katiclops

This is a very serious blog.

Month: November, 2012

More Clouds (part two)

(Continued from Navigating Cloud Atlas…)

Working nights on Cloud Atlas Sextet until I drop, quite literally, no other way to get off to sleep. My head is a Roman candle of invention. Lifetime’s music, arriving all at once. Boundaries between noise and sound are conventions, I see now. All boundaries are conventions, national ones too. One may transcend any convention if only one can first conceive of doing so. Take this island, midstream between timbre and rhythm, not down in any book of theory, but it’s here! Hear the instruments in my head, perfect clarity, anything I wish for. When it’s finished there’ll be nothing left in me…

The duo of Cloud Atlas book and film compliment each other well.

When I first watched the movie, I was blown away. I had been struggling through the beginning of David Mitchell’s book. I stumbled through the first section, finding it difficult to navigate the old English and identify with the characters. I finished just enough of the novel to allow myself to go see the film, to understand the premise and form a little opinion. Leaving the theater I was convinced that the Wachowskis took a good book, and turned it into an incredible movie. Beforehand I had only made it through about 60% of the book, and was on the fence about whether or not I would even bother finishing it…Leaving the theater, I was so impressed I convinced myself the book warranted another chance.

The sextet of voices Mitchell uses during the story are narratives: interviews, letters, journal entries. They are one way stories focused on experience, light on description and rich in personality. The movie picks up on things and compliments those that the book forgot. Taking advantage of the medium, the Wachowskis flush out Mitchell’s intersecting story-lines with lush scenery and attention to visual details unmentionable in the book. Where in the novel you at times feel as if you are swimming, anchorless in description, scenery and place, the movie is able to compliment the storyline wordlessly with luscious venues that more than make-up for what the book lacks. I have always found film an intense, overwhelming medium; I’m always a little disappointed when a gallery features films, they drain me and rapidly usurp emotional availability for other pieces. At a theater though, you can give yourself over entirely to the experience. Cloud Atlas was so visceral it became corporal: at times you can smell the film.

To be honest, I am not entirely sure if it was the film or the soundtrack that most moved me. I orginally tried to write this post while listening to the music, but I had to shut it off: it’s intensity completely fills every crevice of my little brain, and I can’t really do much else but clean or cook–things that require a different hemisphere. It’s the kind of music that when played during a dinner party, will consume the first lapse of silence that naturally occurs, and continue playing out until the record stops, an uninvited guest.

For writers (and readers-but aren’t we all the same?) and perhaps for everyone, language is the easiest medium through which to buoy yourself. Words invite us to spin a world, our own internal, clumsy experience  Off and on throughout my life I have felt this way. That the volume is just turned up all the time. All the volumes. Once when I was travelling, my hosts left on a trip of their own for a few evenings, leaving me to my own devices. I remember spending a dinner alone, soberly absorbed by the way the tines of the fork felt against my lip, the texture of the bread, even the density of the chair I was sitting on. Part of what makes the book so difficult to navigate *is* the lack of setting, of scene. It’s like reading Room for the first time, you spend the first couple chapters piecing together what is even happening, appreciating turns of phrase and brief, isolated moments before you can get into the horrific meat of the story. The brevity of Cloud Atlas means that you don’t really get this type of gravity.

Aside from a chance encounter with an ESL student while I was writing this, I haven’t had the occasion to chat much about the movie with anyone who has actually seen it and disliked it (she didn’t like it because it was too hard to follow). That being said, einmal ist keinmal: it is impossible to imagine what this movie would be like without having some vague knowledge of what you are going to see next. Having read the book, I was able to parse out the voices and piece together plots that might not have been so obvious. Walking out of the theater I was convinced that the movie was incredible, achieving a depth and dialogue beyond what the written medium could find possible: but after finishing the novel I was satisfied that both mediums had optimized their abilities to tell the story. For example, largely due to the lack of description in the novel, the futuristic passages of the book were difficult for me to conceive (let alone navigate), yet visually the film was able to do this seamlessly and well. On the other hand, the book was able to create personal connections and dialogue that would’ve been impossible in the film.

Reading Cloud Atlas was kind of like going on a backpacking trip with one of your best friends childhood best friends. You had heard snippets about them before (probably way more than you realized, before they had a name and a place in your mind). Your friend adores them, but at first you are a little apprehensive: they aren’t quite who you pictured, and they probably aren’t quite how your friend remembers them anyway. At first the trip is awkward: you know you are supposed to like each other and get along – you struggle to find your bearings, adjust your inside jokes; for the first few kilometers you’re working out the pace, the dialogue of your newfound trio. Eventually you (hopefully) come around to the friend. You don’t know the same childhood friend that you thought you were meeting, but in a way you know them better. A more up to date, stripped down version of the person they once were.

Going to watch Cloud Atlas the movie on the other hand, is like meeting someone in their hometown. Things make sense. They may or may not be as you had imagined: but that is how things are. Places and people have weight, shape, explanations for why they appear as such. All of the images that existed in your mind before you had arrived instantly vanish. Each aspect of your friend is explained, even the unnoticed bits, sculpted by the empty space that surrounds them. Their quirky sense of humour? That came from their dad. They have their mother’s eyes and must have gotten their love for Ginko trees from the unmentioned ones that line their childhood streets. Visiting your new friend in their hometown in a way is much more complete. You can breathe the air they breathed, walk the streets they walked and see the city as it stands.

It’s odd though, because in a strange way, the version of the person you met on the hiking trip is a much more complete person.

To be continued …

…The artist lives in two worlds.

*      *      *

And now, a brief announcement about my other world.

I wanted to include a quick footnote, to my tiny audience (Hello all of you! You are more encouraging than you will ever know: thank you, thank you, thank you for reading and following this site :)):

I don’t often include many details about my current life, but I wanted to apologize briefly, (especially to the yeahwrite folks) about my spotty postings the past two weeks. Life has been tumultuous – ultimately, quite hopeful! And very busy…

Recently I have been in the process of interviewing (successfully!!) for a new job. It has been a long and difficult search, and I’m totally thrilled and excited with this new position. I start next week, and I’m looking forward to settling back into a new routine of writing, working and reading. Regardless, lately the process and prospect has detracted from my capacity to focus.

Also, we have adopted Grizelda (aka Zelda or Griz). More details to follow.

Tips for timid cats welcome.

Much love and gratitude to all.

Navigating Cloud Atlas

After my first year of uni, during my final stages of  planning and packing for Africa I found myself staring at a stack of correspondance spread out all over our bedroom floor. I was on exchange in rural Québec, and we were rooming seven kilometers outside of Notre-Dame-de-Lourdes, which had a grand total of 732 people in it. The family had four children, and in honour of our arrival, they had emptied out their bright blue playroom for my counterpart and I. We slept on two foam mattresses on the floor an arms length away from one another, my letters covered the only small 8×10 empty patch of hardwood.

