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Manifestations from the Pond

(Marie Prins has written a nature memoir. The land lives and breathes alongside her. The following is an excerpt from a longer story that appears in Hill Spirits ll, An anthology by writers of Northumberland County. I’m honoured to reprint it here. Marie is a member of Spirit of the Hills Writers. )

~~~~

Our pond is small, compared to those on nearby country properties, maybe fifty feet in diameter. Basically it’s a frog pond only five feet deep in the middle, a third of its depth the primordial muck that incubates dragonfly nymphs and mosquito larvae. Twenty years ago, a back-hoe pulled down a slimy cement pool that filled this corner of our acre lot. Gravelly dirt was dumped in the hole to make a ball field for our children; but spring water and cattails reclaimed this hollow as a mating pool for toads and frogs. So, five years later, another back-hoe dug a new pond and my husband, Ed, spent the rest of the summer shaping its edges and bordering a small grassy ledge with rocks for our chairs and umbrella.

At first, we envisioned deep water with sunfish and perch swimming the bottom and a profusion of ferns and water plants ringing the shoreline. When we planted marsh marigolds, blue flag, and an elder bush in choice spots, native jewelweed, boneset, and Joe Pye weed picked their own places in the boggy parts. When we lodged white and pink water lilies in the middle of the pond, pickerelweed and arrowhead surrounded them and stood erect like commas on opposite shores. Then cattails repossessed the outlets, and uninvited grasses and goldenrod crowded out the turtlehead and cardinal flower. Tough roots of yellow irises, once thought beautiful, grabbed a toehold on as much shoreline as possible, and proliferated into an invincible foe.

Gradually, our vision of an artistic landscape of ferns and wetland wildflowers was replaced by a grudging appreciation of both the alien and native plants thriving in the clay soil around our pond. For amid unruly weeds, we glimpsed tiny blue spots of water forget-me-nots and white sprinklings of bedstraw. Next to the rocks we identified bristly nut grass and pink, trailing smartweed, all modest flora offering unique shapes and colour if we but noticed their unobtrusive presence. After a few years, we conceded that the natural world had its own agenda best left to observe rather than manipulate. When we paid attention, small manifestations revealed themselves, some humorous, some profound, most ephemeral, but all unexpected revelations to be marveled at from the confines of our Algonquin chairs under a green umbrella.

Manifestations from a Pond

Manifestations from a Pond

 

Every mid-April along the margins of the pond, the invisible peeper frogs herald the opening act of the Nocturnal Mating and Territorial Squabbling Season. Soon the elongated trills of the toads, like fingernails on a comb, join this amphibious musical. As the weather warms, the high-pitched tremolo of elusive tree frogs moves from wood to water. Finally in early June, when the shrill calls of the peepers fade away, green frogs add their rubber-band twang to the choir. Occasionally, the rapid, hollow notes of a solitary leopard frog resonate as he seeks a mate in waters that are as busy as a Roman bath in the dark. Come mornings, all is quiet. But along the shore lie jelly masses of frogspawn and, twined around the lily pads, strings of toad eggs whose black dots evolve, if not eaten by predators, into hundreds of tadpoles wriggling in the warm water of the edges. A month later on the day of metamorphosis the border grass vibrates when innumerable brown toads, smaller than pennies, hop towards the grape arbour and out into the wide world of the yard.

During this coupling tumult, spontaneous Frog Wars erupt as green frogs vie for footage along the shoreline. One low croak begins the challenge. A dozen twangs of varying pitches echo around the pond. Like sumo wrestlers, frogs grab opponents and tumble in the shallows. Moments later, losers concede defeat and retreat to prior-claimed territory. Then another couple takes the stage and repeats this performance to the delight of its human audience. These acts of macho-mating recur well into June, when the weary actors disperse to drier parts of the garden and fatten up for winter’s long sleep.

With summer’s approach, the air above the pond’s surface pulsates with the darting zigzags of dragonflies and damselflies. Two-Spot, Nine-Spot, Common Whitetail Red-veined Darter, and Green Darner. After spending most of their lives underwater as ghostly nymphs, they stealthily crawl up spiky reeds, breathe the night air, and shed their larval skins which stick to plant stems like transparent clothes on a line. These ancient insects patrol the pond and devour mosquitoes, midges, flies, always attacking their prey from below. On sunny days, the air close to the pond’s edge dances with the unabashed coupling of Blue Ringtails riding tandem. Over and over, these slender acrobats form circles and hearts before the female deftly deposits her eggs on reeds below the water’s surface. In late summer, as the air cools, Rubyspots rest on rocks, chairs, arms, anyplace warm, and then resume their last minute pairing before an autumn frost ends their brief lives.

These breeding rituals fascinate us. One day, we watched the non-stop labour of a Green Darner gliding from stem to stem, never resting in her rhythmic exertion to reproduce another generation before the sun sank behind the cedars. Suddenly, from under a lily pad, a green frog leapt up and swallowed her in one gulp. Only our stunned silence witnessed her transformation from sustainer to sustenance in this peculiar dance of death and rebirth. One moment a dragonfly laying eggs, the next moment nutrients being rearranged into amphibious cells…premonitions of our own dust to dust mortality.

In my dictionary, the verb “observe” means to watch carefully, to witness, to watch without taking part. Silently, from the confines of my chair, I behold the nuanced life of the obscure—tadpoles, minnows, damsel flies—all creatures indistinguishable from another, all alive for one long moment of a season, seemingly to flicker in their beauty and then to feed the turtles, birds, frogs, toads – creatures of a higher order that emerge on logs, branches, and margins of the pond, all alive in their splendor for a few more seasons. To my ear “observe” sounds much like “absorb” which is to soak up or incorporate something into a larger entity in a way that loses much of its own identity.

Marie #2

My time by the pond is spent observing life and being absorbed by it. Moved by the saga of the Green Darner, I reflect on becoming part of a larger whole, part of a universe replicated in the life of this country pond. At times, my monkey mind quiets, the past and future meld into present. My being hovers briefly over water, pulsating gently, like the rhythmic undulation of a damsel fly levitating near the rushes. The mysterious, relentless passage of time ceases for an instant and I relax into divine tranquility, sensing dimly how my cells will one day be absorbed into a greater whole, and with relief, all will be well with my soul

