Go Out and Read This: WILD

It has been a looong few days, Chronic readers. My sweet, sweet Suki had to have surgery yesterday to correct a chronic eye-ulcer problem (ew!) and while she did just fine and is on the mend, the stress of it all (we have to watch her closely to make sure she isn’t jumping/getting too excited-plus she’s crafty when it comes to figuring out how to detach the plastic cone from her head) has been pretty intense! Add to that a sudden drop in temperature (um, hello 45*F, we weren’t expecting you until after Thanksgiving) and some weird swelling in my knees (I’m a real runner now-I’ve got an injury!) and my body is just in kind of freak-out mode. I was not surprised to wake up “a weird shade of pale” (thanks, Mom) with a fever this morning. Just as well, Suki needed a couch buddy today anyway.

I’ve been trying to make more time to read. I recently checked out a pile of books a mile high from my friendly local library, and one of those tomes happened to be Wild, by Cheryl Strayed.

Every once and a while, I read a book and, for reasons unexpected, it means so much to me. Wild is one of those books.

The subtitle, “From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail,” is very telling. Cheryl Strayed really was lost- her life as she knew it was falling apart around her- and somehow, hiking the Pacific Crest Trail by herself for 100 days allowed her to find herself once again.

I have Chronic-girl fantasies (read: delusions of grandeur) wherein I too take a Thoreau-esque walk in the woods to find myself. I would love it if someday this could become a reality. I would love to feel the feeling of being a part of the world in that sort of intense way that only seems to come from being in nature.

So many things about Cheryl’s journey reminded me of Chronic Illness. I feel like I’m getting really good at making nearly anything a metaphor for Chronic Illness, but really- a long journey where you must keep moving forward while strapped to a heavy load which you must carry that long way? Yeah, I think I’m going to connect the dots here.

Cheryl starts out with a certain level of confidence. She has been to REI, that wonderful and perhaps false-bravado perpetuating store, where she has loaded up on all the “tools” she will need to bring with her. She has dehydrated food, a water purifier, a Swiss Army knife, and those all-important hiking-specific boots. Numerous chats with zealous employees plus her own background of living simply on an open stretch of land in Minnesota as a child lead Cheryl to believe that she knows what she’s in for. Yet, when she finally makes it to the trail, she realizes she couldn’t possibly know what it would be like till she got there.

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It’s the same way with Chronic Illness. When you are sitting in your doctor’s office, and they hand you a diagnosis, you walk away from that thinking you know what you’re in for. You have the basic information. You buy the meds and the <stuff> that the Internet tells you will make your life easier, and you think, “Yeah, I can handle this.” Once you get out there, though, living your life in Chronic-dom, you realize that while it’s nice to have information and supplies, you could not have prepared for what the actual day-to-day would be like; you just have to live it.

My favorite chapter is called “A Bull in Both Directions.” While out on the trail, Cheryl is confronted by a Texas longhorn bull, which seemingly appears out of nowhere. She blows her REI-purchased “loudest whistle on Earth” to scare it away, but is startled to find that, having closed her eyes for just one moment, she has no idea if the bull ran away from her in the direction from where she came or in the direction in which she was going. Cheryl has two choices: she can turn around and go back or she can keep moving forward.

You don’t have to have a chronic illness to realize that this is a profound moment. We all know where we came from; the nice thing about the past is that we already know what happened. That gives it a sense of safety, doesn’t it? It’s really easy to dwell on past things because we know how they turned out and hindsight allows us to see the way that it could have/should have/would have been. The present is tricky, because while it’s important to “Stay In the Moment” as numerous new-age gurus tell us, it’s just as easy to get stuck there too- neither moving forward or back for fear of making the wrong move.

The future then, the part where you continue on even though there might be a bull up ahead, requires courage to step into. Cheryl takes a short moment to acknowledge this for herself before she continues on, and it made me wonder- do I adequately acknowledge for myself what a huge deal it is to move forward every day instead of looking backwards? Because it is a Big. Freaking. Deal.

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Cheryl’s journey, though on an actual physical trail, does not make a straight line. There are times when she needs to bypass a section due to weather conditions, parts where she goes miles away from it in search of water or a town to pick up her supply box at the post office. The first page of the paperback edition is a map with her path on it- there are starts and stops, detours and chunks missing. I feel a kinship with Cheryl in this regard. Even though she planned it, even though she did all the right things (packing an ice ax, for example), sometimes she just had to find another way around. Because sometimes in life, you just need to. Sometimes linear can’t happen. Does she get to where she’s going in the end? Absolutely. That’s what matters.

I really could talk about this book for ages, but I would be giving away all the good parts. And while taking pieces out and reflecting on them is good for a blog post, you can’t get the full effect until you read it yourself. I’m not kidding, afterwards I felt a sense of satisfaction as if I had just traveled right along with Cheryl. Books like this are important to read. It’s nice to get out of my head once and a while and take some time in someone else’s. It reminds me that while our circumstances might not be exactly the same, we all have something to learn from each other about how to deal with whatever life throws at us. In the end, we are more similar than different.

Have you read this incredible book, Chronics? What did you think? It’s being turned into a movie staring Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl- are you looking forward to it? I am!

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