Climbing and the Art of Living

He threw his body to a pinch and latched on with demonstrable purpose: This is mine. I choose this.

Simple.

It was the most controlled power I’ve seen on a rock wall. Each movement maximized. It was composed, explosive, one touch and go, like how Barry Sanders used to detonate out of cuts, halt, reverse direction, spin and sliver up field with the force of a rocket. It tossed me through a loop. 

I forgot what aggressive climbing looked like, that it could be subsumed into your stylistic pattern. I’ve been modeling myself towards the restrained, emphasizing body position and feet placements, to conserve energy, to focus on form. Often when you see power in action it is jerky and ugly (in the lesser skilled) or it’s a thunderous holy-shit-I-could-never-do-that (Sharma or Ondra). Instead, this was Muhammad Ali butterfly and breakneck in one. And it seemed attainable.


We Choose How We Climb like We Choose How We Live

As I was watching, his climbing style reminded me that people have their own modes and fashion for living as well. Each person has a rhythm, reach, strengths and weaknesses, risk tolerance, and aspirations. Just like we get to choose how we climb we can choose how to live.

Deciding how to live is our greatest responsibility, Camus and the Existentialists argue. They believe the world has no inherent purpose, that it is random chance that we are here at all (stemming in part from Nietzche’s, “God is dead” observation). Yet here we are, and it is from this empty space that we begin. “Existence precedes essence,” as Satre says. 

(Ironically, you get to choose whether you believe these premises or not, which still makes it the most important decision. You decide which foundational belief systems to abide by).

This framework is a blessing and curse. We have the ultimate freedom, but choice and responsibility are one and the same. They are yours alone.

Photo by Igor Oliyarnik on Unsplash


This past Week I Didn’t Know What I Was Living for

It was difficult to sit down and do the work I needed to do. I felt drained of creative energy; tired, lethargic, uninterested. The homunculus was screaming avoidance. The internal compass was out of whack.

What was I working towards? Why was I doing this?

I pushed on, and felt worse. 

For one, I wanted to see if it was just a dip that I should soldier through (inertia can masquerade in many forms, or, the importance of doing the work). There were deliverables and deadlines, after all. But something was off.

I still haven’t quite figured it out. Partly, I lost sight of the big picture, felt stuck, stodgy, twisted. I was disconnected from myself. It was draining, and I had gotten to a point that Hemingway referred to as an emptying of the well, and I wasn’t letting the springs refill it. 

In this condition I find it challenging to make simple decisions about things like, do I want to climb today? 

The negotiation goes: I don’t really want to, but I should (it’s good for you). Where to go then? Framingham is feeling stale. I’ve wanted to try the Boston location. But then I have to drive in and that’s a long commute. What about Waltham? Is there a hang board there?…

I had stopped listening to myself, that deep down part. 


I Wanted More Money and a Title and the Ability to Work from Home…

We were by the pool and the conversation turned to a new job.

Someone was describing the two positions they were offered: one at a different company with a better commute but more responsibility and a smaller pay bump; The other at their current company, but with a new title, more money for less responsibility, and the flexibility to work from home. They expressed it in a way that it seemed like an obvious choice.

Still, they talked of it with unease, like it was between the lesser of two evils. They explained how they had stressed about the selection, “talked with a lot of people” and gave it considerable thought. They ultimately went with the obvious option. It didn’t seem like they were relieved with the decision. 

Perhaps, for them, it’s too early to tell if things will improve because many of the changes won’t occur for a few months. Circumstantially it’s much as it has been. And maybe their temperament is to be dour, pessimistic, with a topping of the droll.

I don’t really know the person so I don’t want to jump to conclusions, but I was surprised by their lack of enthusiasm or relief, or any emotional reaction other than “meh.”

I wondered, why did they seek a change at all? If there was a pressing desire to switch it up, are these factors fulfilled in the new role? What were the deal breakers? What compromises did they make? 

