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On Being Brave with Cheryl Strayed, by Marion McGilvary

28th October 2016

I’m one of the 943 women and maybe 6 men gathered in a hall in Westminster decorated with bible quotes, listening to Cheryl Strayed telling us how she f***** up her life and put it back together again.  The author of Wild, chronicling her lone hike through the wilderness of the Pacific Crest Trail, and Tiny Beautiful Things, the most beautiful and honest collection of advice columns you’ll ever read, is talking at a sold-out event, but still managing to make you feel like you’re the only person in the room and she’s talking to you, directly to you.  If she ever decides to take up Evangelical religion, the world better watch out, you’d feel saved in about six minutes.  But there’s absolutely no preachiness about Cheryl.  She’s been there, done it, felt it, struggled through it, and she’s not judging you, she’s just telling her story, the story of how she came to terms with the grief she experienced over her beloved mother’s death and did that hackneyed old thing we all say in ironic quotation marks with an embarrassed smile, while wishing we had the same road map – ‘found herself’.  But somehow, it’s not a cliche, it’s humble, it’s humorous and its sincere.  Furthermore, while she’s telling you about her experiences she has this gift of also making it about you, and those things you have buried in yourself, but not as deeply as you thought.  A few of us had tears in our eyes.  There was something so intimate, regardless of the size of the audience, about sitting there in a room full of strangers who you felt some kind of affinity with, imagining that most of the people there were dealing with their own private sorrows and trials.  A tent revival for the new age.

When I first saw Wild wearing its American cover, floating around the desks in the office – a book one of the editors had bought in New York, I wasn’t interested.  What had a book about hiking to do with me?  I haven’t hiked further than the top flight of a no 7 bus, am spectacularly unathletic and experience solitude as total, terrifying abandonment.  Walking through a wilderness and camping?  Poleeze.  I’ve been lucky enough to have done some travel journalism and I didn’t much care for that all alone time even in fancy hotels in dream destination.  But then came Tiny Beautiful Things, bought on the back of its bigger, Oprah certified sister, and two of us were asked to have a look at it.  I can’t say when a book spoke so directly to me.  Though not essays, but selected columns for Cheryl’s stint as Dear Sugar, agony aunt (now available as podcasts) they were so moving, so full of good sense, and compassion, and even a few home truths when necessary.  My colleague and I both fell instantly in love with it, pushing it on to everyone we knew – I gave it to my daughters who loved it too – it became our sort of Home Bible – enquire within about anything and get a sensible point of view.  I promised friends the’d be crying by page 5 – which you may not think is a good thing – but trust me – it is.  He Who Must Be Obeyed Publisher on High at the time was unsure.  ‘These sorts of books rarely do well’ he rumbled from the pinnacle of greatness.  But we bought it anyway, we published it, and now there’s even talk of it being made into a TV series for HBO.

So then I tried Wild, albeit grudgingly.  And didn’t put it down again until Cheryl was on that bridge at the end of her journey.  ‘I want an adventure,’  I said to anyone who would listen.  The cat was unimpressed.  ‘I want to do something big, bold, to challenge myself, to be wild, to be brave.’  The cat went back to sleep.

I’d love to be able to say I then went off and marooned myself on a desert island for a year and lived on berries, became all Eat, Pray, Love (I stopped at Eat), or sold my house and bought a gypsy caravan and toured Europe.  I didn’t.  I did actually absolutely sweet FA, nothing.  But I did go on with my small, sometimes extremely difficult, life with renewed vigour and purpose and – in my own minuscule way – I felt brave.  Most of us won’t throw it all in a bag and live in the woods with the bears.  But there are many ways to  step up to one’s challenges and – as Cheryl says – live as your authentic self.  It just turned out that my authentic self was the person not weeping and railing against life because it hadn’t turned out the way I had planned it.  My authentic self found peace by making the best of what was left.

To me, the most profound thing Cheryl said in her talk was about her period of ‘f***** it up’.  She realised that her mother’s death, her grief, her loss was just SO painful, so major, so overwhelming that her life almost had to be ruined to illuminate how great her suffering was.  Your marriage falls apart, your husband beats you, your father assaults you – so you almost destroy yourself to demonstrate the depth of your pain.  It made a lot of sense to me.  Even if I don’t intend to hike up a mountain range to discover it for myself.  I’ll settle for the top deck of the bus.  You still see a lot up there.