We got our tickets to see Alex Honnold a month in advance. It seemed like a cool little event worth attending, not because of Alex’s climbing ability, which is incredible, but because Alex seemed like a thoughtful person who had something to say. I was more interested in him as a person than him as a climber. Did he have something to say, and more importantly, did he have something to say worth listening to?
As the date of the event grew nigh, I realized he would be in town the day I returned from work related travel. I didn’t feel well on the drive home and started to question whether I would attend the book signing and even the presentation later in the evening – which was what I really wanted to attend.
How badly did I really want to go to this thing? I asked myself.
My climbing days were lean at best and non-existent at worse. I can’t even call myself a weekend warrior as work and kids suck up most of my time and every choice invariably requires giving up one thing for another. I had also lost touch with those in the climbing community as our lives seemed to go in different directions and I felt like a poser calling myself a part of it anymore. So with 30 minutes between getting home and the book signing started, I was still up in the air, but the family wanted to go and so I hurried over. How bad could it be, right?
When we opened the door to The Desert Rat we were greeted to a line snaking its way around the small outdoor store. I don’t know why I was surprised, but I was and felt a little discombobulated as we meandered through the crowd to the end of the line. We stopped and visited with friends we had not seen in what seemed like ages and I felt a twinge of remorse for the lost time because it great to see them again.
As I stood in line I realized I didn’t know anything about Honnold’s book and wasn’t sure I wanted to buy a copy just for the hell of it. What was it about? I thought. Is it just about climbing? I finally asked a guy behind me if I could look at his copy to see what the book was about.
“In Alone on the Wall, Honnold recounts the seven most astonishing climbing achievements so far in his meteoric and still-evolving career.”
It sounded okay but along with not having time to climb, I don’t have a lot of time to read, so I choose my books carefully. I didn’t want to waste my time reading a book that just recounted climbing stories. I handed the book back to the guy.
Do I really want to spend my money on this? I thought. I honestly just wanted to hear him speak. That being said, I also didn’t want to spend an hour in line just to get up there and shake the guy’s hand – how weird would that be? So I bought a copy of the book and got my obligatory signature and photo, chatted with some more friends and then headed home for dinner.
We had time to kill after eating so we sat down to watch a TV show and again I found myself up in the air about attending the presentation. I was home, it was warm and cozy, and I was relaxed and weary. It was raining and cold outside and I didn’t want to leave again. But my curiosity won out. I wanted to hear what Alex, the guy I had seen in so many Reel Rock films, had to say, because in the films he came across as someone who could stand alone and think for himself, who lived by his own code seemingly humbly and with humor, and who was not afraid to put his opinion out there. That was who I came to see and that was who I hoped to read about in the book.
In other words, I wanted to listen to Alex because I liked him.
So I bundled up and headed out again. The auditorium was packed with excited fans and when Jason Hurst finally introduced Alex, the crowd burst into applause and anticipatory cheering.
Right off the bat I was stoked about his presentation because he told us he was going to talk about his recent trip to Kenya. He was relatable, funny, witty, humble, snarky, and the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed guy I had seen in the films. It was a pleasure to walk through his adventures with him. But the best parts were those when he wandered off into the world of ethics and morality.
Honnold spoke about dying glaciers, mourning elephants, and the struggle between conservation and destruction as if in wide-eyed wonder at what he had stumbled upon. His words and emotion were a mixture of awe and dismay, of sincerity and conviction and at times he seemed to be thinking out loud – and we the audience could hear him as he formed thoughts about what he had discovered.
It was refreshingly genuine. He wasn’t regurgitating what he had heard from others and he wasn’t promoting environmental tag lines that revealed the cool club he belonged to. He spoke clearly and honestly about what he saw.
Being of like mind I thought, if there was ever an effective spokesman for the moral crises that humanity faces in regard to our disregard of the earth’s systems and life and our intimate place in them, however reluctantly he may be, he is it.
Honnold did not pitch a movie about environmentalism and then spend the whole film showcasing his climbing. He went on a climbing trip and tripped into something significant that impacted him – and then it impacted us. He did not state any absolutes or try to convince the audience of anything, he stated simply what he saw and invited us to see and experience it with him. It was compelling.
At the end of his presentation I discovered that all of the proceeds from his book are going to his foundation to give to people who need it the most. I work hard for my money and have precious little of it, so I was thrilled to find out that my hard earned $20 was going to more than shaking a man’s hand, and more importantly, going toward something I care deeply about.
Mary Oliver, in describing Ralph Waldo Emerson’s transcendentalism said, “All the world is taken in through the eye, to reach the soul, where it becomes more, representative of a realm deeper than appearances: a realm ideal and sublime, the deep stillness that is, whose whole proclamation is the silence and the lack of material instance in which, patiently and radiantly, the universe exists.”
