“If you go slowly enough, six or seven months is an eternity—if you let it be—if you forget old things, and learn new ones. Even a week can last forever.”
Rick Bass, Winter

"In the midst of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer."
Albert Camus

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Part II: Day Five: Wild Things

During Zoe's and my visit with my sister, Mira Bartok, her husband, Doug Plavin, and their dog, Sadie, I'm reading a terrific new memoir: Wild, by Cheryl Strayed.  It's about Strayed's 1,100 mile solo hike across the Pacific Crest Trail when she was reeling from the death of her mother, the end of her marriage, the breakup of her family, and her own dissolution and descent into self-destructive behavior.  Her losses have made her lose her bearings, and the anguish and sorrow she depicts, with such mastery and control, is, in its fierce candor and tenderness, unexpectedly uplifting.  She takes us deep inside the self, a self that has lost everything, and then takes us deep into the natural world, depicting the landscape and the people she meets with lyricism, wisdom, and humor.  She is a funny writer as much as she is a moving and vivid one, and the hike she takes us on--across a gorgeous, rugged Western landscape, and into her own psyche--is wildly exhilarating.

Mira blurbed this gorgeous memoir, evoking Thoreau.  She writes:
"While reading Cheryl Strayed’s stunning book about her arduous solo journey along the Pacific Crest Trail, I kept asking myself—what would I do if I were stripped bare of everything—money, job, community, even family and love? Thoreau once said, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” For Strayed, it is clear that in wildness was the preservation of her soul. She reminds us, in her lyrical and courageous memoir Wild, of what it means to be fully alive, even in the face of catastrophe, physical and psychic hardship and loss."
Mira Bartok, author of The Memory Palace
"In wildness is the preservation of the world."  My students and I have chewed on that statement for years, through reading Walden together, and Thoreau's other essays and journals; on nature hikes we've taken together; and in our own lives.  In wildness is the preservation of the word, I think, as well, because American nature writing is one of our nation's unique literary offerings to the global literary community.

Were it not for Emerson and Thoreau and Muir (who were influenced by the great British romantic poets, Coleridge and Shelley and Keats, and were also directly influenced by Indian sacred texts, by both Hinduism and Buddhism) we would not have developed this distinctly American sound, this distinctly American voice that starts from place, from landscape, from concrete language, from the poetry of trees (by species, region, biosphere) that opens into a larger call of the wild, on behalf of the wild: the song of the human spirit set loose on the land.  These writers are the literary grandparents of Aldo Leopold, E.B. White, Edward Abbey, Gretel Ehrlich, John Daniel, Annie Dillard, Bill McKibben, Janisse Ray, Terry Tempest Williams, and too many other amazing nature writers for me to name here, but now we can add Cheryl Strayed to the list.

But that's my teacher-self talking to you, and I'm writing today about something else.  I'm writing about how loss, and the anticipation of loss, makes us wild, but how that wildness has a beauty and grace that has much to teach us about what it means to be alive.  In a body.  On this earth.  Right now.

During the visit, I'm also working on my novel.  I realized before I began this revision that I needed to get wilder.  My characters had to face their edges, their limits.  They needed, in their own way, to howl like coyotes.  With control and precise language, I am trying to get deeper into raw emotion.

And so, reading Wild is inspiring me both as a writer and as a human being trying to come to terms with things. 

We go to Boston to see Cheryl Strayed read from the new memoir in a bookstore in Brookline, and then go out for drinks with a small group of people afterwards.  She is a funny and warm and engaging writer and human, and it's lovely to meet her, even if the conversation is fleeting.

It's a two-hour drive, and we have to leave Sadie and Zoe alone from 5 PM until nearly midnight.
Photo of Sadie, in front, and Zoe, by Doug Plavin

Ever since Zoe was diagnosed with cancer, I have avoided being away from her for more than a few hours at a time.  It's so hard to say good-bye.  It was actually a difficult decision for me to go to Boston when a big part of me wanted to stay home and just love up my dog.

When we return to the house, Zoe and Sadie run to greet us like we are the best thing that ever happened. Their joy is contagious.  We sit down with them and look into their wolfy eyes, our hearts beating in synch with their tails thumping against the floor.

Sadie runs outside to bark madly and ward off coyotes.  Her preemptive shouts are the equivalent of the very loud whistle Cheryl Strayed carries on her 1,100-mile solo hike to ward off bears or human predators.

My husband and I wore bells on our wrists, and sang really loudly, and off-key, to scare off bears when we hiked in Glacier National Park.

Sadie is licking her chops; Photo by Doug Plavin
Our dogs are as domesticated as any dogs can be, but what we love about their company is the wildness in their eyes when they play.  When we roll around with them on the ground, when they nip each other and grunt or howl, when we get to be part of their world, we feel like wolves in the den.

Living with the knowledge that Zoe's days are numbered is another way to engage with the wild.  It is tremendously sad and isn't something I would wish on anyone, but I am here to say that we have much joy in our lives these days, and we never take it for granted.  We can't sleepwalk through a single minute.  There's no time to waste.  No time to obsess about petty things.  As Zoe's human pack members, we have to stay alert, awake to her with our animal senses.  We love more fiercely, more completely.  We are attentive to each subtle shift in mood or energy.  We are here.

I was here, but not fully here, not fully present, for years of my life.  Meeting and falling in love with my dog woke me up.  And now, more than ever, it feels like a great gift to encounter people and books and animals that remind me to love with everything I've got because all we have is now.

Tender.  Fierce.  Open.  Certain books are portals to these ways of being in the world and in the wild. Gentle reader, I urge you to buy Wild today.  Click here to read the rave review by the New York Times.

Tender.  Fierce.  Open.  The animals we love teach us how to be all these things, and more.

Zoe and I live in a house with beds and couches and a refrigerator and steel bowls.  Although we walk in the woods every single day, my dog and I have never spent a night outside together, just the two of us, under the stars.  But we are kindred, and we are wild.

photo by Doug Plavin

photo by Doug Plavin

I took this picture of Zoe provoking Sadie to chase her; Zoe has the chirping toy fox.

Zoe instinctively goes to the porch or deck of any house so she can watch over everyone.  She tells the dogs roaming around that they need permission to enter the property.  She yells at the UPS guy too.  But I think if she saw an actual pack of wolves or coyotes or foxes, she'd run and hide.

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