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Book Review of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild

On the Saturday after Thanksgiving, I was wandering through a small bookshop in Fargo, North Dakota when I found a copy of Wild and bought it on impulse. I should have been focused on Christmas shopping for friends and family rather than myself, but we had a long drive back to Chicago the next day with my inlaws and I knew I needed something to read on the ride home. Friends had recommended Strayed’s memoir to me on several different occasions, and I’d also had friends say they were disappointed by it, so I decided to satisfy my curiosity.

For those of you that haven’t heard of it, Wild is the story of Cheryl Strayed’s solo hike across the Pacific Crest Trail. In the wake of her mother’s death from lung cancer, Strayed’s relationships to her siblings and stepdad disintegrated and she destroyed her marriage with a series of infidelities. So in the summer of 1995, at the age of 26 and newly divorced, Strayed packed up her life and hiked 1,100 miles – completely alone – from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State in order to “save herself.”

Few books have made me cry harder than this one. Strayed’s writing is sharp and raw and honest in a way that made me feel as though I was hiking 1,100 miles right through her emotions. Considering that I lost my own mother to cancer two short years ago at nearly the same age and stage of my life, it wasn’t hard for me to empathize. Our lives and beliefs are very different from one another, but our bonds to our mothers and their subsequent deaths are agonizingly similar.

“She was my mother, but I was motherless. I was trapped by her but utterly alone. She would always be the empty bowl that no one could fill. I’d have to fill it myself again and again and again.”

While I know myself better than to think I could hike a thousand miles through desert and wilderness all alone, even so, grief feels exactly that way: you are walking through a solitary, unyielding landscape while the rest of the world hums on around you in the distance.

I have often longed for a literal wilderness to run to in my own journey through grief. Living “life as usual” after this kind of loss is in some ways harder than doing what Strayed did. The normalcy of everyday life doesn’t reflect the wildness and turmoil taking place in your inner life. Thus, the urge to self-destruct is more powerful than one imagines before such profound loss. This urge is not so much a desire to destroy every good thing you have left so much as it is a force at work inside you, a chasm within yourself, a black hole where the bright star of your loved one once existed, around which you once orbited, steady and safe. You think yourself a reasonable, grounded, healthy person with a support system of loved ones who will never let you waiver over the edges of your life … until that person who loved you and knew you better than anyone else is gone. Then the vast emptiness left in their place threatens to swallow your life whole, no matter how hard you try. It is disorienting and therefore very hard to recover any sense of stability you may have had in that “before” version of yourself. Were it not for my family and my faith, I may have made similar choices to Strayed.

Strayed draws on the wildness of nature to help us better understand this wildness of grief. In the lifestyle that most of us live in (sub)urban sprawl, it’s easy to ignore life’s transience, but in the wilderness, we’re forced into awareness of nature’s rhythms, to confront our smallness and mortality. Strayed captures this parallel journey between hiking the PCT and her emotional pilgrimage through grief with great power and precision. There are several parts of the book that made me teary and one part that was absolutely annihilating. I won’t allude to which passage because I think part of what made it so powerful was the element of surprise – one moment she’s hiking down the trail and the next, I am bent over the book sobbing uncontrollably, much to the bewilderment of my husband. It’s intense.

All of that being said, a few people warned me that Strayed’s book would disappoint me, and I have to admit that they were partly right. The end of her journey felt anticlimactic. I found myself wishing that she would have lingered longer over the moment when she reached her chosen destination, creating a stronger emotional shift as she ended her hike. After four months and 1,100 miles, I wanted there to be a vivid and tangible sense of resolution to counteract the emotional turmoil we find her in at the beginning.

But it’s this sense of disappointment that I think is important, and maybe even intentional on Strayed’s part. It speaks to the frustration of grief and how it never really and finally resolves itself. And I think that’s where I understand and respect her ending.

When you’ve suffered such a profound loss, you want to conquer grief once and for all and come away from it a totally transformed person, having straightened out your bent towards self-destruction, entirely at peace with yourself. You long for accomplishment. A clear beginning and end. But the reality is that you may come to a point in your grief when you feel like the worst is behind you, but instead of feeling fiercely victorious, you feel a sense of gratitude mixed with confusion. You wonder why you’re not crying with relief like you expected to. But it’s because you know that while you’ve reached this point, there will also be more moments ahead of you when you’ll feel the old familiar ache again.

You will realize anew that no matter where you are in life, you are always making the same choice.

“I looked north, in its direction – the very thought of that bridge a beacon to me. I looked south, to where I’d been, to the wild land that had schooled and scorched me, and considered my options. There was only one, I knew. There was always only one. To keep walking.”

