Yesterday, I attended a personal essay writing workshop where we discussed Cheryl Strayed’s essay “The Love of My Life.” In the piece, Strayed details her grieving process after losing her mother to cancer; a spiral that includes cheating on her faithful, loving husband and developing a heroin habit.
If you’ve got some time and an interest in a gut-wrenching, heartfelt story, I highly recommend it. There’s a moment at the end of the essay after Strayed has divorced her husband and is about to embark on a 1,638-mile solo hike through the Pacific Northwest (a story told in the memoir and movie Wild), where she loses her mother’s wedding ring in a river:
IF THIS WERE fiction, what would happen next is that the woman would stand up and get into her truck and drive away. It wouldn’t matter that the woman had lost her mother’s wedding ring, even though it was gone to her forever, because the loss would mean something else entirely: that what was gone now was actually her sorrow and the shackles of grief that had held her down. And in this loss she would see, and the reader would know, that the woman had been in error all along. That, indeed, the love she’d had for her mother was too much love, really; too much love and also too much sorrow. She would realize this and get on with her life. There would be what happened in the story and also everything it stood for: the river, representing life’s constant changing; the tiny blue flowers, beauty; the spring air, rebirth. All of these symbols would collide and mean that the woman was actually lucky to have lost the ring, and not just to have lost it, but to have loved it, to have ached for it, and to have had it taken from her forever. The story would end, and you would know that she was the better for it. That she was wiser, stronger, more interesting, and, most of all, finally starting down her path to glory. I would show you the leaf when it unfurls in a single motion: the end of one thing, the beginning of another. And you would know the answers to all the questions without being told. Did she ever write that five-page paper about the guy who lost his nose? Did she ask Mark to marry her again? Did she stop sleeping with people who had titles instead of names? Did she manage to walk 1,638 miles? Did she get to work and become the Incredibly Talented and Extraordinarily Brilliant and Successful Writer? You’d believe the answers to all these questions to be yes. I would have given you what you wanted then: to be a witness to a healing.
But this isn’t fiction. Sometimes a story is not about anything except what it is about. Sometimes you wake up and find that you actually have lost your nose. Losing my mother’s wedding ring in the Tongue River was not ok. I did not feel better for it. It was not a passage or a release. What happened is that I lost my mother’s wedding ring and I understood that I was not going to get it back, that it would be yet another piece of my mother that I would not have for all the days of my life, and I understood that I could not bear this truth, but that I would have to.
Healing is a small and ordinary and very burnt thing. And it’s one thing and one thing only: it’s doing what you have to do…
“The final sentence really resonated with me,” I told the workshop class. “We’re inundated with online articles about ‘How to Heal in 6 Easy Steps,’ and I love that Strayed flies in the face of that. Sometimes, you just have to get on with it, no matter how you feel.”
What I’ve learned about healing in the last few years is that it’s not always the beautiful, flowery process I wanted it to be. I’ve given up on the dream of a moment on the mountaintop that “makes it all worth it in the end.” These days, healing is a daily grind; waking up and committing to getting through the day. However that looks for the following 24 hours.