Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed
One of my favorite and most recommended books. Just so much great life advice in this book and there were so many gems of advice I wrote down. Cheryl used to be a column writer for I believe an online magazine or newspaper called the Rumpus and readers used to submit questions to her. Cheryl has a such a great writing ability, way of expressing herself through words, and a large amount of courage to be so honest and helpful to her readers. Some important things I learned are: when you're in a bad relationship and aren't happy, you don't need an excuse to end it, just end it, and, that one of the hardest things to do in life - but one of the most important to do - is to forgive. Not just forgive others but forgive ourselves as well because we're not perfect and we all make mistakes.
Life isn’t some narcissistic game you play online. It all matters – every sin, every regret, every affliction.” Written by Steve Almond in the introduction.
With great patience, and eloquence, [Cheryl] assures her readers that within the chaos of our shame and disappointment and rage there is meaning, and within that meaning is the possibility of rescue. – Written by Steve Almond in the introduction.
[Love] is not so incomprehensible as you pretend, sweet pea. Love is the feeling we have for those we care deeply about and hold in high regard. It can be light as the hug we give a friend or heavy as the sacrifices we make for our children. It can be romantic, platonic, familial, fleeting, everlasting, conditional, unconditional….
Cheryl to Johnny on his love letter. “You are not afraid of love. You’re afraid of all the junk you’ve yoked to love. And you’ve convinced yourself that withholding one tiny word from the woman you think you love will shield you from that junk. But it won’t. We are obligated to the people we care about and who we allow to care about us, whether we say we love them or not. Our main obligation is to be forthright – to elucidate the nature of our affection when such elucidation would be meaningful or clarifying. [Elucidate is to explain or make clear] And in your case, it will be. You asked me when is the right time to tell your lover that you love her and the answer is when you think you love her. That’s also the right time to tell what your love for her means to you. If you continue using avoidance as the main tactic in your romantic relationship with women, you’re going to stunt not only happiness but your life.
A couple of years ago, I read the findings of a study on the effects of divorced and separated parents talking negatively about their exes in the presence of their children. I tried to locate it when I was writing this column so I could cite it properly and quote it directly, but I had no luck. That’s fine because what I remember about the study most vividly is really just one thing: that it’s devastating for a child to hear one parent speak ill of the other. In fact, so much so that the researchers found it was less psychologically damaging if a parent said directly to the child, “You are a worthless piece of shit” than it was for a parent to say [to the child], “your mother/father is a worthless piece of shit”. I don’t remember if they had any theories about why that was so, but it made sense to me. I think we all have something sturdier inside of us that rears up when we’re being attacked that we simply can’t call upon when someone we love is being attacked, especially if that someone is our parent, half of us – the primal other – and the person doing the attacking is the other half, the other primal other.
At the time, I believed that I’d wasted my twenties by not having come out of them with a finished book, and I bitterly lambasted myself for that. I thought a lot of the same things about myself that you do, Elissa Bassist. That I was lazy and lame. That even though I had the story in me, I didn’t have it in me to see it to fruition, to actually get it out of my body and onto the page, to write, as you say, with “intelligence and heart and lengthiness.” But I’d finally reached a point where the prospect of not writing a book was more awful than the one of writing a book that sucked. And so at last, I got to serious work on the book. When I was done writing it, I understood that things happened just as they were meant to. That I couldn’t have written my book before I did. I simply wasn’t capable of doing so, either as a writer or a person. To get to the point I had to get to write my first book, I had to do everything I did in my twenties. I had to write a lot of sentences that never turned into anything and stories that never miraculously formed a novel. I had to read voraciously and compose exhaustive entries in my journals. I had to waste time and grieve my mother and come to terms with my childhood and have stupid and sweet and scandalous sexual relationships and grow up. In short, I had to gain the self-knowledge that Flannery O’Connor mentions in that quote I wrote on my chalkboard. And once I got there I had to make a hard stop at self-knowledge’s first product: humility.
Writing is hard for every last one of us – straight white men included. Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig.