Ultimately, I think Strayed remained to true to herself, to her journey, and to the universal experience of grief. As a writer in the midst of telling my own grief story, I’m challenged by that. I don’t necessarily want my readers to feel like I’ve wasted their time by the end of my book, but I also don’t want to leave them with the false impression that it all comes to a tidy, triumphant end. That’s just not the nature of grief. It is wild and untamed. Let it be.

Have you read Cheryl Strayed’s Wild? What did you think of it? Did it resonate with your experiences of grief ? Why or why not? What are the best memoirs you have read on grief? 

Book Review : Bread & Wine

This spring marks so many things: eight years since I graduated high school and left home in Charlotte, Michigan for college in Chicago, Illinois. Four years since I graduated college and started a blog and got married. Three years since hubs and I moved into our own place and I became a fully employed writer. One year since I lost mom. And this year will probably be forever remembered as the birthplace of my book.

I was thinking about all of this on Saturday night, standing over my kitchen counter and chopping vegetables for dinner with my husband and best friend. There are few things that make me feel more grounded and capable and fulfilled than when I am preparing a meal for my loved ones, and that was when it hit me :

Somewhere in these eight years I became an adult.

And a wave of gratitude came with it. I am so deeply thankful for the community that helped me grow into myself, for the friends that have made themselves at home with me and poured into me all these years, and for the voices of other writers that have led me here.

Shauna Niequist’s voice was certainly among them. I was a sophomore in college when I was first introduced to her writing. She had just published “Cold Tangerines” and she came to speak for spiritual enrichment week at my school, and she also spoke to my nonfiction prose class. Since that first introduction when I devoured “Cold Tangerines” and soaked up her writing and faith insights, I’ve gravitated toward Shauna’s voice as a source of hope and nurturing. Her books have sat on my nightstand for months on end, in my own homage to patron sainthood and spiritual mothering.

It was her chapter “Hide and Seek” in Cold Tangerines that articulated the peculiar anxiety and joy of writing, and helped me cope with it. It was her chapter “Twenty-Five” in Bittersweet that taught me about the importance of self-care and authenticity in my early twenties. I vividly remember sitting on my dear friend Becky’s couch one afternoon, reading “Twenty-Five” aloud to her and Mackenzie, and how our discussion of that chapter lingered late into the evening over dinner and tea and dessert.

And now that I am 25, Shauna’s voice again nurtures my own, this time in her new book Bread & Wine. It’s a book about food and community, filled with delectable recipes* and beautiful stories.

But Bread & Wine is also a book about hunger, physical and otherwise, and learning to nourish one another. Her chapter “Hungry” is already the one that I flip back to and reread as a reminder to myself that it is beautiful to be hungry, not the shameful, joyless thing that society has made it.

“I wake up in the morning and I think about dinner. I think about the food and the people and the things we might discover about life and about each other. I think about the sizzle of oil in a pan and the smell of rosemary released with a knife cut. And it could be that that’s how God made me the moment I was born, and it could be that that’s how God made me along the way as I’ve given up years of secrecy and denial and embarrassment. It doesn’t matter at this point. What matters is that one of the ways we grow up is by declaring what we love.” (B&W, pg. 37)

We have an innate hunger, for physical nourishment and spiritual nourishment, for communion. And it is when we embrace and admit our hunger that we find the fulfillment and community we long for.

So, at 25, I am hungry.

I am hungry for good food and good company the way that I am hungry for the right words to express life. I am the kind of person that wakes up thinking about what I’ll eat for dinner, and who I’ll eat it with, and what words I will use to write about it later. I am hungry. And that is a sacred, beautiful thing.

Thank you, Shauna, for giving us the words to articulate our hunger and learn to feed each other well. 

*I made the Mar-a-Lago turkey burgers, sweet potato fries with sriracha dipping sauce, Green Well’s Michigan Harvest salad, and the simplest dark chocolate mousse, every last morsel of which was divine. I’ve also made her bacon-wrapped dates for several parties, and they are usually devoured within the first five minutes. 

On My Bookshelf.

My library is bursting at the seams with new reads. It started with Story Conference. They gave us one free book after another from all the presenters who have been published recently – Makoto Fujimura’s refractions, Rachel Held Evans’ A Year of Biblical Womanhood, and Inciting Incidents, curated by Sarah Cunningham. I’ve been reading chapters of each of those here and there. Then Lore decided to send me two of her favorites – Lauren Winner’s Mudhouse Sabbath and Tony Woodlief’s Somewhere More Holy. And then, when I was supposed to be picking up mushrooms and wine for risotto the other night and I wandered into another part of the store, thinking about how to spend my birthday money, J.K. Rowling’s new book, The Casual Vacancy, leapt out at me, and I knew I had to take it home. So now I have nearly a dozen new books to read. My only problem is that I want to read them all at once, and don’t know where to start. It’s a good problem to have, I think.

