Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar – BOOK CLUB Central PICK (April 2013)

by Cheryl Strayed

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Do you wonder what compels you to refresh your ex’s Facebook page? Have you ever been married to – or lived with – someone who simply won’t get a job? Have you lost someone too early on in life? Does your jealousy consume you? Do you feel slighted by events? Are there moments when even getting out of bed seems like too much? Are you confused about a relationship, whether it’s romantic, familial or platonic? Have you ever stolen anything? Have you witnessed violence? Are you wondering what to do about your dependent child/sibling/parent? Has someone in your family committed a crime of the heart or of any other nature?

I’ll take a guess and assume you’ve encountered at least one of these situations and wondered:

a)   how did I get into this

b)   how will I get out?

In her generous collection of advice, taken from her feverishly followed Dear Sugar column on rumpus.net, Cheryl Strayed (author of the popular memoir, Wild), offers her poetic bursts of inspiration and empathy pertaining to the pain, joy, suffering and redemption that accompany us along the humming boulevard of humankind.

In one particularly harrowing story, Strayed offers advice to a woman (known as Stuck), who has just experienced a miscarriage at six and a half months:

Strayed shares a seemingly unrelated story about when she worked as a ‘youth advocate’ for abused, poor, white middle school students who encountered horrors including emotional and sexual abuse. She writes about how, for them, ‘making it’ was avoiding pregnancy by senior year and getting hired at a Taco Bell or Wal-mart. She writes that, like these girls, and like anyone who has experienced grief and trauma:

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).

Through these exquisitely thought-out moments of insight, Strayed seems to channel a higher power (one which she thinks only exists inside the human heart) that connect this woman grieving for her baby to these students who have already experienced too much pain to anyone reading the book who’s ever wanted to escape from an excruciating situation. In this lies her brilliance: we are all, momentarily, aware of our sameness in our communal yearnings to be free from pain, and open to joy.

I read the passage to my fifteen-year-old students, most of whom come from privileged backgrounds, and they simply couldn’t get over that ‘making it,’ in someone else’s world, was ‘just’ working at a Taco Bell. And I understood them.

We had a rich discussion regarding how, if they ever ended up working at a Taco Bell, most of their parents would be sick about it: these are the future doctors, lawyers, CEOs, etc. What could precipitate one of them working at a Wal-Mart except for a life that had spiraled down due to drugs?  It was an honest, beautiful discussion surrounding the role of perspective (or lack thereof) that we all-too-regularly forget. These are the moments that make teaching, and reading, so bloody wonderful.

In another letter in the book, a young female writer suffers from intense jealousy over the success of her other writer friends; she writes to Sugar looking for a way to overcome her nasty feelings. Sugar answers sternly but with empathy:

“[….] A large part of your jealousy probably rises out of your outsized sense of entitlement. Privilege has a way fucking with our heads the same way lack of it does. There are a lot of people who’d never dream they could be a writer, let alone land, at the age of thirty-one, a six-figure book deal. You are not one of them. And you are not one of them quite possibly because you’ve been given a tremendous amount of things that you did not earn or deserve, but rather that you received for the sole reason that you happen to be born into a family who had the money and wherewithal to fund your education at two colleges to which you feel compelled to attach the word “prestigious.”

What is a prestigious college? What did attending such a school allow you to believe about yourself? What assumptions do you have about the colleges that you would not describe as prestigious? What sorts of people go to prestigious colleges and not prestigious colleges? Do you believe that you had a right to a free “first-rate” education? What do you make of the people who received educations that you would not characterize as first-rate?

These are not rhetorical questions. I really do want you to take out a piece of paper and write those questions down and then answer them. I believe your answers will deeply inform your current struggle with jealousy. I am not asking you these questions in order to condemn or judge you. I would ask a similar series of questions of anyone from any sort of background because I believe our early experiences and beliefs about our place in the world inform who we think we are, what we deserve and by what means it should be given to us (p.262).

Not only does Strayed respond with sincere advice (this is only a small fragment of the whole answer), she does so in a way that made me want to answer those same questions for myself: I picked up a pen to investigate how and why I’ve come to believe that I am entitled or deserving of certain things over others. The only thing Sugar believes we are all wholly, unabashedly deserving of is love.

