How Not to Fall to Your Death: Climbing Life with No Ropes

But once you’ve proven to yourself that you can do a move or even an entire route, it’s like a tiny door opens inside your mind, and the belief that you can do it, that you will succeed, creates a powerful positive visualization.

Mark Synnott, The Impossible Climb

Listen 7:34

I don’t know a whole lot about rock climbing. But there’s something about those granite walls and cracks and slab pitches that lures me in. I don’t need to do it; I’m happy in my platonic voyeurism of the sport. And I admire the mental keenness it takes to get from ground to peak.

The context of this quote is that climbers can fail again and again and again on one particular move, but once they complete it, they’re likely to complete it every subsequent time. Synnott mentions a certain “warrior spirit” that enables climbers to give just a little more to succeed on the move. And when they keep coming up short? He says that it could feel like an intentional fail, called “punting” in the climbing world.

I want to have a warrior spirit.

But isn’t it interesting that a whole phenomenon exists where people intentionally fail? I have to wonder what that looks like off the wall.

For the longest time, I failed at writing. Intentionally. I was an English teacher teaching writing who didn’t write — not really. And the reason I didn’t write? Funny enough, fear of failure. So let’s climb through this, rock by rock, crack by crack: I taught writing without writing myself. The fear of failure (negative feedback, judgment from colleagues and students) kept me from it. But listen: the actual failure was not “turning on the faucet” — not writing that first sentence, and then that second one, and then the third, the fourth, and on. That first sentence for me was like that move on the granite wall that the climbers just couldn’t muster the spirit to do.

It seems silly comparing a sentence to the wrinkle of granite being used as a hand hold. Sentences don’t seem quite as scary — or dangerous. But in my bubble, I felt like I was on that wall, holding on for dear life, refusing to grab that granite wrinkle. I’d rather stay frozen, splayed to the side of the wall. No progress. But a feeling of safety.

I’d rather fail than take a chance on that move.

But just like some of the great rock climbers who scale a wall only after experiencing a traumatic event (watch the documentary The Dawn Wall to see Tommy Caldwell succeed only after heartbreak), it took a traumatic event at my school to finally light that fire under me.

I recently became “email friends” with Berit Gordon, and she mentioned that teaching is an “oddly lonely endeavor.” So true. We teachers don’t get much attention or validation from our peers. What validation we do get normally comes from the students themselves, which is great, but they’re not in charge of scheduling, pay raises, tenure, etc. So when I came back to school after taking maternity leave in the spring of 2019 to my department head demoting me, I was stunned. I would no longer be teaching my beloved AP Literature class.

There’s a whole messy story behind it, but suffice it to say, I was traumatized. And even though formal apologies were later made to me and I didn’t completely lose my AP class (I taught one section; a colleague taught another), the damage had been done. To liken my teaching to climbing, for years I felt like I was basically alone on the wall, taking care of myself, making sure I was taking all the safety precautions, successfully making my way to the summit. And I felt very confident in my abilities.

But then, in the middle of being alone on the wall, someone came out of nowhere and started fiddling with my rope, unclipping it from my harness, pulling it loose from the anchor. And then I was alone again. Without a rope. Scared. I was at the point where either I needed that warrior spirit or I was going to fall to my death.

Finally (finally), I decided to write. My starting a blog and putting my writing out there for the world (reality: tens of people) to read was my way of free-soloing the rest of my climb. No ropes, just me on the wall at my most vulnerable.

And did I mention that I’d never been on this particular wall?

But I’m making it up, trying to hold on to that warrior spirit, allowing that tiny door to open inside my mind. And let me tell you, it’s freeing. I don’t need to actually climb up a mountain wall sans ropes to feel liberated from the boundaries of this world.

And that’s the beauty of the analogy. What is rock climbing for you? What is that move you just can’t let yourself do in life? And do you realize that it’s you holding yourself back, failing intentionally? It’s a harsh reality, but one that we can face. And this difficult move you’re facing — you don’t have to wait for a traumatic event to happen to force you to make it. Alex Honnold free-soloed El Capitan without just having broken up with his girlfriend (he did wonder, though, if he was in the right headspace because his previous climbing feat was a result of a bad break-up).

So make the move. And live the rest of your life believing that you can do it, that you will succeed. Meanwhile, I’ll keep tapping the keys, wondering what my next move will be. Because, remember, I haven’t been on this wall before.

And neither have you.

Last weekend, my family and I went to El Refugio retreat center up in the mountains near Quito. The rock wall beckoned us, so we climbed. That’s me on the right and my 8-year-old son Asher on the left. We both made it to the top. With ropes.
At the top of one of the mountains. We didn’t have to rock climb to get up, but it was a feat nevertheless. No ropes.

Beasts of Burden

The last mist fell away,

And under the trees, beyond time’s brittle drift,
I stood like Adam in his lonely garden
On that first morning, shaken out of sleep,
Rubbing his eyes, listening, parting the leaves,
Like tissue on some vast, incredible gift.

Mary Oliver, “Morning in a New Land,” from No Voyage and Other Poems, from Devotions

Listen 9:06

The phone’s (too) early-morning ding-dinga-ling-dong-dinging is unrelenting. As you flop an arm over to grab your phone to silence it, you open an eye and there it is. The beast. It squats next to your bed, still, unblinking. As you stumble to the bathroom for your morning pee, it follows. It lurks in the corner of the kitchen, bemused as you make your coffee. It taunts you as you glance at the clock to make sure you have enough time to get ready for the day.

