Love letters from Mawson
There is nothing like being an Antarctic expeditioner – an adventure every day, a close knit community and an environment as inspiring as any you could imagine. However, this is not the expeditioners’ journey alone. I’d like to dedicate this note to the loved ones of expeditioners – and their journey as part of this amazing undertaking. The connections to home, to the ones I love and my life back in Australia are nothing short of the foundations that enable me to fully immerse myself in this new life; they are the source of my eternal optimism and joy in even the smallest of things; and they provide a reality check for a mind that could easily be left to endless daydreams inspired by this alien land and surreal lifestyle we live on an Antarctic research station. It is because of their importance to us that our story could never be told without proper homage to them.
I wanted to share a few observations of a man well-loved and some experiences that have led me to pay special attention to the people I care for back home; and share openly a few of the small ways I have found to bridge the 7000km distance between us. I have been with my partner now for a quarter of a century and well over half of this life of mine on earth. In that time we have lived on every continent together (except this one) and spent significant amounts of time separated – mostly to satiate the explorer and adventurer cast firmly inside my DNA. And I am twice blessed in that my family – my immense and incredible family – are amongst my closest friends and supporters, too.
Of ghosts and guns
I made a few mistakes early. When I deployed to Afghanistan and other disaster or conflict zones – places those in Australia could not even begin to imagine, and places of fear and mystery to family who send loved ones there – I failed to account for the simple truth… that resilience is borne of information, not ignorance. I felt fine in my new surrounds, adapted quickly, could see the risks and embraced pathways and methods to mitigate dangers I could see with my own eyes or avoid with my own hands. But some I was deployed alongside who never left the relative safe confines of our bases, and especially for my family at home even further away from it all, the horrors outside were left to their creative minds, not their honest eyes. They were thinking of ghosts while I was thinking of the guns I could see. It took me several months of my three years away to realise that only information and perspective brought them comfort – not tales of my adventures and the dangers therein… as exciting as those things were to me. Until they could see it through my eyes, they could only conjure up monsters from the sirens wailing in the background of our infrequent calls and unexpected communications cuts as we were attacked. When I realised, I promised myself that I’d invest early in the mundane, in images of my daily life – not simply pictures worthy of national geographic or tales of unfathomable adventure. They need to know you are safe, they need to know you are happy and they need to know you can find simplistic joy, even if there is some harshness and something alien about the corner of the world you dwell within. Pictures and videos – and with the technology we have now on stations, video chats – make the world of difference in cutting down on the ghosts and connecting their eyes with yours, so your stories and experiences have the context they need.
A burden shared
Another lesson I learned early was that I was actually important around the house – to my and my partners’ surprise. A life combined, almost always these days, means burdens shared. Often I’d be called away at extremely short notice and for extended periods of time – dropping everything, packing bags and dashing across the globe to some amazing or frightening adventure. I was excited and my partner was fully supportive. Then came the first bills that I used to pay; housework on weekends took twice as long; or the car registered in my name was due for renewal. We had failed to account for the fact that every weight I carried around the house was now solely the burden of my well intentioned and loving spouse. Another realisation I swore I’d act on, next time. Now I invest a great deal in lightening the load, of simplifying life and allowing time for my partner to find joy and relaxation. One hundred dollars once a fortnight for a cleaner and/or gardener is an investment that pays itself back tenfold. Maintaining carriage of administration and bills, if technology allows – or cutting back on the complexity of administering life, before you go – also pay dividends in joy and pleasure back home.
You can continue to grow together through shared experiences
The isolation and the separation often carry a sense of lives lived separately, of learning different lessons, and the divergent tweaking of our characters for that period, through contrasting experiences and influences. While your lives may truly be different day to day, you can still keep things in common and share joy, humour, excitement and serene moments. A few ideas that work for my partner and my immediate family, include:
- Finding a TV series or movie we can watch on the same day (not necessarily the same time given time differences); so we can reflect on the story, the characters and how it made us feel – as if we were on the couch next to each other.
- Meal dates are a special event for us on my rare days off. We like to line up a time where it is dinner at home and lunch here at Mawson station. We both prepare food and a glass of wine and video call each other to chat over the meal. We invest time to make the table setting special, dress up a little and attempt as best we can to have something similar on the plate. These moments we will remember.
- Sharing music that brings excitement, reminds me of them, or calms my spirit, is also a really special shared experience for us. In times gone by, we used to write long daily lists of songs and send them when we could – to be enjoyed over a weekend with a nice drink. Now, with music apps on our phones, a simple click will send a song right to your loved one’s hands as you are listening – for them to listen to and imagine your emotions being tweaked in the same way as theirs, half way across the globe. It really is a wonderful way of sharing something you feel, at that moment, rather than something you simply see. We now also have music challenges… “send me five songs that shaped you in grade 11 just before we met… five songs that you remember from when we first dated”. Fun, challenging and full of meaning.
- And every now and then we find time to read to one another – not often enough – but again a nice shared experience.
Keep up the courting
Distance is difficult, no doubt… but it can have the unique blessing of forcing innovation and creativity in paying homage to the person you care for. It has definitely allowed me the time to re-invest in creative ways, and meaningful ways, to remind that I care and that we are still connected – despite the vast distances. While the list of options is endless, this time I spent weeks printing photos to frame and hide in every corner of the house; writing literally hundreds of sweet or inspirational notes on hand crafted paper, secluded in spots my partner would find going about daily life; and writing one deep and carefully crafted letter for each month I am away, to be opened on the first day of every month, as something to look forward to. And with the internet and quick delivery, there are so many other ways of saying “I still see you and I care”.
There are innumerable ways to court all those you love and show that their mind and heart has value to you – the way they show us the same through supporting the adventure with all its’ sacrifices for them.
Matt Williams – Station Leader, Mawson Research Station, Antarctica