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In which I climb a metaphor

Here is how it happens: you wake up one morning and think, today I want to accomplish something. Today, I want to do something hard and a bit impossible for me. Today, I want to climb a mountain.

You are a bit deluded. And optimistic. (You are usually optimistic in the morning.)

After some rearranging of the family plans, you pack up your bag with bug spray and sunscreen, bottles of water and a change of clothes and then you head out. You drive alone and think about the romance of climbing a mountain: you think about standing at the top, wind whipping your hair as you gaze out on the world below, the conquering hero. You think about time to pray and time to think. Lately your mind has been unquiet, constantly thinking and wrestling and popping to one thought after another without ever really settling in to think well about any of it. Your mind aches with constant unproductive use, and so you’ve decided to give your mind a time-out by making the rest of your body ache with work.

You set out with a few others. You are out of breath within ten minutes. (This is going to be a long day.) What were you thinking? but you keep going and everyone passes you. A new group of climbers come by and then they are gone too. This will happen all afternoon.

You listen to a sermon on your iPod Touch. An hour passes. You are still climbing, straight up. The sermon ends, you try some music. You realise that this is not the place for other people’s songs, this is the place for your own breath so you put away the music and listen to the noise of effort.

You are dirty and tired but you’re doing it, one foot after another after another after another. You sit at the switchbacks to rest, to rub your thighs with relief, drink tepid water. As you walk, you pray and you think and you rest. Eventually you stop thinking about all the stuff you wanted to think about and instead you simply exist, with God, with your own breath, with your own physical body’s unbelievable strength. It may not be pretty but you are still climbing up and up and up. Slowly, through the rocks and the dust and the sweat and limitations.

Why is that something that seems so hard to you is seemingly easy to everyone else? The other climbers are simply ascending, cheerily friendly and sympathetic as they sail past with their breezy encouragement to keep going. Women fly by with flat stomachs in their neon running shorts, one woman has on false eyelashes. False eyelashes! You’ve sweated off your make-up, your face is red, your ponytail is wet with sweat, you have dust and pine needles stuck to your ass from the last time you sat down to rest.

“Don’t look up,” one man advises. “You’ll only get discouraged when you see how much farther you still have to go. If you must look around, look down, look how far you’ve come.”

Why didn’t someone tell you that at the bottom? because you keep looking up and feeling your heart sink. Still so far to go. Keep going keep going keep going until the halfway sign mark, then the three-quarter way mark. These markers are discouraging: surely you should be done now but instead, you still have so far to go. And your thighs are quivering.

You keep going.

This is the point where you wish you could quit. This is the point where, in every other part of your life, you would say “Good enough!” and walk away. You would say things like “I tried my best” as you moved on to something easier, something to distract, anything really. Who wants to work so hard? In your real life, you would peace out, leave it to the experts. Surely someone else can do this.

Starting something hard is way more fun than finishing it well. Only the pines witness the resolute courage to keep moving.

The only way out is up. You are in charge of your own rescue.

You keep going.

The last half is the real work. You’ve stopped gazing at the trees with wonder. You’ve stopped praying, stopped philosophizing, stopped writing lame blog posts in your head, vanity vanity.

You are on all fours, scrabbling up rock face, your fingernails are filthy and torn. One poor woman fell down in front of you. She landed in the dust of the rocks in a heap, startled and winded. You picked her up, got her water, stayed for a while but she wanted to keep going. You could tell she was embarrassed by her fall, embarrassed to be needing something from a stranger, even kindness.

You keep going.

You are longing to be done. Done done done. you want to be done. You quit you quit you quit. It’s been three hours of steady climbing straight up. Your mind is still at last, captivated by the effort of your heart and body perhaps, you are simply willing yourself to keep moving.

And then you break through the trees to the rock and you are there. The last few steps to the summit, and you begin to turn back around slowly, panting, sweating, aching, dirty.

You stand at the top of a mountain and close your eyes to the view for a moment.

You did it.

You did it. You climbed nearly 3,000 feet up into the sky by yourself.

It wasn’t pretty. It was terrible work. It took you twice as long as you thought it would. Everyone passed you, even that one guy who was seventy if he was a day. Everyone was better at it than you. (Part of you resented them for making it look so effortless.) You are so tired, If you could have quit, you would have. But instead here you are right where you wanted to be all along.

You stand at the top of the mountain but you aren’t cheering and high five-ing anyone like a few other groups: you are alone. You’re happy. Deeply profoundly happy, filled with joy and accomplishment. You stand on the rock and look out and think: I used to be there and now I am here and I did that on purpose.

You take off your shoes, peel off your socks and simply sit in the wind, looking out into the world. It takes an hour for you to realize that your mind is quiet at last. Maybe it’s because you did all your praying with your feet and your muscles and your dirty hands today.

 

journey

44 Responses to In which I climb a metaphor

  1. Matt Appling July 22, 2013 at 9:30 am #

    Awesome, Sarah. Everyone needs to conquer a real, actual metaphor every now and then.

