The Cycle of Passion
Maya Angelou once said, “My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.”
Maya really says it all right there, doesn’t she? For me, and probably most people reading this blog, my passion is climbing. I found it the first moment of the first day I ever went to a climbing gym. It was a feeling of being alive, and energized. I wasn’t sure how climbing—which, at first, was simply a matter of moving around on a bunch of plastic holds screwed into a sheet of plywood—made me feel this way. I just knew that I wanted to keep it in my life forever.
Over time, the world of climbing opened up and became even more interesting and consuming. There were all those milestones—my first outdoor project, my first first hard redpoint, my first big-wall, my first big wall free climb—and with each one, climbing needled itself deeper into me and became part of the fabric of my soul.
As climbers, we should count ourselves lucky to have actually found a passion in life—something that pulses with each heartbeat, something that gets us up a little earlier each day, with a little more energy, a little more drive, and whole lot more meaning. Not everyone in this world is so lucky, and often times, when that passion is missing, it often seems that we turn to unhealthy obsessions to fill that primal need.
Finding a passion in life isn’t easy, but that’s what makes it so special when you do find it. Before climbing, I played a bunch of sports—anything physical. I was the girl out on the field roughhousing with the boys rather than playing with dolls and toy kitchens. For some reason, each sport that I played ultimately fizzled. I just got burnt out, or something. With swimming, I remember the moment as clearly as the water of the pool that I was about to dive into. I looked down into the deep end, and like a sucker punch, it just hit me that I couldn’t fathom spending anymore days going back and forth, back and forth, lap after lap, like a fish in a tank. I loved swimming, but there was no progression beyond shaving seconds off your times. The spark was gone.
I quit tennis, too. Whacking the little yellow ball back and forth, back and forth, in the blistering sun, caged in the tennis court. Doing drills on a team and having that structure definitely kept me engaged—but where is the future in that? I was a shrimp in giants game. Wimbledon wasn’t in the cards, and I couldn’t quite see myself really loving and thriving with “tennis practice” as an adult.
I dropped all team sports the day I entered the climbing gym. At first, it was all about the comps. I spent two to eight hours a day pulling plastic. I climbed until my hands shook, and my skin was raw and bleeding. The next morning, with taped-up tips, I went to the gym again. It made me happier than anything else. I remember feeling so excited over whether I’d try the red route or the orange one. Would I climb till closing? Would the guys at the gym show me some cool new technique? There was the feeling of problem solving and discovery, alongside all the physical aspects. Add in the fact that I had no coach, no one barking drills at me, telling me what to do, when to do it, where to do it, the drive was all mine, I owned it.
I competed in national competitions—a relatively new thing back then. I won a bunch of national titles and even some international ones as well.
Soon, though, I felt that stagnation creeping in. Was I really going to be satisfied climbing indoors for the rest of my life—climbing on the same walls, and going up and down, up and down, on the same orange and red routes?
If there wasn’t such a thing as outdoor climbing, I bet the fire inside of me would have faded, just as I had given up tennis and swimming. But, fortunately, the world of climbing is infinitely bigger than the rectangular quadrants of a swimming pool or tennis court. The guys at the gym took me outdoors, and the process of discovery and reinvention began for me again. I became a sport climber. There were dozens of cool, new crags, and hundreds of new routes to try—all totally different than competing in the gym. I could travel, meet new people. I set goals and accomplished them. I climbed my first 5.14a, and received notoriety for this achievement.
Soon, though, even sport climbing began to feel routine. Clipping chains at the top of another 80-foot chunk of stone, lowering down, brushing holds, and doing it all again was repetitive, even if the routes were different. The act of discovery and exploration that I loved seemed to fade.
But once again, climbing showed it’s incredible capacity to draw you in. Every time you think you’ve reached a dead end in climbing, this sport has a way of magically conjuring up some new door that leads you into another exciting world.
Sure enough, sport climbing led me to big-wall trad climbing. I met and married my main climbing partner and we spent almost the next decade together pushing ourselves on the big walls, and hard trad routes, of Yosemite.
But … even that ended—in more ways that one.
What I’ve realized over the years is that all things follow natural cycles of growth, reaching an apex, then decline, and ultimately death. It’s the only way to continue growing. You see this in everything, from the four changing seasons, to the sun’s path through the heavens.
When I look back at my climbing career, I see this same wax/wane phenomenon in everything. I guess there’s a lesson there, which is, be careful about those moments when you achieve that long-term goal—whether it’s climbing your first 5.14, or free-climbing your first big wall, or your hardest route ever. It’s a time to celebrate, but it also might be the beginning of a period of natural decline.
Accepting these facts of life has taken me a few years, I’ll be honest. And I would be lying if I said I’ve fully accepted it. Probably because I’m so stubborn and I refuse to accept that even I am subject to the natural laws of the universe. It hasn’t always been easy. But what saved me from stagnation in my climbing career, one riddled with injury after injury and and a desperate desire to push a broken body, was motherhood.
Having a kid is hard work, no doubt. But I’ve also found it’s like adding in a new passion to your life. Motherhood has been the only other thing besides climbing that has fulfilled me in a way that goes deep, like it becomes woven into the fabric of your soul. I remember the day I first called myself a “climber”—it was just who I was, and no one could take that away from me, not that project I couldn’t do, and not even those rebels in Kyrgyzstan that kidnapped us for some of the most horrific and scaring days of my life.
Well, the same thing has happened now. I’m a mom, and no one can take that away from me. It’s just who I am.
To find something interesting that you love, and share it—that’s passion. To learn about perseverance and dedication—that’s passion. To have those highs and lows, and routines that you try to perfect, but often fail to do so—that’s passion. I get all of that reading to my cuddling little boy each night, and chasing him screaming through the meadow the next day. Sometimes, I find myself in tears of self-doubt that I can hack it as a mom, reminiscent of those times I found myself at the end of the rope after being shut down by the crux for the hundredth time, just as I find myself cherishing all the small victories, as if finding some new foot beta, like when Theo says the sweetest thing in the world. My parents gave me perhaps the greatest gift instilling in me the drive for passion. My mom is a diehard needlepointer and my dad a lifelong mountain lover.
Sometimes, I feel like my passion for being a mom, and a climber still, is just about surviving each day. But like Maya Angelou said, I think it’s also important to remember that amid all these challenges, the setbacks and tough times are really just opportunities to thrive.
And if you can do it with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style, well, I think that’s a pretty good goal to have as well.