A few weeks ago, one of the strangest propositions I've ever received for a movie's Blu-ray/DVD release landed on my desk. Well, not physically on my desk, but in my inbox - close enough.
Would I, Fox Home Entertainment wondered, like to attend a "'Wild' Women's Wellness Retreat" at the Parker Palm Springs resort in Palm Springs with some other female media influencers to celebrate the release of [Wild](movie:767988) on Blu-ray & DVD? Provided I posted about it on social media while I was there, that is.
Let's see: staying at the nicest luxury resort in a tranquil desert town known for catering to its rich clientele? Getting some time at a spa, yoga, hiking the Pacific Crest Trail like Cheryl Strayed did? Sign me up. I said yes, filled out the release forms, and committed to the three-day trip.
But the more I thought about it, the more nervous I got. It wasn't the prospect of the physical exertion that had me second-guessing - even when I read that temperatures would be climbing close to a hundred degrees the day of the desert hike, I, in my usual wry, tongue-in-cheek way, cracked jokes about it:
No, it wasn't the hike or the yoga that had me troubled, though I hadn't done either in far too long.
It was the idea of being around that many people I didn't know for three days that was outside my comfort zone. See, it might surprise many to know this, but I'm very much an introvert, and, if I'm being honest with myself, have a very small streak of social anxiety that hasn't ever kept me from doing things but has certainly made me worry about doing those things right up until the time I have done them.
Being on stage, giving a lecture, an interview, teaching a class, moderating or speaking at a panel, none of those things bother me; I've done them all. But small talk with strangers, in a social situation where I can't hit the eject button, is my own personal hell. You'd never know it, either. I can talk up a storm, chat with strangers, am friendly to a fault. But it doesn't come easily to me. I am not a natural extrovert, energized by being around lots of people. I like people, but having to be "on" around strangers for extended periods of time drains my energy reserves. And alone time at the Wild Women's Wellness Retreat seemed to be something that would be in short supply. What if--oh, God, what if I had to share a room with someone and all she wanted to do was talk?
Plus...there was going to be a life coach at the campfire on our last night. A life coach. I envisioned a bunch of women sitting around and telling me to "live my truth" whilst being hugged by some lady in all-vegan clothing telling me it was "a safe space" and offering generically positive life affirmations while I tried my best not to giggle uncontrollably. Maybe something about aligning my chakras or opening up my third eye to see the the reality of all things. Maybe a bongo drum. There would definitely be kale.
But I was angry with myself. This again? I thought. You're going. End of story.
The first afternoon, I checked into the Parker. After handing my keys off to the valet, I stepped into the lobby and had to remind myself not to gape like the village idiot. I'd been inside many nice hotels for press junkets and work obligations, but never had I actually been a guest at a luxe resort like this. One look at the lobby made me exceedingly grateful to Fox Home Entertainment for playing host.
I have never felt so poor in my life, I thought.
I looked around at the expensive, perfect hairstyles, the tennis whites, the sundresses and $300 sunglasses. Looked down at the yoga pants and old t-shirt I'd thrown on for the drive. Shrugged. Whatever. Act like you've been here before.
After getting the keys to my room (a room, I was happy to learn, that was entirely my own), I marveled at the size of the bed and thoughtful little touches.
Along with the beautiful patio I had that overlooked a croquet court, of all things. I poked around the grounds for a bit and reveled in the tranquil landscaping before finally heading to the first thing on the official agenda: the Blu-ray/DVD screening of Wild.
When I got there, it was the first of many moments in those three days that would find me feeling a sting of guilt as I'd realized I'd been silly to worry.
The lawn was set with fold-out chairs in front of the screen, but in front of the chairs were laid out cozy, crocheted blankets and big, cushy pillows.
In the back was a long table laid out with gourmet movie snacks - chocolate and soft pretzels and candy. There was even a popcorn machine.
Not a minute after I got there, I was handed an REI backpack full of goodies. The Wild soundtrack, DVD, and original book. Tons of literature and photos of the Pacific Crest Trail, part of which we'd be hiking in the morning. A candle. Score!
And the movie started. If you're not familiar with the premise, Wild is based on the memoir of the same name by Cheryl Strayed, played by Reese Witherspoon in the film. When Cheryl's mother (played by the fantastic Laura Dern) succumbs suddenly to a particularly aggressive form of cancer and passes away at age 45, it rips the curtain away from a lot of internal problems that Cheryl had, to that point, pushed down and ignored.
In her grief, Cheryl - who is married - goes wheels off, starts dulling her pain with heroin and needles, sleeping with strange men, disappearing on her husband and from her life for nights and days at a time. Eventually, he catches her in the act and they agree to divorce. Knowing she needs a clean slate, a fresh start, Cheryl makes the impulsive decision to hike the Pacific Crest Trail by herself, despite having next to no experience.
And it helped her find herself. But in a real way, not in the convenient and gift-wrapped package that so many fictional Hollywood redemption arcs and bildungsroman stories offer their protagonists, a complete, speedy upgrade of character in 120 minutes. Here were no cure-all epiphanies, no giant revelations that immediately gave her all the answers she sought; there was only the aloneness and the space she needed to take the first step, which was to allow her feelings to happen - all of them. Even the scary ones.
Solitude is the big theme of the movie. Being alone. More accurately, it's learning to be comfortable with yourself while alone, when you have nothing and no one to distract you from your painful thoughts, from the things you regret.
