Friday, September 24, 2010

(S)Nailing It

My bathroom ceiling, under the weight of water seeping from the upstairs neighbor’s bathtub plumbing gave way on Monday. On Wednesday, I learned that no matter how much time I give myself for assessing and responding to students’ work it’s just not enough. By Friday, I figured out that students don’t always respond to teachers’ comments with the same care and concern teachers offered them.

In short, it’s been a long week.

I did, however, finally get back to the wall. Considering how long I’ve been away, I made a snail’s progress. Well, beginner’s progress all over again. It seems I’ve forgotten how to manage the first few moves of a route. By the time I make it past the bouldering line, I’m already lost in the disgust I felt fumbling first moves. This, I hate to admit, is evidence of flawed logic. I am my own worst enemy (as most of us are).

I used to think I was an optimist, one of those people who think of the glass as half-full. And that may be true when it comes to everything but two things: A half empty pint and a route. Though I knew both routes I pushed today were designed to teach specific skills, such as foot and hand matching and footwork, and though I could see the problems themselves as valuable, that did little to assuage my feelings of futility.

I didn’t get to come to the work completely focused on it. I was squeezing some climb time into an already over-packed schedule. Did I take that into consideration as I put feet and hands on that 5.8 first go? Nope. Did I take an inventory of my mind to make sure I was just thinking about climbing instead of all the crap I still had to do with my day? No sir. The fact I had to bail halfway through a 5.7+ so I could make it to a meeting didn’t help me one bit.

Instead, I did what so many do: I took what Buddhists term “beginner’s mind” – a frazzled conscious without a central focus – and tried to force myself to perform. To add to my imbalance, I hadn’t hydrated or eaten properly all day. So when I needed some “oomph” from my muscles, it wasn’t there. All I had put in my gullet by 3:30 p.m. was a Chocwalla bar and a container of organic Greek yogurt. That’s not even a rookie move. It’s just complete disregard for the sanctity of one’s physical needs. There was hardly enough nutritional power there to support activity more rigorous than a nap.

After climbing, I rushed to meet with an angry student who both lauded my intellect and cursed it at the same time (a common response I get from students unaccustomed to being challenged by both intelligence and confidence), I jumped on my bike and hauled ass in order to make it to yet another meeting. I carpooled to a department function, still feeling the sweat from the ride running in rivulets down my back. Though I talked and ate with colleagues, I can’t claim that I was fully present in those moments, either. I was still back at the wall, thinking about all I didn’t accomplish.

That’s what “beginner’s mind” is: a lack of presence in a present moment.

And it wasn’t until I sat down at home with a cup of tea, listening to myself breathe in the silence of my apartment, that I realized just how busy I had been all day. Shoulders tight, legs still burning from the day’s load, I realized I had forgotten to be mindful of, and thankful for, my breath, for the very life force that keeps me going. I had forgotten to protect, love, and honor my body by feeding it with care. Instead, I had jumped onto that treadmill of “accomplishment” and “tasks,” without thinking about anything more than ticking down a list of things I needed to do.

So now I’m wondering this: When did doing become more important than being?

I’ve been thinking about Thich Nhat Hanh and his call for us to be present in our bodies, to focus on mindfulness and breathing, on smiling and loving each moment. I’m wondering now, as I sit here in front of my computer, what would happen if I took the concept of mindfulness and applied it to climbing. “If an action is motivated by compassion and understanding,” Hanh says, “then that is good enough to be called a Buddhist action.” I’d argue, regardless of faith or religious affiliation, that if an action is motivated by compassion and understanding, then that is good enough to be called an act of love.

So what would happen if I brought presence and love to climbing, to those difficulties of each problem, and to each moment I stepped or reached? What would happen if I breathed with each move, and smiled, as if the act of climbing were a meditation of its own?

I’ll let you know. I’m going to try that on Sunday. I’ll be sure to post a full account of my effort to love myself, even as I struggle, and to care more about being on a route than doing it. I might go at a snail's pace, but I just might stick to my routes, too.

