Four different girlfriends recommended this book to me last year, so I’m guessing many of you may be familiar with it as well. Have you read it? If not, a little background: Tiny Beautiful Things is written by Cheryl Strayed, who had me in tears within the first few pages of her bestselling memoir Wild.
Strayed used to be the anonymous advice columnist of “Dear Sugar” from the online literary magazine The Rumpus. Though she’s not a therapist (making her, in her words, “totally unqualified for this gig”), she’s a pretty masterful storyteller. Her approach to giving advice includes sharing pieces of her own life — raw, wise, vivid recollections that illuminate the advice-seekers problems, and show them ways toward resolution. Tiny Beautiful Things is a collection of letters from the column: the questions posed to Sugar, and the responses she offers.
My friend Lesia lent me the book a couple weeks ago, and it’s been trumping the other book on my nightstand. You know when that happens?
One of the most striking aspects of Tiny Beautiful Things is how wide-ranging the letter writers (and their problems) are. “Suffocated” is a young gay college student living with his parents, who believe homosexuality is a sin. “Ruler of a Fallen Empire” is addicted to painkillers, has four kids, no health insurance, and is in what he considers to be a “loveless marriage”. “Mourning and Raging” wants to know how to forgive the woman her husband had an affair with, so she can rid herself of the “monster in her chest”. These are real people. (There are many, many more in the book.) You read their calls for help and you think of the people in your own life, their struggles, their interior pain. You think of your past and your future and the things that scratch at your happiness and what you would write about if you were asking Sugar for advice.
And then there are her answers, which read like personal essays: a mix of meditations on being human, revelations of the tough lessons her own path has taught her, and wake-up calls to moving forward.
To “Suffocated”: There is a world of people out here who will love you for who you are. A whole vibrant, fucked-up, happy, conflicted, joyous, and depressed mass of people who will say, ‘You’re gay? So the fuck what? We want you to be among us.’
To “Ruler of a Fallen Empire”: You say your marriage is “loveless” and perhaps you’re correct that you relationship has come to its natural end, but I’d like you to consider the notion that you aren’t the best judge of that right now. You’re a psychologically distressed drug addict with four kids, no health insurance, uncertain business prospects, and a pile of bills. I wouldn’t expect your marriage to be thriving.
To “Mourning and Raging”: You know how alcoholics who go to AA are always using that phrase, “one day at a time”? They say that because to say “I will never drink again” is just too damn much. It’s big and hard and bound to fail. This is how forgiveness feels to you at this moment, no doubt. It’s the reason you can’t do it. I suggest you forget about forgiveness for now and strive for acceptance instead.
Strayed stopped doing the “Dear Sugar” column a while back, but I just learned it has recently been revived—in podcast form!
Dear Sugar Radio is hosted by Strayed and author Steve Almond (the original Sugar). I listened to two episodes last night while cooking dinner, and was completely drawn in. Strayed and Almond tackle advice-seeker’s questions from a bunch of angles, empathizing by drawing on their own experiences, challenging each other’s perspectives, and offering concrete suggestions to getting unstuck. I loved it. Highly recommend!
Happy Thursday, everyone. The buds are blooming here in Portland, and the sun is lighting up my patio as I write this. Time for an early-spring walk :)