Reflecting on Wild

Strayed’s memoir Wild explores the author’s descent and rise after the death of her mother. This was the event that set a girl who was moored to her mother adrift, to discover that she needed to stand on her own. After beginning to spiral out of control with extramarital affairs and flirting with heroin, she decides to take an impulsive leap into self-discovery by hiking the Pacific Coast Trail.

Strayed’s main desire on the trail seems to be the desire to find herself, a way of being herself without the anchor of her family, whether the one she had by birth or the one she had by marriage. She’s lost, and holding on to familiar things on the sinking ship of her life, and it seems to me she needed to get away from all of it to find her own way. She’s as woefully unprepared for the PCT as she was for adulthood, and overcoming obstacles on the trail became the metaphor for her life. As she learned to survive on the trail, she began to learn to survive in her mind as well, learning to survive when things don’t go the way you imagined. She starts her first hike on the PCT without experience or proper preparation- she hadn’t broken in her too-small shoes, so discovered on the trail that her shoes would break her, claiming 8 toenails along the way. She learned to trust strangers, even when at times it seemed that she was placing herself into exceptionally precarious situations for a single woman on the PCT. But through her perseverance, desperation, and the dumb luck that all of us enjoy if we can see it, she conquers the obstacles and realizes she just has to determine which way to go in order for everything to work out. Like the saying goes, “Aim for nothing and you hit it every time.” It seems to me what strayed found on the trail was her compass- the one made (one of my college professors so eloquently put it) “where hope bumps up against despair.” That’s where all of our stories begin.

The inciting incident for me was certainly my “Fuck You” prayer. I haven’t written about it here in this class because I wrote about it in another and wanted to not recycle existing writing. (Prof-You can find a copy here if interested- just re-read and my writing has definitely improved!.) All my life I just wanted a safe place, a place that felt like I wouldn’t get kicked out. Maybe that’s my fault, I’m not sure. I’m realizing a lot about my personality type I didn’t know before, and it’s certainly helping. I am “brash and hopeful” as one songwriter put it, but I’ve always been involved in families and organizations that were very controlling, dictatorial, and structured. I’ve always been drawn to the idea of freedom- totally unfettered curiosity that helps you discover your authentic self. It’s this- authenticity- that I desire most, but most of my family and even my spiritual life was about putting up a facade. I think I’m realizing now that most people are heavily invested in their facades, and I had learned to sure up mine as well over the years… but once they begin to crack, facades always break. The difference between this being simply traumatic and lifechanging vs devastating is the tenacity to move forward.

My dad was very invested in his facade, and my mother in hers. My dad built his with false optimism that belied his fears, and my mom with emotions and a gullibility to feed them. My involvement with the church revealed many people who maintained facades, and often forced them onto others with a structure of shame and fear that, truth be told, I also invested and participated in for years. Only when I started to see the masks, the contradictions, and the unintended consequences that were so much worse than the dangers these beliefs tried to protect from, did I start to move on myself, and started poking at the house of cards I lived in.

But I needed it. I needed to be true, and authentic. That’s my core motivation- to find and finally be, as well as help others find and finally be, their authentic selves.

So through doubts, questions, and conflicts coming to a peak when I caught my ex-wife committing adultery in our bed with the children home. I was shattered, as was my faith, and I was at the crossroads of hope and despair. I had to just sit there and cry myself to death at the crossroads, starving for meaning and joy… or I could move forward into deeper despair or hope. Moving into despair seemed stupid since I was already sitting in it and sitting is better than moving if you’ll end up in the same place anyway, so it seemed like the only real option was sitting forever in despair and staring down that road, or moving forward into hope.

So, fuck it… I’m moving forward.

Kickball and Milky Way

I was walking by the kickball field, just before passing “Ranger Rock” in front of the early-teen boy’s Ranger unit. I was in a particularly good mood, but I can’t remember why. It’s entirely possible it was about a girl, but I don’t think it was… I just remember thinking about how beautiful it was out there in the dark as I walked back after duty as a Camp Norwich Counselor in Training. One of my favorite parts of this job was getting to walk around camp at night with everyone asleep. 

I saw the sky above the kickball field where the trees had be cut to make room for our games- this was where we always set up the ‘poo slide (as in sham-poo, not poo-poo). I was always fascinated when I could walk back by starlight without a flashlight at night. In Florida where I lived, there was so much light pollution you could never even see that there were so many stars, but here there were literally millions. I took a slight detour and just walked up to the softball field and laid down in the grass to look at the stars. 