 ~~~~

 A memoir breathes as if alive when it includes the living land. What part of the land or sea where you live would you include in a memoir?

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Who is Your Audience?

It was Mother’s Day in Port Hope. In a small house, gray clapboard with blue shutters, the phone rang. Her walker was handy, but so was the phone this time. It was John.

“Mom, you have to write your story!”

John had just reconnected with the yoga teacher his mom had signed him up with when he was five … over six decades ago. Out of the blue, it was time to know more about his mother’s spiritual path.

A few days later, at the meditation class that she runs, Melodie told us that she was now going ahead with her memoir. Surprise! Several people over the years had urged her to tell her story, either orally into a tape recorder so that it could then be transcribed, or written in her own words.

No, she’d said, I don’t want to go back. She saw more value in the one-on-one, here and now. Another time, long silvery hair twisted into a knot on the top of her head, she shrugged her shoulders and said, who would it be for? “Us!” cried those in the room. But we weren’t motivation enough. When she read my book, and in particular the passage about Thomas Merton’s book, The Seven Storey Mountain: An Autobiography of Faith, she remembered that Merton’s book had been one of her mentors. Following his example, she began writing down a few memories. Perhaps, she thought, her written stories could be a way of mentoring others. Then, life got in the way—celebrations, lunches out, illness, the beautiful walker, but the damn “Mr. Ugly” new chair that does cushion her bones.

It was a son’s cri de coeur that gave her the audience she needed. Who would she write for? For him. Now would be the time to make a ritual of sitting down to write. To talk to him. What better audience than your son? Melodie Massey is hyped! Quite possibly, by this time next Mother’s Day—when she will be 93—her story will be complete.

Do you know for whom you are writing your memoir? Knowing who your audience is will help clarify what it is you want to say, what it is you have to say. And will get your “ass in chair.”

