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The Vortex Effect

By Kathy Kwon

“The way you got sideswiped was by going back.”
–Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking

Humans are the strangest creatures. With all our cognition, we choose to dampen it. We spend a lifetime perfecting our arrangement of filters and screens. But who can blame us. We wanted not just to see God’s face, but to know what he knows beyond our ability to cope with it. And so his face became terrifying. Numbing, compartmentalizing, filtering our cognition is seemingly all we can do now to survive. All the more so in the wake of paralyzing pain, staggering loss.

The vortex effect—as Didion dubs it in her memoir the year following her beloved husband’s sudden death—is a force that sucks you unwittingly into painfully vivid memories of lost loved ones, particularly poignant in initial times of grief.

The vortex effect sucks you in and then spits you out, useless, hopeless, undone.

You walk down West 16th, Macdonald, Granville, Fraser. You pass the Timmy’s at Trimble, Lord Byng at Crown, Burgoo in Point Grey, the cityscape view from Spanish Banks. You pull into the parking lot at Prospect Point Cafe to show your family the mountains and the Lion’s Gate Bridge from the high point of Stanley Park. And though it’s daytime, every fiber of your being fights the leverage of a counterbalance from a stronger memory of where you are. Of the enchantment of night. Dim light of a streetlamp. And a breathtaking image of her. Gone.

You drive down Highway 99 approaching the US border. The line is backed up past the entrance to Duty Free—more than an hour wait. Your heart rate rises. Your hands grip the steering wheel. You remember the touch of her hand on your arm and reassuring words telling you it’s fine. You can relax. We’re okay waiting. You remember, but you feel nothing except a seizing sensation in your chest. Nothing’s fine. Waiting is no longer the problem.

The smell of her scent on a stranger brushing past you toward the Canada Line, and suddenly she’s getting into your passenger seat and closing the door. She’s grabbing your arm with violent adoration. She’s scooting with you to the kitchen for a drink because you won’t leave the living room without her clutched in your arms.

The vortex. The vortex. The vortex.

You rend your heart from the impending centrifugal force with a rapid intake of air through your nose followed by a quick jerk of your head to reorient your vision and an equally forceful exhale to push it all away. If tearing yourself from the memories is painful, letting yourself go there would be worse, you tell yourself. In reality, both are sufficiently agonizing in their own ways. As anyone who has loved and lost will know.

You leave no time in your mind to dwell. You think of everything else you could possibly imagine. “What is the true nature of God?” for instance. Questions without answers. Problems without solutions. Footslogs without destinations.

My 6 years in Vancouver are synonymous with the vortex effect in my life. They are synonymous with my highest highs and my lowest lows. With gorgeous gains and unimaginable losses. With loyalty and betrayal. With champions and adulteresses. With my best self and my demons countless. With God and his utter absence. Much of the loss has been dampened and sealed over by necessity. Perhaps with it, some gains as well. Numbing, compartmentalizing, filtering the terrifying face of God.

And yet here, from California, I look at Vancouver, not over my shoulder to escape what once was, but rather square-shouldered, to stare fear, rage, pain, loss in the face and declare, “GET BEHIND ME. I WILL OVERCOME YOU.”

Can you return to a place and still move forward?

I am coming back to my vortex this Fall. It is a testament to the dynamic nature of cities. Vancouver is no exception. This is the way the city is a living creature to me. It speaks to me. It goads me. It haunts me. But it also heals me. Not because it must. Not out of demand or expectation. Rather simply because it is capable. And I am willing. I am willing to place the city into the hands of God, and I in it.

I pray for a vision of God’s face afresh. That out of loss, he would make something new and good. Something that endures. And that the vortex would one day pull me into memories truly Beautiful.

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