I’ll never forget how close they looked. It was almost as if I had an 18 foot ladder, I could climb up and touch one; they looked that close. I also remember that there were so many, and I could see that some were closer than others. There was a depth to the sky that I had never seen before; I could see that there were stars both closer and farther than the milky way clearly visible running through like a fractured streak in black obsidian. 

It was as if I could sense everything. I could smell the grass and the wildflowers around me. I had never smelled grass just growing… I only knew the scent of grass when ground into my jeans playing games in the yard. But this smell was the scent of growing, living grass- and I felt as if each breath synchronized my growing and living- even if only partially or hazily- with the earth beneath me. I felt a unity, a peace, that came with voluntarily submitting to be resting against the earth that I would one day eventually become. 

I don’t remember any specific thoughts, just a feeling of total awe. I also remember being surprised at the tear that I felt roll down my face- I hadn’t felt it sprout, and just like the stars I seemed to be able to feel every individual molecule of water and salt my tear left in a trail on my face. I could feel molecules of cold air bouncing off of my eyes and passing through my nose into my lungs, where I could sense individual molecules of oxygen sticking to and being absorbed by the alveoli. I pictured in my mind the illustrations from science books at school since I hadn’t ever seen them myself, but I felt them- individually- enriching my blood with oxygen. 

I remember praying that night, and just thanking God for the beauty of creation. That he made it so beautiful for us to enjoy I thought was a nice touch. Some say that things are beautiful to us because we need them to live, that the beauty is a biological drive making itself appealing, but I don’t think of drinking water as beautiful, though it’s the most important substance to my life. This was the thing beneath the water- the truth under all the realities and science of it all. This was the deeper thing that we can’t see unless we decide to look for it. Like those 3-dimensional pictures made of random dots, you’ve got to be willing to see it, to stop focusing on what’s there, and look beneath it… and then the depth of the invisible can be seen. 

This was the first night I ever experienced the bigger reality under my daily reality. The real world beneath the caricature we interact with daily created by our assumptions and groupings. This is when I first understood that if you slow down to see the world, you get to actually see the world itself. 

This was the first night I sensed the Truth under the facts. 

Squirrel Sex

I was walking down the path at the park and noticed two squirrels having sex just next to the path. It dawned on me that I couldn’t figure out why that’s not appropriate for humans? 

I’m NOT AT ALL advocating that people do this in public, but I noticed that I didn’t judge the squirrels. I didn’t think it was “disgusting” for these two animals to be screwing right next to the walking path in the park. (They did run away when I got too close, but I assume it was self-preservation rather than shame that prompted this response.) So what is going on that makes us feel like we shouldn’t see people screwing on the sidewalk or the park bench?

