Rating: 4 stars
Read for The Reader’s Room Olympic Challenge
I watched the film adaptation of Wild on a plane. All but the final five minutes, which were interrupted first by turbulence, then by landing. I bought the book because I wanted to know the ending. I thought I would know most of it from the film. I didn’t count on Cheryl Strayed’s voice being clearer in the book than Reece Witherspoon’s portrayal of her was in the film. It was as though she was sitting next to me, talking to me.
I loved this book, even though it has caused me some pain. It has been a deeply personal reading experience for me. This isn’t a standard book review. I can’t detach myself enough to review it objectively. If you’re after a review, go elsewhere. What’s written below will lead you somewhere that’s more about me than the book. But that’s what this blog is about: me in relation to books.
The first chapter in the book was a familiar tale to me. The loss of a beloved mother who has been your bedrock and then isn’t there any more. The way Cheryl was the child who was there and her siblings vaporised into “I can’t do this.” Watching someone you love die is hard. Much as I want to tell my own absent siblings, I wanted Cheryl to tell hers to grow a fucking pair. To share in loving and supporting the mother who had made sacrifices, worked hard, and loved and supported them throughout their lives.
Chapter 2 continued hammering me. The effect on Cheryl of losing her mum is devastating. I felt cut adrift when my dad died, and I wasn’t particularly close to him. The effective death of my mother through loss of her being to dementia is more of a head spin. I know this feeling:
There was the woman I was before my mom died and the one I was now, my old life sitting on the surface of me like a bruise. The real me was beneath that, pulsing under all the things I used to think I knew.
I also know this:
It turned out I wasn’t able to keep my family together. I wasn’t my mom. It was only after her death that I realised who she was: the apparently magical force at the center of our family who’d kept us all invisibly spinning in the powerful orbit around her.
I understand Cheryl’s choices. I understand her logic of wanting to do things that go against the grain of expectation in order to feel different. I understand when she says that she feels split in two, wanting to still be the person she used to be, but also needing to be someone different. Sometimes you can be so cut adrift by grief that being the person everyone knows you as is a nonsense. Irritation is closer to the surface. Impatience. A howling desire to shout “Fuck you” in the face of everyone bland and an urge to spend time with people who might out-ugly you and so make you feel normal.
I am going through some stuff at the moment. At the start of the book, I wondered whether it may or may not have been a good choice to read it.
I thought the connection might ease off the further into Cheryl’s trek I read, but no. This in chapter 4 resonated:
I had to change. I had to change was the thought that drove me in the months of planning. Not into a different person, but back to the person I used to be …
As I worked through the book, and as Cheryl talked more about hiking the PCT, the thoughts her story stirred in me began to settle and I reached a moment of clarity. I am not a happy person at present. There are days when I don’t know who I am any more, when I say and do things that I don’t understand. Things I wouldn’t normally say or do. Things that are hurtful to others, and are effectively a fucked up cry for help that nobody seems to recognise. Because I am The Great Coper.
Cheryl’s experience made me realise that I am in a dangerous place, and could easily press a self-destruct button of my own. I don’t want to walk the PCT. It sounds awful. Part of me does want to remove myself from all of the complication in my life, though. I would like to walk away from the place I work so that I no longer feel frustrated with the way it is run. I would like to walk away from being solely responsible for my mum’s care, as my sister has done, as my brother seems to be doing. I would like to walk away from my relationship so that I no longer have to feel responsible for keeping it going in the face of how I have changed as a person. I would like all of those things, but I doubt I will act on them.
Here comes another quote:
I’d only wanted to be alone. Alone had always felt like an actual place to me, as if it weren’t a state of being, but rather a room where I could retreat to be who I really was. The radical aloneness of the PCT had altered that sense. Alone wasn’t a room anymore, but the whole wide world, and now I was alone in that world, occupying it in a way I never had before.
The book made me think about a wider loss, the loss of a sense of home and a sense of belonging. Although I left home 20+ years ago, my parents lived in the house I was born in and it was always there in case I needed a bolt hole. I did once, when a house chain I was in collapsed and I had to move out of my house or lose the sale. I moved back in with my parents at the age of 33. I vowed never to do that again. But I still liked knowing that, when I visited, I could slot straight back into the dynamics of that house. Since my dad died and mum moved into residential care, my niece lives in my childhood home. When I go round, I’m definitely a guest. I can’t just make a brew because it’s no longer my parents’ kitchen. I can’t nip up to my old bedroom just for the sake of it. My siblings feel differently because they left home and started families. I only left home and so, somehow, remained a child in my parents’ eyes. Because I don’t have children, I was also the one they thought of as not having responsibilities, and I became the one they called when they needed something sorting out. I was tied to the house for longer, I guess.
I don’t feel as vehemently as this, but I sort of know what Cheryl Strayed means:
I imagined a big machine like the one that had mawed up this forest mawing up our forty acres in the Minnesota woods. I wished with all my heart that it really would. I would be free then, it seemed. Because we had not been safe from destruction after my mom died, total destruction would come now as a relief.
I would like to sell the house and cut free from it entirely, have strangers living there and never need to step foot through the door again.
One thing I am considering as a result of reading this book is grief counselling. I have acknowledged that I have never properly grieved for my dad. He died six and a half years ago and I have bottled up how I feel for all that time. I’ve done this because his death opened up the truth about mum’s dementia and I had to plunge straight in to caring for her. In the five years since her diagnosis I have been grieving the gradual loss of her, but not fully grieving because she is still physically here and I have to keep going. I think I need to talk to someone about that, and it needs to be someone I don’t know. I talk to people in my life, of course I do, but I don’t ever fully say how I’m feeling because they have their own shit to deal with and I don’t want to be a burden.
On a less navel gazing note, the book also reminded me of songs, albums and singers that I love. That was an unexpected bonus. I remembered Joni Mitchell’s Blue. I listened to Lucinda Williams’s Something About What Happens When We Talk. I put Bob Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home on. I’m rebuilding my relationship with music. One of the things that has made me unrecognisable to myself over the past six years has been my rejection of music.
This is the review bit, then: Wild is an honest account of one woman’s collapse into grief and her way of trying to get back to herself. She makes disastrous choices at times, but those choices become part of her and, to my mind, make her a much more interesting person than someone who plays it by the book.