A few people do write their memoir just to keep track of their lives, or to get things off their chest with no intention of anyone reading it. Indeed, this can be healing, and studies do show that the immune system is enhanced by writing down troubling events, even if the paper is burned afterwards. But many writers of memoir have an audience in mind.

When I asked Cynthia Reyes (www.cynthiasreyes.com) about her audience when writing her memoir, A Good Home, she said this:

My first audience was probably myself! I imagined a fairly well-educated woman over 40 who had been through some big ups and downs in her life. Someone who could empathize with another woman in a similar situation. She was someone I would like to spend an afternoon with.

I imagined she was fairly well-read, had probably done some traveling and would be interested in my childhood experiences in Jamaica. And most of all, I imagined her as someone who had a memory of a special home, and who either wanted to believe in God, or – even if an atheist – could understand my faith struggle.

How it turned out: From the hundreds of letters I’ve received, I’d say that is indeed the majority reader of my book. What surprised me was the number of men who also read the book. I never expected that. And I didn’t expect that so many elderly people would find it interesting too. Most puzzling: It’s become a book that people re-read, over and over. I am thrilled, but I am still trying to figure out why.

Sidney Poitier wrote The Measure of a Man for his granddaughter so that he could be a presence in her life even after he was gone and she was grown. Abigail Carter wrote The Alchemy of Loss for other grieving spouses who had also lost husbands or wives in the Twin Towers during 9/11. Her peer group, support group, was her audience. At 105, Samuel Smith told his story in To Shoot Hard Labour for the new generation so they would remember what early life was like in Antigua. Marina Nemat’s audience for Prisoner of Tehran, was all who would listen. To warn us. I heard her say here in Port Hope that we all need to be on guard, that what happened in Iran could happen in Canada if we are not vigilant.

When I wrote my first book, The Perfect Galley Book, I was talking to other sailors, and anyone interested in the sailing life. It was a continuation of the sharing lifestyle my partner and I led while living aboard the 46′ sailboat we built; it covered a ten-year period of my life. Sailors get together when at anchor to share knowledge and knots, rum and recipes, the lore and lure of the sea, and the writing of my book was more of that. It was pure nautical pleasure to put that book together.

Of course my new book, The Gift of Memoir, has a specific audience: people who want to write the stories of their life. I imagined I was talking to the women and men who have come to my classes. They, and other like-minded people, were my audience.

I’m curious! Who do you want to read your stories? A son or daughter? Descendants as yet unborn? A specific group of people? All of us? An imaginary empathetic friend? I’d like to hear.

Do someone a favour. Leave a bouquet of your stories.

A Bouquet of Stories

A Bouquet of Stories

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I Was Named After Renate

(In the story below, Renata Hill is responding to one of my earlier blogs entitled Does Your Name Tell a Story? Hers does. Thank you, Renata, for sharing this story of remembrance here.)

I was named for a childhood friend of my mother’s—a lost friend.

In the early 1930’s, when my mother was no more than eleven years old, she participated in a student exchange program. Her alma mater, Palmer’s College in England, was a progressive girls’ school which evidently had no qualms about sending their students to various places in Europe for months on end! To be fair though, my grandparents didn’t mind either and my mother, Joan, was absolutely thrilled.

Joan was sent to a family in Berlin to learn the language and culture of Germany. The Benjamins were a warm family who treated her like a daughter. Mr. Benjamin was a kind, gentle man, the manager of a bank in Berlin. His wife was kind too but stricter. She made sure that Joan spoke only in German—hard at first but it turned my mother’s basic schoolbook German into fluency by the time she left.

The Benjamins had two daughters; the younger one, Renate, was Joan’s age and they became best friends immediately.

Renate

Renate

Mrs. Benjamin didn’t restrict my mother’s learning to just the language. She and Renate showed Joan the sights of beautiful pre-war Berlin—the fantastic department stores, the parks, the famous boulevard of Unter den Linden (“under the linden trees”). Sometimes they would drop into the bank to see Mr. Benjamin and let him take them out to lunch. But often the two girls would just hop on bikes and explore the leafy suburb on the outskirts of Berlin where the Benjamins had their home. Wannsee had lakes and beaches and lovely houses hidden amongst the woods.

