Oh, Baby, It’s a Wild World

Last night I went with my daughter to see the new movie Wild at the Austin Film Festival. The showing took place at the Paramount Theater, one of those old downtown theaters with an enormous, elaborately decorated ceiling, velveteen seats, and a wrap-around balcony. Though the sound system in the theatre leaves something to be desired, the effect of seeing any movie in such a setting with a packed house is deeply communal and even transcendent. Watching a film is comprised of two parts — the content of the film itself and the circumstances in which you watch it. When both aspects are extraordinary, then the sum of the two elements is so much greater than the parts.

As soon as I saw that Wild was in the festival line-up, I knew that it would be one of the highlights for me. After all, Cheryl Strayed, the author of the book, and I had shared a room and a hot tub at Esalen a few years back when we were both facilitators at a writing conference. And Cheryl had graciously written a blurb for my own memoir shortly thereafter. Through social media I’d been able to follow her meteoric rise, noting that she kept her generous spirit and delightful sense of humor throughout the process.

But even if that were not the case, this night would rank high among “entertainment” experiences for the very fact that I shared it with my daughter. I’d read Wild when it first came out and loved it. I related to it on so many levels. For one thing, I love hiking though I’ve never embarked on anything remotely resembling Cheryl’s adventure. But like Cheryl, I’d also gone through a dark period in my youth — shooting heroin, having sex with strangers, and the heart-wrenching abortion. And like Cheryl and many women, I had a profound love for my mother who had also suffered the abuse of an alcoholic husband. Finally, as a writer I couldn’t help but admire Cheryl’s skill in the telling of her tale. It’s one thing to have braved a thousand mile journey on foot. It’s another to be able to make that journey fascinating for your readers.

So when I was finished with the book, I passed it on to my daughter to read. She doesn’t read everything I give her, but I insisted that she read this book because she too had something in common with Cheryl. When my daughter was 18, I was diagnosed with cancer, and she almost lost me. It was a dark period in her life. She and her father had become estranged for reasons she couldn’t understand and then she had to face the fact that she might not have a mother to shepherd her into adulthood. She read it over a weekend and agreed that it was a wonderful book with a powerful message.

Now, three years later, here we were in Austin, Texas, which wasn’t even on our radar back when we’d read the book. But now my daughter lives here, working as a choreographer and actor, and I had come for the film festival conference to learn more about TV writing, something which has lately come to occupy my time. And serendipitously, Cheryl’s movie was on the marquee. Of course, we worried that something would foil the plan. My daughter is working on a show with a local theatre company and had a late rehearsal that day. In addition, she only had a festival pass, which meant I would get in with the badge holders, and she’d have to hope there were still seats left when it was her turn. But she managed to get out of her rehearsal early, miraculously find a parking space, and get to the theatre with 20 minutes to spare. I passed her in the “film pass” line as the badge holders streamed in.

“I’ll be on the right side of the theater near the front,” I called out to her.

A short while later we sat in the darkened theater, watching Reese Witherspoon trek through deserts and up mountains, both of us crying and laughing and relating and, I think, thanking God for each other. As I watched Witherspoon embody the young Cheryl, I remembered when my daughter was eleven years old and we’d worn out the Legally Blond DVD, watching it over and over, and how for years, we’d start out our road trips singing “Perfect Day” — the number one song on the road trip mix. And how even the night before we’d been up at two in the morning watching Gilmore Girls episodes together.

Wild is more than one woman’s journey. It’s a celebration of mothers and daughters, a reminder of that powerful bond that nothing, not even death, can break.