“I’m Not Afraid”

Cheryl Strayed at Concordia College

Cheryl Strayed at Concordia College

Saying “I’m not afraid” over and over got Cheryl Strayed from the Mohave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State – over an eleven-hundred-mile solo hike on the Pacific Crest Trail. I tried it myself this week–the mantra, not the hike–and it worked. I got through another moment. Cheryl Strayed had many moments on the trail with dangerous animals, a snowstorm, and misery.

Monday, October 20th, I was with over 2,000 people listening to Cheryl as she spoke from the lectern at Concordia College.

She dropped bits of wisdom throughout the night.

“Don’t make fear my God.”

Her book reading was different from all others that I’ve attended in that she never read a word from Wild. She talked to us. We could have been gathered around a very large coffee table.

I had her book, Wild, for as long as it took her to do the hike – a summer–before I read a word. I was resistant because I didn’t want to be disappointed. I thought the praise for her writing might be because she was a local girl done good, and if I picked up the book the story would fall apart in my hands.

Enough people recommended Wild that I finally opened to the first page. Whoa.

I looked around the gymnasium at Concordia. A couple thousand people, including me, could relate to her story. How did she do that?

“It’s the only book that spoke to me,” said my friend sitting next to me. Her husband passed away eight months ago. “People know that I like to read. I got a lot of books, but this was the only one….”

“How can I bear the unbearable?”

October 22, 2014 091Cheryl called her hike a universal journey. A journey of finding who we are and then coming to peace with that. “Grief is love,” she added.

Therein lay my answer. Universal truths. Truths that apply to all people.

“Love is the nutrient that we need.”

“Alone with something I couldn’t lift but I had to lift it.”

December 5, Wild will be coming out in movie theatres.

Cheryl invited me to the after-party. She invited all of us. How did she make me feel included in her trajectory?

Her author page on Facebook has 105,627 likes. She’s been accessible, not losing herself in her climb.

In my research of her many interviews and talks around the country she didn’t lose herself in the publishing process or the making of a movie.

“In a heroic battle to make my way back to myself.”

During the evening Cheryl spoke about refusing to allow herself, her writing, or her story to be pigeonholed. Wild isn’t just for women. 50 percent of her correspondence is from men.

She left me with a ‘how to’ for when my book sells: Go in expecting respect and politely inform others. An artist shouldn’t defend his or her work.

Her book is powerful but she is even more powerful.

“I’m not afraid,” I can imagine her … me … and all of us … continuing to say on our own personal hike.

Mother’s Wisdom

My niece recently had her first baby, and as we talked about taking care of a newborn, I was reminded of several huge insights I had when I was a new mother.

1. Learning how to be a mother is harder than it looks. I’d been warned about the messiness of motherhood—babies spit up and diapers leak, but I was pretty surprised by what my body was undergoing as it made the transition from baby on the inside to baby on the outside.

People also told me about the intensity of taking care of a newborn, but I really couldn’t comprehend what that meant until I experienced it. The unpredictability was hard—we might have a calm day followed by a crazy day when nothing seemed to work.

I recall thinking, “I’m this child’s mother. I’ve tried everything the books said—feeding, burping, changing, rocking, singing, swinging, walking, and he’s still crying. Shouldn’t I just know what to do?” Umm, no. Most new mothers don’t have secret instinctive wisdom, but fortunately, we figure out what to do after a while.

Realizing I was not in charge—the baby was—took a while to sink in. Once I accepted that, life got easier.

2. My Mom is a genius. When I became a mother, I gained newfound respect for her. She knew so much—from how to soothe my son who hated to be undressed to how to keep from freaking out when both kids were crying.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOver the years my respect for my mother grew. I finally understood how much effort it takes to prepare good meals night after night—planning, shopping, and cooking—whether she felt like it or not.

I learned how hard it is to stay on top of all the details: getting school supplies and baseball gear, signing permission slips and carpooling, making sure schoolwork and chores get done.

I discovered the pains she went to make our birthdays special—tracking down cool gifts and staying up late making a cake and wrapping gifts.

Although my three siblings and I have different personalities, Mom managed each of us with wisdom and a light touch. One brother loved science and engineering but disliked authority. The other loved sports, parties and math (in that order). My sister loved pretty things and just wanted everyone to be happy, while I was shy, sensitive, and fiercely independent by turns. I marvel at how rarely she lost her temper when she dealt with my stubborn teenage self.

Even with four kids Mom was always so sane and so nice. Although I can’t claim that, I do share her view that mothering is the hardest but most rewarding thing I do. I hope my niece makes the same discovery.