I’m beginning to think that Cheryl Strayed is one of the most remarkable humans I could ever know (in the figurative rather than literally knowing her personally sense). With wit and humor and wisdom and personality and so much heart you can’t stand it, Strayed, under the auspices of “Sugar,” maintained an anonymous advice column for The Rumpus website which has now been compiled into a brilliant single volume entitled Tiny Beautiful Things. Not usually one for advice columns (I can’t stand the idea that people actually compose a frivolous letter to ask such trivial questions as what to buy as a hostess gift or how to handle a dispute about which European country to travel to for a family vacation when the answer is painfully and obviously to just have a conversation about it!), I kept this one on the shelf for a while before I felt compelled to crack its spine. I adored Strayed’s memoir Wild but couldn’t jive with the advice column format, much as I knew her readers would have more profound and heavy questions than your standard ladies’ magazine fare.
Shoving my biases and fears aside, I plunged right in on my lunch break one day, ready to toss the book if I wasn’t smitten after the first 40 minutes of reading. I was won over in just 5.
At first, the thing I found most remarkable about Dear Sugar’s column was the vast array of life experience she has to draw from. Nearly every response to her readers includes an anecdote from her own life; her horrendous loss of innocence at age three, the heartbreaking tragedy of losing her mother, sweet moments with her husband who she adorably refers to as Mr. Sugar, vast suffering, trials and tribulations from parenting, countless friends who’ve cried upon her shoulder for reasons she recounts in order to help readers find their way. The fragmented pieces of her life are revealed in each response as isolated events, but we can still string together from them, and the general timbre of her writing, an idea of who Cheryl is, how she faces life, embracing the messy, awful, fullness of existence with a go-get-‘em attitude. The Dear Sugar column wouldn’t be nearly as powerful if she only had those negative stories to share, rendering her obvious appetite for life all the more vital and worthy of imitation. So while it’s true that Cheryl has had to endure far more tragic experiences in her lifetime than anyone ever should, she doesn’t shy away from life in the least; she has determined her own fullness of existence, accepting, pursuing, embracing the range of glorious and breathtaking along with the awful and ugly.
Anyone can identify a time in their life when they felt heartbroken, despairing, confused, at a crossroads, or any of the other ways we feel when life throws us a curve ball that requires some coaching to hit. But it is a rare gift to take those uniquely personal emotional experiences and relate them to a reader enduring such specifically different struggles. Cheryl thoughtfully identifies the universality in each letter she receives, and ultimately it is that ability, rather than an exceptional depth of experience, which allows her to meaningfully connect with each and every reader in her responses. By thinking critically about her reader’s concerns and treating them with all the respect, concern, and dignity deserving of a dear friend, Dear Sugar is able to transcend the advice column format to a whole new level of connection, guidance, and healing. The result is an inspiring, invigorating, capable-of-restoring-your-faith-in-humanity thing to behold.
Sugar’s readers provide her with questions as varied as relationship uncertainties to which we all can relate, brutal personal roadblocks in life that need to be overcome, family shackles, crossroads decision-making, parenting advice. Letters came from jilted lovers, happy halves of strong relationships, recovering-addicts, young and naive twentysomethings, world-weary middle-aged readers, mournful souls, writers with strength of character bleeding through their words. No matter what the situation or who the writer, Cheryl’s responses are full of wisdom and spunk, not only educational for the letter writer but enjoyable for a reader of any kind.
I was completely moved by how totally Cheryl gave herself over to readers, allowing herself to lose sleep over their letters, putting her whole heart into providing (brutally) honest answers that we would normally expect only from the closest, if not harshest, of friends. But every response was fueled by love, as Cheryl softened the necessary firmness of her responses with validation of each reader’s feelings and a gentle understanding of the struggles that compel someone to write a stranger for an answer, complete with endearments like honey bun and sweet pea. I was amazed, not just by the strength and wisdom of the content of Cheryl’s answers, but in her absolute mastery of the advice column craft, how perfectly balanced her responses were in tone and form, how deeply attuned to people given the brevity of their inquiries.
You may not be experiencing any major crises, crossroads, or turning points in your life. Uncertainty may be a vague memory from the past, pain only a dull ache that your heart has not had to endure for years. But still Dear Sugar holds something for you. This book is not just for the troubled, confused, or heartbroken; it is a meditation on the human condition, the sufferings large and small that make up our lives and how in the world we’re supposed to rise up and meet them. Her refrain is continually that the answers lie within; we write to Sugar because we fail to trust our instincts, because we need someone to validate what we know we need to do, because we require reassurance to take control of our own lives, because we seek permission to allow ourselves pleasure and generosity and kindness. Downright essential in a crisis, the affirmations that Cheryl provides under the auspices of Dear Sugar are nourishment for anyone intending to lead a fuller life with confidence and grace and the very best of human instinct.