“It’s important in life to conclude things properly. Only then can you let go. Otherwise you are left with words you should have said but never did, and your heart is heavy with remorse.”
~ Yann Martel, Life of Pi
Happy New Years Eve. This is my last email to you. Our theme today is endings, goodbyes. We will begin as usual with The Endurance, wrapping up a story that I hope has encouraged you. Next is a take on grief by author and psychologist Francis Weller, which incidentally came my way just this morning. Next David Whyte will speak to the riches within loss in his short poem. I will conclude our emails with my essay from 2017, On Leaving Sport, Or Anything That Has Possessed You. And from there we will all move forward to a new moment, a new hour, a new year. Thank you for your company during this one.
The crossing of South Georgia has been accomplished only by one other party. That was almost forty years later, in 1955, by a British survey team under the able leadership of Duncan Carse. That party was made up of expert climbers and was well equipped with everything needed for the journey. Even so, they found it treacherous going.
Writing from the scene in October, 1955, Carse explained that to make the crossing, two routes were available – the ‘high road’ and the ‘low road.’
‘In distance,’ Carse wrote, ‘they were nowhere more than 10 miles apart; in difficulty, they were hardly comparable. We today are travelling easily and unhurriedly. We are fit men, with our sledges and tents and ample food and time. We break new ground but with the leisure and opportunity to probe ahead. We pick and choose our hazards, accepting only the calculated risk. No lives depend on our success – except our own. We take the high road.
They – Shackleton, Worsley and Crean – took the low road. I do not know how they did it, except they had to – three men of the heroic age of Antarctic exploration with 50 feet of rope between them – and a carpenter’s adze.’
Every comfort the whaling station could provide was placed at the disposal of Shackleton, Worsley, and Crean. They first enjoyed the glorious luxury of a long bath, followed by a shave. Then new cothes were given them by the station’s storehouse.
That night after a hearty dinner, Worsley went on board the whale-catcher Samson for the trip around South Georgia to Pegotty Camp where McNeish, McCarthy, and Vincent were waiting. The Samson arrived the following morning at King Haakon Bay. Very little is known about the meeting except that the three castaways at first failed to recognize Worsley because his appearance was so drastically altered now that he was shaved and had on fresh clothes. McNeish, McCarthy, and Vincent were taken on board the whale-catcher, and the Caird, too, was loaded. The Samson arrived back at Stromness the following day, May 22.
Shackleton, meanwhile, had arranged for the use of a large wooden whaler, the Southern Sky, in which to return to Elephant Island for the relief of the party there. The following morning, less than seventy-two hours after arriving at Stromness from across the mountains, Shackleton and his two companions set out for Elephant Island.
It was the beginning of a maddeningly frustrating series of rescue attempts lasting more than three months, during which the pack ice surrounding Elephant Island seemed resolutely determined that no rescue ship could get through to relive the castaways.
It was now August 3, nearly three and a half months since the Caird had sailed for South Georgia. Throughout each failure of the subsequent rescue attempts, Shackleton’s anxiety had risen to the extent that Worsley said that he had never seen him so on edge. He had consistently appealed to the government back in England to send a proper ice vessel to get through the pack. Now word came that the Discovery, which had originally carried Scott to the Antarctic in 1901, was finally on her way from England. But it would take weeks for her to arrive, and Shackleton was in no mood to sit idly and wait. Instead he appealed to the Chilean government for the use of an ancient sea-going tug, the Yelcho. He promised not to take her into any ice, for she was steel-hulled and her ability to weather the sea – much less any pack – was doubtful. The request was granted, and the Yelcho sailed on August 25. This time the fates were willing. Five days later, on August 30, Worsley logged: ‘5:25am full speed… 11:10am… base of land faintly visible. Threading: our way between lumps ice, reefs and grounded bergs. 1:10pm sight the camp to SW…
For the twenty-two castaways on Elephant Island, August 30 began like almost any other day. At sunrise the weather was clear and cold, giving promise of a fine day. But before long heavy clouds rolled in and the scene once more became, as Orde-Lees recorded, ‘the prevailing gloom to which we are now so inured.’
