Ushuaia, Locarno Beach, Huanacaxtle Beach
(Ushuaia, an afternoon in April 2022) Almost two hundred years after Charles Darwin sailed the Beagle Channel on his way to the Galápagos Islands, I eat an alfajor and sip an espresso in the heated cabin of a tour boat cutting the same waters while, on a nearby island, two condors pull apart the carcass of a sea lion. Living sea lions crowd together on the other side of the island and carry on with their napping and barking, indifferent to the condors’ bloody happy dance. I brush crumbs off my lips and wonder how much more is needed for Darwin's theory.
(Locarno Beach, a few minutes after six a.m. this summer) The normal route, a simple pattern: go west from buoy to buoy for fifteen minutes then return. I start beside the old fishing pier now condemned after the winter storms, my kick leaving no trace. The waves are more thick than choppy, and I swim through warm and cool currents as if the ocean is adjusting a bath. Behind me, the sun has risen above Vancouver just enough to show a city without details. My arms are gold in the air and pull through a translucent emerald layer that darkens into black below. Finished, I walk up the bank to my towel and dry in the sun on a log. There’s a Greek myth that the tide leaves behind the memories that Lethe, the river of forgetfulness, washes out of the dead for their return to the living world, and I can’t make out whether a man nearby is coughing or a crow barking.
(Huanacaxtle Beach, All Saints Day last year, dawn) I flip onto my back to measure the distance from shore and see a group, six or seven men and women all wearing long white cloaks over their clothes, walk from the bushes to the foamy waves spreading across the sand. The group shrinks to a halfmoon around one of the men, then a shorter – younger? – man walks up and stands next to him. They talk, with the shorter man periodically nodding his head and the others slightly swaying. Then the two men turn toward the Bahía de Banderas and walk until the waves cover their waists. A boy is baptized, there is singing. The sun is already blazing and I swim underwater farther from shore.
Craftsmen defend us from the unification of technology and its geometric deserts. By preserving differences, they safeguard the exuberance of history.
Plaza de Mayo
I take this photo while we watch hundreds of Argentine flags – in hands, sticking out of backpacks, flapping on trucks – turn the streets around Plaza de Mayo into either a parade or a protest. We can’t tell. There are families, there are men alone and motionless, there are middle-aged couples. Some people shout, some sing. A woman sets up a boom box and dances. As in Canada and the U.S. now, an earnest patriotism or overthrow-the-government anger could be hoisting the flags. Or both, or something totally different.
The photo refers to the estimated 30,000 (at minimum) Argentine men and women who were disappeared – kidnapped and tortured and/or murdered – during Argentina’s Dirty War, that period from 1976 to 1983 when military dictators ruled the country with extreme violence, terrorism and disinformation. Nunca más here means “never again,” a phrase seen on the streets of every city we visited and the title of the official government report memorializing those years. The black halo outlines the head, wrapped in the iconic white scarf, of one of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, the mothers and grandmothers whose children went missing during the Dirty War.
It's an anti-tax protest. More people and flags fill the plaza, assembling where the Madres has held weekly vigils for the desaparecidos, “the disappeared persons,” since the start of the Dirty War. We notice one then another white scarf painted on the plaza until we make out a large circle showing the path walked by the women during the vigils. It surrounds the May Pyramid, a monument marking independence from Spain, and I have since learned that the ashes of Azucena Villaflor, a founder of Madres de Plaza de Mayo, are buried at the obelisk’s base. To make the story worse, she was murdered by the military junta.
It is here where the Madres de Plaza de Mayo is credited for turning individual despair into a communal, moral fight against the Dirty War. Unlike the flags, there is no ambiguity about the motivation behind the white headscarves: we want our children back. Any thought, however, that isolated conditions led to Argentina’s Dirty War should travel north for a tour of the governments, military and public complicit in the disappearance of their citizens. In Mexico, there are the 43 students from Guerrero missing since 2014. Klansmen in the U.S. South routinely abducted African Americans for more than half of the 20th century. And most Canadians in the past year have come to accept what Indigenous people have been saying for decades about the fate of the estimated 6,000 boys and girls who vanished in residential schools.
Across the street from the crowd is the Metropolitan Cathedral where the tomb of national hero General José de San Martin is guarded by two young soldiers and draped in an Argentine flag. Tourists mix with congregants on way to Mass. It’s that moment in late afternoon when sunlight falls as planks through downtown corridors, and we walk back to our hotel in shadows long across Buenos Aires.
Why the Earth Opened at Iguazú Falls
Our guide Vlas tells us several times that we are lucky today. Recent rainstorms raised water levels, and the cascades are healthy, full. The falls are in good spirits.
The falls are Iguazú Falls, a 2,700-metres-wide chain of almost 300 waterfalls between Argentina and Brazil. More than twice as wide as Niagara Falls, Iguazú cannot be taken in with a single glance, so we are glad Vlas with his local knowledge dealing with the unruly falls will lead us through the adjacent national parks over the next two days.
