When we first entered the room for the reception before Cheryl Strayed’s main talk, there were only five other people in the room, four women and HER. There she was at one of the little cocktail tables talking and laughing with a small group of women, one of whom is a new professor in my department, a poet, thus doubling the number of women in that small space who intimidated me. My friend and I were nervous to meet Cheryl, so we took our free drink tickets and went back out to the bar, to give ourselves a little time to process this new information — that we really and truly were going to get to meet her, talk with her directly — and to allow time for more people to show up.
When we went back in, there were a few more people, but there never were more than about 15. The tickets that included the reception were twice as much and there was a book signing after, so I think most people decided that would be good enough.
Someone in our small reception asked if Cheryl could sign our books now, rather than later, and she agreed. I felt a bit awkward about it, couldn’t get over my caretaker instincts, wanting her to be able to simply relax and chat before her big event, but got in the short line anyway.
Here’s where I tell you part of the reason I’m nervous to meet people I admire: As much as I love someone’s work, their online presence, their persona, and whatever else I know about them, that doesn’t always translate to real life. I have been heartbroken in the past to meet someone whose work was so beautiful, so powerful, only to find out that in person they are a real jerk.
This was not the case with Cheryl Strayed. She is more genuine, more vibrant and friendly in person than I could have hoped. I was so nervous when it was my turn, but she smiled and held out her hand, said “Hi, I’m Cheryl.” It wasn’t that she thought I wouldn’t know, but rather a true offering of connection, grounded and kind — genuine.
I took her hand and told her “I’m Jill, I wrote the Open Love Letter.” She said “oh!,” her smile got bigger, and she reached out and hugged me, thanking me again for what I’d wrote. As she signed my books, she told me how sweet it was. I explained that I’d been fussing for days about what I was going to say to her if I got to meet her and finally gave up and wrote the post. At one point she touched my arm. I confess, I was so freaked out that I’m not entirely sure what all I said or exactly what else she said, I just know that it was wonderful.
Happily, Cheryl is coming to CSU in April, so I didn’t feel like I had to fit everything I ever wanted to say to her or ask all into this one event, and when it was time for her to leave our smaller group, I could easily let that moment go, no regrets and no attachment.
The Lincoln Center seats almost 1200, but there weren’t nearly that many there, so the KUNC director came out after most everyone had settled in and invited those further away from the stage to fill in down front. It was so sweet to see how excited people who’d been way back were to get to sit up close, and it made for a much more intimate, cozy event, more like we were sitting around someone’s living room than a large concert hall.
One of the first things Cheryl said was, “I love when people gather together in a room and listen to an author talk about books — especially when that author is me.” Throughout the night, Cheryl kept saying that she was telling us things she hadn’t before, much more than she’d revealed at other events, and with a smile swore us to secrecy. She also said at one point that “If I had known that many people would read the book, [Wild], I wouldn’t have written half that shit.” Cheryl Strayed is one of the best sorts of people — smart and funny and compassionate and honest and humble, even after they are met with success.
At one point, Cheryl talked about how when she was six years old, when she learned to read, she felt called to be a writer. Even telling you that now, kind and gentle reader, makes my chest and throat tighten and tears well up in my eyes. This is my story too, and yet, here we are only a year apart in age and she’s so much further ahead, so much more successful, maybe more than I’ll ever be. The thing blooming in my chest sometimes threatens to tear its way out like the creature from Alien. There’s such grief that comes up for me about how silent I’ve been, how stuck, all the times I abandoned myself, smashed myself to bits, how much there still is left for me to do, how deep and fierce my longing. She also said at one point that “most of us who want to be writers resist writing,” and as silly as that seems, I’ve lived the truth of that.
And yet hearing Cheryl talk about her life as a writer, listening to her tell her story and talk about her perspective on memoir, gave me so much hope, was so inspiring. She spoke about how the power of literature is to “build a bridge between my experience and yours, the human experience,” and that it took so long to write about hiking the PCT Trail because she first had to figure out what her story might mean to a reader, to figure out how to tell a story that was bigger than just her own personal experience, and that when she did, “I was writing about you from my vantage point, telling you a story about you too.”
Cheryl also talked about suffering, which she defined as resisting what is true, saying that “to surrender and accept what is true is a radical thing.” This is just where I am at this moment in my life, in the thick of suffering because I still resist what is true. I know what comes next is to surrender and accept it. I gave Cheryl a card that night, with a feather Ringo had found on our morning walk and a poem, a set of lines that I am just now realizing are for me too.
This is what the things can teach us:
patiently to trust our heaviness.
Even a bird has to do that
before he can fly.