Renate's parents

Mr. and Mrs. Benjamin

The three months my mother spent with the Benjamins created some of the happiest memories of her childhood. She never forgot their kindness and stayed in touch with Renate for years before losing touch. For the Benjamins were Jewish; the pretty area they lived in gave its name to the infamous Wannsee Conference in 1942 when the Nazi leadership met there to plan “the final solution”. Mr. Benjamin lost his job and died in 1938. The last time Joan heard from Renate was before the war when she and her mother were trying to leave Germany for Tel Aviv. Did they make it? I hope so. The meaning of the name Renate is “reborn.” Perhaps the Renate I am named for found a new life in her new country.

Post Script
After sending me the above story, Renata did some research on the internet and found the following:

The Reichsvereinigung der Juden in Deutschland was established on 4 July 1939 under the 10th decree of the Nazi’s Reich citizenship law. The organization came under the authority of the Reich Security Main Office, in particular the Gestapo. Its purpose was to identify, and to prepare for emigration, all of Germany’s Jewish population.

She found Mrs. Benjamin’s name on that list and Renate’s and her sister’s. Mr. Benjamin had died by then. Chilling and sad.

~~~~~

Does your name tell a story? I’d love to hear about it, and publish it here.

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Little Big Man

(April 30 is the day the Canadian government has chosen to commemorate the acceptance of 60,000 Boat People into Canada in the early eighties when North Vietnam took control of that country under communist rule. This short story is a piece of historical fiction by David Hughes http://straightspeak.com  Memoir, the focus of my blog, is generally true stories; however, sometimes the truth can be more compellingly revealed through the weaving of truth and fiction. All the memoir details about Mr. Ngo are factual.)

Vietnamese Boat People

Vietnamese Boat People

I’ve seen him before. Not often, but before. Diminutive. He’s maybe a hundred-and-twenty pounds and just a head higher than the counter. And today he seemed even smaller, standing in line between two strapping, thirty-something, white guys—truck drivers probably—looking as if he might be crushed if the line moved too fast. And everybody was in a rush for a coffee hit. It wasn’t eight o’clock yet, and no coffee meant an edgy line of single-minded addicts grumbling their way to a caffeine rush with a sugar chaser. Me too. I love my toasted cinnamon bun with its icing swirl that transforms into white drool and sticks to my fingers like flypaper. It sits right next to my medium, not-too-large, not-too-small, double-double. Just the three of us hanging out at our usual observation station watching the locals gather like cattle, chewing on their morning ritual. A process that goes on for hours, sucking the coffee, tea, sugar and flour out of the Doughnut King’s kitchen in trade for a few dollars of hard-earned pay or unemployment benefits. Young, old, big, small, odd, ordinary—mostly odd—trudging across the morning stage in a performance that is re-enacted every day in thousands of doughnut dispensaries across the country. It’s big business. What addiction isn’t? I come at least three times a week to slurp and watch. Never on Sundays.

He comes by bicycle. One of those foreign ones. Black. Simple. Dilapidated. It’s a girl’s bike, no crossbar. I guess he’s too small to get up over the crossbar on those man-mountain bikes. He leaves it on the far side of the parking lot. Up against a tree. Doesn’t lock it. Who does that today? Only a trusting fool. I tell myself to keep an eye on his bike.

There are more than a dozen people in line, but he appears to be the only one who is not restless or impatient. He stands quietly, pensively, while all around him shift, shuffle, twitch and tweet. If they aren’t mesmerized by their phones, they’re gawking at the floor, ceiling, lineup, doughnuts. Or the wait-staff—with a stare that says, Com’on move yer butt? Occasionally they look at me, looking at them. I’m relaxed. I don’t blink. It’s my morning entertainment. The younger women drop their eyes immediately. Most of the middle-aged women are empty-eyed, not there—gazing in my direction but lost somewhere in the noise of life. The old guys squint and scowl but don’t see me. The middle-aged guys blink, then their eyes shade into that primate question: Hey buddy, ya’ gotta problem? And the young guys glance at me like they’re still battling someone in a video game. But not the little man. He’s looking nowhere in particular but seeing everything. Eyes calm. Full. Alive.

Observing the world over coffee and a cinnamon bun is not new for me and the tableaux before me is the common herd of humanity at a convenient feed-trough. But today, more than before, the little man seems to exude a purity and grace, like a unicorn amid the morass. It’s a modern Noah’s ark, the animals coming two by two and one by one for a modicum of salvation—if caffeine and sugar can do that—and in their midst is this pondering presence, a deep harmony.

