Out of Balance

How’s your equilibrium? About 10 blogs ago I wrote about “Balance and Goals”. Lately, often, I find my mind going back there. Balance is so important!…in so many ways.

Attending the Oscars, on my knee scooter.

A few months ago, I had foot surgery to correct several lifelong bone deformities. The massive event included sawing bone in several places, fusing bones, adding a titanium plate, long and short screws and several incisions. The surgeon took my foot apart and put it back together, better.

Normally I don’t dwell on health issues here. But health is a tricky concept. What does ‘healthy’ mean, for you?

For me, it always meant being able to do all the activities that feed my soul, that make me whole. Running. Biking. Hiking. Climbing. Walking/striding miles and miles…. I’ve been lucky that my life had never been interrupted by my body’s demands.

Until now.

If I knew how all this was going to end, I wouldn’t mind a few months of forced inactivity. A bit of vacation! But that’s the kicker — not knowing. Will I ever be able to walk normally again? Not a given. Will the titanium plate ever stop hurting? Will I ever run again, ever be able to squeeze my foot into a climbing shoe again, and depend on my toes to hold onto a tiny chip of rock to push me higher? Can’t even imagine it, right now.

There’s very little certainty in life. I know that. But not knowing if I’ll ever have my life back…that’s hard.

Have you ever been down with a long-term injury or illness? How do you deal with the not knowing? The interminable, unending waiting, and hoping? It’s been almost 6 months now. Getting hard to maintain hope….

Can’t wait to get back…!

Flag Day / Father’s Day

Happy flag day! Happy Father’s Day! – two holidays that have always blended together, for me.

My father was a Veteran of World War II. He, and all the other men I knew who had been in that war, never talked about it. He had lots of funny stories about the men he served with and some of their antics. About how beautiful Paris was. About the strange cultures he encountered in North Africa. But never about the war.

He was a patriot. He truly loved this country and what it represented everywhere he went. He proudly wore a red poppy

in his lapel each Memorial Day. He never missed the opportunity to vote. He studied our government and the people who work in it, closely and regularly. He talked about it with anyone who would let him. If you’d told him he was a patriot, he would have waved away your words and said something like, “I’m just a citizen.”

Being from a family of immigrants, he understood the underdog. Having grown up in Hell’s Kitchen, he knew poverty and under-privilege. And having served in the war in places so poor most of us here can’t imagine, he knew that the poorest immigrant in America can have a far better life than many ordinary people in other parts of the world.

He was a patriot – but not jingoistic. He would never have uttered the words “America first”, since he’d seen first-hand in Europe what can come of such thinking. He would have been appalled by some of the vitriol being spewed by politicians on television and on line. Disregard for facts or common sense or decency on the part of our leaders angered him.

Humility, compassion and intelligence were his guidelines, in politics as in life. If only we could bring those traits back to our political landscape!

For this Flag Day and Father’s Day, I hope that my father’s life’s guidelines – humility, compassion and intelligence – will once again guide our national discourse toward a future he would have been proud of.

The Loneliest Job, or Book Touring 101

When you sit alone in your house and write a book, you never know how it will be received. Writing is bizarre — you work on it completely alone, then you send it out to be read by the public. Two extremes. It’s hard to guess how someone you’ve never met will react to the words you labored over, so intimately, for so long.

A book tour makes it clear.

The Sharp End of Life,” my most recent book, was published by Mountaineers Books on May 2. For the last few weeks, I’ve been on a book tour — so I thought I’d share some highlights of the experience.

From Sacramento, I went to several bookstores in the Bay Area. Without exception, store personnel and audiences alike were friendly, open, helpful and very receptive. When I drove up to Tahoe City for an event at Alpenglow Sports, I had to drive both ways through the 7,000ft+ pass in blizzard conditions (yes, almost June!). Haven’t driven through that kind of thick, wild snow since I lived in New York!

At this store, Adventure 16 Sports, in L.A., the manager said they’d never seen an audience at any of their events so completely attentive and quiet, so riveted by the author’s story. I guess something about setting massive goals in your senior years, and accomplishing them, resonates with people who — if they’re lucky — are all heading toward their senior years.

