The Forest is My Teacher
by Alyssa Harms-Wiebe
Mountains intersect, converge, and rise, bit by bit, exceeding what they thought was their maximum height each year. Tectonic plates rub against each other, shaping upward momentum. Not all tectonic plates function in the same manner. Some create divides, split communities of land. The Earth is shaken by segregations that isolate. We all feel the jolt of a great divide.
My relationship with the Earth grows with increasing experiences of exploring its surface, from the Southern Tropics to the Eastern Desert to the Scandinavian Arctic. In the summer of 2017, a squad of thrill-seekers and I formed what we call the Cascadia Collective. The mission of our ensemble is simple: to build community through weekly escapes into our backyard, the Pacific Northwest. Piled together in a Jeep, we leave our unaffordable basement suites to gain fresh air and, often times, perspective. There’s a quality that exists in the stillness of the backcountry that pursues us.
I didn’t understand my yearning for the Earth until I gained recognition of our divorce from it. Our view is often interrupted, spotted with culturally-inflicted blindness. In Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist and Other Essays, Paul Kingsnorth speaks to our disconnect from nature. “Increasingly,” he states, “for those penned into cities with no view of the stars and no taste of clean air and nothing but grass between the cracks in the pavement to nourish their sense of the wild, this is no freedom at all. We have made ourselves caged animals.” An extremist, perhaps, with a voice that rises above the crowds to remind us of what we are missing - not just on a Saturday night, but on a profound level.
A recipe made by algorithms is fed to me by the digital spoonful but it does not satisfy. I stare at a waterfall of scrolling selfies, but I cannot hear the sound of rushing water. Ideas unworthy of platforms bounce back and forth between myself and multiple social media outputs. I don’t always see it, but I am alone, not within, or a part of, anything concrete.
When I am within the woods, I taste the raw quality of my insignificance. It rejuvenates me with a strength my phone charger cannot generate. Lost in a forest expanse that glitters with the present moment, I feel as though I can see. Reality is made visceral.
What’s left, in that stillness?
The forest has become my teacher, rerouting the rhythms of my life. It doesn’t always agree with my thoughts, but it woos me, reaches its branches, shows me how to grow.
What would happen, then, if we moved our gaze upward? We’re trapped in the distance between ourselves and our virtual lives, but what reality is this? We, like tectonic plates, have the ability to shift, to stimulate forward movement. Stepping away from digital distraction, perhaps there is an alternative. In fact, I’ve breathed it.
A trail realigns me, softly -
The Earth is a masterpiece, I am but a fragment.
The Spectrum of Colour
by Alyssa Harms-Wiebe
I look at a page filled with letters and numbers. In place of solid structures, I begin to follow a subconscious spectrum of colour. To me, this playful phenomenon feels as natural as waking up and drinking a cup of coffee in the morning. As a synesthete, colours splash themselves onto the black and white, providing a peculiar visual perspective. And yet. I often turn off or disregard this mental capacity, and let myself indulge instead in the rigidity of established structures.
It’s easy to get caught in a pattern, isn’t it? Everyone is guilty of thoughtless repetition of activities. Sometimes, we just don’t have the option of breaking routine. We need to pay bills, stay fit, keep relationships afloat. The inability to shift gears with ease can often feel intangible.
The other day, in an effort to break routine, I decided to buy myself a notebook with odd line formations on each page. I figured it would be a fun challenge, to approach my writing on unstructured lines. I thought perhaps it would help me to think outside the box. And yet, naturally, I have continuously found myself trapped by the habit of writing from left to write, top to bottom. It has become a tricky game, a kind of mental exercise, to look at the unpredictable lines on the notebook pages, and to let them guide my words, instead of the other way around. A conscious adjustment of my thought patterns, so to speak.
I don’t often enjoy changing my outlook on things, either because I think I’m always right or because I’m just too lazy to rethink my thinking. And yet. Shifts in perspective seem to always be calling out to us. As if the human brain were being constantly invited to a rewiring process.
