There is a rich tapestry that forms the foundation of our lives. It is woven from threads of experience coming together to form patterns, textures, and surprises. I don’t know about you, but sometimes I forget to look for and appreciation this weave that flows from the loom like an underground river. Occasionally it rises to the surface, but mostly it bubbles below consciousness carrying my life towards the sea.
A few nights ago, I sat in the chapel on campus. Looking around, I saw faces of colleagues and former students, drawn and sad. We were there to grieve and to celebrate the life of Toby Columbe, a former student in HKR, who had been killed in an accident earlier in the week. Tears rimmed my eyes and spilled over as I mourned the tragic passing of another student I had taught. Between the tears rolled memories of Toby’s vivacious spirit and generous smile. I remembered March 13, 1999.
On that evening, Toby with a joyful but mischievous glint in his eye cut off almost all of my hair. A group of student was raising money for a backpacking trip to the Grand Canyon. I offered them my hair. They sold raffle tickets and the winner got to choose what happened to my locks. Toby’s ticket was drawn. With little hesitation, he grabbed the barber’s clippers and began to buzz the brown waves that crowned my head.
Students and faculty who were watching gasped as more and more hair hit the floor. I felt a chill as my built-in “toque” rode the draft to the ground. Then, it was over. Toby, looking quite proud of himself, left my bangs in place and said, “Go forth with pride.” So, I did–for about two weeks until I realized I was having to “do” my hair for the sake of my bangs and promptly cut them off as well. When I wore a hat to fend off the dark chill of a wet March, Toby would come ‘round and inform me that I was cheating.
After the memorial, I had a few moments before my hockey game so I stopped into Tim’s. I hadn’t had a Vanilla Dip in nearly a month. For some reason, they hadn’t seemed appealing of late. When making my selection, I flashed on Toby’s smile and childlike joy and enthusiasm for life, and knew I wanted to raise a Vanilla Dip in his honour. So, on a dark raining night not unlike that March night almost a decade ago when Toby gave me my most thorough haircut ever, I did.
During one Buddhist retreat, we were working with the Four Reminders. As part of that practice, we were asked to contemplate our precious human birth and the inevitability of our deaths. As I sat on my cushion, I repeated a sentence the teacher had given us, “Death comes suddenly without warning, this body shall be a corpse.” All I could think was, “This is a fairly morbid affair,” but after awhile, staring at my death directly gave me a deeper appreciation of my life.
Later that day at lunch, I was on lunch prep crew. As we had vegetarians and omnivores present, we usually made signs identifying the items at a meal. Sitting in silence for a week tends to make everything a bit more humorous and my playful side is often liberated. I made signs saying, “Lasagna–animal corpse,” “Veggie Lasagna–vegetable corpse,” Applesauce–apple corpse,” etc. I stood at the end of the buffet line with a sign pinned to my chest that said, “Soon to be a corpse” and I’ll never forget the look of those silent mediators looking up at the end of the line, seeing my sign, bursting into laughter, and almost dropping their precious human lunches.
I leave for Chile and the Ojos climb later today. Often, when I’m packing to leave on a big adventure, it’s not uncommon for me to perceive my life with a sweet sad poignancy that is reminiscent of the most artfully crafted sauce that is both syrupy and savory in the same moment. Buddhism asks me to truly see my life this way in each moment but denial and fear are powerful barriers to this awareness. Toby’s death came entirely without warning in a motorcycle accident. My student has become the teacher by issuing an invitation to wake up to this precious existence yet again.
I had had a bit of time before heading to the chapel for Toby’s service. I had finally gotten a close look at my trip itinerary and a map of Chile at the same time. As I traced our intended route, my eyes strayed east over the Andes to Argentina. I saw the city of Jujay on the map and was instantly transported back to June of 1999 when I traveled to northern Argentina as part of a Rotary Group Study Exchange (GSE) program for young professionals. Led by an experienced Rotarian, our small group of five had the time of our lives during that month of exploration, travel, and international friendship.
I remembered the day where we drove to a spot where we could see the northern Andes. I longed so deeply to be out in those mountains. I wanted to break from the van and walk and see and be in that landscape. It wasn’t to be then, but will be now. Almost a decade later, I will walk along the backbone of those same mountains that called me forth and if am lucky, will climb to where there is no higher to climb.
Unrolling the cloth from the loom, I can see today that the GSE program woke something up in me that had been sleeping. After returning from that trip, I slowly, very slowly tended to the gentle ember that was once again starting to glow. It had been fanned again into life through adventurous exploration of both inner and outer landscapes, through delivering speeches in Spanish while struggling to express myself with the vocabulary of a five year old, and through connections forged of shared experience and close living.
Standing on the doorway of an adventure that will take me full circle to the other side of those mountains, I think of Toby. I hope to heed his invitation to drink in the precious fountain of life, to dance in joy of friendship, to run further than I think I can, and to sing long into the night. Travel well my friend.
My last week of training went well. I got out in my new hiking boots on Signal Hill and above Quidi Vidi. I worked out with Phil Alcock and could see some progress and I slept hypoxically every night–finishing off last night at 4000 metres. Many thanks to Phil (www.corehealthspa.ca) for his time and expertise and to Altitude Tech (www.altitudetech.ca) for the loan of their equipment. I’m eager to go put all this hard work to good use. I did several media interviews this week. One I did for CBC radio is on their archive at
http://www.cbc.ca/radionoonnl/interview_archives/2007_nov_w4.html if you’d like to check it out. I was on the show on Wednesday Nov. 21. Many thanks as always to Deb and Wilma at AppleCore Interactive for their mentorship and support (www.applecore.ca).
I begin flying towards Santiago tomorrow night. We fly to Calama on Tuesday morning and begin trekking later that day. I’m not sure yet how often I’ll be able to post to my website during the trip but I’ll do my best to get word out so please check my two sites (www.taloeffler.com) and the myeverest site (www.myeverest.com) in case I do audio updates. I thank you in advance for your thoughts and prayers for good weather and safe return. I firmly believe that all those good thoughts last year, helped change the weather and get me to the top of Aconcagua.
PS. Thanks again for all who weighed in on my book title…in the end, it was a combo of a few people’s thoughts and the advice of the national sales reps that people be able to easily tell that the book was written by a woman. So, drum roll please…
More than a Mountain: One Woman’s Everest