For fourteen years, this dog has witnessed every word I’ve written or struggled to write. When Cynthia Newberry Martin invited me to write about one of my days on her blog, Catching Days, Chloe guided me one last time, this time with her absence. I share it here in her honor. To read, click the link above.
When I set out to write this essay, I thought I was going to write a droll list of reasons why I could never have written a book like WILD.
The list would have included a story about me, a boyfriend from the city, the field behind my parents’ house which shone brightly under the full harvest moon that Labor Day — and what we swore later was a bear. We swore a lot as we raced naked from the beast to the mudroom of my parents’ house where the boyfriend greeted my parents the next morning wearing nothing but a parka and his Yankees hat. Yes, a bear was breathing down our necks and he managed to grab his Yankees hat.
I’ll have to save that story for another day.
I just read WILD again and realized that a discussion of the book deserves more honesty from me.
I am embarrassed to say that the first time I read WILD I was distracted by Cheryl Strayed’s lack of preparation for her journey. I was annoyed by her ignorance about how much to carry, what size boots to wear, how to use a compass — the very things that led to some of the story’s most dramatic moments. I found myself sitting in judgment of her choices when it came to drugs, to sex, to putting down her mother’s ancient horse with the inexpert help of her brother and husband instead of begging, borrowing or stealing the money to use a vet. I found myself cringing at the emotion that trickled, then raged like a river bursting through a dam.
As if I knew for one minute what one would need to carry or wear on an 1,100 mile trek. As if I had never had reckless sex or stood at a crossroads in my twenties. As if I had never considered for one minute walking out my door, getting in whatever car was running at the moment, and driving until I ran out of gas, and then just walked away from that too.
Not a lot of preparation involved in that scenario.
In my case, there was a child involved. I would not, could not leave him. Ever. In many ways, he became the compass, the navigator for the journey I had chosen. And in all honesty, back then, I would never have thought about hiking 1,100 miles through desert, mountains, snow, rivers.
These days, I think about it. I won’t necessarily do it, but I think about it. Or rather, I think about walking my own version of this journey.
As I read WILD for the second time, I realized my harsh judgments were rooted in a part of me I don’t like to visit very much. It is the place where I stash fear, envy, resentments, and regret. It is the place where I keep the young woman I was and can’t always forgive. I like to keep my distance from her. She embarrasses me. She can hurt me with memories of all the things I did to hurt her and others who loved me.
I retrieved WILD from my bookshelf after watching a small movie, Redwood Highway, about an older woman who walks from her assisted living community center to the Oregon Coast.
Their stories differ considerably. For one thing, Cheryl Strayed really did hike 1,100 miles through desert, mountains, rivers. Redwood Highway is fiction and the character played by Shirley Knight walks only 80 miles along a single road, detouring off the pavement into the woods to camp. Cheryl Strayed was 26. Shirley Knight’s character was in her seventies. The film based on Strayed’s book is going to make millions. Shirley Knight is the only good thing about Redwood Highway, a low-budget affair with uneven writing and a weak plot.
However, each story shows us a woman who sets out alone on a journey that demands much from her body and spirit but makes no promises about what it will deliver. Each woman experiences the wildness of packing a bag, slipping free of the people who would make her stay, and just starts walking because she understands that’s what she needs even if she doesn’t understand why.
In neither case were the women adequately prepared for all that came their way but both were ready. Each woman’s journey was hard, physical, and put her into direct, unshielded contact with nature, humans, and her own demons. We don’t get many stories like this with women at the heart of them, and we don’t get many about older women using their bodies to heal themselves by undergoing an ordeal. I was grateful for that story and I was grateful for the chance to go back and sink into WILD one more time, to walk with a young woman in places I may never see and see them through her eyes, to follow her memories as she faced her losses, made mistakes, made decisions she had to make. I remembered my own twenties with more forgiveness and empathy.
As I read WILD, I remembered reading DRINKING THE RAIN by Alix Kates Schulman. My mother read it and gave it to me back in the late Eighties: At 50, Schulman also walks but only on the Maine island she escapes to for a year, living as simply as possible without electricity, plumbing, cars, or the stimulation of her family and life in Brooklyn. I wonder now if my mother was trying to tell me something about her own need to feel what it was like to walk away, to test herself against the elements. I wonder if she was responding to a need she sensed in me.
