My Why audio version of this blog available here.
Well folks, it’s July, the longest day is behind us, it’s raining and grey again in the UK as I write this, the school holidays are about to start (never great for those of us recording podcasts and seeking silence) and we’re almost officially closer to next Christmas than last Christmas (technically the halfway point of the year is around 1pm on 2 July apparently). Sounds like all bad news, doesn’t it?!
But, fear not, there are good things on the horizon in July, for instance, Independence Days, plural because it’s not just the US that celebrates Independence Day in July, so do Burundi, Rwanda, Algeria, Cape Verde, Venezuela, Solomon Islands, Argentina, Bahamas, Slovakia, Laos, Colombia, Liberia, Maldives, Puerto Rico, Peru, Belarus, Malawi, the Netherlands, South Sudan and Somalia, to name a few.
It’s also the month for the star sign Cancer, one of the star signs that is also a tropic. And yes, I had to look up what a tropic was. According to National Geographic;
“The tropics are regions of the Earth that lie roughly in the middle of the globe. The tropics between the latitude lines of the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn.”
There are only two star signs that have tropics associated with them: Cancer, which is also called the Northern Tropic, meaning it is the most northerly circle of latitude at which the Sun can be directly overhead. And Capricorn where the most southerly position is. For us in the northern hemisphere the Tropic of Cancer occurs on the June solstice, when the Northern Hemisphere is tilted toward the sun to its maximum extent. So that’s now basically. So July is on average the hottest month in the northern hemisphere, therefore the coldest in the southern hemisphere.
Interestingly did you know the word ‘cancer’ comes from the latin word for ‘crab’? Every day’s a school day.
Anyway, why this interest in the Cancer star sign? Well there’s four birthdays in our families in July, including mine. Which I’ve just learnt falls on the same day that Argentina and South Sudan are celebrating independence. And this year it places me officially ‘in my 40’s’ and not just ‘40’ anymore.
So… 41. Life’s been spun, or just begun? I don’t know yet. I suspect it’s different for everyone. While some of you will be watching 41 nervously on the horizon, others will be looking at it in the rear view mirror - maybe with relief or regret.
So overall, July, whatever is going on with the weather, or the politics, or the climate, is largely a happy month for me. It’s associated with my birthday, not that I throw huge parties, but equally it’s never been something I dread.
As the saying goes: “At age twenty, you worry about what others think about you; at forty, you don’t care what others think about you; and at sixty, you realise that nobody was thinking about you anyway.”
Now, I’m not in a hurry to get to 60 but I am starting to understand and see the freedom that comes with getting older and accepting who you are. I’m not there quite yet, but I am recognising how much harder it’s becoming put myself in the shoes of a 20-year-old and remember just how devastatingly life-destroying even one bad haircut could be. In fact I’ve recently realised I now care less about how you think I look, and more about how I feel I look. I’m also noticing life, opinions, and facts are way more complicated than you realised at 21, and even at 31.
So, July is always reflective for me, as I think everyone’s birthday month is, and that’s healthy. Life will always move you on, and birthdays are our reminder of that. Every day, hour, minute, and second is ticking us forward, and we have no control over it. Millions of people lived before we arrived for our allotted slot on earth, many will come after. They came, they went, and no one knows how long we get to stay when we arrive. So every birthday we have is a sign of life. That we are still here. A blessing of another day with air in our lungs.
However, when we are gone birthdays are also a reminder that we were here for those that remember us. Whether we arrived and only survived a few weeks after conception or whether we lived a hundred years, hopefully, if we are blessed enough to be loved, we are remembered because we existed. I think one of the saddest things on earth is a life not remembered, not named, not mourned, a half empty funeral or no funeral at all. I’m grateful that has not been my life so far, and I hope when I’m gone there will be those to remember me, but when you don’t have children and a family legacy, sometimes you do wonder.
I suspect all our years are littered with birthdays of those still with us and those not here. They are an inescapable part of living in family or community or loving another human. In our family, for those we need to remember, we have at least one birthday every month of the year, except November. We’ve all managed to escape that dark month! But then there are birthday dates that pass of people who are no longer on this planet that I loved or admired, and I think back to times when they would have been here.
And, not to boast, but I share the same birthday as Tom Hanks.
When I went in search of what people had said about July in quotes and poems, I found an obvious theme:
July the summer is finally here The skies are blue and oh so clear! Months Of The Year by Catherine Pulsifer
Pretty red cherries, and bright little flies, Twinkling and turning the fields into skies, Will come in July. Beautiful Things, Poet: Unknown
In July brightly shines the sun, Each Month, Poet: Unknown
There comes a time when people get tired of being pushed out of the glittering sunlight of life's July and left standing amid the piercing chill of an alpine November. Martin Luther King, Jr.
