By Julie Pennington-Russell
It all started with my teeth. A couple of years ago I was reclining in the chair of my dentist, Dr. John Uetsuki, waiting for the nitrous oxide to kick in.
“Are you doing anything special for New Year’s?” he asked through his blue paper mask.
“Nothing out of the ordinary,” I said. “Just black-eyed peas for luck.”
“Have you ever climbed Stone Mountain?”
“Well, I’ve been meaning to.”
“My wife and I climb Stone Mountain every New Year’s Day,” he said, “to watch the sun rise.”
I listened with interest as he described the ancient Japanese custom of marking the “firsts” in any given new year. Every first of January, throngs of Japanese men, women and children travel to the coast or to a mountain to observe Hatsuhinode — the first sunrise of the new year.
In that moment an idea was born. With my 50th birth year just days away I found myself wondering: “Could I make it up Stone Mountain 50 times?”
Twelve months later my 50th birth year passed into history as I completed climb number Five-O in the afternoon of New Year’s Eve.
During that year I stood atop Stone Mountain beside pools of ice, and I stood there under a sun so hot, I swear you could fry bacon on that rock. I climbed at sunrise, sunset, noonday and once under a full moon. I climbed alone and I climbed with kinfolk, church friends, neighbors and houseguests from around the world.
I spent a year schlepping myself up and down Atlanta’s most famous piece of granite and I have news: Stone Mountain is a treasure. Climbing the mountain gave me some marvelous gifts that year, among them these three lessons:
Lesson One: There is big value in feeling small.
Standing on a piece of rock that pre-dates me by a few million years and will still be there long after I’ve entered the cloud boat, as Mary Oliver puts it, has a way of putting perspective on some things. Like the size of my troubles, for instance. The shape of my priorities. The difference between the truly important and the merely urgent. My place in God’s bigger picture.
Lesson Two: Everyone needs to stand on top of something.
A mountain can be a great metaphor for life. The physical act of ascending a mountain brings a sense of overcoming, not only the rock itself, but other obstacles as well. Some challenges we face are relatively minor: Irritating people. Frustrations at work. Everyday stress. Others are more daunting.
In May, on the day when my husband’s brother took his life, I stood on the summit, shook my fists in the air and shouted at death: “You don’t get the final word down here!” In some mysterious way, my feet seemed planted not only on the crest of that mountain but also on the neck of everything that wants to break us down here: Depression. Cancer. Addiction. Death.
Lesson Three: Some moments are meant to be savored, not seized by the lapels.
I lean toward the sin of workaholism. Sometimes I’m so busy maximizing the moment that I lose sight of this cardinal rule: When it comes to life, you must be present to win.
During one of my climbs early last spring I was marching up the stone trail, iPhone in hand, fielding calls and sending text messages. Somewhere near the top, during a water break, I caught sight of a Red-Tailed Hawk circling overhead, every movement of his wings so effortless, so graceful. As he swooped near the place where I stood hunched over my phone, I thought I saw him shake his head and roll his steely eyes at me, as if to say, “What’s the point?”
I heartily recommend the practice of marking each year in some intentional way. If you’ve never tried it before, there’s no time like the present — it’s not too late. Here are some possibilities for 2013:
Plant a garden. Run a marathon. Finish writing that book. Try talking to God. Try listening to God. Forgive somebody. Forgive yourself. Climb a mountain. There are a million ways to bow your head and say thanks for the gift of life.