I’ve been asked a handful of times in the last couple of weeks: “How do you know Cheryl Strayed?” Here’s the short version, spoken by Cheryl:
“In some interesting way it was your mother who brought us together, through my mother. They were the original contact. I wrote in The Sun about how much I loved my mother and your mother wrote to me saying she loved it. Our friendship was in the stars.”
And here’s my longer version:
I grew up reading The Sun, a magazine that describes itself as “personal, provocative, and political.” It was the only magazine my mother subscribed to regularly. It laid around our house, dog-eared and coffee stained. It’s quite possible it was a touch too adult for me to be reading when I was seventeen, but I relished reading it—had read nothing like it before—and I believe now that The Sun created my interest in, and schooled me in, non-fiction. When I stayed home sick from school, I would lounge in my mom’s bed and read the work of writers whose names didn’t totally stick to me at the time. Poe Ballantine, Sparrow, and, of course, Cheryl Strayed.
Last spring, I was at my Mom’s house, spending the day with her. I was on the computer while she took a shower and I somehow stumbled upon Cheryl’s essay “The Love of My Life.” I read it and sobbed and tweeted Cheryl on Twitter, and when my mother emerged from the shower, I told her she just had to read it. She looked at the screen and told me she’d read it. I said, “No, mom you couldn’t have.” She simply couldn’t have been cool enough to have read that essay before me. But she had been.
Cheryl wrote back to me on Twitter saying thank you, and that she’d also enjoyed an essay of mine on The Rumpus. (I hadn’t a clue that Cheryl was “Sugar,” The Rumpus’s popular advice columnist.) A week previous Sugar had commented on, linked to, and tweeted about my Rumpus essay. I thought that was great and wonderful, but didn’t know who “Sugar” was.
“Actually,” my mom said, “Her name is really familiar. I think I may have emailed her after I read her essay.” This habit of emailing authors when they make you feel something is one of the best traits my mother has passed down to me.
So while emailing with Cheryl about her essay, I told her that my mom thought that perhaps she, too, had written to Cheryl about “The Love of My Life.” No more than five minutes passed by before Cheryl responded: “Is your mother’s name Michele? She wrote to me in 2002. We had an exchange about how much we both loved Lucinda Williams. How old were you then?”
Sixteen. I was sixteen then, and here I was eleven years later, unknowingly emailing the same author about the same essay that my mother had.
About a week after this, Kevin Sampsell (publisher of Future Tense Books in Portland, Oregon), solicited me for my manuscript. It was so coincidental that I was sure Cheryl had something to do with it, since she was also a Portland author. “She’s like our Fairy Godmother!” my mother said, half-joking, when I explained the situation to her. I worked up the nerve and asked Cheryl if she’d hooked me up with Kevin and she said, “I didn’t say anything to him. It’s all YOU, babe.”
I met Cheryl Strayed for the first time last September, on her birthday. I was visiting Portland, OR, for the first time. By this time, a friend told me that Cheryl was Sugar, and Cheryl too had asked me if I knew who her secret identity. I was ecstatic and nervous and overjoyed to be in her presence. She wore a silver necklace that said “sweet pea.” We hit it off, had some drinks, and talked about the ethics of non-fiction writing.
When I was back in New York, Cheryl and I kept in touch. She knew I loved the scene in Portland, and told me that if I wanted to come back I could house-sit for her while she went on her book tour and vacation. Of course, I happily complied.
The first time I stayed at Cheryl’s was in January. I’d just read a review copy of Wild. Cheryl gave me the tour of her home. When we went down to the basement I asked, “Is “Monster” down here?” (Monster = Cheryl’s cumbersome backpack that she carried on the Pacific Crest Trail.) She laughed and said yes. When we were in the kitchen, she motioned toward a photograph on the fridge and said, “That’s my mom and Lady, the horse I talk about in Wild.”
Unlocking the door to the house of an author who you love is incredibly moving and surreal. How does one cope with being alone in the home of an author she worships?
Well, first I cried. I was acutely aware of how special the situation was. Here I am 3,000 miles from home, touching Cheryl’s table, feeding her cats, bringing in her mail, writing at her desk. I sat down at the dining room table and I cried because I was overstimulated. Then I binge-ate. Then I put on Lucinda Williams and got to work. I was doing the last edits for my essay collection, Legs Get Led Astray, at the time.
I stayed at Cheryl’s house again last month while she went to the East Coast for part of her book tour. On a Sunday afternoon in March, I got dressed for my book release party. I played the stereo too loudly and was close to tears as the sun streamed through the windows. I put on my new black dress and looked at myself in Cheryl’s mirror, and I thought about my mother and Cheryl’s mother and the daughters that they raised. I didn’t want the moment to end.
Cheryl and I are like passers in the night now. I only see her for short spurts. She leaves the key in the mailbox; I leave the key in the mailbox. We leave notes on the table. She brought me a turquoise and red heart back from Mexico, and I left home-made granola and a hand-made card from my mother for her on the kitchen counter, a copy of Legs Get Led Astray by her bedside. Once in a while, I’d wake up with a text message: “How’s everything going, sweet pea? Can you save the New York Times Book Review for me?”
When Cheryl and her family returned from New York, I had one day left in Portland before I flew back to New York. My editor and I invited her to the Bipartisan Café to meet us for pie. She said she loved that place and their pie and that she would love to join. I was stunned that she would try to meet me for pie on the same day that she had to give a TEDx talk and also go on Live Wire.
She ended up not being able to meet us. But I appreciated her optimism.
Mentor: someone who imparts wisdom to and shares knowledge with a less experienced colleague. I’ve spoken to Cheryl about problems with drugs, problems with my mother, with writing, and with finances. She’s given me endless amounts of wisdom. But if I had to choose one thing that’s really stood out to me about what I’ve learned from Cheryl, it’s how to treat others.
I think of Cheryl now as the woman who wrote an essay for The Sun that my mother and I loved. I think of her as someone who gave me a roof over my head in Portland and a woman who tries to meet me for chocolate cream pie when she damn well knows she can’t meet me for pie. “I’m dying to lounge around and just talk someday, dear one,” she recently said in an email, bringing tears to my eyes. I think of her as the author of Wild, one of the most moving books I’ve ever read.
I think of Cheryl Strayed as a mother of two, and a mentor to oh-so many of us.
Chloe Caldwell is the author of Legs Get Led Astray (Future Tense Books, April, 2012), which Cheryl Strayed called “a scorching hot glitter box of youthful despair and dark delight. Tender and sharp, wide-eyed and searching, these essays have a reckless beauty that feels to me like magic.” Caldwell’s non-fiction has appeared in The Rumpus, Nylon Magazine, The Nervous Breakdown and Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood. She is the curator of the Hudson River Loft Reading Series and she lives in upstate New York and Portland, OR.
6 responses to “On Mothers, Mentors and Housesitting for Cheryl Strayed by Chloe Caldwell”
Thank you, Claudia!
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