Mail is always exciting. My parents would forward packages of my mail via multiple rural routes until it eventually arrived at our old school mailbox in front of the giant blue farmhouse. Endlessly indecisive, I had applied for transfers into four other university programs and been accepted. The door to return to Ottawa was still open. I had been mulling over the decision for several weeks as the applications were processed, during my runs alone in empty fields behind our house, pondering while I replanted thousands of tiny conifers in the greenhouses at work and during the 44km bike-ride to our friends in Victoriaville. I had all the brochures and appropriate enrolment forms spread out all over the tiny space, and was (once again) trying to weigh my options, with grids and pro/con lists, when suddenly a calm washed over me: I realized I would never be attending some of these programs.
I had already made my decision.

I had never been to Halifax when I decided to move there. We hatched an elaborate plan for my arrival. I didn’t have any friends there that I knew of, and the first night we arrived our car was broken into and a bunch of our things were stolen.
I had zero expectations. I heard it was a rough town. I knew there was an ocean, that there was a good music scene and that the weather was crazy but that was about it.
I remember the exact moment of calm in knowing that this was what I was going to do. It’s funny, of all the things I have done in my life, I think moving out there was one of the best and most effortless decisions I ever made. The calm I felt during my time there is almost unmatched from everywhere else I’ve ever lived. I’ve heard a lot of people move to Halifax in this way.
And yet, I’m still not ready to even consider going back.

Halifax houseparty, 2008 Photo credit: Ben Dalton

Zero expectations are often the best ways to go about life, books, and when possible: film.

Cloud Atlas came highly recommended. Exceptionally highly recommended. Here is a sample update from one of my literary pals:

So for the last time, everybody read Cloud Atlas. Especially before the movie comes out. It is better than any book you’ve read recently and probably the best thing to happen to novels in decades.

Heck even Ben Affleck liked it. I had been forewarned by friends and pre-viewers to avoid seeing the trailer (by all means) before reading the book, and see the movie at your own risk. Good friends had seen it opening weekend, and returned with rave reviews. A few of us decided to head to pho and cheap night last week. We left the theater reeling.

That being said, if you are intending on reading and/or seeing Cloud Atlas I will not be offended, nay perhaps even recommend that you stop reading this post.

*        *        *

I have picked up several of David Mitchells books before. A few of them are regularly featured at Munro’s for no more than a handful of dollars. Their covers are decent. Provocative, but not captivating. Titles that are slightly ubiquitous: A Thousand Autumns of Jacob Zoet, Ghostwritten – poetic, but almost forgettable. Unfailingly, given enough time I will pick them up, scrutinize the cover, flip them over, skim the back and still intrigued, flip through it again. Each time I’ve put then down and walked away. Mitchell has been short listed for the Booker a number of times before, never made it.Working through Cloud Atlas I wonder if he may have broken the curse.

Spent the fortnight gone in the music room, reworking my year’s fragments into a “sextet for overlapping soloists”: piano, clarinet, ‘cello, flute, oboe, and violin, each in it’s own language of key, scale and color. In the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the second, each interruption is recontinued, in order.

Revolutionary or gimmicky? Shan’t know until it’s finished and by then it’ll be too late.

-Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell

To give you a rough idea of the book’s layout, there are six narratives, arranged like Russian nesting dolls, one inside of the other. First up: Adam Ewing, a sickly yet important traveller on a boat in the late 1800s. Next, a series of letters from Robert Frobisher a composer living in Europe during the early 1930s. This is followed by a series of short, punchy chapters with 1970s journalist and protagonist Lisa Rey, in LA. Then comes Timothy Cavendish, a sixty-something year old publisher in London, UK during modern day (2012). This is followed by an interview of Somni-451, the first self-actualized clone in the not-so-distant future: it alludes to a location likely somewhere in Asia (judging from names and other descriptors). Finally, in the middle of the book the last narrative, a yarn told by an old man Zachry, about his escape from what we can only deduce to be Hawaii, sometime in a post-apocalyptical world.

In Mitchell’s novel they are arranged chronologically, cut neatly in half, ended abruptly (one can only postulate by death). The middle narrative is told in entirety, and then, lo and behold, each of the previous narratives are returned to in succession. We find our characters saved at a crucial moment. We had been deceived, they were indeed rescued. In the latter half of the book our suspicions are confirmed that each of the stories are related. The interview of Somni is a relic in the future, the recording captured on a spinning egg,  which becomes a mystic oracle in the future. Each of the previous stories had been interrupted part-way through:  Somni was watching a film of Timothy Cavendish which had gotten stuck. Timothy was reviewing a manuscript about Lisa Rey, which he had forgotten at home. Lisa had inherited half of the letters of Robert Frobisher (the balance of which are then sent to her). Robert had been reading the diary of Adam Ewing, which had been ripped in half; the second half had been used (as he discovers) to prop up his wobbly bed.

Before reaching the midpoint of the book, you do notice some repetition and common threads, but instead of finding it clever (ahead of your cogency the method to the madness), I found it vaguely irritating. An oversight by an editor? Or was I losing my mind? Several times I actually flipped back through the book to assure myself that yes, it was the second time that Mitchell had said “his muscles atrophied” or that the name of the cemetery was the same as…a nuclear reactor? Most of these “coincidences” are most notable in the second half, but regardless, I found myself flipping through the book a lot. Somni; wasn’t that the name of the last character? And what is with this recurrence of Hawaii? (On a slightly unrelated note, my friend and I unwittingly ended up attending a Hawaii spirituality workshop at a festival a few weeks ago. I keep finding the ticket stub everywhere-it seems to have the ability of being in the pocket of every jacket I own all the time….). Yet by the time you reach the second half of the novel you are aware that this beauty in serendipty is around us all the time, we simply chose to ignore it.

When I realized that these were embedded, intentional, delicately crafted threads, my heart melted. I was instantly ashamed and embarrassed that I could have ever interpreted these repetitions were oversights, or literary blunders. I chided myself for being so pompous.Isn’t that how we so often deal with repetition? To dismiss it as an oversight, an annoyance?

Since my first reading of his book, Milan Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being has remained firmly etched – for better or for worse – in some abscess of my mind. It was then that the segment that first made me fall in love with the book gently recited itself in my mind:

This symmetrical composition—the same motif appears at the beginning and the end—may seem quite “novelistic” to you, and I am willing to agree, but only on condition that you refrain from reading such notions as “fictive,” “fabricated,” and “untrue to life” into the word “novelistic.” Because human lives are composed in precisely such a fashion. They are composed like music. Guided by his sense of beauty, an individual transforms a fortuitous occurrence (Beethoven’s music, death under a train) into a motif, which then assumes a permanent place in the composition of the individual’s life. Anna could have chosen another way to take her life. But the motif of death and the railway station, unforgettably bound to the birth of love, enticed her in her hour of despair with its dark beauty. Without realizing it, the individual composes his life according to the laws of beauty even in times of greatest distress. It is wrong, then, to chide the novel for being fascinated by mysterious coincidences. … But it is right to chide man for being blind to such coincidences in his daily life. For he thereby deprives his life of a dimension of beauty.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera

For tonight, I leave you with this. Until then, enjoy the beauty in repetition and coincidence.