    • Sarah Bessey July 22, 2013 at 6:29 pm #

      Yes, sometimes it’s so good to “get out of my own head” for a while!

  2. Jemelene July 22, 2013 at 10:25 am #

    Today, this moment, I needed this more than you will know. Thank you isn’t enough Sarah. You inspire me to keep climbing.

    • Sarah Bessey July 22, 2013 at 6:28 pm #

      So glad to know that, jem – you do need to keep climbing. We need you out here!

  3. Tina Francis/ @teenbug July 22, 2013 at 10:52 am #

    Oh Sarah….

    LOVE the title of the post.

    And this:

    - “…you’ve decided to give your mind a time-out by making the rest of your body ache with work.” // There’s a thought! I *need* to do this more.

    - “You realise that this is not the place for other people’s songs, this is the place for your own breath so you put away the music and listen to the noise of effort.”// “the noise of effort” -> LOVE. + “this is not the place for other people’s songs” – > *sob*

    - “you would peace out, leave it to the experts.” // Made me giggle.

    - “You are in charge of your own rescue.” // #gotmerightinmyjunk

    - “It takes an hour for you to realize that your mind is quiet at last.” // Halleluyer! At last! At last!

    I feel the buzz of your beautiful victory in your sweet smile.

    Keep on, S.

    xoxo,
    Teen

  4. Tiffany Norris July 22, 2013 at 11:08 am #

    Thank you for writing this. I’m climbing my own mountain (metaphorically), and I really really needed to read this today.

  5. James Prescott July 22, 2013 at 11:19 am #

    Thanks for sharing this, and well done on your achievement – keep challenging myself to do something like that, but keep chickening out. Thanks for the encouragement not to give up. Maybe one day soon I’ll take up a challenge like that. Thanks for inspiring me again.

  6. James Prescott July 22, 2013 at 11:36 am #

    …and I am definitely used to everyone going past me in a lot of areas of life. Marriage, success seem to pass me by and go to everyone else my age and younger. But I have learned to be content where I am, and I have my own journey, and I’m content with that. This is a great post, because it’s reminded me I’m not alone, and in fact most of us have felt this way, and it’s okay. Thanks Sarah.

    • Sarah Bessey July 22, 2013 at 6:28 pm #

      That’s a good word, James. Thanks for sharing it.

      • James Prescott July 22, 2013 at 9:56 pm #

        No problem Sarah – thanks again for encouraging me.

  7. Jodi July 22, 2013 at 12:22 pm #

    This is great!!! Thanks! I ‘ran’–and by run I mean walked–a 20K this year and had the same feelings….hadn’t thought of it as a metaphor yet, but will do that now. ;-) Appreciate your blog and the thoughts you share here. Blessings!

    • Sarah Bessey July 22, 2013 at 6:27 pm #

      congrats, Jodi! That’s such an accomplishment!

  8. Cara Strickland July 22, 2013 at 1:31 pm #

    Yes yes yes.
    I love this all and complete. But i love the part about getting to the place where you stop blogging in your head, because I see myself there so much.
    Thank you for sharing this journey with me, with us. I means the world.

  9. Amy July 22, 2013 at 1:46 pm #

    Oh, Sarah. My heart is puddling in deep, gulping sobs of relief at such encouragement. Life is closed in at this moment, and I want to quit, quit, quit so strongly. Yet your words pull the glimmer of truth and hope to the surface from deep within my heart. Truth that this deed, this work, this effort is not yet finished, and hope that the view from the top will be glorious. I am grateful for you.

    • Sarah Bessey July 22, 2013 at 6:27 pm #

      Grateful to hear and know this, Amy. Thank you for sharing it. Praying here, too.

  10. Melanie July 22, 2013 at 2:44 pm #

    As we say here in Ireland, fair play to you, good woman yourself!

  11. Katie July 22, 2013 at 3:28 pm #

    beautiful! this is awesome! Here’s to you and your well earned quiet mind!

  12. idelette July 22, 2013 at 4:01 pm #

    Love love love this, Sarah. Just love.

    “If you must look around, look down, look how far you’ve come.” I needed that it 4am today when I was in the middle of climbing a small mountain and I was so ready to quit.

    • Sarah Bessey July 22, 2013 at 6:26 pm #

      That post was so worth it. I’m glad you didn’t quit. So gorgeous and good.

  13. Leigh Kramer July 22, 2013 at 6:37 pm #

    So proud of you.

  14. Rachel July 22, 2013 at 7:17 pm #

    Reading this as I prepare to climb Longs Peak… Such a good word. And yet, I’m so afraid of the descent! I know we will reach the top, but the way down is long and painful. And long! So long. I will try to remember these words…

  15. Jenn July 22, 2013 at 7:17 pm #

    I absolutely love the bit about looking down not up. What sage advice. What a climb, nicely done.

