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.
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.