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Three Tales of Spirit – Sometimes Resilience Comes from Down Deep

Three Tales of Spirit – Sometimes Resilience Comes from Down Deep
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by Mary Jane Horton

The ability to pull oneself up by the bootstraps isn’t something that everyone learns. And, if you are lucky, you may never have to find out if you have that ability or not. The authors of these three memoirs didn’t know that they had the resilience to go on with their lives, until they did just that.

Wild

You have to be living under a rock if you haven’t read about Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail (Alfred A. Knopf, 2012) in the past two years. Strayed is overnight success who has actually been a hard working writer praised in literary circles for years. She became the belle of the ball with her recent book, and – now – the movie of the book starring and produced by Reese Witherspoon.

Wild chronicles Strayed’s backpacking adventure on the Pacific Crest Trail – 1,100 miles of it – from Baja to Washington. She came to the decision to take this trip in her mid-twenties after negative life experiences left her down and out. Her mother had died a few years earlier, she and her husband – who she truly loved – split up, and she dabbled a little with heroin use. She needed something to save her.

And save her this trek did. But it wasn’t easy. Before leaving she saved every nickel from waitressing jobs, learned all she could about backpacking (even though she was a rustic girl from Minnesota and sometimes lived without indoor plumbing, she wasn’t a backpacker), she read about the trail, and packed boxes to have her friends send along the way. She started out slowly, with very painful feet, wondering if she would be able to persevere. But onward she pushes, putting one foot in front of the other, going on no matter what. And there are those inevitable snafus – her hiking boots are too small and she needs new ones, which REI sends, there is snow in certain areas of the trail and she has to divert, and there are some dicey encounters with animals and unsavory men.

On she goes, her spirit healing with every ensuing mile, through days of crashing rain, nights lost away from the trail, days of lush green trees, sparkling pools, and visiting deer. And even with all of the vivid descriptions of what was going on in Cheryl Strayed’s life before her journey – weaved in out of the travelogue of the hike – what sticks in my mind most is when she first put on “Monster,” her trusty backpack. It was ridiculously heavy but Strayed’s “I can do it because I have to” attitude is the current running through the narrative. And this scene makes it shine. She sits down on the floor, gets the pack on and describes the rest like this: “I began rocking back and forth to gain momentum, until finally I hurled myself forward with everything in me and got myself to my knees. My backpack was no longer on the floor. It was officially attached to me. It still seemed like a Volkswagen Beetle, but now it seemed like a Volkswagen Beetle that was parked on my back.” That pack (a bit lightened up along the way) and Strayed triumphantly make it to Washington at the end.

Strayed may have had rough deal growing up (which we learn about on her trek) – her father was an abusive jerk – but she emerged with a gift of observation and a loving, inquisitive nature. You have to love her for her in-your-face attitude. And you also learn to love the crew of characters – rustic mountain men, college students, serious hikers – she meets along the way. Mostly though, this book teaches you that if you want, and need, something bad enough – for Strayed it was putting her life back together – you may have to hike through cold and rainy nights, but you can get it.

 

Not by Accident

In Samantha Dunn’s memoir, Not By Accident: Reconstructing a Careless Life (Henry Holt and Company, 2002), we see how Samantha (full disclosure, we used to work together), has a very bad fall off of her horse, languishes and then finally gets up and gets stronger. The secret, long-term hurt in this story is that she feels that this is a pattern – that some how she sabotages herself with falling and other accidents, bad boyfriends, and other ills.

The story starts as Dunn is leading her horse, Harley, across a narrow creek in the Canyons in Malibu, California. It is a daily occurrence for Dunn, a consummate horsewoman. But this day is different. In the process of trying to get though the creek, she dismounts and holds onto Harley with his reign, slips and the horse lands on top of her. His hind foot slashes through her leg and she can’t move. She is lying there in the dirty, wet stream, and can’t summon the will to move on the, now, excruciatingly painful leg.