Here is what I think now after reading WILD for the second time and remembering all of these stories: there are times when a woman needs to walk and to walk alone. She may not hike the Pacific Crest Trail, or live on shellfish and seaweed on a remote Maine island, or even walk 80 miles down a paved highway bearing a load of memories that are far heavier than the pack on her back. She still needs to do it. She needs to walk from the world she knows into one that is foreign and strange and scary. She needs to let in the wind, rain, sun, and to feel the blisters on her feet harden. She needs to let her body lead her sometimes and to trust it no matter her age.
She needs stories like WILD, and Redwood Highway and DRINKING THE RAIN to remind her of what she can do.
Then she needs — I need — to start walking.
The movie is Old Yeller and it plays out on the television in the corner of the hospital room. My son, then eleven, watches from the bed through eyes compressed nearly shut by a sinus infection. An IV beeps. Antibiotic seeps into his arm as it has for nearly four days without appreciable effect.
The father and the neighbor are arguing on the television, one of those maddening exchanges in which each person stops just short of the crucial bit of information which would make them each understand each other. I want it to stop. I say this out loud.
“Mom,” my kid says without lifting his head from the propped up pillows. He says it with the bored impatience of the newly adolescent. “There has to be conflict. No conflict. No story.”
I turn to him, stunned. “Where did you learn that?”
His eye flicked from the screen to me. Where did he learn the withering glance?
“School,” he says. “Where else?”
“What else are you learning?”
“Can we just watch the movie?”
So far, the story of Thanksgiving 1986 is playing out with lots of conflict. The whole hospital episode started the Friday before Thanksgiving and his desire to attend a party that he knew he would miss if I knew he was sick. So, he hid this piece of crucial information until he woke up that morning with half his face the size and color of a Beefsteak tomato. I want to keep my job so I give him some Tylenol, make him stay home, and call him every hour from work until lunchtime when I arrive to find nothing changed. Both of us want to spend Thanksgiving at my mother’s table, ten hours away from our one-bedroom apartment in New Jersey where I sleep on a futon in the living room, he sleeps in a bed we found somewhere cheap, and we dine at a borrowed vinyl and aluminum table seated on two borrowed chairs.
By the time we switch on Old Yeller in the hospital room five days later, we know that the crowd around Mom’s table will not include us. Now all I want is for the antibiotic to start working. The infection, the doctor has said, is stubborn and is “dangerously close to his brain.” The doctor is with his family where I imagine he is watching football in a den off the kitchen which is infused with the aroma of various side dishes being prepared for the next day’s feast. He is not watching a movie that will end with the death of an innocent, sick dog.
By the time my son’s father drives from New Hampshire to spell me, my son wants me to go. He wants to leave too, but failing that, wants to watch television with a guy who won’t talk during the next movie he finds. I am tired of conflict, so around 11:30 p.m., I kiss him good bye and try not to tell his father everything he already knows about what to do if our son takes a turn.
The November night slaps me out of the hospital haze I’ve been in for days. My legs freeze under my jeans. The engine is so cold I have to run it for ten minutes before I can drive the eight minutes to our apartment. The route takes me down a broad leafy boulevard lined with houses of people who can afford four bedrooms, two baths, a couple of cars and sloping lawns. The houses of people who can assume certain comforts.
Ahead, two headlights flare. These lights are attached to a tow truck that is pulling away from the curb. A car is hitched to the tow bar. A man appears in the short driveway leading to the curb. He is naked except for the towel he clutches around his waist. The towel is white as is the skin on his back, his belly, and his feet. He runs after the tow truck, one arm clutching his towel, the other raised in a fist. His mouth opens in a shout I can’t hear through my closed windows. In my rearview mirror, I watch the soles of his feet flash in the streetlight as he pursues the truck. He runs a good fifty feet before he stops, drops his fist, and stands as the red taillights of the tow truck disappear around the corner.
I want to stop and go back to him but what would I say? Happy Thanksgiving? It’s only a car? Maybe you should get back inside your nice house before whatever is under that towel freezes off? Then, I think, this is his story. Not mine.
All these years later it still looks like a good one: a great hook, lots of action, pregnant with unanswered questions. Loaded with conflict.
I plan to do something with it someday.
When I tell my family this, they just sniff and look somewhere past my shoulder, as if I’ve just farted.
