Monthly Archives: July 2016

One Wild and Precious Life-Part 2

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? –Mary Oliver, “The Summer Day”

Dear Sugar Radio recently taped two podcast episodes in front of a live audience in Portland, OR. I decided to attend–even though I live no where near Portland, OR. For details on how that happened see Part 1.

I made it to the hotel with plenty of time to walk to Revolution Hall.

“You walked?” My grandma was utterly scandalized when she heard that part.

“It wasn’t very far and Portland is a very walkable city.”

“Alright then—keep going.”

It started drizzling on my way over, but not much. I was surprised that there were more people queuing outside the building even though I arrived only about 10 minutes before the doors were set to open. To my surprise, I was allowed to enter the building right away. I made my way upstairs to the theater and suddenly understood—a long line had already formed in front of the main theater doors. That’s the part that would be opening in a few minutes.

I wandered over to the back of the line and resolved myself to a long wait. After just a few minutes, though, an employee clued those of us in the back that there was another set of doors with almost no line just around the corner. A few fast-paced steps later and I was near the front of the other line. A few minutes after that, the doors were open and I found myself in the 5th row from the front. I was ready.

There was a huge backdrop reading “Dear Sugar Radio” across the back of the stage behind large red armchair and a beige love-seat. The arm chair was for Cheryl Strayed while Steve Almond and the guest speaker would sit on the couch. I had originally thought that I would be watching one episode with two guest speakers, but it soon became apparent that there would be two episodes taped that night. Works for me!

Each episode of Dear Sugar Radio starts with a voice-over of Cheryl while the theme song plays. For the first year or so, the theme was “I Want A Little Sugar In My Bowl,” by Nina Simone, but sometime around January they switched to an original song played by the band Wonderly and sung by Angela Freeman. I got a little thrill when Wonderly started playing the song live at the start of the first episode. Then Angela Freedman strolled on stage, belted into the microphone, and sauntered away. And so it began.

Both episodes followed this format: opening song, introduction of the episode’s theme, introduction of the episode’s guest, reading and discussion of a letter from a listener, and Dear Sugar-style Q&A. Each episode ended with a live song played by a musical guest. I’m not going to give a complete summary of each one because I think it would be better to just listen to them.

The first episode focused on the idea of reinvention and featured writer Lidia Yuknavitch. I had read Lidia’s novel, The Small Backs of Children, on the train to Portland, so it was very fresh it my mind. There is a chapter in that book called, “White Space”. It is only six pages long, but it is some of the most beautiful and complex writing I have ever read in my life. I am a better writer just for having read those six pages. [Thank you, Lidia! P.S. I loved your red boots!]

Lidia Yuknavitch and The Sugars

Lidia Yuknavitch and The Sugars


The second episode focused on addiction and featured writer Sarah Hepola. Sarah spoke about her own experiences as a recovering alcoholic in response to that episode’s letter. I started reading her memoir, Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget, the next day. I have never drunk to the extent that Sarah describes, but I definitely related to many of the insecurities that she cited as reasons she drank such as building up courage in social settings. I also loved her writing style. Steve read a few excerpts from the book during the podcast that he especially loved, but really the entire book is full of beautiful sentences.

Sarah Hepola

Sarah Hepola helps The Sugars answer a letter from a listener.

Like I said earlier, both episodes ended with a Dear Sugar version of a Q&A. Rather than having audience members ask questions in a microphone, someone had gone around with blank index cards while we were waiting in line so to allow questions of a more anonymous and intimate nature. Cheryl and Steve gave advice that night regarding such topics as infidelity, hiking, writing real-life events, and parenting. I didn’t ask a question that night. I thought of a couple I could have asked over the next few days, but in the moment I was too full of euphoria to remember that, just like everybody else, I have problems.

I walked back to my hotel in actual rain, rather than just drizzle, but at that point I was way beyond caring. There was a piano in the parking lot of Revolution Hall and some was playing in the rain. I didn’t recognize the tune, but in the moment it was magic.

Tiny Beautiful Day

The end of a tiny, beautiful day.

One Wild and Precious Life–Part 1

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? –Mary Oliver, “The Summer Day”

I moved to the Mojave Desert to escape my comfort zone. (Also, because I got offered an internship which would give me some much-needed field experience.) I wanted to live up to my own lofty ideals of “going where life takes me” and “living with no strings attached”. I’ve learned a lot out here so far—mostly in regard to plants and field work and desert life, but also about myself. I’ve also gotten a little braver.

