Once a Climber

Photo: Adam Sanders

It was late January in the San Francisco Bay Area and I was all kinds of fuck this shit. I had managed to make it through a quarter and a half of graduate school, but I was at the point where it required hourly talks with myself to not pack up my car and head straight for the desert. I spoke to myself like you would a disobedient puppy.

Sit. Siiiiiiit. Okay now stay. Good girl.

The assignment was simple. I was to bring an item to class that represents some part of my identity and speak about it (and the fact that I was doing literal show-and-tell in graduate school is another essay). I knew that talking to a room full of people about my identity as a climber would feel a little sad since I hadn’t climbed since before I started school, I just didn’t think it would make me psychologically regress to the consciousness of a first grader, crying and sniffling as I tell the big kids about how much I miss splitters and campfires and sleeping in my car and coyotes. Oh and here’s my super cool chalk bag. It has glitter on it.

And I thought that by now, well over a year into this masters program, I would have settled down a bit, or at least tired out from all the effort it takes for me to sit and stay. But I think I seriously underestimated my love for wild places because I still dream about being out there almost every night. People tell me that I can always go climb, that the rocks will still be there, that I’ll be out there someday soon. They tell me not to worry, that I’m still a climber even if I’m not climbing much these days.

Writers write. One of my undergraduate professors used to say that in almost every class, and it’s a concept that has stuck with me in a big way. What makes someone a writer (or anything else) is what that person does. It is not what that person wishes to be or tried a few times to be. It is the doing that defines us. We are what we do. There is a lot of talk these days in yoga/wellness circles about how we should value being over doing, and while I will always promote resting and slowing down and just being, I reject this idea when it comes to matters of identity. Yes, there is something essential about us that we can always rest into and just be, but becoming something new is a proactive, creative, dynamic process. Identity formation comes from ritual. Writers write. And climbers climb.

We cannot be something without doing that thing. And no, I don’t think success or external acknowlegement has anything to do with it — the person who writes for ten minutes every morning has something more writerly about them than person who bangs out one best-seller and calls it good. There is an undeniable dignity that comes from the daily labor, the habit, the tradition. It becomes less about choosing between being and doing, but a melding of the two. When the doing becomes being, when what we do becomes the way in which we live, when evidence of the doing is everywhere—in our homes and relationships, the way we hold ourselves, the scars on the backs of our hands—that’s when something profound happens. A self is born.

With over a year of sitting and staying in this new life, despite my perpetual scheming about heading for the mountains, I am becoming something new. And while I’ve done this before many times, this time around is wildly uncomfortable for me. I no longer spend my days climbing and writing about climbing. Instead, I read and write about somatic psychology, I learn about how to be a therapist, I go to therapy of my own, I teach and practice yoga, and I run. I usually climb in the gym once or twice a week but sometimes not for a month at a time. I don’t think of myself as a climber anymore and when my friends tell me that I’m still a climber, I tell them that I’m not. Because climbers climb.

And yet, my proclamation falls short in a big way here, because even though I don’t rope up every day, climbing informs everything I do and am in this moment. I run like a climber, looking for different ways to get to the same destination, linking this trail with that trail to get a new trail, I approach short runs as boulder problems and long runs as big walls. In school, I’m pacing myself like I would on a sport route, knowing when to soak up the rest and when to really gun it. And when I do any kind of roleplaying as a therapist, I trust myself in that way that climbers know how to do so well. It’s that feeling of going for it despite all of our doubts, or maybe in spite of our doubts, and even if we do get into some sketchy territory, we trust in our ability to get ourselves out of it. It’s that knowing that we’ve got it because even if we don’t really got it, we will downclimb or pull on gear or take the fall. We will get ourselves the hell out of there. It’s being so attuned to what our bodies are experiencing that even the most subtle shift in our intuition sounds like thunder. It’s knowing how to regulate our nervous system when we’re runout with shitty smears for feet. It’s being scared and laughing about being scared. It’s screaming into the wind. I still have scars on the backs of my hands. My shoulders still hunch forward. I still know how the desert feels at night. I remember all of it.

Climbing is not just something I used to do, it is how I am. The boundaries between doing and being have dissolved and the two things bleed into each other.

In somatic psychology, the body is seen as a history book and the scorekeeper. It remembers everything we’ve done and seen and felt. So if we take this as true, there is no way to be something now that isn’t also informed by the things we used to be, the things we used to do. Becoming who we are builds on what we were before, like the rings of a redwood tree. We contain layers and spirals of growth, of past selves, of thens, of befores. When a past self dies off, it does not disappear, it leaves a skeleton that something new will shape itself around. We hug the borders of the past. Of course this is sort of inconvenient to notice, because when we look at it like this we can really feel the enormity of who we are, the depth of all the lives we have already lived, the amount of space we actually need to exist here. We can’t be that small little thing that claims to not need or know anything, to not understand who she really is.

I want to bring climbing with me, if only in heart, because what I learned from those years on the road shaped me in such profound ways. And maybe I don’t even really have a choice in the matter, maybe climbing will always define me because of the days I’ve spent doing it. I will never be able to un-know or forget the feeling of seeing first light on Mt. Tom, of standing on top of Half Dome, of wrestling with Generator crack. I want all of that to characterize who I am now.

And despite all of my protesting, I know that preventing myself from becoming this new thing is not what I want to do. So here I am. Learning and running. Sitting and staying. I’m allowing myself to expand into something wiser, something that honors and celebrates the fact that I was once a climber.