It Begins with One Step – A Book Review of WILD by Cheryl Strayed

 

 

by Renee Kimball

Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves…”

― Cheryl Strayed, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail

“Cheryl Strayed” by Moxie68 under CC BY-SA 4.0

Bravery. Courage. Confronting yourself, owning your failings and exposing your sins to the world, no excuses given and none allowed. Unearth black secrets, stand tall, forgive yourself, and find the strength to go forward. All of these are within the hard inner nugget of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. This is the book for all womenboth young and old; it is a talisman tale that will make a profound difference in how you see your life’s purpose. It is a punch in the gut, a kick in the rear, a message to confront your raw self and face what you see. It is not for the faint of heart.

Wild on its own is a remarkable achievement, but it is much more than a story; it is a lesson plan for life. Overcoming self-doubt, the past, the present, lack of talent, self-worth and a host of other things are laid bare in language that flows and connects. It forces the reader to think deeply, to look at their own life, to examine their flaws in the mirror, be honest with their actions, and then to find a way to self-forgiveness and to push onward to something better.

What drives a person to literally walk their unhappiness and self-hatred away? Loss, grief, disappointment, adultery, addiction, and guilt are only a fewmany more are in the mix for Cheryl Strayed.

She began her journey of 1100 miles alonethe Mojave Desert lay on Strayed’s right and the driest desert of California on the left. It was summerthe hottest time of the year. On her back stood her “Monster,” a pack towering above her upright body and weighing almost half her body weight. To position the pack on her back, she was forced to lie down and wiggle her body into straps, then maneuver herself into a sitting position while struggling to stand. Sometimes she was lucky and could lean against a rock to hoist her self up, but not always. Then, she began to walkall day, until she was physically forced to stop.

“I made it the mantra of those days; when I paused before yet another series of switchbacks or skidded down knee-jarring slopes, when patches of flesh peeled off my feet along with my socks, when I lay alone and lonely in my tent at night I asked, often out loud: Who is tougher than me? The answer was always the same, and even when I knew absolutely there was no way on this earth that it was true, I said it anyway: No one.”

Strayed’s trek was not a Victorian stroll in a garden; it was brutal. She fell, faced a bear and snakes and real thirst. There was always an uncertaintyon the edge of not knowing what could or would come around the bend.

She was exposed literally and figuratively. Her body racked with pain from her ill-fitting hiking boots, and her back from the constant press of the metal frame resting unceasingly on her back and shoulders. From the slipping and sliding of her feet inside her  boots she lost all but two toenails, pulling them off herself when them became too loose.

“Ritter Range” by Steve Dunleavy from Lake Tahoe, NV, United States is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Despite physical discomfort, she wrestled with unrelenting inner demons, a self-inflicted purge stretching on within with every new day.

She always had a choice of course: she could turn around, she could quit at the next stop available and go back homebut she persevered for three long months. The memory of her abusive childhood, her father a brutal drunk; a mother trying to mend the dysfunction under extreme financial hardships and then, the sudden loss of her mother; the destruction of her remaining family; the dissolution of her marriage, a result of indiscriminate and compulsive sexual encounters with strangers; her short escapes with heroin, and her loss of self-respect: Strayed’s thoughts percolated in a black and toxic sludge behind her eyesunrelenting punishment with no place to hide. Her saving gracethoughts of her mother’s steadfast patience and lovenow, out of reach forever. 

Fear begets fear. power begets power. I willed myself to beget power. And it wasn’t long before I actually wasn’t afraid.”

Cheryl Strayed is a hero of a new breed, a woman who is totally alone confronting issues of her life on her terms to full self-healing. Strayed’s issues, sadly, are familiar to women everywherethe overcoming of monumental loss of self and the dawning comprehension that you can face whatever is thrown at you and survive.

Strayed is an excellent writer. She knew she wanted to be a writer at six years of age. Despite the monumental difficulties of her life, Strayed succeeded beyond her expectations and it is a testament to her strength. Strayed is a warrior. All women can learn from her honesty.

Sometimes we come around to things the long way, despite our stops and starts, and surprise even ourselveswe survive. You will never regret reading Strayed’s storyyou may even glimpse a small part of yourself in the pages.

Read it, believe it, and live a long and full life; you can be a warrior too.

“Pacific Crest Trail,” Public Domain

I had diverged, digressed, wandered, and become wild. I didn’t embrace the word as my new name because it defined negative aspects of my circumstances or life, but because even in my darkest days—those very days in which I was naming myself—I saw the power of the darkness. Saw that, in fact, I had strayed and that I was a stray and that from the wild places my straying had brought me, I knew things I couldn’t have known before.”

