This is an actual picture of the road as I drove home yesterday along Denning Road.
A piece I wrote for the Catskill Native Plant Society on cold stratifying seed.
I think it was last year, at Rusticatio Virginiana, when I really felt that something was happening with the Classics. Something felt different: for so long, Classics had felt for me like a lone pursuit, and, fundamentally, a struggle: a struggle to learn, a struggle to teach, a struggle to find books and materials for, a struggle to get students, a struggle to light a fire in their minds, a struggle to convince other people I wasn’t crazy for bothering with it at all. The feel of it all had been changing for a few years now, but it was last year, as we enjoyed some unusually mild summer weather at Claymont, the magnificent dilapidated old mansion that Rusticatio calls home, that, watching some young Latin teachers play wiffleball in Latin, I had the feeling that the vision which had been in my mind for so many years, really since first going to Rome in 1995, of a life of the mind which blended purpose and passion, enjoyment and rigor, the wisdom of the past with a fundamental openness to the oneness of all experience – was not just inside me anymore. I was surrounded by people who lived that way. It wasn’t just a dream: it was a community I was part of.
It is not my purpose here to trace how this community came into being, from Reginald Foster’s classroom in Rome to the work of Nancy Llewellyn and Terence Tunberg and many others, but one way or another their efforts seem to be prospering now, in a way which I find stirring every time I am immersed in it, and this past weekend offered the largest event of this sort I have ever been part of, the Paideia Institute’s Living Latin in New York Conference.
Humanities professors are not the place I typically go to for uplifting news: generally, what you hear about are shrinking budgets, diminishing respect, lowering standards, vanishing jobs, and embattled programs. But at this event, the news seemed to all be good, and coming from all different quarters. The Paideia Institute, the gleaming new pro-Classics not-for-profit founded by Jason Pedicone and Eric Hewett, has in just a few years of existence conjured up a whole host of programs, each one more exciting than the other: a Living Latin in Rome program where students don’t just read Pliny’s account of the eruption of Vesuvius – they read it standing on top of Vesuvius. A living Greek in Greece program where participants speak ancient Greek in a garden in Achaea right on the wine-dark sea. A new Living Greek Drama in Greece program to come next year, where students will read and perform a Greek play in ancient Greek – and perform it in an ancient theater in Greece. Plus two programs in France (Caesar in Gaul and Medieval Latin in Paris), Classics-themed tours for schools, Classics tutoring in Bushwick, materials for homeschoolers and internet tutoring, and conferences and events here in New York City. And of course the NYC conference, which turned into a clearing-house for a whole host of different people whose study of the Classics was real studium – a zeal that transcended mere study.
Terence Tunberg and Milena Minkova from the University of Kentucky, who were special guest speakers at the event, also reported nothing but growth in their living Latin programs – Kentucky is the only major public university in America where Latin is a language of instruction for multiple courses – and in their “Conventicula,” summer programs which have been one of the primary vehicles for promoting excellence and fluency in Latin in America. Tunberg also gave an address, in Latin, on Erasmus, and his methods and the reasons why they were still profoundly useful to us today (he also gave us, just for fun, Erasmus’s priceless line, “Si scripsissem idiotis, scripsissem Germanice, non Latine” (“if I had intended to write for idiots, I would have written in German, not Latin”).
Nancy Llewellyn of Wyoming Catholic College also had nothing but good news: SALVI (the Septentrionalis Americae Latinitatis Vivae Institutum, or North American Institute of Living Latin Studies), which she founded, continues to expand its reach: this year it will be offering four separate week-long Latin programs in places around the country (including the Getty Villa), as well as “Bidua”, weekend-long immersion programs. She has been asked to come to South Africa to bring the method to Latin students there. Wyoming Catholic College has managed to turn Lander, Wyoming, into a hotbed of Latin speakers, a statement which ten years ago would have been met with disbelief (actually, even now that statement will be met with disbelief, but it is nevertheless true). She gave a lecture in Latin on the peerless unicorn tapestries of Cluny in Paris, contending that they offered a vision of love that was inherently synthesizing the body and sensuality rather than renouncing it – which was, I felt, an apt image for a new Classics as well.
Daniel Gallagher, an American working in the Vatican State Department, gave a lecture at the conference on Vatican Latin and its various forms: from Encyclicals, which are translated from the vernacular and for doctrinal reasons stay close to the wording of the Pope, to Vatican diplomatic documents, which are still composed in Latin and represent a continuous tradition of juridical and political Latin going back to the Roman Empire (even some of the phrasing has remained unchanged in all that time). He also spoke about the difficulties of writing papal tweets, and looking for Biblical or Patristic ways of phrasing, in Latin, the pope’s spiritual one-liners. They start with his text, try to fit it into established Ecclesiastical Latin, and send it back to the pope for final edits. The pope’s Latin tweets now reach more than 300,000 people. The audience was spellbound, as audiences often are by the Vatican, which, despite all its problems, for longevity and reach is still probably the most successful institution the world has ever seen.
Luigi Miraglia, generally (and justly) regarded as the single greatest Latinist alive, came to the conference from Italy. His life is like something out of a legend (forgive me if I get a few details wrong, as he was speaking in Latin, and very quickly): as a teenager he made the acquaintance of an old man living alone on an island in the Bay of Naples, a former Jesuit, who he recognized as extraordinary: he eventually came to the island to live, and spent nine years there with him, speaking only Latin and Greek. For the rest of his life he has tried to recreate this experience for other people in various forms, including some spectacular failures which have reduced him to bankruptcy, but he has never stopped reading and learning and living Greek and Latin literature, so much so that we may as well just say that he has read it all – certainly more than any other person alive. His new school, the Vivarium Novum, which already produces the best-trained Classicists in the world, has apparently just found new digs in a spectacular old villa not far from Rome, where the plan is to recreate the Renaissance ideal in both form and substance. Seeing his promotional video, and the beauty of the place, it was hard not be mesmerized by it – and to be happy that it would be used for such a purpose, as opposed to hosting Bunga-bunga parties for some hedge-fund managers who like to fly to their villa in Italy for a weekend or two every summer (which is, in general, what the modern world seems to use nice houses for). Miraglia gave additional classes on his work recreating the experience of ancient poetry by adding the music back into it, which has produced some useful results.
