Friday, December 4, 2009
Mis-Steps inTime: (the longer of my essays)
Thursday, November, 26th, 2009:
Inside my front door I slip off my shoes (a hallowed Canadian custom) walk three steps after a day’s work, and the sudden stab of sciatica crumples me to the floor. Months of carefully building up my physiology to walk again slides away. My empty flask clangs onto our hardwood floor; no dent, please, I recall thinking. My bag slips from my grasp. Don’t spill, please, I wished. And then as I lay there; there was this pained inability to rise. Well, at least for a bit of time.
Bits of time are all we have in the “now.” Last summer (July and August of 2009 to be precise, since we Canadians get eight weeks of sun and ten months of snow, ha) I walked in Victoria, British Columbia, by the sea. Walked! I’d built up my reserves, and one-step at a time had increased my distance and endurance, and actually managed an hour and a bit as I walked from our vacation apartment in Victoria alongside the sea to downtown, with its quaint shops and pubs and busy harbour. And there was not one day in which I used my regular power-chair, nor did my wife have to push me in my transporter-chair (since I’ve not been able to use my arms and back these past six years to wheel-push myself anyway). This degenerative disc disease, with the resultant spinal fusions and rods and screws, has sort of slowed me down a bit. It was the second summer of my walking though, and perhaps I’d pushed myself too hard, for as we were packing up I moved our portable-food-cooler, despite my wife, Linda’s injunction to wait until she helps, and… well, since September I’ve not been able to put much weight on my feet again. But this story does have a moral, and is not really just about me. Let me take you back to:
Thursday, August 21st, 2008:
The bear print haunts me. Embedded like a huge palm-print with fingers of sharp claws in the clay of the pathway, it has me unlatching the sheath-clip around my old Bowie knife, and then carefully looking around. Do I give up my ascent? This trail up Ole Buck takes one to the top of the smaller of many mountains in the Kananaskis Ranges of Alberta, Canada, and I’ve chosen it with purpose and intention. I study the threat. Instinct that goes back more than five years since I last was able to hike, to a time before the accident that had me conscripted into a three-year wheelchair dependency until just eight weeks ago (!), now re-assures me that the bear was here probably a day or even two ago. I smile. I’ve passed the chaotic bifurcation point of fear, but one is best to be cautious with bears. Had to shoot one once. Had once to use this same knife on another kind of bear too, I remember. And given that my legs are still rubbery from three years of essential immobility, despite the last eight weeks of increasing my steps with transcending determination, I’m still in no shape to run. As it is, this inaugural sojourn into the wilds is being done with the distinct sense of one step at a time; and I’ve yet several thousand steps to make if I’m to complete the three kilometre circuit of today’s challenge. So, I continue the ascent.
Having just come across the Sibbald Creek hiking bridge, about half a kilometre from where I left my car, the slope up the left flank of Ole Buck now begins in earnest. Above me the dwarfed birch trees bristle against the darkening sweep of clouds, and down to my left alongside the sparkling creek the sudden great leaping of two startled brown deer keeps me on edge. Is it the bear they smell, or me? But I’ve come a long way to do this hike, metaphorically much farther than the 80 or so kilometres from my Calgary home, and in honour of the memory of what I once was able to do, and am determined now to do again, I keep going.
My old boots go back as much as ten years ago; they soon loosen up. The small gray pack on my back also has an old familiar feel. My spirit soars. I’m doing it! I’m back in the flow of things, heading up and down and around and up again, alone, independent, self-reliant, and free to think and feel beyond the confines of immediate attachment to another’s step, pace, wants, needs, solicitations, or noise; a rare privilege for any of us, such moments of sojourn. Of incessant pain and overcoming limitations of endurance I refuse to pay too much mind; I have a degenerative disc condition that necessitated the base of my spine being removed when I was twelve, that at twenty-five required bone-chips from my hips to fuse the lower vertebrae, and that at fifty something, a short five years ago, required rods and screws surgery. Or has it been a long five years? It took a year and some months after surgery before I was able to re-apply to teach, three academic years ago. And as I entered classes I was dependent on my power-chair, incapable of walking, the pain levels of my burning nerves and degenerating neck disabling me from even pushing my own wheel-chair. But now? Hiking here with the brown soil and broken shale and the bared roots of life lifting me step by step toward the heavens, I’m mobile! Ha! When was I last on this trail? Nine, ten years ago? Yet I recall the pathway’s spiral. Still, its slippery steepness takes me somewhat by surprise. I trudge on.