***

Related 

Strayed, Cheryl. Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. New York.: Vintage Books, 2013.

Sachs, Amy. 20 Cheryl Strayed Quotes To Inspire You When You’re Feeling Lost.

Arreola, Cristina. 11 Cheryl Strayed Quotes from “Wild” That Will Inspire Your Own Live-Changing Journey.

CHERYL STRAYED: Best-Selling Author and Co-Host of Dear Sugar Radio

***

Renee Kimball loves books and reads widely. She has a master’s degree in Criminal Justice and is involved in rescuing, fostering, and finding forever homes for homeless dogs. She’s working on a novel set in the southwestern United States.

Sometimes You Need A Break—

Helen Currie Foster

 

 

Posted by Helen Currie Foster

 

—from news, winter, deadlines, calamities. Two books did the trick for me this February, one old, one new: Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered (2018) and Nevil Shute’s Trustee from the Toolroom (1960).

First, Kingsolver, so inventive, alternates chapters between two protagonists in two centuries, one woman (contemporary), one man (1870 or so, during Grant’s administration). They occupy the same unsound house built in Vineland, New Jersey, a utopian venture built by the charismatic Captain Landis.

We first meet Willa, an unemployed writer whose magazine has evaporated; her PhD husband Iano has lost tenure and his pension when his last college cratered and now is lucky to have snagged a one-year contract as an adjunct at an unenviable college in now impoverished Vineland. They live in a falling-down house, trying to support Iano’s abrasive dying father, their “successful” Harvard MBA Zeke who’s saddled with over $100,000 in student debt while working gratis at a Boston startup, and Tig, their dreadlocked iconoclastic daughter, just returned from Cuba, where (she says) everyone is poor but has good healthcare and knows they must keep ancient cars repaired. Willa’s family is “unsheltered” in many ways: despite all their struggle to fulfill the American dream they grew up with—that hard academic work would lead to financial security—they face uncertain income, family struggles, and a collapsing 155 year old house. Tig preaches a different doctrine, battering her parents with the news that their American dream no longer exists. In chapter one Willa learns that the house which keeps them together, on which she must pay the mortgage, is too unsound to repair, and that her son Zeke’s partner has just committed suicide, leaving him with a weeks-old infant.

Segue to chapter two, where we meet our male protagonist Thatcher Greenwood, an idealistic young Harvard-trained botanist. Thatcher has just learned that the Vineland house where his young wife insists she must live, with her little sister and her ferocious aunt, was improperly constructed, is structurally unsound, and requires unexpected repairs which Thatcher cannot afford but is expected to undertake. As the new science teacher at the Vineland high school where he proposes to teach the thrilling theory of evolution, Thatcher encounters implacable hostility from the principal and from Vineland’s all-dominating and deeply corrupt founder, Captain Landis.

As disasters mount for Willa’s family she desperately searches for evidence that her house merits a grant for historic preservation funds.

As Thatcher faces rejection by his principal, which may cost him his job, he meets his mysterious next-door neighbor, Mary Treat, a self-trained botanist and empirical scientist. At their first encounter she’s engrossed in an experiment: timing a Venus flytrap as it slowly ingests the tip of her own finger. Thatcher is enthralled.

For Willa and Thatcher, the house is unsound. Supposedly utopian Vineland, corrupt and ignorant. Thatcher’s marriage, built on sand. Willa’s family, disintegrating into poverty. The imagined good life for which Willa and Iano worked, for which Thatcher studied? Unattainable.

And yet these vivid and believable characters persist. As Tig pushes Willa toward a new way to live outside an outdated dream, as Mary Treat inspires Thatcher to recapture his life amid redwoods and deserts, the two protagonists push into new territory—unsheltered by the old, looking for the new.

Kingsolver’s hugely contemporary novel satisfies deeply. Her strong science background, never pedantic, conveys the heady excitement of young botanists struggling against those refusing to accept empirical science (a social split we still face), while her creation of a family caught in the collapse of traditional American social ladders, trying to survive in the perilous gig economy, resonates with today’s headlines. Kingsolver erects signposts pointing at least one route to hope: the courage to relinquish old shibboleths that no longer support, but strangle, creative growth. Attention must be paid: survival requires strenuous creativity. Darwin rewritten?

Unsheltered offered me one break. Trustee from the Toolroom, Nevil Shute’s 24th and last novel (1960), provided another. Trustee, one of the top fiction bestsellers of 1960, introduces Keith Stewart, a pale, pudgy, mild-mannered Glaswegian, who lives with his shop-clerk wife Katie in the undistinguished London suburb called West Ealing (Shute’s birthplace). In his basement toolroom Keith makes actual working models—little steam engines, tiny clocks, pocket-sized turbines that run on a dropper-ful of gasoline. He publishes instructions for these models in the “Miniature Mechanic,” a magazine popular with amateur engineers worldwide. Keith’s considerable fan mail (including anxious questions about how to wind an armature) puts him in touch with admirers worldwide. He makes little money but loves his work.

