It begins when I know that silence will hurt me and those I love, when the comfort of my life will not insulate me from the damage that will afflict millions for years to come if I am silent.
It begins with a 4 a.m. ride to the airport on Inauguration Day to catch a 6:30 a.m. flight to Baltimore. It begins with the bleary eyes and determined smiles of enough marchers, many of them march-virgins like me, to fill a Southwest Boeing 737 plane. It begins with smiles and shouts of encouragement as we all stream off the plane four and a half hours later to wherever we have cadged housing for the weekend.
It begins the next morning when we start the way we start any walk. Boots on, coats zipped, uncertainty about what we will find. There are the last-minute pocket checks with husband and friends who are sharing their apartment with us so we can all march together today. It begins with a step, then another, and then the four of us melt into twenty, fifty, then hundreds who have abandoned the metro and are walking the two miles down to the place where we all intend to walk some more.
It begins with cutting across a park where mostly men and a few women who normally gather their to wait out one more homeless day watch our warmly-dressed selves flocking with other warmly-dressed people bearing signs, wearing smiles, not quite looking back at those who are watching.
It begins with sense we are close now, as we approach 7th street which is not far from the start, and is to be one of the places that, if all else, fails, will open and let us onto the march path when it is time. We feel the sense of arrival. Any minute now.
It begins with the press of bodies, the faces of children grinning from parental shoulders as they dodge signs toted by all those around them. We are body to body and more bodies keep coming as if the land itself is giving rise to them, birthing them in fertile bursts from all corners of the mall and beyond. I am minuscule cells in this giant swelling, sinuous, powerful muscle of humanity. Yet I am here. I am held up by the bodies around me. None of us can move single foot in any direction unless the others help us.
It begins with the understanding that we have, in fact, arrived. The official starting point is no longer reachable. The streets cannot contain us all and we’ve spilled out onto the mall, the side streets, the steps of stately buildings, lamp posts, the tops of rented vehicles used the previous day. When there is space, more bodies fill it. We must begin where we are. We must begin not knowing where it will lead. We must begin not knowing how long it will take, only knowing that to be here today is to commit to what is needed tomorrow, then the day after that, then the day after that.
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.
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.
I live about 25 miles from the border crossing between California and Mexico and except for a ride to Rosarito Beach back in the eighties, I’ve never been there.
I live about 125 miles from Los Angeles and I go there, or through there, five to ten times a year. In fact, I just returned from my most recent trip to spend Father’s Day with my stepdaughter and her husband, a trip colored by laughs, hugs and a chance to share a few meals together without encountering any obstacle other than a little bit of traffic.
I thought about this a lot more deeply after a field trip I took on Flag Day to Friendship Park in San Ysidro with my friends Mary Anne and Kay. Our goal: to go see Sister Simone Campbell and the other amazing women who crossed the country with her on the “Nuns on the Bus” tour. Their mission was to focus attention on the need for immigration reform. We, it must be said, were motivated in large part to see the nuns who are the equivalent of rock stars in progressive Catholic circles. Sister Simone has been on the Colbert show for goodness’ sake.
You don’t have to be Catholic to admire these women, though. They look the powers-that-be in the eye and they do not back down when it comes to doing the right thing. They lobby Washington for budgets that are humane and, in recent weeks, for the immigration reform bill now moving through the Senate. They’ve been known to politely but steadfastly agree to disagree with the men who profess to lead the Catholic church. They are the kind of people that make me look more deeply at what I’ve been doing lately for anyone who is not me, related to me, or in my direct line of vision. They don’t preach, they act. In doing so, they ask me to act on my faith, not just file it in that stuffed folder within my heart labeled “Good Intentions.”
All of this makes me glad we persisted last Friday, June 14 when all three of us piled into Mary Anne’s Toyota Corolla and headed down to Friendship Park to see and hear the nuns and others speak in front of the wall that divides the US from Mexico, or at least as much as it can before it descends into the Pacific Ocean. It did take persistence. Let’s just say that we were the first to get there but the last to arrive. We were the first to pull into the parking lot in front of a locked chain separating us from our destination. No nuns or bus, just a collection of hardy souls pulling in behind us and emerging from their cars mystified yet hopeful.