Then a blurry bursting from the underbrush right at my feet startles me as a sparrow shrieks alarm and flutters up in zigzags through the sun-dappled leaves of the trembling Aspen. I look first around for some cause other than myself, insecure now. If that bear is still here and has me in its sights I do not see it, yet my scared senses make it out to be very close. Still, the over-excited bird now sits at a distance, twit-twitting at me. Ha! What was it in the poem by Earl Birney about climbing in these mountains that I’d quoted when presenting at the Dabrowski International Congress just the weekend before last in Canmore, not an hour’s drive from this hike? Ah yes: “And David found a robin gyrating in grass, wing-broken; I caught it up to tame, but David took and killed it, and said, can you teach it to fly?” Well, that bird over there is safe. But am I? Then again, just before David had his accident and wanted rather to die than face a wheelchair he too came across: “…great prints, by the lowest snow, of a grizzly.” Ha! Multi-level thinking says it does not matter, I remind myself; everything is important, and nothing really matters; isn’t that what I often say at these conventions? Besides, I’ve already been in a chair!
After the fourth switchback I halt up for breath and to still my pounding heart, and stare out over the valley, marvel at the glistening ribbon of the creek way down below, note the broiling of the darkening clouds advancing from behind the up-thrust peaks of the Rockies that shred at the amassing sky. And I dig in my pack for perhaps a band-aid with which to stop the blister chafing at my left ankle. I have no medication. For years now I’ve refused to accept even an aspirin unless the pain unendurably became too much, usually at night, but then each time the aspirin wore out the anguish would surmount with a vengeance, so I learned to accept, minimize, and flow with pain, sans tablets. No stops. Like the momentum of going here; keep up the flow. And then my fingers pluck out the second of my old knives, a small red Swiss-army pen-knife that my friend Ian Dallas gave me more than twenty-five years ago, when I first set off to hike in these mountains over the July through November months of 1982. I smile. I’d hiked from Jasper in the north along the skyline trail and over Nigel’s Peak past the Columbia Icefields, and along the Sawback ranges all the way to giant Assiniboine. And much of the gear I then carried with me I have here now, twenty five years later, even my old rain-jacket. Good! Given the sudden drop in temperature and the stalking sky, it’ll probably pour on this parade of mine. I swig from my water bottle. The blister will have to broil. I keep going. But I keep checking for the bear.
Oh well, at least if I have to bury the Bowie in the belly of the bear I’ll have the pen-knife as a back-up. Ha! Fanciful thinking. But that’s precisely what prepares one for bears, I remember. I’d got the Lee Enfield 303 back in 1976, within a month of landing in Canada, since around the lone cabins of Cordingly Lake in Northern Ontario where I was holed up working for Klimack Construction “the bears are bad this year.” And then a bear scratched at my window just as the sun was rising. “It’ll come in through a window, go out through a wall,” the game warden had warned. And since it was the bear’s second visit, and my mid-night shots in the ground near it when it first had rattled at the garbage cans still had not scared it off, I felt now compelled to stop the danger, and I went with the rifle to the door, and with one shot ended its life. Still have the skin. Ate some of the meat. Gave the rest to old Anne Liman, the half-Indian hunter-trapper who came and collected the hideous human-looking carcass in her creaking pick-up. But I’ve always felt bad about it; surely there were other options? And now? On this hike? Well, I have only the Bowie, my slightly wobbly legs, and some degree of pluck. But I will not back down. I will never give up.