There is no question that your lover is embarrassed about the fact that he likes to wear women’s panties. Who wouldn’t be? What man would ask for such a thing? This isn’t to say he can’t cozy up to the idea – and I sincerely hope for his own sake that he will. But it’s clear he isn’t there yet. He’s ashamed of it. Very likely he loathes it, and yet there it is and he can’t deny it and so one day when he’s got the place to himself he caves in and strips himself down and dresses himself up and without warning you appear – you! His emotionally and experimentally open lover! – and he slams the door in your face and pretends it never happened. You know why? Because no matter how experimental he is, his life isn’t an experiment. His life is like your life and my life and all the lives of all the people who are reading these words right now. It’s a roiling stew of fear and need and desire and love and the hunger to be loved. And mostly, it’s the latter.
There is a line by the Italian writer Carlo Levi that I think is apt here: “The future has an ancient heart.” I love it because it expresses with such grace and economy what is certainly true – that who we become is born of who we most primitively are; that we both know and cannot possibly know what it is we’ve yet to make manifest in our lives.
You don’t have to get a job that makes others feel comfortable about what they perceive as your success. You don’t have to explain what your plan to do with your life is. You don’t have to justify your education by demonstrating its financial rewards. You don’t have to maintain an impeccable credit score. Anyone who expects you to do any of those things has no sense or history or economics or science or the arts. You have to pay your own electrical bill. You have to be kind. You have to give it all you got. You have to find people who love you truly and love them back with the same truth. But that’s all. I got married when I was in college. I got divorced during the years that I was lying about having an English degree.
When I say you don’t have to explain what you’re going to do with your life, I’m not suggesting you lounge around whining about how difficult it is. I’m suggesting you apply yourself in directions for which we have no accurate measurement. I’m talking about work. And love. It’s really condescending to tell you how young you are. It’s even inaccurate. Some of you who are graduating from college are not young. Some of you are older than me. But to those of you new college graduates who are indeed young, the old new college graduates will back me up on this. You’re so goddamn young. Which means about eight of the ten things you have decided about yourself will over time prove to be false. The other two things will prove to be so true that you’ll look back in twenty years and howl.
If you had to give one piece of advice to people in their twenties, what would it be? To go to a bookstore and buy ten books of poetry and read them each five times. Why? B/c the truth is inside. Anything else? To be about ten times more magnanimous [magnanimous - very generous or forgiving, especially toward a rival or someone less powerful than oneself] than you believe yourself capable of being. Your life will be a hundred times better for it. This is good advice for anyone at any age, but particular for those in their twenties. Why? Because in your twenties you’re becoming who you’re going to be and so you might as well not be an asshole. Also, because it’s harder to be magnanimous when you’re in your twenties, I think, and so that’s why I’d like to remind you of it. You’re generally less humble in that decade than you’ll ever be and this lack of humility is oddly mixed with insecurity and uncertainty and fear. You will learn a lot about yourself if you stretch in the direction of goodness, of bigness, of kindness, of forgiveness, of emotional bravery. Be a warrior for love. Do you know who you are? Yes. How long did it take you to truly figure out who you are? Thirty-some years, but I’m still getting used to myself.
Go because you want to. Because wanting to leave is enough. Get a pen. Write that last sentence on your palm – all three of you. Then read it over and over again until your tears have washed it away.
Leaving a relationship because you want to doesn’t exempt you from your obligation to be a decent human being. You can leave and still be a compassionate friend to your partner. Leaving because you want to doesn’t mean you pack your bags the moment there’s strife or struggle or uncertainty. It means that if you yearn to be free of a particular relationship and you feel that yearning lodged within you more firmly than any of the other competing and contrary yearnings are lodged, your desire to leave is not only valid, but probably the right thing to do. Even if someone you love is hurt by that. It took me ages to understand this. I still can’t entirely explain why I needed to leave my ex. I was tortured by this very question for years because I felt like such an ass for breaking his heart and I was so shattered I’d broken my own. I was too young to commit myself to one person. We weren’t as compatible as we initially seemed. I was driven by my writing, and he begrudged my success in equal measure to his celebration of it. I wasn’t ready for long-term monogamy. He grew up upper middle class and I grew up poor and I couldn’t keep myself from resenting him for that. My mother died and my stepfather stopped being a father to me and I was an orphan by the age of twenty-two and reeling in grief. All of these reasons are true enough in their specificity, but they all boil down to the same thing: I had to leave. Because I wanted to.