Through exposing the brutalities and beauties on the spectrum of the human heart, Sugar provides readers with honesty (a quality lacking in so many ‘self-help’ books of the day) and moments so uncomfortable that you have no choice but to close the book (on your own fears, grief, worries, etc.), or to keep reading in order to find out how not alone you are in navigating the terrain of the ‘emotional landscape of our lives’ (as Jon Kabat-Zinn would put it).

I recommend this book to everyone out there looking for a reminder as to our own interconnectedness as people who experience the highs, lows, and in-betweens of waking up everyday and wondering: what is this all about? 

In the introduction, Steve Almond states:

I happen to believe that America is dying of loneliness, that we, as a people, have bought into the false dream of convenience, and turned away from a deep engagement with our internal live – those fountains of inconvenient feeling – and toward the frantic enticement of what our friends in the Greed Business call the Free Market (introduction).

• Discuss the statement above: do you agree or not?
• How does this book provide a way of fighting the 'epidemic’ of convenience?

Almond writes that pieces of literary art: “make us more human than we were before.”

• How so? Can you give some other examples? Does this hold true in this instance?

“Withholding distorts reality. It makes the people who do the withholding ugly and small-hearted. It makes the people from whom things are withheld crazy and desperate and incapable of knowing what they actually feel (18).”

• If you feel comfortable, share an example for which this holds true.

“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 (29).”

• This is simple advice but profoundly difficult to achieve: what do you think?
• How much of the book is about living through your emotions to get to the other side?

I encourage you to leave your parents’ home not so you can make some giant I’m gay! Pronouncement to them, but so you can live your life with dignity among people who accept you while you sort out your relationship with them from an emotionally safe distance (33).

• This advice is not only true from anyone living in the closet: how else can it be applied?

Accounting for what happened in our childhoods and why and who our parents are and how they succeeded and failed us is the work we all do when we do the work of becoming whole, grown-up people (40).

• Using this definition, what other criteria would qualify as indicators that one has become an adult? Do you know adults who will never grow up?

“It’s what most of us have to give a few times over the course of our lives: to love with a mindfully clear sense of purpose, even when it feels outrageous to do so (47).”

• Share some examples sparked by the above-quote with your group.

“You’re up too high and down too low. Neither is the place where we get any work done (58).”

• Can you relate to this at all? Do you know people who only function in black / white zones without meandering in the grey?

We don’t know – as a culture, as a gender, as individuals, you and I. The fact that we don’t know is feminism’s one true failure. We claimed agency, we granted ourselves the authority, we gathered the accolades, but we never stopped worrying about how our asses looked in our jeans (182).

• How do you feel about the mixed messages sent to women today? Do you agree with the aforementioned quote?

“Love is our essential nutrient. Without it, life has little meaning. It’s the best thing we have to give and the most valuable thing we receive. It’s worthy of all hullabaloo (219).”

• What are some of our other basic ‘nutrients’?

“I didn’t have to be broken for him, even though parts of me were (222).”

• Can you relate to this at all?

“[….] A large part of your jealousy probably rises out of your outsized sense of entitlement (262).”

• Is this true? What role does entitlement play in obscuring our work ethic?
• Discuss moments when you have felt jealous and try to explore where these feelings may have come from.

“What is a prestigious college? What did attending such a school allow you to believe about yourself (262)?”

• On a piece of paper, try and write down some misconceptions or entitlements that your previous schools, jobs, etc. may have instilled within you. It’s a worthy exercise.

Further quotes for discussion:
“People we though would be with us forever aren’t and people we didn’t know would come into our lives do. Our work here is to keep faith with that, to put it in a box and wait (323).”

“My grief is tremendous but my love is bigger (282).”

“Don’t stay when you know you should go or go when you know you should stay (287).”

“Your assumptions about the lives of others are in direct relation to your naïve pomposity (352).”

• Which of the stories related to you the most? Why?
• Which stories related to you the least?
• How would you describe Strayed’s take on life?
• Why do you think she has developed such a cult following as Dear Sugar?
• Which were the hardest things to read?
• What did you acknowledge about your own life while you were reading?
• Who would you recommend this book for and why?
• Literature has the power to make us feel a sense of belonging: discuss the ways in which the book upholds this idea.
• What kinds of questions would you ask Cheryl Strayed if you were given the chance?

All books recommended on the website have been read by The Book Dumpling. New titles are added on a continuous basis. To recommend or suggest a book, please email me

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