My friend C told me that climbing is his church.
I think about him when I’m about to begin grabbing the small, yellow, level 1 knobs on my first climbing wall. But, by the time I’m through my second climb, I’ve stopped thinking about him, or anyone else.
Soon, I’ve almost forgotten that anyone else exists at all.
“If you’re not having fun, you’re not climbing,” a sign says on my way in to grab a bag of chalk and check my sneakers.
8 hours later, I’m so sore I can hardly snap my fingers.
C often climbs mountains on weekends, so I ask for his advice before I go a second time. “Have fun,” C tells me. He gets me— he knows I’ll try to scale all the levels at once.
More than that, C understands that you can’t be a climbing whiz, like you can be a whiz at a million other things. You can’t be a 25 year old wonder, a 30 under 30-er, a “better than that guy” kind of climber — a person holding all the answers. You show up just like everyone else, and you begin at whatever level your body lets you. You begin a new route, over and over and over again, until you’re too tired to continue. In fact, that’s all anyone does. They start.
That’s the beauty of climbing. Its mostly balance, instead of man power. You don’t hustle, and you don’t push.
As an almost-26-year-old freelance brand planner and entrepreneur in New York City, I realized, last Saturday, that climbing may be the only opportunity I have to experience something that has nothing to do with speed. You can’t walk in and simply be “better.” You can’t tie it up quickly before happy hour, or push to get it in before deadline, before your second quarter, before Monday morning at 8 AM. You simply have to stop, slow down, and balance.
“Climbing is 90% struggle, and 10% ecstasy,” C tells me. Someone else on the level 3 track beside me mentions that, if you’re going to climb, you have to actually enjoy the process of struggling.
I like that. I took that comment with me, and I’ve been mulling it over when I start to panic over deadlines, or worry about nailing my next strategy just right.
You have to actually enjoy the process of struggling.
The funny part is, I learned that climbing starts to be fun when you learn to enjoy the struggle. Not the ending. Not getting it done. But, doing it. Suddenly, you realize that you’re having this absolute, giddy, make your muscles hurt like a mo-fo kind of ecstasy moment of complete and utter fun in the middle of feeling like your glutes might give way and fall off the wall behind you.
“Balance is key,” C tells me. “Fingers are meant to be lightly rested on holds until they need to grip tight for a move.”
I have been on the move for a long, long time.
My moving is often physical — NYC, California, Paris, Nairobi, Kampala, London. Paris again. Amsterdam again. Back to NYC. Everybody knows that — they ask where I’ve been, where I’m going to next.
“Who’s living in your apartment this month?” somebody is always asking. Someone else is always asking to rent it out.
Along the way, the moving has also become mental.
That’s where it’s gotten dangerous.
At some point, it started being about the next job, the next project, the next top of the mountain triumph. It started being about the next thing, before this thing has even started.
I accidentally built a life on that. I accidentally built a life on the kind of bravery that gets on a plane, says goodbye, shows up for all the opportunites.
This is not a post divulging regret. I don’t.
This is a post about divulging fear. I do.
Missed opportunities. Not having enough time. Losing a client. Not getting on a plane. Discovering I’m 30, 40, 50, 80, 90, dying and haven’t done enough.
To some, my process of barging through walls to fight off the feeling that I might be at risk of being closed in by one or two is bravery. But I know better.
On that wall, with my hands clenched on the yellow knob I’m supposed to be lightly resting on, I know that bravery is staying on the wall. I know that my most fear driven moments have been the ones I have spent barging through it.
I also know that bravery is loosening my grip.
After that, bravery is staying in the same place — breathing — until I’m ready to grip tight before a move.
When I’m ready, bravery is moving my foot. It is, as C wrote me this morning, “energy conservation, crucial for long climbs.” It’s, “can’t go full on.” It’s, “have to drink lots of water to flush muscles of excess lactic acid.” It’s 90% struggle, 10% ecstasy.
“It’s impossible to think of anything else when you’re climbing,” C writes. “Unless you’re falling… And then you think of everything all at once.”
As a kid, church was a place I attended in order to let go — of sins, evil desires, and aspirations that weren’t in line with what god wanted. But as I’ve grown and gathered my own ideas about sacred experiences, I’ve learned that my holy place is the experience of finding, rather than losing. I’ve learned that the kind of sanctuary I need is the one I build inside of myself.
On that wall, softening my hands, taking one more step — there is a sacred spot inside of me that bottles up all my “nexts” in a place I can’t get to. The next job, next relationship, next city, next place doesn’t matter anymore. There is only a single step on a wall in Brooklyn — eight blocks from where I live in this city, with this job, this relationship — on this singular, December morning.
Perhaps that’s why C, a climbing veteran, calls the climbing wall his church. Perhaps that’s why, as a new beginner, its my church too. Perhaps its because its the only place in this city where no-one’s measuring my progress, asking me for more, talking to me about my plans for how to amplify my online presence. It’s the only place where I’m allowed to forget that anything else exists. And, in that sense, it is, perhaps, the holiest of my experiences.
But I’m not sure it should be.
I’m not sure it shouldn’t be the starting off place for learning that there are dozens of other investments I make each day, each month, each project — each relationship — where I can, and should, allow myself to forget that anything else exists.
It is, perhaps, my liturgy — an act of remembering to stop, breathe, and balance, when I most want to let myself go, and begin to think about everything all at once. It’s the place where I allow myself to admit that, in the middle of all of the struggle, I’ve actually lost myself enough to begin having absolute, giddy, make your muscles hurt like a mo-fo kind of complete and utter fun.
And, in that way, it also may also be the bravest thing I’ve ever done.