Balint: One step at a time - climbing the crag

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He stood looking at me with a knowing smile on his face. I smiled back with my eyebrows raised in that way that suggests, "Yes? I'm obviously missing something." He said simply, "You were my 7th grade teacher. I'm Tommy ..." With that I could see the boy under the man's full beard and glasses. I think I might have gasped with glee before I gave him a hug and launched into questions about his life, his travels, and his new business. These moments of recognition — lovely unfurling of stories and journeys — are some of the most satisfying for former teachers.

His new rock climbing/bouldering gym, The Brattcave, opened several months ago, and I was delighted to learn of this business right in my neighborhood. I used to rock climb quite a bit and moved to Vermont initially to take a job leading rock climbing trips for adolescents. But I drifted away from the hobby in my 30s to take up long distance running. Now, as I slide into 50 this upcoming year, my hips and knees have become more finicky and I've craved a different mental and physical challenge. I'm returning to a hobby in which I once felt solid but now feel like a novice. It's actually a delightful feeling, to be the student and not the teacher.

I feel as if I've forgotten everything I once knew — or perhaps my skills were always subpar. In any event, my former student is now the instructor; he takes me through — step by step — how I must change my movements on the rock wall to be more efficient and effective. It is a physical challenge, to be sure, but the mental struggle is just as tough.

As I attempted a move he'd recently showed me, a snippet of Oscar Wilde's "An Ideal Husband" slid into mind. Lord Arthur Goring, the dandy and resolute bachelor, explains to his friend Lady Gertrude Chiltern, that politics can be a very messy business indeed, and she shouldn't hold her husband to an unrealistic standard of perfection. He says, "Once a man has set his heart and soul on getting to a certain point, if he has to climb the crag, he climbs the crag; if he has to walk in the mire — he walks in the mire." I love this metaphor for my work in the Legislature.

It's not just apt because the work is usually very much an uphill battle but also because it is often about strategy and flow, finesse and incremental movements — rarely about grand, dramatic moves. And like being alone on a climbing wall or an actual rock face, it can be quite lonely to metaphorically "hang out" there for all to see.

Several weeks ago I ran a very challenging distance race in Stowe; the hills were significant and the wind was fierce. I was certainly sore the next day, but it was a predictable kind of ache. Not so with the pain I felt after a few days of bouldering. My body felt alive in a new way; muscles were fatigued to be sure, but there was a satisfaction that came from knowing that I'd used them in a different way.

Whether it's taking the role of student instead of teacher, relearning a skill, or changing my frame of reference for the work that I do — all these experiences encourage an open spirit and a willingness to show vulnerability. They also spur a sense of upward and outward momentum. I've arrived back at the mantra that guided me as I turned the corner to 40: "Make one change; start today."

Becca Balint writes from Brattleboro on history, politics and culture. She currently serves as the Senate Majority Leader in the Vermont Legislature. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.


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