Sometimes the signing of books takes place in a crowd scene (if you’re lucky!)… and sometimes a more intimate setting — both equally satisfying. I love chatting with the people who read my work and respond to my adventures with some of their own, either completed or simply dreamt about.

Sometimes there are surprises — like when I spoke at Books Inc., in Berkeley, and the narrator of my audio book, Ann M. Richardson, was in the audience! So lovely to meet her and chat about her craft and my book.

And sometimes, it takes you to the most gorgeous places! When I signed books at the North Face Store high up above Telluride, CO, at the Mountainfilm Festival, I got to ride this incredible three-part gondola about 2,000 feet up from Telluride (seen here far below) to Mountain Village. A breathtaking ride!

I hope you enjoyed your tour of my tour! I’ll leave you with some just plain pretty sights that I got to savor while I was on the road. Books are great, but I always try to stop and smell some roses, wherever I am.

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Rose garden in Pasadena

Jacaranda tree in Glendale.

Oscar!

Do you watch the Oscars (the Academy Awards) each year, glued to the TV to see if your favorite movie won? Did you watch this year??

FREE SOLO, the National Geographic movie about my son’s ropeless climb of El Capitan, in Yosemite, won Best Documentary!


I can’t possibly convey, here, the excitement, the intensity, the other-worldliness of the experience of being there for the Oscars…so I hope these few photos will give you an idea what it was like. Never, in all my dreams, did I ever imagine I’d hold an Oscar! They’re very heavy!

The day before, all the streets around the venue were getting ready….

Me and my team, Michelle and Hannah, at breakfast of Oscar day. I had just had major surgery on my foot and was still using a knee scooter, so if these 2 hadn’t come along, I wouldn’t have been able to go. Yay, team!

Lining up on the red carpet…not THE red carpet, where Alex, Sanni and gang got to walk. This one was at the Hollywood Athletic Club, where Fox/Nat Geo hosted the Oscar-Viewing Party for all those who, although invested in the film, were not Directors or Producers or stars. But there were many stars in the room…

Not an athletic club at all (at least, not the part of the building we were in), it’s an immense, elegant venue, and one wall was this screen:

Five minutes into the Awards, Jason Momoa, actor, announced his buddy’s film! Jason is a climber, and has climbed w/Alex, so he had requested to announce the Documentary award, sure that Free Solo would win.



With the winning team — Alex Honnold and Sanni McCandless.

The rest was noise, celebration, music, color, lights and lots of emotions! A few random photos to share it with you:

With Alex Honnold, Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin (Star and Directors). Never thought I’d hold an Oscar!
The proud parents!
With my boys — Alex, and Oscar!
Without Michelle & Hannah, I never would have been there! Yay, team!

Christmas Mystery

“A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,” says my favorite Christmas carol. Doesn’t that sound like a great idea? The world could sure use a thrill of hope right now.

That carol, “Oh Holy Night,” is playing on my CD player while I put up my Christmas tree, and as usual, it makes me stop and reminisce. All the carols have the power to whisk me back in time. I’m three or four again, playing under our Christmas tree with the little metal train chugging around it; I see it as clearly as I see the artificial one I’m putting together now. I feel my cozy, soft flannel pajamas with the little red reindeer, I can smell my mother’s candles. But mostly, I’m bathed again in mystery. Wonder.

In church, after mass, we walked up to see the creche with the real-looking Baby Jesus. While no one was watching, I reached out, quickly, and touched the straw that stuck out all around the manger. It was prickly, scratchy. I never saw straw in my ordinary New York City life. It was magic.

The electric candles in our window smelled more flame-like to me, in my Christmas world, than any real candle. Every evening, after supper, I waited, excited at my new responsibility: when my mother said it was time, I climbed up on the stuffed chairs in front of the windows and flipped the switch on the tall plastic candelabras. Behind their brilliant colors, the street that was normally so dark on winter nights glowed white with snow. More magic.

When my children were small, they never saw a street transform slowly from wintry black to soft white, one swirling flake at a time. There was no mystery in their world. Everything was reasonable, explainable. Did they always know, or maybe suspect, that Santa Claus was Grampie?

