How quickly things become normal. How quickly damp and cold becomes simply the way a body feels. Winter in Squamish creeps into the soul with such subtle artistry. And sure, at first we keep the inner-fire alive, stoking the low flames with memories of sun, the smell of cooking earth, of winters spent in Mexico; but even this, with time, fades into the folds of the clouds and the curtains of rain. The rain only feels cold in contrast to the heat of that fire. Cold stops being cold when cold is all there is. So, we surrender.
In the end, absolute Squamish corrupts absolutely. It makes a slug out of us all. But dampness is also a state of utmost malleability. Without it, the unique experience that was a winter in Squamish would never have imprinted itself so deeply upon our souls.
That our life is split between Canada and Mexico has proven an unexpected gift. Unexpected because the seed is certainly there for an overly-complicated, chaotic life. Perhaps we’re both just too stubborn to notice, but the endless back and forth between these two countries, has only yielded a constant flow of learning experiences. The drastic contrast between Mexico and Canada has granted us so much substrate for reflections over the years. And from this fertile ground was born one of our most enduring traditions: the nature walk. Ceci & I walk around 10km together everyday. The tradition is perhaps more attributable to not having the means or the capacity for a car. But nonetheless, it has grown into a cornerstone of our relationship. Not only is it the time where we most get along, it has also blossomed into a time for anthropological philosophising, for problem-solving, for reassessing life-goals, for sharing all things grandiose and insignificant.
Every year, we move residence at least twice. And a quarter to a half of the year is characterised by various states of vagrancy throughout Mexico or the rest of the world. This year, the Covid pandemic has forced us to reconsider travelling to Mexico. Instead, we set our sights on Squamish, as a way of staying in Canada while also escaping the snow. Winter is glorious in Canada, and perhaps one day we’ll have the means to invest in the necessary equipment to make the most of it. However, faced with a cross-roads, we chose rain over snow, and a continuation of the lifestyle that has become an integral part of our identity.
And out of an unforeseen circumstance, we found a surprisingly meaningful step forward in many spheres of our lives. When time slows, it has the curious effect of allowing the smallest, most trivial things to garner significance. And as such, to try and exhibit them here would do them little justice. I will, however, remark—perhaps to prove my point about the significance of trivial things—on the simultaneous advent of both Ceci’s first winter experience in Canada, and her receiving Canadian Residency status. Coincidence? Of course. But I reserve the right to see a deeper meaning to such things.
Weather and seasons also joined the slew of uncontrollable circumstances, which guided us towards this unplanned winter experience. Uncontrollable circumstances have a way of humbling us humans, in a time when individual liberties reign supreme. In fact, I would wager that if we all look inside our busy lives, these outward circumstances are increasing in number and persuasiveness. Pandemics, erratic seasons, wildfires, earthquakes, volcano eruptions, wild unpredictable weather… The planet is using its most forceful language, used only after centuries of failed attempts at gentler dissuasion. And its message is unambiguous.
As with any trial facing humankind, we may all find ways in which it plays itself out in the theatre of our individual lives. Our unplanned winter in Squamish, was how it manifested in our lives. We had to adapt to the needs of the world rather than adapt the world for our needs, and the experience certainly humbled us and made us more grateful for the opportunities and freedoms we possess.
Isn’t it so that, while a portion of the world seeks desperately to escape from the prison of routine, the other seeks nothing more than the structure and stability that a routine offers? Ceci & I see-saw between both these realities. Of the myriad things that define us as wildly different individuals, that which unites us, is our propensity to learn better through immersion. Both the ordered life and the chaotic life offer ample opportunity for this. While our chaotic life allows us to broaden our life experience, to marinate in the cultures of the world, to perceive the world through the eyes and minds of so many others; an orderly life suits itself better to the pursuit and mastery of singular ambitions.
In Squamish this winter, every day was the same. And for those who might perceive this as a prison, I assure you that, given our overly chaotic life, this moment of order was most welcomed. For me, a stable routine meant immersing myself in Writing and Training. For Ceci, this meant immersing herself in Exploration and Training. We both had a fresh start every day to further our respective crafts, to explore new methods, techniques, philosophies, with almost scientific fervour.
