I have had a deep and abiding love affair with mix tapes for most of my life. Since the days of recorded cassettes, through the era of burned CDs, and finally to the dawn of the iTunes playlist. My nearest and dearest know there is nothing I love more than concoting the perfect mix for the party, the birthday, the anniversary, the season.
So when we set off on our first drive of the vacation and I plugged in the ipod, I realized to my horror that I had completely forgotten to make The Esesential Yellowstone Playlist.
Utter fail. How could I have let this tragedy befall our trip?
Call it the magic of the shuffle; call it the intervention of the Holy Spirit (whom I firmly believe must have excellent musical taste). However you spin it, we ended up with perfect songs appearing at precisely the right moment, all week long.
U2’s “Elevation” began to grind just as we crossed the Continental Divide.
Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” started to strum just as we passed under yet another “WATCH FOR FALLING ROCKS” sign.
And even (to F’s delight) the synthesized strains of Styx’s “Come Sail Away” picked up as we rounded Yellowstone Lake.
But it was another tune from Bono and the boys that really got to me. (Not just the elevation. Pun intended.) As our car zoomed up the mountain pass, my favorite track off their last album filled the air: “I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight.” And I flashed back to another sunny afternoon, at much lower altitudes, nearly two years earlier.
Exhausted that day from newborn cries and nursing and all that new motherhood demands, I had reached my wit’s end. Irish temper flaring, I declared to F that I Was Leaving The House And He Could Stay With The Baby And No I Didn’t Know When I Would Be Coming Home But He Could Figure Out What To Do While I Was Gone. (Door slam.)
Not my best moment.
Followed by another less-than-stellar page in the Annals of My Early Parenting, wherein I drove around town sobbing for at least an hour while the aforementioned new U2 album played. I think I hit “repeat” on track 5 approximately 28 times so I could hear the good man from Dublin sing these lines over and over again:
It’s not a hill; it’s a mountain
When you start out the climb.
Do you believe me, or are you doubting?
We’re gonna make it all the way to the light
But I know I’ll go crazy if I don’t go crazy tonight.
Motherhood felt like no small hill to me during those first months. It was a tall mountain, staggeringly tall, towering over my small self who barely knew how to start out the climb. Many days felt like that helpless struggle to gain footing on a rocky slope where each step slides you backwards, frantically grasping out for anything solid to cling to.
So that day in early fall, I sang and I sobbed and I thought about mountains and after awhile I started to feel better. The magic of solitude and cathartic crying. I drove back home and I loved up on that baby and that husband again. (I’ve since learned you can’t expect much more from the newborn days than regular breakdowns and lots of mutual forgiveness.)
Remembering that day as we dipped and curved round rugged roads, I thought about mountaintop moments. The Biblical ones, of course: Moses meets God; Jesus turns transfigured. But the personal ones, too. The times when I felt the thin spaces, the closeness of the divine.
Ironically, those early days of learning what it meant to mother – how bodily and exhausting it all was – those hard weeks were mountaintop moments. I had to lean into my most basic knowledge, my deepest loves, my grasp of faith, to believe that I could do this work, that I was called to this life, that I could learn through these challenges. I prayed hard then, lots of desperate early morning prayers for patience and help, lots of bone-tired late night prayers for sleep and quiet. But also prayers for gratitude, prayers of awe and thanksgiving that we had been blessed with this beautiful, mysterious, exhausting, sweet miracle of a baby.
Mountaintops are like that, too: overpowering mixtures of beauty – closeness to the divine – and struggle – the challenge of reaching the summit. As human beings we’re drawn to mountains and yet we’re terrified by them. They represent obstacles but also overwhelming, irresistible desires: the possibility of triumph and achievement.
At several points in our trip, the altitude of the still-snow-covered mountains made me woozy. (Not recommended for women in their eighth month of pregnancy.) But once back at boring sea level, I can see how the mountaintop moments in our spiritual lives are like that, too: sometimes the suffering or need or desperation that leads us closer to God feels like it is sucking the very life from our lungs. But when we finally fling ourselves over the mountain and begin to leave its rocky summits for more sure and steady ground, we find ourselves missing something: the feeling so near to God in our hours of need. The transition from the season of infertility to the season of pregnancy felt like that for me: I knew how to find God in my grief and my longing, but could God be as close in my joy and my preparing?
Like Peter and James and John, we want to stay up on the mountaintop with God. The air is thinner, the view is grander, the presence of God feels nearer. But we can’t pitch our tents to stay; we have to go back down into the plains. And so the mountaintop moments become our touchstones, perhaps, the markers of our spiritual journeys: the highs and the lows, the ups and the downs.
The signs of how far we’ve come with only God (and not even the perfect playlist) to lead us.