You just don't understand

My mom and I on one of her visits to Portland. We had late night drinks at Radio Room.

My mom and I on one of her visits to Portland. We had late night drinks at Radio Room.

Sometimes, just to hear the different responses, I like to ask my friends how their parents feel about them rock climbing.  By the time I turned 20 I had come to accept climbing as my thing. I accepted that it had become more than a hobby. I knew if I applied myself I could do something with this sport but I didn't know yet what it could be. I did know that I was the happiest when I was climbing all the time. Sadly, this sometimes led to many disagreements between my mom and I. The disagreements stemmed largely from my decision to put climbing ahead of anything else including work.

Back then, I think my mom struggled very hard to understand that climbing could be anything beyond just a form of exercise to pass the time. Furthermore, what little she did understand about it seemed somewhat pointless to her. In her mind it made little sense to tie into a piece of rope and see how hard and how risky you could make it for yourself to get to the top of something. It didn't help that most of my extended family felt much the same way. In their minds what I ought to be doing was looking for a stable job that could provide enough income so I could get married and start a family. They struggled very much to understand this climbing of rocks like some lizard out in the sun. No one in my family did this. If you were an adult not going to school, time for extracurricular activities or sports came after work and family. To make matters more complicated, the only thing my family new about climbing was Mt. Everest. You couldn't even begin to explain the purpose of other disciplines like bouldering, trad or sport climbing. If I wasn't planning on being paid to lead some expedition to climb Everest then I obviously didn't know anything about climbing and so whatever I was doing must be ill use of my time. 

I admit, my know-it-all attitude as a young man made it really hard for me to not take offense. I was incredibly fortunate that my mom struggled so I could live in a country where the opportunity to make a dream happen actually existed, but I often felt wounded and misunderstood. It was hard for me to conceptualize that culturally, things were simply not done this way for a variety of reasons; not because my mom didn't have dreams of her own. I'm sure there were things my entire family dreamed of doing, but the means to make dreams happen were often not available. There is so much poverty in Mexico that the majority of folks just don't have the luxury of being able to take a chance on pursuing a dream. You have to survive and you have to make sure that your family survives and to do that it can mean having to work as soon as you can. You're encouraged to start a family, among many reasons, because they're your best support group for later when you are old and you can't work and so while you're able, you have to work as much as you can to make sure you can provide and give them the best opportunities so they can find even better work to repeat the cycle. 

So you can imagine how difficult it was for my mom to hear that I wanted to go away for any length of time to sleep in the dirt, eat on a budget, shower 3 times a week and wash clothes twice a month just so I could climb rocks. What kind of future was that for her son? How could I continue to leave paying jobs after only a few months of working? Who would hire me when I got back? What if I got injured? How would I ever meet anyone and how would I ever maintain a healthy relationship with this nomadic lifestyle on a shoestring budget?

I don’t expect you to understand anything. I know you think what I’m chasing’s a petty dream. But this is what I’ve always wished for and wanted.
And if I could I would show you, I promise.
— Unknown Prophets
Photo booth picture circa 1992

Photo booth picture circa 1992

It was around the time I was 22 or 23 I had made up my mind that I was going to Thailand on my very first international climbing trip. I researched the price of my ticket, got a bit of information on the best area to climb, researched the day to day costs and began to save money. I knew at some point I would need to let my mom know I'd be going on this trip but I held off as long as I could because I knew when the time came, it would be one of those uncomfortable conversations. I remember whenever talk about climbing led to one of these upsetting misunderstandings I would put on a pair of head phones and listen to a track called "I don't expect you 2 understand". I would play it over and over again to drown out the blues after an argument. I felt like the lyrics spoke directly to my predicament of taking a chance on a dream, even if those closest to me didn't offer the support I needed. 

I was working a temporary job for a call center helping customers come to terms with outrageously high utility bills. My mom didn't care that it was a temporary job. She was delighted that I had employment. Never mind the confines of the life-draining, drab and grey cubicle I called a workstation. Let's ignore the fact that no one that worked there ever came in excited to start the work day evidenced by the lack of smiles and surplus of attitudes that filled the rows and rows of cubicles that made up the call center. I was dreading the thought of having to break the news but I couldn't avoid it any longer. I had nearly enough money to buy the ticket. I finally changed the topic of conversation and told her what my plans were. Silence. Then concern, which quickly turned into something just short of panic. Next, what seemed like a verbal tirade in the form of questions; Who did I know there? Did I even speak the language? Was it safe? Who did I think I was; some sort of rich kid that could just leave a job at will to travel the world? What would I do so far away where no one could help me if I got in trouble? The conversation heated quickly and it wasn't long before we were shouting over each other to get a word in. We were both experiencing the same feeling only for completely opposite reasons. We just didn't understand each other.

I imagine that back then, my mom's own life experiences were so drastically different from mine, that it made it impossible to consider each other's points of view. I didn't have a clear picture in mind of what it was that I wanted let alone the vocabulary to convey why it was so important. I speak perfect Spanish but because I didn't grow up in Mexico my conversational Spanish, in a way, is a bit off. It's almost... too formal. It's the reason people in Mexico can tell right away that I'm not exactly from the area. My Spanish lacks the inflection, humor, and fluidity that gets picked up from growing up in Mexico. Sometimes people are surprised to know that English is my second language because I speak without an accent and it's so much easier for me to express myself. At times during conversations with my mom I often feel like I can't faithfully convey my feelings in their entirety when I try to explain how important rock climbing is. It's hard to describe other than it just feels very formal when I communicate. So I was left unable to effectively explain anything beyond a gut feeling that what I was doing was the start of something prosperous for me. It's not lost on me that possibly my mom's own life experiences could have been generating her concern for my well being. The only traveling she'd done to a foreign country was to the US, with my brother and I, and due to the nature of our immigration status, we were not treated very hospitably. Needless to say, our two points of view strongly contradicted with one another.

Not longer after, I bought my ticket. Months later I went on that trip. Every year after that I went to a new international destination at least once a year. A curious thing began to happen between us as the years went on. With each year that I got more and more involved in climbing, I also began to find ways to demonstrate the positive effect it was having on my life. It isn't always easy for my mom to understand but she could tell that I was truly happy; that I was staying out of trouble; that I had many friends that were also interested in the same things I was. She saw that I wasn't lonely and that my friendships were with people that cared about my safety and well being. Later when I started working in climbing gyms she saw that I could also earn a living at this if I applied myself. Conversely I also began to soften my attitude and understand the value of stability both in my personal life and my profession. It became easier to understand her concerns and to consider her opinions a genuine regard for my well being and success.    

My extended family still doesn't quite get it. I suspect they never really will and I'm okay with that because they get the most important part, that I'm happy. They certainly understand the value of having your own business. That is, after all, part of the American dream. So, even if they don't understand all the benefits that I get from the climbing scene, they understand that I'm self-employed and giving it my best. It also makes it easier for them to understand stories about dangling on the ends of ropes in different places. They understand it's for the good of the business and so it's easier for them to encourage me even if they don't completely understand the purpose. They still think it's super weird and poke fun at the ridiculousness of it all but it's in good fun and I know they are happy for and proud of me. 

Mom and I, 2012

Mom and I, 2012

As of late I get lost in thoughts of repeating cycles. It occurred to me that back then I was in a very similar position to my mom in her early 20's when, much to her family's disapproval, she left the predictable outcome of a life in Mexico in search of something better with two very little boys in tow. She traveled far to a country where she didn't know anyone, where she didn't know the language, far away from anyone that could help her if she got in trouble. She left her studies and possible careers behind. Though the cycle is very similar in many ways, it's also different. In my 17 years of climbing I've traveled farther than my mom could've ever dreamed of, and seen things most people in my family never will. Not like some rich kid who leaves steady employment at the drop of a hat but rather as an individual making his way in the world, many times in the company of my best friends. The success of the shop now bridges the communication gap that used to seem impassable. Now, much to my enthusiasm, what was once the source of my mom's fears is now the source of her pride.

On this Mother's day, I'm so happy to be able to reach out and thank her for all the lessons, all the patience, and all the encouragement. Much of my success and my ability to push forward draws from my mom's own strengths, challenges, and experiences. I count myself incredibly fortunate to have such a strong woman to set an example for me. I can only hope that through my friendships, climbing adventures, and now my shop, I can show her how much her inspiration means to me.

For Maricela, with love!

Juan RodriguezComment