An anniversary

So…it’s January again. It’s not my favourite month. For so many years, January has meant loss. It started with the death of my husband Craig and then continued, year after year – nephew, uncle, parents-in-law, parents, brothers – gone one by one in the early months of the year.

Ten years – of loss, yes –  but as many to reflect on what remains and learn to treasure it. We endured the worst we could imagine and we lived. Life did go on – in rich and unexpected ways. Craig’s loss shaped and refined each of us and his presence in our lives is a current that continues to bear us.

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So here it is one more time: Craig’s signature symbol of defiance. He took to wearing such colourful tie dyed t-shirts as his own sign of hope in the face of a terminal illness. I’ve posted this bright little square for a number of years now in his memory – and as an encouragement to others to share that defiance and hope. Kick at the darkness until it bleeds daylight. Find the crack where the light pours in.

I’m posting this a little early. Tomorrow morning I’ll be boarding a plane, winging half-way around the world to meet my daughter in Bangkok. We’ll observe the anniversary there – on January 31. Years ago, we reflected that Craig would have hated to be the cause of sadness year after year, so we began to look for ways to make the day a celebration. I don’t yet know how Kyra and I will mark the date, but there will be tie dye. And hope. Stay tuned.

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Celebrating

This post is totally outside any chronological structure I should be imposing on the tale of my Annapurna adventure, but the reason for that will be clear as you read down. Today I’m taking you to the Thorung La pass – the crown of the climb.

At 5,416 metres, the Throrung La pass is the goal of the Annapurna Circuit. Everything is up until you reach that point and everything is down from there on. The days leading to the pass are all about preparing for the crossing – carefully pacing your altitude gain to allow for acclimatization, monitoring your body’s reaction as you ascend: are you sleeping normally? do you have an appetite? headache? nausea? Regardless of your symptoms (or, in my case, lack thereof) you will still feel as though you are slogging through mud. Putting one foot in front of another will be the best you can manage – you are, after all, operating with half the oxygen that would be available to you at sea level. You can see why reaching the small island of prayer flags surrounding the sign that announces that you’re at the Pass becomes a sort of pilgrimage.

I gave a lot of thought to that in the months leading to our departure. The pass is adorned with strings of Tibetan prayer flags that climbers have carried with them, along with photographs and silk scarves, signs and countless memorial objects tucked into the colourful mass of flapping fabric. I knew what I wanted to leave there early on – but it wasn’t until the last days before our crossing that I understood why.

Tucked into a pocket of my backpack I carried a six-inch square of tie-dyed fabric from one of my late husband’s t-shirts. Craig wore these bright shirts in the dark days of his cancer treatment as a testament of hope, and they remain a symbol of that nearly nine years since his loss. I didn’t exactly understand what a prayer flag was or how they were suspended at the site or if hanging a tie-dyed one was some kind of sacrilege, but I thought I’d figure it out. Along with the fabric, I had an old film canister from Craig’s photo equipment, into which I had tucked a small photo of him. In some vague way I believed that I would leave these objects at the pass, magically end something and be granted permission to start over. In the end, another act entirely took shape.

In the days leading up to the pass, I found myself constantly mentally consulting Craig. If he were here, if we had done this together – how would he have framed this scene? How would he have engaged these people, what would he have seen that I was missing, what would have caught his imagination? And as always throughout the last nine years, I found that trying to see through his eyes stretched me a little bigger, moved me to listen instead of chatter, called me to look a little deeper.

Two days out from the pass we reached the town of Manang. Members of our group went looking for material for their various tributes; I quietly purchased a package of small prayer flags, added my bright fabric to the string and, reflecting on the previous few days, penned an inscription on the square. Two days later, stumbling through the snow, half-blinded in the Himalayan sun, I added my prayers to the mound of remembrances strung across the pass.

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When you first endure the loss of someone dear to you the heaviness of it seems unbearable – like struggling to lug a backpack up a mountain pass, gasping for the oxygen that is just not there. In time, the weight becomes something more comfortable, like a stone always in your pocket, something you turn over and over and can never let go of. And finally, one day, you reach into your pocket and find something bright that you bring out to shine in the sun – a celebration of how incredibly blessed you were to have that person in your life, how their memory continues to call you to be so much more than you were, so much bigger, so much better.

Today, November 24th, would have been Craig’s sixty-third birthday. Somewhere high in the Himalayas, a small flag dances in celebration on the chill mountain air.

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In memoriam

I’m bothered this morning. Saddened. At the same time, I remain uneasy at claiming or commenting on events. I’m not an archaeologist, I’m just someone who, by virtue of other unrelated gifts, has been allowed to tag along for the ride. Maybe I’m committing cultural appropriation. Even so.

There’s an assortment of objects on my desk today for drawing. A figurine, several seal impressions, a  motley collection of pottery sherds.  I plug into a podcast and plug away at my drawings, squint at the fine details, haul out the magnifying glass, muse over missing pieces – broken sometimes, or abraded or obscured under mineral deposits. The morning passes and the miscellanea is recorded. None of these items qualify as  treasure, nothing in and of itself valuable – yet each object has some contribution to deciphering the characters that can then be assembled into words and phrases, maybe enough sentence fragments to allow us to read a chapter – a small one maybe – but one that adds to the story.

Whose story? Yours. Mine. Ours. The story about who we are, the one that tells how we came here and where we might be going. The story that astonishes us with how very far we’ve come and then surprises us with recognizable behaviour that we share across millennia. It’s a story that traces the expansion of empires and the trading routes of cooking pots, the spread of ideas, the preservation of knowledge, the creation of beauty. It’s a cautionary tale about the consequences of war and our impact on the environment and the more of our collective history that we piece together, the more prepared we are to move into the future.

When a part of the that tale is lost or destroyed or buried, each of us on the planet loses something. Today, I feel that loss in the person of Khaled al-Asaad, a Syrian archaeologist who gave forty years to studying and preserving ancient treasures and now has given his life.

Yes, it’s a lark to be here on the dig: Indiana Jones, adult summer camp, living the dream and all that. Today it also feels…important.