He explains that climate change has been disturbing the region’s weather patterns for years, now bringing more rain in the winter months. The inconsistency of trends complicates long-term planning for the locals, tourism businesses and governments while reminding everyone of the uncontrollable, unknowable temperament of Iguazú. Vlas points to treetops of the subtropical jungle to show the water level from 2014 when record flooding *filled* the 80-metre ravine, causing deaths and destruction in the villages along the river.
The Iguazú River began flowing 20,000 years ago over this huge chasm, itself estimated to be 120 million years old and a remnant of volcanic eruptions. The area’s indigenous Guaraní people, whose descendants live where Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina meet, believe the earth cracked open for a different reason. A god fell in love with Naipí, a beautiful young woman living beside the Iguazú River. Disguised as a boy, the god visited her parents whom he asked for, and received, her hand in marriage. Naipí, however, was in love with Tarobá and after finding out the god’s plan, the two young lovers fled in a canoe on the river. Furious, the god roared and cleaved the river and earth to stop them, creating an enormous chasm we see today filled with violent, powerful waterfalls. The god condemned the couple to eternal misery: Naipí as a rock along the waterfall cliffs, Tarobá a palm tree at the water’s edge, forever looking up at his distant love.
There’s the theory that the earliest people did not separate gods, humans, animals and nature, that they seamlessly lived between the sacred world and daily survival. To the early Guaraní, life along the river and near the falls meant listening to its rumbles and watching how the water rose or dropped every day. It provided food and travel, and as easily took away family and homes. In the Guaraní myth, there is no message about war or theft of food, gods are not angry about inadequate sacrifices. Neither is this about generosity or overabundance.
Instead, the earliest people knew something about the rougher textures of love: fear of losing it, jealousy, longing. And they had the wisdom to equate the intensity and power of heartache, invisible and one-of-a-kind, to the thunderous Iguazú overwhelming everyone who experiences it.
We see Iguazú Falls as a warning for climate change, the Guaraní people show another, for love denied.
Nevertheless, the mundane continued to nudge the eternal.
In a Barragán house, there are two kinds of headaches: allergy and a crisis in faith. A building whose material components submit completely in service to a higher vision, I imagine, elevates ordinary life. Taking a shower becomes a sacred renewal. Sweeping up leaves underneath perfect arches becomes a daily ritual. On those massive exterior walls, as if Barragán created icebergs in Mexico, am I looking at afternoon shadows or messages from the heavens?
A masterful architect with the genius and creativity to dream up and build a domestic space to nurture any human component – play, work, family, sex, rest, thinking, eating – Barragán chose sacrifice because, he seems to have learned by watching processions climb Tepeyac Hill towards the Virgin of Guadalupe, the impossibility of living in a paradise makes us more determined to arrive there.
Pride in sacrifice leads to envy. A tension between a Barragán house’s total confidence and the ambiguity, disorder running through everyday life. The randomness and decay that do happen here, like the dead bougainvillea assembling in a fountain’s designated corner, offer little to disprove that all is not planned. And a devil often whispers that hanging a calendar would feel so good.
It is said that some people are particularly susceptible to the decrease in atmospheric pressure that occurs simultaneously as dusk falls on a Sunday at the end of March. The change happens so quickly and forcibly that tormenting headaches and sensations resembling nausea cause healthy runners to double over, cooks at the stove find the closest chair and shoppers ask for the restroom.
I’ve also heard that some people are known to look forward to this temporary in-betweenness of a day, week and season as a source of creative energy and purposeful destruction. When the comforting, stable air surrounding the present can no longer resist the gravity of the future, regret collides with anticipation to generate a beneficial turbulence, not overwhelming but motivating. Problems solved. Branches trimmed. A word begging at the door welcomed in.
And yet another way of responding to this pressure involves intuition overriding reasoning, opening one up to the epiphany that dusk on March 27, 2022, contains not only the minutes of that particular day – but also those of years before and those way into the future, all mixed up, happening at once, now. As if this transition is, actually, profound: a glimpse into something beyond the mundane and we meet it wearing old sweats. With a headache or a check-list.
Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector offers: “Our mental fertility is astonishing. For centuries man has divided time into the seasons of the year. He has even tried to divide the infinite into days, months and years because the infinite can be inhibiting and torture the soul. And faced with anguish, we carry the infinite within the [scope] of our awareness and organize it into simplified human form. Without this or some other form of organization, our consciousness could be exposed to vertigo bordering on madness.”
I look outside. No teetering between times: the madness turned back, the profound up there, the night is decisive. It never arrives soon enough.
Point Grey's business district along 10th Avenue upholds the look common to Vancouver's wealthier neighbourhoods: high-end jewellers and cannabis shops, sushi takeout and dentist offices, pubs with British-sounding names and bakeries selling bread according to the day. There are at least two banks on every block, there is a library branch, there is a not-too-overpriced produce stand. The pharmacy sells watercolours by a local painter.
In the mornings, people are out, though no one, except UBC students, seems to be in a rush to be anywhere else. People converge on one of the two cafes, sitting in the street parklets, working at laptops, sunglasses in the sun. Here the day begins at the speed of individual purpose, with that urgency appropriate to private obligations to the self.
