A woman I don’t know well was talking to me about her university-bound son the other day. She was concerned about his choice of schools, since he was only 18 and had never lived away from home. So she wanted him to opt for the smaller, less prestigious college in lieu of the monolith that she feared might be too overwhelming.
I tried to be compassionate, but I didn’t understand. What exactly did she fear was going to happen? I started at that same monolith school when I was 17, I told her — although that was “a generation ago.” I was on my own, financially and otherwise, and yes, it was tough, but “you work it out.”
You work it out. Because, like I said to her, “as you know, as a grown up person, life doesn’t go anything like you plan.” That was the heart of the conversation for me. Spending so much emotional energy over the choice of a school seemed ridiculous, when really, nothing, ever goes as planned — and you can graduate from law school but still find satisfaction working retail.
I write for a living, and for a couple of weeks now, I’ve been missing deadlines. I’ll admit the occasional slip isn’t unusual, but now things are going a day or two overdue. My brain has just collapsed, folded, exhausted from 10 years of ghostwriting web content on health and law and finance and insurance and whatever else people will pay for.
That’s the reason for this blog post. I’m hoping to clear some junk from my brain. I can’t miss deadlines forever. I have bills to pay. But the energy that has left my mind seems to have moved into my body, which doesn’t want to sit in front of the computer anymore. It would much rather be on a rock somewhere, like it was a few days ago, feeling the stability and certainty of 100-million-year-old granite. I don’t want to think anymore. I want to move.
Back in 1991, I went on an exchange program to France. I was in my last year of high school. It was not a pleasant experience, high school in Canada or the exchange program to Lyon. It was in that school’s cafeteria where I had my first taste of rabbit meat, served in a large steel communal dish. One bite and everyone at the table promptly turned up their noses and threw the animal flesh back, uneaten. It was only upon reading the menu on the way out did I know what I’d consumed, and my horrified reaction was a precursor to the moment I became vegetarian three years later (in my dorm, eating steak, and realizing it was the flesh of an animal that had once lived).
In 2014, I put a picture of that cafeteria on my Instagram (@polikarm). It was an old, grainy shot I’d somehow digitized. I think I was trying to be creative at the time. I found that picture today, and realized 1991 was just the year before I started university in 1992. In my memory, the eras are ages apart, one attached to a [descriptor] childhood, the other to an emerging sense of self. My parents divorced in the interim, I am realizing now, as I write this, at age 44, hoping this long text will somehow dislodge my mind enough so that I can meet the three deadlines I have tomorrow.
In 2013, I went back to the school. I had not returned to Lyon since the exchange, but made a point to go as part of a skip-hopping trip to Europe that was supposed to be a second pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago (I did my first in 2003). The Camino wasn’t meant to be that time, as through a series of “happenings” I ended up staying in London for two and a half weeks, spending most of my days sitting on the grass in Russell Square, trying to access the past life memories that I thought must exist for me there, so intense was my feeling of connection.
In Lyon, I walked into a bank with an old account number and deposit slip. It was the same bank that held my allowance as an exchange student, and I wanted to confirm there were no funds still there, lingering in a dead repository, gathering minimal interest over two decades. There wasn’t. But I had managed somehow to engage in the entire conversation in French, not an easy feat for someone like me who could never get the swing of languages.
I walked the same route from the bank, to the old apartment building where I’d lived with my host family, down to the Lycee where I’d spent three stressful months. I did not enter the building, because it felt awkward and intruder-like, but observed it for a few minutes before setting on my way. I remembered a conversation I’d had with a fellow exchange student when I lived there, who’d challenged me to, “tell me what you like about France.” I answered that I liked walking to school and seeing the men drinking coffee in the outdoor cafes.
A couple of months ago I started bouldering in a gym. I’ve wanted to try rope climbing, in a gym, for a few years, but was always intimidated by such an unknown physical activity (to me) and hindered by the fact that I’d assumed I would have to find a partner to belay me. My mid-life crisis fully kicked in when I saw Free Solo and I happened to discover a bouldering gym that gave introductory classes. No ropes in bouldering, just free movement across the wall.