To be continued tomorrow!

 

– (Trying to be) Day 10 (!) –

The Rogue Leaves

The unsung silver lining to Victoria’s long, silvery-white, drizzly winter and pale fall, is that November is nice. Instead of 30 days of grey-brown slush and ice instead we have saffron alders and big leaf acers, sepia-orange oak and walnuts, and a smattering of wine red silver maples and cherry trees. While the rest of Canada faces barren streets, slush and ice, we are washed in a third blossoming of foliage, as snowstorms of leaves rain down scantily lit night skies. They dance their way over thresholds the city-over, swirling over doormats and forcing shopkeepers to sweep their entry constantly.  No one here believes in the double door system of the east and the golden leaves a nearly festive atmosphere about the place, as if we were all decorating for the arrival of someone terribly important.

The gusts of November prove a feat for cycling, but ensure the most vital attribute of island weather: change. Rare are the November days when dreary skies will muck up the air for entire days or even weeks. Instead they usher in-and-out clouds of cumulus, bright sunlight and winter rain. Short holding patterns will emerge. Rain in the early morning, clearing with sunrise, sunny until clouds form in the afternoon and rain away the sunset; clear, cold, windy nights. Runs need to be decisive, early and brisk.

Rogue leaf, our apartment, November 2011

November here is a time for silence. A time to listen to the wind and the rain. To listen to the quiet of the empty city.

I am struggling with reading this month. In part the challenge comes from the restlessness of the weather: it’s hard to commit to anything when the season is so variable. The momentum of the Christmas season is also starting to rear it’s frenetic head. I’ve also felt at a bit of a loss for settling my teeth into my next read. The days of the Times Colonist book-sale have come and gone, and the shelves I’ve procured have been culled more than once of the ones I had been most eager to read. Many of the ones that remain were picked up because I have passed over them once too often: part of that internal master list so many of us have in our brain. The books we should read, the ones we should know. I have a stack of commentary in international relations texts, Jane Jacobs and well over a dozen classics I’ve never really come around to reading (i.e., Moby Dick, Oliver Twist, and East of Eden for a start). After six years of school, the last thing one ever wants to do with their “leisure” reading is feel obligated to slog through something they’re really not enjoying. Especially when there are thousands of totally decent books in the world.

Lately I have taken most of my direction through word of mouth, and proof of merit. I tend to read books in torrents and association: everything by Eugenides or Ondaatje. Read Franzen because you like Eggers. The others have been through refferrals by friends, friends of friends, friendly bookstore owners and interesting looking people in coffee shops (yes, I am that person who is also voyeuristically and oh-so-indiscreetly attempting to figure out what you’re reading from across the way). Books are hard. It is almost impossible not to judge a book by it’s cover. I’ll go see music with zero expectations, because their poster looks reasonably cool, I like the venue or I know who is opening. Friends have taken me to see shows willingly based little more on “it’s a bit folksy with a little rock, fantastic vocals,” or a few snatches of a youtube video. It is seldom to see a movie without successfully enjoying the preview in advance, but when was the last time you bought a book based on a commercial?

The latest book that I picked up, highly touted by a few friends as “if you only read one book this year…” was Cloud Atlas. I had been advised by everyone to (at all costs) avoid watching the preview of the film until after I had finished the book, and preferably until after I had finished watching the movie. There was a huge relief in this, of actively deciding to avoid advertising and reviews. These days, cutting yourself off can be just as hard as immersing yourself; saying no just as hard as saying yes. But with it comes freedom and clarity. Shutting off the internet finally gives you space to breathe. As many of my previous posts would indicate, I am an NPR addict, but this month I’ve found myself shutting off the radio and working in the kitchen in silence. Wandering down forgotten avenues of memory, cleaning up and putting away things that haven’t crossed my mind in years.

I watched Cloud Atlas earlier this week, a hundred pages short from finishing the rest of the book. Since then my mind has been crowded, overwhelmed by the three hour long film, trying to commit to finishing David Mitchell’s novel. Trying to enjoy instead of dissect. Trying to be silent.

And it’s really, really hard.

The unsung exploit of the philosopher kings

Philosophy lovers, prepare to be outraged.

I’ve been trying to stay focused on my job search, but this article, published November 5 in the Atlantic caught my attention and momentarily derailed me back to WordPress (Should Science Majors pay less than Arts Majors?). The article briefly outlines a proposal by the state of Florida: devine the subjects most likely to result in growing the economy, and then encourage enrolment in these fields based on lower tuition rates:

Students would get discounts for studying topics thought to be in high demand among Florida employers. Those would likely include science, technology, engineering, and math, among others. But Art History? Gender Studies? Classics? Sorry, but the fates are cruel. Unless a university could show that local companies were clamouring to hire humanities students, those undergrads would have to pay more for their diploma… The hope appears to be that by keeping certain degrees cheaper than others, the state can lure students into fields where it needs more talent.

Tax dollars are scarce, and the public deserves the best possible return from its investment in education. That means spending more generously on the students who are most likely to help grow Florida’s economy once they graduate. Second, he argued that too few young people consider their career prospects carefully when picking a major. “The tuition differential will increase the probability that there will be some introspection about careers and livelihoods,” he said.

My opinion of higher education has changed drastically over the past decade. I was strongly encouraged to pursue sciences and medicine. A woman in science, one who liked math – was good at math even, was touted to be rare. I was assured opportunities would be there for me, that doors would be open. I pursued a program in bio-chemistry, intending to go into pharmacy or medicine after my five-year undergraduate was complete.

I did not consider my job prospects outside of medicine after my degree. Not succeeding in those fields was not an option I ever even imagined; not liking my program or the work I would be doing was something else that had never crossed my mind. My first year was hard. We had between 39 and 42 hours of scheduled class or labs a week. Then we had hundreds of pages of technical reading, pages of practice problems for calculus and statistics and lab-reports for three or four lab sessions (normally taking between 6-10 hours each). Half of the first year was anticipated to fail out.

At times things were interesting, at times I wanted to learn more, but more over what I remember is the heavy pull of the lab, the drab whitenesss, the enormous, faceless classes the unforgiving fatigue. Walking across the empty barren parking-lots at 8am with Kyle, also another renegade jaded scientist/secret lover of foreign films, ice crystals forming in our insulated cups during the ten minute trek to lecture. Our friends snuggly tucked in their cozy beds, visions of Beowolf dancing in their heads.

In my “spare” time, in order to try to prep for med school applications, I signed up to volunteer for emergency work with the local Red Cross. On the way home from one of our first orientation sessions, I took the bus with another Biochemistry student, well into his Masters. We chatted. He asked me how my program was going, empathized with me over physics, laughed over the crazy bell curves and then in all seriousness confronted me if I liked it or not: “Do you like the labs?” he asked, pointedly. I nodded vaguely, shrugging, trying to say first year was always hard. He shook his head: “Yes, first year is hard, but it leads to more of the same. Next year you will have 6 hour labs, sometimes longer. If you screw up an experiment, you will be there all night. And when you are done, what will you do? More experiments.” His faint French accent allowed him to be blunt while also appearing unassuming. He wished me luck. I nodded, and thanked him, mullin over his words in my head for months. Apparently 80% of biochemistry students that graduate end up employed in the petroleum industry.