He and his wife have no children. His sister brings her ten-year old Janice to stay with Keith and Katie while the sister and her navy officer husband sail their boat across the world, intending to land in Vancouver and start a business. They, and their boat, disappear. Keith learns he is Janice’s trustee. He learns Janice’s sole potential asset is a bag of diamonds possibly stashed on the boat. Keith has never left England, and cannot afford airfare to Vancouver. Nevertheless, he sets out to fulfill his duties as trustee, learning to stand watch on a sailboat in the mid-Pacific, to set a course, to—well, no spoilers. The tale becomes an irresistible seafaring yarn. Yes, it feels dated, taking us back to post-WWII Britain, still poor and austere, and the brash contrast of post-war entrepreneurial America.

Shute himself worked as an aircraft engineer in the thirties, first with de Havilland and then Vickers (his biography is titled Sliderule). He then moved to Australia. Like Kingsolver’s characters, Shute himself sought a new world with new lessons. But his Keith Stewart takes a different tack; he can’t abandon ship, because, after all, he’s a trustee. You too might like watching how Keith Stewart serves.

This Monday morning I’m back from the Pacific, back in the now-infamous Austin traffic, back staring at thousands of cars stopped dead on Bee Cave Road. Maybe I need to think about lessons from Tig and Keith Stewart. About…new ways to live?

***

Helen Currie Foster is the author of the Alice Greer MacDonald mystery series.

Thank You, Lady Gaga

 

K.P. Gresham

 

 

by K.P. Gresham

 

I recently had the incredible honor of attending Lady Gaga’s Las Vegas Jazz Show. I say honor, because this woman is so talented. Not just at singing, or dancing or playing the piano.

This lady can write.

I write fiction. I like to say I kill people for a living. This incredible woman writes the language of the soul.

I was struck by one song in particular. I am in the final stages of putting out my next book, MURDER ON THE THIRD TRY.  The questions I ask myself are overwhelming, and all have a common theme: Is this book any good? I know this something most writers struggle with. Actually, Robert De Niro said it best. “The mind of a writer can be a truly terrifying thing. Isolated, neurotic, caffeine-addled, crippled by procrastination and consumed by feelings of panic, self-loathing and soul-crushing inadequacy. And that’s on a good day.” That pretty much sums up my inner dialogue as I walked into Lady Gaga’s show.

Then she performed “Born This Way.”

From the time I learned to read and write, I knew I wanted to be an author. I wanted to create worlds that people could escape to, tell stories that would make people laugh. I wanted my creations to go down on paper and be shared with my friends and family. I knew in my heart I was born to be a writer.

One of the lyrics in “Born This Way” says, “In the religion of the insecure I must be myself, respect my youth.” This spoke to me on so many levels, but especially made me remember that I’ve known all my life that writing is what I born to do.

As Lady Gaga sings, “I’m beautiful in my way ‘cause God makes no mistakes. I’m on the right track, baby, I was born this way…I was born to survive…I was born to be brave…Don’t hide yourself in regret…There ain’t no other way.”

Writers, we are who we are. All the creativity and self-doubt. All the procrastination and all-nighters.  All the work at honing our skills and all the stuff we haven’t learned yet. Our lives would be a lot better if we could come to terms with ourselves as Lady Gaga has written it so beautifully. Be brave. Accept this is what we do and don’t look back or give in to doubts. We’re on the right track.

Wow. Thank you, Lady Gaga for talking to my soul that night. I’ll try to keep your words in my heart. Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead, I’ll keep writing.

After all, I was born this way.

***

Books by K.P. Gresham

Learn more about K.P. at www.kpgresham.com.

Sit Down, Shut Up, and . . . You’re Invited

 

M.K. Waller

 

 

by M. K. Waller

 

Friday evening David said, “Should I wake you at nine tomorrow?” and I said, “Why?” because I never know what day it is, and he said, “You’re going to Saturday writing practice at the Yarborough library,” and I said, “At the Yarborough,” and he said, “Yes, the Yarborough,” and I said, “The Yarborough, the Yarborough.

So the next morning I sat in the parking lot of the Twin Oaks library for nine minutes, until I knew it was open, because I didn’t want to wait outside and freeze, and at one minute after ten, I went inside and found the meeting rooms dimly lit and empty, and I said to myself, “The Yarborough.”

