Climbing is a Metaphor


Muttering under my breath from the middle observation deck, I watch as the climber once again skips the logical step and reaches for the unattainable blue hold. Your foot has to go higher, I whisper, and then release the exasperated sigh that has been building in my throat, as his hands slip again and he swings wide of the face.

I’ve been watching for days. I see the climbers, in all their many forms. I see them, with their too-tight spandex shorts and professional climbing shoes and environmentally-friendly t-shirts advertising their participation in that trendy outdoors adventure, trying to look at home at this indoor mountain. I see them, with their stiff jeans and fashionable tops, inappropriately non-functional footwear, not at all dressed for the occasion but just as eager to succeed. I see them come with confidence or trepidation, but I see them all leave disappointed.

They have been asking me to climb, but I will not. I am a champion watcher. I do not climb.

I saw him, carelessly casual in his shiny blue athletic shorts that bunch around his crotch when he wears the harness. I saw him saunter in, exuding the egotism of one who has never seen struggle or failure. Even now, I see him as the adventurous child he must have been once—see him as his lithe toddler’s body dangles from tree limbs, from the top shelf of his father’s study, from the gutters on the roof of their fine house. I see his mother below him, indulgently scolding, a worried look on her face as she urges him to come down. But I see now that he could never have come down—down so she might tether him to an earthbound existence, when he so wanted to fly. With his mother’s outstretched arms as his safety net, he climbs higher, swings more wildly, laughs more loudly. That day, I watched him scoff at the required harness, a precaution he could never require—for who but he would be more sure of himself in the air? I heard him say, no, he hadn’t climbed rock walls before, but he had climbed real rocks and real houses and real trees to such great heights without the assistance of a spotter or a rope, so he’d try the middle face, please.

The middle face, which slanted steadily outward until it reached the height of the middle observation deck, where it jutted sharply out so that the climber would hang, back parallel to the ground and face to the sky, resisting the pull of gravity and fear, until he could creep over the nose of the rock and continue his crawl towards the crown. The middle face, which the expert instructors approached cautiously in their own climbing attempts.

The middle face? they ask, Mightn’t he want to start with, perhaps the left face, something a little easier? But only the middle face could do for him, and he begins his ascent. He scales the chin and lips, hangs from the nostrils of his foe and climbs the bridge of the nose with ease. He is at the eyebrows. He is too self-assured, too cocky. And his arms are burning with the exertion. He doubts he will hang on much longer. Desperate measures are required. So with a mighty grunt and a thrust of his legs, he lunges fiercely for the top, hoping to launch himself to the treasured hairline and skip the forehead entirely. Upward he soars higher and higher body straight and graceful face contorted as if by his eyes alone he could pull himself skyward arms reaching reaching reaching until almost—

But no. His fingers grasp empty air, and the shock registers in his eyes as his body changes trajectory. The scorned harness does not scorn him, and he does not crash to the ground. But his dreams—oh, such dreams of flight—they do not shatter, but rather hang midair above the observation deck, dangling at the end of a green nylon rope.

I am a champion watcher and criticizer of the climbers. But I do not climb.

I saw her too. She came unprepossessing, in jeans and t-shirt and doubtful expression, dragged along by a more adventurous friend. I’ve never done this before, she murmurs to the instructor who straps the harness more tightly around her legs. Can you show me how, can you teach me to climb? With encouraging smile, the blond pony-tailed instructor assures her that she will be a professional in no time. She points out the first steps, gives pointers in how to hang on in the rough patches, identifies a few potential pitfalls. She reminds this doubting student that she will not fall, but even if she does, the harness will catch her before she even knows it.

She trembles as she approaches the wall. She places her hands where the instructor has showed her—left hand on grey, right hand on green—and her feet on the appointed places—left foot orange, right foot green—like a high-stakes game of Twister. There, elevated half a foot off the ground, the fear overtakes her. Straighten your left leg! the instructor laughs, straighten it and you’ll be able to reach the blue stone with your right hand. She reaches for the indicated hold, but her legs will not straighten. It is not a deficiency of strength, but of courage. She falls off the wall from that starting position of a mere six inches, panicking the whole way down. The instructor, her friends, the other climbers reassure her. You can do it, they say. Try again. They want her to succeed. Try again. She obliges. For excruciating minutes she crouches there, trembling against the face of the wall, too afraid to straighten her legs and reach. Again and again they cheer her on: you can do it, just straighten your leg! But she cannot. She will not move beyond that first step, and so instead steps away. I shake my head in sadness. If only she would have tried harder.

I watch her, I pity her, but I will not climb with her.

But then he comes in. He captivates my attention.

He has been here. every. day.

I have watched him return to try, again and again. He wears the same ill-fitted jeans, the same dingy-gray t-shirt, the same tousled hair and vacant expression. His eyes are glassy, bewildered, shrouded by thick unfashionable lenses that slip clumsily over his too-big flat nose; yet, once, in their depths I thought I saw something alive—something struggling against the restraints of a damaged mind—something striving for lucidity and recognition.

I saw this in a flash, the first time I watched him climb, just before he fell from the wall again. He fell from only a few feet above the ground, but he staggered and flailed as if it had been a great height. He chuckled then—loudly, self-consciously. “I fell again,” he remarked, to no one in particular. The weary instructor who had been spotting him for nearly an hour merely nodded and put out a hand to steady him. He once again turned to the wall, thinking to select a different section to climb. He chose the face of the wall that is most severe—no one could have guessed why. Perhaps it was because he has seen others climb it. It can be done, his mind might have whispered. Or perhaps the colors of the hand grips suited his childish fancy, like so many pieces of gum stuck to the wall. He approached the wall. He mounted the first foothold. Climbed a few feet. Hesitated. Fell. Once again he flailed and stumbled, like a toddler trapped in a man’s body. The instructor steadied him again.

Ready for a break? the instructor asked, daring to hope.

“No. I want to try again.”

It has been the same every day. Every day he has climbed, hesitated, fallen. He has never reached the top. He is not the only one who fails. But he is the only one who returns, without embarrassment or prejudice, to once again face the adversary. He doesn’t get angry. He isn’t frustrated. He is only persistent.

He is here today, as he has been every day before. Same ill-fitted, wrinkled clothes. Same thick glasses. Same vacant expression. Today he is the same. And today he is different.

Because today, he succeeds.

He approaches the wall without hesitation. Takes the same grips he has taken every day before. Hoists himself up a few steps. But today he does not stop to rest his arms. He has grown stronger. He reaches, again and again, propelling himself up the wall and towards the goal that has mocked him for months. He reaches the point where most fall. But he does no t fall. He continues. Step by step, he climbs, as steady as breathing. In this way, he reaches the top.

I see the flash in his eyes again. I see the flash as his eyes meet mine. He looks, as if to say See, I did it. I did it.

What he says is, Come climb with me.

I have been asked to climb many times. I always slowly shake my head, mumbling some excuse about not having the right clothes with me, not having the time. But today, my excuses will hold no water. He has done it, as he is, in the time he has.

I will not watch them anymore.

It is my turn to reach and hope to fly.

[This is the first draft of a piece for my Fiction Writing course. My professor remarked that it is more like an essay or a blog post than a fiction short story, so I thought I’d memorialize it here before it undergoes major editing. Most of the formatting is original to the blog and is not in the original draft I submitted.]