I don’t want to say that you don’t work hard in humanities. What I do want to say is that very very few 17 year olds are really in a position to look ahead into the realities of their future. They are prone to simply taking the advice of their parents, their teachers and their peers. It is easy to commit years and thousands of dollars on a path to a destination where you didn’t fully read the brochure. This type of thinking and examination needs time – the type of time most highschool students, desperate to get into the right program at the right school don’t have. The old adage of investment in a good university = an investment in your future is no longer proving as true as it once was, and is not a course to jump into head first before assessing the depth of the water. The educational journey is incredibly important. However university is not the only option for education, nor the best.

I don’t necessarily agree that arts degrees should cost more, but I think that the system is in desperate need for reform. Capping programs would improve their quality and usefulness. Maybe funding and seats could simply remain more open for programs in higher demand. We could train more doctors. That being said, not everyone can be a pipe fitter or a hydraulic engineer, but I think that is article starts to examine some difficult questions.

Like, if Canada was going to devote 10 million dollars a year to it’s olympic team and we had 900 people are interested in gymnastics, 90 people interested in hockey and 10 people interested the biathalon, how do we break down our Olympic budget? Gymnasts are cheaper and easier to coach, but maybe the might considerably less opportunity to win. Should everyone be allowed to be a gymnast? We need more hockey players and they will doubtlessly go on to perform well…do they need more per player support? What about our biathaletes? What if we only have six biathaletes but they are incredible, best in the world, but they still need their own course. Should their program receive equal funding? Should each olympian get equal funding?

Science programs require more money to run, more lab time, supplies, more face-to-face lectures, more marking – is it fair to recoup these costs by increasing their class sizes? Or raising their tuition? If ultimately petroleum engineers will contribute more back to our economy and tax base due to their higher salaries should they then have to pay more or less for their training? Should they be entitled to better training if their jobs are in higher demand? If most of the gymnasts are never going to the olympics anyway, why not just devote some of this funding to other leisure activities?

This was a heated article for me to read – and for many of my friends. There is no shortage of student debt for twenty- and thirty year olds. I don’t necessarily think that our academic pursuits costing more would let us change our opinion about them, but I would argue that a paradigm shift in how we perceive university education would be helpful. There is so much pressure on students right now to go to university to show that “they’re smart” or for “personal development” yet their are so many amazing ways to develop yourself. There also seems to be a huge stigma against going to college – which provides amazing opportunities for a lot of young people, and an excellent avenue into the working world. Maybe part of the solution to the underemployment/student debt equation is to (in part) allow academia to retreat back into it’s Ivory Tower. While education should be accessible to everyone, does it necessarily need to remain a requirement for entry into society? The huge pressures and health issues that are prevalent in many university students are also surely arising out of (mis)conceptions of future career prospects and forcing many people to conform into a system that might not be right for them.

There also seems to be a shift (especially in BC, Ontario and Australia) to move towards self-funding universities…in part by attracting foreign students (who pay an unsubsidized, much higher tuition). My question is this, why not attempt to shift more resources into attracting more members of our aging demographic? If these “leisure studies” (as quoted in the article) are believed to be pursuits for the affluent and bourgeoisie why are young people being exploited and (in part) deluded into thinking these are valid professional paths into the working world, and unfounded entitlement claims to non-existing jobs.

It isn’t that they aren’t legitimate jobs within academia, it is that there are gross misconceptions surrounding how easy and accessible these career paths are.

This was a very emotional piece for me to read, I would love to hear any reactions you have to the article.

November No sense Nonsense …

Five days in.

Five days in to the longest month of the year.

I have never done well with Novembers.

*         *         *

She loved the winter.

She loved the crisp crystal blues. The cloudless skies. The emptiness of cold.

She loved the open space.

Winter air was heat-less, power-less. The sun a large star in the frigid January afternoons, its dim light a feeble apology for offering nothing more to our distant land. It’s dim light a feeble apology for offering nothing more to our distant land. The absence of heat made the air seem bigger. Everything shrunk. Buildings looked like pictures pasted in 3d dioramas.

Everything retreated.

Everyone retreated.

The streets were empty. The rivers were empty. The parks were empty.

You are alone.

Ottawa, 2011

In the cold you finally have space to think.

Everything is white.

                              (tabula rasa)

In the cold everything is clean.

You finally have permission to start over. To believe that tomorrow will be better.

In the cold each day is a miraculous feat of survival. Every day is a new day.

Gasses dissolve more easily in cold than in heat. On days like these the industrial skyline of Hull suddenly seemed futuristic and pure. Chimneys forget their mandate of belching giant slimy soot upwards, and instead rest silently. Letting the off-gassing disappear seamlessly into the ether.

In the winter there is no desperation.

Without heat there are no clouds, only clarity. Every thing is crystalline.

In the cold everything is possible.

*         *         *

– Day 5 –

Some of you might be wondering why my posts have exponentially increased since last Thursday…well, now that it’s too late to back out…may I introduce…NaPaBloMo! Er, or something like that! I am looking at it as training wheels to National Novel Writing month, and a boot camp to working towards shorter more manageable posts! I am looking to write a blog post (almost) everyday and being supported by the lovely and amazing crew at yeahwrite.me!

That being said, I am struggling…I am used to writing much longer posts less often, so thank you to all for bearing with me as I blog out as much as possible over the coming weeks…my editing regime may suffer as a result! (December may be National Editing month!)

And a big hello to all my fellow Rowmies and thank you to all my commenters 🙂

*         *         *

In my second last semester of my undergraduate program my housemate convinced me to enroll in a poetry course. It was taught by one of her favourite professors, Dr. Andrew Wainwright, who was retiring at the end of the semester. He was hopelessly cool (I mean, the other class she had taken with him was Bob Dylan and the Literature of the 60s). I culled my journals and cobbled together a small portfolio that was miraculously accepted into the course.

I never for an instant regretted my decision to take the class.

We only had about four assignments.

A haiku, a sonnet (written in teams of two!), a longer poem of our choice, and a short description and presentation about the working method we went through to arrive at our finished project. We also had to provide critiques of each of our colleagues poems, which became part of our final grade. It was great to be able to finally feel justified in spending the same amount of time I would devote to a final essay on distilling the 12 perfect syllables of a haiku, spending literally hours mulling over finding the ultimate word. Gymnastics for the other half of my brain.

The class was incredible.

First off, the people in the group were decidedly not who I was expecting. I imagined us walking in on the first day and being surrounded by members of the creative writing program, who I had never met, but I envisioned as being predominantly women, tall and willowy in sweeping long skirts with forlorn hints of sadness hidden in their distant, contemplative gazes. The few men in the room would obviously be sporting black turtlenecks and goatees. Their work would be good. Really good. Deep. They would laugh at me.

