Dear Cheryl Strayed (excerpt from upcoming novel)

baggage_cheryl_strayedIt’s been awfully quiet over here at Disruptive Mama. I’ve been raising lovely kiddos, working on my business This Little Brand, editing other people’s books, reviewing family theatre and events at ChiILMama and, drum-roll…. writing a novel!

I’d be grateful if you subscribe to this blog and share so I have some kind of audience to show publishers once the novel is done (end of 2019).

A Fatwa on Mars (working title) is about Mary, a woman who’s life has become stuck in an unhealthy quagmire with the people in her immediate family. The novel is a collection of Mary’s letters to authors, artists, and thinkers she admires. She writes in an attempt to broaden her world and find a path forward.

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“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.” – Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild.

Dear Cheryl,

I’m listening to an audio book version of your memoir Wild. It’s about the only way I can read now. I actually look forward to monotonous physical tasks so I can “read” with my ears. These tasks include, but are not limited to:

Dishes

Laundry (extra nice because I have to go to the fourth floor laundry room, so I get away from the chaos my apartment too).

Deseeding pomegranates (Abdullah showed me how to do it by beating the bisected fruit with a wooden spoon. This is much faster than the clumsy method I intuited, pulling apart the thin white membranes by hand and using my fingers to loosen the seeds. The latter method gave me more time to listen to my audio books, but left my nails stained. The former has the advantage of letting me beat something. Both result in edible jewels filling a steel bowl. The sweet little rubies reflect in the smooth metal and make me feel like the wealthiest woman in the world, a crazy rich princess who can go to the market and put all the gems in her mouth. And the gems must release a heavenly juice upon penalty of death for the vendor.)

I’m thinking of your backpack, the one you named Monster, that you could barely lift. I had one like that when I backpacked through Asia. I love saying that I “backpacked through Asia.” I usually decide whether or not I want to explain, as the term is a bit vague. I didn’t hike or even trek. I didn’t even get through much of Asia, though my plan was to go to several countries over the course of the six months I’d allotted.

I learned about backpacking from the Israelis, you see. I worked at this Israeli moving company in Los Angeles in my mid-twenties. The company was one of immigrants: Mexicans and Israelis on the local trucks, Hungarians and Israelis in the cross-country 18-wheelers, all Israelis in dispatch, and Americans in the sales room. It was a time of Renaissance for me after my first divorce (I lived with him for two years, but our marriage lasted less than a year).

My new job provided me with friends, lovers, and cultural opportunities aplenty. Many colleagues were writers, artists, musicians. I still dream of that time and especially of Levi, who awoke something new in me, who’s black hair and ivory skin I haven’t touched in years, Levi who I came to think of as a shaman lover and who still comes to me in dreams—especially in times of turmoil.

Wasn’t I talking about backpacks, Cheryl? But you of all people know backpacks are just metaphors for the other kind of baggage, that their contents represent the junk and jewels that hide in the dusty corners and under-beds of memory.

Listening to the rigor, beauty and solitude of your journey on the Pacific Crest Trail made me want to do it too. Though I didn’t actually hike or even trek through Asia, I did have the big backpack, and it was a seminal journey. And I did have my own “Monster” on my back, full of things I didn’t need.

In the context of my journey, backpackers are those youthful people who carry their stuff in packs meant for hiking. They’re more like shoestring travelers and can be seen checking into cheap hotels, hostels, and ashrams. The Israelis I met at that job inspired me. Their whole societal path was different. It went: graduate high school, do two years in the army, travel, go to college.

While I worked at that company, I was trying to learn Hebrew. I got pretty good at it, too. Still, the Israelis would pick up new vocabulary in English faster than I would in Hebrew. Levi said, “It’s because we have where to put it. We already speak more English, so we can remember new things faster.”

College after army and world travel must be like that. You have “where to put” new learnings. Maybe I should try college again.

Anyway, I would often hang out with Levi and his friends, young Israeli men, fit and attractive and full of tales of Australia, Japan, Thailand, India, and South America. They sat in their bright-colored wrap-around pants and cheese cloth shirts that clung to their slight, firm frames, sharing tales of Toykyo nightclubs or postcard-perfect Honduran beaches. It was mostly in Hebrew, and I understood some of that. But they’d also break off in English (often haltingly so) to include me in stories that centered around getting high, getting laid, and colors, colors, colors. The blue of the water, white of the sand, gold of the brass neck rings around the Kayan “Long Neck” women of Northern Thailand. But it was the colors of India I most wanted to hear about: the dusty tan of the ruins in the ancient city of Hampi, the grasshopper green of the banana trees and rice farms, the impossible white of the temples climbing brilliantly to the sky, a host of dirty sandals at their gates.

By the summer of 2001, I’d decided I would go to Thailand and India and who knew where else.

On September 11 of that year, tragedy struck.

On September 12, I woke in a new world. In this world, people loved America and they showed it by displaying flags on every available surface, especially cars, from which they waved in a backwards direction and gave the impression that millions of ragtag diplomats had taken to the road. Flags were sold out at Walmarts, convenience stores, novelty shops—anywhere you could imagine finding a patriotic symbol to prove and engender your loyalty. I pictured frantic, underpaid workers in China attempting to sew and print and cast enough Stars and Stripes to fill the bottomless black hole that was at once our grief and rage and solace.

This new world was saturated with images and soundtracks of death, from the gaping wounds in the Pentagon and the Pennsylvania field to the enormous New York monoliths collapsing one by one as people ran from clouds of ash and debris. Many of the women were barefoot, the shoes they wore in order to be “professional,” the ones that accentuating their calves and buttocks, not being conducive to survival.

Covered in ash, they looked like the Pompei victims animated. Or like the sadhus on my aspirational computer wallpaper, recently emerged from the Ganges and wearing nothing but the white-gray leavings of the ceremonial fire.

I bought a ticket for January 6, 2002, Los Angeles to Bangkok via Taipei—all timed in coordination with my bosses to avoid relocation’s busy season. The Israelis told me the cheapest tickets to anywhere were available in the tourist area of Bangkok and that I should just buy a round-trip ticket there because Thailand was not to be missed. That ticket was my $653 stake in the ground. I was going to see the world and all its colors.

Though I planned to see all of Asia, the book I purchased was Lonely Planet’s book on India. Maybe it was because I was in search of color and the cover showed women with all colors of scarves on their heads, a warm palette of humans. Like you, I was careful about the weight of my pack. This book weighed 3 pounds, 12 ounces. As suggested on Lonely Planet’s online forum, Thorn Tree, I planned to rip out the sections of places as I visited them, leaving them as gifts in the places I slept so that some other traveler could learn about their environs.

Like your journey, mine challenged me and changed me in ways I didn’t expect. Thank you for showing me that I am not alone in this experience and that it is not ridiculous to set off with a backpack in search of yourself.

Love,

Mary

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