There are moments that define us- moments which mark the boundary between phases. Moments that give us direction. Like finding a tree with two painted blazes, indicating a sharp turn in the trail.
It’s been nearly a year since I last updated this blog. Truly, it is because I have been so bewildered by the sudden and constant change in my life that I’ve been unable to put it all into words. This time last year I was sitting behind the desk at a gallery, curating an award show, building props for a feature film, partnered, and living in the city. Today I am a full time environmental scientist, hiking nearly nonstop to asses and protect natural resources, single, and living in countryside solitude. I cannot express the gravity of these changes, though I am certain that the conscious decisions I have made are absolutely right. But, there was that moment- that pervasively deciding moment when I chose to veer off my path and search for another.
I had signed up for the graduate open house at the Maryland College Institute of Art- I was enrolled for a portfolio review which I was stressing over, and would be introduced to the entrepreneurial business in arts program that just started there. I had ideas for my own company- my own name and everything picked out. Products sketched and tested. I was ready. Grad school. Continuing my education would make me a full time student for 20 straight years. Eerie.
At the same time, I had accepted a job offer at an environmental science firm, falling back on my strong history in earth science and biology, for lack of other stable income options. And I was hurting. Bad. Because I felt like a sell-out, and because I had completely stopped making work. For a variety of reasons. I got anxious, I got depressed, I deteriorated.
And then a friend from work invited me rock climbing. Rock climbing. That thing I used to do six days a week. That thing that kept me grounded, and calm, and clambering forward. That love that broke my body, then my heart, and stopped me in my tracks. I was suddenly flooded with memories of my time spent on the vertical plain. Of old problems worked through to redpoint (that one little purple crimp after the roof heel hook crux move), of friendships forged in sweat and blood, of fear and triumph and pain and defeat, and of partners in whose hands my very life rested. That part of my life had been filled with the truest love and trust. I can’t believe I let all that slip away from me. Yes. It was time to get back into the harness.
The only issue was that this climbing trip happened to fall on the day of my graduate school open house. And so, I had to decide. Go to the open house, get evaluated for graduate potential, look at financing and refinancing of loans, figure out hours of work versus sleep, try to claw my small way into the art world. Or, go climb.
I took me a minute to remember the double-backed figure eight. I was tying into a toprope route, a medium grade 5.9, “Breakaway.” It was long and overhanging all the way up the 100 foot face dihedral, a real muscle pumper. When I chalked up and slid my fingers to lock in the crack, my body remembered what to do. I eased my way up to the crux- a box shaped boulder that juts 4 feet out from the corner. By the time I looked up to see it, I had gotten myself wedged way off course beneath its ceiling. If I fell here, I’d swing back into the trees.
Though there was no real danger besides a little bit of whiplash, the perceived danger was staggering. My legs were shaking, my arms on fire, my head bent awkwardly sideways to accommodate my helmet beneath the roof. I hadn’t been climbing in a few years. I hadn’t been climbing on real rock in a few years more. I wasn’t in any kind of physical or mental shape. I freaked out. Choked by fear, losing my breath, heart pounding in my ears- all the anxiety over lost art and school and love and mistakes came flooding into my mind, spinning a million words a second. All the while my legs were threatening to shake me off my ledge by their tremors, my hands cramped so badly that I couldn’t open them to grasp the next hold. I shook my head to free it of its own riot, but it didn’t help. Instead I lost my balance and dangerously barn-doored backwards before clinging even tighter to my tiny ledge, extra scared now. That next hold was just out of reach.
I took a deep breath and told myself to get it together. I spoke out loud to my body, unable to hear my own thoughts. “Ok. It’s ok. Move your left hand along the crack- there- crimp. Ok. Now inch right leg forward- got it. Now right leg highstep, now turn-“ …somehow, that worked. I pulled myself out of the corner, having finished the sequence clean. My friends below were cheering. My entire body was shaking.
Breakaway. An apt name for a milestone route. Not that it’s a particularly hard route- I’ve done it clean many times since- but that day, something shifted in me. I remembered how to calm myself down. I remembered what’s important, and what I need to focus on. All my priorities turned on their heels. I threw myself full force into my scientific job, breezing through trainings and problems and reports. I’ve been reveling in my time spent outside, remembering how once I was a little girl who found God in the beauty of nature. And who thought she was Davey Crockett (where still my mind sometimes wanders..) exploring the forest. I’m letting my heart heal and grow. I’m fostering these new friendships with new partners- climbing partners- that are deep and true and bright. I’m spending every free moment I can on that familiar vertical surface. And I’m freaking loving it. I’m making art work, writing songs, taking pictures, reading, loving, and living. I’m trail running and backpacking and bike commuting. I’m reconciling with my past in my home town. I’m working my ass off so I can play even harder. Next month, I camp in the high mountains of California. From there, I fly to South Korea to visit one of my dearest friends. There I’ll climb Mount Hallasan solo. My travelling art show just wrapped up, and in August, I’m the featured artist at a major exhibition. September leads me to the Telluride Film Festival. Next year, I’m planning on the Cascades, then Alaska.
The nature of this new lifestyle lends itself to a different format in blogging. Catch my daily updates now at www.savannaleigh.tumblr.com