Friday, October 23, 2009


I had been looking forward to climbing all day. With the recent UP triumph, I was feeling more relaxed at the wall. I felt as if I belonged there. It's not easy to show up every training day, ready to work, without hearing the nagging voice of failure. When I am intimidated by the routes, when I feel old and out of shape, my inner critic taunts me. Deep down, I'm embarrassed to have let myself "go" as they say, and as an older student, I've always felt uncomfortable on campus. I learned long ago that this discomfort was a coping strategy of dysfunctional sort, an obstacle I put in my own way to isolate me from hope. Beating the odds, going to college later in life, striking out on one's own, and daring to imagine a different path, isn't easy. And it seems that when I'm at the wall, all of my insecurities come with me.

When I reached the top of "C'est Facile," I felt as if I had finally staked a claim on myself. I had conquered my inner critic. What I've learned just a few days later, however, is that I won the battle, not the war.

I went to work today, learned I had been hired for a position I had applied for a few weeks ago, and found a thank you card in my mailbox from Ryann, my climbing partner. Later in the afternoon, I went to the No Name Reading Series and heard some great work by colleagues. It was a fantastic fall afternoon. The sun had finally come out from under the blanket of gray we've endured all week. All the trees were aflame with fall color. The air was crisp as I walked from downtown to our rec center. Climbing had been on my mind all week, and I was determined to give that Dolly Parton Project my best effort.

Unfortunately, when I arrived at the wall, I noticed how stark it had become. There was a climbing competition there yesterday, so all the familiar routes were gone, including my beloved DPP. Disappointed and startled to be beginning all over again, I donned my shoes and harness. I figured I'd just do the easiest route labeled "one" and call it a day.

My climbing daughter, Laura, had met me there. I watched her cover three routes in short order. Encouraged, I roped up and stood before the first route. Despite my best efforts, I couldn't get on the damn thing, let alone climb it. It began with the sort of dyno move I'm still trying to master. Though I could see exactly where my hand should go once my rocket legs propelled me upward, my arms failed me - over and over again. A climbing staffer I hadn't met before stood too close as I worked it. He hovered. I felt cold there in his figurative shadow.

When I looked at him, I told him I could do it.

"I just want to make sure you don't get hurt," he said, concerned the way young people are when old people try new things. He wasn't condescending, just sincere and dutiful. This made me feel worse, and I found myself feeling insecure all over again. My inner child wanted to yell, "I can do it myself!"

Well, my outer adult wanted to yell, too.

"She's all right, she's been here a lot," another staffer said. He smiled awkwardly then shuffled away. As I huffed and puffed, I could feel my daughter's frustration. "You can do this," she said.

And the thing is, deep down, I knew I could. But my head, that melon so full of ideas and books, wasn't in the game. All the voices of failure rang out in a choral note, and it seemed the harder I tried, the louder it grew. Failure has a crescendo. It didn't help, I suppose, that I was wearing one of the P'UP official t-shirts, the one that says, "I'm poetry in motion, bitches!" on the back. I didn't feel like a poem, but more of a footnote. Small print. The kind of thing you skip over.

"Erica, your t-shirt is hysterical today," Emily called out. "You can do it."

I spent fifteen minutes doing that intro move over and over again until my arms burned. I felt embarrassed, too. The only proof I've successfully ascended is on the blog. I wanted my kid to see my improvements. All she saw was my disappointment. The routes themselves lacked the cohesion that allows for Failed Route: Plan B (traversing). Even the ladder leading to the fingerboards was put away, so I couldn't do the sort of training I do when having a bad climbing day. I felt too embarrassed to ask for it, even though I knew someone would have gotten it out for me. It was just that kind of day, when I thought I came to climb, but learned I had really showed up just in time to wrestle my demons instead.

In short, I felt defeated.

"It's okay, Mom," my daughter said. "The energy is bad here today anyway."

I noticed that the old timers were loving the wall and the routes. They had returned to revisit the routes that beat them down during the competition. That, I understood. But as a newbie, I just couldn't find a place for me. New routes will show up next week, when they add to the stark wall as they always do after a competition. All the same, in the moments on the bench when other newbies who started last month said, "There isn't jack up here for people like us," I felt both a kinship and a sense of frustration.

"Well," I said, tossing my chalk bag, ring of life, and buddy basket into my bad, "clearly I'm not ready for a comp. No biggie."

I watched the others climb, noted their approach, and made a promise to get back to the wall on Sunday. I've got a mountain of work to scale at home, papers to grade, papers to write, lessons to plan ... but if I get to my goals by the end of the weekend, I'll return to the wall as I did those first weeks. I'm coming to terms with the fact that climbing is a head game. On a good day, it's the best. On a bad day, it's really bad.

Whenever one tries something new, it's tempting to give in, to walk away, the moment one confronts limitations. And I know climbing, as a sport, is about confronting limitations every climb. But knowing this doesn't make my head clear up, doesn't illuminate my route, or even bolster my muscles. It simply makes me begin again in the sort of humbled way first-born know-it-all children such as myself find really annoying. If that wall could talk, I'm pretty sure it would say, "Neener neener, ya'll don't need yo caribeener! Ya grounded, biatch!"

Yeah, the wall was talkin' shit today. And I took it. As I walked out of the rec and toward my car, I knew I hadn't brought my best to the wall, and that annoyed me all over again. It seems learning to be patient with my own process is part of climbing, too. If climbing didn't matter to me, if I weren't hooked, if I didn't believe I could learn something from this project, I wouldn't have been twisted up.

It's funny to me now. As I write, I'm remembering a concept I read in Dinty Moore's Accidental Buddhist. In order to achieve the mental growth necessary to meditate and achieve wisdom, one must give up all that seems to matter first. Meaning, you have to set aside your own desires because desire is rooted in the Self and not in the spirit. It's not "How bad do you want it?" but "What will you need to give up to grow?" - this is a Zen concept. Riding home at night, streets wet, the air chilled, I decided I didn't want the product - the completed climb - as badly as I wanted to learn to protect my self-respect. I had let voices from the past limit my present, and this was linked to my desire to be more. More of what, I don't rightly know. Just more.

And that's when I realized that there's still a part of me hanging on to fear. And it's not a fear of gravity, oh no. This fear comes in a simple list:

I'm afraid I don't matter.
I'm afraid I'm not loved.
I'm afraid I'll never be loved.

Seems simple enough to type that out, but it's not. When the chips are down and I'm facing obstacles - even those far removed from those deeply felt (however absurd they may seem) concerns - I'm haunted. Sometimes I think my body is a house, full of ghosts rattling the chains I use to hold myself down, to undermine and sabotage my efforts. I once thought that if I loved fully, if I loved others (platonically or not), love would be returned. Though I don't regret loving as fiercely and deeply as I do (and did), I have noticed that I forget to pour that love into myself, too. Instead, I assumed it would be someone else that did that pouring, someone else who could shore up my cracked veneer.

As Toni Morrison writes in Beloved, "Thin love ain't no love at all." Sitting at a my computer now, thinking, wondering, I've decided I have been giving myself nothing but thin love, and that was just one reason for this project.

Here, I've committed to a year of self-exploration through climbing, yet when I was handed the karmic opportunity to do just that, I resisted. I made it about the physical failure instead of the mental or spiritual growth. I forgot, even as I labored, that I was climbing, or attempting to climb, to fulfill a promise to myself.

Ah, I love writing as inquiry ... writing to learn. So here I am, finally able to write this: Climbing keeps you anchored to your promises. That is its beauty and its difficulty. Maybe I should put that on a t-shirt.

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