Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on love and life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed (Vintage Books, 2012)
Have you ever read a book that made you feel as though the author had written it specifically for you—or the narrator was speaking directly to you—because of how much it meant to you, even on the first read? When I picked up Tiny Beautiful Things for the first time, even after multiple recommendations and the way I felt after reading Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild, I wasn’t expecting to be moved this much. The unknown pages within told me the exact words that I needed to hear at that precise moment in my life, in order to better myself and feel inspired.
For about two years, Cheryl Strayed took on the anonymous persona of Sugar for an advice column on The Rumpus called Dear Sugar. Readers poured their hearts out to her and confessed their deepest secrets, seeking advice on love, relationships, loss, debt, betrayal, jealousy, family, acceptance, and forgiveness. Strayed responds with warmth, understanding, and sometimes snarky honesty to her “sweet peas” and “honey buns,” as she calls them. In 2012, Strayed revealed herself as Sugar, and shortly thereafter Vintage Books published Tiny Beautiful Things, a compilation of those letters and responses.
A recent divorcée in her mid-fifties, who calls herself Wanting, writes seeking a solution for her mixture of desire and fear when it comes to dating and sleeping with men again with her “droopy” and aging body. Sugar tells her:
You have to find a way to inhabit your body while enacting your deepest desires. You have to be brave enough to build the intimacy you deserve… This will require some courage, Wanting, but courage is a vital piece of any well-lived life. I understand why you’re afraid. I don’t mean to diminish the enormity of what’s recently ended and what now will begin, but I do intend to say to you very clearly that this is not the moment to wilt into the underbrush of your insecurities. You’ve earned the right to grow.
Sugar leaves the woman hopeful at the end of her letter:
I know as women we’re constantly being scorched by the relentless porno/Hollywood beauty blowtorch, but in my real life I’ve found that the men worth fucking are far more good-natured about the female body in its varied forms than is generally acknowledged. “Naked and smiling” is one male friend’s only requirement for a lover. Perhaps it’s because men are people with bodies full of fears and insecurities and short-comings of their own. Find one of them. One who makes you think and laugh and come. Invite him into the tiny revolution in your beautiful new world.
While being understanding, Sugar turns every topic, question, and concern on its head. Sometimes it feels like she’s talking directly to you, but other times she might be talking about you, opening your eyes to your own faults, goals, questions, and concerns. (Suddenly I have eight wildly different things that I immediately need Sugar’s advice on.) Readers can relate, on a small scale yet also in some big ways, to many of those who wrote to Sugar seeking advice. She comforts you and reassures you, and you’re in good company with the anonymous letter writers, but then she shares stories of her own survival to put things into perspective for you. The collection of columns has the heartfelt honesty of a memoir.
The shortest letter written to Sugar reads:
WTF, WTF, WTF?
I’m asking this question as it applies to everything every day.
And her response, with a blunt recount of sexual abuse by her grandfather when she was a child (and how she rose above the negative experience) culminates in this bit of advice:
That question does not apply to “everything every day.” If it does, you’re wasting your life. If it does, you’re a lazy coward, and you are not a lazy coward.
Ask better questions, sweet pea. The fuck is your life. Answer it.
Anonymous advice columns remind me of this quote I’ve heard: “If we threw all our problems in a pile and saw everybody else’s, we’d want ours back.” Reading these columns can make us feel that we’re not alone, but it can also open our eyes to how we can manage our problems, and how we might be better suited to manage our own and we’d rather not have anyone else’s problems. Perhaps that’s why I found this book in the self-help section of Magers and Quinn. It’s definitely why Tiny Beautiful Things has helped me process some things I’d been dwelling on.
At the same time, the universal theme throughout Sugar’s column is simple, but huge, complex, diverse, scary, amazing, humbling, and wonderful: love. The root of all her advice is to love. Love yourself, let yourself fall in love, “be brave enough to break your own heart,” tell people you love that you love them, and share, spread, enjoy, embrace love. To love is her mantra. And after reading the haunting, tragic stories of her past and the struggles she has overcome completely alone, her confidence and adoration of love is inspiring. It made me want to love a little bit more. (Okay, a lot more.)
It is a rare and special feeling when a book can both fill you up and cleanse you. While reading (on 15-minute breaks at work, on the bus, in line at the bank, because I couldn’t put it down), I addressed some of the burning questions I wanted to ask Sugar, and I found the most comforting solution to many of my problems: love. Be kind, be true, be thankful, and love.
Reading Tiny Beautiful Things was so eye-opening, because I’ve been the teenager who’s worried about her friends but is afraid of interfering. The college grad in her twenties who thinks her student loan debt defines her? Yeah, I can relate. The one fighting depression? I feel your pain. And that writer who feels a book within her but is terrified at the daunting task of writing? I understand how overwhelming and writer’s block-inducing that feeling is. But we can all take Sugar’s advice:
Write like a motherfucker.
What books have moved you? Which narrators seem to speak directly to you when you’re reading? Do you write like a motherfucker?
Have you ever had a day of the week take you by complete surprise? I have. Just today, when I realized that it was Monday, and I hadn’t posted anything for Three Things. So, today, let’s all practice our surprise faces, and maybe throw our characters a few curve balls while we’re at it.
Henri Rousseau, Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised!), 1891. Oil on canvas. National Gallery, London, England.
Lynn Skordahl (Paperworker), Pop Tarts, 2012. Collage. www.lynnskordal.paspartout.com
Living movie still made by If We Don’t, Remember Me. Scene from Vertigo, featuring James Stewart. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Paramount Pictures, 1958.
P.S. We’ll take a break next Monday, for the holiday weekend. Three Things will be back Monday, September 8!
