After 10 minutes, still maintaining eye contact, the swan shook his feathers out and rose to his feet. I knew it was time to end the connection and closed my hands with a shake to disconnect. As I did so, the swan rose to his full height and spread his wings to their full expanse in a display so glorious it made me gasp. As I did so, his head reached high and he trumpeted sending tingles racing down my spine. A couple standing nearby exclaimed and pointed, sharing in his majesty and might. I bowed my head to him and humbly gave him thanks for being.
As I stroked the swan’s cotton stuffed body that day at the museum, I thought to myself that Andria has no idea the depth of the gift she gave me, allowing me that special time alone with swan. And I also realized that the gift of the tour came along for me at just the perfect time in my life for at no other time would I have had the deep appreciation that I had that afternoon. The drawing she did for me, is framed and hanging on the wall near my computer, watching over me as I write, guiding my fingers, stretching my thoughts, transforming me as I struggle to achieve something remotely akin to swan’s perfection.