Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Peaks and Valleys

In England, Tyler constantly asked to hike Mt. Everest--and so we began training (with a tiny "mountain" I labeled Mt. Georges and which one could hike in a matter of minutes--possibly even seconds).  Once we moved back to New England, the request to hike Mt. Everest wore off some, and I thought it had been all but forgotten until one day he brought it up again.

"Daddy, why did we never hike Mt. Everest?"

"Well, we practiced on Mt. Georges for a while, but we need to practice loads more before we hike Everest."

"Okay, let's do it! Let's practice." Tyler then stood up, ready to hike a mountain maybe a little higher than Mt. Georges.

Jen and I talked and came up with the idea of hiking Mt. Monadnock, a short hour and a half drive from us. We told Tyler about it and he began counting down the days.

When we finally woke up on Saturday, packed up food and water, and Tyler had put on his Batman costume (goodbye, red underwear; hello, Batman), we loaded ourselves into the car and set off for Jaffrey, New Hampshire--a place both Thoreau and Emerson had gone to hike the same mountain we were about to hike (though we doubted either Thoreau or Emerson donned a Batman costume).

I'm not precisely sure what we were thinking when we finally pulled into Monadnock State Park and the ranger on duty gave us a map, explaining that the peak measured 3,165 feet in the air.

"Wow, I didn't realize it was that high," I said.

"Me neither," Jen said.

"Is that as high as Mt. Everest?" Tyler chimed in.

The ranger winked at us and then said, "Go get 'em, Batman."

Jen just hit her 32nd week of pregnancy, and Tyler was a little under a week away from his fifth birthday. It seemed like the perfect Fall day for a stroll in the beautiful New England foliage. And for the first twenty--even thirty--minutes, it was!

Nice slight incline!

Incredible leafy colors!

Kind people remarking that they felt much safer on the mountain now that Batman was here!

And then thirty minutes into the hike, a cliff emerged in front of us. Tyler immediately ran ahead and began scaling it. I looked back at Jen as if to say, I don't remember anything about a cliff on this hike. Jen looked back at me as if to say, No, nor do I.

But there we were. (Did I mention how beautiful it was--and that we really thought we'd make it to the peak? And that, of the three of us, none of us much likes to quit anything? And that Tyler did have loads upon loads of energy?)

So, we scaled the first cliff. I tried to gauge being ready to catch Tyler if he fell from in front of me, but also lean back and see if my lovely pregnant wife needed a hand as she and Baby Bump made their way precariously up the stone face. But as I looked back and forth between them, this is what was really going on in my head: This is so awesome.

And then that cliff led to more cliffs and stone faces and further cliffs and stone faces and further cliffs and stone faces. I tried to picture Emerson and Thoreau on their bellies against one of the flat long stones trying to shimmy upwards and slide their feet into cracks. It's kind of a funny image, you've got to admit--and (like me) I'm sure that both of them must have farted amidst their climb up Monadnock. Probably often. When one is stretching one's body that much, and the stone is pushing against one's belly, I think it's basically impossible not to.

As we reached each new jaunt upwards in the stone, we would stop and turn to Tyler and say, "Are you tired buddy? Do you want to turn back?" And he would roar back, "No way! Come on, we can do it! Let's keep going!" And I would turn to Jen and ask, "How are you feeling?" and she would say, "Great--really good actually."

At 3,165 feet, the wind blew strong and the view was miraculous. The three of us held hands and looked out and looked back and we couldn't believe we were there. After a solid three and a half minutes on the peak, Tyler piped up, "Okay! Let's hike back down! Come on everybody!"

It's funny how going down usually feels so much faster than going up. And it's really funny how--sometimes--going down feels way, way longer than going up. As it did in our case that day.

After sliding down the steep rock faces and properly thinning out the butt areas of our garments, it wasn't long before we started asking one another, "Do you think we're close?"

Do you?

Think we're close?

Ever turn in the trail held the possible dénouement of our little expedition, and a ceasing of what were becoming sharper and more stabbing pains in our calves, knees, and shoulders.

Do you?

Think we're close?

But of course, we never were. Not until it was getting dark, and the parking lot opened before us like manna in the desert. We all ran out to the water fountain and chugged like this was the last water fountain on this particular stony face of this particular patch of Earth.

We climbed into the car and headed home--wearing joy on our faces and in our hearts. After all: we had peaked! We had practically had a day hike with Thoreau and Emerson! A woman seven months pregnant and a boy not-yet-five had made it! I kept saying how proud and amazed I was that they had both done it. Truth is, that whole day was like magic for us as a family. A true peak.

Fast forward two days: Monday. We all wake up saying, "Ow, ow, ow" with stiff backs and bellies and bums. We don't have the energy to even pour bowls of cereal. We are sniffing and some of us are coughing and there is mucus. Yes.

The whole day passes and we all take turns complaining about everything that hurts and how we're coming down with certain colds or possibly even--ack!--the flu!

When we lived in York, I taught Public Speaking in the Adult Education program there, and one evening I did a lesson where everyone in the class had to chart their life--basically make a graph and just throw some plots on it for their highs and lows, maybe adding a key words to describe what each high or low was--maybe their wedding day, an award they'd received, the birth of a child, or alternately, the death of someone they loved, cruel words spoken about their worth or value, losing their job.

The point of the Chart Your Life activity isn't actually to talk about each--or any--of these events. It's to hold all the graphs one on top of the other and see something strange and beautiful and somehow also ordinary: the graphs are pretty much identical. In the classes, there were old people and young people and CEOs and janitors and teachers and managers and lawyers and stay-at-home-parents; they were people who were wealthy and people who were broke; they were people from England or immigrants from totally different countries--and yet every graph was pretty much the same.

No matter who we are or what we have, our lives, charted, always have peaks and valleys. None of us is immune to pain and fear and none of us is blocked completely from joy. None of us remains on top a constant peak, and none of us remains in a constant valley. We are all more similar than we think. Those who seem like they live on peaks do not; and those who seem like they will never be lifted up out of the valley one day will.

And our little family expedition this past week places two more plot points on that graph: a great peak, and a painful valley. Neither lasts forever. Neither is a final resting place or a definitive this is it! But both have something to say of what matters in life: namely, that we seek to live it, in all its glory and pain. Or, as Thoreau said better than I could: "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."