You Don’t Need the Oxford Dictionary to Go Hiking: Some Thoughts on Walking and Life

I had a dream the other night. I was hiking with friends, and there was something in my shoe stuck to my sock just past the ball of my left foot. Not enough to hurt me immediately but enough to be irritating and cause a problem if I left it there too long.

I sat down in the middle of the trail in my nylon runner’s short shorts, navy blue with white trim like the kind I wore to Ladera Elementary School in the 4th grade when I got called into the principal’s office for being immodest by showing off too much of my nine-year-old legs. I sat down in the dry dust on the mountain pass, and my friends stopped, too, and I pulled off my shoe to examine my sock and find the burr or the rock or the gritty ball of sap stuck there.

I found it, sure enough, a tiny pebble caught in the knit mesh, and then I picked my shoe back off the ground to take a quick look inside and make sure there weren’t any other obstructions. Good thing, too, because I found a book in there — the Oxford Dictionary, an abridged copy from 1984, with worn corners and no dust cover, faded blue, well used. Also, two pennies, a mallet, one Tylenol tablet partially squashed, a tube of 1% hydrocortisone cream, and a board game called Clue/Monopoly/Scrabble which was missing the top hat and all the X tiles, but not to worry because Miss Scarlet thought she knew where they were and went back into the shoe to find them.

My friend said, “How did you even walk with all that in there?” But I didn’t answer because I wasn’t sure. I suspected I’d just grown used to it all and didn’t feel it anymore, like when your house has been a mess so long you no longer notice the enormous pile of paper on the kitchen counter you meant to file months ago. 

I pulled off the right shoe even though it wasn’t bothering me. After the Left Shoe Experience, I thought I ought to make sure I hadn’t missed anything, and it was totally empty other than a DSLR camera and a telephoto lens. 

I dunno, friends. Dreams are weird, and occasionally they don’t make sense, but my subconscious, like the rest of me, is not very subtle, so this one was pretty clear.

A few years ago, when Depression was bearing down on me again, I had a recurring nightmare that I was driving a car along a local highway and traffic was stopped ahead but my brakes wouldn’t work no matter how hard I stepped on them. I knew every time I woke up that my subconscious was yelling my deepest fear — that I was hurtling toward disaster with no way to stop even though I was trying desperately and with all my strength. 

This dream was like that one, clear and obvious, like my subconscious knows I can’t be trusted with anything obscure. Or like my subconscious knows I’m trying to walk with too many self-made obstacles and is giving me a freaking break by not forcing me to figure out anything else with my compromised brain power. I appreciate the assist, Subconscious; I really do.

The thing is, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about obstacles. About how many things I’ve believed I “have” to do. About how many mercurial objects I carry with me on each day’s journey — my feelings, my guilt, my longing, my obligations, my schedule, and the ever-expanding list of Things Left Undone. About the ways I keep moving without even noticing the burden of everything weighing me down, slowing my progress, making me feel like I’m wading through mud instead of walking through air. About how much effort it takes to stop and sit down and get dirty paying attention to the small irritant and examining it — trusting it like the helper it is — to lead me to a larger problem. And about leaving the things by the wayside that I don’t need on the journey, after all — even if they’re good things. 

Listen. You may not have heard this before, but you don’t need the Oxford Dictionary to go hiking. Not even the abridged one. Not even though dictionaries are good and helpful in other situations. I do not have to carry the Oxford dictionary just because it was useful in 10th grade composition class. 

And I don’t have to maintain a breakneck schedule to feel that my life is being spent meaningfully. Even if that schedule is full of good, meaningful things. I don’t have to grab every opportunity presented to me. I can pick and choose. I can consolidate appointments. I can protect an entire day on my calendar with no To Do items and no doctors’ appointments and no grocery shopping and yes breathing without berating myself for “wasting time” or being “lazy” even though I’m so exhausted I can hardly move. 

I don’t have to sign my kids up for All the Activities or All the Sports or All the Tutoring or All the Camps  this summer so I can assuage the fear that I’m not giving them enough opportunities and thus robbing them of the only childhood they’ll ever have. How silly. How heavy. How unnecessary and harmful to pass along the dominant culture’s idea that Busy = Valuable. How sad to fail to take their lead and teach them to follow their passions, instead. How heartbreaking to substitute Doing with Being and to rob them of the joy it is to find themselves. 

I don’ t have to carry everything with me all the time. I don’t have to chronicle every moment — not even in my heart. Minutes pass by and hours and sometimes days, and they’re not wasted if I didn’t carpe their diem. Not every second can be carpe-ed. Not every second should be. Some seconds are just for breathing. Or sleeping. Or pooping. It’s OK that they’re ethereal. It’s OK not to seize them all. 

