Tiny Beautiful Things

TW: sexual abuse discussed in the book and in this blog post.

MEET AN AGONY AUNT LIKE NO OTHER

Over the years, tens of thousands of the anxious, confused and hopeful have turned to Cheryl Strayed, internet agony aunt ‘Dear Sugar’ for her wisdom and warmth. Sugar’s advice is spun from genuine compassion informed by a wealth of personal experience – experience that is sometimes tragic and sometimes tender, often hilarious and often heart breaking.

If you are ever feeling a little lost in life, this gem-like collection will give you an invaluable gentle shove in the right direction.

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About a year ago, I started having bad dreams. They weren’t of the being chased, there’s a monster under my bed looking to eat my flesh and harvest my organs kind. No, these bad dreams had more to do with feelings. I’d be in an unfamiliar room, anger making my hands shake, my heart pound into my throat, my very self feel too big for my body in a way it really only can when you’re purely and blindly PISSED. I would open my mouth to start screaming, to voice this unbearable rage… but no sound would come out. I would fight and fight but no matter how hard I tried, how gigantic my anger felt, I couldn’t make a single sound.

A few months after I started having this dream it occurred to me that I might have some issues to figure out.

Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild and Tiny Beautiful Things is basically the queen of figuring shit out. She has experienced a great deal of pain, grief and abuse in her life that she describes bluntly and fearlessly with a sort of openness and compassion that I have never seen before.

It’s hard to talk about your bad feelings because of the hugeness of them. The words are too big to fit in your mouth, the wrong shape for your hands to write them. Sometimes it’s like there isn’t even a language for the thing that you’re feeling.

At least that’s how I’ve felt lately. As a lifelong proponent of avoiding my feelings – both because that’s my coping mechanism and because for a whole bunch of years I was told they were invalid – the subconscious rebellion I have been dealing with over the last few months has been hard to put into words. At least until I read Tiny Beautiful Things. There is a language, and Cheryl Strayed – Sugar – speaks it.

I don’t think it’s possible to read this book without becoming a more compassionate person – both towards others and yourself.

Sugar’s style of advice isn’t simply to make orders, sit back and let the dice roll as they may. It isn’t a self-indulgent rush of superiority, like I thought it was back when I was a teenager advising my friend’s on their love lives like I had a clue. No, Sugar hears your story, whether it’s about how you can’t write, how you’ve been unable to commit since your divorce, how you heard your friends talking about how they think your girlfriend is kind of a bitch – and responds with her own. She picks the core feeling out of the problem presented to her: anger, love, disappointment, regret, fear and mirrors it back. And then she’ll tell you what to do about it. It’s as if she’s reaching through the pages to hold your hand, or give you a shove in the right direction. There is something both comforting and clarifying in her words. As you read you think: yeah, this lady knows her shit.

There are so many stand out letters in this collection. Those that spoke to me were mostly concerned with writing, or with leaving. Quotes like this blew my mind in small ways:

The useless days will add up to something. The shitty waitressing jobs. The hours spent writing in your journal. The long meandering walks. The hours reading poetry and story collections and novels and dead people’s diaries and wondering about sex and God and whether you should shave under your arms or not. These things are your becoming.

Some of the letters are brutal. Two, in particular stick in my mind. In one, Strayed describes the sexual abuse her grandfather subjected her to as a child, how it made her ‘feel miserable and anxious in a way so sickeningly particular that I can feel that same particular sickness rising this very minute in my throat.’ She talked about this in response to the simple question of WTF? asked emphatically and repeatedly by a reader. Her conclusion? ‘Ask better questions, sweet pea… the fuck is your life. Answer it.

The other, called The Obliterated Place, came from a man who lost his son to a drunk driver. He wrote his letter in list form, each number detailing a way in which his life was now unbearable to him. He referred to himself as a ‘living dead dad’. Sugar responded to him with her own list. What follows in a conversation about grief and going on that is searing – it almost physically hurts to read it – but beautiful

14. The word “obliterate” comes from the Latin obliterare. Ob means “against”; literare means “letter” or “script.” A literal translation is “being against the letters.” It was impossible for you to write me a letter, so you made me a list instead. It is impossible for you to on as you were before, so you must go on as you never have.

Other gifts from Sugar:

‘The unifying theme is resilience and faith. The unifying theme is being a warrior and a motherfucker. It is not fragility. It’s strength. It’s nerve. And “if your Nerve deny you -,” as Emily Dickinson wrote, “go above your Nerve.” Writing is hard for every last one of us – straight white men included. Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig.’

‘Do not reach the age of child rearing and jobs with a guitar case full of crushing regret for all the things you wished you’d done in your youth. I know too many people who didn’t do those things. They all end up mingy, addled, shrink wrapped versions of the people they intended to be.’

‘Be about ten times more magnanimous than you believe yourself capable of being. Your life will be a hundred times better for it. This is good advice for anyone at any age, but particularly for those in their twenties.’

Tiny Beautiful Things is one for required reading lists everywhere. It is a book that I can already tell will stay with me for a long time.

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When do you read?

I used to read almost every morning before starting my day. Back when I was student I would roll out of bed around 9am most days, stumble downstairs for a cup of tea before sinking back into bed with a book.

It was the best.

These days, it’s not like that.

I work full time now – usually between 35 and 50 hours a week. Long mornings spent in bed with a book are a thing of the past. They have been replaced with long hours taking food to hostile strangers.

Reading became something that I had to make time for.

I find it frustrating in 90% of people when they say ‘I don’t have time to read!