Whipple Wash

Monitoring rare plants in Whipple Wash.

One of my current heroes is Cheryl Strayed of Dear Sugar/Wild/Tiny Beautiful Things fame. When Cheryl was 26, she spent the summer hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) from California and Oregon. She did this alone. Solo. By herself. Sociologically speaking, women in our society are not expected to do things alone (ie: go to bars, eat dinner at sit-down restaurants, travel, walk through miles and miles of wilderness). Through reading her work, I have come to the understanding that Cheryl is not only brave enough to do all of those things, she is also compassionate and a very attentive listener.

So, I’m in the desert. I am an avid listener of Dear Sugar Radio (a podcast featuring Cheryl Strayed and Steve Almond). I found out that there would be a live taping of Dear Sugar Radio in Portland, OR in July. Can you see where this is going?

The idea seemed crazy at first—I came to the desert to find plants, not to go gallivanting off to see writers. Portland was still a long way away—closer than it would be from Wisconsin, but still. It was on a Friday, I would have to take time off from work. I would have to drive to the Las Vegas airport. It would be frivolous—I should be saving money. Who would go with me? I casually mentioned the upcoming event to one of my friends who also loved Dear Sugar Radio, but she didn’t bite. So much for that idea.

I couldn’t shake it though. I really would like to go. My friends were going places on the weekends—Vegas, Death Valley, Iowa, Florida. Sure they were either reasonably nearby or places they had once called home, but still I didn’t really want to drive through Vegas. I tend to get lost a lot. You could take a train—you’ve never been on a train before. I looked it up—I could easily catch a train that would take me where I wanted to go. You said you wanted to be more adventurous.

It was like I dared myself to do it. I looked up the price of a ticket to the event, a round-trip train ticket, and a hotel nearby. I could do this. So I did. I bought all three in one day. Then I started telling people: my roommate, my parents, my friends back home. By that time, it was too late for them to talk me out of it—I already had the tickets. Actually, no one did actively try to talk me out of my trip. They said they were worried about my safety, that they wished they could go with me, that I was very brave to go all by myself. But no one said, “Don’t go”. For which, I was grateful.

Droid 7-25-16 402

Ticket for 1 to Dear Sugar Radio Live!

My parents did request regular updates, though.

It wasn’t until I had already purchased the tickets and started informing people of my upcoming trip that I started seeing the parallels. Cheryl grew up in Northern Minnesota. I grew up next door in Northern Wisconsin. Cheryl started her hike in the Mojave Desert. I was travelling all over the Mojave desert for my botany internship. (Mostly in 4-Wheel Drive vehicles, but there was definitely some hiking involved.) Cheryl was 26 when she hiked the PCT. I’m 26 now. Cheryl ended her hike at the Bridge of the Gods, about 40 miles away from Portland. I was going to Portland. Basically, in my own way, I was kind of, sort of maybe, ish, following in Cheryl’s footsteps. That thought alone was empowering.

My grand solo adventure was supposed to start at 12:30AM on a Thursday, but the train was delayed. It finally pulled up to the station at 1:32 AM. By that time, I was exhausted. I found my seat, stashed my luggage and fell asleep. Done.

The proper part of Thursday (the part on the other side of sunrise) was a blur arriving at LA’s Union Station, finding some breakfast, waiting for my next train, boarding said train, finding my new seat, and PA announcements about dinner options, and this is a non-smoking train, and our next stop will be.., and seriously people—don’t smoke on the train. I had a window seat and watched graffiti melt to mountains which gave way to the ocean, then vineyards, which later vanished into evergreen forests and misty lakes. I’ll admit that I didn’t pay as much attention to the scenery as I maybe should have. I was too busy reading The Small Backs of Children by Lidia Yuknavitch. It was a little more difficult to drift into dreamland the second night, but I managed.

In the morning, I woke up to a seat-neighbor—it had been empty up until then. The lady next to me was retired and off to visit her family in Seattle for 2 or 3 weeks. I figured she was okay when I saw the book she had brought with her—A Mercy by Toni Morrison. We talked about her siblings and her grandchildren and her plans for the next few weeks. She asked where I was going and why. She seemed pretty impressed. “I love that your generation is encouraged to do that sort of thing. When I was your age, it was all about finding a husband and raising a family. Even working outside of the home was a big deal.”

When the train arrived in Portland, my seat-neighbor wished me luck and reminded me to “call your mama.” I stepped off the train. It was gray and less than 80°F—I wasn’t in the desert anymore.