He’s an immigrant and has to leave the country in a month. His two years are up but his daughter will stay. A home divided.
For years he scrapped to come to America from the place where Europe and Asia meet–or separate, depending on your perspective. He felt it might provide a better opportunity for his kin. He’s still not sure.
His wife had studied in the U.S., even earned a green card at one point, and then relinquished it years ago. Circumstances. Something about not being able to afford to come back for the legal work. They tried to make it this time around, but the two years wasn’t enough.
I met a guy. He climbs for his daughter, and to grapple with the upcoming calculus: The subtraction of 3-1.
Haruki Murakami was asked about why he runs, because as a prolific writer he also has an avidity for marathons. Both are grueling endurance activities, it makes sense. Anywho, over the past few decades, on average, he has runs 6-miles-a-day-6-days-a-week. He turned his response into a book, but that’s not important.
This is: He says he runs to create a void. He runs to not think.
I can relate. These days, climbing is the only activity that cores out quietude in a muddled mental world. Running used to. Hiking has, on occasion. But climbing is the only tranquil place for me.
So what goes on when I climb? Nothing much beyond what’s in front of me. It is silence, deeply satisfying and desperately needed sometimes.
If life is like a narrative, sadness is a theme in mine.
Perhaps I’m prone to be low, to live with a mild depression. I don’t find it difficult to get out of bed or question my existence, but often my experience is tinged with the dour. The sadness is like a cat in a city alley, always sneaking around in the background.
I’m sure this is part of the human condition. I know from talking with people and seeing it in others. But so consistently? I’m not certain.
Climbing happens to bring joy, but at minimum it creates a space for the heart to catch its breath for a bit. Like the cool down after Murakami’s latest 6 miler.
The guy at the gym is quite a skilled climber. It’s like art, he dances.
We recognize beauty, probably evolved an eye for it. Its hard to explain but you know it when you see it—a symmetrical face, a flower backed by gilded rays—what I’m trying to say is, his climbing is beautiful. Fluid movements flow into each other like a waterfall in reverse. Struggle is non-existent, his toes float by without a sound. It’s like he bends space so that every motion lands exactly where it needs to be on a wall that comes to him. No wasted breath. No extra effort. The flight of a bird.
I call him The Dancer.
Another climber and I were talking about him, The Dancer. “I asked him, how long have you been here today?,” he tells me.
The Dancer replied, “4-5 hours.”
“Whoa, man, how many days a week do you climb?,” the man followed up.
“4-5 days,” The Dancer said.
The guy’s eyes are bright, and he speaks to me as if we’re sharing a secret, “Well I guess we know why he’s so good!” He’s practically winking at me.
I’m not sure the guy thought to ask, “Why do you climb so much?” Maybe he knows and didn’t know that I know, so we talked about facts and not whys.
I had spoken to The Dancer before and I did ask why. I learned of his need to create a void. But I touched on a sharp edge that left tender fingers.
“I need to go climb now, I’m starting to think about my daughter,” he said. His eyes were dim, glassy, with salted water damming at the edges.
“I’m sorry, man,” was all I could muster.
It’s not about avoiding the pain in your life, per se, to seek these spaces of solace. But I can understand the need to go there to give your damned mind and heart a break.
The Dancer seems very much in touch with the realities of his situation. And he knows he uses climbing to grapple with the pain.
After carrying around that weight all day, to be able to unshackle at the gym must feel like an Atlassian weight off the back. I imagine that’s why it looks like he floats right along.
Some days are dark and heavy, others we buoy like a butterfly.
Whether we move through the world in flight or on all fours, we do so with what we have, where we are, and with our own ways of coping.
For what it’s worth, I hope we are all so lucky to find a place of peace, if just for a few hours.
This was a week of 2s: Bouldered 2x, two step-up workouts, two rest days, and well, one run.
My strength and coordination is getting back to normal for bouldering, and my endurance for step-ups is improving. Bumped up weight to 40 lbs. too.
Nice long run of 90 minutes, continuing to increase time each week.
Monday Rest day.
Tuesday 1.5h bouldering. This was an endurance-focused workout, doing 4x4s on mainly V2s, V3s, with a V4 and V5 thrown in. Worked on crimps, pinches, slabs.
Wednesday 30:00 of step-ups with 40 lbs., 960 vertical feet.
4×10 one-leg deadlifts 4×50 pushups
Thursday 2h bouldering. Projecting on V6s, V7s, V8s. Worked on crimps, slopers, slabby, pulls at odd angles.
Friday 35:00 of step-ups with 40 lbs., 1,050 vertical feet.
Saturday Rest day.
Sunday Felt stronger than last week, and picked up speed towards the end. I felt I could run a few more miles. Took a bit of time to get to an easy breathing rhythm, so I may try starting more slowly and gaining speed as I go along next week.
“I was really excited to meet up with you because I knew you’d be gone in two weeks.”
Maybe I should have read the writing on the wall.
It’s that modern romance, man, the kind that starts with a match. We got to talking during a dreary February in Budapest, a city known for arresting architecture, stag dos, and Eastern Europe’s most blatant political swindler. I’d come to the city with dreams of writing and soaking in thermal baths, the idea stemming from a Wes Anderson flick that actually had nothing to do with Budapest itself. I’d only end up doing one of those things.
