I’ve been on top of a few mountains. Well, and one volcano, but that totally counts. Getting up there is never easy. There are rocks to scramble over, steep trails to climb, and weather. The weather on top of mountains is often cold, always unpredictable. Sometimes the skies are clear for miles around, and all that climbing is rewarded with views of incredible landscapes. Sometimes clouds obscure everything. Sometimes it drizzles or snows and the views are even less expansive. Those days, the reward in the climb is not in a spectacular vista, but in all the small, unique sights of the mountain itself.
The thing about being an adult is that birthdays are not so super exciting, not least because it’s a lot harder to get all of your best friends over to your house. Mine, especially, are all over the United States. A birthday without an all-night Star Wars marathon just feels like it’s missing something, and Moscow Mules don’t quite make up for it.
Then there’s my inclination to overthink everything. I tend to get caught up in the ideas of what I should have achieved at this point in my life. What would my eighteen-year-old self think if she knew I hadn’t even published a novel by my early thirties? I had so many expectations for this point in my life that definitely haven’t been met yet.
But there are all the things that have happened in my life that I wasn’t expecting. For three years I lived in the Pacific Northwest, which it turns out is the most amazing place on the planet, as long as you don’t mind clouds. I’ve made amazing friends in Louisiana, South Carolina, and Maryland. And my family is way bigger and cooler and quirkier than I could ever have imagined.
When I got out of bed on my birthday, I determined that I was going to have a good day. And In spite of the usual life-related chaos, I did. The family and I went to an aquarium, a bookstore, and then to lunch. I got a pastry, and later I got to listen to my daughter and my husband argue over how to sing “Happy Birthday”. It’s the simple things, really.
One thing that I hope I’ve learned in my thirty-one trips around the sun is the danger of “should”. It would have been easy to think, “I should be a published author by now.” Or, “I should be able to hang with my friends and eat half a cookie cake and watch Lord of the Rings on my birthday.” Or, “I should be able to sleep nine hours a night.”
“Should” is a guaranteed path to disappointment. It’s a rejection of the way things are, a certainty that they ought to be something else. A conviction that somewhere, out there, is a perfect life just waiting for you to step in and inhabit it, and it’s full of perfect people who follow all the rules. Drivers pay attention to Yield signs, kids understand the meaning of “No”, people who work hard achieve their goals. It’s a simple, beautiful world.
Of course, life is messy. Drivers back up without looking, kids dump Cheerios on the floor then step on them, and sometimes success takes some luck in addition to all that hard work and talent.
“Should” is no good for dealing with all that chaos. What does is a willingness to be flexible about the crazy, strange turns life takes.
About six years ago I went to the top of Mount Rainier, which is one of the most incredible sights in the Pacific Northwest. In the middle of October, rain is also a primary feature of the PNW. Of course, the top of the volcano was shrouded in clouds, and all the sights that people usually travel to the top of the volcano for were completely obscured. It could have been a disappointing end to a long drive.
But that day, the little things were beautiful. The shrubs were all a brilliant scarlet. The waterfalls were swollen with rain and melted glacial water. And best of all, the less-than-ideal weather meant my companions and I were the only people on the mountainside. There, in one of America’s busiest National Parks, we had solitude. It was a rare day. My fingers nearly froze, but it was so worth it.
I’ve spent a lot of time in my life obsessing over the way things should be. And sure, there are unjust things happening in the world all the time, and it would be great if those things didn’t happen. Yet they do, and I’m betting (barring some kind of future society in which robots determine the outcome of our every interaction) that they always will.
Maybe, though, there’s nothing wrong with getting to the top of the mountain and discovering that you aren’t going to see anything further than a hundred feet away. And that along with the limited view, you’re going to get drenched in freezing cold rain. Sometimes when everything happens the way it shouldn’t, the best things about the trip are the most obvious.