Hello Climbing, My Old Friend

The Stone Mind in Las Vegas, NV. © Susánica Tam Photography
The Stone Mind in Las Vegas, NV. © Susánica Tam Photography

In this life, if we’re lucky, we will have many friends and many different types of friends, but there are some people whose friendship seems to transcend the dulling effects of distance and time. These are the friends you can see after 10 years separation and pick up some unfinished conversation as you’d been in the other room, not on opposite sides of the country. Climbing is this way for me.

I started climbing when I was 12. I’ll be 35 this year. Sometime over the past decade, I came to see climbing as a form of relationship, with phases and cycles: we grow closer, we drift apart. Once I stopped climbing for more than a year. My life wasn’t bad without it, just different, but it felt so good when I came back to it. I was out of shape and my skin was thin and frail and my toes balked at the torque and squeeze of my Five Tens, but after a few routes I sighed out loud. Damn, I’ve missed this, I thought, looking up into the copper cone of autumn light slanting over the crag

At various times in my life I’ve played tennis and basketball (poorly), played lacrosse, mountain biked, skateboarded, rollerbladed (don’t judge), snowboarded, and played the guitar. I’ve let every one of these hobbies die, and not because they weren’t fun as hell. But when I got injured, or busy, or something else distracted me, I never felt that gravitational pull the way I have with climbing. Every once in a while I’ll pick up a ball or a board and dork around and it feels great, but I know I probably won’t stick with it.

The climber/climbing relationship is like any other — it can be healthy or not so healthy. Some people use climbing to fill a void. Some have co-dependent relationships with climbing — it’s their obsession and their sense of self-worth. Some people start climbing for one reason and end up doing it for another. Most of us climb for several reasons at once, as professional climber Emily Harrington explained with refreshing honesty in a recent blog post.

For me, climbing has been a means of focusing my attention and energy, of achieving the flow state, of staying fit, of exploring my fears and my limits, of creating a sense of self, of connecting with other people. Heck, most of my jobs have been in some way climbing related.

But when I was young, climbing and I had a needier relationship. The gym and the crags were comfort zones where I could retreat from other issues in my life and feel in control of at least one thing. Back then, failure or success on the wall meant a lot to me — probably too much. Now I sail on a more even keel. If I don’t climb for a few weeks or even a few months, I don’t get upset (although my wife can attest that I grow a little antsy). Like one of those enduring friendships, I know climbing will be there when I return.

Like the poet Yeat’s symbolic spiral staircase, I’ve come back around to the same spot with climbing many times over, but every time my perspective has changed, my view grown larger to encompass more of the landscape.

It can be scary to step away from something that matters so much to you. But over the years I’ve learned that, if the right kind of connection is there, we can almost always come back. We can slip back into the climb midway, as if we’d never stopped.

What Are Friends For?

I recently shared, with my 800-odd Facebook “friends,” a link to a New York Times article called “Friends of a Certain Age,” by Alex Williams. I found the piece to be honest and insightful, and I had recently been considering the phenomenon it identifies, namely that we tend to form fewer close friendships as we enter our 30s and 40s. (For context, I’m 33, married, of the middlish class, with a desk job and no kids.)

As we approach this fateful period in our lives, the article posits, “it becomes tougher to meet the three conditions … considered crucial to making close friends: proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other.” Throughout the piece, Williams offers a collection of quotes from psychologists and sociologists, as well as regular folks ranging in years from 32 to 46, all in support of the idea that the soil for friendship is most fertile during a person’s younger years.

When I posted the link on Facebook, I got some strong responses. My friends didn’t seem to agree. “Dude. This article is seriously bleak. I’m completely unwilling to accept such a dim view of socializing as an adult.” Said one I’ve known since elementary school. “You have to leave the rocking chair on your front porch to make friends,” said another I met after grad school. I think it’s natural to balk at the idea that friend-making tapers off at some pre-determined point — in fact, I have made several great friends from my late 20s through today — but the truth is, friendships do change from one period of life to the next. And as Stuart Smalley used to say, that’s OK.

In our younger years — elementary school through college, say — we tend to have a lot in common with the folks we befriend. They are usually from a similar socio-economic situation, the same geographical context, approximately our age (and thus, dealing with similar periods of physical, psychological, and emotional development), and so on. Most importantly, we’re thrown together with them, via schools, on a daily basis. Our classmates share with us more than half of our waking hours throughout the most formative years of our lives. We often become friends with people who live in our neighborhoods, and after spending hours with them in school, we spend hours more with them after school. Sometimes we spend the wee hours together, too, talking wide-eyed in the dark, sharing our fears, hopes, and half-formed adolescent philosophies during sleepovers.

As we grow, we see our friends come into their own, see them win glory on the playground or the sports field, see them embarrassed before rooms full of peers. Vulnerable, confused, elated, we see them as they meet their first romantic interests. When I was in high school, I dated a girl for little other reason than the fact that my best friend was dating someone from the same group of kids and I felt left out. In my freshman year of college, when the girl for whom I harbored a crush told me that she liked me, too, I called that same friend first to share the news. At that time of life, friendship meant something visceral. My parents were always there for me, but a parent’s response was not what I needed, then. Only a friend, at a similar point in life and who knew my back story from the ground level could offer the understanding and the validation I needed at that moment.

In those early years, a friend was more than just someone to talk to — a friend was the person who made you feel less odd, less alone. I can’t speak for all adolescents, but for me, from the time I was 12 all the way through my college years, my life was in constant flux, unbearably sweet one moment and unbearably sad, frustrating, or boring the next. My friends were my saviors. When I was feeling anxious in junior year of college, I’d go to crash on my friend’s tiny dorm couch as an escape from the torment of my own mind (not to mention my strange roommate, who lived entirely off of frozen cheese steaks, Tasty Cakes, and masturbated frequently and without sufficient discretion). In college, my friends’ very proximity normalized my atmosphere. I did not only appreciate my friends — I needed them.

Maybe my experience was unusual. I am an only child, after all. Maybe, in the absence of siblings, I turned to friends to fill a familial connection that others had. I can’t say for sure, but now, as I think about the friends I made in elementary, middle, and high school, as well as college, I wonder if it would be possible to form the same type of friendships now. I don’t need friendships in the same way any more, which I take as a good thing. I hope that most people in their mid-30s don’t require the validation and constant support of friends as I did a decade or two ago.

Today, my wife ably fills the role of confident and best friend. We go to dinner and watch movies together, go for runs and hikes, and talk through our issues (which seem much less dire than they did during my dramatic younger years). My newer friends, ones made in graduate school and on, number fewer and know me a little less deeply than my old ones. We exist at more of a distance from each other, as we were more fully formed, so to speak, when first we met. That is not to say that these newer friends aren’t of great value (one of my grad-school friends officiated my wedding, for example), or that we won’t come to know each other better over time (I read somewhere that five years are required for people to form that deeper sort of friendship bond), but I think it really is hard to create bonds as intimate as those formed in the tumultuous smithy of adolescence.

There are, no doubt, a million reasons why a person might disagree with the premise laid out above. A person still single in their 30s or 40s, or a recently divorced person, or just a very deeply social person — all might maintain that their friendships are the same in number and in kind as always they were. And who am I to argue? I have only my own experiences and observations. But from what I have seen and felt, the nature of friendship is destined to change as we grow older, as is our understanding of time and our hierarchy of priorities.

Friendships are an important factor in a complete and satisfying life at every stage. But to shake your fist at the changing geometry of friendship is as futile as Ahab’s rage against the white whale, which ultimately was his own fate, ineluctable.