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A few years ago I gave a coworker’s wife a ride to her hotel and we got to talking about the differences between her native Czechoslovakia — she left back when it was still Czechoslovakia — and Canada. About how life was more difficult there. She wasn’t talking about the grander scope of opportunity or political strife, but the minutia of daily life: groceries, transportation, working utilities.

It reminded me of living in Mexico City where my own language and cultural differences compounded the issues of bureaucracy, corruption, crime and urban sprawl.

And the boy in my junior high from Korea — I’m embarrassed to admit even then I probably didn’t know whether it was North or South, and now I doubt my memory that it was even a Korea — who had trouble fitting in and making friends with the “marshmallows,” as he called us. Growing up in Canada made us soft (and, for some of us, white. Pasty white).

It’s Psych 101, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in action: when your attention is on basic survival, you have less time to think about whether your favourite show is being cancelled … or whether your life has meaning.

I’ve been doing a lot of writing lately but that doesn’t translate to writing here. I don’t want this to turn into the My Poor Dead Brother blog but any significant thoughts in my head revolve around him for now, from the trivial fact I’m rewatching Star Trek: The Next Generation on Netflix (guess who I watched the original with, and swapped thoughts on the reboot?) to the meaning of life thoughts swirling in my brain.

Grief has a tendency to bring us down to that basic survival instinct. Get out of bed, take a shower, eat something, go to work. In time it gets a little easier, and the rest of normal life is slowly layered back into the daily routine. There are good days and bad, and I’m still more negative than usual, angry more than usual. But two things have proven more therapeutic than chocolate and wine: focusing on nature and survival.

I’ve been spending some weekends these past two months in a float house on Quadra Island and it’s the perfect remedy for my tendency to avoid thinking things I don’t want to think about. The isolation, surrounded by little more than water and forest, means all I have is my thoughts — and an iPad to write them down (and watch Netflix on).

When I was in Edmonton with Steve this summer, knowing these were our last weeks together and dealing with issues bigger than my brain could process, when there was nothing anyone could do or say to help, nothing I could do or say, a friend helped with these words: “Go for a long walk. Admire the water and trees. They’re big. And sometimes more meaningful than pain here…”.

I went for a lot of walks. It didn’t take away the pain but it did help me see outside it.

And now, when life is back to the new normal, and I’m staying on a house on the water on a remote-ish island, I still have no answers to anything. But standing in a rain forest watching the sun set beyond the distant mountains across the almost-ocean clarifies the swirling thoughts about life, legacy, and getting eaten by cats; and writing them down captures them for examination – whether that’s “pfft what a load of nonsense Diane” or “yeah, that makes sense.”

Even more helpful is having most things reduced to basic survival. Cold? Light a fire. Out of firewood? Chop some more (from the pile — I’m not at the chopping trees stage yet). Want tea? Refill the propane tanks. Have to use the toilet? Hold your nose and research what you’ve done wrong with the compost toilet. Oh, and watch your step as you come and go or you’ll step off the dock and no amount of fire-building will take away that chill for days.

The lesson I’ve taken away from the last couple of months is that sometimes survival is all we need to expect of ourselves. The rest is out there waiting when we’re ready. And the best therapy can be to feel small amid the trees and mountains and stars, a part of something bigger than ourselves whether we agonize over what it all means or not.

Though the psychic benefit of warmth and a flush toilet shouldn’t be underestimated either.