So, I’ve consciously or subconsciously started to use metacognitive strategies - to know my knowing, to become aware of my thoughts - and in the process, I have identified ways of thinking that I recognize need altering. I’ve begun to recognize thought patterns that have been shaped completely by the wiring of my generation, for better or for worse. Oh, the reality of being a millennial.
It’s interesting, how quickly we become tempered by the thought patterns of the cultures we associate ourselves with. Subconsciously buying into norms that, out of context - to an alien community, perhaps - would seem absurd. How easily we succumb to patterns we know devalue us. How easily we create habits we know detach us from the reality of being alive.
Today I’m enjoying a wildly anti-social Monday. Sometimes we need to detach ourselves in order to figure out how to re-attach ourselves to our circumstances, and the people around us. I’m sitting at a café and looking around at this grey city in which I live. Its patterns can often feel so mundane to me, and yet I’m aware that I’m a part of the sum.
But if I take a moment, and let myself see, truly see - in this present act of detaching myself - it suddenly becomes visible to me that there exists a spectrum of colour, tossing and turning all around us. But are we taking the time to see it? To indulge in its vibrancy? I think about this, and I let myself begin to shift perspective - knowing I’ll have to re-route my ideologies again and again and again - and I begin to rethink my thinking, to reestablish my position in this here and now.
What colours are drawing themselves onto this city? Do I have any colour to offer in return? I sit back and watch pictures being drawn all around me, colours diving outside the lines.
The Unnecessary Mountain
by Alyssa Harms-Wiebe
There was a day that began with clustered thoughts. A closet that had remained out of order but functional. I walked out the door, clothed in the clutter of that closet. God knows I hate wearing my feelings on my sleeves.
And yet. I’m an emotional rider. Quite literally, I ride my bike to map out my emotions, stretch across landscapes to comprehend back-burning thoughts. Some people turn to comfort food for the same reason. I ride every time my mind reaches the brink of its emotional capacity, high or low. Doesn't take much.
A couple of weeks ago, I felt I’d arrived at my wit’s end. Believe me, I can be witty and quick comebacks were incapable of filtering through my mind. I felt out of touch with reality. Stresses coming from practically every sphere of life were bombarding my sleep patterns. On several occasions, my chest gathered and receded with palpitations I felt unable to control. My mind an endless scrolling action of irrational fears. One morning, I had twenty minutes before I was supposed to teach a class, but I was frozen. I stumbled into my coworker’s office. I uncovered the state of my mind, and she lovingly brought me back to my senses. This is a keyboard that you can touch. That’s a picture of a silly dog on the wall. This is the smell of coffee coming from my cup. Over and over until my breath returned to a normal pace.
There are moments in life which however inescapable seem to be entirely unnecessary. Questions that rise and fall. If only we could unlock the answers to every question in the universe, perhaps we wouldn’t have to experience such pain. Such anxiety. I often wonder why life has to be a culmination of doubts that seem to be frustratingly useless if only some ancient truth could speak clarity, relieve us from our short-sightedness.
Yesterday, I challenged one of the most gruesome hikes of my entire life. The trail was unclear, the signposts were spread out and hard to identify. The path was unnecessarily narrow, clustered with overgrown bush. I can’t count how many times my hiking partner and I were routed to the edge of cliffs. Every single part of the hike was painfully steep. Our ankles and knees screamed for relief. The most hilarious part of the equation was that the mountain we were hopelessly scaling - en route to our final destination - was literally called the Unnecessary Mountain.
And yet, and yet. It was entirely necessary in order to get to the landscape beyond it.
When we finally rose above the dimly lit forest, we were overcome with a profound sense of awe. I’ve rarely seen a better view. Sharp mountain peak after mountain peak surrounded us in a remarkable 360-degree visual spectacle. And most importantly, we were finally able to identify our end point. In the distance, the Lions were calling us. We could hear their roaring cliffs begging us to continue our treacherous hike, as we stood and admired their majesty from afar.
Sometimes we’re sitting in the clouds, in our own indecision, in a lack of love and trust and hope. But we fail to realize that the hardest walks often lead to the greatest payoffs. There are certain seasons of life that seem unnecessarily layered in grief and loss. But it is never the full story. There is always a greater picture being painted.