For the last three years I’ve written a What We’re Reading post once a month for Hazel & Wren. I’ve become a better critic in that time, but I’ve always tried to treat each book fairly and objectively, to the best of my abilities. However, reading is a hugely subjective activity and in my reviews I hope to communicate why I, personally, like or dislike a book. I attempt to take each book on its own terms and explore how the author succeeds or doesn’t.
All of that being said, I don’t read in a vacuum, and I know that my opinions of a work can be and have been colored by the opinions and actions of those around me, and the world at large; I can’t change that fact. This month, I finished reading Jamaal May’s excellent Hum (Alice James Books, 2013) on Saturday, August 9th, and then checked Twitter, where I saw news of the shooting of Michael Brown. Brown, an unarmed black teenager was shot by a white police officer, and that evening protests roiled the suburb of St. Louis. I began to reread May’s poems, but now with a steady stream of disturbing news from Ferguson, Missouri and elsewhere changing the way I experienced these poems.
May’s work touches on issues of race, class, and injustice, specifically in Detroit, but paralleling similar issues in other parts of the country, including Ferguson. “If I say riot helmets outnumbered the protesters” begins “The Sky, Now Black with Birds” and images of a militarized police force materialized in my mind and on my phone’s screen. In another poem, May describes a time he matched the description of a crime suspect, as Michael Brown allegedly did:
Because the silk scarf could have cradled
a neck as delicate as that of a cygnet
but was instead used in last night’s strangling,
it is possible to marvel at the finish on handcuffs[…]
The poem ends, hauntingly,
Because the baton is long against my window,
the gun somehow longer against my cheek,
the vehicle cold against my abdomen
as my shirt rises twisted in fingers
and my name is asked again—I want to
screech out, Swan! I am only a swan.
May’s skill is in directing the reader’s attention, often just away from the main action. He doesn’t ask us to look at the force used to pin him to a vehicle, he asks us to “marvel” at juxtaposed materials: the soft silk, skin, and feathers against the metal of handcuffs, gun, baton, vehicle.
By directing the reader’s attention to details or just to the side, a poem’s main subject is thrown into sharp relief. May’s images and metaphors stay fresh long after the poem has ended, often becoming more complex upon subsequent readings. In this way, May is able to make his lived experience political. The poem “Pomegranate Means Grenade” is addressed to 11-year-old Jontae, who is quoted as an epigram to the poem.
There will always be at least one like you:
a child who gets the picked-over box
with mostly black crayons. One who wonders
what beautiful has to do with beauty as he darkens
a sun in the corner of every page,
constructs a house from ashen lines,
sketches stick figures lying face down—
May implies that Jontae’s whole life has been picked over like the box of crayons, before the drawing has even begun, but ends with a glimmer of rage-filled hope:
You stand nameless in front of a tank against
those who would rather see you pull a pin
from a grenade than pull a pen
from your backpack. Jontae,
they are afraid.
Typically, I shy away from calling a poem autobiographical. We are taught, in writing workshops and literature classes, to separate the persona in the poem from the poet who wrote it. Confessional poetry and the use of poetry as therapy has muddied the waters when it comes to what is true and what is fabricated in art. May, however, is explicit in his poems. People thanked in the acknowledgements at the beginning of the book are mentioned by name in the poems. One of the more beautiful moments of this tactic comes at the end of “On Gentleness” which reads:
Tell me about the night I hurled a phone receiver
at your head and the orb of blood on your lip
seemed like it’d never fall, how you
bound me by a wrist, bruised my ribs against the floor,
and never threw a single punch. Wasn’t that
a kind of gentleness, Jabari?
Until Jabari’s name is invoked as the last word in this thirty-line piece, the reader never quite certain the I in the poem is the poet. “Didn’t a poet say cracks are how light gets in everything? / I’m probably mixing that up” May writes in “Thinking Like a Split Melon” and seems to be talking about cracking poetry to let in reality, or vise versa.
But this is how I think. Give me a box,
and I’ll fill it with dirt
or fill it with water
or fill it with both
and trouble that mire
with whatever stick I happen to find.
It’s comforting to me, as a critic, that May is willing to blur the line between his poet self and his persona, especially as the reality of the continuing events in Ferguson bled into my reading of his poems. Cracks let the light in, and May’s poems are filled with plenty of light. It’s bright, and it can be blinding, but his gentle hands help us look just away from the light, at the orb of blood, ripe, but not yet fallen. In this way, the reader is able to see more clearly the violence of living.
I hesitate to make an argument that poetry can save or even change the world. In many ways poetry saved my own (very) small world, but poems are fragile things and few of them stand up to the test of time or the burdens of politics. Nazim Hikmet was jailed and exiled simply because soldiers were reading his poems; Seamus Heaney was a steady voice of reason during the Troubles in Ireland. But many political poems are shrill, flat, or dated. The trick—and May knows this as well as Hikmet and Heaney did—is to focus on humanity, not politics. I hesitate to say that Poetry can Save The World—but it can help ease the pain of living.
So I want to know what poets ease your pain. What poets do you turn to when the news of the world is too much? What poets offer comfort when it’s needed? What poems do you keep in your wallet or on your desk or your bedside table?
Or, if you prefer to take it on: can Poetry Save The World?
Let’s take some time for a moment of solitude this week, before the end-of-summer rush begins. I’ve collected three solitary figures. Care to write a character or scene around one (or all)?
Markus Åkesson, The Passage, 2012. Oil on linen. www.markusakesson.com
Muge, Untitled from Moments series. Photograph. www.mugephoto.com
Alex Colville, Ocean Limited, 1962. Oil on synthetic resin on board. Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, Halifax, Nova Scotia.