There are many things that only repetition can teach. This winter, I’ve learned to find a balance between inspiration and work; to always procrastinate in a productive way; to attribute value to my projects, myself, rather than await outward validation; to never doubt the creative vision, but rather the skill with which it is brought to life; to seek the truth in all things; to delegate the various tasks of writing in accordance to the state of mind I find myself in…
And while I explored the extent of my fascination with my passion, Ceci explored the extent of her fascination with her passion. Relentlessly hunting her truest expression as an athlete, probing the substance of her motivation, learning her personal inclinations and working on her weaknesses. Every day, she set out alone, waterproofed from head to toe, armed with a bike, a map and an indomitable will, to wage war against the cruellest elements: the cold, the rain, the wind, the snow… Riding in the most sub-optimal conditions known to womankind, through oceans of mud, through treacherous webs of slimy roots, down vertical rock faces… Finding a match for her infinite thirst, in the infinite world of Squamish trails.
And now that spring has arrived to shed more light onto our experience, it becomes ever clearer that we both surfaced from our immersion more uniquely, more quintessentially us. The expression of who we are, individually and together, returned from this sojourn through the dark depths of the Squamish winter, to blossom ever more singular, ever more eccentric, ever closer to the truth of who we can be. There is a space that is called Ceci, and a space that is called Etienne, which can never come to be filled by anything else while we live. And we’ll defend them with every ounce of our being.
There is a beauty to love when it quietens. Beyond the broad sweeping romantic acts of a burgeoning relationship: the larger than life promises, the dramatic infatuations, the epic declarations… there awaits a subtler theatre. Love of the heart makes such a spectacle of itself, consuming itself with such feverish intensity, that it saturates the senses and threatens to overshadow the more discreet manifestation of love. And yet, there is an undeniable beauty to the love that smoulders softly in the hearth. A love of the soul. So intimate is its glow, that an inattentive eye might miss it. Its intricate artistry is one of minutiae. It takes shape in the small mundane acts, in daily respect, eye contact, insightful listening, a sharing of meals; and may rise to such heights of almost imperceptible expressions, such as a whisper in the night, a deft disarming of escalating emotions, a noble intention, a sharing of unspoken secrets. Who indeed would forsake such a graceful love once achieved? Who indeed would trade a gently smouldering love for a firework, once more?
A bike breaks, a body breaks. Who’s to say the wiser of the two choices. Economically, owning a bike is roughly the equivalent of buying a brand-new SmartPhone every month and going to the trails to smash it on some rocks. That being said, anyone who has ever tried to court the devious mistress that is running, will know intimately the constant slew of injuries it engenders, which are just as much of a plague as the failing mechanics of a bike. When you try, you fail. And the more you try, the more you fail. So much so, that your worth as an athlete comes to be defined almost as much by the way you try, than by the way you fail. Let’s not even talk about successes.
Actually, let’s talk successes.
Given the wildly unequal distribution of opportunity, success should never be mentioned. The most noble measure of an athlete, or indeed, of a person, is ambition. Period. Never mind the disproportional amount of attention you get for reaching a podium.
And it’s not how many times you get back up either. To get knocked down indefinitely, is still not a measure of worth. A failed revolution against a Tyrant, is no less worthy if it is so thoroughly squashed that it never recovers. No, meaning is something much more profound than a podium. And to seek worth in the eyes of others is too shallow a pursuit.
Have we forgotten this? To be found worthy is a by-product of being worthy. To be praised is a by-product of being praise-worthy. And yet, here we are, somehow extolling as holy the very by-products of virtue. Phones have become the modern altar through which we worship the shell of ancient gods of virtue.
Have we truly forgotten? Virtues are only worth the trial they withstand. Glass is only as strong as the temperature at which it is tempered. What we have today is the luxury of virtue. The modern society is only virtuous inasmuch as there are no true obstacles to test our integrity. How long would our respect of personal space survive in a over-populated city? How long would our generosity survive when our own need is overwhelming? Or pacifism in a place raked by senseless violence? Or honesty in the face of rampant corruption?
A bike breaks, a body break. To try is to fail, to try more is to fail more. The honest, authentic, audacity of our ambition is the only worthy measure of value. It is richer, more complex story than a podium. It doesn’t fit in 140 characters. It cannot punch through the noise of an overcrowded media feed. More power to those who still pursue it. More power to those who fail; those who choose to go out to the trails once a month and smash their metaphorical SmartPhone on some rocks, however that manifest in their life.
