Reading Cheryl Strayed feels like talking to a high school friend's wise and cool mum. I don't mean that I feel as if I've been transported back to high school, but that it feels like that kind of relationship. Where someone with mountains of life experience, who shimmers with compassion and empathy, whose words feel wrapped in understanding and patience is chatting to you over the kitchen counter, a glass of wine in hand and a conspiratorial wink at just the right moment. It feels reassuring.
I often wonder about that desire for reassurance, for comfort. In a way, we’re conditioned to battle on, to persevere, to ignore the obstacles as we leap over them, always moving towards some inscrutable life goal whose achievement will absolve all feelings of failure and sadness and anger and regret.
The reality, of course, is far different.
Sometimes, as the wind howls around you, as the noise of world becomes too much, as you falter, as you fall, that reassurance is the only thing that keeps you breathing.
Tiny Beautiful Things, a collection of columns written by Cheryl under the pseudonym Sugar for The Rumpus website, is subtitled 'Advice on love and life from someone who's been there' which feels incredibly apt. Because having read these columns, having read Cheryl's memoir, Wild, it's fairly clear that she has been there.
As someone who is always emotionally invested in any book I read, Tiny Beautiful Things feels like a warm hug - which is how I described the book in a Twitter conversation once.
The pages of this book are very nearly vibrating with emotion.
Cheryl's responses to questions about grief and fear and love and envy are all-encompassing; encouraging and understanding and forgiving and nurturing. But also unafraid to point to ugliness and fear and self-pity and ask why?
I found myself underlining so many sections of this book; sentences and paragraphs that resonated, that stuck, that helped me keep breathing.
I considered just listing them all, one after another and calling that my review. And in some small way, I am doing that. Only, I've slashed the list from multiples of multiples to a few that I found myself coming back to again and again, reading and re-reading until the words almost lost their meaning. Almost, but not quite.
The best thing you can possibly do with your life is to tackle the motherfucking shit out of love.
Practice saying the word ‘love’ to the people you love so when it matters the most to say it, you will.
How many women wrote beautiful novels and stories and poems and essays and plays and scripts and songs in spite of all the crap they endured. How many of them didn’t collapse in a heap of ‘I could have been better than this’ and instead went right ahead and became better than anyone would have predicted or allowed them to be. The unifying theme is resilience and faith. The unifying theme is being a warrior and a motherfucker. It is not fragility. It’s strength. It’s nerve. And ‘if your nerve deny you-,’ as Emily Dickinson wrote, ‘go above your nerve.’
The most terrible and beautiful and interesting things happen in a life…Whatever happens to you belongs to you.
Fear of being alone is not a good reason to stay.
Go, even though there is nowhere to go.
Go, even though you don’t know exactly why you can’t stay.
Go, because you want to.
Because wanting to leave is enough.
In the last letter of Tiny Beautiful Things, the question is what Cheryl would tell her twenty-something self if she could talk to her. What follows is both heartbreaking and striking in its resounding simplicity. It is probably my favourite of the columns in this book, and so it makes sense to finish with it. To finish with the words I highlighted and read and re-read until they almost didn’t make sense, almost.
Be brave enough to break your own heart.
There are some things you can’t understand yet. Your life will be a great and continuous unfolding.
You will come to know things that can only be known with the wisdom of age and the grace of years. Most of those things will have to do with forgiveness.
You cannot convince people to love you.
Most things will be okay eventually, but not everything will be. Sometimes you’ll put up a good fight and lose. Sometimes you’ll hold on really hard and realise there is no choice but to let go. Acceptance is a small, quiet room.
The useless days will add up to something…These things are your becoming.
I've found a place for Tiny Beautiful Things on my bookshelf, one where I can easily reach it. Because this book is one that I'm sure I'll return to again and again, searching for a warm hug, looking for some reassuring words that will help me keep breathing.