Emerson said, “Prayer is the contemplation of the facts of life from the higher point of view.” And I think that is what Honnold shared. He climbed, but while he did, he took in the world where it reached his soul and was transformed into something more. It was about more than climbing. It was about what climbing invites you into, what you can see, and what you become through it – if you choose. I saw Honnold using his climbing wealth to give back.
And perhaps therein lies the greatest responsibility of those who contemplate and think and are moved to act: to let the world penetrate the soul and then open one’s mouth and speak authentically about it.
While I admire Alex Honnold the climber, and I know it is that which got him the platform from which to speak in the first place, his climbing is not what moved me. He moved me. I am a fan of the man and I hope that his experiences compel him to speak more, to share more of the internal make-up of who he is, because beautiful form in a person of substance is an inspiring combination the likes of which lit up my cynical mind. And the best part? He inspired my kids. That alone was worth the price of five books- and every minute it takes to read my copy.
“I ask you to stand with me at this new turning-point of our life, that we may look before and after, and judge ourselves alike in the light of early dreams and accomplished goals. We cannot too often accept the challenge of self-examination. It will hearten, it will steady, it will moralize us to reassess our hopes, restate our ideals, and make manifest to ourselves again the principles and the purposes upon which we act. We are else without chart upon a novel voyage.”~Woodrow Wilson, The Ideals of America
I’m not sure how often we get to look back, or do look back, at the life we have built – especially when intentional decisions were made in the hope of a desired end. I have not lived an intentional life, at least not the way some do, setting goals like a road map to some desired future outcome. I mostly lived my life by desires and found creative ways to fulfill them. They were short term goals that satisfied an itch but that ultimately got me nowhere beyond the goal. The person I had become had come into being absentmindedly, as if I were merely a passenger on the ship rather than the captain. It was not until my mid-thirties that I began to know who I was and what I wanted.
When I awoke and realized that I was the captain of my ship and took the helm, I saw myself and began to understand how all of the pieces of my life shaped the internal form of who I was and I liked who I was despite how directionless I had lived. The haphazardness of my life had also shaped me. There is a certain beauty in the mystery and discovery of self but there is also the dull remorse that follows discovery, as knowledge reveals lost time and opportunity.
The eventual awakening that provides a clear view into the exhilarating array of possibilities of a self-directed life if not made early in life is short-lived and inevitably constrained by the decisions made along the way that anchor one to a certain path. Perhaps this is why people seemingly stop living. They may never have really lived before, but once that perspective is gained, the burden of reality is that much heavier to bear and then all that is left is the struggle to carry on and not succumb to routine, resignation or distraction.
Two years ago I sat on the precipice of a decision. Like Janus, the god of beginnings and transitions, I knew enough to know that every decision was a one-sided door and that walking through any one of them meant not going through any of the others, and further, that once I crossed the barrier between then and now, my life would turn down the road chosen – for better or worse. This decision had the potential to set my life on a trajectory of my choosing. So sitting at a soccer tournament in Las Vegas, challenged by the book I was reading, I let the world know of my impending choice, and then I jumped.
My calculations were accurate and the door I chose brought me where I wanted to go, but ironically, not what I wanted to become. Like being granted a wish from a genie, the consequences were only visible once the wish was attained.
When we are young, we don’t understand the weight of our decisions and that’s probably good. The young do so many things that the experienced are no longer willing to risk. They build mountains and seize opportunities that bring joy later in life when security and safety are paramount. But there is a difference between wanting something and wanting to be something. Not being something as in a profession, like being a lawyer, but being in terms of who you are – what you are. The first is external, the second internal.
I didn’t know what I had at the time of making my decision – which was time. Sure, there were struggles and desire for things and opportunities I didn’t have, but there was a plenitude of time for thoughtful introspection, for the formulation and sorting of ideas, for crafting ideas into something meaningful to my life. There was time to connect – to people and place. It was a fertile land, both mentally and physically. And now, though I am on the path that I chose and wanted, I look back with longing. Is that the curse of growing older? Or is it the challenge of growing older – to fight for pockets of time that enable you to infuse the mind and soul with intangible riches? To deposit life’s capital into your internal bank account that runs dry without use?
I am impotent with busyness; my mind and body consumed with work and chores and focused learning but starved for sustenance and nourishment. There is no room to roam, to let my mind float and to see. My body lacks the soreness of labor and movement. A cold front has moved into my being and I am trapped under the inversion of my decisions. I’ve succumbed so quickly – more quickly than I’d like to admit. Routine, comfort, and mindless entertainment have unwittingly become my companions. How quickly we divest ourselves of the responsibility of living intentionally.
But like Mary Oliver said, I have seen the difference between doing nothing, doing a little, and the redemptive act of true effort. As we get older, the dichotomy between how things are and how we’d like them to be is stark and so it is redemption we seek – renewal and meaning and depth – that signify a life well-lived, well-worn, and hard trod – but to have fulfilled that end begs repeating the question: What do I want and how badly do I want it? Because life is not static and neither are we.
“…I don’t know exactly what prayer is
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”