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What We’re Reading: Tiny Beautiful Things

2014 August 28

What We're Reading


Tiny_Beautiful_Things_book_coverTiny 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:

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?


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