“Never give up!” That’s what Darrel Janz, our stellar TV anchorman had said at the students’ convocation at the University just this last June. I sat in my power-chair in the very front row and listened to his key-note address. He did an excellent imitation of Churchill, even looks a lot like Churchill. And at his invocation, nay, his very exhortation to overcome all obstacles, tears began to spill from me. I felt compelled to walk again, to commence the marathon. If endurance is really a matter of mind over matter, then it mattered that I begin using my mind to matter, ha! And so, classes over with, I began to increase the time up out of my chair, and the distances I walked every day, and I did not speak of it, and I did not even dare think much of it; I just did it. Nor did I accept the temptation of tablets, those temporary flatlands in the spikes of reality. Forty plus years of constant pain has me now managing the burning and stabbing like a malformed backpack grafted into me, zipped to an icon in the mindscape. But in the dark when I awake in sweat and can but barely move for the knives and saws that have unpacked from my conscious clamp, and with no one awake to see me, I know pain to be visceral chains rattling against the ethereal yearning for freedom of the soul. But all that is then, this is now! Now the pain is diminished with the vigour of my movement that does not relent, will not give up, and pushes past the boundaries of self-imposed limitation. And that’s why I’m not about to turn back and head down to the safety of my parked car, despite the gathering storm and the vibrating sense of being watched by the bear. One step at a time, I’m going to keep going up this mountain. Ha! For the past three years of being in my power-chair I’ve had on my lap my academic binder with its quote on the cover by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, “What saves a man is to take a step. Then another step. It is always the same step, but you have to take it.” Never give up!
And then I almost step on the offal. It’s a bear-scat alright; like a flattened blue-berry pie. I give it but a glance, my eyes and ears alive to what’s around. But only the aspens bristle as they gather themselves up for the threatening rain, and the wind pads brusquely among the pines, bruiting boldly about the looming underskirts of the lowering clouds swirling above, and the birds are silent. But then there is a great thud, and a loud snort, and a bashing-crashing amongst the trees to my left, and I swing with the Bowie knife immediately at the ready, only to point at nothing but the bush to see. And then I hear my heart hammering. And I take in deep breaths of air to still it, for I need to stay alert to what’s out there, not just to what’s inside of me. But there is no more sound. The moment plays back. A big buck would have alarmed at my presence. A big buck would have snorted and sprang and crashed away through the thickets. And a big buck would not find me edible. Ha! Nor for that matter, would the bear! I look down at the dark plop, and bend cautiously to pick at it with the tip of my knife. The skin is hardening, perhaps ten to fourteen hours old, the inside oozes slightly, but already is drying; this bear dropped by perhaps only yesterday. I’ve nothing to fear. Still, I keep the Bowie in my hand, and am ready for the slightest of sounds as I stalk my way silently up the rocky incline. The knife is an old friend. It saved me from a severe thrashing once before. I was in the Edinburgh hotel, 1975, applying for jobs on the North Sea oil rigs and no sooner had cockily stepped up ahead of a whole line of men and brazenly thrust open an office door when a great bear of a man grabbed me from behind, his arm around my throat. I tried to throw him off but he was too strong and too heavy, and just before the room grew black before me I desperately yanked out the Bowie from its hidden sheath at the left of my chest and sliced up into the crook of the man’s arm. He yelled as blood spurted and I dashed out of there! But all that’s another story, of a time when I was a political refugee from the South African army and had gone AWOL, jumped a ship to Britain, and was biking my way up to the Orkney Islands. That’s when I’d first got the old Bowie and the second hand tent and kit from the Salvation Army store in London. The three-speed push-bike I’d got from a contact I’d made, Martin Rumens, but, well... right now I still have more than two kilometres to hike, and the path grows steeper. Still, I wish I’d chosen some other way to deal with the belligerent man and his bear-hug; and no, I’ve not forgotten about the present bear!