If they picture it all, they envision a long process, maggots, turning my body with a shovel, watching me swell and liquify and, of course, trying not to breathe because of the smell. None are Buddhists. None have contemplated a corpse. They don’t want to begin with me.
Here’s the solution. I first learned of it when I read Mary Roach’s wonderful book, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. She went to Sweden where she interviewed Susanne Wiigh-Masak, a pioneer in the field of ecologically sound burial. After years of research and trying, she has formed a company that will essentially freeze-dry a corpse, turn it into fine powder, remove the harmful metals, and allow the family to mix it in the ground where a tree can be planted above it. To see how it’s done, click here.
I’ve been following this for years and the process is not available in the US. So, I’m working on a low-carbon-footprint way to have my body sent to Sweden and turned into a tree.
How, you might ask, did I come up with this topic for today’s post?
Well, I sat down to write a post that would, in a sparkly, witty way list the top ten things I do with my old manuscripts, rough drafts, and all the paper I’m left with even in this day of keyboards, hard drives, and clouds. I could only come up with five:
1) Grocery lists (when enough white space remains)
2) Pocket notes (instead of index cards when I’m taking walks and am struck by A THOUGHT that must not get away)
3) More rough drafts (when only one side of a page has been printed and can be shoved back into the printer)
4) Foot rest (turns out a rejected manuscript, placed beneath my writing table, is just the right height for achieving an ergonomically correct position).
5) Worm food.
You read that last one correctly. In my early days as a composter, I invested in set of stacked boxes and a bag of worms so that our kitchen leavings would have a nice place to go and I would have some nice rich worm-generated compost for my gardening. Such as my gardening is.
One of the ingredients for the worm bedding is paper. I’m embarrassed to say that I still have a lot of paper kicking around. Manuscripts, all or part, lie around like bodies in a morgue. Cold, in pieces sometimes, carved up with red lines or black. Stained with whatever I was eating or drinking as I worked.
When I was into vermicomposting, I used to shred my used-up, marked-up pages and put them in the worm bin. And there they’d be, my words clinging to the scraps of paper that each day disintegrated a little more, turned wet and slimy beneath the bodies of worms or brown every time I added coffee grounds, or banana peels, apple cores, food scraps. It’s humbling to see the products of hours of work consumed by worms and microbes. A character’s eyes, or voice sinking into the earth.
Humbling, but also just right. The tree that became paper, becomes worm food, that feeds a tomato, or a tree again.
A proper burial.
That’s all I’m asking for. No ashes. No chemicals. No maggots. No trauma. Just freeze-dried Betsy and a tree. Or a tomato. I’m not fussy.
If you have an innovative use for your rough drafts, or your body, feel free to share!
If you are wondering about the tomato, these are the fruits of our more recent composting labors. Volunteers. Happy accidents. We throw the chunks of compost that are too big or hard for my pots along the sandy stretch of our alley fence and sometimes, beautiful things happen. All by themselves. Not a bad outcome for any of us, right?
Revisions: a promising word that grows out of a hopeful thought: to see again.
I’ve spent the better part of the past six weeks revising pages I’d “finished” two or three times already. More than once, I have gone still before my computer screen and thanked Allison Hunter who asked me to look again; to see them anew. Those pages are now in her capable hands as she seeks a home for them.
We both know, of course, that, if she does, more revisions are likely. Good. That’s the kind of problem I’d love to have.
I’m grateful for every chance I get to see my work in a new light and make it better. That’s what I tell myself when I take the ax to whole scenes, whole chapters, whole characters. After the shuddering is over, I see with new eyes what remains and what remains to be written.
I wish sometimes I could revise whole scenes from my own life the way I can on the page. Here’s one I’d rewrite:
It’s the end of the summer session during my second year in college. I’m wheeling my two year old and his stroller out of the University of New Hampshire library when I run smack into the teacher and writer who introduced me to my journalism career. The sight of him panics me, in a good way. We rarely chat outside the classroom; he carries himself with reserve, delivers his critiques in short, blunt, phrases. I live in fear that I will disappoint him but I want to connect.
“How was your vacation?” I manage to say.
He is surprisingly forthcoming and serious. “It was good in many ways but very bad towards the end. We were driving in Greece and I hit someone who on a motorcyle.”
“Thank god you were in a car!”
Yes, I said that. Yes, he looked at me as if he was reevaluating everything he’d thought about me. And no, I cannot to this day tell you where that response came from or why it flew out of my mouth so readily.
