It’s all a tradeoff


Ingi says, “everything in life is a tradeoff.”

Every moment spent fighting is a moment you could spend loving, every day spent working a job you abhor is one you could spend cultivating your passion, and for every swipe of your phone’s touchscreen and immersion into a virtual reality, you miss the good stuff happening here in the real world, as I was reminded this afternoon by this essay by Andrew Sullivan. All fears, doubts and excuses aside, it’s the truth.

Yes, everything is a tradeoff, and I’m looking forward to getting back to the life that’s unfolding in front of me.

As a journalist, I spend a lot – I mean a LOT – of time scouring the internet, connecting to others via e-mail, Facebook, Twitter and text, compiling information, putting it out there and then obsessively checking to see how many people it has reached, who has liked it, and whether there is any thoughtful commentary on what I’ve written.

At first I ate it all up, loving the process of it, loving the gratification I received when my work was recognized and appreciated, loving the knowledge that something I had done had touched someone else, affected them.

But something changed – maybe a realization that I became a writer to share human stories with human beings, not to watch the numbers – and keeping up with how many people have given whatever I put out there the disembodied thumbs-up of approval just doesn’t seem to matter.

Because everything in life is a tradeoff, and the time I spend seeking out virtual approval in any area of my online existence could be spent face-to-face with a good friend. Or puddle jumping. Or lying in a pile of yellow leaves, grinning, breathing in that leafy smell. All things I make a habit of (come on, imagine me in the leaves – you know that’s something I do). All things I enjoy. All things that trump watching my internet popularity fluctuate as it inevitably will.

These days I just want to be immersed in real life, in my own world, experiencing all the tangible things that are there for me to experience. I don’t want to give up the sense of connection social media gives me with friends and family across the country and the world, but I want to spend more time being present – and not ‘sitting beside you but looking at my phone’ present. Actual, eye-contact, real, intense, deep-connection-with-whatever-is-in-front-of-me present.

And as much as I want that deep connection with other people and the world around me, maybe I want it with myself, too. Maybe that’s what I’m searching for.

Ingi has asked me over and over how I’ll fare in the solitude of the woods for two months.

“You, the social butterfly!” he exclaims, half matter-of-fact, half disdainful, like he might be envious but doesn’t want it to show. “How do you think you’ll cope? How will you do without your Facebook and e-mail?”

The truth is, I don’t know. I love people. I love connecting. And I LOVE laughing. I thrive off a balance of happy company and alone time devoid of obligations. But I want to try the relative quiet of the forest. I want to revel in it. I want to see if my other senses become heightened – if I really see more, really hear my own thoughts.

There are less than two weeks until I leave, now, and the closer that day comes, the busier and more distracted I seem to get. If everything in life is a tradeoff, for now I’ll be the first to take the quiet over the chaos.

A quick reflection (because that’s what September is for)

Autumn comes differently in different places, bringing a uniform rush of change that is palpable in the trees and in the people. It hangs in the air, first a confused urgency, then settling into a resigned complacency, so subtle you might forget it was ever there in the first place.

Not me. 

Each year as the trees begin to change and the cool winds begin to blow, there’s an adrenaline that courses through me for days, weeks, urging me to do something, to take a leap, to turn a corner I can’t come back from. It’s a delightful and uncomfortable feeling. It’s animalistic. Sometimes it leaves me wondering what I am. 

I think this year I’ll find out.

It’s a mere 16 days until I leave town, and just 26 until I fly north in a Cessna out of Snow Lake, Manitoba. Word travels quickly, and in the coffee shop in the morning, friends, acquaintances, people I know by face and not name wish me well, drill me with questions, tell me, “You’re either incredibly brave or incredibly stupid,” – that one’s my favourite – look at me, assessing, and tell me they’re glad I’m coming back. 

It’s a family I’ve made here, too. Or maybe it’s made me. 

Friends, the close ones, want a piece of time, a memorable moment, something to last a bit. I’m familiar with the feeling – it’s utterly human, and I feel it when I know deep down it’ll be the last time I spend with someone I care for for a long time. I’m happy to have that moment, and share it. 

Earlier this week I sat around a kitchen table with good, good people, close friends, part of my extended family. We ate and drank and played Scrabble, which I was elated to lose (not to brag, but it’s hard to find people who can give me a run for my money at Scrabble). 

This morning I sipped coffee with a good, good person and told him how grateful l am to know such wonderful people here. He said, “You take good people wherever you can find them.”

Tonight I had supper and laughed and laughed with some of my favourite people on the planet. 

When I think about the people I know here – the ones in my immediate circle, the acquaintances, the people I look up to, the ones I’m inspired by from afar – I feel so, so lucky that I ended up in this little town, in this awesome, quirky, flawed, wonderful, unique community. It’s as good of a place as I’ve ever had to call home for a while. 

I’ve never spent two months in solitude before. I don’t know if I’ll miss these moments, the witty jokes, the banter, the boisterous laughter, the friendly punch in the shoulder. But I’m glad I have them locked away, the happiest memories, because I know three months isn’t a long time, and I’ll be back – I’ll always be back – but a change is going to come.