And who finds her? – Eddie Albert (junior – son of the actor known for Green Acres), who lives nearby. He calls the paramedics and they medevac her to the UCLA Hospital where she finds out that her leg had almost been severed by her beloved horse. As she lay in the hospital, on morphine for the horrible pain, she deals with the possibility even after several surgeries she may still lose leg because of the risk of infection from what doctors called a “barnyard injury,” meaning there were dirty animal hoofs, dirt, mud, etc. involved. Even though she feels totally broken and demoralized, she returns home with both legs, and starts her long recovery.

As soon as she starts thinking straight, as another part of her rehabilitation, Dunn decides to try to figure out if, in some way, she has done this to herself by being accident-prone. But, in the end, she decides this: “The truth is I am not prone to accidents. I am prone to jumping on the back of a horse and riding until the rush of wind in my ears erases the screaming and name calling between the women I love most in the world [her alcoholic, but amazing mother and her grandmother]…I am prone to want to see myself bleed rather than admit I’m scared. Accidents are just part of the deal.”

With that in mind, Dunn is able to finish her healing, without thinking that she is apt to get injured again. And heal she does. She slowly gets back into her old life – a coffee date with a friend, small writing assignments, she learns how to lean on other writers, friends, and her husband, a recovering drug addict with his own issues. She finds a guru who not only gives her spiritual guidance but also teaches her yoga, meditation and vegetarianism. She also enlists the help of a chiropractor, a trainer who used to be an Olympic wrestler, a Navy seal turned martial artist, and a psychotherapist.

And slowly, surely, she does heal. Her new spiritual bent helps her find that resilient spirit inside that keeps her going through the pain. It keeps her going through her physical rehabilitation, through her breakup with her husband, through her doubts that she would ever be whole again. And she rides Harley again. With trepidation, and slowly, but she rides, and ends with this thought: “The ground disappeared for a moment, and all I could feel were four good legs beneath me going forward.”

 

 

The Glass Castle

In her iconic book, The Glass Castle             (Scribner, 2005), Jeannette Walls finds resilience almost from the moment she is born. At the book’s beginning she is three years old and she and her family are living in a trailer in Arizona where she severely burns herself while making hot dogs. She is hospitalized, but her father, Rex, grabs her and takes her from the hospital before she is released. She takes it in stride. And so starts Walls’ incredible story of the enduring spirit of children.

Not long after the hospital incident, her family begins a transient existence in which they live briefly in Las Vegas, San Francisco, and various small desert towns. During this time Rex holds various jobs at various mines and seeks to perfect a new device for more efficiently mining gold. He tells his family numerous tall tales about his past, and claims that in the future he will build a Glass Castle that they will all live in.

They finally settle down in a town called Battle Mountain, Nevada and, for a while, things seem to calm down – but not for long. When a neighbor attempts to rape Jeannette, they pack up in the middle of the night and move to Phoenix. It is hard to know whether or not Rex is crazy or just eccentric. He and his wife, Rose Mary, just say they don’t want to live by society’s rules. The husband and wife make money by doing small con jobs and basically flaun the law. Jeannette, as a child and a teen, doesn’t know where she will be, what she will eat, or whether she will have clothes or not tomorrow, yet she endures. Finally, they move to West Virginia, where Rex’s family lives. Things deescalate even further until the whole family ends up moving to New York. Jeannette picks herself up, gets a scholarship to an expensive private college, and makes a name for herself as a journalist. Her parents end up on the street.

It is an amazing story of fortitude and just what you can do if you are determined. I heard Walls speak once, and one thing that stood out was that – even though her parents acted crazily were certainly renegades – they loved her. So she went through life with that at least.

Walls ecently wrote a piece in Scribner Magazine entitled “Dear Teen Me: Jeannette Walls,” in which she said this about her resilience: “Life will get so much better – if you let it. What’s more, in the years ahead, you’ll find the tough times you’re going through now will teach you some very valuable lessons on how to deal with the inevitable curveballs that the world throws at everyone. Right now is your time to start believing in yourself.” That is good advice not only for the teen Jeannette Walls, but for all of us as well.

