Epiphanies come when I’m feeding out slack.
Don’t tell my climbing partner. Because when he’s leading his way up a strenuous pitch of rock, he likes to know that I am watching with rapt attention, feeding out the rope in perfect increments, absolutely focused on his every micro-move, so that, should he fall, I will catch that fall, by moving the rope into brake position, without any undue delay. Like a Ninja. Or more, like a Time Traveler who can actually bend time backwards to catch him before he quite realizes he’s about to fall.
I’m a good belayer. Safe. Focused. Capable.
But mostly, I daydream.
I do look up. I don’t even wear the fancy little mirror glasses that allow you to keep your cervical vertebrae relaxed while still paying close attention to your spidering-up-a-cliff partner. They look uncool, but I covet them, because I look up like a woman whose name translates as Cranes Her Neck. And yet, something in the repetitively familiar movement of paying out the rope (and my partner’s capable moves) lets my brain switch into alpha mode. I’m paying attention, but at the same time, I’m also thinking, “20 years is a long time to be doing this. And to still be so mediocre. I should write a column and call it The Lifelong Practice of Mediocrity.”
I have a horror of mediocrity.
Aside: Once, I asked a sweet and congenial colleague, “Would you rather be mediocre but happy, or tortured but brilliant?”
He didn’t understand the question. There was no neurosis in him. He wasn’t going to win a Nobel, a MacArthur, a Pulitzer, and it didn’t occur to him to lament that. So I guess that answered that question.
This horror of mediocrity has risen up, over and over, for me, as a rock-climber, because I have literally been practicing this sport for 22 years and I still suck. I wouldn’t describe myself as a rock-climber at a dinner party, even though my partner and I have opted to put our kid in day care two days a week in order to go climbing together, even though that commitment pretty much defines our summer and our schedule and our availability for camping trips, BBQs, dinner parties and other social gatherings in which someone might be inspired to ask me, “so what do you do?”, leading to an uncomfortable pause in which I wrestle with how to apologize for my privilege, this sheer self-indulgence and to explain this time dedication to something I am clearly so hopeless at.
I told Toronto journalist, Katrina Onstad, author of The Weekend Effect, about my Monday night climbing dates with a girlfriend, and the way I, novelty chaser, variety junkie, life sampler, mediocre climber and time-miserly mother, had come to enjoy the commitment of that, the way a relationship can gently deepen with regular time spent doing something together. I told her these Monday nights had made me consider the benefits of doing fewer things more frequently.
And she congratulated me.
“That sounds like the text book definition of a hobby!” she said.
Onstad’s book has been packaged as manifesto on reclaiming your weekends from the cult of overwork, but it’s really an exploration of how a person can self-actualize, how to live, how you can step into the flow of time and be aware of the fact it is whooshing past you, what things you need to do to experience the requisite sensory invigoration of the rapids, the snowmelt, the salmon run, the shifting seasons and fleetingness of it all.
I tabbed and sticky-noted every other page of the book – it was so full of insight and the latest science and her thoughtful interpretations of it. And Onstad, productive and accomplished author and topic expert, was congratulating me?!? I would have laughed off her and the hopelessly retro word, if this weren’t her domain of expertise, gleaned over at least a year of deep research.
“You experience an increase in mastery week after week, you’re becoming expert at something. A hobby is something you do only for the sake of the process. Not for any salary. It’s physically beneficial. You’re totally immersed. You’re getting lost in flow state. And you’re also keeping a relationship going, which is the best of both worlds – a physical hobby that has a social component. It’s the perfect combination. That’s cool. Going deeper rather than flitting between a million things is hard because of our dwindling attention spans and FOMO, but really, that’s the ultimate in leisure.”
Her words zinged back to me, as I fed out rope by the arm-length as my partner neared the top of the climb and I prepared to switch gears and move my own body up that improbably grippy granite wall. That phrase, A Lifelong Pursuit of Mediocrity, was unloaded of its horror, and repacked with jubilation. I had been putting the emphasis on the wrong word all this time. It wasn’t the mediocrity that mattered at all. Living in a region saturated with professional athletes and former Olympians can do funny things to your sense of accomplishment. Amateur starts to sound like a dirty word. But it’s not!
As Onstad writes, “Nobody cares how good you are at your hobby but you. A hobby is not about winning, it’s about doing one thing deeply.”
I am an amateur rock-climber.
According to Onstad’s research on hobbies and leisure, this inoculates me from dementia, depression, mental decline, suicidal tendencies, and incidentally, makes me more likely to win a Nobel Prize. Time to stop self-flagellating that I’m not a 5.13 climber and gear up.
I have a 22 year ongoing relationship with a physical practice that invites a profound and deep interaction with Nature, gravity, my body, my mind, my life partner, other friends; that shapes my travel and adventures; and that I have managed to sustain through job changes, country swaps and having a kid. I might even have another 20 years in me.
Lifelong, you see? It’s not about mediocrity, at all. It’s the lifelong pursuit, of anything. For the win.