I have always had a certain aversion to heat. And for me, the name of the game on the stage is 'beat the heat.' It's always July under the lights. Bob Weir, Musician
You guessed it - the theme is hot weather. In poems about every month of the year, the July verse is the pinnacle of weather, people are talking about it, comparing it, and basking in it. And this told me two things. Firstly, most of the quotes were clearly penned by people in the northern hemisphere, so let’s not forget our friends in the south and their winter. And secondly, July is held up as some sort of high point in the year. Like the climb out of winter and through spring has finally landed us in summer. If January and February are the valley, then March, April, May, June are the climb and July is the peak.
July is like reaching the peak of a mountain. As far as weather goes for the UK, it is the mountaintop experience. It’s the moment when you peek your head over the final ridge and realise you’ve reached the summit, no more climbing. Summer is the summit. Summer is here (she says looking out at the rain).
I suspect we’d all like to think we were on the verge of a mountaintop experience, it’s something, if we’re honest, most of us hope to experience at least once in our lifetime. It looks great up there, sunny, fantastic view, feeling fulfilled, all your dreams realised, maybe some snow, no chores or responsibilities, people looking up at you in awe - what’s not to want? And we see people enjoying it every day on our televisions, or pretending to on social media.
But, before we get too dreamy at how amazing it would be and start packing our bags to leave now, there’s a few reasons mountaintop experiences might not be all you think they’re cracked up to be.
1. You’re high up
Seems pretty obvious but you know the thing about being high or being on a pedestal?
‘The view is great?’
Well, yes, but there’s more to it than that. What goes up, must come down. We can’t sustain life up there. It’s literally not possible to live at the top of a high mountain. So while the mountaintop is great, while you’re up there, ultimately, at some point, you have to come down again. Mountaintop experiences are to be enjoyed and relished in, but they’re not to be lived on, don’t set up camp there, you can’t survive, and you can’t help anyone else from up there either. And ultimately you’ll kill the mountaintop experience that you were after.
To be able to enjoy the pleasure of a descend from a mountaintop, something should take you to the top of the mountain in the first place. Nesta Jojoe Erskine
2. It won’t be perfect
You will have an idea in your head of what the mountaintop experience looks like for you, might even be something you’ve never shared with anyone else. For some it’s just reaching peak health, for others it’s a million followers on Instagram and an Audi R8 on their driveway, for some it’s their charity being financially stable, for others it’s not having to work two jobs, or being an international best selling author. And from down here the view up there looks pretty good, because you only see the success, reaching the top of the mountain, but you can’t see how long it took, or the blisters inside the shoes, or the knee that won’t straighten out, or the back that’s aching, or the dried tears on the cheeks and the pain of grief that’s still inside the heart. And these expectations can actually be what damages the experience or, even worse, make it completely unobtainable. As the old saying goes: No pain, no gain.
Fact is, you never really reach the highest point anyway. Man wanted to climb Everest, he did it, man wanted to land on the moon, they did it, man now wants to live in space. Enjoy whatever level you get to, without focusing on the fact there will always be others that go higher. There’s always someone that goes further.
If the mountain despises the valley, the valley reminds him of the clouds and the Moon! Mehmet Murat Ildan
3. You won’t be alone
When you get to the top it might not be the quiet solitude or party you expected, because you don’t get to choose who’s there with you. It’s not an isolated experience. On the mountaintop you’ll meet some people that will be loving it, will be on their own high and happy for you too. Some people will have worked hard to get there and be quietly grateful, helping others up over the edge to share the experience. Some people won’t even realise they’ve reached it or will be passing through on their way to higher peaks. Some will abuse it - arriving with a sense of power and entitlement. Some won’t reach it by their own merit, using others resources along the way or treading on others to advance. Some barely arrive, desperately need of the rest, their journey long, hard, lonely and frustrating. Some people don’t make it at all, this journey wasn’t theirs to finish.
National Geographic describes the summit of Mount Everest like this:
There’s room for a half dozen or so climbers to stand and enjoy the view, although on busy days mountaineers must take turns to truly stand on top of the world. National Geographic Website
Hardly the moment you might have expected after months of training and thousands of pounds spent.
4, You’re on a mountain!