It might be just the nostalgia of my own Christmases past that paints the memories with those glowing, primary colors. My Christmas memories glow with an intensity that time never seems to diminish, and each year, I find myself hoping that my own children have some memories as mysterious, as wonder-inducing and as lifelong as my own. Mystery adds depth to an ordinary life — and can help make anyone in this weary world rejoice.

Premières

All my life, I’ve wondered what it would be like to attend a movie première, red carpet and all. Now I know.

“Free Solo,” the film from National Geographic about my son’s ropeless climb of El Capitan, premiered this September, and came out in movie theaters this October. I attended the premières in New York City, Yosemite and Los Angeles. 

First surprise: big poster of my son

at the Lincoln Center elevator:

 

There really was a red carpet, too — at least in NY and in LA. I’d alway thought that was a cliché.

 

 

And photographers! Every time I turned around, it seemed I was bumping into one. Lights, cases, wires everywhere. And people whose faces and names grace all the climbing magazines, extreme sports mag’s, and videos.

 

 

 

The Lincoln Center venue at Columbus Circle overlooks Central Park, and once the sun went down, the view sparkled!

But as overwhelming as it was visually, the most impressive thing, for me, was the thought that all this fuss was about my son. My baby. I remember being embarrassed and annoyed when my mother used to refer to me that way: her baby. At 5’10”, I was hardly a baby! Nor is Alex. But now I get it. They’re always your babies, no matter how old they are, how big, how famous.

My ‘baby’ has done something that most people can’t even wrap their minds around, can’t watch without fidgeting and covering their eyes. His big sister goes on cycling adventures that make people gasp, and changes people’s lives every day, at work. My ‘babies.’

I hope you enjoyed this little glimpse of a movie première — and that you’ll have a chance to go experience the movie.

 

 

Thank You, Veterans

Today’s the day to thank a Veteran. They go places we wouldn’t go, and do things that we would never want to do — and they do it for us. You and me. We benefit from their work, their hardships, and sometimes, their loss. My father, a Veteran of WWII and the first in his family born in the U.S., loved his country deeply and had only one wish for Veterans and all of us: to see war made illegal.

With that fervent wish in mind, I thank all of you Veterans out there, and I hope the need for your service soon becomes obsolete.

Thank you.

Anniversary, Vertical Style (or: Once a teacher, always…)

One year ago, I became the oldest woman to scale El Capitan, the 3,200-foot granite wall in Yosemite National Park. My son led me up, and down, in 19 hours. Most climbers take 3 or 4 days.

There are over a hundred climbing routes up El Cap. The one we did is called Lurking Fear, and we did it, appropriately, on Halloween day. So this year, on Halloween, a couple friends and I went up the Heart lines on El Cap to celebrate.

 

See the Heart? It’s a huge, intaglio-style sort-of-heart-shaped feature on the west side of El Capitan. The bottom point of the heart is about 1,000 feet up. That’s where I celebrated my anniversary. The views don’t get much better!

But even more fun than my celebration was being a teacher again! I went up with 2 friends, Hannah and Tara. Hannah’s a new climber and had never been higher than about 40 or so feet. So teaching her how to use jumars and all the accruing gear, and how to work them higher and higher on the wall, reminded me again how much I love teaching. A couple of years ago, I retired from a 44-year teaching career, but I’ll always be a teacher at heart. Or, like this time, at The Heart.

One pitch above the Heart, the Mammoth Ledges offer even better views of most of Yosemite Valley. I savored it as long as I could, leaving only when we would be sure to have enough hours of daylight to get down and hike back out to the car.

That day last year was life-changing, an indelible memory I’ll always cherish and be grateful to Alex for. This year’s climb was just plain fun. Hannah had a great time learning all the new skills and inching her way up the wall:

and Tara had a blast refreshing her jugging skills and just relishing the incredible vistas:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Do you have a special place or way to celebrate your anniversaries or special days? How about sharing it with us here?

p.s. You can read about last year’s unforgettable climb with my son in my book here.

