Words to Live By: Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things

Last weekend Steve and I took a trip to New York City to see Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things, adapted for the stage by Nia Vardalos (writer/star of My Big Fat Greek Wedding) and directed by Thomas Kail (director, Hamilton). The moment I saw the announcement, which was months before my diagnosis, that Strayed’s book would be adapted into a play and would run at the Public Theater in November and December, I told Steve that seeing it was what I wanted for my birthday. Because, to adopt my nephew Daniel’s language, “Tiny Beautiful Things changed my life.”

Strayed is best known for her memoir Wild, a number one New York Times bestseller, which recounts Strayed’s hike along the Pacific Crest Trail, a journey that helps her come to terms with her mother’s death. Tiny Beautiful Things came out in book form after Wild, but most of its contents had appeared previously on TheRumpus.net, for which Strayed anonymously penned the “Dear Sugar” advice column after taking it over from originator Steve Almond at his request.

TBT1The book is subtitled “Advice on love and life from Dear Sugar,” but to label Tiny Beautiful Things as merely a collection of advice columns does not do justice to its beauty or wisdom. Strayed turns the conventions of advice columns upside down and taps into her own memories and experiences in her responses, doing “something brilliantly counter-intuitive,” as noted by the  Public’s Artistic Director Oskar Eustis,” using self-revealing stories of her own life for generous purposes.” Strayed’s luminous and powerful responses to what are often heart-wrenching letters are some of the most lucid, honest, moving essays I have ever read.

I first encountered Strayed’s book shortly after it came out, in 2012. At the time I was struggling to make sense of my romantic life, which seemed to have stalled out in an on-again, off-again relationship that, deep down, I knew wasn’t going anywhere. As I read, especially her responses to the lovelorn, I underlined passages that spoke to me—sometimes because they comforted, but more often than not, because they pierced me with uncomfortable truths. A few months later I gifted the book to my sometime-fellow, and the same truths resonated with him. Inspired, at least in part, by Strayed’s words, we broke up, and stayed that way. Free to open my heart fully for the first time in several years, I soon met and fell in love with the man who is now my husband.

I wasn’t kidding when I said the book changed my life.

tbtplaybillMy heart buoys and breaks over different matters these days, but Strayed’s words still speak to me. Gauging by the shared laughter and the unmistakable sounds of whole-audience-weeping in the theatre, they speak to many. (When the lights came up, Steve turned to me, both of us still wiping our eyes, and he said, “You didn’t warn me!”) It was a powerful performance.

Seeing Strayed’s words brought to life on stage sent me back to the book. I find myself drawn to passages on managing suffering and finding healing. For example, in a response to a young woman mourning a miscarriage, she writes the following about grief. Though she is talking specifically about the lost daughter, her words resonated with me, as I’ve recently felt “stuck” in my own emotional journey: “This is how you get unstuck, Stuck. You reach. Not so you can walk away…but so you can live the life that is yours—the one that includes the sad loss of your daughter, but is not arrested by it. … That place of true healing is a fierce place. It’s a giant place. It’s a place of monstrous beauty and endless dark and glimmering light. And you have to work really, really hard to get there, but you can do it.” (22)

Later: “Nobody will protect you from your suffering. You can’t cry it away or eat it away or starve it away or walk it away or punch it away or even therapy it away. It’s just there, and you have to survive it. You have to endure it. You have to live through it and love it and move on and be better for it and run as far as you can in the direction of your best and happiest dreams across the bridge that was built by your own desire to heal.” (30)

DearSugar2And this, in response to a professor and class who asked Sugar’s advice to graduating college students: “Whatever happens to you belongs to you. Make it yours. Feed it to yourself even if it feels impossible to swallow. Let it nurture you, because it will.” (133)

Or this, recalling Strayed’s own response to an exchange with her estranged father: “I had that feeling you get—there is no word for this feeling—when you are simultaneously happy and sad and angry and grateful and accepting and appalled and every other possible emotion, all smashed together and amplified. Why is there no word for this feeling? Perhaps because the word is ‘healing’ and we don’t want to believe that. We want to believe healing is purer and more perfect, like a baby on its birthday. Like we’re holding it in our hands. Like we’ll be better people than we have before. Like we have to be. It is on that feeling I have survived. And it will be your salvation too, my dear.” (311)

Steve Almond says that Strayed practices “radical empathy.” If there’s anything the world could use more of these days, it’s radical empathy—for others, and for ourselves.

I have gifted Tiny Beautiful Things many times. It changed my life, and my nephew’s, too. Who knows? If you read it, it might also change yours.

BCBC: Harold Kushner’s Nine Essential Things I’ve Learned About Life

Rabbi Harold Kushner is probably best known for his 1981 book When Bad Things Happen to Good People. In that text he describes his son Aaron’s journey through progeria, rapid-aging syndrome, and how that experience profoundly affected Kushner’s relationship to religion, God, and his congregants. Kushner has written a number of books since, and I happened upon this, his most recent, published in 2015, in a book catalog I received in the mail. Intrigued by the title, I was curious what essential life lessons he had to impart.

