Blowin’ In: Faces of the Mountain
By Susan Mangan
“Every mountain has its faces
that’d make you want to stop
On this so unwelcome journey
From the bottom to the top.”
Something Beautiful ~ By Great Big Sea
I have climbed one mountain in my life, Croagh Patrick. Majestic, this mountain is the third largest in County Mayo, Ireland. The Reek, as it is known, is a paternal life force that watches over the villages, hills, and people of this part of Ireland.
On a clear day, the viewer can observe the mountain for miles. The shadows of his face change with the light. White paths snake up the front and sides of the mountain, etchings left by generations of pilgrims who have climbed the Reek each day of every year. Some climb Croagh Patrick to test their physical strength, some climb to test their mental endurance, others climb as humble pilgrims in homage to St. Patrick. Our family climbed to share a moment in time that may never return – a time when five different branches of kin joined to laugh, sweat, complain, and to pass a summer’s afternoon, together.
The mountain pass begins benignly enough: sheep roam, a gentle river tumbles over rocks that are a millennia old, and purple heather springs from a boggy patchwork quilt nestled between hard stone. A statue of St. Patrick stands encouragingly at the first phase of the mountain. Since the children have been young, we have journeyed to that statue to take a family picture. We never ventured past that point until this year.
As we embarked upon the next stretch, our group began to separate into pairs. Some turned around, while most climbed upward. As the mountain grew, the terrain became increasingly rocky. At points, the only way you can walk is by grappling for seemingly sturdy rocks with your hands. I never questioned my physical capabilities, but my psychological resolve was tested at every turn. I waved the others on, determined to balance my own breathing, to listen to my heart. I am afraid of open heights.
Having long lost sight of my family climbers, I began to reflect as I moved tenuously from one rocky pass to the next. I must have looked quite the sight, struggling for a sense of balance on all fours like the awkward human that I am in a land of mountain sheep. Nevertheless, I carried on as I continued my inward, solitary conversation, silently encouraging myself of my bravery and strength. I would make it to the peak, and there I would look out, high above Clew Bay, and obtain my favorite yoga position, the mountain pose.
Just shy of the final path to the summit, I stopped. I never made it to the top. My fear got in the way of my goal. My breathing became rapid, tears began to well in my eyes, and vertigo started to manifest.
Still, I clung to the rocks, with my scraped and dirty fingers, digging the tips of my shoes into the mountainside. Others, much younger and much older than I were surpassing me. Some climbers tried to encourage me to move forward, but I settled into my limitations.
And so, I turned my back to the mountain and sat on rocky ground at approximately 2,000 feet, looking out over my accomplishment. No, I never reached the peak, but I was there to meet my husband and oldest son as they descended from the top.
Motherhood is a journey, at times arduous and unyielding, much like the path that reaches to the peak of Croagh Patrick. Raising our children, we can be stymied by fear of the unknown, illness, tragedy, but we can also be transported by the sheer joy of life: the vigorous cry of a newborn baby, the softness of a child’s hand, the strength of your eighteen-year-old son’s grip when he hugs you the moment you learn that your own mother has died.
No, I never made it to the top of Croagh Patrick, but I celebrated my courage with my son and husband as they paused to look out over the land of their ancestors. I observed them silently, happy to part of this shared moment.
I mark my accomplishments not by the journey of others, but by my own feats as a mother, a daughter, a wife, a unique individual. When I encounter fear, I remind myself that my heart is as strong as the earth, and my spirit is not weak, but gentle and ever blooming, like the heather that grows between the rock that paves the bottom of the mountain, as well as the top.
*Susan holds a Master’s Degree in English from John Carroll University and a Master’s Degree in Education from Baldwin-Wallace University. She may be contacted at [email protected]