I Must Love You

Lori Gray

      A tiny yellow flame boldly licks its way up the damp wood. My husband and I shiver in our hoodies, hats, gloves, and snow boots, watching little ribbons of water push through the icy surface of the river. A streak of sunshine breaks through the clouds and the snow on the rocky shore glimmers. I slowly scramble over snow-covered boulders and make my way down to the river’s edge. A tear escapes my eye. I wipe it away before it freezes to my cheek. My husband is the only one outside my immediate family who understands my connection to nature; he feels it too. The woods are my church, they grant me solace. I return to nature to seek peace, relief from my grief, and a place to mourn family members who have left this beautiful world. My husband brought me here for my birthday, away from the cement, the buildings that block the view, the noises of the city. My body eases, my heart opens, and I think of my parents. Are they here with us now, floating above the mountains, watching from the clouds? In this moment, I recall something my oldest stepson said to me; “Your family has lots of holes.” Yes, it does. And so does my heart. 

      As a kid, my parents showed me the power of nature, its healing properties. They taught me how to be still, to take in all the sounds and smells of the woods. They encouraged me to open my head and my heart to my surroundings, to commune with the wildlife, and to honor family and friends no longer on this Earth. Today, it feels as if my husband sensed the needs of my soul. He felt that something was off and brought me back to nature. I have lost most of my family, but in nature, I can reset, and even thrive. The woods have guided me to foster an inner strength, to build resilience into those moments when I am stuck in the city. To persist when society’s struggles, or my own, weigh me down. When I feel bombarded by the culture of instant gratification and the negative influences of social media that I actively choose to avoid, I can close my eyes and transport myself to my favorite spaces in nature. I think of the woods, and memories of my absent family members instantly flood my mind.

      Growing up, I was aware that my family did not fit the mold that society expected of us. We were all misfits, willing to blaze our own trails in opposition to social norms. But my family loved and accepted everything about me. I was an introverted, naïve, optimistic child. I always felt like an outsider, unable to covet the clothing and makeup that girls my age obsessed over. I craved time with family, curling up by the fire with a book and a cup of hot chocolate, or driving to the mountains. I felt a stronger sense of belonging with the Colorado pine trees and rivers than with kids my age. When I think of my immediate family, I’m always transported to Little Park and Bear Creek Trail. I never knew the official name because we called it Little Bear. My family spent many weekend days at the park. We sat by or played in the creek, shared sandwiches for lunch, walked our golden retriever, stretched out on a blanket, and stared at the blue sky dotted with wispy clouds. I’d inhale deeply, taking in the bright scent of pine trees, the musky smell of dirt and wildlife. Colors seemed more vivid there, the blue of the sky, the greenish blue of the creek, the brown of the dirt and the rocks, the green of the trees, the contrast of blue and white on the columbines. Only in nature could my mind rest from its constant churning. The whole family seemed to recharge in the woods.

      “I got it!” My husband shouts down to me. I glance back up the rocky shore where he stands by yellow flickers, dancing above the glimmering white on the ground. His smile could melt all the snow around us. I climb back up to him, acknowledge the fire he miraculously started in the dead of winter, and he opens his arms to me. “Happy Birthday,” he whispers onto my cheek, my back pushed against him for warmth and comfort. This is my favorite place in Idaho, a collection of large boulders on the banks of the Payette River. Each year, there seem to be fewer natural places that are quiet, clean, and devoid of the congestion of cars and people. But I think we are the only ones who use this refuge, my husband and me. The boulders may seem daunting to others, but we like the wildness of this place. The mountains and the rivers call to us. I have always had a healthy appreciation of and respect for nature. I know my husband’s relationship with the outdoors is the same as mine. When we are burdened with stress, worried about our children, concerned by the aging of his parents, we return to the mountains. In our wedding vows, we recited the poem “How I go to the Woods” by Mary Oliver. Her poems about nature seem to capture the magic we feel in the woods. The last line flits through my mind as I calmly stand in my husband’s loving embrace, admiring the fire he made for me on my birthday. “If you have ever gone to the woods with me, I must love you very much.”

Lori Gray is the Director of Music Education at Boise State. In her free time, she works on her first memoir, reads a shocking number of books, spends time with family and friends, and frequently returns to nature to find peace.

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