  16. KHein July 22, 2013 at 7:27 pm #

    Loved reading this honest account of doing something hard! False eyelashes indeed! Sweaty ponytails and needled pants are where the tough, holy work of physical activity comes in. I didn’t climb a mountain today, but I ran hard on the treadmill from the get-go and felt just like you describe at the end of it–like I was praying with my feet and blood pounding and my mind quieted. Thanks for this!!

  17. Sherry July 22, 2013 at 8:31 pm #

    When I was 16, I hiked up a mountain in Yoho National Park with a friend of mine and her family. A prairie girl from Manitoba, my mountain-climbing experience was minimal to say the least. I don’t remember much about that trip. I couldn’t tell you the name of the trail or anything else we did while we were there. But I remember my friend’s dad encouraging us when we quickly got tired, and she asked how much longer. His reply: “Don’t worry! It’s just around the corner and all downhill from there.” As we continued to hike higher and higher, his reply never changed, for two hours, then three… By the time we reached the top, we had stopped asking!

    I know that if he had told us at the beginning that we would be climbing for over three hours to get to the top, we would never have made that climb (never mind thinking of the climb back down!). But I will always remember the magic of that day when we reached snow fields in our t-shirts and shorts and had a snowball fight in July…

    “Don’t worry. It’s just around the corner, and all downhill from there…”
    Congrats on your climb!

  18. Lisa-Jo Baker July 22, 2013 at 10:39 pm #

    Favorite. By far. “Maybe it’s because you did all your praying with your feet and your muscles and your dirty hands today.” Yes. wow.

  19. fiona lynne July 23, 2013 at 4:09 am #

    Amazing!! I love the image of praying with your feet, it’s one that so resonates with me. And that encouragement to keep walking when only the pines can see you. Oh I needed that.

  20. Kelly @ Love Well July 23, 2013 at 8:08 am #

    I’m nodding my head in agreement. I think there’s a huge blessing to sore muscles and physical tasks that make us sweat and grunt and get earth embedded in us. It does something to our mind. It reminds us who we are – and who we are not. It’s a beautiful, messy thing. A prayer born of screaming flesh and quieting minds.

    And this? “If you must look around, look down, look how far you’ve come.” A thousand times yes.

  21. michellesarabia July 23, 2013 at 8:15 am #

    Favorite line – “Maybe it’s because you did all your praying with your feet and your muscles and your dirty hands today.” Beautiful!

  22. J. Collard July 23, 2013 at 2:58 pm #

    I’m glad for this one today. I needed to hear something like this.

  23. mamadeano July 24, 2013 at 2:44 am #

    beautiful. that is all. Thankyou. I need to keep climbing.

  24. Maureen Koth July 28, 2013 at 2:37 pm #

    thank you from the bottom of my heart thank you….i am in charge of my own rescue needed words

  25. Jake Kaufman July 28, 2013 at 3:33 pm #

    “Maybe it’s because you did all your praying with your feet and your muscles and your dirty hands today.”

    what an incredibly convicting line. maybe my stale prayer life needs more climbing and less reciting. thanks for the motivation, today.

  26. paty July 28, 2013 at 3:37 pm #

    So I am 56 and this year I started Bikram yoga-heated 90 minute yoga class. I have learned so much. One of our instructors said something that I remembered as I read your post-she said that the mind tells us to quit so much earlier than either our heart or body might tell us. So sometimes we just let our body lead the mind which is so anti-western but applies to climbing a mountain or sticking to 90 minutes of hot yoga. And it is true spiritually as well. Our mind will reason out things to the nth degree but sometimes our soul and spirit need to lead us.

  27. audra July 28, 2013 at 6:03 pm #

    My heart aches with how very much I needed to hear this, all of it. Thank you. Really. Thank you.

  28. Bronwyn July 28, 2013 at 11:30 pm #

    When I was in seminary we learned that in the bible, mountains often represent the places where heaven touches earth: mount Sinai, the mount of olives, even the attempt to reach heaven by building the mountainous Tower of Babel. But I think, sometimes, mountain tops really are a place where heaven touches earth and God does something deep and soulish and transcendent in us, near us, for us. Thank you for sharing your ‘high’.

  29. Outnumbered 23 July 29, 2013 at 7:26 am #

    “Eventually you stop thinking about all the stuff you wanted to think about and instead you simply exist, with God, with your own breath, with your own physical body’s unbelievable strength.” I like this. I took up running, the boring long-distance kind, at a bad time some years ago and this describes how it is good. I decided I’m a “kinaesthetic pray-er” but “praying with your feet and muscles”is a far more poetic way of putting it :) Glad to have found this.

  30. R W July 30, 2013 at 9:50 am #

    Little late to the party- but I love this post! Especially because the mountains are my safe place with God. And, your photos remind me of my own beautiful San Juans here in WA. :)

  31. Nichole October 30, 2013 at 3:11 pm #

    I agree! I think that you need that you should get out for a while and accomplish something!

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