This weekend, I met someone I've been eager to meet ever since I discovered her local existence. Someone who showed up as a nudging, little beacon at the exact time I stepped forward toward my own uncharted territory. A mentor of sorts. A tangible source of inspiration in a world overflowing with creative types, this was one that hit close to home...more so that I expected.
Since committing to the Literature and Writing program at Marylhurst University, I have kept a writer's frame of mind--while still greatly intimidated because of my lack of exposure and knowledge, I have been paying attention to the literary traffic that passes by me. The insecure part of me feels underdeveloped and ignorant, but the wiser, braver part of myself knows that every book, article, and author explored will benefit my erudite landscape. My eyes, ears, and heart are like tingly antennas, receiving what I can to broaden my exposure; I am merely a newborn in this world of writing.
Six weeks ago, a link came through my news feed posted by my friend Amy, regarding a Portland author who had just revealed herself as the anonymous author of a popular advice column in San Francisco's The Rumpus. Yes, I state this smartly now, but I had not heard of The Rumpus, or the column, Dear Sugar, or the author, Cheryl Strayed. I link-hopped over to her website, and before I knew what was happening, I'd spent two hours pouring over her various articles and Dear Sugar letters.
While her initial bio sparked instant connection--a mother in southeast Portland, with a respectable and burgeoning writing career--it was her voice that grasped me, squeezed an unnameable point in my insides somewhere between my lungs and guts; I was a little breathless, a fair-amount stunned, and completely affected. Reading the loving advice she spooned out to her seekers, I could sometimes anticipate the end of sentence before I read it. Her voice sounded so comfortable in my brain, I was confusing it with my own.
I felt a pressing of validation amidst a bubbling of emotions that ranged from excitement to insecurity: I felt as if I was hearing what my own writing voice might sound like in 10 to 15 years, if I stayed on the path. The internal conversation that ensued, between my dual-selves, the angel-devil type that sit upon your shoulders, sounded much like this:
"Oh, my god. That could be me. I would totally say that. People clearly respond to this. You could do this..."
"Sure, SHE can pull it off. I'm not sure YOU can pull it off..."
"But this kind of raw, honest, nurturing, seeking-beauty-in-the-pain approach...that is SO YOU. It's what you want to do, and here is someone proving that it can be appreciated."
"Yeah, but so what? She's already out there doing it. Lots of people are. There are plenty of writers out there doing, and have BEEN doing it for years...you are too late in the game."
"But I have a talent. I just don't have the experience...and that will come, over time...and with hard work."
"Hard work? You are lazy, always have been. And, don't forget, nothing really huge has ever happened to you. You've never even experienced grief...how can people take you seriously if you've never experienced something as basic as grief?"
"I know I connect with people, its one of my strengths--I know how to draw out beauty in the tiniest of experiences. This woman inspires me...I can be a writer. I AM a writer, goddamn it."
"Huh. Good luck with that."
"You are a douche-baguette. Let's go to sleep."
Waking the next morning, my thoughts were still consumed, but the shitty voice was much quieter. Mostly, I felt a surge of confidence and energy, like someone handing you water during a run. That morning as I worked, cleaning one of my regulars homes, everything I'd absorbed the night before kept cycling in my head: the moving stories people had told to her and her soothing responses, the sharply tender way she spoke of motherhood, the vision I'd created for this author in her office on the top floor of her home in SE Portland--Stumptown coffee mug within reach, words radiating from her as her fingertips busily worked the keyboard of her Macbook. Then I'd try to place myself there instead. A Real Writer.
I'd been reading Charles Dickens, Emily Bronte, John Irving...these are not authors I could connect with as actual people. Only the stories themselves vibrated me, and left me basking in the book itself, not able to see beyond to the person who conceived and birthed it. I could not try-on their lives the way I could try-on Cheryl Strayed's life: in her, I had my first contemporary inspiration.
My day carried on and still I could not control my tumbling thoughts. It was as though I had taken a dose of an overly potent medication, and it just had to wear off on its own. I rode the high, and went about my business. I showered, I made lunch, I tidied the house, I checked the mail.
As I stood in our wood-floored, mid-century, brick ranch home, that we just recently rented, cloud-filtered light came in through the large picture windows. I passed each piece of that day's mail across my hands. Many of them had the large yellow label across the bottom, USPS alerting me to the fact I'd not updated my address to the sender yet, and that particular piece of mail had been intercepted before it could be erroneously sent up to our old home in farther-out Southeast. There it would have been rejected by our new tenants, something we occasionally have to do for the adrift mail that shows up in our slot intended for the owner's of this charming ranch. The days contents: bills, junk ads, a dental reminder post card...and a letter addressed to the owner of our rental.
A letter addressed to Cheryl Strayed.
In the less-than-24-hours I'd been in my haze, my brain had not recalled the fact that I had seen that name before. Cheryl Strayed was the owner of the house we lived in, but because we go through a property manager, I've only seen her name on the lease and on the occasional bits of mail that find their way into our box--certainly not enough exposure to have had an instant recollection. I questioned the odds that my newly discovered mentor would also turn out to be my lessor. Suddenly, I had a triple injection of encouragement--as though the universe was patting me on the head and handing me a pen and pad.
In the following days, I delighted in telling this story to the people closest to me. The reactions usually fell within the range of disbelieving bug-eyes to table-pounding "No WAY"s. Whether or not I wanted to reach out to Cheryl herself, I was not so sure. As a chronic rule-follower, I was unsure of the appropriateness of breaching the renter-manager-owner chain of order. Also, even if I did, say, write her a letter, would she see it? Her memoir Wild, was on the verge of mass release, magazines and newspapers were already posting great reviews, so I imagined her inbox's were already at capacity. Plus, wouldn't that be creepy? I just couldn't gauge it, and more dual-self conversations ensued.
My friend Amy, the one who posted the link and a personal friend of Cheryl's, when I told her the story said, "Let me introduce you!" and I immediately reacted "No!" I've met people I admire before, and the awkwardness is too much to bear. Even when they are gracious and welcoming, the leading up to it makes me feel adolescent, I'd prefer to keep it at a distance. "She's just a regular person, Leah," Amy reminded me. Of course she is, I know that, and that is one of the reasons why the connection is so electrifying for me. But it doesn't change my preference to keep things more...organic. It was such a great story, though, Amy reassured me, and I wanted to find the right way to tell.
The best approach, I decided, would be to attend a book signing for Wild, and multiple opportunities dappled the spring calendar. In such a scenario, I could feel it out, and if I chickened out I was just another person in line for an autograph. Newborn me, I've never even been to an author's book signing. I worried that everyone in line had a story, that she'd be burned out on hearing them all, I'd be rushed along, and only get out a lame, choppy version that only inspired a lukewarm, half-hearted reaction. Around my friends, I can tell a story with ease and humor; around strangers my voice shakes. This way, I had options and if it didn't have that easy feeling, I could try another approach. A bumbling fool is not how I would come off.
We booked tickets to LiveWire, a local radio program taped with a live studio audience at the Alberta Rose Theater, where Cheryl would be the headlining guest. Another first for me, I sat in the theater and I felt like I was trying on the literary crowd, seeing how I fit in. I was certainly the only one wearing hot-green pants and leopard print heels, but my fashion choices never deter me. You can take the writer out of the her fashion major, but you can't take the fashion major out of the writer. Only some of the jokes went above my head, but I feel like I hung in for the most part. I drank $10 red wine in a plastic cup and ate $2.50 truffle. With Blake by my side, I was having a good time.
As the hours passed, guests were checked off the list and finally Cheryl came up. She was poised and lovely, and read an except from the memoir that had folks cringing and laughing at all the right parts. Onstage, she was so instantly accessible and likable, just like her writing. As the interview wrapped up, we snuck out of our seats and were first in line at the book signing table. We'd already texted our baby-sitters and asked for more time, as the show ran longer than we'd expected. Close to my chest I held the large hardback book with a picture of a boot on the cover, the most I've ever paid for a book, and the happiest I'd been to do so as it seemed like such a direct method of purchase.
Blake squeezed my arm and smiled at me. I heard the uproarious applause signaling the end of the show, and within a few minutes Cheryl breezed in to the room. "Let's do this!" she shined as she picked up the marking pen and turned to me. "Look at you guys, first in line!"
"I wanted to be first, so I could tell you a quick story," I admitted upfront.
She planted her elbow on the table, rested her chin on her fist, looked straight into my eyes expectantly and said, "Tell me."
So I did. I had paired it down in my head throughout the show, and had the perfectly condensed version. My voice barely even shook. I began with my acceptance into the writing program after 10 years of dedication to my family, my recent discovery of her, how drawn I am to her writing, and of course, the delightfully serendipitous moment revealed to me by that ordinary piece of mail.
"You guys live in the house??" she squealed. She came around the tall, black table, reached her arms out and embraced us both, and then looked around the lobby.
"Where's Brian..?" She scanned the crowd. "Oh, there he is. Brian!" She waved over her husband, a trim, handsome man with stylish glasses. "Brian, these are the people that live in our house!"
The four of us shook hands, grinned, and threw around some casual comical comments about the house. The front bathroom, she told me, was where she gave birth to one of her children. Blake gave them a business card. Both husbands snapped photos on their phones, while Cheryl and I tossed around more smiley chatter. Best of all, she confirmed what I had hoped and suspected: parts of Wild were written at the home, including the master bedroom, where I am now typing out this very post.
Cheryl smiles warmly while I do my trademark gesticulating.
"We should BBQ!" she exclaimed, which I though was adorably generous, and then playfully waved me aside and added, "Now let me sign some books."
The moment was completely satisfying, for a first encounter with my first author-crush. I sheltered the signed copy of Wild in my jacket from the Portland rain, beaming as I walked to the car with Blake, both us of filling each other in on what we'd said to the couple while the other was talking. Once we were on the road, I pulled down the mirror vanity light to read the inscription which read:
This, I realize, is probably the common inscription she applied to most copies that evening, and the evenings prior and the one she will grace the title pages of her memoir with in the future. Regardless, the fact that it contains the words 'beauty' and 'bright light' meant something to me. In a workshop I took two years ago, the one about finding my purpose and living from it, the workshop that launched some the biggest risks and changes ever implemented in my life, the one that allowed me to develop a clarity deeper than I'd ever had, and to have the truest vision for myself....I developed this statement:
"With humor, devotion, and grace, I will seek the beauty that allows me to shine."
That is why I want to write. If I can devote myself to my writing, if I can infuse every piece with humor, if I can spill myself honestly onto the pages with grace, and bring light to the tiniest, most beautiful things, then I am living fully. I have barely stepped onto trail, but I am grateful for this little push to get me going, an author placed in my path when I needed confirmation: a canteen of water, a flashlight when mine goes dark, a book in my pack...thank you, Ms. Strayed, for your warmth and for being my personal trailblazer.