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.)

Getting It Back

My mother always used to say I was stubborn. She was probably right. But that can be a good thing; you have to be stubborn – let’s call it tenacious – for a lot of things in life. Climbing. Running. Out-arguing your kids who have a million reasons why a particular chore doesn’t need to be done.

But sometimes, all the best intentions get you nowhere. Like this morning. I went for a run in the neighborhood streets. my usual almost-3-mile training run. But it’s been a long time. Too much life happening.

Wow. So hard! So slow! So hard to breathe! My calves are cramping and really hurt. Is this the same body that ran four marathons? Seven half-marathons? Countless smaller races? Could that be me? The same me who can’t run three miles now without slowing to a walk here and there?

I guess it depends how determined you are. When I really, really wanted to run that marathon, I trained according to a schedule. Rain or shine. Whether I felt like it or not. No matter how tired I was that day, or how many hours I had worked.

Where did that go? Will I get it back?

I like to think I will. I like to think that tenacity is a character trait and not a temporary condition. So I’ll schedule another run for this week, despite my overly-full work schedule. And another.

What have I learned from this? Once you’ve found what you love doing, keep doing it! Don’t let life interrupt your progress!

But of course, it will, no matter what you want. Life is like that.

So – do you have a solution?

What do you do when life gets in the way? When you plateau out, or even lose ground and go backwards? So far, the only solution I’ve found is to jump back in, ignore the (recently) lowered standards, and keep inching them back up.

I suspect that I’ll get there – if I want to badly enough.

What do you want to accomplish this year? Let me know – keep me posted. We can help each other get there. As the French proverb says, “little by little, the bird makes its nest” – one tiny twig at a time:

Petit à petit, l’oiseau fait son nid.

Good words to live by.

Balance and Goals

How’s your balance? Can you stand on one foot for more than a few seconds?

Does it sometimes seem like your life is careening out of your control? Out of balance?

In my blog on Feb. 20, ‘17 (“Know Thyself”), I talked about the book “Maximum Climbing” (http://www.maximumclimbing.com). The author, Eric Hörst, talks a lot about goal-setting. Do you set goals for yourself? Do you reach them? Why (not)?

Alex Honnold, the world-famous rock climber (and my son) sets it out clearly in his writing: ‘mindfulness’, or ‘purposefulness,’ are synonymous with goal-setting. According to him, these are what make you advance:

• be aware (remember meta-cognition, from that blog?)

• set your goal, and

• work toward that conscious goal every day.

Every day.

If you don’t set a goal, you’re not going to get there. Obvious. You might dream about it, wish for it, talk about it – but without a concrete, very specific goal, one that you can write down in one short sentence, chances are very slim that you’ll reach it.

When I was young, I dreamed of writing a book. Teaching at a college. Conducting an orchestra. I longed to someday live abroad, to work as a tour guide, or at an airport. Those dreams have all come true – because I didn’t just dream about them. All my life, a series of conscious, constant small steps made them happen.

When I was older, I dreamed of marriage and a family of my own (done). Much older still, I wondered whether I could run a marathon (done), or climb outdoors (done!).

Over the last decade, my life has moved into a new, physical realm that I’d never dreamed of earlier. Since about 1971, I’ve always found great joy in traveling this fascinating planet — but lately my trips always seem to include a physical goal, like rock climbing or hiking or running. Goals require balance; sometimes they can be combined, but always keeping balance in mind.

Because just as important as setting the goal for yourself is the ability to keep your goals and your life in balance. Do you work more hours than you live? Is your work your life? Do you spend more hours on line than interacting with real people?

To balance your life, you need to equalize some of those numbers.

What’s important to you? What have you always dreamed of doing? As improbable as it seemed that I’d ever have my own orchestra, once the geographical opportunity presented itself (when we moved to a place that had no local classical music), I made a plan — a goal — and moved ahead with it, tiny step by tiny step.

Listen here to the story of the West Sacramento Community Orchestra.

Goals, and balancing those goals with everyday life — that’s where true satisfaction lies.

I wish you lots and lots of satisfaction!

 

A Legacy of Smiles

While cleaning out my office this weekend, I came across a tiny card with the following printed on it, and I thought I’d share it and, I hope, share a smile with you.