  1. Lust. This is probably the most common reason, and it’s tied to many different character flaws. But when you think about it, it is YOUR weakness that is causing the sin, not the action of our imaginary amorous couple. It’s that you can’t resist thinking about taking the place of one of the people in the act to enjoy the other- simply for your own sexual pleasure. It’s not motivated by love, or a desire to give the other person pleasure, or to create a safe family together for a child to be raised in. It’s purely a desire to get gratified yourself right now, without regard for helping anyone else-even your partner- have a better life now or in the future. It’s simple temporary pleasure, and therefore foolishness. Go for the bigger pleasures- they are expensive (and paradoxically free) because they require you don’t spend every bit of cash you have on cheap trinkets like lust. 
    You want to stop the couple because YOU can’t control your lust, and want others to stop tempting you since you don’t have simple self-control.
  2. Envy. This is also pretty obvious and tied to lust and greed in many ways. You may be envious that this other couple has a relationship- whether you see it as sexual, romantic, or simply free of shame and fear.  You’re envious that you don’t have someone that attractive, confident, or adventurous enough to have sex on a public bench. Maybe you have all the thoughts and confidence, but you don’t do it because you’re ashamed of your body and feel unattractive- so you’re envious that they are beautiful or confident enough to pull it off. Perhaps you imagine that this display speaks to a kind of love that is so bold and complete that it cannot be shamed into the dark, and you’re envious that this couple has that kind of love you so desire. Or perhaps your marriage has those components but not the freedom to be so public about your love and you envy the freedom they have to shout so boldly of their togetherness. 
    You want to stop the couple because seeing what they have just makes you realize that you don’t have it. It reminds you that you’re not satisfied.
  3. Greed. Greed is so closely tied to envy for me that I find them difficult to separate. The way I’ve come to understand it is that greed is wanting the things that others have, and envy is wanting the emotional feelings that others have. So in this case, it’s pretty obvious that you want that sexual lack you can’t really control to be tamed. You want that body, that relationship. This is different than wanting the relationship for envious reasons. There, you’re wanting the peace and contentment inside that another has. When greed is in play, you want the relationship because you desire to possess the other person like an object. You want the trinket on your shelf or the mansion on the cliff… the amount of desire relates to how much worth you give to the other. But you’re still thinking that joy and contentment comes from something outside of yourself, so you try to get more so that you’ll feel more. 
    You want to stop the couple because it reminds you that you are in want and discontented. It reminds you that you don’t have peace. 
  4. Laziness. This is harder to see, but definitely in the mix. Perhaps you can look back at relationships you were in but were so selfish and demanding, trying to get the other to meet your needs or dissatisfied with what they offered, but you realize that you were not accepting everything they gave. When they attempted to give to you their best offerings of their different perspective- you resent being asked to even do the work of considering their view. You don’t want to change, and you resent that their lives required some work you simply didn’t want to do. I feel certain I have done this in relationships- I assume every teenage relationship is marked by this. You don’t want to grow into a responsible adult, so you wish to be coddled by your relationship rather than grow in it. 
    You want the couple to stop because it reminds you that you never gave enough of yourself to another person to be able to enter this kind of free, confident, unashamed love. It reminds you that you’ve never loved so freely and completely.
  5. Gluttony. Lower in the list there seems to be less connections to specific angles of sin, but my desire here is to point out that it is sin itself, not the action that we are judging that is the problem. It’s OUR sin, not theirs. As for gluttony, perhaps some might have an amazing love life at home, and all the joy and peace that comes with a solid relationship and material comforts. You don’t desire the relationship like envy, or the trophy like greed, you just want more than you need. You have all that you want and you’re still looking around for more, even though if you were to take the time and be present- you would see you have all you need. You already have the peace you want, you just don’t feel it because you’re focused on the “more” rather than the “thing.” You don’t want the extra relationship, you don’t need the feelings- you already have them at home… You just want more. 
    You want so much more than you need and it never fills you, but you’re already full and still want more.  It reminds you that you’re not satisfied because you’re unable to be pleased and content.
  6. Wrath. Here we start ramping back up into the darker areas of the heart, you may resent our young couple because you are full of wrath. Wrath is always complex because it assumes already that you are in the right, and in that assumption you are probably falling prey to one of the other sins on our list… but you’re so far beyond that now that you have to make your first stop at wrath before you can move forward to fix the core problem. You feel wronged, and that you have the authority and power to seek justice and penance from the other. They must conform to you, and will under force if you have your way. The force can be physical, political, social, emotional, or any other weapon we wield; but we do feel we have the right to enforce our stance. This is so closely tied to pride it’s sometimes hard to separate, but this is there. 
    You want the couple to stop because you desire the power to stop and control other people to make you feel stronger and safer. It reminds you that your anger is a cage, and you feel better when others are caged as well. 
  7. Pride. This is the last sin, and is also the sin of our couple if they are aware that their behavior might cause others to get tripped up on (admittedly) the observer’s own weaknesses. It could be that our couple is so proud and arrogant that they feel nobody has the right to ask them to hide their intimacy (I’ve seen this in the hallways countless times as a High School teacher). It could also be that you think you’re so sexy and attractive that nobody could possibly look on and see anything other than the dazzling human specimen you are performing at the peak of human experience. This could also be the sin of a judgmental passerby who looks on and says like all the hoity-toity refined and cultured people that say it’s inappropriate. This may be the saddest of all the sins, because you don’t get any joy from it… you just try to make others seem more miserable than you already feel.
    You want the couple to stop (or you are the couple showing off your goods) so that you can feel better than the other side. You feel so worthless you actively look for people to look down on to make yourself feel superior. 

I can’t adequately explain why all of this ran through my head in the park- though I know the impetus. I am just wondering if the church will ever start to act like Jesus and do what he did: Love, forgive, serve, and sacrifice yourself for people that are “worse” than you are. 

That, in the end, is exactly what Jesus is all about.