I once had a friend who told the story of a haunted cliff. He and his wife were kayaking to Greenland from Ellesmere Island, along the coast until they could make the sea crossing between the land and the ice. Dodging polar bears and stalking walruses that could suck out your intestines, they hopped along the coast. One evening they came to a great camping spot below a high cliff, pulled up their boats and set about making camp, that long weary slog of tent poles and stuff sacks, boats made safe against the arctic winds that can come at any moment. Finally, when they had settled down, the stove purring away, my friend’s wife said she didn’t like this place, that something was wrong. Laughing this off as nothing more than a mind as sore as its body, that same unease that had you hearing polar bears behind you as you washed up at the water’s edge, she said ‘no’, there was something wrong with this place. She stood and began to pack, no discussion at all, she was leaving, they both were leaving, so they packed up their boats and paddled on into the Arctic twilight.
The Inuit didn’t believe someone had a soul until they were given a name, the name being the soul, a form of reincarnation. Inuit names are genderless and passed on from the dead to the living of any sex, all children sexless until they become adults, able to take an uncle’s name, drowned at sea, passed down to his sister’s girl child. The named spirit would leave the grave and find the baby within the womb. The Inuit, like many cultures that live close to the edge, had no use for sentimentality and so babies were traded or given or discarded, depending on the need or the want of the group. While we in the West would have the choice to save our children over ourselves or die together. For the Inuit, the masters of survival, the continuation of the line was all that mattered, that the soul name should be known and passed on.
I remember when I moved to Ireland it was the first time in my life I came face to face with people opposed to abortion. For my liberal Western mind, the very idea of opposition was extreme, that this was something unquestionable, a human right. I saw such people as dangerous and radical, like members of the Ku Klux Klan, their views making me wary of them, their flawed thinking there for all to see. These people went on marches, stood and collected money for the cause, would maybe even lay down their lives to save lives, or if not that, then a great deal of life for this noble cause. Of course, I saw them as crazy, indoctrinated and brainwashed by the Catholic church, that cynical and patronising way of seeing the world when you’re own views are armed by total conviction. I think in civilised British society such people would be so marginalised you’d never come across them apart from little groups stood behind barriers with their signs in town when out shopping, the odd spokesperson or talking head, nut cases, God-botherers. But here in Ireland, such people are not extremists, abortion still illegal, those in need of it going over the border, to the North or the UK. My liberal view when we argued was that I had known many people who’d had abortions, and none had done so without the most terrible weight, and worse still they had carried terrible guilt. It was not an easy thing. But they knew that I had no need to explain it. These fighters were not inhuman, uncaring, unthinking of the consequences of what they defended, but the total opposite. When people argued over the issue, at dinner tables mostly, some stood up to wash the dishes, while a few stayed but stayed out of it. The arguments were mostly the same, like two men arguing backwards and forwards between a chasm neither could cross. Just making noise. But I’m a man who tries more and more to loosen my grip on the baggage of certainty, to want to jump that chasm, to make an ally of my opponents truth. I began to see how such arguments are often framed, how within a second of debating what could easily be seen as some small murder of your own child, a serious moral question far from easy or binary, things were escalated, to “what if someone’s been raped?” You see this all the time, how a simple argument of how climbing isn’t full of misogyny getting back the response “well you’ve never been sexually assaulted”. The truth lies within a trap on a hair trigger. Once upon a time, I’d have stayed clear of such things, having no need of what lay within, but less now. In those conversations, late at night, I did what a man needs to do if they want to understand, not just listen to their well-rehearsed truth, I had to I listened.
A universal truth that’s easy to ignore in times like these is that every single person is fully justified to believe they are right. No one deserves to be treated as if their reality is any less valid to them than our own without taking the time to understand just what they think.
And then one day, sat with some friends, one of them burst into tears, the story coming out that she was pregnant. The baby, like most babies, was not coming at the right time, unplanned and out of the blue, the relationship one that was still growing. People around me looked excited for her, the Irish ones for babies, told her it would be OK as the tears rolled down her cheeks. I didn’t smile, I knew the strain a baby could bring if it came too early, with the joints of two lives were still yet to set hard. I didn’t smile, but instead thinking I would be the voice of reason, of pragmatism, said, “There are other options”. Just like that, as easy as can be. They all turned and looked at me, confused at what I’d said, confused just what I could be saying, about this amazing woman and the amazing baby she would have. And in that instant, I realised I was not the same one, but the radical, murderous of some inopportune miracle. I was lost for words, shocked that such an idea could come as easily as that.
As for the haunted cliff.
My friend and his wife paddled on until they arrived at a small Inuit village, pulled up their boats and crashed out, all thoughts of the haunted cliff forgotten. But in the morning an old woman came over to see how they were, her skin wrinkled by a life in the far North, an old woman who once upon a time, when her teeth were so worn she could not soften seal skin, would have been sent out into the night. She asked where they had come from, and they told her, told her of their long and tough journey along the most barren of coasts. “Did you stay below the big cliffs?” she asked, and they knew at once where she meant. “For a short while”, they both replied. “Did you hear the babies?” she asked mournfully. “That is where we threw them when we had no food to feed them”.