Wild

You have to be living under a rock if you haven’t read about Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail (Alfred A. Knopf, 2012) in the past two years. Strayed is overnight success who has actually been a hard working writer praised in literary circles for years. She became the belle of the ball with her recent book, and – now – the movie of the book starring and produced by Reese Witherspoon.

Wild chronicles Strayed’s backpacking adventure on the Pacific Crest Trail – 1,100 miles of it – from Baja to Washington. She came to the decision to take this trip in her mid-twenties after negative life experiences left her down and out. Her mother had died a few years earlier, she and her husband – who she truly loved – split up, and she dabbled a little with heroin use. She needed something to save her.

And save her this trek did. But it wasn’t easy. Before leaving she saved every nickel from waitressing jobs, learned all she could about backpacking (even though she was a rustic girl from Minnesota and sometimes lived without indoor plumbing, she wasn’t a backpacker), she read about the trail, and packed boxes to have her friends send along the way. She started out slowly, with very painful feet, wondering if she would be able to persevere. But onward she pushes, putting one foot in front of the other, going on no matter what. And there are those inevitable snafus – her hiking boots are too small and she needs new ones, which REI sends, there is snow in certain areas of the trail and she has to divert, and there are some dicey encounters with animals and unsavory men.

On she goes, her spirit healing with every ensuing mile, through days of crashing rain, nights lost away from the trail, days of lush green trees, sparkling pools, and visiting deer. And even with all of the vivid descriptions of what was going on in Cheryl Strayed’s life before her journey – weaved in out of the travelogue of the hike – what sticks in my mind most is when she first put on “Monster,” her trusty backpack. It was ridiculously heavy but Strayed’s “I can do it because I have to” attitude is the current running through the narrative. And this scene makes it shine. She sits down on the floor, gets the pack on and describes the rest like this: “I began rocking back and forth to gain momentum, until finally I hurled myself forward with everything in me and got myself to my knees. My backpack was no longer on the floor. It was officially attached to me. It still seemed like a Volkswagen Beetle, but now it seemed like a Volkswagen Beetle that was parked on my back.” That pack (a bit lightened up along the way) and Strayed triumphantly make it to Washington at the end.

Strayed may have had rough deal growing up (which we learn about on her trek) – her father was an abusive jerk – but she emerged with a gift of observation and a loving, inquisitive nature. You have to love her for her in-your-face attitude. And you also learn to love the crew of characters – rustic mountain men, college students, serious hikers – she meets along the way. Mostly though, this book teaches you that if you want, and need, something bad enough – for Strayed it was putting her life back together – you may have to hike through cold and rainy nights, but you can get it.

Not by Accident

In Samantha Dunn’s memoir, Not By Accident: Reconstructing a Careless Life (Henry Holt and Company, 2002), we see how Samantha (full disclosure, we used to work together), has a very bad fall off of her horse, languishes and then finally gets up and gets stronger. The secret, long-term hurt in this story is that she feels that this is a pattern – that some how she sabotages herself with falling and other accidents, bad boyfriends, and other ills.

The story starts as Dunn is leading her horse, Harley, across a narrow creek in the Canyons in Malibu, California. It is a daily occurrence for Dunn, a consummate horsewoman. But this day is different. In the process of trying to get though the creek, she dismounts and holds onto Harley with his reign, slips and the horse lands on top of her. His hind foot slashes through her leg and she can’t move. She is lying there in the dirty, wet stream, and can’t summon the will to move on the, now, excruciatingly painful leg.

And who finds her? – Eddie Albert (junior – son of the actor known for Green Acres), who lives nearby. He calls the paramedics and they medevac her to the UCLA Hospital where she finds out that her leg had almost been severed by her beloved horse. As she lay in the hospital, on morphine for the horrible pain, she deals with the possibility even after several surgeries she may still lose leg because of the risk of infection from what doctors called a “barnyard injury,” meaning there were dirty animal hoofs, dirt, mud, etc. involved. Even though she feels totally broken and demoralized, she returns home with both legs, and starts her long recovery.

