Thursday, June 13, 2013

What I'm Reading: Wild

85º ~ heat and humidity simmering before 9:00 a.m. on the way up to a heat index of 110º, oh joy!

Here's a rare post on a prose book, Cheryl Strayed's Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.  While the book does chronicle Strayed's hike along the PCT, at its core, this is a book about weathering profound grief.  In Strayed's case, that grief revolves around the death of her mother, who was in her mid-forties when she died of lung cancer.  Strayed was in her senior year of college when her mother died.

I'd heard numerous interviews with Strayed on NPR and read lots of positive comments on blogs and social media before I opened the book.  I was surprised, though, at the connection I felt almost instantly.  Strayed grew up in Minnesota and graduated from high school just a few years before me.  For a few years, we were both in the same state, both going to colleges only a hundred miles apart.  She's the age of my sister, and when I look at her author photo of her blonde hair/blue eyes, I realize I went to college with any number of girls who might have appeared just like her.  More importantly, she knew she was a writer even in college, just as I did, although it took her awhile to work out the kinks and become a writer, just as it did for me.

With deep honesty, Strayed details her downward spiral after the death of her mother, including her use of sex and drugs at the period in her life as a way to try to make her way, motherless, in this world.  As she hits rock bottom, she decides to make a drastic life change by heading west to hike the PCT.  She is completely unprepared and inexperienced and spends much of the book learning by doing (which often left me feeling anxious and stressed for her).  Throughout the book, Strayed displays an incredible ability to remain self-aware and willing to share that self-awareness with true honesty.  She pulls no punches with herself or with the reader.  She lays herself bare both physically and emotionally, and through that action, she comes to terms with the death of her mother and with what she is making as a kind of life.

Here are the parts of the book that jumped out at me, with page numbers from the 2012, Vintage paperback.

"Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told.  I decided I was safe.  I was strong.  I was brave.  Nothing could vanquish me.  Insisting on this story was a form of mind control, but for the most part, it worked.  Every time I heard a sound of unknown origin or felt something horrible cohering in my imagination, I pushed it away.  I simply did not let myself become afraid.  Fear begets fear.  Power begets power.  I willed myself to beget power.  And it wasn't long before I actually wasn't afraid."  (Strayed's italics)

The one book that Strayed carried the entire length of her hike and didn't burn as she read, to lighten her load, was Adrienne Rich's The Dream of a Common Language.  At this point in the book, Strayed mentions the poem "Power."  The poem features Marie Curie and ends:

She died a famous woman denying 
her wounds 
her wounds came from the same source as her power.

100  describing her mother's incredible physical pain in her last days
"The way she begged for something that wasn't even mercy.  For whatever it is that is less than mercy; for what we don't even have a word for."

111  describing what it was like as "the only girl in the woods, alone with a gang of men" and her trail-induced dirty/stinky body
"By necessity, out here on the trail, I felt I had to sexually neutralize the men I met by being, to the extent that was possible, one of them."
***this sentence lept out at me as a parallel to what women have been doing for decades in the workplace

141  regarding the drudgery of the trail and the endless steps that make up the hike & MATH!
"I walked on, a penitent to the trail, my progress distressingly slow."  (Ultimately, this slowness is what heals Strayed, as it forces her to confront her grief in elemental ways.)
"In my perception, the world wasn't a graph or a formula or an equation.  It was a story."  (This describes Strayed's attempt to use her map and compass to navigate through the snow and how she never really took to math...uhm...DITTO!  This quote sums up my relationship to the world as well and may explain why I'm terrible at telling distances, weights, and measurements of all kinds, but I can tell you the "relation" of things.)

209  describing the moment she loses her boot and how she expected someone to "come laughing from the woods...saying it had all been a joke."
"But no one laughed.  No one would.  The universe, I learned, was never, ever kidding.  It would take whatever it wanted and it would never give it back."

304  describing the Rich book and lines of poetry
"Often, I didn't know exactly what they meant, yet there was another way in which I knew their meaning entirely, as if it were all before me and yet out of my grasp, their meaning like a fish just beneath the surface of the water that I tried to catch with my bare hands--so close and present and belonging to me--until I reached for it and it flashed away."
Yes, Yes, Yes!


Anonymous said...

Yes, it is a wonderful book. I read it a while back, but I like it even more after reading your post.

I also admire YOUR work, Sandy. (Recently acquired Blood Almanac and I'm so impressed and inspired by it.

Your blog is one of the few that actually talks about the real working life of a poet -- and I am one too so I enjoy reading it (and commiserating, too, sometimes).


Sandy Longhorn said...

Hello, Gloria,
So nice to meet you here and all thanks for your kind words about both book and blog!!

Kathleen said...

Thanks for your account! Looks like a powerful book.

Yes, the universe does what it does, doesn't it.

Sandy Longhorn said...

Let me know what you think if you read it, Kathleen.