Tiny Beautiful Things
Posted on October 22, 2012
For the past couple of years, all I’ve heard is “Cheryl Strayed, Cheryl Strayed, Cheryl Strayed. You, of all people, should read Cheryl Strayed.” I haven’t been able to read Cheryl Strayed, because I’ve been busy reading David Pinkney, Theodore Zeldin, Eugen Weber and (insert other French historians’ names here).
Now that I’m not reading these French historical titans at such a breakneck pace, I read Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on love and life from Dear Sugar over the weekend and would like to take this moment to bow down to a master.
For those who have been either under a rock or laboring through graduate school (ahem), Strayed is the New York Times-bestselling author of Wild, her memoir of a life-changing hike she took after her mother’s death (Ed note: I’m reading that next). Tiny Beautiful Things is a collection of the once-anonymous “Dear Sugar” advice columns she wrote for the online magazine The Rumpus. The columns, noted for their out-of-this-world literary flair (each reply is a gorgeous short story in and of itself), hard-earned wisdom, humor and tell-it-to-me-straight advice gained a cult following. After spending the past few days transfixed by them (even reading some of them aloud to my husband) it’s little wonder why they did.
Yes, I laughed. I cried. The columns became a part of me.
I even studied their structure.
Less than a decade after Elizabeth Gilbert ate, prayed and loved her way around the world (thanks in no small part to a publisher’s advance), Strayed is telling people not to run away from their problems in search of an ever-elusive truth, but to face down their troubles and deal with them like big girls and boys. She is at turns tender, tough and hilarious, offering her readers a third way that’s rooted in her school of not-getting-it-right-the-first-time. To the older woman who can’t get her grown, capable sons out of the house, Strayed talks about swim lessons. When Strayed was a little girl, she writes that she was afraid she would sink in the pool, even though she had a life vest and life vests seemed to be keeping her other classmates afloat. Her mother jumped in with her after weeks of frustration, guided her around by the hands and then eventually whipped her free into the middle of the pool by herself, where she floated just fine. Strayed wrote of that moment of betrayal (How could Mom do this to me?) and liberation (Wow! I’m swimming on my own!) and likened it to the current trouble the older woman faced with her sons. The woman, she wrote, must fling her sons free in the same manner.
“Most things will be okay eventually, but not everything will be. Sometimes you’ll put up a good fight and lose. Sometimes you’ll hold on really hard and realize there is no choice but to let go. Acceptance is a small, quiet room.”
“The useless days will add up to something. The sh*&^ty waitressing jobs. The hours writing in your journal. The long meandering walks. The hours reading poetry and short story collections 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.”
“The best thing you can possibly do with your life is tackle the motherf**&ing sh&^ out of it.”
Strayed does not shy away from telling a struggling writer that her real problem is arrogance. No one’s going to hand you anything, Strayed tells her. You have to go out and get it yourself. And in the meantime, you have to write like a motherf^%$er. To others she explains there’s no such thing as a perfect marriage, no real reason why you have to suffer through an abusive family get-together, nothing wrong with setting boundaries with people.
All of it makes perfect sense, but few people are willing to tell their friends and loved ones what they need to hear. Sugar/Strayed, that badass Dear Abby, is.
And I love her for that.