“Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
It is on a summer day, while bobbing languidly on a sweltering lake in Central Texas, that the realization comes to me. I am not outdoorsy after all.
My friends are flipping off the bow of a pontoon boat into the hot and muddy water. I lie in the shade, reading. I rest the book on my soft belly to watch them, and happen to notice that the book I’m reading, one on Buddhism, is labeled “self help”.
There have been clues leading to this moment.
Clue Number One: On my first overnight hike to the top of a mountain, I am teased for carrying a full set of dominoes. I have characteristically placed greater emphasis on entertainment than on my own weak knees, buckling under the weight of a too heavy pack.
Clue Number Two: As a ski instructor participating in a clinic on mastering moguls, I am informed of the presence of a “Martini Tree”, hidden just off the ski run we are traversing. Our clinic director mentions it in passing and returns to the lesson, but while my fellow instructors tackle the techniques presented with tenacity and focus, my eyes scan the woods at every pivot, searching for the little wooden box, nailed to a tree, containing gin and a jar of olives.
Clue Number Three: In the sub-zero pre-dawn of a Montana winter, my dog regularly goes cross country skiing with friends who swing by to pick her up. I wave goodbye to her and remain in bed, happily snuggled under mountains of flannel and feathers.
Amusing are the beliefs we hold about ourselves, and even more amusing is the day we realize they aren’t true. My belief that I am outdoorsy arises from a misunderstanding. I do love nature, but not for the reasons some of my more active friends do.
I’m a big fan of outdoorsy folks. I follow mountain bikers, skiers, hikers, and rock climbers on Instagram and celebrate their triumphs virtually. In an effort to befriend them over the years, I have engaged in countless attempts to keep up with their blazing intensity.
When I think of participating in these adventures, my memories are not of the pride and pleasure derived from scaling a summit, plunging from a waterfall, or conquering steep terrain on a pair of skis, but rather of gasping for air, spitting up water, or shivering in freezing winds, fingers frozen to the bone.
Introverts, like me, enjoy the intimacy found in engaging in conversation while doing something that doesn’t require us to look you in the eye. When introverts speak with you during activities that allow us to avoid eye contact, like hiking or lazily paddling a canoe, we can be vulnerable in a way that we cannot when we’re sitting across a table from you, looking directly at you.
My love of nature stems from the fact that it facilitates a genuine connection between my introverted self and other people. Nature is not a plaything, but a stage where my relationships act themselves out most authentically.
Having misunderstood my own motives for wanting to be outdoors, I have been left behind, feeling isolated and lonely, on several hikes by friends wanting to pursue their own experiences at their own pace. As they fade into the distance on the trail ahead, their mantra rings in my ears: You hike your hike, I’ll hike mine. Although a legitimate technique, this is decidedly not what I am after when I set off to travel a shaded trail with you.
It’s with great relief that I finally realize, on the pontoon boat that summer day, what I’m actually seeking when I step into a natural setting. I crave connection with you, and I am elated when I find it.
I am not outdoorsy, I just love the outdoors. Rather than conquer nature, I prefer to watch the sun and rain move across the landscape, to marvel at wild geese, to always carry dominoes, to relax my pace and find our place, here, in the family of things, together.
Check out my last story, “Popular with the Right People”, on Medium.