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 –