As always, almost everyone tramped individually to the top of the lookout bluff to satisfy himself once more that there was no ship to be seen. By now they did so more out of habit than of hope. It was simply a ritual to which they had become accustomed, and they climbed the bluff without anticipation and returned to the hut without disappointment. It had been four months and six days since the Caird had left, and there was not a man among them who still believed seriously that she had survived the journey to South Georgia. It was now only a matter of time until a party was sent to the Wills on the perilous journey to Deception Island.
After breakfast, all hands got busy digging snow from around the hut. But later in the morning the tide was low and they decided to postpone their digging in order to gather limpits, a small crustacean which had been found in some numbers in the water off the spit. Wally How was acting as cook and he was preparing a lunch of boiled seal’s backbone, a dish of which everyone had become extremely fond. The hoosh was ready about 12:45, and they all gathered in the hut except Martston, who had gone to the lookout bluff to make some thumbnail sketches.
A few minutes later they heard his footsteps running along the path, but nobody paid much attention. He was simply late for lunch. Then he put his head inside and spoke to Wild in a tone so breathless that some of the men thought he sounded casual.
‘Hadn’t we better send up some smoke signals?’ he asked.
For a moment there was silence, and then, as one man, they grasped what Marston was saying.
‘Before there was time for a reply,’ Orde-Lees recorded, ‘there was a rush of members tumbling over one another, all mixed up with mugs of seal hoosh, making a simultaneous dive for the door-hole which was immediately torn to shreds so that those members who could not pass through it, on account of the crush, made their exits through the ‘wall,’ or what remained of it.’ Some put their boots on – others didn’t bother. James put his on the wrong feet.
Sure enough, there was a small ship, only about a mile offshore. Macklin dashed to the lookout bluff, tearing off his Burberry jacket as he ran. There he tied it onto the halliard of the oar that served as their flagpole. But he was only able to hoist it part of the way up before the halliard jammed. (Shackleton saw the signal at half-staff and his heart sank, he later said, because he took it to be a sign that some of the party had been lost.)
Hurley gathered up all the sennegrass he could find, then poured over it some blubber oil and the two gallons of paraffin they still had. He had a hard time lighting it, and when it finally ignited – almost with an explosion – it produced more flame than smoke. But no matter. The ship was headed toward the spit.
Wild, meanwhile, had gone to the water’s edge and was signaling from there the best place to send the boat. And How had broken open a tin of precious biscuits and was offering them around. Few men, however, stopped to have one. Even so rare a treat held little appeal in the excitement of the moment.
Macklin returned to the hut and lifted Blackboro to his shoulders, then carried him to a position on the rocks near Wild where he might better see the thrilling sight.
The ship approached to within several hundred yards, then stopped. The men ashore could see a boat being lowered. Four men got into it, followed by the sturdy, square-set figure they knew so well – Shackleton. A spontaneous cheer went up. In fact the excitement ashore was so intense that many men actually were giggling.
Within a few minutes the boat was near enough for Shackleton to be heard. ‘Are you all right?’ he shouted.
‘All well,’ they replied.
Wild guided the boat to a safe place among the rocks, but because of the ice around the spit it was impossible to make a landing, so the boat was held a few feet off. Wild urged Shackleton to come ashore, if only briefly, to see how they had fixed the hut in which they had waited four long months. But Shackleton, though he was smiling and obviously relieved, was still quite noticeably anxious and wanted only to be away. He declined Wild’s offer and urged the men to get on board as quickly as possible.
Certainly no great urging was needed, and one at a time they jumped from the rocks into the boat, leaving behind them without a second thought dozens of personal little items which only an hour before had been considered almost indispensable.
One load was rowed out to the Yelcho, and then a second. Throughout it all Worsley had watched anxiously from the bridge of the ship. Finally he logged: ‘2:10 All Well! A last! 2.15 Full speed ahead.’
Macklin wrote: ‘I stayed on deck to watch Elephant Island recede in the distance… I could still see my Burberry jacket flapping in the breeze on the hillside – no doubt it will flap there to the wonderment of gulls and penguins till one of our familiar gales blows it all to ribbons.”