Sunday, September 19, 2010


(PHOTO: Stunned self portrait. "Bed head No. 3")

"Being affirming and self-accepting happens easily if we consciously practice refusing to embrace negative accounts of ourselves and our realities." - bell hooks

I've been doing a lot of work lately, work that has kept me far from the leisurely hours of morning writing. My dissertation work is in full swing now, and I'm beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel. As my brain cooks big thoughts, however, my morning bed head has been reflecting back to me the status of my inner mind. Every morning for the last month, I've risen with sloth-like grace, lumbered to the bathroom, and looked in the mirror. My hair has given me the first chuckle of the day every day for the last 30.

The photo above is my first self-startling attempt to capture the magic. The preview flash dazed, but I prevailed. Mornings are rougher than they once were, and I can't blame it on an active night life at the local pub. No, whatever is happening to my head on the pillow is a mystery to me. Of course, most of the things going on in my head are.

I took a break from climbing. I had to - I had reached the wall of my own inability to risk. I couldn't get up or over it. Instead, I would show up to the wall, give a few half-hearted attempts at projecting, and then ask to be lowered. I wish I could blame the difficulty of ascension on a lack of talent or the difficulty of the routes themselves. Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on my mood, the problem came down to my being gutless. I've been afraid to let myself grow. The progress, or rather the possibility of progress, scared me spitless.

In my intellectual life, I take risks all the time. I'm not afraid of inquiry or the complexities that come from questioning all that seems "inarguably true." But in my lived life, I tend to cower. I tend to refuse possibilities or ignore the knock at opportunity's door. For the longest time, I attributed this to my socially awkward ways. Then, I decided my cowardly nature was due to a poor body image - I always have to negotiate (and renegotiate) my sense of physicality. For years, particularly the last ten, I thought being overweight was the reason for all of my problems.

I have, over the years, figured out a way to connect just about everything to my weight. I created an anvil to hoist upon my shoulders, something that could keep me down and miserable; something that could keep me isolated. And it wasn't until I had to take a step back from climbing that I could hear my inner critical voice and recognize it for what it really was: Batshit insanity.

So a month ago, I decided that it was time to take risks in order to regain an appreciation for my physical self. This was no small task. My first act of resistance was to reclaim an activity I often said I could or would never do: run. Thinking in terms of approaches to climbing areas, I thought running could help me to gain the endurance and strength to hike to a climbing route and not exhaust myself before I ever donned my harness. Thinking in terms of self-respect, I wondered if taking on running would help me to see something new about myself I couldn't see without it.

While researching training plans, I found the "Couch to 5k" program online and joined it. I've been working on interval training for a month and I'm making progress. It's a big deal to me, I think, to be able to run two minutes and walk three for a total of 30. When I started I could barely manage the thirty-second run. I also felt horribly self-conscious taking my place on the track or among the treadmills at the gym. But I did what the "experts" said I should, and I made sure I celebrated (through positive self-dialogue) even the smallest of accomplishments.

And then, when running started to feel good, I bought some shoes.

Three weeks ago, I added circuit training to my routine. I went to orientation, worked with the trainer to figure out my limitations, and then got down to the serious business of learning to let go of all that which diminishes my ability to love myself and to love my body. Some feminists claim the hours spent working out are part of the oppression of a patriarchal beauty aesthetic. Others would claim my body image struggle would be ended if I just "learned to love my big, beautiful body." Hell, they may be right. But(t), what happens if you like working out? What about self-respect gained through marveling all the strong, wonderful things a body can do?

As you can read, I'm nowhere near finished with my self-inventory. And I'm nowhere finished with climbing. I'll be back at the wall Tuesday. It's time. It's time to stop thinking I'm wasting others' time if I project a route. It's time to stop beating myself up for all the years I didn't take care of myself. It's time to stop worrying about what others think of my body and just let it live by doing the things that bring me joy and self-respect.

Existential navel gazing? Perhaps. A slogging through middle age vanity issues? Maybe. But since beginning P'UP a year ago, I've come a long way. I bike commute to work. I carpool to the grocery store. I've changed my eating habits radically in just twelve months, and enjoyed it. I put down the pack-a-day habit and took up running - or trying to run. I've had setbacks, like a broken heel. But I've also had personal victories, like my first outdoor climbing trip to Shelf Road.

But more than that, I've learned it's time to let go of my nightmare self-loathing and wake up, beautiful.

Friday, September 10, 2010


I've hit a physical, personal, and professional crux. That's right, I know I've been hangdoggin' on this blog. But I'll be writing this weekend .... and I've got a lot to tell you.