Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Two Bolts

Tom and I dangle eighty feet
    from the base of Big Bad Wolf
       like flies tangled in a spiderweb

From our perch above
    Red Rock Canyon
       sandstone metamorphosed
by season upon season of
    sun, wind, and rain
       undulates across the desert landscape
I try not to think about my aching toes
    and cramping feet
       balanced, as I am, on a
          three-inch protrusion of rock
Some people say that
    because I climb I am amazing
       but I don't think so

Sure, I can swallow my fear
    when suspended from
       two shiny bolts bored into the rock
Bolts that could give way
    bolts that might amount to the difference
       between this life and the next
But this does not make me amazing

Life on earth is a delicate balance
    tenuous, like this rope I'm hanging on,
       with the love of my life by my side

Tears well up
    and spill down my cheeks
       like precious drops of rain

Breathe, says Tom.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Om Mani Padme Hum

Om Mani Padme Hum Inscribed on a Trail Side Boulder

About a year and a half ago, I appeared on a radio show hosted by writer and yogini, Sarah Vogel, of Laguna Beach, California. Sarah's show "Out On A Limb," explored the eightfold path of yoga known as Ashtanga, a path that incorporates sensible guidelines for living a purposeful life. I jumped at Sarah's invitation to be interviewed, for I was eager to discuss my newly released memoir Footsteps of Gopal from the perspective of how my yoga practice contributed to and enhanced the experience of my 2013 trek in Nepal.

One of Sarah's questions involved my interpretation of the Buddhist prayer, Om Mani Padme Hum, which literally translates as The Jewel in the Heart of the Lotus. To my understanding, Om Mani Padme (pronounced Pay-May in Tibetan) Hum is a declaration of being, a testimony of existence, which equates to the concept of I Am. The compassionate prayer set my pace on many an uphill climb as I focused on placing one foot and then the next firmly upon solid earth.

The truth is, some things are nearly impossible to verbally express in words. Om Mani Padme Hum is one such phenomenon, better perceived than described. When Sarah mentioned the chant, I anticipated her next question and began mulling through my brain with the speed of a computer hard drive to formulate my layperson's explanation.

Om I described as the "infinite," a component essential to all meditation. I have been told Om encompasses the space between heartbeats or the pause between breaths. "Om is all sound and silence throughout time." So says Peter Matthiessen in his book, The Snow Leopard. He goes on to explain that Om is, ". . . the roar of eternity and also the great stillness of pure being."
Om rock
The Sanskrit "OM" is prevalent on rocks throughout Buddhist Himalaya

Mani is the jewel, which I described as the "infinite void." Mani represents an indestructible essence that exceeds the bounds of time.

Padme, I related to the material world: I could have further quantified my explanation to include rocks, plants, trees, rivers, clouds; in short, the essence of all things that can be touched or experienced by the senses. Padme translates as "lotus" in Tibetan, a beautiful metaphor for blossoming, unfolding, self-discovery, and change.

Hum I failed to explain altogether, in part because I recalled Peter Matthiessen's words: "Hum has no literal meaning, and is variously interpreted (as is all of this great mantra about which whole volumes have been written)."

Throughout Buddhist Himalaya, Om Mani Padme Hum is inscribed on rocks, prayer wheels, and prayer flags fluttering salutations to the Universe. It invokes the compassion of Avalokiteshvara, a Bodhisattva representing The Divine Within. A repetition of this mantra imparts health, prosperity, and benevolence to the land and all of its inhabitants.

Om Mani Padme Hum is a "place" where I can go. When I focus on the mantra, the six-syllables transport me directly to Nepal where I can visualize the great stupa at Boudhnath as it sits resplendent in the sun. Or I can situate myself once again upon the broad mountainside of Gokyo Ri, high above the Ngozumpa Glacier, where space and time converge above this great arena we call Earth.

Om Mani Padme Hum takes me to the Jewel in the Heart of the Lotus, even when I'm seated on my bedroom floor. It's a place where I can close my eyes, still my breath, and simply be.

Friday, June 3, 2016

On Rocks and Being Brave

                        Joshua Tree ~ Sunset ablaze on a late September day.

There isn't a rock climber on the planet who can deny the deep-seated fear of falling. What scares the hell out of climbers is often more challenging than the physical realities of the climb. But while accounts of unfortunate accidents and climber deaths are sobering reminders of the sport's inherent dangers, ascending a route is nothing less than exhilarating. If the precipitous granite wall is the knife, then fear is the blade. A climber's ability to focus beyond its razor's-edge demands intense mental fortitude and resolve. It's the number one reason why, in spite of myself, I continue to return to the rock.

My climbing debut ended almost as soon as it began. Thirty years ago, while attempting a route on Idyllwild's Suicide Rock, my belayer called down: “Don't move! I need to unclip you for a minute.” There I was: clinging to a two-foot wide ledge, a hundred feet up, on the side of a mountain. One minute I was content to gaze over the sweeping pine-forested valley below, and the next minute those trees swooned and swirled. Panic, as cold and palpable as the morning breeze, paralyzed me. “Hey,” I shouted up to my friend, “I need to get off this ledge!” When he gave me the word I scrambled to the top, hoisted myself over the edge, untied my belay rope, and declared I'd never go climbing again.

Not long afterward, when marriage vows, careers, and child-rearing dominated our lives, my husband, Tom, stopped climbing, too.

But life's twists and turns sometimes lead us to revisit places we imagine we'll never see again. Two years ago, Tom and I and our former climbing partner Marcus, a friend we never lost touch with, started working out at a climbing gym. Soon the unmistakable lure of Joshua Tree summoned us back to the rock. Renowned for its jumbled outcroppings and hundreds of climbable crags, Joshua Tree's routes bear quirky names like Poodles are People Too, Cryptic, and Walk on the Wild Side. Happy to watch the guys reclaim their “glory days,” I went along for the ride, inventing all sorts of excuses as to why I could have cared less about climbing.

“I prefer to enjoy the scenery,” I said.

“The view's better from the top,” Marcus replied.

“I don't want to get scraped up.”

“Those are badges of honor,” Tom said.

I don't. I can't. I . . . I—

I continued to work out at our climbing gym; the more I practiced, the stronger I became until one spring day, while camping at Joshua Tree, the guys pointed to a climb. “There's your project,” they insisted, referring to an angled flake topped by a narrowed vertical crack imparting this route with its name: Toe Jam. In order to ascend the sixty foot route, I would have to execute a lay back move on the flake, then jam my toe into the crack and rely upon the strength in my legs to propel myself to the top.

I spent the whole evening and a good portion of the next morning surveying the features of the climb. With my stomach in knots, palms sweaty, I agreed to give it a go. I chalked up my hands—a meditative precursor to the opening move—then toed the first knobby edge. Searching for a handhold I balanced, and progressed a notch on the rock. And then another notch after that. And then another. Until—

No one could have been more surprised than I was when I levitated to the top.

Toe Jam was just the beginning. Today I'm stronger than ever, more confident and brave, and learning how to cope with my fear. Rather than letting it shut me down, I've discovered a place where I can shelve it. Over the last year and a half, we've made a dozen or more sojourns to the land of the twisted tree, not only in search of the challenge, but to gape at full moons on the rise; to swap stories with like-minded climbers; and to bathe in the fire-orange splendor of sunsets ablaze across the amphitheater of wide desert sky.

I originally wrote this piece in May 2014. Two years later, I've logged over 50 outdoor climbs and have succeeded up three multi-pitch, my highest topping out at over 650 feet. The best is yet to come!