I’ll answer the easy question first: Yes, you are obliged to tell the men you’re sleeping with regularly that you’re not sleeping with them exclusively. There are no exceptions to this rule. Ever. For anyone. Under any circumstances. People have the right to know if the people they are fucking are also fucking other people. This is the only way the people fucking people who are fucking other people can make emotionally healthy decisions about their lives. It’s clean. It’s right. It’s honest. And it’s a basic tenet of Sugar’s [Sugar is Cherly’s pen name for the column she used to write] hard earned, didn’t-do-it-the-right-way-the-first-time-around Ethical Code to Loving Others as Well as Loving Oneself.
The point each writer reaches is the same: I want love and I’m afraid I’ll never get it. It’s hard to answer those letters because I’m an advice columnist, and not a fortune-teller. I have words instead of a crystal ball. I can’t say when you’ll get love or how you’ll find it or even promise that you will. I can only say you are worthy of it and that it’s never too much to ask for it and that it’s not crazy to fear you’ll never have it again, even though your fears are probably wrong. 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 the hullabaloo.
There’s a poem I love by Tomas Transtromer called “The Blue House.” I think of it every time I consider questions such as yours about the irrevocable choices we make. The poem is narrated by a man who is standing in the woods near his house. When he looks at his house from this vantage point, he observes that it’s as if he’d just died and he was now “seeing the house from a new angle.” It’s a wonderful image and it’s an instructive one too. There is a transformative power in seeing the familiar from a new, more distant perspective. It’s in this stance that Transtromer’s narrator is capable of seeing his life for what it is while also acknowledging the lives he might have had. The poem strikes a chord in me because it’s so very sadly and joyfully and devastatingly true. Every life, Transtromer writes, “has a sister ship,” one that follows “quite another route” than the one we ended up taking. We want it to be otherwise, but it cannot be: the people we might have been live a different, phantom life than the people we are.
There’s a crazy lady living in your head. I hope you’ll be comforted to hear that you’re not alone. Most of us have an invisible inner terrible someone who says all sorts of nutty stuff that has no basis in truth. Sometimes when I’m all pretzeled up inside and my own crazy lady is nattering on; I’ll stop and wonder where she got her information. I’ll ask her to reveal her source. I’ll demand some proof. Did her notions come from actual facts based on reason or did she dredge them up from the hell pit that burns like a perpetual fire at the bottom of my needy, selfish, famished little soul?
Any of us could die any day of any number of causes. Would you expect your partner to explain what you might have to go through should he die in a car accident, of heart failure, or by drowning? Those are things that could happen too. You’re a mortal being like every human and June bug, like every black bear and salmon. We’re all going to die, but only some of us are going to die tomorrow or next year or in the next half century. And, by and large, we don’t know which of us it will be, when, and of what. That mystery is not the curse of our existence; it’s the wonder. It’s what people are talking about when they talk about the circle of life that we are all part of whether we sign up to be or not – the living, the dead, those being born right this moment, and the others who are fading out. Attempting to position yourself outside the circle isn’t going to save you from anything. It isn’t going to keep you from your grief or protect those you love from theirs when you’re gone. It isn’t going to extend your life or shorten it. Whatever the crazy lady whispered in your ear was wrong. You’re here. So be here, dear one. You’re okay with us for now.
You know what I do when I feel jealous? I tell myself to not feel jealous. I shut down the "why not me?" Voice and replace it with one that says "don’t be silly" instead. It really is that easy. You actually do stop being an awful jealous person by stopping being an awful jealous person. When you feel terrible because someone has gotten something you want, you force yourself to remember how very much you have been given. You remember that there is plenty for all of us. You remember that someone else’s success has absolutely no bearing on your own. You remember that a wonderful thing has happened to one of your literary peers and maybe, if you keep working and if you get lucky, something wonderful may also someday happen to you. And if you can’t muster than, you just stop. You truly do. You do not let yourself think about it. There isn’t a thing to eat down there in the rabbit hole of your bitterness except your own desperate heart. If you let it, you jealousy will devour you.
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 and what we deserve and by what means it should be given to us.