More so, what are they working towards and how does this new role bring them closer towards that? (More money for what? New title for what? Work from home, why?). 

I didn’t ask any of this, of course. The decision had already been made, and they seemed reluctant to disclose what they already had.


The Values We Live By

We make decisions everyday, often according to values we are unaware of, out of habit, or because of impulse. 

Many are unimportant. Some are an existential imperative.

For the important decisions, the key questions center around considerations like: What is important to you? What are you willing to struggle for? How do you want your days to look?

You can take stock of what is important to you, today, by looking at your actions. We all have idealized visions of ourselves, of what we’d like to be, but it is what we actually do that defines us. 

Photo by Kameron Kincade on Unsplash


On my end:

I do value climbing because I go 4-5x per week. I do it because it’s fun, and in the long-term I know being physically healthy now will pay off when I’m older. 

I do not value many relationships as evident by how I don’t make the effort to keep in touch with a lot of people. I do this because of a built up self-defense mechanism and also because the effort required for maintenance is not often equally shared, which I find incredibly fucking annoying.

I do value exploration and the opportunity to learn about the world because I am pursuing writing as a career. I do this because it will let me work from anywhere and one of my favorite aspects of the vocation is the ability to interview people.

I do not value money hence I manage it poorly and don’t have much of it. This is assuredly a thing I need to take more seriously with the long-term in mind.

I do value curiosity, nature, unrestricted movement, personal expression, introspection and self-understanding, being an attentive listener, thoughtfulness, alternative point of views, independence of mind.

I do not value being liked by everyone, the latest trends, watching Netflix/ HBO/ Amazon, following a standard script, a lot of material goods.

I feel I should value and take action towards more community oriented activities, prioritizing family, making a normal salary, living in a place for a longer period of time, among others.

Such as it is.


Living Is a Choice

There are as many ways to live it as there are people on the planet.

This isn’t about being right or wrong, good or bad, or other misguided dichotomies, it’s about knowing yourself and taking responsibility for how you choose to live.

The alternative is merely existing without vitality; it’s subsisting; it’s not pursuing what interests you; it’s kowtowing to other’s expectations and living outside yourself; it’s marching inevitably towards physical death. And of course, you can metaphorically die much sooner than that.

In the end, this matters to me because I value independence and freedom of choice (sometimes to a fault). You may value other things and will prioritize your life accordingly. I’m not here to judge, but I do encourage you to be considerate about how you live, because it’s the only life you have.


With that, what do you value?
Share in the comments below or message me. I’m curious to hear.


Feature photo by Dylan Siebelink on Unsplash

Of Walking in Place on the Crawford Path

Screeching trees and silent birds. Wind gusts blot out all beyond the chatter in my head. I am a cone cut off by walls of thrashing air. We are a skipper within a rushing sea, we are pods against the current, we are looking down on the world. Eyes watering.

For the next hour my ears ring with an acquired tinnitus. Emergency radio broadcast signal or post-concert hum. Chili at 10:40 and a muffin with “blueberry filling.”

“I’m tired.” “Oh me too. “Do you have to walk back down?” “No.” “Lucky.”

I lunch at a table with a view out the window that shows sky but censors everything below the sill: undulating mountains, rolling silhouettes that fade from deep blues to whites as they drift away and fall off the edge of the earth. I can’t see them but I can sketch the angular pop outs from the contours I traced with my legs on the hike up. Families gather by the glass to snap photos.

Overlooking the Lake of the Clouds



Today it’s just me and travel, me and conquest, me and stringy cheese catching in my beard. I dab my face with a paper napkin after each bite.

The air inside is stuffy and cold like a dirt cellar. I want to bounce but my body has captured the mind and I fade from the room daydreaming of sleep. 

I take my time. The passing of the clock means little beyond accumulated fatigue, or recovery in this instance. There’s no dark to beat back, no deadlines.

