Note: *This month guest in Marion Winik, the well-known NPR commentator.
” Lu Chi writes in his classic The Art of Writing, “the whole mountain glistens.” Likewise, a single detail can reveal the meaning and mystery of a scene, an essay, or a book.
The above quote was taken from a panel talk given at the AWP convention in Washington DC two years ago. Marion Winik’s beautifully crafted, incisive craft essay was originally part of that panel whose title was “The Vein of Jade: What a Single Detail Can Reveal in Nonfiction.”
* Marion Winik’s latest book is The Baltimore Book of the Dead, was just released by Counterpoint.
Blog # 75 Her Wedding Ring: The Key to Interpreting Cheryl Strayed’s “The Love of My Life”
by Marion Winik
Cheryl Strayed published her essay “The Love of My Life,” in the Sun in 2002. It was then selected by Anne Fadiman for Best American Essays, then it became the basis of the memoir of her journey on the Pacific Coast Trail, Wild – though the hike gets just a few sentences in the original piece. And while the memoir encompasses the period of promiscuity Strayed went through after her mother’s death, the essay gives a much more intense version of that experience, transgressive and raw, with harsh, profane language much softened in the bestseller version.
And here’s something interesting. Despite the expanded length of the narrative, there’s a little piece of the story that’s disappeared: the story of Strayed’s losing her mother’s wedding ring.
Yet Strayed’s mother’s wedding ring is the vein of jade, the gorgeous central detail, in “The Love of My Life” – it appears early on, and becomes the focal point at the ending, though I would argue that when Strayed wrote this essay, she didn’t fully comprehend its role.
Here’s the first line of “The Love of My Life.” “The first time I cheated on my husband, my mother had been dead for exactly one week.” Flirting with an unappealing sounding man in a Minneapolis café, “I was raw, fragile, vicious with grief. I would do anything.”
Right away, she begins fiddling with her rings. She is wearing two of them, her own and her mother’s, which she put on at her mother’s deathbed.
Now the two rings are side by side – her connection to her husband and her connection to her mother are contiguous. And in fact, the essay is about how the emotions and obligations of these two relationships spilled into each other, and how for several years of her life, she behaved in a way that betrayed them both.
In the next few paragraphs, she leaves the café with this older man, despite the fact that she feels might be a murderer, and goes to a parking lot behind the building, where he presses her against a brick wall and instead of kissing her bites her mouth so hard she screams. “You lying cunt,” he says, and flings her away from him.
“I stood, unmoving, stunned. The inside of my mouth began to bleed softly. Tears filled my eyes. I want my mother, I thought. My mother is dead. I thought this every hour of every day for a very long time: I want my mother. My mother is dead.”
And with that, she says, was the beginning: the beginning of her life as a slut.
The next part of the essay describes her involvement and debasement with men she referred to by titles: the Prematurely Graying Wilderness Guide, the Technically Still a Virgin Mexican Teenager, the Formerly Gay Organic Farmer, the Quietly Perverse Poet, the Terribly Large Texas Bull Rider, the Actually Pretty Famous Drummer Guy, later Punk Rocker Soon to Be Hopelessly Held under the Thumb of Heroin. Most of these people were men, she explains; some were women.
Attempting to clarify how this came about, she explained that she was not able to enjoy sex with her husband after her mother’s diagnosis. In the middle of intercourse she would start sobbing uncontrollably, while begging him to keep going. “But he wouldn’t. He couldn’t. He loved me. Which was mysteriously, unfortunately, precisely the problem.
“I wanted my mother.
“We aren’t supposed to want our mothers that way, with the pining intensity of sexual love, but I did, and if I couldn’t have her, I couldn’t have anything. Most of all I couldn’t have pleasure, not even for a moment. To experience sexual joy, it seemed, would have been to negate that reality.”
And, apparently, the converse is also true – to experience sexual debasement is to affirm it.
Eventually, she confesses what she’s been doing to her husband and they separate. He starts seeing other women. Cheryl starts doing heroin, gets pregnant, has an abortion. By now three years have gone by. She is 25. By this point in her life, she says, “I had intended to have a title of my own: The Incredibly Talented and Extraordinarily Brilliant and Successful Writer. I wasn’t anywhere close. I was a pile of shit.”
She and Mark file for divorce, and she begins planning her “long walk.” One thousand, six hundred and thirty-eight miles, to be exact. Alone.
Right before she begins her journey, she takes off her own wedding ring and puts it in a box and moves her mother’s wedding ring from her right hand to her left. Then that night, on the way to the trailhead, she pulls over and sleeps in the back of her truck beside a river.