Emotions may rise and fall like cliffs and valleys, but I’ve been reminded this week of a quote, amidst what has felt like an unnecessary season of anxiety, and it brought me a profound sense of peace. So, here’s some wisdom from one of the wisest writers out there:
“Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of - throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.” - C.S. Lewis
May we step out of our dysfunctional closets, and take a look at the palace that is being built out of our lives, through the cliffs and the valleys, through seasons of short-sightedness and clarity alike.
A Pencil's Lead
by Alyssa Harms-Wiebe
There’s a pencil that keeps crumbling in my hands. Its lead etching away seesaws on my notebook pages. Patterns losing form. Lines forgetting their ability to hold concrete sentences. Words falling through cracks.
Each fresh notebook page, a new beginning, a new plan. Something thought up in the shower or in between dreams and nightmares.
I wonder sometimes if I take more pleasure in brainstorms, skies full of clouded dreams above my brain, than I do in the process of ideas becoming outcomes. I scan an overview of past plans and think about how polar opposite initial stages can be to their final edits. How quickly ideas shift, reshape, regenerate into something we could never have predicted with the use of a time machine.
I look just over my shoulder, to a space that still echoes the past but peripherals the future, and I stop. Suddenly, I can see and analyze the xyz theorems that have lead to xyz hypothetical answers to riddles I’ve never been able to solve. I watch these xyz’s becoming more and more impractical, false displays of understanding, and I think.
And suddenly, a sense of relief flies past me. It comes in the form of a realization, perhaps even a familiar encounter, and I begin to see it - the thought of - the pure ecstasy of - how little we control. How few the pages are, how unsuccessfully we are able to order, the definitions of words that make up our lives.
I reopen my notebook a second, third, fifth, tenth time, in an effort to jot it all down. To make the realization concrete, so that I won’t have to forget and remember it again and again.
And yet. My pencil’s lead fails me at each turning page. It casts unknown shapes. It guides my hand, and alas,
I let it d a n c e -
This is a Story About My Father
by Alyssa Harms-Wiebe
This is a story about my father. But not entirely. You’ll see.
My childhood home was like Sweden. My family is less than a ¼ Swedish, and the home we lived in, or apartment rather, was located in São Paulo, Brazil. My childhood home was Sweden not because of its geographical location, or because the Swedish language was spoken with any level of proficiency, but because it housed a common language that normalized gender equality. Sweden is the one country I know that has mastered this skill. It just is equal, no questions.
I grew up in a home of 4 women and 1 man. I can imagine that you’re now second-guessing my words in the above paragraph because 4 against 1 doesn’t seem like an equal balance of male versus female. But equality is not a quantity of people, it’s a frame of mind. And even if you disagree with that, then you’ll agree that there’s equality in the fact that my father grew up in a house of 5 men and 1 woman. He had it coming.
You’d think my father would have ended up more traditional. And knowing that the word traditional is easily misinterpreted, I’ll define my intended meaning: “a corrupted state of mind which believes that women live to serve the needs of men, and nothing more.” I mention this because I imagine that being under the influence of a male-domineering household, that my father wouldn’t have been able to emerge with any other mindset.
When I was a little girl, I told my father I wanted to go to the moon because I knew in that moment that I was going to make a life-changing scientific discovery that would alter the fate of mankind. We know these things when we’re children. Doubts don’t cripple us until we’re smacked with criticism for the first time. I remember doing tests in my kitchen to find loopholes in the force of gravity. I’ve always been an incredibly abstract thinker so I can imagine that the formulas I was creating were more philosophical than measurable. But I was making a new use of the kitchen anyway. My father agreed. Years later, when I determined that I was going to be an archaeologist because there were artifacts waiting for me to find them, my father encouraged my explorations. Every Saturday morning, I would find him reading his Bible in the living room, and I’d sit with him, and he’d answer my impatient questions. Eventually, he booked us a trip for two to Cairo so that I could touch the ancient relics with my own hands. My dreams were given leeway to grow.