I walk my path panicking a lot. Like I’m doing it wrong. Not fast enough. Not attentive enough. Not successful enough. Not intentional enough. Not clean-laundrying enough. You know? My lawn is too weedy. My patio’s too dusty. My focus is too blurry, my goals too murky, my list too long, my face too zitty because I sleep with make-up too often and care for my skin too little, and also I eat gummy bears in bed. 

How silly. How heavy. How unnecessary and harmful to reinforce with myself the dominant culture’s idea that Busy = Valuable. How ridiculous to think there will ever be enough when only shoving more things into my life — until it bursts and kills me — will fulfill me. I mean, I suspect our lives weren’t meant to be vessels for Endless Doing, just like my shoes aren’t meant to be vessels for pennies or mallets or hydrocortisone cream. I suspect our lives are instead meant for meaningful connection. For each other. With each other. Not to each other. Not at each other. Not running around each other to get to the next thing or cross the next obligation off the everlasting lists. 

So I had a dream. And now I’m thinking. About what I carry. And about the rules. And about which rules to break and which items — even the good ones — that need to be left behind because they’re weighing me down.

”How did you even walk with all that in there?” I don’t know. But I’m going to try to walk with a little bit less, even if the “less” is just less guilt.

Love to you, friends, and waving in the dark,




P.S. Miss Scarlet isn’t back yet, so IDK the status of the top hat or the X’s. Maybe she figured out she didn’t need to carry them and left them behind. I hope so. You go, Miss Scarlet.

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7 responses to “You Don’t Need the Oxford Dictionary to Go Hiking: Some Thoughts on Walking and Life”

  1. Ah yes, Busy = Valuable. It pervades so, so much of our culture. It seeps into the bones of your being. I know I’ve rubbed it out before but it sneaks back in!

    Long, long ago, maybe my teenage years, I remember some one old and wise telling me about the importance of just sitting. I don’t remember who he was, but he spoke about how important it was for him to just sit on the porch once a day. Just sit. Watch the world. Follow where his mind went. Follow the butterfly in the garden. I knew when he spoke that he was sharing something important.

    So when that crazy Busy = Valuable nonsense works its way back under my skin, I try to think of him. Just sitting. Everyday. A bit of time to just sit and watch the world.

    Do I sit each day and watch the world? No. Not nearly enough…guess I’m gonna have to work on that! Har, har! But I do manage it sometimes…and it IS good!

  2. Beautiful, beautiful Beth. I’m lying in bed mad at my husband, snoring is so inconsiderate. There isn’t any abstract reasoning at 5 am. Just poky anger.

    Lying here I was thinking of all the things that ‘need’ to happen ASAP! I have a chronic illnesses and we sub out as many of our chores as possible (grocery delivery changed our lives, for real.) But the rest falls into hubby’s plate.

    I am a recovering perfectionist. My husband has always had a much healthier view on priorities. He’s never come home stressed from work because ‘we’ll get it done or we won’t.’ And all of my medical treatments have wiped out our comfortable savings and walking around money, ‘Eh. It’s only money’. When he plans vacations it’s super relaxed with room for adventure. My family vacations often have an itinerary.

    So, when he wakes up and I haven’t killed him for all this noise, I’m going to try to follow his lead and slip back into his mindset and leave the encroaching sisyphion scrabble to perfection.

    Much thanks for your work over these years. I doubt you have any idea what a light you are in the world of super, superior, and sadly inadequate parents that seem to surround us. You have been a light or just another hand waving in the dark when I, too, have been in the dark. Really stop and take that in, please. You have helped me. Thank you.

  3. I turned 79 yesterday and my wife is a few years younger and we both have our health issues (mostly small but not to be ignored). What we find now is that the self-imposed limitations are the least important. We now plan lots of vacations, large and small – eleven of them this year! We still have the “musts” in our lives – like they’re digging up my front yard to replace the water line and the power cables, all just to put in a new lawn – but we refuse to give them control.

    As for kids’ activities, we did them like everyone does, but I remember when #2 son asked Mom if I was going to be home that night (I traveled on business a lot) and Mom said yes, was there something you wanted? and he said no, I just wanted to know if he’d be here, that clarifies the important part of parenting: being there.
    Then your kids are grown and there are grandkids that live across the country you want to see them on as many occasions as possible. Now you really can’t let the baggage get in the way.

    As always, Beth, thanks for making us look at ourselves and our decisions and for sharing. It’s nice not to be alone.

  4. This is so great. I’m looking forward to the simplicity of summer after a year of activities and games and practice. And that’s okay.

  5. Another mom I know had at least one activity for her child in the morning and afternoon and this was when our kids were like 2-3y. It boggled my mind then because going to the grocery store and to a music class once a week felt like a lot.

    Now my kids are a bit older and I have to say that I was right and I can’t handle the constant, unending busy-ness. Each kid gets one activity, my eldest has two standing appointments per week, and then I have to go grocery shopping sometime in there. I can’t add anything else for them to do, not because THEY are overscheduled, but because *I* feel overscheduled.

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