The Mountains We Climb

mount washingtonAfter only half an hour on the trail leading up Mt. Washington, ten year old Peach began asking the dreaded question, ‘Are we there yet?’  Her siblings were hedging bets that she wouldn’t make it.  We’re not a hiking family and this is the highest elevation in the Northeast.  Thinking myself clever, I advised, “It’s all a mind game. Harnessing your negative thoughts is the only way to get through this.” As it turns out, I was the one who needed to wrangle my mind.

When a young couple with a toddler caught my attention, I registered a pang of inadequacy that plagued me for the entire climb.  In early motherhood, I thought  I would be the kind of mother who effortlessly carried toddlers in backpacks while climbing mountains. Suffice it to say that one attempt was enough.  I had that backpack sold faster than I could throw it in the basement.

So when I encountered this mother on the mountain, effortlessly hauling her child,  I hated her.   While I struggled on all fours to negotiate a treacherous precipice, she climbed upright teaching her daughter the alphabet in two languages!  The more she and her family giggled, the more I seethed.

It’s understandable, isn’t it, that when my teen daughter claimed this woman as her hero, I wanted to push the woman off the mountain. Ugly, ugly thoughts consumed me.  It was as if this woman materialized for the sole purpose of making me feel bad.  Even though I’m quite certain that she didn’t mean to reduce me to a puddle of self-loathing and jealousy, it did feel as if she was climbing the mountain AT me.

At the outset, I had expected to wrestle with doubts about my fitness.  After all, the last time I climbed this mountain, I was 20 years younger.  But this level of negativity was a surprise.  Thinking myself somewhat mature and grounded, I was unprepared for the meltdown of my self-esteem.

It took me days to get over my animosity toward that harmless woman on the mountain.  And even longer to get make peace with my disappointment in myself.   Which reminds me of a Zen story.

Two monks were on a pilgrimage. One day, they came to a deep river. At the edge of the river, a young woman sat weeping, because she was afraid to cross the river without help. She begged the two monks to help her. The younger monk turned his back. The members of their order were forbidden to touch a woman.

But the older monk picked up the woman without a word and carried her across the river. He put her down on the far side and continued his journey. The younger monk came after him, scolding him and berating him for breaking his vows. He went on this way for a long time.

Finally, at the end of the day the older monk turned to the younger one. “I only carried her across the river. You have been carrying her all day.”

I’m happy to say that I’ve finally put the woman down.  I forgive her for accomplishing something I couldn’t.  And I forgive myself for being envious.  Having taken a few steps back, I can see the ‘mountain’ of gifts I’ve received from this experience.  Not least of which is the reminder that comparing oneself to others is dangerous business.

I often marvel at husband and his triathlete friends who, at the end of an extraordinary race, make excuses for why they didn’t do better, or as well as the next person.  Tama Kieves says, “Many of us burn for validation, string the moon up in the sky to get it, yet treat our own triumphs like used paper plates after the picnic….Celebrate the you that attempted the journey.”

Jealousy, self-criticism, hate…..THESE are the mountains we climb on a regular basis.  These are the mountains we need to  conquer.

Sharing A Sunrise

sunrise (2)It started as a scratch in the sky.  The pre-dawn horizon hinted of a sun on its way with the faintest glow of orange streaked across a grey canvas.  This would be Principessa’s first sunrise viewing.  The two of us stole away quietly from the beach house where the rest of the family remained sleeping and uninterested.  Dressed for a morning chill, we drove to the shore with mutual giddiness.

“I have one request,” I told Principessa.  “We watch in silence.”  Agreeable to the plan, she snuggled closer to me in our blanket.

Gradually we were joined by groups of sunrise-seekers.  Admittedly, I wanted to hoard the sunrise for myself and my daughter.  But when at last the sun peaked up from the darkness and I heard a collective gasp of awe, I was glad for the shared experience.

On cue, hovering seagulls began a screeching chorus.  Like roosters, I thought.  Who knew?

Just moments before, I was antsy and eager with anticipation.  And now, as the sun progressed inch by inch in a steady, unstoppable path, I had the urge to halt time.  Tears of wonder overcame me as I grasped the ordinary miracle unfolding before me.  It was that powerful.

Principessa and I stared as long as we dared to until our vision was dotted with shadows in the imprint of the sun.  I broke my gaze when the sun turned from mellow orange to hot white.  Gone was the secret moment when one could steal a direct glance.  The brightness seemed to say, ‘Back up now.  I have to warm you all.  Go.  Get on with your day.’

When at last we spoke, Principessa remarked, “It makes me feel like I shouldn’t waste one single moment.  Like every second is a gift.”

Every day, without fail, without effort, the sun appears as the Earth bows toward it.  The Earth doesn’t get paid for rising the sun.  It doesn’t cost us anything.  It is the day’s gift – a gift mostly overlooked.  We take it for granted, thinking ourselves entitled.  ‘As sure as the sun will rise,’ we say.

Principessa and I  mull around, hesitant to to leave the moment behind.  And we discover this:

shadow art

Shadow Art

The post-dawn sun casts a long shadow in which Principessa and I form a heart – a fitting symbol of our magical morning.  We are humbled and content with the fact that our beloved sun – the one we own this day – will never leave us, even when we’re not paying attention.

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