Or, there was the time my little Mercury Lynx was crammed with five 13-year old boys, fresh from their eighth grade graduation, flush with the spring, a whole year of being at the top of the middle school pecking order, and the girls who had in the last six months or so taken an interest in them. They brayed and squeaked — depending on how kind puberty had been so far — about the girls who liked them. I’d seen the girl my son liked, thirteen with a body going on eighteen. She’d given him some attention. He saw himself going into high school with this woman by his side. Life was good and only going to get better.
I don’t know why but I said, “Enjoy it now. Because next year you’ll all be freshmen and the first thing the girls will do is dump you guys and try to find a senior to go out with.”
My comment was greeted with guffaws of disbelief but of course, we all know what happened. It wasn’t pretty. If I had it to do again, I’d keep my mouth shut.
There are thousands like this. I could make a list of all the days I would revise if I could. On good days, I comfort myself with the knowledge that these are the mistakes I had to make to grow more aware, stronger, more compassionate, more patient.
Like my novel, I am a work-in-progress.
If you are in a sharing mood, feel free to offer moments you’d gladly revise if you could or your experiences with revisions. In my next post, a few words about what to do with all the pages that are cut. If you have some creative ways you’ve put your rough drafts or rejected manuscripts to use, fire away. We’ll pool resources on the next post.
It’s five o’clock on Monday morning and my mother sits in bed, knees up, a pad against her thighs, her second cup of coffee steaming within easy reach. Her pen flies across the page in front of her leaving behind a trail of thoughts that have been on her mind for days, minutes, or take shape as she writes.
I can reconstruct this because on more than one visit home back in the early days of my adulthood, I found her there, often with my infant son tucked into the pillows next to her after she’d swooped him up so that I could have a rare extra hour of morning sleep.
“Happy Monday. Hope between you and the numerologist you had a good weekend.” Monday, 1980
These were her “Monday Letters.” She wrote her first one when I left home at 17. As the rest of us tumbled out of the nest, one or two a year, she wrote more. She has written over 1,500 Monday letters to me by my estimation. Add my siblings, step siblings, her godchildren, and fellow travelers she adopted along the way, and we are talking serious writer’s cramp and the death of a forest or two before the advent of email and texts.
“Dear Betsy, a day late and dull stationery to boot and oh dear a lousy pen. Not a very good way to start the day. It’s 6:15.”
Not long ago, I was rooting around in the garage and found a battered cardboard carton labeled “Mom” in black marker. The seams of the box were worn; the top barely able to contain the letters jammed inside. The letters, survivors of my mother’s weekly correspondence, seemed to be pushing their way out of the box to find me. I forgot whatever I’d been looking for and hauled the box into my office and for the next few days, I read them all.
I picked up each letter with the same combination of eagerness and trepidation I used to feel mid-week when her letters usually arrived.
“Our conversation was most unsatisfactory – to be blamed in all fairness on both of us. I for my part am sorry I always flunk pretty badly when I attempt to contain myself and unfortunately I’ve been containing my opinions on this for a very long time.”
They weren’t always written on a Monday. They weren’t always written before dawn. She used whatever paper she had and whatever time she had between jobs, errands, doctor visits, or when she woke in the middle of the night with someone on her mind.
“I ‘ve been awake since 3 a.m. Thinking of you.”
They weren’t always fun to read. The letters I found spanned a chunk of late seventies, early eighties when I moved with a man ten years older to the suburbs without getting married and without a job. I went into debt. My son was hospitalized after COBRA ran out. My relationship with my partner slid into a swamp I couldn’t seem to get out off with my self-esteem intact. She called often. We visited when we could. But her letters never stopped coming. Holding one — even the lectures — was like feeling her hand in mine. She couldn’t pull me out but the letters told me she would be there, cheering me on when I finally emerged on my own.
“Don’t beat yourself up. Whatever you do, we love you.”
Each letter was at least one, but often a combination of the following: hello, weather report, family news, a verbal finger-prod between the shoulder blades, a long-distance hug, wistful wonderings, a mirror, warning, atta-girl, “to-do” list, food for thought, how-to make everything from chicken l’orange for eight to how to manage money. There were lots of letters about money, how I handled it; how I didn’t.
“Thought I’d try to give you a rough outline of how to make a budget.”
And there were plenty in which she wrote about her own fears, her own anxiety about the future, her own struggles to grow.