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 investing in your self-loathing.
You give a lot of advice about what to do. Do you have any advice about what not to do? [These last two questions were asked to Cheryl and Cheryl responded with,] "Don’t do what you know on a gut level to be the wrong thing to do. Don’t stay when you know you should go or go when you know you should stay. Don’t fight when you should hold steady or hold steady when you should fight. Don’t focus on the short term fun instead of the long term fallout. Don’t surrender all your joy for an idea you used to have about yourself that isn’t true anymore. Don’t seek joy at all costs. I know it’s hard to know what to do when you have a conflicting set of emotions and desires, but it’s not as hard as we pretend it is. Saying it’s hard is ultimately a justification to do whatever seems like the easiest thing to do – have the affair, stay at that horrible job, end a friendship over a slight, keep loving someone who treats you terribly. I don’t think there’s a single dumbass thing I’ve done in my adult life that I didn’t know was a dumbass thing to do while I was doing it. Even when I justified it to myself – as I did every damn time - the truest part of me knew I was doing the wrong thing. Always as the years pass, I’m learning now to better trust my gut and not do the wrong thing, but every so often I get a harsh reminder that I’ve still got work to do.
This isn’t a spotless life. There is much ahead, my immaculate little peach. And there is no way to say it other than to say it: marriage is indeed this horribly complex thing for which you appear to be ill prepared and about which you seem to be utterly naïve. That’s okay. A lot of people are. You can learn along the way. A good place to start would be to let go all your notions about “perfect couples”. It’s really such an impossible thing to either perceive honestly in others or live up to when others believe it about us. It does nothing but box some people in and shut other people out, and it ultimately makes just about everyone feel like shit. A perfect couple is a wholly private thing. No one but the two people in the perfect relationship know for certain whether they’re in one. Its only defining quality is that is composed of two people who feel perfectly right about sharing their lives with each other, even during the hard times.
This will require a rethink about your own dark capacities, as well as those of your future husband, and the members of various couples you admire. Most people don’t cheat because they’re cheaters. They cheat because they are people. They are driven by hunger or for the experience of someone being hungry once more for them. They find themselves in friendship that take an unintended turn or they seek them about because they’re horny or drunk or damaged from all the stuff they didn’t get when they were kids. There is love. There is lust. There is opportunity. There is alcohol. And youth. There is loneliness and boredom and sorrow and weakness and self-destruction and idiocy and arrogance and romance and ego and nostalgia and power and need. There is the compelling temptation of intimacies with someone other than the person with whom one is most intimate.
That’s what happened to Mr. Sugar and me a couple of years into our relationship, when I learned of his infidelity, and told him to fuck himself, and then took him back. My decision to stay and work it out with him in the aftermath of that betrayal is way, way for you on the list of the best decision of my life. And I’m not just grateful that I decided to stay. I’m grateful it happened. It took me years to allow that, but it’s true. That Mr. Sugar cheated on me made us a better couple. It opened a conversation about sex and desire and commitment that we’re still having. And it gave us resources to draw upon when we faced other challenges later on. The truth is, for all the sweet purity of our early love, we weren’t ready for each other in that time during which we loved other. The woman who sent him the postcard pushed us down a patch where we made ourselves ready, not to be a perfect couple, but to be couple who knows how to have a duel when a duel needs to be had.
I suppose this is what I mean when I say we cannot possibly know what will manifest in our lives. We live and have experiences and leave people we love and get left by them. People we thought 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. To trust that someday we will know what it means, so that when the ordinary miraculous is revealed to us we will be there, standing before the baby girl in the pretty dress, grateful for the smallest things.
We all like to think we’re right about what we believe about ourselves and what we often believe are only the best, most moral things – i.e., Of course I would never fuck the foxy fellow because that would hurt my friend! We like to pretend that our generous impulses come naturally. But the reality is we often become our kindest, most ethical selves only by seeing what it feels like to be a selfish jackass first. It’s the reason we have to fight so viciously over the decapitated head of the black haired plastic princess before we learn how to play nice; the reason we have to get burned before we understand the power of fire; the reason our most meaningful relationships are so often those that continued beyond the very juncture at which they come the closest to ending.