From the sexual to the spiritual, the serious to the outrageously comic
Amy Wright: What, Gail Storey, have you not done?
Gail Storey: I haven’t yet mastered split-timing twin-hooping on- and off-body in my hoopdance class, but hope to in time for our annual summer party when I jump out of my birthday cake for 200 of our closest friends. You can check my YouTube channel at Gail Storey if you want to see me lose what reputation I have left.
AW: Your mother, you say in an early chapter of I Promise Not To Suffer: A Fool for Love Hikes the Pacific Crest Trail, “Postpones Dying” while you set off for months of trekking. Meaningfully, she waits long enough that you, and you alone at that, are able to join her at her bedside, providing a memory that I am sure you will value for the rest of your life. Many people shy away from even talking about moments of death, let alone appreciating direct encounters. Will you elaborate on that experience?
GS: My relationship with my mother was complex, in that I felt I betrayed her values, particularly her sexual values, while struggling to find my place in the world. The untangling of my misunderstandings about her is a thread of I Promise Not to Suffer. Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail gave me the space and comfort of nature as primal Mother, and opened my heart to my love for my mother, and hers for me, during her dying. You’re right that I’ll treasure that for the rest of my life. Since marrying Porter, a hospice and palliative care physician, I’ve come to see how dying can be an exquisitely meaningful part of life. I’m grateful for the glimpse into the luminous Silence that my mother fell back into.
AW: Are you equally proud of all of your writing, or do you have a fondness for particular pieces— due to the difficulty of their revelations or some other quality?
GS: I get a huge kick out of my first lines: “Is it better to have fun with a kinky man or to be gloomy with a good one?” for my first novel, The Lord’s Motel, and “Gabriel’s condo complex is called God’s Country Club, but the landscape service went belly-up and only the cacti survive,” for my second novel, God’s Country Club. And the first line of I Promise Not to Suffer: “I never much cared for nature, or rather, thought it okay as long as it stayed outside.”
AW: The confession that you “never much cared for nature,” is unexpected in a memoir devoted to hiking. It also surprised me, who met you in Boulder, Colorado, looking every bit as fit and outdoorsy as the rest of that population. Will you talk about how that relationship has evolved over time?
GS: A crisis in Porter’s career as a hospice physician precipitated his longing to bicycle across the country and hike first the 2,180-mile Appalachian Trail and then the 2,663-mile Pacific Crest Trail. As I ask in the book, while he was doing that, I’d be doing what? With the same baffling inevitability with which I said yes to his marriage proposal, I agreed to bike on a tandem with him from Texas to Maine, hike as much as I could of the Appalachian Trail, bike on our tandem from Texas to California, and hike the Pacific Crest Trail. Biking or hiking up and down in the wind, blazing sun, rain, even snow, all day, every day for months at a time erodes the permeable layer between self and nature. We moved to Boulder where hiking and biking are organic parts of our everyday lives. We live by green values in our house remodeled for solar and photovoltaic energy. Each day I feel more intimately how we’re one with nature.
AW: What is the best writing advice you’ve ever gotten—directly or indirectly?
GS: Grace Paley read some of my early writing, and said “You’re okay, kid, even when you’re foolin’ around.” I took that as reassurance that my full writer could show up in all her extremes from the sexual to the spiritual, the serious to the outrageously comic.
AW: You mention making lists in this memoir, and the index is filled with food items and gear. Porter teases you about your list-making, seeing perhaps how we all seek order when confronting some unknown. Do you have a favorite list, or books of lists—that is, do you like reading lists, or is it more a function of putting your mind at ease to write them?
GS: It’s totally a way of freeing up my mind’s screenspace by relegating to-do’s for later download. I love the act of making a list and crossing off items, like a found poem in the writing and revision. Handwritten lists are the most fun, although I do have computerized ones I print out for grocery shopping, birthdays, holiday gifts, all sorts of things. At my most neurotic, I kept a list of our dinner parties, who came, and what we served them, so no one would ever have to eat the same thing twice. I gave that up, though; people are thrilled to get your signature pasta puttanesca when their turn comes ’round again.
AW: You describe yourself wearing a black boa and fuchsia leopard leggings at your bachelorette party before coyly asking a friend, “Don’t I look like a doctor’s wife?” Are such outfits a reflection of your sense of humor, or an ability to not take yourself too seriously, or how much absurdity is inherent in the human experience?
GS: When I taught inner-city kids for Writers in the Schools, a second-grader once wrote that she liked my “sins of humor.” I love to laugh, and I have more costumes than regular clothes in my closet. I try to be a good steward of my life, I take the privilege of the human experience quite seriously, but I don’t take the small, conditioned self all that seriously. It still thinks it’s a separate self apart from the vastness of Awareness, for cryin’ out loud! So my “sins of humor” are a way of saying to that small self, it’s okay, honey, just relax in the deep “Don’t Know.”
AW: I love that phrase “sins of humor.” Plus, now I’m going to imagine that laughter loosens the grip of that conditioned self so that it slides around your hips, hooplike, before it drops.
You acknowledge help from your writing group with IPNTS. Will you relay some of the history of that group and describe how peer review and outside editing has informed all your books?
GS: My writing group—Julene Bair, Elisabeth Hyde, Lisa Jones, Marilyn Krysl, and me—came together soon after I hiked the Pacific Crest Trail and moved to Boulder. We met one evening a week for a potluck dinner. Each of us got about an hour, to read aloud while the others marked up their copies and then discussed. We were all published writers working on new books, and it was incredibly helpful to hear the points of agreement and disagreement. Sometimes it got pretty wild. I used their marked-up copies of my chapter to revise, before working on a chapter for the following week. I revised several drafts of I Promise Not to Suffer that way, along with a novel I haven’t yet published. My husband often eavesdropped from the bottom of our stairs while I read my chapter aloud, and after everyone left, rejoiced with me at the parts that had worked, and consoled me when I burst into tears at what hadn’t. The journey from weather-stained trail journal pages to a published book is as long as the Pacific Crest Trail is miles.
Several trusted friends scattered across the country have read each of my manuscripts and offered invaluable insights at crucial points in the revision process. I’ve been lucky to work with superb editors, Karen Braziller at Persea Books for The Lord’s Motel and God’s Country Club, and Kate Rogers at Mountaineers Books for I Promise Not to Suffer: A Fool for Love Hikes the Pacific Crest Trail, who “got” the books and helped see them into the world.
AW: You ask in the memoir if anyone can understand the “give-and-take of someone else’s marriage,” going on to say that yours was “founded, in part, on relief at being delivered from previous painful relationships” and that “evolved into a deep desire to take care of each other.” It sounds paradoxical, but it takes a strong sense of self to undertake care for another. How did you earn that trust in yourself?
GS: I’m not at all sure that I earned that trust in myself; it’s more that I hope I cooperated, and continue to, with the flow of life. Some call that grace. Terrible and beautiful things have happened to me. Whenever I wring my hands over past ignorance, Porter reminds me “You had to go through everything you did to be who you are today.” And who is that? I love that I’m being taken up increasingly inside the question. The deeper I open to the question “Who are we?” the more trust and love I feel for Porter, myself, other people, our soulful planet, and Life itself.