We have a tradition at my alma mater, Mt. Holyoke College, called Mountain Day.
The campus is located right near the base of some gorgeous New England climbers (including Mount Holyoke — you see what they did there?), and every year during the fall semester, the college’s president rings the school bells at the crack of dawn and announces to everyone via email and the subsequent shouts and hedonistic squeals of celebratory undergrads that all classes are cancelled. The entire student body and faculty have the day off with only one condition: you must climb Mount Holyoke.
It’s kind of a symbolic venture. I mean, the school and the mountain share a name for Christ’s sakes.
Likewise, it’s no coincidence that climbing itself is the universal metaphor for progression and growth – the very purpose of a college education.
By climbing the mountain we were in essence climbing to some greater good and embracing a tradition of female bonding that had preceded us for nearly two centuries. We were exercising our strength via the bonds of fellowship. We were pronouncing ourselves conquerors of life’s many obstacles, sounding the trumpet of success at the tip of Mount Holyoke and hearing its tinny bellow in the valleys below.
Yadda yadda yadda, you get the idea.
The problem is I never climbed the mountain.
Throughout the entirety of my four years of undergraduate education, Mountain Day stood for one purpose and one purpose only: it was for work.
It was a God given gift of extra time, with which I could squeeze in the necessary reading and writing and ‘rithmetic I’d need to succeed at college life. It was my insurance policy, my debtor’s haven, my leap year. It was the way I could guarantee my GPA wouldn’t float below its sacred 4.0 stature.
Really, it was a tomb.
And one in which I could gleefully wallow and ignore my shameless perfectionism and unflinching standards.
When I look back on it, Mountain Day was nothing other than the beauty and light heartedness of the universe, mocking me for my inability to dive in and enjoy it while it playfully frolicked in the October sun.
There are few things more important in life than Mountain Days. I know that now.
My 4.0* GPA means nothing in the scheme of things. (*Truth be told, it slipped from its mark due to a B+ in Cultural Anthropology, quite possibly the easiest course I took in my undergraduate years. Ironic, right? Totally.)
But it means so very much to me at the time.
Because I didn’t understand Mountain Day.
I had no idea how important it was to play, to sprint away from work and adulthood and responsibilities, my heart pounding and lungs expanding and deflating in rabbit-paced fury. I thought to be an adult was to strap on the satchel of gravitas. I thought it meant to strive and succeed. I thought it meant to work and be hard and be cold and get shit done.
But it doesn’t. Those things – working and being hard and getting shit done – are just what we do so that we can survive. Real life exists beyond them, in the childish hearts we once had and still do have if we dig deep enough to find them. The ones we were told to break and break repeatedly before the glare of the real world could snatch them up. The ones we rung dry until they became atrophied and taut and mechanical. The one’s we put away because “That’s not how adults act.”
I was doing what I thought I was supposed to, but I was wrong. I hadn’t reached the top of my own inner mountain yet, the one whose view would show me how very small I was and how very meaningless my achievements would be; where I would learn that I was so much more and so much less than I had come to think; where I at last figured out the only thing I really ever needed to know: that love, generosity, kindness, and laughter are really, really important. And everything else is kind of not.
I should’ve climbed the mountain. If I could do it again, I would. I’d climb it every day. (Well, maybe not every day. I’m still kind of anal and freakishly over-responsible.) But I’d do it because that’s what you should do when you’re alive.
I got into Harvard Graduate School last year and remember the feeling that came with my emailed acceptance. “Yes, the hard work: it’s paid off.”
But it still hadn’t. And it never will.
So I turned down my admission offer.
Because I want to climb mountains.
Happy Mountain Day!