The beast is different for everyone. Some are troll-like with bulbous noses and wrinkly brown faces. Some are goblin-like: shards-of-glass teeth and red eyes. Simon from Lord of the Flies says that the beast is inside of us all. But one thing’s the same: the beast robs joy.

Every morning, we wake up to a new day. The dawning of this new day is such a powerful phenomenon, there’s a whole genre of poetry celebrating (and sometimes lamenting) the morning called aubades.

Such a powerful phenomenon that of course the beast would want in on it. And those still, unblinking eyes are going to be staring at us every single morning.

So what is one to do? Some options:

  • Have a staring contest.
  • Punch that beast in the fat nose.
  • Fart in its face.
  • Hurl insults.
  • Give it a glamour-shots makeover? (HOW I wish I had my glamour shots from 7th grade to post. Someday I will find them. And I will post them. The one with me and a blue feather boa is especially glamorous.)

All good options, but as with humans, the best thing to do first is to understand what that beast is exactly. Because once we understand it, we can beat it.

The beast is a simple, yet persuasive, creature. Starting at the staring, it mind-control convinces us that the day ahead of us is fraught with mundane tasks, overwhelming details, never-ending to-do lists, idiot bosses, bossy kids, a-hole teenagers, bad drivers, grey cubicles, grey skies, fluorescent lights, dirty dishes, dirty laundry, dirty floors, poopy diapers, schoolwork, homework, work, work, work.

Gosh darn it, that beast convinces me sometimes. I putz around the house, doing dishes, sweeping the floors, yelling at the kids to LOG ON TO ZOOM YOU’RE GOING TO BE LATE, changing diapers, doing laundry, trying to sit down to read only to be immediately interrupted by the bebe crawling all over my face, figuring out what food to feed to the wolves kids, etc. It’s enough to make me want to crawl back under the covers and block it all out.

But with great power comes great responsibility, as they say, though the “great power” I have likes to talk back, punch brothers, wipe boogers on the walls, and poop out wet cement. Some days, I look at the clock and wonder where the time has gone. Or wonder how to fast forward. (Luckily, I saw the Adam Sandler movie Click, where he fast-forwards through his life just to realize that he’s fast-forwarded through his whole life. Rated 6.4/10 on IMBD, it’s a real winner.)

All this beast talk really starts turning that Mary Oliver poem into a fantasy. Parting the leaves to discover the vast, incredible gift that is our lives? OK.

But if life isn’t a gift, what is it? This is where you take out your notebook, write the words “WHAT IS MY LIFE?” at the top, and do some good ol’ fashioned brainstorm-journaling.

When I did this exercise myself, my brain automatically honed in on the cherished things in my life. Maybe because I had already ranted about the annoying things in my life in this blog post, I didn’t feel the need to write down “gloopy poopy diapers.” So perhaps the exercise for you would be to do two pages: one for the negative, one for the positive.

And while it might be tempting to believe that the negative page is your life, it isn’t. It’s part of your life, yes. But it is not the essence. That’s the lie that pesky beast tells us every morning.

Choosing to view life as a gift is the gamechanger. Waking up every morning shaken out of sleep, rubbing your eyes, listening, parting the leaves, like tissue on some vast, incredible gift sounds a whole lot better than opening your eyes to a warty, toad-like face inches away from your own.

And the best part? That little beast will get bored with you if you choose the gift. Eventually it will move along to the next unsuspecting victim.

How stupid would I be to think, though, that choosing the gift is simply a matter of writing some words on two pieces of paper.

But I’ve found in life that sometimes the simple things are the most profound. So maybe it starts with the writing of the words on the papers. And then maybe it’s about trying to be mindful to wake up every morning with an attitude of appreciation. Using Oliver’s sentence as a formula, we can:

  • be shaken out of sleep: Wake up to the glorious and exciting prospect of all that is in store for us this day. Life! It’s a marvelous discovery! Even if the discovery is that almond milk Earl Grey lattes are delicious and easy to make at home. And even if that’s in conjunction with not leaving the house all day.
  • rub our eyes: Open our eyes to see the beauty all around us. I gravitate towards nature when I think of beauty, so I’ve brought in lots (LOTS) of houseplants to surround me in my home. But I also see beauty in the coffee froth that bubbles to the top of the French press and my pillow cover from IKEA and a clean kitchen and the rainbow that is the fruit haul from my local frutería.
  • listen: Listen to nature, to our loved ones, to bread crackling when it’s straight out of the oven, to great music, to silence.
  • part the leaves: Choose to think about our life, even though that can be really difficult. Don’t turn off. Stare at life right in its eyes, and say “Let’s do this.”

And open your gift.

Parting the leaves to discover my almond milk Earl Grey latte and how easy it is to make: Steep a bag in a mug filled about 1/3 with hot water. Pour hot almond milk into a glass jar. Put the lid on and shake it like it’s a shake weight. Pour the now-frothy milk into the mug. Add honey if ya like. Enjoy, preferably on a cloudy day.
My Christmas cactus is blooming for Valentine’s Day!
Not exactly a rainbow, but just as beautiful as one.
My journal exercise.
Playing piano and singing brings me MUCH joy. “Beast of Burden” is a fun one.