Oops, typo. I meant “Reading Wild in the Burbs.” But anyway, now that you’re here, please stay for a little story about a book (Cheryl Strayed‘s Wild, film out December 5), and a special bookclub. So about that bookclub…
Our first meeting was in my living room. Our first book was Alice McDermott’s Charming Billy. We drank wine; we laughed at the odd questions in the bookclub guide I’d bought. Some of us were new to each other, but quick connections were made. Sixteen years later, our bookclub of eight is still together, six of us since the beginning. Our rules are few: Try to read the book. Skip stilted discussion guides. Rotate monthly meetings (and serve good food). Find dates that work for all of us.
We each have our own talents and interests. One member plays ice hockey; another is an ardent traveler. We work in IT, public policy, education and the environment. Some of us write. Everyone can cook. My claim to fame: I am the Cal Ripkin of bookclub. For just as he didn’t miss a game for seventeen straight seasons, I’m fairly certain I haven’t missed a bookclub meeting in all these years. (Okay, maybe one or two–the memory is not what it was and no one thought to take attendance.)
I’ve pondered why, over the years, I’d do nearly anything (the priciest babysitter in town, the regrets for conflicting events) to avoid missing book club.
I know that I love the intellectual and impassioned discussions, not to mention amazing meals. I value the friendships that have lasted these many years, and all that goes with such friendships: our marriages and our children, our heartbreaking losses, our jobs and our birthday parties and the warm web of caring that envelops a group with a shared history.
And the books! Of course I love it for the books, for the stories that linger in my mind for months, years; for passages circled and talked about and thought over long after we’ve moved to next month’s pick.
Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, which detailed her solo hike along the Pacific Crest Trail, was one such book. Our bookclub admired Strayed’s quest, her decision to journey on her own. For women who occasionally dream of escape, she’s the ultimate rock star. But as much as I love a bracing hike, the mountains, my time outdoors–I could never physically do what Strayed did. I could not brave the elements that way, and I certainly could not go without a shower for more than
three two days. I’d never be that wild, and neither would my friends (except maybe at friend Sherri’s famous karaoke party but that’s another story). So why did so many readers connect with Cheryl?
A.O. Scott’s review of the new Wild film sums up Strayed’s character (played by Reese Witherspoon) perfectly:
“What makes its heroine worth caring about — what makes her a rare and exciting presence in contemporary American film — is not that she’s tidy or sensible or even especially nice. It’s that she’s free.”
He’s nailed it, why we care so much about this book and its heroine–this idea that even with the heavy weight of her past, Cheryl can be free, can seek out an escape from that which weighs her down. She reminds us that freedom is out there, if not on the Pacific Crest Trail, then somewhere of our choosing.
And then it occurred to me: my bookclub has offered just that sort of escape, a haven from too much macaroni and cheese and sparring siblings and endless forms and piles. When my children were babies, it was sometimes the only night out I’d have with my friends. My bookclub, with its fabulous food and literature and company was–still is–my monthly version of a long walk in the woods, a respite from all the stuff.
Maybe we’re not completely different, Cheryl and us gals who need our nights out. Because even in the wilderness, Strayed finds kindred spirits who cheer or help her when she needs it. She builds a community; as Strayed acknowledges, “the world and its people had opened their arms to me at every turn.”
I am grateful for all my communities, and I’m grateful for books and writers that speak to the essential need to be feel free, whether we find ourselves in the wilds of the woods or on the sofas of the suburbs. Because there are many places we can find our people, right along with finding ourselves.