Most weeks, I walk up a mountain with my friend Janis. We’ve been doing this for a few years now, and Janis has a rule. “What’s said on the mountain stays on the mountain.” In the crisp predawn light of winter, and even in the dripping humidity of the current summer, punctuated by the screeches of cockatoos and galahs, everything we say feels slightly more real than it does at other times. I’ve told my deepest secrets on the mountain, to that chorus, laughed harder than at any other time, cried, been silly. I would say that my life has been transformed by the mountain. If I could put it in a bottle and sell it, I would.
I’ve often thought about why the mountain does so much good. Partly, it’s because we’re getting exercise. Science has been telling us for decades that to keep physically healthy we need exercise but we’re now learning we also need exercise for mental health. Exercise can help depression and anxiety, those twin doona temptresses that afflict so many these days. One of my friends says alcohol and exercise are opposites. The first feels good going in, bad afterwards. The second feels bad going in, good afterwards. But even though we know it’s going to be good afterwards, we still resist exercise, and even though I am yet to see alcohol solve a problem, I may still drink.
Sometimes I have to trick myself into exercise. When I wake in the morning, I don’t tell myself I have to swim. I tell myself I have to sit up in bed. Then I have to get one foot out of bed, the other, clothes on, bike, ride. When I get to the pool, I don’t tell myself I have to swim a kilometre. I just have to dive in. And on it goes until I’m happily having my shower after the kilometre swim, feeling good in a glow of those wondrous hormones that follow exertion. I also made a pact with Janis that we’d stop texting in the morning to decide whether or not to walk because if we text, we cancel. I’ve found that if I have to turn up to meet someone, I’m much more likely to exercise. If I have a choice, the doona wins.
But the mountain is more than exercise and a commitment. The act of walking is itself powerful, that putting one foot in front of another in companionship. It gives us different ways of seeing the world, unconfined by the walls and ceilings of the interior spaces we mostly find ourselves in, even the black line of a pool. We have a vista, perspective and we expand to meet them. And the companionship feels better when there’s this expansiveness. I’ve walked by myself and it doesn’t work. I enjoy it well enough but I’m not transformed. Being with friends like Janis makes all the difference.
This brings me to the importance of being in a natural place. The mountain is mostly covered by forest and we’re lucky in Brisbane to have forests so close to home. For me, everything about the natural world, even the frightening things, has a feeling of rightness when I’m there. The mountain is the place I most often notice my own nature compared to, say, those cockatoos and galahs. They yell across the treetops with what sounds like pure joy simply because it’s morning. They wheel around the sky like happy idiots and I envy them. If you look at them long enough, you start to feel that you’re the one who’s ridiculous. You can try this at home and you’ll see what I mean.
And finally, there’s the rule. What’s said on the mountain stays on the mountain. The rule lets me be someone with no ties to the earth below my feet, a bit like when I’m in a plane and have a conversation with a stranger that matters, or when I’ve spent time with people who are dying and have nothing to lose and so tell the truth. What’s said on the mountain stays on the mountain. What a relief!
I hope everyone finds their version of the mountain and has a friend like Janis. My life would be so much poorer without them.
Based on the column published in The Courier-Mail Qweekend on 15 February 2014. I write mainly about writing, education, birth, health and the thrill of parenting. You can Get in touch, tick the box to receive emails, Like Writer Mary-Rose MacColl on Facebook or follow MaryRoseMacColl on Twitter. Have a great day!