Christophe Rico, who taught eight classes (all conducted in ancient Greek) over the weekend while also giving a lecture (whose preface was in ancient Greek), was, among all the other assembled talent at the conference, probably the talk of the whole place. He was the first person almost any of us had heard speaking ancient Greek ever – ever – despite the fact that many of us had been in ancient Greek classes for twenty years or more. And it was he, really more than anyone, who made me feel like a movement was happening, rather than just a few scattered odd programs in a few places, because he so clearly shared so many of the same intellectual presuppositions, though I had never heard of him and I believe he was operating independently of everyone else. Rico’s Greek classes (you can take a look here for a glimpse – there he is, pattering away in ancient Greek with what look like American undergraduates!) closely resembled Nancy Llewellyn’s Latin classes, which were completely revolutionary when she first did them, though like most revolutions the idea behind it was simple and almost obvious, namely, in this case, that Latin is a language, and hence methods which were useful for learning other languages were useful for learning Latin also. I don’t know if Rico had any actual contact with Nancy – in fact I don’t think he did – but he ran his classes the same way, because, he said, “these are the methods that work.” The method he used for beginners is called “Total Physical Response,” or TPR, which involves physical response to commands, part of the theory being that the body must be involved in language acquisition. He was an exceptionally gifted TPR teacher, and though I knew well that TPR methods work, I had imagined it would be just about impossible to learn Greek well enough to ever use them myself. Rico’s Greek was amazing, and I think I learned more Greek in thirty minutes in his class than I would have learned in a whole semester of Greek at any college in America. And he was the director of an entire institute in Jerusalem dedicated to the wisdom culture of the Western world, whose mission was to reacquaint the Western world with its own traditions by offering people in-depth experiences of the ancient languages of the West: Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic. His was the only institution in Jerusalem (a city which he saw as a living symbol of both the problems and possibilities offered by these traditions), to offer access to these traditions, as he put it, “outside of a confessional context,” i.e. without a religious presumption of which tradition was best. And he seemed to be uniquely suited for such work, as he showed himself to be a consummate teacher, not projecting his own agenda onto students, but simply meeting them wherever they were in their quest for knowledge and helping them forward from that point.
All of it was exciting, and it all seemed to be similar in spirit: a deployment of the resources of the modern world to engage with what before had been merely texts in a far fuller, more completely human way, mind, body, and spirit, and not only because it was more enjoyable to engage in that deeper, fuller way, but also with a desire that the study bear fruit not only for the mind but for the body and spirit as well. And a community, scattered throughout the world but with real common interests and real mutual affection, seems to be growing and occupying this happy space. (For more information about it take a look at the Tony Grafton article just recently in The Nation.)
In my previous essay about Cheryl Strayed’s excellent book Wild, I took as my theme the nature of the experience Strayed had, a truly transformational one which ultimately changed her perspective on almost all the issues of importance. Tranformation of perspective like this is called in Greek metanoia, a wonderful word which implies both alteration (meta) and transcendence (meta) of the way we think (noia, from noeo, to think). The word is used as the one-word slogan of Jesus’s ministry: “Metanoiete,” he says over and over again, “change/transcend your thinking.” The word is almost always translated – horribly, as the word most emphatically cannot be restricted to this translation – “repent.” Strayed shows in her own story an excellent example of the way this process actually works.
But I left the previous essay acknowledging another problem, which is this: the transformed person, who has gained some new perspective from her experience, ultimately returns to the world. This ends up being very nearly as horrible as it ever was: “a vale of tears,” as the hymn goes. We live in the world more comfortably after a transformative experience, but there is still something that is not acceptable about it – that is, in fact, still quite horrible. There is a gap between the vision we have seen, and the way things are.
This is one of the ultimate problems of our existence, and none of the solutions are obviously and immediately satisfactory, but I think Strayed herself is an example of the one solution which makes sense to me. And that is: a transformation of the way you live. The things you have seen simultaneously make joy possible and complacency impossible. You attempt, for the rest of your life, to work out the implications of your experience. This requires effort, but the tension between the vision and the world produces energy, which enables us to work: it gives us motive and purpose. Ultimately, what we pour into the gap between vision and reality is our life, indeed our selves, specifically our complete self, functioning undividedly, conscious and unconscious, mind and womb both. It is impossible to read the book and not feel that Strayed has access to that: and that not only does that make her “safe in this world,” but it has changed her as a person: I have no doubt she has come from being a bad mother (she had an abortion) and bad wife (she cheated on her husband numerous times) to a good mother and good wife. What I have heard of her later life suggests, also, the goodness I would expect, and generosity and maturity. She has worked as a counselor – wonderful – written an advice column – wonderful – and written this testament to her experience which now has gone around the world – wonderful. She shows all the signs of having repaired much of the torn fabric of her own life, and also worked to help others do the same. The hope of all religions, with all their pilgrimages, confessionals, meditations, prayers, good works, and everything else, lies in this.
Let us get down to details. Strayed herself was not in the business to draw such conclusions, which is probably good for her book: lessons drawn from experience, to people without the experience, are not as interesting or necessary as the simple encouragement to go have the experience. And that is what Strayed does. But for people who have had the experience, there is nothing more interesting and important than to meditate on the consequences of what you know and have seen. The fruit of experience ripens in the sunlight of reflection.
The first thing which takes on a different aspect is death. Death is wounding; death is horrible; death brings grief; but it is part of the pattern and ultimately inevitable. And it is terrible to see how much pain Cheryl comes to, and inflicts on others around her – at terrible cost – because she was utterly unprepared to deal with death. In Sleeper, Woody Allen is cryogenically frozen and awoken after 200 years, and when told his friends are all dead he says, “But they were all vegetarians! How could this be?” That’s supposed to be a joke, but Strayed is – terrifyingly – not far from it.
As I accompanied my mother and stepfather, Eddie, from floor to floor of the Mayo Clinic while my mother went from one test to another, a prayer marched through my head, though prayer is not the right word to describe that march. I wasn’t humble before God. My prayer was not: Please, God, take mercy on us.
I was not going to ask for mercy. I didn’t need to. My mother was forty-five. She looked fine. For a good number of years she’d mostly been a vegetarian. She’d planted marigolds around her garden to keep bugs away instead of using pesticides. My siblings and I had been made to swallow raw cloves of garlic when we had colds. People like my mother did not get cancer. The tests at the Mayo Clinic would prove that, refuting what the doctors in Duluth had said. I was certain of this. Who were those doctors in Duluth anyway? What was Duluth? Duluth! Duluth was a freezing hick town where doctors who didn’t know what the hell they were talking about told forty-five-year-old vegetarian-ish, garlic-eating, natural-remedy-using nonsmokers that they had late-stage lung cancer, that’s what.
That was my prayer: Fuckthemfuckthemfuckthem. (10)
Her anger intrigues me here, and reminds me of my earlier writing on this topic, that anger is a social emotion. She appears to be presuming that there is a social solution to death: she can go to someone higher up in the primate hierarchy (who lives in a more important place than Duluth, apparently), and he’ll fix the death problem (there must be a fairy tale about this, about someone who is troubled by death and then goes through the kingdom and finds that everyone, even the king, is under this capital sentence – my oh my how our children need the old fairy tales rather than whatever they seem to be reading). So she gets angry at having to deal with the low-totem-pole people who don’t even have enough status and power to fix this whole dumb death thing.