My dad was a pastor, still is. I grew up observing his excellent communication skills. He knew I possessed the same charisma to be a public speaker and so he always encouraged me to take the stage. He’d give me public speaking tips, refining my skills. Harsh at times, but I became a great communicator as I alternated between watching his preaching and standing up to the microphone myself. There were never questions about me being too young to speak, or too much of a woman.
I watched my father encourage my mother to be the senior pastor of a church, my oldest sister to pursue leadership roles in politics, later in the film industry, my middle sister to find her role as a preacher, teacher, and leader within her church. We were all born leaders, the whole lot of us, and the accessibility of these positions seemed natural, obvious.
It wasn’t until university that I came in contact with the unsettling anguish layered in the word feminism. Its raw quality, its anger, its ambition. It felt foreign to me. I couldn’t understand its place, and being a passionate person, I couldn’t see why I was incapable of getting behind the word. What was I missing? Of course I agreed that women should receive equal pay as men. Of course I agreed that women should access equal rights. Of course I agreed that women should be handed leadership roles. Those truths seemed obvious to me. Having been exposed to a wide diversity of cultures and walks of life, I felt a sudden naivety. Why couldn’t I understand the need for this form of anger?
Today I recognize my point of privilege. Before the #HeForShe movement even began, I had already been exposed to the extraordinary impact of having a he fight for the rights of a she. My father normalized gender equality for me. He created a home where I didn’t have to question my gender. I just was Alyssa. And I could be any form of her that I wanted to explore.
Last week on International Women's Day, I was adjudicating for a Speech Arts Festival in Vancouver, and at one point, I swapped out for a round so that I could take a break. When I stepped down, there were three men who took on the adjudicating roles, zero women. This was not intentional, but I sat in silence for a moment, thinking about what it would be like to be forced to remain in the sidelines, to have my voice be ignored. I couldn’t begin to fathom the anger I would feel, the protests I would instigate. How privileged am I, I thought, that I don’t question my own limitations.
When we learn a second language, we become immediately aware of grammatical rules that must be followed in order to communicate with clarity, but we can rarely explain the intricacies of our mother tongue. It simply is, because it always has been. I have never fully understood feminism because I have always been a feminist. To me, the mindset just is, no questions.
Thank you, dad, for being my #HeForShe.
Ten Cries For Humanity -
One Trumpet Sound, Nine Broken Beats
by Alyssa Harms-Wiebe
You’re intimidatingly ambitious.
Alright. I hear that once, soak it in, imprint the label on my chest.
It happens twice, then three times a week, then with a frequence I cannot track.
Why can’t you relax? A day doesn't have 30 hours.
Each time, the label takes on a new meaning. Word choices can bite.
Your ambition intimidates men.
Sometimes worse, Men won’t want to date you because you’re too ambitious.
What starts as a reinforcement of a personal quality morphs into a burden.
I think I overwhelm people, I conclude. Perhaps I should hide my ideas more often.
The thought can derail further, Am I too masculine? Why don’t I like staying at home and doing "feminine" things, like cooking, sewing, baking? Why am I such a persistent doer?
The degradation tips over, I’m not a desirable woman.
When I was a child, I was told I was spirited. And that there was a danger there, because those with ample spirit are usually the first to get crushed. My life has evolved into a type of seesaw, and the length of the rocking board gets longer, reaching higher, and consequently lower, as I roll through life.
I went to a Swiss-Brazilian Elementary school in Sao Paulo, Brasil. The upgrade from Grade 4 to Grade 5 meant 2-3 students in Portuguese Immersion were given the opportunity to move into German Immersion. I loved both languages, but wasn’t selected to change classes. I didn’t feel competitive with the other students, but I knew that I was capable of the transition, and so reminded my German as a Second Language teacher every day that I was capable of full immersion. She said no every time. Finally, I got tired, and decided I needed to make the move myself. The next day, I went and sat in the German Immersion homeroom class. When the teacher asked if I was supposed to be there, I said very matter-of-factly, Na ja. My parents were informed of my action that day, and told that if I was able to keep up with the others, I could stay in the class. And so I did.
