attachment & suffering
Dan is working on a guide book for his favorite climbing place in the world, Keyhole Canyon. A big part of this is interviewing climbers who put up the first ascents of classic routes, or who were around in the earliest days of developing the area for climbing— the folks who shaped the culture there into what Dan loves so much, who established traditions without even realizing that’s what they were doing.
Turns out one of those bastions is a lady who lives not too far from us, a few hours over the Rockies in some tiny little Colorado mountain town. We took a road trip to go interview her.
Stephanie lives in one of those housing complexes that makes you want a compass and a trail of breadcrumbs; everything looks the same and none of the doors are well-marked. Then Dan pointed at one particular porch. “That one I bet,” he said. “With all the rocks.”
We walked toward her entry to be greeted by a plaintive “Is it you?” from the screen door, a voice of patient waiting overlaid by equal parts anticipation and reluctance. We introduced ourselves and she asked us in, this softish, roundish, white-haired grandma figure whose vanilla appearance conveyed absolutely nothing of her past climbing badassery.
Dan had some technical difficulties getting his photos set up so Stephanie and I made polite chit-chat while we waited.
“How did you get into climbing?” I asked.
“Well, when I met my first husband, he said right off that mountains came first, then me, and I’d have to be on board with that if I wanted to be with him. So I learned to climb,” she finished with a one-shouldered shrug and partial smile.
“Sounds about right,” I said with a smile back to show I was only halfway kidding, and she laughed.
As the interview progressed, Stephanie’s eyes brightened, her demeanor thawed, unfolded, and sharpened as she and Dan talked turkey, poring over tall brown rocks that all look the same to me but encompass a million different pasts and possibilities when viewed with climbers’ eyes.
Stephanie, an avowed, practicing Buddhist, told Dan before we arrived that she couldn’t promise she’d be able to remember very much about those days; she’d spent many years actively forgetting her past in order to fully focus on her present. But I swear her neural pathways stood up and shook themselves out the deeper she and Dan delved, and a bare glimpse of one memory suddenly pulled a whole tangle of them back into the light of day, again and again.
Eventually there was no more left to say, and we walked her home so she could show Dan some summit rocks she’d collected back in the day.
“This is beautiful,” I said, pointing at a little statue on her garden table, tucked in among the rocks. “Is it a Buddha? I’ve never seen one like that before.”
“That’s Jizo,” she said. “He’s the Buddha of little children, compassion, and travelers. Do you like it? Take it!”
I thought she meant it was okay for me to pick it up, so I did, carefully, thinking I’d have to research this little fellow after I got home again, and then set him back just as gently.
“No no, take it. Take it! You like it, you should take it,” she said, waving him away.
“You mean— uh, forever?”
“Yes, yes. If you like it, you should have it. I’m old. I never had kids. All this stuff has to go somewhere. Take it.”
I thanked her, feeling a little unsettled by her practicality, and tucked Jizo into the crook of my arm like a kitten.
Inside the house, she pushed many special summit rocks onto Dan in the same way, dismissing his attempted deferral, slipping them into an envelope so they wouldn’t get lost. Others, though, she showed to him and told him their stories, then followed up with “But do you mind if I keep that one? And this one? I know attachment leads to suffering— oh, it does; it really does lead to suffering. I know that. I know it. But I’m not quite ready to let them go just yet.” Every time she smiles, her eyes water and crinkle to the point of almost disappearing, sparkling all the more.
And then, internal conflict limning her movement, she set those few rocks back down into a tiny bowl on a tiny table to nestle back in with their friends.
“Attachment and suffering” immediately reminded me of the Disengaging Essay, thought of how much suffering in my own life can be traced back to over-attachment— to a thing, a person, even an idea or concept. Like the idea of how my family should look, how we should feel about each other, what kind of experience we’re supposed to have on our family vacation.
And then, over and over again, suffering just WHAMS me upside the head because nothing ever lines up with “should.” But at least I’m starting to remember to exhale and let go of attachment sooner: “Oh right, forgot for a sec that this isn’t how life works. Okay, got it.”
It’s so critical to our internal ballast to just LET SHIT GO already, and accept life as it is— accept those around us how they are, accept ourselves as we are. In some book or other, I remember reading that there’s a common misconception that Buddhism is about self-improvement and a focus on trying to be a better person— more compassionate, less judgmental. But even bettering yourself is about ego, which is exactly what Buddha counsels letting go of.
I am not Buddhist— I am way too attached to my own self-improvement and special rocks for that— but I do love the reminder that that Buddhism is not wearing lotus blossom-emblazoned tank tops to the occasional yoga class while decorating your home with fake Buddha quotes on cheap plastic shit from Big Lots (retail price: $12.99; YOU PAY $9.99!!).
And I do love the reminder that serenity sometimes comes at what seems like an initially high cost, but is its own reward in the end.
I thought about Stephanie the entire drive back and for days and days after meeting her— the vivid adventures she must’ve enjoyed back in her climbing days, how she then spent the next however many decades working so hard to forget those incredible years, rich with extraordinary climbing success amid a tumultuous personal life. She’s climbed all the world over; she’s summited every one of the peaks in the Grand Tetons; she’s done those kinds of climbs you only read about, where you have to helicopter in because they’re otherwise inaccessible.
And now she’s this unassuming, gentle-eyed soul who radiates peace, leads this simple, fulfilling life. Doesn’t own a computer or a car or a TV, just buys groceries or whatever, does this and that around town and goes to Buddhist temple every week. And I understand now her dichotomy of combined excitement and hesitation when we showed up on her doorstep to dredge up her past. It’s the same reason I keep a file of notes for a future stepparenting book that I might never write, because jumping back into those days is something I don’t want to face. Because I barely survived the first time, and I don’t want to relive the past.
At the same time, not everything needs to carry deep significance. After hearing Stephanie’s many stories about many special rocks, Dan pointed to my newly acquired Jizo and asked “And this? What’s the story behind this figurine?”
Stephanie said, “Oh well, the story behind that is I bought it at the garden store on a Monday, because that’s the day they offer senior discounts.” And she laughed. After a minute, Dan laughed too, because sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
Yet this generic garden center garden Buddha, because of this trip, because of the lessons learned in these few hours with this woman who is at once a contradiction of herself and yet makes total sense when taken in context, now does carry significance. To us, anyway.
We all run our gauntlets and come out the other side. We all come to our last climb and hang up our gear, have to make the decision about what’s next for us. We can either keep dragging that deadweight behind us, thinking eventually our baggage will become useful again, or we can let it go and leave it behind, having faith that everything we need going forward will be provided to us.
In this, the year of manna, I’m working so hard on the latter.