A few weeks ago my grandfather (the french one) passed away. He was the first of my grandparents to go, I’m very lucky that they’re so healthy, and his passing, as it is want to do, caused me to reflect a lot on death. As an Alpinist, death is a subject that I cannot hide from, and so this blog is a three parter. First, a poem for my grandfather (written whilst he was on his deathbed). Second, a sort of poem? about my relationship with death and my fear of what might happen were I not to keep my approach to danger in check. And lastly, some reflections on the lessons death can teach us.
Part I. In memory of a humble farmer
I am a curious shade of blue,
And you shine on me
Like the shadow that you are;
A wisp of smoke in translucent haze,
You return my gaze
Like fog upon the water.
In the space before the dawn
There is a darkness where you creep,
And I thought to hold your hand
To dance upon that line.
But I have teetered countless times
Upon the verges of that land,
And if I were born for a single thing
It was to hold on.
I might have looked you in the face
And caught a glimpse of that place between,
But you could only give me life.
Your blessing is of knowledge.
A syntax of truth describes our roots in blood;
A voiceless song that rings from the folds of night.
The person that you were
Still holds my aching hand,
And walking through the broken fields of memory,
The brushing of wheat upon my skin
Inscribes on my soul the secrets
Of a deeper place.
I will keep walking; understand that.
The spirit of the old is reborn.
Eternity remains well hidden,
But I promise you this:
Though I know not what you are
I shall forget nothing.
Part II. My darkest self
The legion is black.
The road is quiet.
The people have left this place.
The contrast between city and sky is obscured by the harsh glow of streetlights. Stars are out there somewhere.
Under cars and round walls the wind whispers temptation to the paranoid soul, urges it to follow.
In the distance, someone waits around the corner.
The presence is real.
The legion is black.
Black like nothing you’ve ever seen.
It’s blacker than night, blacker than pitch.
Blacker than the ravens that are its eyes.
Blacker than the deepest voids of space.
The legion is black and it follows you everywhere you go. You see it in reflections as your eyes scan windows on the street – always gone when you turn around. You feel it on your shoulders when you wake, dehydrated and aching.
Never quite close enough when you reach for its throat, but always too close when you try to run.
The legion is black and you can’t escape it. You can’t defeat it, either.
The legion is black, and it defines what you are, even in periods of grace and calm. It is the monster beneath your bed, the stranger on a dark street, the omen in your heart. No matter what you achieve, no matter what you do, the legion will come to take it all away.
You don’t know where it came from, but you know where it waits.
You know where you’ll end up.
The legion is black and one day we will all walk in its flanks.
You try to hide from it, to push it away, to fight it. The hardest days were when you welcomed it. As an antidote to your own stubborn indifference, you opened your arms and asked the legion to come. You became sick of it existing as a whisper on the street, or a snarl beneath the wind.
The legion is black and you wanted to join it, but when you tried to find it, you couldn’t meet it. You weren’t brave enough.
How strange it was to realise that.
The legion is black and it frightens you, but you cannot own your fear. You mimic bravery instead, by putting yourself in harms way. You stand on the edge, you feel the wind wrap its arms around you. You hope it will carry you off. You feel the cold biting at your skin, and just as you taste the very essence of the void, you realise that it isn’t a place you want to be. In front of you the light shines bright, and you see something in it worth keeping.
The legion is black and you need to understand it.
You get close to it.
You get closer still.
You come to know it well, to recognise the subtle fluctuations in its substance.
You walk with it by day, and sleep with it at night. You dance ever more fiercely with its people.
Every night spent with it brings a clearer dawn, until at last you can look down through the whirlwind of your life, and piece together a few shreds of the freedom you once had.
The freedom you had when you were a child, long before you knew that the legion even existed.
But the legion is black and you start to wonder if you came too close.
You feel that the end is near.
You wonder if you could have turned round and said no.
You wonder if it’s too late.
The legion is black, and you cannot live without it now.
The dancing becomes necessary, cyclic, an obligation. The days hang like chains from your neck, and with every step into the fray, you ask if it’ll be the last.
The legion is black and you are doomed to walk amongst it. But now it is your own doing.
You are addicted to it.
You breathe it.
You live it, even though it is un-life by virtue.
You’ll get what you wanted, in the end.
The legion is black, and it waits at the end of every breath.
The legion is black.
Part III. Reflections from the edge of life as I know it
I’ve been searching for truth all my life. I’ve looked for it in myself, in others, in the world we all made. I’ve looked for it in nature. I’ve walked city streets at night, searching for something left behind after the people had left. I’ve reduced myself to animalistic sensibilities, to see if there was some secret in my base impulses. I’ve risked my life on a whim, been lucky to escape unscathed, and danced the night away in psychedelic rapture, on a quest for the group mind.
I’ve searched a lot, trying many different things along the way. I’ve despaired, laughed, and cried tears of joy; I have had a very human experience. But all I have learned from it is that ultimately in life it is we who make our own truths. Purpose is self evident, self imposed, self perpetuated. What we choose to call meaningful we must live with, and if, when push comes to shove, it means nothing to us, then we must live with that too. In the end, there is only one truth.
