Death isn’t whispering in my ear yet. She’s just handed me the pen for my bucket list, and when Death hands you the pen, you take it and use it. That’s what happens when friends of a similar age die for surprising reasons. My friend was 47. Death didn’t just hand him a pen. She took him for The Ride and gave me a wink. I knew it was time to cross an item off my bucket list. It was rock climbing.
I signed up for a class because when there’s an item on The List, you want to do it right. I love my friends who are climbers, but they’re not all teachers. I wanted someone whose job it was to show me the ropes, literally, kick my ass when I screwed up on the figure-eight knot, and get my belaying on point. The teacher did, and I learned it. You’re never too old to learn from someone younger. That point was amply clear.
I also surprised myself by nailing the knot before the 20 year old in class. It’s petty, but it made me feel better like I’m not aging that quickly even though the lines around my eyes deepen, and I find more silver strands in my hair as the days go by. This youth culture, I tire of it so easily. Where is the celebration of my own hard-earned victories and losses as etched on my skin? I don’t want to erase them. I want them to be embraced. I want to shout, Look at these crow’s feet. I earned them. I earned them through long nights feeding a baby and some damn fine long nights partying.
Rock climbing made me momentarily forget about how my parents are getting older. My father just had knee surgery, and I see his hair thinning, his gait slowing, and his strength lessening. My mother has gone the opposite way, teaches line dancing, goes on 12 mile hikes, and has been learning how to speak Mandarin and swim. She’s a forever youngster, which both inspires and scares me. When I’m with them, I think, Will I know when to slow down as I age? How much do I need to slow down? I don’t know the answer to that other than to say: I’m not slowing down yet.
I’m learning to rock climb, so I can do it with my son. In a way, he’s part of my inspiration. I see him try things, struggle, fail, get back on the bicycle and try again. Watching a baby – my baby – learn how to walk was incredibly inspiring. He was driven, relentless. That’s how it must be, right? Otherwise we’d all be crawling around on geriatric knees our entire lives. Where is the room for failure, for amateurs, for effort that looks pathetic but is the best way have? I’m working on that one, and my 6-year-old is helping with it.
I’m not flagging yet. Flagging is to tire, weaken, slow down. I’m in the best shape of my life, my prime, which means it’s time to get serious with life. I’m probably halfway through at this point if I’m lucky. I want to make the most of it. I don’t want to live a life of regrets, about what I could have done, should have done. I want to wring the juice out of life and that means squeezing hard.
In truth, I’m also not flagging in rock climbing. I don’t even know how to flag. Flagging is a technique for intermediate and advanced climbing when you use a free-hanging foot as a counterbalance. I’ve seen it done. I’ve read about it. I’ve attempted it exactly one time. I know it’s in my future because I refuse to give up. I’m 44, and it’s time to stop fucking around.
I’d like to say nothing is holding me back, but in truth, I have a life with many commitments: a son, a husband, a job, many incredible people I love and adore. I’m not able to drop everything and hang out at the gym for four hours. I choose my time and my place. In this case, it was 5:55am the other morning while my beloveds slept. The alarm was painful and loud. My body felt slow and clunky, but I still passed my belay test and got my permanent card. That’s what it takes. I have so many excuses that I have excuses for my excuses. If I’m not careful, they can become mired in apologies, but I’m over that, and that’s why when my alarm went off at 5:55am, I got my ass out of bed.
Climbing that morning left me with a prize: a small blister on my index finger. That morning, I’d been running other fingers over it, slightly smug with this recent reward. That afternoon, I told my students I’d been climbing. I silently relished the mild soreness I felt. I mean, I could have whinged about it, but that doesn’t really feel like squeezing the juice out of life; it feels like wallowing in my aging. I don’t want to wallow, but I do want to remember this body is temporary: beautiful, full of flaws, but temporary.
And then five of my female students asked me where the climbing gym is. They said they wanted to go, take a class, see if they liked it. I told them I’d go climbing with any of them. I’d be happy to go, joyful, and I meant it. It wasn’t about climbing faster or higher or any of that (and who knows if I can), but it was that I had inspired them to go – and that feels like part B of this number on my bucket list. Enjoy the fuck out of this experiment called life; inspire others as I go through it. No one gets out of this life alive, so why not make the most of it?
Lindy hop is also on my list. I took a friend out last week, and he said he was happy I’d dragged him there. Drag there? I said. It’s on my bucket list. I want to learn how to partner dance. He’s a year older. He got it. Me, too, he said. There was a moment of silence while we stood on the same line, shoulder to shoulder. There was an urgency there. No panic, just urgency, an understanding that there’s a time to fuck around, and then there’s a time to cut the rug. We’re not exactly doing the latter yet, but we’re certainly not doing the former.
Death hands the pen each time someone dear to you dies. She says, The veil between the worlds is thinner than you think. It’s time to wake up. It’s time to sing, dance, climb, and love. She says, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”