Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Wild, a memoir...

Starting back in 2010 I have posted a number of times about "Dear Sugar" an anonymous  internet advice columnist whose posts I stumbled upon and thought were terrific. (Type dear sugar into the RF search box if you want to see them.) Sugar retained her anonymity until the publication of her first book/memoir last month entitled "Wild, a walkabout of reinvention".  Sugar is Cheryl Strayed.  Here is a review of her book from the NY Times.

The Tracks of an Author’s, and a Reader’s, Tears
‘Wild’ by Cheryl Strayed, a Walkabout of Reinvention

Published: March 27, 2012

It’s not very manly, the topic of weeping while reading. Yet for a book critic tears are an occupational hazard. Luckily, perhaps, books don’t make me cry very often — I’m a thrice-a-year man, at best. Turning pages, I’m practically Steve McQueen.

Cheryl Strayed’s new memoir, “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail,” however, pretty much obliterated me. I was reduced, during her book’s final third, to puddle-eyed cretinism. I like to read in coffee shops, and I began to receive concerned glances from matronly women, the kind of looks that said, “Oh, honey.” It was a humiliation.

To mention all this does Ms. Strayed a bit of a disservice, because there’s nothing cloying about “Wild.” It’s uplifting, but not in the way of many memoirs, where the uplift makes you feel that you’re committing mental suicide. This book is as loose and sexy and dark as an early Lucinda Williams song. It’s got a punk spirit and makes an earthy and American sound.

“Wild” recounts the months Ms. Strayed spent, during the summer of 1995, when she was 26, hiking alone on the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State. There were very frightening moments, but nothing particularly extraordinary happened to her.

The author was not chewed on by bears, plucked dangling from the edge of a pit, buried by an avalanche or made witness to the rapture. No dingo ate anyone’s baby. Yet everything happened. The clarity of Ms. Strayed’s prose, and thus of her person, makes her story, in its quiet way, nearly as riveting an adventure narrative as Jon Krakauer’s two “Into” books: those matey fraternal twins, “Into the Wild” and “Into Thin Air.”

Ms. Strayed began her hike because her life was in meltdown. “I was living alone in a studio apartment in Minneapolis, separated from my husband and working as a waitress, as low and mixed-up as I’d ever been,” she writes. Her mother had recently died, effectively rendering her an orphan. (Her father had vanished when she was 6.) She was using heroin; she had, she says, slept with too many men.

Her grief, early in this book, is as palpable as her confusion. Her portrait of her mother, who died of cancer at 45, is raw and bitter and reverent all at once.

“She dated men with names like Killer and Doobie and Motorcycle Dan,” Ms. Strayed writes about the woman who sometimes had to feed the author and her two siblings on food stamps, government cheese and powdered milk.

Yet when Ms. Strayed went away to college, her mom came along and enrolled too. She got straight A’s. “Her love was full-throated and all-encompassing and unadorned,” Ms. Strayed writes. “Every day she blew through her entire reserve.” When her mother became ill, the author says, “I folded my life down” to care for her.

“Wild” is thus the story of an unfolding. Ms. Strayed went walking in search of what she calls “radical aloneness.” She had no cellphone and no credit card; often she had only a few coins in her pocket to last a week. What felt profound, she says, “was how few choices I had and how often I had to do the thing I least wanted to do. How there was no escape or denial. No numbing it down with a martini or covering it up with a roll in the hay.”

Physically, she was unprepared for this adventure, and she recounts a great deal of physical pain: that of setting off with a ridiculously overstuffed backpack she comes to refer to as Monster; losing most of her blackened toenails to ill-fitting boots; having her feet become “a throbbing mass of pulp.” After a few weeks on the trail, she writes, “my stench was magnificent.”

In a comical scene, a reporter for a journal called The Hobo Times mistakes her for one of his tribe and attempts to interview her. “I did not so much look like a woman who had spent the past three weeks backpacking in the wilderness,” she admits, “as I did like a woman who had been the victim of a violent and bizarre crime.”

Ms. Strayed got tougher, mentally as well as physically. She tells good, scary stories about nearly running out of water, encountering leering men and dangerous animals. About bears and other carnivorous woodland beasties, she asks, “Why did they always have to run in the direction I was going?”

An aspiring writer, she keeps a running tally of the books she reads (Faulkner, Drabble, Coetzee) and recounts how, to lighten her load, she burned each morning the pages she had read the night before.

Eating cheap, dehydrated meals on the trail, and sleeping in a tiny tent, she is absurdly vivid about the comforts she misses. Bottles of cold Snapple lemonade become talismanic in their import. About a cheeseburger and fries she cannot afford, she declares, “I was devastated by the sight of them.”

She is even better on her own lust. Parts of this frank and witty book belong in “Best American Sex Writing 2013.” There’s a moment when a stern and upright fellow is helping her lighten her backpack and finds a dozen ultrafine condoms in their crinkly packaging. He holds them up and asks, “Do you really need these?”

Ms. Strayed doesn’t — at least not a dozen. At one point she meets a young man on the trail, begins talking to him and says to us, as if she were a randy Doonesbury character in hiking boots, “There was no way I was going to keep my pants on with a man who’d seen Michelle Shocked three times.”

Two things almost kept me from picking up this book. Why did Ms. Strayed wait 17 years before committing this story to paper? As in any memoir, some of the interior life here has to have been reconstructed. She never explains the delay, but the aging of her notebooks and memories seems to have, as with casked whiskey, only strengthened her book’s complicated flavors.

