Right now I am on vacation with my two children, husband, my parents and in-laws. The eight of us rented a house for seven days near Mt. Rainier National Park which is roughly two hours from my house, door-to-door. Mt. Rainier is the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States rising 14,409 feet above sea level. On clear days, it stands like a sentinel ghost in the distant Seattle skyline. It is massive and magnificent.
When we got here we quickly found that our sleeping quarters weren’t as advertised. The room my children, husband and I are staying in looked more substantial in the pictures. As an added benefit to our
cramped cozy bedroom, the baby isn’t sleeping well. He is crying in the night waking up our toddler who then also cries. Last night we had a rousing, hour-long, cry-fest, party of two! in our sardine can of a small-ish bedroom. So far, we are all tired, but still trying to enjoy ourselves.
I’m not going to lie, it feels more like work than vacation. I’d much rather sit on the deck and take in the view while enjoying a quiet, reflective glass of wine, but instead I am feeding, bathing, playing with, or soothing someone to sleep just like every other day accept I’m even more tired. I am the mommy; this is my choice, my life, and I love it, but there is never a shortage of sacrifices being made.
My consolation prize is waking up to see something breathtaking out my window. The natural beauty here is stunning, ethereal, ENERGIZING! (Thank goodness). Every detail from the worn, rock-laden trails to the violet Lupine in bloom is reminding me of the book I just finished, Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.
If you’ve read my blog, you know I have a bit of a crush on Ms. Strayed. You will also know that I have a bit of a life-long love for Oprah Winfrey. Several weeks ago Oprah picked Cheryl Strayed’s book to revive her book club and it felt like a natural, cosmic, menage et trois that I willed into existence. Naturally, I was on board.
Wild is about a 26 year-old Ms. Strayed and her three-month, 1100 mile hike along the Pacific Crest Trail starting in the Mohave Desert in California, to the top of Oregon State. Strayed’s decision to embark on this journey came because her life was heading in a dark direction. Three years prior, her mother died suddenly from cancer. This shattered her small family sending the people of her life spinning in different directions, away from, and without her. She ended her marriage to a man she still loved partly because she became a prolific, impulsive philanderer, and partly because she no longer knew what she wanted. She also became a heroin user and got pregnant by a heroin addict. She had no money, no plan, no prospects so walking for miles, alone, in the wilderness, seemed like a grande idea.
The book follows her journey switching back and forth between the struggles of the trail and the struggles in her life. It is filled with deep insights and profound realizations about the correlations between wilderness and life; their harsh realities, relentlessness, and inherent beauties. While there are a myriad of lessons to glean from these pages, there is one that resonates with me deeply. It is a truth we all must face in the name of maturity; the value of learning impulse control.
Every day (my life, really) is a teeter totter of choices. At its fulcrum lies the question at the heart of every choice; is this what I want? Or is this what I need? Each side of the teeter totter holds the consequences of that choice. According to many philosophers and schools of psychology it is the ultimate division of the brain’s functionality, left vs. right, feeling vs. reason, want vs. need.
When I was younger, my wanting won the teeter totter battle most of the time. I wanted that boyfriend. I wanted to eat that bad thing. I wanted to smoke, get drunk, stay up all night and do whatever the hell I pleased. Over the years I became a master at masquerading my wants around as needs. Even now I say, “I need to write! I need time to myself! I need a new outfit for this occasion!”
But there comes a point in everyone’s life when you are given no choices. The only option, is the one that needs to be done. The decision is made for you and it stands like a boulder on the need side of the teeter totter; unmoved and unmovable. Everything is tipped, sometimes irreparably, in a direction you would never choose if you had a choice. These are the moments that offer our greatest lessons. They teach us how to hold on, persevere, have courage and strength of character. They make us grow up.
This is what Strayed discovered while out in the wilderness, alone, hungry, in pain; her only option, to move forward.
“…the thing that was so profound to me that summer–yet also, like most things, so very simple–was how few choices I had and how often I had to do the thing I least wanted to do. How there was no escape or denial. No numbing it down with a martini or covering it up with a roll in the hay.”
The most profound, harsh and enduring moments of being forced to do things I have no desire to do, have come into my life as a result of being a wife and a mother. When both of these things happened, my teeter totter tipped wildly, unexpectedly, radically into a position that I chose and simultaneously didn’t want. I was 27 when I married and 30 when I became a mother and admittedly, holding on to many selfish, impulsive, childish ways before entering both arrangements.
I want sleep. I want to dedicate a good portion of my time to physical maintenance. I want it my way, always, and I want my children and husband to just leave me alone for a little while. I want to travel unencumbered. Like right now.
And yet none of these things are part of my reality. They sit like the mountain out my window in patient defiance, irreverent of my wants. As much as I may want, there is no escape, no denial, no numbing down my children and spouse and their needs with bad food or wine or any number of unhealthy options that call from the other side of the teeter totter.
In the reality that has become my life, in spite of, because of, in both fear and love of this mountain, I developed a determination, a perseverance, an internal knowing, a solid bedrock of confidence born of realizing that I am capable of doing what I need to do, when it needs to get done. They call me mommy with love and devotion because I have done this. I do this everyday–the things I least want to do.
This is the message that resonated with me most in Cheryl Strayed’s memoir. That life isn’t always about what you want or feel. It’s about building an internal strength, proving to yourself that you can do what you need to do, when it needs to be done.
When you keep putting one foot in front of the other, like Cheryl did–in spite of your impulse to numb yourself, to bend to your emotions, no matter how sad and miserable and tired and self-pitying you may feel–when you summit that mountain, which you will, you will find a greater, deeper, more grounded part of yourself that you didn’t know existed; a part that you truly need, a part born of needs, in spite of wants. And it is that part that will carry you the rest of way, over every mountain, through your entire life.
So instead of enjoying my reflective glass of wine, I will be playing Lincoln Logs with my toddler and trying to get my son to sleep until the wee hours of this night when I, too, will I fall into bed. Because there are more mountains to climb tomorrow and I need my strength.
I participated in a Twitter chat with Cheryl Strayed on July 17th and I asked if impulse control was a major lesson she learned while hiking the PCT. I told her that becoming a mother has taught me that. She said:
Isn’t it though?