The Oldest Little Engine that Could

Last year I had the privilege of becoming the oldest woman to climb El Capitan. It was a privilege to attempt it with the only person on the planet capable of climbing it with no rope or protection — my son.* If anyone could keep me safe (with ropes!) on such a wild, dangerous, challenging adventure, I knew it was him.

The learning curve, though, was extreme.

To get ready, each week for 17 weeks I drove from Sacramento to Yosemite (about 3 & 1/2 hours), and for several days I worked on my body and my mind.

The body — even at 66 — turned out to be the easy part.

Not that it was easy trudging up the most spectacular, steepest, miles-long hikes each week — or pushing the mechanical ascenders up thousands of feet of rope — then doing it again. Over and over. But training a body, even an old one, is largely just a question of repetition. Anything you do every day, or every week, is going to get easier. Better. More efficient.

The mind, though, can be far more resistant to change.

If you stand on the ground in Yosemite Valley and look up at El Cap, a sheer granite wall of 3,200 feet, the obvious first reaction that comes to mind is, “That’s impossible!”

But a challenge is a challenge. I’d dreamed of this for years, and my son was willing. It was time.

The first time I went there, alone, to practice ascending the thousand feet of fixed ropes, my mind flashed back to my last lead climb in the gym. I’d been working hard on an overhung 5.10c climb — very hard, for me. On its roof section, you hang like a sloth from the ceiling for a few moves.

I’ve never been able to do a pull-up. My chicken-arms are skin and bone. I got a third of the way up when I realized I was talking myself out of finishing. I was afraid. Of falling. Of failing, I ‘knew’ it was too hard for me.

Not surprisingly, I fell off. (On a rope, so I just fell a few feet and dangled.) My belayer lowered me to the floor. We did this over and over.

It was decision time: try it again, or admit defeat?

That was when I first had the talk with myself.

If you tell yourself “I can’t”, you’ll be right. If you tell yourself “I can,” you’ll be right. Your choice. I’d simply been making the wrong choices. That darned Little Engine had it nailed, right from my childhood; I just hadn’t paid attention.

I got back on the route, turned off the “I can’t’s” – and chugged right up the wall.

On El Cap, I talked to myself the whole 13 hours that I chugged, or limped, upward. At times, that voice faded out as fatigue and fear took over. But mostly I managed to remember, and use, that key. Because I’d rather be the little engine that could. I want to grow up to be just like my son – doing what I love, and convinced that I can.

Do you have a favorite strategy for talking yourself into success? Please share it here, or at my Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/DierdreWolownick/

While you’re at it, don’t forget to ‘like’ my FB page, so you don’t miss any fun reading. And sign up here, below, for updates. I guarantee that I won’t share your info with anyone. Ever.

You can read more about that historic day in my book, due out from Mountaineers Books on Mother’s Day 2019. Check it out here: www.sharpendoflife.com

 

 

 

* On June 3, 2017, Alex Honnold climbed El Capitan free-solo, wth no rope or protection. Learn about him in National Geographic’s feature-length movie, “Free Solo,” in theaters now: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=urRVZ4SW7WU

 

 

“Any Morning”

Have you ever felt guilty about feeling good? Ever felt as if you should be frowning, like everyone else, worried like everyone else, instead of smiling to yourself?

Today I thought I’d share this delightful poem that my daughter shared with me. I’ve been guilty of this very thing (as, I suspect, she has), and love the smile that this poem brings me, each time I read it.

I hope it brightens your day, too. 🙂

 

Any Morning (by William Stafford, 1914-1993)

 

Just lying on the couch and being happy.

Only humming a little, the quiet sound in the head.

Trouble is busy elsewhere at the moment, it has

so much to do in the world.

People who might judge are mostly asleep; they can’t

monitor you all the time, and sometimes they forget.

When the dawn flows over the hedge you can

get up and act busy. 

Little corners like this, pieces of Heaven

left lying around, can be picked up and saved.

People won’t even see that you have them,

they are so light and easy to hide.

Later in the day you can act like the others.

You can shake your head. You can frown.

 

 

 

(Photos courtesy of Stasia Honnold.)