“That bungled goodbye hurts me to this day. I wish so much that I had one last look at him in the lifeboat, that I’d provoked him a little – yes, I know, to a tiger, but still – I wish I had said, ‘Richard Parker, it’s over. We have survived. Can you believe it?”
~ Yann Martel, Life of Pi
The Writing: Francis Weller from The Wild Edge of Sorrow
“No one escapes suffering in this life. None of us is exempt from loss, pain, illness, and death. How is it that we have so little understanding of these essential experiences? How is it that we have attempted to keep grief separated from our lives and only begrudgingly acknowledge its presence at the most obvious of times, such as a funeral? ‘If sequestered pain made a sound,’ Stephen Levine says, ‘the atmosphere would be humming all the time.’
In the accumulated losses of a lifetime that slowly weigh us down – the times of rejection, the moments of isolation when we feel cut off from the sustaining touch of comfort and love. It is an ache that resides in the heart, the faint echo calling us back to the time of loss. We are called back, not so much to make things right, but to acknowledge what happened to us. Grief asks that we honor the loss and, in so doing, deepen our capacity for compassion. When grief remains unexpressed, however, it hardens, becomes as solid as a stone. We, in turn, become rigid and stop moving in rhythm with the soul. When we are in touch with all of our emotions, on the other hand, we are more verb than noun, more a movement than a thing. But when our grief stagnates, we become fixed in place, unable to move and dance with the flow of life. Grief is part of the dance.
As we begin to pay attention, we notice that grief is never far from our awareness. We become aware of the many ways it arrives in our daily lives. It is the blue mood that greets us upon waking. It is the melancholy that shades the day in muted tones. It is the recognition of time’s passing, the slow emptying of our days. It is the searing pain that erupts when someone close to us dies – a parent, a partner, a child, a beloved pet. It is the confounding grief when our life circumstances are shattered by the unexpected – the phone rings with news of a biopsy; we find ourselves suddenly without work, uncertain as to how we will support our family; our partner decides one day that the marriage is over. We tumble and fall as the ground beneath us opens, shaken by violent rumblings. Grief enfolds our lives, drops us close to the earth, reminding us of our inevitable return to the dark soil.
We are laid low by grief, taken down below the surface of the world, where shadows and strange images appear. We are no longer moving in our brightly lit, daytime existence. Grief punctuates the solidity of our world, shatters the certainty of fixed stars, familiar landscapes and known destinations. In a breath, all of this can be shaken, will be shaken by an unexpected loss. In this place, everything moves slowly – time, body, thought. Grief feels like it will never pass. This brings us great fear. We worry that this house of sorrow will be our final resting place, that our days will always be overcast, gray, and dulled by the sadness we carry. We have the sense that we are on a slow walk with no obvious direction. Fortunately, grief knows where to take us; we are on a pilgrimage to soul.
It is challenging to honor the descent in a culture that primarily values the ascent. We like things rising – stock markets, the GDP, profit margins. We get anxious when things go down. Even within psychology there is a premise that is biased toward improvement, always getting better, rising above our troubles. We hold dear concepts like progress and integration. These are fine in and of themselves, but it is not the way the psyche works. Psyche, we must remember, was shaped by and is rooted in the foundations of nature. As such, psyche also experiences times of decay and death, of stopping, regression, and being still. Much happens in these times that deepen the soul. When all we are shown is the imagery of ascent, we are left to interpret the times of descent as pathological; we feel that we are somehow failing. As poet and author Robert Bly wryly noted, ‘how can we get a look at the cinders side of things when the society is determined to create a world of shopping malls and entertainment complexes in which we are made to believe that there is no death, disfigurement, illness, insanity, lethargy, or misery? Disneyland means ‘no ashes.’
