Wednesday, April 13, 2011

SHELF ROAD REVISITED: Lessons from the School of Hard Rocks

I’m a part-time philosopher. When going about my business, this thing we call living, I often search for deeper meanings in the metaphors in which I live. This is why I’m single – nobody is supposed to think so hard about the ordinary. Language isn’t just something I toss around like a Frisbee. It’s all sniper fire or bullet spray to me. “There is always debris after discourse,” I often say to my students. Yet, it’s often in the debris where one can find the best gems, the big meanings.

This week, I headed west to visit my favorite dingledodies and climb at Shelf Road. It’s been a year since my first trip when I learned so much about myself all at once, I almost couldn’t breathe (I thought that was just an issue of altitude, but I digress). My climbing trip was epic for me. I “sended” my first on-the-rock route. My camping gear was put to the test and passed. I even changed my clothes in the dark without worrying about anyone seeing my reptilian underbelly and lily-white ass.

That last one was a really big deal to me.

I bared my butt to the Darkness after achieving that send and learning an important lesson (and a few lesions) about gravity. If you want to test your metal and discover what you’re made of, all you gotta do is fall. Fall hard. Fall without clinging. Fall while counting on someone to catch you. I learned this profound truth by doing the exact opposite, and I’m not ashamed to admit that. Failure is where real learning happens.

And thanks to a belay from Adam Scheer of Climbing House fame and a 5.7 route with a nice crack, I learned that my instinct is to hold on even when it hurts like hell. A year ago, this would be where I’d add some sentimental drivel about sticking it out, about overcoming the pain and adversity by holding true to one’s convictions, to one’s heart.

But after scraping the underside of my bodacious ta-tas as I slid down a route like cheese on a grater, I am writing to testify to the merits of falling clean like a cat. There’s no dignity in holding on – just the scraping sound of ineffective smearing and full-frontal failure, followed by the sting of first aid antiseptic and the sense that yes indeed, you are a big boob.

I learned a lot about myself in less than five seconds. Climbing’s lessons are quick and painful, but not every wound scars. Most wounds teach you a lot about what’s holding you back, what’s getting in your way, and what not to do. I appreciate climbing’s directness, its difficulty. It’s not obscure. It’s not even natural. Climbing demands some mastery of both fear and instinct. One can mitigate the risks, but one can never erase them. That’s a big deal in a culture promoting security and stability at all costs.

After learning the painful lesson that came with holding on, we shambled off to a beautiful set of climbs the others were working on – projects they’ve faced before. The hike was good, full of interesting little metaphors and grace (even as I plodded along like an epileptic chicken). I sat watching the good climbers, listening, talking. I sat thinking about my grated boobs and counting my bruises.

At the end of the day, we hiked back to Cactus Cliffs to work a few routes before dark. It was on a corner route that I learned yet another set of painful but important lessons that are, miles away from me, still teaching me something, still offering me things to ponder. I’m hardly finished, but here’s what I think I know:

When it comes to reading a route, as with my reading of people, I’m far too generous. I see possibility before I note difficulty, the opposition. I once considered this one of my gifts, a brilliant optimism in the face of dour circumstances. I so wanted to be sunshine in a clouded world, I failed to note that there’s a certain protection afforded from the grey. So I took my happy ass up a route far more difficult than I could see, and then became a whimpering simpleton as I clung to a ledge, waiting for the throbbing pain in my left knee to subside.

A good little Buddhist wannabe, I stood on that ledge and thanked the rock for its lesson. I thought about Thich Nhat Hanh’s sense of “mindfulness,” and positive and negative energies. I cast love upon the stone, holding my heart against its face, forgetting rock is a cold, unfeeling sedimentary and stoic thing unbothered by my gnat-like humanity.

In the silence on that ledge, feeling the beat of my heart, I realized that rock wasn’t listening, didn’t need to, didn’t want to, couldn’t. It was I that was the interloper, the parasite, feeding upon not what the rock had to offer, but my own delusion and fantasy. I looked upon the route, honest and small. I let go. I leaned back like a cat and let my belay catch me and my failure until we were both lowered to the ground.

Standing on both feet, tied in, looking up, I was glad to have bailed. I was tired. I was spent. The hike back to camp seemed harder, longer, than the hike out. Later that night, stemming in my sleeping bag because I couldn’t let my knees touch, I was thankful for so many things. I could hear the dingledodies a few campsites over, gathered around a fire. I could see the stars, beautiful and twinkling, bright and encouraging. My muscles were stiff, generating heat. I was breathing. I was still.

I was alive.

The following morning, I opted out of climbing. I spent the day reading and lounging beneath the shade of an evergreen. The wind whipped clouds into a froth and twisted jet-stream lines into curls. I made a cup of coffee and contemplated silence. I slept, out in the open, unafraid. I thought about Oneness and compared it to Aloneness, deciding the former was proactive and the latter reactive. I committed myself then and there to making more room in my life for proactive, contemplative living.

A line of poetry, perhaps a Buddhist kohn, came to me: Absence is a hue the color of my name. It reminded me of the Zen Buddhist question: What was your original face before your parents were born? And that reminded me of a poem by Dogen:

Cease practice based
on intellectual understanding,
pursuing words and
following after speech.
Learn the backward
step that turns
your light inward
to illuminate within.
Body and mind of themselves
will drop away
and your original face will be manifest.

It’s in the fall, the dropping away of body and mind that one will be made manifest. Perhaps that’s the lesson of this trip. Perhaps that’s why I’m still thinking and no matter what, the ending to this entry will be incomplete. Or maybe, just maybe, a philosopher's work is never done.


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  2. I'm glad to see P'Up is active again. I've enjoyed the recent posts. The prized individualism (and resulting lack of community) you discuss in the most recent post is one of the underpinnings of many grave, uniquely American failures. Individualism as religion tricks people into voting against their best interests, leads to an emergency room visit becoming a euphemism for access to health care and erases injustice from a disgusting distribution of wealth.

  3. Thank you, Adam, for keeping p'up with my posts!


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