Gifts birthed in the crucible.
Anyone who knows me should know that Cheryl Strayed is easily my favorite author. I first read Wild when I was 23. It had such a profound impact on me that I went and bought all of Cheryl’s books. I also read every article and watched every video I could find of Cheryl. I just finished rereading the book now 8yrs later and I’m happy to say I still love the book.
Cheryl set out to hike for 3 months to heal from the loss of her beloved mom and also “fix” a life she had subsequently made a mess of. I really like the idea of taking on a physical challenge to address emotional or spiritual challenges. The two feed each other. I love the epiphany she has while starting out on her hike carrying everything she’d need to survive on the hike in her bag on her back. “I was amazed that what I needed to survive could be carried on my back. And, most surprising of all, that I could carry it. That I could bear the unbearable. These realizations about my physical, material life couldn’t help but spill over into the emotional and spiritual realm. That my complicated life could be made so simple was astounding.”
Indeed life can be made so simple. We don’t need half the things we think we need to survive. I also like that she took herself out of her normal life to embark on a solo hike to give her all the alone time she’d need to figure herself out. I believe we all can heal ourselves if we can just give ourselves the time and space to do so. Sometimes that means physically removing ourselves from life as we know it. We all know how to heal ourselves we just need to provide ourselves with a conducive environment to set the wheels of healing in motion. In Cheryl’s case that meant facing the wilderness solo for 3 months.
On her journey through the wilderness she hears herself clearly and comes to terms with things her normal was too loud for her to hear. “I’d come to healthy conclusions about acceptance and gratitude, about fate and forgiveness and fortune. In a small, fierce place inside me, I’d let my mother go and my father go and I’d finally let Eddie go as well.” She came face to face with the fierce place inside of her. We all have that fierce place inside of us but we have to silence all external noise to hear it. The solitude gave her space to meet her own fierce place that contained acceptance of things that had been previously hard to accept. She was able to let go of her dead mother, the father that was absent and her stepdad who abandoned her when her mom died.
It was a lot to deal with but daring herself to walk for 3 months when she was no expert hiker or backpacker stretched her in ways that showed her the magnitude of her own spirit and resilience. Cheryl writes from an honest and humble place informed by her own challenges and being brave enough to face them head on.
“But you seemed so happy was all they could say. And it was true: we had seemed that way. Just as I’d seemed to be doing okay after my mom died. Grief doesn’t have a face.”
I love that statement. Grief has no face. We all seem to be doing okay on the surface because no problem on earth has a face.
“That was my father: the man who hadn’t fathered me. It amazes me every time. Again and again and again. Of all the wild things, his failure to love me the way he should have had always been the wildest thing of all. But on that night as I gazed out over the darkening land fifty-some nights out on the PCT, it occurred to me that I didn’t have to be amazed by him anymore.
There were so many other amazing things in this world.”
I love that she came to that realization while on the trail. That there were simply more amazing things in life than a father who didn’t love her. There are simply more amazing things in life than people who don’t love us. I love how it put things into perspective for her. Yes, it was amazing but it just wasn’t SO amazing that it had to be the one thing she focused on. There were more amazing things in the world. There are more amazing things in the world. You only need to change your focus to see them. The people who don’t love us or treat us badly cannot and should not be rewarded with a spotlight.
“I had arrived. I’d done it. It seemed like such a small thing and such a tremendous thing at once, like a secret I’d always tell myself, though I didn’t know the meaning of it just yet.
Thank you, I thought over and over again. Thank you. Not just for the long walk, but for everything I could feel finally gathered up inside of me; for everything that trail had taught me and everything I couldn’t yet know, thought I felt it somehow already contained within me.
It was all unknown to me then, as I sat on that white bench on the day I finished my hike. Everything except for the fact that I didn’t have to know. That it was enough to trust that what I’d find was true. To understand it’s meaning without yet being able to say precisely what it was, like all those lines from The Dream of a Common Language that had run through my nights and days. To believe that I didn’t need to reach with my bare hands anymore. To know that seeing the fish beneath the surface of the water was enough. That it was everything. It was my life — like all lives, mysterious and irrevocable and sacred. So very close, so very present, so very belonging to me.
How wild it was, to let it be.”
That section speaks of faith to me. When she finished her hike she knew without concrete evidence that what she had just done was a big a thing. There were just some things she could not yet explain but felt them deep within her. I love that she trusted without knowing and found contentment in not knowing because it would be her book about her journey on that long walk that would change her whole life. She’s an acclaimed author now because of her words that were birthed by the loss of her mom, her adultery, her divorce and the hike.
Every letter I read on her Dear Sugar column speaks of her deep wisdom and humility that could only come from surviving the crucible. Her story means so much to me cos it reminds me to trust my own journey. As Steve Jobs said, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.”
When Cheryl’s mom died and when she went on that trail she couldn’t yet connect the dots. But I’m sure now looking backwards she’s connected the dots. I’m looking forward as well trusting that the dots will connect in my future.
“I never got to be in the driver’s seat of my own life,” she’d wrote to me once, in the days after she learned she was going to die. “I always did what someone else wanted me to do. I’ve always been someone’s daughter or mother or wife. I’ve never just been me.”- Cheryl’s mom
The love Cheryl’s mom had for her children reverberates on each of Cheryl’s words about her. She sacrificed everything for her children which makes me feel Cheryl’s deep grief over the loss of her mom because she lost the one person who loved her the most. I can only hope all my words about my late boyfriend speak of his deep love for me too and my deep love for me. This book held more meaning for me now as I have my own grief that I would want to hike through.
Cheryl’s mom’s words on her deathbed about never having been on the driver’s seat of her own life made me want to reclaim my life and make sure I’m the one sitting firmly on the driver’s seat of my life. She was an excellent mom but I can’t imagine the regret of feeling like you were never just you while on your deathbed. There was just no time for her to get up and fix it. It would forever be what it was. It was however now up to Cheryl to make sure she did better with her own life. Isn’t that the whole point of life? To go further than the feet of those who came before us could go. I believe that’s how we move our bloodlines forward.
I borrow a lot from Cheryl’s words when my own words fail me. I am most grateful that through every situation of my life she’s always had words to help me carry on. She has been a very instrumental part of my own healing journeys. I’ll end with another quote from another book of hers- Tiny beautiful things.
“That place of true healing is a fierce place. It’s a giant place. It’s a place of monstrous beauty and endless dark and glimmering light. And you have to work really, really, really fucking hard to get there, but you can do it, honey. You’re a woman who can travel that far. I know it. Your ability to get there is evident to me in every word of your bright shining grief star of a letter.”
In the wake of my boyfriend’s death I read and reread that letter each time convincing myself some more that I was indeed a woman who could travel that far. Thank you Cheryl for making me believe, through all your many words, that I am a woman who can travel that far.