A rush of heat to the skin

I’m not brave, or bold, or remotely daring. I’m not even naturally outdoorsy, I don’t think – I’ll endure the wet and cold because my dog needs a lot of walking and I love him, not because I relish being out in it. Even though, because of him, I do occasionally relish it, just a little. I’m easily scared, fearful of all unknowns. And yet sometimes I surprise myself; a dash of grit appears, a fragment of tooth in the flesh. A voice throws down a challenge: “you don’t think you can do it. So do it.”

And so I wake up on a damp December morning, a little hungover, and I dress hurriedly while throwing a towel and sea shoes into a bag, and I run out into the drizzle. Down the hill, weaving through people, to the grey, blustered beach. By the time I’m on the shingle I’m too warm, and wryly amused at how fleeting that feeling will turn out to be. My friend – one of the all-time greats, the one who gave me treasures like sea swimming and poetry and conversations in the smoking area – is waiting, and we undress on rain-glossed pebbles and run into the surf. We scream and swear at the cold (it feels good, try it) and force ourselves out a little further, yard by yard. The waves are too fierce for proper swimming but we let the sea elbow and jostle us; it knocks me right over at one point but we’re still in the shallows, I’m not in danger, and at least I’m wet from head to foot now (it feels good, try it). Sometimes, when something is difficult, it’s better to not have a choice. 

And there it is, that feeling: the thing that keeps me coming back, the miracle that delights me every time. The full-body sensation, the rush of heat – yes, heat, there in the roar of the cold, cold water – to the skin. I don’t know what my nerves and blood are doing, but it’s beautiful, and God, it’s good to stand there while your body does its work (it feels good, try it). I am mostly in my head, or in my words, and often, having a body is too much work. Why must I care about nutrition and alcohol and the occasional cigarette, why must I think about the future of this body – fertility, parenthood, disease, decline…? 

I don’t think about the future of this body in the roar of the cold, cold water, like I don’t think about the future of this body in the thrilling ascent to or the hazy comedown from an orgasm. Moments of pure physical bliss, where you can just let your body do its work, are few. So: relish them when they come, let them swallow you whole.

It feels good. Try it.

Mary Oliver

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