Every once in awhile, as a writer you come across lines that you wish that you had written. The other day, my wife Vera provided me with some of these in her wonderful post on this blog:
I think of my life as a unity of circles. Some are concentric, some overlap, a few stand alone. There appears to be nothing random in my circles, even when certain connections didn’t happen for years.
Over the course of the past few days since she wrote these lines, several of the circles in my life have overlapped. It’s that point where they all come together that I find myself drawn, tonight.
A climber from the Northwest died in Tibet this week, and the world found out today. I didn’t know him, but people who know him are in our sphere here at PEMBA. Sara Lingafelter (TheClimberGirl) was moved to write a reflection on condolences, and I know others who mourn tonight as well. That’s one circle.
Last night, here at the Mountain Hardwear sales meeting we listened as Mike Libecki described a solo climb on some far-away spire, and how his choice of how to handle a hanging flake on his route made the difference between him being here, or not. He made the decision to move past it, and it collapsed after he passed. He said,”Climbing is a safe sport. It’s like a math equation, where a successful trip equals you getting home again to see your family.” That’s circle two.
The big one – circle three – has been on my mind for awhile now: Last weekend was the fourth anniversary of Todd’s death. The day itself coincides with my daughter Misa’s birthday, so that day is always bittersweet for me. This year, I woke up early and found time to cry alone before anybody woke up. For the rest of the day, it was seven-year-old birthday time. This is a pattern that may repeat annually, and I’m reconciled to this for the duration.
If you put a pin in that spot where these three circles come together, that’s the space I’m in at the moment.
There’s one thing in climbing that I don’t talk about much, and that’s death. I’ve encountered death in climbing – either first-hand or through the loss of friends to climbing – too many times. The truth is, one time is too many times, and when I count it up over the years there have been dozens of first-hand experiences with death, while or because of climbing.
Although people ask – unless I’m moved to speak, weak in the moment, find it pertinent to what’s going on – I find that there’s nothing to share about what I’ve seen of death while climbing. Why? That’s a topic for another post, at another time. For our purposes today, I’ll share that death is a mystery that maybe should not be put into words. Death exists somewhere in that silent space between “yes,” and “no,” and might just be “is.” Accepting what is might be the solution to the mystery of death, and words just get in the way.
Todd and I had years of conversations between us. He would call out of the blue and start speaking as if we had never finished the last call. In this way, some of our conversations lasted months and years.
One of the topics we spoke about again and again was the KAL disaster. The Soviets shot down a civilian airliner over the Sea of Japan. The plane was flying at high altitude, and the missiles did not destroy the plane. Rather, they damaged it enough that it went down, breaking up en route. The really horrifying thing is that most passengers were likely alive and uninjured as the plane broke up. It took up to fifteen minutes for debris to hit the ocean. Some passengers – it was rumored then but seems unlikely to be true now – survived the fall (at least up to the point that the fall ended) and died of drowning after impact with the sea. If true, this would be one of the longest documented falls of living humans in history, and as such the event fascinated Todd.
“What would you do?” we discussed,”How would you spend that fifteen minutes?”
There were many options: You could spend it screaming, crying, with your eyes shut, curled in a ball, flailing backwards, flapping your arms like wings, scheming how to survive. Given fifteen minutes, you could do ALL of these things. But in our conversations each one of these came down to making a choice, because we always have a choice: Whatever it is – whether we perceive it to be bad or good – we can choose to accept what is, or we can choose to reject it.
And this is truly the ultimate gift in life. In fact, this choice of what to choose or reject defines our lives more than anything else. Why? The dead can’t choose.
Several years ago I was in an accident that delivered two blows to my body in the space of about a half of a second, both of which should’ve killed me. The last thing I remember thinking before the first impact was,”This is going to be bad.”
And then everything went black.
Some time later – awhile later – I came to, and my next conscious thought was,”Well, this is a start.”
The space in between these two thoughts contained nothing but blackness. It was like the deepest sleep, but deeper. It was the absolute definition of “nothing.” And – maybe – this is something of what death is like. Maybe this IS death. (Someday, we’ll all find out.)
Janis Joplin said,”What if you only have one day? That day had better be your LIFE.”
So it is true in the moments, because if you only have one moment, that moment had better be your LIFE. Todd and I decided that if we had been on that long fall from the downed airliner, our best hope for ourselves was that we would make the most of those moments we had. Hopefully, aware of the moment as it passed, we would watch the clouds, count birds, look out on the ocean, and think of those we love.
I take a lot of peace from the fact that this seems to be exactly how Todd spent his final moments. In this I draw some comfort, and a lesson.
The truth is, we’re all living in those moments now. There really is no difference between fifteen minutes, fifteen years, or – God forbid – fifteen decades of life if we’re not attuned to what IS, in the moment. We’re all falling from a great height with a certain end looming. All that we have are the moments we have until the moments stop. And then – perhaps – there’s nothing, truly nothing.
While this itself isn’t a new idea, I’m reminded of the Nepali concept of “Kay Guarnay.” As Geoff Tabin writes in his book Blind Corners, it’s a phrase that’s not fully translatable, but – in essence – it means,”What is, is.” Far from the fatalistic, resigned Spanish phrase “Que sera, sera,” which can be used somewhat flippantly, “Kay Guarnay” is a term that refers to a deep acceptance of what IS.
Mike Libecki believes that climbing is a safe sport, and while I have deep and personal contradictory knowledge that this is not true I can’t disagree with him. So much of what we do in climbing – and in life – is defined by what we expect outcomes to be. Climbing is safe for Mike Libecki because he expects it to be so. His math equation might have too many variables for most – and, I suspect at a certain level for him as well – but his paradigm of mathematical symmetry does much to define the outcomes to his adventures.
There’s also a certain ephemeral within individuals that has an impact on outcomes. I shouldn’t have survived my accident, many others would not have, and I can’t explain why my outcome was different. Mike Libecki made a choice that others would’ve made and might not have survived. Or he could’ve made a different choice, and it could’ve ended differently. The flake fell just as he passed it, and it could’ve just as easily fallen while he was under it, or on it.
As kids, Todd and I practiced tying bowlines around our waists for speed, just in case we were ever free-falling and could grab a nearby rope. He held the record of course, and could do it in the time it would take for a one rope-length fall to the ground. In one of the possible outcomes for what happened to him, he grabbed that rope and tied that knot, because he had that in him. But this is not the reality we know, here, and now. This is not what IS.
The only real difference between any one of these possible outcomes is that one happened, and billions of other possible outcomes didn’t. What is, IS.
I heard this somewhere and I believe it to be true: The dead don’t mourn the living.
Why is that? The dead can’t choose; they can only accept. But we can choose, and we can choose to accept.
What is, is. Kay Guarnay.
Now, what is? That’s really the only question you ever need to answer. The rest are just details. Details like these:
This is your moment.
How are you going to spend it?