She then – I am not making this up – imagines that her vagina might be usefully employed to solve the death problem, and in a way this is a good instinct, but she just wants to use it to get attention, which will not suffice, I don’t think:
One afternoon, a doctor I’d never seen came into the room and explained that my mother was actively dying.
“But it’s only been a month,” I said indignantly. “The other doctor told us a year.”
He made no reply. He was young, perhaps thirty. He stood next to my mother, a gentle hairy hand slung into his pocket, looking down at her in bed. “From this point on, our only concern is that she’s comfortable.”
Comfortable, and yet the nurses tried to give her as little morphine as they could. One of the nurses was a man, and I could see the outline of his penis through his tight white nurse’s trousers. I wanted desperately to pull him into the small bathroom beyond the foot of my mother’s bed and offer myself up to him, to do anything at all if he would help us. And also I wanted to take pleasure from him, to feel the weight of his body against me, to feel his mouth in my hair and hear him say my name to me over and over again, to force him to acknowledge me, to make this matter to him, to crush his heart with mercy for us. (21)
Again, this is clearly an attempt to use the social goods she has access to to get her way. Death is of course a cosmic problem, not a social problem, and only an adequate cosmology will defuse its hold on us. (I have in my mind an essay on what I think is a broader modern problem here, namely that human society has grown so massive that almost all of our experiences are social, and we are losing the awareness of truly cosmic things).
And in fact an adequate cosmology appeared to be pushing itself on Strayed in the form of her dreams – again, a sign of that kind of inner womb-knowledge I wrote about in my earlier essay which is superior to consciousness and modern rationalistic-materialistic culture:
I dreamed of her incessantly. In the dreams I was always with her when she died. It was me who would kill her. Again and again and again. She commanded me to do it, and each time I would get down on my knees and cry, begging her not to make me, but she would not relent, and each time, like a good daughter, I ultimately complied. I tied her to a tree in our front yard and poured gasoline over her head, then lit her on fire. I made her run down a dirt road that passed by the house we’d built and then ran her over with my truck. I dragged her body, caught on a jagged piece of metal underneath, until it came loose, and then I put my truck in reverse and ran her over again. I took a miniature baseball bat and beat her to death with it, slow and hard and sad. I forced her into a hole I’d dug and kicked dirt and stones on top of her and buried her alive. These dreams were not surreal. They took place in plain, ordinary light. They were the documentary films of my subconscious and felt as real to me as life. My truck was really my truck; our front yard was our actual front yard; the miniature baseball bat sat in our closet among the umbrellas.
I didn’t wake from these dreams crying. I woke shrieking. Paul grabbed me and held me until I was quiet. He wetted a washcloth with cool water and put it over my face. But those wet washcloths couldn’t wash the dreams of my mother away.
Nothing did. Nothing would. Nothing could ever bring my mother back or make it okay that she was gone. (27)
Strayed does not interpret this, but it looks like a classic compensatory dream. Strayed’s waking mind refused death; she held on to her mother (it is a highly suggestive fact that she kept vigil at her mother’s bedside for weeks, and then her mother died almost the very moment she left the room: it was as if Strayed were keeping her back). The dream provides a counter-image, in which she becomes the agent of death, the bringer of it. It is compensation: the waking mind is so far off the path, that the subconscious produces an opposite image to create balance. The proper stance, dreams of this sort indicate, is in the middle: neither conscious refusal nor subconscious promotion: acceptance. Her mother’s death was a wound, no doubt, but the wounds always end up being the most important things. New life out of death, strength out of wounding, is the Paschal Mystery, and Christianity has almost no content but this. It is the same lesson as the woods, the same process I watch every autumn as the leaves fall and the wildflowers bloom out of them the following spring. “Unless a grain of wheat fall into the ground and die, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.” The poet Adrienne Rich, whose works she brings with her on her hike, said it explicitly, about Marie Curie who died (of radiation poisoning), “denying that her wounds came from the same source as her power.” Strayed has a beautiful image of it as she starts her trip: “I could feel myself disintegrating inside myself like a past-bloom flower in the wind. Every time I moved a muscle, another petal of me blew away” (38). It is only when the flower disintegrates that the fruit begins to grow.
When I first visited Rome, I had the gnawing but ultimately impressive feeling that the entire city, with all its art, all its religion, all its hedonism, all its fame-seeking, all its sport and politics and everything else, was merely an outgrowth of man’s discomfort with death. So there is hardly one proper view of death, and no matter what the perspective one may have, the uncertainty and discomfort of it will always remain. (I am personally convinced that bad Christianity is always indicated by a pathologic aversion to death, because Christian spiritual practice demands the daily acceptance of life coming out of death, but that is another essay). But I am convinced that Strayed’s inability to deal with death was in part the result of her unfamiliarity with it, which is a cultural problem. A friend of mine disagreed, saying simply, “Death messes us up,” maintaining that anyone who loses their mother at age twenty-three will be similarly messed up. But I don’t think that’s true. A hundred years ago almost every human being was born in a large family, where death was a constant presence just as birth was, and those deaths did not consistently produce infidelity, divorce, drug use, depression, and abortions. Death poses a problem, but adequate cultures offer adequate guidance on the most basic problems of life. Awareness and acceptance of death needs to be transmitted to the next generation in order to build any kind of wisdom-culture in our society. The alternative is for each generation to be blindsided by it and suffer through it and hope for the best, as Strayed did.
I can say from my own experience that good parenting can offer some of this wisdom, and forestall some of these problems. But many people have no cultural equipment for dealing with death at all. Strayed notes that her mother’s death created an impassable emotional rift with her husband, because he had, himself, no experience of loss:
My husband, Paul, did everything he could to make me feel less alone. He was still the kind and tender man I’d fallen for a few years before, the one I’d loved so fiercely I’d shocked everyone by marrying just shy of twenty, but once my mother started dying, something inside of me was dead to Paul, no matter what he did or said. Still, I called him each day from the pay phone in the hospital during the long afternoons, or back at my mom and Eddie’s house in the evenings. We’d have long conversations during which I’d weep and tell him everything and he would cry with me and try to make it all just a tiny bit more okay, but his words rang hollow. It was almost as if I couldn’t hear them at all. What did he know about losing anything? His parents were still alive and happily married to each other. (22)
Wise cultures train people for such moments. They do not leave young married couples to figure it out on their own. If medical school contained no courses on surgery and anatomy but consisted entirely of learning to fold clothes, then of course a surgeon who just came back from his first week on the actual job would be unable to relate to the problems of the medical students, in their classes busily competing against each other to be the best clothes-folder, completely unaware of what was coming. When I was a child I was taught to pray each night with the following words:
Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep,
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.
