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Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Sunday Essay: A common language

IN EARLY August 1974, a group of eight women led by Elvira Shatayev reached the summit of Lenin Peak, which reaches 7,134 meters into the skies between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. While at the top, they set up camp to wait for a blizzard to die down, but eventually tried to descend after the snowstorm had beaten down their tents. Within 22 hours, all of the women were dead.

No one knows exactly what happened, but that did not stop people from speculating. Perhaps the team should have chosen mountaineers with more experience, instead of insisting on an all-women ascent. That seems to be a common thread. It took another team of climbers led by Elvira’s husband Vladimir two and a half days to climb Lenin Peak, in order to retrieve the women’s bodies.

In August 1974, the American writer Adrienne Rich was, at 45, a mother, a widow, and an accomplished poet.

Something about Elvira Shatayev’s climb moved her to write a poem, in which she imagined the Russian woman’s final hours and what she might have wanted to say to Vladimir. “You come (I know this) with your love / your loss / strapped to your body…You climbed here for yourself / we climbed for ourselves.”

Rich knew something about loss by then. Four years before the women’s deaths on Lenin Peak, Rich had lost her husband Alfred Conrad, a Harvard economist. In its March 2012 obituary for Rich, The New York Times reported that in the autumn of 1970, Conrad died of a gunshot wound to the head. “The death was ruled a suicide,” the paper reported. “To the end of her life, Ms. Rich rarely spoke of it.” But in the poem inspired by Elvira Shatayev, she offers solace for the grieving. “When you have buried us / told your story / ours does not end / we stream / into the unfinished / the unbegun / the possible.” There was more to the story than the women’s deaths, Rich seemed to say. They had made it to the summit. “We will not live to settle for less / We have dreamed of this all of our lives.” That poem made it to Rich’s collection “The Dream of a Common Language,” published in 1978.

This was the book that, 17 years later, another writer turned to while she grieved. In 1995, Cheryl Strayed spent three months hiking nearly 1,700 kilometers on the Pacific Crest Trail. “Dream” was one of only two books that survived Strayed’s solo hike intact. She’d traded one for a novel and burned the rest as soon as she’d read them, either to cook her meals or to keep warm. “In the previous few years, certain lines had become like incantations to me, words I’d chanted to myself through my sorrow and confusion,” Strayed wrote. “That book was a consolation, an old friend.”

Strayed was trying to come to terms with the death of her mother (at age 45, of lung cancer) when she began her hike in the Mojave Desert, weighed down by a pack so heavy she spent her first few days “hunching in a remotely upright position.” She endured spells of grief, physical pain, and tedium. Her 2012 book about that trip (“Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail”) demonstrates that Strayed’s terrific sense of humor survived, too. Along with four of her toenails.

There isn’t much that Elvira Shatayev, Adrienne Rich, and Cheryl Strayed have in common, yet they are connected, and all of us who have come to know their stories are—no matter how briefly—connected to them.

Our challenges are personal and specific, but we can draw encouragement from how they scaled mountains, how they loved in the face of certain losses, how they managed to go the distance. They remind us to try to understand the stories of the women in our lives, starting with our mothers, and all their irreplaceable histories and hopes.

(For my beautiful mother Edith and for all of your mothers, too. @isoldeamante)
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