The beginning and end of the Austrian Alps lies in the bücklige welt, the buckled world, where the steppe yields to the rumpled hills that quickly rise to the true mountains. In the surrounding hills and fields you find plentiful deer, pheasants, squirrels, wild mushrooms and fruits, like the tiny red strawberries that somehow taste more real than anything else I’ve eaten. They taste as beautiful as we perceive the perfume of flowers.
The rush of arriving for that final visit to Dad was one that had a surreal element. Finding out that he was dying, the sudden overseas trip and then landing in Vienna, and 2 hours after that walking with my Mum and Sister through the village and fields was overwhelming. We walked and spoke and wondered about what was to come. Each day I rose early and set out for a walk through the fields and forests alone. I would head towards the beginnings of the mountains, and try and find those haunts I had known so intimately as a child.
Escapism seems to be a bit of a dirty word in modern western society. We use it to describe the actions of those who refuse to face up to the difficulties of daily life. We think about alcoholics, drug addicts and the homeless as using escapism to avoid the pressures of their lives. We feel guilty at putting on the TV and describe ourselves as ‘binge-watching’ our favourite shows. If you are sitting still, you are failing. You need to be out there working, struggling, running marathons, doing overtime, commuting, and living your life in the moment. Otherwise you are a failure.
Yet the value of escapism for me, as I rambled over hills or granite and lime, or swished through viridian forests and heard the sounds of nearby deer and boar run from my presence, was that it gave me two things.
Firstly it energised me, got me out of the little apartment where Dad lay, hacking up bloody phlegm from his poor, abused lungs. Out there in the wood and fields I could get away from the restless rattle of his breathing, and the desire to burst into tears at the sight of the wonderful complex man, struggling simply to draw breath. Being away like that let me see his dying in the context of the whole world. Tree were growing, squirrels chattering, ants marched and birds sang. Water flowed and mountains rose and fell, while he died. He was leaving us and this world, but he had left me this world to enjoy, these spaces to love. Being out in those woods was a paean to him, and who he had helped me become. I could be in the hills and forests and connect with him.
Secondly it gave me a place to grieve. To grieve someone who is still living is not that different to grieving the departed. Movies and books tell us it is, that the dramatic ‘No!’ and weeping, the breaking of the storm as the revelation of loss is apparent, is the only way the script of our lives can possibly run. Yet from this distance, some 7 months since he left this world, it is clear that grief began many years before, and during that last visit, was at its most intense. Not all of us can (or want to) emote these feelings publicly – that is, in front of others. Grieving then, for me at that point was to sit in the forest, or on a mountain meadow, or overlooking a field, and be alone. I could not, and still cannot bare myself in front of others in that way. And to practice being alone, feel the first inklings of what being alone was going to be like, when the old man finally died.
We are all alone, all the time. Even when surrounded by friends, family, enemies even, it is worth remembering that we are only ourselves – those who have seen a loved one passing, are aware of the frustration and sadness at seeing this lonely journey. We are destined to die alone. This is why newborn babies cry the way they do – realising that after being truly part of someone else, that they are alone, is the hardest realisation we have all made. But this loneliness is not something to grieve , but to celebrate. It makes us the individuals that we are. It shapes the buckled hills and valleys of our experience, happiness and sadness, times of community and times of isolation. Who would not want to be grateful to have such a world to wander in – to see, smell, hear and taste the intricacies of a complicated life?
“Where are the people?” resumed the little prince at last. “It’s a little lonely in the desert…”
“It is lonely when you’re among people, too,” said the snake.”
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry,