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. How is its will greater than gravity?
“Who wants to go first?” Ben asks. He has an easy smile and a peaceful way. He is doing what he loves.
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, hands in all the right places, feet gripping granite.
A father and son sit on a ledge a couple hundred feet up. I will ascend to a spot just below them, and, as I climb, they offer encouragement.
“Good hands,” the father calls.
“There’s a hold just an inch over on the right; stretch,” the son scouts.
I am up my allotted mark before I realize what I have done.
“Thanks,” I smile to the men above me and wave, now that I can safely take my hands away from the wall.
“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 me and see miles of mountain capped in blue sky.
“Are you done looking?” Ben calls, surprised, and I realize the primary difference between 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. I see my world; Ben sees the world.
“Yep, done, got what I need.” I assure him and then begin the bounding down. Rappeling’s freedom surprises me. As I push my feet off the rock wall and begin my controlled freefall, this joyful bounding is the gift I receive for working my way through fear, believing in myself, and trusting in my friends, Chris and Eleanor, below, should my own will fail me.
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 am enough to support me.
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 I saw couples evolve around me.
Some of my loneliness was about race, some about socioeconomic class, and some of it was about being so distinctly different looking and feeling from everyone else on campus, perhaps because of race, perhaps because of class but maybe because of style and choice. 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 before me keeps me in step, keeps the steel chip that is placed gingerly in the nook from having to rescue me every time. 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 the ‘others’ around me.
Moments later, we are sending Chris up. Eleanor and I learn the delicate balance of helping someone climb from the ground below. Her life, if she falls, is linked to the coiled rope in our hands. It is another lesson for me to absorb, the lesson of what happens when you strike a comfortable balance between not belonging and connecting. It is the delicate nuance of life: you venture out on your own, your choices might make or break you (or maybe not), but if you make a bad choice, if you have done life right, you just might have a rope and some hands below reeling you in slowly and safely.
We pitch a few more times, going farther up and trying more complicated routes. After lunch, we hike over to another area where we wrap up the day with the most difficult pitches; each of us eager for this challenge. 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.
From a 2006 essay I just rediscovered on my computer.