It doesn’t make any sense, but I decided that the best way to deal with the exhaustion of single-parenting, was, paradoxically, to give myself even more work and less sleep: I took Sophie camping. And it worked. It made both of us happy.
Here is the not-exactly-kid-friendly place where we spent our weekend: the “Thin Wall” at Joshua Tree. Left to right, that’s our friends: Jason belaying Leah on “Congratulation” (5.11a), Andre belaying Justin on “No Calculators Allowed” (5.10a), and Joanne at the top of “Chocolate is Better than Sex” (5.9). That last sentence may be gobbledygook to my many non-climbing readers, but maybe you all can just read it as poetry.
And mentally add into that picture Sophie scrambling at the base of the cliff while making up her own names for the boulders, then playing jump-on-her-own-shadow in the sand, and then playing which-favorite-new-friend-can-I-hit-with-my-nifty-foam-airplane.
Sophie had a good time, except for the moment when I told her that she wasn’t allowed to solo-climb despite her elaborate fantasy-play that required me to sit on one rock while she scrambled up another boulder. In her fantasy, I was sitting in a pretend-hair-salon rock-chair while she went to get hair-salon-supplies from the rock-closet or rock-grocery or something. In reality, she’s not allowed on rocks without me standing next to her with my hands up to catch her if she falls. It’s a reality that disappointed Sophie. Even as I enforced my rules, I was immensely proud of her independent courage.
Sophie delighted me throughout the weekend. Driving past the dramatic modern windmills at San Gorgonio Pass, she held her baby-doll up to the car-window, saying, “Baby-Doll, See dat? See dat? Airplane-flower-thing! See dat?” Long car-rides are getting easier now that Sophie can admire the view out the car-window. It doesn’t even really matter that part of what she admired was a huge train transporting hundreds of military vehicles to 29 Palms. It’s more important that we endured a 3-hour-drive with relatively few tears. I have high hopes, now, that any drive between 10am and 3pm will almost certainly bring a long nap, which makes the drive easier on both Sophie and me. It’s easier, too, now that Sophie’s current favorite music — Jack Johnson, Yo-Yo Ma, Nina Simone, and Hullabaloo — is all actually pretty good driving music. It turned out that Yo-Yo Ma is especially good for speeding on the small roads of the California high desert.
We drove up with Joanne, who had warned me that she has no experience with or affinity for kids, but her schedule fit ours, and she was willing to stop for diaper-changes and listen to multiple renditions of “Polite Pete the Pirate.” Actually, Joanne’s rock-climbing habits made her wonderful with Sophie. I don’t think I could have done that drive without her respectfully passing Sophie toys and drinks again and again and again.
At any rock-climbing gym, you can tell the novices because they are the loud ones frantically yelling, “Reach left! Reach up! Reach right! There’s a hold just above you! Just above you! Don’t fall!” The experienced climbers are the quiet ones who only occasionally say, “Take a deep breath. Remember your feet. You’ll figure it out.” Joanne has a rock-climber’s respectful-approach to giving advice, and a rock-climber’s habit of laughing at small challenges. Joanne quickly became Sophie’s favorite person.
Rock-climbers always ask, “Do you want help,” then wait for a reply, before offering help. Rock-climbers reserve their highest admiration for people who climb hard routes without getting any advice from previous climbers. Rock-climbers recognize that the people around them may want to solve their own problems — and that other people’s perspectives might be so different that specific advice is often useless, anyway (my center of gravity does not match yours; my strategy for that climb may be useless for you). Because of this deeply-ingrained, constantly-reinforced respect for independence, rock-climbers make great parents of 2-year-olds.
In a lot of ways, I think rock-climbing is good preparation for parenting. Rock-climbing teaches habits of tolerating some risk, creating back-up safety systems, remaining calm under pressure, and making sure that anyone teetering off-balance simply doesn’t fall on her head. I often feel that parenting a toddler is pretty much constant bouldering.
Yet I had been resenting how much parenting keeps me from actually rock-climbing. Then, this weekend, I also realized that parenting prepared me for better climbing. Carrying Sophie around has strengthened my wimpy arm muscles. Self-reliantly dealing with whatever challenges arise is a skill shared by moms and climbers. Climbing quickly — because I left Sophie at the base of the cliff with a relative stranger — actually makes me a better climber.
But more than that, I used to climb because it was the easiest route to bliss. My friend Bubbles told me that he climbed in order to stay sane through medical-school, because on a good hard climb, you’re only thinking about your next move, not the rude thing your supervisor said yesterday, or the challenge at work tomorrow, or the mundanities of grocery-shopping, or the myriad other things that are usually rushing through all our heads. On the rock, you can only think about the present moment. The fear and the physical imperatives of climbing all wipe out any thoughts of, “I should have said that yesterday…” or “Maybe tomorrow I’ll…” Rock-climbers purposely place themselves in the eternal present. Meditators do this too, but meditating is hard mental work, while rock-climbing is comparatively easy. Step off the ground and you have stepped into temporary nirvana. That is my rock-climbing philosophy.
Getting back on the cliff for this weekend, though, my first thought was not nirvana. My first thought was terror. Why purposely place myself at risk, when I have a child to mother? But I took a breath, took a step up, and another step. By the time I was ten feet up, I had gotten that glorious in-the-present-moment feeling of being truly alive.
After my climb, I realized that I also get that in-the-present-moment feeling while mothering. Dance-parties with Sophie in my living room, night-night walks under the rising moon on our suburban street, numerous times in any day of parenting, there is that alertly-observant presence in the present that has no space for the pesky past and non-existant future. There is pure joy.
There are also annoyances, of course. Sophie eventually grew restless at the base of the cliff, so we drove to the nearby campsite before the rest of the group. I learned, too late, that a single parent should never attempt to set up an unfamiliar tent in a gusty wind-storm. “Tent fly away,” Sophie told me, repeatedly. “Don’t wanna sleep in that kite!”
I also learned that if you have a two-year-old like mine who hates all blankets, then it’s not enough to dress her in double-fleece layers for a night sleeping in the high-desert. It is important to securely place the rain-flap on the tent, for extra warmth. It will not be fun doing this at 2 am in a high wind.
But the rest of it was fun. Sophie rode her bike round the campground’s dirt-road, finally getting enough balance to lift both feet off the ground and glide. Sophie stared for half-hours at a time at the horses tethered to a nearby campsite, fascinated every time they ate or pooped. Sophie ate whatever food anyone in our large group offered her, greatly varying her diet, which has descended lately into way too much mac-and-cheese or peanut-butter-crackers. Sophie loved the moon in the desert. Sitting on my lap next to the camp-fire, Sophie started singing, “If you’re happy and you know it say wahoo.”
When she woke up in the morning, after commenting on how exciting the sky looked through the tent roof, the very first thing she said was, “I wanna ride my bike.” It was too cold for bike-riding, though, so she settled for learning how to put her hands in her pockets while walking over to see the horses poop again.
I learned that, to ease the transition to camping in gusty winds in an unfamiliar place, it’s good to let your toddler play in your parked car, a bit, before venturing back out to the scary exciting outdoors. Still, my little girl is a camper. As soon as we got home and bathed the desert-dust off ourselves, Sophie insisted that I take her warm camping clothes down off our clothes-line, because she urgently wanted to pretend to re-pack it all for our next camping trip. As I drove her to daycare this morning, all she kept saying was, “I climbed rocks.”