New Year’s Resolution

ImageWow, it’s been a long time since I’ve written anything here.  The past semester nearly drowned me, and although I’ve been reading, I haven’t been writing anything that hasn’t been absolutely required of me in order not to make a terrible fool of myself (and then, I may have done that anyway).  As is somewhat usual by now, my world is a precariously balanced set of items – work, money, family, among others – that I have so far put together in such a way that they have not collapsed (yay, me!) but could, it seems, do so at any moment.  I’m in the middle of another uncertain (perhaps doomed) academic job cycle and the future looks fairly dim.  There’s a little pinprick of light out there, but it’s far away and I know I can’t count on it.  I wouldn’t in any way compare my current situation to the grieving, drug-addled Cheryl Strayed of her memoir Wild, but let’s just say the book resonated with me particularly well at the moment.  As I scroll constantly though a list of both sane and crazy options in the event that I don’t get a permanent position, I’ve added “Hike the Pacific Crest Trail” to my list, although I’ve thus far avoided thinking about the damning logistics of doing so with a young family.  Probably not going to happen.  Nonetheless, sometimes the idea gives me a little glimmer of hope, or just makes me smile.


Cheryl Strayed

Strayed has a great story, but so many things about this book could have gone wrong: it could easily have veered into sentimentality, self-help platitudinousness (this has to be a word, right?), or hectoring.  But Strayed is a really good writer, and she keeps it simple, mostly allowing the reader to draw his or her own conclusions/life lessons/caveats from the situations she describes, avoiding many common pitfalls of a memoir of this type.  This is probably also why the book has been extremely popular, and why I found it resonated with me: although her situation is unique and her solution extreme, there is a certain universality of emotion and response described in the book.  I might be facing a different set of problems than she did, and I might not decide to solve them by dropping everything and unadvisedly hiking the Pacific Crest Trail with no preparation, but I’ve certainly felt whatever sense of grief and abandon that leads her down that path, and the idea (as noted above) certainly sounds tempting.  In other words, Strayed does a good job of allowing me (or you, or anyone) license to both feel the extremity of whatever it is that’s on our minds or in our hearts and follow that to its logical conclusion.  She doesn’t allegorize her story, but she offers it as an allegory to you.  Make of it what you will.  I appreciated the opportunity to escape into my own fantasies about living on houseboats or moving to a country whose language I don’t speak or disappearing onto the PCT.


The Pacific Crest Trail

I won’t give away all the details of the story here, but Strayed, having lost her mother and gotten divorced within the space of a year and at an age when most people are thinking about graduate school, not marriage (much less divorce) or death, does a lot of stupid things and then decides, with the kind of clear thinking we expect from a grieving, possibly drug-addicted, immature person, to hike a good portion of the PCT, a wilderness trail that runs from the Mexican border to the Canadian, through California, Oregon, and Washington.  Unfortunately, she’s never even really camped before, much less backpacked hundreds of miles on her own.  Despite her ill-considered decision (which she regrets within the first ten miles), she sticks with it, more or less, figuring out along the way how to do the things she doesn’t know how to do and making alterations to her route when it is proves impassable.  It’s not really a traditional tale of stick-to-itiveness or goal achievement, which is both the essence of the story and the source of its appeal.  If she executed her plan perfectly and emerged whole and healed from the experience everyone would smell a rat, despise her, and hate the book.  Instead, she mostly accomplishes what she set out to do, not quite in the way she set out to do it, and ends up in a better, but by no means perfect, place at the end.

Maybe the kind of messy reality the book winds up with is another source of my personal resonance with Strayed’s story.  Of course, I haven’t quite ended up where I thought I would, in senses large or small.  I’ll leave aside the bigger issues for now, but certainly as regards this blog I have no illusions that I will accomplish my goal by my birthday, which is now a few weeks away.  I really did think that it was an achievable mark, 40 books in a year, and maybe in another year it would have been.  I’m not giving up; I’ll try to post on as many books as I can before the 25th, but I’m not going to delude myself or chastise myself about my prospects.  I probably am not going to do what I set out to do, but I did what I could and at this point that has to be enough (I’ve been working on applying this principle to my professional life for years and I’ve been less successful; maybe this will help).  I do plan to keep the blog going, and I hope people will continue to read it.  I’m going to try not to beat myself up about it or call it a failure.  Rather, I’ll take what feels like a success – writing about what I want, sharing it with people, reading more books and thinking seriously about them – and leave everything else.  Part of Wild was about achieving tremendous goals, but an equally important part was about keeping those goals within the realm of the possible, or even the probable.  And that’s what I’ll take with me into the new year.



Filed under Non-Fiction

2 responses to “New Year’s Resolution

  1. Dan Rosenberg

    Sounds like a good book. It’s a pipedream of mine to hike the Appalachian trail, but my family doubts I’d ever do it. I’m not much of a camper, but I love to walk in the woods (read A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson for another great trail adventure).

  2. Matthew

    The point of signing up for a Marathon isn’t so you can run 26.2 miles, get blisters, and drink Gatorade. It’s to give you a goal, to get you out of the house running, to try on shoes, to dream of doing more.

    If, during those months between when you sign up, and when you find yourself freezing in Grant Park, waiting for the start, you didn’t train as much as you wanted, so you aren’t going to get the time you hoped for, big deal. At least you ran, ate better, took care of yourself, and dreamed.

    This summer, on a warm night (I wistfully say as it’s about -3 outside right now), I ran under a full moon. During my entire run not a single car drove past, it was easy to imagine that there weren’t any other people around. Coyotes howled in the distance, the moon shown through the trees, and deer snorted at me from fields. I imagined that years ago Native Americans ran over these very same hills, under that very same moon, and heard coyotes howling in the distance, hoping, as I did, that they’d stay in the distance. It was a magical night, and that one run was worth the entire year of planning for the race.

    So you didn’t complete 40 books. But you read. You didn’t knock everything off that list of yours, but you got through another year with your family, and your friends. The destination isn’t important. It’s the journey.

    Keep reading, keep posting your stories, and we’ll do our part and read them.

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