At the top of Ole Buck is a makeshift bench of big logs. I sit and watch the clouds gather for their final assault. Across the valley the road from the parking lot spirals through the trees into a horizon of tooth-edged silhouettes. To my left the hiking path descends. To my right the path winds up still further. There is a small white triangle affixed by the wardens to demarcate the route. From some ten years before I recall some Inuit-like rock formations further up and decide to revisit them. The rain will come anyway. I may as well enjoy the very top of the mountain. So I head on up. After about five minutes I come out on the crag, and true to memory, like rough rock scarecrows there are now three man-made piles of stone. Inuksuks. So to each I add a small one of my own, but not to the top lest I overbalance a configuration and cause it to fall. Already useless to one side, one of these Eskimo-like Inuksuks lies discarded as a handicapped man, and I debate perhaps re-assembling it, but know that even now the slightest wrong twist of my body and I’d maybe pinch my nerve and not be able to put weight on my foot. After all, that’s what happened just two weeks ago, just before the Dabrowski Conference. I’d gone on my bicycle beside Linda, my wife, at her brisk walking pace for daily exercise and at one point had to stop quite suddenly; the jar as my foot came down set off a nerve pinch that had me unable to walk much at all. So I had to be driven to do the presentation from my wheelchair. But only for the first five minutes, for I then had the participants moving to demonstrate discomfort with their perhaps predominating psycho-geometric proclivities and rose myself, and served notice that for the first time in five years that I intended to manage the 45 minute presentation on my feet, and did so! Ha! I then used the analogy of unilevel versus multilevel awareness inherent in Birney’s poem, as is most applicable to Dabrowski: When David fell to the rock, and the blood oozed from his back, and he’d argued against Bobby bringing men up from the camp for the almost impossible rescue, “for what, a wheelchair, Bob?” I pointed back to my own chair. That David would rather die if not free to continue to climb these mountains was rather limited of him, yes? Even if he’d been paralyzed and confined, he’d still have his mind! He could still create, teach, give to others. And is that not what Dabrowski would call overcoming the disintegration to make of things something positive and to transcend the immediacy of the moment to become a fully autonomous human being? Ha! But now, looking back on the dismembered formation of the fallen Inuksuk, I wonder how it continues to serve humanity in its disintegrated state, other than perhaps to have its rocks, its very atoms rejoin the purpose of others ~ and in a moment of inspiration I pick up a small piece of it and place it with care on the standing stones of another; a positive reintegration! Ha! Then I head for the small red triangle amongst the trees signalling the path of descent.
Almost immediately I am aware of the bear again. The trees rustle, the path slides away, and the rain begins to splat at the closeness of the leaves. Am I being followed? I take off my pack, shrug into my rain-jacket, adjust my hat so as not to cover my ears, and settle the backpack into place. My sheath-knife’s handle pokes reassuringly through the side-slit of my rain-jacket. As I walk I’ll need now to watch every step even more carefully. The drops turn to a steady drizzle and the pathway is soon slippery mud and the bare rocks glisten and the trees droop and the wild flowers bob and there is no sound but the plastic swish of my rain-jacket. And as I descend I’m aware that my body is not fit, that my legs are now even more wobbly, and that each step needs careful calibrating for balance and lightness to absorb the impact that my own body weight would otherwise be putting on my discs, lean for my age as I am. Ha! Is that why the black bear I’d had to shoot so long ago was hungry? He became too lean? But it’s been a good summer for bear-berries here. Around me are many, many of whose names I’d once learned as I foraged with a guide book on that hike of mine back in the 80’s. But even then, as many months as I’d been out in the backcountry, and alone as I was for some thirteen to seventeen days at a time, I’d had no encounter with a bear. Despite seeing prints.
And then the path disappears. I’ve arrived into a heavily weeded gully that licks up at the mountain like an extended tongue, its surface rasping with tall yarrow and valerian, its sides steeply canted toward the blackly bristling pines. There appears no break. The rain brushes at the plants, interlinking the leaves, and beyond it all the trees lean indifferently. But I won’t go back. I scan about for a marker, a hiker’s blaze, a triangle of tin, but there is nothing. And the soil beneath me is turning softer and more slippery in the gathering water, so I push through into the field of the wet weeds and slog downwards, hoping that somehow I can connect with the pathway again, and then I hear it! Straight ahead! A loud groan of anticipation, or of anguish, or of frustration! It repeats. My knife out, I squat, hidden, and wait. Then the dreadful noise comes again, just as the wind picks up and shakes at the trees, then subsides. I watch. For a moment I am back there, in the jungle of my young manhood on an African border, my rifle at the ready, my mission to observe and if necessary to eliminate all insurgents; the army had, paradoxically, prepared me for this; I am trained always to be able to respond beyond my own sense of limitations. Ha! Ironic, isn’t it? That old training is almost exactly what brings me to be here now, waiting amongst the wet-weeds, awaiting the rush of a bear. And then I hear the sound again, and focus for movement, and see two old trunks, at about fifty paces, rubbing up against each other and groaning at their suddenly disturbed slumber in the harrying of the wind. Ha!
