Writer Cheryl Strayed is perhaps more known for “Wild,” her best-selling memoir-turned-movie starring Reese Witherspoon. But Strayed’s earliest fans are those who know her as Sugar, from her formerly anonymous advice column on the literary site The Rumpus (therumpus.net).
First published in 2012, “Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar” is a collection of articles from Strayed’s online advice column, Dear Sugar.
It would be inadequate to just call it an advice column though; and it would be a disservice to simply label her an advice columnist, since the way Strayed replies as Sugar is incredibly unique and always intense.
Beyond a mere compilation, the book is a thoughtfully chosen set of essays on real life’s hard questions and Strayed’s generous, empathy-laden replies.
One can feel how much time and thought she put into each response, all of which are never condescending or judgmental—a true rarity in the advice column world.
She doesn’t always reply directly to the question, but usually includes a bit of her own life, which doesn’t seem to be relevant at first. But instead of being a turn-off at this seeming lack of focus, she ties it all together—her story and the letter writer’s.
For instance, in “That Ecstatic Parade,” a 21-year-old man writes about his parents’ rejection of his homosexuality. “We are all entitled to our opinions and religious beliefs, but we are not entitled to make shit up and then use the shit we made up to oppress other people. The worst-case scenario is that they will disown you. Which would mean that their love for you hinges entirely on your agreement to refrain from touching other men’s man parts.”
She then talks about crying whenever she takes her kids to see the LGBT parade, and her tots don’t understand her tears. She reasons that perhaps it’s because: “Each and every one of them had the courage to say, ‘This is who I am even if you’ll crucify me for it.’ Just like Jesus did.”
Acknowledge the invisible
In “The Black Arc of It,” a 38-year-old man writes about not knowing how to console his fiancée, who lost her mother to cancer, and asks for advice on how to handle her overwhelming grief.
Strayed, who had also lost her mother as a teen, related how she dealt with her own sadness and what helped: “The people who’ve consoled me the most… plainly acknowledged what is invisible to them, but so very real to me.”
She agrees that it feels “lame” to soothe with clichés “but compassion isn’t about solutions. It’s about giving all the love that you’ve got.”
In “The Other Side of the Pool,” a mother has two grown sons who return to live with her. They disrespect her but she continues to provide for them, even as she wants them “launched in life” and out of her house.
Strayed talked about how, as a child, she was afraid to let go at the edge of the pool. But when her mother held her in the pool, spun her around then let her go, she realized she could float on her own after all.
She then points out that the letter writer’s sons have learned that it’s easier to let their mom do things for them, but counters that, “by asking them to move out of your house, you’re telling them you know that they can do this, too.”
Each person’s letter and Sugar’s answer read like mini memoirs. Most of the stories are relatable.
But beyond a voyeuristic feel is the mind-opening, educational undertone that hopefully translates into compassion in the reader.
“Tiny Beautiful Things” is exactly that—fragments of people’s lives that need mending, and how a woman rich in experience teaches them to pick up their own pieces and see the beauty in their brokenness.
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