Cheryl Strayed, author of the New York Times bestselling memoir “Wild,” spoke to a crowd of over 470 people at a fundraising event for the Cayman Islands Crisis Centre Thursday.
The Power of the Purse luncheon, hosted by Scotiabank, featured a silent auction of designer purses, followed by lunch and Ms. Strayed’s talk, as well as a question and answer session with the author.
Although Ms. Strayed spoke from a podium in the ballroom of The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman, her inspiring talk was personal and intimate – and left more than a few attendees reaching for tissues.
The memoirist – who has written three other books and also co-hosts the “Dear Sugar Radio” advice podcast – spoke about her 1,100 mile journey along the Pacific Crest Trail, from the Mojave Desert to the Oregon-Washington border, a trek detailed in “Wild.” But she also spoke more generally about overcoming grief and fear in order to thrive.
“We can carry grief within us for years and decades and we do, and for me what I’ve really learned so much over these years is learning how to live with that sorrow,” Ms. Strayed said.
“It’s about learning how to carry that sorrow … and the thing about learning how to carry something, is you just have to lift it up.”
Ms. Strayed explained how her hike – a feat accomplished in 1995 when she was 26 years old – was a way to confront the overwhelming pain of her mother’s death. Ms. Strayed and her mother, Bobbie, were both studying to complete their bachelor’s degrees at universities in Minnesota, when Bobbie, only 45, was diagnosed with advanced stage lung cancer. She died seven weeks after the diagnosis and was only one class shy of completing her degree.
Ms. Strayed was unmoored by the loss of her mother and began to engage in self-destructive behavior. She said that after a few years, she hit “rock bottom” and knew that she needed to find a way back to herself, to live out her life the way her mother would have wanted her to.
Then, while buying a shovel at a sports supply store, Ms. Strayed found a guidebook describing the Pacific Crest Trail. She said she was struck by the metaphor of “literally needing to dig myself out at the same time that I figuratively needed to dig myself out.
“I just thought, this is one thing you can do Cheryl, you’ve failed in all these ways, but you can hike this trail,” Ms. Strayed said.
The trek would help her learn how to carry her grief – but first she had to learn how to lift and carry her backpack.
Preparing to leave her motel room in the Mojave to set out on the trail, Ms. Strayed said “it really landed hard in my mind that I had never gone backpacking before.” At first, she couldn’t budge her pack.
It’s a scene that would later be re-enacted by actress and producer Reese Witherspoon in the Oscar-nominated film version of “Wild,” which was released in 2014. And Ms. Strayed says it was at this moment that she realized she was going to write her memoir, which she didn’t begin until 2008.
“The work of a memoirist is to really find the story that is not just about yourself, to find the piece of the story that is about all of us,” Ms. Strayed said. “And when I was writing about this scene, I realized that’s when I saw the story that I wanted to tell, and that is how it is that we bear the unbearable.”
Ms. Strayed said that while she imagined gazing at beautiful sunsets and “coming to terms” with her life, the reality of the hike was much less romantic.
“Instead, I was like, ‘Man, my feet hurt,’” Ms. Strayed said. “And then I realized that was actually the whole point of it … to endure and decide to keep walking.”
She said she learned the “powerful art of continuing on when it hurts” and also to “look up when beauty avails itself.”
“My mom used to say when I would complain about stuff … you always have a choice … beauty is always available to you. You just have to put yourself in the way of beauty,” Ms. Strayed said. “When things are hard there is always a sunrise and there is always a sunset and it’s up to you … you can look up at those things or not.”
Ms. Strayed said that in addition to helping her overcome her grief, her hike helped her find the strength that she thinks “we are all innately born with.”
“That gets taken away from us by loss or people doubting us or us doubting ourselves or sometimes a whole culture that tells us that we can’t or we shouldn’t or you better not,” Ms. Strayed said, asking the women in the crowd how many times they’ve been told not to do something alone because it’s dangerous.
“I think that message serves to really hold us back and I invite you to challenge that message at least in one aspect of your life, because the thing about that if you obey it, you never do it,” Ms. Strayed said.
“Fear is just a companion, it’s not the ruler in your life,” she said.
Ms. Strayed also told the crowd it was a “particular honor” to be supporting the Cayman Islands Crisis Centre, as domestic violence is an issue that has affected her life greatly.
Her own father began beating her mother on “day three” of their marriage, and some of the earliest memories of her life were “the terror and fear of violence that was the tyranny of my father and the way he ruled our lives and our house with violence.”
“There was no place to go,” Ms. Strayed said, noting that the first battered women’s shelter in the United States didn’t open until 1975.
“I remember years later thinking about those nights driving … sleeping in the back seat of the car … my mother waiting until the morning when my father calmed down and we could go home and be safe for a while,” Ms. Strayed said. “I think it’s really important to remember that the work the Crisis Centre is doing here today is something that really has come in our lifetimes. In this generation we’ve really started to understand that this issue touches us all.”
Crisis Centre board chair Denise Gower thanked Ms. Strayed for sharing her “touching,” “heartrending” and “impactful” story, and explained that funds raised from the event are very much needed to help end the cycle of violence that fills the center’s shelter, often to its capacity.
Ms. Gower said the number of clients the Crisis Centre serves has doubled in a few short years. Four years ago, the house sheltered 53 women and children. In 2015, the center served 116 women and children.
That’s why the Crisis Centre hopes funds from events like Power of the Purse can be used to find a new, bigger facility that can serve more clients, as more survivors of domestic abuse are “inspired to go on their own epic odysseys and discover lives free from violence,” Ms. Gower said.
She said the Crisis Centre is also hoping to establish a public drop-in center, where people can come for counseling, support groups, and where men, who are also victims of domestic violence, can be helped, too. Such a center could also be a “safe place” for teenagers in crisis to come to when they need somebody to talk to, Ms. Gower said, noting recent studies that found a staggering percentage of teenagers in the Cayman Islands have contemplated suicide.
“If we’re going to end domestic violence, then we need to address the whole family,” Ms. Gower said.