I was once adopted by a trapper

Ingi and I were fast friends.

We met on Christmas morning in a duplex living room filled with families – and friends that are like family – coloured lights a-twinkling, bright light pouring through the windows, the joyful kind of Christmas every soul who is separated from their relatives by vast distances hopes to have but rarely does. It was one of the most special things I’ve ever experienced.
The whole clan was decked out in plaid onesies, gifted to us by favourite neighbours.

“Here. Go put this on,” they gruffly shoved the bag into my hands and pushed me out the door.

Ingi introduced himself by his first name only – as, I’ve learned, is typical of him. I thought it might not be his real name. I thought, in fact, he might not be entirely of sound mind. His hair was thinning, short on the top but long in the back, and he held one of his granddaughters out in front of him in a box, slowly moving her around as if she were in command of a hovercraft. He spoke of an ‘investment of a lifetime’ – an outhouse on his property that one could hold a lifetime share in for 35 cents. Of course, by the end of the visit, I handed him a quarter and a dime.

At supper he told stories and I peppered him with questions, always wanting to know more, always challenging. The conversation became so intense at one point that his son walked over smiling, put two beers down in front of us and wordlessly walked away. Ingi said he was a letter writer and I said real mail is one of my favourite things in the whole world, and so we became pen pals.

The letters came and I read about the comings and goings of all things – people, plants, animals, birds, Sage the Dog, the snow, the skies – on a lake outside Flin Flon, Manitoba. It wasn’t long before I wanted to see it for myself, as I am apt to want, and I was graciously hosted for a week in early May. 

I might well have stayed forever – or at least as long as I’d stay anywhere else.

Everyone I met was warm. Welcoming. Kind. Genuine in whoever they were. And the land? Rocks, trees, and water – my favourite kind of land. A paddler’s dream, and consisting of enough walking trails to keep me happy. 

On the second day Ingi said if he’d ever had a daughter, he’d want her to be someone who loved to walk and paddle and be outdoors. He asked if he could adopt me. Now, this may seem strange – even outrageous, like Ingi – but the truth is, I have adopted family all over the country, and homes on the ocean, in the mountains, on the prairies and in between. I’m the luckiest, that way. My mom, who is one of the kindest, wisest people I know, once told me that we can make our own families wherever we go with kind people we meet where we are, and I’ve taken that to heart in my travels. I smiled and agreed.

A few days later on a smoky, sunny morning, Ingi and I flew to the trapline, about 25 air miles north of Snow Lake, Manitoba. The sky was red for most of the flight, reflected off a thousand little lakes below. We made our way in the Murphy Rebel further and further away from the signs of industry, of human life carrying on. Upon landing, we put a boat in the water and headed down a river to some rapids, then headed back and sat on a bench with a mint tea. It was quiet. So, so quiet.

I might as well have stayed forever – or at least as long as I’d stay anywhere else.

Ingi talks of a mentor of sorts – ‘the old trapper’ he calls him, though I’m pretty sure his name was actually Albert. I wonder if one day I’ll tell someone else, someone younger with the same yearning to know the land as I have about ‘the old trapper,’ Ingi, who could hold a drink in one hand, spin an axe in the air with the other, sneeze, catch it, and cut a piece of wood, and who simply, desperately wanted the land to be safe. 

I’m counting down the days until I can get back, and see the trapline through the lens of a new season.  

A plan for the outrageous

There’s a man – middle aged by common standards – living on the land of the Canadian Shield in northern Manitoba who says he chooses to live outrageously.

Spend half an hour with him at a camp that’s worth $47 million to him but significantly less to society, or in a boat labeled ‘G.E.C.’ (Good Enough Construction), on a walking trail or in a home-built Murphy Rebel float plane, and you won’t be able to doubt his claim.

The statements he makes, the questions he asks, his very story – for all intents and purposes, they’re outrageous. But underneath words that will make you scoff, laugh or scratch your head, there’s a quiet, haunting truth.

When I told him my plan, he said I must be more outrageous than he is, because I’m leaving my job, my friends, the mountains I love and the monotonous yet comforting stability of civilization for three months to follow him around on a remote, fly-in trapline, two old Canon Rebels and a notebook in tow. I’ll document a once popular and now fading way of life. I’ll document a love story for the land, brimming with humanity. Maybe they’ll have an effect, reach a little further than my immediate circle.

It’s not outrageous, really, my plan to head to a place where there are no roads and no people for miles and miles. I’m dependable in some ways, but I’m dependable in my fickleness as well. I’ve lived in the northeastern foothills of the Canadian Rocky Mountains in a town I love, working a dream job with some of the best people I know for the last year and eight months. For someone who has moved more than 20 times in her 27 years on this planet, the time spent here in this small Alberta town signals remarkable staying power. But it’s not unlike me to be grasped by a place, by a story, and to have this need to chase it until it runs out. And it’s not unlike me to head into the bush and stay there for as long as I can.

I had planned on heading to the trapline not this year, but next. But life throws curveballs every once in a while. It’s full of surprises, and nothing ever stays the same. So I find myself a month away from this new adventure, a list of questions the length of my arm, and a child-like excitement growing in me by the day