From the people we love to the mountains we climb, all will wither and die, and turn to dust. This pervasive impermanence provides us with a universal sadness, a melancholy note that hides at the root of every major key, and even the most joyful moments are underlined by the fact that they too must end.
I think in many ways my goal has been less of a search for greater truths, and more a pursuit of acceptance. To try and bring permanence into our lives is a great downfall of the human experience, and to an extent we have always recognised that to try and set the world in stone is to set ourselves up for a great deal of suffering. Obviously, we need continuity to be able to get on with our lives, but amidst the complexity of existing we are liable to take things for granted. But nothing is granted, not love nor money, not life. It is good to recognise the fragility of things, and this takes humility in the face of great difficulties. To find this humility has been my journey, and it is one I have barely begun.
There have been times in my life when I was not able to bare the injustice of loss. I raged. I was not humble. I had decided, foolishly, that some relationship or circumstance or idea was concrete, and the changes caused by loss brought with it the weight of concrete on my shoulders. I have been shown repeatedly that even the most certain aspects of my life are liable to change, and on each occasion the loss of something I took for granted shook me to the core. The result has always been a loss of identity, major fluctuations in my sense of purpose, and a penetrating sense of failure. But the former two can be positive experiences, and the notion of failure is nothing more than the loss of an idea.
It is absurd, but one of the many things death can teach us is how to grow. To become something else, we must first allow what we are to end. Failure only exists when we refuse to let go of something we had idealised, when we refuse to accept that we aren’t what we thought we were. By owning our shortcomings we give ourselves space to move around and work on them, to become better. We allow the old to die, and clear the ground for something new.
In most cases, when I have lost something, I have gained something else. But only an open attitude has allowed those changes to be positive. The death of loved ones provides reflection and knowledge, a sense of the value of family, or the depth of friendship.
Ends are often met with beginnings. I discovered climbing on the back of a fairly traumatic relationship, and although it started as something destructive, it soon became a mechanism for growth. It allowed me to put my experience in context, to revaluate my self, and the person I thought myself to be.
The reason I became so enamoured with climbing, beyond all other reasons, is that it provides a unique opportunity to view life from its peripheries, to see it through the eyes of the dead, as it were. And death can teach us a great deal about life. It teaches us to not take ourselves so seriously, to appreciate the moment, to seize the opportunities we are given. It teaches humility. But all of this is very hard if we perceive life as a static phenomenon. We become distracted by trying to maintain the illusion.
We see the manifestations of people’s fear of impermanence everywhere. The church promises immortality in the afterlife. Materialistic tendencies attempt to extend the span of our lives, or at least our youth and beauty, for metal and stone last longer than flesh. We see all around us the import placed in legacy, in becoming someone, in being remembered. Often, we fail to become anything ourselves, and worship the famous as though they were the immortal ones, but it is we who make them gods. And in the eyes of the powerful I note a frightened need for lasting influence, lest their reach be lost. I pity those who sit in thrones, for all of them are stuck.
I am at times, as is everyone, liable to want these things. I am frightened, I do not want this to end. I get angry at my failures. I succumb to the whims of humanity. But in learning to analyse my actions and habits in climbing, by noticing what is good and what needs to end, I become more aware of myself in life, and more able to make positive changes where they are needed. I place more value in that than being remembered. I find my truths, I live some small moments of magic, and I die. I am thankful for the opportunity to do so.
An appreciation for this philosophy gives way to a gradual onrush of self discovery. It removes the urgency from life, the need for that thing, that hit, whatever it is. It is very easy to be a consumer, even, if not especially, as a climber. But increasingly what motivates me to action is the desire for something beautiful. I would rather bide my time for a few seconds of magic, than waste a lifetime repeating the same old things.
Perhaps the biggest thing that I have learned from climbing is the art of suffering. Pleasure, by its repetitive nature, creates a sense of continuity which masks uncomfortable emotions. Too easily, we are tempted to cover the traces of sadness or hurt that creep into our lives. But it is important to own our emotions. They too, like everything, are subject to impermanence. By owning our doubt or our pain, by letting them have their place, we allow ourselves a great freedom. The deepest joy exists in conjunction with sadness of equal measure, for it is knowledge of the sadness that colours joy so well. Similarly, the most powerful and transformative experiences I have lived through have been when there was the greatest risk, for there is no risk without doubt.
A few years ago, I could not have said all this, certainly not meant it. But that is precisely the point. What I was then I am no longer, and in another few years I will look back and see that I have changed again. This journey is as exciting as it is fearsome, and I only hope that I will have the humility to live the changes well.
I know that I am not alone in this philosophy. As someone who climbs, I feel lucky to live amongst a community of so many well meaning people, who treasure the meaningful more than their image, although this is not say that there are no egoists in climbing. We are well aware of those who seem to enjoy the spray more than the sea cliff. For the most part though, climbers are people who live lives based around what inspires them, rather than what society or their peers expect of them. People who care about one another, at the cost of their selves.
We are all in this together, searching, and we will find our truths along the way. But life is in flux, and our truths may change as we grow older. If we find that they no longer apply, we must be able to undo them, and find the new truths, for our new selves.