Saturday, June 21, 2014

(Années de) pèlerinage

My daughter bought me a copy of Cheryl Strayed's wild (spelled with lower case "w") at Book Soup in Los Angeles. She is currently reading it, but I was able to finish my copy of the book because my biological clock was set in Midwestern time and I am generally an early riser. I did a lot of reading while everyone else in the Los Angeles apartment was sleeping. I also had two flights and a layover to spend reading the book.

Much in memoir writing tends to involve the act of moving through loss (and everybody has a unique cocktail of losses), public confession of indiscretions and outright wrongdoing (everybody has some of those), the chronicling of triumph over odds, both seen and unseen, and words of gratitude. A memoir about a pilgrimage is a different kind of memoir because it involves a single journey with a point of departure and an ending point. Cheryl Strayed unwittingly did everything that is customary for religious pilgrims to do, only she was not searching for religious absolution. She gave away everything she owned except for the hiking gear necessary for her travels. She followed a path, and followed a guidebook. Sometimes she strayed from her path, and sometimes she had to make decisions about whether to bypass areas that she would be unable to cross and actually live to make it to her destination. There were no religious relics at the end of her path, but getting to the end of the trail on her own ended up being sort of a natural-religious experience.

I inadvertently went on a pilgrimage when I was far too young to do so. In May of 1980 I was finished with Juilliard and held a great deal of sorrow brought on by the death of someone very close to me. There were other difficulties connected with staying in New York and, for that matter, the United States. The first recession was upon us, and there was little in the way of work that I could hope to get as a flutist. I simply didn't know what to do outside of my tiny envelope of flute-related possibilities (or impossibilities), so I either sold or gave everything I owned away except for what could fit in a backpack and in a box that I left at my father's house, to be sent wherever I might end up, eventually.

Thank goodness I didn't need to hike in the woods in the dark (Strayed points out that the only thing scarier than the idea of hiking in the woods in the dark is hiking in the woods in the dark). My process of rebirth included the exciting and terrifying idea of not having a clue where I would be going after a flute competition in Budapest. Strayed didn't have any fitness training or hiking experience before she began her journey, and I only had a smattering of high school French, spiced up with a few Italian and German tempo markings, and the smallest of instruments (a flute and a piccolo). My years of travel took me away from where I had been, and they allowed me to work through my grief. Now I travel mostly for pleasure.

My daily trials and tribulations (and triumphs and confessions) will never make it into a memoir, but reading Cheryl Strayed's memoir allowed me to visit my own experiences again. Last night I had a dream peopled with flutists of my pre-pilgrimage past, and it featured a performance of the Barber "Hermit Songs" by Sanford Sylvan.

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