I sip my coffee without taking my eyes off the little man. I ignore my cinnamon bun. As he silently moves forward in the gangly line, I try to know him. He’s Asian. Maybe Chinese. I’ve never been good at analyzing anything foreign: food, language, clothes, people. Well, I’m okay with the people, I just don’t know much about them. Me, I am Canadian, through and through. And damn proud of it, although I’ve never been sure why I’m proud. Because it’s a big country? Nice people? Lots of lakes? The RCMP? The beaver? The true north strong and free – whatever that means? Or because I worked here all my life at the Royal Bank? Or for no good reason other than I was born here? I wonder if he has reason to be proud of his homeland? Where’s he from? How old is he? Married? Children? Where’d he get that bike? Where does he ride from? Why does he look so content? … Oh shit! He’s walking toward me. A large coffee and two doughnuts on a tray. This time I blink. He smiles. And sits down at the table next to me. It’s as if I am alone with him. The incessant hum of the feeding fuss fades and all I hear is the coffee bubbling between my lips as I try to be inconspicuous. He smiles again. A knowing smile. I say, just above a whisper, “Morning.” He is so unassuming. Tranquil. Pleasant. In my head I see a picture of the Dalai Lama. Could it be him? In disguise? There is that peculiar looking mosque or temple over on the other side of town. He could be visiting from wherever it is he comes from? India? The Himalayas? He nods ever so slightly. “Morning.”

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Editing an Arctic Memoir

You know how attics can contain hidden treasure? When Marnie Hare Bickle moved into her new house north of Port Hope, Ontario, she rummaged around in the attic and found a cardboard box filled with papers. Heart racing, she discovered rough copies of memoirs written by the former owner, David Ford. Actually, there were several versions of them, and a box of all his letters from WW ll. She sorted and read all the letters first, then plunged into the mystery of the memoirs.

David Ford was born in 1910 in the East Arctic to a family of several generations of Hudson Bay Company traders and managers. His father was highly respected and spoke the language of the Eskimos (Inuit) and Indians (Innu) he served. David grew up with the native children where they lived, hunted seal and caribou with them, learned the ways of wolves and polar bears and travelled by dog sled and kayak.
At 13, his parents sent him to Newfoundland for high school. When WW 11 broke out, Ford enlisted. Through a war program, he became pen pals with Ruth Hawkins and after the war he travelled to Port Hope to meet and marry her.

He never forgot the Inuit people of his youth. He may have written his memoirs to keep them close to him, and dispel homesickness. He may have written them to preserve on paper a way of life now gone, so that others would know the beauty and hardships of it.

Marnie edited the multiple versions of the story into one cohesive whole over the course of four years of monthly writers meetings. Every few pages took hours of editing. Every month I would listen to more of her story, which was his story, and be caught up in the drama of the lives of the Arctic’s first peoples. She would hear another chapter of my book, which was about writing memoir. We sipped lemon ginger tea, and inched forward into our literary endeavours. Four amazing years slid by. My book, The Gift of Memoir, was published. Marnie’s is about to be.

The following excerpt takes place when David has finished high school, and has returned to his father’s latest post at Southampton Island. (Marnie and I had a long discussion about how to translate Wakadlanga.)

I was the first white man they had ever seen. The small girl asked (in Eskimo), “Are you a white man?”
I answered, “Yes, but a poor one. I was born and raised in your native land but I wish to be an Inuk man while I am your guest.”
Smiling, she came up to me like a queen and put her plump little hand in mine and said, “There you are.” I shook her hand vigorously and asked her who she was.
“I am Caribou Hair,” she answered in a clear friendly voice. Turning to the rest of her companions she said, “Those you see here are my friends, Inuit.”
There was that word, Inuit. The People. The best name in the world. I knew I was home.
She reached out her short arm and pulled a small fellow from the crowd and said, “This one is called Little Worm.”
Wakadlanga! No kidding!” I exclaimed, delighting in speaking this magic Eskimo word used so much in this part of the Arctic.
“Pleased to meet you, Little Worm,” I said in English.
That was too funny, and they giggled and squirmed and said, “Oh, he speaks English, too!”
Caribou Hair (who was eight, I would find out later) continued talking to me. “Little Worm is my future husband.”
“That is when he grows up to be a Big Worm,” I said.
I had not heard so much children’s laughter in a long time.
Caribou Hair protested. “I do not wish to marry Little Worm. I want to marry a man who can carry a boat from one place to another on a dog sled.”