I explained it once to a friend who tends to throw herself into meaningless relationships and activities to keep herself from ever dwelling on certain ugly, painful realities of her life: It won't kill you. You're not afraid to feel pain. Pain happens. What you're afraid of is that there won't be an end to it. But there always is.
In Wild, I found something I could appreciate, a practical story to which I could relate. I've had my own recent, unpleasant revelations about certain aspects of my nature that I'd like to change, and while I wanted to give myself credit for being self-aware and emotionally brave enough to do the soul-searching that so many others don't, it felt like a cop-out. It wasn't as if I had fixed myself; I'd only finally accepted my issues and had started to unearth their roots. Our natures are our natures, and we fight an uphill battle against the worst parts of them all our lives, if we're lucky. If we're not, we won't even recognize the need to fight that battle at all. I didn't deserve a medal for it.
The next morning dawned early and hot, and morning yoga, as relaxed as it was, had us soon drenched in sweat. But I was glad for it. How long has it been since I just cleared my head? I wondered. Too damn long. A high-level, busy career and major health issues for friends and family had been weighing on me. And having ADD only adds to the problem of a mind that's never quiet and at rest. But as I twisted and flowed on the yoga mat in the morning sun, I found my mind mercifully calm, and, more importantly, didn't feel guilty that I wasn't doing Something Productive. I had always felt a vague sense of unease when taking "me" time, because it was time I could have spent doing "Something Productive" instead of "Being Lazy". I even feel guilty taking off the paid vacation days that are in my contract and I am perfectly expected to use - so I almost never do.
I'm pretty sure, I told myself, that this is a problem. I don't think most people think like this.
But-- I argued with myself.
But what? Why do you think it's perfectly normal for your coworkers to take time off, to take some personal time, but you feel guilty when you do? Why does the thought of giving yourself a week - or even two! - to do whatever the hell you want, seem like a ridiculous idea?
I had no answers for myself. Shut up, brain, I grumbled. One personal hang-up at a time.
What would Cheryl do? Cheryl hiked.
And so, a few hours after yoga, I found myself in the Whitewater Preserve in the San Gorgonio Wilderness, along with 19 other women, hiking along. As a girl who had been raised in the country, I treated nature with respect and reverence. I'm quiet when I'm in nature, particularly when it's a nature that's so vast and all-encompassing that it humbles you. The point is not to chatter and talk, but to exist. So I cringed when I heard the first, "Oh my GOD, we totally need to take selfies, y'all!" from somewhere behind me on the trail. I gritted my teeth, but then immediately felt a sting of shame. Everyone is enjoying this in her own way, Lish, I admonished myself, who are you to judge? Marching after our incredible hike leader, Anitra, I realized I was the one who needed to chill out, not the other women.
Eventually, the chatter stopped. There was nothing but the trail and the desert and the heat and the peacefulness. I found myself scanning the ground at a rapid clip, which was how I spotted the bleached bones of a feral cow; a small wren's nest tucked into a low bush, a bright pink splash of cacti flowers in an arid landscape.
On the way back, Dawn, a woman with whom I'd bonded a bit earlier that morning at breakfast, confessed something to me.
"You know...I was kind of scared to come on this trip at first," she said sheepishly.
"Yeah...I don't always get along well with other women, because women can so often be so catty and mean to each other. So I was pretty nervous. But...everyone here has been so nice, and this has been such a great experience. I'm really glad that I came."
"Me, too," I told her. "I wasn't sure what to expect, but I'm glad I did this."
We hiked back to the bus, partly in companionable silence, partly chatting about life. Not the forced small talk that I had been dreading, but an interesting, thoughtful conversation that I valued.
That night, once again, I was shown that I had ultimately been silly to worry about the retreat. Britt Reints, our campfire speaker, quickly squashed the title she'd been given: "So, I saw in the event description that I'd been described as a 'life coach'? Yeah, that's...not really what I am. I'm a writer, really."
We sat and talked about happiness. We talked about the things women do every day to sabotage ourselves without realizing it. We talked about the ways in which women sabotage each other. We talked about the little slings and arrows we suffered every day in the professional world because we're women. We talked about personal battles, all told with honesty and humor, and we gave one another advice. It wasn't one-size-fits-all, but there were bits and pieces that each one of us could take and mold into something useful for ourselves.
And, anyway, isn't that the point of all this? As in Wild, there are no cure-all remedies for the problems of life. They're very rarely cleaned up neatly and easily with no spillage. Recognizing issues within yourself doesn't automatically grant you a life-long testament to the quality of your character; it just means you've done the first step of being a functioning human being. But that's okay. Sometimes, that first step is enough.
My small step was realizing that I need to stop being so hard on myself. I don't have to control everything; sometimes, the people around me will hurt and there's nothing I can do about it. I'm allowed to fuck up - and I will. And when I do, I'll deal with it and learn from it. Do I feel different? Not really. Neither did Cheryl Strayed at the end of her journey; she'd only given herself permission to wipe her slate clean. To forgive herself. Did I emerge a new person? No, still the same old me. But for the first time in 34 years of living, I'm thinking about a better, kinder way of dealing with myself.
And maybe that's enough.
Wild is out on Blu-ray and DVD now and is available for purchase on Amazon.
Thanks very much to Fox Home Entertainment, the Parker Palm Springs, Palm Springs Visitors Bureau, Pacific Crest Trail Association, and Whitewater Preserve for an incredible experience. You guys are the best.