Walking the three or four blocks, one begins noticing then counting the vacant storefronts alternating with Greek restaurants and hair salons, and no one can be blamed for thinking that Point Grey has seen better days. Instead of being charmed by the dishtowels hanging in the Tuscan-themed decor shop, you think, "Just a matter of time..." The half-block where the demolished Safeway anchored the neighbourhood's west end for decades is now empty. Paper hearts cut out by school children are tied to the chain-link fence surrounding the lot.
But then, seeing a doorway papered over with brown butcher sheets gridded with bright blue tape, you stop and wonder if the construction worker is also a graphic designer. Is this an optimistic sign for the 4500 block of 10th Avenue?
Perhaps the cycle of grand openings and decay cannot be prevented. Balancing on the edge is in Point Grey's nature: you can walk west along 10th Avenue through the university campus to wild deep ravines where Vancouver slides into Georgia Strait.
As the talk about the vaccine becomes more confident, I think about a book I read before COVID, Hisham Matar's A Month in Siena. Its final chapter, about Giovanni di Paolo's painting Paradise, is one of those passages you sense will be as meaningful in another context. Painted about a century after the Black Plague, Paradise shows various couples and groups of people reuniting in Heaven. Men and women welcome others with embraces, respectful holding of hands, intimate dances. Matar says: "That must surely be the ambition of every reunion, not only to identify and be identified, but also to have an accurate account of all that has come since the last encounter...It is as if what di Paolo is thinking here is that a true hell is not the hell of fire but not being recognized by those closest to us."
I imagine we too soon will watch, and hopefully participate in, joyful reunions among parents and children and lovers and partners and friends, all versions of heaven on earth.
Living with restrictions has taken on the qualities of that game where one searches for differences between two versions of the same scene. But instead of a junky attic or a royal dining room, one's identity is the puzzle to solve.
The pandemic has complicated connections to, among many things, our family and friends, to our work that generates income, to what we do when not working to generate income, to our health, our responsibility to the health of others. Routines, choices and relationships once reliably expanding into the shape of a life have gone missing or are neglected or are slightly, though noticeably, damaged.
It's as if getting through the pandemic necessitates breaking up over and over with the self we knew in the past; absent familiar conditions, titles and props, a person senses a hollowing out.
I inventory this year: If I don't swim for nine months, am I still a swimmer? What i.d. card matters most for a U.S. citizen living as a permanent resident in Canada? Is writing my hobby or my work? What makes a son a son? There are mornings when I don't know whose clothes are in my closet.
Whether those changes are temporary adjustments or substitutions to be accepted as authentic, the vaccine should clarify, perhaps in the form of a reunion more restrained and awkward than depicted in Paolo's Paradise.
In this reunion, the individual introduces their current self to their life before COVID. Matar: "We want to be seen by them and, in turn, rediscover our own powers of remembrance, and to finally find the consolation that lies between intention and expression, between the concealed sentiment and its outward shape."
The distance between the memory of the 2019 self and the reality of the 2021 self is as long as a trek guided by instinct and the stars, ending with the re-united travellers saying "yes, we changed, it was hard, we did what we could, and we are here."
The Impulse to the Narrative
Author and art historian Mary Ellen Miller noted something else besides the nearly identical forms of the two men carved from stone by Olmec sculptors. Their detailed headdresses, their about-to-spring kneeling stances, their facing opposite each other, collectively suggested that "the impulse to the narrative emerged at this same early time frame." That desire to tell a story seems as sacred to us now as it was then to Mexico's Olmec people, the foundational culture of Mesoamerica preceding the Mayans and Aztecs, who "brought a religious narrative to life."
I am reading about Mesoamerican art while simultaneously reading Joan Didion's Salvador, her 1982 take on El Salvador's civil war. This is my second time reading Salvador, and probably due to the timing during the pandemic, I care less about the political confusions and manipulations, more about Didion's ability to tell a story through doubt, through shifting meanings, through words that cancel confidence. Whereas the kneeling twins are two rock-solid objects traced to the Late Formative period of Mesoamerica and conveyed a definite message to its early viewers, Salvador is only as certain as her uncertainty, which is the point of a story narrated by a skeptical voice. Didion described visiting the valley cliff popular among executioners on all sides of the war as "...nothing came of the day but overheard rumors, indefinite observations, fragments of information that might or might not fit into a pattern we did not perceive." She came to understand that "the change of a name is meant to be accepted as a change in the nature of the thing named." She mentions a "fragment of a retrieved legend."
The ideas of these two books combine into the challenge of documenting, creating something authentic during the COVID pandemic: the impulse or compulsion to connect the dots and link the days of this pandemic into something intelligible and meaningful is disoriented by the unanchored buoys of all that is happening now. What do we know of the story and how to convey the unsettledness of knowing an assumed fact is quick to decay and what it means to go to sleep and wake up wondering how much the floor titled during the night.
The Ways We Were
$56 BBQ platters
Hired photographers for vacation photos
Mid-life crisis at 30
Local-Micro-Craft Beer Labs