Thursday, December 23, 2004

Transforming the context 

I took my seat on the train, pulled my book from my bag and began to read. But an inner voice spoke, quietly insisting I put the book away and instead pull out notebook and pencil, and write. I hadn't a clue what I would write about.

Yesterday's dawn brought the kind of weather that drives thoughts inwards. Umbrella raised as a shield against the heavy grey hemisphere of rain, body muffled against the chill wind, head lowered, eyes on the pavement ten feet in front, shoulders defensively hunched in involuntarily submission to the weather's command; my world shrank to the small circle surrounding my feet.

I've had the same experience when in the hills; there, the lowered head can be a real necessity in response to the ferocity of the wind which drives the rain, stinging my cheeks and hammering on the hood of my jacket. But letting the world shrink too far like that isn't a good idea in the hills. With the base of the cloud far below, the world's circle is rarely more than a couple of hundred yards in these conditions, often much less, and it's imperative to keep track of where you're going. Consulting map and compass takes an effort of will to battle further with the elements; it's all too easy just to keep your head down, eyes on the ground immediately in front, and press on, blindly trusting the path to lead you.

The trouble is, in poor visibility on indistinct mountain paths it's easy to miss tracks off to the side, easy not to notice that the path curves off in the wrong direction, easy to miss that we've strayed off the path altogether. Paradoxically, having no path at all can be a safer option - at least when there’s no path, that forces decisions about where to go, whereas following a predetermined path leaves the decision up to the feet that have trodden it before.

Path metaphors for life abound. As I sat there on the train, parts of this one felt obvious: I could see myself muffled and shielded from a world that clamours to intrude on my inner solitude; a secret solitude created many years ago as a protective shield, living on although the need for it has long passed. Obvious too was the path itself: follow an existing track and all you have to do is put one foot in front of the other, repeating the actions of earlier travellers; break a new trail and you must be completely aware of your surroundings if you're not to fall prey to the briars and cliffs along the way.

Yet this metaphor also brought me something new, a message waiting to be revealed through yesterday’s urge to write.

In reality, I never go into the hills without being properly prepared – map, compass, appropriate clothing, emergency kit; all that kind of thing. Knowing I’m prepared for any conditions I’m likely to meet (and with sufficient resources to improvise a response to plenty of conditions that are unlikely but still possible) creates a very different attitude in me – not one of submissiveness to the conditions, neither one of dominance over them – that too would be dangerous; he who ventures into the hills without respect for them courts disaster, or at any rate a miserable time. Rather, when properly prepared, facing apparent opposition from the elements becomes a stimulating challenge; far from being an enemy, the conditions become teacher, coach – even counsellor on occasion.

Chris Corrigan wrote recently (on December 20; I can't find the permalink):

“When I was in university, I researched and wrote a paper on the James Bay Cree and their efforts to negotiate a deal with the governments of Canada and Quebec in the early 1970s. The deal, which became the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, was negotiated between communities of largely traditional indigenous peoples and two levels of Canadian government, with a very sophisticated industrial utility, Hydro Quebec, watching in the wings.

”In the paper, after doing scads of archival research at McGill University, my co-author Gary Heuval and I discovered that the Cree negotiators, all of whom were hunters, had actually viewed the entire exercise as a hunt for unfamiliar game in strange territory. To prepare, they readied themselves as they would have for a hunt, including consulting with the community about its needs, dreaming the territory, equipping themselves with the right tools and becoming familiar with this prey they were seeking. By adopting a traditional approach, they were able to negotiate a treaty and bring home what the community was requesting, as if they had spent a winter out on the land dreaming up moose and fish, and harvesting enough to support everyone.”

I'm wondering if I can translate my natural empathic response to the outdoors into a similar approach in the context of metaphorical journeys through life, in the same way that the Cree translated their approach to the hunt into a negotiation practice. The mountain path metaphor seems to stretch a long way and still hold water: some of my most valuable material possessions, in terms of what they mean to me, are the equipment and clothing that enables me to enjoy the hills and mountains to the full. Important too is preparation, an objective deriving more from appreciating the journey than it does from travelling any particular path, and flexibility to adapt to changing circumstances. Valuable resources all; tangible and intangible.

The message to me seems clear: take what is known and works and apply it's spirit in the unknown.

I have some application to do...

And all this came from trusting an instinct, sourced deep within, to get out notebook and pencil and start writing, even though I had no idea what I was going to write about.

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