I was having a hard time brainstorming blog posts this past week. My big work assignment was to read the body image autobiographies of my almost 50 students and when one of my students mentioned that she was a rock climber, I was reminded of my first experience actually rock climbing. I searched around on my computer for a piece that I had written about it (and never done anything with) and decided to post the abbreviated version of it. Here it is:
We arrive at the base of the mountain after a forty minute hike. The rock face in front of us creates a 90 degree angle with the ledge where we stand. Our guide, “Young Ben”, teaches us the physics of rock climbing, leaving us to marvel at how a small piece of steel (less than a half-inch in diameter) slipped into a rock nook might keep us safe.
“Who wants to go first?” Ben asks.
We are silent for a moment, each of us still pondering the physics of the sport.
“I’ll go,” I volunteer and strap on my helmet.
I scramble up the rock face, feet gripping granite. If you want to climb rocks, you have to consider falling down them. The fear of falling is part of the experience. Indeed, what I am scaling is my fear, what I am outclimbing as I ascend is my fear. I force myself forward, looking up- instead of down. Isn’t this the very nature of my whole life?
Each time I hit a roadblock, I concentrate my focus, squinting my eyes until I find my escape. I reach the top before I realize what I have done.
“Alright, lean back, hold the rope, and look around. Check it out,” Ben calls.
I follow his instructions, suddenly aware that I am near the top of a mountain, dangling on a string with a chip of steel holding me in place. I glance around and see miles of mountain capped in blue sky.
“Are you done looking?” Ben calls, surprised, and I realize the primary difference between the two of us. I am climbing the rock face to climb the rock face, and Ben climbs the rock face to see the world. I am seeing myself in the challenge of each hand placement; each step is a gauntlet for me to navigate.
And there it is: my early life dangling before me, disguised loosely in the metaphor of rock climbing. Here is what my chameleon teens and my broad-spectrum twenties taught me: I can scale the challenge.
Through college, I struggled with feeling alone. I was one of only a few Latinas on campus, and I felt it. I felt it when I was told that I was not really Puerto Rican, felt it when I learned a friend’s father had the FBI look into my family, felt it when a college administrator said “You must be a Spanish major”, felt it when a college admissions counselor said “We let you in not because we thought you would be an academic powerhouse but because of what you might add to this campus” in a knowing, obnoxious way, felt it when I saw other families’ on special weekends, felt it when couples evolved around me.
In those years, I wanted desperately to break the barrier I felt between myself and others. And on this rock face, I am reminded of what I learned through an early life full of mistakes and mysteries. Seeing my world clearly keeps me in step, keeps the steel chip that is placed gingerly in the nook from having to rescue me. I can rescue me.
The point is not that I belong now. It’s that, for so long, I thought I must. That maybe if I were desirable, it wouldn’t matter to people that I was Puerto Rican or poor. I thought belonging was a pre-requisite for support and care, and what I realized was that the only pre-requisite for those things was my own willingness to give them to myself. Getting to this place was difficult, but in its difficulties, in its challenge, I found that I am comfortable and capable most anywhere I end up. I am better, richer because of what not belonging has taught me. I am a person with little judgment, a person willing to try, a person game for the experience of life. I am difficult to offend, comfortable in being the other, sensitive to others around me.
We pitch a few more times, trying more complicated routes. I scramble up the rock face with grit set in on my teeth and on my skin. I am wearing this mountain on me and in me, and I am different for it. Stronger. Surer. More certain despite the lack of absolute safety in my endeavor.