On the way down an older gentleman in a yellow wind jacket is battered about in the gales. He teeters on each landing, catches himself and readies for the off-balance maneuvering of the next step. He reminds me of a circus clown on stilts performing an exaggerated expectant tumble. He lets me pass.


Mount Washington ensconced in clouds


Mounds as distance markers, wind as companion, clouds as serpents slithering over crests and shadow monsters crawling on the granitic carpet. A free market landscape of vastness and motion. 

I wonder, what if I moved the world back with each step instead of pushing myself forward over its surface? How would that change things, to know you remained in place? It’s not that different than the lived experience, I decide, to feel as if everything revolves around your center of gravity.

Instead, what if you could experience the world barreling through space, or rotating on its axis? Would you feel enlarged, battered, guided by outside forces?

I’ve also heard walking described as controlled falling. 

Descending uphill, I see dots in the distance that become human presence. Approach, smile, pass, approach, smile, pass. Each is a sample of tenderness or grief or tension or levity. How are there so many emotions on the trail?


Bounding up a boulder field towards Mt. Washington


An old man in a green AMC shirt works the lodge with a gaggle of a younger generation who giggle lots, fall into summer flings, and play pop music loudly from the kitchen. 

The younger male attendant gives cleaning orders to the predominantly female staff, which consists of soapy water on floor for mopping and is met with gaiety in fulfillment. He moves to the window overlooking the west side of the ridge, a friendly companion sliding up on his right as they gaze out and talk of yesterdays ascent. They sneak intimacy in public view. She kissed him by the bathroom door, out of sight. I wonder what the old man does for companionship.


I wasn’t going for style points today, or hygiene; I’m hoping the clean boxers and shorts mask the day old damp and miasma that comes from climbing and no shower. 

Some couples have full on matching dead bird kits: raging red, athletic cut, sunglasses atop head, uniformed to showcase they are on the same team. We talk about the wind.


I got my summit photo


No Everest lines here, but plenty of eager train-goers who paid the price of admission for a summit push and mob the sign declaring top. “You should let someone who earned this view through brawn take a picture,” I think to myself. 

They are accustomed to standing on an escalator for their chance at cherry pie, elbowing about for a shot, of what I wonder? What does getting to the peak of a mountain under mechanical means mean to someone of able body? “This Car Climbed Mt. Washington” and other such silly messages we display. 

Mostly I’m annoyed that people push through while I wait my turn, then take so long for photos commemorating a cheap thrill. It’s a bit like a trophy for showing up, or paying your way into Harvard. 

But maybe that’s because I relish in movement, of covering distance on my own accord, of seeing where you end up under motive power. The journey is me, the reward is my own. If I just wanted fast kicks I’d go to an amusement park. Oh curmudgeonly me…


The drive home is a route I’m getting accustomed to. Weekends at Rumney: climbing up then down, careening up then down, emotions up then down.”

Some people say they get depressed after sending a big project, “post-send blues” they call it. It’s a low after a long, hard push: of achievement and the release of emotional toil. These goals become a driving force in their life. Once achieved, there’s an overriding sense of not knowing what’s next, of what you are, and why you exist, to some extent. Mountaineers who spend 3-5 months in the Himalayas talk about re-entry to home life with similar complexity. 

I don’t experience this, but I have a micro-lull come Monday. The come down is like withdrawal, I imagine. 

Partly I feel utterly free on a good day of climbing. All concerns vanish and I wade in an ocean of unconcern until I get back. Climbing helps me reset and recalibrate. It’s a step back that let’s me see things with clear eyes, like emptying the cache in your browser and not getting guided suggestions on your every query. The history vanishes and you can attune yourself to what’s important now. 

Until next week.



Photos by the author.

Thoughts on Sport Climbing: Too Many These Days

“The most valuable thoughts which I entertain are anything but what I thought. Nature abhors a vacuum, and if I can only walk with sufficient carelessness I am sure to be filled.”

