I can list on one hand the number of books that have left me breathless and in tears. The most recent is Cheryl Strayed's Tiny Beautiful Things, a compilation from her Dear Sugar column. I had seen the book around, but didn't think much of it. From the cover I thought it might be a shallow dating column from some women's magazine that was already full of enough junk advice that I didn't need more. How mistaken I was.
I opened Tiny Beautiful Things a couple of days ago and entered a world in which people write in to confess and and try to make sense of their sins, or their deepest fears and insecurities, or their latest personal tragedy, with a complete stranger who responds each and every time with a logic, compassion, and a tapestry of words so beautiful that I found myself literally breathless.
Although she could have just doled out some smartly-written advice, the brilliance in the column is in how far she goes into the trenches with her readers. She scrapes up the very personal memories and stories, the lessons and experiences we, as strangers, have absolutely no right to access, and lays them before us, like a most patient teacher, so that we may learn something. She doesn't flinch as she offers up her scars, so we can run a finger along them, perhaps even recoil, before looking again. Closely.
While I have been reading Tiny Beautiful Things I have been consumed by the themes, the plot lines of the letters, and the stories Strayed used to convey her ultimate advice. Consumed, I tell you. I hadn't even finished the book before I'd bought a few copies to fire off to friends, and as I read I kept a mental tally of the others who will find it under their Christmas trees, in their birthday gifts, slipped to them in a moment when they need it most.
I realize I'm being vague here, and it's a conscious effort not to spoil the reading experience that I hope you will have after reading this. I understood why certain topics hit home with me, but what of the others? How was I so affected by stories of marital infidelity, of grief after the loss of a child, of dealing with middle-aged body image issues, situations that couldn't be further from my realities?
This, my friends, is the key to good writing. We often talk about fiction being transcendent, but I don't think we talk enough about nonfiction and its ability to bring us into other people's stories and lives and make us feel their pain for the moments we share. Dear Sugar's advice is directed at the person who has written in, but in the same way that a parent will say something to a spouse fully knowing the child is listening in. It is written to them, but entirely for our benefit.
Under the layers of jealousy or greed or regret or guilt or anger, or the hundred other emotions swept onto these pages is an underlying theme that we choose how we live. We do not choose our circumstances or the hand we're dealt - and as you read letter pile up on letter, you realize that, no matter how wildly different our lives come out, everyone has problems, everyone has difficult choices to make. Although the details of our individual lives couldn't be more different, the themes are shockingly similar.
I'm convinced that each reader will take something different away from this book. Me? This: We do not choose some of the detours or roadblocks or forks in the road, but we choose how we proceed. We choose how much compassion and patience we bring to the most difficult circumstances. It isn't meant to be easy, but it can be done. Most importantly, we choose how we work forgiveness - of others and of ourselves - into the narrative of our lives.
This book may, like me, make you tear up in public - repeatedly. But it will be worth every tightening of the chest, every locked-away story or memory that comes up to visit you. Promise.