At age 12, after a dramatic move from Sao Paulo to the West Coast of Canada, my Brazilian-Korean best friend’s family invited me to join them in South Korea for Christmas. Their family was much wealthier than ours, and my parents naturally said they couldn’t afford to let me go. But I knew I was going on that trip. So I started babysitting every possible spare moment, saving up every below-minimum wage dollar I could. With great frequence, my dad checked in, I don’t want you to be discouraged, but you’re probably not going to Korea. And I’m not going to give you any money. I never once doubted the possibility. You don’t understand, I’d say. I’m going to go. And so I did, with a last-minute pocket donation from my grandfather (an oversight on my dad’s part).
I’ve never thought of myself as ambitious. I’ve always seen life as a sea of obvious opportunities that require a lot of hard work to pursue. Despite being strong-willed and highly determined, my goal has never been to rise to the top, or to get ahead of others. To me, that is the definition of ambition. What it really comes down to, is a yearning to live life well. To run after ideas, but also not to hold onto them too tightly. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to pursue dreams knowing that many of them will fail, and that that’s just part of the equation.
I’ve become curious about what is, in essence, intimidating about a strong pursuit of ideas, of a fierce love of attempting new things. Have we become so jaded as a society that every motion in a positive direction comes across as "too much"? Why do you even bother? I’m often asked. I've concluded that I’m simply not the type who would last if I ever abstained from passionate action. It’s survival.
Have we become so fearful of the unknown, of imagining and attempting new realities, that we’ve lost sight of their possibilities? Are we so far from a desire to be alive, that we’ve become trapped in a comfortable mundane? I fear that more than anything, even death.
I’m fragile. Sometimes I feel as though this world was not made for people like me. There’s pain in spirit, hurt in sensitivity. Passion demands a high price, I’ve learned. It’s simpler to be lethargic.
I don’t know how this essay ends, because it seems to me like a personal release, or a prayer for humanity, or an ongoing puzzle to be solved, I’m not sure -
I guess I’ll end with this. Since the start of 2018, I decided to write a 10-word reflection per day, in the form of a poem or an insightful sentence, etc. I often don’t know why certain words come to me, but I write them down every day anyways. The other day, I scribbled, Ten cries for humanity - one trumpet sound, nine broken beats. I didn’t know why I wrote it, although a weight fell as I stroke pen on paper. I still don’t understand its meaning, I suppose, but perhaps it was my spirit crying, for a day when women would be allowed opportunity to be ambitious (or passionate, as I would prefer to call it) without fear of intimidating men, for a day when opportunities were sought with fierce determination, for a day of not giving up.
Nine of my ten cries for humanity were hopeless, cacophonous sounds. But there was one that cried for victory, still does, over apathy. The blast of a resounding trumpet. I hope it’s heard.
Words Dry Out
by Alyssa Harms-Wiebe
The core of the Earth holds the unsaid. Words that slipped down throats, got lost, a result of interruptions or a lack of timely questions. Words that never lived, only watched, listened.
Once upon a time, I suppressed a thought. Never spoken, put into writing, longed for. I thought it over and over again until I could no longer recognize its form. Where it came from is unknown to me now. When does one thought end and the next one begin?
At the centre of gravity, my thoughts are free to roam. Held together, they dance, flow, gesture movements to each other. Words are not necessary when connection is symbiotic.
There are worlds below surfaces, mapped by few, understood by less. These lands are complex systems, treasures difficult to uncover. I like to think I’ve captured glimpses of foreign spaces, slid beneath a layer or two of language, let gravity pull me in, danced with the thoughts beneath surfaces other than my own. Maybe I've only imagined, misinterpreted, fantasized their possibilities.
Today I live in the underworld, where my words dry out and my thoughts are watered.
A Gap in a Smile
by Alyssa Harms-Wiebe
There’s a grief that lingers. A solace, phantom visions of a past present. I wonder sometimes if life is a merging sequence of grievances and outbursts of laughter. There never seems to be much room for the in-between. An in-between break of day-to-day errands, spilt coffee, and small talk.