– Thoreau

“You’re gonna fall…”

Stop. Breathe.

“You’re 31, what are you going to…” 

Breathe. “She’s probably out enj…” 

Fuck. “Kids??… Plans?… Your leg is shaking.”

Breathe in. Out. Stop thinking. Forearms pumped, bad hold. Right leg is jack hammering away on a small ledge.

“God damn it. Why is the crack wet? You’re going to fall…”

I throw the cam in. The placement is good enough and I grab for the leash, desperately, feeling weak-willed.

“Fuck!,” I screech, pissed at myself. The roar ricochets off the cliff walls and surprises me with its pitch. The singular growl is the first audible thing I’ve heard other than my heavy breathing and what sounded like sharp clattering about, a smashing of kitchen pots and pans, in my head.  



This mental turn-around-whirling-this-way-and-that which creeps up on you and can overrun the thought train—is gnarly.

Some days I have my head on, fine tuned, ready to cope. This mostly looks like steady breathing and a present attentiveness. On other days it gets away from me and doubts from life seep into a domain they have no place being. 

Not here, not now.



I climb to create space, to have non-thought. Like a reset button, things become clearer after a good day out. 

Yet, lately I think about leading sport and am met by a gut curling, that twisting up of intestines like the lead in to a break up or the pre-fessing to of a lie; Some Poltergeist worm niggling about in your pit eating it’s way to coring you out (that movie freaked the hell out of me when I was a kid).

Bouldering: Purity in movement. Trad: Deeply satisfying. Sport: Something ain’t right.



It’s a bad association perhaps—like how I can’t do vodka—and I think it’s tied to the last time I did a lot of the sport in Turkey. The juju ain’t good.

There’s all these emotions wrapped up into the discipline that was our catalyst for the trip. Those days spent on a wall, our time buttressed by discomfort. It all seeped together like water coloring on too much wet; bleeding.

I guess what surprises me most is how visceral the aversion is, how much angst is there. 



As a comparison: With writing, for example, I may avoid the work, brimming with inertia as I am, like a hook in my stomach weighted to the bottom of the sea. But when I sit down the anxiety doesn’t amplify, it actually recedes; I’m hauling the anchor up. It feels good, it’s fun.

When sport climbing it seems the discomfort can only be managed. I find myself being pushed into the disquiet more often than not, with the consolation being a reprieve from anxiety more than satisfaction of movement or achievement. Where’s the flow? Where’s the fun? 



I know it’s not all memory-laden, there’s a fear of falling and the simple need for more experience; There are expectations.

Such as it is, something to explore. Something to give space to, something to let play out. 

And as Thoreau says, maybe I’m being all too careFULL about it.




Photo by friend of the author

No Third Time Charm

Outside the window, overlooking the pool, cherry blossoms are flowering pink bouquets, bright against the grey, and tulips rise up with slouched shoulders and frumpy bed head. Water percolates, circling back to collect in clouds, weighted vest air compressing, then streams its way into puddles. In the early morning it’s cold enough to chill the tip of my nose. Spring.
 
Last year I missed this.

I had fast forwarded to summer by flying through to acclimatize on another continent. In a matter of hours I advanced the months, April became June, like the the flippant spin of a radio dial. From where I’ve lived, only in New England does spring get it’s fair share of the calendar’s quarter system.

Prague. May 2018.



Last summer there were no lobster rolls. No fish flaked wet sand between my toes. No end-of-the-earth-piering off into the depths of the Atlantic. No heavy-packed days in the Whites. No barbecues (my god!). 

Instead I traipsed about another eastern boarder, cross stitching old lines of Latin and Cyrillic, Capitalism and Communism, place and no place. 

Actually, it has been like this the past four years (where does the time go?): Mountain View (2015), Accra (2016), New Paltz (2017), Budapest, Plovdiv, Lviv (2018). I, a roving settlement, a stick in one hand, a canvas sack with my belongings cantilevered at the protruding end. Leather straps on my feet.

