“Wild” is Tame

I never had any intention of reading Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. — I didn’t want to be a me-too, living someone else’s adventure in case I ever decide to thru-hike the Pacific Crest Trail, and besides, I almost never read books that everyone is reading. To me, reading is a very personal thing, and the hoopla surrounding such books diminishes them for me.

Wild was a last-minute birthday gift from a friend who knew my feelings and so knew it was a sure bet I wouldn’t already have the book. During the last nights in my father’s empty house, I was desperate for something to do — there is just so much websurfing, blog writing, solitaire playing one can do, especially sitting on a very uncomfortable stool — and I happened to find the book I’d tucked away and neglected to pack.

Oddly, I didn’t hate the book, but I didn’t particularly like it, either. I have heard so much about it, but much of what I have heard is wrong. (People have recounted episodes that simply are not in the book, which makes me wonder if they are in the movie.) Some people hail Strayed as a hero, though she is not. Some members of the hiking community vilify her, though she is no villain.

What she is, is a good character for a story, in the same vein (and vain) as Scarlett O’Hara. She wants something desperately, if only to be other than she is. She is willing to do anything and use anyone to get it, and her own imperfections create drama and tension. If she were what the hiking community wishes she were — responsible, a great hiker, someone who prepared and trained for her mission, someone who tested her equipment ahead of time, someone who followed the rules of “leave no trace,” someone who was sane and sensible — who would read her story? No one. Or only those members of the hiking community who read.

Although some people would pay to read a book written by me if I were to undertake such an adventure, it would reach only a fraction of the readership Cheryl’s book did because any book I write would not stir up controversy. I am not foolhardy. I am not desperate. I have nothing to redeem, no self-destructive tendencies to overcome. I am prudent and would not undertake such a mission unless I were prepared, training myself to carry a heavy pack (though the filled pack wouldn’t be anywhere near as heavy as hers). I am responsible, try to do the right thing, try to follow the rules if only because they make it easier for everyone, and so I would learn the rules of the trail, such as packing out toilet paper and digging holes for body waste. (That’s one of the things the hiking community was upset about — that she didn’t dig holes to defecate in, but the ground was frozen. I’d have done the same thing she did — cover it up with rocks — and so would everyone else.)

There is a saying among hikers — “hike your own hike” — and that’s what she did. Seasoned hikers are upset with all the amateurs who will follow in her footsteps, but I don’t think there is anything to worry about. Amateurs quickly learn or quit. I doubt many people who are inspired to try long distance hiking because of her story will have the implacable desperation to do what she did.

One of the problems with the book is that it was so obviously written long after the fact that it loses it’s immediacy and jerks me out of what urgency there is. For example, she talks about the snowpack being extraordinarily heavy that year, and that it wouldn’t be as heavy for another then or twelve years. There is no way she could know that as she was hiking. Yes, I know it’s a memoir, but still, it’s jarring.

Also, more than any other relationship, her relationship with her pack drives her and drives the book. Her hike was what it was because of the weight of the pack. In fact, the pack was so important, it was almost like a character, and yet she never really described what she carried, seldom mentioned using most of the things in the pack (and those she did mention would not have added up to the 50 or 60 pounds she carried).

And then there is the whole pain thing. Wild coupled with 50 Shades of Gray, which was out about the same time, seems to indicate a new trend in the world where pain is admirable, especially pain that is avoidable. Um . . . no. Not to me.

Mostly, though, the book seemed tame and not worth another thought.


Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

I Don’t Feel Your Pain

Soul-deep grief changes a person, or at least it should. I still don’t feel much different, and yet I’m gradually finding small differences in myself. First, I discovered I am no longer impatient. Ever since my life mate/soul mate died, there is no place I want to be more than any other place, no place I need to be. Next, I discovered I burnt my “if only”s behind me. I’d tormented myself with thoughts of what might have been if only I had done things differently, but the truth is, no matter what I would have done, he still would have died.

Recently I discovered a third difference: I am no longer a bleeding heart; nor do I attempt to be a surrogate sufferer (one who suffers so another doesn’t have to). Once upon a time, other people’s pain used to weigh heavy on me. It took the death of my life mate/soul mate to make me realize that by shouldering someone else’s pain, his in particular, I was:

a) doing him a disservice because it diminished the truth of his own experience. His pain belonged to him. In no way did my empathic pain lessen his pain. In fact, it made him feel worse, knowing how bad I felt for him.

b) not really feeling his pain. I was feeling what I imagined I might have felt in his situation, which means I was feeling my own pain, not his.

About a year before his death, he took a huge turn for the worst. We hugged every day, knowing each day might be his last, until one day I inadvertently jostled his ear (apparently the cancer had metastasized to that part of his body). An arrow of agony through him, and he pushed me away. From somewhere deep inside me, somewhere deeper than thought, came the harsh words, “He might be dying, but I am not.” (I’d only heard that voice once before, and it was a couple of minutes after I met him. Back then, the voice wailed, “But I don’t even like men with blond hair and brown eyes.”)

So, during that last year, he kept pushing me away — figuratively speaking; I didn’t touch him again until he was on morphine lest I cause him more agony — and I let him. I went about my life, untwinning myself from him as much as possible and cocooning my feelings so that I could survive his dying.

Afterward, I agonized over my dissociation from him. Once he had been everything to me. How could I have possibly have left him to his own pain?

Then I had an epiphany. (October 23, 2010 to be exact.) I realized if, during that last year, I had let myself see what he was feeling, let myself feel what his dying and his death would mean to me, I would have been in such agony I would have cried all the time. He would have hated that he was causing me so much pain, which would have made me feel even worse. I still couldn’t have done anything for him, so eventually I would have blocked out all that was happening. I would have gone on with my own life and left his dying to him. I would have become impatient with the restrictions of our life, with his weakness, with his retreat into himself. In other words, even if I could have gone back and relived that year knowing the truth of it, my behavior would have been the same. And he would still have died.

Ever since this epiphany, I’ve never bled for another person. A dear friend has been struggling with cancer. I feel helpless since there is nothing I can do except send messages of love. Part of me feels I should feel her pain, but mostly I know the truth — that it won’t help her — so I continue with my life and wait for her recovery. (She is surrounded by family so I am not abandoning her.)

Oddly, despite my non-bleeding heart, I have tapped into a deep well of compassion, especially for the bereft. I understand what they are going through, I connect to so many of them, but I don’t feel their pain as if it were my own, because it isn’t my pain. It belongs to them.