Loss is a switch that occurs. It’s not controlled practically, within restrictively safe boundaries particular to on and off light switches. Grief doesn’t turn on and off when our fingers touch the switch, because knowing where the switch is and how to manage its shifts is the hardest part.
A loss of gravity. A gap in a smile. Papers stacked out of order, a pen that’s dried, not because it ran out of ink but because the cap isn’t anywhere to be found.
I often ponder at the irregularity of sadness. Its frequency is incomparable. A lineup of unestablished holes. Stuffing the holes is a short-lived consumerist promise.
Grief is the removal of something that never was, or perhaps was, too profoundly. Its sensation carries an inexplicability, because it is, in essence, unattached. Nothing and everything are simultaneously present and absent, and there doesn’t exist a spreadsheet to add and subtract such peculiar forms of inventory.
Loss is a series of playing cards, randomly assorted, ending up in unfamiliar hands. It’s adjusting to changing surfaces, feeling new textures, losing a sense of smell, regaining acute sight, clipping your fingernails.
I don’t know why, but grief has got a hold on me. I watch the news and see an ancient world fading, which I never knew existed, not because I haven't read stories, but because I never lived in it, nobody did, except Adam and Eve, and that vision of a perfect Garden of Eden scatters further and further out of view.
I’m lost, like you, in a desert of scrolling screens, a false display of plenty. We don’t know grief, fully, because we can hardly keep track of what we’ve lost.
Let's Talk About Clouds
by Alyssa Harms-Wiebe
Today and yesterday and tomorrow, the sky above my head is littered in clouds. As a recent dweller of Beautiful British Columbia, I've become fond of the notion that I live amongst some of the most dramatically captivating landscapes on Earth. Crisp and cutting oceans, bodacious mountains, long-standing trees, and wisps of wildlife that surprise even the most seasoned citizens; anyone who's been here or who's google-image'd the West Coast knows there's no shortage of visual spectacle here.
And yet the majority of the annual life cycle in BC is spent blanketed under fluffy white surfaces, often so close to the ground that one can hardly puzzle together what lies a few metres ahead. It's a love-locked land, where Blindness and Beauty wrestle hand-in-hand.
In Arctic Finland, I joined two cars packed with adventurers on a journey further north than any of us had ever been. Lapland was soundless with the exception of our laughter caught on a looped soundtrack, pots of pasta boiling over the stove, and the occasional crunch-crunch of boots greeting snow. One night, the most trustworthy Aurora Borealis apps forecasted a promising KP Index of 6.0. For the northern lights rookies out there, that translates into a night sky rid of darkness and overtaken by typhoons of green, purple, and white. We were ecstatic! Standing on Lake Inari with toes frozen, frostbite-ready faces, limping lungs, and tattering teeth, we awaited the Grand Reveal, the most prestigious catwalk of lights.
We awoke the next morning to feeds of social media spitting on our faces with photographs of what we had missed in places that didn't deserve to see this degree of light. We had walked frozen on Arctic soil and seen nothing, while Scots and Brits drank lattes and watched what we failed to see.
Damn flat whites.
I am physically incapable and circumstantially unable to see the North Shore mountains on a daily basis. But I know that beyond the clouds, they wait for me. And further beyond, if I could only adjust my vision from 20/20 to 40/20, road trips have shown me that a range of Rocky Mountains exist, worth an infinite amount of ‘likes’ if captured. Beyond those peaks, are trees upon trees and rivers upon crashing rivers that lead to the less-travelled Canadian Arctic where occasionally magical nights of 6.0-level green majesties grace the heavens. Past those manifestations are galaxies after galaxies after galaxies that our manmade lenses could never entirely capture because beauty is something that is an inch beyond our grasp - close and far enough from our fingertips that we become fools falling for it. It toys with us, doesn’t it? The Master of mind games. We seek it relentlessly, the root cause of our skyrocketing Vancouver real estate prices, the end-goal of a gruesome hike.
Truth is, the Great Aesthetic never vanishes. Our eyes are simply short-sighted.
“We do not want to merely “see” beauty -- though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words–to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.” - C.S. Lewis