When I told my cousin that I thought we should hike Tom Dick and Harry Mountain on Monday she laughed and said “Nice name.” It’s true, it is a somehow a little crass—but it had been on my list forever, and the weather had never cooperated before, so I was pretty excited to do it. We left Portland early, driving up the mountain under a slightly cloudy sky. I have to admit that I was only halfway present in the car. One half of my being was genuinely delighted to spend time with my cousin, who I don’t get to see often enough, but the other half was feeling cagey and anxious, running through a mental list of things I needed to do. I was fighting the feeling that I should be somewhere else at the beginning of my last week of class in the MFA, as a student and a teacher. I should be applying for jobs, I should be working on final projects, I should be grading my students’ essays. I should definitely not be flying on Highway 26 for a day-long trek up a mountain called Tom Dick and Harry.
I’ve been trying though to let go of the should feeling, the way it rattles around in my chest like a hive of angry bees, buzzing so loudly sometimes I could sense them infiltrating my ribcage. I told myself that I should be allowed days off, even after weekends away, even during busy times. I should be exactly where I was, spending time with my cousin and our dogs, doing one of our favorite activities together. But I didn’t start to really believe it until we got to the trailhead and crossed the first bridge, and from there every step up the trail was further confirmation that I was in fact doing exactly what I should be.
There are lots of ways the world makes us feel a little guilty if we aren’t constantly productive, and I’m learning all the ways that society’s expectations of work and our preoccupation with “busy-ness” can sometimes harm me. It takes effort to unlearn the heavy load of a lifetime of lessons in what makes us worthy, and finding a true balance of work, play, and the in-between. I don’t know if there’s anything concrete I can offer in the way of advice, but I do know that when we got to the top of the mountain and looked out over the Cascade Range I felt better than I had in weeks.
From our perch atop Tom (the middle peak) we could see in front of us the stoic lines of Mt. Hood burnished bright and looming against a bluebird belly sky, so clear and dazzling it almost hurt to look at. We named the peaks we could see in the distance, staggered along the horizon line: Rainier, St. Helens, Adams, then Hood. Behind us the chain continued on with Jefferson, tiny pearls strung along a fault line of fire. The forest looked rumpled and cozy from the distance, like a thick quilt, dotted in the middle with the cerulean blue of mirror lake. Our dogs had splashed in it only an hour before, and now it was below us and small enough to touch.
From that vantage point it felt easy to see the many parts that made up the whole: each tree contributing to the forest, each boulder making the mountain. But it was the perspective of the larger picture that I needed that day, to know that I was getting lost counting the rocks and trees of my own life when I could be better served taking the 5,000 foot view. Maybe all I’m saying is that elevation, literal and metaphorical, is really the answer to most of the shoulds in life. At least right now, for me, that’s true.