This at least alerts the child to the existence of the phenomenon. Now, not surprisingly, some people have rewritten the prayer to leave the death part out, because mentioning death might distress the children. I know other parents who similarly have made up elaborate fictions to explain the vanishing of the family pet (to me very nearly the point of having a family pet is the way its death exposes the child to reality). These children are in danger of becoming like Strayed, and going completely haywire when death shows up (Strayed started cheating on her husband seven days after her mother’s death), or her husband, who had nothing beyond general niceness to offer someone going through a death-watch. My mother used to tell me to “pray for a good death,” telling me about my grandfather, who died before I was born: he used to go to mass every morning, buy a copy of the Daily News on his way home, sit in his favorite chair, read the paper, and then fall asleep. One morning he never woke up from his nap. “Pray for a good death,” she repeated. The implication, of course, was that there were deaths which were not so good. This was not trauma or child abuse: this was reality. I remember my mother mocking – often – one of the neighbors (now dead) because he said “If I die” rather than “when I die.” These insights, like the words of that prayer, were not my mother’s inventions: they were traditions that she was merely passing on, and whose wisdom had been proved by generations of experience. Strayed’s grandmother probably prayed with the same words I used, but in two generations much of that cultural wisdom has washed away. Strayed’s mother, a former Catholic who wanted nothing to do with the church, apparently thought she would live if she drank lots of wheatgrass juice. She drank barrels of the stuff as her death approached. I think much of Strayed’s anger against her mother, which surfaces in various places in the book, can be linked at least subconsciously to the fact that her mother really did her a disservice by raising her without any training for death. In the end, we pay a price for every lie we believe, and sometimes, as with our modern blindness to death, a terrible price, and if there is debt left over, our children will have to pay it.
Another ingredient of wholeness is uncoupling love and entitlement. When you go off into the wild, one of the first things you notice is the simple fact that no one goes after you: you were not the center of their worlds, after all. We come to love with so many expectations about the love we “deserve” to have; but in the end you cannot see love as something you or anyone else “deserves.” You don’t even deserve it from your father or your mother. You live off of whatever love you can get: it is never enough; but you must fight against the temptation to feel aggrieved by the defects of your lovers. Strayed comes to this realization twice, once when thinking about her father – the passage quoted in the previous essay – and again when thinking about her stepfather, who was excellent to her. She offers a brief but beautiful image of the way he played with her and her siblings, which really does pinpoint something different about the way a man loves children:
He chased us and caught us and held us upside down and shook us to see if any coins would fall from our pockets; if they did, he would take them from the grass and run, and we would run after him, shrieking with a particular joy that had been denied us all our lives because we’d never been loved right by a man. He tickled us and watched as we performed dance routines and cartwheels. He taught us whimsical songs and complicated hand jives. He stole our noses and ears and then showed them to us with his thumb tucked between his fingers, eventually giving them back while we laughed. By the time my mother called us in to dinner, I was so besotted with him that I’d lost my appetite. (152)
After Cheryl’s mother died, he married another woman with children and forgot about his stepchildren from his previous marriage. But Strayed noted how he had trained her to love camping and hiking and the outdoors, and so he really had been the stepfather, so to speak, of her whole trip on the Pacific Crest Trail:
There’s no way to know what makes one thing happen and not another. What leads to what. What destroys what. What causes what to flourish or die or take another course. But I was pretty certain as I sat there that night that if it hadn’t been for Eddie, I wouldn’t have found myself on the PCT. And though it was true that everything I felt for him sat like a boulder in my throat, this realization made the boulder sit ever so much lighter. He hadn’t loved me well in the end, but he’d loved me well when it mattered. (304)
Maturity makes you realize how difficult it is even to do that much: to love someone well when it matters. One way or another, the people who have loved you are the ones who have given you everything that has mattered to you: that they could have loved you better, you realize, is a useless truism. Entitlement poisons love. To take any kind of love for granted is a sin.
The third ingredient is a more mature attitude toward sex. Strayed is certainly not repentant about the disposability of her prior lovers – “what if I’d wanted to fuck every one of those men?” – but it’s also clear that she was moving away from the kind of mindset that made lovers not much more than single-use disposable dicks (with lips and hands attached). She makes use of one such disposable dick on the trail (she reports regretting going on a trip to the beach with him, as, she says, “my interest in Jonathan was waning” – after just a few hours). But apparently the encounter was not truly satisfying:
“Your address,” he said, handing me a scrap of paper and a pen. I wrote down Lisa’s, feeling a mounting sense of something that wasn’t quite sorrow, wasn’t quite regret, and wasn’t quite longing, but was a mix of them all. It had been an indisputably good time, but now I felt empty. Like there was something I didn’t even know I wanted until I didn’t get it. (259-60)
That is an emotion I would ruthlessly interrogate – “what is it I want that I’m not getting? Why am I missing the mark here?” – though she leaves it as a vague, almost unexpected dissatisfaction. That’s a good beginning, I suppose. Later she has a crush on another man – in fact she seems to kind of have a crush on every good-looking man on the trail – but she doesn’t have sex with him. She interprets this as progress:
For once it was finally enough for me to simply lie there in a restrained and chaste rapture beside a sweet, strong, sexy, smart, good man who was probably never meant to be anything but my friend. For once I didn’t ache for a companion. For once the phrase the woman with a hole in her heart didn’t thunder into my head. That phrase, it didn’t even live for me anymore. (299)
She has a dream with sexual overtones on the trip, which I will quote. It may not, in fact, be about sex, but it is an intriguing message from the subconscious:
I woke up a half hour later with a startled gasp, creeped out by a dream – the same dream I’d had the night before. In it, Bigfoot had kidnapped me. He’d done it in a fairly mannerly fashion, approaching to pull me by the hand deep into the woods, where an entire village of other Bigfoots lived. In the dream I was both astonished and frightened at the sight of them. “How have you hid from humans so long?” I’d asked my Bigfoot captor, but he only grunted. As I looked at him, I realized that he was not a Bigfoot at all but a man wearing a mask and a hairy suit. I could see his pale human flesh beneath the edge of the mask, which terrified me. (223)
My initial read is to say that it is an image of trail life in general, which really is only partially “wild”: on the trail you carry just enough civilization to get you to your next civilization station, where you fill up again. It looks like Bigfoot, but it is just a mask and a hairy suit on what is fundamentally a civilized pursuit. But I will note that it could apply to sex as well: superficial, disposable-partner sexuality is largely (though certainly not entirely) a technical creation: I’m sure there are millions of sexual encounters throughout the world each year that get cut short for lack of a handy condom. Nothing makes an irresistible face so instantly resistible as the threat of further implications. It’s not very wild, in the end, and not very natural. I’m not saying this to attack birth control per se: birth control is like any other kind of technology. The morality is in the way it is used. For every person using birth control to go deeper into a relationship with another person, there seem to be ten using it to avoid any kind of depth at all. In the end, Bigfoot is neither satisfyingly and truly wild, nor fully human (being reduced in the dream to inarticulate grunts). Whatever the interpretation might be, it is an interesting image produced by the subconcious. Strayed seems to be moving away from this version of sexuality: one which she describes as like a vacation, an escape, something detached. And she seems to be moving toward something different. What would sexuality look like if it were the opposite of that – the real task of one’s life, a going deeper, integrated into everything else? What if we loved each other, and treated each other as just as indispensable and important, as we love and treat ourselves?