I stand up. And to the right, some twenty paces away, lies the path. I’m so glad I didn’t go back!
The way now becomes rutted, and there are massive cow-paddies that glisten up wetly underfoot as I tread through the weeds and the wildflowers. The beasts may have been here yesterday, but the blistering rain makes it too difficult for me to tell. There are other hoof prints too, deer prints for a certainty, and even very old prints of a horse, but all are being washed away. And I realize I’ve emerged onto what might have once been a farmer’s field, for the long flatness of it is overgrown with familial clusters of purple asters punctuated by stands of red Indian paintbrush and over-ranked with officious milkweed. And in the steady drizzle of rain it is like walking through a field of hundreds of individuals, all bowed to the succour of the manna-like rain, each colourful and unique. Like the five hundred or more supplicants before Mother Meera at the Darshan I managed to attend, just last night. And psychologist Rita Irwin, and grandmother Ruth Deschner, and professor Janneke Frank were there too, each amongst so many other flowers of rainbow halos wearing coral crowns. For over 3 hours of absolutely silent energy there we all were, enwrapped in the University Theatre. Some thirty of us at a time literally crawled toward her on a strip of white carpet that made an inverted L toward her chair from either side of the stage. Ushers ensured an order, and each group stepped shoeless as bid from the rake of the audience down to the stage, squatted on our heels, then again and again crawled on all fours to almost touch the back of the person before us, as we each waited our turn to be blessed by Mother Meera, who took head after head into her palms, then raised it to peer intensely into the eyes, before releasing the self to rejoin the congregation. And now, so too do each of the flowers I pass tend to congregate, like huddled with like, as indeed does all of nature in individual form raise itself from the various soils to find vigour in the light ~ despite the now seemingly insufferable constancy of the rain; ha! The path is a slippery slog, sucking at my steps. My legs, my pain, my fatigue is now at the limits of my tolerance; but then again, one step, and another step and another step, and... ah; as the Buddha says, pain is inevitable, suffering is optional. So one trudges on. Blithely, or not. Bear, or not. To be, or not. One step at a time.
And then there is the re-entering of the tree line, and the slope falls away and the trees quickly thin out and suddenly I emerge back where I’d started the circuit, the little wooden bridge before me, and that first fear-filled print of the bear barely thirty feet away. I glance around. My caution had been unfounded, or was it? Had the bear attacked me I perhaps would not have come full circle to this ending of my journey; my story would have had some other ending. And that, as the Robert Frost poem goes, “has made all the difference.” But then again, had I stopped up at the first obstacle and gone back I’d also, no doubt, have some other story to tell. One step at a time.
Well, now there is another story in any case. That one step at a time can sometimes be a mis-step. My friends Laurie and Dolores Seaman were not at all impressed with my sojourn. And as they brought me to my senses I realized the impact on others my essentially selfish behaviour may have had. One mis-step and like that Inuksuk I may well have lain there, quite unwell, waiting for long hours for someone to find me and to rope me out and to take me to the hospital and then to… for what? A reason to be so foolish? But we take those steps in life, you and I, and we do not necessarily think of each one. We generally choose a direction and generally move in a series of steps toward it, hardly aware at the time of the impact of our choice upon others, upon ourselves, upon the universe as a whole.
This writing, December 04, 2009, finds me in my chair again, neck braced, feet up, and riding the hours toward the Dress Rehearsal of Peer Gynt that will happen at 3.00 p.m. today. But the intention remains the same. I choose to start walking again, sooner rather than later, step by step. Only, I shall yet once more be yet much more careful of those steps!