A year without competitions is a sour test of dedication. Training is delayed gratification, in most senses. It is putting the work in now, so that it may pay off later. And as such, it acquires most of its sense from the competition. And in their absence, Ceci & I decided to get creative.
There is indeed an art to the accurate release of that pent up pressure, which gives an edge to competitions. The outcome can vary wildly on the day, given the wide array of factors that need to go right, at the right time. Injuries, weather, digestion, sickness, travel, recovery, stress, pressure… All these factors come together to lend a certain unpredictability to the outcome and lays the ground for historical upsets. This style of competition grew in popularity over time largely because the format grants the possibility of spectators, which in turn opens the gate to money: admission fees, advertisement, merchandise, gambling…
We get it. But today I ask you: Is there not a case to be made for a more performance oriented form of competition? Is there not a way to compete at the athlete’s leisure, when all the factors align for a breakthrough performance?
Ceci & I think so. A year and counting is a lot of pent up pressure, which we both agree can be re-directed in a productive way in bettering our own times and contesting local segments. You and I both know where this is going. I’m talking about Strava of course. (Insert knee-jerk aversion.) Yes, inglorious Strava.
I know… We’re all above average, aren’t we? We all have valid justifications for using Social Media apps. We’re no different. As a society, Social Media itself has become the endless recipient of our communal disdain. And yet, we all use its various manifestations on a daily basis. These Apps make us cynical over time, in the same way a bad boss or meaningless work makes us cynical.
It’s quite an easy calculation when you think about it:
And when it comes to Social Media the equation becomes all the more pernicious:
However, if we momentarily shelve our disdain, and focus on the need and its raison d’être, then we might come to realise that there is something there worth valuing.
In a year without competition, that which we found worth valuing in Strava is the opportunity to pepper our path as athletes with short- and medium-term goals. And to this end, Strava becomes a formidable tool. From finding the motivation to get out the door, to fuelling attempts to be the fastest person to ever run up a mountain, or ride down a technical trail. In Strava we found a way to add a layer of meaning to the daily grind of the Squamish winter.
And I mean it: Meaning. Meaning is living in the present moment, especially when the long-term goals become uncertain. It is honing and mastering a skill. Meaning is a just reward for hard-work, for sacrifice. It is at times a humbling, a recognition of others talent and hard-work. I believe that in moments when our cynicism is quiet enough, we can all agree that there is meaning in these ambitions.
Strava has allowed us to be part of a community while adhering to pandemic social distancing rules. A community that transcends time and space. And while I never thought I would ever make a point of defending Strava, I must admit that it has proven quite the worthy tool in such an uncommon winter for us.
And then, a miracle takes place, and it is suddenly spring again. And when spring comes, at last, it is not the climate that changes. Weather is impervious to human vanity. Rather it is our perspective that changed. Spring comes and we are suddenly reborn as sensitive beings, and hopefully humble enough to feel gratitude for the path that has led us here. We shed the skin of the slugs that we have become and rediscover what it means to be human in such an extraordinary place as earth. A ray of sun on the skin, a whisper of warm wind, birdsong at dawn, colourful blossoms, the fragrance of soil, the promise of endless light. Spring erupts to our deprived senses, and it is not brighter, not more fragrant, not more colourful, not more musical; rather winter carved us into more sensitive instruments, to the conveyance of nature’s simplest treasures.
In the end, we discover that winter never took from us. Rather it received. It received the filth, the clutter, that came to inhibit our senses. Winter humbly shouldered the burden even as we yearned for something we were beyond the capacity to appreciate, even as we prayed for it to change, to relent, even as we ungratefully complained about our own misery, our own suffering; it suffered for us, drinking the sewage that clogged our senses. We, spoiled children of this magnificent earth. Time to prove worthy of its sacrifice!
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Enjoyed reading this. The pandemic certainly has changed the way of life for so many. I can very much identify with every day being pretty much the same. For me it has been finding solace in the forest. I am on Garmin Connect, but keep the settings private for my own training. I have registered for Strava, but as of yet haven’t synced my device. If I ever attempt a Fastest Known Time of a particular trail, I will need to get it set up. Hope the rest of the year went well for the 2 of you! 😀