There’s also the matter of her made-up surname, Strayed, which sounds like the punch line from an old joke. (Mae West: “I used to be Snow White, but I drifted.”) The author doesn’t reveal her original name, but “Strayed” strikes me as a deft stab at self-reinvention. (She changed her name from Nyland in 1995, according to her publisher, Alfred A. Knopf.)

“Growing up poor had come in handy,” the author says near the close of her book. “I probably wouldn’t have been fearless enough to go on such a trip with so little money if I hadn’t grown up without it.”

The lack of ease in her life made her fierce and funny; she hammers home her hard-won sentences like a box of nails. The cumulative welling up I experienced during “Wild” was partly a response to that too infrequent sight: that of a writer finding her voice, and sustaining it, right in front of your eyes.

"What if you allowed your God to exist in the simple words of compassion others offer to you? What if faith is the way it feels to lay your hand on your daughter’s sacred body? What if the greatest beauty of the day is the shaft of sunlight through your window? What if the worst thing happened and you rose anyway? What if you trusted in the human scale? What if you listened harder to the story of the man on the cross who found a way to endure his suffering than to the one about the impossible magic of the Messiah? Would you see the miracle in that?"

-- Sugar from one of her columns.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Steve's Last Lecture...

First one caveat, if I offend anyone, I apologize. I mean no offense but I have to say some truths and, cliche as it is, sometimes the truth does hurt. 

So here is the first truth, a lot of you, maybe all of you, have a lot of really good reasons to drink and drug and you also have a lot of really good excuses not to get sober. All really good reasons and good, compelling excuses, maybe even good explanations for why you use BUT, good as those reasons are none of them are valid. They are all just reasons to get high and to keep getting high.  So if you want one take away from this lecture remember two words - no excuses. Say it to yourself often and when you least believe it. No excuses. 

What you came to rehab to learn and what we spend days and sometimes weeks doing with you here and then you can spend months or years more when you leave is not about how to find the courage to beat your addiction. Courage you all already have, way beyond anything non-addicted civilians can ever understand – because you have the kind of  courage and fuck you-ness it takes to be an addict.  But as brave as each of you are, your disease will kill you and before you die it will make you suffer and along the way you will hurt everyone who ever loved you.

There is this thing that is standing in your way. And I am not alone in knowing this, every counselor, case worker, doctor, nurse and mental health worker here sees it –  right now your disease, even as you sit here, is standing behind you clamping two giant hands on your shoulders whispering to your neck “it does not matter what he says, you only listen to me”.
And that whisper is too often louder than what we tell you in rehab – that is why we do not tell you as simply, directly and as pared to the bone as what I am telling you now. Instead we  run about 7 groups a day and give you assignments and spend a lot of time trying to give you important tools to help you stay sober when you leave here.  Kind of trying to get around your disease because we don’t usually get through if we just go straight up the middle. Those tools are important, you need them and with repetition and practice those tools will work for some of you. But some of you will sit around and chain smoke cigarettes (or think about chain smoking cigarettes)  and drive yourselves crazy trying to figure out why you use drugs, or you will focus on your complaints, cravings, resentments and terrors and you will spend a lot of time here thinking about how you both want to get sober and at the same time don't and about how you love the very thing that is killing you.
If you are honest, you already know that you can no longer live a life with drugs and, at the same time, you cannot imagine a life without drugs.  
But none of that matters nearly as much as simply not putting chemicals into your body.
And please do not think I am giving you moral advice or that I am telling you what to do or that I even expect that you can do it because it is not easy to do. It is hard, it takes real effort and some days you will not be able to do it. That is part of the process. But there will come a day when, as cold or as disappointed as you may be, even hungry, or when you drop the grocery bag on the sidewalk, or the coffee spills on your sweater at 7:00 AM on your way to look for yet another job that you probably will not get or you want to hit someone, that -  if you do not pick up and put a chemical in your body -you will be gripped by a cherishing so deep for the fact that you are a grateful recovering addict that it will leave you speechless.
Of course this is not likely to happen from your having listened to me today. That is why you will keep attending more groups, and do all that is expected of you here. And that is what you should do. But I also want you to know that it is not impossible that when you are discharged you can walk out of here knowing that you have another option.
Staying clean requires daily attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, in myriad petty, little, boring, unsexy ways. It means going to a program of some kind, be it out patient or a l2-Step program. You have to work your program every day, get a home group, get a sponsor or a therapist  and tell him or her the truth, pray for help whether you believe in God or not, get phone numbers of sober people and call them, make sober friends and develop a sober network and lose the old friends.   That is how you will get sober and stay sober.
What you need to know is that your life is not only important, it is sacred. You are on fire with the same force that lights the stars. Not that I have any idea what actually lights the stars but it does not matter because there is only one true thing that matters here and now – and that is that if the day you leave here you do not use chemicals, the next day will look better. It will not be paradise, it will be hard, it will be scary but the fact is that if you do not use drugs or alcohol, tomorrow will look very different than today.
I know that this may just sound like some sort of total bullshit and you can think of it that way if you want. But as far as I can tell it is the truth. None of this is about morality, or religion, or dogma, or big fancy questions of life after death or whether God exists or not. This is about life BEFORE death. It is about making it to 30, or maybe 50, it is about not  ending up in jail or in an institution.  It is about  the simple truth of what is so real and essential and so hidden in plain sight for you to see that you have to keep reminding yourself of it over and over one day at a time.

My name is Steve and I am a Rehab volunteer. Thank you for letting me share.


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