This brings me to the fourth ingredient I noticed in the book: one’s relationship to escapism. When she approaches the end of her trip, she thinks about re-entering normal life in Portland:
Of course, heroin could be had there too, I thought. But the thing was, I didn’t want it. Maybe I never really had. I’d finally come to understand what it had been: a yearning for a way out, when actually what I had wanted to find was a way in. I was there now. Or close. (290)
She had talked earlier of “planet heroin,” this other world she could go to, to escape her life. But the experience of her trip had changed her into something else. Now she wanted her life: to go deeper into it. Escapism becomes one of the uninteresting things. And hence heroin became one of the uninteresting things. This is the kind of shift that can seep into everything. Strayed’s phrasing serves as a good way to think about sexuality as well: how would your sex life change if it was not a brief way out, but a way in?
The last ingredient of maturity I want to talk about is a changed relationship to desire itself, of all kinds. We notice this in spiritually developed people: the peacefulness, the stability, the way they can deal with adversity, rejection, rebuffing, tragedy. You feel they can handle anything. One of the important lessons of wilderness is the fact that in the wilderness there is nothing for you to do. You are not in control: you don’t have any power. When you see a tree that is dying, you let it die: you don’t try to prune it back to life or fertilize it or water it or anything else. You just walk on. It doesn’t need you to play messiah to it, the way Strayed tried to play messiah to her mother. The tree will die: fine. The birds of the air will nest in its rotting cavities. Wilderness is a place where you aren’t being constantly roasted in your desires to change everything, because there such desires don’t mean anything. This is one of the differences between living in the woods and living in a house, a tension I constantly have to manage. In the woods you can just be an observer of the life that is there; but in your house you are constantly wrestling with your ambitions, because everyone has ambitions for their own house. In the true wilderness your ambitions don’t mean anything. Life is precious in itself, without any value needing to be added to it. It doesn’t even need the value of human goodness – it can be good even if people go on being evil to one another and marring everything they touch. This is the ultimate religious affirmation, though religions are always caught in the tension (as is Strayed and everyone else) between affirmation of the whole and affirmation of the ethical ideal which a reverence for the whole naturally produces. We achieve this paradoxical bipartite affirmation only in the face of our own desires to control everything, to re-write the script of the world and make it conform to our own expectations. To live constantly with this unfulfilled desire is suffering:
It took me years to take my place among the ten thousand things again. To be the woman my mother raised. To remember how she said honey and picture her particular gaze. I would suffer. I would suffer. I would want things to be different than they were. The wanting was a wilderness and I had to find my way out of the woods. (27)
You can live in the world without associating yourself entirely with your desires for its betterment. Those desires don’t go away, but they take their place among the other things. And this insight is one of the things which distinguishes the person who has had a real experience from the person who grabs onto a religious ideal for self-aggrandizement: the latter person often becomes a dangerous zealot. The person with the real experience knows her place is small, and everything worthwhile will require work. Which is fine. You realize you might not be so good at running the world anyway. You realize how sacred it is that everyone else gets to make their choices as well. You try to help them get to the other side – to that place Strayed describes, the end of the trail, the Bridge of the Gods – knowing that there is no more beautiful thing than that, but you know you cannot do it by airlifting them to the end, any more than you can ripen an apple by throwing it into the fire. You burn with desire, but don’t need to claw desperately at the things you want anymore. Patience becomes possible. Even with the people you love. Even with yourself.
It was all unknown to me then, as I sat on that white bench on the day I finished my hike. Everything except the fact that I didn’t have to know. That it was enough to trust that what I’d done was true. To understand its meaning without yet being able to say precisely what it was, like all those lines from The Dream of a Common Language that had run through my nights and days. To believe that I didn’t need to reach with my bare hands anymore. To know that seeing the fish beneath the surface of the water was enough. That it was everything. It was my life – like all lives, mysterious and irrevocable and sacred. So very close, so very present, so very belonging to me.
How wild it was, to let it be. (311)
A nice piece on Doug Tallamy and the new gardening. ”We have to raise the bar on our landscapes. In the past, we have asked one thing of our gardens: that they be pretty. Now they have to support life, sequester carbon, feed pollinators, and manage water.” Real life always works this way: something always has multiple purposes. And the real gardening is to nourish life.
“Wisdom consists of doing the next thing that you have to do, doing it with all your heart, and doing it with delight… and that delight is a sense of the sacred.” – Helen Luke
A very nice article by Tony Grafton which testifies to the work of the Paideia Institute, a not-for-profit cultural institution inspired by Fr. Reginald Foster with a focus on linking a classical, humanistic education with the joy of being human. I have spent much of my life with the people mentioned in the article, and it amazes me to see their lives coming to fruit, and so much of it sprung from the vitality and truth of the work of Reginaldus. I have had this feeling several times in the past few years, that I have been part of something special, something which is really succeeding within its own small world, something which is changing the way Classics are lived and taught. I’ll be one of the seminar leaders for the Paideia Institute’s Living Latin in New York conference in two weeks, and teaching at SALVI’s Biduum Latinum two weeks after that. In June I’ll be one of two instructors tapped to bring this new living approach to Latin abroad to Africa: there is apparently some feeling there that this new, more vital, “American” approach can give Latin an accessibility and relevance that old approaches have not been able to summon.
A Norwegian newspaper has created a reality show that involves sending three fashion bloggers to Cambodia to work in a Cambodian sweatshop. This is an effective show for several reasons – the beauty of the young Norwegians, the fact that beautiful women in distress makes for good television, the enjoyment people get from watching spoiled rich people confront something real – but this is sort of like a grown-up, purposeful retooling of a typical Paris Hilton reality show. The rich always offer the same refrain in their own defense, wen confronted by things like this: “We’re actually doing them a favor, they’d be a lot worse off if those fashion bloggers weren’t promoting consumption all the time.” Slaveowners in the United States also justified slavery as something good that they were doing for Africans. The answer to this is that if a close friend of the family is having money trouble, you’re not doing him a favor by taking the opportunity to buy his goods or his labor at thieving prices. The Golden Rule, applied to employers, reads “Offer to others a job you would like to have yourself.” Even the dirtiest, least glamorous tasks – cleaning sewers, butchering animals – can be turned into jobs that are worth having and mean something.
And in general, I think it is entirely good that we know the human costs of our consumption. Sometimes I think this might be a good plan for a system of education: students would have to learn, by briefly participating in, every part of the world economy, and this way learn how we humans feed, clothe, shelter, entertain, and govern ourselves. We would know then the cost of our consumption, and be able to trace iniquity down its massive trunk all the way to its multitudinous roots touch the soil.
