My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I stay away from self-help books, advice columns, or any collection of articles that purport to bring you enlightenment. It’s not just the subject matter (enraging judgment-filled pieces that tell you to stay away from the gays and find Jesus to make your depression go away); it’s that most of these books are unfortunately not well written.
Enter Cheryl Strayed, who introduced herself as advice columnist Sugar on The Rumpus in 2010. It’s easy to write her off as one of those eager old ladies who calls everyone “sweet pea”, but her beautifully written reply to this letter shows that she won’t be saccharine when she needs to be blunt:
WTF? WTF? WTF? I’m asking this question as it applies to everything every day.
Her reply begins:
My father’s father made me jack him off when I was three and four and five. I wasn’t good at it. My hands were too small and I couldn’t get the rhythm right and I didn’t understand what I was doing. I only knew I didn’t want to do it. Knew it made me feel miserable and anxious in a way so sickeningly particular that I can feel the same particular sickness rising this very minute in my throat.
The best advice we get in life comes from experience – our own and other people’s. Tiny Beautiful Things is filled with compassionate guidance, but it is also filled with stories from Cheryl Strayed’s life. This is a collection of advice columns, but it is also a memoir of a woman who has experienced death, loss, guilt, bitterness, and later light and love, in her life.
Like most of us.
I don’t know if all of her anecdotes are true. She seems to always have a ready story that just happens to be a perfect match for a letter writer’s problem. But you know what? Who gives a shit. I’m not here to double-check a stranger’s life. I’m here to listen, and she tells the best stories.
This is my favorite, because this is Sugar’s advice to herself:
The useless days will add up to something. The shitty waitressing jobs. The hours writing in your journal. The long meandering walks. The hours reading poetry and story collections and novels 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.
One Christmas at the very beginning of your twenties when your mother gives you a warm coat that she saved for months to buy, don’t look at her skeptically after she tells you she thought the coat was perfect for you. Don’t hold it up and say it’s longer than you like your coats to be and too puffy and possibly even too warm. Your mother will be dead by spring. That coat will be the last gift she gave you. You will regret the small thing you didn’t say for the rest of your life.
Say thank you.
Extra reading: I also love this advice from Stephen Fry: “It will be sunny one day.”