She caught my eye, and my swipe, because she was into climbing and had a rad photo of her scaling a steep sun-baked rock face with a siren’s call of sparkling emerald water in the background. That day, the sun shone brightly in the pixelated universe, you could feel the heat emanating from the screen.
We messaged back and forth and she’d speak to deeper topics, respond with thought and care. Intriguing. I’m no good at flirting, but we did a little of that too. We planned to meet at a bouldering gym for our first date.
The match moved towards the striker.
We met at UjjeroBoulder Terem, which loosely translates to “Finger Force,” on the south side of Buda, near the Petőfi Bridge.
She was taller than I expected, and late, which would be something I’d get used to during our relationship of ups and downs and angst over delayed periods.
She came striding into the cave-like entrance in a grey petticoat that she tied around her waist with the built-in belt, mid-calf black leather riding boots, and a blood red scarf wrapped around her neck.
I stood up to greet her.
The climbing goes and we spoke all the while like lost souls do: About life, dreams, poetry, the call of the mountains.
It all sounded wondrous, impressive, inspiring. I’d never met a woman who had climbed so extensively and she talked about these things cooly, like they were nothing special. She was smooth and smart and funny. I thought I’d hit the jackpot, and that the date was only going so-so.
It was my first time back to climbing in nearly 8 months, and she was much stronger and more technically sound. We ended with her traversing the entirety of the gym and my forearms too pumped and fingers too weak to do much but watch. I tried to act cool and not focus too intently on the leggings she wore. I decided to start climbing again that evening.
On the walk to the tram we were in the middle of a conversation about personal values and what it means to live well. We were about to part ways, or so I thought, when she asked if I wanted to get drinks.
I had tempered my expectations about the evening, figured she was only mildly interested and that maybe we’d have a second date. I guess I wasn’t so good at reading the route that night.
“This is an interesting conversation, so I’d like to continue it,” she said.
She’d end up making the first move after two fröccs, a Hungarian wine spritzer. She shuffled around the table to sit next to me and gave me a look that invited me to kiss her. So I did.
The match struck.
We fell for each other and decided to give it a go.
But not before some discussion. In a moment of blunt honesty before I left for Boston, she’d tell me, “I was really excited to meet up with you because I knew you’d be gone in two weeks.” She wasn’t of the mind to date, she said, but I had thrown a wrench in her plans.
We were together for the better part of the year. She’d teach me to lead and we parlayed that into my first and second ever climbing trips.
And yet imprinting is hard to shake, her comment would run through our months of quasi-commitment. I learned to expect the unexpected on the terrain ahead, that trust in your belayer is as important as the trust you have in yourself, that a partnership needs a common goal to succeed.
My guess is you can read the writing on the wall at this point.
The funny thing is, the gym no longer exists. They shut the doors and moved on to a new venture with the hope they could make it work out better.
Spaces come and go, but they hold memories, that’s what gives them significance: She’d learned to climb there and I’d gotten back into the sport because of it. Our lives danced about because of climbing, and it started at that gym.
Eventually the lights turned off and we’d never be able to go back to that place again.
Ah, this week felt good. Bouldered 3x and my strength is starting to come back. One session was for power-endurance and the body responded well, I was able to focus on each move through the repeats. The long run was surprisingly strong in snowy, drizzly conditions.
Monday 42:00 of step-ups with 25 lbs. 1,386 vertical feet.
Tuesday 1.5h bouldering. This was an endurance-focused workout, doing 4x4s on V2s and V3s. Worked on crimps, pinches, slabs.
Thursday 2h bouldering. Projecting on V6s and V7s with lower grades interspersed. Worked on crimps, small edges, chips for footholds/ balance work, slopers, body tension, etc.
Friday Went running on a trail that ended up being too icy and snowy. Too much sliding around, so I cut the run short.
Saturday Morning: Hike in the woods. Casual, some uphill.
Afternoon: 1h bouldering. Went with a friend who wasn’t having a great time so this was a relaxed session. Worked at a V4-V5 range, focusing on crimps and pinches.
Sunday The GPS was acting funky and incorrectly recorded the distance and speed for the first few miles. This was closer to 8.5 miles and a 9:30 min. pace.
The week before, in Dublin, I was seriously struggling on the 70 min. run. This week the body felt a little slow at the start, but things came together throughout and I finished strong.
“Suffering has been stronger than all other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broken, but – I hope – into a better shape.” ― Charles Dickens,Great Expectations
The floorboards creaked and bowed under my weight. I stopped to move the turned over paint bucket–masquerading as exercise equipment–to the side, and hopefully to more stable slats. The soft thud of foot-up-and-foot-down became muted. I resumed stepping.
Up and down. Up and down. Up and down. For 45 minutes.
This exercise is known as step-ups, and the beauty lies in the self-explanatory name à la description à la simplicity of action. The purpose is to prepare your body for uphill walking with a weighted pack (i.e., if you don’t have easy access to a mountain or you like the convenience of working out at home).