As soon as she starts thinking straight, as another part of her rehabilitation, Dunn decides to try to figure out if, in some way, she has done this to herself by being accident-prone. But, in the end, she decides this: “The truth is I am not prone to accidents. I am prone to jumping on the back of a horse and riding until the rush of wind in my ears erases the screaming and name calling between the women I love most in the world [her alcoholic, but amazing mother and her grandmother]…I am prone to want to see myself bleed rather than admit I’m scared. Accidents are just part of the deal.”

With that in mind, Dunn is able to finish her healing, without thinking that she is apt to get injured again. And heal she does. She slowly gets back into her old life – a coffee date with a friend, small writing assignments, she learns how to lean on other writers, friends, and her husband, a recovering drug addict with his own issues. She finds a guru who not only gives her spiritual guidance but also teaches her yoga, meditation and vegetarianism. She also enlists the help of a chiropractor, a trainer who used to be an Olympic wrestler, a Navy seal turned martial artist, and a psychotherapist.

And slowly, surely, she does heal. Her new spiritual bent helps her find that resilient spirit inside that keeps her going through the pain. It keeps her going through her physical rehabilitation, through her breakup with her husband, through her doubts that she would ever be whole again. And she rides Harley again. With trepidation, and slowly, but she rides, and ends with this thought: “The ground disappeared for a moment, and all I could feel were four good legs beneath me going forward.”

The Glass Castle

In her iconic book, The Glass Castle (Scribner, 2005), Jeannette Walls finds resilience almost from the moment she is born. At the book’s beginning she is three years old and she and her family are living in a trailer in Arizona where she severely burns herself while making hot dogs. She is hospitalized, but her father, Rex, grabs her and takes her from the hospital before she is released. She takes it in stride. And so starts Walls’ incredible story of the enduring spirit of children.

Not long after the hospital incident, her family begins a transient existence in which they live briefly in Las Vegas, San Francisco, and various small desert towns. During this time Rex holds various jobs at various mines and seeks to perfect a new device for more efficiently mining gold. He tells his family numerous tall tales about his past, and claims that in the future he will build a Glass Castle that they will all live in.

They finally settle down in a town called Battle Mountain, Nevada and, for a while, things seem to calm down – but not for long. When a neighbor attempts to rape Jeannette, they pack up in the middle of the night and move to Phoenix. It is hard to know whether or not Rex is crazy or just eccentric. He and his wife, Rose Mary, just say they don’t want to live by society’s rules. The husband and wife make money by doing small con jobs and basically flaunt the law. Jeannette, as a child and a teen, doesn’t know where she will be, what she will eat, or whether she will have clothes or not tomorrow, yet she endures. Finally, they move to West Virginia, where Rex’s family lives. Things deescalate even further until the whole family ends up moving to New York. Jeannette picks herself up, gets a scholarship to an expensive private college, and makes a name for herself as a journalist. Her parents end up on the street.

It is an amazing story of fortitude and just what you can do if you are determined. I heard Walls speak once, and one thing that stood out was that – even though her parents acted crazily and were certainly renegades – they loved her. So she went through life with that at least.

Walls recently wrote a piece in Scribner Magazine entitled “Dear Teen Me: Jeannette Walls,” in which she said this about her resilience: “Life will get so much better – if you let it. What’s more, in the years ahead, you’ll find the tough times you’re going through now will teach you some very valuable lessons on how to deal with the inevitable curveballs that the world throws at everyone. Right now is your time to start believing in yourself.” That is good advice not only for the teen Jeannette Walls, but for all of us as well.

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Mary Jane Horton
Mary Jane Horton has been a writer/editor for 30 years. She has written
 for such magazines as Runner’s World, Fodor’s Guides, Time, Ms., Shape, Prevention, Living Fit, Woman’s Day special interest publications, to name a few, and worked as an editor for Fit Pregnancy magazine. Most recently she was editor in chief of Plum magazine, a health and lifestyle magazine for women over 35. She can be found at maryjanehorton.com.