WILD and TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS by Cheryl Strayed

Curiosity drew me to Wild. My son mentioned that reading about Cheryl Strayed’s mom made him think of me. Her struggles gave him a deeper insight into who I was. My heart healed a little more that day. So, I wondered where my own reading of the book would lead.

My empathetic connection to Strayed’s mother was palpable. But what impacted me most about Wild’s intricate unraveling of lost-love-found was the fearlessness of the writing. The unvarnished, uncensored delivery of Strayed’s journey to wholeness showed, without a doubt, that she stands by her words.

I try to go one or two sentences beyond what I feel safe saying. Honestly, that’s where it’s at— one sentence that makes you bolt out of your chair because after you write it you feel someone lit your hands on fire. Why We Write About Ourselves

Wild was one of my favorite reads of 2017. The story hooked me, tore apart my heart, then allowed love to pour back in— what’s not to like? More importantly, Wild is now one of the handful of books like The Snow Goose that enliven my passion and commitment for my writing life.

While reading Wild, a small voice kept saying, “You could’ve written this book.” By the time I reached the end I knew it was true. Let me clarify. I do not, for a second, believe my writing chops are on par with Cheryl Strayed. I have also never hiked the Pacific Crest Trail. However, I have done time with Outward Bound, lost a mother, dumped a husband, and created a more harmonious life for myself. But these similarities to Strayed’s life are not the reason my inner voice said I could’ve written this memoir. The awakening of my still, small voice was brought about from unapologetic passages like this:

In the mornings, my pain was magnified by about a thousand […] I’d think: This is not me. This is not the way I am. Stop it. No more. But in the afternoons I’d return with a wad of cash to buy another bit of heroin and I’d think: Yes. I get to do this. I get to waste my life. I get to be junk.

And this:

I didn’t exactly want to get divorced. I didn’t exactly not want to. I believed in almost equal measure both that divorcing Paul was the right thing to do and that by doing so I was destroying the best thing I had. By then my marriage had become like the trail in that moment when I realized there was bull in both directions. I simply made the leap of faith and pushed on in the direction where I’d never been.

What I recognized from the passages above and could no longer ignore in my writing education was this: writing that transforms the reader does so because it transformed the writer first. However, that final state of peace or contentment only arrives after the transformed has been torn asunder. Once Wild showed me how to take the gloves off when dealing with conflict, I knew I was ready to do the same.

Wild may not transform every reader or writer, but I’m certain any time spent with this memoir will lead to self-reflection— something the entire planet could use more of these days. AND if self-reflection is where you end up after devouring Wild, my suggestion is to immediately pick up Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar.

My gratitude for the existence of TBT is as humongous as Niagara Falls, and the ceaseless thunder of those falls is the perfect applause for Cheryl Strayed’s ability to cut to the quick of every problematic situation set at her Dear Sugar feet. She is often irreverently funny, but the bulk of what she offers is straight from the heart.

TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS will endure as a piece of literary art, as will Cheryl’s other books, because they do the essential work of literary art: they make us more human than we were before— Steve Almond

Strayed, aka Dear Sugar, nurtures our humanity by showing us how to offer one of the most powerful acts of kindness: she listens, truly-uly listens. After brave souls expose the scariest underbelly of their lives, she absorbs every detail and weighs each nuance.

I love how for five long weeks hardly a day has passed that I haven’t thought: But what about Johnny? What will I tell Johnny? I love that one recent evening…I had to stop and put my magazine on my chest because I was thinking about you and what you asked me and so Mr. Sugar put his magazine on his chest…and we had a conversation about your troubles and then we turned off the lights and he fell asleep and I lay there wide awake with my eyes closed writing my answer in my head for so long I realized I wasn’t going to fall asleep, so I got up…

Now that’s magnanimous empathy. If each of us listened with as much openhearted compassion, the world would be a happier place. Even lovelier than the depth to which she listens, is Dear Sugar’s willingness to go the extra mile when she answers. Tiny Beautiful Things avoids the slap-dash, cut and dry advice reminiscent of the Dear Abby columns from my youth. Instead, after chewing on the heart-crushed words of an advice seeker, those dissolved particles lead Sugar to a deeper truth, which she shares only after the surface struggle of the matter has been addressed.

The most fascinating thing to me about your letter is that buried beneath all the anxiety and sorrow and fear and self-loathing, there’s arrogance at its core.

Dear Sugar refuses to let the advice seekers avoid the crux of their problems because she knows the only way for them to find peace and live a bountiful life is to own who they are.

We are here to build the house. It’s our work, our job, the most important gig of all; to make a place that belongs to us, a structure composed of our own moral code. Not the code that only echoes imposed cultural values, but the one that tells us on a visceral level what to do. You know what’s right and what’s wrong for you.

If you don’t come away from reading the advice of Dear Sugar believing you can accomplish your heart’s desire, and construct the life you long for, well, dear reader, all I can say is— read it again! Absorb it. Truly-uly listen. Chew on it and push yourself to step out of your comfort zone. It’s not easy, but Sugar reminds us of that too. And she shows us again and again, sometimes with examples from her own life, that doing the hard work of accepting the truth and forgiving ourselves and others is the only way to improve our lives because, “Nobody is going to give you a thing. You have to give it to yourself.”

Trust me, the one act of kindness you must offer yourself in 2018 is to read Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on love and life from Dear Sugar.  Once you’ve finished the love and hope you feared were lost will lift your soul so high, you’ll have no choice other than to tell all your friends to read Tiny Beautiful Thingsso they can spread the word as well.