Cheryl Strayed is a badass. I picked up her memoir, Wild, because of her association with Lidia Yuknavitch (they work together in a writing group with Chuck Palahniuk), but also because the premise: lonely girl, grief-stricken and recovering from a dalliance with heroine, decides to heal through hiking the damn near entirety of the Pacific Crest Trail ON HER OWN. This moved me. It slayed me. I would stop, look over at my husband, just to say, again, “On her own! By herself! Here she is getting charged by a moose and I’m losing it because we’re moving, Aria’s Aria*, and I haven’t written in weeks.”
(*My darling, wonderful, happy baby girl is in her terrible twos, and has been for awhile now. She’s 16 months, manipulative, and sharp as the tack she’d shove in her mouth if I would only let her stand on the table long enough to reach them.)
I’ve seen Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man (awesome and available to stream on Netflix) and that guy knew his shit. He was a seasoned hiker, knew the bears, trusted them, lived amongst them, AND WAS STILL EATEN BY ONE. I was very worried for Cheryl. But not really, as I know she survived. I was mostly worried for myself, the self that is transported into whatever I’m reading. But I couldn’t take the everyday cowardly self out of this equation. I would love to do something like this. But I couldn’t. I wouldn’t. At least I think I wouldn’t. I once lived on the top of a small mountain in Australia with no electricity or heat or a toilet for a couple of months. I had to sleep under six blankets and walk around at night wearing UGGs to avoid the rats (nice marsupial mountain rats, none of their vicious and filthy and terrifying cousins scurrying down in NYC’s subways). Then, I thought I was tough. Rugged. Agro-chic. Everyday we cranked the generator so I could juice my computer to write, or watch movies, then we’d drive to the town, stock up, and smoke weed and cook over the fire. Basically living in luxury. But this? Hiking the PCT by yourself? as a woman? took the kind of ovarian fortitude I’m trying to cultivate. Cheryl Strayed is impressive. Brave. And her confessional memoir only echoes everything implied in its physical premise.
The event that catalyzed her decision toward self-destruction bent toward self-discovery was the sudden and tragic death of her mother when Cheryl was only 22, that ripe age of existential angst already. Her mother was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer then only lived a couple of months after. This stung. I’m an ex-smoker who occasionally picks the habit back up for a week or two when I’m too stressed and weak and too eager to engage in some private ritual of self-destruction. I was never one to experiment with drugs heavily, most give me a nasty migraine. (Kids, anything that dilates your pupils, also dilates your blood vessels. If you’re predisposed to getting migraines, it’s best to avoid such drugs, or you’ll wind up on acid, in a dark room, accompanied by your demons, maybe literally, basically giving birth through your skull.) That being said, I loved to smoke. Until my hypochondria consumed me and I quit. Now, cigarettes are that ex-lover I just can’t help but occasionally sleep with because he just looks so fucking fine in those dark rimmed glasses.
My mother smokes too. She also gets migraines. On any given visit, one of us has a headache. We use different methods to heal, something that’s a bit of a sore spot. I worry about her. Of course. As she does me.
Not ten pages in and Wild has found my terrors, Strayed has reached inside my chest, beyond my blackened lungs, and threw my heart into my throat. I don’t want to die. I don’t want my mother to die. Especially not without saying everything I have ever wanted to say–needed to say–to her. I don’t want to live my life, drowning in domesticity, not living up to the potential I fantasize about. And then in the end, die, suddenly and in agony, ripping Aria’s mother from her, ripping myself from Aria. GAHHHH. WILD. FUCK. I NEED TO READ YOU RIGHT NOW.
Cheryl, I need your courage.
So I read the first chapter then quit my job. Because, YOLO!
I wanted to write this on Mother’s Day, but again, my evil and indifferent migraines got the best of me. I wanted to write this because I so desperately wanted to write, but I also wanted this to be a kind of ballad to my mother.
I wanted to say, Mom, I know I get on your nerves. I know my decisions often frustrate you, and I know you don’t want me to know this. I wanted to say, that it’s okay. I love you, Mom. I love you so much, but sometimes I can’t relax. I can’t be the silly and affectionate daughter you want. I’m too serious and angry. I want to yell at the world and behead the patriarchy and you want to just have a nice dinner and watch romcoms without me poking holes and complaining about traditional gender roles, and the Bechdel test, and the use of narrative to conform and shape and oppress. I want you to find the things I say interesting, but sometimes I don’t think that you do. I want to be as pretty as you, to have been born with your avian bone structure. I want to hear all about the things you think I don’t want to hear. I want you to write your memoir. I want to destroy anyone who has ever hurt you. I want to spend the day downtown, immersed in being girly: let’s get our hair did, and our nails painted. Let’s go shopping and drink tea and eat tiny layered cakes with even tinier fondant sculpted roses. Let’s watch shitty romcoms with green mud masks and sparkling lavender lemonades. I want to let my guard down.
We were her kids, her comrades, the end of her and the beginning. We took turns riding shotgun with her in the car. “Do I love you this much?” she’d ask us, holding her hands six inches apart. “No,”we’d say with sly smiles. “Do I love you this much?” she’d ask again, and on and on and on, each time moving her hands farther apart. But she would never get there, no matter how wide she stretched her arms. The amount that she loved us was beyond her reach. It could not be qualified or contained. It was the ten thousand things named in the Tao Te Ching’s universe and then ten thousand more. Her love was full-throated and all-encompassing and unadorned. Everyday she blew through her entire reserve.
This is my mother. Quirky and animated with love all-encompassing and unadorned. Whatever complaints about her I’ve ever had, I always knew I was loved. And that is no small thing.
Cheryl Strayed, you’re a badass.
Mom, you can be a badass too, just stop worrying so damn much.
All my love, Mom. Happy Mother’s Day.