I’ve always been an observer but particular events in the last year have given me the capacity to learn from observing and to perceive what is good and real and true.
Last October, fifteen other students and I traveled to Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, a hamlet made up of fewer than 2000 people located above the tree line and well within the Arctic Circle. Not many people, young or old can say they’ve been this far north so we looked at it as an adventure. An experience.
On October 27th my class put on layer after layer of clothing. Long underwear, socks, wool socks, long sleeved T-shirts, sweaters, jackets, coats, snow pants, boots, balaclavas, gloves, mitts, hats, scarves and ski masks. We thought we were prepared for the cold. We weren’t. The group trudged across the snow through the town until we were past the buildings, at the snowmobiles. Suddenly there was nothing. As far as I could see and farther was flat, white limitlessness. Vast, overwhelming land that I couldn’t imagine had an end. There was no movement. It seemed barren, empty and bleak. Nothing.
These were my first thoughts.
The longer I stood there, the more I saw. Different colours in the snow. The line between sky and earth. As we rushed along in small wooden sleds behind the snowmobiles, colder than we could have imagined, small, white birds appeared before our eyes. Almost immediately the feeling in everybody’s feet and hands started to leave and it felt like there would never be such a thing as warmth again. After what seemed like hours of sitting in a cold, rectangular box-sleds we, the aliens on the land, were being shown something by one of the elders. It was a herd of musk ox, a group of sturdy animals that live and survive in the deadliest of climates. Here were these creatures that couldn’t give up. They stop, they freeze, they die.
This tundra was not nothing. It held as much life and possibility as any other place but in order to see that one would have to be an observer, a perceiver, someone who can look at a situation and not only see what everyone sees but can see more, what makes a place special, unique, beautiful.
Arriving back at the school was a relief. I think I speak for my peers when I say that the first thing we wanted to do was shed all our outerwear, sit down and drink a hot chocolate. My intentions were put on hold though when a chaperone called me into an office. I thought I was in trouble.
As soon as the door was closed and I was told to sit down I knew. Before the words were out. I knew but she told me anyway. My brother, the person I had taken for granted the most, was gone. He was 18, he wasn’t sick. To the contrary, when I left, just three days earlier, he was on the mend. He was different, more solid and more with it than he had ever been before. Then he was gone.
I, on my first day of being 16 had never really experienced loss, let alone the loss of someone so close to me. Those first moments were terrible. If those moments went on forever life would not exist. So much pain and emptiness is not life. In that first hour in the office all was bleak.
I feel a connection between the tundra and the death of my brother. Being on the land is not so much a metaphor for death as it is for processing such a huge event. In both situations one is struck by overwhelming feelings but in time they fade and through pain or cold it is possible to stop, stand still, stare off into the distance and see what is good or just think about how life has led you in this direction.
The experience of losing my brother widened my understanding of life. It helped me to begin the conscious search for adulthood that includes the embodiment of emotional maturity, confidence and sensibility. When I look back over the last year I realize that my ability to observe has evolved into the ability to perceive. Now I not only observe but also understand or at least try my best to do so. To me perceiving is about looking at others and learning to accept and appreciate people and their differences. More and more I attempt to judge less and more fairly. Truth, love and support is important in my life and that which is false, hateful and unhelpful is not welcome.
Loss of a loved one is a universal experience because everyone will experience death. As stated earlier, not many people get the chance to visit locations so northerly and remote. Similarly loss of a sibling at a young age is a less universal experience. Even those who have had similar losses are not always open to taking that experience and using it to be led to growth and life-shaping opportunities.
Each small aspect of every life affects when we grow and the level of growth to be achieved. No matter who we are there is the opportunity to observe, to perceive, and to grow.