The elusive idea of home

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Moss hangs like dewy beards…

Having grown up in the Pacific Northwest United States until the age of 22, the temperate coastal rainforests of British Columbia are deeply familiar to me. Towering fir trees sway in the the breeze, their canopy shading the spongy, humus-rich earth below. Crumbling deadfalls provide anchor for opportunistic hemlocks, moss hangs like dewy beards from their branches, and ferns blanket the forest floor beneath. Crows chatter from the treetops, audible but usually invisible, and frogs chirp from the many sodden ponds and streams. The interminably grey skies release an impressively continuous supply of precipitation, which somehow the earth absorbs. But the smell stirs me most: the combined rich, earthy scents of decomposing organic material, cedar bark, cold rain, fir needles, and fungus. Something about that smell fills me with some sort of concurrent joy and heartbreaking loss that I can’t even identify, and yet gives rise to a lump in my throat even as I smile. It’s confusing.

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The damp woods of Pacific Spirit Regional Park in Vancouver, BC.

One might think that this bittersweet stirring is the distant draw of home—a place to which I have an abiding and meaningful connection. And yet, I cannot help but feel the exact opposite. I do not feel at home here, just as I never felt at home during our three years living in Colorado. Instead I feel a vague sense of unease; I am strangely unsettled, antsy, disconnected, yearning somehow.

But let me back up for a minute. I suppose I should mention that we moved to Canada. Yep. Canada. Many people joke after discouraging elections that they are going to move to Canada, but we really did that. Without getting too political here, we simply decided the United States was a difficult place for us to be in this cultural moment; divisions run too deep, there is too much anger, too much violence, too much shouting and not enough listening. There are many people suffering and many others who are uncaring. People have become (were always?) hard, tense, suspicious of one another and unnecessarily confrontational. I guess America just isn’t feeling very much like home these days. Canada is far from perfect, but we at least have a few years of psychological breathing room to reassess our life choices. Canadian society where we live is, for the most part, gentle, compassionate, and peaceful. I am finishing my graduate studies at the University of British Columbia (MFA), and my partner is continuing his job by telecommuting. Just like that: next chapter. Continue reading

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The genetics of risk: a close call in Squamish

Death smiles at us all;
all a man can do is smile back.
― Marcus Aurelius 

Enjoying the view in beautiful Squamish.
Enjoying the view in beautiful Squamish.

Two months ago I found myself pondering death in a more immediate way than usual. In fact, I was pretty certain I would be dead less than thirty seconds from the time this thought first arose. Aside from my blood-curdling scream and subsequent adrenaline-induced hyperventilation, I was pretty calm about the prospect of impending death.

We were in Squamish, British Columbia, on a climbing trip (part of my Pacific Northwest road trip). Ben and I had decided to climb one of our favorite routes at the base of the Stawamus Chief, a 2,300-foot granite monolith overlooking the sparkling turquoise fjords of the Sea to Sky Highway. The weather had cleared after a day of heavy rain, and we were about a hundred feet of the ground when we heard it.

A thunderous crack. A crashing, rumbling, echoing roar interspersed with the screams of other climbing parties higher up on the wall ahead of us. As I looked up, I realized that everyone was yelling, “ROCK!” As a climber, this is never something you want to hear. Continue reading