Puppy Dome is a rock outcrop near Tuolumne Meadow in Yosemite National Park, Calif. The dome was often my weekend destination years ago when I was an avid rock climber and lived four hours away. A hunk of granite 300 or 400 feet high, it had many easy through moderate to difficult routes up its faces, great places to practice the art and technique of climbing.
Though I lacked the gifts of agility and great strength, the guts and chutzpah that make a first-class climber, I was determined to become proficient, so I journeyed with friends or alone up to the Sierra Nevada often and hurled myself up Puppy Dome.
I love the paraphernalia and especially the often black-humor-colored jargon of rock climbing. Devices used in rock work are the various hexagonals, chocks, bongs, pitons, and “friends,” lightweight metal gizmos that are either driven or, preferably, wedged into cracks in the rock as one ascends. These devices serve not as artificial hand or footholds – that’s cheating – but as “protection.” The rope, one end of which is tied around one’s waist -- known as the “sharp end” of the rope -- runs through these protections, thus providing a catch fulcrum should one fall. The other end of the rope is in the hands of a partner who conscientiously (you hope!) belays. When protection (pros)are solidly in place, they are called “bombproof.”
A climbing euphemism I relish is “exposure.” This refers to the amount of empty space, ruled over of course by the inexorable pull of gravity, below one’s feet at any point in the climb. Exposure can be minimal if one is bouldering three feet or so off the ground; moderate if one is up at about the height of a four or six-story building, as on Puppy Dome. It can be spectacularly extreme when one is high on a big wall in Yosemite Valley, on an ascent that might take one up, say, on a slightly overhanging flake or rock at a level higher than two Sears Towers stacked atop one another. Such exposure is called “gravical,” as in “It’s getting pretty gravical here, dude!”
Successful climbing is all about balancing adrenaline-eliciting risks of exposure against what confidence you have in the protections you use, plus your skill and experience. When all were in reasonable balance and exposure was moderate, I would push myself a bit past my skills relying on creativity, luck, and bombproof pro. The reward was the heady feeling you get when you push yourself, deliberately raising the level of effort and concentration, in order to clear the mind of trivia. Climbers aim for a kind of elegance in this endeavor. There is a steady reward that comes from the mindfulness you need to pay close attention to moves and strategies to leverage yourself ever upward, combined with the good exercise of the body in mountain air.
Nothing else is quite like it.
Puppy Dome was actually, in hindsight, a kind of training camp for life. Knowing how to take calculated risks elegantly, I think, is a big part of living a boldly productive and satisfying life.
Once long ago I took a plunge in a workplace setting, along with some others, placing a three-page memo in the lunch room suggestion box urging that we consider a more egalitarian approach. When it came time to face the authority in the place to discuss our suggestion, I was more flat-out scared than I had ever been on Puppy Dome. The exposure was gravical, because my family and my wellbeing depended on the salary and health care benefits of the job. Before going in, I wrote on little slips of paper the names of my wife, my stepson and others dear to me. I photocopied pictures of places that were holy to me. These I folded and slipped into my shirt pocket like protective talismans just before the going in, knees knocking, to the meeting.
We’ve all been there at one time or another. Secured by what we hope is the bombproof pro of our passions, loves, our spirit, we probe for those hidden handholds and footholds, uncertainly pushing our limits toward a desired goal, relying on creativity and luck. We aim for elegance and often fall short, but still there is that heady feeling afterwards.
We are called to move beyond ourselves, to stretch, to take chances in order to mount an effective campaign for a better world, to be a prophetic presence in some way, or at least to move from one outmoded perspective to a newer one. Like climbing, spirituality is a balancing act, moving inward to that quiet, grounded place of integrity, strength, and peace within, then outward to do something about a world that hurts, hungers for justice, or is in dire need of healing. Our spirituality should enable us to move from a fearful life to a bold, contributive one. If not, it's just a parlor game.
Cultivating a sturdy soul makes for truly bombproof pro. No hard statistics to back me up, but I’d be willing to bet that folks with a solid spirituality tend to stick their necks out a bit more than the average because of those sturdy connections between our lives and our loves, between our hearts and our inner lives and the risky world outside. What’s more, the sustained and ongoing relationship with God in prayer makes for the most secure anchors of all.
There is also a beautiful elegance in a life spent freeing ourselves from our habitual attachments to safety and acquisitiveness. Hurling yourself up a frightening crag now and then -- taking a risk to speak truth to power, for example -- can be not only exhilarating testimony that you’re truly alive, with warm, red blood coursing through your veins, but also furthers the kinship of God.