I was intimidated. Really intimidated. And really, really relieved when we walked into class the first day and the room was filled with decidedly normal people. The class was capped at twenty students, 12 men and 8 women. Dr. Wainwright was wearing a baseball cap and a leather jacket. Student representatives included: a rapper from our undergraduate cohort, a law student who was a closet screenplay writer, a few scientists, a business student or two. The only thing we had in common was the terrified, slightly bashful expression on our faces.

Five years later and I still think of the people in that class. One girl wrote this beautiful piece about fall leaves in her bicycle spokes, which I always think of every autumn. Another time, we found out the rapper had a story-board tattoo of T.S. Elliot’s Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock on his chest. All of us became this ephemeral, close-knit unit as we gently, shyly exposed our poetry to one another. A secret sonnet society.

Today’s post made me think of them, because of the clumsy, bashful way I am already floundering material. The complete surprise and humility I am already finding from the work of others. And the constant lesson that not every day will be your best work, not everything you write will be for yourself, but progress comes in spirals, and all it takes is practice.

And so, we write.

The Name of History

Our hallway is always changing.

Nothing major, just little things. We first noticed a small big horned sheep perched on one of the ledges by our flat. Later, the sheep at moved to a different ledge. A Superman appeared one day, stuck in the grate, flying out of the wall. Two days later he was holding the sheep.  Then the sheep was wearing a bow on the window sill and Superman’s cape was on backwards. Every day is a little bit different, nothing shocking, but just changed enough that you notice, vaguely stringing together unrelated narrative. We also now have two giant inflatable exercise balls that are covered with stickers, and roll from one end of the building to the other. I am sure they are a fire hazard, but it does keep you engaged enough that you notice.

The latest addition is this sign we saw as we grappled the bikes into the lift: “Don’t forget YOU need a poppy.”

Considering the benign state of most of the other hallway decor, I thought this sign to be almost forceful in it’s conviction. It might as well have been taking a stance on the death penalty, it was so relatively political. At the same time it was also humbling in it’s own way. To think our phantom artist had not only noticed the date, but also taken the time to go out and fashion this pathetic little art installation installation reminder in our lift.  That this was something that really mattered to him. Convictions make me emotional.

Remembrance day always kind of sneaks up on us. It arrives with the Day of the Dead, poppies, blossoming on lapels everywhere as the pumpkins are ushered away, bright red splashes of pain against the monochrome of grey and drizzle. A somber pre-emptive precursor to Christmas displays.

Every since working at Vimy Ridge, the first two weeks of November never fails to take me back to quiet, empty battlefields, filled with bleating sheep and tombstones. I spend the first half of the month faded into seasonal memory, mulling over details of the past and the Somme.

Doubtlessly prompted by the encroaching commemoration, this article  in the National Post ran November 2 (Canadians Should Be Sued for their Neglect of their own History, by Kelly McParland). I have been thinking about it ever since. The article attributes Canadians lack of understanding and appreciation of history due to our sterile, limited exposure to it’s content:

[Canadians seem to want to believe that our national history is one of the most tedious subjects in the world.] If you’re curious about one of the starker differences between Canadians and Americans, it’s this: Americans treat their history as Hollywood, one long glorious tale or heroism and tragedy played out over several centuries of war, romance and intrigue, with courageous heroes and alluring heroines. Canada makes teenagers memorize body counts. We don’t even try to make it interesting.

*    *    * 

Yesterday was a grey and drizzly kind of day. The kind of day when way, way too brightly coloured leaves fall off the trees, the day is noticeably too short and where you run around with a bit of a frantic desperation wondering where your week has gotten away to. Winter is going through the motions to make good on it’s promise, and many of us have been tipped off into the world of commemoration and meditation on fall, on death and wars. Late last night after wallowing in grey, chilly energy all day, I set about to make things right with some stretching and watching a bit of a film before crawling into bed. I wanted something light, funny, perhaps even a bit thoughtful. Given my recent contemplations on the French  Le Nom des Gens (or in English The Names of Love), promised to fulfill all of these requirements and more.
NB: available, sub-titled on Canadian NetFlix!

The film is funny, punchy and very French. It features two random people in France. Baya, a young and sexy strong female lead, who is convinced that by exploiting fascist right-wing males through sex, she will be able to convert them to her leftist ways of thinking. Naturally, she ends up falling in love with Albert, a bumbling, boring ornithologist.

Super saturated colours soak the film. Understated yet stunning actors.
Moments of the type of real life romance that is so rarely portrayed in North American films:
Albert is standing waist-deep in a pond, about to lift a huge, dead snow-white swan out of a lake. He is wearing hip waders, when suddenly – his mobile rings. He pauses to pick up the phone – his mother is dead. He hangs up the phone. Pauses. Gathers up the dead swan again in his arms, floating weightlessly on the water, as he stands, stunned in the pond, holding this huge beautiful limp white bird. Grief floods over his shocked face. End scene.

It is a romantic comedy, but the romance is a backdrop to the rest of the film, the comedy a veil. Instead this film looks at our personal relationship with politics, and questions their links with our history.

Baya prides herself on being Arab/Algerian and French, as the movie unfolds we learn that Albert’s past is just as controversial (if not more so than Baya’s). We also see how the past can be incredibly traumatizing. How erasing some of the past is the only way that some have learned to cope. How then can we trace our political convictions to a history we have forced ourselves to forget? Ultimately the movie suggests that by focusing on making love, not war and by rejecting the past without forgetting it, the world becomes a better place. Differences are cast aside and through sex, France moves forward.

I don’t intend to offend by using this lens to critique McParland’s article, but frankly, Canadians have their hands tied in our educational approach to our own history and our policies on multi-culturalism. My great grandfather was on the other side of the First World War. Do you think these stigmas had dissolved twenty or thirty years later during the Second World War? I can think of a half-dozen people off the top of my head whose last names were changed when they arrived to our country. Let alone discuss our bloody and glorified colonial pasts. Canada was effectively still a colony during the First World War. Part of the importance of Vimy Ridge is the fact that it was instrumental in cementing Canada’s independence from our Mother country; but it was an old school way of gaining independence: through blood. If anything, by approaching history from a more objective, universal point of view more Canadian youth will be emotionally engaged in learning about how they fit into the narrative. What was happening in Africa? What was happening in Romania? Where are you from, what was your family doing in 1919? <br<Appearance can be deceiving.

Canadians tend to be politically correct to a fault, often camouflaged as “politeness.” In my personal experience to avoid offending people this tends to take two forms: to entrench ourselves in a past so distant it is universal (i.e., ancient Egypt, Rome), or to focus so heavily on the sterility of details it absolves us of all the deep emotional attachments that could offend.  Glorifying people in a story-book “tale of heroism” perpetuates inaccurate historical stereotypes of right and wrong. The First World Was was ultimately the war to end all wars, the end of Imperialism; how can you say one side was heroic and glorious? How can you tell that to descendants that were so ashamed of their involuntary involvement in the battles that they changed their names and forgot their language to leave it behind? Shame is rampant in our society. It shuts down important conversations. War should not be forgotten, nor should the brutality of colonialism. But heroism implies villains, and should not be used as a tactic for engagement.

