Since graduating from University, I have tried to keep a deal with myself that I will read at least one book per month. Now that I’m out of a setting that told me I had to, it hasn’t been a chore at all, and I whizzed through the January readings I set for myself. Although the amount of spare time I have due to working a part-time job with pathetic hours, while desperately applying to countless graduate jobs could also contribute to this success. (Help.) Typically favouring crime novels or dramas with disturbing storylines, this month I opted for a couple of positive readings in an attempt to kick-start the New Year with a healthy dose of optimism. These turned out to be two American women’s bestselling memoir’s Wild, by Cheryl Strayed and Elizabeth Gilbert’s, Eat Pray Love. When I sat down to read, I had no idea the huge impact these women’s journeys would have on me, and how they would prompt me to take some crucial steps that would greatly improve my own life and well-being.
Wild, follows 26-year-old Cheryl Strayed as she takes on the Pacific Crest Trail, and walks 1,100 miles, with zero previous hiking experience to prepare herself, resulting in many lost toenails and hiccups along the way. Eat Pray Love, is told by the 31 and newly divorced, Elizabeth Gilbert, who takes a year out to rediscover happiness. She figures the way to achieve this is to eat in Italy, pray in India and find love in Bali. Both accounts follow a woman who has faced a personal tragedy and as a result, has lost a part of herself along the way. Both decide to take a lone journey, in an attempt to rediscover pleasure in life and in the process heal the psychological wounds their current lives have inflicted upon them. I liked the idea of removing yourself from your life and using a new environment as a sanctuary in which to rebuild or transform yourself. To be away from not only familiar surroundings but also the people in your life, who know everything about you and the life you have lived. As much as you may love them, to be free from the people that know you best can be liberating rather than scary. As Cheryl puts it ‘I was trying to heal. Trying to get the bad out of my system so I could be good again. To cure me of myself.’ Both stories take an intimate look at the innermost pain and turmoil found in the human heart; in these cases the premature death of a mother in Wild, and a devastatingly bitter end of a marriage in Eat Pray Love, and how we, as human beings cope with the private heartbreaks that befall us. As Cheryl hikes along a hostile trail that she loves and hates or as Elizabeth sits close to tears meditating in a temple in India, the reader is encouraged to assess their own past and grievances and to take a look inwards as you join the author on a trip of reflection and redemption.
Gilbert is very different from me, and so I learnt a lot from her. Being an atheist myself, I found it difficult to open my mind to her new found relationship with God, and how deep her journey takes her into her search for spirituality, but I found it thoroughly fascinating all the same. I didn’t realise it at the time of reading it, but Gilbert had presented me with a great gift. For the longest time, I have been a sufferer of deafening tinnitus, which causes me a lot of anxiety and gruelling phases of insomnia. After finishing the book and marvelling at the peace Gilbert had found through meditation, I wondered if I could practice it to help with my own troubles. It is something I have been told to try countless times before, but reading the benefits of it first hand, I put aside any scepticism I had and finally sat down to try it myself. I immediately kicked myself for not trying it sooner. Meditation is the first exercise I have found that has truly helped me to combat my tinnitus by transporting yourself to a place where you can believe that the sounds you are hearing are external rather than internal. It has taken a lot of practice, and I intend on writing a blog post focusing on how I have tackled it soon. She also introduced me to what Buddhists call ‘the monkey mind’, a person who finds it difficult to focus on one thought and possesses a mind that likes to swing from one to the next, sometimes to an exhausting degree, like a monkey swinging on a tree of infinite branches. You can’t catch the monkey and force it into a cage, so you must learn to live with it not as an enemy, but as a companion. Learning about this analogy taught me how to settle my own chaotic thought processes. In its pages, I found lessons of patience, self-restraint and self-kindness.
I resonated more with Strayed than I did with Gilbert; perhaps because she is only a couple of years older than I am now when she set out on her hike, studied literature as I did and uses books both to escape from the world and to make sense of it. Where a lot of Gilbert’s trip is about indulgence, Strayed’s is about resilience and her journey almost feels like a punishment at points. Set in a much darker tone than Gilbert’s, I appreciated her refreshingly raw honesty regarding her self-destruction following her mother’s death and how her twenties saw her thrown into a chaotic lifestyle of heroin and sexual affairs. She barely had a penny to her name to survive on throughout her hike and several times she expresses her amazement at how she could carry everything she needed to survive on her back. By the time her trail comes to an end, she is basically destitute. Wild, demonstrates the beauty and horrors of nature and Cheryl’s experiences with confronting both. This quote sums up the way in which nature forced Cheryl to face her demons: ‘The thing about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, the thing that was so profound to me that summer—and yet also, like most things, so very simple—was how few choices I had and how often I had to do the thing I least wanted to do. How there was no escape or denial. No numbing it down with a martini or covering it up with a roll in the hay. As I clung to the chaparral that day, attempting to patch up my bleeding finger, terrified by every sound that the bull was coming back, I considered my options. There were only two and they were essentially the same. I could go back in the direction I had come from, or I could go forward in the direction I intended to go.’ She expresses that the journey is not about getting from A to B, but ‘to do with how it felt to be in the wild. With what it was like to walk for miles for no reason other than to witness the accumulation of trees and meadows, mountains and deserts, streams and rocks, rivers and grasses, sunrises and sunsets. The experience was powerful and fundamental.’
