Recently, just before my husband went off on his April wilderness trek, I found myself at a local Target, trolling for a cheap bottle of white wine, like any self-respecting adult woman who is always right would after arguing with her husband over the merits of completing graduate school. I was trying to convince him (and really, myself) that staying on and finishing was worth it, despite the fact that I have hated every moment of being in the program and it has made me a complete terror to be around. I am a primo student and was thrilled to pieces to go back to school, and yet I have been unhappy every single second of this experience. It has been so bad. I was crying to my husband about hemorrhaging money every quarter to take phantom classes just to stay enrolled until my thesis project was green-lit, and he was calmly telling me not to worry about the loans I’ve already accumulated, and to quit and start another program in something else, something that makes me less psychotically miserable. He was telling me to think of my emotional health above all else (all else being: familial pressure, the shame of quitting, the guilt of being thousands of dollars in the hole for a degree I’d never get).
And for that wonderful, supportive, sage advice, I rewarded him by snapping at him that I couldn’t talk about it anymore and then politely telling him I was going out. For my entire life, I have been a reasonable, even-keeled, logical person when faced with crises. And yet, graduate school and all its ensuing insanity can absolutely level me. At the risk of sounding (as embarrassingly) dramatic (as I sometimes am), I left the house feeling like my life was in shambles – like I was stuck in the middle of a shit swamp, too deep in to quit and too far from finishing something I despise to know what direction to head in.
It was in this admittedly ridiculous state of mind that I wandered from the wine aisle, cradling a $5 bottle of Sauvignon Blanc, into the paperback section, because my favorite thing to do is buy books on impulse, especially when I’m upset (and even more especially when they are $11 at Target). My eyes glazed over at all the titles I’d seen hundreds of times already, before landing on a memoir called Wild, written by a woman named Cheryl Strayed.
I was drawn to it simply because I liked the cover art. (Yes. I judge books by their covers.) And then I read the synopsis. The book follows the author on her quest to hike over 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail by herself, in an effort to pick up (and ultimately understand) the pieces of her broken life. I usually steer clear of non-fiction books about personal journeys because they can reek of entitlement (read: Eat Pray Love), but after flipping to a page at random and reading this:
“We stood close together, face-to-face, my hands gripping the front of his coat. I could feel the dumb ferocity of the building on one side of me; the gray sky and the white streets like a giant slumbering beast on the other; and us between them, alone together. Snowflakes were melting onto his hair and I wanted to reach up and touch them, but I didn’t. We stood there without saying anything, looking into each other’s eyes as if it would be the last time,”
I bought it and took it home, waiting for the perfect moment to crack it open.
I’ve had the book kicking around the house for a while. My husband has gone on his adventure and returned. We have moved on and away from our argument about school (the resolution: I’ve decided to finish, while making a concerted effort not to let it rule/ruin my life in the meantime). I’ve gotten busy with work and with life and with best friends getting married and having babies and there just hasn’t been time.
Today at 2 pm, after having a fairly productive morning, I sat down with Wild. It’s 10 pm and I just finished it. I’ve read a lot of tomes in my day and this book is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever devoured. It is gorgeous without being affected and genius without being pretentious. It is all at once devastating and wonderful. It is a love letter to California and Oregon and relationships and exploration and loss, and I can’t even say enough great things about it. It is really amazing.
I loved it, even though it broke my heart and made me feel like a completely unbearable asshole for thinking my grad school angst and “life in shambles” were at all comparable to the real agony people experience simply as a fact of life.
Despite making humiliating and humbling me and making me cry, Wild also inspired a lot of hope. If Cheryl Strayed could hike over one thousand miles solo at 26 years old, I, at 26 years old, can muster up the strength to write a thesis of my own construction and spend a month abroad doing bioarchaeology. I mean, really.