One of the best books I read in my time entrenched in France was All Quiet on the Western Front, which tells the story of schoolboys sent off to war. It’s poignant and engaging, and about two third through the book you realize that this is a story about the other side. It is a perfect accessible example of the travesty of war: perhaps this should be the type of Hollywood recounting given to youth. Canada is an unsettled collection of recent and ancient refugees.   We can not forget the past, we can not gloss over it’s horrific details, but we also can’t pretend it is a common thread that ties us all together. A well-rounded approach to fewer events might help more Canadians connect to who they are, rather than an alienating Hollywood approach that glorifies tragedy.

Poppies grow over the graves of all soldiers without discrimination, a perfect, tragic metaphor for the universality of death.

Lest we forget.

Langemark, German cementary in Belgium, Fall 2007

– Day 3 –

Camus and Kathmandu

Bamako to Paris, December, 2004

When I was small, my aunt travelled around the world. I think she was gone for about 20 months, but it seemed like an eternity for a five year old. I must have been barely in first grade. Phone-calls from Asia and Africa were not cheap or regular 25 years ago, and contact was just as sporadic. Pre-wireless, pre-cell phone, Lonely Planet when the planet really was lonely. Postcards were coveted and preciously brought in to show-and-tells.  I remember being completely astonished to receive a pink, hello-kitty type asian digital watch for my sixth birthday. An actual package. Asian seemed like a different unfathomable planet (Africa had been  covered between the Bible, pyramids and Safaris, “jungles et al.” covered Latin America, but Asia…).

Each location would be referenced on our standard-issue cardboard globe, and then cross-referenced in my giant illustrated Children’s Atlas, which admittedly, led to some frustration. For example, Africa was almost entirely crammed on one page, with extremely limited photos; secondly, the several months my aunt insisted on lallygagging through some very tiny European countries, resulted in boredom due to the limited surface area of her travels and page turns. Seriously, another European postcard? IT LOOKS LIKE CANADA ALREADY! Paintings? Who wants more of those!

Quite possibly the most magical thing in the world to me at that moment, I treasured our globe and atlas. Tracing the rivets and snowy elevations on the foreign continents skeptically as my aunt criss-crossed her way around the earth. I couldn’t fathom what a real mountain would look like. Growing up we referred to the Niagara escarpment as a “Mountain,” it was even where I learned to ski (to make matters worse)…all 300 elevated meters of it. Further explanations from my parents did little to advance my conception of it…i.e., Mountains are extremely high. So high they are covered with snow – like where we go skiing? – No, higher than skiing, higher than airplanes. The concept was indeed, mountainous.

My birthday card with the watch mentioned that they had been trekking in the Himalayas, that they had made it to base camp, but my aunt had suffered a bout of altitude sickness and they had to go back. She became delusional, thought she could make the climb up. It had taken them eleven days to get there. I remember placing my fingers over the ridge skeptically, trying to find the *exact* bump that was supposed to be Everest, trying to determine if it *really* was any higher than Aconcagua. Naturally, my cardboard globe was not the most accurate height predictor…

Even now, after living seven years in their shadow, their presence is still one I sense more than their absence. I know others who are to mountains what I am to large bodies of water. The moment I am farther than a few kilometers away from a body of water I start to get antsy, to suffocate a little. The body of water doesn’t need to be huge. A large lake will do, but it needs to be one not conceivably tranversed by swimming. Islands are also acceptable, if the river leads to the sea (I’ll take Montréal). But mountains…the mountains are still growing on me. Like an exceptionally beautiful guest at a party you haven’t spoken with yet, they still look a bit like a false backdrop or a trick my eyes are playing on me with the horizon.

Hurricane Ridge,Washington, May 2010

When I worked on Nootka I worked with a woman who was ten years older than I; at that point, a decade might as well have been an eon. She was thirty. She had lived a lifetime ahead of me. She had her own apartment. Spunky, solid, short, with the kind of deep wrinkles you get from a hard life, filled with living outside and partying too late when you are beautiful and young and think you will live forever. She had dyed her hair a fiery red, and was the kind of girl you could picture riding a motorcycle. She had just finished community college and had transferred into marine biology for the fall – a source of tender pride. She was incredibly intense and blunt, if she had partied hard in her youth, she was going to be just as rigorous a reformed intellectual in her thirties. Aside from her delicious two week meal plan for our shift (years of working on dive boats had made her a stupendous cook of dried/canned goods), and her love of Shakira, the moment of hers I remember most was during our drive up to the launch in Gold River. I was studying a rock-face, reminiscing about my recent first foray into outdoor climbing at Lighthouse Park and waxing poetic about how cool it would be to get into climbing. Like it was a lifestyle you could shrug on like a jacket (when you’re twenty and healthy you really can just shrug on lifestyles like clothing).  To which she soberly replied: “Yeah, I used to climb. But I stopped when all my friends started dying.” Climbing is not for everyone.

In Freedom Climbers (written by Bernadette McDonald and initially blogged about here), Wanda Rutiewckz explains the mortality that she is seeped in after having over 30 of her closest friends have died climbing:

“I know the value of life, and not only of my own….Every one of us has his own other life. We have our loved ones, but..climbing has become a part of my life. A passion that engulfs everything so that I can’t quit it, just like I can’t quit my own life.”

Earlier in the book Krzytof Wielicki, another climber tries to explain:

“If you want to climb, there is a cost. Usually the cost is the family. I have to say sorry, sorry, sorry. They suffer at home and we suffer on the mountain….To experience pleasure when you have everything against you, you must have some kind of warrior philosophy…It is more appealing. It is more exciting.”

The Polish climbers made tremendous sacrifices to pursue their love, their lives. But what struck me above all is that they don’t feel helpless or trapped under the forces of Communism. They love to climb. They are internationally renown as incredible climbers. So what if they live in Communism? They have an incredible life.they have found true happiness, true raison d’être, freedom.

Polish climbers proved to be a creative lot, and they devised a system within  the system – a strategy that liberated them. They discovered a way to travel outside their borders, to experience new cultures and languages, to follow their passion for climbing and make a living at it. They discovered how to be free!

Sea lions at Cowichan Bay, October, 2012

A few weeks ago I biked up to Salt Spring Island with a friend, and felt so rejuvenated I promised myself I would leave the city at least once a month by bike, to be amongst the quiet, silent fields, the cold chilly ocean and leverage my appreciation for warm, dry clothing. And so, last week I saddled up my Bianchi (to the great expense of my wrists) headed up island to Cowichan Bay, where I eventually found myself fireside in a log cabin discussing the intricacies between French and English culture. At one point, my friend laughed, and apologized, excusing himself. He returned a few moments later with a pocket book and proceeded to read aloud a segment of Joseph Campbell’s retelling of Albert Camus’ version the myth of Sisyphus.

