For a stretch of years in high school and early college, I would conceptualize the timeline of my life in “mountaintop moments.” Not key events or achievements or birthdays or vacations, but experiences of inner freedom that lived and died entirely in my mind. A moment of recognition or reconciliation that meant the world to me. A song that reminded me of some long-forgotten patch of my childhood. A mountaintop moment wasn’t just a mood boost; it was a burst of dazzling clarity that opened my eyes to the way out of whatever rut I was stuck in. It was the chiropractor making that one minor adjustment that fixed everything.

I can remember a few distinct mountaintop moments from high school. My ruts came in the form of laboring over college applications, slogging through track practice, and worrying about certain relationships that seemed twisted into knots. I was stuck in tunnel vision, losing motivation to look for a way out. What finally sparked some clarity was a beloved scene from Pride and Prejudice (the two-hour version), which I started watching every year to combat the feeling of stuckness. About two-thirds in, Elizabeth blows out a candle with tears in her eyes because of all the miscommunication and strained relationships that are plaguing her and her sister. Seconds later, a new light flickers on the screen like the sun that rattles on your eyelids when you’re trying to sleep on a train. Suddenly Elizabeth is standing on a blustery moorland plateau, the “Liz on Top of the World” melody burgeoning beneath her. Her literal mountaintop moment was all I needed to snap out of my stupor. Now I knew how to access that feeling—a bike ride with that one-minute-and-twenty-two-second soundtrack in my earbuds as the sky swelled with pink at four p.m. I could live clear-eyed again.

Another random junction of moments that led to a mountaintop happened in the spring of my senior year of high school. College decision day was approaching. I was over-philosophizing about what I wanted for the next four years. I had annotated bibliographies to write. I wasn’t feeling like a person who would pull it all off gracefully. In a single afternoon I had to interview one of the school administrators for my senior project and then drive out to a farm in Ada to be interviewed for a summer job. The content of the interviews hardly mattered—I think I disagreed with the administrator, and I didn’t get the job at the farm. But I drove home after the interviews like a little sparrow. I was excited to get my hands in the dirt of the world, gracefully or not. Something about those two meetings, the music playing in my car, and the overturn of winter jolted me awake to joy.

For the most part I didn’t share these mountain top moments with anyone. I assumed my heart operated much differently than everyone else’s and sharing these moments would only fall flat if they bounced off another’s ears. I didn’t blame anyone for it; I thought I was kind of silly for finding so much internal motivation in something so subjective. Why didn’t my joy come from something more transmittable, explicable, “objective”?

There’s a portion of the book Gilead by Marilynne Robinson that helped me realize that I wasn’t the only one who had access to this kind of subjective joy—or subjective pain. She writes:

In every important way we are such secrets from each other, and I do believe there is a separate language in each of us, also a separate aesthetics and a separate jurisprudence. Every single one of us is a little civilization built on the ruins of any number of preceding civilizations, but with our own variant notions of what is beautiful and acceptable—which, I hasten to add, we generally do not satisfy and by which we struggle to live. (224)

So mountain top moments aren’t only for the nostalgic, touchy-feely types? You’re saying it makes sense that I have my own notions of what is beautiful and acceptable? Suddenly I would be sitting across from someone and listening to them talk as their eyes glistened, and I would realize that this was their mountain top, hidden somewhere in the prism of perception and memory and imagination that fractures a little differently for everyone. This must be what mine sounds like, I thought—indistinct and curious and lacking much objective value, but recognizably precious.

A year or two ago I realized I had stopped marking my life in those mountaintop moments. I experienced them less frequently and started to color in my life timeline with specific people, routines, places, classes, and jobs. The years poked holes in my heavily-fortified inner world. Those moments of catharsis and revitalization became more communal, and I was grateful for that. But I don’t want to undervalue the mountaintop moments that will only ever click for me. Subjective joy is an inexhaustible resource, a secret with no requirements and no formula except thirst. Specific songs and poems and books start to carve a place in my heart if they manage to fold that secret of joy back into my hand. I hope we protect and honor our joy even when it doesn’t make much sense. We’d be pretty dull civilizations without it.

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