First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.
I’ve spent a significant part of my adult life living alone, sometimes defending that status too vigorously when a new friend asks, “So, why are you still single?” In my mellower moments, I’m able to say, “It is what it is” and then change the subject. “When will the next Canadian team win the Stanley Cup?” “Can Vancouver possibly have more bike lanes?” “If I hike and don’t post on Instagram, did it really happen?”
I’ve often wondered if I will evolve into some incarnation of a batty bachelor, having prolonged conversations with my Christmas cactus or a passing butterfly. Perhaps it’s fortunate monarchs don’t seem to fly at eleventh-story altitudes or, at least, I’m not on the migration path.
For now, I’ve taken up bird watching. I haven’t ordered Audubon Society books online, planned trips with the hope of glimpsing a rare Kirtland’s warbler or bought garage sale binoculars to spot herons nesting in Stanley Park; instead, I’m focused on one particular bird of the scientifically classified Laridae family in the suborder Lari. To put it less exotically, I’m tracking a seagull.
I don’t have to put on shoes or check the weather. I just step into my living room, glance at the lower rooftop across the alley from me and there he is. My gull. It hangs there most of the day, arriving shortly after sunrise and departing an hour or two before sunset. Most of the time, it alternates its perch atop one of two concrete stoops that top a couple of air vents.
It probably took a few days for me to take notice of my gull last November. He didn’t treat the spot as a stopover like other gulls and crows. It was the destination.
The gull stands there, facing one direction or another, watching, perhaps guarding, maybe looking at nothing at all. Do seagulls daydream?
I like most when it takes a load off its feet, tucks them in and assumes a nesting position even though the bird has never brought a single twig to build an actual abode. I know it is safe on this stoop, with no humans, no cars, no predators to encounter. Perhaps it knows this too.
I’ve struggled with the gull’s status as a lone wolf. I hear myself asking that dreaded question: “Why are you single?” I’d always been told that seagulls live in colonies. Why was my default mode set to thinking there might be something wrong with this bird going rogue?
I’ve named him Jonathan, after Richard Bach’s 1970 novella, Jonathan Livingston Seagull. It’s the only gull name I know without an internet assist. I first learned of my gull’s namesake as a soundtrack, not a book, dating back to sixth-grade choir when my teacher, Mrs. Courtemanche, chose Neil Diamond’s Lonely Looking Sky as one of the songs for our nursing home tour. Epic song selection, Mrs. Courtemanche! Uprooted seniors spending their final years in an institutional setting surely loved hearing a song that mentions the word ‘lonely’ sixteen times. Our encore was an odd song called Come Sing This Round with Me that I despised because after the line, “We’ll laugh right merrily,” we sang a long succession of ha-ha-ha-ha’s. First, we hit our captive audience over the head with the notion of being lonely, then we laughed at them in song. I hope they had faulty hearing aids or their own survivalist sense to turn them off.
As a matter of due diligence, I gave gull names a Google. I came upon a page titled, “130+ Seagull Names–Best Ways to Name Your Pet Seagull.” Pet? Now that’s crazy. Jonathan’s not my pet; he’s my neighbour. Even crazier … the suggested names. Kevin? Explanation, please. My eighth-grade runner-up for best friend – not that he knew – would object. Woody? Um, wrong breed. Romeo? So worrisome.
Naming an animal is such a human thing to do. Is Jonathan okay being Jonathan? I doubt it even cares if I’ve misgendered it. It may seem strange to befriend a gull, if it’s even reached that level. Jonathan’s just there. I didn’t woo him with bird seed or leftover French fries. He appeared and he’s in my direct view every time I sit on my sofa and look up from my laptop, relieving eye strain and pondering synonyms. Jonathan seems to own his solitary status. Can a seagull be my role model?
I find amusement seeing his routine play out whenever another gull alights on either stoop. First, Jon ignores the intruder. My attempt at mind-reading: “Surely you’re not staying.” Once the other gull lingers beyond five seconds, Jon pivots for a stare down. If the imposter isn’t duly intimidated, Jon spreads his wings as if to make himself bigger, squawks and, should the intruder be so bold as to merely hop to the adjacent stoop, Jon follows in hot pursuit. The result is never in question. The imposter flies off, Jon’s territorial claim intact. His and his alone.
I regard my neighbour as a maverick but concerns still arise. He’s by himself. All day, every day, for months on end. When it snowed, I intuited a sadness as he remained standing, never taking a load off. Maybe his feathers are waterproof but lacking insulation. Was the rare Vancouver phenomenon confusing? Would it have helped to weather things with a companion?
I have staunchly defended my living situation, alone not lonely, so why do I fret over a solitary bird? Maybe some gulls are introverts, too. Maybe Jonathan rejoins the colony at night, the bedtime fish tales making him glad he has an escape come morning. Still, I wonder if this is his life’s choice or if he was deemed a social pariah.
I don’t like this interpretation. It’s possible Jon was banished from his colony just like his fictional namesake, a gull with the gall to fancy flight at highest heights and speeds instead of lurking in marinas, fighting for washed-up crab legs and dumpster pizza crusts. Whatever the circumstance, Jon has established a stable existence. He appears healthy and well-fed.
But is he fulfilled? Jonathan Livingston Seagull spent his days and nights breaking the standard flight barriers for gulls, but Jonathan idly watches the world from twin stoops. Maybe he’s a slacker.
Do gulls feel happiness? Depression? I tell myself he’s content, banished or not. He’s living the life. He’s beyond fighting for food scraps.
I prefer viewing Jon as strong. This is Jon’s throne. He’s a sage guru and this is his mountaintop. He’s the gull equivalent to The Lion King. Dare ye not approach my roost. I see no distress, no discontent. Pariah, noble king or something in the vast in between, this is home. It’s for Jon and Jon alone.
And, yes, let me remind myself, that’s okay.
Gregory Walters lives in Vancouver.
Sign up for the weekly Parenting & Relationships newsletter for news and advice to help you be a better parent, partner, friend, family member or colleague.