Kushner1Kushner’s work is embedded in the Jewish faith, though his lessons are broadly applicable, drawing equally upon everyday people’s stories as well as religious texts and history for illustration. I’m a spiritual seeker who does not identify solely or specifically with any single faith tradition at this point in my life, though I feel there is something larger and greater than individual human desires, and I tend to imagine the sacred, in the broadest terms, as the realization of the combined forces of love and compassion in the world. So much of Kushner’s understanding of who and what “God” is (and isn’t) resonates with me, given that one of his truths is “God is Not a Man Who Lives in the Sky.” He writes, “To me, God is like love, affecting all people but affecting each one differently, according to who he or she is. God is like courage, a single trait that manifests itself differently as it is filtered through the lives and souls of specific individuals” (29). Love and courage: both profoundly human and deeply sacred.

I also like what Kushner says about prayer, especially in relation to illness. As I noted in my previous post on strength and letting go, getting attached to or assuming that only one specific outcome is acceptable can be emotionally dangerous. Kushner, wisely I think, opines that it’s the doctor’s job to “make sick people healthy,” whereas it’s “God’s job is to make sick people brave” (29). He notes in more detail later, “God’s role is to give us the vision to know what we need to do, to bless us with the qualities of soul that we will need in order to do them ourselves, no matter how hard they may be, and to accompany us on that journey” (34). “God,” in that description, manifests as both internal traits like strength and fortitude, and external supports like friends and caregivers. That is a vision of God I understand.

While I enjoyed the book as a whole, the two lessons/chapters I connected with most, as someone in the throes of a health challenge, were “God Does Not Send the Problem; God Sends Us the Strength to Deal with the Problem,” and “Leave Room for Doubt and Anger in Your Religious Outlook.”  In the first, Kushner writes, “I find God not in the tests that life imposes on us but in the ability of ordinary people to rise to the challenge, to find within themselves qualities of soul, qualities of courage they did not know they had until the day they needed them” (43).  Again, he focuses on traits at once spiritual and humane, and our ability to access them through grit and grace.

Kushnercopy1In the later chapter on doubt and anger, Kushner explores another theme close to my heart, especially at this juncture in my life. I have always been a bit allergic to certainty, and he actively embraces the idea that we should raise questions, “admit our anger” when it arises, and affirm a “readiness to live with doubt.” To do otherwise means we’re avoiding truth and minimizing the complexity of any genuine relationship: “Accepting anger, ours and that of people close to us, has to be part of any honest relationship” (130), writes Kushner, and it’s only through acknowledging that the tough stuff is equally as valid as the good that we can love–that we can be fully present in any capacity, I would add–with our whole hearts.

Kushner’s claims that religion, ideally, should connect, rather than separate or divide, and that the best way to feel better about oneself is to find a way to help others, also ring true.

In short, there is much in this brief, readable volume (170 pages) to comfort and inspire. Happy reading!

Breast Cancer Book Club: David Whyte’s Consolations

A dear friend of mine who has been doing restorative yoga with me shared several poems during our sessions, one written by acclaimed writer David Whyte. I loved the poem so much that I looked up more of Whyte’s work and came across his 2014 book, Consolations (Many Rivers Press). It’s my first offering to what I am calling the Breast Cancer Book Club, readings I know or discover that bring me insight and solace during this long process.

Whyte Consolations 2

The subtitle of Consolations is “The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words.” The book is arranged like a dictionary, each entry a brief meditation three to five pages long. Whyte opens with the word “Alone” and traces through such words as “Crisis,” “Gratitude,” “Honesty,” “Robustness,” and “Silence,” among many others. His language is lucid, lyrical, and straightforward, and his insights are both comforting and challenging.

For example, of gratitude Whyte writes, “Gratitude is not a passive response to something we have been given, gratitude arises from paying attention, from being awake in the presence of everything that lives within and without us…. Gratitude is the understanding that many millions of things come together and live together and mesh together and breathe together in order for us to take even one more breath of air, that the underlying gift of life and incarnation as a living, participating human being is a privilege; that we are miraculously part of something, rather than nothing” (89).

Whyte Consolations HelpOn courage: “Courage is a word that tempts us to think outwardly, to run bravely against opposing fire, to do something under besieging circumstance…but a look at its linguistic origins is to look in a more interior direction and toward its original template, the old Norman French, Coeur, or heart. Courage is the measure of our heartfelt participation with life, with another, with a community, a work; a future. To be courageous is not necessarily to go anywhere or do anything except to make conscious those things we already feel deeply and then to live through the unending vulnerabilities of those consequences” (39).

My friend and I have been drawing upon Whyte’s book during restorative yoga, as she reads a passage aloud, often several times, for both of us to absorb as I breathe into a held pose. I have also enjoyed selecting a single entry to read and contemplate before I go to sleep at night, or when I first wake up, or sitting under a tree in the neighboring park. The short, rich chapters work beautifully as individual meditations, formal or informal.

Whyte Consolations RestI’d recommend this book to anyone who enjoys contemplating the world and how we exist in it, though I think many of the entries hold a special resonance for those currently engaging a challenge or change. Its words have brought me healing, wisdom, and solace, and I will be returning to it again and again.

Happy reading!