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Sweet Offerings (Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny, Beautiful Things)

March 30, 2013

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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? 

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