Acknowledgement from Kristen Witucki: Thanks to Our Books Are Better than We Are, who requested help from her friends to fill her blog with guest columns during May and June while she was unable to attend to it. I volunteered to do so and even chose the book about which I would write but was unable to write the column when she needed it most. Weeks after my broken promise, when she was back in her domain again, I sent her a brief letter begging forgiveness and telling her I was a terrible friend, and yes, being somewhat melodramatic about my own inability to keep a promise I had made. I rarely had disagreements or arguments with my friends, but the ones I remember involved melodrama. She wrote back simply and calmly saying that if I wrote this post two years later, she’d put it up two years later, that no matter when I wrote it or if I wrote it, I was still fundamentally all right. Her generosity of spirit reminded me that even the best of friends and lovers let each other down sometimes, but to go on, we must weigh the transgression, decide whether it is large or small and either forgive or move on. This post is, among other things, a tribute to the fundamental truths of friendship, but I believe that this acknowledgement is also a fundamental truth of the book I’m about to attempt to describe.
Cheryl Strayed had a loyal fan base, who knew her as Cheryl Strayed, and then the cult following of people who knew her as Sugar. I was a member of the latter group. Rebecca Walker, whom I know very, very slightly, posted a link to the “We Are All Savages Inside” column on her Facebook page one day, and I read the column and was transfixed. I had never felt the literary jealousy akin to swallowing battery acid, but Sugar had reminded me that I wasn’t above the feeling, that a very small inkling of it might have stirred within me whether I ever admitted it to myself or not and that I needed to show happiness for people’s success by being happy for them. In short, suddenly, I, as the reader, had become the letter writer and Sugar both, the savage and the saint and the human in between. Then I discovered that this column was a weekly, then biweekly, event, and I was hooked. I subscribed to it in every way that I could, so that I could learn more. I can’t say I’ve never read an advice column before that, but usually advice columns filled me with Schadenfreude, not the necessity to rebuild. Suddenly, advice was constructed of literature, which was constructed of the interconnectedness of the life of the letter writer with the life of Sugar with my life with the life of anyone on the planet, known or unknown.
Sugar came out as Cheryl Strayed on Valentine’s Day. I lived about as far away from the event as an American living in America can possibly live, and I felt a vague jealousy that I couldn’t attend her coming out. At the same time, I was grateful that my appreciation of Sugar would always be at least somewhat solitary, that I wouldn’t physically have to negotiate a crowd or worry about whether I should or should not talk to her. You know, all those giddy teenaged feelings about celebrity authors, which I, at least, haven’t fully gotten over.
I woke up on February 15 and read the Facebook post that morning, “My name is Cheryl Strayed …” Strayed. Had my computer pronounced that correctly? (I’m blind and use a screen reader). Yes, that was her name. I double-checked: S-t-r-a-y-e-d. She was not an author I’d ever read. But strayed, having wandered off the path, having left one existence for another, was something I knew. I wept. I usually don’t weep about literature, even literature which moves me. I think a lot of people who read that Facebook post wept. Between phone calls at work, I read about Cheryl Strayed and reaffirmed what I already knew, that the coming out was not some elaborate authorial scheme of self-promotion. It was a reward after a lot of hard work and hard living. Later, I read and loved Wild. I have Torch, but I still need to read that book.
Tiny Beautiful Things is a collection of many of the Dear Sugar columns in book form rather than on the internet. I don’t envy Cheryl Strayed the job of having organized them into interconnected parts and chapters. That must have involved some amount of blood, sweat and tears, as if the sweat and tears of answering each letter were not enough. I personally think that the best way to read this book is not the way I read it, in one long rush on a Friday evening. It is probably best to read one or two letters and their answers like reading the call and response of love poems, put the book down and walk away with the import of what you have read, read other literary works or do something else for a few hours or days and then come back to the book. Repeat the process until you’ve finished the book. But like I said, I didn’t follow that advice. I couldn’t put the book down.
In the second letter, a mother mourns the death of the baby daughter she miscarried and blames herself for the death. I am a mother, and I can’t even imagine how that must feel. One piece of Sugar’s response has especially stuck with me, “They [other people] live on Planet Earth. You live on Planet My Baby Died.” It reminded me of the two-week sojourn I spent on that planet, when an insensitive doctor was sure without much medical basis that my son had a heart condition and recommended that I either get an amnio test that day, have an abortion or wait two weeks to get another ultrasound when my son’s heart was a little bigger and easier for doctors to see. My husband urged me to wait two weeks, and during those two weeks, I cried and cried and cried. My baby died my baby died my baby died my baby died my baby died. Even though he was still kicking gently, it was all a mirage. He was as good as dead. My baby hung on and lived despite my grief, and he moved over the threshold and has thus far lived. I’m luckier than I could ever express. And yet, he could someday die before me, and I could return to the planet My Baby Died at any moment.
As I read that mother’s letter, I returned there with her. I didn’t get over her grief. Neither did Sugar. She wrote, “To be Sugar is at
times a haunting thing. It’s fun and it’s funny; it’s intriguing and interesting, but every now and then one of the questions I get seeps
its way into my mind in the same way characters or scenes or situations in the other sorts of writing I do seep into my mind and I
am haunted by it. I can’t let it go. I answer the question, but there is something else and I know it and I can’t finish my reply until I
figure out what it is. I can feel it there the way the princess can feel the pea under her twenty mattresses and twenty featherbeds. Until
it’s removed, I simply cannot rest. This is the case when it comes to your question, my dear. And so while it’s true that you should find
your tribe and talk to your boyfriend and make an appointment with a therapist, there is something truer that I have to tell you and it is this.” She relates a story about a job she had when she was younger as a youth advocate, when she gradually discovered that Social
Services would never save the girls for whom she was fighting so bravely; they could only save themselves. “You will never stop loving your daughter. You will never forget her. You will always know her name. But she will always be dead. Nobody can intervene and make that right and nobody will. Nobody can take it back with silence or push it away with words. 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. Therapists and friends and other people who live on Planet My Baby Died can help you along the way, but the healing–the genuine healing, the actual real deal down-on-your-knees-in-the-mud change–is entirely and absolutely up to you.”
This is what got Cheryl Strayed her cult of Sugar followers. Her dream bridges take us into the deepest places we can go, within our
own experiences and her experiences and the experiences of the letter writer’s and every other experience we can possibly remember or imagine. We can’t do the hard work of rebirth from jealousy or grief or the myriad of other complex and troubling emotions we feel just from reading a self-help book, even a literary one, but Cheryl Strayed can help us to understand that transformation and what it might sound and feel like once we’ve crossed over. The book, for me, is a small miracle.