Ancient myth abbreviated, the myth of Sisyphus is that he is punished by the gods for his fascination and disgust of human mortality. His appropriate punishment?  He is sentenced to push a heavy stone up to the top of the hill, only to let it roll down, and then push it back up again for all of eternity.

If this myth is tragic, it is because its hero is conscious. Where would his distress be if, at each step, hope of success encouraged him? Today’s worker toils all the days of his life at the same tasks and his destiny is no less absurd. Still, it is tragic only at those special instants when he becomes aware. Sisyphus, proletarian of the gods, impotent yet rebellious, knows the full extent of his miserable condition: it is what he thinks about during his descent. The clear-sightedness that was to be his torment at the same time consummates his victory. There is no destiny that cannot be overcome by contempt.

If some days the descent is made in suffering, it can also be made in joy. The word “joy” is not too strong. I imagine Sisyphus coming back toward his rock; as he begins, he is suffering. When the images of the earth are held too strongly in memory, when the call of happiness is too compelling, sadness grows in the heart of the man: it is the victory of the rock; it is the rock itself. The immense distress is too heavy to carry. However, crushing truths die from being recognized. 

The Poles are trapped under Communism, but with a clearsighted task at hand, they are also free and fulfilled. It is not the mountain that is the rock, but the task itself.

Without a clearly defined task at hand, ones efforts are fractured. Fractured efforts are half-truths, foreign words taken out of context and out of their language, useless. If you know one thing well, know one thing extremely, excruciatingly well, and within that one thing, is everything, including it’s futility. One place is every place if you know it well enough. The Poles were able to achieve this through their climbing.

“I take all my emotions to the mountains with me,” [Wanda wrote to Marion], “so any fighting I do is with myself, not the mountain…What you can’t do is dominate the mountain. Mountains never forgive mistakes, which is why I keep up a dialogue with them…When I’m up tin that thin air, suffering at every step, I’m able to reach deep into my inner self and in those moments I have a certainty that someone is helping me.”

In my most recent kitchen-cleaning TAL podcast (#169 – The Pursuit of Happiness), I was especially struck by the last segment, when Nancy Updike interview Marcus Johnson, a boxing coach, who believes that we make a conscious choice, every day, to be happy. She goes on to document and illustrates how much work he puts into achieving happiness, how it is a constant daily (achievable) struggle. It is a choice, like living, that needs to be made everyday. And a choice implies a degree of freedom.

Camus concludes that the choice is also ours to make:

All the silent joy of Sisyphus is there. His destiny is his own. His rock is his thing. 

I leave Sisyphus at the base of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. But, Sisyphus teaches the higher devotion, a devotion that repudiates the gods and that elevates rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This world, from now on without master, appears neither sterile nor futile to him. Each grain of the stone, each mineral chip of the night-saturated mountain, in itself, forms a world. The struggle toward the summit, in itself, is enough to fill a man’s heart. We must imagine that Sisyphus is happy.

If the existentialists touted suicide as proof of happiness (we are choosing life every day, we must be happy), then this can then be extended out to the Polish climbers. If they were able to chose to climb, if they had a reason, a purpose, a place to pursue. If they needed to climb the mountains “because they are there” then even in the face of repressive Communism, they too were free.

McDonald goes on to allude to the crumbling legacy of climbing as Communism fell:

…This exuberance of creative expression wasn’t limited to climbers. There was an abundance of artists and writers who thrived creatively during those severely repressed years in Poland. The censorship industry, rather than stifle, seemed to actually stimulate the artistic community. Like the climbers, artists became stronger through oppression; their most creative work came out of the darkest days. When repression collapsed, they collapsed too. They had no idea how to communicate without being rebels. When their world opened, they dried up.

I believe this begs the question vis-à-vis our modern times, are we feeling creative? Are we repressed? Has the internet catalyzed a surge in creativity? Or is it repressing us socially…causing us to be more creative? There is always some type of balance that exists in the universe. An ebb and flow of rights and expression, where are we now? Camus believes that with the choice of destiny comes the choice of happiness:

We do not perceive the absurd without being tempted to write some sort of happiness manual. “But, why must we proceed by such confined routes . . . ?” Well, there is only one world. Happiness and absurdity are its two offspring. They are inseparable. To say that happiness is the inevitable result of absurdity’s discovery would be an error. It also happens that the experience of absurdity arises from happiness. “I conclude that all is well,” says Oedipus, and these words are sacred. They resonate in the world of man that is, at once, both wild and restricted. They prove that all is not, has not been, exhausted. They banish from this world a god who entered it with dissatisfaction and a taste for futile suffering. They make destiny man’s business, a business that men must themselves manage.

In a world of choices, now we must follow through. We must eliminate possibilities and shut doors to allow ourselves to discover a path and follow it. More words from Wanda: “Living means risking, means daring; not to dare is not to live.” Dare to chose to be happy, dare to commit to your passion, dare to be free.

Oh, and you should probably read Freedom Climbers.

– Day 2 –

Climbing to Freedom with Bernadette McDonald

As Hurricane Sandy sweeps the east coast and earthquakes rattle the west, I felt like this might the week to review Freedom Climbers, by Bernadette McDonald. It’s been nearly two months since I tore through this novel. I felt intimidated at first…It was amazing, captivating and gripping.

It has taken me awhile to collect my thoughts about the book simply because it was so good. Partially, this can obviously be attributed to the journalistic prowess of Ms. McDonald, surely too, the editorial staff had something to do with it’s success. The final product is a pleasing size, red and blue jacket and blindingly white paper (it’s only when you are reading off of truly snow-white paper when you realize how rarely you complete such a task). But ultimately, this book is great because of the story. Non-fiction, written by a Canadian, it is the story of these climbers that made me weep (I am by no means a cryer).  It also prompted me to climb a (little) mountain.

For my birthday we rented a car for the day and drove up the Sea to Sky highway to Whistler. I hadn’t been up there since 2008, and then only twice: once in the torrential rain with a highway engineer and his family; and once in the dark, playing loud alt-rock from the nineties and singing along at the tops of our lungs on a spontaneous midnight road-trip to Skookumchuck hot springs in Lillooet. This trip was in the light, in the dry, on the wide, flat, new divided highway. We had miraculously been upgraded to a new VW Beetle (thank you hotwire) and I felt as though we had won the lottery.

Generally speaking I do not drive cars with any kind of engine pick-up or brakes (my first and only car, Thomas, warrants a much longer tribute in a future blog post), so driving a brand new Beetle, with all of these things on a crazy highway was icing on the cake. We bought burritos and hiked them up to the top, eating them in brilliant sun before heading to steam and sauna and nap for the afternoon. I finished the book there, in the mountains by the fire on my birthday. The summit of the Chief fresh in my mind and ache on my body. Liberation.

