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Category Archives: Memoir

Tiny Beautiful Things, by Cheryl Strayed

Tiny Beautiful Things, by Cheryl Strayed

All it took to get me hooked on the ‘Dear Sugar’ advice column on The Rumpus was reading one essay.  In that one essay ‘Sugar’ (a.k.a. Cheryl Strayed) ripped me apart and drained my wounds and licked them clean again.  I cried so hard I had to close my office door.  By the end of the column, I felt like something trapped had been released, some fear had been faced.  It sounds dramatic, but it really did go something like that.  After that first column, I found a quiet corner of my world (preferably not my office) in which to read my weekly dose of Sugar.   With the publication of Tiny Beautiful Things (Vintage Books) in July of 2012, you can now read the best of these columns (or essays, as I think of them) in your own happy place, preferably with a Kleenex handy.  They aren’t always sad, just profoundly powerful.

Not only is Strayed one of the best writers out there (see my review for Wild, July 2012), her life experiences have honed her sense of compassion to a fine point.  When she taps into those experiences, which she always does, it’s powerful stuff, indeed.   Sugar takes you to the heart of her own hometown, (or schoolyard, or office cubicle, or marriage) and says: ‘Look, this is what happened to me, here is how it broke me, and this is how I healed.  You can, too.’  She tends to take the scenic route to arrive at her point, but she does have a map and never lifts her foot from the gas.  When we arrive at the door of her distinct brand of deliverance we are shaken and a little woozy, but clear eyed and transformed.

We all know that there are no black and white answers to the toughest questions, those of love, sex, infidelity, jealousy, pain, loss, and addiction, that’s why they are so tough.  What Sugar is able to do so eloquently is to address the question behind the question, the question that muddies the water in the first place.  Tiny Beautiful Things is a call to consciousness for an emotionally numb society.  Sugar says, over and over and in many different ways:  ‘Wake up!  Take responsibility for your actions.  You can change this.  You can rise above your circumstances.’  This is a message that all of us who are trying to hold on to our humanity in this increasingly inhuman world need to hear again and again.

Cheryl Strayed knows what’s important.  Tiny Beautiful Things lays it out for those of us who need to be reminded.

 
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Posted by on March 23, 2013 in Memoir, Nonfiction

 

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Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, by Cheryl Strayed

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, by Cheryl Strayed

Wild is not my memoir. I have never tried cocaine. I have never been divorced. My mother has not died of cancer. I was, however, (much like Cheryl Strayed) raised in a small community in rural northern Minnesota and born somewhere in the middle of the year 1968 and have always aspired to be a writer. In addition, during the summer of 1995, it is true that I moved from Minnesota to California and hiked portions of the Pacific Coast Trail (PCT). And, while I admit that all of these coincidental similarities were enough for me to enjoy Wild maybe a bit more than the average reader, they in no way explain my absolute commitment to this book. That kind of commitment, the kind that I feel toward Wild, can only be earned, not happened upon. And Strayed earns it in spades. She earns it with her fearlessness. Her honesty. Her flawless pacing, smartly chosen details, and self aware (but not self-deprecating or self aggrandizing) delivery of the story. This is a story for all adults, those who have come of age through some sort of ritual, and those who only wish they had.

In a society where we don’t have a ritual to help young people learn what it is to be an adult, Strayed creates her own. In the summer of 1995, at 26 years old, reeling from the death of her mother, the slow dissolving of her family, and the failure of her marriage, Strayed commits herself 1,100 mile trek on the high-altitude Pacific Crest Trail, solo, repeating her mantra the whole way: I am not afraid. Along with her 60+ pound pack, she carries with her a broken heart and devastating mistakes, heavy burdens to be sure. And while this book talks about those burdens, it is never about them more than it is the trip itself. Unlike Eat Pray Love (which I loved, and which Wild resembles in the sense that is about a woman’s search for meaning) Strayed’s voice is not neurotic, frantic, or laced with self pity. Strayed’s is the voice of someone who has walked slowly over the bed of hot coals (barefoot) and stands at the other side, transformed. Contrary to Eat Pray Love, (thankfully) there is no happy ending here, as there shouldn’t be. No one is ever relieved of the burden of suffering by any other person or by achieving a goal, Strayed seems to say, we just grow strong enough to bear it, and come to find comfort in the weight of our own burdens.

As a fan of The Rumpus’s ‘Dear Sugar’ advice column, also written by Strayed, I find Wild to have a similar mix of gut wrenching honesty and hope. The kind of hope that Strayed offers her readers is the kind that we need as people and (to go out on a big limb here) as a society. She offers us hope that, if we face our fears, instead of run from them, if we own our mistakes, instead of blaming others for them, and if we are brave enough to do what our hearts are telling us to do, rather than what might offer us the most money or security, then we’ll be better for it. We’ll survive. We’ll become stronger and happier and, eventually, may even thrive. That’s a message that everyone, particularly every woman, needs to hear today.

More than once since I’ve finished the book and run right up against the wall of my own insecurities, I’ve taken a cue from Wild and repeated my new adopted mantra: I am not afraid. And then I’ve kept going, because that’s all we can do.

Thanks for the advice, Cheryl.

 
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Posted by on July 26, 2012 in Memoir, Nonfiction