Monday, November 26, 2012

Tiny Beautiful Things

On a recent cross-country flight, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Cheryl Strayed's new book, Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar (Vintage Books, 2012). Strayed is the author of the current New York Times list bestseller, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Rim Trail. This book is a collection of her heartfelt responses to letters she has received as the advice columnist for The Rumpus, an online literature community.

Strayed deeply absorbs, wrestles with, and responds to the life and relationship dilemmas her readers write in with. She bravely opens up and shares some of her own personal tragedies and triumphs as well. People write to Sugar, and open up about dealing with the death of a loved one, betrayal by their partner, their career dreams and aspirations, settling for things and relationships for security, family troubles, sexuality, and a myriad of other topics. It's an anonymous forum for deeply personal dialogue and soul-searching.

While the responses are at times peppered with blue language, the answers are real, deep, and show her warmth and hard-won wisdom from being informed by her own life experiences. Strayed lost her mother to illness as a young adult. She married young and was divorced by 26. She remarries later, and survives her husband’s affair. She struggled to become a writer, with waitressing jobs, mentoring at-risk teens, teaching anger management to low-income families, teaching memoir writing, and lots of other adventures along the way. She is the mother of two children.

Strayed strikes just the right tone of radical compassion, acceptance, vulnerability, and challenge. She understands, but she encourages the writer (and us as readers) to stretch to become our biggest self.

Take this advice Strayed gives to a man after the end of his 20 year marriage, when he is struggling with whether or not to love the woman he is involved with a few years later, “Do it. Doing so will free your relationship from the tense tangle that withholding weaves. Do you realize that your refusal to utter the word ‘love’ to your partner has created a force field all its own? Withholding distorts reality. It makes the people who do the withholding ugly and small-hearted. It makes the people from whom things are withheld crazy and desperate and incapable of knowing what they actually feel...Don't be strategic or coy...Be brave. Be authentic. Practice saying the word 'love' to all the people you love so when it matters the most to say it, you will...We're all going to die. Hit the iron dinner bell like it's dinner time.”

Strayed's admonitions to her memoir writing class are profoundly true on multiple levels. “You get no points for living, I tell my students. It isn't enough to have had an interesting or hilarious or tragic life. Art isn't anecdote. It’s the consciousness we bring to bear on our lives. For what happened in the story to transcend the limits of the personal, it must be driven by what the story means.” I feel the same way as a therapist and life coach, as I help clients try to integrate their experiences into their current life, and cull the meaning from their own life's chapters.

There are a number of bittersweet sections in the book, like when Strayed reflects on her sense of wonder about life. You never know who will be in your life forever, and who will just be there for a while. As she points out, sometimes the people we start out thinking are going to be there with us forever don't end up being there. It’s also very surprising the people that show up in our lives and play a meaningful role when we didn’t expect them.

The final letter in the book, written by a 22-year old, is worth buying the book for. The writer asks for wisdom from Strayed about what she would write to her younger self, if she got the chance. It's funny, but it's also very honest. Stop worrying about being fat. Don't lament about your career so much; you have a life, not just a career. You can't convince people to love you. Either they love you or they don't. Resolve what childhood wounds you can in your 20s, knowing you'll have to go back and resolve more of them later as your life evolves. Watch your assumptions about other people, as they are often wrong. Do the work you’re supposed to be doing. My favorite, the very last piece of advice in the book, is to take the winter coat your mother bought you. Don't critique the coat. It may be very precious if it’s the last gift she gives you, because, in an autobiographical note, she may be dead by spring. Say thank you.

I fell in love with Sugar. I think you might, too. Cheryl Strayed's perspective is funny, honest, and speaks to the best self in each of us. The idea of writing a letter to your younger self is a particularly valuable one that just could help us offer ourselves guidance from our own earlier life lessons.

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