What’s on your shelf right now? Have you read any of these yet?


Words and Strings

Because I couldn’t help but fall in love with this passage, I thought I’d share it with you:

“So many words get lost. They leave the mouth and lose their courage, wandering aimlessly until they are swept into the gutter like dead leaves. On rainy days, you can hear their chorus rushing past:


There was a time when it wasn’t uncommon to use a piece of string to guide words that otherwise might falter on the way to their destinations. Shy people carried a little bunch of string in their pockets, but people considered loudmouths had no less need for it, since those used to being overheard by everyone were often at a loss for how to make themselves heard by someone. The physical distance between two people using a string was often small; sometimes the smaller the distance, the greater the need for the string. 

The practice of attaching cups to the ends of string came much later. Some say it is related to the irrepressible urge to press shells to our ears, to hear the still-surviving echo of the world’s first expression. Others say it was started by a man who held the end of a string that was unraveled across the ocean by a girl who left for America. 

When the world grew bigger, and there wasn’t enough string to keep the things people wanted to say from disappearing into the vastness, the telephone was invented. 

Sometimes no length of string is long enough to say the thing that needs to be said. In such cases all the string can do, in whatever its form, is conduct a person’s silence.”

- Nicole Krauss, A History of Love


My To-Read List

So I’m sitting at my local Starbucks on a Saturday morning for the first time in awhile. The scent of my grande Bold Pick wafts over from the table next to me, and people chatter to one another over their coffee. A really cute older couple are meeting on a first date at the table next to me. He is wearing a flat cap and a sweater vest. She looks like a brunette Martha Stewart. It’s sweet to hear them talk about their grandchildren and the apartment complexes they live in and insurance premiums and their favorite places in the city.
This morning I was tempted to simply post the draft I had written earlier this week, the one that I would have posted for you on Wednesday had Blogger actually been working. Yet, it seems that the unexpected extra time was the best remedy for the inexplicable hesitancy I had in posting it before, because after reading the draft again and skimming through old posts, I realized – I’ve said this before. This happens to me often. More often than I’d like to admit.
So instead I’m going to touch on a subject I haven’t mentioned in awhile: what I’m reading. Last weekend I went to see the newest film adaptation of Jane Eyre starring Mia Waskowska and Michael Fassbender and Judy Dench (love her!). I loved it.
I have never read the book, which I feel slightly ashamed to admit as an English major.  My best friend owns the book and let me borrow it after we saw the film and I am now about one fourth of the way through it and enjoying every page. Literature of that era is often hard to adjust to because of the vocabulary, but Charlotte Bronte wrote from Jane’s perspective with distinct frankness, making it an easy read. My best friend claims that I’ll fall in love with Mr. Rochester even more than Jane Austen’s Mr. Darcy, but that remains to be seen. 
My goal this year has been to read at least one book per month, but I haven’t been disciplined thus far. I think I can have Jane Eyre read by the end of May if I read at least two chapters per day. With my nine-to-fiver and freelance work, plus writing this blog and all the other responsibilities I am tied to, reading for pleasure all too often takes a back seat. Yet, when I am reading a book I enjoy, I feel much more edified and inspired than when I’m not.
So here is my to-read list for the next few months; hopefully I can stick to my goal and get through all of them:
Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
One Day by David Nicholls
O Me of Little Faith by Jason Boyett
Quitter by Jon Acuff
Blood, Bones, & Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton
The Help by Kathryn Stockett
Animal Vegetable Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver
Love in the Time of Cholera by Bagriel Garcia Marquez
Love Wins – Rob Bell
Surprised by Hope – N.T. Wright
Writing Down the Bones – Natalie Goldberg
Bossypants by Tina Fey
As you can see, my list is a mixed bag of fiction, theology, “self help,” foodie reads and writing advice. I’d love to know your reading list. Are any of these on your list or have you read them already?
Have a good weekend, friends.