When we are able to see times of loss as inevitable and, in a very real way, necessary, we are able to engage these moments and cultivate the art of living well, of metabolizing suffering into something beautiful and ultimately sacred. It may be strange to imagine grief leading to beauty, but imagine, for the moment, the shining face of someone who has just released his or her cup of tears standing before us cleansed. We are seeing someone as beautiful as Botticelli’s Venus or Michaelangelo’s David.
It feels somewhat daunting to step off into the depths of grief and suffering, yet I don’t know of any more appropriate way to undertake the journey of soul than by spending time at that grief shrine. Without some measure of intimacy with grief, our capacity to be with any other emotion or experience in our life is greatly compromised.
Coming to trust this descent into dark waters is not easy. Yet until we can make this descent successfully and come back up, we lack the tempering that can come from such a deep experience. What do we find there in the well of grief? Darkness, moistness that turns our eyes wet and our faces into streams of tears. We find the bodies of forgotten ancestors, abandoned dreams, ancient remnants of trees and animals – things that have come before and that have the power to lead us to the place to which each of us will return one day when we, too, leave this life, which has been gifted to us for a short time. This descent is a passage into what we are, creatures of the earth.”
“Sometimes we forget how far we have traveled while we are looking ahead to the next steps. It’s good to lie down and remember what it took to get this far, all those karmic hoops we had to jump through, all those overcomings. It’s good to stroke our face with love and to remind ourselves how much courage it took and who we would have become if we hadn’t braved the journey. It’s good to say ‘thank you’ to the inner spirit that walks within and beside us, whispering sweet somethings in our inner ear, reminding us that we are simply and utterly worth fighting for. We ARE simply and utterly worth fighting for.”
~ Jeff Brown
The Poetic: David Whyte
THE WELL OF GRIEF
By David Whyte
Those who will not slip beneath
the still surface on the well of grief,
turning down through its black water
to the place we cannot breathe,
will never know the source from which we drink,
the secret water, cold and clear,
nor find in the darkness glimmering,
the small round coins,
thrown by those who wished for something else.
“…you’ll feel so homesick that you’ll want to die, and there’s nothing that you can do about it apart from endure it. But you will, and it won’t kill you. And one day, the sun will come out – you might not notice straight away – it’ll be that faint. And then you’ll catch yourself thinking about something or someone that has no connection with the past. Someone who’s only yours. And you’ll realize that
this is where your life is.”
– Ellis, “Brooklyn”
On Leaving Sport (or Anything That Has Possessed You)
By Shannon Thompson
“There’s no going back,” we agreed.
My friend and I were seated across from one another, tea in hand as the snow fell outside – predictably unpredictable weather for late March in Flagstaff. We were discussing the experience of moving away from a singular focus on sport, a disorienting, exciting, and heartbreaking process that had crept up on us both over years. Injuries slowly broke the walls to his tunnel; the financial pressures of my sport broke mine. The road to this place twisted blindly, climbing toward a leaving that neither one of us had foreseen when we first stepped upon it. Deeply immersed in this forest and many miles from home, each of us expected a vista to appear as we rounded each bend. But instead we found interminable climbing that relentlessly rose toward our end.
Both my friend and I had experienced a similar process of departure. “I felt relieved,” he told me, when the decision dropped rock solid in his mind. Personally, I’d sought relief long before the moment came, and even though I was visited daily by tears following my decision, I’d long known it was the right one. We’d both engaged in admirable struggle, which ultimately cracked the spell of sport, and through those cracks other loves crept through. The whole world got in.
Once this happens there’s no going back.
Youthful infatuation with a craft is a sublime blessing. I’m deeply grateful for mine. The rapture of inspiration, possessed by conviction toward a goal; it’s exquisitely, divinely intense.
Memories such as these… I’m a little scared of them to be honest. I promised that little girl we would make it to the Olympics. The one who tied rope to her bicycle handlebars to pretend they were horse’s reins, who plastered her walls, ceiling, and floor with pictures of equestrian greats; the girl who drew Olympic rings in every margin of every school notebook. The one who practiced at 5am, for years. The young lady who slept on the floor because she couldn’t afford a bed, and is no doubt still paying for years of sleep debt due to the hours required to train and work for this debatable blessing of a passion. We didn’t make it after all.