Then I considered what route I should take to the Yarborough: Lamar St. and be extra late, or Loop 1/MoPac and fight traffic. I decided on MoPac because it was Saturday morning and there wouldn’t be as many nuts on MoPac as there are on weekdays.

Fizzing about the nuts on MoPac, I turned left out of the Twin Oaks parking lot—I should have turned right—and wandered through a neighborhood, and came to a semi-dead end and then another, so I had to turn left again, twice, and by the time I got back to civilization, I had decided I was on W. Oltorf Street, where I wanted to be, and from which I would turn onto S. 1st.

But I wasn’t on Oltorf, I was really on W. Mary, where I didn’t want to be, because the left turn from W. Mary onto S. 1st is unprotected and there’s always oncoming traffic. But I didn’t know I was on W. Mary until I got to S. 1st and saw the light with the unprotected left turn. I was lucky and turned without incident.

From S. 1st I made my way to MoPac, which was almost completely devoid of nuts. Then I had to ruminate over which exit to take, because Burnet Rd. doesn’t have an exit, and the Northland exit goes to the acupuncturist, and Research is too far north and goes somewhere else, and that’s when I decided I should have driven up Lamar to 45th and been extra late. And then the little light above my head came on and I said, “Forty-fifth.”

So I took the 45th St. exit and went to Burnet, where I turned left and headed north to Hancock Blvd. and the Yarborough library. However, even though I went to the Yarborough on the second Sunday of every month for two years, when the Sisters in Crime chapter met there, and I knew exactly where I was going, I overshot Hancock. I wasn’t certain I’d missed it, but when I got to Northloop, I knew I’d missed Hancock, and when I passed the Monkey Nest and then Karavel, I knew I’d better turn around immediately before I found myself in Waxahachie. So I turned around in the Mephisto parking lot.

This time I managed to turn onto Hancock, as I would have done before if I’d recognized it, and about half a block down, I turned into the Yarborough library parking lot, and parked, and went inside and got to the meeting room only twenty-eight minutes late. Five other members sat around the table writing, and I was so glad to see them, and they said they were glad to see me and that they’d just begun a fifteen-minute writing.

And then I did what I’ve done one Saturday morning a month for the past twenty years: I sat down and shut up and wrote.

*

I wrote this last Saturday after I finally arrived at the writing practice group Fifteen Minutes of Fame, to which you’re all invited. I’m posting it as proof that quality is not our middle name. I did edit a little so it would make sense.

Please read on.

***

A Formal Invitation: Please join us at 15 Minutes of Fame

15 Minutes of Fame meets once a month at Twin Oaks Branch Library (unless it meets at the Yarborough), from 10:00 a.m. to noon. No dues, no fees, no RSVPs. Just show up.

We are not professionals. We are not English teachers. We just like to get together and write.

What we do: We sit around a table and write for a specified length of time–fifteen minutes is the default–and then read aloud what we’ve written.

We read aloud if we want to. No pressure. Passing is perfectly all right.

All you need are pen and paper. Or you can bring your laptop.

We don’t care how you spell or punctuate. You don’t have to punctuate at all if you don’t want to. You don’t have to live in Austin.

We offer no critique. We don’t comment. When something is funny, we laugh.

Our schedule is posted at http://minutesoffame.wordpress.com.

(If we meet at the Yarborough instead of Twin Oaks, we’ll announce it there. The Yarborough is scheduled to close March 2 for renovation, but it might still be open then.)

***

M. K. Waller writes short stories of mystery and suspense. She’s been published in the anthologies Murder on Wheels and Lone Star Lawless, and online at Mysterical-E. Find her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/kathy.waller68/ and on Twitter @KathyWaller1. A member of the Writers’ League of Texas and Austin Mystery Writers, she blogs at Telling the Truth, Mainly. She lives in Austin.

Welcome from the Ink-Stained Wretches

 

INK: The black liquor with which men write.

STAIN: Blot; discoloration 

WRETCH: A miserable mortal; a worthless sorry creature.

Six Ink-Stained Wretches—metaphorically speaking—have gathered to write about our profession: reading and writing.

We write and publish in a variety of genres and on a number of topics: short stories, novels, flash fiction, memoir, and nonfiction. We write mystery and suspense, ghost stories, literary fiction, humor, book reviews, literary criticism, scholarly articles, and more. We read widely for both pleasure and instruction.

We use no ink, we display no stains, and we’re certainly not wretched—well, sometimes we feel wretched; there’s that writer’s block thing, you know—but in the tradition of earlier ink-stained wretches, we immerse ourselves in words.

And once a week we’ll share our love of them.

The Ink-Stained Wretches

For their names, hover your pointer over each image.
Read more about them at  The Wretches.