“In the morning, I decided I would perform something like a baptism to initiate this new part of my life. I took my clothes off and plunged in.”
When she gets out of the water, the ring is gone.
“I leaned forward and put my hands into the water and held them flat and open beneath the surface. ... I was no longer married to Mark. I was no longer married to my mother.
“I was no longer married to my mother. I couldn’t believe that this thought had never occurred to me before: that it was her I’d been faithful to all along, and that I couldn’t be faithful any longer.”
So she’s reiterating what she said in the beginning -- faithfulness to her mother consisted of having sex without pleasure, of acting out her grief as self-destruction.
Here’s the final passage of the essay.
"IF THIS WERE fiction, what would happen next is that the woman would stand up and get into her truck and drive away. It wouldn’t matter that the woman had lost her mother’s wedding ring, even though it was gone to her forever, because the loss would mean something else entirely: that what was gone now was actually her sorrow and the shackles of grief that had held her down. And in this loss she would see, and the reader would know, that the woman had been in error all along. That, indeed, the love she’d had for her mother was too much love, really; too much love and also too much sorrow. She would realize this and get on with her life. There would be what happened in the story and also everything it stood for: the river, representing life’s constant changing; the tiny blue flowers, beauty; the spring air, rebirth. All of these symbols would collide and mean that the woman was actually lucky to have lost the ring, and not just to have lost it, but to have loved it, to have ached for it, and to have had it taken from her forever. The story would end, and you would know that she was the better for it. That she was wiser, stronger, more interesting, and, most of all, finally starting down her path to glory.
But this isn’t fiction and losing my mother’s wedding ring in the Tongue River was not ok. I did not feel better for it. It was not a passage or a release. What happened is that I lost my mother’s wedding ring and I understood that I was not going to get it back, that it would be yet another piece of my mother that I would not have for all the days of my life, and I understood that I could not bear this truth, but that I would have to."
I have always thought there was something wrong with this passage, that she’s giving fiction a bad rap. She says that if the story were fiction, losing the ring would symbolize a passage or a release. But in all honesty, in real life it does that, too. It is a passage, it is a release, and she IS wiser, stronger, more interesting, and, as we all know, starting down her path to glory, to the identity she always intended.
But it’s not because she lost the ring – it’s because she told the story of losing the ring.
The only difference between the fictional version she’s mocking and the real version of what happened is the little blue flowers and the spring air. Perhaps it didn’t free her from pain right then and there, but it freed her from the idea of using her body to express pain.
I think it’s significant that she has now taken off BOTH rings, her husband’s and her mothers, and that taking off both of them was necessary to escape the merger of the two relationships that made her think of her mother as her lover and her wife, which she expressed in her life as a slut. She may say the symbols aren’t colliding – I say they are.
When she drives away from the ring in the river, she is driving away from the tyranny of her love for her mother – and driving toward becoming a writer, a reality in which you do ultimately bear the very truth you say you cannot bear.
The transition from using self-destruction and alienated sex as a means of grieving, to becoming a person who tells a story about that, a person who gives her mother her ring and even her marriage a second life on the page – that is the epiphany that gave us Cheryl Strayed, The Incredibly Talented and Extraordinarily Brilliant and Successful Writer.
In 2006 Strayed published Torch, a novelized version of her mother’s death. Wild followed five years later. In the memoir, this incident – the loss of the ring at the beginning of the hike -- has disappeared.
Maybe this is because it’s done its job.
Marion Winik is the author of The Baltimore Book of the Dead, new from Counterpoint, a sequel to The Glen Rock Book of the Dead (2008). A longtime contributor to All Things Considered, she is the author of First Comes Love, Highs in the Low Fifties, and seven other books. Her Bohemian Rhapsody column at BaltimoreFishbowl.com has received the "Best Column" and "Best Humorist" awards from Baltimore Magazine, and her essays have been published in The New York Times Magazine, The Sun and many other publications. She is the host of The Weekly Reader radio show and podcast, based at the Baltimore NPR affiliate. She reviews books for Newsday, People, and Kirkus Review and is a board member of the National Book Critics Circle. She is a professor in the MFA program at the University of Baltimore. More info at marionwinik.com.
Michael Steinberg's Blog--Fourth Genre: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction
Blog# 75 Her Wedding Ring: The Key to Interpreting Cheryl Strayed's "The Love of My Life" by Marion Winik
Note: *This month guest in Marion Winik, the well-known NPR commentator.