I turned to Little Worm. “Are you going to have a boat when you grow up?”
“Oh yes. I am going to own several boats that will only be used on the water,” intimating that this business of having to haul a boat overland was plain stupidity. I wondered to myself if he might be right.

Marnie, thank you for taking me time travelling to the Aboriginal Arctic! And thank you for the self portrait below of David Ford. For those who would like to read more authentic stories of the East Arctic, read Kenojuak by Jean Blodgett, published by Penumbra Press. Some of the same people appear in both Kenojuak and David Ford’s stories.

David Ford

David Ford

If any of you have rough copies of old letters or memoirs to sort through and edit, I’d love to hear about them.

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A.Word.A.Day

Let me turn you on to AWAD. That’s short for A.Word.A.Day, put out by Anu Garg. If you are a writer, or a reader, or a person planning to write or read, this daily delving is for you. And it’s free. http://wordsmith.org

Today’s word was expectorate. Ten people from around the world responded. Many times, the word of the day brings nothing to mind and so I don’t write in with what I think is a brilliant response. But today’s word slid me back to my childhood. Not a word commonly used, you would have to admit.

I wanted to give my association with the word, which was one of history, one of memory. I wrote:

“This word reminds me of my father, from whom I inherited my love of words. Why use a simple one-syllable word (spit) when a four-syllable one could roll off the tongue? As a kid with a phlegmy cough, I would be expected to “expectorate” to get stuff out of the bronchial tubes. The word was used with a certain glee, lending grace and dignity to an otherwise plain old bad cold.”

Two others liked what I wrote, one of them an art therapist from Tel Aviv. Yes, I’ve shared my father, my witty words, and my memory of childhood ailments with a perfect stranger from Israel. It’s strange how strangers, half a world away, can suddenly become part of your expanded family.

Each week, A.Word.A.Day has a theme. A few months back, the theme was bringing back insults, with the corroborating idea of putting away guns. Pull out some fearsome vocabulary instead of a gun. This would reduce violence and increase your facility with language. As Anu Garg said, “I dream of a world where people would carry a dictionary—you never know when you might need it—to find the choice word, just the right word, for someone who has offended you. The bigger, the saltier, the better.”

AnuGarg5[1]

He gave us these five, one a day, over the course of the week: ultracrepidarian, mythomane, libertine, homunculus and vacuous. Each was defined, with etymology and pronunciation. An ultracrepidarian is a person who gives opinions beyond his/her area of expertise. I thought the best insult to hurl at someone who offended me, or pulled a gun on me would be: “Why you vacuous little ultracrepidarian!” But who? Who? And would he/she immediately drop the gun? Or, pull out a bigger dictionary? The possible scenarios are staggering to contemplate.

In a more serious vein, there is a little problem with this delightful line of thinking. Words can actually damage, wound, cut, crush, even destroy. The right word can caress, cure, even conquer. No wonder  writers are fond of saying “the pen is mightier than the sword.” But is it? Why are some books banned? More on that in another post.

Mr. Garg, you can dream. It’s a good dream, and I’m glad to have been a part of it. For those who fanaticize about words, check out A.Word.A.Day at http://wordsmith.org  Oh yes! Words can fill up your senses like a bowl full of blossoms.

peonies

peonies

 

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Wild: A Memoir by Cheryl Strayed

I was pleased and honoured when I heard that my local Hospice group, where I am a volunteer, included my book review of Wild, from Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail  in the course they give to new volunteers.

I haven’t yet read a memoir where love and loss are not crucial to the story. There are many kinds of love. Love of freedom (read: Something Fierce by Carmen Aguirre), love for a gorilla (read: Virunga by Farley Mowat, love for one’s fellow man (read: I Shall Not Hate by Izzeldin Abuelaish), love for a daughter (read: Blue Nights by Joan Didion). The list is long. We all seek love! Is hate the opposite of love? Or, is it loss? Often, it is fear.

Reading a memoir enables us to understand that there are many varied and valid reactions to a universal event. We become more empathetic, tolerant, wise. I became well acquainted with sadness and rupture when my mother died. Tears poured for a month. Then, she seemed more distant – perhaps off on an astral mission. The tears stopped, and I realized I was at peace. Reading Cheryl Strayed’s exquisite story of losing her mother opened my eyes and heart to another’s loss of another mother. So very different. Yet, we’d both lost the same mother figure, same first role model, the woman who had wombed us, shed her blood for us.

