Sunday, December 29, 2013

Leavings . . .

I am leaving for Antarctica in less than a week.

Last night I learned that an acquaintance of mine, someone I very recently re-met after thirty years, lies dying.  And although I did not know her that well, she was dear to many who are dear to me.

I’m thinking about what this means. 
To regain someone, and then to lose them again, all in the course of a few months.

She is my age.  She was my age.  
Now they wait for her son to make the decision, when to let her go.

And what has this to do with Antarctica?  What has this to do with me?
Everything and nothing.  Nothing and yet everything.

As most of you know, due to complications from Lyme Disease my body is failing me slowly. Like Shackleton’s ship caught in the inexorable crush of ice tightening around its hull,  I can choose to stand outside myself and watch, wait for the inevitable as my world closes in and movement becomes more and more difficult until I too am stationary and waiting.

Or, I can move while I can, walk when I cannot run, attempt what seems impossible.  I can grab every opportunity that comes by and hang on tight for the ride, adapting my grip as necessary.  I can choose action, no matter how painful, over the relative ease of simply staying put and waiting.

L. was my age.  And now that is the oldest she will ever be.  I do not know if she wanted to go to Antarctica.  But I know she did not want to go easily.

Nothing is ever really easy. 
I will see you in Antarctica. 

Thursday, December 12, 2013

I know you haven't heard from me lately . . .

But I really do have a good reason. I haven't told many people before now as I was afraid something might happen and my chance would disappear. But so far nothing has.

I am traveling to Antarctica in a month.

This is not the start of a poem, nor is it a metaphor, except perhaps in that Antarctica is itself, in many ways, a metaphor for me.  It is the apogee, the peak, the very top (or in a literal sense bottom) of my bucket list.  It was in my bucket before I knew there was such a thing as a bucket list, and I could take everything else out, leave Antarctica, and be satisfied.

Anyone who has ever seen my bookshelves knows of my long fascination with the poles. I'm not one who has ever been overly concerned with facts and dates, yet I can recite the names of  polar explorers north and south, how far each of them got, whether they went in pairs or in groups, with ponies, dogs or man-pulled sledges.  I know how and where they died, or, if they survived, what their reception was upon their return.  I can close my eyes and see the outlines of their ships.

And now I too will be traveling in their footsteps, if only in the most minor of ways.  I'll be sailing on a ship not much bigger than the Endurance, although far better built and equipped.  I will pass by Elephant Island where the crew was stranded for four months, left behind by Shackelton  in his successful attempt to reach and cross South Georgia island again to find a ship capable of rescuing his remaining men. Four tries later the rescue was successful, yet with all that neither he nor the crew ever  touched any part of the Antarctic coast.

Unlike Shackleton’s endurance attempt; weather permitting, I will set foot on the continent of Antarctica.  I will see Shackelton and Scott's last huts, almost completely preserved by the Antarctic's intense dry cold.  
I will see the remains of sledges, tatters of tents, abandoned supply caches.  I will do all this in the Antarctic summer, dressed in proper survival gear, led by knowledgeable expedition guides.  There will be a warm, dry, well-stocked boat waiting for my return.

I will not be Scott, Shackleton, or Admunson; I will not ski, sled, or walk towards the pole.  I am not an explorer, or even an adventurer.  But I will look upon the same landscapes they looked upon; gaze at that vast white expanse of ice and snow.
 I will see fur seals and Emperor Penguins, walrus and sea lions, and for one brief moment I will touch the same reality.  

And that will be enough.