“Thanks for listening to me. I’m really in a mess. Trying to control what I probably should do with what I want to do. I know that it will work out.”
As I sift through the letters, though, the content of the letters is eclipsed by the fact of them. They are tangible evidence of who I was, who she was, and how we worked our way through the holding on and letting go between a mother whose nest was beginning to empty and a daughter whose start-up nest was a hot mess.
“You have to get a grip on yourself. You will NOT be alone for the rest of your life no matter what. The hardest thing is when you’re really are trying and you really feel that you are contributing and then you get so lonely and are shot down. I’m speaking from the heart. It just doesn’t have to be. You get ahold of yourself and stay hold no matter what and don’t let your stubborn determination get the best of you. Have a good week, Love, Mom.
In them was the determination to forge new relationships not just with me but with each of her offspring and other loved ones, to help us nurture connections with each other. They were her way of reconciling her determination to make us all independent with her desire that we all stay connected. They show that when she had a few minutes to herself, she thought of me, my siblings, all her loved ones, and got out her paper and pen. She started out more than one with “Just wanted you to have some mail.” We all knew that some got longer letters some weeks than others; some weeks were tougher than others. Sometimes, a letter was meant to be shared as was the case with this one to me and my son sometime in 1981:
“Hi, I love you and I hope your respective lives are moving onward and upward. Happily, Hastily, Mom/Gramma”
Over the years, the letters helped to weave the fabric connecting all who received them. We can lob a standard quote, “Have the courage of your own convictions” to a stepbrother or sister and they can laugh and toss back, “And poco a poco” or “Don’t lose perspective.”
We chuckle, but we hear her. Even now, we hear her.
Happy Monday, Mom. And Happy Birthday.
Today, April 20, is about Easter. It is also about a boy.
The boy in this picture came into my life on April 20, 1975. He doesn’t look this way any more. He’s taller, his shoulders sometimes hunch when the world gets a little much for him, there are a few lines at the corners of his eyes when he smiles.
He’s probably wondering where all the time went. I can’t help him with that.
I can however, remind him of the day when he, just turned seven, brought his froggy friend home for supper. He wanted to create a habitat for him even though the obvious habitat was the creek bank just down the hill where they’d both been spending some quality time together all afternoon.
Arrangements were made. The boy took a bath (I insisted), and the tub was cleaned and prepared for the frog. We placed a rock inside the bath for that homey touch. The water was shallow and what my son determined was the right temperature. We closed the bathroom door.
Did I mention there was only one bathroom in the entire house?
Flash forward to the middle of the night. I have to pee. I forget about the visitor. The minute I open the door, and nearly lose it right then and there when something launches itself right at me. Frog is on the loose. He’s taking the steps three at a time, heading for the downstairs, the living room, the creek.
The boy sleeps like the dead or like seven-year-old boys who have spent the entire day outside. When I yell “The Frog Is Loose” into his ear, his eyes fly open and he’s off. For the next hour we pursue the amphibian through the house, under steam heaters, under couches, with paper bags, much frantic worry on my son’s part and some exasperation but mostly held-back giggles on mine.
The good news is that we saved Mr. Frog from himself. My son snared him in a paper bag. We marched out into the summer night in our pajamas. I started the car and the boy climbed in clutching the top of the bag. We drove to the bottom of the hill where the creek burbled.
I watched the boy get out, carefully lift the frog out of the bag and look him in the eye.
“Good bye,” said the boy. The rest of what he said was along the lines of “I’ll come back in the morning but I know you might not be here. I really wished I could have kept you but I know that wouldn’t have made you happy.” And then he let him go.
A moment of silence followed and then the boy climbed back into the car. A little while later, after a little talk and a glass of milk, he was once again asleep.
To the boy, on his birthday, I say “Happy Birthday. There were times when I wished I could keep you just like this, all muddy, smiles, and full of plans for a frog who had very different ideas.”
I have kept this picture though. I keep the memory of that night along with so many others. I persist in the idea that this boy still lives inside the man my son has become. There is some evidence for this. He still loves digging in the dirt. He still loves animals although the donkeys would not fit in the bathtub. He still has the most amazing smile.
Happy Birthday to the boy and the man. Happy Birthday to Stan, the most recent addition to the menagerie, who turns one year old today.
Happy Easter to those who celebrate it and may all find joy and renewal in this day.