Review | Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed

Cheryl Strayed is perhaps most popularly known as Sugar from The Rumpus.net where she ran an advice column for a few years. She has also written the novel Torch and the memoir Wild: from Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.

In Tiny Beautiful Things she compiles her best responses to the letters she received and the result is a compendium of advice on life and love.

Honestly? I was in a dark place when I read this book. I read this book because I was in a dark place. I was scared and confused and baffled by my twenties because there are things that no one prepares you for and I felt like I was already drowning and this was only the start of it. So I turned to Sugar, whom I had discovered once before in the comment depths at A Practical Wedding (my guilty pleasure). I found her forthright, empathetic and incredibly level-headed and I was eager to dive into her welcoming textual arms.

Foremostly, this is an advice book. Sugar answers all kinds of questions in all kinds of ways, and you’re never sure exactly what kind of response you’re going to get. Sometimes the stories are horrific, sometimes heart-warming, but all are designed to get you to live the life that’s best for you. She doesn’t hesitate to drop the kid gloves either, or wrap you in the soothing embrace of words when you need it.

Being an advice column, of course all the responses are her own opinions. But I thought her opinions were grounded in a sense of principle, the common theme being self-acceptance and doing the right thing. Knowing the right thing to do is easy enough, but Sugar puts emphasis on actually doing it too. A thread I found in many of the letters she published was that people are usually fairly certain about what they need to do. They just need encouragement to do it.

Sugar is simultaneously best friend and older sister, guiding you with the light of her own mistakes and mistakes she’s observed. She comes off as honest and inspiring rather than condescending and boastful, and her writing is, frankly, beautiful. She speaks with a lyricism that soothes battered hearts and which got her a dedicated following on The Rumpus during the years she wrote there.

Cheryl Strayed returned as Sugar last December with a podcast hosted by WBUR and featuring Steve Almond who was the very first Sugar. New episodes will be released weekly.

It Begins with a Single Step

Cheryl Strayed (Sugar from The Rumpus.net) has a story about a dress her mother bought for the granddaughter she would never meet. It’s a lovely story about continuity and the mysterious, unknowable ways the universe unfolds and she tells it with characteristic grace and gravity in Tiny Beautiful Things (more on this book later). My story is kind of like that. But without cute little girls in red dresses.

I almost didn’t listen to myself when I wanted to meet some of my far-flung family. I was in the right place, with just enough of the right time left to do it, but I was holding myself back with what-ifs and fears of rejection. They didn’t know me, at all. At best they would have some vague recollection of my grandmother spending time with them when she was about my age. Eons ago. I was banking on family resemblance and the intrinsic niceness of people, not something I was fond of banking on (the niceness; my family resemblance is sort of legendary).

I wouldn’t have done it at all if not for Kat who talked me into listening to my gut and doing what I obviously wanted to do and it won’t kill you to try so just go and I’ll hold your hand if you get nervous. For once my gut had someone on its side.

I didn’t expect to get anything out of meeting my family – I just wanted to know who they were and open my life up to any new experiences they could teach me. I didn’t know I would have to find somewhere to stay in May Pen eventually, but when I decided to come here for three weeks and it turned out that the school wasn’t going to put me up it was really amazing to have someone to ask. I wouldn’t have been able to ask if I hadn’t built some sort of relationship first. I put effort in with no idea what the results could be. I didn’t even know if these people would like me! Turn out they’re too much like me not to like me.

Sometimes we don’t know which road is the right one when we’re facing a fork. Sometimes there are too many options that look right and we can’t see to the end of each road to figure out if that’s where we need to end up. Sometimes we have to trust out gut to make the right steps based on what we want for ourselves and hope that all the little ‘right’ decisions will lead us to the place we ultimately want to be.