Tuesday, September 29, 2009


I don't know if it's America's "rugged individualism" philosophy, or our culture's shortsightedness when it comes to history that makes it so easy for each generation to think they're doing something new. While walking home on a crisp afternoon, at the glorious hour just before the sun slips away for the night and washes everything gold, I wondered about my present tensions and the past.

As a new climber, someone just working her way up an indoor wall, there's a lot to take in, absorb. There's much about the indoor version of climbing life that's sanitized, symmetrical, and manufactured. That isn't to say indoor climbing is less than outdoor ascension, it's just different. The routes themselves are art in my opinion, crafted by those who have a sense of rock, the way it pushes you, teases, and beckons. In that sense, an indoor route is about simulation, perhaps even what philosopher Jean Beaudrillard would term, "simulacra," when the artificial takes the place of the real within one's consciousness.

The holds are casts; designed to train you for a multitude of challenges indoors and out. Their bolts are screwed in and tight, maintained, and in a sense, predictable. When you're trying so hard to master UP, when you're challenged in the same spot each time, it's easy to question both the hold design and your aptitude, and this inquiry is not within nature. It's an urban interpretation of the outdoor challenge, and because it's a human interpretation, it becomes both a representation and a real thing. The philosopher in me, the one married to academic life and scholarly pursuits, finds this dynamic intriguing.

On the synthetic wall, as I work to gain confidence and a sense of my own physicality, I'm also projecting these experiences onto the eventual, real rock I hope to climb ... someday. So while I contemplate my moves and try to tame my monkey mind, as I try to praise myself and trust my instincts, as I smell the varnished boards of the rec center floor beneath the wall and all that padding, I'm conjuring pine and thinner mountain air. I'm projecting myself from one place to another, and this too is of philosophical importance.

I've been told several times that climbing outdoors is "easier" in the sense that you choose your way, based on your self-inventory of both expertise and strength. In this sense, climbing becomes an interpretative dance, a reflexive exchange between the climber and the environment. Some have written about how a rock face will make you or break you, that either way your soul must battle to make peace with the work and the hope that you will be enough to reach the top. Therein lies the real grace, some claim. Therein lies the art.

But it's easy, when embarking on a new task, to overlook the history, the testaments of those who have gone before. It's not often that one, while trying a new sport, becomes fascinated by its history. For many, taking on new physical pursuits means getting a sense of literacy for the immediate breakthroughs, the equipment as it is today, hanging at the local store. It's only when that sport or activity seeps into the soul and the voices of the past begin to whisper, inviting you back, pulling you near, that you explore histories.

It could be that because I'm a nerd, a "binoclard aux premiere classe" (a first class nerd as they'd say in France), I'm drawn to histories. It could be too that I find this sport so baffling, so contrary in experience to all the stories of "recklessness" and "rebellion" passed down to me by a larger culture, that I am compelled to explore its past for myself. Then again, it could just be that I'm excited to find a whole other section of a library or bookstore worthy of my attention. I am, after all, a bibliophile.

I found this video advertisement from Stonemaster Press captivating. As I watched the video created with current digital technology, I thought about the photographic technology of the 1970s. While looking at the images, it's easy to take them for granted - most of us today won't know the frustration of having to wait until your film's developed to know if you "got the shot." Our contemporary use of digital cameras doesn't require much patience or even photographic knowledge. We don't have to deal with F-stops and exposures because most good cameras can do it all automatically. When I think of how easy we have it now, how simple it is to take a video and put it into the world, and how simplistic and straightforward digital camerawork can be, the photos in the above video presentation seem all the more remarkable. Not only did the Stonemasters change the sport, they set the example of recording the journey.

And I think that was both prophetic, a promise of what was to come, and foundational, a keeping of what has gone before.

I tend to get contemplative as summer surrenders to fall. And now that I'm walkin' like Jesus everywhere I go as a commitment to a larger goal, I've got more time to think. For just this month, I'm going to walk instead of bike. I'm going to take the time with myself in the morning on the way to campus and in the early evenings on the way home. But it's not a walk of destinations. It's what Thich Nhat Hanh posits as meditative:

Walking meditation is really to enjoy the walking - walking not in order to arrive, just for walking. The purpose is to be in the present moment and enjoy each step you make. Therefore you have to shake off all worries and anxieties, not thinking of the future, not thinking of the past, just enjoying the present moment (33).

My neighborhood is torn into sections now by road and university improvement projects. A giant crane interrupts the view, looming as it reaches a long arm across the sky. There is the constant churn of tires, earth movers, the banging of metal against metal, and the shouting of men. If I leave my apartment windows open all day as I like to do this time of year, a fine silt of their work, all that dust they've cast to the wind in the name of progress, settles on everything. In a very real way, I can feel the grit of their determination, trace my finger through it, or wipe it away with a dusting cloth.

The noise used to bother me, all the traffic and the "beep, beep, beep" of dirt loaders and dump trucks once set my teeth on edge. But trying to take walking for walking's sake, learning to keep my mind focused on the limb and then the foot, has helped me to hear these noises in a different way. And the flowers, those daring things at sidewalk's edge, seem all the more miraculous to me. If they can grow here, in the mess of improvement and displacement, surely I can, too. What was noise is now an urban beat, some sort of crazy symphony, I listen to while marveling the musicians with hard hats and crazy instruments.

Where the natural and the unnatural meet, I think, is where our thinking should begin. And I think that, too, is something climbing - even just researching climbing - can help one to appreciate. I'm beginning to wonder if climbing is meditation, a transcendental and Romantic lyric on a good day, or a lament on a bad one, but poetry all the same. One can only go hold by hold, line by line, present moment by present moment - and that in itself, according to Eastern traditions, is meditative. The entire meaning of your interior world can be condensed into one move, just as poetry is nothing more than a story rendered into just one line. I find this encouraging, particularly because all of the experienced climbers I know tell me "half of climbing is in the head" or "most of the hard work isn't physical at all - it's mental."

So maybe those who have gone before shaped the sport with their legacy: The work of those who shape the polymer holds, cast and mounted, bolted to the interpretation of a rock's eventual story and the poetry it waits to share someday, when you meet face to face.

And perhaps that journey begins in the horizontal plane, when one walks for the sake of walking. As Hanh notes, such contemplative joy in the present moment causes blossoms of peace, of focus, to bloom beneath every step. Perhaps this thinking will help me to see the route, those holds and the challenges, as flora that blooms with each move I make. I like this idea, not so much because it's got flowers in it - and chicks dig flowers - but because it allows me to think of my success in a single moment and the collection of these moments as a garden I tended.

Then again, maybe this line of thinking just helps me to forget that my elbows ache and my ass feels like it's made of lead.


  1. I always enjoy how you weave different media together with your real life experience to tell your story.

    When I first started climbing, I found climbing to be very meditative. With all the pressure to lead routes and keep up with my cohorts I feel I have lost that so thank you for the reminder to enjoy the moment.

  2. You're welcome. I'm enjoying the walking contemplation most, I think, particularly now that the weather has turned crisp and there's so much autumn in the air.


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