Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Rock Climbing / Heart Healing

I started rock climbing with my dad in 1990. Right from the start, rock climbing was a salve.

My dad catapulted back into my life when I was 12, just as abruptly has he catapulted out 6 years prior. My parents were young and unmarried when I was born. I mean super young: I was born 6 days after my mom’s 17th birthday; my dad was 18. They got married a couple months after I was born and we all lived together on and off until my dad totally peaced-out when I was 6. They partied hard and had violent fights. It was clear to me, in my very first memories, I had as much of a handle on our lives as they did.


My mom died shortly after my dad left, at age 24. Her family never much liked my dad, and some of them blamed his influence for her death. My grandmother would say, “She was out chasing him around, trying to keep him out of trouble when she should have been taking care of herself.” But that’s a story for another time. The point here is my dad was gone, my mom was dead, and half of the family I was left with didn’t celebrate my dad or the past.

So, when he came back, the summer before I started 7th grade, I was torn in half. My dad’s family was psyched. We had family dinners and parties and talks of future plans. My mom’s family was quiet. They didn’t try to keep me from my dad and they didn’t give me any actual warnings. But I had the sense they were concerned, concerned about my feelings, and about his accountability and judgment. So half of me thought “Great! I have a dad!” while half of me thought “Is my dad a bad dude?”

The following spring, my dad took a rock climbing lesson and immediately became a climber. We had it set up that I spent every other weekend with him, and I quickly decided he wasn’t a bad dude, but he was a bad ass. I spent those weekends following him on adventures with no questions asked, building my own bad ass aspirations.

In my memories of my dad before he left home, he spent a lot of time outside: exploring, camping, hiking, skiing, biking. When we started hanging out again, the new memories we were making all involved the outdoors and adventure.


Despite having not spent much time together up to that point, my young dad and I quickly became friends. He’d drive two hours to pick me up on Friday nights after work, and we’d drive the two hours back to the town he lived in. I always brought cassettes to blast. He didn’t love the industrial or punk music I was into, but we agreed on the Talking Heads, Violent Femmes, and Dead Milkmen. I didn’t have to fast forward over the swears like I did when I was in the car with other adults.

Sometimes we’d climb with my dad’s other climbing partners, and I’d be hangin’ with a crew of 30-something climber dudes. They’d sneak away to smoke pot and mumble apologies when they said something inappropriate.

Most of the time it was just me and my dad.

Climbing was a salve on the wounds of abandonment and guilt. It was medicine that made it easy for two near strangers—a 13 year old girl and her 31-year-old free-spirited once-absentee dad—to become close. Climbing partnerships are gold. The level of trust and communication established between partners is deep, a matter of life or death.

The bond we developed as climbing partners dissolved the need to drag up the past, to ask the difficult questions. (Why did you ditch my mom? What was it like being gone from home for so long?)

Climbing became a salve for more than just my relationship with my dad. During or right after climbing, I found myself thinking about my mom.

Once I came home from a weekend with my dad and my friend asked how the climbing was. In answer, I stood and took a photo album from the shelf in my bedroom. I opened to a picture of my mom and squeaked out, “This is my mom,” before sobbing. My friend put her arm around me and we talked about my mom. I’m sure that was the first conversation I'd ever started about my dead mother. And I’m sure climbing was breaking something open in me that allowed my grief to come to the surface.

Once, when I was 15 or 16, I trailed along behind my dad and his friends. It was dusk as we walked through the woods away from the rock we’d been climbing that day. I walked along feeling in-my-body, touching trees and branches as I passed. I felt tired and sore but totally satisfied from climbing.

Then, suddenly, I felt something else. The air felt warm and heavy as it sunk around me. I had the sense of being hugged. I stopped and wrapped my arms around myself, holding the hugging presence. It was my mom. She hugged me in the woods, through the woods, by way of the rock.

This was the start of a lifelong approach to health and healing. It was the start of my faith. But I never thought of rock climbing as my healing tool until recently.

I’m taking stock of the messages in my memoir that I think are valuable to share. One of the big ones is that nature and adventure—rock climbing especially—have healed me many times in many ways.

Writing the book helped me read my own mind. I discovered things about myself that I hadn’t noticed before. Shortly before publication, one of my editors remarked to me, “I love how, throughout the book, you go to nature when you’re hurting.”

She pointed out the scene where I run away from Dave at the DMV. We’re estranged, about to be divorced. Dave drives us downtown to the DMV to transfer the ownership of our car. He’s as aloof as ever and I’m burning with heartache. I collapse in the parking lot, screaming and crying, begging for Dave’s sanity. Then I get up and run away, fleeing my mentally unstable soon-to-be ex-husband and the devastating present. I don’t stop until I reach a city park. There, as soon as my feet touch the grass, I lay down and plunge my fingers into the grass and dirt and stare at the sky.

My editor said, “Even in the city, you find the green space and you seek healing by touching the Earth.”

Sure enough!