I think it is entirely to Cheryl Strayed’s credit as a writer and as a human being that she can write a book which one reviewer – admittedly, not a very observant one – can reduce to the question “What do you have to say now, God?” while I find it religious in outlook and reminiscent of Dante. This is possible because she has captured something real – and consequently, to a religious person her book will feel religious, while to an irreligious person it will feel the opposite – the same divergence in reaction found in all things real.
Several people I know put the book down because they found Strayed unsympathetic as a figure: she went off on a major wilderness excursion utterly unprepared, and she paints a painfully honest portrait of what she was, which can seem very entitled, perhaps to a degree Strayed the author may not have even realized. She uses curse words in the Pacific Northwest style, to make it clear to the reader that she’s “keepin’ it real,” and you have to wade through a fair amount of “fuck her” and “fuck him” and “fuck them” as she deals with other people, many of whom seem genuinely good and not deserving of her wrath. You have to deal with her complaining that her (seemingly lovely) mother never told her to apply to Harvard and Yale. But I was terribly moved by the book – moved to tears again and again, at how terribly we treat each other, at how strange and marvellous our spiritual life is, in which the horrors of the way we treat each other find some kind of transformation which makes it almost worth it. Almost. There is always some horrible remainder, some kind of marring of whatever goodness there is; and always some goodness blossoming out of the evil. In the end, any true, fully conscious acceptance is hard-won. I have so much to say about the book that I’ve decided to divide my comments into two parts, with this first section dealing with the emotional experience she had on her trip, and a second part dealing with the aftermath of that experience – how it changes us, as people. Because I think her experience was an Everyman experience, with broad human relevance.
The book serves as a kind of textbook of how to set the stage for spiritual transformation (or conversion, or maturation, or whatever you want to call it) – though admittedly, any genuine transformation ingenuously told could serve as a template. The first thing she does is recognize the need for transformation: and realizes it desperately, like a beggar. “I had to change. I had to change was the thought that drove me in those months of planning” (57). The second thing is to create a space where the transformation can take place. She ties up the rest of her life and puts it in a bundle, throwing it aside for awhile. She moves out of her apartment, divorces her husband, resolves herself of all responsibilities and cuts all ties. The book contains no descriptions of having to take two days off from the trip to renew her car registration. She had put herself in a place where only one thing matters. In our normal lives, ten thousand things matter every day, and for some reason or other, it is exceptionally difficult – almost impossible – to take dramatic steps forward in such circumstances. Dramatic steps are probably only necessary in personal crisis, but Strayed certainly was in such a crisis. And she managed to create a new, temporary way of living, where only one thing mattered: the life of a through-hiker.
I wasn’t thinking, I’m hiking on the Pacific Crest Trail. I wasn’t even thinking, What have I gotten myself into? I was thinking only of moving myself forward. My mind was a crystal vase that contained only that one desire. My body was its opposite: a bag of broken glass. Every time I moved, it hurt. (63)
I love the bag of broken glass metaphor: that is another joy of this book, so many of the metaphors are marvellously apt. And we know what it is like to be in that position, hiking or biking or whatever it may be, when the pain and exhaustion are so intense that they drive away all other thoughts. This too is a traditional element of the mystics’ discipline, the use of pain to clear the mind. Ironically, Strayed, when discouraged by the rigors of the trip, uses this very fact as a reason to quit :
As the notion of quitting settled in, I came up with another reason to bolster my belief that this whole PCT hike had been an outlandishly stupid idea. I’d set out to hike the trail so that I could reflect upon my life, to think about everything that had broken me and make myself whole again. But the truth was, at least so far, I was consumed only with my most immediate and physical suffering. Since I’d begun hiking, the struggles of my life had only fluttered occasionally through my mind. Why, oh why, had my good mother died and how is it I could live and flourish without her? How could my family, once so close and strong, have fallen apart so swiftly and soundly in the wake of her death? What had I done when I’d squandered my marriage with Paul – the solid, sweet husband who’d loved me so steadfastly? Why had I gotten myself in a sad tangle wth heroin and Joe and sex with men I hardly knew?
These were the questions I’d held like stones all through the winter and spring, as I prepared to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. The ones I’d wept over and wailed over, excavated in excruciating detail in my journal. I’d planned to put them all to rest while hiking the PCT. I’d imagined endless meditations upon sunsets or while staring out across pristine mountain lakes. I’d thought I’d weep tears of cathartic sorrow and restorative joy each day of my journey. Instead, I only moaned, and not because my heart ached. It was because my feet did and my back did and so did the still-open wounds all around my hips. And also, during that second week on the trail – when spring was on the very cusp of turning officially into summer – because I was so hot I thought my head would explode. (84-5)
I quote so much of it because I think it quite brilliantly describes the actual mental state of the hiker, and of the pilgrim too. What you are trying to do is to get yourself back into your senses. We spend so much time literally out of our senses: in our heads, in our thoughts, in our plans, in the past, in the future, whatever it might be. God/transformation/perspective (whatever you want to call this leap in consciousness – mystics do not sweat semantics) is almost never easy to find there. And for many people only great exertions, and really great physical suffering, will return us to our senses. Danger works well also: Strayed talks about reaching another level when she had to cross a sloping field of ice, where a bad step could send her sliding down the mountain. That is the sort of thing which will clear your mind.
Of course I should note that many people do not realize that this is the way actual spiritual practice works. An actual spiritual practice makes the practitioner very skeptical of the mind. God is greater than your conceptions – obviously. Even if you look at your room and then close your eyes and picture it in your mind, you can see immediately how many details, how much richness your mind immediately abridges, even of the most pedestrian things. Any kind of spirituality limited to the carrying capacity of the mind will not, in the end, satisfy a human being. A close friend of mine is pregnant for the first time, and was telling me how amazed she was to see an x-ray (or sonogram, or whatever they are doing nowadays) of her child’s skeleton in her womb – made by her, she supposed, but certainly not by her mind: no mind could assemble a child and make it work. It was an entirely different kind of knowing that was inside her, and was her, an order of intellect that dwarfed the one in her mind, and possessing an intimacy with life compared to which her mind was just a spectator. When we are astray – when our conscious minds have utterly failed us – safety is in that deeper self. The spiritual practice is an attempt to reach into that deeper knowledge which is inside us, and which makes our conscious minds seem paltry.
Hence you really cannot think your way to transformation. You cannot think about spiritual problems by pondering them harder. You think about them by living, and oddly enough, by living more like an animal. You have to go down the ladder of being, and operate on the same level a woman’s womb does, which (thank goodness) is not taking orders from the brain, which would be utterly incompetent for the work of generating new life. When we live more like animals, we are living in a way we were designed to live, with concerns we were designed to handle, instinctually: what to drink, what to eat, where to sleep. As we let our instincts take over those small details, they gain strength for other things: where to go, whom to trust, when to make love and when to be silent and when to say something and what to say. Those are spiritual tasks for a whole lifetime. But the simple life of the wilderness is where those seeds of life can grow:
I realized that in spite of my hardships, as I approached the end of the first leg of my journey, I’d begun to feel a blooming affection for the PCT. My backpack, heavy as it was, had come to feel lke my almost animate companion. No longer was it the absurd Volkswagen Beetle I’d painfully hoisted on in that motel room in Mojave a couple of weeks before. Now my backpack had a name: Monster.
I meant it in the nicest possible way. I was amazed that what I needed to survive could be carried on my back. And, most surprising of all, that I could carry it. That I could bear the unbearable. These realizations about my physical, material life couldn’t help but spill over into the emotional and spiritual realm. That my complicated life could be made so simple was astounding. It had begun to occur to me that perhaps it was okay that I hadn’t spent my days on the trail pondering the sorrows of my life, that perhaps by being forced to focus on my physical suffering some of my emotional suffering would fade away. By the end of that second week, I realized that since I’d begun my hike, I hadn’t shed a single tear. (92)
I have already written about how her pack – which was far heavier than her trip required – seems to have been a psychic self-punishment mechanism. She was, early on, aware of its symbolic element. And that is one of the amazing things: when you put yourself in a position where only one thing matters, the details around you seem to stand out more clearly as symbols.
It always amazes me how necessary the wild is for this process; it seems to me that civilization cannot offer anything comparable. One of the first things it does is create wonder, or a beginner’s mind: an awareness that you do not know, that you are confronted by something great, inexplicable, and mysterious. Strayed hits this theme perfectly as well:
As I ascended, I realized I didn’t understand what a mountain was, or even if I was hiking up one mountain or a series of them glommed together. I’d not grown up around mountains. I’d walked on a few, but only on well-trod paths on day hikes. They’d seemed to be nothing more than really big hills. But they were not that. They were, I now realized, layered and complex, inexplicable and analogous to nothing. Each time I reached the place that I thought was the top of the mountain or the series of mountains glommed together, I was wrong. There was still more up to go, even if first there was a tiny slope that went tantalizingly down. So up I went until I reached what really was the top. I knew it was the top because there was snow. Not on the ground, but falling from the sky, in thin flakes that swirled in mad patterns, pushed by the wind.
I hadn’t expected it to rain in the desert, and I certainly hadn’t expected it to snow. As with the mountains, there’d been no deserts where I grew up, and though I’d gone on day hikes in a couple of them, I didn’t really understand what deserts were. I’d taken them to be dry, hot, and sandy places full of snakes, scorpions, and cactuses. They were not that. They were that and also a bunch of other things. They were layered and complex and inexplicable and analogous to nothing. My new existence was beyond analogy, I realized on that second day on the trail.
I was in entirely new terrain. (63)
“My new existence was beyond analogy” – this is a place where wonder can grow, and where the sacred can take root.
Besides creating a beginner’s mind – “here I do not know, here I must shut up and learn” – nature is important in the process because it contains an implicit cosmology. It is large; it is incomprehensibly vast and powerful. That is important, because it changes the relative importance of you, or your ego. Nature’s vastness implies your smallness. This is the first stage of the experience, a fear before it: “the fear of the Lord is the beginning [but only the beginning] of wisdom.” Strayed’s first reaction to the vastness is to cower before it (which is fine, and indeed necessary):
Before I began hiking the PCT, I’d imagined that I’d sleep inside my tent only when it threatened to rain, that most nights I’d lay my sleeping bag on top of my tarp and sleep beneath the stars, but about this, like so much else, I’d been wrong. Each evening, I ached for the shelter of my tent, for the smallest sense that something was shielding me from the entire rest of the world, keeping me safe not from danger, but from vastness itself. I loved the dim, clammy dark of my tent, the cozy familiarity of the way I arranged my few belongings all around me each night. (93)
I will pull one other bit of emotive cosmology from the book, to wit:
I prayed fervently, rabidly, to God, any god, to a god I could not identify or find. I cursed my mother, who’d not given me any religious education. Resentful of her own repressive Catholic upbringing, she’d avoided church altogether in her adult life, and now she was dying and I didn’t even have God. I prayed to the whole wide universe and hoped that God would be in it, listening to me. I prayed and prayed, and then I faltered. Not because I couldn’t find God, but because suddenly I absolutely did: God was there, I realized, and God had no intention of making things happen or not, of saving my mother’s life. God was not a granter of wishes. God was a ruthless bitch. (23)
Which is, I want to point out, a good, solid, fifty-percent consonant with the Christian conception. God has his good side too, of course, but one can’t forget the old saw, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the Living God.” Or “Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God” – presumably because God loves him an occasional opportunity to stick it to people.
But you transition off of this fear, to becoming more at home in this world. This fearful cosmology ultimately contains you – with all your badness – and for that reason we wear it far better than some immaculate purity.
The trigger I’d pulled in stepping into the snow made me more alive to my senses than ever. Uncertain as I was as I pushed forward, I felt right in my pushing, as if the effort itself meant something. That perhaps being amidst the undesecrated beauty of the wilderness meant I too could be undesecrated, regardless of what I’d lost or what had been taken from me, regardless of the regrettable things I’d done to others or myself or the regrettable things that had been done to me. Of all the things I’d been skeptical about, I didn’t feel skeptical about this: the wilderness had a clarity that included me. (143)
You begin with a recognition that you are part of this larger thing; and then the feeling grows as you see your similarity to the other lives around you. She sees a deer and says, spontaneously, the words which she will later apply to herself:
“It’s okay,” I whispered to the deer, not knowing what I was going to say until I said it: “You’re safe in this world.” (233)
The boundaries between the world and us, macrocosm and microcosm, fuzz somewhat as we contemplate the bare facts of nature: we see ourselves eating the berries like the birds and bears, drinking the water like the deer and fish, drawing in even the lifeless air each second to sustain us. The lifelessness we see around us is in fact flowing into and out of us, constantly: it is within us as much as anything else. And this is precisely what Strayed sees, again, delineating the steps quite clearly, and experiencing it on an evening when she symbolically did not need her tent, and concomitantly broke with her own sense of aggrievement:
One night I made camp in a grassy spot from which I could see the evidence of those fires: a hazy scrim of smoke blanketing the westward view. I sat in my chair for an hour, looking out across the land as the sun faded into the smoke. I’d seen a lot of breathtaking sunsets in my evenings on the PCT, but this one was more spectacular than any in a while, the light made indistinct, melting into a thousand shades of yellow, pink, orange, and purple over the waves of green land. I could’ve been reading Dubliners or falling off to sleep in the cocoon of my sleeping bag, but on this night the sky was too mesmerizing to leave. As I watched it, I realized I’d passed the midpoint of my hike. I’d been out on the trail for fifty-some days. If all went as planned, in another fifty days I’d be done with the PCT. Whatever was going to happen to me out here would have happened.
“Oh remember the Red River Valley and the cowboy who loved you so true…” I sang, my voice trailing, not knowing the rest of the words. Images of Kyle’s little face and hands came to me, reverberations of his flawless voice [a small child she met on the trail, who had family troubles]. I wondered if I would ever be a mother and what kind of “horrible situation” Kyle’s mother was in, where his father might be and where mine was. What is he doing right this minute? I’d thought occasionally throughout my life, but I was never able to imagine it. I didn’t know my own father’s life. He was there, but invisible, a shadow beast in the woods; a fire so far away it’s nothing but smoke.
That was my father: the man who hadn’t fathered me. It amazed me every time. Again and again and again. Of all the wild things, his failure to love me the way he should have had always been the wildest thing of all. But on that night as I gazed over the darkening land fifty-some nights out on the PCT, it occurred to me that I didn’t have to be amazed by him anymore.
There were so many other amazing things in this world.
They opened up inside of me like a river. Like I didn’t know I could take a breath and then I breathed. I laughed with the joy of it, and the next moment I was crying my first tears on the PCT. I cried and I cried and I cried. I wasn’t crying because I was happy. I wasn’t crying because I was sad. I wasn’t crying because of my mother or my father or Paul. I was crying because I was full. Of those fifty-some hard days on the trail and of the 9,760 days that had come before them too.
I was entering. I was leaving. California streamed behind me like a long silk veil. I didn’t feel like a big fat idiot anymore. And I didn’t feel like a hard-ass motherfucking Amazonian queen. I felt fierce and humble and gathered up inside, like I was safe in this world too. (233-4)
I have to admire, again and again, Strayed’s ability to fuse the images of the trail with her own personal story: the way she sits admiring the sunset just as she earlier dreamed she had, then thinks of the small child she had just met that day and segues seamlessly into thinking about motherhood and fatherhood, then to her father, who is related to the fire in the distance. It is brilliantly done, and utterly convincing. And the conclusion makes sense to me as well: a sense of safety, ultimate safety despite pain, despite death, despite sin, despite failure.
To be at home in this world: of course this is a horribly, horribly difficult task. In fact it never fully happens. At times it is truly awful to think of how terrible we all are to each other, the suffering it causes, generation before generation, all way backwards in time. Strayed’s father was hideously abusive:
It had always been my mother at the center of me, but in that room with Vince I suddenly felt my father like a stake in my heart. I hate him, I’d said during my teens. I didn’t know what I felt for him now. He was like a home movie that played in my head, one whose narrative was broken and sketchy. There were big dramatic scenes and inexplicable moments floating free from time, perhaps because most of what I remember about him happened in the first six years of my life. There was my father smashing our dinner plates full of food against the wall in a rage. There was my father choking my mother while straddling her chest and banging her head against the wall. There was my father scooping my sister and me out of bed in the middle of the night when I was five to ask if we would leave forever with him, while my mother stood by, bloodied and clutching my sleeping baby brother to her chest, begging him to stop. When we cried instead of answered, he collapsed onto his knees and pressed his forehead to the floor and screamed so desperately I was sure we were all going to die right then and there.
Once, in the midst of one of his tirades, he threatened to throw my mother and her children naked onto the street, as if we weren’t his children too. We lived in Minnesota then. It was winter when he made the threat. I was at an age when everything was literal. It seemed precisely like a thing that he would do. I had an image of the four of us, naked and shrieking, running through the icy snow. (131-2)
There is a tremendous tension between these two scenes: the grown-up woman watching the sunset and deciding that she doesn’t have to worry anymore about the way her father failed her; and the actual facts of her father’s abuse. There is an asymmetry here, which Strayed is, I am sure, quite aware of, and it poses a real theological problem. There is always that remainder, that sense that maybe the transcendence is not worth the having, if bought at this horrible price. Of course all the other options are even worse – they are all just variants of being caught in the hatred forever – but still, the horror of it is so palpable that I can understand how other readers can find Strayed’s writing fundamentally irreligious. Ivan Karamazov declares that he rejects God because the whole universe is not worth the suffering of one child.
Strayed does not take her book into realms of philosophy and theology: hers is an account of her experience on the trail, where somehow the balance of her life tipped finally to the positive side. And it is marvellously done – really one of the very few travel books which really tells a tale of transformation. not just escapism or therapy. The closest she comes to the theological problem of actually accepting monotheism – which ultimately makes God responsible for all the evil as well as all the good – is in her use of the term “wild.” That is what “wild” means to her – wild means beyond good and evil, irreducible, incomprehensible, hidden, unknown, transcendent: the condition in the Garden of Eden, when God tells Adam and Eve not to bother with questions of “good” and “evil” – as soon as you drop into dualism, all will be lost. And her last name – a name she took after her divorce – is an image of how lostness is a precondition of all deeper knowledge. The word Dante uses to describe this condition – smarrito, usually translated “astray” – he later uses to describe his condition when he sees God face to face – he was “smarrito,” dazzled, stupefied. And to go from one meaning of the word to another, as Strayed does, means seeing it all: heaven, purgatory, and hell. ”God hath consigned all men to unbelief, that he might have mercy on them all.” For Strayed the dictionary definition of the word strayed sums it up:
To wander from the proper path, to deviate from the direct course, to be lost, to become wild, to be without a mother or father, to be without a home, to move about aimlessly in search of something, to diverge or digress. (96)
I would like to dwell further on the remainder that I have been talking about, the sense that the suffering utterly corrupts the joy. This is not the actual fact: the light wins, in actuality, for most of us, but the line is fine. For every person there come days when it would seem to be better to be dead than alive, or best never to have been born. This is the problem that comes after the experience: you feel at last at home in the world, but the world in fact offers the same quantity and quality of suffering it always has. You come from your experience better; but the world is much the same. Strayed does not deal with this problem directly, but the book’s perspective – it was written a decade and a half after the actual trip – and certain comments Strayed makes, show the existence of the problem in Strayed’s mind as much as in everyone else’s. I will deal with that problem in the next essay.
I find this image, of a man putting a microphone and recorder to the lips of the Sphinx, so compelling an image for so much of what I find myself doing, and so much of what I think humanity as a whole has to do, to make sense of our new lives, which are somehow a continuation of the old, and far less free of them than we think. It is by Mark Tansey, and is called The Secret of the Sphinx.
A very nice piece from the National Catholic Reporter, in which a priest simply records all the reasons he is given for young people’s dissatisfaction with the Church, in an evening devoted to the topic. Every single reason is a good one. Almost every single problem the Church has in bringing the Good News does not come from Jesus: built on sand, it will wash away. You can see the problems in the comments section too. It literally devolves into fights about whether women monitoring the viscosity of their vaginal mucus counts as a Christian mode of birth control or not. Almost everything you hear from the pulpit or from the sacristy rats can be summed up as “Strain at gnats, and swallow those camels.”