I was interested in both author’s approaches to how they would focus on their relationships with themselves and others on their explorations. Gilbert is searching for new experiences rather than to be alone, and she remains extroverted and social throughout her year of travels. For this, I am grateful as I found the people she met along the way the most compelling part of the journey. She meets some unique and wonderful characters in every place that she visits and the relationships she forms with them have a profound effect on her self-progress and healing. We are introduced to a diverse array of cultures and languages that make the book a delightfully intellectual event and offers endless wisdom. However, while friendship was not off the table, she decided she would remain celibate for the trip, sharing a bed with only herself in order to feel aloneness until it no longer scared her.
Cheryl on the other hand, is looking for complete solitude and silence so that she can use the 1,100 miles she hikes across the Pacific Crest Trail in California as a time of empowering reflection as she believes this will allow her to process her past, which will purge her of the depression that has engulfed her since her mothers death and set her on a path back to herself and the person her mother raised her to be. That is the version of herself that she reveres, and believes that the road to finding her begins on the trail. She allows herself limited company; she has a sexual encounter and makes many fleeting friendships along the way, but never stays with them for long, needing to face it alone again.
It seemed that Gilbert needed to be free solely from romantic company, to rely on herself for the first time in her life, to be a whole all by herself, rather than needing a half of someone else to make that whole. By taking the time to be on her own, she is able to challenge feelings of loneliness that arise by telling herself ‘So BE lonely Liz. Learn your way around loneliness. Make a map of it. Sit with it, for once in your life. Welcome to the human experience. But never again use another person’s body or emotions as a scratching post for your own unfulfilled yearnings.’ Cheryl needed to be alone for different reasons, darker reasons. She needed to be alone in order to confront her past, confront actions that she was ashamed of so she could forgive herself and find peace with the person she is. That isn’t something you can achieve with the distraction of company. Only being alone in the wilderness would give her clarity she needed to process each of the downfalls that had led her here. As William Wordsworth wrote, ‘Come forth into the light of things, let nature be your teacher.’
My favourite quote and lesson from Wild comes from Cheryl’s mum and is a quote that Cheryl holds onto after she is gone. Her mother tells her, ‘put yourself in the way of beauty.’ One of my favourite memories of living in Falmouth was during my final year; I was struggling with insomnia and after another night of silently screaming into my pillow, I gave up the quest for sleep and walked down to Gylly beach to sit and watch the sunrise. There was only one other woman there and she was swimming in the sea, but apart from her, there was no one else in sight. No small talk, no busyness, no noise, just the sea. On her hike, Cheryl begins to see herself as part of the trail, an extension of nature itself. She says, ‘I was a pebble. I was a leaf. I was the jagged branch of a tree. I was nothing to them and they were everything to me.’ That’s how I felt that morning on the beach; that the woman swimming in the ocean wouldn’t be able to see me sat on the sand because at that moment, I was a part of it. No one knew I was there, but there meant everything to me. And I feel like that is the art of putting yourself in the way of beauty. It can be as small as Liz crossing the street in Italy to walk in the sunshine. Feeling beat down by life and sick with exhaustion, but still choosing to go out and see what the world has to offer that morning, even if you’re mad at it. ‘There is always a sunrise and always a sunset and it’s up to you to choose to be there for it.’
Silence is explored in both texts, and it is this silent reflection as a way of healing that interested me most about these books and how they managed to shift something inside of me. We live in a society that tells us we have to be loud to be noticed, and if we are quiet we are deemed as shy or boring. Erling Kagge, wrote in his book Silence: In the Age of Noise, that ‘we get lost in the noise.’ It is only in silence that we find the time to reflect on what is important. For a long time, I found it difficult to sit in silence or to spend time by myself. I hated sleeping in an empty bed and I was always searching for distraction, which led me to rely on other people too intensely. That was until I found myself in a situation where I was forced to be alone. If you sit in silence then there is nothing to distract you. To sit in silence is to confront yourself, and so I did. Now I love and value my own company; I take comfort in it and it makes me sad to remember how uncomfortable it made me in the past. If you are uncomfortable sat only with yourself, then something is being avoided. There is a quote in Wild, where Cheryl states, ‘Alone had always felt like an actual place to me as if it weren’t a state of being, but rather a room where I could retreat to be who I really was.’ Another reason I was so intrigued about entering the state of silence, is that I suffer from extreme partial deafness as well as tinnitus. Sometimes I can be having a conversation with someone and the tinnitus becomes so deafening that I only pick up several words per sentence and have to try and piece them together and guess what is being said to me. Sometimes this becomes so stressful that I overcompensate in social situations and talk as much as possible so that I don’t have to listen, and then worry that I come across as self-centred. As a result, I often find it exhausting keeping up with conversation, so since reading these books, I have done lots of research on using silence to benefit me, rather than to dishearten me. While Liz is at a temple in India, people practice silence as a powerful meditation tool, which allows us to look inwards at oneself. Similar to what we see practised in the temple, when I went online I found that there are countless silent retreats situated across the UK that I am determined to save up for so I can experience one for myself. Sound does not bode well with my broken ears so it will be interesting to insert myself into an environment that is specifically designed for silence and to see if freedom from the pressure of listening will give me a sense of relief and a much-needed escape from the depression the impairment can bestow.
You do not need to quit your job and complete months or years of travel, like Gilbert and Strayed did to have an experience validated as meaningful. In an interview with Oprah, Cheryl states that she could have spent just eight days on the trail and returned home with a profound experience. She asks the question, when did you last spend an entire day without seeing or talking to another human being? Just a week or a few days of solitude could be what you need to shift perspective and embrace being alone with yourself.
I would urge any fans of these women, to pay a visit to Marie Forleo’s YouTube channel, where you will find nearly hour long, separate interviews with both Strayed and Gilbert discussing their works, life lessons and inspiring words to all creative types.
Next month’s readings: Dystopia – The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood.