Any day is a good day to reach out and touch someone in kindness and warmth. Any day, it is “good” to write a letter, a message, an email, or make a call to say “I’m thinking of you.” Yet some days, like today, Christmas Day, days when people of observance gather together in body, mind, and heart to celebrate the connections they have, there seems to be a greater urgency to do so.
Last night, mindful of the time differences that exist when we are scattered all over the globe, I opened my devices and started writing. The messages were simple enough, but carried a deep sentiment: although I am far away from you, there is a part of me that is there.
This morning, I woke early, as usual, found the crispness of the outside air and, with freshly brewed coffee in hand, I continued to write until the the children woke up. It was time to put the phone down; here was where connection lay at this time, with them. I was delighted to see their smiles, hear their excited, lovely words of thanks, and be embraced in genuine affection and warmth as they opened the presents that had been neatly stacked in the fireplace, amidst the decorative pine cones, for the last couple of weeks. As for myself, I appreciated the new wallet (my but I needed one) and the clutch of black socks I received. However, it was the final gift that touched me deeply. It was a simple card, made by Katerina, within which was enclosed a hand written note of a donation that was made in my name to people of need.
Our plans for the day were to head out to the hills with our climbing gear in the late morning, which still gave me some time to open my phone and indulge in the wonders of modern technology. Let me see you, let me talk with you.
I called. Many, I was unable to get through to and, ironically, I am grateful for this, as it meant that they were away from their phones. I did connect with three: a more recent friend who lives not too far away and who I had hoped to visit this winter break (alas, the current pandemic restrictions put paid to any such plans), my godson, and his father, my primary school friend on the other side of the world.
Until, I needed to get out. I needed to breathe the scent of the chilly forests in the winter and to allow my mind some time to process the events of the morning.
The world outside was gloomy, as some might call it. The sun was hidden beneath a thick grey shade blanket of cloud, the air was heavy and damp, and mist hung low in the valleys. It wasn’t the sort of brilliant light filled day when everything is visible and where the obvious catches the eye. It was a day where all the senses need to come alive to find what exists, and I welcomed this.
We got into our car and we headed to Pasquiero, a crag that isn’t in the guidebooks but which I have seen brief mention of online. The directions we had were vague, but such is the way of genuinely exploring the world.
Staying on the well-trodden path, sticking to the branded attractions, adhering to the norms only takes you to that within. The guidebooks, whether they direct our travels, our thoughts, or our relationships all serve a purpose, but it is beyond these where discovery happens and where we come across otherwise unknown possibilities. This is something I learned a long time ago as a surfer in search of that which was special, and it is a message that I want to impart to those around me.
Forty minutes later we were pushing hard up a solitary, very steep, rocky trail through tiny, stone-walled, dormant vineyards to what, from the roadway far below, looked like a likely spot to climb. Well above the buildings, beyond the closed gate, we came across a small sprinkle of goats quietly rummaging through the underbrush for whatever food they could find. We stopped and watched in the gentle quietness that the moment demanded. For an instant I considered taking a photo, however, no image, however complete it may be could capture what was there then. One looked up, caught my eye and then, as if to say “its time for you to move on,” turned itself back to its task at hand.
We continued on up the path and some minutes later reached a wall and scoured the face closely for the tell-tale bolt hangers that signify a sport climbing area. Nothing of the sort was visible and so we continued on upwards, lungs ablaze and legs straining, until John spotted the small pieces of hardware that had been anchored to the rock.
“It looks like it’s a multi pitch,” he said. He was right.
The place that we had come to was for those far more experienced and able than us. There was nowhere to safely drop a top rope on the highly technical, slabby, gneiss walls and, after a short while scrounging around for more treats to look at, touch, smell, and listen to, we cautiously navigated our way back down the leaf-littered pathway pathway The goats had were gone. Next stop, Mövenpick.
Mövenpick is a well-known, easily accessible crag twenty minutes down the road, but one which I had not visited before. Reputedly, it is popular but, today, we were the only ones there, immersed in its simple silence. Its climbs are difficult but without being there I couldn’t know what it held. The guidebook was right, the named climbs there were hard, well beyond anything I could hope to achieve now or in the future, however, we searched, and searched, way up the bramble laden gully, until we came across a relatively gentle unscaled, unbolted outcrop that was accessible from the top. Until…we never know until.
“John, Katerina, come and have a look at this,” I cut through their children’s babble. “What do you think?”
Both of them agreed that it would be worth trying to adventure on what we had discovered. However. At this time of the year, it is only those walls that face south that are warm enough to tackle, even on the sunny days. This one didn’t. This one lay amongst a community of wintering trees, and it faced east. The rock was cold, the air was cold; today we would not climb there. Still, we had found something new, somewhere we could return to once the winter was over. This is exploration, and for those few hours we were out, that is where we were. Free and living.
An hour later, we were back in the warm coziness of our apartment and it was time to connect with those in the Americas. This too was important to do, but as I did, as we did, I knew that my heart wasn’t in quite the same place as it was in the morning.
Loss is an incredible thing. Immediate loss brings with it, in full force, the stark impermanence of the world. Loss, whether it be of friends and family dying, or of those I have known walk away never to be seen or heard from again, is powerful.
When I called my childhood friend this morning, his first question was “How are you?”
I didn’t temper my words or my emotions in reply: “I am very upset, my friend. Your son just told me you have contracted Covid, that you, your wife, and your two children with you are all ill.”
There you have it. This was the news I had this morning. This is why I had to escape into the solace of nature with the two children in my care.
As we spoke, he assured me, stoically, that it felt like nothing more than a bad head cold, however, every time he coughed, I felt it. Viscerally. And with every hack, I asked myself the question.
I know the statistics of death and its causes. I know that I am reaching into the improbable. But this is how I am. Sensitive, too much so, I have been told. And, when one has seen and lived as much change as I have, when one has, time and again, asked the question “why?”, when one allows oneself the generosity to feel, nothing seems out of bounds.
Today, I reached out to those for whom this day carried meaning. Today, I walked an untrodden path, accompanied by two children. Today, I lost myself in what was to be found in the real world out there. Today I was taken by the prospect of loss.
This was Christmas Day, 2021 and this has passed. The night is upon us –
Christmas Night Let midnight gather up the wind and the cry of tires on bitter snow. Let midnight call the cold dogs home, sleet in their fur—last one can blow the streetlights out. If children sleep after the day’s unfoldings, the wheel of gifts and griefs, may their breathing ease the strange hollowness we feel. Let midnight draw whoever’s left to the grate where a burnt-out log unrolls low mutterings of smoke until a small fire wakes in its crib of coals. Conrad Hilberry