We walked nearly two miles from the parking lot almost to Friendship Park, our trek through the gentle mists of the marine layer fueled by faith that the nuns would eventually show up even though the park was all but deserted except for hundreds of birds, a lone bicyclist, and a few helicopters that circled above apparently uninterested in why a group of middle-aged women were walking to the border. Just as we neared the final bend, news came: the nuns were on their way but would speak in the parking lot. We doubled back and were approaching our car once again when suddenly a stream of vehicles bearing cheerful determined women, news cameras, and all those who had waited in the lot while we ventured out streamed past us. We ran for our car, or at least moved as quickly as our sandals and trick knees would allow.
But in the end, we got there and as we listened to the nuns and the other speakers, we realized that our inconvenience was laughably insignificant compared to what the usual park visitors must go through just to see the faces of those they love for minutes at a time. Here, at the park, on weekends and on holidays, a gate in the wall opens for a few hours and people on both sides of the border may get a chance to share a meal, some news, a few prayers, or simply to hug each other. We heard that very recently, a man had driven down from San Francisco so he could hug his daughter. He had fifteen minutes with her before he had to retreat back to the US side of the wall.
Others, of course, pay a far higher price. A hush fell over the small crowd at the gate when Sister Simone shared an account she’d heard in Tuscon of a mother found curved around the body of her infant in the desert, both dead. The sisters, Dan Watman of Friendship Park, Enriques Morones, founder of Border Angels are well-versed in all the aspects of the immigration issue — business, political, ideological, even the fears generated by the drug wars that cross the border — but they ask us to consider above all the human side.
The entire purpose of Friendship Park itself, Watman explained, was to provide a way for people on opposite sides of the border to meet and learn about each other, to share, to become friends. The wall did not change that mission but it has made it immeasurably more difficult.
As I type these words, I am certain that there is a woman my age maybe within a few miles who has has not seen her children since they were babies. I have probably walked past a mother who gave birth to her children in this country and lives in fear of being separated from them. Conversely, I have neighbors whose life companions are immigrants who entered the country legally; an open door and a pathway to citizenship has allowed them to contribute to our community and to fall in love.
The speakers on Friday (Flag Day by the way), listed many reasons to support the immigration reform bill that the Senate has just finished debating. I am sure there are many reasons that those opposed to it can offer or seek amendments rooted in fear. Fear abounds these days. Fear, I realize, is at the heart of my reluctance to venture across the border. Fear is a fence in my heart. People are dying in the desert and families are torn apart because of fear like mine.
I stood at the fence last Friday and imagined Friendship Park as it must be on weekends when people speak through the bars or, for those brief few hours, find an opportunity to embrace. The fence looms now in my memory as a challenge, to come back, at least this far, to look, listen, and learn.
And to act.
To follow the progress of immigration reform and to stay in touch with your Senators or Representatives, here’s a one-stop link: Contact Legislators
I’m not a historian but I am a woman and Women’s History Month reminds me that without the help of incredible women working over many years, my personal history would read very differently.
This point was driven home for me earlier this month as my husband and I watched Makers: The Women Who Make America. It was driven home even more deeply by 26 women who shared with me their thoughts on the kinds of questions I haven’t asked or answered in a long time, if ever. I sent them eleven sentences I asked them to finish (to see them all, play the video above). The group includes mothers, teachers, lawyers, judges, students, marketing executives, accountants, and women who have had to work at any job they could find. Some are married. Some are not. Some have been and are no longer. This is a very strong and mixed group of women but we know that there are many women from all walks of life and philosophy who are not represented here. This will be something to work towards.
One thing is clear: as women we have the power to influence other women through our words, our example, our work, the art we make or love and share –and not always in ways one might expect.