The intro workshop was taught by a beautiful hippie of a soul with warm energy. He told us his first time in this gym, seven years prior, he’d climbed all 18 feet to the top using one of the easy bumble bee routes. Once there, he was terrified of the height and froze. He told us this story, I assume, to make us feel more comfortable in what turned out to be — once we left the training area and into the “big gym” — an intimidating, somewhat clique-y environment that one would need an extreme level of self-confidence to overcome.
I was the oldest, shortest, and heaviest of the workshop attendees (there were only four). But I somehow managed to attach myself to the wall, if only to muddle my way around and fall off spectacularly at least once. Later on that day, the instructor told me I had “exceptional body awareness,” but that I wasn’t trusting… and he sort of trailed off. If he were to teach me, he said, he would just ask me how I felt on the wall, instead of telling me to place my body in a particular position.
He’s right, as I’ve come to realize, in the several weeks since that I’ve been going to the bouldering gym every second day or so. I can barely make it on to the problems, usually, and when I do, I can only go up so far. Then I freeze, sometimes out of fatigue, but most often out of a mental block. Could I push myself and go up further? Yes, probably. Would I fall off? Maybe. There are no ropes in bouldering. And those mats aren’t super bouncey.
But on a good day, it makes me feel strong, connected to a deeper part of myself that has been long ignored. The brash, rude, foul-mouthed child I was told not to be, who had a lot of her strength and vigour taken from her through the force of silly gender expectations. It was not until I was 44 that I fully realized what I lost of myself by growing up and putting away the angry girl, learning to always be nice in order to navigate the world without conflict. There is middle ground. You can be welcoming, compassionate, and kind without being a doormat. The strong, foul-mouthed girl I once was wants to come back out, to emerge again. Maybe soon she’ll actually finish a problem, overcoming the fear.
About a week ago, Tommy Caldwell gave a talk at an outdoor retailer about a 15-minute transit ride from where I live. When I saw it advertised, I thought, how timely and deeply special. And it was. Tommy Caldwell, as it turns out, has a beautifully open energy, without a stitch of ego. There were about 200 people crammed into this mid-sized conference room, and he was just there, walking into the room without introduction. I looked up from the transit report I’d just received from my astrologer (seriously) to see him chatting with some of the store staff. Aw, it’s Tommy Caldwell. Right there. How special.
He talked for about an hour, about climate change and climbing and Alex Honnold. He showed pictures of his bloodied knees and explained that Honnold always finished a climb looking like he’d just come out of the shower. Tommy played time-lapse footage of him and Honnold speed-climbing the Nose of El Capitan, which we in the audience watched with rapt attention, so compelling was it to see the world’s best rock climbers move like orchestrated ants across that beautiful mountain.
In response to a question, Caldwell said he would continue to climb with Honnold, explaining the soloist doesn’t want to leave Caldwell’s kids without a father, so he takes on most of the risk. As for himself, Caldwell said (and bear in mind, in case someone interested in these people actually stumbles upon this blog post, I am going by memory here, a memory tainted perhaps by several days of missed deadlines and stress, so do not quote me) that Honnold really doesn’t care (about himself, if he dies).
So that’s true, then, I remember thinking, at least from Caldwell’s perspective. Honnold really doesn’t care if he dies. I feel like I’ve known about Honnold for years, watched him on the Oprah Belief special but even then was already familiar with him. Personally, I think death is natural, but I don’t think it’s meaningless. Life has to be lived, because we are here for a reason. We’re working out karma, constantly meeting the same people we’ve had relationships with in previous lives, again and again, sorting out whatever needs to be sorted. When I wrote above that I was trying to figure out what Russell Square had meant to me in a previous life (or lives), I meant that literally.
I’m done, I think, I’ve shifted enough out of my mind now that I should be able to meet my deadlines tomorrow. The mother I spoke of and I have to attend an event tomorrow night and are meeting ahead of time to go for a walk. If she talks about her son, I’ll try to remember what it was like to be 18, feeling a sense of urgency about making the right choices in life, as if there really is such a thing as a right choice.