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March 18, 2019 | by  | in Features |
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I Lift My Eyes

There is only one dream which has ever truly frightened me. I cannot tell you how frequently I have this dream, only that it is often enough that if I think of it while I am trying to sleep, I feel sickened and unsettled.

I am alone in a desert. The sand goes on, and on, and on. I am afraid, and the sand grows bigger—or perhaps I become smaller; the details are overwhelmed by the blurred delirium of recollection. I am afraid, and the world is empty and flat, and this place is all I have ever known, and there is no escape.

There is an escape, of course: waking up. After I have this dream, I go running up, into the hills. This is almost a cleansing ritual, a release from that empty, empty world, from the aloneness of a flattened earth.

***

I am one of many people who will struggle to tell you where they’re from. I possess a multitude of belongings, have loyalties divided between two countries.

I have an easy answer: New Zealand and India. There are several optional extrapolations to this, the when and how and why of my birth and upbringing, and of my parents’ births and race, are pulled out depending on who I’m talking to and which follow-up questions they ask.

I do not fault people for wanting to know where I’m from; it’s a crucial question, and one that is easy to ask upon any first acquaintance. I am more troubled by how being asked where I’m from reminds me that I do not have easy answers to even this most straightforward of questions.

To be asked where I’m from is to be asked to interrogate myself. I can rattle off an answer, but I am troubled by the glibness of my developed response, and all that it does not reveal about me.

This confusion of identity is perhaps an inherited one; both my parents were born in India, and have been navigating what it means to be from India and Aotearoa ever since, bequeathing that same question to their children.  Perhaps we ask as a family, but we find different answers.

 

I have never known my grandfather. He died in 1980 while climbing a mountain in Nepal. He fell and was severely injured, and told his friend to go back. His body has never been found.

My grandmother wrote a book about my grandfather in the years after he died, and self-published it in 2015. It is for the people who knew and loved him, but it also for her grandchildren, who did not get to meet him.

She seems almost sanguine about the loss, now. It has been almost 40 years. But mourning can look like a lot of things. Rereading the end, where my grandfather does not return, reading my mothers and aunt’s reflections on it, once left me slippery-faced and sobbing on a sunny Auckland afternoon. She held me, then; she held my sister through her own stormy tears at this least surprising of endings.

My grandmother opened an old box, and we looked at it together. Documents and photos: the last photo ever taken of my grandfather, standing with a big pack, looking out on a valley, smiling. She showed us letters that had been written to her family in New Zealand in the weeks after her husband had died in the mountains.

In one, she wrote about how it was the way that my grandfather would have wanted to go, that he always loved the mountains and found comfort in them. On that final climb, my grandfather and his friend spoke of their love for the wilderness, of their love for their families, and of their love for the world they lived in. The conversation was, the survivor reported, holy.

The mountains are infallible.  They are cold and remote, spectacular and storied, but they are just rocks and water, held by the earth, ignorant of the human hopes and desires tangled around their flanks like clouds. They are not unfair, they are not cruel. They are.

Even a few weeks later, the grief still raw, my grandmother did not blame the mountains or God for the death of her husband. When she returned to New Zealand, she took my mother and aunts on many tramping trips, until they belonged in the hills as easily as their father had.

There are no words for what the mountains have taken from me; and the loss is larger for my mother and her sisters, larger still for my grandmother and great-grandmother. They are mountains of grief, rising.

 

In a scrapbook about my infancy, my mother says that I was conceived “in the Sierra Nevada de Cocuy at about 4000 m, a cold and misty evening, a tent, a double sleeping bag…”—and that is where the details mercifully stop. My parents were there to escape the thick heat and violence of the Colombian jungles where they worked at the time. They lifted their eyes to the mountains, and found help there.  They accepted the promise of the hills: there is an above, there is a beyond, there is something higher than the grime and despair.

When I was six months old, my parents took my twin sister and me to do some real tramping in the Southern Alps. My mother remembers walking down from some high pass in the middle of winter, two daughters howling, the milk in her breasts almost frozen—and yet, we were in the mountains, the air sharp and freeing.

I have inherited my parents’ tangled belongings, but they have also bequeathed me their mountains.

I speak of mountains, mostly, in the generic sense. Mountains, any mountains, this word I am tired of typing. My Himalayan upbringing has made me snobby about what counts as a mountain. Mount Victoria, for the record, is a nice hill, but it’s no mountain. I am willing to concede, however, that standards for what a mountain is are decided by your belongings, and that my belongings sometimes require technical equipment—perhaps a rope—to reach.

There is a long tradition of rhapsodising about mountains, about the beauty of them; the power of the erect ridge, firm under your boots, on and on, more and more breathless. White men write about their love of the mountains with a fervor, descriptions bordering on the phallic. These men came to the Himalayas and decided if they went high enough, condensed the minutes of a climb into numbers and facts, later maybe a book, they could call it discovery. The indigenous people who have known and loved those mountains are ignored.

I, too, can follow in these footsteps, for mountains are exquisite, and they challenge and invite me, call me deeper and higher.

But I will tell you this, instead of explaining all the things that mountains are and may yet be to me: I have never needed to ask myself if I belong in the mountains.

I call to mind moments that were crucial to me, and I remember mountains: Explorations in Arthur’s Pass with my parents just before I started university. The valley where we returned each summer, camping by an alpine stream; landscape cleaved by fat, retreating glaciers. The pilgrimage when I was eleven, to the Annapurna Sanctuary, closer to my grandfather’s body, but not quite reaching the mystery of his final hours. Solace in icicles and sunsets, in lifting my eyes to the mountains and finding more.

I went running most days in high school, and would look for the mountains. From the road along the ridge above our house, distant tips of 6000 m peaks sparkled, and seeing them rendered me whole.

I do not love mountains for the feeling of success at reaching a summit. I prefer to stick to the valleys, to follow the rivers, to be held between peaks with the certainty that I can look up and remember that there is yet more to know.

In the mountains, I feel at home in a way that I do not anywhere else. I walk up; carrying easy burdens or heavy ones; carrying dark and frightening dreams, or the buoyant promises of possibilities.

***

I am still frightened by that dream, certain that I will dream it again. Perhaps what I am really afraid of is a world without mountains. Without something above me, I cannot orient myself.

Without mountains, I cannot answer that inevitable question.

Ask me where I’m from. I will listen, I will inhale, oxygen and ice all at once, I will lift my eyes to yours, and then I will reply.  

 

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