What most people actually mean by that is: I don’t make time to read.

And there are a bunch of valid reasons for not making time. Maybe your days are mentally taxing. Maybe you have a whole bunch of kids. Maybe you’re just tired.

I totally get that.

But, for people like me, the zero-hour contract, employment law need-not-apply, brain melting 12 hour restaurant shift type people… books are important. You need that reminder that the world is bigger than the walls you work inside of.

So, those mornings in bed being a thing of the past, where do you read?

For me, most reading takes place on or waiting for public transport. I used to not like reading on the train, because I am very easily distracted/annoyed by other people’s conversation and not really into listening to music when I read. But, I realised, if I added up all the time I spend sitting on trains I would probably cry, so I may as well use that time doing something important.

To me, that something important is reading, obviously.

Despite my best efforts, I totally fail at not getting drawn into listening to/laughing at/being disgusted by large groups of football men/teenagers/suit wearing, Apple computer owning types. I had to get over the not listening to music thing. It turns out I can read to Lorde much better than I can middle aged men bitching about their wives.

Who knew.

Adulthood, I have learned, is a lot about choosing what’s important to you.

Right now, reading is important. When I pick up a book, I’m looking for something. I’ve recently realised that there are pieces of it scattered everywhere, through YA and through literary books. Fragments of it are hiding in poetry and essays.

I secretly feel like maybe if I read enough books, I’ll be able to gather those pieces into a coherent whole and then maybe I’ll know what to do next.

When I read, that’s what I’m making time for.

Maybe the question isn’t so much WHEN you make time for it as WHY.

When do YOU read, and why?

There but for the

‘There was once a man who, one night between the main course and sweet at a dinner party, went upstairs and locked himself in one of the bedrooms of the house of the people who were giving the dinner party…’

As the hours turn into days to weeks to months and the consequences of this stranger’s actions ripple outwards, touching the owners, the guests, the neighbourhood, then the whole country, so Ali Smith draws us into a beautiful, strange place where everyone is so much more than they at first appear.

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A few weeks after I first read There but for the by Ali Smith, I went to listen to a talk she gave at my university. Afterwards, as is often the case, we were invited to go to a signing in the tiny Waterstones next door to the lecture theatre. I should mention at this point that I attended the lecture alone. I wandered down to the bookshop, copy of There but for the in hand, grabbed my free glass of book signing wine and took my place in the queue… Only to realise that a boy I had maybe sort of ghosted a few months previously was in line in front of me with his new girlfriend.

By the time I reached Ali I was in a state of extreme stress. The boy and his new girlfriend had gone by then – thank the lord – but the awkwardness would take me a few days to recover from.

I don’t remember what Ali and I talked about in the 60 seconds I had with her, only that she was very kind. Which, if you’ve read There but for the – and if you haven’t, you absolutely should – you probably had already figured out.

This all happened exactly 2 years ago. This time I returned to the book having lived through a couple of weeks that made me seriously consider the possibility of locking myself in a stranger’s guest bedroom for an extended period of time.

As covered in the summary, There but for the begins with a man, Miles Garth, locking himself in the spare bedroom of the home of a family to whom he is a virtual stranger. The story is started by him, but not really about him, ultimately. There but for the is split into four parts, each named after a corresponding word of the title, and narrated by an individual impacted by an interaction with Miles. The narrators are Anna, a woman Miles met as a teenager who has just quit her job vetting refugees at what she calls the Centre for Temporary Permanence (or, interchangeably, the centre of permanent temporariness); Mark, who invited Miles to the fateful dinner party after an encounter at the theatre, Mark, who’s long dead mother berates him in rhyme in his mind (if I had known, when I was twenty-four, that you’d grow up into such a godawful bore/ well – what rhymes with back-street abortionist?); May Young, an old lady with dementia who’s connection to Miles takes a while to become clear, but when it does, is the most devastating of all; and Brooke, 9 years old, Cleverist and the owner of all the best lines of the novel.

There but for the is a meandering, clever book in which Smith plays with language and metaphor, never committing to a specific meaning. In fact, in having almost everyone but Miles ponder his decision, Smith seems to reject the idea of specific meaning altogether. Instead of a concrete metaphor, it is a tangle of ideas.

There’s a George Orwell quote at the start of the book that says ‘The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, that one is sometimes willing to commit sins for the sake of loyalty, that one does not push asceticism to the point where it makes friendly discourse impossible, and that one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one’s love upon other human individuals.’

I was preoccupied by this quote through much of my reading. The question of a person’s preparedness for being, as Orwell says, defeated and broken up is something that the characters all appear to be calling into question.

It’s a truly terrible dinner party, full of the worst sort of people. White people asking black people where they’re from from, straight people furtively asking gay people about AIDS and what it was like before it was legal. Heavily rehearsed, aggressive discussions regarding the pointlessness of modern art. How are you supposed to prepare for other people – who you have been taught from day one to fasten your love upon, who you desperately wish to fasten your love upon – being so utterly disappointing? Even if you lock yourself away, at a certain point you come to realise – spoiler alert – that you can’t stay in there forever.

How do you go on, despite all the relentless disappointment? How to you agree to be defeated and broken up, and to continue in that defeated and broken up-ness?

That’s the question everybody in this book seems to be asking.

It’s a question I have been asking myself a lot in the past few months. It’s a question I didn’t actually have the words for yet, but was experiencing a vague sort of anxiety about that night two years ago when I, the ghost girl, was attempting to make conversation with the boy’s new corporeal girlfriend.

There but for the is a beautiful story that I can’t recommend enough.