Doing this made me realize that I don’t spend enough time talking with other women about things that matter. I hope that this exercise is the beginning of many conversations I will have with the women in my life and women I come to know. I’ve decided to tuck these questions away and use them like those little cards people hand out at parties called, “conversation starters.” I invite you to do the same. Even better, use the comments section here to add to the conversation with your answers and even better questions. If nothing else, we will have paused together for a moment to reflect on a piece of history both past and perhaps shape our stories-in-the-making. All the questions appear in the video so go ahead and play it if you’d like a quick look.
Finally: this kind of conversation is not just for women. There will be men reading this who are at home with children while their wives work or serve in the military, there are men who have watched their daughters come of age during times of huge change followed by significant setbacks, there are husbands who have struggled, adapted and, struggled some more to figure out their roles in marriages that are influenced by the jobs available or not available to women along with the expectations society still has of men and of women. There are sons who have never sat down over a cup of coffee with their mothers and asked them what being a woman in today’s world means to them.
If that is too much to start with, then just ask a woman who her favorite female character in a book or movie is. Then ask her why. You’ll both probably learn something.
Okay, I’ll shut up now and let these wonderful women speak. Or, rather, I’ll show you their answers. Each section below shows the question asked and provides a link in blue to the answers right below the photo. Clicking on the link will take you to a few slides with all the wonderful answers. If you’d like to see everything all at once, scroll to the end and click onto the link “Women Talking to Women Master.”
Women who offered us insights over the years might be surprised at what “stuck.” Wisdom reflected here ranges from practical safety “cover your drink when you go to a party” to the inspiring “you can do anything.” Perhaps most poignant is that some of the women responding here could not point to a woman who offered wisdom along the way.
Sometimes the people who love us the most give us bad advice. Which means it’s a good thing when we ignore it or find our path in spite of it. These answers provide required reading for anyone thinking of giving any advice to any woman.
A list that features everyone from Pearl S. Buck to Chelsea Handler is worth a look. Sheryl Sandberg (Lean In) made the list along with Isabel Allende, Margaret Mitchell, Ann Patchett, Alicia Keys, Lalita Tademy and others.
This list confirms that art can inspire us or show us the kind of women we would like to be (some of the time anyway). Some characters draw admirers from all ages (Nancy Drew, Scarlett O’Hara) some show us that we really should be reading more.
Not surprisingly, Hillary gets lots of mentions but so does Malala Yousufzai, one of the youngest women to show courage and vision in the face of oppression.
The right to vote, access to birth control, access to education for all women regardless of race, the women’s movement of the Sixties and Seventies have profoundly impacted women’s opportunities.
Education. Poverty. Health. Equal pay. Equal rights. These are running themes when women list challenges faced by women in the US and around the world. The answers reflect that nothing should be taken for granted and that we have a long way to go.
This is just a sampling of the thoughtful responses inside, one representing each decade. Reading all of them will give you a very clear sense of the impact a few words can have and the vacuum that exists when no one offers them.
- Looking back I would wish that I had been encouraged to think bigger.” [Anonymous 1930s]
- “I can’t say it would have made any difference if a woman encouraged me because I came up in a male-dominated world. Women need to actively mentor other women continuously. We need to open doors for each other the way men do. Every time we move forward an inch, we need to reach back and bring a woman along with us.” [Rae 1940s]
- “Stay in college.” [Joleen 1950s]
- “Stay in Europe.” [MJ 1960s]
- “Have the confidence to trust my instincts. That advice came from a male mentor. But it would have meant more coming from a woman because women, I think, have to work harder at developing confidence than men do.” [Elizabeth 1970s]
- “Be strong but always keep an open mind, things are not always as they seem.” [Elisa 1980s]
- “Speak loudly and without apologies.” [MEW 1990s]
These answers are packed with with the lessons these women have learned and want to offer to young women preparing for their future. The beauty of these is that there is more than one voice from more than one generation. Individually and together, they can get a conversation started with a teenage woman near you.
Overall, the optimists outnumber those who view the future of women with more caution. The optimism is rooted in the strength and gifts of today’s young women and in the examples set by women who are leading the way in politics, human rights, business, education and more.
If you would like to see the entire slide deck in one go, here is the pdf version: