Pull on your boots

Here’s a dangerous thing to do when you’ve just begun a doctoral program in a major city: read a memoir about hiking the Pacific Coast Trail.

Some of you probably know which book I’m talking about. It’s that book that’s been in every shop window for the past several months, displayed prominently with its stark white background emphasizing the scuffed up leather hiking boot with red laces up its front  (that one, over to the left there). It’s called Wild, and its author is a bona fide BAMF named Cheryl Strayed.

The book seemed to have been chasing me all summer. I read a book review about Strayed in the newspaper. I saw the cover of Wild on a flyer at the general store on Isle au Haut. Its cover caught my eye on the way home this summer in a bookstore in Lowell, Massachusetts, and then again during my first foray into the NYU bookstore in late August.

I finally caved, got myself a copy, and promptly got utterly lost in its pages.

Every time I came up for air I was startled to find that I wasn’t on the PCT myself. That it wasn’t me hiking and huffing and grunting out the grief over the losses in my own life. Instead, I was on the subway. I was in my apartment bedroom. I was on the bus, in a coffee shop, in my windowless cubicle at school.

While Strayed was writing about searing heat and moldy tents and blisters, I was trying to get myself reacquainted with the scholar’s life. Not the cook’s life, or the reporter’s life, or the traveler’s life, or the farmer’s life, all of which have been cobbled together to make up my life for the past few years. But I was tripping myself up by comparing myself to someone else. As my friend Molly always calls it, comparing one’s insides to someone else’s outsides. Which meant, instead of asking myself, oh, approximately every half hour, “what the hell am I doing?”, I needed some mini escape plans to keep myself from plotting the big one (the big one being quitting grad school practically the moment I started it).

That’s Molly, and ridiculous dinner making
shenanigans, as if you couldn’t tell.

First there was the weekend to cook a whole pig at a food writers’ conference near Albany. Then there was the weekend in Cambridge, MA with a friend who will humor me with hours-long walks and then get ridiculous with me while we cook dinner together (hint: synchronized swimming legs, hot pink leggings and frilly aprons). And then there was the hiking weekend with a bunch of goofy, funny and lovely guys from college. I got to play den mother for a night and make a lot of dirty jokes. I got to clamber over rocks and moss and slippery logs. There was red clay mud and the smell of dusty dry leaves and the cold hitting balsam. There was drizzle and sunshine and stars. There were views and sweat and sore thighs.

It’s primal stuff, getting out into the woods, into the kitchen, or scribbling down thoughts that have nothing to do with school. Out of your head and into your body. Spending time with new people that get you out of your day to day. Makes you think. Makes you laugh.

Pulling pork for an event Upstate.
Courtesy of Cook ‘n Scribble and
Maria Cerretani

Of course, coming back to the City every Sunday night (or Monday morning if I really stretch it) is jarring. Driving back into the endless stretch of lights and traffic, I always feel the mountain of the week looming in front of me. How can I live the life I want to live, and how does this crazy city fit into it? What does striking balance mean? When do I make the choice and break the molds, and when do I remind myself to hold my damn horses and remember that making sure I can take care of myself in the world (a.k.a. working) is actually really important. And that getting to a place where the meaningful work is yours for the taking demands time and plenty of grunting along the way. At least if that kind of thing matters to you. I know it does to me.

Which is what brought me to grad school in the first place. I’ve been wrung out by the past few years. There have been days of awe, traveling and learning and encountering strange and fascinating people and places along the way. And there have been days of total, crippling agony. Grief and loss, the rug pulled out from under my feet, rage and bitterness and coming pretty close to throwing up my hands in defeat. But I got offered a chance to “park it for a while”, as a wise friend called it. To hold steady for a few years. Find a professional home, one with a lot of support and encouragement and a real push to stretch and grow and strive. Hopefully I’ll come out on the other end with some letters at the end of my name, the credentials to teach, some more publications to add to my portfolio and a stable of talented people in my corner.

Driving up to the trailhead in the Catskills

Because, though the instant gratification of a day spent in the garden, swimming in a lake, hiking in the woods or rolling out pie dough always tugs at me, I want a life that demands more than that. More introspection, more excavation. For all I like pushing up my sleeves to get my hands dirty, I love grabbing a pen and my tape recorder too. I love words and stories, teaching and learning. The elusive stuff. The stuff that fills in the cracks between the tangible. It all matters.

Cheryl Strayed and her Pacific Coast Trail? It’s probably not for me, except via stories (which, of course, I’ll keep reading. For the stories that get me out of my head. For both escape and grounding. For the narratives that point towards everything that’s bigger than we are). I’ve taken some very long walks myself– some literal, some figurative; some voluntary, some not so. But enough of them to know that there are times to cut ties and set yourself into motion, and there are other times to stay still, stick it out. Right now is the latter I think. And as Strayed wrote in another of her books, the only way to get the long slog kind of work done is to “get your ass on the floor”. Be humble. Be dogged. Cultivate patience. Do the harder thing.

So where does that leave me? Here, in Brooklyn, on a Monday morning. Still in school. Very much so.

Pity party over, Sara.

So I repeat, like a mantra: Stay on your toes. Do the best you can. Pull on whichever boots the moment demands– the sassy polished high-heeled ones for date night in the City, the rubber ones for the mudflats at the edge of the sea, or the rugged weathered ones for the woods– and get at it. All of it. Climb and plod, think and walk, let it all be a part of the really long walk of your life.