~~~~

The memoir Wild, from Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail is an account of 22-year-old Cheryl Strayed losing her 49-year-old mother to cancer. Shattered and enraged, she cannot imagine living without her mother. She sinks into a four-year wilderness of wanting her mother back, of terrifying dreams and heroin, of leaving the husband she loved.

Then, the still-overpowering sadness propels her to leave her home in Minnesota where her mother was buried. She sits by the grave and tells her mother that she had put her somewhere else—within her. And with that, she takes off to hike the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in California and Oregon, over a thousand miles of it, northward to the Canadian border, alone. She’d never hiked before.

This story is not for the faint-hearted. It’s raw and explosive with brutal—and sweet—encounters with bears, snakes, occasional other hikers and the reality of the terrain itself. Lost and terrified more than once, the experience parallels Strayed’s loss and terror over losing her mother.

Before she starts the PCT, tears are her almost constant companion. After a few weeks on the trail, she notes that she’d not shed a single tear and reflects that she is simply too exhausted and in too much physical pain to have room left over for tears. There is the pain from boots that didn’t fit (she would lose 6 toenails) and pain from the monster backpack that rubbed her flesh raw in several places.

Her mother was the backdrop to everything. Towards the end of the trail, she squatted down by the Sandy River and splashed water on her face. Of that moment, she lets us see this introspection:

“Where was my mother? I wondered. I’d carried her so long, staggering beneath her weight. On the other side of the river, I let myself think. And something inside of me released.
Normal as life on the trail came to be, and unbelievably over, “there was no way to go back, to make it stay.” She reached the Columbia River in a state of pure joy, “as if a newborn baby had just slipped finally into my palms after a long labour.”

stelprdb5323883[1]

~~~~

This memoir could be a comfort and a guide to anyone who has lost, or who may soon lose, a love. If you are writing about love, loss and fear in your memoir, Strayed’s account may open doors of possibility for you.

Wild has many insights into a young woman’s long labour through grief into new life on the other side. It offers a resolution to grief that is not often sought or thought of: a tough physical challenge in the natural world. While hiking, Strayed’s two pains—the emotional pain of losing her mother, and the physical pain of the challenges of the trail—were intermingled. Working through the physical helped her work through the emotional. Indeed, it would not be too far a stretch to say that she had to come close to death herself to transcend her mother’s death.

Your own memoir will, no doubt,  have valuable insights into the turmoil of loss. The world needs to hear them. I need to hear them. From the stony patient path of grief, beauty will one day arise.

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