{bucket list}

I may not have been born in Oregon. I may not live there now, and I may not have lived there for any significant length of time over the past seven years. I may never live there again (but I seriously doubt that). But despite all these very true facts, the one that remains most important to me is that I freaking love Oregon, and it will always be home to me.

I’ve pretty much always known that, but what recently brought it especially to my mind was reading Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. In 1995, devastated by the death of her mother, the loss of her family, and her recent divorce (among many other traumas), Strayed hiked the California and Oregon sections of the PCT alone. Seventeen years later, she wrote a memoir of that adventure, describing in page-turning detail the lost toenails, the brutal terrain, and the very real fears of dehydration, hypothermia, and starvation.

Of the five sections of Strayed’s book, four of them describe her journey across California, most of which elicited my response of “Ugh, that sounds terrible.” But terrible in the kind of way that made me about 60% want to try it. Terrible in the kind of physically painful, fear-inducing way that means you can do anything. Terrible in the kind of way that made lying motionless on my bed or in the park reading this seem almost equally terrible, because I wasn’t doing anything. The landscapes were extreme and alien, ranging from the draught-ravaged Modoc Plateau to the “socked in” Sierra Nevada. Once she got to Oregon, though, my opinion had changed to “I 100% want to do this and where are my hiking boots.” Everything about Oregon was so familiar and dear to me, either because I have already been there or because I could picture so distinctly everything she was describing. Her description of the awe she felt on arriving at Crater Lake almost brought me to tears. By the end of the book, I was definitely, definitely going to hike the Oregon portion of the PCT. Someday.

On a slightly more serious note, I do have some friends who either did not like or did not finish the book, namely due to Strayed’s shortcomings as a backpacker. One friend said, “It just didn’t turn out to be what I was expecting,” referring to, I might assume, an expectation that it would the story of some totally bad-ass experienced backpacker who completely rocked the PCT from Mexico to Canada alone in record time. It’s true that Cheryl had no backpacking experience before starting; that she made almost no effort to physically prepare herself for the trek; that she was mocked frequently along the trail for having a ludicrously heavy backpack that no skilled or sane person would dare to carry so many miles. But in a way, these facts endeared Cheryl to me even more, because I felt like I understood them. I’ve never done anything as crazy/awesome as hiking the PCT, but I understand what it’s like to be so blinded by a goal that you lose sight of rationality. And even more so, I understand that Cheryl’s journey was one of redemption. And you don’t practice redemption. You don’t prepare yourself for it. You embark upon the journey and you suffer through it until you achieve it. From the pain of hitting rock bottom, sometimes it requires pain of a different sort to bring you back up.

{tragicomic}

My friend and coworker suggested Augusten Burroughs’s Running with Scissors, saying something along the lines of “OMG IT IS LAUGH-OUT-LOUD FUNNY, YOU WILL FALL OUT OF YOUR CHAIR.” I read it and . . . didn’t. This is not at all to say that I did not like it—I did. There was just no chair-falling involved in it for me.

Burroughs’s memoir focuses on his childhood and early teen years in Massachusetts. After his parents’ divorce at age 12, he lives briefly with his mother before being more-or-less (and, later, legally) adopted by his mother’s psychiatrist, Dr. Finch. The Finch household is truly disgusting, overrun with roaches, feces, and children. Dr. Finch believes that children shouldn’t be told what to do (or where to live) after the age of 13, and brings his family up accordingly. The young Augusten loves smooth hair, shiny coins, and pleated pants, and is at first shocked and repulsed by his new surroundings. Soon, though, he becomes solidly ingrained in the Finch lifestyle, as Natalie Finch becomes his constant companion and Augusten’s mother veers toward complete insanity.

As a memoir, RwS was filled with enough shocking events and crazy characters to make for a real page-turner (I started and finished it in the same day). The tone is dry and extremely self-deprecating; I can sort of see why my friend found it hysterical, but I mainly found it tragic.

Princess Diana was almost like a parallel-universe version of Natalie. A version that didn’t give her first blowjob at eleven, wasn’t traded for cash by her father at thirteen, and didn’t long for a job as a counter girl at McDonald’s.

As quickly as I read it, I didn’t recover quite as fast. Partly because of my friend’s comments, I spent most of the book searching for this unbounded hilarity, and coming up dry. My friend aside, though, this is the kind of book that slaps you in the face and forces a reaction out of you. What it doesn’t do is clarify the appropriate reaction, and this kept me guessing and page-turning throughout the entire book.

{anxiety attack}

The Glass Castle had been on my stack of post-surgery reading, and when I found out that my college’s Seattle-based alumni book group had chosen it for their September read, it was obviously time to read it. What follows, then, is what I would bring to the discussion were I in Seattle and so inclined to attend an alumni book group.

TGC is Jeannette Walls’s memoir of her childhood, which the Atlanta Journal-Constitution notes as markedly Dickensian. Jeannette, her parents, three siblings, and several pets have a nomadic existence, remaining in one place only until they completely exhaust their meager resources slash are in danger of being hunted down by various legal organizations. Walls is an excellent writer with a remarkable story. I was turning pages almost faster than I could read them, but was almost constantly on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

TGC is the second book I’ve read recently on a destitute childhood, the first being Ellen Foster. Despite the fact that Jeannette’s parents love her and Ellen’s are either dead or awful, Ellen still left me feeling more optimistic. Ellen was a plucky kid who knew she was in a tight spot and did everything in her power to escape it—and was ultimately successful. The child Jeannette (though now a happy and successful adult) doesn’t seem to realize that her living circumstances are abnormal, even atrocious.

She has—for the most part—a happy family with a sense of adventure. When she lights herself on fire cooking hot dogs at the age of three, the lessons her parents teach her are to be stronger than any threat, to not let fear overtake her, and not to trust doctors. The scary thing is that, with the exception of the last one, I agree with that! But I don’t agree with a toddler lighting themselves on fire because they have to prepare food for themselves! Gah. Stress.

The Walls parents are brilliant. They teach Jeannette and her siblings literature, math, philosophy, physics, astronomy, and logic (Jeannette later attended Barnard with a four-year scholarship). Their logic on life generally makes sense, as I mentioned above. It’s just when you put it into practice and add alcoholism, shirked responsibilities, and a great deal of paranoia, this logic devolves into a state that leaves me (the reader) screaming, “How could this happen to someone? And how did she ever get where she is now?” Jeannette Walls teaches us that rotted meat and rusty nails are no barrier to being awesome and brilliant and alive, and that’s a lesson worth learning.

The happy family dream begins to fall apart when Jeannette is in her early teens. The hunger, pain, and helplessness is no longer a fun adventure. Plus, her dad’s drinking gets much worse, as does her mom’s denial of reality. Through a series of miracles, the Walls children find their way to New York City, just like the scrappy, experience-hardened kids they are.

TGC will make you question pretty much everything in your own upbringing and, probably, your whole life. The Walls parents just seem so great at times! I loved when Jeannette makes her own braces/headgear out of a rubber band, a coat hanger, and a Maxi pad. How cool is that? But inevitably, Mr. Walls can’t get a job, a relative dies, CPS comes knocking, the kitchen roof caves in, and rats eat all their food, and then the Walls are on the road again. It’s the story of a vicious cycle that kept me in constant anxiety because I couldn’t help thinking that if I ever fell into a life like that, I probably wouldn’t be able to get out. Yikes.