How to Climb a Mountain
Make no mistake. This will be an exercise in staying vertical.
Yes, there will be a view, later, a wide swath of open sky,
but in the meantime: tree and stone. If you're lucky, a hawk will
coast overhead, scanning the forest floor. If you're lucky,
a set of wildflowers will keep you cheerful. Mostly, though,
a steady sweat, your heart fluttering indelicately, a solid ache
perforating your calves. This is called work, what you will come to know,
eventually and simply, as movement, as all the evidence you need to make
your way. Forget where you were. That story is no longer true.
Level your gaze to the trail you're on, and even the dark won't stop you.
. . .
Over the last few months I've fallen in love with hiking. Who knew? I love the solitary climb, the burn as I push myself up the hill, the crunch of gravel underfoot. My barnacled thoughts loosen as I go and I can leave my unnecessary, unhelpful worries up on the trail as an offering at the altar of the day. Up there at the peak of a strenuous climb I feel clearer, my brain scrubbed clean, ready for what matters.
Another truth follows, though: then I come down.
Ugh. Yes, sometimes the summit clarity stays with me and holds me over until next time. But often the buzz wears off quickly. After recently launching Lauren on her mission--the latest big figurative mountain I climbed--I've been feeling it this week, the inevitable, predictable post-summit valley. (As I did after our moves. And when L. left for university the first time. And after the holidays every year. And after back-to-school rush. And after the thrill of a fun vacation.) The thing about launching is--if you do it right, then they're gone. (Come on, sing with me now...climbed a mountain and I turned around...then the landside brought me down. I'm pretty much the poster girl for that song these days. That and the Fiddler on the Roof song about sunrises and sunsets.)
Then I remember this wisdom, discovered a couple of years ago and put to good use ever since:
"You cannot stay on the summit forever; you have to come down again. So why bother in the first place? Just this: What is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above. One climbs, one sees. One descends, one sees no longer, but one has seen. There is an art of conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what one saw higher up. When one can no longer see, one can at least still know" (Rene Daumal, Mount Analogue).
I'm still figuring out what that means for me, exactly, and how to conduct myself in the valleys. Remembering and knowing is a good start. And new mountains. But first I think I'll take a long bath and indulge in some cinema therapy.
Here's to you and your mountains--to the grit and vistas and the descent and even the occasional landslides.
. . .