If I had died before last year I may have been discontented. Pardon the macabre. My point is that I had wanted to travel since uni—I’ve since tasted the fruit and can put sense and color to a wanderlust palette, the wine glass has been tipped back. 

That tipping and sipping could have continued while overlooking a wine-dark sea. After all, I should be writing this in Albania. 

I was supposed to fly out last week: to Dublin, Budapest, Tirana. Flight 2233 ended up with an extra seat. Maybe it made the journey more comfortable for some other lone passenger.

Pirin Mountains, Bulgaria. June 2018.


Comfortable. Alone.

Those feelings have two-stepped and shadow boxed together, seesawed and smelted, fusing at odd angles throughout the travels. A short time in new places make good on that urge to keep going, nothing and no one securing you somewhere. Until its not, and until that melts away too.

For the most part I was rootless, and felt increasingly so as the trip continued. No roost, much roaming. That’s what I went for, though.

Alas the tether was wearing, the leather thong frayed to thin bits. It snuck up on me, didn’t notice until I had been walking several miles on without a shoe. The gravel had been running roughshod underfoot, blisters and stubbed toes alighted the mind to pay attention, eventually, then abruptly.

The last few months were a bit of a trudge, then I came back for my brother’s wedding. It was supposed to be a temporary stay.



In a recent conversation, a young, spirited woman offered, “I think we travel to figure out which places are meaningful to us.” She’s settled into her own nest for awhile, to regain and rebuild a sense of place.

Something changed for me too. Something about wanting to feel connected, about shared memories; a return to old grounds and the chance to look at the land with new perspective. While the lure of the ponderosa pine or mediterranean limestone shrills from time to time, it doesn’t feel right to go back, or elsewhere, right now. In my neck of the woods there’s no Poseidon to piss off or siren’s lullabying; Destiny can be my own.

There are wood nymphs and granite gargoyles, though, schist golems and sonorous stream temptresses, wily foxes and three sisters. We’ll have our fun.

High Tatras, Poland. September 2018.



In the end, I had to step back from all the experiences of the past year to see the bigger picture, then step in close to examine the sand grain mosaic for what it is: A lot of little pieces, a collection of days.

For now the grand adventure follows a storyline closer to home, one day at a time.



Photos by the author.

The Baggage We Carry

I didn’t realize how much baggage you could pack into a carry-on. 

Three pairs of shoes, four pairs of pants, some shorts, enough underwear and shirts for a week. And all that shit about past breakups, of the romantic and business kind. Heavy. I’m glad they didn’t make me weigh it.

That tote, a Patagonia duffel in Skipper Blue. I had brought it while living in Mountain View three years ago, the last time I had been in Silicon Valley. It was an REI clearance find. A good deal. 

Packing for this trip I hadn’t noticed the connection, it was just the best bag for the job. Just like the original intent, seven days of business in Reno. It all fit together nicely.





My clothes were scattered on the bed, it was an odd mix of attire and emotions. The feeling wouldn’t change once I arrived. 

Flying in to San Francisco, we swooped in low above the green hills of Muir Woods headed south. Ahead lay a graph paper peninsula coordinated by buildings and strips of green painted slapdash through like abstract art with a minimalist flair. 

The running commentary in my head was, “all those god damn houses.” I thought back to the excitement I felt the first time I arrived in SF years ago. My stomach tightened.

A few weeks back, in Boston, I got carried away by the idea of a business trip. It was the season that teases after all: Frigid temps that withdraw into snippets of Spring, before the rearguard battles back with the next cold front. Sunny California seemed like a reasonable excuse to escape the maligned battery.

But I didn’t have to come to CA. I suggested it to the company.

Why go? What was I hoping for?

I think, at some level, I was keen on making a return, to see what it would be like years later and without a connection to the area. To experience things as removed from a past life.