The conditions are harsh. The mountain has enabled you to have this high moment, but mountains aren’t exactly known for their deep empathy or sensitive encouragements for those that climb them or try to live on them. The mountain doesn’t care how far you get, or how you get there, or what you do with it, it was there long before you were conceived and it will be there long after you’re gone. Your claim of conquering the mountain are not a dent in its ego.
It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves. Sir Edmund Hillary One of the first climbers to reach Mount Everest’s summit
It’s not actually about the mountain at all. The aim is not the top of the mountain, it’s the experience you have when you feel like you have arrived at where you want to be, and believe it or not, that can be achieved, for some, halfway up or even in the valley. Now any of you with a competitive streak will no doubt be yelling ‘Nooo, that can’t be true! How on earth can you climb a mountain, not get to the top and feel the same way as those that do?’ Well, the summit isn’t everyone’s goal, for some people attempting the climb was all they needed for their high moment, and for others, going around the mountain was just as satisfying for them, it’s just a different route. You all get to the same place eventually and how you feel inside on the other side of the mountain is the important bit. The mountain climb is optional, you might argue, more rewarding, but it’s still something some people will never get to do, and that doesn’t exclude them from the same feeling of satisfaction and achievement when you all gather at the other side in the valley again. Some might even say to achieve that satisfaction without the mountaintop experience is even more impressive.
5. It’s not the valley
You might say ‘Exactly, that’s the point! I don’t want to be in the valley!’ Which is fair enough, but look around the valley; it’s where the life is, the water, the food, the shelter, the wildlife, the better temperatures, the people, your community, support.
Mountaintops inspire leaders but valleys mature them. Winston Churchill
It’s the valley that trains you for the mountaintop, what if we didn’t see it as somewhere to escape from, but somewhere to escape to.
Let’s not forget:
We can only climb the mountains because there’s a valley that makes the mountain a mountain. Craig D. Lounsbrough
Mostly the restless people of the valleys climb the tough peaks of the mountains! The rest, the peaceful ones always stay in the valleys! Adventure is the invention of restless minds! Mehmet Murat ildan
So just remember when you dream of having your mountaintop moment;
You’re high up, it won’t be perfect, you won’t be alone, you’re on a mountain, and it’s not the valley.
We all need a mountaintop experience every now and then, whether we slogged our way up there, or drove up to the top for the view, but we also need the more ‘normal’ day-to-day in between. Mountaintop experiences take a lot of work, no one gets dropped onto the top of a mountain, they’re exhausting, all-consuming and not sustainable.
He loved mountains, or he had loved the thought of them marching on the edge of stories brought from far away; but now he was borne down by the insupportable weight of Middle-earth. He longed to shut out the immensity in a quiet room by a fire. J R R Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
On The Silent Why podcast we chat to people going through loss and grief and I think they’d all agree this is done in the valleys of life, these are not mountaintop experiences, but they’d also say this is where they have done most of their learning, where they have experienced the most emotion, growth, and depth, and as they rise from it, the joy and hope that can follow, has only followed because of the experience in the valley. To never be in the valley is to not experience the life, sustenance, comfort and nourishment life has for us.
So although we might have gone through the valley of winter, and a damp spring, to reach the peak of July, let’s not forget what we learn when we’re here, so we can descend again to the valley better for it, richer for it, content that the valley is the place that equips us for the mountain peak. Don’t forget, there will always be more peaks in the future.
Do you know how National Geographic describes the summit of Mount Everest in the first part of the quote I used earlier?
The actual summit of the mountain is a small dome of snow about the size of a dining room table. National Geographic Website
A small dome of snow.
If ever there was a description that was disappointing it’s this!
Anyway, my parting words, enjoy July, enjoy the mountaintop of weather in the northern hemisphere, enjoy the depths of the valley in the southern hemisphere, you won’t stay in either place forever, so enjoy where you are, for as long as you can.
After all, we may get to experience joy and happiness on the mountaintop, but we get to truly appreciate it in the valley.
I’ll finish with the words of George Mallory:
People ask me, 'What is the use of climbing Mount Everest?' and my answer must at once be, 'It is of no use.' There is not the slightest prospect of any gain whatsoever. Oh, we may learn a little about the behaviour of the human body at high altitudes, and possibly medical men may turn our observation to some account for the purposes of aviation. But otherwise nothing will come of it. We shall not bring back a single bit of gold or silver, not a gem, nor any coal or iron... If you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won't see why we go. What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life. We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to live. That is what life means and what life is for. George Mallory, Climbing Everest: The Complete Writings of George Mallory