Vancouver, September, 2012

In Newfoundland we climbed some mountains. They are the first ones I ever remember climbing right to the very top.  The first ones I ever remember getting that little summit-high. My co-worker, my supervisor and I were always the three who would stick it out right to the end, the three locals preferring to relax on grassy knolls at the bottom, and the Torontonian stranded with the weak ankle.

My supervisor was a Newf and might as well have been half mountain goat. She’d leap and scramble ahead without a second thought. My co-worker, an Ottawatonian, was tall and lanky, moving deftly and assuredly along with all the grace of an orangutang swinging through tree tops. He was slower though, he had to stop regularly and reflect aloud, commenting on the silence, the scenery. He had a sister, and at times I suspected he lagged behind instinctively because of me. I would lumber along, head down, so engrossed with moving my heavy stout frame and red MEC pack precariously up the cliff that I would forget to look up. Often I wouldn’t even realize until I was almost be on top of him, stopped dead in his tracks. He would be staring off into the horizon, pondering aloud, or eagerly with his camera outstretched: “Do you mind taking another one? Right here would be great.

He was obsessed with this idea that his parents would have no good pictures of him if he went missing or died, and we were endlessly taking solo shots of him part way up the mountains, on top of the mountains or against the stark salty Atlantic vistas. He told me a few years later, when we met at a food court in Ottawa one frigid, snowy winter that he really regretted that – that he should’ve taken more pictures of all of us, of what was actually happening. That when he was going through all his pictures at home they looked a bit ridiculous, this shoebox filled with all these shots of him against empty landscape. That it wasn’t the place, but the moment.
Not that you can really capture that on film anyway.

The Newfoundland mountain tops also provided us with the rare instances of cellphone reception, where he would always call his father and she would always text her boyfriend. Cell-phoneless until 2007, I would just stare out in the direction of Europe and attempt to conjure up some sense of genetic, ancestral longing. Occasionally I would look west, in the direction of home. He would always speak to his father in Persian, and each time we reached the peak he would tell him that: “his space was empty.” I thought it was one of the most beautiful thoughts you could have about someone, that of their absence but also their place. Sometimes as he would say this I would mentally import my people around me, perching them on rocky bits of the peak and for a moment their presence would be there with me, briefly, on top of the world.

This is why they climb. For the open space. For the silence. For the moment of elation and freedom the second you arrive at the top. For the release from your feet, from staring at terrain and rock faces for hours, for days for weeks. For the moment where you finally look up, look out, look across at the horizon of other peaks. The moment you are free to stop thinking that you are going to the top. For that moment when you finally get there. The release from the trees and the faces…Only to look out, across, at the ocean of peaks, at the ocean of other trials, potentials, of needing to know what it looks like from over there. From that one.

It’s easy to see how people get addicted to this stuff.

“At that moment I felt I had the gift of infinite time…I felt no triumph, but I did feel that God was near me…”

-Wanda Rutkiewicz, on her thoughts of summiting K2

A few years later across the Atlantic at Arthur’s seat
Edinburgh, Scotland – January, 2007

The premise of Freedom Climbers is great, probably not one many people know. During Communism, Poland was bound by the forces that were, restricted from traveling and repressed by the system. What happened? Climbing. A small group of people began getting really, really into mountain climbing. First the Tatras, then on to the Himalayas. Poland’s currency was massively undervalued in the 70s and 80s: as a result few imported items were available in the country. Ice axes had to literally be forged at a blacksmiths shop, “just short of plucking the geese [themselves]” mountaineering jackets assembled and sewn by hand.

Climbers on the Katowice smokestacks.
Photo credit: Krzysztof Wielicki borrowed from this blog.

After an act passed permitting social clubs to receive payment and funding, a new development occurred that greatly facilitated expeditions. Climbers would approach many of the factory owners regarding their high chimneys (which needed to be kept in good paint and fine repair). Normally, re-painting the stacks was an expensive, labourous and convoluted task, involving several weeks, permits, installation of scaffolding, etc. Climbers would approach the owners and offer to repaint in a matter of days, quickly, using their ropes and no scaffolding. Many owners agreed – even for a heady profit that was paid to the climbing club, the owners recouped a large savings. Climbing clubs were quickly financed and helped facilitate more interest and more revenue.

Overland transportation to Nepal, from Freedom Climbers

Other strategies included recruiting foreign climbers (and foreign funds) to be part of Polish climbing expeditions, as well as Polish climbers working ingeniously to maximize the value of the zloty. One way would be to purchase as much as was undervalued within Poland  (i.e., food), and then travel overland to Kathmandu where they would resell as much as they could and swap with international climbers for missing items. Polish climbers would also scrounge the mountainside and abandoned base camps for tents and other lost gear that could be salvaged, reclaimed and repaired.

Polish climbers were special. They were tough, tenacious and supremely focused on their goals. They were geniuses. They knew how to live with uncertainty. They manipulated an impossible system so well that they were able to realize their dreams. They travelled, saw the world and lived lives of adventure and intensity. They had the perseverance of pioneers and the values of patriots.

You can tell Bernadette McDonald is a climber, that she lives amongst the mountains.  The book is dense with research and lots of focus on the technical aspects of climbs. McDonald’s simple, barebones style, is a bit like offering stage directions to a screen play. It is has such a phenomenal pretense, the characters have such chemistry, such lofty ambitions, the political climate almost unfathomable to a North American…the writing doesn’t need to be amazing, because the story is simple and incredible and rich with emotion. The simple style that she offers the story does not detract, but rather strengthens it’s richness. The fact that the writing does not detract from what is going on in the book is a testament to it’s virtue. It is well tailored clothing over an incredible body, invisible Emperor’s Clothes, allowing us to feel as though the story is springing up out of history. Resting lightly on literary and historical quotes – a perfectly matched seam, an immaculately pressed crease.

The use of pictures throughout the book is part of the captivation: these were real people. These were real people who were climbing while I was alive, while my aunt was there. Looking through the pictures I was overcome with the breathless tangibility of living breathing history, they way you feel when you are in Berlin, drinking by the wall or standing at Checkpoint Charlie. The recent truth is screaming from the ugly, contemporary architecture in an ancient city. History alive. And not just everyday history, but something immense that has just happened. This book was filled with the kind of palpable history that is pulsing through Berlin, the echoes that scream at you from living, abandoned buildings, the way – just for a second – time slows down as something monumental is taking place. These people are my parents age. That’s the year I went to preschool. This was just happening. Looking through the photos that span twenty-five years of the book the reality becomes all the more immediate.

These are people.
They are aging.
They are living – they are the highest humans in the world.
And they have died.

“We should not presume to judge those who seek out danger on the world’s highest places or demand to be told the meaning of what they do..Simply, when they pay the ultimate price for their passion, we should remember them.”

-Wanda Rutkiewicz

This book is a testament to their memory.

Andrzej Czok and Jerzy Kukuczka on Dhaulagiri 
Photo credit: Adam Bilczewski from Freedom Climbers

– Day 1 –