At the beginning of August, I went to see Cheryl Strayed speak at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh. I am a huge fan of the Dear Sugar column, and when she revealed herself as Sugar (it was written anonymously), I quickly put a hold on Wild, which was coming out in another month. (If you’ve never read Dear Sugar, here’s a good introduction to the column.) As luck would have it, Wild came in the library just in time for me to take it on my spring break, so I read it by the pool and on the plane and during Atticus’s naps. I thought it was lovely.
One thing Cheryl Strayed spoke about was understanding your life by seeing the metaphor around you. She gave the example of being in line at a home improvement store, waiting to buy a snow shovel because she needed to dig out from a recent storm. And in her life, she said, she also needed to dig out from some of the choices she had made and some of the situations she’d found herself in.
I thought that was crap. Some things just are. I can’t find meaning in every sidewalk stroll or sink full of dirty dishes. I scan books and I teach students about plagiarism and I drive home on an ugly street. I throw a ball with Atticus and I watch The Daily Show and I miss my dad. I have a good life, but it seems small. There is no metaphorical digging out (I hate yard work). There is no metaphorical mountain to climb (I am indoorsy). There are just Sisyphean tasks: the laundry, the dishwasher, the cart of books that really needs to be shelved.
But here’s what I have been wondering: Isn’t there a difference between seeing the metaphor in your life and squeezing meaning out of certain events? Perhaps that is what Cheryl Strayed was talking about. Looking for patterns and seeking to understand what is around you is a good thing to do, and it is different than doing things in order to make meaning happen.
It is easy for me to dismiss the events of my life–even some of my own choices–as random. It is more challenging to admit that they are connected and that they form a meaningful story. I wonder if I hold my life too loosely, sometimes, hold it away to keep from the pain of examining it closely.