Top 10: Books that Changed (or Made) My Life

When did I first decide that I wanted to write? It’s funny… I don’t remember. I wouldn’t say that I have always wanted to write, but I can say that I’ve always loved to read.
This week, one of the assignments that my writing partner and I gave each other was to choose a book that made us want to write… and of course, I could not think of just one. Which led me to wonder, is it fair to try and only choose one, or would it be more honest to say that it was all books, or maybe the act of reading itself that gave me the urge to write? For reasons I don’t entirely understand, I’m hesitant to try and answer that question. At times, a single phrase in a book overwhelms me with inspiration. Other times, I find a deep sense of gratification in the story as a whole. And then there are the moments when the sheer act of turning a page, of smelling an old book, of holding it with both hands, is a deeply spiritual, emotional experience.
As we discussed our picks, I was struck anew with the realization of how deeply influential good writing is and how transformative it is when people learn to read. As a young girl, my days were filled with great stories, pages, and words. When my frizzy-haired, stick-figured self had no one to relate to, I always found deep comfort in the weight of a book in my hands, and a deeply awkward main character, not unlike myself, that could be found within it’s pages.
And at every stage of my life, it seems, I’ve found book after book that meets me where I am emotionally, mentally, spiritually, and it takes me somewhere new. Even better, I love to find out that the people who wrote them were also once awkward, inquisitive, imaginative young people that found books and authors that inspired them, too.
The Official List:
1. I Think that It is Wonderful - I read this over and over when I was little! The start of my love for poetry.
2. Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself, Judy Blume – between the ages of 8 and 13, I read this about 400 times! It was the first book that I remember mentioning World War II, Hitler, and anything about being a Jew. Note to teachers and parents: I recall this book much easier than any elementary school history lesson…
3. The Phantom Tollbooth, Norton Juster – the first book where my teacher told us to think about writing themes and messages, rather than merely text.
4. A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engle – between the ages of 10 and 14, I read this about 800 times! The characters were so unique, but utterly relatable.
5. Harry Potter (1-7), J.K. Rowling – controversial those these books were in my household, they had a huge impact on my life and my desire to write. My own peers, kids who at one point felt indifferent to reading where consuming these books like after-school snacks – all 700+ pages of each one! And suddenly, the underdogs, the awkward, geeky kids had a hero who fit their mold. And suddenly, it was cool for teenagers to talk about the things that are important in life, like love, friendship, good versus evil, and ask ourselves, could we be as brave as Harry, Ron, or Hermione?
6. A Great and Terrible BeautyLibba Bray – initially, it was the sheer gorgeousness of the cover that made me pick this one up. But the style of writing, the character of Gemma Doyle, and the recurring theme of coming of age as a young woman had me hooked from the first page. (Sadly, the sequels don’t quite live up.)
7. Frankenstein, Mary Shelley – by the time I finished college, I had read this book for a class no less than 5 times. A little daunting after the third time, but I still love it. The first time I was assigned to read it was in my high school British Literature class, and after reading it we had to write a 10-12 page research paper. To this day, that paper is one of my proudest accomplishments [135 points out of a possible 135 points from one of the most demanding teachers at our school!) and I am still utterly fascinated by the layers and layers of meaning to be found between it’s pages, not to mention the inspiring author herself who dominated her own husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron – at the age of 18, no less!
8. The Reader, Bernard Schlink – It’s simple: this book changed my life. I was working at my hometown library as a page, and one day I came across this book. The cover looked interesting, but I was drawn to the simple, mysterious title more than anything. It was the Oprah’s Book Club seal on the cover that kept me from actually checking out for 6 months… When I finally did pick it up, I found a story so rich with compassion and raw, utterly human history that I could not believe that I had not even heard of it before. It’s been made into a great film, but I highly suggest you read the book first. If I had to choose, this would be the book that made me want to be a writer.

9. The Time Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger – If I were stranded on an island and could only bring with me one book, this would be it. The characters, the plot, the writing – all work together to create this magnificent and completely original love story. It’s like listening to your favorite album on repeat – it just never gets old, and you feel like the characters are real, like they live in your head, and that each word was written for you. DO NOT under any circumstances see the film before you read the book, or I swear you may never pick it up. Even if you read it first, I’d say the movie is a rental at best. Some may disagree, but in my opinion, that cinematic “interpretation” is like getting McDonald’s when you ordered filet mignon.

10. Atonement, Ian McEwan – Of all the books I could have chosen to take with me when I traveled in Europe, I impulse-purchased this one in the airport just before we left American soil. Talk about context. Once again, the writing itself is reason enough to love it, but the characters and the story are so vivid and heartbreaking that it was glued to my hands for the first two weeks, save for that whole seeing the world part of my trip… Again, this book has a film adaptation, and I am happy to say that it is every bit as good as the book itself, although I always recommend reading it first.

Tell me, what are your favorite books?