It was an eloquent adventure from start to finish; the trends in Pam Houston's able writing are often analogous to the exact trips she's writing about. What I loved most was the genuine spirit behind the words. Everything in this book was done by a woman who, by her own contention, was born with 'not one ounce of natural [athletic] ability'. (For this lie, by the way, I forgive her.)
It all began for me in a used book store in Santa Cruz. My fiction writing teacher had recommended Houston to me as a Davis author. Her name came to mind as I perused the fiction section, and the cover of Houston's 'Cowboys Are My Weakness' appealed to me. By the time I'd turned the first page, I found myself completely seduced. Her confident style swept me right off my girlish feet. There I was in my own living room with grass in my hair, my ten-gallon on cockeyed and a silly-wide smile on my face. What a roll in the hay!
That collection of short stories is well worth picking up. I couldn't put it down. As it turns out, the art mimics life. Many of those anecdotes were pulled from her journeys all over the world with intriguing, dangerous men. In non-fiction, she continues to be a powerhouse of insight and stamina. Her words stride across the page, bold and even masculine.
When I happened upon the chapter entitled 'In Pursuit of What I Don't Do Well,' I almost stopped. Granted this was a book of non-fiction, titled unmistakably as a very introspective, self-centered memoir. But the arrogance of that title nearly turned me away. It took a great deal of trust to plunge in. After all, I can't help feeling envious of this woman who can do anything, and has already tried most things. Mock humility bothers me.
As it turns out, that chapter spoke closest to me. I felt as if she was whispering her story across a table in the dim light of a restaurant, hands wrapped around her coffee mug, confiding. Like so many girls, she wanted to find her purpose, but could only dream of being justified through the acceptance and pride of her parents. That's the way it is with children, I suppose. A child is blessed if she has folks who care enough to involve her in after school activities, help her with her homework, drive her to practice, cheer her on at games. Houston wanted to be worthy in the eyes of her father. She wanted to be told she was beautiful and athletic. It didn't happen, and when she couldn't find the pinnacle of that pursuit, she turned away from her family. The desire didn't leave her; she merely repositioned it. The chapter closed with this supposition; it is one, as the wife of a mountain climber and outdoor enthusiast, I can absolutely identify with:
'One day, if I try hard enough, I'll look like a woman on the cover of Outside magazine... I will be frozen there in the motion of someone's memory, and that someone (a man, my father, myself) will say, 'That was beautiful!''
The only thing I have to say about the chapter 'The Morality of Fat', is that if a woman like Pam Houston, articulate, educated, windblown and strong, can feel insecure about her weight, what chance do the rest of us have?
This summer I will take my husband on a trip. We have it all planned. For the first time in our marriage, I will be leading him on a journey to a place that remains to be the Eden of my childhood, a place that is a kind of Mecca to someone as summit-hungry as Jonathan, and I will be revealing it to him for the first time. I will be the expert, and he will be the one standing agape. 'They rise out of the Snake River Valley like a rich dark promise. Taller than the Grand Canyon is deep, sharper than the blade of a bread knife, the Tetons' are part of my history. My family went there in the summers, and my dad saw to it that my brothers and I respected the magnificence of those peaks as we should. Learning that Pam Houston was not able to climb the face of the Grand Teton gave me a small twinge of vindictive pleasure. That's probably not very nice to admit, but I'm trying to be as honest about my feelings as she tries to be.
Besides, the moment doesn't last long. She has the freedom to forge lasting love affairs with big, beautiful, bounding dogs. The kinds of dogs I long to have myself. She owns land in a remote corner of Colorado, surrounded by the mountains she has conquered on skis. And she has known, loved and owned horses. I am new to riding, but I agree that 'horses know the truth about what you are feeling faster than you have time to think it.' The insight in her first chapter gave me a leg up on my next few riding lessons. There are no problem horses.
But the power of this book lies not in the sheer number of adventures, but rather in the living and learning that went on in the meantime. 'Breaking The Ice' was the telling of two stories in parallel. A dead friend and a living friend being indirectly compared by a woman who is learning that it is important to have friends to be silent with. Tonight, for instance, I spent talking to a friend in front of my fireplace. Tonight we needed to talk (though I probably should have listened more). But sometimes we have the capacity just to be quiet. And I knew what she was going to say tonight long before she said it. That is beauty. That is friendship.
While I reveled in all of the Dispatches From Five Continents (and read most of them aloud to Jon), it was Houston's stories of home that appealed to me most. She may have visited every corner of the earth, but she is an American girl at heart. I can see the prairie in her hair, the big sky in her eyes. I love all that she is, an incomplete version of the success I hope to achieve someday. Yet what she has is more than enough. She has redefined success:
'...success has less to do with the accumulation of things, and more to do with the accumulation of moments... creating a successful life might be as simple as determining which moments are the most valuable, and seeing how many of those moments I can string together in a line.'
Her definition will do for me for now. I luxuriated in her writing, just the frank, lovely word choices and the capable rhythm of an author confident in her own shoes. My admiration stems from her ability to be both vulnerable and absolutely capable in her life pursuits. She owns big dogs, but admits to loving them as she has loved people, to wrapping herself around them and entwining her fingers in their fur in order to sleep alone at night. But this time it was the insight of a woman who took a trip around the world just to find that 'home is where your dogs are,' and is able to sit down and spill her guts onto paper for people like me, her insight is what made me love it.