I’ve been thinking about the story of Sisyphus who was condemned for eternity to repeatedly roll a boulder up a hill only to have it roll back down again once he got it to the top. Camus saw the myth as a metaphor for an individual’s persistent struggle against the essential absurdity of life. I see it as a curiously palindromic story: whether you tell it backwards or forwards, it’s the same story.
The only way out, it seems to me, is to stop somewhere halfway in between. Staying put can be an opportunity to reflect on what has been — and perhaps to think about what’s next, even if it’s just more of the same.
Last week I had the pleasure of staying at the Sylvia Hotel on one of the three-generation visits that my daughter and granddaughter and I try make there a few times each year. Here I’m always immersed in reminiscences of memorable occasions: my first glass of sherry, dinners with British relatives, dates with my first boyfriend, happy holidays with my husband, the first meeting with our son-in-law, a good friend’s wedding, meetings for work, annual Christmas stays after the Messiah. So many happy times with my husband, daughter, granddaughter, dog.
These days, during trips to Vancouver, I’m very aware of my many-layered past throughout the city. As I approach the end of my eighth decade on the planet, I find that location after location is hyper-textured with what it used to be. Past lives lurk just beneath the surface. The B.C. Automobile Association, where I had my first real job, has been replaced by the Sutton Place hotel. The area around Robson and Burrard is very different from my early memories: what we called the “new” library is long gone, as is Duthie’s paperback cellar where I first eagerly purchased The Second Sex, The Drunken Boat and The Alexandrian Quartet. Giselle’s where I had my first espresso coffee has disappeared, along with the Europa Café, the Schnitzel House, International News, and Galloways. You can see some of those old places here:
So many Vancouver ghosts for me! The Black Spot, Little Budapest, Goof’s Pad, and the old houses of the West End and Kitsilano that housed so many life-changing events are now removed and replaced by things that are usually bigger, though perhaps not better. However, the good old Sylvia — which I’ve visited for dinners, drinks and holidays over a period of about seven decades — is still here and, except for the rising room rates, has not changed much with the passage of time. I miss seeing Yvette at the desk, and Bruce at the bar. and Wally everywhere around the hotel as the perpetual man-of-all-work, but I still recognize some of the staff from a generation ago.
The Sylvia is deeply layered with memories for me and, although I usually try to see a few friends and maybe get to a play or to the art gallery, I often enjoy just sitting in the hotel or at a bench near the beach. I’m practising stillness, I tell myself.
It’s an easy way to relax. “I’ve never meditated in my life. I don’t practice yoga nor any religion. I’m a tourist on the realm of stillness,” says Pico Iyer. Long-known as an inveterate traveller and travel writer, Iyer writes in “The Art of Stillness” and in other recent books, about the benefits of simply doing nothing. In an age of constant movement,” he writes, “nothing is more urgent than sitting still.”
As to what lies ahead? I doubt that my future memories will be as enjoyable as the earlier ones but, being fortified by some good sessions of stillness, I’ll just sit here quietly and prepare myself for whatever is yet to come.