I am in Scotland for a conference keynote on Friday and took the chance to visit friends and relatives, and take in a few hills.
I visited the small house my parents lived in in East Kilbride when I was born, and then the two houses we lived in in Strathaven from when I was four until I left home. While there I spent time with my elderly aunt and a good friend from school who I haven’t seen for twenty years, in both cases reminiscing about my younger years. Today I visited my old university in St. Andrews and spent an intense hour revisiting some of the places where I passed possibly the most formative years of my life. Watching the students as they moved from lecture to lecture brought back nostalgic feelings of expectation and potential.
These visits felt a little like having my life pass before my eyes and left me melancholy and pondering where I came from, where I have got to, and the meaning of what has happened in between.
And this brings me to the hills. I love the adventure and grunt of hiking up hills – especially the Scottish hills. There is a ruggedness and weather beaten aspect to walks in them that reduces things to their elemental nature. I wasn’t doing anything very risky but just being there on my own carried a degree of risk. I needed to take care of where I was and what I was doing. Placing my feet carefully matters more when I am on my own and well away from others. There is also the need to pace myself. To not continually fret over how far I have to go and how wet and windy it is. There is a strong tendency to resent the discomfort and far from ideal conditions, and to wish that this thing, which I love and don’t get to do often enough, is over quickly!
But no, I have learned over the years to relish every step, feel the stretch in my legs, notice the textures and sounds around me. To stop worrying about “getting somewhere”, being in the moment rather than aching for the end. Breaking the hike down into really, really, small moments – single steps – that are ends in themselves. Almost forgetting where I am and where I am going, seeing “a world in a grain of sand”. Doing this makes me deeply, deeply happy and anyone hearing the giggling coming from this figure hunched against the wind and rain would doubt my sanity.
And this brings me back to my revisiting of my past. Trying to see a narrative arc in my life, overlaying moments from my past with value laden phrases like success or failure, is like spoiling a good walk by worrying about the conditions or the speed of getting to the summit. I did what I did and I do what I do. The more I can remember to take every really small step as it comes, and to notice as much as I can of what is happening around me, the more likely I am to worry people nearby with my giggling.