What I didn’t expect was all the emotion that was still wrapped up in the place. I thought about stopping by the old apartment. Imagined what it might be like.

Photo by Bambi Corro on Unsplash.

There I am.

The smell of shade.

It’s musty with a breezy fragrance of flowers and pollen that streams in from the screen door. Dry leaves scatter about the patio behind a flimsy fence that offers little resistance to prying eyes.

I see the place empty, ready to be moved in. The opportunity for new memories, perhaps of just starting out: A family, a job. I’d tread through the living room, to the corner where we’d once set up a makeshift shipping station. Maybe peer into the kitchen and sniff the outline of Soylent shakes that sustained us for too many meals.

I’d tiptoe down the hallway. I can’t remember if the floorboards creaked, but going lightly seems important. The first room on the right was alien to me. There was a rug and a closet with board games that we never played.

The bathroom at the end of the hall was tight with a tiny window that looked out onto the trash bins for the compound. Decay and other funny smells would seep in while you showered. All for the low-low price of $3,300 a month. Perched on the shelf were bottles of microbes that allegedly ate the compounds that cause stench on the body. My roommate didn’t use soap to wash, he conscripted miniature beings to do the job for him.

The second bedroom was shared. It’s where I slept on the floor, on a mattress. It sat in the corner, and when I’d lay against the wall, reading perhaps, my feet would point to the floor-to-ceiling mirrors on the closet doors. I came to resent the reflection forced upon me each morning. Steve Jobs’ words, “Is this what I want to be doing today?” would cross the mind with increasing frequency.

Some days, when no one else was home, I would lie in bed staring at the ceiling fan lights, the blades circled like a drunk crow tied to a leash, round and round. I found that if I stared long enough at the argon-infused bulb the colors would melt out in thick strands of amoeba squiggles, rotating and twisting. The goal was to keep staring to see how far the mirage could go and to find that line where I was just on the edge of falling into some unknown. There was real fear of losing my grip.

Something beyond told me it was wise to avoid the depths.

In this imaginary vision, I’d lie there again to see if I could reproduce the effect. Maybe go over the edge, if I had the time. 




The hope in this exercise?

Perhaps to exorcise ghosts, of her lying in the bed crying, disappointed in my not renting a car, of my selfishness. She’d have to lug bags to see her friend at Stanford. I was supposed to drive. We’d break up a few weeks later.

Perhaps I’d cry in that room in that spot, to feel the pain of let down.

Photo by the author.


I won’t make it to Mountain View.

But I’m just a few miles away on the other side of Palo Alto. It feels the same, a proxy but with better vibes.

The weather is cooler than when I arrived years ago, the cherry blossoms are in bloom. So much of what I tried to slice out of my life creeps back in.

I walk around to soak in ambiance, and listen to Frightened Rabbit’s The Midnight Organ Fight, the album with The Modern Leper, The Twist, and Poke. I try to disentangle my own braided memories: A breakup, a dissolution of a dream, the splitting of a company.

The other day I sat staring at the comforter on my bed, crossing my eyes so the beaded leaves blended together. They mixed into a stereoscopic image of porous bone like you’d see under a microscope. There was depth to the chambers, I almost reached out to feel the calcified crust.

I thought to myself, “What would it be like if I could just let this all float away?” I sat with the idea and let myself smile.

The sailor’s knot began to come undone, and I think I’ll be able to leave here with a little less baggage.




Feature photo by Erol Ahmed on Unsplash

Enter the Void

I met a guy. He climbs for his daughter. 

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.




Photo source: UKC

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.




Photo by Patrick Hendry on Unsplash

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. 




Feature photo by Dorothy Lin on Unsplash

We Seek Suffering (Suffering is Optional)

“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. 

Photo by asoggetti on Unsplash

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.

Photo by Dino Reichmuth on Unsplash

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. 



Photo source: Mountain Life