Before I do, though, a bit of background: Ray Perlick was my mother’s cousin. He grew up in Plymouth, PA at the beginning of the 20th century. When he was about 4 or 5, his brother found their father’s gun and was playing with it. It went off, and the bullet lodged in Ray’s spine. He was horribly crippled for the rest of his life, with no muscle control from his waist down and misshapen legs.

As a little girl of 4 or 5 or so myself, I was always horrified to watch him struggle so hard to get from his rolling chair (a precursor of today’s high-tech wheelchairs) to the wooden bench in their backyard. Or trying to perch his uncooperative, non-responsive limbs on the leather stool where he worked as a jeweler in his tiny shop. I felt guilty that I could bounce around their yard, while he could only watch. I only became aware of the horrible pain he suffered all his life much later, when I was old enough to understand.

The card I found in my desk was, I suppose, his business card. He had given it to me many years ago, and I guess I slipped it into my wallet. Then another wallet. Then tucked it into a desk or two, as I traveled through life.

One side simply listed his business:

Ray Perlick

Jeweler

6 – – W. Main St.

Plymouth PA

(No zip codes back then; even the 2-digit, pre-zip postal codes weren’t needed, in this little town on the Susquehanna River)

The other side of the card said this:

 

Smile

A smile costs nothing but gives much. –

It takes but a moment, but the memory of it usually lasts forever.

None are so rich that can get along without it.

And none are so poor but that can be made rich by it.

It enriches those who receive

Without making poor those who give –

It creates sunshine in the home.

Fosters good will in business

And is the best antidote for trouble –

And yet it cannot be begged, borrowed or stolen, for it is of no value

Unless it is freely given away.

Some people are too busy to give you a smile –

Give them one of yours.

For the good Lord knows that no one needs a smile so badly

As he or she who has no more smiles left to give.

Such a happy philosophy, wrapped in a body like his! How blessed we are, then, we of sound limb and body! Let’s all try to share Ray’s happiness with everyone, one smile at a time.

The perfect legacy, Uncle Ray!

Calm and Unplugged

What a treat — I’m at the airport, and it’s just like the old days: I’m alone, and unreachable. Things are calm. I think I may not be able to charge my devices well in the country where I’m headed, so I’ve turned everything off. Powered it down. Nothing can beep me, buzz me, or otherwise interrupt my thoughts.

Things are calm.

How peaceful!

We’ve become slaves, willingly. Like the earth to the Ashén (accent on the second syllable, from “Stargate”), who slowly sterilized them into oblivion and took their planet, we’re cheerfully allowing the gleam and glow and chords and chirps to lull us into forgetting how to be human.

I remember a time when we tried hard not to be at anyone’s beck and call all the time. If you were, that was considered servitude. People aspired to jobs that would elevate them above the beck-&-call masses.

Now we are all at the beck and call — of machines.

Even parents often seem to prefer the cold chirp of technology to the babbling, happy conversation of the children they created. How many times have you seen a mother or father pushing a stroller or just walking together with their child – with a cell phone held to their ear?

What does a child learn from such non-interaction? That they’re on their own? They don’t matter as much as that little gizmo that has their parent’s rapt attention? That’s a lesson that can ruin our planet.

Focusing on many things at once – checking e-mail while surfing a FB page while sitting in class, for example – impairs our ability to focus clearly on only one thing. I see this in my classes all the time. Students seem to require constant stimulation, constant entertainment; it’s rare when they can all focus on one task for any length of time. Our attention spans are suffering from the constant battering of our daily electronic lives.

As I sit at the airport waiting for my flight, the effects of this phenomenon are obvious. No one talks anymore. In a waiting-room filled with people, the only ones I see talking are talking to a machine.

I tried chatting with my neighbor in several different places as I wandered the airport. Each time I smiled at someone and said something innocuous, a conversation-starter, an ice-breaker, it fell on deaf ears. Or rather, ears that were attuned only to the earbuds that connected them to an electronic device of some sort. Of the several times I tried, I got no reply. Not one.

In a vast room filled with people, I had no one to talk to.

How sad is that?

Looking someone in the eyes, seeing how they stand, how they smell, how tall they are, how they fluff back their hair while they talk – these are ways that we connect with other people. Ways we make friends (real, flesh-and-blood friends). They convey so much more than just a FB name or a thumbs-up or an e-mail message!

I choose to opt out of servitude. I like my interactions real, not virtual. Connecting with people, face to face, is one of my greatest pleasures while traveling. I love hearing and seeing how my kids process the world! I refuse to be a slave to technology.

How about you?