It’s a mindless task really. For the first 15 minutes or so it’s palatable. Then it becomes brutally boring. It’s nothing like walking or hiking or running in the woods. There’s no beauty to fall into, no change of scenery or rock or roots to keep our attention focused. It’s just you and a step. It’s self-contained, repetitive, and grating on the will.
In this Facebook group I’m a part of, some of the mountaineers will do step-ups for two, three hours. They say they go a little mad.
Why? For what end?
Because they’re a little off the rocker? Probably. (I hope to join them in that madhouse someday soon, though.)
But there’s more.
This is about what the act represents: Literal steps towards mountain dreams. Because you can’t always be in the mountains, but you can train for when you do get there. Because you need to.
It’s about pain re-framed. It’s about defining your suffering, not letting it define you.
“Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.”
― Haruki Murakami quoting a runner from a International Herald Tribune article, in What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.
Suffering is our relationship to pain. It’s meaning making. We can choose to relate to the pain with purpose, even find enjoyment in it, or let it become misery.
For example, I choose to stay in shape because I know in the long-run it will be better for me. I certainly enjoy running, lifting, and climbing but not always. Some days you don’t want to be active–no way, hell no–but that long-term vision gets me out there more often than not because I’m pretty sure my future self is going to thank me. And lo and behold, usually after I get going I fall in rhythm and enjoy the activity.
Let’s clarify a bit further about the companions of pain and suffering.
Pain is the physical and mental stabbings, the body breaking down, the mental fatigue. It is an inevitable part of life, especially if you’re into long distance running (as Murakami is) or have any sort of human relationship ever.
(For example, I’ve had a few parents now tell me a similar narrative, “Your children are your greatest love and joy, and they are guaranteed to break your heart.” You don’t get one (love) without the other (heartbreak)).
Suffering on the other hand is the story we tell ourselves about the pain. This narrative very quickly usurps the discomfort and frames the entirety of the experience.
Pain Is Temporary, Suffering Can Last a Lifetime.
Therein lies the crux of it: How we relate to suffering matters more than the pain itself because it becomes the experience.
Nothing Lost, Nothing Gained. Or Rather, Never Really Lived.
We like to think that one of our primary drives is to reduce pain. But what do you make of all the people that actively go seek it out?
Ultra-runners, mountaineers, triathletes… These are long and grueling activities that no one describes as “fun” during the event itself. Only afterwards, upon reflection, does satisfaction permeate. Their pain is reframed into an appreciation of a project completed after a whole lot of work, and it brings a smile to one’s face.
These athletes often talking about feeling most alive during their events.
Why is that? In part, pain evolved to bring you to your senses, to make you acutely aware of what’s going on inside and around you. Pain helps you to live in the present.
What does this say about our values hierarchy as a species?
For one, maybe we care more about accomplishment and personal growth than mitigating pain.
Think of it this way, the only time you don’t experience pain is when you’re dead. Maybe if you’re not experiencing pain you’re not really living.
Be Mindful of What You Spend Your Energy On
In this day and age, we say we want an easy life, but the irony is that we don’t really give a shit about something that comes without effort. What we spend our time on inevitably has meaning for us, and the harder we work, the more it matters.
Psychology backs this up, the Sunk Cost Fallacy suggests you are more willing to commit to something you’ve already invested in. The more energy you dedicate to something, the more devoted you feel towards it.
Perhaps in some small way that’s why people choose to spend so much time in their job. Because it’s the easy, most obvious thing to commit yourself to (wrongly or rightly).
The questions you might want to ask yourself: Are you clear with what you are trying to achieve at the end of this hard work? Is this something worth experiencing pain for? How are you framing your relationship to the pain?
One Small Step at at Time
“Man, the bravest of animals and the one most accustomed to suffering, does not repudiate suffering as such; he desires it, he even seeks it out, provided he is shown a meaning for it, a purpose of suffering.” ― Friedrich Nietzsche
The room heats up and there’s a heaviness to the saturated air. The weathered light from the hanging bulb casts long shadows about the room. Sweat pools on my back where the backpack sits. In a short while I take a quick break to crack open a window.
In the cool breeze I think of the pain and boredom, then of the majesty of mountains, and go back to take the next step.
First week that I’ve done two runs in a long time. Two bouldering sessions, my strength is starting to come back. More focus on whole body work.
Monday Morning: Run through Dublin, from Trinity College, along the River Liffey and to Phoenix Park. It’s basically already spring here, t-shirt weather (for running), flowers are blooming. Quite nice.
Didn’t feel great today. Body was lethargic, legs felt heavy. Need to put more time into running to get back into shape.
Evening: 1:40 hours of bouldering at Gravity Climbing Centre. Mostly in the 5a-6b range.
Tuesday Rest day. Travel from Dublin to Boston.
Wednesday 1:30 hours of bouldering at Central Rock Framingham. V5-V7 range.
Thursday 500 pushups
Friday Run through Gardener, pre-wedding. Felt much stronger than the last run.
Saturday Post-wedding rest. 😁
Sunday Morning: Walk in the woods. Maybe around 5 miles. Very casual.