Sometimes I’m touched unexpectedly by spirits of another time. They ride on smells and music, and are ever present in certain places. Fresh cut grass, misty mornings draped across rolling fence lines, bark mulch trails. All assault me with emotions yet resolved. I’m often struck by a sweet sadness, highly uncomfortable, a mixture of love and grief and confusion. Did I really leave you?
“I’m grateful mine happened slowly,” he said. Me too. Even after my decision was made to return to school I was provided a lovely horse to ride. My weaning was kind, a slow easing of an incurable illness and overwhelming infatuation, resulting in now, when I stand grieving and grateful for my freedom from both.
For many athletes the leaving is not slow or foreseen. Rocked by sudden injury, or a personal catastrophe, the cessation of athletic life as they know it can come out of nowhere, a sudden death. Others make the choice to depart while still tormented by its call.
The pursuit of mastery is both blessed and dangerous because it narrows our attention and experience. If we have been deeply consumed our options for happiness, sources of deep pleasure, and definitions of success can become inseparable from the means to these through our craft. There is safety within the singular focus of goal pursuit, and comfortable familiarity after many years. Often, such a goal makes priorities and best actions crystal clear. We can hide from the rest of our lives in dreams until the end is suddenly or gradually upon us.
This is the time of hanging in space. Who am I? What am I? What do I do each day? Suddenly the expanse of living stretches before us, unnervingly vast. How do I be here? Now we often feel old.
I did, at 29 when I decided to go back to school. Although grateful for my years immersed in sport I wondered if they’d doomed me to many more of struggling to become a real adult. Had my dream forever handicapped my life?
I can remember a time when I worried what would become of me if I didn’t “make it” as an equestrian. I didn’t believe that I could ever find satisfaction as true as riding success. I was wrong. Now, five years after leaving my sport, life is rich. Watching the athletes I’ve worked with succeed is very different, but just as magical. I never believed I could actually feel like I’m out there with each of you, but I do.
I must tell you that my transition is not perfect or pain free. Something in my heart hurts every time I see a horse. Every single time. When I watch riding (which is rare), I can feel the connection in my body. I can see the distance to the jumps, and between me and my old love. This is the price and the gift of investing oneself in anything deeply meaningful. When I’m assaulted by old memories – smells, music, friends, and places, it’s always with sadness first. It’s a mixture of nostalgia, disbelief, and confusion. Guilt too, for abandoning those dreams. But that response alone does not honor the extraordinary blessing of those years, or the version of myself who lived them. So, I’ve learned (by practicing) to say “thank you,” and “it’s nice to see you.” And mean it. And that’s all.
We’re constantly asking each other, “how are you,” and I’ve been struck that there’s no longer a simple answer for that. When we’ve lived lives of striving, failing, loving, leaving loves, when we’ve chosen complex crafts and professions, we are always a multitude. I don’t know where horses will fit in my life again if at all and right now I do not wish for them back. And, I can’t put into words how I love my present focus. Perhaps success in life is not related to ascent in status, or achievement, or even simple happiness. Perhaps it is related to the development of depth and dimension – greater and more nuanced understanding of this experience of living.
Finally, for those of you still consumed by your craft, with the light of a childhood dream alive in your eyes, go catch it! Love every corner of this painful and passionate place. Your family in spirit is cheering for you now, and still will be when life turns again, and the whole world spreads out before you.
“There will come a time when you believe that everything is over. That will be the beginning.”
~ Louis L’Amour
Friends, I leave you this New Year’s Eve with this excerpt from Neil Hilborn’s poem, “The Future”
“I know tomorrow is going to come
because I’ve seen it. Sunrise is going to come,
all you have to do is wake up. The future has been
at war, but it’s coming home so soon. The future
looks like a child in a cape. The future is the map
and the treasure. The future looks just like gravity:
everyone is slowly drifting toward everyone else.
We are all going to be part of each other
one day. The future is a blue sky and a full
tank of gas. I saw the future, I did,
and in it I was alive.”
And you too.
Thanks for being on this journey with me.