Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Winters Ago

Below is, I assume, the last article I will ever have published in a student newspaper--at least as an undergrad.  It's not related to jazz, but I thought I'd post it here because I think you might like it.

Four winters ago, after class on a clear day in December, my friend Jack and I hiked up the northeast side of Mount Royal in the snow. It was cold, but the ascent was steep—we were making our own path—and we warmed up fast enough, enjoying deep breaths of crisp, coniferous air.

Actually, Jack was making the path. He had gone up the week before and invited me to join him for a second go. Arriving at a decent vantage point, we took a break to look out on the city: a vast swath of the upper Plateau whose vanishing point, from that angle, happens to be the Olympic Stadium, oddly beautiful from the mountain.

As we stood there, a chickadee alighted on a tree branch close by. We called him in, and to our surprise, he flew closer, jumping cautiously from branch to branch, chirping with curiosity. Beckoning him further, we held out our hands. He jumped into my palm first, then Jack's, then to a branch and away. He felt weightless.

That was my first winter in Montreal, and my first year at McGill. Now that it's my last semester, I've been feeling reflective, sorting through my memory for cherishable moments—trying to make sense of my time here.

Last Sunday, I went up the mountain alone, along the northeast side. I hadn't been up that way since first year, with Jack, and I wanted to revisit the experience. I think I was trying to sanctify a memory by reliving it in some way. But that isn't very realistic. It felt a little bit like acting, artificial. As I made my way up the snowy mountainside, along a narrow path few had walked, I stopped and stood there and tried to drop the self-consciousness.

The forest was remarkably still and quiet. I had forgotten how calming that kind of stillness can be. At that moment, I heard a chickadee chirping above. Following his voice, I found him high up in an oak tree and called him in.

He came, cautious as the other, jumping from branch to branch, cocking his head, sizing me up. I put out my hand, waiting for the moment. But he didn't jump. I waited as he waited, and finally, he flew up and away from me, high above into the same oak.

I could have tried to call him in again. But I walked on toward the chalet lookout, which overlooks downtown Montreal. I have been there too many times to count. Entering the chalet, I bought a hot chocolate and sat down at a table to think. Then I walked outside to the lookout and leaned on the balustrade, viewing the city on a clear, windy day before the snow had melted.

I know this city much better now, four years and millions of steps later. I looked down at McGill, its frosted green roofs glistening in the sun—quite a vantage point for reflection and nostalgia, for the retrieval of memory. I kept on looking, just able to make out the little bodies moving slowly through campus, going somewhere. Montreal looked so self-sufficient that day—the city made sense.

I don't know if I'll ever make sense of my memories. I do remember vividly how weightless that chickadee was that landed in the palm of my hand four years ago. I can't forget. Memory is also weightless.

And winters from now, I will remember winters ago, when I hiked up the mountain alone and called in a chickadee. Because he would not land, I will remember him for his weightlessness, too.


  1. Matt, for obvious reason, I love this post. I also love it because it showcases your talent as a writer. Would you mind if I link it to our blog on the new farmhouse? Enjoy your last couple of weeks as a McGill student. Best wishes, Debbie (Jack's mom)

  2. Hi Debbie,

    Of course, I would be happy if you linked it. Thanks so much for reading it. Hope you are enjoying your life on the new farm.