When I was trying to describe this book to my husband last week, I was sort of at a loss. He heard the word advice, and immediately thought of Dear Abby or Guideposts magazine. When I told my best friend about it, about how it was the book she had to read in these last two weeks before she turns thirty, she nodded in that way a person can over text message from 200o miles away, and said, “I’ve read the column before. I’ll keep it in mind.” When I took a break from the book, and weeping, went outside to stand in the rain, one of the neighborhood cats came by for a little skittish love, and even though I’m barely a car person at all, I knelt down and pet her and told her about how beautiful this damn book was, and how it kept breaking and healing my heart over and over and over again. Then I went to the bookstore and tried to decide how many copies of it I could afford to buy as Christmas gifts.
You see, there had been a the moment in the book’s introduction (which I was reading for free at Amazon) when I decided I could not wait for Christmas myself, that I would instead immediately purchase this collection of advice columns from Sugar at The Rumpus:
Cheryl wasn’t just trying to shock some callow kid into greater compassion. She was announcing the nature of her mission as Sugar. Inexplicable sorrows await all of us. That was her essential point. Life isn’t some narcissistic game you play online. It all matters— every sin, every regret, every affliction. As proof, she offered an account of her own struggle to reckon with a cruelty she’d absorbed before she was old enough even to understand it. Ask better questions, sweet pea, she concluded, with great gentleness. The fuck is your life. Answer it.
Like a lot of folks, I read the piece with tears in my eyes— which is how one reads Sugar. This wasn’t some pro forma kibitzer, sifting through a stack of modern anxieties. She was a real human being laying herself bare, fearlessly, that we might come to understand the nature of our own predicaments. (p 5)
I had never heard of The Rumpus or of the Dear Sugar column when I found this book. I don’t know what prompted me to go from seeing the book mentioned on Twitter to finding and devouring it – to having it devour me – when I have never liked advice columns before. I am a bossy little sister. I’m a stage manager. I’m a control freak with a color-coded closet and a thousand spreadsheets to my name. I am that woman who doesn’t know how great the advice she got was until five years and endless proof in its favor later.
I don’t know how to take advice. I’m too sensitive, too narcissistic. It seems, sometimes, that I would rather take all the wrong roads (with enthusiasm!) just to allow experience to teach me what I need to know rather than to listen to somebody who knows better than I do. I know I’m not alone in this. We are a large tribe, we over-confident, ego-driven maniacs. To take advice, it feels, is to relinquish some of this power that we have worked so hard to accumulate, and if we lose the power, then surely the next step is to lose our tenuous grip on life we have decided we wanted or maybe gotten or possibly just dream of. To take advice means we must take risks and work harder – it means admitting that what we have or what we do is not exactly what we want.
The narratives we create in order to justify our actions and choices become in so many ways who we are. They are the things we say back to ourselves to explain our complicated lives. Perhaps the reason you’ve not yet been able to forgive yourself is that you’re still invested in your self-loathing. Perhaps not forgiving yourself is the flip side of your steal-this-now cycle. Would you be a better or worse person if you forgave yourself for the bad things you did? If you perpetually condemn yourself for being a liar and thief, does that make you good? (p 272)
I read many of the letters and responses with a sense of deep familiarity. I didn’t realize how many people had dark stories inside them that were so similar to the dark stories inside me. I read others with the excruciating realization that I was a crying because Sugar was saying what I wanted to say to people I love…but I couldn’t say those things unless the person asked to hear them because if I did, it would probably come off as cruel or selfish or tactless. A few of the stories, I couldn’t relate to on a personal level at all, and yet the raw human experience of sharing the pain of someone else’s truth still moved me to the point that I had to stand up and walk away. I had to pray for those faceless people because if I didn’t, the injustice and suffering they had to endure would have swept me away.
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. (p 29)
What pushed me to run to the bookstore and buy every copy of this book off the shelf was not the advice though. Many of us have people in our lives – friends or family members or helpful strangers – who could listen to what we have to say and break things down for us. They could strip the truth right out of us, and in my experience, even the best intentioned (myself included at the very top of this list) do so with a calculating intensity that leaves us shaken, fragile and more often than not humiliated by our weakness. Chances are, if we’re willing and able to let a person do that, we both trust them to have conversations together later that build us back up, and somewhat vindictively, we also know that their turn will come. (This is awful, maybe, but true.) We can get advice practically anywhere, and in this day and age, from almost anyone. The difference between Sugar and myself+almost everyone I have ever met is that she splits the matter wide open, lays bare the intimate and hurting soul of the advice-seeker, and all the while, as a reader – as a seeker, myself – I never doubt her unconditional love of the person to whom she is speaking.
Unconditional love is not common-place. It is not easy. I am the daughter of a minister, and I have known many teachers from many faiths, and although they are generally kind, thoughtful, compassionate people, never have they been able to teach me, really, what unconditional love looks like. I grew up in a faith that expounded on the idea of both God and Jesus as givers of that unconditional love, and even though I have actually felt that kind of undeserved and accepting love before, I struggle to understand what it means. I certainly wasn’t expecting to find it in this book, but it appeared anyway.
Cheryl Strayed (aka Sugar) is not a religious woman. She doesn’t preach or give sappy, sticky-sweet advice. She has had a hard life and her experiences root her writing. If I had read just one column, I might not be so moved. I don’t know – I didn’t read one column – I read the whole book, and it left me motivated and sad and feeling like I’m worth something. I was empowered, but also intimidated by her reminders of how much work a joyful, healthy life can be. I felt, too, small that I don’t always give advice to the people I care about with the same generous love that she manages to give to complete strangers. The reason I want to give this book to everyone I know is because we all have secret (and not so secret) hurting places that require more than advice – they beg for unconditional love that doesn’t let us off the hook, but rejoices every single time we try to do, and be, better.
Forgiveness doesn’t just sit there like a pretty boy in a bar. Forgiveness is the old fat guy you have to haul up the hill. You have to say I am forgiven again and again until it becomes the story you believe about yourself. (p 273)