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Screaming into the void

There's an uncomfortable moment of truth I suspect almost everyone encounters at irregular intervals in their lives. It marks land's end in the Kingdom of Procrastination. Sink or Swim Point.
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There's an uncomfortable moment of truth I suspect almost everyone encounters at irregular intervals in their lives. It marks land's end in the Kingdom of Procrastination. Sink or Swim Point. It's that time when you finally have to face up to a task you've been dreading and simply do it. Generally, but not always, it involves doing something you don't want to do, something you know you can't avoid and something you'll probably fail miserably at accomplishing.

This is one of those moments.

I don't know how other writers approach what they do but I know, in my case, I used to spend inordinate hours writing and rewriting thoughts with one goal in mind: being able to put down on paper the relatively simple, conversational words I might use to describe complex thoughts. It sounds like an easy task. It isn't. If you think it is, try tape recording your conversation some time, transcribe it, word for word, and then attempt to punctuate it and read it back. You'll either be amused or appalled, possibly both. We don't write the way we speak, a fact that makes so much of what we read, especially of the learned variety, so obtuse and stilted.

The problem is compounded several fold when we have to write something we can't even begin to figure out how to say. I'm humbled and horrified at how thoroughly words fail me right now. I make my living herding an infinite jumble of word combinations into entertaining sentences that cast light on whatever subject tickles my fancy. But I don't know how to express the sorrow, fatigue and general hopelessness washing over me this week.

One of the many paradoxes of this place we call home is the pas de deux of life and death. Whistler is a place that makes people feel intensely alive and vibrant. At the heart of this vibrant intensity is the magic of mountains themselves. There is a quality to mountains that magnifies the impact of everything humans do in their proximity. It's easiest to understand this phenomenon by describing it.

Skiing, boarding too, is a unique sport, pastime, addiction, what have you. The learning curve of most sports is long and not too steep. It takes a long time to learn to do most athletic endeavours with more than passing facility. It's hard to describe many sports as exciting while you're flailing around in this extended learning period. There's nothing exciting and damn little rewarding in, say, golf or tennis while you're learning how to play them. There may be moments of satisfaction, elation even, but they are notable largely because they are exceptions to the rule of frustration and disappointment most of us feel with our game while we're learning to play it.

Skiing, on the other hand, is positively thrilling no matter how well or poorly you've mastered it. From the first moment you begin to slide over snow, feel the tug of gravity pull you downhill, your heart and spirit exults. It is pure thrill. There are, to be sure, more than a few moments of frustration overcoming the insane dance of move-fall-turn and converting it into the much more satisfying routine of move-turn-fall and finally reducing the frequency of fall to occasional reminders of how much more we have to accomplish. But even during that painful period, there is a constant thrill during the upright move portion. Once the basics have been reduced to muscle memory, skiing is a non-stop celebration of how good life can be when you live it at the edge of your self-defined envelope, be that envelope green or double black.

But the magic of mountains isn't limited to skiing. Take climbing. I'm not talking about death-defying climbing, crevasse bridging, technical routes reduced to numbers like 5.12. I'm just talking about getting to the top of a mountain or even a ridge near the top. There is a profound paradox apparent to all but the insensate at the top of a mountain climbed under your own power. There is a sense of omnipotent accomplishment as you relish your feat, vaguely remembering the lung-searing, leg-jellying trek to the top. It is fueled by endorphins and by the expansive, top-of-the-world view you drink in as you spin through 360°. It is boosted by the knowledge that few people ever get to share that sense of accomplishment. And if you're awake to it, there is an accompanying feeling of complete and utter insignificance. Not in the task you've just half completed. In you. Mountains have a special way of making humans seem like specks in an infinite cosmos. It's part of why we yell into the void when we get to the top.

Because mountains serve up so much life in an indifferently malevolent setting, they also magnify death. Death comes easy in mountains but whether at altitude or down in the valley, death is bigger when you live in the shadow of mountains. I don't pretend to understand how or why; I just know the phenomenon exists. If you doubt it, you haven't lived here long. You only have to attend a few memorials in this town to see what I mean. Trying to describe to outsiders the way this town celebrates - yes, I do think that's the right word - deaths, or perhaps more correctly, lives lost, is an impossible task.

But sometimes, and this is one of those times, the macabre celebrations just become too frequent to bear. Since the start of this season, it seems death has rented a room in town and become as much a local as any of us not too embarrassed to use that word to describe ourselves. There are people, it seems, I only see at memorials these days.

This past week has been grim enough to earn 2009 the award for the year I most want to see end. The raucous din of Shane McConkey's memorial hadn't subsided before the shock of Stuie Archer's death was buzzed around town. And that news was still buzzing when we discovered to our horror the woman murdered jogging in Vancouver's Spirit Park was our friend and colleague Michel Beaudry's lovely wife, Wendy, Jinny and Peter's sister, Maya and Jenna's mama.

The gaping wound left behind when joy abandoned my heart has only started to numb over. What can be said? How can sense be made of the nonsensical? What words of comfort can live up to their name?

The only thing I can think to do is go to the top of a mountain and scream into the indifferent void. There may be comfort there. Not much; just enough.




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