Last Sunday evening I submitted my final piece of work for my graduate school semester, and I have to say I don’t think I’ve ever felt so relieved. Taking three courses this semester combined with my current program at work was probably a bit ambitious. But. I survived and now I only have three courses left and hopes to finish the program by the three-year mark in December (fingers crossed). I’m also hoping to be writing more in this space again, now that I have more time and mental capacity–books were my escape this semester, especially on my treks up to Columbia, enabling me to lose myself in pages rather than be annoyed by the people who have the sound on their mobile games or the fact that I was standing uncomfortably close to multiple strangers on the packed 1 train. I finished 13 books that I wasn’t able to write about at all.
All this to say, I’ve been drawn lately to books by and about women who persevere and want to spend a few posts sharing my favorites. I wrote last about Tiny, Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed. While reading that book, which is a collection from her advice column at The Rumpus, all I could think about was what inner work she must have done in order to have such great insight into people’s struggles. It makes sense that the insight came from working through her own struggles and creating meaning from life rather than just allowing life to happen to her. Her memoir Wild documents part of that inner journey as she hiked the Pacific Crest Trail in the wake of her mother’s death, a divorce, the abandonment of her father, and choices that left her forgetting who she was: “I would suffer. I would suffer. I would want things to be different than they were. The wanting was a wilderness and I had to find my own way out of the woods” (27).
In speaking of how she used to always be amazed by how profoundly her father had failed her, she wrote: “it occurred to me that I didn’t have to be amazed by him anymore. There were so many other amazing things in this world. They opened up inside of me like a river. Like I didn’t know I could take a breath and then I breathed” (234). Though the hard things I’ve faced and am facing this year aren’t the same as hers, reading these words reminded me of parts of me that have felt lost lately. There are so many (tiny, beautiful) things to be amazed by that it seems absurd to live without noticing them. For most of this semester, I had/chose to not paint, draw, cook, bake, write and whether that was the way of survival or a poor choice of coping, those are the very things I am running to now. I walked out of one of my last classes and accidentally walked two and a half miles down Riverside Park and felt all the symbolism of spring poring out of me: renewal.
Strayed quotes so many of my literary heroes, including Mary Oliver: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” (The Summer Day). One thing that I’ve learned from Mary Oliver is the profundity of making meaning from the world around us, especially the natural world, and Strayed does this beautifully in Wild. As a reader, I was able to see her make meaning, breathe, move on, and feel healed–it felt like an invitation to to do the same. Another nonfiction book I’ve been reading lately, Falling Upward by Richard Rohr, also addresses this: “Humans are creators of meaning, and finding deep meaning in our experiences is not just another name for spirituality, but it is also the very shape of human happiness” (114). I want to be a meaning-maker, not someone who survives a week only to get to the next.
Last night, on my first Friday since January without the promise of a graduate school to-do list, I watched the movie, which so many people I know loved. It did not disappoint, and I was astounded over how they were able to capture the emotional depth that Strayed portrays in her memoir. And though I try hard to not make this a “review” style book blog, I must end by saying I highly, highly recommend both.